Have you decided where you´ll be going on your next vacation? Interested in a country with a lot of sun, low humidity, nice and humble people, fantastic scenery and a long, fascinating history as well as being a geopolitical hotspot? If so, are you ok with leaving the drinking at home and leaving most of the decision-making to your guides? If you still think it sounds interesting, it is time for you to arrange your trip to – Afghanistan.
I´ve met people who fairly recently have travelled on their own to Afghanistan, and it is doable as long as you keep a constant update on what is going on and where it is happening. But beware. Things change fast in Afghanistan. What is considered a safe area one week might not be considered safe the next. Several companies take tourists to Afghanistan; Hinterland, Wild Frontiers and Untamed Borders among others. For various reasons I decided to go with Untamed Borders.
During our first week (of two), we got to see three cities and some of the surrounding areas; Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat. This post is about these cities. The next post will mainly be about Bamyan and the Panjshir Valley, i.e. more countryside than cities.
Kabul is as busy as any capital. Traffic jams and diesel fumes kind of defines any day as soon as you are out of your hotel. Armed people – police, army, security, and international forces – are everywhere to be seen in and around the city. But if you can see passed the traffic and the weapons, there are some cool things to see. The Kabul Museum is one. It used to be a really good museum until the looting started after Soviet Union was thrown out. The museum is still well worth a visit, but it isn´t hard to imagine how great it could be. The fact is that Kabul Museum is touring the world in order to keep valuables out of the country until things settle down. Another good visit was the British Cemetery, which has served as a burial ground for soldiers and foreigners for a long time. The cemetery is well hidden behind a wall and wooden doors in a back street. The Bazaar is also worth a visit with good deals to be made on clothes and jewelry among other things.
Mazar-e-Sharif, meaning the Tomb of the Noble, is the biggest city in the northern region in Afghanistan. It´s only an hour and a half from the city to the Uzbek border. If you decide to travel that road, you will be following the road the soldiers of the Soviet Union took when they left Afghanistan in 1989 after ten years of occupation. The main attraction, which also has given the city its name, is the tomb of Hazrat Ali, considered to be one of Afghanistan´s most important religious sites, or, as the British author Colin Thubron once somewhat harshly put it “the grave [is] the city´s raison d’être”. North of Mazar-e-Sharif is Balkh, once upon a time one of the biggest cities in the world. This is where Alexander the Great married his Roxana. It is the birthplace of Zoroaster as well as the home of the Aryans, who then moved on to other parts of Persia and Hindustan.
Herat, has in many ways been run as a city-state, “protected” from changes in the far-away capital of Kabul. This didn´t keep the city from being overrun neither by the Monguls, the British, the Soviets nor the Talibans. Today, the city itself is considered safe. So is the road between Herat and the Iranian border. Due to its proximity to Iran, it is heavily influenced by Persian culture and language. A couple of things made quite an impact; the Friday Mosque, the Jihad Museum and the caravanserais we were able to see. That said, the highlight for me was the standing pillars of what was once the Masullah Complex. Colin Thubron narrowed the history of the place down to a few lines:
“For four centuries the incomparable edifices survived, dilapidated but intact. Then engineers of the British-Indian army, advising King Abdurahman in 1885 and fearful of a Russian advance on India, blew them up to create an open field of fire. The Russians never came. Nine minarets lasted into the twentieth century, but two were shaken down by earthquake in 1931. Two years later Robert Byron described a pair of the survivors as uniquely fine. But one of them fell in 1951, and in 1979 Soviet gunfire smashed another, leaving a thirty-foot stump where I found a trace of marble panelling.”
Alas, the pillars have fallen one by one, and today only five of the nine pillars still stand. Byron loved the complex and wrote well of the city as well when he travelled here in the early 1930s. In The Road to Oxiana (1933) he wrote:
“If the mosaic on the rest of the Musalla surpassed or even equalled what survives today, there was never such a mosque before or since.”
To round things up, here´s a group shot of people of Untamed Borders´ Melon And Grapes Tour of 2016.