Passing the point of no return
The departing plane was populated with those that have ‘that’ look. You know the one, the one on the news, the Taliban-looking people. I had passed the point of no return now… just check in and hold your shit together.
Popping out of the clouds I got my first glimpse of a deathly cold expense of mountains, freshly battered by a massive snowstorm. Reality and courage soon collided as I realized I was a tourist, on plane, landing in Afghanistan.
I followed everyone else into the falling snow through the layers of security and car parks. I wait for my contact Eliza so I stand against the cold wind and light a cigarette. I am standing at the gates of Kabul, and I feel truly alive.
Once she arrived we drove to the guesthouse and Eliza shows me the escape routes, explains security and gets me connected to the world. We drink a well deserved whiskey and party hard that night to offset the daily threat of something nefarious happening to us. As I fall asleep my first night here, jets take off and there is a helicopter somewhere overhead. This is Radio Kabul.
A poor and violent Switzerland
Our ‘tour’ kicked off with a visit to the awe inspiring Dural Aman palace. Used during the soviet invasion, it was shelled by the Mujahedeen and left in ruins. Like a castle from a distant violent past, it sits in a moat of its own destruction in a town use to nothing but war.
We bribed the well-armed guards to let us in and they escorted us around for two hours. The castle is surrounded by the most amazing encirclement of peaks and ridges. It is a beautiful panorama, like a poor and violent Switzerland. It was sight I will never forget.
Our next destination was to see the city from the TV hill vantage point. We headed up the impossibly steep road, rutted with frozen potholes but it quickly became obvious that we were never going to make it. We got out and walked, which in Kabul at the best of times is a dodgy proposition. But there is no denying that it is glorious to walk, to be free and feel the air and the crunch of snow. But a policeman soon put a stop to that for our ‘safety’ so we headed home and spent the night drinking like NGOs at the UN compound.
I realized why people fight for Afghanistan
My next tour day saw a visit to the Kabul Zoo and the 16th century Babur’s Garden. While not the greatest zoo in the world, most of the animals seemed happy and well fed. Families milled about and it was a surprisingly relaxed and friendly place. The gardens however were rather lifeless with frozen trees.
Dinner was at the amazingly comfortable Sufi Restaurant where I ate a delicious fried pumpkin specialty.
Sunday saw me alone so I hired the ‘trust’ taxi service to take me around town with my first stop being the OMAR Land Mine Museum. The internal building was full of guns, bombs, missiles and mines of varying lethality including an old Mujahedeen pressure cooker bomb. The outside grounds had a soviet helicopter, painted with happy smiling children and flowers, which had its insides converted into a dysfunctional Internet café. This was Afghanistan after all!
I then wandered up Chicken Street where I brought a patu, a beautifully crafted woollen shawl from Jalalabad, which helped me to blend in as the obvious foreigner who doesn’t speak Dari.
I got an afternoon flight to Mazar-E-Sharif, a city in the north and, oh boy; once airborne that pilot pulls that plane straight up! I wasn’t sure if it’s to clear the surrounding mountains, or to make some altitude before an RPG missile brings it down but either way, it makes for an exciting takeoff!
It’s a short flight and staring out the window, I realised just how beautiful Afghanistan is and why people fight for it.
Just before sunset I took a wander to the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, a blue-domed building of impeccable beauty that is claimed to hold the tomb of Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Mohammad. It is a very sacred shrine for the Shia faith.
The temperature was dropping and the streets were alive with hawkers and stalls. There was a certain mix of Central Asian and Afghani people here and while Mazar is safe, sadly it didn’t seem to be the friendliest of places.
But I strangely felt safer under the cover of darkness and I wandered around as just another local in his patu. Head down, vigilant. It was liberating.
I had pre-organized a driver and a translator to take me to the old Silk Road town of Balkh. Some people said it was safe, others said not – but I decided to go for it. Balkh was poor with decrepit mud brick houses that radiate around the giant shrine of Khoja Abu Nasr Parsa as the epicenter. Built in the 15th century in honor of a famous theologian, it was, like every other site in Afghanistan, under reconstruction. Our last stop was the 9th century No Gombad masjid, which are the oldest known remains of a mosque in Afghanistan.
Soon enough I was flying back over the mighty Hindu Kush on a cloudless blue-sky day and I was left breathless by the views.
I visited the Kabul National Museum, which was mostly destroyed by the Taliban Ministry of Culture in 2001. But it was a surprisingly well-presented museum, detailing the rich history of Afghanistan.
For my last night, the crew took me Ten-pin bowling. It was the norm to establish the emergency exit once inside but I lamented we wouldn’t get very far in bowling shoes on the icy streets. Regardless it was great fun with the best pizza in town and a fitting end to my time here.
Back at the airport, I checked out with a smile and boarded the plane. We took off white-knuckle vertical again and I breathed… I was safe, I was alive.