Afghanistan is the kind of destination your Foreign office typically advises against all but essential travel. But nothing excites a jaded traveler than venturing beyond a virtual wall to see what exists on the other side and learning firsthand about people, places, and cultures that are off the radar and mostly misrepresented in guidebooks.
Ever since I first read the story of “Kabuliwala” in my school, I have been fascinated by the region and been itching to visit the beautiful country in the Frontier region. Thanks to the constant threats and security alerts, visiting Afghanistan seemed like one of those travel reveries that would never come to fruition But now the time had finally come for realizing this dream, since I had only a dozen countries left in my quest to visit every country in the world and Afghanistan was screaming for attention at the top of that list! So after a quick – but a complicated and nightmarish – Visa run in Dubai, I was all set to visit this country that even the most intrepid travelers avoid.
You know you are visiting an unusual destination for leisure travelers when the Airline staff come and double-check your flight info though you are standing in the right queue. That’s what happened to me at the Delhi Airport, where the Spice Jet staff sweetly asked me to move to the queue that was meant for passengers flying to Dubai, as they confidently assumed a foreigner who seems like a ‘non-business-traveler’ couldn’t be possibly traveling to Afghanistan! I don’t blame them, as this was the most interesting Airport Check-in queue (or Boarding Queue) I have ever stood in. It seemed like I was the ONLY non-Afghani – let alone foreigner – and most of them were curious about what a guy like me was doing in that queue J
Considering the high-security alerts on various government sites and travel blogs, I was prepared for a grueling arrival experience. Much to my surprise, the immigration process was a breeze, and I didn’t have to fill up a silly immigration form – like most other countries require you to. But what was interesting was what I went through after that. First of all, you cannot just exit the airport after Immigration. You need to apply for a temporary ID/card at a booth near the baggage claim. Only after securing that, you would be allowed to exit the airport terminal.
Also, unlike other airports Visitors are not allowed anywhere near the airport complex. If you though places like India are strict about not allowing visitors to enter the Airport terminal, you must check out Kabul. I had to exit the terminal and walk a few hundred meters across a road, roundabout, pedestrian pathway and through a ground and parking lot before I could meet up with my tour guide! But this kind of security restrictions is what makes the forbidden fruit taste even more delicious, doesn’t it?!
Even before arriving I knew that this was not going to be a fun R&R kind of trip that involved a fancy hotel to spend the night in. IN order to maintain a low profile the tour operators typically book you in a low-key stay. Nevertheless, for the first time in my travels, I didn’t even know where I was going to stay or eat/drink until I arrived. I was put up in an interesting looking ‘guesthouse’ that reminded me so much of a safe house kind of pad I had seen in Spy thrillers like Homeland or Knight and Day! It was guarded by heavily armed men with machine guns inside and from the outside you couldn’t even make out it was a guesthouse. Talk about Cool Cribs! I was also instructed not to disclose the location or the name of the guesthouse to anyone I might interact with during my trip, as they wanted to ensure utmost security.
In the end, it turned out to be one of the most memorable retreats that I have chilled out at during my travels. The luxury was delivered via unbelievable levels of hospitality and sweetness of the guys running the place (Yes, you read it right – only men, absolutely no women to be seen onsite!). By the time I left, they had become such good friends, and every greeting of theirs expressed so much genuine warmth, that even a thousand dollar room at a plush hotel in a western city won’t be able to buy!
The Great Game
Afghanistan has been a strategically important location throughout history. The land served as “a gateway to India, impinging on the ancient Silk Road, which carried trade from the Mediterranean to China”. Alexander the Great and his Macedonian army arrived here in 330 BCE after conquering Persia. Since then, many empires have established capitals inside Afghanistan, including the Greco-Bactrians, Mauryas, Kushans, Hindu Shahi, Saffarids, Samanids, Ghaznavids, Ghurids, Timurids, Mughals and Durranis. Sadly, this storied land never managed to be at peace for a prolonged time as one invader or usurper after another seemed to have come in uninvited into Kabul to.
