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This is the archived blog of the research trip young adult author Neil Grant took to Afghanistan in 2009. Written on the road in both Afghanistan and India. It was uploaded over dodgy internet connections in what were loosely called cyber cafes back in the day.

Navigate between images by selecting the arrows in the carousels.

This page has been laid out in 'blog order' (with the latest post first). If you're a fan of traditional time flow - work from the bottom up. 

Tso Pema

26 August 2009 


Tso Pema is a small lake, high in the foothills of the Himalayas. It is here that Padmasambhava (the 7th Century Buddhist saint) stopped on his way from Gandhara (in present-day Pakistan) to bring the word of the Buddha to Tibet. While here, he imparted his teachings to the princess Mandharava. The king, suspecting he was imparting more than teachings, had him burnt to death. But from the smoke of his fire came the sacred lake of Tso Pema (Lotus Lake) and Padmasambhava was reborn on the stalk of a lotus in the middle of the lake.

The town of Rewalsar is much like any other hill town in India. There is a dirty bazaar selling vegetables and fifty kinds of paan (betel nut); a bus stop; four or five dingy dhabas (simple rice and dhal eateries); five cows (all sleeping in the road); a pack of mangy, ring-tailed dogs; and beggars of varying sizes and degrees of professionalism.  But through a set of gates is the holy lake, fringed by prayer flags, monasteries, Hindu temples and pilgrims. On the hill above sits a giant statue of Guru Rinpoche — Padmasambhava himself.

There is a certain significance to my journey here. Padmasambhava lived in the Swat Valley in Pakistan and would have most likely visited Bamiyan which was a thriving Buddhist community at the time. And so my journey, a pilgrimage of sorts, which began in the dry hills of Afghanistan, ends here in the lush hills of India.

I stay in the Nyingma monastery by the lake. It is so peaceful that from my room that night I can hear giant carp jumping in the lake. Unfortunately, my neighbour decides to move furniture until midnight and then in a low, but persistent female voice, carry on a two hour monologue, the exact nature of which I can’t decipher but I am pretty certain it is nothing to do with religion or philosophy. The lakeside dogs then chant their canine mantras until dawn which is heralded by the Hindu temple starting up its unholy racket of Bollywood tunes over its loudspeakers.

My mind is as foggy as the mountain when I hire a taxi with three others to the Padmasambhava caves. We go to the summit first, to the Hindu temple of Nana Devi which is unremarkable in every way apart from the large mobile phone tower placed next to it, presumably with unlimited calls to the divine. Our driver is having breakfast so we walk back down the hill coming to the prayer flag swathed outcrop where Padmasambhava is said to have meditated.

After a while we get directions to the cave which is accessed through a walkway between rocks covered in carvings of mantras and icons. In the cave, a group of four young Tibetans are paying homage to Padmasambhava whose formidable golden statue is nestled into a natural niche in the rock. We sit for a while, with the chanting Tibetans, absorbing the peace and the damp from the floor. I leave a kata, an offering scarf, on the altar and we go into the next small cave where there is a Mandharava statue and coins pressed into the walls.

Outside, in a small room, I light four butter lamps for my three children and a friend. The nuns who tend the shrine, offer us butter tea and we drink a cup, watching the mist pool in the valley. 

This time next week, I will be back in Melbourne, my journey over. It has been an incredible, dusty, exciting, loud, scary, welcoming, inspiring, smelly, eye-opening, cliché-shattering ride and the memories will stay with me forever. That is the beauty of travel, the feelings that cannot be expressed in pixels, or brought home as excess luggage from the bazaar, stay with you and become part of you. The privilege of seeing how others live, of experiencing their culture is something we should all try, at least once in our lives.

Tso Pema

My Day at the Kaka Beauty Saloon

19 August 2009

Okay, I said I was shaving my beard off after Afghanistan. Enough waiting. It’s off to the Kaka Beauty Saloon in Bir, Himachal Pradesh.

My personal beauty therapist — Ranjeet Kumar (or Ranj, as I like to call him) — is impressed by my need to totally remove the beard. Clean shave, he says in wonder. Yup.

And so the Big Lather begins. It goes on for quite a while. Enough time for me to enlist and train a photographer. Enough time for my face to experience a numbness is has never quite felt before. Ranjeet likes to lather. A lot.

When I am nice and foamy, he pops a new blade in his cut-throat and goes to work. The beard peels back like a fleece; a rather coarse and unattractive fleece which would make a rather coarse and unattractive pair of gloves. Ranjeet has studied the angles of the face for many years, it’s obvious. He doesn’t cut me like the cricket playing barber I once had in Delhi. His lines are smooth and precise.

My photographer gets bored. He says he has to go off and drive a taxi. Hard to get someone to commit to the artistic life these days. Ranjeet asks, face massage? Haircut? Yup. The works.

He needs to find another photographer and I need to train him. This takes a while. Ranjeet dabs my face with beauty cream and sets about my face with intermittent hand claps and slaps. He introduces my eyelids to my chin. Hello, they say before wobbling themselves back into position. I ask for some music and he puts on a Hindi tape. Now we’re cooking.

Out comes the electric massager. This unit has been banned in most countries other than for use as a marital aid or for tenderising steak. Undeterred, Ranjeet lets loose on my chin, cheeks, forehead and, most alarmingly, my nose, which almost immediately begins to lose sensation.

Next to the haircut. Short? Not too short? Which is good, because I have the feeling ‘short’ means shaved. As long as I look like a Bollywood star by the end, I don’t care. He cuts an alarming pattern around my ear. A clear felling that makes me wonder what it looks like from the back. He doesn’t show me. Is oops! the same in Hindi and English?

Head massage? Why not, while I’m in the chair. Oil? Yup. The oil comes in a bottle marked Deliverance and smells of carrot cake and Old Spice. Ranjeet uses a drumming technique that turns my brain to aspic. I foolishly ask for an encore for a photo. My third photographic protégé is a little slow on the shutter.

I have this sore shoulder. Ranjeet eyes light up, so do the pretty lights around his mirror and the picture of Ganesh, the god whose dad lopped off his head and replaced it with an elephant’s. So it could be worse. Ranjeet limbers up. He practices a form of chiropractics that I am sure you need to train for, and maybe not just in a beauty school. There is a lot of cracking and eye-popping pain. A lot of moving me around in the chair. It feels like we are dancing… in Guantanamo Bay. 

Can I have some aftershave? Sure. He shows me the good stuff. It is in a bottle that is shaped suspiciously like Imperial Leather. It says Design. It may have been designed by someone who likes methylated spirits rubbed into their newly shaved face.

It is over all too soon. Has it really been an hour? How much? I ask. Your choice? Ah, that old chestnut. I keep getting it. How am I meant to know how much it costs for a haircut, a shave and a brutal torturing? Finally, Ranjeet adds up all the procedures. It comes to 180 rupees (about 4 bucks). I give him 200 and he gives me his card. He asks to call for a full massage. When the bruises heal, I might consider it.

My Day at the Kaka Beauty Saloon

How bazaar

15 August 2009

For colour and life nothing beats an Afghan Bazaar. It is where the shopping is done, chay drunk, gossip exchanged, music played, deals done. I come to steal images, to gather metaphors and snatches of speech. I come to trade stories.

My last day in Bamiyan is spent in the bazaar. All day, I drift between the chaikhanas, drinking cups of green tea, and inspecting the 1000 year old artifacts in the antique shops. In the second  bazaar, between the river and the main bazaar, shoes and cheap clothes are sold. Fat-tailed lambs are hung in the open and nan is sold by the armful with debts tallied on a notched stick.

It is here that I am beckoned into a small shop by Ranjit Singh. A Sikh from New Delhi, he has been plying his trade between Russia and Afghanistan for years. He is a fortune teller and charges between 3000 and 5000 Afghani (A$75-100) for a reading. He has bottles of Ayurvedic (ancient Hindu medicine) to cure headaches, stomach complaints and impotence. Did I have any whisky? These Afghans don’t drink, he sneers. I ask if I can take his photo and he agrees but he needs to put his teeth back in. They had all been knocked out during a stay in a Moscow prison.

And so it is in Kabul, that I find myself in the Old City with my friend Faisal; at another bazaar. Ostensibly, I have come to buy a bag to hold the detritus of a two-day shopping spree. But the real attraction is the magnificent squalor: the swarms of people; the choking smoke from kabob fires; the umbrellas and fresh lime juice stalls; the money changers with their fistfuls of torn bills, sitting cheek-by-jowl down near the river; a guy selling Vaseline by the plastic bag. A burqa (in a choice of blue, yellow or white) costs 500 Afghani. My second quality Chinese bag is 280 Afghani. It will take up to twelve kilos of carpets, clothes and books, but no more. For that I will need the Iranian one.

