February 2019: On this trip, I visited Afghanistan as part of a 10 day round the world trip. I departed from Los Angelas and flew to Myanmar, Thailand and then Afghanistan before flying all the way home over the Atlantic completing around the world flight. This was my 2nd visit to Afghanistan was during the winter of February 2019. After my first visit to the Wakhan Valley, I knew Afghanistan was a country I needed to return to. It is a country of immense natural and cultural beauty, with hospitable people and an ancient history that I just can’t get enough of. During this visit, I would visit Kabul for a few days and Bamiyan as well as the Bam-Amir Lakes National Park. Since the Taliban controlled 3/4 of the country and at war with the USA and the current Afghan government, my travels were restricted to only a few places in the country deemed relatively safe. Bamian Province was one of the so-called safe places. But my trip very nearly didn’t happen. 

 

Getting the Visa

One of the reasons I put off a return visit to Afghanistan for so long was because I knew the visa process was difficult. I didn’t want to spend any time in Dubai, a place I knew was easier to get the visa. Instead, I decided to roll the dice by getting one in Washington DC. I applied for myself and two other friends 2 months before out trip. The process was the most nightmarish visa process I had ever experienced. It would have been more pleasant has the embassy just flat out rejected the applications. Instead, they played mind games with us and tortured our hopes of obtaining the visa. It was amazing to me how impetuous and un-professional Afghan consulate employees were. The consulate on one occasion threw my passport at the visa courier I hired through a visa handling company. I spent endless hours on the phone with the visa handling company and the Afghan travel agency, who sponsored our visas. In the end the owner of the Afghan agency, who lived in Washington DC and the President of the visa handling company both visited the consulate just a few days before my non-refundable flight was due to depart to persuade the consulate to issue the visas. One friend was issued a visa weeks before but for me and one other friend we were both told the day before the flight that our visas were not issued. Then five minutes later, I received another call stating that my visa was issued but not my friends. I had my passport send overnight Fed Ex directly to a Fed Ex center at LAX airport, which I picked up right before arriving at the airport. My passport arrived only hours before my flight was due to depart. Sadly, I ended up going to Afghanistan alone. 

Kabul

My flight from Thailand to Kabul via India had to be rerouted and was almost cancelled because of the air space over Pakistan suddenly closing when India and Pakistan had a mini war and when a Boing 737 max crashed in Ethiopia sending shock waves across the aviation industry and governments around the world that grounded all 737 Max planes, canceling my flight from Thailand. But after a few reroutes, I finally arrived in Kabul via Dubai instead of New Delhi.  At eh Dubai airport as I was about to board the flight, a woman that worked at the US Embassy, who was also on my flight tried to convince me not to go because of the risk. 

Flying into the Kabul, I immediately saw all of the American military hardware at the airport. My guide met me at the airport and transferred me to my guesthouse, a secured facility double walls and gunmen. 

American military equipment at Kabul Airport

My security escort who confessed to me his gun was only good for hunting birds

I spent a few days exploring Kabul, which at the time was on edge with regular bombings, shooting and kidnappings but on the most part the city was lively with lots of people enjoying themselves at cafes, restaurants, and Afghan music playing loudly. I visited many of the historical and cultural sites of Kabul including the bird market, hilltop views of the city, King Babur’s, Moghul King from 1550’s, tomb and the National Museum. 

View of Kabul from a hill top

Kids flying homemade kites from hilltop

During these days the Northern Alliance commander Massoud, enemy of Taliban and revered by many and believed to be one of the founders of the country was found all over Kabul and here on this hilltop in a huge mural beside the dusty field where kids played cricket.

Kids playing cricket before mural of Massoud

The National Museum was interesting even though it was heavily looted during the many wars. The highlight of Kabul was visiting the markets especially the bird market and watching local living their lives. 

King Baburs Tomb

One of the many beggers crippled from the war

Ice cream parlour with separate sections for men and women.

Burka clad woman holding her child in the market. I would never take this photo in the open which potentially could incite a riot. Instead I snuk this photo from a passing car with a zoom lense. 

We ate at local eateries, which always were full of men and no women and wandered the streets of the markets enjoying the exotic atmosphere. The bird market sells songbirds, extremely popular in Afghanistan to huge fat fighting pigeons used for fights that involve gambling and also birds for eating.

Bird Market

Bird market

Walking through bird market with my security guard, which I didn’t really need to have

Bamiyan Province

Hindu Kush Mountains

Even though Bamiyan is only a 5–6-hour drive, the drive was through Wardak Province, a very dangerous place that is Taliban controlled. Although some travelers reportedly were able to travel to Bamiyan through Wardak disguised in burka, I am 6 foot 1 and 220 lbs. and decided this wasn’t worth the risk. 

The safest and most feasible option was to fly. The flight in a turboprop plane over the rugged snow-covered Hindu Kush mountains was spellbinding. Our flight zig zagged away from Taliban villages in case of an attempted RPG attack.

Signs of the Soviet war

Me with local kids on a Soviet tank

I enjoyed exploring the old tanks from the Soviet was in the 80s and some of the other military equipment left behind. Bamiyan saw some of the worst fighting in the Russian invasion and almost every man in his 50s and older fought against the Russians. Bamiyan is a large mountainous province predominantly of Hazera people said to be descended from Genghis Khan. The Hazara tend to be more liberal and accepting of foreigners. The highlight of the province is the giant Buddha niches. 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. 

