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A leisurely pedal across today’s Afghanistan

My idea to visit Afghanistan was cultivated a couple of months earlier when I learned that a couple of northern cities were deemed ‘safe’ and that visas are easily obtainable. Curiosity led me to reason that, with the imminent withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops, there’s a chance the security situation will decay and now might be my last chance to visit in relative safety for many years.

Camping in the Kyzylkum DesertThe prospect of entering Afghanistan had vaguely hung ahead of me for two months and I’d managed to think about it rationally or not at all but, camped on wasteland near the border, my mind finally ran free with pointless hypotheticals that kept me awake much of the night. I had decided not to tell my family I was going as I knew they would only worry so I told one friend, giving him a date on which to ‘raise the alarm’ if I hadn’t contacted again.

I was at the border crossing when it opened and was thoroughly searched for an hour before leaving Uzbekistan. I then rode across the “Friendship Bridge” which the Soviets built and over which they withdrew in 1989. The Afghan immigration official briefly raised an eyebrow but waved me through without any search.

Things are instantly different south of the river. The road is channeled between two high walls of sandbags topped with menacing razor wire and I was spilled out into the small border town. The writing was all in the Persian script, every man wore facial hair and a shalwar kameez (loose pyjama-like trousers with a long tunic) and the women drifted along the roadside in pastel blue burqas, viewing an obscured world through a loose mesh. Somehow everything was dusty when there had been none on the Uzbek side.

The Shrine of Hezrat Ali, Mazar-e-Sharif

The Shrine of Hezrat Ali, Mazar-e-Sharif

A couple of people waved me over but I was guarded and sheepishly cycled on as fast as possible; a stranger with low-awareness and zero language in a high-risk country. I admit that, throbbing with adrenalin, I was afraid and wondered if coming had been a mistake. There was, however, no choice but to ride the sixty miles to Mazar-e-Sharif. I covered my head to avoid unwanted attention.

Within a few miles I was in desert proper on a road snaking south between 5-10 yard high dunes. The empty stretches of road, walled in by sand, eased my mind slightly and I regained control of my thoughts which had been running riot since the sleepless night before. A fierce easterly wind whipped up and began buffeting my flank. I leaned sideways into it and nearly fell over every time a truck shot past, momentarily removing my supporting gale. In the afternoon I reached the turning onto Afghanistan’s main northern artery and was blown rapidly west with little exertion. A military convoy of five massive armoured vehicles displaying Swedish flags passed me. The helmeted, white faces in the high, bullet-proof windscreens spotted me andshook their heads in stern disapproval.

The road ran directly to the city centre and terminated at the shrine of Hezrat Ali (the murdered cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Mohammed). I leaned my bike against a wall on a street corner and within a couple of minutes had changed money and bought an Afghan SIM card. I had used Courchsurfing (a worldwide online community of travellers and hosts) for the first time and been invited by cousins Masood and Nasir to stay with them during my stay in Mazar. I called Masood who told me to wait where I was and that Nasir would be along to meet me shortly.

White pigeons, Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan

White pigeons, Mazar-e-Sharif

Relaxing further, I sat down and enjoyed watching the raw and busy life of the city rushing all around me. Street children selling plastic bags; jewellers haggling over the price of colourful stone necklaces; men pushing wheelbarrows of rubble to and from roadworks; moneychangers sat on stools on the pavement with small glass cabinets displaying various currencies. I realised that, despite ongoing war in the south and nationwide problems, this is a country in many ways like any other with people going about their daily lives. Several people approached me and addressed me in decent English. A carpet seller called Sadaek sat me down in his shop and gave me tea. He’d never heard of a cycle tourist before and was fascinated. He asked why I’d come to Afghanistan and I had only to look at the scenes around me to find an answer.

Nasir arrived and greeted me in the Afghan custom of a hug and a kiss on the right cheek. He is a 22 year-old journalist and was dressed in the western fashion. We walked fifteen minutes to the Barg-e-Sabz guesthouse which is owned by another couple of cousins who generously keep a room free for any foreign couchsurfers who come to Mazar. In the room I was greeted by a jovial Masood (who runs security for the American consulate) and Stefano (an Italian tourist who arrived in a car the previous day). We drank tea and chatted for a while.

