Everyone has heard of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But challenge a friend to name the other five emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and they'll be lucky to come up with one name. Indeed, I struggled to do it myself. So I thought I'd better go and find out more. They're Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain, Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah. They're relatively small and accessible from Dubai, as they all lie to the north of this area of the Persian Gulf.
That doesn't mean to say it's easy. It's a complicated map. The different emirates are not content with strips of coast. They also (especially Sharjah) have enclaves and exclaves dotted around the other emirates. At times, I'm guessing which one I'm in. Driver-cum-guide Bilal tells me you can work it out from the street lamps.
First up, just north of Dubai, is Sharjah. It covers 1,000 square miles and has a population of over two million. It has been ruled by Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi since 1972, (except for a six-day period during an attempted coup d'état by his brother).
All the emirates are named after, and revolve around their capital cities. Sharjah comprises the city of Sharjah and other minor towns and exclaves distributed throughout the UAE. (Like I said above.) In 2022, Sharjah made history when its public sector adopted a four-day working week and a three-day weekend.
Sharjah city is the third-most populous city in the United Arab Emirates, and forms part of the ongoing urban strip. Similar to Abu Dhabi, in the sense that it is a mix of modern and older buildings. Quieter and less brash and futuristic than Dubai, it has a historic harbour/canal, lined with old dhows and services developing industries.
But it seems that Sharjah is also a tourist hub and the cultural capital of the UAE. The sale of alcohol is totally banned in Sharjah, making it an attractive proposition for Islamic tourists. This probably also explains why it's more peaceful here. There are plenty of hotels, attractive parks for strolling and fun, Kahlid Lagoon (home to a giant fountain and Al Noor Island) and a very pleasant corniche - Al Buheirah.
There are a plethora of museums: history/archaeology, natural history, science, arts, heritage, Islamic art and culture. At least two forts and numerous (over 600) elegant mosques.
I'm sure I've left something out. I haven't time to visit more - I wasn't, I confess, expecting such largesse. But I have to mention the shopping. There are several relatively modern covered souks, designed in Islamic style. There's the bustling fish and vegetable market and the more subdued (at least when I went, perhaps it was too early) gold souk. The gold souk sells other things too - there are a lot of clothes - and it's commonly known as The Blue Souk. There are also numerous malls - including the Mega Mall. It speaks for itself.
The Emirate of Ajman, a chunk adjoining the coast, but completely otherwise, surrounded by Sharjah, is the smallest of the emirates in terms of area. It's relatively densely populated though; the fourth most populous emirate in the UAE. It mainly consists of the city of Ajman, but it also also controls two small inland agricultural exclaves: Manama and Masfout. (I said the map of the UAE was complicated.) Ajman is ruled by Sheikh Humaid bin Rashid Al Nuaimi III of the Na'im tribe
The city of Ajman is the northern most section of the Dubai-Sharjah metropolitan area. So, it's mainly urban, industrial and residential, with a port based along a natural creek. But tourism is developing. There's a burgeoning corniche with a strip of decent beach alongside and several large expensive hotels, from well known chains. There are a couple of museums, one inside a fort and City Centre Ajman, the Emirate’s biggest mall. I also spot the Al Murabbaa Watchtower. It looks old, but nothing here is very ancient and it dates from the 1040s. It's the remains of the coastal defences and today it's forlorn in the middle of a roundabout. Further on, the Diwan, the Sheikh's Palace, with its gold domed roof.
There are also a range of restaurants and fast food outlets. So it seems like a good moment to sample Arabic KFC. The spicy option isn't bad at all. I'm happy to agree it's finger lickin' good.
The Emirate of Umm Al Quwain is mainly the city of Umm Al Quwain. It's built on the site of a fort built in 1768, by the founder of the modern Al Mualla dynasty, Sheikh Rashid bin Majid, of the Al Ali tribe. It's on a finger of land, pointing into the Persian Gulf and has 15 miles of coast, It was a key stop on the trade route between the Middle East and India. The other part of this, the least populated emirate, is the inland oasis town of Falaj Al Mualla, some 19 miles from the sea.
Sadly, there's no gas or oil in Umm Al Quwain and it depends on revenue from hotels, parks and tourism, fishing and general trading. (There's a Free Zone in the port.) And this is where, travelling further north, we suddenly hit desert proper, and camels. Even though we are shortly catapulted into the neighbouring emirate.
Night is falling, when we get to Umm al-Quwain City. The fort, on which it was founded was the site of a coup in 1929. when the incumbent Sheikh. Hamad Bin Ibrahim Al Mualla was assassinated by one of his blind uncle’s servants. The townsfolk, unhappy at the imposition, rose and set fire to the fort, killing the usurpers and putting the Al Mualla family back in power. The fort has since been restored and now houses the Umm Al Quwain National Museum. Or so I'm told. Bilal can't find it in the dark. We have to settle for some other government buildings.
