Impressions of Afghanistan

Our first couchsurfing host was a 21 year old married man, living with his mother, wife, son, brother, 3 sisters, step-father, and some other cousins and extended family. One day we accompanied his older sister to school, where 650 of the 1000 enrolled students were female. Girls and boys only mix in the kindergarten classrooms, and the rest of the school day is split up – girls in the morning, boys in the afternoon. We met with the principal and the English teacher who acted as a translator. We learned that the school had been open (for girls) for the last 20 years, which includes a time under Taliban rule when they weren’t allowed to go to school. During those times, they taught the girls within an unmarked compound, and had a back door they’d let the girls run out of if any police came.

Band-i-amir in the north of Afghanistan

Band-i-amir in the north of Afghanistan

The English teacher talked a lot, and told us everything. He even asked me to help him find money or a wife, because currently he’s found a wife (his cousin) but his father says he can’t afford her at the moment. This happened more than once, also in Iran, that people looked at a visiting foreigner as a way out. The major difference is that in Iran, the government imposes most of the restrictions, and in Afghanistan, family is the most important rule-enforcement.

Here, wives are often chosen by the father, or given to a man by her father, in some cases as young as 13 or 14 years old. They’re not given away for free – a hefty price, in the thousands of dollars, is paid, and in Kabul, weddings are a big big business. Weddings are attended by thousands of guests, sometimes 4,000, and cost tens of thousands of dollars. In very small, traditional villages of Afghanistan, some girls are also given to the enemy’s family as a way of resolving (often bloody) disputes. It would be tough to be wedded to your brother’s murderer and imagine ever having a happy family life of your own.

Every person we met in Afghanistan told us not to trust anyone. This was hard to do, especially since we were couchsurfing, and meeting and staying with a stranger, meeting all his strange friends, and had little options of making last-minute changes or not trusting the people around them. Our host in Kabul had his driver and cousins take us around, his butler feed us and lit our nightly shishas, and even took us to work one day (he works within a government ministry) and had one of their drivers take us home. We had recently learned that ministers are a huge target for kidnapping, and ministries for attacks, and that very morning there was a suicide bomb attack outside the Ministry of Defense, killing six and injuring dozens. On our way to the Ministry of Commerce, listening to the news of that mornings bombing, literally nothing changed, and people were only slightly inconvenienced from the increase in traffic due to a few road blocks around the explosion. I cant say people weren’t affected, but I saw this as a sign of their resilience. In your average European city, any suicide bomb would have caused a state of emergency, and no one would consider stepping outside or going to work.

street scene from Kabul

street scene from Kabul

During the evenings at his home, we were surrounded by other ministers and important people in business and government, and one frozen yogurt franchiser. The first night we arrived to a yard of 14 men smoking shisha and playing badminton – at this moment I was very glad to be traveling with a fake husband. They all spoke perfect English, and had lived or studied abroad, and had many family members abroad. Still, some of them had left as refugees, and I cant believe their lives in Germany or elsewhere were any happier than in Kabul, especially since many of them had returned. Sometimes security is not as important as work and family, so they may be safer abroad but certainly not better off. They all agreed that the current safety crisis in Afghanistan is actually the reason why government officials and business men make multi-million dollar transactions; a state of peace would surely bring an economic crash. Can you imagine trading peace for money? Or job security?

Our host in Kabul explained it was dangerous to be in politics, work for (any) government, and all the international ex-pats or NGO’s or armies just make it more unstable. But without them, billions of dollars wouldn’t rush into the country every year. For him, the safest way to be was low profile. The same roads we had once driven in a bullet proof Land Cruiser with an armed guard, we would walk late at night, because of this reason. He felt safer walking in a hoodie in the dark than getting into a car where he was supposedly protected. During our night walks, it was always smoggy with a combination of fog, exhaust pollution, and the smoke of burning garbage. Seeing stars in Kabul was impossible, though the one I did see was a shooting star.

Bamyan from the top of Shahr-e Gholghola, or 'City of Screams'

Bamyan from the top of Shahr-e Gholghola, or ‘City of Screams’

Four foreigners were kidnapped the week before we go to Afghanistan. An ex-pat friend of mine living in Kabul told us not to worry too much about that – foreigners are usually stalked and specifically targeted after weeks of planning, so we were low-risk kidnap suspects. However, some instincts are hard to suppress, and once in Herat we walked into a tour agency office to ask for an ATM, and they told us sit down, they’ll make a call. We politely said no thanks, we’ll ask someone else, and got the hell out of there.

Wedding halls, malls, hotels and hospitals are some of the biggest businesses in Afghanistan. The biggest, brightest buildings were wedding halls, the grand casinos of Kabul, so to speak. The malls and hotels were hidden behind security checkpoint containers, walls and barbed wire, since they’re suicide bomb attack hotspots, and hospitals seem to run without making any difference except for the rich few. We visited one private hospital in Herat, and the 5 storey building had more doctors, technicians and administration than patients. The first hour of our visit there wasn’t a single patient to be seen, and the surgery room looked like it had never been used since the hospital was opened two and a half years ago. We met the hospitals CEO in his office, where an unplugged, unwrapped, printer sat on his desk. He told us Afghanistan is the only country in the world where polio is still present, few people can afford private care, and just the other day a woman’s child died after being delivered from a major tumor that could have been seen only weeks into pregnancy – if she’d gotten an ultrasound.

