Afghanistan: Before the Taliban Takeover
A Young American Visits What Some Consider the Most Dangerous Place on Earth: Afghanistan
By Max Olson
The early 20’s are a pivotal time for travel. Many young vagabonds and travelers use the general lack of responsibilities and newfound freedom that are typical of this age to see what the world has to offer.
Photographs of spring break trips to Cabo and backpacking treks in Western Europe flooded social media pages as such trips seemed to function as a rite of passage these days.
No Pub Crawls for Him
However, when I was 23 years old in December of 2020, I decided that instead of pub crawls in Ireland or bike rides in Croatia, I would go to Afghanistan.
Were my two and half weeks in the “Heart of Asia” as the country is commonly called worth the risks presented by going to a nation mired in war for almost 40 years? Absolutely.
Touchdown in Kabul, Afghanistan
“That building right there, that is biggest prison in all Kabul.” The Afghan man sitting behind me on the plane slowly making its descent into Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul had marked me as a foreigner without even talking to me. While the plane altitude he continued to point out various landmarks to me in broken-English.
Contrary to popular belief among Westerners, Afghanistan is not all desert, excluding portions of the country’s South. Our plane flew uncomfortably close to the peaks of the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains. When the runway finally came into view, the first thing I noticed were the rows of military helicopters nestled throughout the airfield. What else should I have expected though? I was entering a country at war.
Going through Kabul Airport’s Customs procedure was like entering any other country. Long lines, passport scanners, and people anxious to get moving. I had been given a sheet with detailed instructions explaining exactly how to meet my guides after exiting the airport’s main terminal.
I followed the instructions to the letter and saw no sign of my guide. My cellphone did not work at all, I was standing in Afghanistan alone, and my guide was nowhere to be found.
True Feeling of Panic
This moment was the only true feeling of panic I had throughout my entire trip. After about five minutes, a short man with a beanie and skateboard shoes approached me. “Are you Max?” “Yes!,”I exclaimed. Apparently, I had exited the terminal from the wrong door, meaning my guide and driver had initially missed me.
As we drove away from the airport and into Kabul, I did not realize that the runway I had just landed on would become a scene of horror and desperation only eight months later.
“These Things We Cannot Control”
Driving from the Kabul airport into the city proper was a surreal experience. I had travelled to third world countries before, but this was in a ballpark of its own. One of the first things I saw in Kabul that will forever remain engrained in my mind was a man wearing a ski-mask, driving a motorcycle down a dirt road with colorful balloons tied to the back.
Whenever I think of my trip to Afghanistan, that image involuntarily bursts into my mind. The first order of business was to trade in some of my USD for Afghanis, the pre-Taliban currency of Afghanistan. My guide, Sardar, told me he knew just the place. The “place” happened to be nothing more than a man on a street corner.
He approached the car and opened his jacket, displaying a vast array of international currencies hanging from strings attached to his shirt. Not the currency exchange booths I was used to but certainly just as efficient.
After putting some Afghanis in my pocket, it was off to the hotel. Kabul boasted two upper-class resorts, however, due to their popularity with westerners they were frequently targeted for insurgent attacks.
Therefore, most of my lodging in the country consisted of discreet guesthouses or hostels. The hostel in Kabul was in an area known as Shar-e-Naw (New City in Persian) which boasted one of the city’s premier parks.
No Hot Water in the Hotel
After settling into my room which was surprisingly nice, the lack of hot water aside, I met my guide in a small lounge for the security briefing. Sardar stressed common sense and the need to be discreet.
I was to wear traditional Afghan clothes and not mention where I was staying or my itinerary to anyone. He explained that things such as suicide bombings and other types of insurgent attacks were simply unpredictable. “These things we cannot control”, were his exact words I believe.
I simply nodded my head, knowing damn well from the start what I had signed up for. I put on my Shalwar Kameez dress and Paucal hat, both of which were ridiculously comfortable. It was time to explore Afghanistan.
“Bury me in Kabul”
The first stop on my trip was a large hill overlooking most of Kabul known as Tepe Bibi Mahroo. Atop the hill was the largest Afghan flag in all of Afghanistan along with a swimming pool with several diving boards built by the Soviets.
A design of contrasts if I had ever heard of one. Bibi Mahroo overlooks Wazir Akbar Khan, a walled off city within a city that serves as the home for the vast majority of western embassies.
Humorously enough, Wazir Akbar Khan was the name of the Afghan Prince who led the slaughter and death march of Britain’s first diplomatic/military mission in Afghanistan.
After taking in the sites from Bibi Mahroo, we drove to the Bagh-i-Babur (garden of Babur).
Even in the winter with most of the trees stripped of leaves, the garden of Babur was gorgeous with flowing water, wide open sidewalks, and young couples enjoying the day together.
Tomb of Babur Himself
The garden’s main attraction is the tomb of Babur himself, the first Mughal Emperor.
According to my guide, Babur thought Kabul was so beautiful that he told his sons that when he died, he wanted to be buried in Kabul and not India. “Bury me in Kabul”, was the first Mughal emperor’s dying wish.
After the gardens of Babur, our final stop of the day was the Sakthi Shrine. The shrine served was a gorgeous place of worship for Kabul’s Shi’ite Muslims.
The guards were hesitant to let me in due to the Taliban’s frequent targeting of Shi’ite sites. One of my fondest memories of Afghanistan happened at Sakhti. A local custom was to wrap a flag around a large pole and make a wish.