[Image Credit: Daily Star]
But nothing has shaped the country than what took place in the last 50 years or so. Much has been written about three decades and more of war and turmoil – especially the collision between the expanding British and Russian Empires which significantly influenced Afghanistan during the 19th century in what was termed “The Great Game”. The country and its people transitioned from one war to the next and the brutal power struggles in-between. Starting with the exit of the Red Army in 1989, and ending with the exit of U.S troops recently. But unfortunately most locals I interacted with were clearly not happy with the Americans and a couple went as far as quoting that they wished ‘The Russians had stayed longer’. Now that was interesting, albeit not the first time I am hearing that comment in this part of the world.
Kabul fits the definition of a classic Frontier Town. It’s a pluralistic place, with a fascinating history, multiple ethnicities, and half a dozen languages. Apparently, during the 70’s, throngs of young backpackers poured into the city each year, who spent most of their time in the fabled Chicken street smoking hashish or whiling away the hours in Cool coffee shops. But all that disappeared after the Taliban took control and the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Still, that hasn’t stopped the city from having fun in a more subdued way and hopefully, the city would get back to its former cool self as time progresses.
Kabul itself doesn’t have a lot of sightseeing to do as most of the historical monuments and heritage architecture have not been preserved as they have been in a place like India or China. However, there are a couple of nice places to drop into and capture a few shots.
The first stop was at a lovely Shiite place of worship – The Sakhi Shrine. Set against a backdrop of a beautiful brown hill studded with adobe homes, the shrine is a sight to behold. It looks stunning from every angle and is more in the style of the monuments you get to see in Iran or Uzbekistan with a Persian overtone. This was not even on my tour itinerary and I dropped by purely as a result of my lovely local guide tailoring the agenda in runtime.
The next stop was at the Babur gardens – a rehabilitated complex of rose gardens and poplars. Laid out by the Mughal Emperor Babur in the early 16th century, and the site of his tomb, these gardens are the loveliest spot in Kabul
A large number of locals come to this park to hang out, picnic and chill during the holidays and special occasions. Among its treasures is a small marble tomb, built by another Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan, who later built the famous Taj Mahal.
After the gardens, we drove around town for a bit to shoot some pics of some of the hills that were intersecting the city with colorfully painted homes plugged into them, like precious stones ornamenting a fine garment.
The real fascination of a Central Asian town like Kabul lies in the ordinary rhythms of life filled with hustles and bustles of a chaotic daily life. And there is no better place to find and feel that pulse than a local Bazaar. I had done this in towns in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan etc. So I couldn’t skip it in Kabul at any cost and chose the cacophonous Ka Faroshi Bird Market to test my capability to handle an assault of all senses you might be hit with at a place like this. The Bazaar was composed of serpentine narrow alleys lined by wooden stalls run by Pashtun merchants selling their bountiful wares: nuts, spices, dried fruits, oil, raw meat etc. Sparks were flying from the spinning wheels of the blacksmiths, loads of greasy meat slices were sizzling in huge pans of oil, and of course hundreds of colorful birds(of various kinds) were chirping away – to get out of the cages they were in – not knowing where they were going to end up eventually.
Lunch like a local
For Lunch, we dropped into a super local restaurant in downtown. It was a very basic joint and fitted perfectly into the low key itinerary we were on. It reminded of the Irani tea stalls of Mumbai or the Muslim Biriyani joints of Chennai. A men-only haunt that was the exact opposite of a fine dining establishment. But the food clearly made up for anything that the place itself might be lacking in. I got to sample some decadently delicious Palaw, a version of Dal and Spinach, a flavorful hot vegetable soup accompanied by freshly baked local bread that was similar to the Indian tandoori breads.
Sundowner without a Drink!
We ended the tour for the day at the lovely hill from which you can get spectacular vistas of the city below. You also get to mingle with locals doing what they do best in this part of the world – Running Kites. Hundreds of youngsters land up here during every holiday and weekend to show off their skills at Kite running with their own colorful kites or with ones bought on site from the dozens of vendors doting the hill.
Of course, even as I was almost starting to feel – and believe – that I was in a fun city where life was as normal as it could be, the dozens of Chinook Choppers that were constantly hover over the sky and the security Blimps that were filling up the horizon reminded me that I was in a region that had still not managed to peel itself away from the impacts of extremist violence
After a good night’s rest, I hit the road the next morning to Panjshir Province – which was less than 3 hours’ drive away.
