Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires

Afghanistan - this country is possibly more evocative and emotive than any other. It's hardly out of the news. Portrayed by the media as war torn and dangerous. Afghanistan has long been described as 'the graveyard of empires'. It goes without saying that the FCO advise against all travel to the area. Kidnapping, they say, is rife. Add to this, the ethical implications. The Taliban regime is brutal. The human rights record is abysmal. Edicts are increasingly misogynist.

But this, the first country in the world alphabetically, is the only country in the world that I haven't visited. And informed travel sources report that, under the Taliban, Afghanistan is safer than it has been for many years.

A small group of intrepid (foolish?) friends have agreed to come with me. Alison and Alec from Australia (who I met on the Golden Eagle Train) and Andy and Andrea from England (who I met in Saudi Arabia). So, they're all As too and I'm the only aberration. Sue me?

A Treat on the Road to Peshawar

We assemble in Islamabad, Pakistan. Our guide here is Kausar, who is an old hand. We're advised that Peshawar, on the Afghan border, is the best place to get the required visa. The road out of Islamabad is a seven lane motorway: Islamabad-Srinagar- Peshawar. It's not a busy route, but that doesn’t stop the diminutive three wheel trucks, from dawdling all over the lanes and cutting up our spanking new minivan, for no apparent reason.

Kausar says he has a special treat for us. It turns out to be a signboard featuring the garrison town of Abbottabad, where Bin Laden was assassinated. (The Pakistanis had to pretend not to be offended at not being informed. The Americans pointed out that if they knew he was there they were complicit and if they didn't they were incompetent. ) I actually travelled through that city when I came down the Karakorum Highway, so perhaps I'm not as impressed as I should be. But it makes for a photo stop.

Peshawar

The traffic is an entirely different matter when we get to Peshawar; the city is rammed with cycle rickshaws (tuk tuks), insinuating their way in-between the cars, snaking slowly along, jamming up the streets entirely. Later, there’s an anti-price hike demonstration, which does nothing to ease the situation. If only we could go as fast as a crawl.

Peshawar, the City of Flowers, is the sixth most populous city of Pakistan, the capital of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in the region of Afghania. This is the home of the Pashtuns, the second-largest ethnic group in the country. East of the historic Khyber Pass, Peshawar's recorded history dates back to at least 539 BC, making it one of the oldest cities in South Asia. The Pashtuns have always done things their way, ignoring imposed borders (the so called Durand Line was imposed by the British in 1893) and relying on cultural ones. Most of the Taliban, Afghan and Pakistani are Pashtun. Tim Marshall describes Peshawar as 'a sort of urban Taliban military-industrial complex'. That's probably why it's coloured red on the FCO map of Pakistan. Pakistan has had a difficult time trying to appear to support the USA, whilst first allowing the Taliban to host Al Qaeda and then pretending that the Afghan Taliban have not laid low here, whilst the Americans were in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has a vested interest in keeping its north west border open for trade. But now the Taliban are in charge in Afghanistan relationships have been less cordial. Things on the Khyber Pass are a little tense at the moment. There have been reported skirmishes; shots have been fired.

Kausar has been out here a long time and knows which shops give him the best commission. He’s assisted by a tall thin elderly gentleman, with a skull cap and the most extraordinary rings. He hands me his card. His name, grandly, is Prince Mahir Ullah. He fusses, talks very fast and I don’t understand a word he says.

The bazaar in the Peshawar’s old walled city (there are pieces of gate remaining) is gloriously atmospheric, miles of tiny booths, winding alleys, fragrant spices in bright heaps and smiling bearded men, all desperate to have their photos taken. There are very few women on the streets – most of them heavily veiled, or in full burkhas. But no-one seems to mind that we are uncovered and welcomes abound.

Our tour also includes Story Tellers Street, with its city gate (Hashtnagri), and ancient tea shop. The main mosque (Mahabat Khan). More alleys, more hot beverage stalls. We have it down to a tee.

Kit and Visas

The first job is to buy suitable clothing, so that we will blend in and don't offend anyone. We choose shalwar kameez outfits, in a made to measure tailor's shop, picked out by Kausar. The men have waistcoats and round, felt (itchy hats). No doubt, Kausar will collect a good commission, when he goes to collect the goods for us. Presumably, that's why he doesn’t want us to accompany him. The process of buying is hot and chaotic, but tailormade outfits for £13 per get up is not exactly highway robbery.

Obtaining our Afghan visas is no less frustrating. At the Afghan consulate, the women have to don full burkhas, with not even a cut out for the eyes. Just a mesh, so it's almost impossible to see where you are going and we struggle to find the right office, in the compound. The burkhas are a vile sludge colour and mine keeps slipping off my head. We have to wait two hours - there’s a problem, due to the failure of some system or other. I lose track of what. No proper explanation is given and no-one really speaks to us. The women have to wait separately to the men, of course. I have a suspicion that they just sit on our passports for a while, because they can. But they are duly issued and we are all set to go.

In the evening, a feast in a special barbecue restaurant. It takes us an hour to get there, because of the demonstration congestion. And the lamb kebabs and lamb curry are on the greasy side. But it's fascinating, as always, to interact with the diners. Groups of soldiers, squatting on mats, AK47s pushed to one side.