The Big Buddha's cave

The Big Buddha’s cave

We also traveled north to Bamiyan, a city only 2 or 3 hours away by road, but since its regularly checked by the Taliban, it was safer to fly. It costs $110 to fly 30 mins one way, but who can put a price on safety? Though we found out its probably more dangerous for the Hazare people, an indigenous group from the north of Afghanistan, to travel or be there. They’re characteristically more Asian featured, and having narrow eyes is seen as unlucky throughout Afghanistan. People believe if you paint black lines around a child’s eyes, it will make them open wider as they grow. I wonder if that’s been proven to work.

Being in Bamyan for a couple of days made the entire trip to Afghanistan worth it. We couchsurfed a construction site, with a man in his half-built home, and shared our meals with the construction workers, his son, and his daughter. We slept in a room heated by a coal stove, and there wasn’t any running water in the bathroom but we managed with our babywipes and one tap in the garden. Bamyan was a village in a valley, surrounded by caves dug out in cliffs from an ancient Buddhist civilization that once thrived there. In 2001 the Taliban tore down the 53 and 35 m budda statutes that had stood there for 1700 years, in an anti-islam purification effort, but their giant impressions still remain, hollowed out into the mountain, overlooking the peaceful village of Bamyan.

Planning a trip to Afghanistan

Traveling to Afghanistan has a lot of barriers, both mental and physical. Before going, you ask the inevitable question: is it safe? And everyone has a different answer or a different experience. Once you make a plan to go, you have to decide how to go – by road in almost any direction is risky. By air, you have to go thru multiple security checks just to enter the airport, and again before you enter the plane – to get in and out of Afghanistan. It’s hard to know what will happen even after you know how you’ll go.  Explaining to the Afghan consul in Tehran why I wanted to go as a tourist was as difficult for me to explain as it was for him to understand. So even after I finally had a plan and my visa, I still didn’t know if it would work out or be okay.

I made a plan to enter overland from Iran. I was going to couchsurf, but all I had was the names and numbers of people I had no idea where they lived, how they lived, or with who. So even though I kind of know where I was going, I didn’t have any idea how to get to the exact place. The border was fairly straightforward, but they never gave me a tourist registration card (which I found out later I needed to leave Afghanistan). I got to Afghanistan, and my host in Herat told me he doesn’t like living here because every time he leaves his home he’s not sure if he will come back home. Very reassuring…

the Citadel in Herat is a major tourist attraction with no tourists

the Citadel in Herat is a major tourist attraction with no tourists

We did get home, all three days, and spent a lot of time with him at work in a cell phone shop, since walking around was always a little stressful. I noticed an immediate change in the people, they were more intimidating, but though the people were taller and dirtier, they were somehow more handsome. There were no visible signs of danger – only a few armed guards – but the strange looks on peoples’ faces who saw us never allowed us to relax.

I was traveling with a fake husband, Michael from Germany, mostly because its unusual for females to move without other members of their family or a husband. He wore traditional Afghan clothes, and I was covered in black, but the way we walked probably gave us away. But every day, after we returned within the safe walls of his family’s home, we were surrounded by 12 or 13 family members (almost all female), and taken care of with a kind of hospitality even my own family wouldn’t give me. But every kind person we met still advised us not to trust anyone, even the next kind person we met, so we hesitated to ever fully enjoy all our positive experiences.

Kabul from afar - a little more inviting than on the streets beside the walls and barbed wire

Kabul from afar – a little more inviting than on the streets beside the walls and barbed wire

Leaving Herat by plane, but only to Kabul, caused the KamAir flight attendant who greeted us on board to flash us a worried look, so after boarding was completed he decided to upgrade us to first class and we sat in the first row with a hot meal – but no champagne. We relaxed a little, but still couldn’t understand why Google maps said Kabul Airport was permanently closed even though we were sitting on a plane bound for it.

If you’re planning a trip to Afghanistan, do trust people, and enjoy Afghan hospitality. Get your visa, if you can, and enjoy being one of the only tourists there. Travel by plane if you can afford it, and Kabul International Airport is open and has many direct flights daily. Don’t try to check in less than 1 hour before departure because they will leave you behind. And take into consideration there are about 5 security checks or searches before you even enter the terminal. If you want to overland into Afghanistan, the road is apparently only safe between Mashhad and Herat, and also one or two roads to Tajikistan might be passable.

Getting a visa is tricky for some (a German backpacker was denied a few days after me in Tehran) and I had to take a blood test against HIV, Hep B and Hep C. I tested negative for all of the above, thankfully, so I got my visa. Other countries need a letter of support, and other countries (mostly in the west) simply don’t give tourist visas anymore. Read more about the visa application process at the Afghan Embassy in Tehran at the Caravanistan website.