We got the ok to go to Mazaar from the DACAAR’s director, who has been living in the country for thirty years. In fact, not only did he give his approval, he gave us permission to use a DACAAR car, and a driver (whom we paid, naturally). However, part of our crew talked to others members of DACAAR’s management who were adamant that it was dangerous and strongly advised them not to go. As a result, within the space of a day, our group shrunk from six people to two. Babak and I debated the matter at length for a solid minute before deciding that we were far too young and foolish not to go. We also had talked to others folks who thought it was ok. In retrospect, I really think it was quite a safe trip.
I am glad we went by car with a local driver (as NGO workers we could have got a free flight, which we initially planned to do). We got on extremely well with Hafiz, our driver, who also seemed to have the time of his life. I even think we made some jealous back at DACAAR because his colleagues kept calling him to see how he was doing and he took a visible pleasure in telling them what we were up to. Hafiz also had a knack to talk our way through places whose access was normally restricted. Every time a soldier barred access to a site, he kept arguing until we got in. In fact that was a lesson for us: here you should never take no for an answer. He did not speak much english at all. Babak’s persian skills came in handy. Generally, with bits of Persian, Dari, Turkish and English, loads of good will and strong guessing skills, we managed to communicate quite effectively.
It took us only eight hours to go to Mazaar. Against all expectations, the road was actually quite good. It is quite a scenic drive. We passed, green valleys, terrace fields, orchards, and villages with rows of men crouching and looking at the landscape. Local crops include wheat, some rice, and various fruits. According to an agronomist we met, every village tends to have a small poppy field somewhere but this is not part of the country’s main opium producing areas. Of course, it is Afghanistan, and there is always something, be it a minefield warning, a soviet era tank carcass, a tank chain used as street bump, or a one-legged man, to remind you of twenty-five years of war. The Soviet invaded using this road. More recently, in 1997, the region was fought over by the Taliban and two local warlords, Dostum and Abdul Mallik. It is alleged that the later perpetrated atrocities on Taliban prisoners and it is an established fact that the Taliban massacred Hazaras and Uzbeks when they conquered Mazar-I Sharif in 1998 (they also destroyed villages and orchards in the area). There has been also some serious mishandling (euphemism) of Taliban prisoners by the Northern Alliance (backed by the US) in 2001. I have been told that Mazar-I Sharif once famous covered market was destroyed during the war. Other than that, to the outsider, it appears that the city itself was not very damaged and many of its historical sites remain intact.
Mazar draws in large crowds for Newroz, yet, hotels were not full (most visitors stay with friends and family). Right in the center of town, we came into the self proclaimed ***** Bharat hotel (more like * IMHO) to ask for directions, and to our surprise they had rooms available. We did eventually manage to make a reservation ahead of time to the UNICA, UN’s guest house. It took us forever to find the place (it is located closed to others UN offices) and I will post the contact details shortly, should a traveler read this page. UN’s guest houses are designed to accommodate UN staff, but in practice, they do accept guests from NGOs and foreign embassies if they have space available. We paid $35 for a huge room with three double beds which is very cheap (despite being a poor country, hotels are quite expensive in Afghanistan). If you plan to travel there, do check ahead of time, because their pricing policies are very inconsistent. UNICA had good security, a lovely garden, a great buffet and a very British bar (with its marvelously distasteful green and golden wallpaper).
There was a lot of security in Mazar and on the road leading to it. There were frequent checkpoints, some roads blocked, and hundreds of soldiers with automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades. It is more questionable if they were at all useful, since we got in everywhere without having been frisked.
On Sunday, we first went to the Amu Darya (Oxys River), right at the border with Uzbekistan. We were vaguely hoping to cross but there was no way they would let us in without a visa and it takes six weeks to obtain one. Babak and I decided to try to go to Uzbekistan this summer. In the afternoon, we went to Balkh, a city next to Mazar that dominated the region for nearly three thousands years, but which was destroyed by Genghis Khan. We also saw the Hajji Piyada Mosque, the remains of a 9th century monument built to honor a man who walked to Mecca and back seven times (which begs the question: why on earth did he not stay there?).