Afghanistan, Here We Come

Then, it's a very short hop from Islamabad on KAM airways, the privately owned Afghan carrier, to Kabul, the capital. KAM and state owned Ariana are the only airlines operating out of Afghanistan currently. Immigration is relatively straightforward. Three more photos (an ideal opportunity to use the headscarf toting spares from my Iran visa) for my temporary identity card which no-one ever looks at. But, I’ve done it! 196 countries.

First Impressions of Afghanistan

Kabul is not what I expected, after all those dramatic reels on the news. People clinging to the undercarriage of planes, as they take off, explosions, war torn buildings, disarray and carnage. The airport is small, but relatively well ordered. We're unsure how to navigate to the meeting area, as there are vast cleared spaces leading to the car parks. But they are bright and clean, with neat fencing and hoardings. There's even a roundabout, with an 'I love Afghanistan' sign.

Night has fallen, but the city, home to five million, glitters. Neon lights flash and vast wedding palaces, complete with pillars and frescoes, sparkle. There's no suggestion of damage in the frontages lining the busy roads, though closer inspection indicates rubble, in streets further back. And security is ostensibly tight. Our hotel is hidden from sight, encompassed by a shopping mall and everything, and everyone, has to be scanned, before we can enter. The women have a separate entrance, and, if no female is on duty, get to go in unchallenged. I discover that this happens a lot in Afghanistan. Which rather renders the security systems pointless, in my humble opinion.

Guides, Nawuz and Abozar take us out for our first dinner, in a family restaurant. It's the first of many dishes of rice and kebabs and our first chance to interact with the Afghans. Dress code is not a strict as I had anticipated. Many women do cover their faces in public, but a significant number do not. They show a little hair, though the scarves are not allowed to slide too much. And a couple, with their small son, celebrating a birthday, allow photos.

Facts and Factoids

  • Afghanistan is officially now called The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
  • The supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, has the religious title Amir al-Mu'minin (Arabic for 'Commander of the Faithful'). He is the absolute ruler, head of state, and national religious leader of Afghanistan, as well as the leader of the Taliban. In other words, what he says, goes. He's based in Kandahar.
  • Afghanistan is rich in natural resources, including lithium, iron, zinc, and copper, but it doesn't have the ability to extract them. The Chinese are keen to help out here, and are already road building. Looking at less acceptable methods with which to raise income: Afghanistan remains the world's largest producer of opium, and second largest producer of cannabis resin. Conflict over the centuries has rendered this one of the poorest countries in the world.
  • The people of Afghanistan speak Dari, a variation of Farsi, in use since the tenth century, and Pashto.
  • The time is 4½ hours ahead of GMT (the half is important).
  • Afghanistan is a country of extremes. More than 100ºC separates the record maximum and minimum temperatures. The record high was 49.9 °C and the low was −52.2 °C. In addition, there is a 7,234 metre difference between its highest point (Noshakh) and its lowest point (Amu Darya). It's the sixth-highest elevation span in the world.
  • Afghanistan’s national game is buzkashi, or 'goat-grabbing'. The game is played by two teams of horseback riders (as in polo) who compete over a headless, freshly slaughtered goat. It's a winter sport and I'm not really unhappy to have missed it.

Exploring Kabul, the Capital of Afghanistan

Kabul is one of the highest capital cities in the world and it lies along a narrow valley. This is the gateway to the Hindu Kush, making Kabul so strategically important, so difficult to attack and an 'interesting' place to land in an aeroplane. Houses cling to the mountain slopes; travel to and from home looks like hard work. Nestled in this bowl, the city suffers from some of the world’s worst air pollution.

Kabul is said to be over 3,500 years old, the meeting point between Tartary, India, and Persia. So, it was a key destination on the ancient Silk Road, 'the roundabout of the ancient world.' Later, a stop on the hippie trail, overland to Kathmandu. It's a long way from hippiedom now, though the centre of the city retains its old neighbourhoods. The traffic is manic here. Just like in most Asian cities. Bright market stalls, selling fruit, line the roads. Pomegranate juice being freshly pressed alongside crates of coca cola. Bananas - 25 pence a hand, and huge bags of apples. The crop is just in.

There are historical gardens, bazaars, museums and palaces sprinkled around. Beyond those, modern apartment buildings, a whole street of schools and colleges and the bronze domed roof of the three storied Presidential Palace. The 150 room Darul Aman Palace was originally built in the 1920s, during the reign of Amanullah Khan. The palace was badly damaged during the 1990s civil war and then renovated. It's now occupied by the Taliban - Darul Aman means 'Abode of Peace'.

Surrounding the The Darul Aman Palace are the National Assembly, the Afghan International University and the National Museum of Afghanistan, telling the story of Afghanistan.

