August 2022: After decades of conflict that have seen the majority of Afghanistan unsafe for exploration, the country is now relatively secure for travel. The Taliban insurgents that I avoided during past visits to Afghanistan because they wanted to kill me were now in charge and ironically inviting foreign tourists, including Americans, to visit in order to help promote legitimacy to their government and bring in valuable foreign currency to help stabilize the country’s crashing economy. For the first time in my life, large areas of the country and all of its cultural and historical wonders were open to the outside world. One such ancient place that I have been obsessed with for ages, located in Ghor Province and too dangerous to visit in the past, is the Minaret of Jam. With no guarantees to how long this relative window of calm would last, I decided that a return to Afghanistan, a country that I have grown to love and cherish as one of my top ten favorite travel destinations, should not be delayed.

Safety Concerns

Before traveling to Afghanistan, I wasn’t aware of many foreigners who were traveling there, and I only knew of a few American ones. I relied heavily on the experiences of these few brave travelers that went before me in the months prior to my visit. On the most part, the Taliban treated these travelers, including the Americans well and even though most were briefly detained by the Taliban at some stage, they all enjoyed their travels and having un-precedented access to the country.

Although Afghanistan is less risky these days, there simply aren’t any guarantees that travel to Afghanistan will be safe but now that the war is over, it is definitely safer than it was in the past. Now that the Taliban are no longer insurgents and in charge of the government, on the most part, no one else is kidnapping, ambushing, detonating improvised explosive devices and inflicting terror. Banditry has been significantly reduced due to the Taliban’s enforcement of severe Sharia Law and provinces that in the past were simply unfathomable to visit, are now open to tourism.  Recent events in the news however indicate that the balance of peace in Afghanistan is being challenged. Even the Taliban, an Islamist extremist insurgent group, is too liberal for some in Afghanistan. Another even more extreme group, ISIS has launched attacks on Taliban, and minority groups such as the Shiites and Sufis. Although these attacks have been rare, their frequency has been increasing and I have no doubt that ISIS would not hesitate to kill or capture a foreign tourist given the opportunity.

Aside from ISIS, there is also the question of whether the Taliban are ready for tourism. Most Taliban are not even familiar with the concept of tourism and decades of war against foreign led forces have bred a sense of distrust and paranoia towards foreigners that has resulted in the detention of many foreigners, including myself. To keep tabs on foreigners, the Taliban employed a permit system that in theory all foreigners are required to obtain when traveling across the country.

My Route Across Afghanistan

My friend John and I traveled across Afghanistan’s central and southern routes over a 10-day period. In addition to visiting the Minaret of Jam, we traveled across the south, an area too dangerous to visit during the war. This was our rough itinerary:

  • Islamabad, Pakistan: 1 Night
  • Peshawar: 2 nights to obtain our Afghanistan tourist visa and spent a few days exploring the city and Buddhist ruins in the region.
  • Kabul:1 night-Fly Kam Air from Islamabad to Kabul.
  • Bamiyan: 1 night
  • Chehel Burj: 1 night village stay
  • Chaghcharān: 1 night-visit Minaret of Jam
  • Herat: 2 nights
  • Kandahar: 2 nights
  • Kabul: 1 night

The route

Getting Ready for the Trip

I definitely would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about visiting Taliban controlled Afghanistan. Of all of my trips, I probably felt the most anxiety about this one. My anxiety wasn’t helped by a CIA drone strike in Kabul that only a few weeks before my trip, killed senior El Qaeda operative, Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of the chief architects of the 9-11 attacks. In order to help maximize our safety and out of concern that the Taliban may not wholeheartedly accept American tourists as they had claimed given the recent CIA drone strike and let’s not forget the potential resentment of approx. 50,000 Taliban deaths in the US led war, I organized the trip with the assistance of an Afghan guide, who was registered with the Taliban and licensed to obtain all of the travel permits that we needed to travel the country. He was also one of the few guides who worked as a guide during the previous government that didn’t flee the country.

Then there were the logistical issues. Because of international sanctions against the Taliban, we also had to bring all of our money with us that we needed for the trip. ATM’s, credit cards and Western Union were all casualties of the sanctions on the Taliban. We brought USD’s and they all had to be in perfect condition and ideally be in 100-dollar denominations to ensure a decent conversion rate.

We also made sure not to pack any items that would be considered offensive to the Taliban. I left my small bible I always travel with at home.  Also, as a precaution in case my phone was ever searched, I deleted any questionable photos and any potentially anti-Taliban messages in my text and WhatsApp archives. Maybe these measures were overkill, but I wanted to be prepared for the worst especially since one of my friends had his phone searched. 

 

Obtaining an Afghan Visa in Peshawar, Pakistan

Day 1: The easiest and cheapest place to arrange for an Afghan visa is in Peshawar, Pakistan. Aside from getting the visa, I wanted to see Peshawar, an ancient Silk Road city with chaotic and exotic bazaars of Pashtun people adorned in their Islamic clothing and turbans, as well as old forts and Pre-Islamic Buddhist monastery ruins. This was my 2nd trip to Pakistan. I had been to Pakistan before on a two-week trip visiting the Kalash people, Karakoram Mountains and Desert Temples of the Cholistan Desert and I really loved the country, so I was excited to return.

After a few days in Doha, Qatar, my friend John and I flew to Islamabad to meet up with our other friend Richard. We spent our first night in the Marriot Hotel, an opulent 5-star hotel that Richard kindly treated us to. We discovered when we arrived at the Marriot, like all fancy hotels in Pakistan, it had extensive security protocols in place to protect it from terrorist attacks. The Marriot is heavily secured for a reason. In 2008, a truck laden with explosives blew up outside of its gate killing 50 people.

Day 2:  The next morning, we set off to Peshawar in a hired vehicle via an easy 3-hour drive on a toll road. The calm and order of the toll highway quickly gave way to the chaos and disorder of Peshawar. Peshawar was more like the Pakistan that I remembered from my previous trip. We checked in to our hotel, the Pearl Continental, Peshawar’s grandest hotel and prepared for our main task, obtaining the Afghan visa.

The process of obtaining the Afghan visa was simple. When we arrived at the gate to the building, there was a long line of people waiting to enter the consulate, and staff immediately saw us and escorted us to the front of the line. A few people asked us where we were from and there was a general reaction of shock when we revealed that we were Americans applying for an Afghan tourist visa. One man outside of the consulate even asked in a concerned tone, are you sure it is wise for you to go to Afghanistan right now considering who is in charge. We were required to check our bags and cell phones at the front for security reasons. Then we were taken directly into the consulate’s office, a cool air-conditioned room where we sat before the Taliban consulate, a thickly bearded man with a black turban who sat at his desk adorned with a Taliban flag. A smiley translator with no beard handed us our applications to be completed, asked for 2 passport photos and 80USD. He requested a 100USD bill for a better exchange rate and promised us change, which he did deliver. The translator asked us if we were media and even pretended to recognize Richard as a famous Youtuber, a trick I think to try and find out if any of us are Youtubers. The Taliban is sensitive to Youtubers ever since one recently visited the country and produced all kinds of demeaning material about them. The entire process of getting the visa was extremely quick and efficient, our passports were stamped with the same visa stamp that the previous government used, and we were in and out within an hour. As we exited the office, a clerk in a turban, who had seemed oblivious to us while he robotically stamped forms, turned to us and very ominously blurted out, “good luck.”  The entire process contrasted greatly with the long and stressful process of getting a visa from the very moody ambassador of the previous government in Washington DC, that took me almost two months and resulted in my visa being approved the day before my flight out of Los Angelas, which required me to have my passport sent overnight via Fed Ex to the LAX airport.

Ordinary Life Unfolding in Peshawar Bazaar

Day 3: The Pakastani monsoons were in full swing and record amounts of rain were flooding the country. During the lulls in rain, we set off to explore Peshawar’s old mosques, and bazaars. The oppressive heat and humidity were unbearable and only moments after we started walking the streets of the city, we were drenched in sweat. We walked the winding streets getting lost in alleyways in between old decayed wooden buildings, and mosques and shops selling all kinds of exotic goods and services. Aromas of rich spices and incense burning permeated the air and the frantic hustle and bustle of life in the bazaars was mesmerizing.

