During The Terrorist Attack in Pul-e Mahmood Khan, Kabul, Afghanistan….

During The Terrorist Attack in Pul-e Mahmood Khan, Kabul, Afghanistan….


09:30AM

As I’m writing this a few explosions just occurred within our vicinity a few km away (it’s already on the news). Still hearing some gunfire in the distance where the plumes of smoke are.

 

 

We just went up to the rooftop to take a look:

 

 

What is more remarkable is how the hotel staff and even some of the people in our group remain so blasé right now as if we had heard a car accident just happened a few blocks away. We’ve been here a little over a week and the desensitization is very real, even though nothing close to this has happened during our 7-8 days here.

We even went out for lunch outside an hour later. As our guide informed us, most of the attacks occur between 7am-10am at the same places to target the morning commutes of VIPs and foreign workers. Tourists are never a target.

 

12:10pm

Another explosion has just occurred during the call to prayer at the OMAR Landmine museum, which we had visited just yesterday afternoon. It appears that the Taliban has stormed and occupied the TV station that situated on the same site as the OMAR Landmine museum, and has been fending off outside attempts to re-secure the building by Afghan military and police forces.

The Taliban has now claimed responsibility for today’s attacks on Kabul right now where a series of bomb blasts and sporadic gunfire are still occurring outside from where we’re staying.

 

02:00pm

I’m going to write this from the entire perspective of both my past week (which has been otherwise uneventful and very safe) and what has been going on the past few hours.

Because for security reasons I chose to post this on my last day in Kabul, and especially given that just as I finished writing this we heard a series of explosions and sporadic gunfire occurring a few kilometers away from our hotel, I’m writing this both from the perspective of my first and last day in Afghanistan after 7 days here. And although it took awhile, Afghanistan surprised me in ways I could not expect.

I expected to be throttled, shocked and awed, stumbling to the ground believing it would be a feverish experience from the moment I arrived. Instead pleasant surprise prevailed. Walking on the streets of Kabul on my first day felt immediately comfortable and familiar, and I never once experienced any sense of heightened tensions I had been warned to expect. At many moments I felt like I was back in Pakistan, gallivanting without a care other than the occasional tout and curious child. Like our initial concerns coming here, even military forces soon evaporated within the din of rush hour traffic.

Then I traveled to Mazar-e Sharif, Samangan, and Hairatan for 3 days — and despite the reported threat of the Taliban lurking around the corner — Afghanistan’s ocean of grandeur remained in wait, its beauty slowly unraveling like the beginning of an epic tale. Not until my return to Kabul for my final 2 days did this country finally reveal a tapestry of countless beautiful complexities.

Yes, before I go on, I must take a sense of responsibility and acknowledge the inherent dangers that could happen — even the one within a few minutes at the time of writing. However, I also cannot ignore the tens of thousands other minutes and moments where we felt completely safe, privileged to witness a place past the filter of Western media. Where a degree of the negativity bears truth, most of the positivity remains unrecognized. I know I still go to work hearing gunshots outside my ER back home.

To know Afghanistan is to know patience; the first impression can sometimes be the wrong impression. And sometimes the first impressions stick. Either way, you cannot judge a place or a person until you have experienced it for yourself. All I can conclude is that Afghanistan takes its time, lies in wait, rewarding only to those willing to look past the trauma porn of violence and war at its surface. It may take ages, demand repeat viewings, and should never be considered as n simply packaged, single-serving experience.

What I had witnessed this past week was resilience. Resilience in a country and people proud of its deep history — scars and all — while forging ahead towards an uncertain destiny.

 

 

- At time of posting in Kabul, it was 26 °C - Humidity: 16% | Wind Speed: 31km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Class is in Session at the Afghan/Uzbek Border!

Class is in Session at the Afghan/Uzbek Border!

 

Given the Taliban bombing of the mosque at where we were supposed to have lunch at yesterday, we decided to not go to Balkh and instead visit the Uzbek/Afghan border at Hairatan for our last day in the region.

We stopped at an intersection to say hi to a local and very friendly mullah that happened to be in the area. Unfortunately given the difficulty of being lost in translation we didn’t go farther than telling him where we came from:

 

 

After about 1.5 hours of driving, we reached the Hairatan, Afghanistan/Termez, Uzbekistan border between the two countries. You can cross it as a tourist if you have visas for both countries.

