Last updated on May 15th, 2023 at 10:54 am
The decision to travel to Afghanistan was not an easy one. We certainly did not want to legitimize or support the evil self proclaimed government of the Taliban. Nor did we want to put ourselves in danger. However, after speaking with local guides and other travelers we made the decision to go and document the situation for ourselves.
Our goal was to meet with as many people of Kabul and Afghanistan overall and to share their plight, their story in hopes that somehow we can help by shedding a light on their situation.
Getting to Afghanistan
Usually we prefer to travel through countries independently. However, given the rise of ISIS-K in the region and other intelligence that we gathered, independent travel was not advised. So we started looking for guides and the best time to go.
At first we considered entering overland through Peshawar and getting our visa there. However after our original guide stopped communicating with us, we decided to fly directly from Islamabad into Kabul. But first we needed to get the vital visa to enter Afghanistan.
I wore my Saudi bought abaya and we arrived at the embassy at 9 am sharp. When we arrived the entry already had multiple lines. Because we are visible foreigners (despite the appropriate garb) we were ushered around from line to line. First to get the form to fill out to apply for the visa and then another one to pay for the stamp on the form. Little did we know that many more hours will be spent here.
Subsequently we had to return to the first line for the form to be reviewed. Security quickly brought us into the embassy. Our phones were taken away and so was my bag (which had all of our documents and water).
We entered a large atrium space in the center of the embassy. There was another man there who was Afghan and was clearly distraught. An hour passed. Then we were asked to go upstairs.
Sitting in a large office behind a desk was an official who greeted us. He was reviewing paperwork and making notes. Once in a while he would lift his head and comment on his high regard for Canada and specifically Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He told us that he has many relatives living in Mississauga (a suburb of Toronto). All I could think of was: “Do we have that much Taliban in Canada?”
After about an hour we were brought back to the atrium. Still thirsty we wondered how much longer this process will take! Soon after we were taken into another large office with yet another official sitting behind a desk.
“Why do you want to go to Afghanistan?”, he asked. “Well, I have dreamed of Afghan apricot fields ever since I read the Kite Runner“, I said. This was true, I have. He smiled. Rob sat quietly, fascinated by the situation and clearly thirsty.
We sat for another 10 – 15 minutes. Now this official commented on his affection for Canada’s Prime Minister. Are these folks Taliban or not, I thought? And why all of this affection for our government?
Tea was brought in and we each got a cup with a chocolate candy on the side. At this point we tried to hold back from chugging the whole cup in one gulp.
A young British traveler was brought into the room. “How long do you want to go to Afghanistan for, brother?”, the official asked him. “40 days the Brit said”. “No brother”, said the official. “I will only give you 30 days”. Then the official continued, “Whatever you do, do not trust your guide while in Afghanistan. Just don’t”.
Perplexed by this statement, we paid for the visa, and were told to return at 4 pm sharp to retrieve our passports.
Beware of Guides
The words of the Afghan embassy official would ring true. The night before we were to fly to Kabul, our original guide started leaving us threatening messages on text as well as voice mail.
Remember, this is the guide that stopped communicating with us. We could not get him to agree to any of our proposed dates and/or itineraries. His messages stated that we should have reminded him of our trip, and that he had our passport information. And, to boot, that if we don’t travel with him, he will report us to the Taliban.
We were already quite nervous about our intended journey to Kabul. These kinds of crazed, unfounded and threatening messages were really over-the-top. However, we hoped that our new guide was going to do a good job and take good care of us.
Flying in on KAM Air
Going to the airport, all that we could think about were the frantic and chaotic scenes of 2021 at the airport in Kabul. People hanging on to the outsides of the planes taking off. People dying, being trampled to death just trying to get out. And here we were going in. What were we doing?!
The international portion of the Islamabad airport was eerily empty. At the gate we met a fellow Canadian who worked for a Christian/Medical NGO in Afghanistan.
She was returning for 2 more months, deciding that there was no reason for her to continue the work beyond that. The Taliban are making all of our efforts futile, she said. “My people are exhausted and feeling helpless and hopeless. ” There is nothing more that I can do here, she said…
We took our seats and the plane took off.
Arriving in Kabul
The short one hour flight whirled by at great speed. We saw stunning white capped mountains and the brown city of Kabul below us. My mind was racing. Was my quest to see every country in the world the wisest? Am I putting us in a dangerous situation?
