Afghanistan


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The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is an enclosed, mountainous country in the heart of Central Asia that has been a crossroads of civilizations since early historical times. The area described by the ancient Greeks as Aria, was conquered by the Persian Empire in the 6th century BC. and then by Alexander the Great who, arriving in the Indo-Caucasian region, defeated the Persian emperor Darius III in the battle of Gavgameli (331 BC.). The Greek conqueror imposed his rule in the region of Bactria and Sogdiana and married Roxane.

This was followed by the Hellenistic kingdoms of Bactria, mainly the Seleucids and Menander’s rule, which flourished for two centuries and developed the culture of Greco-Buddhism, with a mixture of influences depicted in the findings of the “Gandhara” art. At the beginning of the 1st millennium, the famous Silk Road was developed, which together with the economic benefits of trade, brought knowledge and progress. In the 7th century AD. the Arabs brought the religion of Islam, gradually expelling Buddhism and Zoroastrianism and drastically changing the cultural identity of the place. Later, Mughal conquerors like Genghis Khan and Timur ruled these areas.

Afghanistan’s most turbulent, recent history is sparked by the Soviet invasion in 1979. The Mujahideen movement put up strong resistance in a 10-year war, backed by foreign power of the US and Pakistan, which have geopolitical interests in the region. The victims of this war number up to 2,000,000. After the withdrawal of the Soviets, a catastrophic civil war broke out and the rise of the Taliban Islamists. The extremists took control of the country and imposed extreme sharia law, violating human rights, especially of women, committing massacres, looting settlements and monuments, burning fields and causing famine. As a result, part of the population was forced to flee their homes to escape, causing a wave of refugees that continues until today.

In 2001, after US intervention under the pretext of defeating terrorism and chasing Osama Bin Laden, the country was officially liberated from the Talibans and an international peacekeeping force was deployed under NATO. But the extremists regrouped and organized guerrilla warfare, while the international military force proved insufficient, while bombing attacks with countless victims have no end.

In 2020 most of the country is still under Taliban control and despite negotiations, the announcement of the withdrawal of US troops and the release of terrorist leaders, the truce and the coveted peace ultimately failed. Instead, attacks have increased and some other terrorist groups have emerged, like the Islamic State (ISIS), launching their criminal activities. The victims of the bombings and armed attacks include journalists, clerics and worshipers, activists, members of humanitarian aid, doctors and medical units, maternity hospitals with mothers and newborns, universities full of students, young children …

In Afghanistan, and especially in the Taliban-controlled areas, opium is grown, which is estimated to account for 92% of world’s heroin production, resulting high economic interests.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world due to lack of foreign investment, government corruption, terrorism and armed conflict. It has one of the highest infant and child mortality rates in the world, the lowest life expectancy and high rates of malnutrition.

Afghanistan’s territory is mostly mountainous and rugged, with large mountain ranges, plateaus and river basins. The main mountain range is the Hindu Kush, the western extension of the Himalayas that stretches through the Pamir and Karakoram mountains, to Tibet. To the east are some fertile mountain valleys and a few forests while to the south and west there is desert. The climate is extreme, with icy winters and high temperatures in summer.

Afghanistan is a war zone and traveling to that country poses an immediate risk to life. But the rich experience hidden in this isolated, mysterious, barren and harsh place are a lure for the few passionate travelers who seek a pure authenticity unaffected by modernisation.


The lion of Panjshir

Ahmad Shah Massoud was an Afghan politician and a powerful commander of the resistance against Soviet invation between 1979 and 1989. In the 90s, he led the military wing of the government and, after the Taliban came to power, was the top commander of the opposition to their regime, until his assassination in 2001.

He became involved in religious anti-communist movements with Burhanuddin Rabbani and later joined his party. During the Soviet-Afghan War, his role as a powerful leader of the mujahideen rebels earned him the nickname “Lion of Pansjeer” as he successfully resisted the Soviets from occupying the valley of the same name. In 1992, he signed the Peshawar Agreement, a peace and power-sharing agreement in the post-communist Islamic State of Afghanistan, and was appointed Minister of Defense. He fought to defend Kabul against warlords led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who broke away and bombed the city, and later against the Talibans, who besieged the capital in 1995 with at least 60,000 civilians killed.

After the rise of the Talibans in 1996, Massoud, who opposed their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, returned to the armed opposition until he was forced into exile in Tajikistan, strategically destroying the Salang Tunnel on his way north. In 2001, he visited Europe and urged European Parliament leaders to put pressure against Pakistan’s support to the Talibans. He also asked for humanitarian aid to combat the horrific conditions of the Afghan people. Massoud was assassinated by al Qaeda and Talibans in a suicide bombing on September 9, 2001. Two days later, the September 11 terrorist attacks hit the United States, which eventually led to NATO invading Afghanistan and allying with the forces of Massoud. On September 20, Rabbani was also assassinated. The Northern Alliance eventually won the two-month war in December 2001, ousting the Taliban.

Massoud was posthumously named “National Hero”, and the date of his death is a national holiday. Massoud is considered one of the greatest guerrilla leaders of the 20th century, also nicknamed as “Che Guevara of Afghanistan”.

    

His opponent, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is considered a terrorist by the international alliance. During the civil war, he tried to capture Kabul before Massoud, bombarding it with heavy ammunition provided by Pakistan, destroying 1/3 of the capital and leaving tens of thousands dead. He was nicknamed the “butcher of Kabul” and was also accused of killing journalists, intellectuals and feminists, and abusing humanitarian aid money and equipment. Among other things, he joined the Talibans and helped Osama Bin Laden escape. Following negotiations, a peace treaty was signed in 2016, which provided him amnesty and the opportunity to engage in politics, following a ceasefire with the Talibans. The UN and the European Union have also lifted sanctions against him. In 2017, Hekmatyar entered Kabul with a heavily armed convoy, urging the Talibans to enter into peace talks.


People

The harsh environment in this region of Central Asia, seems to shape that people alike. The population of Afghanistan is consisting of various ethnic groups, mainly the Pashtuns who are considered authentic Afghans and are conservative Sunnis. They are followed by Tajiks speaking Dari (Persian dialect), as well as the Hazara group of moderate Shiites. In this place there are also many smaller tribal groups and unruly factions that control their areas.

Afghanistan is a deeply religious Islamic country and the way of life is very different from what we know in the western world. The view of women with the traditional blue burqa (chadaree) that even the eyes are hidden behind a veil, may be strange related to European standards. The fact is that religious conservatism and the loss of women’s rights prevailed during the civil war. The Taliban, enforcing sharia law, even imposed stoning penalties for indecency, with women being the biggest victims. Now, in the free areas the new generation and especially the upper class, enjoys a more liberal way of life, with relative freedom and dressing choices. Almost all men, however, prefer the traditional clothing consisting of the Khet robe with knee-length front and back ends, the Partug pants and the round pakol woolen hat.

