Afghan Dreams

All images ©Doug McKinlay

First published in CNN Magazine - 2006

Search any news channel, open any newspaper and there will be an instant picture of southern Afghanistan. The conflict, as well as the terrain, is now as familiar to us as our own backyard. But to judge a whole country based on such a limited image doesn’t do it justice. While war rages in the south, even affecting Kabul, the capital, most northern provinces are experiencing relative calm. Afghanistan is truly a divided country.

It is into this schizophrenic environment that I set out. My goal: to gain an understanding of what Afghanistan is all about and to investigate the contrast between north and south, a difference so acute that even small, but hardcore groups of tourists are being encouraged to return to the north.

“We are tired of war,” said Muqim Jamshady, the 27 year-old Manager of Afghan Logistics and Tours. “I even hate the word war. We just want to get on with business and show people from other parts of the world that Afghanistan is more than just fighting.”

All images ©Doug McKinlay

As if to emphasize this, he tells me of some recent visitors: “Most of the tourists we’re getting, especially in the past couple of years, are from Britain and the United States. Our last group was American. Fifteen people from all over the US, the youngest was 75 and the oldest 91.”

Still, the greatest danger to visitors is the indiscriminate and unpredictable nature of the violence. This makes any visit to the south, where the Taliban are staging an unexpected comeback, out of the question. Even in Kabul, despite being NATO’s stronghold, fresh violence is on the rise. However it’s not the same in other northern cities.

The western city of Herat is arguably the most normal city in the country at the moment, in terms of relative safety. Local people are going about their business as if the conflict in the south isn’t happening, getting out at night on foot – unheard of in Kabul – is not a problem and many of the sites of interest are open. The Citadel, first built by Alexander the Great, has been a fortress to many passing empires, and is now open to the public for the first time in a generation. The centre of Herat’s religious life is the 800 year-old Friday Mosque. It is captivating in the muted early morning light, while the remains of the 15th century minarets of the Mousallah Complex glow orange in the late afternoon sun.

All images ©Doug McKinlay

Mazar-i-Sharif lies 320 kilometres north of Kabul along one of the country’s only sealed roads in the Province of Balkh. It has been dubbed the ‘linchpin’ city in the War on Terror. As such, it has become an important staging area for NATO forces in Afghanistan. The collateral affect has made Mazar-i-Sharif secure. The city’s main draw is the fabulous Blue Mosque, which houses the Tomb of Hazrat Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad. It is therefore an important site to Muslims from all over the world.

The calm the north enjoys is in stark comparison to the troubles in the south, a product of a fundamental rift that splits this country down the middle. It is partially religious but primarily economic. The north has better land, more water, oil and access to employment and education, while the south is mired in an opium poppy economy that ultimately is only profitable for the few warlords who control the trade; and increasingly to the Taliban who are now allying with poppy growers in order to raise money. It’s these differences that the Taliban are now exploiting.

“The Taliban want to live in a vacuum,” said Muqim. “They want to turn the clock back to the 14th century. Most of the suicide bombers aren’t even from Afghanistan. This fight is not between the Afghani people and the West. It’s between Jihadis from Pakistan, Azerbaijan and Chechnya who come here because they want to fight the Americans and their allies.”

During the past few weeks the situation in the south has become so delicate that NATO chiefs are calling on alliance partners to enlist more of their troops for the fight. However, as tenuous as the south is Muquim insists that the Taliban will never take Kabul again, that too many people would resist. As if to stress the point, there is a palpable buzz about the city. Notwithstanding an increase in Kabul-based suicide bombers business is thriving.

After the initial ousting of the Taliban in 2001, there were high hopes that Kabul, and the country as a whole, would begin to normalise. Into this environment stepped a multitude of foreign government and non-government organisations (NGO), all with their own ideas of how Afghanistan should proceed and all with many millions of dollars to help make it happen.

All images ©Doug McKinlay

Within a short time however, the Afghan government went on record criticising the efficacy of many of the NGOs operating in Afghanistan. Much of that criticism was aimed at how international donor money was distributed and at the pace of reconstruction. How accurate the government’s criticisms are is anybody’s guess. But not all NGOs are created equal.

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is the umbrella organisation founded by His Highness the Aga Khan to promote and develop a number of initiatives in the areas of culture, health, education and economic development, part of which is the promotion of tourism.

