Where the land was shaking


Afghanistan is not considered as a typical tourist destination. However, once it used to be different. Afghanistan was the part of so called Hippie Trail in the end of 50s which was taken by the beat generation. The trail led also via other countries like Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. It was the form of cheap alternative tourism and travellers used mainly the hospitality of the local people. The situation changed mainly because of the continuous conflicts and wars in this area. However, in 2021 Taliban took control over the whole occupied country. They very effectively reduced the criminality in the area and ensured full security all over the country, so travelling has become possible even to places which were closed to the tourists for decades. So, what is like to travel across the country, where many locals do not even understand who the tourist is? I would like to bring you closer to it in this article.

With respect and esteem

First of all, it is important to mention that travelling to the country was possible even during the war conflict. I travelled to Afghanistan for the first time in 2013, when the country was in the state of war. During my stay I visited Kabul, Panjshir and Herat. However, out of two-three other places in the country it was not possible to travel safely. When speaking about safety, one would dispute about the safe travel during those days. The south of Afghanistan was absolutely out of tourists' interest, mainly because of their strong government resistance. The road between Kabul and Kandahar used to be called "the road of death", because of the daily shooting and bomb attacks. During our visit of the country in October this year we could use this road freely without any complications. Well, mentioning complications, it depends on the way we look at it. The highway is still damaged and the reconstruction has started just recently. Therefor, the 500kms long journey takes you up to 15 hours.

This time, our interest was focused on the south of the country, where Taliban was formed, the movement famous (mainly in the media) for its extreme, drastic rules and brutal practices. What did we encounter? We saw only the willingness of locals to help tourists, to show them the country in different light and to assist them when visiting sights which were normally not easily accessible for tourists. We came to the country with respect and esteem, without any urge to criticise and it was worth it, it paid us back.

Tank at the castle

Our journey starts in the city of Ghazni where we get to for Pakistan. Immediately we get lucky, we meet the group of pilgrims, muslims from not only Afghanistan, but also from other countries like Germany, who are visiting sacred, religious places in the area. We join this group and it helps us to get to many places more easily. We visit the citadel of Ghazni (castle) built in the 13th century, which was surrounded by 32 guarding towers in the past. During the wars, citadel was significantly damaged, however, some parts still remain preserved. In the upper parts of the citadel you can find a Russian tank, since Russians were present also in this area.

We spend one day and one night in the city enjoying the peaceful atmosphere and friendly local people. In each restaurant they serve local speciality Kabuli Pulao: meat with rise and raisins. Sometimes saffron may be added. They use lamb meat, which is very tasty. Traditionally, meal is eaten by hands, but you can always ask for the cutlery. It is not possible to get any alcohol in the country (or it is extremely difficult to get it), but you may enjoy drinking pomegranate juice. You can buy one at every corner and it is refreshing replacement for beer. At least we think it is.

Sauna in Kandahar

We are on the road to Kandahar. The journey takes you 9 hours. It is really distressful road, where you need to dodge to avoid lorries and you travel often through the dust clouds. You need to be really skilful to drive in here. Our driver and guide can handle it very easily and we arrive to the city by the evening. We are staying in the most comfortable hotel of our trip. My co-traveller and friend Maťko Ďurikovič feels tired, so I decide to visit the pool and sauna on my own. Unfortunately, it is Friday, a holy day for Muslims, so the pool is overcrowded by the locals and I am the only tourist there. All attention of locals is focused on me, and I am happy to swim at least few lengths since everyone wants to talk to me. As soon as I decide to move to the sauna, everyone follows me there (30-40 people) and there is literally no space left. They are simply curious to meet the stranger, which I find cute. However, it is nothing for introverts. If you think you will go only sightseeing in Afghanistan without meeting the local people, you are very much mistaken. Afghanistan is mainly about meeting the locals and having little chats with them.

