Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Afghanistan 2: Three Weeks of August 2009

When I left Kabul in March 2008, there remained four more things I wanted to do there: come in through the Khyber Pass, spend time in the countryside, visit the Minaret of Djam and work for a month or two in Afghanistan. I achieved half of the goals this August: countryside and Djam. Plus, the excitement of being around during election time.

I traveled for three weeks: Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Bamiyan, Herat and “the places in between.” The route started from Kabul, through the spectacular Salang Pass - the tunnels reminiscent of ones in Georgia, also built by the Russians - to Mazar; then back down to just short of the Pass where it was a back country road to Bamiyan, where once the huge Buddhist statues stood until the Taliban took them out in the name of Islam.

From there to Afghanistan’s newly established national park at the scenic Band-i-Amir lakes. Then across the mountainous Central route to Herat, with a stop at the Minaret of Djam, the magnificent remains of the an ancient civilization, hidden in a valley at the end of a nearly non existent road? trail? path? The route walked by Rory Stewart a few years back and now reportedly too dicey for Western travel. I don’t know if that’s because of Security concerns, bad roads and/or lack of acceptable accommodation. Or all of the above.

Rather than follow the Northern route from Herat to Mazar-i-Sharif and then back to Kabul as planned, the return was on a Herat-Kabul flight so more time could be spent in these two cities, both targets of the Taliban set on invalidating any elections. There were threats, bombings and shootings in both Herat and Kabul who were under close security just before and on election day.

I traveled with three others plus our tour leader who arranged the trip - same person who had set up the Iraqi tour. He was familiar with the territory, having traveled in the area since the hippy days of the seventies. Cross country travel was by mini bus - four cylinder, 4 wheel drive vehicles that took the terrain in stride - into, onto and over rocks, streams, river beds, cow/sheep trails and dirt roads with a bit off off-road driving. Other than in the cities and Bamiyan, we stayed in Chaikhanas (teahouses), all in one room with sleeping bags on the floor. Facilities, when available, were on a par with those in China’s old Hutongs. Otherwise, it was back of a wall. Several Chaikhanas did not welcome Westerners so we took pot luck.

The highlight for me was getting to the Minaret of Djam, Afghanistan's first World Heritage site. After taking photos, I just sat and reveled in the aura surrounding the place. Our two guys skinny dipped in the adjacent river, the rest simply walked about the area. The police stationed there to discourage visitors from stealing artifacts, fixed tea for us before we left.

I did appreciate the opportunities to talk with local Afghans. One time, while at a Sufi Shrine, we shared tea and cakes with a group of young people. Later, at another Sufi temple, the Imam, his brother and his nephew prepared tea for us. Most people seemed friendly, though in the villages, very curious about the strange foreigners, The police, most concerned about our wanderings, stopped and questioned us at various chec k points. We were briefly detained though offered tea, In Chisht, when we were quite close to the end of the journey to Herat. After a night in Obeh at the Hilton of Chaikhanas (indoor plumbing and water), a relay of armed guards then accompanied us to our Herat hotel.

The closer to the election, the tighter the Security. Initially, Kabul seemed to have less police and Army visible than when I was there earlier. But the divisive cement walls and barriers, a la Baghdad, were being installed. Whatever charm Kabul had - and it isn’t much at best - was lost in the translation. However, by the time we returned,to Kabul, a day before the election, Security was ever present. The airport was closed for several hours following a shoot out with the Tallies at a local bank. Several days later when I left, things were more normal. But walking around Kabul election day with everything shut down and little traffic other than police and Army, reminded me of Neville Shute’s “On the Beach”.

Remembered: Heat and Dust, though no Julie Christie. The striking tiles on the Mosque at Mazar-i-Sharif. The de miners and European Union representative at Shahr-e-Zohak citadel near Bamiyan. The dedicated South African with Wildlife Conservation working with local Afghans in developing the park at Band--i-Amir. The nomad camps lining the way into Djam. The Citadel at Herat where the guide, a guard with a Kalashnikov in his right hand and a cast on his left arm, took two of us into every nook and cranny of the in-process restoration. The drone taking off at Herat's airport. The cheerfully optimistic rug dealers who were sure one of us would buy that extra special rug - and sure enough, three guys succumbed. Kabul’s now totally blocked off and unviewable Bella Hassar. The crowded, noisy and colorful bazaars of Herat and Kabul. The freelancers at the no-star Mustafa Hotel vs the expense account set at the 5-star Serena Hotel. Istalif the pottery village developed by Turquoise Foundation, with few customers and closed shops. The Panjshir Valley with Massoud’s mausoleum becoming a building site as his admirers continue to “improve” it. The Shah M Bookstore where I bought George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman Papers, covering the First Afghan War.

Accommodations: Ranged from Chaikhanas to basic Afghan hotels to the yurt in Bamiyan, with nary a Westerner in sight.

Water: I had purchased and packed a water purifier. Didn't need it for bottled water was readily available. Also Rani, a wonderful fruit drink from the Emirates.

Food: Nam and tea were standard breakfast with sometimes eggs and jam. Lots of Kabobs and rice. Two trips to the Serena found me happily chomping away at their luncheon buffet at $30 per person. In Herat, ate at two newer and nicer hotels, patronized by Westerners, for around $20 for the evening meal. A final night in Kabul took us to Sufi 2 on Moslem street: good Afghan food and great Afghan music; packed with Westerners.

Costs: Hinterland Travel charged £1980 for the tour which accounted for a 10% discount for early booking. Only breakfast was included. I also paid approximately $100 for add-on excursions. Airfare on Emirates, San Francisco-Dubai, was $1583.09 plus Kam Air Dubai-Kabul $430; (Despite some reports, Kam Air does not use aging Aeroflots but Lockheed and McDonnell-Douglas aircraft.)

N.B. Keep tuned for there is a good chance I’ll be returning to complete the other two parts of the pinochle, Khyber Pass and short term work in Kabul. For the moment, I’m off to the UK in September for a conference at Oxford and play time in London.