My mum is 60 something, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 3 years ago, but she loves to visit me as I travel to every country in the world. As I’ve got closer to finishing my dream, it’s been getting a little trickier to find places that are ‘mother-friendly’, I thought I’d got myself off the hook by taking her to Morocco in December. Wrong.
But how did I end up taking my mum to Afghanistan? Let me fill you in….
I had heard of a company that offers tours to Afghanistan, complete with fixer, armed security, armored vehicles and a tour guide. I had to go to Afghanistan to finish my goal, so this sounded perfect. I emailed Mr. Muqim Jamshady, the owner of Afghan Logistics & Tours, and he was super helpful. I had a quote, an itinerary, security information all within a few hours. Admittedly I was a little scared to fly into Kabul, but it’s all part of my dream, so I was ready to book. I happened to be in Ireland for Christmas as I was organising this crazy leg of my journey, and once Muqim had emailed me back and everything look as safe as could be expected, I was bouncing around my house, running into to tell my mum I was actually going to Afghanistan. Expecting her to say “Johnny, don’t go there, it’s too dangerous” or something similar, she said something along the lines of “That sounds fascinating Johnny, I wish I could come with you“. And nothing more was said.
I finally got confirmation from Muqim the next day via email, everything was booked, and organised. In his email he said that he had already organised the security personnel, the guide, the vehicle so if I wanted to invite my father, brother, sister, mother or any direct family, then he would be happy waive the fee as they could essentially join for no extra cost to the company. Very nice of him I thought. I was trying to show my mum how nice these guys were being and I stupidly read this out to my mum. Instantly my mum’s eye lit up. “Brilliant Johnny, when are we going“. Huge argument about it being too dangerous. To cut a long story short, I lost the argument and my mum and I booked our flights to Kabul, Afghanistan. Wow. A quick trip to the Afghan embassy in London, 2 visas secured (200GBP/$300 OUCH!) and we were set.
I was visiting Libya before Afghanistan (a whole other crazy story you can read about here) so my mum and I actually weren’t flying into Kabul on the same flight, I organised it to arrive an hour before her, so I’d wait for her in the airport then we’d be collected by our security team. Or at least that was the plan. I flew from Libya, via Dubai, to Kabul so once we left Dubai, I was super tired. Kabul, I had heard, was ‘relatively’ safe (safe being slightly less suicide bombs this year in the city than normal!) so when we pulled up in the airport in Afghanistan I was asleep, quickly woke up, jumped off the plane, got stamped into Afghanistan and waited for my luggage. No luggage came.
I went searching for people to help me find my bag, no bag to be seen. I kicked up a bit of a fuss, only to discover that I had left the airplane in the WRONG BLOODY AIRPORT. I had got off in Kandahar, NOT Kabul. Kandahar might ring a bell for you guys, it’s right in the middle of the war. Most famous because the airport is a common target for the Taliban, and actually 3 weeks previously the Taliban stormed the airport and murdered 37 people. What the hell. My flight had gone, I was in Kandahar, my mum was on the way to Kabul and all the staff in Kandahar airport thought this was the funniest thing they had ever heard! Me? Not so much.
Anyway, I had heard Afghanis were amazing people, and my interaction with Muqim had proved to be that way, and so it proved here. They stopped another plane, rushed me through security personally, and put me on that. All in all I was only an hour late to Kabul so my mum was still waiting for her luggage when I landed, completely oblivious to my little adventure that morning.
And so we were here. A little bit of a strange situation when I landed in the airport because I had already been stamped into Aghanistan in Kandahar but I talked my way out of that and before long I was in our vehicle with our driver, our amazing guide Ahkbar.
My tour in Afghanistan was just 3 days and 3 nights, I would have liked to have stayed longer but now I had my mum with me, I was worried enough just to be there, so 3 nights was plenty long enough. And what a time we had, 2 of our 3 days we spent exploring Kabul, with a half day spent at the glorious Qargha Reservoir. Our 3rd day we spent going exploring a small Afghan town in the mountains, Istaliff.
Traveling in Afghanistan is not like you might expect. Of course the reality is that there is a genuine Talibran presence, and threat, throughout the country, and that includes Kabul where my mum and I were but live goes on, and functions as well as possible. Kids go to school, people buy and sell groceries in the market everyday, weddings and birthdays are celebrated, young people meet for coffee. Apart from the obvious security presence, it’s a normal Central Asian country, and the Afghan people are amazingly friendly. Warm smiles, waving hands, welcoming you at every corner, it’s really something. Also, Afghanistan as a country is stunningly beautiful, the mountainous landscape is awe-inspiring, and their culture is strong and deep. Amazing architecture, great good, and a warm hospitality permeates the whole lifestye. It’s a wonderful country damaged by a select group of misinformed, miseducated criminals, trying to force an out-dated way of life onto others. They don’t represent Afghanistan, nor the religion they scream from their violent tongues, so the best way we can beat them is to be unified, and visiting Afghanistan along with my mum, mixing with the locals was by small act of defiance, and I was rewarded with one of the best travel experiences of my life. So let’s see what you can get up to in Kabul:
What to See in Kabul
There is a lot to see and do in Kabul actually, and when we arrived early in the morning we went to the guesthouse compound (super secure), showerd and headed straight out on a city tour of Kabul. For the next day and a half we toured all the main sites of Kabul, walking around, hearing about the history. I had insisted to Ahkbar that when it’s meal times, we’re happy to pay for the armed guard, driver, him and ourselves BUT we have to go to local restaurants. No meals in nice hotels or anything like that. Local, local, local. A cool tactic I’d urge everyone to copy, such a better insight into life there.