The whole next day is dedicated to exploring the city of Kandahar, founded by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. In those days, the city was called Alexandria. Ahmad Shah Durrani, the chief of the Durban tribe, made Kandahar the capital of the country. In the modern era, Kandahar was replaced by Kabul as the capital city. Today it is the centre of Taliban and the Pashtuns, which is the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Other ethnic groups include Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and Kyrgyz people. And what is worth visiting in the city? There is a big list of it. One of the most visited sight is the mosque where the hair of Mohammed, the prophet who founded the Islam, is preserved and stored. However, we have not seen it, since it is placed in the box hidden behind the gates and it is not possible to access it. This mosque is always full of people and obviously we have been again a phenomenon in this place. Afghans are very religious and they esteem holy places. They put religion and honour on the first place together with the family.

We move to the place called "40 steps" with a spectacular view on the city. The stairs lead you to the mountain outcrop where a chapel is located. The entrance is guarded by two stone lions. The carving of the whole staircase was commissioned by the emperor Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire in India, who occupied Kandahar in the 16th century. Inside the chapel you can see the Persian inscription paying tribute to Babur. Our local guide Sayeed, who we call Karol, is waiting for us downstairs. He does not feel like walking upstairs with us, however, he always finds time for texting.

When visiting Kandahar you should not omit the Tomb of Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founder of modern Afghanistan, also called the father of Afghanistan. In the tomb you may see an inscription extolling the virtues of this emperor:

The King of high rank, Ahmad Shah Durrani,

Was equal to Kisra in managing the affairs of his government.

In his time, from the awe of his glory and greatness,

The lioness nourished the stag with her milk.

From all sides in the ear of his enemies there arrived

A thousand reproofs from the tongue of his dagger.

The date of his departure for the house of mortality was the year of the Hijra 1186 (1772 A.D.)

In memory of a gunslinger

It is believed that the south of Afghanistan is one of the strictest Muslim community in the world. One would think the most rigid area is around Kandahar, but the reality is different. The most strict community is located in and around the city of Lashkargah. In Kandahar you may still find some open-minded people, while in Lashkargah not at all. We notice it when visiting the city, local people are not so open and friendly as in other areas of the country. However, after breaking all prejudices we feel again the hospitality of the locals. It is common in this area that someone unknown pays your bill in the restaurant for you and you may not even know who it was. You can find a huge citadel with vast inside spaces 10-15 Kms from Lashkargah. It was built during the pre-Islamic era and it is famous for its arch which is printed on Afghan banknote. Restoration work of this monument started in 2020 and once you see the whole complex of this sight, you believe that it should be protected by UNESCO. Since we are further from the city, we need an armed guard. We call them gunslingers. They secure our safety. The gunslinger is even willing to have his picture taken with us. We have the feeling that he likes this kind of attention.

Hard rock and Afghans

We are on the way from Lashkargah to the province of Farah. When travelling from one province to another, we need to visit local municipal office where we have to obtain extra permissions. They are needed not only when traveling to certain province, but also when visiting sights. Usually, this paper work is done smoothly. We sit down on the chairs and have a quick chat with the officer regarding our stay in the province. They ask us who we are and why are we visiting this area. The next question surprises me a bit. They ask what we do for the living. I am a bit worried as my job is to sell music CDs and LPs and ,as we know, music is forbidden in Afghanistan. In the end I tell the truth and the officer asks me: " So, music is your job, right. Do you think we like music?" I answer shyly: "Yes, you do:" In a while the officer takes his phone out and plays some local Afghan music. So, this is the reality of music in Afghanistan. It is believed that only the most strict Muslims are against it. The time you have should be dedicated to praying, not to having fun. However, the reality is different. The majority of Afghans do like music. Yet, when I play some brisk hard rock to them, they do not sympathize with it. They always listen to their music only, rarely anything else.

Thanks to the friendly atmosphere in the municipal office, I start looking at the poster dedicated to this province. I notice some interesting places there. Of course, you cannot find any info about them on the Internet. Only war details are obviously presented in the media. I show the officer some places from the poster we are keen on visiting. The officer replies: " Yes, sure, no problem, let's go there and have a look." We hit the road with excitement to see places that have been forgotten because of the long lasting war. I must admit, we really enjoy it.