The History of Afghanistan

  • Human habitation in Afghanistan dates back to the Middle Paleolithic era.
  • Since then, the area has been subsumed by the Persians, Alexander the Great, the Maurya Empire, the Ghorids, the Arab Muslims the Mongols and Tamerlane. The Greco-Bactrians and the Mughals began from here.
  • But Afghanistan did not arise as a separate entity until the Durrani dynasty, in the eighteenth century. It expanded and was again divided into individual states.
  • The country was finally unified, under the Emirate of Kabul, in the nineteenth century.
  • At that point, Afghanistan was identified as the Gateway to India, and became a buffer state in the Great Game, between the British Empire (in British-ruled India) and the Russian Empire. The story is compellingly told in Peter Hopkirk's book. The British tried three times to subjugate Afghanistan. The First Anglo-Afghan War was a complete British failure. The last two attempts saw initial success, followed by eventual defeat, due to double crossing and betrayal, by those they had conquered.
  • The country emerged as the independent Kingdom of Afghanistan in June 1926, becoming the the Republic of Afghanistan in 1973.
  • The pattern of extensive warfare, including coups, invasions, insurgencies, and civil wars continued. The Soviet Union finally decided to take a turn at invading Afghanistan's inhospitable terrain, in 1979. Guerrilla fighters, defending the Islamic faith, known as Mujahideen, gave the Soviets a torrid time and then continued fighting amongst themselves, following the Soviet withdrawal, in 1989.
  • By 1996, The Islamic fundamentalist Taliban controlled most of the country. They were toppled by the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan. The Americans lasted twenty years in The Graveyard of Empires. The Taliban returned to power in 2021, though they remain internationally unrecognized.

The National Museum of Afghanistan

The National Museum was once one of the best museums in the world. It is still recovering from rocket fire (destroying 70% of the artefacts on disposal) and looting or 'removal of objects for safekeeping' during the various conflicts. Some of the collection has been on travelling exhibition since 2006.  The Taliban purged the museum of its pre-Islamic statues and images. There's a large collection of coins, but that's not accessible by the general public.

We do get to see pots, ceramics and Buddhist remains and relics from archaeological sites, especially Tepe Sardar, in Afghanistan. And I have a lovely chat with an Afghan engineer who has brought his family here to educate them. They're all dressed up to the nines, for their day out. The gardens are pleasant, more boys, on a school outing to talk to, a steam engine to pose against. And don't forget to check your weapons in, as you enter.

The Ka Faroshi Bird Market

The very long-time established bird market, in Kabul, is a tourist must-see. It's also known as the Alley of Straw Sellers: a narrow passage festooned with artistically wrought wicker cages, containing all types of species and sizes of birds. Tiny love birds, pink, mauve and yellow. Grey and white fowl with dots of orange beaks. Falcons for hunting. Parrots, larks, finches, canaries, budgies for pets and for their song, cooing doves (they always do), pouting racing pigeons and fighting birds. Roosters are common for the latter, but the local red striped partridges (kowks) are favourites here. Afghanistan is obsessed with keeping birds captive.

The domed bird cages are interspersed with the odd rabbit or tortoise. There are tubs and sacks of bird seed. Feeders of assorted types and beaded anklets, to decorate the bird's legs. Men with extraordinary faces feed them tenderly. Our reception, from the stall keepers and buyers is more mixed. There's some warmth, some surly indifference. As to the long suffering birds. I wish I could set them all free.

OMAR Mine Museum in Kabul

Unexploded mines are still a huge problem in Afghanistan. The OMAR Mine Museum aims to highlight the issue. I'm told there are displays of 51 types of mine in the small display room, where they carry out training, but we're not allowed in that section. Our 5 USD (we're taking a pasting on entrance fees for foreigners) gets us into a display room with some old cars and a display with plenty of other ordnance. Shells and guns abound. Outside, a few planes, a helicopter and some rockets. That's enough for me.

The Chihilsitoon Garden

There are great views across the city, from the renovated palace at the Chihilsitoon Garden, even if it is a bit of a trek to the top. There are 12.5-hectares of landscaped recreational area, in the foothills of the Sher Darwaza Mountain and much of Kabul comes out to play here. Chihilsitoon means 40 columns and the first, colonnaded palace was built, on the hill, by ruler, Zaman Shah, in the late eighteenth century. There have been plenty of renovations since then. The building is not that exciting and we aren't allowed to see much of it anyway.

The Babur Gardens

North of the Chihilsitoon Garden, also on the Sher Darwaza hillside, are the Gardens of Babur, a historic site. A long way up the many terraces, is the tomb of the first Mughal emperor Babur (descended from both Tamerlane and Genghis Khan - he has great pedigree). Babur ordered the construction of the gardens and tomb, but he died in Agra in 1530, and his body didn't make it to the tomb until 1544.

His descendants came to make pilgrimage and enhance the site, every so often. In 1638, Emperor Shah Jahan put a marble screen around the tomb of Babur, and built a mosque on the terrace below. This was the thirteenth terrace, the one nearest to Mecca. The enclosure elevated it in importance and separated it from the tombs of other relatives, which were added. Later embellishments included tea houses, water channels, pools, fountains, and even a swimming pool.

Today, there has been further renovation, following the inevitable war damage. UNESCO is looking after the site. The gardens are another popular venue for locals to wander - and practise their wrestling.