As such the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development invested US$36.5 to refurbish and rebuild an existing hotel in Kabul, bringing it up to international five-star standards. The Serena Hotel is the only true five-star in Kabul to date.

It opened in November 2005; its 177-room capacity is housed in a squat three-storey u-shaped structure surrounded by high security walls. Coloured much the same as the surrounding hills it blends in with the natural earth tones of Kabul. Once past the heavily armed main gate the interior courtyards are quiet and peaceful, offering a nice break from Kabul’s busy roads. The rooms are well appointed and would meet the standards of any Western luxury hotel.

Still, the question remains: Why a five-star hotel in one of the most unpredictable cities in the world?

“Part of the reason why the hotel was built was to help develop the local economy and help change the image of Afghanistan,” said Chris Newbury, the Serena’s general manager. “We provide jobs for local people. We train them in the industry and even if they leave us to start their own hotel or guesthouse hopefully the training they receive here will help improve the country’s overall hotel industry.”

The Serena is not the only project the AKDN is involved with in Afghanistan. It is the principle backer of the telecommunications company Roshan, which provides affordable mobile telephone and Internet service to people all over the country. In addition, they also provide funding for cultural programs that are currently working to restore many of Kabul’s historic buildings and sites. Principally the Babur Gardens, Kabul’s Old Town, and the Tamir Shah Mausoleum.

Hotels aside, I was more interested in Kabul itself and the surrounding country.

All images ©Doug McKinlay

No one could call Kabul a pretty city, at least not in a conventional way. It sits in a valley among dun-coloured hills, one-story mud-brick houses sweeping up their slopes camouflaged into the background. In the city, the traffic is thick, congested almost to a standstill. The architecture is a mix of slapped together one or two storey buildings, 1970’s low-rises and post-Taliban steel and glass structures that look as if they have been lifted from the streets of Shanghai. Still, there is an energy here; after more than two decades of war the city is alive again.

Along Chicken and Flower Streets, the one-time epicentre of 1970s hippy culture, shops are open and flourishing. The markets are buzzing, walking among the busy stalls is like strolling through the pages of a National Geographic magazine. Restaurants and guesthouses are opening at a pace not seen since before the Russian invasion in 1979. And there are taxis, so many taxis.

All images ©Doug McKinlay

Travelling overland beyond Kabul involves its own set of difficulties. Although independent travel is possible, it’s not recommended. Public buses do exist, but are so unreliable with notoriously unpredictable departure times they are all but useless. Hire cars are available, however it would take a very knowledgeable and skilled driver to negotiate the dusty tracks that are Afghanistan’s roads. Even air transport is a bit of a crapshoot. Ariana Afghan Airlines, the national carrier, is known for either delaying its domestic flights for anything up to 24 hours or completely cancelling flights without warning. However, getting out of Kabul is not impossible.

All images ©Doug McKinlay

The best option is to employ an organisation like Afghan Logistics. With a small fleet of 4X4 vehicles, and more importantly knowledge and experience of the country, they are able to meet most tourists’ travel needs. I used such a service for a visit to the Bamiyan Valley, site of the famous standing Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in March of 2001.

It was an eight-hour journey along an impossibly pitted and potholed unsealed road. But it was worth every bump, every knock and every grain of sand gritted between my teeth. This is part of the Silk Route and the scenery is overwhelming. Bone dry hills, ranging in hue from desert grey to deep red contrast with a lush green belt of orchards and fields of wheat next to the narrow waters of the Bamiyan River.

The Buddhas themselves, although destroyed, are still powerful. I arrived in time to catch the last rays of the afternoon sun lighting up the cavernous niches that were once their home. From my perch high above the valley it is all so serene, farmers tend their fields, children play as they return home from school and women herd goats along dusty roads. Yet just a few hundred kilometres south a war rages on, it doesn’t seem possible.

In the end it is easy to depict northern Afghanistan as much safer than the south. But it is all relative. Saying that the northern provinces are free from danger would be misleading. After 25 years of war there is little experience of peace among today’s Afghanis. And as one British aid worker told me: “Afghanistan is safe, then it isn’t.” It’s that quick and it knows no boundaries. But if the right precautions are taken, the correct research done and a reliable travel company used then a trip to Afghanistan can be a rewarding and exhilarating experience.

Leave a comment

Your Name
Your Email
Your Comment
No info required here, please press the button below.