So, we made it to Kabul, we had found our driver, and it was time for the adventure to begin. First impression heading out of the airport was how relatively “normal” things seemed. No large-scale obvious military presence, and things in the city seemed more typical developing-world-run-down than war-scarred. This part if the report is going to get a bit long, but I figured there’s not much out there about Afghanistan so I wanted to share more details than normal
First stop was at the offices of the tour company we had arranged things with. Afghanistan being more than a little bit of the tourist track these days we’d decided to leave the arrangements to Afghan Logistics. Only thing I’ll say here is that I have nothing but good things to say about their services. If anyone wants more details, feel free to message. So, off to their office not far from the airport where our driver passed us off to the guy who would be our driver and guide for the duration of our time in Afghanistan. A quick swap of cars, and we were off to our first stop: lunch.
I have to admit, searching the web before the trip led me to believe there were two types of restaurants in Kabul: expat haunts (including supposedly at least one Mexican restaurant) and “local” places. It was clearly the second type that we were going to be experiencing…which was great. Having no clue what to order, we put ourselves at the mercy of our guide. What showed up wasn’t too much of a surprises…kebabs – lamb and chicken, with a huge portion of what’s variously known as plov / pilaf / etc in different parts of the world. Basically rice mixed with a few nuts, maybe some raisins, spices, etc.
Now, local places are great because they give you a good sense of a place. However, often, hygiene standards can be…um…a bit lower than in the west. For example, a couple years ago in Bangladesh, we were concerned with the dive we ended up at, but the food was amazing and tasty, and concerns faded…until we made the mistake of using the restrooms…which involved passing through the kitchen…where a gaggle of Bangladeshi women were seated on the less-than-clean floor pulling chicken from carcasses with their hands and throwing it in pots. Somehow…we made it with no illness. Matter of fact, the worst food poisoning I ever had (and it happened twice) was at the Shangri La Hotel in Bangkok. Go figure.
So, back to the local Kabul Kebab Shop. Immediately, the place reminded me of the restaurants we’d found in Erbil, Iraq the year before. Decorated with a mixture of Koranic art, calendars on the walls, Santa Claus figurines, “Happy New Years” banners, and Christmas lights. Oh, complete with the local version of Iraqi Idol or Dancing with the Afghan Stars on the tv in the corer at too high of volume. I’ve taken to calling this style of decorating “Post-Conflict Chic.” There’s just no other way to explain it.
After lunch, it was time to start the sightseeing. Stop number one was to be the Afghan National Museum. That was to wait, however, because it appeared that despite being after opening time, the staff simply had not shown up yet to open it according to the security guard. “No problem” said the guide – we’ll just WALK to the next site. Now, part of the reason we arranged a guide/guard/driver was due to the less than stellar security situation in Afghanistan…and the first thing we were going to do involved walking a kilometer or so through Kabul. Well, when in Rome…
The walk uphill was quick and soon we were at the Darul Aman Palace. It was built in the 1920s for King Amanullah and has definitely seen better days. It was destroyed over and over, most recently by the Soviets, and then the Taliban, and then supposedly by the Americans. The building is still standing, but as the pics show it’s definitely hard to imagine its former grandeur.
After an hour or so of walking around the grounds we were back down the hill, and into the now-open Afghan National Museum. I’ve been to many developing country museums which range from amusing propaganda palaces in North Korea, Belarus, and Vietnam to much more modest collections in other places. It was sad, however, to see the damage that years of war have done to Afghan treasures. There were several interesting pieces, many of which had clearly been smashed and reconstructed. Part of this can be attributed to the Taliban destroying ancient Buddhist treasures, and unfortunately looting has also taken a severe toll. The building itself was in pretty poor repair as well. For the 90 minutes or so we were in the museum, we didn’t see a single other tourist – local or international. Come to think of it, I don’t recall seeing an international tourist (except Tajiks, Uzbeks, Pakistanis, etc) the entire trip.
Next stop on the city tour was the Babur Gardens. On the way here, we saw the first obvious sign that this is still a conflict zone. A giant U.S. Military Convoy barreling down the streets, weapons aimed in every direction. Needless to say, it was given a wide berth by everyone on the streets.
The Babur Gardens was an oasis of green in an otherwise very dusty Kabul. On a side note, wearing black sneakers to Afghanistan isn’t the greatest idea. They and every other piece of clothing we were wearing would be COVERED in dust by the time we got back to the hotel at night. The Babur Gardens are built on a hillside around the tomb of Emperor Babur who was the first Mughal emperor. He’d originally been buried in Agra, India (of Taj Mahal fame) but was dug up at some point and relocated to Kabul.
The next stop was at “TV Hill.” Until we got there, we couldn’t understand what the guide was trying to tell us this place was called. Only upon getting to the top of the hill/mountain did we realize it was called TV Hill because it was covered in broadcast towers, and offered an amazing view down below over the entire city. The towers were protected by what our guide insisted were “Afghan Police” but based on the southern accents and heavy weapons they were pretty clearly some private U.S. military outfit.