No space is wasted in public transportation

Mahabat Khan Mosque from the 17th Century buit by Moghuls

Old Wooden and Brick Buildings dating back hundreds of years in the Old City, Peshawar

Not far from our hotel was a small gun market, where all types of guns are made and sold. Within moments of our arrival, we were invited into some of the shops for tea. The salesmen were happy to explain their business and to show us their wares. The shops were all licensed by the government and in Pakistan anyone purchasing a gun is also required to have a license. Peshawar was once known for having the largest gun black market in the world. Most of these shops we were told were closed by the government or simply just went out of business due to low demand now that the NATO war is over.  The end of the war, one of the shop owners confessed, also meant Pakistan was flooded with cheap NATO guns smuggled into Pakistan from the Taliban. He showed us a video on his phone of Taliban carrying sacs full of American assault rifles out of American bases at the end of the war. Even though they’re illegal to sell in Pakistan, he said any shop that claims to not have any is lying. He made sure to clarify that his shop doesn’t have any with a grin.

Gun Shop

Day 4: The Peshawar area has an ancient history that dates back thousands of years, and the area has numerous pre-Islamic Buddhist ruins. On the way back to Islamabad to catch our flight to Kabul, we stopped at the 2000-year-old Jamal Garhi Buddhist Monastery outside of Mardan. A beautifully located hilltop monastery overlooking mountains and Pashtun villages. It wasn’t easy to find, and even with GPS, we had to ask many friendly villagers for directions.

Me in my shalwar kameez at the 2000 year old Jamal Garhi Buddhist Monastery

We arrived at the Islamabad airport in the afternoon to an empty airport. The brand-new modern airport was a ghost town and we waited out the afternoon in a VIP lounge, entry fee of 10 USD, where we passed the time snacking and staring out across the empty airport. I wondered how in the middle of the afternoon, the airport of the capitol of a country with 220 million people could be so empty. We learned our flight was delayed and the anxious part of me was almost a little disappointed when our Kam Air flight finally did arrive from Afghanistan. I guess this meant that we would actually be going to Afghanistan after all.

First Impressions of Kabul Under the Taliban

We arrived in the Kabul airport after a quick one-hour flight, and on taxi to the terminal I recognized American military helicopters parked at a military installation previously belonging to NATO. Taliban white and black flags with the Islamic Shahada were prominently displayed fluttering in the wind of the terminal building. Our flight was the only arrival for the night. Since the takeover of the Taliban, few countries have resumed their flights to Afghanistan. Kam Air, the largest airline of Afghanistan, is one of the only airlines flying internationally to and from Afghanistan and even Kam Air just recently started flying again after keeping most of their planes in Dubai during the Taliban takeover.

Entering the terminal was quick and hassle-free. The immigration process was brief, and no questions were asked. Immigration officials appeared to be left over from the previous government and not Taliban. We were asked to complete an immigration form and provide a passport photo if we had one. If not, no big deal. Our bags were scanned and within minutes, we were released into Taliban controlled Afghanistan.   It was an apprehensive feeling being an American in Kabul especially since just one year ago thousands of Afghans were clambering to escape, some so desperate, they clung to landing gear of departing airplanes tragically falling to their death.

The first thing I noticed while exiting the airport was the giant mural of the leader of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Massoud, that once greeted every arriving visitor, had been removed. Massoud believed to be a good man, who envisioned a democratic Afghanistan, fought the Soviets and then later the Taliban before being assassinated by a suicide bomber. He was admired by the previous government and by the West.

We met our guide, Sardar and Sakhi, our driver. Sardar was previously a guide for tourists and journalists during pre-Taliban years and one of the few guides that didn’t flee the country since the arrival of Taliban. He would prove to be street savvy, wise well beyond his 28 years of age, and one of the bravest people I have ever met. Sakhi, a tank driver during the war against the Soviets, showed incredible stamina as a driver but what I remember about him the most was his laugh. He had the most boisterous laugh and he always found humor in every situation.

On the way to hotel, the Cedar House we passed Taliban on the streets with their trademark AK47’s, long hair, and camouflaged vests worn over their shalwar kameez. Taliban flags were affixed to most store fronts, a requirement during the one-year anniversary celebration of them entering Kabul. The streets were quiet because the Taliban imposed a 9pm curfew to prevent insurgent movements but more importantly I was told to keep un-married couples from clandestinely meeting at night. It was strange to see the streets so dark and lifeless compared to my previous visit, when streets were full of activity at night.

Day 5: In the morning John and I parted ways with Richard, who departed to Dubai. and we started our journey across Afghanistan to our first stop, Bamiyan.

In Afghanistan I tried my best to not stand out in the crowd by growing out a beard and by wearing Afghan dress-shalwar kameez. This was done for safety reasons and out of respect for local customs. In a country where very, few Afghans wear western clothes, this just made sense. I had no doubt that given the opportunity, there were those in Afghanistan who would happily target us for being foreigners and being Americans would just be their icing on the cake. 

Me In My Beard and Shalwar Kameez 

The plan for the day was to make our way to Bamiyan through the Shiite parts of Kabul, an area that had been targeted by ISIS suicide bombings in the previous weeks during Ashura and then travel across war torn Wardak Province.

Taliban soldier with his son in the back of pick-up truck. In the background is a ruined American base with Taliban flags planted in it.

Taliban, some in plainclothes and others in military uniforms armed with AK47’s and American assault rifles, were common on the streets of Kabul. We passed numerous Taliban checkpoints, and most checkpoints were accompanied by street children begging for money in exchange for fanning smoke from hand-held cans of burning incense on to passing vehicles. In Afghanistan this is a practice believed to ward off the evil eye and given how perilous traveling by vehicle was for decades in Afghanistan, motorists welcomed any form of good luck they could. 

Taliban flags were common throughout the streets and occasionally we would spot propaganda murals trying to portray the Taliban in a gentler light. Taliban at checkpoints asked for our nationality in some cases and when we told them we were American they would smile in disbelief, sometimes they would try and talk to us with the few words they knew of English. One Taliban said, “Mujahedeen Good,” and then he shook my hand. Or on a few other occasions when discovering our nationality, they would say, “ahh Canada/America.” It seems the Taliban have decided to put both countries into the same group, and to the ire of Canadian travelers, who commonly patch Canadian flags on to their backpacks, at least in Afghanistan, can no longer separate themselves from the USA. We were rarely searched or asked many questions. Usually at checkpoints we would just be waved on. Checkpoints at the junctions of provinces were usually more thorough and our bags searched, and our bodies patted down for weapons.

Taliban Propoganda Billboard Trying to Show the Citizens their Sensitive Side by displaying a Taliban man holding hands of children to help them cross the road.

Boy Asking for tips in exchange for protection from the evil eye by blowing incense smoke on travelers

Driving through War Torn Wardak Province

We left Kabul and entered Wardak Province, which is primarily populated by Pashtun people, who at large supported the Taliban during the war.  When I previously visited Bamian in 2019, I had to fly instead of driving because the road to Bamiyan across Wardak Province was subject to Taliban attacks and too hostile.  Now because there are so few tourists visiting Bamiyan, there is no demand for expensive flights anymore and the only way to travel to Bamiyan is via road. The 3-hour drive is not only no longer dangerous but is beautiful and very interesting.

Typical Pashtun Village in Wardak Province

Pashtun villages are extremely conservative and sensitive about photos including of their beautiful mudbrick houses that were more like fortified compounds. This is primarily because they are very protective of their women and believe that a photo taken, no matter the distance or extent of how covered up a woman is, will compromise her and her family’s honor.  20 years of war has also bred a lot of paranoia in regard to how foreigners are perceived, especially American ones. With this in mind, we kept our stops brief and tried to keep a very low profile to avoid inviting unwanted attention. Our guide and driver were both Hazara Shiites too, an ethnic group and branch of Islam historically mistreated by Pashtuns.

Our guide was no stranger to the horrors of war and recounted many stories of traveling this road with journalists nearly avoiding Taliban attacks on multiple occasions. He along with many other Afghans, had lost family members to the indiscriminate violence of the war. Evidence of war was everywhere. The mudbrick houses appeared as fortifications and were used by Taliban snipers to target military convoys on the road. The Afghan military built small forts common along the road to help secure it and soldiers stationed at these forts were terrorized by frequent attacks and the forts are riddled with bullet holes and huge chunks of wall missing from RPG attacks. The road was also in rough shape from all the constant wear and terror of bombs and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) attacks. Occasionally we passed Islamic prayer flags hoisted on a stick planted along the side of the road. These flags were martyr flags honoring the memory of a Taliban fighter who was killed on the side of the road usually when caught planting an IED.