Back at the hotel, I can't open my safe and neither can the hotel personnel. It's extracted, laid on the floor, bashed around repeatedly and attacked with a hammer, before it finally cooperates. At dinner, lounging on the floor, as we wait our rice and kebabs, Nawruz announces he has had a hair transplant. It cost 450 USD.

Mazar i Sharif and Around

Next, a flight north, to Mazar i Sharif. There's a huge queue of traffic to get into Kabul Airport. Garlanded vehicles and banners are welcoming travellers back from haj. We are body searched three times and the carry- on is also scanned three times.

On the plane, Nawruz eats my shredded chicken roll, along with his own, dousing everything liberally in chilli sauce. I'm instead, savouring the views of the Hindu Kush. The mountains are craggy and starkly brown. A series of spiky flat arrowheads. A patch of painted peaks, green and pink with splotches of yellow.

When we land, we drive south, past the same colourful peaks I just saw from the air and through the towering and narrow Tangī-ye Tāsh-Qurghān Gorge. Freya Stark calls this The Gate of India, in her travel memoirs. It is classic ambush country and the road is littered with fallen boulders, to boot. Fortunately, there is plenty of other traffic and no sign of figures, peering Zulu like, over the gorge walls.

Now we have two vans, one of which is driven by Nawruz' father, Abdel. He has a cheeky grin. The other driver is Ezat. He is a brilliant mechanic, I learn, and owns his own workshop. Guide Abozar is still with us. It's the first time he has flown and he is fidgeting and agitated, both nervous and happy.

We traverse this road south again, in two days time, but we are visiting the Buddhist stupa and caves at Samangan today, to save time then, as this route is incredibly busy at the moment. And besides, it's Friday, and everything is closed in Mazar. That includes the Taliban offices. So, we can't get permits to visit other sites anyway.

Takht-e Rostam

Takht-e Rostam is close to the town of Samangan. It's a Buddhist monastery complex, which dates back to the third century AD. The stupa, atop a hill, is carved deep into the bedrock, like the churches at Lalibela. On the apex of the dome is a 'Harmika', a building designed to hold relics of the Buddha. The sides of the stupa are patched up, where the Taliban tried to blow up whatever they thought might be inside. There are caves just below that, and further down a precariously slippy path, a series of carved out chambers. These were recently used as a supermarket. Place your order here.

Mazar-i-Sharif

It's cooler up here, in Mazar-i-Sharif, despite the flat desert stretching north to Uzbekistan Tajikistan and Turkmenistan - all very close. The name means "tomb of the saint", a reference to the tomb of Hazrat Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin, son-in-law and companion of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The tomb is housed in the large, blue-tiled sanctuary and mosque in the centre of the city, known as the Shrine of Ali or the Blue Mosque. The most holy Moslem site in Afghanistan.

Well, that's what Sunni Muslims say. The Sh'ites believe that he's buried at Najaf in Iraq. I'm inclined to side with them. I was allowed to get right up to the tomb in Najaf, whereas the misogynistic Taliban have recently issued an edict that women are not even allowed in the compound of the Blue Mosque. (Women have already been barred from most jobs and access to all but primary education.)

We've been issued the necessary permit, but the three mullahs inside refuse to let us women enter. We are only allowed to peer through the exceedingly small holes in the railings. I'm seething, but this what I managed to see, with the aid of my camera lens, and despite being hurried by Nawruz, who understandably doesn't want to attract any more attention.

Then, we go shopping, in the bazaar. Well, we are women, after all.

Balkh

Out to Balkh and Non Gonbad, a ninth century (or even earlier) Zoroastrian fire or Buddhist temple - depending on who you believe, which has been turned into a Samanid style mosque. (Balkh is traditionally the birthplace of Zoroaster). The Mosque of Nine Cupolas is one of the earliest examples of Islamic architecture and the oldest in Afghanistan. The pillars are intricately carved with flowers and there are minuscule hints of the lapis and gem stone that once made this mosque magnificent. It was rediscovered and excavated about 35 years ago and it's thought to be a miracle that it survived.

There are hundreds of tombs around, mostly belonging to venerated holy men. (They're marked with a flag.) One belongs to Haji Piyada, a pilgrim who walked to Mecca seven times. We are escorted around here by Taliban guards, who then come with us to the old town of Bactria. There's a tomb here, of a Sufi/Islamic conqueror Zamchi, surrounded by Buddhist style flags. There are also two giant swings. One of our guards has a great time performing for the camera.

Then, to the ancient capital of Bactria, called Bactra. Settlement here dates back to bronze age times. Alexander the Great seized the area and ruled it through the Seleucids, before it was absorbed by the Persians and then swallowed by the Arab empires . Alexander left his invalids here to recover, or not. Bactria, overlooking the river Oxus, was then the greatest city in Central Asia. It's a warren of walls with domes and towers. These are the Bala Hisar, seven miles long. They were destroyed by both Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. One watchtower has been restored, so you can climb up and take in the view. With the Taliban.

The Food in Afghanistan

Back to Mazar, for ice cream: mango, pistachio and cherry. Though the women are not allowed to eat with the men and have to go upstairs. The ice cream is delicious, but the shape is a little disturbing. Three scoops: one turd, two turds, three turds. I've already mentioned that the dinner menu is almost identical everywhere. Most of the more reputable restaurants have fast food style menus offering everything from Chinese to Indian and pizza. Perhaps this is the American influence. Manti dumplings (Turkish ravioli) are tasty.

