tirsdag 17. april 2018

Into the lion's den

Saturday. My last full day. The day after, I would head home. But I had one final stop on my journey. Panjshir Valley northeast of Kabul. The name literally means "the valley of the five lions". The valley is home to an old myth of the spirits of five lions that gave the people courage and strength during their times of trial. The Soviets, and later and the Taliban never managed to take control of this valley. Today it is considered one of the safest areas in Afghanistan.
I was not there for the safety, although that certainly didn't discourage a trip. I was there because I have heard of the beauty of the valley. With the river running through it. Snow-capped mountains surrounding it, and the views are sometimes spectacular. i have heard Bamiyan and its surroundings are supposed to be better, but that will be for another trip in the future.
"You will be safe there. No Taliban. I don't know about kidnappings, though. But I am sure you will be OK!" my host assured me. I felt assured. I think. The guy that had taken me around before, would get a taxi to drive us up there, and take us safely, I hoped, back to Kabul.
I got up at around 6 to make sure I was ready for whenever my guide would be ready. At around 8, he arrived. And we were off. First, we drove to a local university to pick up a fourth guy. He was a friend of my guide, and spoke much better English. A big relief for me who spoke but three words in Afghani, "tashakor" (thank you), "bale" (yes) and "ne" (no).
We talked a lot while driving through the madness traffic of Kabul. Soon the smell changed from thick exhaust to almost fresh. Although it never completely changes here. The car's aren't exactly factory fresh, so leakages seems to be the norm rather than the exception. So I often sit in the gas fumes while driving. Not too bad in this car though.
As we drove on and talked, I looked outside and was greeted by the view of the snowcapped mountains around us. It was beautiful. "We are in the valley now?" I asked. "Not yet. It is a while before we get there". I was excited. This was really looking up!

Pakistani lorries with loads of artwork

Reutilizing containers left behind

Old soviet tanks

After a while, we arrived at something that looked like a checkpoint, with an arch across the road. "This is the start of the valley" I was informed. In front of us, the mountains rose up. With brownish, dry mountain sides in the front, and jagged, snowcapped peaks in the background. We drove on, and came to another arch. "This is where the real Panjshir starts". We had to get out. The soldiers wanted to check my passport. I was happy. I got to look around, and take some snaps. Below the road was the river. One the other side of the road, a rockface with a lot of loose rocks rose straight up. And the winding road between the two. I took a lot of photos before one of the soldiers came up to me and waved his finger. "No photo!". I nodded and put down my camera. I had no intention of deleting the photos I had already taken. And he didn't ask me to.

Entrance to Panjshir. Portrait of Masood on top. War heroes all over.

"Lets go!" my guide said, and we all got into the car, drove approximately 200 meters before we reached another checkpoint. "Give me your passport", he said. The same routine. I didn't mind. I got to enjoy the scenery. Simply beautiful. A few minutes later, they had jotted down all my passport info, and we were off again.
"The people here are in incredible shape!" my English speaking guide told me. "They run as fast on the mountains as we do on the road. So nobody can chase them up here!" I was starting to theorize why the valley was known for its fierce resistance. Imagine trying to pursue someone who runs like a mountain goat across the rocky terrain. You would be outrun in an instance. Gasping for air while they would barely notice.
As we progressed through the winding roads of the narrow canyon, the landscape slowly opened up. And more sloping hills climbed up to the steep mountains above. Strewn with houses, small farms, mosques, army camps and fruit trees of different kinds. I tried to take photos of the beauty, but as always, it is impossible. You just have to be there to know. At one point, the road turned as we came to the top of a hill, and we were greeted to a beautiful open valley as far as the eyes could see, and with a gorgeous mountainous backdrop. It was so stunning I forgot to take a photo.
As we progressed through the valley, I also got to see the one of the things I had seen on photos on the internet. Old rusting soviet tanks. Yeah, I know. Taking photos of the same things that everyone else? But it is like when I do astrophoto. I cannot beat the Hubble telescope, but it is something about taking the photo yourself. I can say : I was there. I did that.
Sooo. Enough talk (or writing). Here are some of my images. Not even close to giving you any idea of how it is to drive through the valley itself. So I hope the war and terror ends, so more people can enjoy this beautiful place themselves.