Stefano, travelling magician

Our kind hosts left for the evening and we ordered in food from a nearby restaurant. Stefano had been roaming around Asia as a magician in a small travelling circus until he met an English couple in Kyrgyzstan who had driven their Seat Inca (a small white van that a London plumber might typically drive) from the UK and were fed up with it. They charged Stefano with the task of taking the car and finding somewhere to deposit it where it would be needed and appreciated. He took the tired van through the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan and into the Wakhan Corridor in northeast Afghanistan where he got stuck for twelve days in a border town before returning to Tajikistan and then onto Mazar-e-Sharif where Masood had helped him arrange to give the Seat to a girls’ school.

In the morning we took the filthy white van to a mechanic to get the exhaust fixed. Masood pointed out a charred spot on the pavement where a tree had stood until one month ago when a bomb in a bicycle bag had been detonated during rush hour, killing several people and wounding many more. I saw a metal electronics box nearby which had been blown violently in one direction and now resembled the hair in photo of someone sticking their head out the window of a fast-moving car.

I waited with the car while Masood and Stefano disappeared to run some errands. My phone rang as the friendly little mechanic finished. We were late for the school, there was no time to wash the car and I would have to drive it to the school and meet them there. I hadn’t driven a car in two and a half years. The clutch was exhausted and the roads manic but I somehow managed to get the thing into the school and stall in front of a crowd assembled to greet it. I was just a hanger-on and felt a embarrassed and ridiculous.

Students at Fatima Balkhi Girls School, Afghanistan

Students at Fatima Balkhi Girls School

The Fatima Balkhi School for Girls was closed by the Taliban when they took power of Mazar in 1997 as educating women was not on their agenda. Being a large empty building, it was then used by them as a base. In 2001 the National Army bombed the school (along with many of its occupants) and, rebuilt a couple of years ago, it is now educating 6,000 students. We were welcomed with a heart-warming (if tonally awful) song from ten young girls in pink and black dresses before being ushered into the school office for polite formalities. Stefano and I were unkempt, poorly dressed and felt awkward sitting opposite the immaculately groomed governors and city officials with their three-piece suits and neat, gray beards. Masood translated and pleasant things were said all round before we went outside and the keys were officially handed over in front of the shamefully dirty car. Press photo opportunity finally over, Stefano then performed a short magic show to the girls delight and we made our exit. To our amusement, we made the evening’s local news.

That afternoon we walked around the town with Nasir getting to know each other. He had fled Kabul two months previously after receiving numerous threats over his outspoken writing. He is currently looking for a way to emigrate. During the week I passed in Mazar I chatted with many educated individuals and, without exception, they all wanted to get out of the country as soon as possible. The ISAF withdrawal is looming large and ominous in their future.

Orphans, Mazar-e-Sharif

Nasir was amused by what he overheard people saying of my scruffy appearance: “I thought foreigners were rich but this one looks like he can’t afford shampoo and rats have nibbled his shoes!” We visited two of Nasir’s photographer friends, both called Qais, in their little basement studio and drank tea while one showed us his beautiful prints. He sells his work to AFP (Agence France-Presse) and his photo of a recently-raped 5-year-old girl in her hospital bed was Time magazine’s photo of the month. Many of his photos were from a government orphanage just outside Mazar and we all decided to make a visit there the following day so Stefano could do a show for the children and Qais could take more photos.

The Balkh Orphanage was one of a little crop of buildings in the desert. There were 20 children there when we arrived with 70 more at school. We were shown around the simple facilities, spoke with the disinterested female director and shook hands with each of the eager kids who echoed “what is your name? What is your name?” Stefano amazed them with his conjuring and then Nasir translated while a few of the children spoke about how they came to be in the orphanage. We heard horrific stories. I listened to an 8-year-old boy stolidly describe how he watched the Taliban cut the throats of his parents and oldest brother before being placed in a medressa for indoctrination by the very people who orphaned him.

Charlie with Nasir in Balkh

We played football with the boys before returning to the Barg-e-Sabz with Qais, Qais and Nasir to eat dinner and drink some illicit home-brewed liquor known locally as ‘dog sweat’. In an Islamic Republic, where alcohol is forbidden, one has to make do.

Stefano flew to Iran and I spent a few days simply wandering around the town and talking with anyone who approached me. I brought an Afghan headscarf and kept my obviously-European face and hair covered much of the time. Most people were incredibly friendly but I received a few overtly threatening stares, usually from middle-aged men with thick black beards and one with coal-black eyeliner – a typically Taliban affectation, originally worn to protect the eyes from bright sun. One man told me, in halting English, that his greatest desire was to sleep with a foreign woman; any foreign women: “foreigners fucked my country so I want to fuck one of them”.

