A Day as a Tourist in Afghanistan

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When I started planning my trip across Central Asia, I always had the idea that it would be fascinating to visit one of the most talked about places on the planet.  A place where tourists really don’t get.  In 12th century Spice Route Afghanistan was an important stop to visit the shrine of Ali, even Genghis Khan felt it was worth a visit or a razing.  If you think about it, Afghanistan hasn’t been as safe as it is now, for the past decade, and even before that it may have been since the 50’s that it was a place that outsiders could visit.  After getting all my visas for the variety of places I was going I got in a good conversation with my traveling partner about the possibility of visiting the city of Mazar-e Sharif.  I had a friend on Facebook who I connected with over the past couple of years and have been asking him all about life in Afghanistan.  Zaki, my good facebook friend said he’d be willing to show me around his town.  It really came together and Zaki fulfilled his promises.  Not only that, he ended up spending a couple of extra hours waiting at the border for us to get through.  After getting through security and walking across the bridge at Termez going through Uzbekistan and Afghanistan security we finally made it and what an adventure it was.

Strolling in a Burka in the Park

Is there really anything to see in Afghanistan?  Oh Yes!!

Shrine of Ali and Blue Mosque Afghanistan

Shrine of Hazrat Ali, also known as the Blue MosqueThe Shrine of Hazrat Ali, also known as the Blue Mosque, is a mosque located in the heart of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. It is one of the reputed burial places of Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin and son-in law of Prophet Muhammad. The site includes a series of five separate buildings, with the Shrine of Hazrat Ali being in the center and the mosque at the western end. The site is surrounded by gardens and paths including an area with white pigeons.  You can see more of them in my pics in this post. Read more about the Ali shrine on Wikipedia

Our Afghan Driver

Our driver, the head of security in Mazar-e Sharif, and the uncle of our friend Zaki.

Driving in Afghanistan

We all piled into Zaki’s uncles taxi and headed out from the border for the city.  We decided we didn’t have enough time to make it to Balkh, but we were anxious to see the Blue Mosque and Shrine of Ali.

Afghan House

On the drive to Mazar-e Sharif, about an hour from the border, we drove by a number of homes build by mud bricks and natural elements.

Desert Sands of Afghanistan

The sands of the desert working their way to the road.  It won’t be long before the sands need to be handled.

 

Peace in Afghanistan

Peace to Afghanistan!

Blue Mosque Begging

This little guy was persistent.  He didn’t speak a word of English and I don’t know what he was saying, but he was carying a can of hot ashes and mumbling something in a persistent manner.  He wouldn’t let go of my clothes.  I’m sure he was very poor and hoping for assistance, but not sure what I could do to help.

Do you want Gum

These young boys were a joy to talk to.  While language wasn’t our forte, I had some real moments where we exchanged smiles and introduced ourselves.

Blue Mosque of Mazar-e Sharif

My friend and I with our Afghan Friends Zaki and Hamid in front of the Shrine and Blue Mosque of Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan.

Afghanistan IT University

IT University.  Talking with Ahmad professor at the technical college in Mazar-e Sharif.

 

Full Burka with kids

Mother in Burka with her sons…

Full Burka with hand holes

Burka with Arm holes and lady with Hijab

Burka Peek

Burkas

One of the differences between Afghanistan and all of neighbors to the north is the Burka.  In terms of cultural differences I found it to be the most start contrast.  I’ve been around a lot of Hijabs (head scarves) in a variety of places, and even ran into a lot of Saudis in black full burkas in Kuala Lumpur, and Dubai.  I haven’t gotten use to it.  It’s really a fascinating thing.  The women cover up when they go out.  It not only keeps the sun off their faces, but keeps them from being attractive to men outside the home.  The thing that really surprised me was seeing women that would pull up the burka to interact with their kids at the park.  I wasn’t expecting that.  Based on what I’d heard and gathered on TV I was really worried they were going to get in trouble.  In this far north town in Afghanistan, there were plenty of women in the city that both wore and didn’t wear the burkas.  It did seem like most that didn’t wear the full burka would wear the hijab.

I grew out my beard for months in planning on my visit across Central Asia and “the Stans” coming to Afghanistan hoping to blend in, but ended up not noticing too many beards.  I did see some good beards, but for the most part the young men in their twenties would shave, and the older men involved in business seemed to shave into mustaches.