Although most of the attractions in Kabul city were destroyed due to heavy bombardment the remains of Bala Hisar Palace, Mausoleum of Amir Abdur Rahman, and Babur’s Gardens remain to catch the eyes of visitors. Various mosques like Masjid-e-Pule Kheshti, Masjid-e-Shahe Du Shamshira.
Visit the amazing bazaars and spending timemeeting and talking with the locals in the in the Old Bazar was a real highlight. The buzzing Bird Market was intense too, and my seflie stick, making videos, created a few strange looks!
More than anything I spent the first day pinching myself that we were actually walking around Kabul, Afghanistan. For years I’ve heard stories on BBC, horrible scenes played back again and again but now being there, seeing how friendly, how ‘normal’ people are, it was refreshing and I loved it.
The end of our second day was a sight to behold. I asked was there anywhere for an amazing view of Kabul, and Akbar told me TV Hill was the best spot. So we drove through central Kabul and started climbing the ‘mountain’ in the middle of the city. It was January so as we climbed the temperature dropped, by this stage it was around 0 degrees! Chilling, but when we got out of the car, it was all worth it. You could see the Hindu Kush Mountain Range surrounding the city, and then the sheer size of Kabul dawned upon me. Amazing scenes.
Day 2 was over already. Believe it or not, the wifi in Kabul was really good so I could still keep up with work, and share my travels on Instagram and facebook, which I had planned not to do for security reasons. But the team had made me feel so safe that I was happy to check-in and chat to you guys online about my time here. Then out of the blue it turned out I had a reader/follower who lived in Kabul, Afghanistan! Small world, anyway she kindly invited my mum and I out to dinner so after a lot of persuasion Akbar let us go and meet Rada, an amazing feminist and photographer living in Kabul. The restaurant we visited was beautiful! It had recently been attacked with a suicide bomb targeting expats so the security was tight. AK47s left at the door, then another concrete and steel room, then another then we were in. We made an amazing couple of hours chatting about Afghanistan, about Rada’s amazing work (you can check it out here), not to mention the food was out of this world. Being Afghanistan, Rada and her friend refused to let us pay. Thanks so much for a brilliant evening Rada! And thanks Akbar for letting us go out at night!
Before I knew it was the final day, day 3. Today though we had an awesome schedule. In the morning we would head to a local village in the Hindu Kush mountains, and then in the afternoon we would venture further out again and head to the Qargah Resevoir, a beautiful ‘tourist’ spot before the Taliban began attacking it.
So we drove into the mountains for an hour or two and the scenery was just gorgeous until we arrived in the cute village of Istalif, the village of Istalif is located north of Kabul in the Shomali Plain, and the views are breathtaking. Istalif has been famous for its pottery and grapes were grown here before the Taliban, but they have since invaded the village, destroyed most of the buildings and dug up the vines. Not to be discouraged, the locals fought them off, and the village has been re-built since and the potters have resumed their work. Istalif pottery is frequently turquoise and spatter-glazed and thus instantly recognizable. So here my mum did her best old women impression and bought some pottery. Normally I’d tease her about it, but the ‘made in Afghanistan’ stamp is a pretty good talking point over Sunday dinner at home in Ireland, she’s got some great bragging rights there!
After wandering around the town it was eventually time for lunch, again on my assistance we would go as local as possible. So for arounf $1, we were fed with the most amazing spicey curry type dish and a naan bread. The locals in the restaurant were delighted to see us, and we had a great conversation with those guys over food too.
After lunch we made our way to the gorgeous Qargha Resevoir. Again, our security made a few calls to check there hasn’t been any Taliban presence recently, which that hadn’t so off we went. The chilly temperatures, and the snow-capped mountains, reflecting in the lake was just unreal. Kabul, the scene of so many horrors on the news, all the negative stories and they have all this beauty. I hope I’m showing a different side. Beautiful.
We meandered around the lake, lots of little shops and huts everywhere. I asked Akbar what they were for, and apparently during the summers local Afghanis would congregate here with their familes and drink tea. I asked him to help us arrange the same thing, and within 10 minutes we were in a little shack, perched over the lake, watching Akbar have his palms read by a Syrian lady. This is the real Kabul, and it was takign my breath away with how amazing it was.
The next morning we were off, but we had one last quick walk through central Kabul, which in all honesty Akbar wasn’t happy about but I wanted to ‘feel’ downtown Kabul, so off we went. The city is quite built up actually, and without the security presence, you wouldn’t know it’s difficult history. I even saw a Leinster (province in Ireland!) jersey for sale. That being said, Akbar wasn’t happy about me walking around so within 15 minutes or so we were back in the vehicle, only to find out that an hour later that was a suicide bomb downtown, aimed at some of the local policeman. A reality check, not that we needed one.
The guys drove us to the airport, and it was genuinely sad to say goodbye to our team. They had made my stay so, so positive. I will always look at Afghanistan through a different lens now, one where I think about the kids playing cricket, the old ladys selling kebabs, the gorgeous Hindu Kush mountain range and of course a mother and son experience like no other. Hope you guys can make it here too. Happy travels.