Small forts built along the road by previous government to help secure Wardak Province, now manned by Taliban soldiers.

Martyr Flags indicating where a Taliban died at the hands of NATO forces

Meeting Kuchi Nomads

After a few hours we climbed from Pashtun villages into the high mountain passes entering Hazera village lands. As we climbed even higher and crossed the mountain passes, we came across encampments of nomadic Kuchi pastoralists. Kuchis are Pashtun Sunni nomads that like other Pashtuns are very conservative and according to our guide not receptive to visiting foreign men, especially if there are women nearby. Kuchi nomads are found all throughout Afghanistan and often find themselves in conflict with farmers, who they compete with for land with their livestock. It was widely believed that Kuchis supported the Taliban during the war and that many of the Taliban were Kuchi. For this reason, many Hazera are weary of them.

We stopped to visit some young Kuchi shepherds that were tending to their sheep. I took some polaroid photos of them, printed them and gave them to the children as presents. It was fun to watch the kids burst in excitement and laughter. Our guide was unsuccessful in obtaining permission to visit the camp from one of the men in a nearby tent and even the young boys rebuked us for photographing their tents in case our cameras were to capture the distant image of one of the women.

Small Kuchi Nomad Encampment on the Mountain Pass

Kuchi Sheperd-Elder Brother

Kuchi Sheperd

Kuchi Sheperd

Most people in Afghanistan are unaccustomed to seeing anyone being photographed especially with a large camera lens like mine. I was very careful to be discreet, but I didn’t notice a truck full of Taliban. The truck pulled over on the side of the road as I was photographing the children and a group of bearded men with guns jumped off the truck and stood staring at me with a look that seemed to be a mix of bewilderment and anger. I was worried that this would cause some trouble for us but soon after stopping one of the men waved the others back into the truck and they took off.

As we approached Bamiyan, a large mountainous province predominantly of Hazera people said to be descended from Genghis Khan, we stopped to visit a natural spring known for its medicinal qualities and we met a group of men, one of them a professor of Islamic Studies from Kabul, most likely a Taliban who warmly greeted us and invited us to stay with him in his house in Kabul. When he sensed our hesitation, he clarified that we have nothing to fear and that we would be his honored guests. We agreed to visit him even though we had no intention of imposing on the man’s hospitality.

Islamic Studies Professor from kabul that Invited us to Stay in his Home

Return to Bamiyan Province

We entered the lofty altitudes of Bamiyan Province, 8,000 ‘, a location familiar to me from my previous visit in 2019. The Hazara that live here were targeted and killed in mass by the Taliban, mostly because they are Shiite and were staunch allies of the Taliban’s enemies, the Northern Alliance and previous government. Due to Bamiyan’s geographical isolation and the opposition of the Hazera to the Taliban, Bamiyan was always one of the safest provinces for tourists and the high mountains, old fortresses, giant Buddha niches and emerald, green lakes were popular with foreign visitors like me. I absolutely loved it before and I was disheartened to learn of the province being controlled by the Taliban, but I was interested to see how things had changed. It was currently summer and the agricultural valleys of Bamiyan were green and lush.

Tpical Bamiyan Agricultural Field of lush greenery contrasted with start high altitude desert

Three Taliban fighters on motor cycle with their guns

It didn’t take long for me to notice the significant increase in Pashtun people on the streets compared to before. Evidently now that the Taliban are in charge, Pashtuns are migrating from the arid, hot south to Bamiyan’s more moderate climate. This inevitably will lead to conflict over the land.  Then there was the heavy presence of Taliban fighters in Bamiyan. Taliban patrols were common usually in the form of motorcycles or trucks with Taliban flags and the menacing appearance of gun toting bearded Taliban standing in the back. I was careful not to get caught pointing my camera at them or at any checkpoints since this was certain to get me in trouble. When we entered the city, we were inspected at a checkpoint by a young hip looking uniformed Taliban with sunglasses on, one of the few people I saw in 10 days wearing sunglasses. These uniforms, seized and now used by Taliban to appear more professional, were once worn by their enemy, soldiers from the previous government’s military.

We developed a routine procedure for when we approached a Taliban checkpoint. The goal was for us to go through un-noticed, which would save us time and the possibility of being hassled. Most of the time Taliban would look into our car briefly and wave us through a checkpoint. Maybe this was because John and I were with beard and wearing Afghan clothes and they gave us the benefit of the doubt of being Afghan’s, especially since the presence of foreigners was such a rarity. In one occurrence, the Taliban man at the checkpoint asked our driver where we were going then he walked over to my window asked me to roll it down. He said something to me in Pashto and extended his hand. I thought he was trying to shake my hand, so I clasped his hand and shook it. He seemed confused and our guide explained that he was asking for my passport and not trying to shake my hand. When he saw our passports, he gasped in disbelief when he realized we were Americans and then with a big smile said something in Pashto that caused our guide and driver to laugh, and he waved us on. We later found out he said probably half-jokingly, “Americans just don’t seem to want to leave Afghanistan do they.” At first encountering the Taliban was intimidating, but as we had more interactions with them and realized that they weren’t reacting in a threatening manner and on some occasions actually being friendly, we felt more comfortable. But it was important to remember not to become complacent because after all we were in totalitarian state controlled by Islamic militants that were at war with our country for almost 20 years. 

 

Taliban guarding a rural intersection.

-This Taliban fighter was a Sunni Hazara. Most Taliban were reluctant to let me photograph them especially with their guns because according to them they have been ordered not to let foreigners photograph them. Evidently because their leadership thinks that some of the photos taken of them earlier on by foreign media have been used to embarrass them, like photos of some of them eating ice cream cones for the first time, or on amusement park rides, duck boats, etc. For many Taliban, they are illiterate and have spent their whole lives in the mountains never visiting a city. So, when they first arrived in the cities when the war ended, they behaved like giddy schoolgirls, excited to discover a new world never known previously to them. I asked the above Taliban man for a photo and even though he didn’t appear friendly, he agreed. I printed a copy of the photo from my portable printer and presented it to him which seemed to please him a little bit.

As we drove through Bamiyan, we passed a square once named after a prominent Shiite cleric, but now under the Taliban, renamed to erase any reverence to the Shiite cleric. We passed a marketplace, where only a few months after my visit in 2019, a Taliban suicide bomber killed 50 people. And we observed a volleyball court, one of many that we would see throughout our trip. Despite the Taliban’s dislike of American culture, volleyball a game introduced by Americans, is extremely popular in Afghanistan, even among the Taliban.

Giant Buddhas

We stopped by the giant empty caves where the huge Buddhas standing up to 150 ‘ tall were once carved out of the mountainside before the Taliban dynamited them in 2001 for being symbols of idolatry. There were three giant Buddhas, and only part of the body of one of them remains. They were carved from the mountain 1500 years ago when the city of Bamiyan was a prominent Buddhist Kingdom awash in wealth from its central location along the Silk Road. Countless ancient armies had laid eyes upon the Buddhas and did not destroy them, even when mercilessly slaughtering the citizens of the land as the Mongolians did, until the Taliban came in 2001. Ironically, the Taliban commander in 2001 that ordered their destruction is the current governor of Bamiyan and is now tasked with preserving them for their tourist value.  According to our guide, who recently met the governor, asked the governor if he regretted the destruction of the Buddhas, and he said he would do it again if given the order with no regrets.

Buddha Caves with Partial Remains of a Buddha inside One Cave

We purchased our entry tickets from armed Taliban fighters at the entrance gate. Immediately dozens of smiling children rushed us pleading for tips in exchange for being waved with smoke, believed to present good luck, from the burning incense sticks in their hand-held cans.  We gave the children a very small tip and they continued to follow us giggling and smiling. They were practicing their English with us as they followed by our side all the way to the Buddha niches and up the 160 or so feet to the top through the various caves and tunnels that circled about the niche. Some of the caves are reported to have the oldest oil paintings in the world. The majority of the paintings have been sadly peeled off and sold by looters. The Taliban allowed us to enter the large cave beneath scaffolding of the largest Buddha niche. Before the Taliban takeover, UNESCO was working to restore what remained of the giant Buddhas, but all restoration efforts have been paused. The Taliban were un-concerned as we walked past the “do not enter” signs beneath the scaffolding into a large cave, where I took one of the photos below of myself.