There are no entertainment venues in Afghanistan, only wedding halls with unusually gross luxury.

All the people we met and socialized with, showed much kindness and friendliness, while the presence of foreigners was for them quite unusual


The Talibans

The Talibans, which means enlightened “students,” is a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist movement and military organization waging a holy war (jihad) within the country. From 1996 to 2001, when they came to power, they imposed a strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, committing massacres of civilians, burning huge farm areas and denying international humanitarian aid to the starving population. They caonquered all of Afghanistan, detaching power from the Mujahideen warlords until their overthrow in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks and the US invasion. The Taliban were formed by uneducated Pashtun villagers, who were educated in islamic schools with the support of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and were embroiled in a holy war of Islam, participating without hesitation even in suicide attacks if requested.


The sad story of Bacha bāzī.

It is a shameful custom where young boys are sold by their poor families, under threat or financial power to older men for fun at private dance shows, dressed women’s outfit. These children become victims of sexual abuse and child prostitution, and although bacha bazi is illegal under Afghan law, the government is unable to end such practices in isolated areas controlled by strong and well-armed warlords.


Street children

Thousands of children roam the dusty streets of Afghanistan, working or begging to earn small money that their poor families desperately need.

The sight of neglected children, sometimes as young as 3 years old is common, even under the hot summer sun or the cold of winter.

They usually sell pencils, chewing gum, newspapers… others polish shoes, wash cars or wishing good luck by spinning a cup of smoking herbs.

With the growing number of street children, estimated at 50,000 in Kabul alone, there is an increase in cases of abuse that are not usually reported due to social taboos.


Psychotropic substances

Opium

Opium poppies are widely grown in Afghanistan and the government is unable to enforce bans, especially in the Taliban-held areas, which generate huge revenues. On city sidewalks, drug addicts inject their dose in large groups, in plain sight.

Hemp

Trade and use are not normally allowed in the country, but hashish is widespread and has been a tradition for centuries, it can be obtained everywhere and the authorities do not actually prosecute its use.

Alcohol

Although Islamic law prohibits the production and consumption by locals, improvised production of alcohol of dangerous quality has begun to spread. The main source is the grapes that thrive in the country.


Buzkashi

This traditional horse riding game is similar to polo, but the role of the ball replaces a headless goat carcass for which players compete by maneuvering on the game field. It is the national sport of Afghanistan and is organized every Friday in some cities, but not in Kabul anymore for security reasons.


Places


Kabul

The capital city, which hosts more than 5 million residents, is a leader in chaotic, unruly traffic conditions and environmental pollution. Built on a plateau at an altitude of 1700m. is one of the tallest capitals in the world, with colorful buildings that “climb” on the slopes of the surrounding hills, reminiscent of the favelas of Brazil. Snowy mountain ranges crown the wider area of ​​the city in winter.

Kabul is a city of contrasts, with dominant images of poverty, busy flea markets and bazaars, as well as a few shopping streets for the favored oligarchy as well as the glamorous halls of social events and weddings.

The city’s attractions include several mosques, markets including the unique bird market, the Archaeological Museum that was unfortunately looted during the civil war, the Darul Aman Palace that is being restored but not allowed entrance, the Babur Gardens, Lake Qargha, the Mausoleum of King Mohammed Nadir Shah. Kabul is a heavily militarized area, with many outposts that fail to prevent terrorist attacks that happen on an almost daily basis.


Bamiyan

The mountainous region of Bamyian, with the small town of the same name, became globally infamous in 2001 when the two giant Buddha sculptures were blown up by the Taliban Islamists. Now on the rocks that have a prominent place in the city, only the gaps of the majestic historical monument still exist.

Bamiyan is considered a relatively safe area of ​​the country with a progressive population mainly of the Hazara tribe. Unfortunately, terrorism hit here too, targeting this Shiite minority once again, with a bomb attack on November 24th 2020 in the central market, which left behind 14 dead and dozens injured.

The Band-e-Amir lake complex in the country’s only national park is the emerald of Afghanistan, like the bright blue color of their waters, caused by the minerals of the seabed.


Herat

Herat is a city in the west of the country, near the border with Iran. Its cultural identity and influences from the neighboring country make it an exquisite, distinctive city in Afghanistan. It has some impressive monuments such as the Grand Mosque, a castle with the Citadel, the temple and cemetery of Khwaja Abd Allah.


Mazar-i-Sharif

The capital of Balkh province is located in the north of the country, just 55 km from the Uzbek border. In addition to the majestic Blue Mosque (temple of Ali) it has archaeological monuments of Hellenistic, Buddhist and Islamic times.

Samangan was a station on the Silk Road and an important center of Buddhism in the 4th and 5th centuries.


Kandahar

Kandahar was the capital of the Afghan Empire in the 18th century. In recent history, the region has been a hotbed of NATO military operations and a battleground


Tea, opium and gunpowder….

December  2020

Afghanistan is a destination on the list of few travelers for whom the planet is not limited by war zones, dangerous territories and government travel warnings.

For me, Afghanistan was for long time an awe-inspiring destination, captured in my imagination as a mythical place unchanged in time, a forbidden travel dream but also a challenge to overcome my fears. The idea matured quite a bit in my mind and I decided that my travel experience is ready for this trip, even in the difficult time of the pandemic and despite its cancellation in early 2020.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan is such a turbulent region that its tourism development is actually non-existent and only a few passionate, adventurous or thoughtless travelers, decide to enter the territory. For 40 years it has been in a bloody civil war, with Talibans’ extremism controlling most of the country, with deadly bombings constantly appearing in the news, while years of US military intervention added even more casualties between civilians. Religious fanaticism, human rights abuses and sharia law are a reality in Islamist areas and conditions so hostile for the population that it is forced follow the refugee path.

Still, Afghanistan is not just that. This isolated country of Central Asia, has a raw charm, a rough barren and imposing natural landscape, a long history, and above all an anthropological treasure of pure souls, tortured but also honest and friendly!

It would be a lie if I say that I was not afraid, that I hadn’t lost my sleep before my trip. I was thinking of my family, how unfair it would be to fill them with pain if i wouldn’t return from this trip, me or my remains… 

Despite the recent negotiations for a truce and the withdrawal of American troops from the country, the attacks increased and the blood tax is daily. The Islamic State (ISIS) has been added to the civil strife, claiming responsibility for daily attacks on students, medical staff, human rights activists, journalists and innocent civilians in crowd gatherings.