Last stop for the city tour was the hill near the Olympic Stadium where dozens of people gather every day to simply fly kites. It was a strange scene of normal in a city that otherwise had seemed everything but. We walked around here, and there was a vendor selling corn which everyone seemed to be buying. Our guide got some for himself, but told us not to have any because it is “not suitable for westerners.” Hmmmm.
It was off to the hotel to check in and unpack a bit before getting dinner. We had chosen to spend the extra to stay at the Serena Hotel, which is known to be the most well-fortified hotel in the city. Cars could only get into the courtyard after going through two sets of blast doors, and getting a complete check in between the doors by armed guards. The hotel itself seemed incredibly empty (I guess there’s not much NGO traffic over New Year’s holidays) and yet we ended up with a room facing the busy main street in front of the hotel. The hotel was the target of a January 2008 Taliban bombing, so we were just hoping that lightening didn’t strike twice. The hotel was basic, but perfectly clean and acceptable.
Our driver picked us up a couple hours later, and it was off to another restaurant for dinner. Walking inside we walked past giant grills which were set up out front grilling…what else…kebabs! Dinner was exactly the same as lunch, although the pilaf was slightly different. Our guide kept trying to explain the intricacies and difference between the kebabs, but honestly I couldn’t tell. They were both good though, and there was plenty more post-conflict chic to be had. Complete with wandering book vendors, which seemed to go door to door with a pile of well-read paperbacks which a surprising number of diners (our guide included) would buy. Back to the hotel after more kebabs and time to rest for the next day’s big adventure – a drive out of Kabul into the Panjshir Valley.
The next morning it was up early and to the hotel buffet breakfast. I was quite impressed with the spread the hotel put out – everything from eggs, to pastries, to afghan dishes…oh yes, and there were kebabs as well, don’t worry. Driver picked us up at around 9 and it was into the maddening Kabul traffic. Past the very well-guarded U.S. Embassy we crawled in traffic until we finally broke free from Kabul over an hour later. It seemed there is really only one road to the north out of town, and the entire city was funneling into it.
Once we were clear of the city the first thing you’d notice is destroyed Soviet tanks all over the place on the side of the road. This was the primary route the Soviets took when they left Afghanistan, and all the signs of a quick retreat were there. We passed through many small cities over the next couple of hours until we got to the entrance to the Panjshir Valley. There’s only one road in and out of the Valley, which is why it became the stronghold of the Northern Alliance in the days of the Soviet occupation and later the Tabliban. Shah Massood’s Northern Alliance controlled the way in and out, and neither the Taliban nor the Soviets were never able to gain a serious foothood here. There was a document check at the entrance to the Valley, and then we were in.
We drove about an hour into the valley, where we arrived at the Tomb of Shah Massoud. Set high on a mountain it has become a place of pilgrimage and it felt quite awkward being at the Tomb and snapping pictures while large groups prayed at his tomb. The area surrounding the tomb contains Massoud’s collection of cars, as well as several Soviet tanks and other vehicles he had “personally” destroyed.
We wound our way back out of the valley, and all the way back our driver couldn’t stop talking about the wonderful “fish restaurant” he was taking us to for late lunch. The restaurant was set on the side of a river near Bagram and the edge of the Bagram base was visible in the near distance. Several soldiers could be seen in the base’s towers while we ate, and we were definitely being watched through binoculars as we ate.
The owner of the “fish restaurant” was a friend of the guide, and soon a plastic tarp was rolled out on the ground and food started being brought out and put on it. There we sat, on the side of the river, next to a U.S. Air Force base, eating food off a plastic tarp. Doesn’t get much more fun than that! So what did the famous “fish restaurant” serve? Well it started with…I know you’re going to be shocked…more kebabs!
The “fish restaurant” finally lived up to it’s name when a large plate of small grilled fish showed up. They were a bit bigger than sardines, and the instruction was to just “eat all of it.” Skin, small bones, and all. They were actually quite tasty, I mean, everything tastes better when grilled over an open fire.
After lunch it was back into the city to find somewhere we could buy postcards. We ended up at a small bookstore, where the owner explained (via our guide translating) how he had buried all his books under the Taliban and only recently had been able to reopen his store. We got the postcards and some stamps (and come to think of it – I’m not sure the post cards ever made it out of Afghanistan) and headed back to the hotel to rest before dinner.
Our guide first suggested dinner at the seem kebaberie as the night before, but we asked him to try somewhere new. We drove into the very dark outskirts of the city, and stopped at a place that didn’t look like it was open – and it was freezing inside. We found seats in cushions on the floor and then…the kebabs started arriving. Having had enough of kebabs, we searched the menu which had English, and asked the guide to order something that was only described as “traditional Afghanistan famous food.” When it showed it it was basically cabbage wrapped around ground lamb and filled with a bit of a tomato-type sauce. Pretty tasty – and the small change was nice.
Before dropping us off for the night, our guide introduced us to the driver who would be taking us to the airport in the morning since you don’t just want to be jumping in cars with random folks in Kabul. The trip back to the airport was uneventful, and it was time to begin the next part of the adventure:
Part V. KBL-SHJ on Air Arabia and taxi to Abu Dhabi, otherwise known as “Bree Van de Kamp and Gabrielle Solis go to Kabul.”