Yesterday morning after arriving into Rwanda, Evan and I debated back and forth whether to rent a car for Rwanda. The signs were also pointing to no: the cheaper agency (Eagle) didn’t have one while the other (Europcar) was too expensive despite trying to haggle it down. Our UAE hosts Sean and Chelsea also had told us not to bother with a rental and enjoy the thrill of riding on moto-taxis instead.
We came so close to deciding against renting that we were just about to get into a taxi before the Europcar agent came running down to us giving us the exact discounted price that I wanted. Fate?
Apparently so; that rental car would later be our ticket for an unforeseen and spontaneous trip to Uganda the next day.
So after exploring nearly all of Kigali yesterday, we figured we could take it easy on our second day in Rwanda. But last night before heading to bed we quickly made a friend at our hostel in Tom Karrell, who happened to be visiting Kigali with friends from his home base in Uganda. At his suggestion for what to do on our second day, and spurred on by Evan’s new lease on the spontaneous travel life, Evan and I decided with this rental car we could drive the next morning 2 hours up north to the Rwanda/Uganda border to have lunch at Lake Bunyonyi.
As we began our drive up at 8am, Rwanda’s ubiquitous cleanliness even outside Kigali never ceases to amaze me:
The nature outside our window also wasn’t too shabby:
As we approached the border, Evan and I were stopped for a routine security check by highway police. They would find out our rental car had expired insurance and registration papers but still let us on our way. Thanks Rwanda!
We arrived at the Gatuna border post 2 hours later on schedule at around 10am.
As we approached, our clocks soon automatically switched an hour ahead to Ugandan time at 11am.
Once at the first post on the Rwandan side, we got an exit stamp here. That took a mere 5 minutes.
Then we walked across to the adjacent Customs office to get our exit papers for our rental car.
Even though the car rental papers indicated that we can’t take our vehicle across borders, it seemed that nobody cared.
After 10 minutes here, we were allowed to drive the 1 minute stretch across no man’s land
Now at the Ugandan side of the border, swarms of money changers arrived for our business, which we declined. Having nowhere to park, however, we took turns getting our entry stamp at the Ugandan border office.
The visa stamp into Uganda costs $50 USD (cash only). Evan also went to another office to register our vehicle and all in all this process took us about 15 minutes in total.
After only 30 minutes of border logistics, we were well on our way into Uganda! FYI, they switch the driving to the left side of the road in Uganda (it’s right in Rwanda), so Evan had to now drive on the same side as the driver’s side.
So we headed onwards into the town of Kabale.
As we reached Kabale, we drove off onto a bumpy unpaved road towards the lake.
Nobody seemed to mind our dinky little Toyota Carolla rental struggling hard down the path.
After 20 minutes swerving down some hills towards the lake, we finally reached Birdnest Resort where we gave our car a much needed break.
Even though we were not guests, the staff were happy to accommodate us here for a long, lazy lunch by the lake. And so we did.
After about an hour taking it all in quietly, we then made the uneventful return drive back towards Rwanda.
The border crossing back into Rwanda is exactly the same but in reverse, with the exception of a Rwandan border official checking your temperature for Ebola:
(thanks Evan for taking this sneaky photo as I was being questioned by the police for taking photos of my own)
We also paid another $30 USD for the entry fee back into Rwanda, which we expected. Along with the Ugandan visa, the total cost of this little trip: $80 USD.
What I found amusing was that none of the border guards seemed surprised at our quick turnaround as it appears a bunch of other tourists have done similar day trips before.
After crossing, Evan then put pedal to the metal, bringing down what was supposed to be a 2 hour drive into an hour and 20 minutes! We would make it just in time for our 3:30pm massage at Zenora Wellness Center.
- At time of posting in Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda, it was 20 °C -
Humidity: 53% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
After a week in Afghanistan and a sobering day in Kabul, it’s definitely time to get out of harm’s way and return home. There’s no need to exacerbate the situation by lingering during what will be another tense period in Kabul.
On our way back, Evan and I decided to spend 3 days in Rwanda as one of the cheapest itineraries back to NYC.
Why Rwanda? Well, imagine a country to boldly become the first in the world to ban plastic bags, and where the last weekend of every month requires one person from every household to help clean the neighborhood and then use that time to discuss community events. Imagine a country that has reeled from a genocide that killed 70% of an ethnic population to become one of the fastest growing economies in modern history, all the while boasting low corruption compared with its neighbors and becoming one of only two countries with a female majority in the national parliament.
Security and safety are prevalent — every mall, hotel, and restaurant requires airport-level screening — even though there is no active threat like there was in Afghanistan. It may still be a work in progress and its leadership may still have its controversies regarding political suppression but so does Wakanda. But am I talking about Wakanda?
Rwanda comes pretty close!
Look at how clean these streets are. This was everywhere we went:
So from Kabul, Evan D., Amanda and I boarded a 1.5 hour Flydubai flight FZ 306 at 6:15pm, landing in Dubai at 8:45pm where we met back up with our UAE host Sean and Evan K., another friend we met on the Afghanistan trip (who had left a few hours earlier), at a swanky hookah bar in Dubai called QD’s.
There we decompressed about our trip to Afghanistan until Evan D and I said our goodbyes and caught our connecting 6 hour Rwandair flight WB 305 to Kigali at 1:55am, landing at 6:00am.
I even got in a good full night’s rest while on the flight!
At the airport Evan and I debated whether to rent a car, eventually relenting after haggling our agent down to a decent rate.
We then drove over into the city and dropped off our stuff at our lodgings at Mijo Hostel.