Moreover, health risks were serious, in a period of Covid outbreak, in a country that ignores its existence without taking sanitary measures and people without information and precaution.

Once again, passion overcame fear and offered me and my two fellow travelers a valuable, unique experience in a legendary Central Asian destination. As lovers of adventure and chaotic places, passionate to explore unknown lands and cultures, our risk was rewarded generously. I will be happy to share this journey through pictures and stories, so we can travel together without any risk to you.


Welcome to Afghanistan

Entering the airspace of Afghanistan, a white mountain landscape is revealed in the plane window, a land without sign of human presence. Kabul’s International Airport, as expected hosts airborne military units. One of the hot air balloons that constantly monitor the city, figures in the sunny winter sky…

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In the waiting line for passport check we observe strange, exotic, unusual and… slightly frightening persons. Most are men, with beards, or hairless Asian features, dressed in the traditional Khet garment, a knee-length robe and the Partug, loose-fitting trousers. An essential accessory is a hat, with the pakol the most common one, round woolen with a wrapped perimeter. The pakol originates from the Chitral of Pakistan and historians identify it with the ancient Macedonian “kafsia”. It strikes me that despite the low temperatures, they wear light jackets made of thin Chinese faux leather or a blanket thrown over their shoulders, they wear shoes or sandals barefoot without socks!

The entry procedures are relatively simple, the stamp marks the coveted visa, my fingerprints are recorded and the luggage is checked in the usual way. At the exit, quite far from the airport building where non-travelers are allowed to approach, we are waiting for Noor, the owner of a small, personal agency named “Let’s be friends Afghanistan” who will be our guide on this trip. He’s one of the few tourist agents in the country.


Although I always travel independently and without guidance, in war zones like this, escort from someone who knows the area, is considered necessary. An alternative I had explored before the pandemic was to stay in couchsurfing, doing tours on my own and I had a very positive response from some guy in Kabul and a woman (!) In Mazar. After the pandemic, however, couchsurfing became subscription only and I doubt if people with low financial background, who voluntarily offer housing, are now participating. Especially for Afghanistan and my post experience from the situation, I find it extremely dangerous and largely impossible, at least if you want to really get to know some places including road travel in and out of cities. The conditions are so fluid that the planning of the trip is constantly changing, destinations in the country get captured and become inaccessible. The few main roads controlled by the government are claimed by the Taliban, who levy taxes on trucks carrying goods. Of course, for a foreigner to fall into their hands could mean execution right away, or kidnapping in exchange for releasing Taliban prisoners convicted for crimes and terrorism. Even for locals, if on Taliban checkpoint they become suspect of government affiliation, if their identity has a stamp confirming that they are voting in the elections, if they are just members of the cultural or business life in the country, if they are active in education, arts, activism and freedom of speech, or if they just accompany strangers… are executed without explanations. Therefore, I’m not just responsible for my personal safety but also for the one who guides me. In addition, at government checkpoints, the police do not allow passing without being accompanied by a local. Noor has gained publicity through some bloggers, but I decided not to publish his full details, for security reasons. Following the journey, Noor will prove to be a man of excellent character, big patience and understanding, honesty, dedication, knowledge and ability to find solutions through the difficult situations that arise. His services are beyond any expectation of any travel guide you can imagine. Traveling in conflict zones is not a cheap thing, but Noor was flexible in our negotiations and I think he had a small profit margin.


More than 60% of Afghanistan is Taliban-controlled areas that are so scattered that fragment the country and make free movement impossible. Noor, as well as the Afghan consul at the embassy in Athens, were against land travel and suggested only flights between cities. Nevertheless, I insisted on driving to Bamyan and despite initial strong opposition, Noor eventually accepted. On the contrary, the couchsurfing host I was talking to back in March, had told me that he would not follow me “not even for $ 1,000,000”.

Upon arrival, we don’t stay in Kabul but leave immediately for Bamiyan. The tour of the capital city will take place at the end of the trip so that there is enough safe time – something that will once again prove to be a wise choice. We also require time to complete the COVID test, obligatory for our return flight.

The route on the outskirts of the capital city is an overdose of images, somewhat familiar from other chaotic, developing countries and conservative Islamic places. But at the same time they are quite different. Dust, traffic anarchy, mud brick buildings and merchants spreading their wares either outside their poor shops or on the street. Images of abandonment, of decline, in a place that seems to never have flourished. Men in local outfit including turbans or the typical woolen hats on men and the blue chadaree (burqa) on women, who see the world through a small opening on the face of the garment, also covered with a veil. All this in a dry landscape, at least at this season, all in beige tones and a background of snow capped mountains that embrace the plateau of the area. Travel time in the greater Kabul district is frustrating, the traffic chaos is comparable even to Bangladesh. Traffic on the roads is not following any regulations, vehicles are moving in the opposite traffic direction, there are no traffic lights and road space is claimed with audacity and rudeness, cars almost contact each other.

Despite the previous experiences and images that all three of us have from similar places, we are overwhelmed by an uncontrollable photographic enthusiasm. Of course the opportunities are limited and distanced from a moving vehicle. In addition, there is still hesitation. The savage facial look of Afghans with beards and turbans, but also the rules of respect to women, make me not shoot much. At times I hear “bursts”, fortunately not from guns but my travel buddies’ cameras, trying to catch the moment without much success. Of course, the military facilities and the many government checkpoints are a forbidden subject for photography. Most of the time checking is done by the guards with a simple glance at the passengers, but even this creates traffic jams and of course these checkpoints are a good target for terrorist attacks.

More than 60% of Afghanistan is inaccessible and Taliban-controlled areas are so scattered that they fragment the country and make free movement impossible. Noor, as well as the Afghan consul at the embassy in Athens, were against land travel and suggested only flights between cities. Nevertheless, I insisted on driving to Bamyan and despite initial opposition, Noor eventually accepted. Instead, the couchsurfing host I was talking to back in March, had told me that he would not follow me “not even for $ 1,000,000”.

We do not stay in Kabul but leave immediately for Bamiyan. The tour of the capital city will take place at the end of the trip so that there is enough safe time  – once again to be proven a wise choice – but also to have enough time for the COVID test, obligatory for the flight back home.