After 20 minutes long ride we see the ruins of a castle in the middle of rocks. No-one knows how old the castle is or what its purpose was in the past. We enjoy the spectacular sunset from this place, one the strongest experience in Afghanistan I have ever had. On our way down we meet some local people and we get some photos taken with them. Each person we meet in this province is surprised to see foreigners. They basically do not go to this area. We are told that since 2021 there have been only three European tourists, including us, visiting this province. One French and one Hungarian tourist have visited this places, but never Slovak. If yes, they must have been only transferring via this area. We stayed over nights, even one night extra, which was completely unplanned. I will tell you why a bit later.

Besides the castle, you may find another citadel in the city of Farah. From my point of view it looks bigger than the one in the city of Lashkargah. It is also known as Citadel of Alexander. The same name as in the city of Herat, however that one is completely preserved. Some claims it was built by Alexander the Great, while the others say it was built by Zoroastrian warriors in the times of Darius the Great. Inside the citadel you can find old soviet-style army vehicles. The locals use this place for family picnics. Do not expect there is any entrance fee for this sight.

During the earthquake season

So what was the reason for us to spend one extra night in Farah? Some of you may have already noticed in the beginning of the article the season when we decided to visit Afghanistan. October, the earthquake period of the year. During our stay, there was an earthquake nearby the city of Herat, the epicentre was located round 30kms from this place. Originally, we planned to visit that city. We had already booked the flight to Kabul from there. However, when we heard about the earthquake we decided not to travel there and rather stay in Farah overnight and in the morning come back to Kabul the same way we had come to Farah. As one says it is better to sleep on it. The next morning we made decision to travel to Herat in the end. The journey back to Kabul would be time-consuming and moreover our flight from Herat had not been cancelled. When we came to Herat, we regretted our decision. Another earthquake hit the city. Round five am we woke up in the hotel where we were accommodated and the whole place was shaking. Maťo immediately ran out of the hotel while I decided to stay in, then I got dressed and went outside where other quests had been already waiting. This earthquake was reported with 6.3 magnitude. The epicentre was located further from the city. During the first earthquake more than 1000 people died. Mainly due to the fact that they had been in villages with not very modern and stabile houses. While men had been working on fields, women with kids had been at home and when houses collapsed they had no time to ran out, so they remained buried in the ruins. Luckily, people were expecting other earthquakes, so when the second one hit, they ran outside from their houses. Only one person died that time. Honestly, I did not expect other earthquake, it really surprised me. After the earthquake we went out to walk round the city. We were documenting damaged buildings and sights. Under no circumstances wanted I to stay in the hotel, so we rather travelled 260kms back to Farah where we spent the night and the other morning we travelled to Herat to catch the plane.

Herat is a charming city, the most beautiful one in Afghanistan I would say. However, we did not enjoy the sights so much as due to the earthquakes people were sleeping outside rather than inside, some of them had tents, while the others were only covered with blankets. 2-3 days after our departure, another earthquake hit this area. When we were visiting the Citadel of Alexander, which is probably the most spectacular sight in Afghanistan founded in the 4th century BC, one man approached us and asked about a possible mobile application which could predict earthquakes. We were sorry to tell him that no such thing existed and an earthquake was not possible to be identified in advance.

The photo with girls

We fly safely from Herat to Kabul where we spend our last afternoon and evening before coming back home. The most impressive sight of the city is the Shia shrine and mosque Sakhi Shrine. Islamic world is divided into Shia and Sunni, while Sunnis is the largest branch of Islam. In Afghanistan there is round 7% of Shites, but unofficial recordings claim three is almost up to 35% of them comparing to Sunnis. The mosque is located on the Asamayi Hill. It is believed that the cloak of Muhammad was brought there. This place was also visited by Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad. According the Shites Islam, he is the first of Twelve Imams. His tomb can be find in Najaf, Iraq. While meditating and watching the sunset over the mosque, we notice three young Muslim girls making eyes at us. This is rather untypical situation, since in Islam, the life of men and women is strictly divided. We approach them and ask for a photo: "Do you wanna have your picture taken with us?" "Yes, sure," they reply. One of the lady takes her phone and makes some pictures. We say goodbye sooner before we can even properly meet.

