Why do you chase points and miles? To travel cheaply? To visit upscale destinations? I took a trip with my family that met none of the standard criteria for awesomeness: we didn’t fly first class (at one point we boarded a plane that I didn’t think would clear for takeoff), we didn’t stay at 5-star hotels, and the destination was far from the type most people would visit to relax and unwind. Yet it was better than any trip I’ve taken on points, largely due to its sentimentality. I’m talking about a country that is more likely to make the State Department’s Travel Advisory list than Travel + Leisure’s Top 10: Afghanistan.
I was born in the capital of Kabul and spent most of my childhood in Germany. I always wanted to return and visit the tiny village my family comes from and the fortress my great-great-grandfather built over 130 years ago. And I wanted to experience authentic Afghan culture.
During the 1960s, Afghanistan was a popular vacation spot among hippies for obvious reasons (hint: religion is not the only opiate of the people). Hospitality is the hallmark of Afghan culture and tourists could visit and experience it for little to no cost. They could stay with locals, get fed three meals a day, stay as long as they wanted, and nothing was ever expected in return. Nowadays, people think of Afghanistan as a place that is hostile to foreigners. Not so. The mantra is, “As long as you come as a friend and not as an enemy, you are welcome here.”
What to Do
I have been to Afghanistan twice and still don’t grow tired of it. The country has a fascinating culture and history. Marred by 33 years of constant war, Kabul is in shambles but is experiencing a huge reconstruction boom. Shopping malls, office buildings and McMansions are constructed before roads are paved, leading to a lot of traffic chaos. But it isn’t the Plexiglas-covered, shiny new malls that I found appealing, but the authentic markets that offer all kinds of treasures: you can buy weapons from the Anglo-Afghan war, antique jewelry, hand-made leather goods, beautiful shawls, Kaftans, and lots more. My favorite thing was to wander these markets with some fresh corn, cooked in a sand and salt mixture.
There is something foul about going to a poor country and trying to get a “deal” from people who are worse off than you. However, haggling is expected and if you don’t do it, even the shop owners will think you’re an idiot for paying full price. “When in Rome…” doesn’t apply anywhere else as much as it does in Kabul: you need to dress like a local (that means no t-shirts or walking around without your head uncovered, missy!) and observe local customs.
It surprised me how entrenched I became in the local culture during my visit: I began seeing things through the eyes of locals, mainly the benefits of wearing a veil. Rather than seeing it as something oppressive, I felt empowered knowing I could control whether people stared at me by simply covering my face with my headscarf. I think this is why it’s important for people to really try and blend in with the locals. You can wear your jeans and t-shirts anywhere, but living like a local helps you better understand their customs and their point of view.
Afghanistan’s history has been largely overshadowed by its recent turbulence, however it has a rich history dating back thousands of year. A great landmark in Kabul is Babur Gardens, which was constructed over 700 years ago. It was commissioned by Moghul Emperor Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, who is also buried there. The gardens were recently restored by the Agha Khan Foundation and materials from the original tomb enclosure are featured prominently along its walls.
A few steps below the tomb is a mosque commissioned by and named after Shah Jahan. The man praying in the photo saw us walking to the tomb from the corner of his eye, and followed us afterwards. He graciously opened the tomb enclosure and gave us a brief history of the gardens and Babur’s reign.
Id Gah is another important Mosque in Kabul, commissioned by Babur himself. It is where Afghanistan’s Emir declared war on the British in 1919 and where he subsequently announced Afghanistan’s independence.
Darul Amman Palace
Darul Amman Palace was once a beautiful, thriving center of Afghanistan’s monarchy. It lies in ruins now, but a German architecture firm has plans to rebuild it. At the far corner of the former palace gardens, a family of five resides in a decrepit old tent. The father supports his family by breeding dogs and doing odd jobs around town. He was a former freedom fighter during the Soviet war and still has a bullet lodged in his head. His wife was recovering from surgery inside that tent, the definition of frail. When I feel like complaining about something in my life, I always think back to that family living in a tattered tent, and the kids happily playing in the dried-up garden of a once marvelous palace.
Afghanistan is often called the “Graveyard of Empires” and nowhere is that more clear than driving past the northern countryside. The government has shipped tons of these tanks off to Pakistan to be used as scrap metal, but I kind of prefer that they leave them where they are. It’s an unusual sight and a source of pride for the locals. Not sure how the Soviets got home with all their tanks and helicopters in a pile – they must have trekked back in a hurry…
I was surprised to hear that Parwan Province was actually founded by Alexander the Great in 329 BC, as his Alexandria of the Caucuses. Of course I knew about Alexander’s presence in Afghanistan, but I didn’t realize this little town I drove through was once the capital of a great empire…
Salang is a village surrounded by dramatic scenery – rocky mountains and beautiful creeks. It reminded me a bit of the mountainous road towards Lake Tahoe, but rockier. We stopped in Solang to have lunch on the balcony of a local restaurant. An elderly man waited on us, carrying huge trays that I could barely lift off the ground. The excellent kebabs, great service, and stunning scenery are tough to beat.
Istalif, known as “The Guesthouse of Afghanistan,” was my favorite place to visit. There is nothing but greenery as far as the eye can see. The town is known for its vibrant hand-painted pottery. We stumbled upon a man painting them in front of a store. I later found out the Turquoise Mountain Foundation supports this art and encourages the use of toxin-free paint. We bought beautiful bowls and pitchers, and as we walked out, the shop keeper seemed to realize we were visiting and followed us to our car, offering us tea. We politely declined as we had to get going, but it was another example of the hospitality these rural folks pride themselves on.
Call me a dreamer, but I hope to one day build an upscale resort in Istalif. Nothing ostentatious, but something that is modern, understated, and blends well into the native landscape. Rest assured, it will have its own loyalty program.
During our recent visit to Qargha, the lake had filled up. There was a make-shift amusement park nearby, and construction projects taking shape. During the summer of 2012, we visited the Spogmai Restaurant. It’s a beautiful property, very well maintained, and the staff was very professional. The restaurant has a $2 fee per person, which gets you a free drink. Looking at the menu, I noticed something peculiar under the soft drink section: “Cold Milk.” I realized this was a mistranslation. Afghans call their home-made ice cream “Sheer Yach” (literal translation: “milk that is cold”). They used a very literal translation which I’m sure was confusing to tourists. I pointed this out to the waiter, who very politely acknowledged that the menu had some errors on it that would soon be addressed.
Despite alcohol being outlawed in Afghanistan, the waiters were openly serving beer. I thought to myself, “They’re going to get themselves into a lot of trouble, doing this in such a conservative community.” A week later, the restaurant was attacked by insurgents who cited the “debauchery” that took place on a regular basis at this restaurant. People were jumping into the lake to save themselves and several waiters were killed during the attack. Although we weren’t aware of it then, we were constantly dodging bullets on both trips. However, if there is one thing I learned from the people of Afghanistan it’s that you can’t let danger keep you from living. Spogmai Restaurant has bounced back, as has the Intercontinental Hotel, Mandawi Market, and every other square inch of a country that has for the past 30 years been in a state of perpetual war – and it’s because those people don’t allow danger to dictate their lives.
And with this sentiment in mind, I plan on returning and continuing my exploration of this beautiful land. For those who think it’s reckless to pick such a dangerous place to vacation, I leave you with these words by Samuel Johnson: “All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own. And if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.”
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