It’s an unfortunate place that we begin our journey. Afghanistan has been invaded more times in the last decades than most countries have in centuries. The relatively unassuming locals have had the misfortune to be “strategically desirable” to a whole host of superpowers, starting with the British who having successfully conquered most of the world found Afghanistan impossible to hold onto. More recent failures include the Russian occupation and of course the current US-led occupation.
The thing is it’s a hard country and hard places breed hard people. The average Afghan couldn’t care less about geo-politics and almost certainly had no idea who Osama Bin Laden was until the day America invaded. That’s partly because the taliban had stolen all their television sets and they couldn’t keep up with CNN.
It’s a bigger shame that I’ll never be able to travel to the country, it’s always been on my list of places to visit since I read Nick Danziger’s excellent book and his trials and tribulations there.
Of course at the time the biggest tourist highlight was the Bamiyan Buddha’s. Now there’s a big bag of dust where Mullah Omar and his cronies blew them up. This isn’t a total write off because by complete chance he also blew the walls off an old cave complex at the same time. So now there’s a lot of extra space to appreciate the gaps in the walls.
There is some talk of rebuilding the Buddhas but this seems a tad on the lunatic side given Afghanistan’s bigger problems that include the re-emergence of the taliban themselves.
Believe it or not, this is the upside piece for Afghanistan so let’s look at where I would go if only they wouldn’t shoot me for trying. The Buddhist traces of Afghan history are alive and relatively well in Aibak, which is now called Samangan. If you fancied it you could stop at the market and pick up some local instruments, of course it might be harder to find a dutar (it’s a sort of lute but with only two strings) teacher for an infidel afterwards.
But you’d be better off heading into the cave complex of Takht-e Rostam and getting a feel for the 4th century Buddhist vibe. Of all the world’s religions Buddhism has a certain appeal to me, and though I don’t intend to sign up any time soon – I like the idea of enlightenment as long as I don’t have to work too hard for it.
If you’d rather get a feel for a mellower Afghanistan it’s all North of the Hindu Kush. In the town of Balkh, one of the world’s oldest religions – Zoroastrianism – was conceived. Alexander the Great is reputed to have popped in here to get himself a wife, which goes to show Afghanistan has had marauders wandering through for a very long time indeed.
The place to go in this area is supposed to be Mazar-e-Sharif, which has a really cool shrine (Hazrat Ali). There are some seriously beautiful blue domes there. If you really want something to brag about you could head on up into the mountains and get friendly with the Pamirs.
I’m not really a big fan of post-apocalyptic tourism of any kind so Kabul wouldn’t be high on my itinerary. Thanks to the combined efforts of the current invaders the city was reduced pretty much to rubble and while it is being rebuilt, and I’m told the locals are lovely when they’re not trying to kill you, there’s no electricity and water in 99% of it. Most of the buildings are pretty new if nothing special to look at.
The real appeal of Afghanistan is obviously its place next to the Himalayas and it is a genuine shame that the country will never open up in my lifetime. I suspect if we hadn’t spoiled it for ourselves it could have been, like most Muslim nations, a friendly and interesting place. There’s certainly enough history there.