 

 

It’s otherwise a very industrial area:

 

 

We were lucky enough to be allowed to visit a primary/elementary school in Hairatan right before afternoon classes were about to start. The following 3 photos are Amanda’s:

 

 

Since Afghanistan is such a young country with so many children and so few school buildings (thanks to the Taliban), some regions in the country have to divide a class day in two separate morning and afternoon sessions.

 

 

We spent a good 45 minutes here hanging out with the kids and helping them practice their English. And by helping them practice their English, I mean being foolish and pretending to be kids ourselves.

They definitely did not want us to leave:

 

 

Afterwards we had some of the best fish of the trip at a local fish restaurant in Hairatan:

 

 

Afterwards we turned back and drove back to Mazar and enjoyed the scenes of life on the road.

 

 

Later in the day we drove up to a military installation:

 

 

Our guide wanted to show us inside a fort that surrounds a cave where 500 Taliban were trapped and killed by General Dostum, a mujahideen warlord and Afghanistan’s current Vice President.

Our guide asked if we could be let inside, but we were denied for obvious reasons and current tensions in the region. Oh well. Not everything goes exactly to plan.

 

 

So we shrugged our shoulders and continued our way home to play more Monopoly Deal.

The next morning we began our return via a 6:30am Kam Air flight back to Kabul.

 

 

Again, like the domestic airport in Kabul, there are numerous security screening checkpoints and also the first time I saw US Army soldiers guarding the departures hall.

There is also a unique area where you line up your bags in a hallway for a bomb-sniffing dog to inspect.

 

 

But otherwise our flight took off on time and everything else has been going smoothly!

 

 

- At time of posting in Hairatan, Afghanistan, it was 31 °C - Humidity: 35% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny, periodic clouds

 

Dodging The Taliban in Samangan

Dodging The Taliban in Samangan

 

Well this just happened; and the Taliban just missed us only by 30 minutes: Bomb blast in Afghan mosque wounds 11 worshippers.

 

 

AhlulBayt News Agency (ABNA): A bomb blast inside a mosque wounded at least 11 people Friday in northern Samangan province, Afghanistan, a provincial official said.

Sediq Azizi, spokesman for the provincial governor, said the blast took place during Friday prayers as dozens gathered in the mosque in Aybak, the provincial capital. He said the prayer leader of the mosque was in critical condition and was transferred to neighboring Balkh province for further treatment.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.

Separately, the Taliban’s shadow governor for eastern Logar province and two deputies were killed in an airstrike, the Afghan Defense Ministry said in a statement. Afghan forces carried out the airstrike Thursday night in Charkh district, it said.

The Taliban made no immediate comment on the attack.

In eastern Ghazni province, Taliban attacked Afghan security checkpoints, killing four police officers, said Arif Noori, provincial governor’s spokesman, AP reported.

Noori said three other forces were wounded and seven Taliban fighters were killed during Thursday night’s battle in Dehyak district.

The Taliban have stepped up attacks across the country as Afghan president Ashraf Ghani visits neighboring Pakistan, where he has praised Pakistan’s efforts to advance the peace process in the region. Ghani has reached out to Islamabad for help in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table with the Kabul government.

Ghani’s first visit to Pakistan since elections brought Prime Minister Imran Khan to power last year is also seen as an attempt by Ghani to reset the often-strained relationship between the two neighbors amid the stalled peace push with the Taliban.

The Taliban have refused to talk directly with Kabul, considering it a US puppet. The insurgents, however, say they will sit down with any Afghan, even a government official, but as an ordinary citizen and not as a government representative.

 

Samangan (formerly known as Eukratidia, Aybak, or Aibak) is a medieval ancient town and major Buddhist centre during the 4th and 5th centuries under the then Kushan rulers. It also happens to be located only 10-15 miles away from Taliban-controlled territories, so our goal was to slip in and out of that area as quickly as possible without drawing any attention.

 

 

To make things more dodgy, we were informed that support also has been recently growing for the Taliban in our area, so we wanted to minimize staying too long anywhere or befriending too many locals. Fair enough.