The picturesque Panjshir Valley is as gorgeous and captivating as the other magnificent valleys in other parts of Asia like Kashmir, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan. And the pretty river running through it surely makes it hard for anyone to keep driving without stopping for a million Instagram shots!
A meal with a Million Dollar View
Thanks to our well-informed guide, we stopped by at a killer restaurant that was situated right next to the Panjshir River with spectacular views of the water and the mountains behind it.
The place was so local, I couldn’t have easily found this place on my own from any kind of guidebook. In fact, it was more of a local hangout, where the villagers were chilling out and lounging in colorfully carpeted over-water wooden decks. Reminded me so much of the river side restaurant in Tajikistan in the outskirts of Dushanbe. And the most popular delicacy here was the fried fish, which the locals were eating in huge quantities like they were onion rings!
Since Afghanistan is not a place where I could easily afford to (or dare to) do my signature ‘Beerscape’ I had to settle for a non-alcoholic recreation of the capture with a hot herbal tea! Nonetheless, the view more than made up for the lack of alcohol in the glass that I was holding.
One of the interesting ‘attractions’ you get to see in the Panjshir are the battered tanks of the Soviet army that are scattered all over the Valley. You can find them lying around in farm fields, hilltops, river banks and in all kinds of stunning landscapes with spectacular backdrops. #BattleScars #BeautyInBatters
Though there were enough reasons for a traveler to feel uneasy during their visit, I felt a lot more comfortable than any western traveler probably would have. This was mainly because everyone here seemed to be very happy with – and excited about – India. And this goes beyond the love for silly Bollywood that has triggered such connections in other places like the former Soviet colonies. It was pure love for ‘Hindustan’ -the way people refer to India in these parts especially.
The minute I mentioned that I was originally from India a serious “Hindustan-Afghanistan Dost Dost” (India and Afghanistan friendship) sentiment started flying high. And unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said about India’s not-so-friendly neighbor (and in fact, Afghanistan’s primary neighbor). Most Afghanis I spoke to seemed to hate everything about them and didn’t have any kind of positive sentiment at all due to various political games that were apparently getting played regularly. In any case the language of Hindi was so effortlessly spoken by most of the Afghanis I met and in fact, they seemed very happy to interact and engage with a Hindustani in Hindi like they loved the language more than most South Indians (me included) do!
To put it bluntly, Afghanistan is not meant for every traveler – certainly not for people who have not already been to untamed destinations guarded by armed men in uniform all around. But it certainly has its charm. While most places that are labeled as dangerous-to-visit end up presenting an entirely different experience when you are on the ground, unfortunately, Kabul didn’t fall into that bucket. The city seemed to be gripped by fear. Locals are so apprehensive about hanging around for too long in high-potential places that they even don’t go to Cinema halls anymore. This was the first time ever I had interacted with a tour guide who was so uneasy and highly strung, in most points of interest. And the number of security checks I went through from the time I arrived to leaving the city itself is an attestation to the fact that the city is still on a high alert mode (I had to go through 13 different types of checks just at the airport!)
But with that being said, the people seemed to have found a way to live with the situation and – as oxymoronically as it may sound – make ‘peace’ with it. Most parks and picnic spots were filled with locals enjoying their time off running kites, barbecuing stuff or chilling with their friends and family as if this was a peaceful coastal village in the French Rivera or the Caribbean. Now that is what I call resilience! The only time I had seen this before was in Bosnia almost a decade back and so refreshing to see it in a place like this!
Also I guess most of the news you might have read or seen about Afghanistan could have potentially lead you to believe that this is a chaotic country that has been pushed back to the stone ages and untouched by any kind of modern social , cultural and technological evolutions. But you would be in for a big surprise if you visit this troubled nation of sweet people. They are full immersed into every bit of Social networking like Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp etc. They indulge in their own reality shows like Afghan star via Text message voting. They enjoy a fully unrestricted Internet access. Some things you dont witness even in a fully functional and democratic nation.
So, if you are an intrepid traveler willing to get out of your comfort space of travel then Afghanistan awaits with a load of natural wonders to be explored while having the ability to hosting you like any other nation would with most of the creature comforts!