A 23-Year-Old’s Journey to Afghanistan Shortly Before the Taliban Takeover
Our plane slowly descended its way into a valley surrounded by snowcapped mountains. “This can’t be real, this can’t be real.” I kept repeating the words over and over in my head. It was finally happening. I was landing in Kabul, Afghanistan. Growing up in the United States, the word “Afghanistan”, seemed to be as American as bacon and eggs or Sunday football. The country was constantly mentioned in the news, in classrooms, in political debates. But no longer for this 23-year-old traveler would it be a simple set of pictures on the TV.
Now it was real, I was going to see what the world’s most dangerous country looked like with my own eyes.
Here’s What it’s Like to Travel to Afghanistan
Landing in Kabul and Accepting the Risk of Travel in Afghanistan
The airport itself set the tone for the country. Armed military contractors, snarling German Shepherds, and lines of American Blackhawk helicopters were some of my first sites in Afghanistan. Little did I know that my two weeks in the country would help to peel back this stereotype. Meeting my guide, Sardar, outside the airport was my first experience with the incredible hospitality of the Afghan people.
Sardar made me feel at home immediately and quickly got me set up in the discreet guest house I would be staying. Afghanistan, for obvious reasons, has no backpacker hostel system and Kabul’s two western-style resorts were deemed unsafe due to previous attacks. Small and quiet guesthouses served as my accommodations throughout my time in the country.
Once we got to the guest house, Sardar sat me down and gave me a straight-to-the-point speech about the situation in the country. “Do not tell anyone our itinerary. Try to keep where you’re from to yourself. We will do our best to keep you safe but there are some things, like insurgent attacks, that are simply out of our control.” It was both sobering and at the same time oddly exciting. I told Sardar I accepted the risks, and we headed out onto the streets of Kabul.
Kabul is a Bustling City
As someone who has been to their fair share of bustling and noisy cities let me be clear: Kabul takes the cake and it’s not even close. People riding donkeys through busy traffic, men walking around with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders, fruit vendors screaming their lungs out on loudspeakers; Kabul has it all. Highlights of my time in Kabul included the Bird Market, for someone who is terrified of birds this was an experience in fear-conquering like no other; the Gardens of Babur, which features the tomb of the first Mughal Emperor; and the Afghan National Museum where the bullet holes from the civil war are just as interesting as the actual exhibits.
Too Dangerous to Drive Across Afghanistan
Outside of Kabul is an entirely different country. Due to the ongoing civil war, highway travel with some exceptions was deemed completely unsafe so domestic flights were the primary mode of transportation. One such exception was the drive from Kabul to the nearby Panjshir Valley. Meaning, “Valley of Five Lions”, the Panjshir Valley was the scene of some of the most brutal fighting in the Soviet-Afghan War and the home of Ahmed Shah Masoud. Masoud was something of a hero in Pre-Taliban Afghanistan. His picture was everywhere, and it was easy to see why. Masoud had fought the Taliban and the Soviets like no other, gaining a fierce reputation as an effective warrior. The Panjshir is filled with abandoned Soviet artillery and tanks. Monuments to the Afghan peoples’ struggle for freedom.
In Herat You Feel the Persian Influence
After the Panjshir we headed off to Herat which sometimes hardly feels Afghan at all. Located near the Iranian border, Herat has a distinct Persian flare that can be seen in its cuisine and architecture. The must-see attractions of Herat are the massive Friday Mosque, a citadel built by Alexander the Great, and the Museum of Soviet Jihad. The Museum of Soviet Jihad is hands down the most unique museum I have visited in my life. Filled with nearly life-sized exhibitions of puppets acting out various scenes from the Afghan-Soviet War, visitors will find themselves at a loss for words. You simply must visit to understand as words do not quite do justice.
Onward to Mazar-i-Sharif
After Herat, Sardar and I headed off to Mazar-i-Sharif, the main city in Afghanistan’s North. Mazar is most famous for the Blue Mosque, a rumored resting place of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s closest companion and one of the central figures of Shi’ite Islam. Aside from the Blue Mosque, Mazar also is a great place to catch a game of Buzkashi, the national sport of Afghanistan. Buzkashi is like a Southwestern Rodeo on steroids. The game revolves around dozens of men on horseback whipping each other for control of a goat carcass that one rider must take to a specific spot on the field. If it sounds brutal that’s because it is in every way imaginable.
Caught in a Blizzard in Afghanistan
Our last major destination in Afghanistan was Bamiyan. Bamiyan holds a very special place in my heart for many reasons. Even during the civil war, Bamiyan was an oasis of tranquility in the middle of a country torn apart by war. The historical sites in Bamiyan were also unparalleled. The ruins of a city destroyed by Genghis Khan, a fort made from bright red clay carved into a cliff side, and the remains of the famous Bamiyan Buddhas are just some of the sights visitors can expect to experience. One of my favorite memories from my time in Afghanistan happened just outside of Bamiyan. We were driving to Afghanistan’s only national park, Band-i-Amir, when a blizzard struck. Driving through mountain villages in Afghanistan in the middle of a blizzard was an experience I never once in my life thought I would have. When we reached the national park and saw the crystal-clear lakes surrounded by snow, I thought I was dreaming. A winter wonderland in Central Asia if such a thing ever existed.
Afghans are some of the friendliest people you could hope to meet
Looking back on my trip to Afghanistan these days is hard. Seeing the scenes of horror play out at the airport I had landed at only eight months before and wondering about the safety of the friends I made there was challenging to say the least. It was made more challenging by what I learned from my time in Afghanistan.
Afghans are some of the friendliest people you could hope to meet. They will gladly give the clothes off their backs for a stranger. It seemed so unfair to me that such kind people would have to suffer so greatly. I will always carry my time in Afghanistan as a defining moment in my life and hope that one day its people will know freedom once more.
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What is a terrified of birds and how safe is it anyway?)