1. Bamiyan

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Road to Bamiyan

The main northbound road is mostly same, dry landscape with mud brick mad houses, rubbish, dust and a look of abandonment. In some places there were areas with abandoned tanks from the Soviet invasion times. Most people look lazy, spending their day in a squat position, also common in Pakistan and India, while others, including children, work hard carrying heavy wooden carts. After about two hours we reach the fork where we follow western direction to Bamiyan. That is when we are asked to hide our cameras. According to the map of the occupied territories, the road to Bamiyan passes through an area that is partly controlled by Talibans, next to another fully controlled. For the next two hours we can not even stop in this area. These areas are the most charming, authentic, with settlements where time seems has  stopped, with machine gun forts in  prominent position on hills, with isolated brick houses-fortresses of local warlords, with markets full of people that look like… jihadists. The landscape is reminiscent of other harsh and unruly places like Yemen. We try to take candid photos with our phones, especially in a main village with the busy flea market that causes traffic jam. We try not to reveal our identity, but some eyes stare at us with curiosity. Then there is an incident, some drivers from the cars next to us argue and shout. Then, two men with kalashnikovs in hand get out of their vehicle and shout loudly at another driver who also got out, next to our window. They approach him angrily and slap his face! The situation is so tense and the sight of weapons so critical that I freak out by the thought of an assassination happening in front of our eyes, with us in the middle of crossfire. Fortunately, tense is calming down, gunmen are members of the militia who have a role of of police in the countryside, but usually abuse power. The incident was a “welcome” that reminded us that security factor should not be ignored in this country.

Bamiyan. Where Buddhas fell silent

The small town of Bamiyan, at an altitude of 2,500m, is also color-matched with the beige landscape that is sparsely covered with snow. On the slope of the mountain, which has a prominent position in the background of the city, the gaps can be seen from the two Buddha statues that were blown up by the Taliban. A short distance from the Buddhas of Bamiyan, next to the small river that flows through the city where women do their laundry in the freezing waters, is the inn that will host us. A machine gun watchtower stands above the two consecutive, heavy iron doors that open to welcome us! A wedding event has just ended and unfortunately we only met the visitors while leaving, in their formal dressing especially by children and women. The population of the Bamiyan region consists mainly of the Hazara tribal group, which is a minority in the rest of the country. The Hazaras are Shia Muslim, more religiously and socially liberal than the Pashtuns, and this is evident in women’s clothing. Afghans usually take off their shoes in indoor carpet covered rooms, but we did not follow much the rule. The small room is small, with a rustic atmosphere and beds covered with colorful traditional blankets. A wood stove helps to heat the chilly air, as long as we can feed it during the hours we’re still awake. We still have several hours until nightfall and every time is good for tea in this country. Wherever you stand, a tea container with cups, along with candies, comes without preorder. After tea we get in a local restaurant to taste Afghan cuisine, which makes me excited. The first tasting experience consists of various types of thin pie, with variations of fillings such as beans, chickpeas, minced meat, lentils, pumpkin and spices. If you come to Afghanistan don’t forget to eat Bolani. Another dish that I loved, and would enjoy every day is the mantu, handmade stuffed pasta similar to Turkish manti. Of course rice abounds, like everywhere in Asia. The bread is flat and locals share them by cutting them with their hands of dubious cleanliness, while in the streets they are served in a newspaper wrap. My travel buddy tried to eat a candy, as a result he broke tooth sealant which will be the beginning of a little adventure.

I look forward to visiting the Buddhas, or at least what is left by the sick Taliban regime. For some reason, entry is not allowed on this day so for now we’ll just have an overview outside the barbed wire. The recess that housed the big Buddha has now support scaffolding, because stones continue to fall from the damaged monument. Two sheds protect the stones that survived the blast and may consist of materials for future restoration. One armed guard was a little nervous and did not allow us to stay long for photos. On the outskirts of the city we try to visit Shahr-e Gholghola, a monument also closed that day, and another site with caves and a small ruined Buddha statue. I’m a little wary of walking off trails, afraid of landmines, but these areas are probably not in danger anymore.

In the town center, just before dusk, the flea market is slowly closing and the stalls are being withdrawn. There are still small shops open and also street shoemakers and sellers. We are looking for a dentist for my friend’s tooth. Dentistry in Afghanistan is not quite advanced as you can guess. The dentist had a dark office, not much inspiring and we left our friend in his hands and tools of dubious disinfection. Temporary sealant of the tooth was made but failed later on.

It’s Christmas in Bamiyan but no festivity happens on this day in Afghanistan, no decorations, garlands or Christmas trees. We follow a mountain route towards the Band-e-Amir lakes, the sunny day in the idyllic, snowy landscape resembles to a route in the Alps. The area is suitable for skiing although there is no ski resort. Even if we find the blue lakes frozen, i hope the spectacle will be still impressive. Arriving at the crossroads, where the arch that marks the beginning of the national park is located, the snow completely covers the road. Our van is 4×4, but the driver did not consider it necessary to take snow chains with him! He is admittedly a capable driver, but the laws of physics could not be broken. And while our vehicle is struggling to move on the icy road, we see two or three vehicles stuck in the snow and blocking the passage. We are at an altitude of 3,300m and the weather has already changed, with strong winds and snowfall. The driver comes out to help and free the vehicles. He puts on socks that he did not wear until that time and wearing a thin jacket he gets outside at a temperature of -15 C! The effort seems fruitless and several women get out of their vehicles in a bad condition. Some get rescued in a vehicle in front and 5 young beautiful girls find shelter in ours. I feel embarrassed that they are forced to squeeze next to people of the opposite sex but they are comfortable. Obviously the trip is postponed not only due to road conditions, but mainly to offer help to the girls who felt their lives threatened in these circumstances. The girls are modernly dressed and two of them speak fluent English. I ask to take a photo together and they are much more comfortable than I thought. They come from Balkh region, having some vacation in Bamiyan, having their return flight a few hours later. Shila, the girl with the beautiful eyes that probably compete in color with the blue-green lakes, studies journalism in India, teaches yoga and got married just a month ago to a handsome young man. Zulikha is very sweet and cheerful, with a modern look and manicure, an activist in various fields. Arriving in Bamiyan I suggest to visit the Buddha monuments together, I am excited by the idea of having beautiful models in my photos. The girls happily overturn the stereotypical image we have about the position of women in Afghanistan, they inspire hope, independence and despite our brief time together we will develop a good friendship.

The empty space of the Buddha statues dominate the Bamiyan valley. Carved in the 6th century, the two statues, 55m and 38m respectively, were the tallest standing Buddha statues in the world. Their general form was carved into the sandstone rocks starting from the top to the base and then the details were formed with mud and straw to create the folds of the mantle, before being coated and painted. It is said that they were carved for 90 years. Their faces were covered with gilded masks, although all these traces disappeared in antiquity, while they had been damaged by other conquerors, mainly Mughals under Genghis Khan, Aurangzeb and others. The surviving parts of the statue are a small percentage – Talibans sold surviving parts to Pakistani traders in Peshawar. The view from the base to the roof is imposing. The ceiling and walls were once covered with murals, with symbols borrowed from Greek, Indian and Persian art. The fusion of these influences sparkled Buddhist art that would later spread to India and China.

