A Trip Through The Kabul Airport – With A Few Extra Security Checks

“You go to Afghanistan for holiday?”

I was trying to explain why I was spending a couple of weeks in Kabul to the Afghan man sitting next to me on the airplane, attempting to be as vague as possible so as to not give away too many personal details about what I was doing and who I was. Better to err on the side of too little information than too much. He was, on the other hand, highly confused by the fact that I wasn’t working for a company in the country, the only other logical explanation in his head was that I was traveling there on vacation. I smirked internally. My first time going to Afghanistan and sitting on a bumpy ride to Kabul I was feeling nervous. As much as I wanted to be an intrepid explorer, heading into a conflict zone was quite frankly nerve-racking. Externally, however, I made an attempt at exuding extreme confidence.

“No no, volunteering with a nonprofit project,” I said.

“Ah, ok,” he responded.

I had been alerted before boarding that if I was seated next to an Afghan man on the airplane he would most likely not talk to me. Crammed all the way in the back row, however, I found myself in between this 26-year-old Afghan man who had spent the last five years running a textile business in China and a young mother on my left who was nursing her infant underneath her abaya.

The Afghan man, fueled on Chinese modernity and busy showing me pictures on his iPhone of his recent trip to Macau, was certainly not the cultural norm. “This is my first time wearing shorts in Afghanistan, what was I thinking??” he exclaimed.Compared to the other men on the airplane, most of them in traditional Afghan wear of flowing long pants and tunics, he certainly didn’t fit the picture that graced the cover of my “Lonely Planet: Afghanistan” that had found its home on my coffee table for the last month.

But the exchange calmed my nerves, which jolted again when we hit a jet of air as we passed over the snow capped mountains and descended into Kabul. The sun was just beginning to set, and upon landing, my first view of Kabul was a hazy sunset, diffused by dust, and a row of what looked to be old Russian choppers.

Before leaving for Afghanistan, my friend Steve and I had looked up the Kabul Airport on Google Earth.

“Um … good luck?” he said, looking at the barren top down view that showed one long runway and not much else.

“Thanks Steve.” My friends are so good at instilling confidence.

But there I was, safely landed and pulling a headscarf over my head; international jet space was over and it was time to abide by local customs. As we taxied, men got out of their seats and began to take their bags down from the storage space above, much to the chagrin of the flight attendants. Like other places I have traveled, I quickly learned that Afghanistan was a country of no personal space and little respect for things like lines, traffic lanes and announcements of “please stay seated until the airplane until the captain has turned off the seatbelt sign.” If the plane had landed it was time to get off.

My seatmate was pressed for time, his next flight taking off in a matter of minutes. His friends a few rows in front of us glared at me and yelled something to him in Dari.

“They told me I need to stop talking to the foreign woman and get off the plane,” he translated. I let him pass in front of me.

We pushed down the middle aisle plane and walked out the door and down the ladder taking us to the ground. I followed the swarm of people, ending up in the small room with a low ceiling where we were to go through passport control. Four passport control windows and about eight different lines; I figured it was best to hang towards the back.

Once through passport control, there was yet another stop before baggage claim – a little desk to hand over an extra passport photo and fill out a piece of paper so I could be granted my “Forejiner,s Registration” card. It was spelled out just like that.

The crowd in the plane and passport control line may have been antsy, but they were no match for the baggage line. Once bags were claimed, you pushed into the line of people waiting to scan their baggage before being able to exit the airport.

Headed to Kabul to produce a large photo exhibition, we happened to have 35 bags checked between five people. But Shannon was ahead of the game and had already employed the help of five porters, experts at the push-the-luggage-cart-until-you-get-to-the-front game.

There was a lot of “Burro! Burro!” (Go! Go!), and plenty of laughter as the porters leapt forward every time a bag of ours threatened to fall off the cart. All bags through the x-ray machine and Shannon playing a little bit of hardball to get us out of paying a tax and we were finally walking out of the main entrance, headed down a winding road that took around the airport and out to the main lobby waiting area, a separate building about 1500 yards from the main airport.

