Afghanistan is the 10th least visited country in the world.
Go figure. Then again, I always thought it would be even less visited. Not because of its beauty, cold mountains and fantastic scenery, but because of regular bombings, terrorist attacks and being the home turf of Taliban. War zone tourism never really did catch on.
I traveled there in 2009 with two friends. Eventually. Getting visas wasn’t the easiest of tasks. The friendly people in the Afghan embassy in Oslo made it very clear that tourists were not welcome. Full stop.
We could in other words only get in as journalists or military personnel. The most dangerous weapons I’ve had my lethal hands on were a 5 millimetre home-made slingshot, a Zulu bow and arrow and my dad’s sledge hammer. The army option to get in was in other words quickly ruled out.
Luckily I am originally a journalist. And an owner of a legitimate press card. So is Marius Arnesen, one of the two fearless friends that tagged along. Asbjørn Havnen, the third traveller in war, is not. He is a big guy, is the occasional sparring partner of the Hulk and drinks any man, woman or beast under the table. The latter has given him a nickname. Dr. Vodka. His physical strength and drinking abilities still don’t make him a soldier, so he ended up posing as our fixer to be able to get in with a press visa. He should have known better. Signing up as the fixer of two spoiled journalists would give him more of an headache than a couple of bottles of Ukrainian vodka. He sure had to work for his fixer title.
– Asbjørn, can you fix me a beer?
Marius soon picked up on the art of frequent nagging our newly appointed fixer.
– Yes, and don’t forget to fix-shine my shoes, fix-iron my war shirt and fix-taste that my food hasn’t been poisoned.
Admittedly, I was probably far worse than Marius.
The three of us flew in to Mashad in Iran. Entering via an airport enabled us to get a visa on arrival. A single entry one. Take note, travelling overland into Iran does not give you the same privilege. No visas are issued at land based border posts.
On the plane to Iran, we met a friendly Afghan guy. He was heading our way, to Herat in northern Afghanistan. We shared a car there. Our visas to Afghanistan were safely stamped inside our passports, but we didn’t have visas to get back to Iran where we would meet my brother five days later before continuing to Turkmenistan.
The fact that we might end up being stuck in Afghanistan without a visa out of there freaked Marius out. Sort of. Sort of, as in totally, utterly, completely. And then some. I have never seen a man closer to a fit. Surprisingly enough. Marius is among the most adventurous of guys. He eats extreme sports equipment for breakfast. He kites on snow, ice and water. He downs a cocktail a minute, still managing to down a shot of whatever is on hand in between every one of them. He will contagiously laugh you under the table. If his laughter doesn’t make you smile or crack up, please cut down on the Botox. But he is not too keen on being stuck in a war-ridden country without the possibility of getting out of there. He first refused to join us across the border but soon realised he’d possibly miss out on the holiday of a lifetime. After some convincing about how easy it would be to get another visa at the Iranian consulate in Herat, he reluctantly joined us into unknown territory. Would he ever forgive us for inhuman amounts of peer pressure from Asbjørn and myself?
I think he did. Afghanistan is a photographer’s paradise. Marius is a photographer. He shot hundreds.
We met Maroof and his brother outside Herat, after having crossed the border. The two locals asked if we needed a ride. They even agreed to drive us around for our entire stay, and we soon realised that they took personal pride in our safety. Much appreciated, although that task must have taken its toll with us exploring various neighborhoods as if there would be no tomorrow.
They showed us various hotels, but we ended up in the only semi-civilized hotel in town. They even had decent Wi-Fi. And good security. Of course, if you are a terrorist, that would be the hotel to blow up. The best and “safest” hotel in town usually is the main target, as we have seen too many times. We still felt safe despite the odd gunshot at night. After all, most of the other guests were hired guns. Or looked like ones. Because in Afghanistan you don’t ask other foreigners what they are doing there. It’s a rule, we found out. Most of them are there on shade business, or so it seems. Their heavy armoured cars in the hotel parking lot didn’t do anything to disguise that impression.
What to do in Herat
The third biggest city of Afghanistan has tales to tell. It dates back to ancient times, and feels in part like an old museum. The Herat Citadel is well worth a visit, so is the Friday Mosque of Herat, one of the oldest in the country. We were even given old tiles from the mosque as souvenirs from one of the guys restoring the mosque. He showed us around and told us about their massive work load. They have to make sure that all the millions of tiles look as they did originally. A never ending task, I imagine.
Herat also used to have many minarets, but most of them have fallen thanks to the unstable foundations of the ancient city. A lot of heavy traffic on the circle road around it certainly hasn’t helped either, but at least the Fifth Minaret is still standing. It gives you a chance to see such a historic structure in relatively good shape.
There are also mountains outside town, but we were given polite suggestions of not going there. Kidnappings had recently occurred. We listened. Especially Marius. We didn’t go.
And of course, the market. Amazing fruit, traditional carpets, cooking utensils, leather shoes, ornaments and burqas. One particular burqa shop, exhibiting nothing but blue burqas, somehow caught our attention.
Both Marius and Asbjørn are bigger than me. They both had girlfriends at the time. Both girlfriends were allegedly my size. For some kinky reason or another they wanted to buy burqas as presents to their girlfriends. Do not ask why. Needless to say, I had to try them on. I have ever since struggled with mental images of what the burqas I wore have since been used for. And as a bonus, a photograph Marius took of me with the burqa on has since appeared on the front page of a French newspaper with the photo caption “Close up of Afghan woman. Photo: Marius Arnesen.” Thanks, mate!
At least I am honest about my whereabouts. After having travelled a lot, my family has more or less given up on me. They can’t any longer be bothered if I am visiting some place of war, terror or crime. “He will be fine,” they think. Or hope. And this is an arrangement to mutual benefit. If they were to worry every time I travelled to such places they’d have monthly heart attacks. Asbjørn and Marius have both travelled a lot too. They still didn’t feel comfortable telling their families that they were actually in Afghanistan. Which meant that we were “officially” still in Iran, the country we were hoping we would be able to get back into. They even spoke to their loved ones at home, carefully mumbling the answer of where they were, so that it sounded like “Iran…ish.” Hypocrites!
Getting back out
To enter Afghanistan from Iran was not a problem. Getting a visa to reenter Iran turned out to be a major obstacle. Maroof drove us to the consulate the first morning in town. There was a queue of 36 men with beards. Standing next to the wall of the consulate. At the end of the queue, towards the corner of the wall, there was a small window. The first guy in line had bent down and was negotiating with the consulate staff inside. We were in a hurry to get back out to Iran, where we were to meet my brother four days later. I first entered the queue in a very British manner. At the far back, nodding and smiling politely to everyone. Many of them smiled back. After 15 minutes without moving an inch, I realised the British way wasn’t working for us. I decided to queue, Norwegian style. Rude, ignorant and with active elbows. It worked. I was bending down to the little window in a matter of minutes. The smiles of my local queue colleagues had disappeared.
– I’m sorry, but this is an emergency. We really need a visa to get back into Iran. My brother is there. It is urgent.
– How soon do you need the visa, sir.
– Tomorrow. Or in maximum two days.
– I am sorry, sir. That is impossible. It will take at least a week.
– A week?
I shouted. I could literally feel Marius panicking a few meters from me. The dialogue continued, and I used the words emergency, disaster and urgent a lot. In the end I got three forms to fill out.
– I really want to help you, sir. Come back when you have completed them, please. I will see what I can do.
We quickly filled out the forms, and I jumped the queue again. Even fewer smiles this time around. A fair amount of the next three days was spent nearby Herat’s Iranian consulate. They needed two photographs and a copy of the application form (photographers and copy shops were conveniently located across the street – no discounts were offered). The consulate staff wanted to know about our parents’ religious backgrounds. I then had money in cash, but the consulate demanded that it was deposited into its bank account. Which could only be done through a specific bank in town. They later demanded proof of payment. And a negative HIV test. We had to find a clinic to have our HIV tests taken. I will from now on carry a negative HIV test in my pocket for such future instances. The hygiene level of the clinic seemed to be good, and the needles used for the blood tests look reasonably clean.
– If we don’t currently have HIV, I am sure that we’ll get it here, Asbjørn joked.
Neither Marius nor I laughed.
I was soon a hated man in the Iranian visa seeking community of Herat. Rarely have one queue member pissed off so many others. Finally, I still received some good news.
– We have what we need. Please come to the entrance door.
Wow, a breakthrough! No more back-busting-tiny-window-in-a-wall correspondence. Marius looked particularly happy. I knocked and stated our names and nationality when asked to do so. A porter let us in to a waiting room. There were 9 people already there. It turned out to be interrogation time. On an individual basis. No chance to make sure our stories matched.
I was first up. I was taken into a big room. There was a desk. Some big man was seated behind it. I tried to shake his hand, but he wasn’t having it. He even knew what he was doing or had seen too many shady Russian cop shows. He pointed at a little chair by the opposite wall and touched his well-trimmed moustache.
– What are you doing in Afghanistan?
He asked calmly. We had entered on a journalist visa, but I somehow didn’t think that was the right time to reveal that particular technicality.
– We are here as tourists to see the beautiful city of Herat and the scenic surrounding areas. We have heard so much about it. Great place!
He hit his fist on the desk.
– What ARE you doing in Afghanistan?? There are no tourists in Afghanistan!
He clearly wasn’t finished despite his two long seconds of silence.
– Are you a spy?
I decided this was not the time for bad jokes, but I stuck to my story and explained that we wanted to explore for ourselves this country we only heard awful things about in western media. As tourists. He probably didn’t believe a second of it. Then again, he had two others to interrogate. I still stayed there for another 20 minutes, telling about other trips, and that we had already travelled a lot to a number of unusual destinations.
Marius was next up. He was there for a little shorter. I used the time to coordinate with Asbjørn. I said that it might be a good idea to tell the guy that we were really tourists and that we had already travelled together to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Belarus and other famous tourist destinations. As proof of our genuine interest in the road less travelled.
– And you think that will make us look like anything but spies?
Asbjørn questioned my cunning plan of synchronised stories before he was called in. Having returned from his 15 minutes of Iranian consulate fame, Marius told me that he had received some of the same questions as me and that he too had reassured the Iranian that we were only tourists.
Asbjørn was back five minutes later. With a big smile.
– He shook my hand and just laughed. Are you really here as tourists, he asked me? Before shaking his hand and calling us you crazy, crazy guys!
Just one more wait later, and we had our passports in hand. With the precious Iranian visa in it. Marius looked 10 years younger.
Time to relax
With our return sorted, we had time to properly act as tourists in Herat. We had seen the citadel and the mosque between consulate action earlier, and we decided it was finally time to get postcards. But where do you get postcards in a country without tourists?
We found gold in the fourth shop, a book shop. The three first shop owners didn’t even know what postcards were. But here, a few cards were hidden under layers of dust and some ancient looking books. Clearly not their main means of income, even for the sole postcard supplier in town.
Good stuff, but of course the friendly shop owner didn’t have stamps.
– Try the post office, he suggested.
A groundbreaking idea. Maroof drove us there. We walked across the big courtyard and into a building. We found a counter in a dark room in the back. No one there spoke English. We showed the postcards, and asked for stamps. Our requests were returned by head shaking. Maroof started translating. He told us that we couldn’t send anything without an envelope.
– But they are postcards. They don’t need envelopes. They are designed to be envelope independent, I tried to explain.
Maroof did the same to the postal workers. 10 minutes later they had reluctantly agreed to sell us stamps. The postcards arrived safe and unharmed in Europe six weeks later. You know you are in a tourism deprived country when even the concept of postcards is unfamiliar. And that is in Afghanistan. It was one of the most modern countries in the world in the 1970s. Thanks, Taliban! Good job.
May the war end soon and democracy return. A realistic possibility? Probably not, but the people there deserves it. Future travellers also deserve it, in my opinion. Afghanistan is a truly fantastic country. I will be back. Soon, I hope.
And Marius? He has been back to Afghanistan half a dozen times. Well protected by the Norwegian army while filming news reporters and making award winning television documentaries about the Norwegian operations there. On his next visits he had his return visas sorted out in advance.
I don’t blame him.
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