We are walking under the monument of the ruined big Buddha, which the Talibans condemned as anti-Islamic in 2001. With coordinated efforts, they first hit it with tank firearms and finally, detonating explosives at points indicated by a Pakistani engineer, they blew it up. They did the same with the youngest, the female Buddha whose small part of her shoulder survives. Many international organizations have expressed interest in some kind of restoration, but except from being impossible to fully restore with the original pieces, many of which have been reduced to dust, the cost is estimated at tens of millions of dollars.

On the side of the small Buddha one can go up through narrow passages with steps, to higher ledges, where there are rooms used by the monks and little remains of damaged frescoes. Going even higher, you reach the top level ledge, just behind where the head of the statue once stood. You get down the stairs in the same way from the other side. Throughout the slope there are caves where the monks used to meditate and later inhabited by locals until recently.

The girls wear heeled boots that make it difficult to walk on uneven ground and I reluctantly offer my hand as support. I know it is not allowed in these countries, but they have a progressive perception and do not hesitate. Regarding clothing freedom, our friend commented: “In Afghanistan we have freedom, our families don’t force us to wear chadaree, unfortunately some backward areas use, or their family force, or females as a habit they use. Nowadays, it’s tangible we can see that day by day wearing chadaree is fortunately decreasing.”

After saying goodbye to the girls, we go for a quick meal at a local kebab restaurant. Traditional restaurants have no tables or chairs but only an elevated space, where after taking off their shoes, customers sit on the carpet in front of a leather strip as a table. They usually eat with their hands using bread as a spoon.

We return again to the archeological site of Shahr-e-Gholghola which has the nickname “city of screams”. During the siege of the city in 1221, Genghis Khan’s grandson was killed and in revenge, the great conqueror slaughtered every living creature in town. The view of the Bamiyan valley from the top of the ancient citadel is majestic.

Five kilometers west of Bamiyan is the Darya Ajdahar, or Dragon Valley, where the fossilized remains of a monstrous creature that once terrorized the area are found. Only Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, managed to defeat the dragon’s hot breath and cut him in two with his sword. The dragon is clearly visible to romantics, while pragmatists will simply see a huge volcanic rock split by an earthquake. The cold is harsh on the rock top but the view is rewarding.

More interesting, however, is the village of Ajdahar at the base of the valley, built by the UN for repatriated Hazaras from Iran and Pakistan. There I had the opportunity to hand out some markers and a few toys to the kids.

One of the “sights” of the country is the abandoned tanks of the Soviet invasion and we do not miss to visit them. However, our main interest is always for local markets that are full of life and human activity, such as that of Bamiyan. Unfortunately, a month ago, a bomb attack killed 14 people. People are very friendly, completely receptive to photos, we are always discreet with women though.

We spend the evening with Noor next to the wood stove, in the empty restaurant area of ​​the inn, enjoying local cuisine, plenty of tea and some rum that we had brought with us. We play back-to-back music from youtube, Afghan and Greek folk and we find many common elements such as the sounds of dambora, a string instrument found also in Greek traditional music. At one point another Noor’s driver shows up with a middle-aged woman, covered in a headscarf who is barely visible as not being local. Shara from Australia, will henceforth be the new partner of Noor, will undertake secretarial job, deciding to live permanently in Afghanistan even though the salaries in the country do not exceed $ 200 per month! I doubt the maturity of such a decision.

We asked Noor to try to find a suitable vehicle to go to the lakes next day and like our every request, he did his best to make it happen. A capable 4×4 is waiting for us in the morning, but the weather is very foggy and the snowfall is heavy. It is doubtful whether we’ill be able to see the lakes, but give a try. After an hour, arriving again at the gate of Band-e-Amir National Park, a vehicle of the local authority catches us and informs that the road is closed and there is no possibility of rescue if we get stuck. The weather is getting worse and we must leave the Bamiyan area as soon as possible, before the mountain passes back to Kabul get blocked by snow. In Bamiyan we get back in the mini van and our experienced driver, manages to cross the snowy roads at 3,500m altitude. At one of the several checkpoints, an army guard gets on board, as every driver is required by law to accept. We leave him after a few miles, Noor takes a breath of relief. Authorities have explicitly forbidden him to carry tourists on this route and he was trying all this time to keep the guard busy so that he wouldn’t listen to our conversations and realize we’re strangers. Otherwise we would have interrogations, delays and serious consequences for him, maybe even suspension of his licence. The snowfall continues throughout and gives beauty even to the chaotic Kabul, which as usual is traffic jammed with vehicles and people doing their shopping, even under these conditions. Our hotel is not very visible from the street, does not have an armed guard like the others and is in a good area with shops around. The rooms are basic, old and a bit dirty but we ask for an upgrade and passing through a corridor with air condition modules lead us to the suite which is spacious and has a large dining table. Time limits just for a short walk to the shops of the surrounding area, which sell carpets, handicrafts, jewelry and traditional clothes. My fellow traveler visits another dentist and decides to risk a major dental procedure that will have to be completed a few days later.


2. Herat

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The route to Kabul Airport crosses through heavily fortified area of ​​the city, that houses key government departments and embassies. The 3km straight road distance that separates the American embassy from the airport, is not traveled by road from embassy personnel but with helicopters. It is indicative of how much foreign powers ultimately control peace in the region, or what expediencies are hidden behind this instability. I confess that these areas make me very nervous, they are definitely main attack targets. The extreme entry checkpoints at the airport do not make me feel relaxed either. Passengers and luggage disembark, screen checked, re-board the vehicles and this repeated once again. Seems an ideal spot for suicide bombers. This is followed by a body search at the departure hall gate and emptying of hand luggages. Two more checks follow the check in, always with shoe removal.

Noor will not follow our trip which didn’t include costs of his transportation, he also expects some travelers from Spain. Until now we were the only foreigners that came to the country for “Christmas holidays”.

A 1.5 hour flight over the snow-capped mountains is the only way to get to Herat. The road completely off limits, controlled by the Talibans. Shortly before landing, the landscape changes and the snow-capped mountains give way to plains and deserts.

