"What are those painted stones?" I ask. "Ah, yes — white stones are safe, red stones are mines" my guide says as we walk. "I'm sorry, what did you just say?!" I look around a sea of painted stones...
Afghanistan is a beautiful country. Snow topped mountains nestle among rolling stone hills and golden desert. It was part of the hippy trail in the 60s and it's easy to see why. Whilst no country is without its risks, here they are higher than most, being on the travel red list for most governments.
Arriving at Kabul airport, I walked out of the arrivals hall to see massive chunks of ice falling from the sky. I was expecting hot weather but it was cold and icy. This was clearly a freak occurrence as the locals were filming the torrent from the safety of the terminal.
I’ve perhaps been a little blasé about some of my travels, especially when it came to some of the higher risk places such as Afghanistan. There are times when this can be a problem such as when you walk out of the airport and find there is no one to meet you. I was desperately trying to call someone but my signal would disappear every 30 seconds or so, I assumed this was the adverse weather but found out later it's the various signal jammers used by the military here. It turns out that Kabul Hamid Karzai airport is uniquely laid out and I needed to walk through a few carparks and checkpoints in order to meet my guide as only flyers are allowed on the grounds of the airport. At least I could use the hail as an excuse for being so late...
In nondescript local cars we drove into the city centre, making slow progress through the traffic. It was chaotic and an obvious mix of public, government officials and military. A blimp dominated the sky from the US Embassy, looking more like a theme park attraction than a tool of war. A bulletproof Land Cruiser driven by US Special Forces passed us, their signal jammer rendering our phones useless. Arriving at our guest house I wasn't sure where we were — it was just a compound, with concrete walls all around and a sliding solid metal gate. The exterior not providing any clues as to what was inside. Once through the gate there were three locked metal doors and security checks before the sanctuary of our guest house. Ironically this was a guest house for locals, chosen for its low profile. The most secure hotel in Kabul is also the most frequently attacked as the rationale being the more security, the higher value the targets. It was a little unsettling to think that we were in low security accommodation but the thinking made perfect sense to me. As we sat in the garden enjoying tea, military helicopters flew above — The Ride of the Valkyries in my head.
After an initial 24 hours in Kabul it was a refreshing change of pace to visit Bamyan. The flight was one of the most scenic I have experienced with desert, mountains and snow all somehow existing at once. Bamyan managed to feel much safer yet more cautious than Kabul, I think this was due to the attention we received — our local dress doing little to hide our ethnicity. It was very clear that no one wanted anything bad to happen to us there but that felt restrictive at times. The hotel was very different as well, dare I say luxurious with views of the caves and mountains. I felt guilty every time we came back as we were usually covered in mud and our trails could be seen across the marble floors and expensive Afghan rugs. Still, we did seem to be the only guests so it gave them something to do…
The mines I encountered with my guide were securing a Taliban fort on top of a hill. A simple clay structure of one room. The beds and rubbish were still there, I started moving some old water bottles out the way to get a better photo but started wondering about booby traps so stopped. There were shell casings littered around the hill and the mount for a large gun was still in place at the top, positioned for a good view of the surrounding area. We also found human vertebrae on the way down.
Bamyan was beautiful (if you ignore the human vertebrae), at the foot of the snow covered Hindu Kush mountains, even the giant holes left by Isis where ancient buddhas once stood were beautiful. These imposing statues having survived the past 1,700 years before falling to the Taliban for the crime of being against Islam. The intricate network of caves still exists behind them. The rubble lays on the floor in the hope that they can one day put them back together. Perhaps nowhere was this beauty more abundant than at Band-e Amir — a series of six deep blue lakes separated by natural stone dams. After driving for hours through this desolate and remote region, I wasn’t expecting anyone to be there, let alone someone renting out swan shaped pedalos. There were many surreal moments in Afghanistan, but none more so than peddling my magnificent fibreglass swan across the azure waters of the lake, not a cloud in the sky but icicles still hanging from the cliffs above.
The lakes were a welcome change, I’d started my day fleeing from a herd of galloping horses ridden by men carrying a dead goat — this is what counts as fun around here apparently. This was buzkashi, or as I’d call it dead goat polo — as far as sports go I think it can only be described as truly mental. It involves two teams of 15 men on horseback, and one dead headless goat. The point (if one can be so generous to use the word) is to get the carcass into your team’s goal (a small goat sized hole in the dirt). This seems to involve hitting each other with horse whips until you get the goat and then galloping into the spectators. It’s one of the few sports where I can truly say they were playing for life or death. It’s interactive for spectators, I experienced this first hand whilst fleeing for my life. The severity hitting me as I saw a handful of riders plough into the crowd and down a ditch. As we walked back to the car my guide informed me that last time they played here two spectators were killed… this felt like information that would have been more valuable to me before we started watching. I’m fairly sure I’d have chosen a safer viewpoint.