Afghanistan was not a disappointment at all. We came, we left and we have brought so much to our lives from this place that we could write essays about it. I wonder if I should come back for the third time. Inshallah.

About the country:

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was established on 19th of August 2021. Afghanistan is an Islamic theocracy based on Sharia law. After re-establishment of the Emirate a lot of leader from previous government (1996-2001) came back to the country. Besides military branch, Taliban takes care of the recovery of infrastructure, education and business. The supreme leader is Mullah Hibatullah Azhundzada. They are trying to start diplomatic relations with other countries. Recently, the Chinese embassy has been opened in Kabul. They are also working on strengthening relations with Russia.

Population: round 40 million

The capital city: Kabul (round 5 million)

Languages: Pashto, Dari

Currency: Afghani

Religion: 90% Sunnis, 10% Shites

Practical information:

Afghanistan was the part of the Silk Road, so there are definitely places which are worth to visit. If you decide to visit local sights and monuments, you need special approvals, which are normally managed by your local guide. You can find some local agencies that ensure you safe transfer in the country. Taliban on one hand welcomes tourists, but on the other hand needs to be informed about your each step. In other words, you are not allowed to travel around the country individually and without any itinerary. The name of a person responsible for you is always written in your permission paper. Visas can be obtained in Peshawar (Pakistan). It lasts about one hour and costs 100 Dollars. You need to bring your photos in the passport size, a welcoming letter and the agency licence that will be responsible for your travel in Afghanistan. It is forbidden to enter Afghanistan individually without a local guide. Such a request would be rejected and you may get into real troubles. So if you think that it is a good idea to go on a bike trip there, hitchhike, sleep over at the locals or climb mountains on you own, you are very much mistaken. Afghanistan is not for individuals or those who care about their egos.

In Afghanistan you can pay only in cash, you may leave your credit card at home.

Alcohol is strictly forbidden. There is also ban on opium and hashish. Cigarettes are allowed for now, but Taliban is also planning to forbid them. Waterpipe tobacco smoking is also forbidden. Also be careful with music. If you listen to it in the car, when driving through checkpoints, always turn the volume down.

It is not allowed to take pictures of women and men. Always be careful when taking photos. Ask your local guide if it is Ok to take a pic of the particular person or object. When taking pictures of a person, always ask him/her for permission. Do not take photos of any military objects or checkpoints. Be careful what you say about Taliban.

Do not talk to a woman without the presence of a man. Woman is a tabu for a foreigner. You should avoid touching a women, even unintentionally, for example n in the crowd when crossing the borders.

Pornography is strictly forbidden. Check your phone and delete any compromising evidence.

It may be wise to wear their traditional costume, clothes. You may fit more easily in the community and people will appreciate your respectful approach toward their culture.

While eating, do not make any noise like burping or blowing your nose. This should be done in the bathroom.

You need to take your shoes off when entering holy places, restaurants, someone's house or offices.

Women are welcome in Afghanistan. They do not need any special clothes covering them completely. All they need is a long dress and a scarf on their head.

Important information:

All these rules may seem a bit strict and crazy, but please realise that this country has a completely different culture, history and unfortunately not good experience with the Western world. Honour, not money is the most important thing for Afghans. This is the main difference between "them" and "us". Things which look radical to us are completely normal to them. If you think you are not able to respect their world, you better forget about visiting this country.

Date of trip: october 2023

Author: Peter Gregor

Photo: Peter Gregor and Martin Durikovic

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