Would you believe me if I told you that I travelled to Afghanistan not once, but twice this year?
Indeed, having paid my first visit to Afghanistan less than six months before, I travelled to Afghanistan for a repeat trip in October 2018.
Why? I was not entirely happy with my first visit. Some of you may remember how disappointed I felt not being able to visit Bamyan, a mountainous province renowned for its spectacular natural and historic sites that has become the highlight of Afghanistan to many visitors and was indeed the main destination I had in mind when planning the trip. Commercial flights to Bamyan having been suspended just weeks before my initial visit – they have not been reinstated to this day despite continued promises to do so – meant that I could not travel to Bamyan by air. And I could not travel by road, either: both driving routes connecting Kabul with Bamyan, passing through Wardak and Ghorband, were deemed unsafe for foreign tourists by Untamed Borders, the reputable Western travel company I was travelling with.
With my international flights being firmly booked, I suddenly had to reshuffle my itinerary to accommodate the three days I had planned to spend in Bamyan. The list of destinations in Afghanistan considered safe for foreign travellers being understandably short, I was forced to extend my stay in other Afghan cities – Kabul, Mazar-i Sharif and Herat – by a day each.
Now, those of you who have visited these cities could imagine how spending, say, three full days as a tourist might be pushing it even for the relatively safe Herat and Mazar, let alone the chaotic, perilous Kabul. I am the first person not to pursue obvious tourist sights when I am on the road, instead preferring locations where I can easily spend hours of a day interacting with locals, such as markets, parks and train stations. Unfortunately, in Afghanistan I was not allowed to walk around by myself or spend any prolonged time in a single spot: the fact that I didn’t speak local languages and attracted enormous attention as a solo Western woman wherever I went meant that, outside gated, secured sites I had to be on the move constantly.
I may have made sure to explore every corner of the Herat Citadel, watched believers pass by for hours at the fabulous Shrine of Hazrat Ali in Mazar and spent as long as possible in every other site of interest – but the time I had allocated for these cities was simply too much. Daylight hours in April being blissfully long, I ended up lunching for hours, picnicking shortly after lunch and even hanging out in the hotel – something I fiercely hate doing when the sun is up – to try and pass the time. Whilst one may say that long lunches and picnics are not uncommon in Afghanistan and are, in themselves, a form of sampling local life, I was paying thousands of dollars for the sole privilege of being in the country and wanted every minute of it to count.
Unsurprisingly, I left Afghanistan wondering if I had massively overpaid for a trip where so much itinerary time was spent idly and where I had to miss the one destination I had worked hard to overcome my fear coming to Afghanistan for, Bamyan.
Not to run ahead of myself or anything, but you can all guess the inevitable: I finally reached Bamyan on my second trip to Afghanistan
I COULD HAVE DONE BETTER RESEARCH
Unfortunately, despite doing wonders, for several reasons, for the horrific depression I was going through at the time, my first visit to Afghanistan left me disappointed in other ways. In retrospect, I felt I had quite simply spent a fortune to be taken through a half-hearted itinerary which had two supposedly full-day activities in reality lasting 2 hours each and, seemingly, unlimited time for random picnics – but did not include Bamyan, the jewel in Afghanistan’s crown.
I almost shudder to admit that I had paid over $500 per day for the privilege of setting foot in Afghanistan as a solo traveller, i.e. without being part of an organised group tour. Before departing for Afghanistan, I had imagined that the high price tag was justified as this was a private tour for what I thought was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime visit to an unsafe destination I would never return to. I had assumed that the hefty funds I was handing over somehow minimised the risks of travelling in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan remains dangerous, but at least you get smiles like this from folks guarding local safety
What I realised shortly after my return was that I could have had a far better first visit had I done better research about travelling to Afghanistan. For example, I had based my choice of the tour operator on a single personal recommendation from a well-travelled friend, effectively handing my fate over to the first company I heard good things about.
Whilst, to my credit, I had still considered, in detail, all Western companies and a major Afghan tour operator providing equivalent trips – ultimately settling on Untamed Borders – I had failed to pay the slightest attention to smaller Afghan tour operators. Be it for, somehow, not rendering them as safe as Western entities or not taking local companies seriously altogether, I had managed to corner myself into a premium-priced part of the Afghan travel market. Add to it the fact that most local tour operators collaborate or have previously collaborated with Western entities offering largely the same tours, and you will probably understand my frustration – I paid a premium Western price for services provided much more cheaply locally and of no lesser quality.