We’d actually arrived about 3 hours before the buzkashi started, this was our second attempt at finding the location — even with a local it’s quite hard to be specific about the location of a big empty patch of earth when all around for hundreds of miles is empty earth. Anyway, arriving so early allowed us to mix with the locals, this is a region without western military or NGOs operating so they were not used to our presence. Within minutes I somehow found myself in the centre of a circle of hundreds of locals. It all started when a local spoke a little broken English to me, we made an effort to communicate about my reasons for being there and my love for buzkashi (which at this point I still didn’t really know what it was but knew the correct answer to “do you like buzkashi?” was a firm yes). After a few minutes we got to an awkward silence having depleted our respective knowledge of each others language, I looked up to realise I was now the centre of attention. A couple of other people managed to ask me if I liked buzkashi, with the last one asking if I wanted to have a go, I wasn’t sure if he was being serious or not... After a a few moments of silence I managed to nervously say yes… he left the group to the cheers of everyone to get a horse for me — luckily I never saw him again as otherwise I think I’d either be dead or in a hospital in Afghanistan. A good buzkashi horse is very valuable with some being worth over $100,000, one particularly famous horse has five armed guards 24 hours a day! Perhaps they simply didn’t want to trust me with an expensive horse — I wouldn’t.
Afghanistan is misunderstood by the west, the people are very friendly and they don't like the Taliban or ISIS. I was told by my guide in Bamyan that the Taliban leaders kept little boys and had sex with donkeys. As to the validity of this I can't testify but it does highlight normal people's feelings — at least in this region. I can't imagine any moderate religious person is going to appreciate a fanatical interpretation and policing of their religious texts. There is sharia law here, it does seem shocking. Not least because they appear to want it. A woman would be stoned to death for shaming her family. Men and women can't walk the streets together unless they are married. The penalties for seemingly minor infractions can be severe.
I try not to judge as I don't believe we have all the answers in the West. But, it's very hard not to when you know that women are used as currency for marriage contracts, some attracting much interest and negotiation, and therefore money whilst others are given freely to sweeten a deal. Their family simply glad to have found a place for them.
People here just want to live, to provide for their families and to live in safety. They want security. They are no different to any other people in this regard. Unfortunately they don't have this and the government is unable to provide it. For many people their only alternative is the Taliban. They provide them with security. And they pay well. They can then feed and provide for their family.
Back in Kabul I was surprised to learn it’s one of the fastest growing cities in the world. The city spreads up and over the hills that once contained it like a disease. It is dusty, busy, seemingly made of concrete bomb shields and populated by soldiers, police and security. My photos don't really show this, they show another side of Afghanistan — the real one, that has been in existence for thousands of years, defied countless invasions and survives ongoing conflict. I like to think this is my attempt to show the real side of life in this beautiful country but it's also true to say I wasn't allowed to take pictures of soldiers or security installations as I was advised they will shoot first and ask questions later.
We managed to secure a bottle of 'whisky' one evening. I still have no idea what it was but it was not whisky, or anything like whisky. In a country where opium is easier to obtain than a beer I shouldn’t be surprised.
Our guide shared a few stories such as the time he was heading home to his village and their car was stopped by a police roadblock. The police stopped the car and asked who they were, our guide always tells people he's a student as the Taliban would execute anyone working with Westerners. One of the passengers was a policeman himself so showed his ID. He was invited out of the car for a cup of tea and as the car drove off he was shot in the back of the head. The next day I find myself being taken out of the car and lined up against a concrete wall in front of several armed policemen — I couldn’t help but recall our guide’s story. It turned out they were just pissed at seeing someones camera pointed in their direction (albeit accidentally in this case). The offender was made to dismantle his camera and prove it was just that. We were entering the Panjshir Valley where the mausoleum for Ahmad Shah Massoud is, nicknamed the Lion of Panjshir, having been assassinated by two Taliban posing as Belgian journalists, their cameras full of explosives.
Herat had a completely different feel to it, it’s known as the city of 120 days of wind. It was windy, dusty and just as chaotic as Kabul yet somehow had a much more laid back feel to it, I almost felt like I was on holiday. Perhaps it was the tuk tuks, just as colourful as anything Thailand has to offer and definitely not something I was expecting to see. Tree lined roads provided shelter from the sun and the place just seemed more colourful. Our first night there we had dinner high up on a hill overlooking two amusement parks, they may not have been busy but they were open. Herat was a little surreal — I found myself bowling, swinging on a pirate ship ride, dodging colourful tuk tuks in the street and eating at a restaurant staffed only by dwarves. All to the frequent sounds of gunfire in the distance.
The Afghan people were incredibly hospitable, an old man in a 350 year old tea house refusing to accept any money from us as we were guests in his country. This is why I love being off the tourist trail, you meet real people and have real interactions with them.