One of the Local girls that followed us to the Buddha practicing their English 

One of the Local girls that followed us to the Buddha practicing their English 

John, our guide and a local man posing in front of what remains of the 170 foot tall Buddha

Me Inside of the Buddha Cave

Me standing 100 plus feet up on the top of one of the Buddha niches looking over the edge of a drop off 

The Taliban evidently have grand plans to restore the ancient bazaar that is now in ruins at the base of the Buddhas and to build new tourist hotels to attract more tourists. After destroying the Buddhas, they have finally come to the realization that history even if idolatrous in the eyes of Islam can equate to money and at least, for the time being they have changed their mindset from a destructive one to one of preservation. This is a trend that I witnessed all across the country and is definitely a step in the right direction.

Young Girl Walking Towards The Giant Buddha Niche During Sunset

As required by the Taliban, on our first day in Bamiyan, we attempted to check in with the Minister of Culture to have our permit stamped to avoid falling under the suspicion of local Taliban Intelligence and being detained but the Minister requested that we stop by his office the next day since it was a holiday-Independence Day from England-and he was out of the office. I wondered how many independence days Afghanistan has in total since the following week would also be Independence Day from NATO and the USA. Afghanistan has a long unfortunate history of being occupied by foreign armies going back many centuries and this is not a thought absent to most Afghans.

Besides the ancient Buddhas, we also visited some of the Soviet tanks that are left from the intense fighting that occurred when the Russians tried to invade Afghanistan during the 80s. We also visited a Hazara lady, who schooled young refugee kids, boys and girls in a cave classroom.  She continues to teach but now only teaches girls and because she also teaches girls over a certain age considered by the Taliban too old to receive an education, she fears the Taliban will arrest her. For this reason, I didn’t include her photo here. Afterwards, we had dinner in one of the local kebob shops with traditional seating on the floor and stayed in one of the modest but comfortable hotels in town.

Me on Top of a Russian Tank

Looking up the Barrel of a Russian Tank

Band-e Amir Lakes-Afghanistan’s First National Park

Day 6: The next morning we had a long day ahead. We had to check in with the Minister of Culture in the morning to have our permits stamped by them. While we were seated in the minister’s office, it was interesting to hear traditional Afghan music sung by a female, which along with all music not to the liking of the Taliban, is banned. Once our permit was stamped, we set off to the first national park of Afghanistan, Band-E-Amir, a reserve with a string of high-altitude emerald, green lakes.

During my first visit to Band-E-Amir in the winter of 2019, my vehicle became stuck in the snow, the lakes were frozen, and I had the whole park to myself. Now it was summer, the war over and road to Bamiyan safe and open and Afghans were traveling from Kabul in droves to visit the lakes. It was heartwarming to see so many local tourists enjoying their country. We walked down to the lake and watched Afghans enjoying the duck boats. The swimming area was separated by a bamboo wall between the men and family swimming area where women and their children swam. A group of heavily armed Taliban sat on the ground in the swimming area sharing a watermelon.

Me in Band-E-Amir Lakes in 2019 in Winter

Band-E-Amir Lakes During the Current Trip

Families Enjoying the Duck Boats

Taliban Guards at Band-E-Amir eating watermelon

Drive Across Bamiyan Province

After visiting the lake, we set off on a 4wd tract across the mountains enroute to an old castle on top of a mountain-40 Towers of Chehelburj. On the way we passed some more abandoned Russian military vehicles from the war, saw pikas, small furry rodents that live in the high mountains and a lot of barren windswept mountain-scape that resembled parts of Wyoming.

Pika

Russian Abandoned Military Vehicle

The drive across Bamiyan was beautiful. The villages were full of turbaned old men, and the occasional woman with only a head scarf instead of a burka. The villages were much more relaxed in Bamiyan compared to other Provinces in Afghanistan. Hazera people tend to be more accepting of foreigners and so we felt more comfortable in villages. We would stop at the village shops and buy cookies and energy drinks. Shops were completely void of any western products with the exception of Monster energy drinks, which our driver absolutely loved and was addicted to.

Hazera Men Harvesting Feed Grass for Livestock

Nomadic Hazera Children Playing with Livestock

40 Towers Fortress-Chehel Burj

We finally arrived to Chehel Burj in the afternoon. The fort and its towers are made of stone. Its upper part is made of mud, built in the pre-Islamic period — possibly between 2nd and 5th centuries by the Ghorid Dynasty.

We didn’t have a place to stay for the night so I asked the guide if he could find someone willing to host us in the nearby village. While he went looking, I climbed the scree slopes leading up to the castle, a treacherous enough endeavor but not nearly as dangerous as coming back down. 

A local Tajik man who lived in the village immediately below the castle offered to host us for the night. He lived with his family on a beautiful plot of ancestral land where he grew apples, fruit and other vegetables, only possible in the parched high-altitude desert because of the lifeline that the river, flowing through the village, provided.

The village man informed me that I took the hard way up to the castle and showed us a 4WD tract that wraps around to the easy way to the top of the castle. We set off around sunset to climb the seldomly visited by foreigners’ castle and it was incredible to scale its ancient crumbling walls and enter some of its mysterious tunnels. In all likelihood, we were the first foreigners to visit the castle since the Taliban takeover.

40 Towers Fortress-Chehel Burj to the right and the green irrigated village we stayed in to the left

Me Looking Out Over the Ruins of the Ancient castle

Some of the Remaining Towers of Chehel Burj

View of the Village We Stayed at from Chehel Burj

View of Sorrounding Valley from Chehel Burj

Our Driver at One of the Towers at Chehel Burj

The village man showed us where the king of the castle likely kept his harem based on the paintings that were once on the walls of the inside of the tunnels before they were either scraped off by the Taliban or removed by looters to be sold. The man sensed that I liked the tunnels and told me about a really long one that goes deep into the mountain to a pool with spring water via a tunnel of ancient stairs. I was intrigued by this tunnel and even our driver was intrigued and wanted to see it. We had a long and gruesome day of driving ahead of us the next day-10 plus hours- but decided to visit the tunnel early in the morning anyways.

Inside a Tunnel Where the King Kept his Harems

We all slept in a communal sleeping room inside the man’s home on cushions laid out on the floor. The man and his smiley teenage son provided a meal of butter rice and fresh apples to us. We were never introduced to the man’s wife or daughters, and they were kept separate from us per custom.  Even in this region of Afghanistan, known to be more tolerant, life was still very conservative.  

The village didn’t have central electricity like most villages in rural Afghanistan, and instead used a battery to provide electricity for lights and charging of cell phones in the evening. Only one spot in the window had cell phone reception and the reception was extremely sporadic.

The communal sleeping room where we stayed in the village

Day 7: In the morning, I foolishly had the notion that our hike to the cave would be an easy brief jaunt to a swimming pool and we would go for a nice relaxing dip in some ancient mysterious cave pool used by the King with his concubines. We assumed we would drive to the top of the castle, same place where the day before the hike was easy. We even wore our swim shorts for easy swimming access.

Instead, the Tajik village man led us up the side of the mountain through the loose scree I had suffered through the day before.  The tunnel he said began halfway up the mountain and so we climbed up until we came to a hole with a steep entryway that dropped 20 feet with very few hand and foot holds to grab on to. The entry was precarious to say the least and the tunnel branched in two directions. One had nicely groomed stairs, which the man said was a very long and went to the castle at the the top of the mountain.  The other tunnel led to the pool and was in terrible shape. It was steep, and the ground and walls were partially collapsed forcing me to crawl on the ground. After 20 minutes of climbing through the tunnel and clinging to loose rocks on the walls to keep from falling, I asked the Tajik man if we were almost to the pool, and he said no we just started.  Reluctantly with safety and time in mind, I decided to end our pursuit of the magical pool. It seemed like it would be an all-day endeavor and we needed to start our long drive to keep to our schedule and avoid driving at night.

One of the better parts of the tunnel

We said our goodbeyes to the Tajik man and set off on a long drive to Chacheron, the capitol of Ghor province where we would sleep for the night before visiting the Minaret of Jam the next day. 

High Mountain Pass leaving Bamiyan Province Behind us as We Entered Ghor Province

Villagers Hard at Work harvesting the Fields

Small Strip of Green in an Arid Mountain Desert

Most of Afghanistan is parched and arid both in the mountains and the desert. In our travels across the country almost all of the crops only grew along rivers that ran through mountain valleys. Water from these rivers was irrigated to create life in what would otherwise be a lifeless land. Other traffic on the road was scarce and sections of the road were marginally 4WD only, but this did little to discourage the most abundant car on the road in Afghanistan, the Toyota Corolla.