Checkpoints are everywhere Kabul, and the airport is no different. The various stops on the way out of the airport are nothing compared to leaving the country, where you are forced to get out of the car to go through two x-ray machines and then get back in before even parking the taxi. An additional three security checks wait for you at the entrance of the airport and before the gate. But that’s nothing compared to a few years ago when Shannon once counted a total of 15 security checks before arriving at the gate. Makes you think twice about complaining about not being able to take a certain size of sunscreen bottle with you in your carryon.

As we headed towards the main waiting lobby, dust and diesel hung in the air, and pushing past carts of men shouting out prices for tea and gum, I was reminded of the addictive adrenaline rush that you get when you step out of an airport and into the streets of a new place. I pulled my slipping headscarf forward and kept chasing after the quick moving porters. I was not about to get lost in a corner of the Kabul airport compound.

At the end of October, Anna Brones spent two weeks in Afghanistan with nonprofit Mountain2Mountain working to produce several Streets of Afghanistan public photo exhibits. This series chronicles the work on that trip and what it’s like to travel in Afghanistan. Follow along here.

[Photo credit: Flickr user isafmedia]

To Afghanistan And Back: The Process Of Getting A Visa

“I need to include a prepaid, self-addressed Priority envelope to get my passport sent back,” I said to the young man at the mail counter.

“Oh, are you sending this to the passport processing center?” he asked looking up from his computer.

“Um, no … the Embassy of Afghanistan.”

His response to my answer was silence, but I could see the wheels turning in his head, wondering why in the world I was sending my passport off to the Embassy of Afghanistan, but professionally polite enough not to ask.

Like many countries, to get to Afghanistan as a US citizen you need a visa, and to get a visa you must fill out an in-depth application that includes a letter of introduction. Despite the handful of conflict zone tourism groups, for Americans, getting to Afghanistan as an individual requires being somehow connected to an organization, media outlet, or business operation that has an affiliation to the country that can basically “invite” you to come.

Wanting to promote the country as a destination for culture and unique experiences, the Embassy of Afghanistan offers information for travel groups that organize trips for those interested in traveling to Afghanistan. Note that the United States Department of State warns against travel to Afghanistan.

Since I was going to volunteer with a nonprofit, I had a one-page letter of invitation from Mountain2Mountain, explaining what the organization did in the country and what I would be doing while there. Then it was on to the visa application, which included providing a passport photo and a three-page document with questions ranging from the purpose of my journey (no I was not going for a convention/conference) to the number of children that would be accompanying me (zero) to whether or not I had a criminal record (no). The entire visa application is clearly laid out on the Embassy’s website; given the amount of foreign aid workers, journalists and nonprofit volunteers that head into the country, it’s no wonder that they have streamlined the process.

Visas do of course take time and money to process, and for a short-term, single-entry visa good for 30 days, there was also a $100 Money Order that had to be made out to the Embassy of Afghanistan. Fortunately I got to write that in myself and managed to avoid odd looks at the bank.

To be perfectly honest, when I put my passport, application and Money Order in an envelope and watched it get thrown into the pile of other mail, I wondered if I would ever get it back. Parting with your passport is a nerve-racking thing.

Considering where I was headed, I expected a much more complicated visa application process, but the Embassy was quick and within a week, it was back in my mailbox, in the exact envelope that I had addressed and pre-paid for Priority shipping; there’s no point in skimping when your passport is in question.I put trust in the organization I was going with and its connections on the ground; a conflict zone is not a place you want to go into blindly, knowing the right people in the right places is what keeps your security risks at a low.

Eventually I had a passport complete with a visa in my hand. That left other logistics, like a stack of crisp new hundred dollar bills to avoid unreliable Kabul ATMs and a temporary membership to Global Rescue (always good to know you can count on an evacuation in the event of serious madness, illness or otherwise).

The usual rules for extreme travel apply to Afghanistan: hit up the travel doctor to make sure you have the right immunizations (no one wants Typhoid after all), make sure you have a stash of Imodium and pack a good first-aid kit.

The travel part is easy; if you can stomach a 13-hour flight from DC to Dubai and then a 12-hour layover before getting on a three-hour flight to Kabul. United and Emirates both have partnerships with Safi, an Afghan airline, meaning that you can check bags at your departure destination in the US and they’ll make it all the way to Kabul many hours and time zones later. The hard part was the emotional side of things.