But, traditional Afghan food is BBQ. The quality varies widely, from incinerated to plumply moist and delicious, depending on whether they have a proper grill or not. Heaps of naan style bread accompany everything, thrown onto the plastic floor coverings, which are then gathered up with all the leftovers and disposed of. The Afghan rice dishes are not as spicy as the Pakistani style biryanis, but instead, laden with raisins and shredded pickled carrot. A lump of braised meat lurks in the centre. Lamb shank, or a chicken leg.

There's no alcohol, of course. but plenty of fresh juices and the local version of Coca Cola, optimistically named Supa-Cola. Fresh pomegranate juice or lemon and mint are good. The coke, not so much.

The Long Road to Bamiyan

They have closed the Salang Pass (polluted and the scene of many accidents), on the main twisty AH76, the Kabul-Mazar Road, after a fire, and everyone now has to use the back roads, which are unsurfaced. It's not the quickest, or safest of journeys, when the paved route is open. The road is very narrow. It’s often washed out after heavy rains We're warned this diversion may take 21 hours. One Italian group even reports that it took them 36 hours. They had to stop, to sleep. The planes are full. We've checked.

So, we have to leave at 5 a.m. Back through the menacing gorges; this time I'm dozing. There are plenty of fruit stalls alongside the road. Melon stalls abound. The assorted fruits, piled high like cannonballs, are sweet and juicy .

Beyond Puli Khumri and Doshi, we take to what is indeed, a very tortuous long and winding road; with some shut-your-eye-moments as we lumber along mountain passes and teeter on the edge of gorges. The route is so confined, that the trucks are only allowed in one direction. Today, they're coming towards us. We debate which is best. They travel so slowly, it's no fun being stuck behind one. But there are streams of the behemoths, mostly revamped German models. heading at us, often 30 at a time and they give no quarter. We have no option, but to keep waiting it out.

It takes an age, even, to get onto the by-road, as the trucks queuing for tomorrow, are already vying for position and blocking our access. Clouds of dust roll past. It's like driving in fog. At one point we encounter a truck, stuck partway up a hill and not enough room to get by. So, a diversion through several villages and back over the Kunduz River, we have been following most of the way. At another toilet stop, Nawruz hurries us on. It's a dodgy area, he explains. Thankfully, still no signs of those Zulus.

The upside? We have a glimpse of the heart of the Hindu Kush. Starkly gorgeous mountains, glacial blue rivers, small rickety bridges, the odd fortress and busy paddy fields. It's harvest time, in this world of subsistence farming. Freya Stark is dismissive - 'It's not pretty, like the Alps', she says. But Afghanistan is mainly high desert and these mountains, which cover most of the country, have a grandeur of their own.

Andy and Andrea bicker constantly and gently, like most happily married couples. I sit in the back seat; the child who needs to be entertained. It's an interminably slow journey, as night falls. The procession of pantechnicons has diminished, but the road is astonishingly bad. It has taken us 17½ hours in all, and I'm walking dead. But it could have been so much worse. The drivers have been astonishing, navigating these roads, all that time, with hardly a break. And it must have been good exercise. My health app says I've done 37,000 steps today. It's congratulated me on breaking my record, by some margin.

Bamiyan

Nawruz has promised rooms with a view at Bamiyan, but they've already been taken by another tour group. I have a balcony which faces onto a sheer rock face. With barbed wire on top. The hotel is Soviet meets Chinese that has seen better days. Ripped net curtains, brocade walls and a corner bath, with a gap behind it. I can't angle the shower head, So, when I bathe, there's a cascade down the crevice and a deep pool on the floor.

More permits, more waiting in the Taliban offices. Here, the altitude is starting to take its toll. Bamiyan lies at 2,550 metres. And I'm struggling.

Shahr-e Zuhak

Nawruz's idea of gentle induction is to launch us up a steep mountain path, to dramatic views from the ruined brick turrets of Shahri I Zuhak, also known as the Red City. The fortress here is believed to have been founded between 500-600 AD by the Ghorids. Legend tells that Zuhak (Persian hero) killed his father, who founded it, to take over his kingdom and then had to sacrifice two people a day, to feed to the local dragon. Legend also says that the citadel was turned blood red by the armies of Genghis Khan and his army. An arrow flying from this fortress killed his grandson and he vowed retribution. The battle was part of the vicious Siege of Bamiyan, which took place in 1221, during the Mongol pursuit of Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, the last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire. Afterwards, Bamiyan was known as the "City of Woe".

Abozar helps by carrying my belongings, whilst simultaneously berating me for my lack of fitness. I’ve dubbed him Sherpa. He says he's the Secret Sherpa, as he doesn’t want his wife to know.

Shahr-e Gholghola

Our hotel is named Gholghola, after the City of Screams, named for the same reason as the City of Woe. This archaeological site, involving still more steps, was renovated by UNESCO. Standing on yet another peak, (but not red this time), Shahr-e Gholghola was the best defended of the area's citadels and the last to be held by Jalal ad-Din. However, his daughter abandoned the castle, annoyed that her father had married a princess from Ghazni. She divulged details of the castle's secret entrance, to the Mongols. They didn't reward her, as she expected, but executed her, along with everyone else.