John on one of our regular toilet stops on the main road through Ghor province

Toyotas jam packed with people and tires that looked like they were ready to disintegrate would commonly go hauling butt passed us on the road. We were in a Toyota Land Cruiser with 200,000 plus miles on it and our type of vehicle was expensive and non-existent in rural Afghanistan. Our guide mentioned that most villagers and even Taliban at checkpoints would assume when spotting us that because of our vehicle that we were Kabul Taliban, because no one else would have a vehicle as nice as ours.

Villagers cultivating the dry parched land to grow grass for livestock and wheat

Typical Village We Woud Pass

Villages We Passed

Islamic Graveyard, which most of the time would have graves identified by un-marked rocks that only families could identify

Ghor province Village

Traffic Jam in Ghor Province-At Times it seemed we were living in biblical times

Ancient watch towers overlooking villages that were used in the old days to alert villagers to encroaching enemies

A solo sheperd and his flock who let me photograph him

This part of Afghanistan is very remote and was virtually impossible for the previous government to occupy. As a result, Taliban held the region during most of the war and villagers are extremely unused to foreigners, so we were always careful to show the upmost respect with our cameras and to avoid pointing them at any women. In one area we came across the coolest Kuchi caravan migrating with their camels, sheep and donkeys. I couldn’t resist taking photos from the car even though there were visible women in the caravan. To my defense, I thought no one could see me but as we drove passed one woman spotted me and yelled at the men in their group that I was taking photos of her. We kept driving passed and didn’t stop since Kuchi men are extremely protective of their women and known to possess assault rifles and wouldn’t hesitate to use them.

Kuchi Nomad Caravan Migration

Nomad Migration

Kuchi Nomad Tent

Kuchi Nomads

After 10 plus hours of driving we finally arrived at the capitol of Ghor province, Chaghcharan, a dusty run downtown. We went to one of the only habitable hotels in town and were able to secure two of the last remaining available rooms. A young ethnic Aimaq boy who appeared 12 years old checked us in and led us to our room. The toilet and shower were shared with the other men on our floor. But the important thing was we had rest and shelter. Immediately upon arrival to our room, a group of loitering men started to speak to us in English and inquire about our activities. Normally I would feel happy about meeting and talking to locals, but these men seemed too curious about us and there was something off about them, and even our guide was concerned about them and when traveling in a country like Afghanistan heeding your suspicions may just help you to stay alive.

Minaret of Jam

Day 8: Today we knew would be the longest and hardest day of the trip. We had no idea when we would arrive to Herat, but we knew it would be dark when we did. But it didn’t matter because today would be the day that we would behold the Minaret of Jam, a place of almost mythical status to me. An added bonus was that we would sleep in a comfortable hotel at night in Herat, a city with many nice modern hotels. We left early in the morning in the dark to get a good start on the day.

True to our driver’s word, the road proved to be horrendous. Parts of the road are definitely only suitable to 4WD. Also, given the recent torrential rains, we weren’t sure if the road was even passable. It was a shame that we had to cover so much ground so quickly because this day was the most beautiful and interesting of the trip and I wished we could have taken it more slowly to explore and photograph the area. This was also the stretch of road, because of its isolation and slow-moving nature, where we would be most vulnerable to bandit attacks, once common in this part of Afghanistan.

It took us 5 hours to finally arrive to the Minaret of Jam instead of 3 hours as expected.  The minaret stands at the bottom of a dramatic mountainous canyon with a turquoise green river that runs through it and can be reached easily by turning off of the main road and driving another few miles.   It is shocking to first lay eyes on the minaret, a beautifully intricate 206-foot-tall tower of ornate patterns, inscriptions of qur’anic verses, and turquoise tiles. which rises out of nowhere from the river of a remote canyon. The minaret is not located adjacent to another structure and stands completely alone, which just adds to its mystique. Behind only the Qutb Minar in Delhi. the Minaret of Jam, is the 2nd tallest ancient minaret in the world. Yet here it is in such a remote and isolated location. No one knows why it is alone. Possibly there was once a mosque near it, or the minaret was built to serve as a watch tower or symbol of the king’s power. No one really knows. The minaret and a few ruined fortifications are all that is left of an ancient fabled turquoise city that historians know very little about. The city was believed to be wealthy during its time but disappeared over night at the hands of Genghis Kahn.

It’s because of war and its isolation that the minaret has been seen by so few western eyes. It is hard to get to now but before the construction of the road, if you can call it that, it was virtually impossible to visit. Then it was also dangerous. Years of war, banditry and Taliban attacks made it too dangerous to visit. The last group of foreigners to visit back in 2017 were nearly killed when Taliban blew up their van with an RPG.

 

Road Slicing through the Mountain Before Arriving at the Minaret of Jam

Turquoise Green River Feeding into the Minaret of Jam

Minaret of Jam Rising Out of Nowhere by Itself

I assumed we would be the only ones at the minaret and on the most part we were with the exception of the Taliban man who guarded it and a few other Taliban who were visiting on their motorbikes. The Taliban guardian checked our permits to verify that we had permission to visit and then welcomed us warmly with a firm handshake.

The Taliban were friendly and even posed for photos for us in front of the minaret. One of them even did so despite mentioning under his breathe that he likely will get into trouble now by his commanders.

Taliban man guarding the Minaret of Jam

Me at the base of the minaret

Closeup of me in contrast to the massive minaret

Taliban Soldier Visiting the Minaret

Taliban Man Posing in Front of Minaret of Jam

Sadly, the minaret’s entrance is sealed off and entering is no longer allowed by the Taliban. This per the Taliban is for its protection and for the protection of those entering since the stairs inside are fragile and falling apart. The minaret is also leaning and on the verge of collapse.

Besides the minaret there are other ancient ruins along the mountain tops and along with the ruins and beautiful landscapes, I could have easily spent days at this peaceful location camping on the river. But we only had a few hours at the minaret before needing to move along and return to the long and uncertain drive ahead to Herat. Along the way there was no shortage of interesting scenery. 

Random Castle Ruins

Kuchi Nomad Camps with thousands of sheep

A village with beautiful backdrop of hills

We came across this building old, ruined building in Chisti Sharif. it is what is left of an old 1000-year-old Sufi domed madrassa damaged by a Soviet tank shell. We stopped briefly to photograph it but right as I took a photo, we realized there was a Taliban checkpoint right around the corner and an American armored personnel carrier (APC) came bursting out of nowhere right towards us. We quickly returned to the road hoping we went unnoticed because in a small town like this any attention from the Taliban would likely be bad attention. As we drove passed the APC, it stopped abruptly and turned around driving back towards us leaving us to think it was coming for us before it turned away at the last moment.

Chisti Sharif 1000 year old domed madrassa damaged by Soviet tank

When we thought we were only 3 hours from Herat, our car came to a skidding halt. Our tire seized up and now we were stranded on the side of a dusty road at night next to a Pashtun village that had a history of being hostile according to our guide.

Mini Van Passengers Helping Us Repair Our Brakes

A passing minivan with flashing Christmas type lights carrying a family returning from a wedding party stopped and the men in the minivan came to our assistance, while the women stayed concealed inside the van. John and I stayed off to the side and did our best to avoid talking, which would give us away as being foreign. The goal was to avoid attracting any unwanted attention in case anyone from the nearby village was anti-foreigner. Some of the men attempted to talk to me in their language and I just smiled and pointed them over to our guide for a response since he was standing next to me but focused on repairing our wheel.

The men from the mini-van instantly began helping our driver and the driver of the mini-van also broke out his tools and now the entire wheel and brake system was removed. After some really impressive jimmy rigging and MacGyvering with random items found in the minivan to get the brakes to release and reseat, the brakes and tires were put back on and we were able to return to the road.  We would end up driving for another 6 hours this night. Even though we arrived at a paved road only an hour after our breakdown, we would take a wrong turn and end up on a different road that was under construction that began during the previous government. The construction had been paused and the road was torn up and the last part of the drive that we thought would be the easiest was the most terrible. We finally arrived at our hotel in Herat around midnight exhausted and in desperate need of sleep and a shower. 

Persian City of Herat

Day 9: A hotel room never felt better than this one. I had a large family room with a couch and A/C, and I never slept better. In the morning breakfast was brought to our rooms and we were forced to relax in the morning as the Ministry of Culture’s office wasn’t open because the minister wasn’t available until noon to stamp our permit. With a stamped permit, we were free to explore the city in the afternoon. Sleeping in and having a late breakfast was welcomed by all. 