 

 

There seems to be a surveillance drone here too.

 

 

We drove out at 9:45am to Samangan, first stopping through a few checkpoints screening for Taliban fighters.

 

 

Halfway through we had a rest stop in the middle of the unreal Tashqurghan Gorge:

 

 

After about 2-3 hours of driving from Mazar-i-Sharif, we reached the ruins of Takht-i-rustam, located on a hill above the town. Standing on top here was when I first felt like I was really in Afghanistan.

Our guide Alem got a little nervous that we were presenting ourselves as sitting ducks to the Taliban on top of a naked hill.

 

 

Takht-i-Rustam derives from Rustam, a king in Persian mythology, and is a hilltop settlement dated from the 4th and 5th centuries located 3km southwest of Samangan.

To my left was the actual preserved Buddhist stupa hand carved out of the rock, with the “Harmika” (a building that once held relics of the Buddha) sitting on top:

 

 

You can get right down to the stupa and walk around it.

 

 

Afterwards we walked downhill the steppes towards the mound, aka the monastery complex.

 

 

Th stupa-monastery complex is also fully carved into the mountain rock with five chambers inside.

 

 

2 chambers inside are proper Buddhist sanctuaries, raided thoroughly by the Taliban:

 

 

My favorite was a third chamber with domed ceiling with an intricate lotus leaf beautification that may have had Zoroastrian roots.

 

 

After about 20 minutes here, our local guide began to get nervous that our presence would be reported to the Taliban by curious onlookers. Then to add to his concerns, our driver got a phone call by from a police officer saying they got a report that the Taliban was going to “bomb something.”

So we decided to skip having our planned lunch in Aybak, ran back into our cars, and sped our convoy back to Mazar:

 

 

Outside the city limits of Mazar by the city of Kholm, and in a much safer area, we stopped at an abandoned palace for a quick stretch break and tour:

 

 

The palace has been converted to a de-facto public swimming pool for locals.

 

 

Because we skipped lunch and rushed against time to avoid any chance encounter with the Taliban, we finally had our first meal at the day back in Mazar at 5pm:

 

 

Although the situation seemed nerve-wracking, we did not once notice anything being amiss other than our guide’s slight concern. The checkpoints were pretty expedient, nobody stopped to question us, and there was no increased military presence other than the standard armored truck every few hours.

Still safe and sound at the time of posting!

 

- At time of posting in Aybak, Afghanistan, it was 29 °C - Humidity: 27% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: burning hot

 

12 Strong: Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan

12 Strong: Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan

 

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 39 °C - Humidity: 11% | Wind Speed: 18km/hr | Cloud Cover: burnt to a crisp

 

Afghanistan Beyond Kabul: The Panjshir Valley

Afghanistan Beyond Kabul: The Panjshir Valley

 

 

After 2 days in Kabul (which for security purposes I’ll post about after our last day there), we set out for Panjshir Valley, which has been regarded by locals as the most beautiful place in Afghanistan by locals.

 

 

We drove by numerous small villages bustling with life along the way that reminded me of my drives through Pakistan, except with a lot more military checkpoints.

 

 

We also saw tons of tank graveyards of former Soviet tanks that have been partially destroyed or left behind.

 

 

It appears as if nobody cares if you make these war relics your personal playground. Just make sure your tetanus is up to date.

 

 

After about 2 hours of driving, we arrived at a checkpoint where he handed in our passports for inspection before continuing on after 10 minutes of waiting.

 

 

Tons of memorials to Mujahideen commanders decorate this place.

 

 

After another 30-45 mintues of driving down the valley we finally stopped at the tomb of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Lion of the Panjshir, the hero of Afghanistan, and probably the most universally revered Mujahideen commander.

 

 

You can find the outhouse with the best view of Afghanistan here:

 

 

For lunch, we enjoyed seafood at a local fish restaurant on the banks of the fast moving Panjshir River.

 

 

Afterwards we kept driving onwards into the evening (due to the security situation we can’t say where).