After that. a quick visit to some abandoned Soviet tanks. They've been turned into a children's playground.

The Buddhas of Bamiyan (Or Not)

Bamiyan is most famous for its Buddhas. This was the western extremity of the Buddhist reach and here, in the sixth century, (the time of the Hephthalites), two monumental statues were carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan valley. The smaller, 38 metre Shah Mama, queen mother figure, was built around 570 AD, and the larger 55 metre Western or Male Buddha, Salsal, was built around 618 AD. This was a pilgrimage site for Buddhists, on the Silk Road.

The Buddhas were surrounded by numerous caves and surfaces decorated with the world's oldest oil paintings. It is thought that these mostly dated from the sixth to eighth centuries AD, ending with the Muslim conquests of Afghanistan. The whole constitutes a breath-taking cliff face, visible from our hotel (if you have the right room, or pant six floors up to the roof). Or it would, but the Buddhas aren't there any more. The statues were destroyed in March 2001, after the Taliban government declared that they were idols. The buddha pieces (they were blown up) are stored in wooden frames on the site, but they are very small fragments. I don't think there's much hope of reconstruction. Freya Stark was dismissive of the Buddhas too. She declared them to be ugly. But I would have liked to decide for myself. I'll have to settle for a niche experience.

Banda e Amir (Or Not)

The next scheduled stop is Band-e Amir National Park. They're a series of six intensely blue lakes, created by natural dams, on the Balkh River, high in the Hindu Kush. It is, in fact, a huge travertine system. The pictures are stunning and I was really looking forward to seeing them. Perhaps, the highlight of the trip. But, a month ago, the Taliban banned women from entering the park. The acting Minister of Virtue and Vice, Mohammad Khaled Hanafi, explains that women had not been observing hijab inside the park. So we're not going. More arguments, at checkpoints. But only the men are allowed in. To say I'm seething again, is an understatement.

Misogyny rules ok.

Dragon Valley

So, us inferior beings are off to Dragon Valley, five kilometres west of Bamiyan, with Abozar. Apparently, the ridge up here is the the petrified remains of a monstrous creature that once terrorised the region. Legend tells that the dragon took up residence in Bamiyan in pagan times. He was fed daily on a diet of virgins and camels delivered by the terrorized population. All attempts to slay him ended badly. Until Hazrat Ali, (of the above mentioned tomb), came along. The dragon’s burning breath turned to tulip petals, as they licked around the hero, whereupon he drew his great sword Zulfiqar and cleaved the monster in two. With his acquired magical powers, he then went on to create the lakes at Bamir. But we won't talk about that.

The supposed body (volcanic rock), is indeed split in two (an earthquake). It has two horns (mud volcanoes) and weeps blood and tears (mineral salts). It's a great view and the rocks are delightfully colourful, but to be honest, we're all struggling to conjure up a dragon here.

Inside Life in Afghanistan

In the afternoon, whilst the males of our group are still away, jaunting at the unmentionable blue lakes, we are, very kindly, invited to visit Abozar’s house. Abozar has built a new, mud wall dwelling, above the old family home. It's an idyllic setting, with mountain views and a river rushing beneath. Cattle wander, or low softly in the byre. But it's an hour's brisk walk along the track to the main road and then another bus to town. The family doesn't have any motor transport. We meet Abozar's sweet faced daughter and her shy friends, on their way to school. If they dawdle, it takes them two hours each way.

If the men had come with us, they would have had to remain in the large guest room, where Abozar's parents sleep at night. We squat here for a while, on the rugs. We're entertained by Abozar's father, but, as none of us share a language, we can only smile and partake of the traditional tea and sweets, on offer.

Us women, are then invited into the other family room, where Abozar sleeps with his family. His beautiful, smiling wife peeps out of the kitchen, where she's wielding pots. We're fed sher berenge, an Afghan dish of rice cooked, with milk and a lot of butter. It is very rich. All the women of the family have turned up to see us. His poised and gorgeous young niece has some English and seems resigned to not being allowed to continue her education. And they all, women and children, get round the language barrier by grabbing our phones and scrolling through the picture galleries. I've promised not to include any images of the adult women on this site. They giggle and keep a distance from driver Tamor, who is in the other room. He mustn’t see them uncovered.

It transpires that most of the drivers/guides are related. Smiley Tamor, who we first met in Kabul and who has now appeared in Bamiyan, is Nawruz' brother. (He's pictured above at Dragon Valley.) Abdel is their father. Tamor is married to the Afghan team leader's sister. Ezat (who it seems is an excellent driver, as well as being a whizz mechanic) and Abdel used to work together. (It's them waving from the top of the stupa at Samangan above.) And there's a personal mystery to solve. How old is Abozar? Nawuz says one thing, Abozar another, and his ID makes him younger at 28. But birth certificates are almost non existent in Afghanistan and IDs are created to serve whatever circumstances are required. Abozar needed a scholarship at the time.