Taliban Propoganda-Islamic Government is Result of Sacrafice of people and We Must protect It

We visited the old minarets, one on the verge of collapse, but after the Minaret of Jam, it was hard to be impressed by the less spectacular minarets of Herat. Then we went to the citadel built by Alexander the Great. The citadel has been destroyed and rebuilt many times during the numerous wars that have plagued Afghanistan. At the entrance a Taliban man, always with an assault rifle, beard and turban, checked our permit and asked our guide if we were Muslim. Our guide said no but that we believed in God. The Taliban man said, “well it is better they be Muslim but at least it is good they believe in God.” He told me that he wants me to become Muslim so that I can go to heaven and become brothers with him. He said that an added bonus to converting would be that he could show me all kinds of secret areas in the castle off limits to tourists. My response to him was that I consider him a brother even if I am not Muslim. He smiled, shook my hand with one hand on his heart and said go with Allah. This was one of more than a few attempts by Taliban to convert my friend and I to Islam. 

Citadel of Alexander the Great

Citadel Groundskeeper

We were some of the only visitors at the citadel other than a few local tourists. Going to the roof of the castle was forbidden by the Taliban because it was once a popular spot for young people to be romantic on dates. The groundskeeper let us in to a few locked rooms with some old tiles. I asked him how long he worked at the castle, and he said 20 years. 

He explained that he worked there before the Taliban originally came, then when they first came, he was beaten, tortured and fired. He was rehired by the previous government and when the Taliban returned they fired most other employees but kept him.

At the parking lot of the citadel, the Tourist Minster of Herat met up with us and wanted to give us a brief tour of Herat and to take a photo with us. He took us to an art studio where a prominent local painter displayed his work. I really wanted to buy a painting, but I wanted to make sure I had enough money to get through the rest of the trip. Interestingly in the studio I observed a couple of young rogue looking Taliban fighters with their AK47s taking art lessons.  

Me, John, Tourist Director and Artist

We took a photo with the Tourism Director, who was employed as Tourism Director under the previous government too. This wasn’t the first time we met someone allowed to keep their old job under the Taliban.

Local Boys in Herat that Posed for My Photo

Blue Mosque

The most interesting place we visited in Herat was the Blue Mosque, built with blue tiles by the Ghurids in the 1200’s. The mosque was definitely beautiful, but it was most interesting because there were maybe a hundred worshippers, and a good percentage of them were Taliban with their AK 47’s. I felt a little out of place with my DSLR camera, which instantly attracted attention. One group of irritated armed Taliban approached us and asked our guide what we were doing and where we were from. Our guide explained we were foreign journalists.  This was his normal response when asked this question since most Taliban did not know what a tourist was, but they did understand the meaning of a journalist. Their next question was always, are they Muslim. They were even more irritated when he responded that we weren’t, which he said was safer than lying about it. I kept my camera tucked away after that. Not only did I not want to draw attention to myself from armed Taliban, but I also felt uncomfortable photographing people at their place of worship. So, most of my photos were taken from a discrete corner of the mosque and while I was pretending to photograph my guide.

Armed Taliban at Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque

Taliban at Blue Mosque

More Armed Taliban at Blue Mosque

Jihad Museum

A close rival for the most interesting place in Herat to the Blue Mosque is the Jihad Museum, initially dedicated to the Islamic jihad or war of the Islamic warriors-mujahedeen against the Soviet invaders. The Taliban are now adding new exhibits to expand the American war to the museum.

On the way to the museum, we passed a square where the Taliban hung the bodies of bandits that were kidnapping the kids of Herat’s wealthy for ransom. The bandits were executed by the Taliban and bodies displayed to send a message. We also passed the old American consulate that was previously attacked by Taliban suicide bombers and while photographing it from the backseat of our car, I was spotted by Taliban at a checkpoint and questioned. The guide convinced him that foreigners take lots of photos of all kinds of senseless things and the Taliban seemed to accept this and waved us on.

When we arrived at the museum, we were informed by staff that foreigners were no longer allowed to visit by the Taliban in accordance with a new decree by the Ministry of Virtue and Vice. Regardless, we were able to enter as long as we pretended to be locals.  The museum was empty during our visit, and we decided to keep our visit brief and avoid using my DSLR camera, something only a foreigner would use.

On the exterior of the museum is a collection of Soviet tanks, helicopters and other military equipment seized by mujahedeen, but the most interesting part of the museum was the interior.  We had to remove our shoes to enter and explored exhibits showcasing mujahedeen weaponry from the war. Then we climbed up to the second floor passed a wall of jihadi martyrs depicted in portraits. A number of the portraits from the museum, such as ones of any of the fighters that fought with the Northern Alliance, enemies of the Taliban, had been removed by the Taliban. One figure that was previously displayed in the museum and now removed was the leader of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Massoud. In their place, the Taliban added new martyr portraits of Taliban commanders killed in the NATO war such as the founding cleric of the Taliban-one eyed Mullah Mohammad Omar, once one of the most wanted men by the US military. In the exhibits many of the martyrs are pictured with a before and after photo of themselves when killed in battle.  The most mind-blowing part of the museum was the 360-degree battle scene of clay figures depicting the Soviet war.

Mural of Mullah Omar and Taliban Commander Killed by NATO

Clay Figures of Mujahedeen  

Clay Figures of Mujahedeen  

Martyr Portraits of Jihadists that died in battle

Clay Figures of Mujahedeen  

Guzargah Mosque

Our last stop in Herat was the very photogenic 1000-year-old Guzargah Sufi Mosque. This was the mosque of the firebrand cleric; Mujib Rahman Ansari know to be pro-Taliban during the war and for having religious police that would terrorize women that were uncovered.  Our visit was brief and uneventful and there were no armed Taliban at the mosque during our visit.

Guzargah Sufi Mosque

We were mobbed by children begging as we tried to leave and one child clung to the car screaming as we tried to pull away, only releasing himself when a Taliban soldier with a gun was able to yell at him and clear the children away so we could leave. A week after our visit, an ISIS suicide bomber killed Ansari and 50 others when blowing himself up at the mosque while kissing the hand of Ansari. This was the 3rd mosque attack in Afghanistan in the last month by ISIS.

 

Drive Through Helmand Province to Kandahar

Day 10: We were through the most physically difficult part of the trip, the rough roads of the Central Provinces. The road to Kandahar through Nimruz and Helmand Provinces and all the way to Kabul would be paved and much better than what we experienced before. The challenge with the south would be more threatening. It was coping with the extremely conservative Pashtun culture and the Taliban, who in the south were more involved in the war and known to be more difficult and harbor xenophobia towards foreigners. Out of an abundance of caution and to avoid being recognized as foreigners, we didn’t wear sunglasses at checkpoints or in towns, and we even squatted in the customary Islamic manner when urinating on the side of the road instead of standing up-the westerner way. We also paid attention to avoid urinating in the direction of Mecca, considered an offense. 

The road was interesting as we passed through hot, Martian like landscapes alongside the occasional American NATO military base, now occupied by Taliban. Parts of the highway was scarred from IED explosions, Taliban martyr flags were planted alongside the highway where a Taliban fighter was said to be martyred and we passed more Kuchi nomad camps with camels. Helmand Province is one of the top producing opium regions of the world. Opium is used to make heroin, and opium crops with their ubiquitous pink poppy flowers, normally spotted from the side of the road growing in plain sight, were out of season and no longer visible.

 

Traditional desert houses

Pashtun House High Walls

Nomad Kids in the Middle of Desert Gathering Scarce Firewood 

Boy Selling Fruit on side of the road in desert

Kuchi Nomads Living in Ruins of Desert Castle

Desert Nomad Camp-Tents made of Camel and Sheep Hide/Wool

Desert Nomads on the Move

Our Driver Standing on the Empty Highway

Helmand Province saw some of the fierce fighting during the war and there were many NATO bases along the road. Most of them bore signs of battle, bullet holes, and missing sections from explosions. Taliban flags fluttered over the watch towers and NATO Humvees and APCs were visible on the other side of the barbed wire fencing. It is unimaginable how much military equipment was left behind by NATO for the Taliban. We never did dare stop since many of them are now manned by Taliban and we would likely be arrested for being caught taking photos. So, as we drove by, I would snap a quick photo from the back seat window while barely rolling my windows down. I would also keep any photos of the NATO bases on a separate memory card that was removed from my camera in case Taliban at a checkpoint were to review my cameras photos. Later in the hotel room I sent all of these photos to my wife via WhatsApp and deleted them from my memory cards. These photos would definitely get us arrested as spies, something I wanted to avoid, especially since later in the day after we passed Camp Bastion, I would read local news reports of a drone attack on Camp Bastion that supposedly occurred on the day we passed by it. According to some news reports, Al Qaeda operatives were being targeted there. Who knows what really happened, but I knew any connection between us, and the alleged drone attacks would end badly for us.