Dress code is pretty conservative in Mazar. With rare exceptions, men wear shalwar kameez and women they burka. Men have also a more Central Asian attire: many wear the turban, and some wear the a long cotton green and blue coat. Some clothes acts as ethnic and regional marker (Hafiz liked to tell us where people were from based on their dress). Mazar population consists of Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tadjiks and Hazaras. We had been recommended to wear a shalwar kameez and this turned out to be good advice. It is not that we passed as Afghans, but it made us less conspicuous.
For eating, we went to local kebab houses. In Mazar, typically, these houses have a dirt floor. Either on the floor or on a platform is a vinyl sheet and some carpet or cushion. People eat cross legged and bare foot, sitting on the cushions, and eating with their hands.
Late afternoon, we went to the Shrine of Hazrat Ali (blue mosque). In the 7th century, Hazrat Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the prophet- was assassinated. It was feared that his body would be desecrated and to prevent this, his followers exhumed his remain and carried them on a white camel. A few weeks later, the camel died from exhaustion and his remains were buried on that place. The mosque was built on that location (I should precise that the mosque is built in honor of Hazrat Ali, not in honor of the camel, although the later is presumably buried at the same place). The original building was destroyed by dear Genghis and the current mosque dates back from the 15th century. I have seen many but it is without a doubt, one of the most magnificent I have ever seen. That alone would have been worth the trip. The mosque is actually a fairly large complex that includes several buildings. There are many doves all around. The story goes that these are ugly pigeons that get transformed into doves when they fly over the mosque. In the evening, we came back to the area also. Instead of using flashlights, locals put blinking lights all around the building. It was cheesy like hell (see picture).
Newroz also attracted a number of beggars, healers and story tellers.
On Monday, the crowds were everywhere. There was an opening ceremony that included president Kazaai and several dignitaries. We missed it because they performed the ceremony two hours earlier than scheduled due to some security concerns. Hafiz did not want us to get close to the event either because he thought it was dangerous. Canons were fired (we were slightly troubled until we knew what it was). People were climbing on trees and standing on top of roofs to see what was happening.
Mazaar is famous for its Buzkashi games and we couldn’t miss that. It was very different from the game I saw in Kabul. There were easily 10,000 spectators and one hundred or so horses, even some donkeys! People were standing, sitting on the floor or on top of minivans. It was most confusing. People kept creeping into the playing area. Not only that but cars, motorcycles and bikes would cross in the middle of the field. When the players started to gallop in the direction of the spectators, they would run away in panic. In fact, if we face any danger at all during our trip, it was that of being caught in a stampede. I heard conflicting explanations about the game. According to one, there are no teams in Mazaar’s Buzkashi, it is every man for himself. According to another, the buzkashi we saw was a competition among several teams (more than two). I am extremely doubtful that many viewers actually follow the game closely enough to keep track of the score. It is just way too chaotic.
In the evening, there was a music festival. We heard some Iranian, Uzbek, Tadjik and Afghan performers. In all but one concert, the audience was exclusively male. It was rather intriguing to look at the men who were dancing. To a western audience, their movements made them look very effeminate.
On the way back we stopped to look at a site whose name escape me for now and at Surkh Kotal. Finding the later was an adventure that we could not have done without a professional driver and a 4WD. We eventually found the place. There was however, not much to see except for the beautiful landscape. All kids of the village came to greet us. Each of them gave us a two hands handshake (I might have said that already but people are VERY polite in Afghanistan).
Unfortunately, we got stuck just before the Salang tunnel for five and half hours on the way back. Supposedly the tunnel is open to traffic on alternate days (i.e. one day Kabul-Mazar, the next Mazar-Kabul) but this was not the case when we got back (traffic was going both ways). There was a lot of snow in that part of the road. If you are planning to go through the pass a)check which days the traffic goes b) be sure to have snow chains. Not only will you need them, but they won’t let you pass unless you have them. Sometimes, the road is blocked both ways. To make up for the loss time, Hafiz made a point to overtake every driver on the road to Kabul. Although he is very skilled, there were a few tight curves where I wouldn’t have minded him going slower. In the Salang tunnel, we encounter a very strange sighting: a westerner, by himself, traveling on his mountain bike. The guy wasn't within cycling distance from a guesthouse. It is not like you can set up a tent anywhere, the area is heavily mined and the warnings are hidden under the snow. I felt both appaled at how irresponsible this man was, and at the same time envious.