“Are you crazy?” was the immediate question in a disbelieving sound from the polish guy who was ahead of me in the queue at Iranian embassy. He was another solo traveler on the silk route, crossed into Pakistan from India and was intending to end up his journey ultimately in Turkey after covering Iran. I told him that I will be entering Iran after traveling all over into Afghanistan including Kandahar. He moved on with the hope to see me “alive” somewhere in Iran and I had to smile back with an inshalllah. I don’t know whether he was able to complete his itinerary as he planned but at least I did manage to enter Iran all in one peace after spending five amazing days in the land of Afghans.
Afghanistan! just try to visualize this name and the country for a moment. All that pops up in the mind is war, death, destruction, poverty and hate right? I had an image not very different from it either before I started looking for the possibilities to see this strange place about which I am so much fascinated about. Thanks to the media, all we can think of about it is dussh disham disham kind of stuff. A country where bombs going off every here and there, people being killed and always ready to kill others, women, that in that traditional shuttle-cock burqa, being deprived from all the rights, the youth with no constructive thing to do and things like that. Actual Afghanistan turned out to be very much different from this common perception we get while sitting here. Major Afghan cities are as lively as we have in this side of the border. People are friendly, hospitable and most importantly hopeful. I couldn’t help but noticing that even three decades of worst wars have not been able to take away the hope from them.
Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual country inhabited by people with Pakhtoon, Perisn, Uzbek and Tajik backgrounds. Even these factions have numerous sub-divisions and differences. Pakhtoons (pushto speaking people) are in majority and they are no doubt some of the most hospitable people you will find over the world. But you have to be on their side in order to get their kindness. They are the same pakhtoons who are equally renowned for their ferociousness against their enemies.
On the Pak-Afghan border at Torkhum, one could enter the other side just by crossing the border gate without any intervention these days. No interrogation, no passport formalities and no custom checking at all. Out of the thousands who cross the border each day, a very few volunteer to get their passports stamped and I thought better to be one of them. The man at the passport office put the exit stamp on my passport with looks like, Ah… you really want to go to Afghaaanistan? But what the hell is there to see? And I didn’t want to waste my time justifying and explaining before that man why someone can be interested in visiting this part of the world too.
A six hours journey from the border takes you to Kabul. The road passes through the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Laghman. Just a little after Jalalabad the famous Kabul river starts accompanying you with its magnificent views. Lush green valley of Laghman with the river Kabul makes you realize that apart from kalashankov and puppy, this country certainly has to offer much more. Kabul is the country capital with a population of approximately 3 million people. While wandering the city in work hours, you would smell the same hectic life of any Metropolitan. The city is developing itself rapidly. Areas which are built lately like shehr-no are quite comparable to the posh areas of Islamabad. As with any capital like this, Kabul presents a mix of every culture. While at one end you see men in turbans with long beards and women with blue burqas, you also come across youth in modern western dresses.
My next destination was the southern city of Kandahar. This city has seen many great and falls and the latest in the category of falls was the fall of Taliban who ruled over ninety percent of Afghanistan with an iron fist with this city as their headquarters. I had been warned about this part of the travel by not just the people of Pakistan but by my hosts in Kabul too. However, I had made up my mind and was travelling with all precautions. The local dress I was wearing and the little pushto I know were certainly helpful too. In normal conditions, journey from Kabul to Kandhar doesn’t take more than 7-8 hours. But due to some of the heaviest snowfall that started soon I left Kabul, by the night we were only able to cover half of the way. There have been incidents of looting during nights in the areas of Kalat and Kandahar ahead so the driver after some heated debate decided to spend rest of the night at a mid-way isolated restaurant. It was a traditional Afghan no-chair-no-table restaurant. People sit on the carpet and meals are placed on plastic sheets used as daster-khwans. Same place was used for prayers and ultimately to sleep with each person given a blanket by the restaurant owner. I had to fight with the cold for the whole of night in that thin blanket with -20oC temperature outside. After entering Kandhar, one feels like this city is still being ruled by the Taliban. On the streets you find almost every man with a beard and a turban and women with traditional shuttle-cock blue burqas. Unlike the impression given by the western media, these clothing are more part of their culture and traditions as people were still in them despite the Taliban are no more. Ibrahim was my host in Kandahar who is settled in Kandahar city and is cousin of a friend of mine in Islamabad. He was working for UNDP. We decided to explore the main bazaars of the city. Once on the main road, I realized that this city has changed a lot since I saw it four years ago. You don’t see bullet-ridden walls or destroyed houses that often. However, there are things that make you feel that you are in Kandhar. You see these destroyed shops, Ibrahim asked towards a few blacked shops in a market near shuhda square. Well yeah. Just last week, a convoy of Canadian troops was patrolling here and was attacked by a bomber. I noticed that apart from those three or four shops, business was running in quite normal flow. People were selling, buying and walking like nothing happened here. And this is what Afghans believe in.. zindagi migazaray they say, meaning life goes on!
Herat, the western city near Iran border is the most developed city of Afghanistan. It is the city that has been less affected by all the wars and thus is the industrial capital of the country. This city is dominated by the Persian speaking people and because of its proximity with the Iran border; Iran has a very strong influence on this country both socially and economically. The beautiful road from Heart to Islam Qila (Iran-Afghan border) has also been developed with the help of Iran. A couple of hours journey took me there which marked an end to the travel of this great land. I must say that Afghanistan is not what a normal person think it to be. And you can never reach to that conclusion without actually being there 🙂
(Afghanistan — December 2006)