 

American humvees

American Military Base

As we approached Kandahar, dark clouds loomed in the distance. As we grew nearer it was evident that these weren’t clouds, it was a sandstorm. The wind whipped blowing the desert sand violently across the road and not far behind the blowing sand was rain from a storm. The southeast of Afghanistan and Pakistan had been receiving unseasonable storms and flash floods knocked out the road to Kabul just days before killing dozens of villagers. 

 

Sandstorm

Heartland of the Taliban-Kandahar

Kandahar is a big city, an oasis in the desert surrounded by green plantations of fruit trees and farmland. We stayed inside a walled section of the city where rich people and government officials under the old government once lived. When the Taliban arrived, most were given only a few days to leave, and their homes were given to Taliban loyalists. We stayed in a guesthouse run by a friendly family with a beautiful garden where we would eat most of our meals, which included some amazing pizza we had delivered by motorbike. One puzzling discovery I had was that Afghanistan had incredible pizza in the big cities. 

Day 11: In the morning our guide checked in with the Ministry of Culture and the Director of Tourism even agreed to join us on our tour for the day in Kandahar. Having a local with you to navigate through the cultural sensitivities of a place like Kandahar, especially when the local is the Director of Tourism just seemed like it would just add an extra layer of safety for us. This was especially important since our guide, driver along with a few other journalists had been previously detained by the Taliban and temporarily kept in a Kandahar prison just a month prior to our visit. The reason being that Taliban Intelligence decided that their visit was not properly coordinated with them. We knew that the Taliban were hypersensitive in Kandahar to the activities of tourists, and we wanted to do everything possible to avoid getting imprisoned.

John and I were ok with just following the lead of the Tourism Director and so our first stop was to visit a Sufi Mosque on top of a hill next to a luxury hotel that had been bombed out by the Taliban during the war. As is the case in any place with vantage points overlooking houses, we were very careful to avoid photographing a house where women are found, especially since there were Taliban keeping a close eye on us.

View of Kandahar

Interior of Bombed Out Luxury Hotel

Detained by the Taliban

I knew from other travelers that getting detained by the Taliban was a strong possibility. I prepared mentally for this but still hoped that it wouldn’t happen and despite my best efforts it happened. On our way from the Sufi Mosque on the hill, we passed a Kuchi encampment where there were dozens of Kuchi tents. Since we were within the city of Kandahar, not a likely place for the nomads to be living, I asked the tourist director, who spoke English, if these tents were Kuchi. He responded yes and then asked if we wanted to meet them. Given my general infatuation of nomads, I was excited about the idea, but wanted to contain my excitement so I replied calmly, “sure if it is ok”. The director said no problem, I will talk to the chief of the Kuchi’s, and we will go. This seemed great because I believe every chance to meet locals in Afghanistan is a great opportunity especially when they are nomads.

We pulled up to the camp, and the tourism director disappeared for a few minutes. He then returned with a bearded elderly man with a turban and approx. 10 other nomads following them. The Kuchi chief looked at our permit and then picked up his cell phone and made a call. I asked our guide if everything was ok. He looked a little stressed and said the Kuchi chief is calling the Taliban governor, likely I was told because the chief was hoping to gain trust with the new governor by reporting to him that he was approached by a bunch of foreigners. Sensing this would likely bring us trouble, we asked if it was ok to just continue on and leave but it was too late, the call to the governor was already made and the governor, suspicious of us, had summoned us to his compound. There was no escaping this. If we tried to leave, this would look like we were trying to hide something and the Taliban, who are everywhere in Kandahar, would definitely find us. We had no choice but to go and meet the governor and roll the dice with our fate. I hoped that the visit would be similar to other visits we have had with government ministry’s, uneventful and in and out in a matter of minutes. But the expression on our guides face indicated otherwise. This visit would be different. We were in Kandahar and the Taliban here are not known for their kindness to foreigners.

 

Kuchi Chief, and Tourism Director in Front Seat on the Way to Taliban Governor Compound

It was a short drive to the governor’s compound. The Kuchi Chief went with us and sat in the front seat. The location appeared to be a military fortification that belonged to the previous government or US Special Forces. Now all of these camps were occupied by the Taliban. At the gate we were patted down by armed Taliban fighters. They looked at our passports and one asked us if we fought in the war. 

We were quick to say no. They led us into the military like compound into a building with a large room. The room was full of at least 30 Taliban armed to their teeth with AK47’s and American M4/M16 assault rifles. Our guide whispered to us; we are being detained. The room appeared to be more like a war council than a governor’s office.  Taliban men, rifles slung over their shoulders, sat on the floor before the governor. Many had long curly black hair and equally long black beards. Most wore black turbans, and some had military style camo jackets over their shalwar kameez. All of them had fierce eyes and appeared battle hardened. These were not ordinary low-level Taliban. Although some of the men greeted us with handshakes, the overall reception was not a warm one, and as we were brought before the governor, I could feel the uncomfortable weight of the long collective stares of those in the room.  Some of the men were the postcard image of what a terrorist in the movies should look like and one man appeared to be a body double of Osama Bin Laden.

We were seated on a couch adjacent to the governor, a middle-aged stern man in a turban who greeted us with a handshake but no smile. John and I attempted to be as respectful as possible and to avoid offense. Even though some of the Taliban spoke English, we stayed quiet and allowed our guide and the tourist director to speak on our behalf. The governor spoke in Pashtun and as he spoke the tension in the room could have been sliced with a knife.  Not knowing what was being spoken, I clung to every non-verbal trying to desperately look for any semblance of a smile or positive feedback that might deliver us a glimmer of hope. The governor briefly reviewed our permit and folded it back within seconds handing it to the tourism director. He was visibly not satisfied. Then a turbaned man with a kind of sinister smile, sat before me on the floor and began asking me questions in English. He looked at our passports, asked our names and our purpose in Afghanistan. We stated emphatically tourism. He said, “we want tourism in this country, but the problem is no one coordinated your visit here with us”. In my mind I was thinking that this was not true since we had a permit and also received approval from the Ministry of Culture’s office and even had the government tourism director with us, but I didn’t dare argue. The man informed me that he needed a photo of us and a Taliban fighter with a cell phone took a photo of John and I. It occurred to me that this would be the POW like photo they would release to the media. I tried to look strong and not worried in the photo since my friends and family might see it. John with the same mindset posed with a big smile to appear confident.

Afterwards, more words were exchanged in Pashtun, and some armed men escorted us out of the room to a small vehicle waiting outside. Our guide informed us we were being transferred to Taliban Intelligence. Two armed men drove us to another military style compound not far away and our driver followed us in his vehicle. Once at the Intelligence compound we were led to a small room and our guide this time whispered, “we are going to jail. This is a jail”.

We sat down on the floor of a dirty, hot room on cushions. One of the Taliban turned on a small pink toy looking miniature fan hanging from the ceiling that was connected to a wire that was spliced to electrical wiring. Then we were joined by a group of more armed men, and a scary looking stern 50ish looking man, who I later found out was the Chief of Intelligence. We all took turns shaking his hand. For 30 minutes discussions took place between the Tourism Director and the Chief. Since our phones were not taken from us yet, I sent a message to my wife to let her know we were detained with the GPS location to ensure that someone from the outside was aware. I felt bad about sending this message to her in the middle of night, but I felt it was necessary just in case. John also texted a friend, who was a Navy Seal his coordinates with a response, “What the fuck are you doing in Kandahar?”

The discussions were tense, and I mustered up all of the strength I could to stay calm and remain positive. During the process of this interrogation, the Taliban on the most part were hospitable. They brought us bottled water and were generally pleasant with us. The Intelligence chief left the room, leaving us in suspense with no answers. We were not sure what was going on other than that he was going to discuss us with higher levels of intelligence. Our guide mentioned that the Chief said to him that he thinks we are tourists, but he also said that all foreigners are spies.

Outside of our room, other Taliban fighters were leering at us. It was almost as if they wanted to have a glance at an American up close. Likely most had fought against Americans but given the technology of the US military, most had never actually met or have seen one up close.