I come away, as with every day in Kabul, with new experiences, shared laughter and surprise. This city, this country has worked its way into me and I know I will be back.

How Bazaar

Goat grabbers

10 August 2009

The national sport of Afghanistan is buzkashi (literally goat-grabbing). It is usually played from November through till March. It is a game of skill and insanity; the players, on horseback, must grab a headless goat or calf from a circle on the ground, ride with it to a specified point and return it to the circle. Easily done? Then imagine twenty to thirty horses (sometimes hundreds or thousands) trying to stop the chapandaz (master players). There is a lot of danger involved; though, at one stage, the government tried to standardise the rules, banning such things as knives.

But I was four months too early, or late, and could not be a part of this spectacle. No matter, my driver, Hamidullah and some Kabulis on tour decided to re invent the game, leaving out the horses, the skill and the excitement (but, thankfully, leaving the goat’s head intact).

I had spied the herd coming across the far hill at Darya Ajdahar. The goatherd was way out in front, confidently walking with his stick held behind his back. It was an image that I had seen often from a car as we flew over the high grasslands or down a dusty road. Now, I had the chance to photograph it.

As I pulled out my camera, however, my Afghan friends thought it might be nice for me to get a close-up of the shahbuz, the king-goat. Hamidullah, broke the herd neatly in two. The goats looked confused. The shabuz was leading from the rear, like all wise leaders, and it was him that Hamidullah concentrated on. But the shabuz was strong and quick. Hamidullah was a taxi driver and was neither.

So, the others in the group tried some of the shabuz’s subjects. Baby goat – too slick. Mummy-goat – too quick.

I wondered what the goatherd was making of all this. His flock in disarray, milk curdling in their udders. Finally, one guy caught the trainee shabuz by his long fleece and smiling broadly, picked him up. 

I took the photo. How could I not?

Goat grabbers

Desperately seeking Buddha

10 August 2009  

Siddhartha Gautama, the historical figure we know as the Buddha, never wanted to be worshipped as a god. He didn’t want images to be made of him that would take the place of the inner journey to nirvana, freedom from the suffering of rebirth. But some of the most beautiful art as been created in his name, in his likeness. Those half-lidded eyes, the wistful smile, the perfect symmetry of his face has come to represent the peace that we may find if we are mindful enough to follow the Middle Way.

In the dictionary the word iconoclast is described as “a breaker or destroyer of images, especially those set up for religious veneration”. Also “someone who attacks cherished beliefs as based on error or superstition”. When Islam came to the Bamiyan Valley in the 8th century, the early invaders would have thought the images of Buddha were based in error and superstition and so they set about destroying them. It was the belief that striking at the head of the idol would remove its soul. The Taliban, under Mullah Omar, had a more comprehensive plan in mind when what he described as “breaking stones” was achieved with mortars, tanks and dynamite.

Nancy Hatch Dupree promises in her book “An Historical Guide to Afghanistan” that “In the western Foladi Valley there are numerous painted caves dated variously from the 5th-6th or 6th-7th centuries AD. Some are four and five stories high.” Nancy is an American who with her archaeologist husband lived in Afghanistan through the 60s and 70s. She is in her 80s now an still lives in Kabul. The guide, an original 2nd edition I bought in Kabul, was printed in 1977. A lot has changed in 31 years.

Still, it is with some hope that I take the drive from Bamiyan and into the Foladi Valley. It is not a place of high tourism. There are donkeys and ditch-diggers and a river running beside, and sometimes over, the road. My driver, Hamidullah, speaks four words of English (go, stop and good morning). There is quite a bit of overlap with my four words of Dari. Despite this, and having overshot our mark by some ten kilometers, we find the village of Deh-i-Ahangaran and walk up a shady track to the caves.

A young local tells Hamidullah that we should take the near vertical path where we will find the “Budd”. Well, I think that’s what he said as he gestured listlessly and mumbled incomprehensibly. He wisely, and most unusually, remained at the bottom while we crept up the path favoured by goats and idiots.

The view from the top was spectacular. The drop was precipitous. The path was rubbly and loose. It would take quite a bit of insurance cover to open it up as an attraction. There were no paintings. There were, however, Mujaheddin bullets and anti-aircraft shells.

We went back down and tried the caves we had seen earlier. “Oh, paintings, caves, Budd,” mumbled the young local as we passed. “Why didn’t you say so?”

It took a lot of climbing to get into some of the caves. They had been shelled heavily and great hunks of them lay in a broken jigsaw. Some were used as goat stalls and storerooms. Some niches were stacked high with patties of dried dung for the winter. 

But as I climbed into one particularly awkward spot, I saw that some paintings remained. On the white background, painted in fine red lines were the Buddhas I had been looking for. Hundreds of them reeling round the vaulted ceiling like a Tibetan mandala. And if I tried, I could piece together in my mind what the artist had envisioned 1300 years previously. From one, a curve of a lip; another, the high knot of hair; subtly placed hands, like lotus petals; graceful folds of a cloak.

And that was how all the questing ended. Not with a total revelation but with a hint of what could be. The rest was up to me.

Desperately seeking Buddha

The Dragon Valley

10 August 2009

Part of Hazrat Ali’s deal with the infidel king, Barbar, was that he was to slay the dragon that had been causing havoc with the villages. Barbar had brokered a deal with the beast whereby he supplied him daily with two camels, a tasty young maiden and a month’s worth of groceries. It was hard for parents to give up their beautiful daughters, to say nothing of the camel herders’ dismay.

And so, Hazrat Ali stood before the dragon with his mighty sword, Zulfiqar, in hand. The dragon roared until the mountains shook but Ali stayed put. He breathed fire from his terrible nostrils. Ali described a circle in the air with Zulfiqar and the flames fell to the ground as tulips. The florists of Bamiyan rejoiced. He took his sword and cut the dragon neatly down its spine. It fell, blocking the valley. The lucky girl ran to tell the villagers the dragon was dead but when they returned the hero, Ali, had ridden off on his trusty horse, Dodol. 

To this day the dragon still weeps and groans and bleeds in Darya Ajdahar, the Valley of the Dragon. His tears bubble up with a hiss from underground. They flow over his great head in pulsing waves forming brilliant white curtains of calcium. The manger that fed Dodol is still there and his stall is below, now a shrine.

Some tales are universal - those of dragons and maidens and heroes. Rarely do you get to see the beast’s corpse, hear its mournful groans or taste its fizzing tears.

The Dragon Valley

The Kakrak Valley

7 August 2009


There is a two-plank bridge crossing the river and from there through the noisy Bamiyan bazaar and the fields and on to Shahr-e Ghulghula. The wheat harvest is in full swing and everywhere men are crouched, scything and bunching their crops. Beyond Shahr-e Ghulghula is Qala-e Dokhtar (the Castle of the Daughter) where the treacherous offspring of Jalaluddin lived before the fateful events of 1221 AD (see Shahr-e Ghulghula post).


The high-walled palace must have been grand in its day but between Genghis Khan, the Mujaheddin, the Russians, the Taliban and eight-hundred years of occupation, it has become a little tired around the edges. Still, kids chase each other around under its high mud walls and ride bikes down its narrow alleys, proving that Afghanistan has seen many invaders and wars but the people always remain.


With my three impromptu guides, local kids, I follow a donkey off the plateau and into the Kakrak Valley, crossing the river at the new pul (bridge). Picking up a couple more guides in the fields (including a farmer with a large shovel and a snap-happy uncle), I head up the hill towards the Buddha niche.

This Buddhist complex is much newer than the Bamiyan one and the many caves were full of beautiful paintings from the 7th or 8th Century, preserved behind a covering of mud, until they were removed to the museum in Kabul by a team of French archaeologists. Unfortunately, the Friends of Culture and Tolerance – the Taliban – took care of most of them during its purge of the country’s treasures.


The Buddha niche itself is six and a half metres high and still shows the outline of the Buddha’s head and halo. The Taliban rigged it with dynamite and the chunks of the statue litter the floor of the niche. Some still have horsehair plaster attached to them. The kids and farmers and uncles and cousins soon tire of my photo taking and sighing and touching of rock, and chatter off back down the hill.

The surrounding caves have been used by nomads and as a sanctuary during the time of the Talib; some are still used as animal pens and homes. They are soot-blackened, but there is the occasional splash of red and blue to remind me this was once a thriving Buddhist community.


When Islam arrived, this hill, like many others was turned into a fort and the ruined turrets are still visible. The kids assured me that this area is ‘clean’ of mines but I still stick to others footprints.