Ras Al Khaimah is the most northerly of the emirates, but it doesn’t reach right to the tip of the Persian Gulf peninsula. That’s occupied by Musandam, an exclave of Oman, so it can control the Straits of Hormuz.
Ras Al Khaimah was a latecomer to the UAE (1972), after a spat with Iran (they seized Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs). Its name means ‘headland of the tent’. And the scenery is changing. There are mountains (the Hajar), villages and stretches of rocky desert here, and a large southerly inland exclave (near the Dubai exclave of Hatta), and a few small islands in the Persian Gulf. Ras Al Khaimah has the most fertile soil in the country, due to a larger share of rainfall and underground water streams from these mountains. It also has attractive beaches and good diving.
But, as with the other emirates, the majority of the population lives in the city, after which the emirate is named. The city of Ras Al Khaimah has two main areas - the Old Town and Nakheel - on either side of a creek. It has engulfed the medieval Islamic port of Julfar.
Today, Ras Al Khaimah is ruled by Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi. (The same dynasty that runs Sharjah). Their tribe were a frequent thorn in the flesh for British shipping in the early eighteenth century (both here and in Sharjah). There's some debate about the level of so called piracy on this coast, but the Qawasim, were eventually 'subdued'.
Ras Al Khaimah has been the site of continuous human habitation for 7,000 years. The village of Shimal (and around) is an important archaeological site, containing numerous graves (at least 250) and barrow tombs with fine bronze arrowheads, beads and pottery. dating back to the Umm Al Nar culture (2,500–2,000 BC).
Then came a medieval palace, on the ridge above the village. It is the only ancient Islamic palace known in the UAE and dates back to the Julfar period (13th-16th century AD). It was most probably the residence of the ruler of Julfar, once the most famous and prosperous trading town in the whole lower Gulf, built for cooling breezes at altitude and its strategic defensive position.
After the sixteenth century, the palace became a fort or 'sur', a retreat for all the villagers operating the palmeries below. The town wall ran some seven kilometres from the port lagoon to the south of present-day Ras Al Khaimah and to the mountains here. It was four to five metres wide, with watchtowers placed every 150 metres. There’s a restored watchtower behind a wire fence at the bottom.
The remains of the fort are reached via a long flight of stairs, that peter out, to deliver a steep scramble through shale. The fort (I’m told) was a long rectangular structure. It’s difficult to discern much other than a piece of pitched roof (it's surrounded by barbed wire) and some walls. The palace remains have been excavated by German archaeologists, who restored the water cistern under the pitched roof.
For some reason it’s known locally as The Queen of Sheba's Palace, although no-one has any idea why. But there are lovely views, overlooking the plain, to the sea, from our plateau. Even if it isn't very cool, after my climb.
The Hajar Range is home to the highest mountains in the UAE. The tallest is Jebel Jais, at 1,934 metres, but there's some debate as to whether it counts. It's on the border with Musandam and the summit is located on the Omani side. A high point west of this peak is considered the highest point in the United Arab Emirates, at 1,892 metres. The highest peak in the UAE is Jabal ar Raḩraḩ (1,691 metres).
And now we're driving west, through the dramatic, starkly brown mountains, to Fujairah, the only emirate wholly on the east coast of the peninsula.
The Sharqiyin tribe, are in charge of the Emirate of Fujairah, controlling old trade routes via Wadi Ham and Wadi Abadilah. The modern roads we’re driving today follow these routes, through the mountains.
The east coast of what is now the UAE used to be known as the Shamaliyah, and was part of Muscat until it was annexed by Al Qasimi of Sharjah, in 1850. (Apparently Oman agreed). In 1901, when the emirate consisted of some 150 houses, 3,000 date palms and some pearling businesses, Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Sharqi, chief of the Sharqiyin, declared independence from Sharjah. The declaration was recognised by most of the Trucial Sheikhs and also by Muscat, but not by the British, who found the new ruler 'antagonistic'.
The British gave in, in 1952, in order to facilitate the signing of oil treaties At the same time, Sharjah took control of the southerly city of Kalba, forming an exclave (and other areas too it transpires). But we're right in the north. Past Dibbah, another exclave belonging to Sharjah and south beside the sea, alongside the many popular beaches. Like most Arab states, Fujairah likes its roundabout decoration.
Now we're in yet another enclave of Sharjah. I'm totally bemused and glad I'm not the cartographer - or the navigator. This one is called Khor Fakkan. It lays claim to golden beaches edged with walkways, an ugly concrete like waterfall and, a natural deep sea port, very handy to maintain Sharjah's access to the eastern seaboard. The Khorfakken Monument, on a roundabout, here depicts an incense burner (mabkhara) - as these are strongly embedded in Arab hospitality. This one even has fog machines, to produce the incense effect. Low level only - we don't want to cause accidents.