Exiting the plane we were immediately asked to fill in more paperwork. A very faded overly photocopied piece of paper with all of our particulars and another smaller sturdy form. 2 more pictures each were required!
Our new friend, the fellow Canadian told us not to worry when we didn’t see our guide in the airport. She said that everyone waits outside of the airport gates. Thank goodness she was there to tell us these things, as we were starting to worry!
Thankfully our fabulous guide was waiting for us with a sign. We went to the car where the driver was waiting and started the 20 minute drive to the Cedar House. Our home for the next few days and nights.
Our guide warned us not to take pictures of women, government buildings or the Taliban. Rob asked, “how do we know who is Taliban and who isn’t?”. Our guide responded, “well, they are the guys with the big guns.” And so they were. At many of the intersections there were multiple menacing men with large armor. And visibly not a single woman on the street.
Our First Night in Kabul
We arrived in front of a very tall brown metal wall of a gate. All of our stuff was scanned and the guys were all searched. I was not. Then the car was inspected before the large brown menacing wall opened to allow the car to park behind it.
Inside, there was a beautiful rose garden, a restaurant and a few two story buildings with rooms. Our room was quite large with ample coach and arm chair seating as well as a large bed and bathroom.
The sun was starting to set. So our guide suggested that we have dinner at the property. No need to venture out into the darkness of Kabul.
Turning on the wifi, we were stunned that What’s App and other social media apps were actually working. To boot, the flat screen TV had CNN. We had not seen CNN for quite a while – not even in large chain hotels in Asia. So this was a huge surprise. “How are the Taliban allowing CNN, BBC, social media apps to be working in Kabul?” It was truly a mystery to us.
Women and Girls – Under Taliban Rule
This is a poster that we saw in the city and very prominently displayed at the Blue Mosque. Quickly after taking over the government in 2021, the Taliban brought back many of the decrees that they had in place prior especially as it relates to women and girls:
- Women and girls should stay inside. If they do venture outside of their homes they must be covered up head to toe – preferably in a burqa with only their eyes showing.
- No education beyond grade 6. University is only for males.
- Most jobs are closed to women. And if the job is allowed, she must be accompanied by a male relative or husband.
- No access to amusement parks, gardens, parks, public pools, gyms or sport clubs.
Blue Mosque and Heartbreak
Our first full day in Kabul was spent driving around to many of the sights of the city. The Blue Mosque was truly stunning. However it was the people there that created the most lasting and heartbreaking memories.
The area was guarded by Taliban and we were all searched. Everything was taken out of my backpack and inspected. Every single piece of paper was looked at, tube of chapstick opened and my notebook and wallet were retrieved and examined very carefully.
The comedy of this was that the lady performing these reviews did not speak English, let alone was able to read it. Then, the woman searched me.
At first, walking around, we noticed some young boys playing on the grounds of the mosque. “Why are they not in school?”, I asked. Their school is in the afternoon, our guide translated. “Can I take your pictures?” I asked pointing to my phone.
They quickly struck a pose. Later, looking at the pictures, I noticed that at first the kids were smiling, but those smiles quickly faded and another sad and defeated look took over.
As we were leaving the area, a large group of women entered the mosque grounds. They were very curious about me. One of the young ladies spoke English and we exchanged a few pleasantries. I did not want the guys to wait for me so I moved on. “Boy would I have loved to take a picture of them.”, I said to our guide. He responded, “you are a woman – with their permission, you can.”
I ran up the stairs as quickly as I could. “Hello again”, I said breathless. “May I take a picture of you?” Yes, they said nodding their heads. I came to understand that there were 3 generations of women in the group plus their friends. The young woman who spoke English, her mother and her grandmother.
I asked her if she has been able to continue her studies. No, she answered. “Now education is mostly religious until grade 6 and past grade 6 girls cannot study. I used to study at the University, but that is no longer allowed. But, we have our books and I try to do some studying on line.”
All of the ladies were asking me for my phone number. They wanted a way out of this hell and in their minds my phone number was going to somehow help them. They wanted to live in Canada. Anywhere actually, but here, they said.
One of the women was holding the most beautiful 4 month old baby. With tears in her eyes she gestured for me to take the baby. At this point she was saying something, but I could not understand.