After my lunch of nan and panir in the Buddha niche, I walk round the base of the hill, through the wheat and vetch fields, flowering potato and clover. There is a small village, deathly quiet, with just a few goats and children keeping watch. It is Friday afternoon and most people are relaxing or at the mosque. I creep through like a timid Genghis; stealing images here and there, looting adjectives and superlatives and dust.

The Kakrak Valley

Band-e Amir

4 August 2009


The valleys of the Hindu Kush were once ruled by an infidel called Barbar. The prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law, Hazrat Ali came to the land and performed a few miracles, much to the annoyance of the tyrannical Barbar. He was also a bit peeved that a thousand of his slaves were unable to complete a dam he had ordered them to build downstream from his capital.


The king was so grumpy that he began to take it out on his subjects. One young man’s wife and children had been imprisoned because he could not pay a large sum of money demanded by Barbar. So, he went to Hazrat Ali for help.


Between them they decided that the young man should tie-up Hazrat Ali and take him to the king as a slave. This was done and the King said he would by the slave on three conditions. The first was, that the slave should complete the unbuildable dam. The second condition was that he should kill the dragon of Bamiyan. And finally he should chain Hazrat Ali and bring him before him. To top it off, the infidel king, demanded that all these things should be done within the space of one day. Everyone laughed at the misfortune of the desperate young man.


Hazrat Ali, however, was incensed and with a mighty kick, tore the top from a mountain which rolled into the valley and formed the Band-e Haibat (Dam of Awe). Then with his magical sword, Zulfiqar, he sliced more from the mountain to form Band-e Zulfiqar. Ali’s groom built the Band-e Kambar and the freshly inspired slaves managed to finish the Band-e Ghulaman (Dam of Slaves). Hazrat Ali then formed the Band-e Panir (Dam of Cheese) by placing a cheese that had been offered to him by a woman in the stream, and the Band-e Pudina (Dam of Mint) was created nearby, where sweet, wild mint still grows


But all this dam building had caused a drought downstream. No trouble for the mighty Hazrat Ali, he swiped his fingers across the Band-e Haibat’s wall and five waterfalls began to flow. Still not tired, he rushed to Bamiyan to slay the dragon and made it back within the day to stand before Barbar. The king was so impressed that he immediately converted to Islam.


Our journey starts more prosaically, in a Toyota Corolla, bumping west from Bamiyan. I am assured by Tahir that both driver and car are up to the journey. It turns out to be a punishing two and a half hours over terrifyingly bad roads. There is a lot of road reconstruction going on which makes the way even harder; the track suddenly ending in a large pile of rubble or a drop too big for the gutsy little Corolla to handle. Finally, we get our first sight of the lakes as Band-e Zulfiqar flares into view like a shard of lapis caught between the hills.


From here the road gets worse descending to the lakes through what seems like talcum powder. We get to Band-e Haibat and walk the track down to Band-e Panir and Pudina. The lakes’ are filled with mineral deposits that give them their surreal colours. In the middle of this arid landscape it is easy to see why the Hazrat Ali creation myth has sprung up. At Band-e Pudina, Tahir and the driver pick bunches of sweet mint to be dried and added to yoghurt or rice.


drive back to Band-e Haibat where families gather to picnic and ride around the lake in swan-shaped pedalos. Kids splash in shallow pools and there is the smell of kabob and woodsmoke  as their parents cook up lunch. Again, here is a side of Afghanistan that we never see in the media. Do papers or TV news profit from such stories of hope and normality? Do our prejudices need to be constantly fed by news of extremist mullahs, suicide bombers and jihad? It is true both exist, but we never seem to get the balance. Afghanistan, like all countries, is a complex place with many realities.


Tahir persuades me to go for a swim and the water is like ice. I have made an unfortunate choice of underwear and feel a bit self-conscious bathing semi-nude in a fairly strict Muslim country, only two hundred metres from the shrine of Hazrat Ali. But nobody seems bothered; it is as if the rules are relaxed here, where people have bathed for centuries in the healing waters.


Tahir and I walk around the dam wall to where farmers are grinding flour in stone mills. The mills are powered by water diverted through sluice gates in the dam wall, turning huge stone wheels. The air is filled with flour, it hangs from the ceiling in clumps and catches shafts of light coming through the roof.


We eat dinner in a chaikhana (Afghan restaurant) which is optimistically called “Clean Restaurant: it has Rooms and Delicious Food”. I think this is where the driver and I pick up a case of giardia. The lamb stew is lukewarm, the pulao greasy and the nan crisp (but not in a good way). Inside, men loll on carpets, whisking flies away with their scarves. Traditionally, chaikhana are also used as overnight stops, a place to sleep included in the price of a meal.


We stop for another swim on the way out, this time Tahir and the driver stripping off to the pants of their shalwar kameez and, curiously, jamming empty plastic bottles down the fronts of them. I realise later that this is for flotation. In a landlocked country there is little need to learn how to swim and they take great interest as I show them the basic strokes.


On the way home we stop in a dusty spot on the Shahidan Pass where clumps of qarghana (a coarse button shaped shrub) are harvested for winter fuel and carried on donkeys to be dried and sold. We eat melon and watch nomads pushing their flocks of goats to new pastures. The Shah Buz (King Goat), with his large curving horns, leads these flocks, keeping them in line like despotic ruler.


We keep heading east, down from the pass and into the Bamiyan valley. I know out west, lie the Minaret of Jam, Herat, Iran and a thousand new adventures. But they will have to wait.

Band-e Amir

The donkey exchange

3 August 2009


Marnie is the champion of the underdog, the sway-backed donkey, the street cat tied by a paw in the bazaar. Everywhere she goes she collects animals, bringing a donkey home to Kabul in her car, a total of 15 dogs spread over three properties. As head of PARSA she is responsible for the wellbeing of many Afghan families but that is not enough in country where human rights are sometimes overlooked and animal rights simply do not exist.

It was my fault, blame me. It was me who told Marnie about the ancient donkey tethered at the top of Shahr-e Gholghola. I told her that I couldn’t see any water or food. She sat still for a moment, looking out at the City of Screams.

‘I’m going to buy that donkey,’ she said. And then, ‘I need a donkey.’ A pause. ‘Tahir-jan needs a donkey here.’

Tahir didn’t appear to want a donkey. He already had two dogs and a family of six to take care of. But Marnie was insistent as we climbed the slope to Shahr-e Gholghola. And Marnie is a very determined woman.

The policeman at the summit looked confused as Tahir explained that we wanted to buy their donkey.

‘How will I carry water?’ he asked.

The policeman wanted to bring the donkey tomorrow when he could trade him in for a newer model. But Marnie insisted the donkey come today. Now. She gave her number and Tahir’s number and pointed out the PARSA guesthouse below. Then she got me to tie the scarf around the donkey neck.

‘Let’s go,’ she said and led the way.

The donkey was obedient, subservient. He had obviously had a lot of stick and very little carrot. He walked slowly down the hill, kicking stones as he went. I thought him a very soulful beast.

'We’ll call him Baba-jan, dear Grandfather,’ said Marnie. He was indeed a grandfather of all donkeys, pathetically thin, saddle sores along his spine, legs like poplar saplings. The locals could not believe we would buy such a specimen and what for? Marnie explained we were buying a better donkey for the police. They still seemed perplexed.

We crossed the river at the bridge, Baba-jan baulking at the pedestrian access. An old man advised us to take the bigger car section. We had a lot to learn about donkeys. A boy shouted, ‘Congratulations,’ to us from across the river as we went by.

Marnie led Baba-jan into the garden. On the hill nearby, his old home baked in the sun. Here the clover was thick and sweet. Baba-jan had entered paradise.

The donkey exchange

The Red City

2 August 2009


According to Persian legend there was a prince called Zohak who sold his soul to the devil for his father’s throne. The new King was visited by the devil in the guise of a loyal subject. He kissed the king on the shoulders and two black serpents sprouted there. Their desire for human brains was insatiable and if they were cut off, they immediately re grew. The possessed king then went to Persia where he ruled despotically for a thousand years. Eventually, the people were spared by a hero, Fraidun, who banished the serpent-shouldered king to a mountain where he was left to die. Local legend takes up the story there, telling how the serpents, without their daily feed of brains, tore at the scalp of Zohak and consumed his brains.

The Shahr-e Zohak (City of Zohak or, alternatively the more sedate Red City) sits atop  a mountain rising up from the confluence of two rivers. The way to the citadel was guarded by turrets that were accessible only by ladder. The guards fired through slits onto the invaders, preventing them from accessing the tunnel that lead up to the garrison. It was here that Genghis Khan’s grandson was felled by an arrow, signing the death warrant for the Shansabani Dynasty and the valley in general.