 

 

 

- At time of posting in Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan, it was 14 °C - Humidity: 58% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny and clear

 

So I’m In Kabul, Afghanistan Right Now… (Updated July 1, 2019)

So I’m In Kabul, Afghanistan Right Now… (Updated July 1, 2019)

 

(Given the ever-changing security situation here, this post will be updated as circumstances develop so check back often)

 

Travel Warnings

A helpful warning as I set off for Kabul today:

Do not travel to Afghanistan due to crime, terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping, and armed conflict

 

Travel to all areas of Afghanistan is unsafe because of critical levels of kidnappings, hostage taking, suicide bombings, widespread military combat operations, landmines, and terrorist and insurgent attacks, including attacks using vehicle-borne, magnetic, or other improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide vests, and grenades.  

 

Terrorist and insurgent groups continue planning and executing attacks in Afghanistan.  These attacks occur with little or no warning, and have targeted official Afghan and U.S. government convoys and facilities, local government buildings, foreign embassies, military installations, commercial entities, non-governmental organization (NGO) offices, hospitals, residential compounds, tourist locations, transportation hubs, public gatherings, markets and shopping areas, places of worship, restaurants, hotels, universities, airports, schools, gymnasiums, and other locations frequented by U.S. citizens and other foreign nationals.

 

The U.S. Embassy’s ability to provide routine and emergency services to U.S. citizens in Afghanistan is severely limited, particularly outside of Kabul. Evacuation options from Afghanistan are extremely limited due to the lack of infrastructure, geographic constraints, and the volatile security situation.

 

Family members cannot accompany U.S. government employees who work in Afghanistan.  Unofficial travel to Afghanistan by U.S. government employees and their family members is restricted and requires prior approval from the Department of State.  U.S. Embassy personnel are restricted from traveling to all locations in Kabul except the U.S. Embassy and other U.S. government facilities unless there is a compelling U.S. government interest in permitting such travel that outweighs the risk.  Additional security measures are needed for any U.S. government employee travel and movement through Afghanistan.

 

Due to risks to civil aviation operating within or in the vicinity of Afghanistan, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) and/or a Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR). For more information, U.S. citizens should consult the Federal Aviation Administration’s Prohibitions, Restrictions and Notices.

 

Yep, even 5 hours ago after arriving and driving around something just happened here:

 

 

But to be perfectly honest, we drove right by this police convoy that was apprehending the Taliban and we heard no commotion whatsoever. Just a lot of cars honking in a typical traffic jam.

In fact, other than the usual security precautions of not posting until after we left the place  — and an attack a few minutes ago on our very last day here (more on that later) — my entire week at Afghanistan personally felt completely safe and remarkably uneventful. Tourists are never a target. The locals have been friendly, the sights have been beautiful, and all in all, not once did I ever feel the least bit of worried for my well-being during my time here.

Except for a handful of minutes on my last day in the country, the most surprising thing about Afghanistan was how normal it felt to be here.

 

Arriving (The Airport)

On Monday I took the 2.5 hour Emirates EK640 flight from Dubai to Kabul departing at 11:10am:

 

 

As we approached our landing:

 

 

We disembarked at 2:30pm.

 

 

Unlike obtaining my visa for Afghanistan, getting through immigrations took less than 5 minutes. They simply take a photo of you and your fingerprints.

 

 

Given the understandable security situation in this part of the world, I was instructed to obtain a temporary ID card from the small blue booth facing baggage claims. I had prepared two 2×2 passport photos ahead of time so I could expedite everything.

 

 

However, it occurred to me I would be the only one in the group to have this ID card as everyone else reported that the booth was closed when they arrived.

 

 

Once I had my temporary ID card (which took 3 minutes for them to make), I left the terminal, turned left and followed the rest of my fellow passengers.

 

 

Non-flyers are not allowed into the terminal building so I had to leave the airport entirely to reach my greeters and guides who had a sign with my name and his own special ID card with clearance to be there.

I had mistakenly wandered into the diplomatic area first, but it seemed nobody cared about my presence before I re-entered the airport and exited the normal way.

 

 

And with that I was on my way!

 

 

Money

Regarding money, there are a number of moneychangers within two minutes walk of our guesthouse that changed USD to local Afghanis at a good rate at 80 to 1.