We turned around when we arrived at the "mausoleum" for Masood. The mujahedeen many here regard as a national hero. Others, not so sure. But anyways, he was assassinated 2 days before 9/11. No connection, just a weird coincidence. The area around the mausoleum was spectacular. With loads of old russian tanks and artillery stuff. And the mountains? Phew! What a view!
I let my two guides play with my compact as I walked around taking photos of the surroundings.

Masoods mausoleum

Great framing inside the mausoleum

Old soviet tanks

War taken over by art

My guides took this image of me while playing around with my camera

All the way back to Kabul, I sat with my camera on my lap, and shot countless photos of the surroundings. From the car. As we drove by.

We stopped on the way to get some lunch. When they asked what I wanted, I said "Kebab". They probably thought I had no imagination. Which probably is not too inaccurate. The others had some other course consisting of meat and rice and veggies. Looked delicious. But I was happy with my kebabs and afghan bread.

Deliscious kebabs and bread

On the final leg back to Kabul, my guides stopped at a small shop. They went in and came out with big bottles of something that looked like milk. It was actually made from milk. But it was a "waste"-product from making cheese or something. "You just have to taste this" they proclaimed. "I can drink several bottles of this!". I took one of the bottles and took a large sip. Salty milky taste. Not as bad as I feared. Not my favorite drink, but I survived. So I was happy about that. Have tried local stuff before where I felt mostly like vomiting. So this was a nice surprice.
Back in Kabul, the noise, the pollution and the traffic made me want to go back to the valley of the five lions. My English speaking guide admitted : "I want to move there. Life seems so simple. So slow. So relaxing. Here in Kabul you live in constant threat. Constant hustle and bustle. This trip was a breath of fresh air. Literally!"
I knew what he was talking about...

With a breath of fresh air

mandag 2. april 2018

The kite runners of Kabul

Friday. This was the day I would see a few of the sights around Kabul. And since Friday is day off in Afghanistan, people would be gathering at two sites I wanted to visit. The Bagh Babur park and the Wasir Abkhar Khan hill. In addition, I wanted to visit the Darulaman palace. An old ruin that the government now has decided should be renovated to its old glory.
My host gave me three options. They would give me small notes with my destinations written on them in Dari, and I would go on my own. I could have a guy follow me around. Or he could get a car to take me everywhere. After thinking long and hard, I decided on the first option. A first for me.
I got three notes in both dari and english. A destination and a price. Higher than normal so I didn't have to haggle. After spending 4 days just to learn the word for "thank you" in dari (tashakor), I gave up trying to learn any longer sentences and expressions.
The first destination, Bagh Babur park was just 20 minutes walk away, so walk I did. It was fairly easy to find. A long queue had formed at the entrance. A lot of people like to go to the park to picnic and for the children to play. I got into the line. With my growing beard and my pakul I was hoping I was starting to blend in. But when I arrived at the ticket counter, he waved me off and called for another guy. As a foreigner, I had to pay more, especially if I wanted to take a camera. Still does not blend in. Is it the smell? Is it the glasses? The fat belly? Maybe I am making fashion choices that tell I'm a tourist? Dunno. Anywho, after the usual patdown and checking of my bag, I was let into the park. It was a big park, and was designed so that people could have picnic in the shade of trees. A serene and beautiful place. I was trying not to draw too much attention to myself, at the same time as I wanted to take pictures of ordinary life in Kabul. For all the dangers, it was wonderful to see kids playing, laughing and screaming like they do anywhere else. Families enjoying a meal in the pleasant weather. People dancing to music. Small shops selling snacks and drinks. A place and a scene that could have been anywhere else in the world.