With my army escort, to keep me away from the mines, I walk up the path that Genghis would have taken. It is hard to imagine attacking this place with arrows raining down from above and no visible way of penetrating the walls. The red earth is dotted with the white stones of the mine clearing teams. They have made piles of munitions, belt buckles, boxes, and mine fragments. The Mujaheddin fought the Russians first and then the Taliban, as they stormed into Bamiyan.

The path to the top is steep but the view is sublime, out over the river to the saw-toothed mountains. There are the remains of stables and turrets with intricate brickwork. Ovens that once baked bread for the hungry army line the track to the summit.

The descent is quicker and we stop to wash ourselves in the river. The Red City that has had such a long and bloody history looks peaceful now. But below the surface are mines waiting to be uncovered.

The Red City

The City of Screams

31 July 2009



At 5pm I leave from the bazaar and walk through the fields to the Shahr-e Gholghola – the City of Screams. The wheat is ripe, turned golden and whispers gently in the wind. It has been a good year with early rains and a long dry summer. The potatoes are in flower and women and children are harvesting vetch to feed their fat-tailed sheep.


Sharh-e Gholghola was built in the 11th or 12th Century and rose to prominence under the Shansabani Dynasty. Genghis Khan laid siege to the citadel in 1221 after his grandson was killed by an arrow in nearby Sharh-e Zohak. King Jalaluddin’s daughter, installed in her own palace after falling out with her father over his marriage to a much younger woman, betrayed the king by firing an arrow into Genghis’ tent. Around the arrow was wrapped a note detailing the location of a spring that was the citadel’s only water supply. At her advice, Genghis blocked the spring with felts, bringing an end to the siege. He then destroyed every living thing in the valley down to the rats and dogs, giving rise to the name the City of Screams. The daughter, expecting a reward, dressed up to meet the Mongol Khan. She was stoned to death for her betrayal of her father.


The citadel is now reached through a minefield, the path clearly marked by white stones. The cities buildings were made of stone and mud, rising in spires from the sharp rock. At the top I am met by two policemen and a sad, old donkey. I am asked to sit for while and talk but we quickly exhaust my Dari and their English, so I leave to admire the view.


Below the valley is quilted with irregular fields, separated by mud walls and streams. In the distance is the cliff of the Buddhas, the Qala-e Dokhtar (the Palace of the Daughter), the snow capped Koh-e Baba range and the Kakrak valley. I wait until sunset, figuring I have three quarters of an hour to return home.


I stop to take photos in the soft light. It is a magical place and I lose sense of time. It is getting dark by the time I reach the bazaar and take a bridge across the river. Too late, I discover I have crossed too far downstream and end up on a very long road home via the Buddhas. It is 8pm when I get to the guesthouse and Marnie and Atollah are out looking for me. They have gone to the police and I am summoned the next morning at 9am to be given a dressing down.


Atollah, Tahir and I enter the Commandant’s office. It is lined with chairs on which are seated six Greybeards who sip tea and nod sagely as the Commandant dispenses his advice. I explain though Tahir that I could not get mobile coverage or I would have rung Marnie. I apologise for having caused so much trouble. He accepts my apology and explains that although Bamiyan is the safest province in Afghanistan, there are still bad people around. A foreigner was recently attacked and robbed further down the valley. I should only go out after 6pm with a driver or interpreter. He lets me go and Atollah slaps my back on the way out. Big smiles all around.


But I have learned my lesson. It is unfair to worry the people whose feel responsible for my safety.

The City of Screams

The giant Buddhas

31 July 2009



In the morning, after a breakfast of eggs, nan and chay sabz (green tea), I take the road to the Buddhas. The morning is dazzling, the sky burqa blue. The Koh-e Baba (Grandfather of Mountains) range is snow-bearded, even now, in mid-summer.


When I arrive, a young ATC (Afghan Tourist Commission) guide sorts out my ticket and leads me to the feet of the large Buddha – the one they called the father, or Shamama. All that remains are his huge feet, little more than misshapen mounds of rock. The huge niche that once held the 55 metre tall Buddha, towers above me. It is hard for me to believe after all this time, the research and writing, that I am here.

Built between in the 3rd to 7th century AD the Buddhist complex was set at the crossroads between the powerful Greek empire and the great Chinese civilisation to the east. Buddhism had risen out of India and had flourished in what is now northern Pakistan and through Afghanistan. Modern day Peshawar was once Ghandara – the mystical land that Tripitaka and his three companions: Monkey, Pigsy and Horse were making a pilgrimage to in the iconic series of the 1970s ‘Magic Monkey’ (the series was, of course, based on a much older Buddhist tale). Bamiyan was an important stop on the Silk Road and became a place of pilgrimage for visitors from the east.


The smaller Buddha (38 metres) was built first, hewn out of the cliff face, covered with a mud/straw mix and then plastered with gypsum before being painted. The large Buddha was created in a similar manner but the folds of his robes were created by hanging ropes from wooden pegs and then covering them with mud and straw.


The entire cliff is pocked with caves and niches holding Buddha statues and religious paintings. Most of these were removed, some into private collections, others destroyed by the early Muslim invaders who believed that by striking at the heads you would destroy the soul of the idols. The Taliban took this one stage further in 2001 when Mullah Omar gave the order to blast the Buddhas out of history using Pakistani ‘experts’, and local Hazara labour to undertake the dangerous task of drilling and laying the charges. Mullah Omar, in the understatement of the century, said he was only, ‘breaking stones’ and his Taliban printed commemorative calendars of the event.


The steps to the big Buddha are reached by climbing up the recently demined path to the left of the niche. White stones mark the way and it would be unwise to stray into the unmarked area. The Taliban seeded this ground with thousands of mines after their retreat and it is a slow and risky job to remove them.


We enter the stairwell through a locked green door. The steps are steep and twist up through the rock and behind where the Buddha’s head once stared out with fiery jewelled eyes to the faithful below. I shut my eyes and imagine the caves full of chanting monks, the niches in the shrine rooms lined with many Buddha statues. It would have been a powerful experience for the humble villager.


The caves that line the cliffs from Shamana, in the west, to beyond Salsal, in the east were used by nomads for centuries after the decline of Buddhism in the valley. Later, the poor of Bamiyan used them as shelters but all, except one that I could see, have been relocated to houses. The soot from their fires stained the ceilings, covering paintings and sometimes saving them from the zealous iconoclasts. Others were covered by mud but few escaped the Taliban and now only a handful remain, most covered in Farsi graffiti. In one shrine up beside the head of Salsal, I can still see the vivid blues, the white cloaks and golden auras. The domed shrine rooms are encircled with niches that once held statues. As I look up, I can see the patterns that would one day influence the creation of mandalas in Nepal and Tibet.


I leave my guide and walk to further to the east. Here among the fields are what appear to be the remains of a stupa. The stupa was born when one of the Buddha’s followers asked him on his death bed how he would be remembered. Gautama, who declared himself to be a normal man, took his clay cup and upturned it on the ground to symbolise that there was now emptiness. He wanted no monuments, no statues, no worship. Humanity being what it is, however, revels in the concrete, and his disciple created the first stupa, in the shape of an upturned cup, in his memory.


Would the Buddha have approved of the final destruction of the statues? This breaking of stones. After all, he taught about the impermanence of all things. But I cannot help but feel sorry for humanity when it removes its own history in the name of ideology.

The giant Buddhas

The road to Bamiyan

31 July 2009



In 632 AD the wandering Buddhist monk Xuan Zang made the long and arduous trip from China to Bamiyan. Ghenghis Khan made his own bloody pilgrimage from Mongolia, arriving to a frenzy of slaughter in 1221. For me, it is the northern road via the Shibar Pass that will feel as tortuous as that made by the earlier visitors.


We leave at 6.30am. Marnie, a woman who heads an organisation called PARSA that runs education, vocational training and recreational programs for disadvantaged Afghans, has taken pity on my inability to get to Bamiyan and has offered me a seat in her 4WD. Marnie is an American who went to school in Kabul in the 60s and 70s and has come back to Afghanistan to help rebuild the country.


Atollah, our driver, negotiates the early morning traffic and heads out of Kabul through the Shomali Plains, famous for their grape growing and for the fierce battles waged here during the Russian invasion and the later Taliban takeover. The road here is tarred and smooth. Grapevines carpet the valley floor. Huge yellow melons from Mazar are sold from wooden carts; bags of ripe tomatoes and the ubiquitous nan shops, line the highway. Women and children direct herds of fat-bottomed sheep, their backs picked out with bright markings. Mountains sweep upwards in grand folds, tinged with green. The air is already clearer than Kabul and I am looking forward to the journey.