The first impressions of Herat, a city with Persian influences, are extremely positive. The roads are less trafficked than Kabul and the cleanliness is at a better level, still is a place  full of images. Just outside the city is the temple and cemetery of Khwaja Abd Allah. It is a monument of typical Islamic architecture of Central Asia, with majestic facades covered in enameled tiles and mosaics in shades of blue. More interesting for us are some traditional elders who rest under sun and accept offers from widows that visit the memorials of their loved ones. The presence of armed guards is critical, as in any monument of the country.

Then we go to the hotel to leave our luggage and we are impressed by the size of the building with the huge, covered patio area and the dozens of rooms all around. Looks empty of customers.

We move through the streets of the city with the busy markets, together with Ramin who guides us. We are the center of attention, even more than Bamiyan which receives more visitors compared to. This makes me a bit nervous and although I feel familiar in such busy places around the world, I don’t forget that I am in Afghanistan and anyone can be a member of extremist group. Also, the fact that there are so many weapons in the country, results in armed robberies even in broad daylight. But people are so welcoming, friendly and enthusiastic that once again I overlook my fears and am absorbed in the ecstasy caused by so many images and interaction with people. We wander to the places where the old market was, in buildings of classical Central Asian architecture with columns, but which are now abandoned. 

We finally decide to buy local clothing, so that our presence is more absorbed in the crowd. It’s not possible to go unnoticed, our cameras, our shoes and our conversations betray that we’re foreigners. But the local outfit is mostly a sign of respect, earns sympathy of the Afghans and makes us not a visual contradiction. Now the khet-partung and the pakol hat will become my everyday suit.

After the usual kebabs in local eateries, we reach the famous Grand Mosque of Herat. The 800-year-old architectural masterpiece, also known as the Friday Mosque, is Afghanistan’s most elaborate and one of the largest in Central Asia, comparable to the Samarkand and Bukhara monuments in Uzbekistan. With masterful mosaics of tiles, bright colors and intricate details, praises Allah with majesty. The mosque follows a classic design of four Iwans (vaulted halls with decorations) with arched walls around a central courtyard about 100 meters long. Two huge minarets surround main Iwan. Almost every surface is covered with stunning mosaics, inscripted by verses from the Quran. The minarets, with their repetitive bands of stylized flowers, arabesques and geometric patterns, and the whole set under the golden afternoon light, evoke an amazing visual experience. We have to take off our shoes and walk around the courtyard of cold marble barefoot, not to mention again how many armed men are guarding the area! Our visit coincided with the time of prayer and the pilgrims flocked en masse. Some start the process of pilgrimage in the side of courtyard, but most go inside the main hall.

Generally there’s no problem with photos in the mosque, but it is recommended to avoid shooting during prayer hours. We timidly follow the pilgrim in the main hall and respecting the holiness of the place, we don’t take photos. Eventually it turns out, not only that we’re welcome there, but also that the armed guard is directing us to the best place for photos without obstructs! The mystical ceremony, as in any religion, left us with a feeling of peace of mind and the welcoming reflected in the eyes of participants, was one of the strongest memories.

The tiles that cover the mosque are produced in the adjacent tile factory, a work of continuous restoration from the 1940s. Of course, we visit it and buy some souvenir tiles.

We say goodnight to Ramin and dine on the hotel patio. It’s a good opportunity to “escape” alone for a night walk in Herat, without our local guide. The markets are moving until late and we mix with the crowd, without cameras this time and without … anyone realizing that we are strangers. It’s sad to view the heroin users on the icy sidewalks. Also sad, as in any city in this country, is the number of street kid beggars, that breaks your heart. These children from poor families, or disabled parents, beg to feed all their relatives. Some times you don’t even dare to give food or money because many more gather and the situation gets out of control.

The weather (with the exception of Band-e-Amir) is pleasant on our trip, regardless deep winter. Another chilly but sunny day starts with our tour on the castle and citadel of Herat, also known as the Citadel of Alexander, named after its founder. After many conquests and destructions over the centuries that almost ruined the monument, was recently restored and is now another jewel of the city. 18 towers rise more than 30 meters high, with 2m thick walls and a moat that completed the fortification project. In the royal rooms, there is a small hammam with damaged murals of flowers and peacocks, two small fireplaces and almost nothing else. Stepping on the large wall with the ramparts, one enjoys stunning views of Herat, with minarets and its oriental beauty.

Good morning Afghanistan

Today I am scheduled to go on a live TV broadcast on SKAI TV and I am thinking what would be a nice and quiet spot with good network coverage. However, a text message from the local airline KamAir overturns everything. Our flight to Mazar-i-Sharif tomorrow has been canceled and we must find an alternative immediately and save the rest of trip schedule. Ramin has a friend, a travel agency owner, where we go to call the airline for a solution. As I mentioned above, the road connection of Herat with the rest of the country is not possible due to the territories occupied by the Talibans. We stayed in the office for three stressful hours, trying to find a flight departing the same day to Kabul and next morning for Mazar. But misunderstandings with the airline officer did not bring results and seemed he had to loose one day. After efforts I finally send a screenshot with our preferred flight found online, to finally confirm availability. Time here, as in all developing countries, has no value. Our supposed flight departs in about two hours, at 15:30 but I haven’t yet received electronic tickets, and the TV interview is at 14:50. We continue to sightseeing but i have much stress and no interest. A hill with a boring view of the city, a war museum and some sights we don’t have time to see. Instead I suggest we go to the airport as soon as possible to secure the flight. In the meantime they call me from SKAI but I have no signal! At the airport we have to go through the usual security procedures and be squeezed into a crowd in front of the check-in counter. Of course no one wears a mask. When it ‘s my turn, I’m informed that the system cannot issue a ticket because it is preceded by another flight. I look for a quiet place for the interview when a security guard asks for my passport and details. This is not good time for all this. Outside the airport building I find a spot with a good signal, while security guys watching me. One of my fellow travelers has the role of cameraman and the other explains to the guard that we are live on TV, in a place where filming is probably not allowed. Before the interview is over, we have to check in. We do everything on time but I am exhausted from stress! Even inside the plane, most of passengers do not wear  mask and after my comment to the crew, they answer that are unable to apply regulations.

Interview from Afghanistan

3. Mazar-i-Sharif

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Another night in Kabul where my fellow traveler visits another dentist. He decides to risk a major dental procedure that should be completed a few days later. In the morning we fly to Mazar-i-Sharif.

In fact I had higher expectations from this city of north, which is very close to Uzbekistan border. I expected modernization and culture, but Mazari is a typically chaotic city, with no attractions, with the exception of the famous Blue Mosque. Together with Mahdi, Noor’s brother who accompanies us, we head to the masterpiece monument. To our great disappointment, however, a guard forbids entry with a camera, so we will leave and try later after shift change. Mahdi is 23 years old and among other things a martial arts champion, tattoo artist and hairdresser, so career in tourist industry is not his priority. At the hotel we meet Noor who arrived with the Spaniards and so the number of tourists in the country now stands at 7.