In a resigned and metered tone, the English speaking woman said, “She wants you to take her baby. She wants her baby to have a good life in Canada. She can’t raise this baby here with the way things are. Can you please take her baby to Canada?”. Chocking back tears I thanked them for their time, gave them my email address and backed away.
The Bird Market and the Shops of Kabul
I still don’t understand the fascination that Afghans have with caged birds. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching birds in nature. However, seeing them locked up in small cages makes me wince.
Afghans are known for their love of bird fighting and/or keeping songbirds as pets. The only positive thing that the Taliban has done, in my opinion, is ban bird fighting.
However, the Bird Market in Kabul used to provide a good source of income for shopkeepers from locals and travelers alike. It was a big tourist attraction. Now 85% of the country is trying to survive below the poverty line and are unable to make such extravagant purchases. In addition, most are unable to travel within the country. And international travel is almost extinct.
It was extraordinary walking by and through shops in the city. The Taliban have prohibited advertisements with women in them. Any shop windows which featured women in photographs were ordered to black out their faces. Mannequins were decreed to be beheaded or to have black bags placed on their heads.
Barber shops and beauty salons were ordered to take down any images of faces as well. The Taliban patrol the shops on a weekly basis to fine shopkeepers who do not comply – or worse.
Gardens of Babur
We also went to The Gardens of Babur, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was created in the early 16th century by the first Mughal emperor, Babur and has been a place of beauty and tranquility ever since.
As a foreigner I was allowed to enter. However women and even young girls are prohibited from enjoying the serenity of these gardens. Their presence is strictly banned.
This park is located on the slopes of the Sher Darwaza mountain, overlooking the Kabul River. It is laid out in the traditional Persian charbagh (four garden) style, with a central watercourse dividing the garden into four quarters. The gardens are filled with flowers, fruit trees, and shrubs, and there are several pavilions and fountains scattered throughout.
The most important feature of the gardens is the tomb of Babur himself. The tomb is located on the highest terrace and is surrounded by a white marble screen. The tomb is a simple structure, but it is beautifully decorated with intricate patterns and calligraphy. As foreigners we were given entry. However, even local (non Taliban) men are not welcome here.
This was my favorite place in Kabul. It is incredibly peaceful and serene. A place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and the ever present Taliban with their large guns. It is a glimpse into what Afghanistan used to be.
The Hill is a park located above the city of Kabul. There are monuments here, a large public pool, a lookout and a mosque. It is an interesting area to get a bird’s eye view of the city and surrounding mountains.
The area has an edgy feel to it. Perhaps because it is the Taliban’s favorite place to hang out for sunset. Due to this, visiting after 17:00 is ill advised. And because it is a park, women are not allowed to enter.
The National Museum of Afghanistan
The National Museum of Afghanistan is a two-story building located across the street from the Darul Aman Palace in Kabul. (The Palace is now occupied by the Taliban.) The museum was once considered to be one of the world’s finest and contained over 100,000 items dating back several millennia. This included items from Persian, Buddhist, and Islamic dynasties.
The museum was looted and damaged during the civil war in the 1990s. After extensive restoration work, it was reopened in 2002. However, anything that held any value was further looted by the Taliban and the meager artifacts that remain are not worth the visit (in my opinion).
The British Cemetery
The British Cemetery is a reminder of the sacrifices that have been made by soldiers from all over the world in the fight for peace in Afghanistan. The cemetery contains the graves of over 160 British soldiers who died in the 3 Anglo-Afghan Wars as well as the Soviet-Afghan War. It also contains the graves of several British civilians who died in this country.
In addition to British soldiers, the cemetery also contains the graves of the fallen from Canada, the United States, and other nations who have served and perished here. These soldiers died in the fight against terrorism and in the effort to bring peace to Afghanistan.
At this point, the losses seem insurmountable and in vain due to the little to no progress that remains today. May they rest in peace.
Afghanistan and this visit have made a huge impact on me. Out of the 149 countries that we have visited so far, it is the one that will haunt me forever. I will never forget the faces and the stories of these brave people who have been abandoned. I just want to make sure that they are not forgotten.
If you are interested in visiting Afghanistan and want to learn more about our experience or our fixer/guide/driver, please do reach out to me. Given my views, and open writing, I want to protect everyone involved.