After an hour or so, we take a left onto what appears at first to be a track. But this is one of the main roads to Bamiyan. Before the wars, it would take two or three hours to reach the giant Buddhas. Now it can take somewhere between eight and twelve depending on the vehicle and the road conditions. It must be frustrating, this devolving of everything over the past thirty years.


Driving these roads takes concentration, skill and courage. Atollah’s brother is the regular driver but was busy. It is Atollah’s first trip to Bamiyan and soon he asks Marnie, in a question familiar to all parents: how much longer? He is open-mouthed at the response.


There are four mains types of vehicle on the road. The first is the HiAce van, filled with families and their goods, returning from the city to the Provinces. The second is the trusty Corolla. It is a peculiarity in Afghanistan that nearly every vehicle is a Toyota. They are imported second hand from countries around the world and, although the government has been trying to correct the anomaly, many are right hand drive. The Corolla’s disappear into the large dips and craters, emerging up the other side in a cloud of dust. The third is the 4WD, a car better suited to this environment, with the clearance to miss most of the rocks and ridges. The fourth is the truck, pushing great loads of wheat, building supplies and produce deep into the mountains. Of course there is also a collection of donkeys, motorcycles, pushbikes and pedestrians, all vying for their own patch of road.


The technique for overtaking seems to be to quickly approach the offending vehicle, leaning on the horn and hoping it will pull aside enough to let you past. Sometimes this doesn’t happen and you are left in a cloud of dust, making seeing the road ahead a tricky proposition. When a gap appears, you go for it. There is no time for hesitation. The car doesn’t want to let you past. It doesn’t want to be breathing your dust. A boy with a donkey appears. You beep. He whips the donkey, desperate to lead it from the road. There are rocks to your right. A large gorge, dropping to the milky green river. Hands tighten on the wheel. You hold your breath and manage to squeeze through the gap and take poll position.

We stop for lunch in a flyblown Pashtun village. It is deeply conservative and Atollah is worried about Marnie eating here. She covers her hair and we are shown a separate room with cushions and an eating mat. We are served Qabli Pulao, a rice dish which is supposed to contain carrots and raisins – it has neither. There is also nan and a plate each of stewed mutton. Outside, in the bazaar, the hung corpses of sheep are fought over by swarms of wasps.


Back on the road, we pass fortified mud houses that have held families safe for centuries. The road leaves the Ghorband River and switchbacks its way up to the Shibar Pass. The pass is 3285 metres high and, on top, levels out to a plain where Russian tanks rust into the grass. We come down from the plateau and needle through towers of rock.


Marnie points out the Shahr-e Zohak, the city of Zohak, the snake-haired ruler of Persian literature. Here, below the city’s ruins, is a project soon to be handed over to PARSA. It is a women and children’s garden with a playground, a café, a vegetable and flower garden and a Moghul style layout based on symmetry and the sound of water. The backdrop is the spectacular red city of Shahr-e Zohak and it lies beside a small stream. There are New Zealand soldiers stationed here on a training mission. They surely must have one of the best postings in Afghanistan, with apple pie and ice cream served to them and a view of the mountains.


It is a short drive from here to Bamiyan and as we enter town, I am keen to catch a glimpse of the Buddha niches and caves. We stop in town and I know they are close, behind the bazaar, across the river and wheat fields. I have been here many times on Google Earth, in books and documentaries. We turn beside the river and Marnie says I will be able to see them. But they are blocked by some trees. The car edges in to the PARSA guesthouse. I am shown my room, the toilet and kitchen. I am shown the view of the Shahr-e Gholgola (the City of Screams). Then Tahir, the manager, leads us into the garden and I catch my first glimpse of where the Buddhas stood.


It is the small Buddha – the one they call Shamana, the mother. The niche is propped with scaffold to stop it collapsing after the dynamiting by the Taliban. It is still impressive and if I close my eyes I can imagine the caves as active vihara (monasteries), the painting and carvings, the chanting of monks. And the giant Buddhas with their masks of gold and jewelled eyes, striking awe into the faithful below.


After tea, Atollah and I walk through the wheatfields to the Buddhas. As I jump a stream, I drop my mobile in the water. Atollah fishes it out of the mud. Nothing can dampen my joy. We stand before Shamana’s niche. Some of the caves at the side have carved lintels, others have been used by nomads and are blackened by the soot of their fires. People lived here before the Taliban chased them away.


I have been dreaming of this moment for seven years. It has been a hard road but I have made it.

The road to Bamiyan

Two Kabuls

29 July 2009


The thick-bearded men from the provinces pass over their mobile phones and walk through the metal detector. This is the Kabul City Centre, a tower of green glass and stainless steel, flanked by mirrors. Shops sell pirated software and DVDs; cheap air tickets, laptops, jewellry, phones, silk dresses and cameras. The wealthy walk slowly through this ‘Little Dubai’ with thick plastic bags full of their spoils.


In the coffee shop, businessmen in metallic-look Pakistani suits and pointed shoes check out their reflections before ordering a latte and pot noodle. Rich fathers spoil their children with an ice cream or a fruit juice.


The bearded men recognise the fruits – bananas, melon, apple and cherries but are perplexed at the sound proof booth. There are foreign security workers descending in the glass elevator with Ariana air hostesses and guards in flack jackets. Hazara boys wonder at the escalators as the men pass on their way to the second floor.


Here, they lay out their carpet and sit as they have always done, cross-legged and on the ground. But they are surrounded by mirrors, and when they kneel to pray, they catch their reflection. It is a little off-putting. They take turns in prayer as if they need the other two to stand guard.


In front of them, pretty teenage girls preen themselves near the Mehak Valley Beauty Store, adjusting their veil, showing the right amount of hair. They flirt dangerously with their boyfriends, or maybe they are cousins; but the men’s narrow-eyed stares cannot reach them, this is their place. The young men lean over the railings and watch the coffee shop. A mobile recharge seller is doing the rounds but no one is buying. They are doing deals, making friends, all within this bubble, another Kabul.


Back on the second floor the men are finished their prayers. One counts his cash, a thick wad of Afghanis and US Dollars. The second is staring at his mobile phone, willing it to ring. They want to try the glass elevators but they are only for the Safi Landmark Hotel guests. There are no buttons on the second floor exit and the ground floor is guarded.


The men roll up their carpet. They have seen enough. They exit past security and into the street. Here, men are selling peeled calves legs from barrows, street kids pester them with boxes of chewing gum, a widow in a faded blue burqa extends her dirt-lined palm. Here there is noise and colour and dust and poverty.


And it hard now for the men to know - which is the real Kabul.

Two Kabuls

My new shalwar kameez

27 July 2009


It has been recommended that I get fitted for a new shalwar kameez for my trip to Bamiyan. The shalwar kameez is the jeans and t-shirt of Afghanistan but it is far more. It can be a business suit if worn with a smart waistcoat. It can be of fine cloth or thin cotton. It is worn by everyone from the street urchin to President Hamid Karzai.


The dress consists of loose fitting cotton pants over which is worn a long shirt down to the knees. It is a simple, elegant piece of clothing, well-suited to the warm conditions of summer in Kabul. It would be good to get rid of my thick jeans that I had been sweating in for the last week.


The first decision is the colour. The walls of the Arian Cloth and Tailring [sic] are lined with bolts of cloth from duck egg blue to Kabul-dust brown. Mostly they are light colours that don’t suck in the heat. I choose one colour but my friend, Faoud, shakes his head. The quality of the cloth is not good. I choose another, a camel brown that won’t show the dust. The tailor tries to talk me into a shiny material but I don’t want to be turning any heads on the open road.


With the cloth chosen, they ask me what kind of collar do I want – French or Hindustani. I choose Hindustani, the simple round collar with no turnover. It is what the tailor is wearing and I think it looks smart without being too formal. This is the first time I have been measured for a suit and I feel like I am on a reality TV show (‘Kabul Eye For the White Guy’) with Faoud clicking pictures and rearranging the shop to his artistic taste. I choose a rounded bottom for the shirt, I like the subtle way it finishes the garment off.


Faoud makes me put on a suit jacket for a photo. He is not happy with the first shot and gets me to pose for another. Then he hands me a waistcoat and a tape measure. I must pretend I am working the sewing machine. I must pretend I am ironing (against my belief that clothes iron themselves once worn). Faoud has found his new vocation – fashion photographer.