Nipping back into the Hajar Mountains, there's a fort or two and a restful park with a lake, created by a dam at Al Rafisa. It's a gorgeous spot, and no doubt the water is a necessity in such an arid country. But they sacrificed a village to create it. I'm told you can see the rooftops when the water recdes.
Back in Fujairah again (I think). The tiny Al-Bidya (or Ottoman) Mosque claims that it's the oldest known mosque in the country, perhaps dating back to 1446. It's quaintly built of mud and stone, with nipple like domes. It was thought to have had watchtowers, (there's a fort above), but no minaret.
However, I've read that, in 2018, the ruins of a 1000-year-old mosque (dating back to the Islamic Golden Age), were discovered, near the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Mosque in Al Ain, in Abu Dhabi.
South, another 25 miles, to Fujairah City. This has a huge and important port and Free Zone. It provides direct access to the Indian Ocean for the United Arab Emirates, avoiding use of the Persian Gulf, which requires access via the Strait of Hormuz. The northern part of the waterfront is lined, endlessly (it seems), with cylindrical tanks for oil storage.
The main sight here is the restored Fujairah Fort and the nearby Fujairah Museum. (It boasts its home to an ostrich egg 2,500 years old.) The main mosque is the large white Sheikh Zayed Mosque, the second largest in the UAE, with the same name, as the largest, in Abu Dhabi, This one can hold around 28,000 worshippers. It's a landmark, visible from a very long way away.
Finally, the highway back to Dubai. Through still more bits of Sharjah, with some impressively huge educational and government buildings.
The UAE is a an arid and mountainous country. Tourism offers desert experiences and beach activities for the most part, But Dubai in particular, with its upmarket hotels and malls, is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
Read about what I did here:
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?
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 Abbottabad, where Bin Laden was assassinated. 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.
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. 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. Things on the 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Grave of Empires. The Taliban returned to power in 2021, though they remain internationally unrecognized.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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 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 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.)
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 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 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.
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.
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.
Pakistan is definitely not classified as a safe country. The FCO lists a series of no go zones including Peshawar and sections of the Karakorum Highway. The risk of terrorism is said to be high, especially in the main cities. Kidnapping could be a problem. There are heatwaves and have monsoon rains. earthquake and landslides are mentioned. The risks are high yes, but only in relation to other countries. Most visits are trouble free. It's just important to minimise the risks by being sensible, taking local advice and staying alert.
This is a developing economy. 22% of the population still live below the poverty line, due to corruption and internal conflicts. However, it's good news for travellers - this is the cheapest country in the world.
Many travellers will be very familiar with Pakistani food, which is not dissimilar to Indian cooking: rice, spiced sauces, and meat. It also takes inspiration from Iran and Afghanistan. Alcohol is only available in some hotels - for non Moslems. The lassi yogurt drink is also widespread. Street food - pakoras, parathas is also widely available. Outside the major cities good quality food can become hard to track down and the diet tends towards repetitive and dare I say tedious.
Pakistan boasts a huge variety of landscapes, ranging from gorgeous peaks and lush green valleys in the north (arguably the most beautiful mountain views in the world ). The world's highest paved road, the so-called eighth wonder of the world (the China-Pakistan Friendship Highway or the Karakoram Highway) wends its way through here. In the south, deserts and beaches. The lively cities reward (careful) exploration. Peshawar, especially, is fascinating, as well as being the best place to get your Afghan visa. The people nearly everywhere, are very friendly and interesting to chat to.
I thought Hungary was supposed to be cheap. The cost of living is relatively low. Labour is not hugely well paid. The tourist areas definitely are not cheap. The funicular - a one minute journey is 11 euros. Cakes Five euros. Toilet one euro. Entry to many of the numerous museums up to €28 (converting from the local forints, though costs are often displayed in euros and even USD.) And Hungary has the highest rate of VAT in the world - 27%.
Hungary's most famous food is the meaty goulash soup - served thinner than it is in British versions, which tend to turn into stews. Other mid/eastern European favourites appear, duck, sour cherries (combined is good), dumplings, pickled cabbage, schnitzels, salamis and strudels. Until we got into Indian food, Hungarian cooking was the spiciest in Europe - this is where they grow paprika. Lots of cake and Palatschinke (like crepe suzettes with lots of walnuts doused in chocolate. And, as in the Czech Republic, plenty of chimney cakes. The chimney shapes are made of sugared dough, not cake, and filled with anything from fruit to ice cream.
The wines of Hungary are also very well known. Possibly the most famous is the red Bulls' Blood. This is what the Hungarians told the Ottoman Turks they were imbibing - with predicable consequences. Sweet, Tokay white wine was promoted by a surprised French king, Louis XIV. More recently, it's won the wine of the century award. I also mustn't forget palinka - fruit brandy.
And don't clink your beer glasses. This is what the Hapsburgs did every time they executed a Hungarian General. So, it doesn't go down well.