A local generously handed me a piece of cloth to act as a flag and let me walk right up to the Shrine’s pole even though out of respect I made it clear to him that I was not Muslim.
I walked right up and tied my flag around the pole, thanking the universe that I had been given to opportunity to have such an amazing experience.
Land of Massoud
Ahmed Shah Massoud was arguably the single most famous man in Pre-Taliban Afghanistan. His face was everywhere. On cars, buildings, schools, the walls of home, his distinctive face and paucal hat were a staple of Afghan life.
Massoud had been one of the most successful mujahedeen commanders during the Soviet invasion and continued the fight against the Taliban following the Soviet withdrawal.
Massoud was assassinated by Al-Qaeda operatives on September 9, 2011, two days before the September 11 attacks. Massoud’s homeland and the area he defended throughout so much conflict is a large valley cutting deep into the Hindu Kush Mountains.
The Panjshir (Five Lions) Valley was a gorgeous sanctuary of relative peace in pre-Taliban Afghanistan.
Mulberry trees, young village boys playing with slingshots, and the beautiful snow-peaked mountains were almost enough to make one forget that the country was engulfed in a vicious civil war.
Destroyed Soviet Tanks
However, the destroyed Soviet tanks and abandoned artillery were enough to remind one that Afghanistan had been a land of war for nearly forty years.
The drive from Kabul to the Panjshir Valley was one of the highway trips deemed safe and I loved the opportunity to traverse the country via car as opposed to a domestic flight.
We stopped at a small river-side cabin for lunch and enjoyed Afghan fish, an odd thing to say considering Afghanistan is a landlocked country.
The highlight of the Panjshir Valley is the tomb of Massoud, a giant tower-like structure which houses the hero of Afghanistan’s coffin. Panjshir was absolutely one of the stand outs of the trip.
Afghanistan or Iran
The third major destination on my trip to Afghanistan was the Western city of Herat. Herat is somewhat of an anomaly in the sense that it has much more of an Iranian flavor. The city sits fairly close to the Iranian border, Persian food is the cuisine of choice, and women tend to wear the Iranian black headscarf as opposed to full blue chador seen throughout Afghanistan.
Herat holds some of Afghanistan’s most incredible sites for history buffs. An ancient fortress built by Alexander the Great, a shrine where the resident Sufi was happy to show off his mystical practices, and the gigantic Friday Mosque stand out as exceptional. The highlight of Herat though is the Museum of the Soviet Jihad.
Housing several exhibits of model recreations of the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, this museum absolutely cannot be missed. Other highlights of Herat included seeing the old stations that served the Silk Road and the city’s famous mouthwatering sweets.
Tomb of the Leader
After Herat, our next stop was Afghanistan’s major city in the North, Mazar-i-Sharif. Roughly translating to, “Tomb of the Leader”, the Blue Mosque of Mazar is thought to be the resting place of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s closet companion and central figure of the Shi’ite sect of Islam.
The Blue Mosque is a marvel of architecture that cannot be missed. The white doves that the mosque is famous for sit perched upon radiant blue domes as the Muezzin’s call to prayer glides through the air. However, it is hard to tell whether the highlight of Mazar is the Blue Mosque or watching a game of Buzkashi.
Buzkashi is the national sport of Afghanistan and consists of dozens of men on horseback using whips to try and grab a goat carcass that they then have to carry to a designated point on the field.
In other words, it’s like a Southwestern rodeo on steroids. Spectators are able to stand on the field which led to no end of worrying for my guide and a couple of hoof-to-the-face near misses for myself. Buzkashi is a national sport unlike any other.
Buddhism in Afghanistan
Prior to the introduction of Islam, Afghanistan was primarily a Buddhist land. Buddhist stupas can still be seen in various parts of the country.
One of the key Buddhist sites in Afghanistan was in the area of a town known as Bamiyan lying in the country’s center high up in the Hindu Kush Mountains.
Bamiyan was famous for two massive Buddha statues carved into a valley cliff. Unfortunately, during the Taliban’s first reign, the statues were deemed iconography and destroyed.
Where the Buddhas Once Stood
However, I was able to walk through caves in the cliff where the Buddhas once stood, and I can safely say that the site is still awe-inspiring to say the least.
Other major sites in the Bamiyan area include Band-i-Amir, the country’s only national park with a crystal-clear lake, and Shar-i-Zohak, a red mud fortress built on the slopes of a mountain, which I managed to successfully hike through regardless of the high altitude and threat of land mines off the marked trail.
My trip to Afghanistan is hard to sum up in one paragraph but here are the takeaways I would like every reader to understand. The people of Afghanistan are some of the kindest, most selfless people I have ever met.
The country is not the war-torn hellscape that it is portrayed as in the media. Afghanistan is an experience that will test the limits of every traveler’s courage but the rewards are priceless.
How Safe is Travel to Afghanistan in 2022?
Ever since he first looked at a map of the world in first grade, Max Olson has been obsessed with traveling. By the age of 25, Max had ridden donkeys in the mountains of Afghanistan, paraglided over the South Caucasus Mountains, and trekked around Southern Tunisia looking for World War II sites. Max hopes to make a career out of his passion by becoming a travel writer and vlogger. You can see his blog here: https://maxthepilgrim.com