Men dancing as a band plays

Next stop : Darulaman palace. My host had already warned me that there would be guards present, since the government has decided to restore the palace. So I might not get a close-up photo. But I wanted to see if I could use my most innocent eyes to gain sympathy and access to the site anyway.
I left the park and walked to the main street, armed with my first note. A taxi with a sleeping driver was the first I encountered. I knocked on the window, he woke up, and I showed him the note. He looked at it, opened the door, and walked over to a couple of teens walking by. They read the note to him. He thanked them, nodded to me in agreement, and we were off. Illiterate driver. Interesting. He zoomed me to the palace, or more precisely, the guarded entrance. The site had tall walls around it all now. A guard approached the car, and the driver said something that I interpret at "tourist". The guard looked at me, and I showed the international sign for taking photos, and smiled as best I could. His facial expression told me he wasn't impressed. He waved his finger. No way Mr Tourist. I nodded and agreed. Paid the driver and left the taxi. I wanted to walk back the road until I could see the palace from down the road. After a few hundred meters, I was able to shoot the whole palace ruins. But I checked around to see if anybody was watching. On the other side of the road, was a huge millitary base. Not the place you want to be seen with a camera...

A few days ago, I wasn't sure it was safe to show my face on the streets anywhere in Kabul. Now I was walking down the street like anywhere else in the world. It felt good. Some boys where playing tricks with their bikes. And older boys with their motorcycles. Two guys riding on the back wheel at breakneck speed. In the wrong lane. Without helmets. Guess boys will be boys...
I walked about half an hour backtracking my taxi ride. I enjoyed the chance to see people in the streets doing ordinary things. Buying groceries. Getting into taxies. Sitting watching life. The usual stuff. But the sun and the heat was getting too much for a cold-adapted guy like me, so in the end I had to throw in the towel and try to find a ride to my final destination.
But for some reason, several taxi-drivers refused to take me. I asked one after the other, and all waved me off. I didn't know if it was the price or the destination. But in the end, an older guy nodded and I got in. He drove off, and after a while I recognized the surroundings. The Sha-do Shamshira mosque. The markets etc. And I recalled the map of my destination. We were on the right track at least. But then he started asking me questions and pointing left and right. I had no idea, so I just showed him that I didn't know. But in the end, we arrived at the bottom of the steep climb up the hill to Wasir Abkhar Khan. After struggling to climb the first 100 metres, we hit a traffic jam. And after waiting for a little while, I said "tashakor" and paid him and left the taxi. I wanted to climb the hill myself.
But I keep forgetting we are not at sea level. And that I am not in great shape. So halfway up, I was gasping for air. My heart pumping like crazy, and some boys pointing at me and laughing. The fat tourist who cannot even climb a small hill. Oh well. I made it in the end, but my body was sweaty, my mouth tasted blood and I had to get something to drink. I bought a bottle of water and gulped it all down. After I had caught my breath, I could start to enjoy the place. According to my host, kabulians love kites. Both kids and adults enjoy flying them. And this was the place where they would go to fly them. The place was packed with kids and adults, kite sellers and on-lookers. Even fellow photographers. It was comforting to know I wasn't the only one sporting a tele-zoom in the area.
One thing about the flying was that if someone snapped their wire, the kite falling down was fair game for anyone. And kids and teens would run screaming after it to try to catch it first.
It was a beautiful sight to see the true joy in people's faces both for the kite owners and the on-lookers. A truly enjoyable place.

Kids fighting to reach a falling kite. The winner was the guy jumping the highest.

Even teens were in on the game, running after kites.

As the sun was setting, I took a few photos of Kabul from the hill. And then decended down again.

Ice cream seller with the characteristic cart, playing "Happy birthday to you"

I had one note left. Telling the driver to take me to the closest police station from the apartment bulding. I found a taxi driver who had absolutely no idea where I was going. But after asking several people, he had the general direction. And after a while, I started recognizing the area. And he was about to drive past my street, when I recognized a mosque. I told the driver to just drop me off there. I paid him and got out. I got the advice from my host to never get off outside the bulding. Get off somewhere near and walk from there. So this was the perfect ending for me. I walked the few hundred meters to the place I had gotten the great burger the first night. And I got another. Before walking back to the apartment building. Enjoying the burger while chewing on the experiences of the day. I could only smile.

Amateur kabulian