Faisal, the young guy who runs the ‘Oxford University Press Bookshop’ below, is laughing at the proceedings. His English is excellent and it turns out he has done a Diploma of Business in Melbourne. He is going through the final interview stage for a job at USAID tomorrow. It is good to see bright young guys like him staying in Afghanistan and helping to rebuild what has been lost in the last 30 years.


I pay up my 780 Afghanis for my salwar kameez (A$19.50 including entertainment and banter). It will be ready tomorrow morning.


For the first time in my life, I am interested in clothes’ shopping.

My new shalwaar kameez

Darulaman Museum and Palace

26 July 2009



Afghanistan has a long history of migration, trade and varied civilisation. Placed at the doorway to Asia it has had a Persian, Greek, Buddhist, Islamic and Mongol past. The Darulaman Museum was opened in 1919 and was among the finest in the world with artifacts from all these periods on display. When the Soviets withdrew in 1979, and Kabul fell deeper into chaos, the museum was the target for bombing and looting. Between 92 and 94 it was a mujahedeen base and they systematically removed the most valuable pieces for sale on the black market.


When Kabul fell to the Taliban in 1996, they at first promised to protect the remaining items. But in 2001, at the same time as Pakistani experts were destroying the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan, a party of soldiers led by the Taliban Minister of Culture, broke in and destroyed what was still on display.


It was a common problem. The regime’s hatred of iconography and representation of living things was absolute. They also visited the National Gallery with knives. Some of the paintings were saved by painting over them with watercolours. A similar technique (using mud) saved some of the Buddha’s faces in the paintings in Bamiyan before the Taliban saw their complete destruction.


The museum staff had been working for years to hide some of the exhibits in secure storage. These included the Bactrian Gold – a massive find of coins and relics by a Soviet archaeologist in 1978, hidden in the national bank and only rediscovered in 2004. The Bagram Ivories, another find of immense importance, had been mostly sold into private collections but a few items remain. These still can’t be shown within the country due to the security risk and ironically it was the West that got to see them first when they were sent to Paris in 2006 for an exhibition.


When the Taliban were ousted in 2001, the museum’s staff went back to work, restoring the pieces that had been destroyed. Some of the photos on the wall show items lost forever. The work is still going on. When I visited there was a staff member gently cleaning a metal pot from the Buddhist era in the Restoration Room.


 Near the entrance, a scale model of the large Buddha of Bamiyan stands, a sad plastic replica of the immense work carved in the 6th Century. In the hallway is an immense bowl made of black marble known as the Buddha’s Begging Bowl. There are a number of Buddhas in cases, most with missing heads. A complete statue of the Maitreya (future) Buddha shows what an amazing job the restorers have done.


In the Nuristan room, there are carpets and chairs (peculiar to the Nuristani’s who, unlike other Afghans, do not sit on the floor). Nuristan was the last place in Afghanistan to convert to Islam and was also known as Kafiristan (Land of the Infidels). Even the great Tamerlane could not conquer this mountainous region, at one point having to be lowered down a cliff in a basket and losing many horses by the same method. Alexander the Great left the people alone when they claimed their city, Nysa, was built by the Greek god Dionysus. As proof they showed the ivy which grows nowhere else in the region. The people are often red-haired and blue-eyed, pointing also to a Greek history. Their pagan past is shown in the statues they used to mark their graves. When the body had sat in open coffins for a year, it was buried and the place marked with these effigies that the people believed to contain the soul of the dead. The Taliban had a go at hacking these to bits too, but many have been restored.


On the other side of a blocked off dusty road, sits the Royal Palace of Darulaman. Built by King Amanullah in the 1920s, it has been shelled into a stupor during the civil war. It must have been a grand building with European style arches and follies dotting the grounds.


The gardens now consist of dust and giant thistles, bordered by razor wire. The palace itself is out of bounds due to unexploded bombs and mortar shells. It was used as a location for a scene in Kabul Express (a Hindi movie set in Taliban occupied Afghanistan). Probably like no other building in Kabul, it symbolises what has happened to the entire country.


Back across the road at the museum, a plaque reads: A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive. That sentiment is echoed on the taxi ride home when I see a billboard for an energy drink: Caribou salutes the rebuilding spirit of the Afghans.

Darulaman Museum and Palace

Kowk fighting

25 July 2009


It’s Jom’a, Friday, and in Shahr-e Nau park the people are gathering. They are setting their wicker cages among the tall pines, near the rose beds and on the broken concrete pathways. The kabob sellers are stoking their burners and cooking skewers of fatty lamb and chicken for the hungry crowd. Chai-wallahs have lit fires under their samovars and the water is boiling for tea. Smoke winds its way up through the branches and catches the early morning light.


There are men here with beards like cloud. Squatting children bet coins on a simple roulette game. A hawker throws dice from a huge leather cup onto a cloth rich with symbols. He is a showman – calling to the crowd, urging them to place their bets. The money goes down in torn 50 and 100 Afghani notes. The stakes are high. The dice are rolled and one man collects. He immediately throws down his next bet.


Inside the cages, the birds are restless. They catch glimpses of each other and bob their heads, straining at the bars to attack their rivals. These are the kowk, or fighting partridge, a bird at once brave and exceedingly stupid. It is said that in winter, when he is threatened, he will stick his head into the snow; and, believing the danger to be gone, feel at peace.


Two competitors are placed in the ring. Their covers are removed and they see each other for the first time. Their owners remove the bottomless cages and the birds fly at each other bearing down with their beaks and grabbing at each other’s heads. Again and again they attack. And now the men are placing bets, shouting across the ring to each other.


The birds begin to tire and they are re-caged. Circular cloth screens are placed between the cages and two men come in to fan the birds, using sheets held with one knee to the chest. The kowk are offered water and lettuce. Revived, they are once again released.


This is repeated again and again. When the birds are exhausted, their owners breathe air into their beaks and suck the blood from their heads. It is never allowed to go too far.


A beggar woman in a blue burqa, pulled up to reveal her face, enters the ring. She extends her hand to the men, smiling, pleading. This is the ultimate loss of dignity in a country where the beggars, often widows, use the burqa to hide their shame. There are no other women here and the men and boys crane their necks to see around her. She is an annoyance. They call for an official to remove her. Finally, he guides her gently from the ring, parting the crowd so she can leave.


Back in the fight, one kowk has the other on the ground. The crowd whistles and shouts. The referee calls an end and the birds are picked up, calmed and given water. Men cross the ring to collect their winnings. There is a pause while the drink and kabob sellers do their rounds. Boys bring round dyed red eggs and chay sabz (green tea) in huge tin kettles.


Two more birds are brought into the ring and it begins again.

Kowk fighting
Football at Ghazi Stadium

Football at Ghazi Stadium

25 July 2009


During the time of the Taliban, Ghazi Stadium was the scene of bloody retribution for supposed crimes against God and government. Women were stoned to death for adultery, thieves had their hands removed, people were hanged, shot, buried up to their necks and bludgeoned. It was not the sort of day out I’d plan for my family.

Thankfully, with the hardliners sidelined, the more gentle pursuit of football is once again the focus at the national stadium. Though, in the winter months the game of buzkashi, where a headless goat carcass is fought over by men on horseback, is played.

On the day I was there Kabul Bank were playing the-other-team-with-the-unpronounceable-name. The pitch was a brilliant green among the omnipresent brown dust and mud walls. In the background, the rocky hills made a spectacular backdrop to the warm-up session. It looked serious. The sun was lifting the skin from the back of my neck as the whistle blew for the first half.

My impromptu guide who I named Rafi 2 (Rafi 1 being the young guy who ran the chaikhana – a café – down the road from my guesthouse), was a supporter of Kabul Bank. So I was too. Rafi 2 had his right leg amputated from the knee down; a victim, like so many Afghans, of a land mine accident.


It seemed like Kabul Bank were the stronger team. They had possession most of the time and the game seemed to be being played almost solely in the opponents half. There were a couple of near misses but they couldn’t quite finish it off.

The stadium was surrounded by giant portraits of Afghan rulers, staring disapprovingly at the game below. When the Taliban were in power and the Pakistani team visited they were imprisoned for wearing shorts and only released and deported after their heads were shaved in order to shame them further.

Now the teams wore shorts but the heat was like a bread oven. I didn’t know how the team could run in such punishing conditions. I was slow-cooking in the stands. My water was out and Rafi 2 offered to go get me some. It was doubtful if my newly arrived stomach would handle the local water – much of it pulled from wells, the rest brought from the mountains in skin bags.

The score was nil all and it didn’t look like changing. I was dying of thirst. I said salaam to Rafi 2 and his friend and wandered off to find some bottled water.

As I left the stadium, the roar of the crowd signalled a goal.