Afghanistan Beard

I wore an Uzbekistan hat and a shirt I also got in Uzbekistan a couple days earlier.  I’m sure it confused the locals, but at the time I wasn’t going for American, even though I’m sure I came across as traveler or tourist which may not necessarily be a be a best practice.

The locals were a mix of stand offish, and quite a bit curious.  I only had a couple of stares that came across as mean ones.  I ended up in a line at the mosque and park to visit the toilet, or what was really just a line of Turkish style toilets or better said, hole in the ground.  First time I’ve waited nearly 5 minutes in a toilet line for a squat style toilet.  The conditions weren’t great.  A few more public toilets would be a good thing when they decide to open up the town as a tourist attraction.

Why did I decide to come to Afghanistan?

I have been told that I’m crazy for wanting to visit a country at war.  In reality, I found a people very in need of outside love.  They are ready for outside investments, education, access to more.  I’m sure there are many challenges to getting the right kinds of services in.  The youth are very anxious to better understand the world, and connect.  I’ve had a number of facebook messages since my visit.  There’s so much hope.  I pray for my friends Zaki and Hamid, and the Admad at the technical school.  Be anxiously engaged in a good cause.  Hamid wants to be involved in security, and Zaki wants to be successul in consulting and IT.  Personally, I’m very anxious for this area to blossom.

This far north the risk wasn’t as great.  It really is tightly controlled.  We saw the drone balloon, and there were reminders that we were being watched.  Even crossing the border we went though a couple of check points, and got some strange looks, but overall, it wasn’t as challenging as I thought it would be getting in and out.

Getting the visa for Afghanistan took less than a week, the easiest of the visas on our Central Asia tour.

I felt like we timed this right.  We spent an afternoon, I wish we could have seen Balkh which was another hour and has so much more history, but based on our plan of get in and out while seeing what we could in daylight, we did pretty well.  I have no regrets really.  I have been blessed in my life to live where I do and I hope the time I spent in this part of the world has helped me and my perspectives and outlooks on life, and I hope that the time I spent with my new Afghani friends helps spread peace and inspires them in their righteous pursuits.

Peace Tree Afghanistan

These pigeons look like doves.  They bring peace and happiness to the people.  They make people smile and laugh.

So do I recommend Afghanistan?

I think for those who are real travelers, yes. Mazar-e Sharif has a lot to offer as does Balkh based on my research.  At this point, our strategy of in and out, worked quite well.  We weren’t there long enough to cause a stir, which I find has been a great strategy for us. Whenever we feel like we might be going to an area involving any kind of risk, we play it safe and not spend too much time in any one area, and we don’t back track.  We’re always moving.  That’s been a great strategy for us.  We try to be unpredictable, so no one could plan anything.  I don’t have a death wish, it really was a fairly safe and calculated risk.  On my pursuits to see and connect with folks in every country in the world, this was an important one for me.  I still have strong feelings for the people I met.  It really makes this place very real to me now.  I think that’s really important.  When there’s a war on the other side of the world in an unknown place that’s being fought in a way that’s unimaginable, it’s easy for ignorant people to say, just bomb the place.  I have friends there, and it means something to me.  The only way to find peace is to find empathy and understanding.  Travel has helped provide a mechanism for that.  I’ve never met a military person who would want to go back to Afghanistan to visit, but I would.  I have friends there that are great people who are making a difference for life in there town.

I admit I am a bit of a travel junkie, and I believe that there are good people everywhere as do many of those that visit every country in the world… a pursuit of mine.

You can read about some of my extreme travels to Iraq (Kurdistan), Tunisia, Venezuela, Egypt

Doha Qatar: Pearl of the Persian Gulf

Doha Qatar - Pearl of Persian Gulf - Corniche

Pearl monument - Corniche - Doha

It was on a trip to Dubai where I was planning a trip to Tehran, and I found an  8 hour layover in Qatar.  I had heard very little of this little Pearl in the Persian Gulf.  Qatar Airways had all sorts of cool destinations and for a decent price I was able to fly spend a decent amount of time enough to get out and see the city.  It was with a Jordanian Facebook friend’s, friend I met Mohammed Afana.  I learned a few years ago to embrace the friends of friends and unless there are signs otherwise to connect with people in ways that otherwise would not be possible in such a short period of time.  I had 8 hours or less with Mohammed, and we really became close.  I have had a hard time expressing the connections I’ve made with the Palestinian people.  On my technical blog I’ve shared a little, and it appears it’s been misunderstood.  Below Muslim Education Center fashioned after a thousand year old Mosque in Iraq.