It is recommended that you bring all the cash you need for a time exchange; ATMs are understandably scarce and the existing ATMs usually never work…except for a few that I found in hidden grocery stores!

 

 

Food & Drink

We chose lunch and dinner at various heavily guarded restaurants during the day as our guide arranged everything ahead of time. Afghan cuisine has been a clear intersection of recognizable Persian/Iranian and Pakistani staples.

Alcohol is obviously banned and is difficult and expensive to find.

 

 

My favorite place was a café called Tea Time that served great shisha, fantastic food, and even better tea and fresh mango juice:

 

 

Much to my surprise, the entire group generally has been feeling fine the entire week with Afghan cuisine. There has been one exception of someone who vomited once on day one and felt fine since, and another whose diet simply couldn’t get used to the change in Mazar-e Sharif. I’ve been totally fine despite me eating everything in sight; TMI, but so far not a single episode of diarrhea!

 

Lodging/Power

I recommend choosing a hotel/accommodations that’s NOT The Inter-continental, The Serena, or any of the world-class hotels that are frequently targeted by terrorist groups. We’re staying at a secure hotel complex and conference center inside the Kabul city center but it’s completely hidden away by tall walls and unmarked doors. 

I can’t tell you where we are exactly to preserve the safety of future travelers (it doesn’t even have an official name or show up on Google Maps!), but you can privately message me if interested. 

In fact our hotel is so secure that a TV crew came by after our breakfast to set up a shoot here for a broadcast on government-sponsored female contraceptives!

Power was also pretty reliable in Afghanistan. Other than a rolling blackout that happened once or twice (and was barely noticeable), everything was chargeable. I barely used my portable charger at all this past week.

At least most hotels have great WiFi if anyone wants to stay connected; in our rooms I was able to upload photos at 4G/LTE speeds!

 

 

Cultural Faux Pax

As we arrived, we were given our choice of clothing. As Afghanistan remains a conservative Islamic country, women are required to wear a headscarf and long sleeved clothing that obfuscate the shape of their bodies. Men wear long trousers. Luckily given the weather, Afghan clothes are light and breathe very well.

When I got my clothes, they felt so light and freeing I wore the same outfit everyday for a week.

 

 

Despite hearing of the infamous conservatism, we found Afghans to be extremely forgiving for any cultural faux pas. There are a few following things we made sure to do, however:

  • Always ask before taking photos, especially regarding to women and people praying
  • Asian households! Take off you shoes if entering a mosque or someone’s house. Hold soles together.
  • Never walk in front of someone if they are praying.
  • Never directly expose the bottom of your feet to anyone
  • Don’t talk too loudly
  • If you are of the male persuasion then do not start talking to/interacting with local women unless they approach you first.

 

 

Security and Safety

Yes, to get this out of the way: As I’m writing this a few explosions just occurred within our vicinity a few km away (it’s already on the news). Still hearing some gunfire in the distance where the plumes of smoke are.

 

 

We just went up to the rooftop to take a look:

 

 

What is remarkable is how the hotel staff and even some of the people in our group remain so blasé right now as if we had heard a car accident just happened a few blocks away. We’ve been here a little over a week and the desensitization is very real, even though nothing close to this has happened during our 7-8 days here. We even went out for lunch outside an hour later. As our guide informed us, most of the attacks occur between 7am-10am at the same places to target the morning commutes of VIPs and foreign workers. Tourists are never a target.

And regarding overall security and safety, the areas we otherwise have been visiting in Afghanistan are where our guides feel comfortable that they can take us without any unforeseen or undue risk. There really have been no other incidents.

On another note, narcotic drug use is unfortunately publicly rampant on the streets of Kabul. The users tend to keep to themselves, so they won’t bother you if you don’t bother them.