The Ka Faroshi Bird Market

23 July 2009


It is behind the crumbling Pul-e Khishti Mosque near the river and takes me nearly an hour of struggling through the traffic in a dusty taxi to reach. I have the Dari word for bird, parenda and the word for market, bazaar. My driver points past the roadblock and into a crazy sea of humans and animals and groceries and food stalls . And blue burkhas and bearded men, goats’ heads in barrows, lime sellers, cherry juice merchants, almond shellers, cows’ legs (skin and hooves on) chickens, cheap clothes, energy drinks on ice, pens, nuts, sewing machines, scissors, shoes and coconuts. I take a deep breath and push in.

The mosque is calling, ‘Allah O Akbhar’, a political campaigner in car shouts through his loudspeaker, there are bells and calls from the stall owners. I smile at everyone and say, Salaam. They probably think I am mad. I try a side alley, past the butcher with its display of fly blown lamb. Past the barbers against the mosque wall, shaving and cutting in the shade of a tarpaulin. Past the bookstalls with the red spines of their books facing the street, the gold Farsi script glinting in the sun.

But no birds. I ask in halting Dari but the cloth merchant doesn’t understand. I whistle and flap my arms and he points me back to the chickens. Finally someone takes pity and directs me down a side alley off the side alley. From that alley I turn right and I am in the bird market, also known as the Alley of the Straw Sellers.

Here is the Kabul I am looking for. A narrow alley filled with wicker cages. Kaftar – the dove used in competition much like pigeons in the West. Kowk – a large partridge fought on Fridays in Shar-e Nau park. Budgies and canaries and finches and parrots. Stalls selling ornate brass leg-rings from Pakistan. I buy a few as a souvenir and the perplexed owner wants to know what I will do with them. I can’t really explain that I just find them beautiful so I tell him I will give them to my children. It seems to make him happy.

One stall sells wolf skins. Another, the nets used to capture kaftar as they are lured close to home by a winner’s flock. Everyone is obliging. They let me take photos when I ask. They offer me tea and food. The kids laugh and practice their single word English. It is not the Afghanistan we see on the media.

Some mourn the loss of the Golden Age of the 60s and early 70s when the country was free and happy, the people open and welcoming. Perhaps it can still be found, if you take the time to look.

The Ka Faroshi Bird Market

The OMAR Land Mine Museum

23 July 2009


Of all the lasting traces of war surely land mines are the most brutal and unforgiving. They can be triggered by soldier and civilian alike, are often buried in fields where children play and tear off arms and legs, shatter bone and end lives.  It is hard to believe that there are companies that still profit from the making of them.

The OMAR (Organization for Mine clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation) Land Mine Museum is hard to find. Like most places in Kabul you need to know a nearby landmark. Luckily it was nearby the Ghazi Stadium home to old Taliban violence and modern soccer, a place known by all Kabulis. As with everywhere in Kabul, my bag was searched before I was directed to a building surrounded by old bomb casings and permanently grounded war planes. The room was about 20 by 20 metres and was surrounded on three sides by Perspex display cases. In these cases were land mines and munitions crafted by countries such as Russia, the USA, Pakistan, Iran and Italy. There were even knockoff copies of the most popular mines.

There were huge anti-tank devices and delicate butterfly mines (brightly coloured and attractive to children). There were wooden-Russian models and little plastic numbers that looked at harmless as ice hockey pucks. It was a bizarre display and my guide reeled off the names and makes as if he were telling me about the latest cars or computers.

One display was of a Mujahadeen tank IED (Improvised Explosive Device). Made from an old pressure cooker in 1985 it was wrapped in cloth and packed with 25 kilos of explosives. The OMAR mine clearance team found and disarmed it twenty years later.

In another case a set of cluster bombs and their associated components sat like a Lego set waiting to be reassembled. The GPS circuitry, the cute little bomblets filled with projectiles, the parachutes that would deliver them gently like clouds of thistle-down.

But perhaps the most disturbing and poignant of all the displays were the three helmets in a case. Visors torn, their plastic burnt and scabbed by metal, it was obvious what had happened to the mine-clearers that wore them. And in the next case, their belonging – a torn Koran, a set of melted prayer beads. And the photos above of children with missing limbs and crutches.

Outside, the ancient Russian helicopter had been turned into an internet café and an old bomber had become an education centre aimed at kids who may come in contact with these devices. They were painted brightly and their roles had changed but there was no denying their ugly past.

The OMAR Land Mine Museum

Kabul – first impressions

22 July 2009


Kabul is ringed by mountains, great dusty giants looming over the city. The Air India plane dropped between them, turning circles until I had seen a full panorama of the city from the air – from the dusty mud houses to the newly built high rises. The airport was awash with UN planes and helicopters; soot-blackened Russian choppers and US supply planes sat waiting. The rusting hulks of old helicopters, cannibalised for parts, lay rusting nearby.

On the plane, were British soldiers returning from leave, Russian spies (or so I thought), a party of expat Afghans returning for a wedding (the twenty-somethings with American accents), aid workers… and me. We had been frisked and searched in Delhi and sat in a half-full plane eating a curry breakfast while India, Pakistan and the Hindu Kush flickered beneath the clouds.

The new terminal building was a surprise, clean, orderly, paid for by international aid. Against all stereotypes, the immigration guy was cheerful and friendly, stamping my passport and welcoming me to Afghanistan. I was in Afghanistan!

After a listless wrangle with the money changers and a fleecing from the guy-with-the-phone booth (who managed to filch my pen as well), I walked out of the airport and found a taxi. Or rather they saw me coming. I paid three times the going rate for a ride to my hotel. But what a ride – the famous blue burkhas, ice cream stalls being pedalled slowly through the heat, sandbagged gun placements, horsecarts, piles of firewood like discarded bones, dust, mud walls, destroyed houses, diesel fumes, watermelons, Hamid Karzai billboards, armoured car billboards, the Kabul Paris Wedding Hall, a lone red kite, a boy in a blue shirt walking between ruined walls, giant compressors, trucks laden with plastic buckets. I would have paid double for the experience.

And then to my hotel. A short half-hearted haggle with the manager. A noisy room facing the street so I could absorb the city in my sleep. A mind-numbingly complex shower with three separate water outlets (plus one leak gushing onto the floor), a foot massager, an FM radio and phone (not working) but, disappointingly, no hot water.

Back out in the street, I went to register myself at the Foreigner’s Registration – a dusty walk along a cracked pavement strewn with beggars, sunglass shops and men hammering the green husks from piles of almonds. That done, I took a taxi into the Shahr-e Nau (New City) district.

Road travel in Asia is often an eclectic mix of ignored rules, car horns and patience. Kabul city is the whole business magnified. The roads themselves are a dangerous blend of cracked tar and dirt. Nominally, driving is done on the right hand side but in practice three or four lanes tangle themselves, meet at right angles, run against the flow of traffic. Cars are mix of left and right hand drive; hand carts share the road, as do motorbikes, pedestrians and horse buggies.

In Sharh-e Nau, I find the Shah M Bookshop, its shelves stacked with every conceivable book about Afghanistan, some old, some new. I recognise the guy running it from the plane flight out of  Delhi and it turns out he is a couchsurfer (see previous post) whose brother is the Couchsurfing ambassador for Afghanistan. I buy an old copy of Nancy Hatch Dupree’s book ‘An Historical Guide to Afghanistan’ and a Dari phrasebook and dictionary which eats half my daily allowance.

I visit Flower Street, its shopfronts shaded from the sun by red sheets. A young boy trims the stems of bunches of red roses, flowers cascade onto the footpath. And at the end of the road - the craggy hills of Kabul remind me where I am.

Chicken Street was the old hangout when Kabul was part of the hippy trail in the 60s and 70s. Now it is crammed with carpet and trinket sellers promising bargains and practicing their English. As I turn out of Chicken Street, a British Army patrol swings down the road, the armoured cars draped with camouflage netting, soldiers with guns pointed at the streets. It was hard not to feel they are the invaders, strong-arming their way through this country.

It was dark when the taxi drops me off back at the hotel. I had to walk from the end of the street with the Lonely Planet’s warning about not walking after dark, on high rotation in my head –more about the danger of falling into an open drain but still a security concern. At night the streets seemed to be taken over by food stalls, beggars and dogs. Big dogs that I heard are used for fighting.

At the hotel, I shared a meal of Afghan bread, cucumber, melon and tomato with a group of Turkish electricians who have been working in Jalalabad. Between them, they have worked their way through much of Central Asia and Iraq. They are due to fly out the next day (as they have been promised every day for the past five) with Ariana Airlines, also called Inshallah (God willing) Airlines.