Now I don’t usually comment on lodgings, but this has got to be one of the best designed free-standing hostels I’ve ever been to:
I even left a little message there, just like old times back in Punta Cana, DR:
After a lazy coffee at the hostel and breakfast at nearby Java House, we headed northwest to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, a sobering tribute to victims of the Rwandan genocide where an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans and up to 70% of the Tutsi population were killed.
Free admission but the introductory 10 minute video is required before entering.
I wrote about this back when I visited Tuong Sleng and the Killing Fields in Cambodia: Conceptualize the notion where 70-80% of the ordinary everyday people you meet in an entire country is a survivor of genocide. This museum puts that very fact into perspective. Everyone here has lost someone close to them.
After an hour here we drove further south, paying our respects at Hôtel des Mille Collines aka the “Hotel Rwanda” famous for sheltering 1268 people during the genocide.
The story of the hotel and its manager at that time, Paul Rusesabagina, was later used as the basis of Terry George’s film Hotel Rwanda in 2004.
Afterwards we drove further south to the highly effective Belgian Peacekeepers Memorial, dedicated to the 10 Belgian soldiers who were captured and hacked to death by the presidential guard during the initial events of the genocide.
If you’re not yet overwhelmed, there’s are 3 more memorial to the genocide south of Kigali. The closest is 20 minutes away at the Nyanza Genocide Memorial Centre. Admission is free.
Ntarama Genocide Memorial is another 20 minutes south of Nyanza. They require that you go on a compulsory 20 minute tour at reception but like all the genocide memorials, there is no admission fee.
It’s the piled up clothing of the dead here that really hits hard for me:
Then finally at the end of the road another 20 minutes away, we visited the Nyamata Genocide Memorial.
As it was not even close to evening yet, we drove the hour up north back towards Kigali, heading to the Rwanda Art Museum by the airport. It’s famous for housing the debris of the plane crash that killed both the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda that sparked the beginning of the 1994 genocide.
It closes at 6pm so we had 20 minutes to spare when we arrived. Entry fee is 10,000 Rwandan Francs and photography is strictly prohibited. They really watch you like hawks.
Then heading west, we stopped by for a wander at Kimironko Market north of the airport.
And finally after sundown, I was recommended to try the roasted goat ribs at Royal Car Wash:
After dinner, we returned to the hostel where we met Tom Karrell, a fellow American visiting Rwanda with friends for the week from his home base in Uganda. After an hour speaking with him and at his suggestion, Evan and I decided the next morning at 8am to drive the 2 hours up north to the Rwanda/Uganda border just to have lunch at scenic Lake Bunyonyi. That post is here: U-“Gone”-Da in 60 Seconds!
When Evan and I floored our back back to Kigali at 3:30pm, we both made it just in time to a well-deserved 1.5 hour massage at Zenora Wellness Center for 50,000 RWF. You can book ahead online on their website here.
Then we drove over 5 minutes to take a peek at the art exhibits at Inema Arts Centre.
While there, we were recommended to come here on Thursday nights as they throw a huge art gallery party featuring the artists along with drinks, BBQ, and a DJ for a crowd of 300-400 locals and expats.
Afterwards we then killed time with some tea and coffee on top of a library at the swanky Innovation Village (aka Shokola Storytellers Café):
After an hour here, we headed to the airport to return our car. On our way back, we finally hailed the thrilling moto-taxis for 1000 RWF for dinner at Sundowners.
Once again, I had the roasted goat. And it was divine.
And to make things even more interesting, we would happen to be in Rwanda on July 4th, their annual liberation day that formally recognized the end of the Genocide when the Rwanda Patriotic Front regained control of the country.
From Kigali to Addis Ababa (No In-Flight Entertainment systems!):
The Cloud Nine Business Class Lounge at Addis Ababa was also so crowded!
But they do offer special ceremonial Ethiopian coffee here near the entrance, which I thought was a nice touch.
Thank goodness for business class as I was able to skip the lengthy security lines for the USA/Canada/Israel flights (Gates 23-26):
But be forewarned, some people will try to jack the business class line without having their tickets checked so be aggressive in holding your spot on the line.
Flight ET 500 from Addis Ababa (ADD) to Washington DC (IAD) includes a 45 refueling stop in Dublin in the middle (An 8 hour flight and 7 hour flight respectively for each leg), so wherever you sit should be like a home away from home.
I snagged seat 1A (luckily seat 1B next to me was also empty, so I had the whole first row to myself!):
The amenities kit has your standard toiletries set, skimpy eye mask, foam earplugs, socks, a pen, foldable comb, lip balm, and toothpicks:
Where the IFE left much to be desired, they fed me A LOT on both flights: Light snack, dinner, and breakfast for the first leg from ADD to DUB, then a hot canapé and a 3 course lunch on the second leg from DUB to IAD.
My favorite was the local Ethiopian set where you get to choose from a variety of delightful local Ethiopian dishes on a cart complete with their special soft Injera sour flatbread:
After 16 hours in the air and sleeping for 10 hours of it, I landed 10 minutes early in IAD at 8:10am.
With a 9 hour layover before my final leg back to NYC, I messaged everyone I knew who would be free to meet up. Guess who ended up answering the call? Anya Solovyeva whom I first met back at our hostel in Baku, Azerbaijan 10 months ago!
Now I’m waiting on my final leg home where there’s a total ground stop to LGA. I figure of all the delays to experience on this entire trip, it would be the domestic one back home. First world problems.
- At time of posting in Kigali, Rwanda, it was 21 °C -
Humidity: 62% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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