Our itinerary for this trip needs a little bit of background context.
On January 2018, the Taliban attacked the The Inter-continental Hotel in Kabul and killed at least 42 people. Among the dead included 5 pilots and 4 crew members of Kam Air, which was soon followed by over 50 foreign workers from that airline to then leave the country. Lacking enough pilots to fly out to places like Bamyan, Kam Air cancelled many of their routine daily flights, and to this day about a year and a half later, remains handicapped to where they can travel. Given this understandable situation and out of respect, we altered our original itinerary from Bamyan to Mazār-i-Sharīf/Mazār-e Sharīf/Mazar, the 4th largest city in Afghanistan.
So today we got up at 7am for our 9:45am flight out to Mazar, a significant historical city in both ancient and modern times.
After the September 11th attacks, USA began their invasion of Afghanistan to expel the Taliban. One of the first major battles took place here on November 9th, 2011, where the Afghan Northern Alliance, aided by USA’s Joint Special Operations teams, Green Berets, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), and Air Force Combat Controllers, liberated Mazar from the Taliban.
The battle later became famous in modern warfare lore for US Special Forces charging on horseback against a better equipped Taliban army, which was then profiled in and inspired Doug Stanton’s non-fiction book Horse Soldiers and Douwe Blumberg’s America’s Response Monument, the bronze statue in Liberty Park overlooking the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York City.
The book and statue’s story was later adapted for the recent Hollywood film 12 Strong starring Chris Helmsworth.
As we left for the airport, we began the long slog through the domestic terminal in Afghanistan. We went through a series of extensive security checks where ironically the women still get patted down more thoroughly than the men.
After about 20 minutes of going through security check after security check (which I won’t elaborate on to preserve the safety of future travelers), we checked into our 9:45am Kam Air flight to Mazar.
We waited about 10 minutes in the departure lounge before boarding.
The flight over Afghanistan is well worth the window seat:
We landed about an hour later at 10:45am:
After being picked up by our convoy and driving 10 minutes to the hotel, we freshened up before heading out for a long day of walking.
Our first order of business was to savor authentic Afghani ice cream at Akram Sarwari, perfect for the 102ºF weather outside. Flavors came in cardamon, pistachio, cherry, mango, and traditional (that tasted somewhat like a creme caramel)
After 30 minutes fattening ourselves we headed out to explore the town.
Mazar was founded in the 12th century after a local mullah dreamt of a secret location where Ali bin Talib, the Prophet’s cousin and the 4th caliph of Islam, had been buried. Soon they built a shrine on the site (later rebuilt as the Blue Mosque) where the town of Mazar began to grow around it.
It soon became the capital of the region after the nearby town of Balkh was abandoned due to disease.
Regarded as one of the most peaceful places in Afghanistan, it is one of the few places in Afghanistan where we were able to walk freely and safely in a rural environment.
In what seems to be the most unfortunate aspects of Afghani cities, however, we couldn’t help but note the rows of men squatting along a traffic divider — our guide would mention that they would spend entire days intoxicated on heroin-equivalent substances.
We also stopped by for a burqa shop fitting:
Eventually we reached the city center: The Blue Mosque:
Of course large crowds of curious locals gathered around us everywhere we stopped. We talked to them and our conversations never went beyond asking where we were from and what we were studying/doing for a job.
Behind the mosque lies the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, the reported burial site of the aforementioned Ali bin Talib and one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Islam:
A guard will inquire whether you are Muslim or not before deciding whether to let you inside to see the tomb of Ali bin Talib itself. If you’re not, the guard unfortunately made known to our guide that “if the town finds out, they will chop you in a hundred pieces.”
It seemed nobody really minded our presence however, so the risk is yours to take.
Behind the mosque is a holy slab of rock where it is purported that any bird that lands on it will become white. Take the legend for what you will:
After about an hour here, we returned back to our hotel and enjoyed a dinner at King Burger:
- At time of posting in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, it was 102.2 °F - Humidity: 11% | Wind Speed: 18km/hr | Cloud Cover: burnt to a crisp