Despite this I felt relatively comfortable. Conversations often turned quickly to religion. I listened politely and often had to bite my tongue to avoid offending or potentially attracting dangerous attention. A man with excellent English who works for GIZ (the German aid organisation) plainly stated at the opening of our conversation that his object was to convert me to Islam. Several things he said were so absurd that I nearly chewed my tongue in half. My favourite was that NASA scientists had used a world map and phi (1.6180…; the ‘Golden Ratio’ or ‘Divine Proportion’) to calculate where the geographical centre of Earth is. “And they discovered that it is Mecca. They don’t release their findings though because they are infidels.”

Another young man, Zabi, who had worked as a translator for the Norwegian troops (during interrogations of captive Taliban fighters among other situations), confided his belief in cautious undertones that ‘religion is cancer’. He liked the Zoroastrian (an ancient religion born in Afghanistan) morality of ‘good words, good thoughts, good deeds’. He spoke of being deeply disturbed by seeing a woman stoned to death ‘in the name of Islam’ when he was a child. The Norwegian troops withdrew a month earlier. He hopes to emigrate in their wake.

It wasn’t safe after dark so I stayed in the room at night and, one evening, watched Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian”. The film’s not-so-subtle satire of false prophets, and believing in things because one wants something to believe in, had extra resonance under the circumstances.

I sat for an afternoon watching people stroll around the superlative blue Timurid mosque of the shrine. The building, its large courtyard, and the surrounding park are culturally and geographically the very heart of the city. They act as a social hub and the peace many people seemed to find, sitting alone and contemplative on the benches, was a pleasure to see. Sadly, I couldn’t see if most of the women present were content, laughing or crying. They were simply depersonalised fabric shapes.

Miro, a Croatian tourist I had met in Kyrgyzstan, arrived and we visited the nearby city of Balkh with Nasir. It’s under fifteen miles away but is not thought of as ‘safe’ in the same way as Mazar and Nasir was visibly on edge the whole time we were there. Afghanistan’s oldest city, Balkh dates back over 6,000 years. Zarathustra (AKA Zoroaster), the prophet of Zoroastrianism – a mystical fire-worshipping religion, is thought to have been born here around 600BC. It is also where Alexander the Great married his Persian Queen Roxana.

Balkh's ancient city wall, Afghanistan

Balkh's ancient city wall

The city has an amazing circular layout when viewed from overhead (have a look on Google maps) and the impressive earthen city walls, still grand but much decayed, run for six miles around the city. In the centre (where Nasir was particularly jumpy) we saw a couple of crumbling shrines under UNESCO restoration and the tomb of Rabi’a Balkhi; the first and most revered female Persian poet. According to legend, Balkhi fell in love with a slave and resultantly was imprisoned by her brother who obligingly cut her throat first. She wrote her last poem on the wall in her own blood.

North of the town sits the Bala Hissar fortress which, over time, has tried to protect the numerous citadels consecutively built within and toppled by one invader after another. A small modern hut within serves as a hash den, capitalising on the marijuana that grows abundantly throughout and around Balkh. Outside, a row of glassy-eyed men sat along the wall in the sunshine.

Last stop was the Noh Gombad mosque which was a Zoroastrian Fire Temple until Buddhism arrived and it was converted. Centuries later, after the military conquest of Islam, it finally became a mosque.

That evening Nasir resumed being his normal relaxed self as we sat with Masood and their two cousins, Farod and Walid (who own the guesthouse), eating kebabs and drinking smuggled Uzbek vodka with pomegranate juice. My hosts had been indescribably kind during my time in Mazar and I struggled to adequately thank them.

After being told by countless people that the road to Herat passes through Taliban-controlled territory and is unsafe, even for Afghans, I decided to do the sensible thing and fly there. The airport is small and only sees a couple of flights a week. I was frisked several times but the baggage checks were laughable. There were no x-ray scanners and, in the confusion, I ended up with two knives and plenty of matches in my hand luggage. My unboxed, fully-assembled bike was put on the plane without argument and I gazed out of the window for the 45 minute flight. The plane followed the divide between dusty desert plains stretching north to the Kazakh steppe and the snow-covered mountains that cover much of Afghanistan.