And, as convinced as I had been that there was no way of getting to Bamyan in the absence of commercial flights, I was amazed to come across other travellers in Herat who were in fact just returning from there. Apparently, there was a local company still taking foreign travellers to Bamyan overland from time to time despite some risks. The company was Let’s Be Friends Afghanistan and, very luckily, I had just spent a fantastic three days in Mazar in the company of one of its two founding members, Sakhi, with whom I instantly became the best of friends.
Considering this a sign from above, I vowed to return to Afghanistan in a better way. I could hardly wait to revisit this troubled country with a soul that won over my heart in a flash, but this time travelling on a dramatically reduced budget and without filling days with activities I did not care for. Above all, I couldn’t wait to see Bamyan, the glaring gap in my explorations of Afghanistan.
ON, ON TO BAMYAN
Barely two weeks had passed after I returned to London from my first visit to Afghanistan when, full of determination, I got in touch with Sakhi, put together my own (heavily packed) itinerary, invited Alan along and booked my flights. Now I only had months of eager anticipation to sit through before stepping on Afghan soil for the second time in a single year.
The run-up to my second trip was not without its challenges. The flights to Bamyan still had not resumed, and the many different pieces of information circulating about the safer driving route between Kabul and Bamyan I was planning to use were confusing at best. Being at times presented with two diametrically opposite opinions in a matter of hours, I had gone through long bouts of fear, panicking over whether driving to Bamyan was not ultimately prohibitively dangerous and stupid, and spending more nights researching security briefings and media – which only confused me further.
Ultimately, I drew a line, telling myself that my Afghan companions, being of the Hazara ethnic group, would themselves not risk driving on potentially Taliban-threatened routes, foreigners tucked into their car, had they not been convinced it was reasonably safe to do so. My Bamyan dream was about to become reality.
And what a dream it was.
Having visited nearly 100 countries, I can say with certainty that Bamyan makes it into the top three places to have amazed me most to date. Maybe I simply haven’t travelled widely enough, but, even after seeing the likes of Greenland, Patagonia and Namibia, I found Bamyan the most strikingly beautiful destination – or at least one of such – that I have ever visited. The stunning, timeless deep blue of the lakes of Band-e Amir, the rich history of the ancient cities of Gholghola and Zuhak and the hard-breakingly empty niches left by the Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 all came together to create a superb blend of unforgettable sights. It is not surprising that Bamyan has secured a place for itself as the highlight of Afghanistan in so many hearts across the world.
In fact, there was so much to do in and around Bamyan that, despite starting early every day, I struggled to keep up with the ambitious itinerary I had set myself. I was left puzzled hearing that most visitors to Bamyan stayed only a couple of days: visiting for three days, I had the persistent feeling that I could have spent much longer in every single location, and revisit each more than once. I would especially have loved spending more time in the spectacular Band-e Amir, Afghanistan’s first national park, than the day trip from Bamyan allowed. And I wish it hadn’t taken me until the final morning to watch the sunrise light up Bamyan’s iconic Buddha niches and monastic caves – I could have watched it time and time again. Weather being blissfully clear and sunny in Bamyan in mid-autumn, every single daylight moment in the province was unforgettable.
And I could finally wander around taking photos of locals at ease. How beautiful is this young Hazara girl?
Having visited other, tenser, parts of Afghanistan, I was also relieved to be in a place where I could relax to a degree. Bamyan is among the safest parts of Afghanistan and definitely the most relaxed place in the country where I have set foot to date. Historic sites of Bamyan understandably receiving very few tourists, I found I did not need to bother with my ever-sliding headscarf and could bare my humble Western bob to the elements; as you can guess, I am not a huge fan of covering my head and forgo it at every opportunity when it is safe to do so. Most importantly, unlike in other parts of Afghanistan, in Bamyan I was finally free to roam around at my pace and hang around in places for hours if I felt like it, without constantly worrying about security. Really, Bamyan felt like a country entirely different from Afghanistan.
AFGHANISTAN, THE WELL-TRODDEN PATH
And it was equally, if not more, surreal to revisit other places in Afghanistan, where I had never expected to set foot again. Despite the looming national elections, Kabul was noticeably less on edge than I found it in the spring, at the height of the Taliban insurgence in the capital. And I lucked out with the weather, too: autumn in Kabul was at its best, allowing me to enjoy my favourite sights of the city in much better photo conditions. I finally got my perfect background of the spectacular Sakhi Shrine, took many more portraits of locals on Ka Faroshi Bird Street and had my own portraits taken in my favourite spot in Kabul, the panoramic Bibi Mahru Hill. Kabul is definitely the least safe place on Afghanistan’s modest tourist trail, but I loved having more flexibility to linger in my favourite places. Traffic in the capital may still be notorious, but, overall, I had a better impression of Kabul than on my first visit in the spring – and, unlike then, I wouldn’t recommend that travellers skip the city altogether.