 

 

FYI, speaking of security you will always notice the 24/7 all-seeing surveillance blimp (aka the “dirigible“) the USA has set up over Kabul:

 

 

The following things are important should you find yourself visiting Kabul at this time:

  • Never discuss your itinerary or name of hotel with anyone you meet. While the question may arise in curiosity, please keep the schedule to as few people as possible as a precaution
  • Never take photos of any military personal, vehicles or installations.
  • Take early starts on the days if you plan to travel long distances. In the case of a breakdown, you do not want to be stuck on the road after dark.
  • Register with your foreign office. If you go to your countries foreign office website there is usually a form you can complete to let them know where you are. This is so if there are any problems and you need their help, your embassy will be much more helpful if you have registered with them
  • If you get invites for tea or for dinner from people, which is one of the great things about visiting Afghanistan, stay cautious. Follow your guide’s lead if he feels taking up such an invite may be inappropriate
  • Watch and listen to your guide. He has a lot of experience in Afghanistan and may see signs that things are not as they should be before you do.
  • If you disagree with your guide, the time to argue and discuss what to do is later in the hotel. So if your guide asks you to do something, do it and then argue about it later.

 

 

Military Presence

They may be everywhere, but they’re not menacing. Most are local Afghani troops and police forces. I only noticed coalition/Western forces stationed at the airports and inside bases.

 

 

Nevertheless, get used to the sound of Osprey/Chinook helicopters every 5 minutes and the constant traffic jams due to military and police checkpoints at the roundabouts.

 

 

Packing

This was my packing list (and this is overdoing it):

  • Comfortable clothes for wearing around the hotels
  • Conservative, loose fitting clothes for when you first arrive (or buy them on day one)
  • Headscarves for women
  • Plastic carrier bags. Very useful for dirty washing, dirty shoes, rubbish and keeping stuff dry.
  • Spare passport photos for use at the borders
  • Flashlight
  • Flip flops/thongs for bathrooms
  • Small packs of tissues and wet wipes
  • Money belt or secure pouch
  • Sunscreen
  • Sewing kit
  • Sunglasses
  • Writing materials
  • Plenty of spare film or memory space
  • Some small gifts can be nice as presents
  • Umbrella or Keffiyeh for small bouts of rain
  • Towel

 

 

What To Visit

That said, what did we see in Kabul? There’s so much! On my first day arriving when I bought some local clothes to blend in, I found myself at a street shop outside the largest mosque in Kabul, built 6 years ago.

 

 

We then strolled down Chicken Street, formerly the most hip place in town and more notoriously the site of the recent Taliban ambulance bombing on January 27, 2018 that killed 103 people and wounded 235 others.

 

 

Now you can’t tell if anything ever had happened here:

 

 

There are street shops here selling everything a tourist would want in souvenirs including this gem:

 

 

In fact we walked up and down this street more than one occasion each for an hour doing some shopping. Locals greeted us without a care, we wandered in shops without feeling the pressure to buy anything, and perhaps the most dangerous thing that happened to us on the trip were cute children following us down asking us to spare a few Afghanis.

 

 

If you hike up to any viewpoint, you can’t miss the sprawling USA embassy:

 

 

A few times we drove past the Shah-Do Shamshira Mosque, built during the time of Amanullah Khan and unique for its significant European influence in its architecture:

 

 

This site is unfortunately the site where the murder of Farkhunda Malikzada took place; a woman was falsely accused of burning the Quran by a mullah, leading to a crowd of Islamic extremists lynching her. She was beaten, stoned, run over and dragged 300 feet by a car, before being set on fire by the banks of the Kabul River. Her death would lead to the formation of the modern women’s rights movement in Afghanistan.

A memorial to her has been built nearby:

 

 

We also visited the Kabul museum, largely restored after its demolition by the Taliban:

 

 

We paid our respects at the British cemetery, home to hundreds of foreign nationals who died in Afghanistan (The USA have their own private cemetery but that’s restricted access).

 

 

One of my favorite sites in Kabul was the Bird Market, arguably the most dodgy part of the city for tourists since there are reportedly many Taliban sympathizers here, but we felt fine shopping here for clothes in the frenetic frenzy of locals around us.

 

 

We drove up to the hills of Bibi Mahru that overlook the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, where the novel The Kite Runner took place:

 

 

The country’s largest flag, donated by a joint venture between India and Pakistan, sits on top:

 

 

There is unfortunately a well known (for the wrong reasons) swimming pool here where the Taliban executed their prisoners by pushing them off the diving boards:

 

 

That said, if you’re into this kind of morbid stuff, we drove by the infamous football/soccer stadium numerous times:

 

 

Driving back down into the city we took photos of the remains of Darul Aman Palace, “the dwelling-place of peace,” a crumbling symbol of what was once supposed to be the modern future of the country.