One burly, grizzled looking fighter came in to sit with us and due to his serious and angry nature, I feared he was the boss of the previous chief who spoke to us. The discussion again in Pashtun was very stern and our guide looked worried. Towards the end of the conversation, the man kept looking at John and I and even cracked a brief smile. Later when he departed when we were left alone in between Taliban visits, our guide mentioned the man is also with intelligence and told him that we were detained because Americans bombed their villages and killed their children. This explained the serious tone of the discussion. But our guide thought it was humorous that the man kept asking if John and I were sportsmen because of our build. He seemed certain that we were sportsmen and for some reason he was obsessed with this idea.

Our next visitor was a smiley, blond, blue eyed Taliban man who greeted us and was excited to show us photos of his young daughter on his phone. He was very proud of his daughter and ironically a people so protective over their girls was showing their daughter off to us on their phone. The man was extremely friendly and said to us that we should be ok, and he lifted our spirits. But our guide was cautious. He had been through this exercise before, and he said they like to play mind games and good cop/bad cop. But that he was feeling optimistic that we would be let go soon because we had our permit. The tourism director showed us a voicemail that his boss the minister left for the Taliban requesting they let us go because we had a permit.

The chief returned to the room and explained that we did not have coordination with the Intelligence as is required. Evidently the tourism minister was required to coordinate our visit with the Taliban but never did. Whether or not this was the real reason we were detained, who knows. The chief also explained we were detained for our own safety because visiting the Kuchi was not safe and someone there could have lashed out in anger to kill us in revenge of American atrocities on their people. This was the same reason the Taliban provided for imprisoning our guide and some journalists previously. But the real reason likely was out of suspicion and we believed they wanted to investigate us to ensure that we were not planting seeds of insurrection with the Kuchis.

The Taliban men all excused themselves from our presence to pray and asked if we wanted to convert to Islam and pray too. Our guides who were Shiite also prayed but separately from them since Shiites and Sunnis pray differently and they wanted to avoid offending the Taliban. When the Taliban returned, they brought us lunch, bread and bowls of a dark mix of thick sauce with vegetables or a kind of okra dish, along with a bowl of a mysterious muddy liquid inside a plastic pail. The Taliban were very interested in watching us eat and it was alarming to me that they were not eating. I was nervous and not hungry but tried to take small bites to avoid offending them. One Taliban kept motioning to me to eat more. No matter how much I ate, he kept motioning to eat more. At one point, I almost gagged. Our guide translated that the man is asking if we like Afghan food and that he wants to show us Afghan food. We responded yes and thank you it is great. We tried to eat more small bites, but the man was not satisfied, and our guide translated that he is asking the others if we are worried that they are trying to poison us. We smiled in disagreement and thanked him for the food. Finally, he relented and took the food away but asked that we try the muddy liquid, the traditional yogurt drink of Afghanistan-doogh. After a few sips, I thanked him and set it down. It really did taste awful. 

It was a strange feeling being fed by the Taliban, who were really holding us captive. Was it hospitality or some kind of mind game? In many ways it felt like they were holding us because they were curious about us. But they could be justified for holding us out of anger. After all, some of them had been prisoners themselves of Americans in Guantanamo or Bagram prisons and only a year ago, they were at war with the USA and being targeted by drones and fighter jets. But they weren’t threatening and in their own strange way, aside from keeping us detained, they were accommodating.  The Chief returned and explained that he would like us to not tell anyone we were detained. I immediately felt like this was a good sign we would be released. The chief complained that foreigners always complain to the media of being detained by them. We agreed not to, and the Chief informed us we were free to go. He also explained that we were free to go a while ago, but they didn’t want us to go without eating lunch.

As we left, the smiley Taliban, who showed us his daughter’s photos, came in and gave us a big thumbs up and smiled. A group of the Taliban including the Chief all shook our hands as we left with one hand placed on their hearts. The burly man who said we were detained because Americans bombed their villages and asked if we were sportsmen, shook my hand but wouldn’t release my hand and started arm wrestling me while almost kind of growling. He said I knew they were sportsmen. It was funny and a few of them started laughing. We entered our car and drove to the gate waving goodbye to each other, but the gate was locked. Was this a mind game? Then one of them ran over and opened the gate and we were finally released after spending half of the day in detention with armed Taliban on an old American military base. I thought about asking if I could take a photo together before leaving, which would have been an incredible souvenir, but I didn’t want to unintentionally reverse our good fortunes.

 

 

Exploring Kandahar

After our detention we contemplated leaving for Kabul in case the Taliban changed their mind and decided to come and get us at our hotel, but the drive was too long, and it would look suspicious if we just fled after being released. Instead, we resumed our tour of historic places in Kandahar with the little day light we had left. We visited the old city and an old Sufi Mosque. Everywhere we met, young men, mostly lower-level Taliban that would speak to us asking us where we were from.   A group of young Taliban at the 40 steps monument, an ancient chamber and stairs carved out of a mountain by Babur, a Moghul King that ruled Afghanistan in the 1500’s, posed for photos with us and even tried to wrestle us. They allowed us to photograph any direction other than where homes are to avoid any photos with women in them. We were also not allowed to climb the steps to the monument to avoid having a view of the houses.

Young Taliban at 40 Steps Monument

Rainbow in the rain at the end of a long day

Young Taliban wearing traditional kohl eyeliner, common among Pashtun Men. We also saw many Taliban with some finger nails colored and henna tatoos on their hands, something I’ve only seen on women usually

Young Taliban

John and I posing with Taliban at 40 Steps Monument

1000 Yer Old Sufi Mosque

Interior Old 1000 Yer Old Sufi Mosque

Kandahar to Kabul

Day 12: After a relaxing morning eating breakfast out on the garden of our guesthouse, we set off on the long journey to Kabul. The highway is said to be one of the most expensive roads ever built. It was built and paid for by Americans and fought for inch by inch with blood. Newly built transmission lines without electrical lines installed, paid for by billions of dollars in US tax money, stretched for hundreds of miles along the main road. When it became clear that the Taliban would take over Afghanistan, the work on the project and its funding dried up leaving the surrounding villages without electricity.  The road is pockmarked by IED explosions, and most bridges were blown up and replaced with makeshift bridges or detour routes through the river. Just a year ago traveling the highway would have been suicide when large sections of the route were controlled by Taliban and subject to attack by Taliban or banditry.

Our drive would take us across Kandahar, Zabol, Ghazni and finally Wardak Provinces before arriving in Kabul. We crossed more deserts, following rivers swollen from the recent floods.  I rescued a desert tortoise crossing the road that was nearly hit by a few trucks before I was able to pick it up and safely place it in some bushes on the other side of the road. We came across countless Kuchi encampments and migrations, observed the ancient minarets of Ghazni from the distance and scars of war in Wardak. Most buildings in Wardak displayed damage if they weren’t altogether decimated from the war. On occasion we would pass children in crutches or wheelchairs likely victims of war.

In Ghazni, we came across a crowd of people surrounding the Taliban, who were arresting a man, while another man lay dead in the back of a pickup truck. We didn’t stick around to find out what happened. We also drove by a Taliban wedding party and were startled by the sound of gun fire just a few hundred feet away from us to the side of the road as Taliban emptied their AK 47 cartridges into the air.  Needless to say the drive was long but interesting.

Kuchi Nomad Carrying One of His Sheep on the Side of the Road

Swollen Desert Rivers

Desert Tortoise I Rescued on the Road

Flying Out of Kabul

We finally made it to Kabul after a long day with no hassles from Taliban checkpoints. We had the typical interested looks and a few questions. One soldier was not sure what John’s headphones were and demanded an explanation.

Day 13: On our last day, we relaxed in Kabul, visited Chicken Street and were dropped off at the airport by our guide and driver. The airport was far more mellow than it was in 2019, last time I was there, but there was still a long line at security. Security and immigration were entirely hassle free and we waited at our gate for our flight to Dubai on Kam Air looking out at the Apache helicopters on the other side of the runway left by US military. There were a few bullet holes in the window glass of the terminal caused by Taliban gunfire during the final days of the evacuation in August 2021. Our terminal was also adjacent to the location of the ISIS suicide attack at the airport where sadly 200 civilians and 13 US Marines were killed just one year and one day ago. We planned our departure to leave before the one-year anniversary of the suicide attack and official anniversary of the Taliban takeover just in case ISIS decided to commemorate the occasion with more attacks.  It was bittersweet to leave Afghanistan and I do hope I return again someday. 

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