Unfortunately, the ancient Balkh area, just 20 kms from the city, has been occupied by the Talibans and is impossible to visit. Instead, we leave for Charkent area a little further south, after we collect a young friend of Mahdi, a policeman and who, preferred to come with us. His connections, hopefully will grand permission to photograph the Blue Mosque later. The policeman is an expert in hashish and after he procured a large quantity paying 150afg = € 1.5, he spent all day melting the material and filling cigarettes. The outskirts of Mazar are snowy, the white branches of the trees give a fairytale feel to the wild landscape. Charkent is a secluded area surrounded by high mountains, with access from a narrow point of a gorge controlled by a stone gate. The grandfather of our friend, was a local hero during the war and kept the area free from the Talibans. For this reason we are allowed to photograph the military outpost of the snow white valley, with Soviet cannons complementing the scenery.

The frost will not allow our vehicle to continue the uphill route to the mountains, but we visit some surrounding villages. The weather conditions limit people inside their brick houses, the villages seem abandoned. Only a group of people with shovels in hand, restore the circulation of water in an irrigation canal. A child about 5 years old is with them, with its own little shovel, participating in the effort that started early in the morning at the foot of the mountain. The most noble villagers even invited us, if we wanted to visit them later at their homes. 

Back in the city we find ourselves again in the noisy markets and we try to enter the mosque again, with the mediation of the police. Unfortunately, even the commander can not allow us to enter with cameras, just with mobile phone. A recent strict law has been enacted, following an incident of espionage and possible preparation for terrorist attack. The evening light creates a feast of gold and blue tones, the mosque is enchanting. My eyes can’t decide where to focus on so much beauty, what to capture in my photos! I’m deeply disappointed that I do not have the camera there in this emerald masterpiece, but finally even cell phone photos are impressive! Unfortunately, unlike Herat, entry is not allowed inside the main hall. The temperature is below zero and walking with socks on icy marbles is not pleasant at all.

My travel buddy feels very ill and we have to go to back to the hotel soon. He has a fever and stomach problems, and although the symptoms are not typical of COVID, we are much worried.

Fortunately, he felt better the very next day and we all leave for a trip to the archeological site of Samangan. It is a city founded by the king of the Greco-Bactrian period Eucratides, successor of Alexander the Great, hence it was called Eucratidia. It later became a Buddhist place of worship and an important station on the Silk Road. At the top of a hill with panoramic views of the surrounding area, a large Buddhist stupa, known as Takht-e Rostam, is hewn on the rock. Instead of the monument interest, I was shocked by the presence of a little kid, a princess that marked on my soul forever. Below, her emotional story.


After the happiness that I hope we offered to this child, nothing attracts my interest anymore. Some unimpressive elongated cave rooms of the Buddhist past of Samangan are located in the wider area…

Upon return we stop at a place with hot springs, with the steams creating a bizarre, mysterious setting in the middle of the surrounding frosted vegetation that looks like white corals.

Our tour will be disrupted once again by another flight cancellation, creating a problem for on-time return to Kabul. Additionally, a severe stomach problem troubles to my other travel buddy.

4. Kabul

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In the Talibans’ territory…

Initially I wanted to do the Mazari-Kabul route by road, to see this part of the country. But apart from wasting 11-12 hours of total travel time, Noor was very opposed to the idea. I insisted, considering that the main road of the country that unites two big cities, can not pose a serious risk. Of course my point of view was hypothetical and the reality very different. Eventually the cancellation of the flight, restored my original idea, as we had to return by all means to the capital city and do the COVID test in time for the return flight.

Noor organizes a transportation mission, for us and the Spanish tourists. The three young men get in a sedan and we pick in the van another elderly Spaniard.

Most crucial, a vanguard vehicle will preceded to monitor the situation in the Taliban area that we have to cross.

The case of falling into their hands and tragic consequences are real, but I am also worried if we simply have to return back and get trapped in Mazar-i-Sharif.

Approaching the Pol-e-Khomri town area, the tension is noticeable. Our driver and Mahdi are obviously stressed, unlike our Spanish passenger who is completely ignorant of the area, the situation and the danger. His appearance is obviously European and I am worried about how he will react in case we fall into a terrorist checkpoint.

An endless queue of trucks blocks the road and forces us to stop.

This is not relaxing at all, not only scared of being identified but also because all these vehicles are waiting to pay a hefty toll to the terrorists. 

We are maneuvering on the right side off the road, I hope it’s not land mined. We see a burned down humvee (military multi-purpose vehicle), many burnt trucks on the side of the road. Maybe they couldn;t pay, who knows? At some point truck drivers walk towards some buildings at a distance of 100m from the road. Passenger cars are not subject to tax and fortunately there is no checkpoint on the road. Again, I can not understand how they know who paid and who did not. We continue to encounter burnt vehicles, even later at government checkpoints, apparently having a decorative role and can fall under attack at any time.

With a feeling of success and relief, Mahdi exclaims: OK, we did it! They say goodbye and pay the taxi driver of the vanguard and we continue without any problems.

On route, the interest is on Salang mountain pass, a strategic point at an altitude of 3,800m that connects the northern part of the country with the south. The passage crosses the Hindu Kush Mountains, but is now bypassed through a tunnel. Prior to the construction of the road and tunnel, the main route between Kabul and northern Afghanistan was a much longer route that needed three days. The road receives a lot of traffic of military and other heavy vehicles and is in poor condition. In 2010, the passage was hit by avalanches with more than 16 dead, burying miles of highway and trapping vehicles in the tunnel.

The snowed route has spectacular beauty, after all we are at the western end of the highest mountain range on planet, the Himalayas. At rest points in various places, water jets are fired from plastic pipes marking outdoor car wash services.

Following the route, the interest is on Salang mountain pass, a strategic point at an altitude of 3,800m that connects the northern part of the country with the south. The passage crosses the Hindu Kush Mountains, but is now bypassed through a tunnel. Prior to the construction of the road and tunnel, the main route between Kabul and northern Afghanistan was a much longer route that lasted three days. The road receives a lot of traffic of military and other heavy vehicles and is in poor condition. In 2010, the passage was hit by avalanches with more than 16 dead, burying highway miles and trapping vehicles in the tunnel.

The snowed route has spectacular beauty, after all we are at the western end of the highest mountain range on the planet, the Himalayas. At rest points in various places, typical water jets are fired from plastic pipes marking outdoor car washes.