The Even Longer Winding Road, to Jam

It's another two days now, on what are described comfortingly, as 'terrible roads', to see the fabled Minaret of Jam. Andy insisted we go. Through the Shibartu (or Shebartoo) Desert - dry, brown mountains and over a much too exhilarating pass, vans lodged in deep sand ruts (even Ezat has to take a second run once) and winding hairpins with sheer drops.

From then on, as we venture west, the road follows gorges and river valleys, edged with emerald strips. The potato and wheat harvests are in full swing here and hay is being brought in. Families are out in force, loading staggering donkeys, cattle tugging at their tethers and ox bearing wooden yokes, ploughing next season's furrows.

Children setting off to school, turquoise UNICEF bags strapped to their backs. It’s cold in these high and arid lands. It's just over eight hours of bumping to Chagcheran.

Chagcheran

Chagcheran is a city in the middle of nowhere and a thousand different spellings of its name. This is Afghanistan's most desolate region, mired in obscurity and hemmed in by mountains. The province of Ghor was once the heart of the mediaeval Ghorid empire, which stretched from present-day Iran to South Asia. Ghor is now Afghanistan’s poorest and most isolated region. But obscurity has also meant that it has been sheltered from most of the violence.

Our hotel here is the grimiest so far. Alec runs ahead to bag the best room, but it's the best of a very bad bunch. There are shared latrines, with a distinct lack of bleach (they are new but nothing is cleaned) and horrible smelly pillows. Water pipes run across the ceiling. New windows, but they refuse to close. And it's still cold. Down to dinner, we discover that the drivers have already eaten most of the food the restaurant has on offer. And there’s a party in the room next to mine.

And, another enforced visit to the ministry of tourism. We’re interrogated by the local Taliban representative. He's battling relegation to obscurity through pomp and pretension. Dressed in black, with an impressive turban, he’s sitting at a huge desk in a large room, with huge new settees, a glass fronted bookcase, crammed with massive tomes and a sea of gold lettering. There’s the furled Taliban flag of course. That flies everywhere. It’s a shame the ceiling‘s been leaking badly.

He questions us, until we’ve told him the Taliban provide wonderful security and agreed we will tell everyone in England it is safe to travel to Afghanistan. Although he’s not interested, of course, in the female viewpoint. We have to have our photos taken, on the phone, on his Canon, with tripod, without, separately, in a group. Then we are manoeuvred into an English lecture hall, where the teacher invites questions and more photos are taken. Naturally, the last student asks for money to support local education.

The Minaret of Jam

Another rough five hours. We've left the Hindu Kush behind and now we're in the Paropamisus Mountains. Into a long narrow gorge, on the Hari River. Eventually, peeping round a bend….The Minaret of Jam. Is this the most difficult UNESCO World Heritage Site to reach? Wikipedia describes it as 'nearly inaccessible'. This 65 metre high minaret was built around 1190, entirely of baked bricks, in intricate geometric patterns, where the Jam River meets the Hari. There's glazed tile decoration, and inscribed verses from the Qur'an. Once part of a Ghorid mosque and city, the minaret now stands proudly, quite alone, impossibly picturesque, the river gurgling alongside.

Well, not quite alone. Taliban security is high and guards patrol constantly. The minaret was placed on the list of World Heritage in Danger, with a serious threat of erosion, and nothing has since been down to preserve it. In 2014, the BBC reported that the tower was in imminent danger of collapse. And, we're camping underneath. This is vying with Chagcheran for most uncomfortable night of the trip. We've requested mattresses, but Nawruz has come up with polystyrene strips. Blankets are rationed, (as is food, which Nawruz has cooked on the Taliban fire). The tents are new to the guides and drivers and they're not sure how to put them up. There are worrying cracking sounds. And it is, literally, freezing.

Jackals howl. 'Sueooooo sueoooo, we're coming to get you'. The Taliban flash torches, when the animals get too close, and call to each other. Departure is scheduled for a painful 5 a.m. but that's a pipe dream. It takes an hour to fold one tent.

A Road too Far

Another very long and juddering drive to Herat. A jade coloured lake, formed by the India-Afghanistan Friendship Dam. Iran is not so keen. The river forms the border with their country, the other side of Herat. Is it as beautiful as Band e Amir ? Of course it is. We are tiring of travelling in the vans now. The fascination of everyday Afghan life, which has entertained us, is waning.

The scenery has flattened out, into the long Hari River flood plain and is eventually monotonous. Momentarily enlivened by the domes at Chist-e-Sharif, one of which, as Andy points out, is on the cover of Rory Stewart's book, The Places In Between. He walked the route we've just driven, with a toothless dog. The domes are also Ghorid relics, this time damaged by tank fire. The Chishti Order of Sufi mystics began here, about 930 AD. Maudood Chishti is buried there, in a large mausoleum.

No time to stop and look. We switchback through more desert, and alongside villages with igloo style domed houses, built out of mud. And finally, finish in a traffic jam, and the bright neon lights of Herat.