I do feel for the Palestinian people, and my experiences with Mohammed Afana are no different than others I have met.  He was extremely kind, open, caring, and was a brother to me while I was with him.  His parents are refugees from Palestinian Territories, and he was born in Qatar.  We learn from people and walking in someone else’s shoes. 

Mhmd’s a Judo expert.  He’s very skilled.  He actually competed at the world class level on the national team for years.  He picked me up at the airport, ready to show me a night on the town.  It was awesome.  

We started out by going to Souk Waqif a traditional bizarre and market.  This isn’t the high end shopping, but has awesome shops that will much better help you connect with the locals.  I ran into this sheik boy with his pet falcon! 

By the way, this Souk is only 10-15 minutes from the airport and truly is an old market that was built originally by Beduins from the desert to sell their wells.  There are some great prices, and cool stuff you’ve never seen before.

This cool sundial? reminds me of the Dark Chrystal.

pet falcon doha qatar

The white clothes he’s wearing are actually very comfortable.  I had the chance to wear one while in UAE.  They are very light and cool.  It’s very understandable how modest, clean, and all together cool in how they keep the sun off your skin, as well as provide a covering.  A friend of mine in Bahrain who wears both jeans and the white robe, prefers the traditional garb because it’s much cooler.  As well the hatta or hat scarf on the head is great for keeping the sun off your head and neck.  When I’m in the middle east I often prefer that as well as it is great for doing just that.  It’s much cooler and keeps me from getting burned. While at the market I came across these cool traditional knives.

I was considering getting one of them based on the reasonable prices, until I remembered I didn’t want to check anything at the airport… especially some kind of weapon on my flight to Iran.  I loved that shop.  They had such cool travel items. 

This traditional Muslim headdress and mask totally reminded me of my recent trip to Oman.  The face guard almost looks metallic.  When I first saw one on a lady I had to do a doubletake and had to slow down to take a picture… likely the opposite reaction that the lady was looking for.  I would say in my time in the middle east I did gain a great respect for the women’s clothing.  The flowing robes became very attractive and the mysterious eyes.  Some of those eyes were just so incredible!  Again, I know it’s the opposite of what they are going after… I guess. 

I ended up bringing back some traditional Muslim robes for my wife.  Which I’m sure she appreciated.  I also brought back what I call the Emirate robes.  We make quite the couple.  We look just like the couple above.  Some days in the summer I will put on my robes for around the house.  I’ve got a much thinker one I got in Morocco that I wear in the winter.  Sometimes I feel like I look like a monk in my big thick brown robes, another ironic moment.

Doha is from the future.  You’ve heard about how these amazing tall buildings and structures have gone up in Dubai, UAE.  What you may have missed is that Doha is really where it’s at.  Doha got it’s wind right after Dubai and has had some fantastic architecture put up.  The night sky is filled with crazy lights on fascinating shaped buildings.  It reminds me of a lazer light show on the buildings.  It’s far from boxy.  You get pin cushion looking buildings, and buildings that look more like puzzles, and cones, and twisty looking towers.  Awesome.

 

You also may have heard about the Palms in Dubai.  This place where reclaimed land from the sea was pushed into the shape of Palm leaves?  Well in Doha Qatar it’s the Pearl.  You get this amazing island in the shape of a clam with a pearl in the center.  The shopping rivals any 5th avenue, or High Streets of Europe.  Looking around the photo, you can see the humus and oil  as well as lamb shanks.

For lunch we stopped at an Iraqi resteraunt.  I hadn’t had Iraqi food before and it sounded fascinating.  The food was great.  I had mixed grills, lamb, beef, chicken, tomato, onion… looks great doesn’t it!  Awesome fresh grilled fresh food!

After dinner we got out on the water in some traditional Persian boats that almost looked Chinese.  The Corniche is a great relaxing place to walk.  Lots of locals walking along the shore.  As well, we saw some high end shops… and ultimately ended the late night with some Turkish Schwarma, the place was packed! Yum… some of the best schwarma I’ve ever had.

Qatar did not dissapoint.  It was a great stopover.  I would go back in a heart beat.  Great people, amazing experiences, great food, beautiful water experiences.  It’s amazing how they’ve made this desert Oasis bloom.

Leaving a friend behind who I had just met was with mixed emotion.  I wanted to stay, but was looking forward to my trip ahead… Iran.