I cycled into the centre of Herat (Afghanistan’s cultural capital) and, while looking for a cheap hotel, met an English student called Matiullah. He wasted no time in offering me floor space in the small room he shared with two art students and I didn’t hesitate to accept. Mati and his roommates are all from a city called Ghazni, located between Kabul and Kandahar.

In the morning I accompanied him to Herat University. He insisted that I fully cover my head and face on the way there and was convinced that I was unsafe to wander the streets alone. I sat in on a literature class in which 55 students crushed into an undersized room (boisterous boys on the left, largely-silent girls to the right) and listened to the teacher (addressed as “teacher”) read a synopsis of Beowulf in imperfect English. The class had the feel of a secondary school rather than a university and culminated with me being coaxed into reading and explaining a couple of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Matiullah at Juma Mosque

After class Mati took me, again covered, to the Jumah (or Friday) Mosque. The 800-year-old courtyard was peaceful and empty but blindingly white in the stark midday sun. We then walked (hurriedly) through the Old City’s jumbled streets brimming with tailors, bookshops, apothecaries, barbers and cobblers. On from there to the single remaining Musalla Minaret. Formerly twenty-four in number, the minarets fell to British bombs in 1885 and a series of subsequent earthquakes. The one survivor leans at an unruly angle similar to the Tower of Pisa.

The police had been to the room asking questions about me while we were out and this heightened Mati’s discomfort. He wouldn’t let me go to the communal toilet without covering up for fear of other inhabitants in the complex spotting me. I offered to go to a hotel but he wouldn’t hear of it. When we went in or out, he would charge ahead of me without waiting so as not to potentially be seen with the infidel.

The next day we visited the 15th century Ark which houses the new German-funded national museum. The mostly-bloody history of Afghanistan was well presented and I read about war after war, including the three fought with the British in the 19th century. The curator made an exception and gave us free reign to explore the restored citadel so we clambered over its battlements enjoying the best possible views of the city.

Herat skyline

When I returned to the room (as instructed, after dark and 30 minutes after Mati), my hosts were visibly awkward. The police had been again. They didn’t believe I was a tourist and I had to leave the room. Oddly they didn’t care to see my passport or even talk to me. I told my new friends not to worry and we enjoyed a nice home-cooked meal of aubergine soup together before I said a heartfelt thanks and checked into a grubby nearby hotel.

Wrapping my scarf tightly around my head, I cycled out of the city. The road to the Iranian border is recently paved but I took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up on the wrong side of a river and in a labyrinth of dirt tracks spread across a village-dotted landscape. I was nervous having accumulated stress during my time in Herat. I had been warned by a few people of occasional insurgent activity on this road (or ‘surgeon’ activity as Mati endearingly pronounced it) and was a little relieved when I eventually found my way to the highway.

The road passed occasional crumbling caravanserai (Silk Road coaching inns) out in the desert and there were regular police surveillance posts. The friendly guards at one of these sat me down with a rice lunch before posing for photos in front of their huge, mounted gun and making me fire off a round from one of their AK-47s. I walked deep among some mounds in the desert before putting up my tent for my last night in Afghanistan.

Afghani police

In the morning I packed up quickly and pedalled quickly, reaching the border at lunchtime. The immigration officer invited me to drink tea and we sat for half an hour. This was a representative final conversation with an Afghan: he was charming, he was friendly, he wanted to emigrate.

On the Iranian side I stared at the dark, deep-set eyes on a portrait of Imam Khomeini (leader of the ’79 Islamic Revolution) while my passport was taken away and scrutinized. Almost an hour later I was ushered into a quiet room by a plain-clothed man and shown to a seat. He had stack of papers; copies of every page in my passport.

“Where are you going?
“Are you going to Israel?”
“No, Europe.”
“Have you ever been to Israel?”

 shrine of Hezrat Ali, Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan

Shrine of Hezrat Ali, Mazar-e-Sharif

“Then what country is this stamp from?”
“Where is that?”
“Next to India.”
“What country is this visa for?”
“Where is that?”
“In Asia.”
“There is no country in Asia with that name!”
“Yes there is.”
“I am an Asian man and I know there is not!”
“I am an educated man and I know there is. (pointing to a world map on the wall) Look! It is here.”
“Are you Israeli?”
“When was your last visit to Israel?”
“I have never been to Israel.”
“Ok…it is finished.”

And that was that. I was allowed through and rode on into the desert.

Much more by Charlie Walker on his very excellent blog, or donate to his chosen charities here.

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