Herat

Herat is a delight. Afghanistan’s most famous historic city and the cultural capital. It's even more glitzy than Kabul, a friendly modern city (in parts), with, unsurprisingly, an Iranian influence. The butchers' shops are even glass fronted, with the meat refrigerated. Rows of fancy clothes shops. Upmarket juice bars. (Though it's still only 70 pence for a pomegranate juice.) And the perfect place to finish our tour. The hotel is grand for Afghanistan. Plush even. There's mould on the plated welcome nuts and a wet room styled bathroom, with a central drain, so the whole becomes a paddling  pool. And the towels are hard and grey. But it is indeed, paradise.

The Great Mosque at Herat

The Great Mosque at Herat is considered to be one of Islam’s great buildings. It dates back to the Ghorid Empire and the twelfth century, but it has been heavily renovated. And we are ALL allowed in the mosque compound. It's reminiscent of the Registan at Samarkand, with its gorgeously tiled madrasa and towering minarets. They are still restoring the mosaics, and we're taken on a tour of the ceramics works. Tile moulds, kilns and design studios, where patterns are copied and reproduced. It's all magnificent.

The Musalla Complex

The Musalla Complex is a ruined former Islamic cluster of fifteenth-century Timurid buildings. There are five dilapidated minarets (one heavily scaffolded), the Mir Ali Sher Navai (famous poet) mausoleum, the ruins of a large mosque and madrasa complex and, the chief attraction, the blue domed Gawhar Shad Mausoleum. Gahwar Shad was the Livia of her time, a very influential woman. She was the chief consort of Shah Rukh, an emperor of the Timurid (Tamerlane) Empire. In 1405 she moved the Timurid capital from Samarkand to Herat. She constructed the Mousalla Complex and led a renaissance of Persian culture, architecture and the arts.

So far, so good. After the death of her husband, in 1447, Gawhar Shad manoeuvred her favourite grandson to the throne. For ten years, she was the de facto ruler of an empire, stretching from the Tigris to the borders of China. She was eventually executed. (She was well past 80.)

Shrine of Khwaja Abd Allah

At the village of Gazur Gah, just outside Herat, I thought Nawruz told us that this is the Shrine of the Man Who Met Ali. Wikipedia says it's the Shrine of Khwaja Abd Allah, the funerary compound of the Sufi saint Khwaja Abdullah Ansari. He was the patron saint of Herat. That sounds much more likely.

The shrine was built by famous Timurid architect, Qavam al-Din of Shiraz, in 1425. Because the saint was venerated, everyone else wanted to be buried here too. The graveyard is crammed with headstones of all shapes and sizes. Anyone who is anyone is entombed here: princes, dervishes, state officials, soldiers, poets. Even an Afghan ruler, Dost Mohammad Khan.

The saint's tomb is carved in stone and encased in green railings. And I'm inadvertently looking at it from the men’s side, but it's so relaxed here, no-one seems to mind.

The Jihad Museum

The Jihad Museum is a rotunda building. a domed and blue, green and white tiled memorial to the mujahideen heroes, who fought the Soviets in the 70s and 80s. There are arguments about entry. A small boy, on the barricade, is demanding still more cash, even though we have a permit and the entrance fee is an astonishing 10 USD. We're also told the mullah here doesn't like women and often refuses them entry. I wouldn't have paid at all, if I'd known what was on offer. Cases full of guns of all kinds, rifles, some shells and other ammunition, machetes, helmets, cases full of local clothes. A gallery of mujahadeen portraits and topping it all, a diorama depicting the villagers repelling the invasion. You're not allowed to take photos inside. Outdoors, large artillery, tanks and helicopters, artistically arranged in the gardens.

At least, I get to partake of a delicious Iranian lunch afterwards. Caramelised rice and marinated chicken kebabs.

The Citadel of Herat

The citadel is our last visit in Herat. The fort was reconstructed again, just over 10 years ago. The first incarnation dates back to 330 BC, when Alexander the Great and his army built the first fort on an artificial mound. It suffered from demolition by both Genghis Khan and Tamerlane.

Now it's open to the public, to showcase Afghan history. The moat has disappeared under parklands. and there's the inevitable loss of character, which follows solid brick reconstruction. But you get views across the city, from the 18 tall towers.

The Last Word on Band e Amir

Huzzah. I can see the Band e Amir lakes from the plane, as we fly back to Kabul. They can't stop me looking out of the window.

The End

It's time to depart. I'm both sad and relieved. I haven't been kidnapped. It didn't feel like I was ever going to be kidnapped (though I'm only too aware that one never knows what's happening, out of sight.) I've always felt safe, despite the narrow roads, winding through ravines and mountain passes and treacherous drops. (There's an earthquake in Herat one week later - those poor people, in their mud dwellings stand little chance.) Here's a rogue's gallery to finish. Left to right, Andy, Nawruz (giggling because he has been blowing bubbles, Abdel, Andrea (with her favourite food, vegetables), Alec, Alison).

Serendipitously left to the end of my quest, this has been one of my most memorable adventures. A starkly beautiful country. Fun company, caring and helpful guides and some of the friendliest and most hospitable people in the world. Thank you.

Newsletter Subscription

Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.

I keep your data private and only share your data with third parties that make this service possible. Privacy Policy. No spam I promise. Unsubscribe any time.