Mazar E-Sharif – Afghanistan
“Who am I? I am a traveler, I’m a wanderer and madman. I’m a scar of love, in my loneliness… I am Legend”
– Afghan Legend: Ahmad Zahir
Many have attempted to conquer these lands. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan are two prime examples. None, however, had succeeded in conquering this paradise from the proud, noble Afghan tribes. In 1979, there entered another conquering faction. This time, it was the Soviets. The Afghan people fought hard in this bloody occupation. Leading the campaign was none other than the Afghan group named the Mujahedeen. It is estimated that up to 1.5 million civilians were killed in this brutal act of war. The Mujahedeen fought using guerrilla warfare tactics within Afghanistan’s own borders, in cities and countryside alike. This provoked the Soviets to begin bombing and utilizing landmines, leaving Afghanistan in ruins. Ultimately, the Mujahedeen exhausted the soviets and forced them to flee these lands.
More recently, Afghanistan is known for its headlines in the American/Taliban war. The Taliban were the political victors of Afghanistan after a series of civil wars that took place post-soviet invasion. Today, with the Taliban also having been removed from power, Afghanistan is once again under new leadership. The current president, Ashraf Ghani, looks to change the future of this war-torn nation.
When the idea of traveling in Afghanistan is brought up, looks of concern and dismay are common as a result of the country’s brutal history. Afghanistan has been seeded in my dreams since the beginning of my travel career. After four years planning, I was sitting in a smoky Shisha bar on the Uzbekistan/Afghanistan border town of Termez, equipped with my Afghan visa. My thoughts ran wild when the time finally came. “Will I get across?” “Is this madness?” Being plagued with thoughts of so many scenarios of what could go wrong can drive a person mad.
Getting to Afghanistan
When the morning light pierced through my dusty hotel window, the realization of what was to come had never been so intense. After hiring a cab to the Friendship Bridge border crossing, it takes thirty minutes or so to reach your destination, giving you time to contemplate the idea of abandoning this mission. After this much planning, however, all I did was bury these thoughts deep in the back of my consciousness. The border itself was tight with security. Those very looks of concern I have told you about are profoundly displayed upon the faces of the panicking border guards when they see a tourist crossing into these landsMy local carpets dealer friends outside the Barat Hotel
Upon first sight, Afghanistan is unlike any other place I had seen before. The broken streets and houses were lined with amputee war vets and burqa-clad women, begging to the newly arrived people in their nation. It’s a heart-breaking scene, one that reminds you of the realities of a destination whose people have suffered so much. Approaching a taxi driver, with only feeble knowledge of Dari, my words raised an eyebrow; the taxi driver being surprised when I explained I was a tourist, not a journalist.
The drive to Mazar E-Sharif consists of foreign military stops and Afghan military police who thoroughly check your passport and, of course, look at you in fear when you explain you’re a tourist with no security. Entering Mazar, I gaze at the impressive blue facades and white marble of the Shrine of Hazrat Ali. My taxi dropped me off at Barat hotel. The Barat hotel shows signs of what its former glory may have been, but now it is a dusty and dark place with very few visitors. The hotel smells of smoke and the air is filled with dust channeling through beams of light in the dreary corridors. Unsurprisingly, a room is available, but the clerk is hesitant to give it to me as I am a foreigner and, therefore, a possible security threat to the hotel. After some convincing, a few rules are laid out and I am allowed to stay.Shrine of Hazrat Ali’s Main Square
Leaving the comforts and relative safety of the hotel, I enter the street, which brings me into Mazar’s heart. In front of me is a sea of Blue Burqas and Pashtun Turban- wearing men. The sound of Adhan blares through the shrines’ speakers, and the smells of spices and Kebab are overpowering. I am transported to another time. This is the epitome of my traveling career. This is what I live for; this very moment in time is when all things changed. I don’t recall much after this. Filled with passion and emotion, I wandered these streets. Every alleyway, every shop, leads me to something; new things that I, as a traveler, never knew could exist in this place. I often think of my childhood hero, T.E. Lawrence, and wonder what it was like for him entering Arabia for the first time. For me, I believe, this experience is comparable.
I absorb Afghanistan in this moment of time. Afghanistan becomes a part of me forever. I want this. Eventually, I stumble upon a tailor who speaks impeccable English. After many cups of tea and a few stories involving Taliban warlords, the tailor creates traditional Afghan attire for me. Walking the streets, clad in my new clothes, I am a ghost. Nobody believes there could be a tourist here; so a strange looking Afghan is assumed to be from a province called Kunar; where people apparently have similar features to me. Nothing could have prepared me for the absolute magnificence of this nation.
If leadership rests inside the lion’s jaw,
so be it. Go snatch it from his jaws.
Your lot shall be greatness, prestige, honor, and glory.
If all fails, face death like a man.
– Hanzala of Badghis (Afghan Poet)
A few days in Mazar felt like a lifetime. I wanted to see more, but without a local to guide me, this would be a difficult task. I contacted my Afghan friend back home in Canada, who gave me the contact info to his family in Mazar. After a brief phone call, I was given directions to meet him. I found Mohammed in a nearby Kebab restaurant. We sat cross-legged on a raised platform and ordered Kabuli Pulao (Afghan rice and chicken) and discussed why I was here and what I wanted to accomplish. Mohammed, who had been working for the United Nations, was intrigued that a tourist had come this far off the beaten track and delightfully agreed to help me on my journey.
Alexanders Lost City, Balkh
Mohammed was a unique individual. He grew up in California as an Afghan immigrant. After his studies, he was destined to return to Afghanistan to help his people. This time, however, he came home with the United Nations and worked in counter-terrorism by translating Dari and Pashtun for the United Nations military. This is the kind of passion Afghanistan’s people proudly display. They put their lives at risk even when given the freedoms of America. Once Afghanistan is in your blood, it will never leave you.