Perhaps thanks to the inevitable feeling of déjà vu, other Afghan cities also seemed friendlier. Being its usual dusty and windy self and, weirdly, the coldest part of my itinerary as temperatures dropped sharply before my arrival, Mazar finally unveiled its perfect side. I had previously missed out on a perfect sunset at the Shrine of Hazrat Ali – usually referred to as the Blue Mosque, it is the single best-known attraction of Mazar – and was beyond thrilled as my last evening in the city brought clear skies, casting warmth on the multi-coloured tiles of the monumental building. I may have missed an equivalent sunrise for now, but see it as a perfect reason to revisit yet again.
And it was in Balkh city where I experienced the biggest change in mood. I remember, on my first visit, instantly becoming the centre of everybody’s attention, attracting moderate crowds of men engaged in staring contests, feeling very uncomfortable and wanting to leave immediately. I barely spent a couple of minutes admiring the Green Mosque and had the entire perimeter of Rabia Balkhi’s grave lined with peering men while I was inside. The stares were not necessarily threatening, but security dictated that I move on to another location to prevent creating a commotion.
My second visit, however, could not have been more different. Perhaps thanks to being accompanied by Alan, I noticed a certain restraint in my audience and received noticeably fewer stares. We thus spent a good half an hour in the park around the Green Mosque taking portraits and exchanging basic words with locals – I could hardly believe this was the same place I couldn’t leave fast enough back in spring.
Overall, however, I would recommend visiting Mazar and the surrounding areas when it is warmer. I found my favourite stop on the itinerary back in spring, the Hazara village (Qariye Hazara) near Mazar, nearly devoid of any public activity in autumn, with locals waiting out the chilly, windy spell at homes or the tiny local shop. Having spent a good couple of hours on my April trip taking portraits of villagers – most of whom were outside, socialising with neighbours – I felt a hint of disappointment the second time around. Similarly, the monastic caves below the Takht-e Rustam site in Samangan were freezing and deserted, and no children could be found using the massive swings in Ancient Balkh. Temperatures fell dramatically just before I arrived: the flat Balkh Province is generally likely to be the warmest stop on your Afghanistan trip, but weather of course remains impossible to predict.
I WILL BE BACK!
Summing up, my second trip to Afghanistan was a major improvement on my first. Paying significantly less than on the first trip stopped my anxiety as to whether I was getting my money’s worth from each day – which I still did, naturally – while knowing that everything that I did pay was going straight to a local company absolved me of any guilty feelings of privilege.
I spent an entire week with Sakhi, Let’s Be Friends Afghanistan’s co-owner, stellar driver and former mujahedeen with a wealth of experience, whom I consider a dear friend and would trust with my life. I had a unique chance to introduce one of my favourite countries to Alan, my husband, travel buddy and, generally, regular partner in crime. And, most importantly, I finally visited the spectacular Bamyan, whose natural beauty and historic riches greatly surpassed my, admittedly, high expectations.
Working in an international development organisation, I was also reminded how strongly I believe in directly bolstering small local businesses like Let’s Be Friends Afghanistan, who can more directly influence local lives compared to larger international companies. Having, to date, successfully used local travel establishments in countries like Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Madagascar, among others, I have vowed not to involve any Western companies in arranging my future trips when a strong local alternative is available, and to do a more thorough research before every trip. After all, a significant number of you frequently ask me for travel advice, and I feel mortified to have approached my trip to Afghanistan in such a blasé manner the first time.
Especially if you are as anti-social as I am, I highly recommend all visitors to Afghanistan to arrange a private trip with partner or friends rather than join an organised group tour. It felt amazing to have the freedom to narrow tourist sights down to only those that really did interest me and not have to follow somebody else’s agenda. It also goes without saying that larger groups attract more attention than individual travellers and therefore potentially pose a greater security risk in Afghanistan.
I would never have taken dozens of photos of Adisa, a Pashtun girl spending her time around the Sakhi Shrine in Kabul, on a group tour
On a finishing note, I was so happy with my follow-up trip to Afghanistan that I am already planning my third visit. Amazingly, I haven’t run out of relatively safe locations in the country yet and am hoping to visit the majority Pashtun city of Kandahar and revisit my favourite city in Afghanistan, the gorgeous Herat.
And, if I have time left, I might throw Bamyan in the mix – the magical place for which I didn’t hesitate to trek all the way back to Afghanistan mere months after my first trip.