Trip Date – September 2018
| 🇦🇫| Afghanistan is well known for its instability and unpredictable acts of violence by regional ‘extremist’ groups. However, like other similar places I’ve visited, below that surface lies an overwhelming majority of people who are well-intentioned, hospitable and enthusiastic about showcasing the beauty of their country. In September 2018, I visited Kabul for four days to help conduct a training course for a group of local volleyball coaches. It was a strange, unique and somewhat questionable reason to visit Afghanistan, but I was stoked for the opportunity and wasn’t going to let it pass. Following a nearly six-hour visa process at the Afghanistan Embassy in Dubai, Bojan (Croatian), Maksim (Russian) and I anxiously boarded our 4am flight ‘into the belly of the beast.’
With a population of nearly five million, Kabul is by far the country’s largest city. It lies in a narrow valley within the Hindu Kush mountain range and is one of the world’s highest-elevated capitals. The volleyball course took place at the National Olympic Committee compound and occupied a good chunk of each day. I attended as an ‘observer’ and enjoyed interacting with the players between lessons. The course was a success and, although I wasn’t technically a participant, had fun taking the written exam on the final day. I also found myself on the local Shamshad TV evening news briefly recapping my experience.
Away from the gym, our most significant activity was a three-hour trip north from Kabul to the gorgeous Panjshir Province. It is the country’s most stable region and, with the exception of several military checkpoints, is easily accessible by road. We enjoyed a traditional Afghan dinner on the ‘patio’ of a restaurant near the town of Bazarak. As the Panjshir River flowed behind us, we devoured an endless number of delicious chicken/beef skewers and naan bread.
Panjshir was home to Ahmad Shah Massoud, one of Afghanistan’s most successful and influential military commanders. He is best known for preventing both the Soviets and the Taliban from overtaking Panjshir throughout the latter two decades of the 20th century. In September 2001, Massoud was assassinated by a duo of suicide media reporters who hid explosives inside their video cameras. His body was transported back to Panjshir and now rests at the base of an elaborate memorial on the mountainside. Before heading to our accommodation that evening, we paid a visit to the tomb.
Our local host, Sadeq, had a friend who recently built a house in the Panjshir mountains and offered it to us for that night. It was a comfortable complex with an entirely open second level, something that felt like a blend of a 1970’s disco club and an American Express airport lounge. Regardless, we all slept well and were grateful for the Afghan home-stay experience. The following morning, we stopped for a few sunrise photos en route back to the city.
When in Kabul, it quickly becomes clear that avoiding unpredictable acts of violence impacts the who/what/where/when/why/how of every minute of daily life. It’s an intense frame of mind and experiencing the sense of awareness it instills remains among the most powerful pieces of perspective I’ve obtained. The city is under 24-hour surveillance by a NATO blimp that hovers over the center of town and we were accompanied by a police escort and body guard for essentially our entire visit.
Despite the measures taken for personal security, the best photos I got of the city were still from the safety of our hotel balcony, which also provided a view of the surrounding mountains. Sunday, September 9, was coincidently Massoud Day (National Holiday) and resulted in additional turmoil in the streets, including a motorcycle bomb targeted at Massoud supporters detonated two kilometers from our hotel. There were also several gunshots fired into the air on the street outside our hotel window. They were evidently celebratory shots but still had me spinning in circles in my room. Dozens of people were arrested that day for their actions. I managed to grab a short video clip of some holiday festivities after the bulk of the commotion had settled.
On our last night, Sadeq had us over to his condo for dinner. It was a pleasure meeting his children and having another intimate cultural experience. Two of his local friends also joined us. As with every part of our trip, the hospitality was top notch.
Visiting Afghanistan was as memorable of an experience as any and the people we interacted with couldn’t have been more welcoming. The general insecurity throughout the area makes it a tough place to visit right now and I will admit that after four days it was a relief to walk into the departure hall of the Kabul airport and see the gold EMIRATES letters on the side of our Dubai-bound 777.
If local forces and the Afghan Government can work together to improve the situation over the coming years, I can envisage the country becoming a fantastic and sought-after place for foreigners to explore. The entire Middle East is home to some of the most exciting culture in the world and I hope it soon becomes more accessible. Fingers crossed!
What do you think about Afghanistan? Would you visit?