Whilst in Herat there was a suicide bomb in Kabul near the presidential palace and finance ministry — somewhere we’d driven past many times, I was expecting friends and family to start panicking but it simply wasn’t reported back home, I think that we have become expectant of these atrocities now and that they simply form part of the day to day existence of countries like Afghanistan. I wasn’t even aware myself that a few days before I arrived in Kabul there was a significant attack on a hospital there. It’s only when the number of fatalities is high or their are Westerners involved that they seem to make the news. And even then it becomes background noise. I found the story told to me by our guide very sad, apparently the bomber just walked straight up to one of the soldiers guarding the palace, embraced him and detonated — there was almost the suggestion of compassion in the embrace.
Back in Kabul, we were just in time for the US to drop the MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast or Mother of All Bombs depending on your preference for acronyms) in the Achin district, just 140km from where we were. Children would come up to us in the street laughing, shouting “American” and doing their best impressions of a massive fucking bomb.
One of the hills in the middle of Kabul is topped with a swimming pool and diving boards, it has a dark history though as it was used for executions by the Taliban. It now serves as a popular spot for families and children at the weekends and evenings. If it weren’t for people carrying AK47s you might think it was a normal place.
We’d heard there was a circus in Kabul so made a few enquiries and managed to find it, it wasn’t the kind with clowns and lions sadly but essentially a refuge for young girls where they go to learn circus skills. The Afghan Educational Children’s Circus sounds odd (and it is) but it also provides a clever transition for young girls whose traditional families would never consider allowing them to go to school, to take a step in that direction. It might not be a typical classroom but it is an education where they have fun with other children and learn social skills (and arguably less useful skills such as juggling). One goal being to use this as a stepping stone to convince the parents that an education would be a good thing. With other NGOs focusing on healthcare and food, it’s actually a complementary approach and I think a positive impact on many lives.
Although there were places in the country I couldn't go as they weren't safe. Visiting Kabul, Bamyan, Panjshir and Herat allowed me to see a variety of the different people, tribes, topography and climates of Afghanistan. Whilst my experience here was filled with beautiful places and people — it is a country without hope. Nothing will change for the better for decades. Men and particularly women live without hope, resigned to lives of conflict and instability — it has become the Afghan way. The women condemned to become valuables bartered between families. Life without hope. Without love.
There is a power struggle between ISIS and the Taliban here, ISIS consider themselves an international organisation and want to control the Taliban at a country level. The Taliban however do not want to be controlled. The result is apparently ISIS have killed more Taliban than the US have managed in the last 10 years. People just want a strong leader here, I was told by our guide that people here like Hitler, they see him as a strong leader. As terrifying as that is it highlights how messed up things are there and how desperate the people are for a government that improves their lives. It also highlights how easy it is for extremist groups to take hold.
By the end of the trip I was feeling very comfortable in Afghanistan, I liked the food, the loose clothing, eating on the floor, drinking tea on the floor, sitting on the floor and with the lack of alcohol I was probably even starting to sober up. There was a laid back approach here, perhaps being aware of the fragility of life allows you to just enjoy the simple things more.
Our last evening was spent on a hill in the centre of Kabul surrounded by hundreds of children with kites. This was the infamous kite fighting. In case you're not familiar with the term, it's essentially an aerial free for all where children fly kites and attempt to cut the other kite strings with theirs. This is achieved by coating the string with glass. Once a kite is cut then the real fun begins, the children run down the hill to catch the falling kite. These are the kite runners. Many use long wooden poles with barbed wire at the end to gain an advantage. Like all fun games in Afghanistan, it's not uncommon for people to die — the strings cutting their throats. It was a great experience although the edge taken off a little as the children seemed to turn on us as we left throwing stones at the car and trying to open the doors. I'm not entirely sure what it was all about but I put it down to over-excitement.
The next morning on the way to the airport the traffic was terrible and eventually we saw why — there was a massive convoy of US military APCs. We kept stopping in more traffic and ended up next to the vehicles. We'd asked our guide earlier if he was ever nervous about our safety at any point during the trip — he said every time we were near the US embassy or military (and the bird market but this is just as it's a dodgy place). This was the most US military I'd seen here in 11 days so I was glad when we finally started moving. When we got to the US embassy the traffic was solid so we were stuck directly outside — ironically it was leaving when I felt most at risk.
Sat at the airport I felt a sense of sadness for leaving but there was a hint of relief at having made it in one piece.
I travelled to Afghanistan in April 2017 with Young Pioneer Tours and would definitely recommend them. I did the separate Bamyan extension which was expensive (more than the rest of the whole Afghanistan tour for just 3-4 days) but definitely worth it. Our local guide was from Untamed Borders so I’d recommend either depending on your budget and how long you want to spend there.