Mohammed rented us a car to drive to Balkh; my next destination of choice. Many Afghans had warned me of Balkh’s dangers, but I was stubborn and destined to go. The Taliban often operated out of this area; taking advantage of local opium farmers in order to get money to supply their war. Mohammed’s cousin, Qais, decided to join us as well. Qais, a Mazar born local, also had an impressive grasp of the English language. He proudly demonstrated this by telling interesting, albeit more often than not false, historical facts and legends from the past. Qais also provided great insight on the local political situation. I asked Qais where the opium fields were. He replied; “The government cuts down the opium and we replace it with hash.” One problem to another problem; this is the fate of modern-day Afghanistan.
Entering the dusty frontier town of Balkh is a daunting experience. Local goat herders, equipped with AK-47’s, push their animals past old blown apart soviet tanks; a symbol of this region’s violent past. The sun tries to get through the constant dust, pushed up from cars driving through the frontier town’s quickly put together roads. The fields of cotton and hashish loom beyond the dusty shadow figures of war-torn rubble. This is rural Afghanistan, a place where laws are an idea rather than an enforcement. Firefights happen frequently here, indicated by the buildings’ bullet ridden walls. Coming here without some sort of protection is not advisable, as you can imagine. My friends explained to me that this was the reason why we carried AK-47’s in the trunk of our car
Drive deeper into Balkh and you will see the ancient walls of a city long forgotten. I asked my Afghan friends if they knew about these walls; they did not. I, however, did know. These walls were something I used to dream about seeing for many years. These were the ancient city walls Alexander the Great himself had walked through. These walls were the remnants of one of our world’s oldest cities. Drive further to the outskirts of modern Balkh and you enter the center of Ancient Balkh city. Walking around here, you can still see shards of broken pottery poking out from the earth left from ancient times. My hosts, who also had never seen this site, were excited to see more of the area. They knew of two sights nearby. One was the 50-foot tomb of a mythical Giant; the other was the house of Rumi: the famous Afghan poet. These sights we also saw, but in more of a rush as the sun was setting and the chances of us finding our way to danger were rising. Leaving Balkh behind, our minds concentrated on the real fact that bandits do frequently attack and kill on these roads. With Mazar in sight and the sun fully set we calmed down, knowing we were safe from these dangerous areas.
The Buddhist Kingdom of Samangan
I was eager to make it to the region of Samangan, with its mysterious Buddhist temples. Rather than being in the desert like Balkh, the Buddhist monks built their kingdoms in the shadows of the mighty Pamir Mountains. The next day, we drove there. Passing through the northern deserts, we headed towards the magnificently high-altitude mountains in the distance. We saw camels, American 50-cal-equipped Humvees, Shepard’s, melon street hawkers and UN helicopters; pounding the air above. Afghanistan is a land of contrast. The scars of the past are made apparent by rusted soviet tanks, soon to be replaced by the modern American war machines patrolling these roads.
Samangan is another display of contrast, one of cultural diversity. Buddhist temples still stand in a predominantly Muslim country after thousands of years of constant regional and religious conflict. This is a more extreme example of diversity, in my opinion than anything else in the region. Not much is known about the main Buddhist stupa here, but wander down deep into its base, running your hand along its smooth stone interior, and you will be left pondering about who these mysterious people once must have been. At the foot of the mountain, there are dozens of Buddhist caves; some with carved ceilings still intact. Outside was a man selling local melons, which happened to be some of the freshest fruit I have ever tasted. The air here was clean and clear, and there were no sounds to be heard. Just as it had been thousands of years ago; Samangan remained a place of peace and serenity.
Sitting atop the main stupa, I gaze into the darkening distance, lost in a trail of thoughts. This place is special. All you know about Afghanistan is false until you step into its heart. This land changes people. This land makes travelers into adventurers and the people you meet along the way into lifelong friends. Afghanistan is like no other country. Brave her lands and riches of experiences will await.
The next few days were reserved for soaking up more of Mazar and the area’s culture. I wandered the exotic markets, eating Kebabs with locals who shared stories of this region’s intriguing past and present. Of course, we also had a good laugh about foreigner’s misconceptions and stereotypes regarding Afghanistan’s own people. The locals here had not seen tourists in many years, so they were very open to me and letting me experience Afghanistan’s north to its fullest. What once had made me nervous now excited me more than anything. Traveling in Afghanistan is my legend, my legacy. My next destination would be Kabul. I was only one week into my one month adventure in this epic country.
Location: Northern Afghanistan. Mazar E-Sharif, Balkh, Samangan.
Travel Costs: Hotel in Mazar E-Sharif – Barat hotel, 30-50 US$. Taxi to Mazar from the border – 15 US$. Kebab and Rice – 2 US$. Afghan tailored outfit – 30 US$
Useful Gear: Gopro Blackout Housing for secret video, Keffiyeh Scarf, Pakol Hat, Solar charge panel for cell phone and battery. Afghan Phrase book.
Transport: Taxi – 2-3 US$ in city, outside city – 10 US$ per hour. Bus to Kabul – 20 US$. Hitchhiking- Free, usually includes having tea with locals afterward.
Tips: Don’t go out at night, there is little to no security then. Avoid driving at night, faux road blocks do happen, and kidnappings are common. Make friends here, there is no tourist infrastructure. Local friends will help you get from A to B. Listen to the locals about the current security situation. Wear local clothing, you will gain much respect. Don’t forget Travel insurance for here, not many places cover it – try Nomad Insurance
Recommended Guide Book: Lonely Planet Afghanistan, Afghanistan: A Companion and Guide
Movies to watch before you go: The Kite Runner
Afghan Flights: Book through Sky Scanner or Momondo