 

 

When we returned to Kabul after 3 days in Mazari Sharif, we finished off our sightseeing in Babur’s Gardens – the final resting place of the first Mughal emperor:

 

 

The Qale’H-Ye-Balahissar, an ancient fortress dating from the 5th century AD.

 

 

The OMAR landmine museum, dedicated to the still continuing efforts to remove the hundreds of landmines in this country. It unfortunately shares the space with a television studio constantly threatened and attacked by the Taliban.

We had a close call here as it’s been just attacked by the Taliban again today, literally the morning after we had visited. Yikes.

 

 

The Mausoleum of Zahir Shah:

 

 

The views from here are some of the best:

 

 

The Shah M Book Company, run by a Norwegian book collector who curates a wide and diverse collection on paraphernalia and books pertaining to Afghanistan including controversial items that the Taliban would consider pornography. Photos are not allowed here as he already had to move numerous times after constant threats and attacks:

 

 

And the one of the most surreal, batshit but positive moments of my week in Afghanistan: a brief 10 minute visit to Zablon Simintov, the last remaining Jew living in Afghanistan and the caretaker of the only synagogue in Kabul.

His wikipedia and Atlas Obscura entries are incredible.

 

 

You have to find his hidden synagogue somewhere behind a shisha café and up the stairs on the second floor:

 

 

He speaks no English so we had to use a mixture of basic Russian, Hebrew, and Dari. Eventually for a fee he agreed to open up his synagogue for a visit:

 

 

Oddly he always asks for payment for to be in his company but otherwise to be inside a hidden synagogue and seeing Stars of David everywhere after a week in a place like Afghanistan was a true shock and humble privilege.

 

 

Final Thoughts (Addendum on July 1st, 2019)

Because for security reasons I chose to post this on my last day in Kabul, and especially given that just as I finished writing this we heard a series of explosions and sporadic gunfire occurring a few kilometers away from our hotel, I’m writing this both from the perspective of my first and last day in Afghanistan after 7 days here. And although it took awhile, Afghanistan surprised me in ways I could not expect.

I expected to be throttled, shocked and awed, stumbling to the ground believing it would be a feverish experience from the moment I arrived. Instead pleasant surprise prevailed. Walking on the streets of Kabul on my first day felt immediately comfortable and familiar, and I never once experienced any sense of heightened tensions I had been warned to expect. At many moments I felt like I was back in Pakistan, gallivanting without a care other than the occasional tout and curious child. Like our initial concerns coming here, even military forces soon evaporated within the din of rush hour traffic.

Then I traveled to Mazar-e Sharif, Samangan, and Hairatan for 3 days — and despite the reported threat of the Taliban lurking around the corner — Afghanistan’s ocean of grandeur remained in wait, its beauty slowly unraveling like the beginning of an epic tale. Not until my return to Kabul for my final 2 days did this country finally reveal a tapestry of countless beautiful complexities.

Yes, before I go on, I must take a sense of responsibility and acknowledge the inherent dangers that could happen — even the one within a few minutes at the time of writing. However, I also cannot ignore the tens of thousands other minutes and moments where we felt completely safe, privileged to witness a place past the filter of Western media. Where a degree of the negativity bears truth, most of the positivity remains unrecognized. I know I still go to work hearing gunshots outside my ER back home.

To know Afghanistan is to know patience; the first impression can sometimes be the wrong impression. And sometimes the first impressions stick. Either way, you cannot judge a place or a person until you have experienced it for yourself. All I can conclude is that Afghanistan takes its time, lies in wait, rewarding only to those willing to look past the trauma porn of violence and war at its surface. It may take ages, demand repeat viewings, and should never be considered as n simply packaged, single-serving experience.

What I had witnessed this past week was resilience. Resilience in a country and people proud of its deep history — scars and all — while forging ahead towards an uncertain destiny.

 

 

- At time of posting in Kabul, Afghanistan, it was 13 °C - Humidity: 41% | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy