My Just-In-Time Dream Trip To Afghanistan

Do you think 2021 is a good year to visit Afghanistan?

Of course there’s been the fall of Kabul and basically the whole country to the Taliban, U.S. diplomats being airlifted from the American embassy, Afghans falling from a plane in the sky and chaos and bloodshed at the airport amid rushed evacuations.

While some of these events made for horrible sights to see, I didn’t actually witness them first hand. What I did witness was life and beauty all around Afghanistan, as well as some foreboding signs of what was to come for the country. And I did so just in the nick of time.

So, yeah my 2021 Afghanistan excursion was a dream trip. And now’s your chance to hear all about it.

The Dream

Wahkan Corridor

I had always dreamed of visiting Afghanistan. Previously, while in Tajikistan, I traveled the Wakhan Corridor, a mountain corridor that straddles Afghanistan and Tajikistan, with a river that forms a natural border between the two countries. There I drove almost a thousand kilometers on the Pamir Highway, cruising along the Afghan border.

Peering right Into Afghanistan but just dreaming

At one point I came within ten meters of Afghanistan with just a narrow stretch of river in between me and a dream destination of mine. I didn’t attempt to wade across because I had been warned that the river is full of landmines. So I never actually stepped foot in Afghanistan… until now.

Getting There

My dream was about to become reality.

With the political situation deteriorating as the American military and other countries’ armies committed to leaving Afghanistan, it felt like I was right on time to visit just a few months ago in May. I had planned the trip at the beginning of the year, and by May the political situation was still somewhat okay, so I went ahead and took a tour of Afghanistan.

The evening leaving for Afghanistan, I devoured a 24-carat gold steak. It wasn’t my first and I hoped it would not be my last.

There were supposed to be three of us on this trip to Afghanistan, but one guy was afraid for his safety. So in the end, it was just me and Jannis (whom I’d met a couple of times in Montenegro, Dubai, and so on) who teamed up to visit this startling country. Jannis is blonde, and I’m very tall, so we knew we would not be able to blend in there because we obviously don’t look like typical Afghanis.

A snapshot of Jannis and I standing out in Kabul

We got our visas quickly and easily in Dubai, even though this was before I became an official resident there. It only took about two hours at the embassy: one hour to give them our documents and one hour of waiting before we got our passports back with the visa stamp.

It was even easier to get the flights than it had been to get the visas. We flew directly from Dubai to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, where we embarked on a nearly two-week journey with our guides, whose names I won’t mention for their safety. We got to enjoy traveling through Afghanistan just a few months before it fell to the Taliban.

I’m sure things have since changed.

We had quite a program planned for our time there. We would start in Kabul, of course, before visiting Mazar-i-Sharif, Samangan, the Panjshir Valley, Herat, and the Bamyan area, including the Band-e-Amir lakes. We mostly flew between the cities, although we found out when we arrived that the Bamyan flight was canceled. We decided to still visit the Bamyan area by traveling overland, although that was somewhat risky. The main route there had already been taken over by the Taliban, and the other route went through some Pashtun villages, which could be dangerous. In the end, we erred on the side of adventure and decided to take the risk.

A sneak peek at the stunning Hindu Kush Mountains

A Taste of Kabul

We started the trip in Kabul, where we arrived at the airport and went through customs with relative ease. We didn’t find anyone waiting for us there, and we had no idea where we should go or wait for our guide. We learned later that our guide was unable to enter the airport because of heavy security and covid regulations, so we just stood there for half an hour at the departure gate.

Then we walked a bit farther and waited for another fifteen minutes before I finally contacted the guide who organized our trip. Luckily, my Google Fi worked in Afghanistan so I was able to reach him. We walked over to the last gate where we were finally able to get through the extremely well-secured airport to meet our guide.

We couldn’t wait to see the city.

He drove us to the hotel, which was basically a guest house that was well secured by two big walls and several guards. Besides the security, the place was pretty low-key. It wasn’t a fancy hotel, just a decent guest house where some other travelers were staying as well. That night, we ventured out to get dinner at a local restaurant.

Enjoying some local food 😋

The next day, we went to the tailor who took our measurements. We both chose a light brown/grey color, which is typical in the region. Of course it would be necessary for us to look the part, as you soon shall see…

There was no shortage of fabrics to choose from.

After that, we spent some time exploring the town.

There was a lot to see.

We went to the National Museum of Afghanistan, or what was left of it, which still had quite an interesting collection. There were some nice gardens and different things to see there.

Some of the collection at the National Museum of Afghanistan

Then we continued to the Gardens of Babur, which is a historic park that was developed around 1528 AD by Babur, the first Mughal emperor. The gardens were lovely and we were also able to visit Babur’s tomb.

Babur’s tomb was pretty impressive.

Right next to that is a nice restaurant that is often frequented by the government, or by foreigners, so we also had a look at that. It was traditionally built and boasted a nice art gallery.

We had lunch at a nice little place with lots of umbrellas hanging around as decoration. Lunch was quite fancy, I’d even call it hipster style as there were a lot of Afghan “hipsters” there. After lunch, we explored more of the town by driving through different areas of Kabul. We visited a bookstore because Jannis wanted to see what a typical bookstore looked like in Afghanistan, and we bought some books.

The decor was perfect for the rainy weather that day, and the kebab was tasty.

Next, we visited a local market to buy souvenirs. We each bought a nice Afghan scarf to go with our new suits. We picked up the suits from the tailor, and finally looked more like locals than Westerners with our long trousers and very long coats. It was quite convenient and nice. I actually really enjoyed wearing it around the country.

Looking sharp and blending in a little better with my new clothes

Afghanistan, and especially Kabul, seemed relaxed and peaceful at the time. There were a lot of roadblocks and security, but everything seemed pretty easygoing. We saw an amusement park with roller coasters and a big plane that was used as a restaurant. We went out for a nice dinner again that night somewhere in town.

An unconventional restaurant

Onward to Mazar-i-Sharif

The next morning, we had a very early flight to Mazar-i-Sharif. We had to fly in between the cities because the Taliban had already taken control of some major roads. Of course, it was nice to fly, but it was also a hassle getting through all the security controls at the airport. 🙄

To reach our gate at the Kabul airport, we had to pass through five different security checkpoints. The first two were with the car, and the next three were all on foot at the airport. It was quite annoying, but also understandable given the security concerns.

Touching the ground in Mazar-i-Sharif

We stopped at the hotel to drop off our stuff and freshen up. Then we drove outside of Mazar-i-Sharif to visit a German army base. At that time, there were still some soldiers present there, but we just saw it from the outside.

On the road

We drove to the mountains at the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif. It’s mostly flat planes there, but we passed through a gate that led to the mountains. If you followed that road down, it would eventually lead to the Bamyan area.

We were able to climb on the gate and take some nice pictures of the mountains. We also saw the caravans led by donkeys that people rode through to get water from the stream nearby and carry back to their villages.

We left the desert and headed back into town to do some sightseeing in Mazar-i-Sharif. They have a nice, big, very beautiful mosque there. It was kind of similar to the mosques I had seen in Bukhara and Samarkand, which is just to the north. Mazar-i-Sharif is relatively close to the Uzbek border, which we would visit later.

The famous Blue Mosque

We went to an ice cream shop to have some local ice cream and visited some other sights in Mazar-i-Sharif before stopping for lunch.

A local sour milk drink with veggies

Around the Uzbekistan Border

We were ready to head toward the Uzbekistan border after lunch. Along the way, we stopped at some hot springs that are believed by some locals to be holy. The water was nice and hot, and we saw some local families swimming there.

The holy thermal water

After that, we continued on to the border which is lined by a big river. There we could see all the facilities of the Uzbek army, including their watchtowers and fences. The river offers Uzbekistan some good natural protection from Afghanistan.

An Uzbek watchtower in the distance

We also saw the Friendship Bridge which connects Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. At the moment that bridge is also in the hands of the Taliban, but since we arrived just in time, we were able to visit it.

The Friendship Bridge

We got to enjoy a nice view of the sunset over the river before heading back to Mazar-i-Sharif in the evening.

Sunset on the river

Safe in Samangan

The next day we went to Samangan, which was one of the safest areas in Afghanistan where the Taliban never went and there were no terror attacks. Little did we know, it would fall to the Taliban just two months after our visit. 😔

We traveled overland which took almost three hours. We were able to see some landscapes including a little bit of the Hindu Kush Mountains. We stopped along the way to see the canyon and some other sights.

Views on the way to Samangan

The roads were quite good. Samangan is famous for having a stupa, which is a Buddhist commemorative monument used as a place of meditation. The stupa was surprisingly big. It had a cave that we could go down into and explore. Jannis wanted to go up the stupa and he took some pictures there.

Next to the stupa are a lot of caves where the Buddhist monks used to live. It looked like a big hill that was completely full of holes for the caves with some inscriptions underneath. We enjoyed our time exploring those as well.

A Lunch to Remember

We went to the town of Haibak to have lunch, which Jannis and I will both remember for a very long time to come. We went for a typical kebab off the spit, but apparently, the meat was bad. Later in the evening, the food poisoning began.

The “killer” kebab

After we finished lunch, still blissfully unaware of what was about to happen to our stomachs, we drove back comfortably to Mazar-i-Sharif. By the time we got back to town, neither Jannis nor I was hungry for dinner. 🤢

The food poisoning hit me around midnight. Unfortunately, we were in a situation without proper toilets in the hotel. All we had to use was a hole in the ground, which I spent most of the night crouching over in agony.

If you ever visit Afghanistan and this place is still standing… don’t eat there.

The next day we had a flight very early in the morning. Luckily for me, most of my food poisoning had already passed by then. We got to the airport to catch our flight back to Kabul, which is when the food poisoning finally hit Jannis and our guides. I was glad that my body had pushed the poison out of my system quickly and I was already (almost) back to normal by then, while the others were stuck on the toilets at the airport. 🤮

As we flew from Mazar-i-Sharif back to Kabul, there was a beautiful view of the Hindu Kush mountains capped in snow.

Soaring above the snowy peaks of the Hindu Kush

Back in Kabul

None of us could really sleep on the flight back to Kabul, so the first thing we did after landing was to go back to the guest house to get a little bit of sleep. Jannis was still very unwell so he stayed at the hotel, but I wanted to explore Kabul a bit more.

I went with a guide to see a very beautiful mosque in the city.

The Blue Mosque of Kabul

We went to the bird market, which is a little street and market where they sell a lot of birds. There were probably over a hundred different types of birds in every variety. Some were for eating, some for singing, some for fighting, and others just for decoration. It was interesting to see such a unique and expansive bird market.

Hear the chirping?

We went back to the guest house to rest some more. There I chatted with some other guests who were traveling through the country. I met two guys there who had been traveling through different regions of Afghanistan for almost a month. The rest of the day was mellow as we prepared for our drive the next day to the Bamyan area. As I mentioned, no flights were passing between Kabul and Bamyan, so we had to take the slightly dangerous overland journey.

The road was risky enough without adding questionable food choices to the mix. I had some nice chicken soup to settle my stomach that evening.

Check in next time to read about what dangers awaited us as we continued our travels through Afghanistan.