Climbing and descending from the mountain mass requires a significant time of the trip. For me, most important is to find network coverage on route to connect to a scheduled business video conference. With some delay, as soon as we reach the lowlands I manage to. The background of women with chadaree, men with partug and turbans, the general noisy reality of the country, are definitely a unique background for the video meeting.

 

Kabul

Due to time wasted by flight cancellations, we decide to exclude Pajsheer Valley visit, a several hours car trip.

So for the rest two days we explore Kabul, starting with its health infrastructure to conduct the Covid test. Even in the medical centre, there were many who did not wear a mask, even here there could be a source of infection.

The colorful houses of the city, which are built on the surrounding hills, are strongly reminiscent of the favelas of Rio De Janeiro in Brazil. In one of these suburbs, a winding road leads to the Kart-e Sakhi Mosque, a not-so-large but quite elaborate one, lined with blue-green tiles. Many pigeons, which Muslims love to feed, add to the oriental feeling. The presence of armed guards is strong as usual. After all, the capital city of bombings could be called… Kabum. The shrine is visited by many Shiite Hazaras and has been the target of attacks, such as in March 2018 by an ISIS suicide bomber, killing 33 people and wounding dozens more. Many children were playing in the courtyard and at one point a guard rushed to body check some of them. The incident also appears in the video below.

We continue to the Babur gardens, which have no greenery at this season neither many visitors. In springtime it’s probably busier, visited by citizens who can afford to pay the small entrance fee to enjoy a picnic. Interest is limited to the marble tomb of the Mongol conqueror Babur, of the same dynasty that also ruled India.

What I was looking forward to on this trip was the experience of the Bird market in the center of Kabul, an activity especially favourite to locals. Entering the bird market is like a journey into the past, feeling like a hundred years ago, in a part of the city untouched by modernization. The most sought after of all the birds sold is the kowk, a species of partridge. The birds, which are valuable to their owners, receive great care and are kept in vaulted cages that are works of art in their own. The Kowk fights happen on Friday mornings in quick matches, avoiding serious injuries, with spectators betting on the result.

More peaceful are the myriad canaries and the rest of the domestic birds, which are kept for their singing. Pigeons also abound, a common sight in the skies of Kabul. The crowd is overwhelming in the market, after all, that is the charm of such places. If there was no Covid pandemic and the constant fear of a bomb attack, such participation with the enthusiastic crowd would’ve been more carefree.

In a large, open field of ​​the city, a large number of young people play cricket and do horseback riding. Since we didn’t have the chance to watch a Buzkashi game, we’ll get a glimpse here. Once again, i see kids less than 10 years old riding a motorcycle!

The impressive mausoleum in memory of King Nadir Shah is located in a prominent position at the top of a hill in eastern Kabul with panoramic city views. It was severely damaged in the war but has now been restored and stands imposing, made of black marble, with monumental columns and a huge metal dome. The king was assassinated in 1933, as most Afghan leaders face their fate, and his wife Zahir Shah who died before she could return from exile after the fall of Talibans, was later buried here. Entrance to the mausoleum is not allowed.

Just below are some scattered tombs and another building with columns that show the signs of war destruction.

Kite flying is a popular activity on the hill of Teppe Maranjan, especially during the celebrations of Nauroz (Muslim New Year).

In the evening my travel buddy visits the dentist who turned out to be a scammer and barely completed his tooth restoration, with a result of dubious quality. His psychological and physical condition, contributed bu stomach issues, is low.

We meet for dinner with the Afghan consul of Athens, who is currently in his homeland. The luxurious Bukhara Restaurant has a lounge inside, a safe distance from the entrance which could be a target despite the security. The menu is already known to us because we had previously ordered delivery to the hotel room. The noble consul, who comes from a village just 60km from Kabul, cannot visit his hometown because as a government official he is a target.

The last day starts with the test result, which happily came out negative and made me finally relaxed. The nightmare of staying in Kabul for 14 days quarantine has been eliminated. We visit the archeological museum, with some interesting findings of the Hellenistic period and the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara. Unfortunately, not enough pieces survived from looting. I had admired much more at the Peshawar Museum in Pakistan. Right next door is the Darul Aman Palace, infamous for its after war ruined condition and now in the process of being restored with the participation of international architects. Future plans for its use included the housing of the parliament, which was eventually rejected. Unfortunately the entrance is not allowed, not even photos from outside.

We spend some time in the carpet markets, for which the country has a tradition, as well as other handmade souvenirs. Finally, we enjoy moments of relaxation in a cafe above the shores of Lake Qargha, at the outskirts of the city.

Afghanistan has been a precious travel experience for me. A place that for many is considered as a hell of war, social and political problems, religious fanaticism, a country no one wants to live or visit. But for me, it was a rare, “forbidden fruit” on my travel map, a place that keeps its secrets authentic and unaltered.

©Alexandros Tsoutis

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THE PRINCESS OF SAMANGAN

Samangan is an archeological site of northern Afghanistan, where Buddhist monuments dating to the 4th and 5th centuries AD are preserved. Today, much of Balkh province is under Taliban control, in a war that has been raging for 40 years.

There, in the Takht-e Rostam stupa carved entirely from the rock, walking carelessly through the perimeter of the excavated structure, I felt a presence following me.

A little girl about 5 years old, with dirty clothes and hair and an empty sack often held by children in this country, with a complaining and frightened look, was coming after me. She had only one shoe and was stepping on the icy ground with her muddy feet! When I stopped, she did the same, when I continued she followed my footsteps. I tried to speak to her sweetly, to make her smile. The child was about to cry. Eventually I fell into tears first, trying  to hide tears behind the dark glasses to get unnoticed.

I travel a lot in developing countries and have encountered great poverty, many children living in absolute misery… I had emotional moments many times, especially when help is never enough, when pencils and notepads are like a drop in the ocean … But this Barefoot princess broke my heart!

In the car I had a lot of markers for the children of Afghanistan, a second pair of socks, several wafers from my fellow passengers. The child hardly could hold them with in her arms, without changing her gaze or mood. We couldn’t leave this child like this. We asked our driver to take us to nearest town and buy her shoes. Our request was fulfilled, in another chaotic and dangerous city, we found children’s socks and perfect sneakers in a size suitable for the years to come.

The little princess was still waiting there when we returned, almost an hour later. We washed her feet and put on her brand new shoes. The little girl was still shy and puzzled until we left, she did not forget to collect her old shoe. Then we saw the little Afghan girl running happily on the slopes of Samangan, a princess in her own kingdom…