Me with my new turban I bought in the market

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 never destroyed them even when mercilessly slaughtering the citizens of the land as the Mongolians did, that is until the Taliban came in 2001.

Bamiyan was a safe place and there wasn’t really a need to dress in local clothes to blend in, but I thought getting a turban would be kind of fun. Sadly a few months after this visit a suicide bomb from the Taliban tore through this market killing 50 people. I wonder if some of the friendly people I met were hurt or worse from this explosion.

Caves where giant Buddhas once stood

We explored the various caves around the Buddha niches, and some are said to have the oldest oil paintings in the world.

Local Guide Posing in a Buddha Cave

Resoration work is underway of the giant Buddhas but is slow moving-extremely slow moving and the scaffolding seems to be more useful as a playground for local kids

Even normal things like drivers license tests ocur in places like Aghanistan. Here a police officer tests the applicants parallel parking skills in the parking lot of the giant Buddhas. 

The drivers license test was a great spectator event for local men 

Before the giant Buddhas are ancient Hazara tombs of saints and the ruins of silk route bazaars, where traders came with their caravans from all over Asia to sell and buy exotic goods.

Hazara tomb

Almost everyone I approached was friendly and happy to pose for a photo for me.

Hazara Man who posed for me in a photo

City of Sceams where Genghis kahn killed every man, woman and child as punishment for killing his grandson. The Ghurid kingdom was devastated in the attack and city was given this nickname because the screams of the dying could be heard all throughout the Bamiyan valley. 

My favorite part of Bamiyan was touring the local villages and meeting farmers cultivating their land with ancient methods. The people were very hospitable and welcoming and would often greet me and shake my hand. Ancient castles and fortified buildings were mixed in randomly with villages. Most had no explanation.

Farmer

Local Hazara man

Random castle in Hazara Villages

I loved the kebob shops. The bread was thick and doughy, especially when fresh and tasted great with the kebob meat. 

Cook in kebob shop

Traditional seating on the floor of restaraunt 

I was surprised to learn that volleyball was so popular in Afghanistan. Evidently the sport introduced by Americans was spreading in popularity across the country. 

Volleyball game at an arena donated by the USA

We visited a remote valley called the Valley of the Dragons because of the dragon shaped rock formations. It had some hot spring water with interesting colors bubbling up from the ground and a friendly old man that was passing the day at the hot springs greeted us and began to ask me all sorts of scientific questions about where the hot water comes from.

Spectator at volleyball game in front of mural of a Hazara cleric

I thought it was interesting that he didn’t ask the driver or my guide. My guide mentioned he is asking you because he figures you are educated since you are a foreigner.

Old man at the Dragons Valley who asked me questions about hot spring water and where it comes from

As is the case with many foreigner guest houses in Afghanistan, they are fortified with barbed wire, guard towers and armed guards. This is to protect occupants from kidnappers, bandits and of course Taliban attacks. My room was cozy but dark and dusty and very cold at night, so I started a wood stove fire to stay warm at night. The hotel was also lonely. I was the only guest staying in it and I had all the attention of the hotel staff to myself. 

Hotel Security

This is a feeling I am accustomed to in my Afghan travels. Although there are tourists, they are usually not common enough to see during any given visit.

Band-E-Amir lakes

Even though the Bamiyan Valley wasn’t covered in snow, the high mountains around it during my visit were. The plan was to visit Band-E-Amir lakes national park, Afghanistan’s first national park, a series of turquoise green colored lakes that are naturally dammed by travertine deposits. 

Driving Conditions to Band-E-Amir National Park in Winter

To get t the national park, we had to drive up over the mountains to 10,000 ‘ and the snow in areas was well over a few feet deep off of the paved road. The paved road was plowed but to get to the park we had to turn off on a bad dirt road that was not well plowed. It was a combination of trodden snow from other vehicles and mud, and in our little Toyota Corolla, the going was tough.

The drive was tough, and the vehicle ended up stuck in the snow more than a few times. At one point I thought we were going to have to walk hours back to the highway and hitchhike we were stuck so bad. In the photo to the right a local man is helping to shovel away the snow from an avalanche that is blocking the road. The road was blocked by the avalanche, so I had to walk the final few miles to the lakes. Sometimes the snow would come up to my knee.  I also came across the fresh tracks of wolves that came down from the mountains looking for sheep.

 

Local man shoveling snow from avalanche

I had the frozen lakes to myself and wondered across them freely, but I was careful on the ice because it was thin and falling through would be deadly in this cold. A lonely park ranger spotted me and invited me in to warm up in his house in front of the fire and we shared some warm tea together. 

 

Wolf tracks as big as my shoes

Frozen lakes

Someparts of the lakes were not frozed and the scenery with the jagged mountains covered in snow with the emerald green lakes in the foreground was jaw dropping

After spending a few days in Bamiyan, I flew back to Kabul via the turbo prop Kam Airplane, which amazingly was on time. Evidently shortly after my visit the majority of flights were cancelled for weeks due to bad weather. After Kabul, I headed back home to California via a flight to India that took an extra 3 hours to avoid Pakistan air space that was closed off because of the fighting with India.

1 + 15 =