I talked with the cousin of the hotel owner, a locally born Indian who left when the Russians came in 1979. He talked about Kabul in the winter, of the snow and temperatures as low as minus 15C. He talked about Hinduism and books but fell silent when I mention the Taliban.

And then it was bedtime. It was 3am Melbourne time when I finally crawled in. The street outside was quiet. I closed my eyes on my first day in Kabul.

Kabul – first impressions

Destination Kabul

21 July 2009


Like many journeys this one begins at an airport, a building designed to suck the romanticism and allure from travel. I am dreaming of the Buddhas of Bamiyan while checking in. I am pressing an ear to the Weeping Dragon while I am going through security. It is hard to escape the buzz, however; the destinations flashing on the boards, travellers struggling with bulky luggage, and the improbable size of the planes.

We flew over the Flinders Ranges in South Australia at an altitude of 10792m. Up there we were higher than Mt Everest but the flattened spine of the the Ranges, the empty bowl of Wilpena Pound could not compete with peanuts and free movies. No one except me seemed to care. Why pay all that money for a unique view only to be absorbed by Julia Roberts and reconstituted orange juice?

The earth seen from a plane is like a map of the human body. Dry river beds are the blood system, drawn with a scratchy quill, the skin of the desert peeled back with surgical care. The ancient mountains read like bumps on the skull. Valleys – long scars from forgotten battles. Lake Eyre, full for the first time in years, its great salty whiteness spread like zinc.

Singapore was 30 degrees, tidy, efficient, with free internet. But still I was dreaming of dusty mountains and Genghis Khan. Sure, I updated my Facebook status but I was on my way to Kabul.

The flight landed in Delhi shortly before 10pm, not a great time to land anywhere. I had booked a hotel near the airport thinking I could steal some sleep before the early flight. By the time I had cleared customs and immigration’s sulky pout it was after 11. I pre booked a taxi and stepped out to the subcontinent for the first time in 13 years.

Nothing much had changed. It was still chaotic, hot, the air like ghee. But it was familiar and I loved it for its faults: the way it dribbled its food, farted when it shouldn’t, even its infuriating need for systems, piled on top of each other like old blankets.

The Global War on Terror was being waged here too and it meant that the 5 minute trip to the hotel took 45. There were 3 roadblocks manned by sleepy police with rifles who yawned at the night and stopped no one. I sat back and closed my eyes.

The hotel was clean. The aircon worked. It had satellite TV and a mini bar. I showered and fell into bed.

Three hours later my wakeup call came through.

At the airport, I stood at the check in and looked at the screen. Destination Kabul.

It is really happening.

Destination Kabul

Surfing Afghanistan

27 June 2009


I first heard about couchsurfing when author Brian Thacker was on the radio talking about his book Sleeping Around – a couch surfing tour of the globe. I was intrigued by the idea of meeting people who knew about the country you were visiting. Guide books are good but they can't replace local knowledge and human interaction. The very best experiences I have had while travelling are those where I have met up with a local and they have shown me something out of the ordinary; or when I have had a conversation that had really made me think about the place I am travelling. Also, being Scottish, if staying on someone's couch can save me money, I'm in.


So what is couchsurfing? According to their website


CouchSurfing seeks to internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance, and facilitate cultural understanding.


"The CouchSurfing community strives to do individual and collective parts to make the world a better place, and believe that the surfing of couches is a means to accomplish this goal. CouchSurfing isn't about the furniture- it's not just about finding free accommodations around the world - it's about participating in creating a better world.


In a way couchsurfing is a bit like when you used to turn up on a distant relative's doorstep with a backpack and a sleeping bag and invite yourself to stay for three weeks. Except now all the negotiations are done in cyberspace, hosts and surfers are vouched for and you get to agree on the length of stay. As Benjamin Franklin stated in 1736: Fish and visitors smell in three days.


It is an incredible idea, a worldwide network of couches just waiting to be slept on. Travellers across the globe sharing ideas and travel stories. It's origins are explained on the website.


Three of the four co-founders, Casey Fenton, Daniel Hoffer, and Sebastien LeTuan, became close friends while working together at a dot com Daniel founded in 1999. Several years later, the idea for CouchSurfing solidified when Casey bought a cheap ticket to Iceland for a long weekend one April. He came up with the 'brilliant' idea of e-mailing over 1500 Icelandic students in Reykjavik and asking them if he could crash on one of their couches. Exchanging emails with many of the students, he then had several groups of friends offer to show him 'their' Reykjavik. After spending an amazing, crazy weekend just south of the Arctic Circle, Casey decided he would never again get trapped in a hotel and tourist marathon while traveling. Casey then invited Dan, Seb, and another friend and colleague of his, Leonardo Silveira, to co-found with him. Casey has remained the most committed to CouchSurfing, working full-time to build the organization since the beginning, with the other founders contributing according to availability. Casey focuses on "vision" and programming, Seb and Leo on usability and design, and Dan on everything operations and business-related. Many years later, the partnership is still strong - and the rest, as they say, is history.


And so to my experience and my trip to Afghanistan in three weeks time. I have contacted five hosts and got two positive replies. One from a guy living in Bamiyan who works at a Non Government Organisation there. The description of his couch is:


There are a few tochak (Afghan mattress) lying in my living room, that's where you'll sleep, afghan style!

I live and work in an ancient Afghan fortified farm, a few hundred meters from where the Buddhas used to be. The house lies in a beautiful valley covered by snow in winter and by wheat in summer. It's also a working place, we are 10 people living and working here.

There will be about 20 carpenters staying there for a week in late July. Hopefully they will have left before I get there or the tochak may get a little crowded.

As far as couches in Kabul, I contacted a guy who does photo journalistic work and is waiting for a "military embed" before returning from China. I am trusting he will have time to organise a couch. Should be interesting.

So, the reality of the trip has set in. Last night, I watched a documentary (Man on Wire) on Phillipe Petit, a wirewalker who walked illegally between the Twin Towers in New York  in 1974. It was inspiring seeing someone so dogged in pursuit of his dream (the Towers weren't even completed when he first had the idea). It has made me think how important it is to follow your path no matter what people say. Calculated risks need to be taken otherwise nothing will happen, ever. That is not to say that a person should be needlessly stupid or foolhardy, just that if you have a vision of what you want to do then you should do it. It is a shame Nike have sloganised the idea.

In four weeks I will be standing in front of the niches where the great Buddhas stood for 1500 years until the Taliban blew them to smithereens. I will look over the valley where Genghis Khan rode in the 13th century. It will be the culmination of seven years work. Hopefully then I will be able to finish this novel.

Surfing Afghanistan

On Beards

30 May 2009


To beard or not to beard?

It is a question that many travellers to Afghanistan ask.


During the Taliban era, sixteen edicts were set out including banning of kite flying; music; and British and American hairstyles. Number three on the list was a ban on shaving which carried the penalty of imprisonment until the beard had regrown to the length of a clenched fist. Beards were combed to pick up loose hairs, a sign of trimming. Lantern glasses were used as well as fists to measure length.


For me, growing a beard is a chance to blend in a little. Foreigners are targeted for the large ransoms they fetch but maybe bearded foreigners will seem a little less noticeable or maybe a little less wealthy. It does lend a certain hobo edge to my face.


I started growing my beard back in September of last year but shaved it off after the February 7th bushfires, at the same time making the decision not to go to Afghanistan. But things change and beards grow again and so now in May, with six weeks left to go, I find myself willing my facial hair to lengthen.


Hair does strange things to a face. I remember shaving my hair off for charity about six years ago. The effect it had on people I knew was profound. My daughter, a year and a half old at the time, screamed when she saw me. I was told by a significant other that I didn't have the right shaped head to make it naked. People would open doors for me and smile sympathetically thinking I had a terminal illness. My head was remarkably blue.


Hair and the effect is has on ego is well known. Various religions shave heads as a sign of devotion or humility. Growing hair on your face is a commitment. Early on in my beard growing time I visited (a website worth a look just for the bizarreness of its content) and saw this quote:


... the male beard communicates an heroic image of the independent, sturdy, and resourceful pioneer, ready, willing and able to do manly things.


Hmm. Will this make me able to do 'manly things' or will other just think I can do them?


The Lemonheads in their song 'Outdoor Type'


Never learned to swim can't grow a beard or even fight
I lied about being the outdoor type.


Six weeks of growth left to go and I will be landing in Kabul. Can a beard prepare me for what I will encounter over there? Will I be able to hide behind it and pretend I am independent, sturdy and resourceful? We shall see in six weeks time.

On Beards
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