After weeks of planning and discussing with Shannon, I was still uncomfortable telling friends and family about my upcoming trip; traveling to Afghanistan initiates certain reactions, many of them unwanted. It was my first time traveling to a conflict zone; I trusted Shannon and Mountain2Mountain‘s connections, but that didn’t stop me from being nervous and even a little hesitant.

I was quick to find that many outside of my core peer group didn’t want to hear that hesitation; if I was the one choosing to go then I better keep up a united front. Choose to go to Afghanistan and you better feel good about the decision. Just imagine how stressed they were that I was choosing to go to such a dangerous place in the world. So I stopped telling people about it, internalizing my emotions and sharing them only with a close group of friends.

But the inside of your mind can be a dark place, one that can easily spin out of control, and you need a reality check once in awhile; that’s what sharing your concerns with others does for you. Of all people, I have the travel doctor to thank for putting things back into perspective.

“If you don’t mind me asking, why are you going to Afghanistan?”

I explained to her that I was volunteering with an organization and would be producing a series of public photo exhibits, with larger-than-life photos, many of them taken by Afghan photographers.

She looked me straight in the eyes and said, “good for you.”

It was a sincere response, far from the emotionally loaded ones I had been getting.

“Wow, that’s the first time I have heard that response, ” I said. “Thank you.”

A woman that deals with all kinds of travelers going to all kinds of places on a regular basis, proceeded to give me a full rundown of the calculated risks that we take every day in our lives, and that ultimately, I would probably be killed in a car crash walking down a street in my home city of Portland.

“Not that you shouldn’t weigh the risks, but just remember that we encounter risks every day and no one thinks twice about them,” she ended with.

The sentiment was duly noted, and I embarked on a series of long flights and connections fully protected against the risk of Typhoid.

At the end of October, Anna Brones spent two weeks in Afghanistan with nonprofit Mountain2Mountain working to produce several Streets of Afghanistan public photo exhibits. This series chronicles the work on that trip and what it’s like to travel in Afghanistan. Follow along here.

[Photo credits: Anna Brones]

Why Would Anyone Ever Go To Afghanistan?

“I got asked to go to Afghanistan.”

The parents obviously weren’t excited with that statement and what ensued was a “we support you but this is going to be difficult for us” conversation. When you pitch your parents on traveling to a conflict zone, this conversation is inevitable.

I would have that same conversation with lots of people in the weeks before taking off to a country that most of us associate with terrorism and suicide bombings. It’s not shocking that my friends were nervous; Afghanistan isn’t one of those places you just go to. Traveling to this part of the world is a calculated risk – a matter of gathering all possible information before you leave knowing fully well that you’ll never be able to be absolutely prepared for what awaits you on the other side of the world.

But I wanted to go. I had to go.

My friend Shannon Galpin, the executive director of Mountain2Mountain, had asked me to come along to help in the production of a series of public photo exhibits. Afghanistan is the kind of place that you don’t just throw a few things in a backpack, buy a Lonely Planet guide (although there is one), get a visa and get on a plane. But it’s also not North Korea either; the borders are open, passport control is just like in any country and in Kabul there are hotels, guesthouses and coffee shops with wireless.In the 1960s and 1970s Afghanistan attracted overland wanderers and climbers alike, but in the wake of several decades of foreign invasions, war and Taliban control, it has yet to return to the tourist destination of yore. Conflict zones attract a certain adventurous spirit, however, and a handful of groups like Hinterland Travel do offer tours for those in the need of a special kind of adrenaline kick. As it’s home to many a nonprofit and development project, you can also travel to Afghanistan as part of an experiential education with Global Exchange, what the organization deems a “Reality Tour.” Their most recent focused on women making change, connecting participants with women and organizations on the ground taking reconstruction into their own hands.

But let’s say you are that adventure-seeking, can’t-do-another-trip-on-a-Thai-beach kind of traveler – the question remains: should you go to Afghanistan? Ultimately, that’s a personal choice. The State Department warns against it, and after having traveled there myself, I would be hard pressed to tell someone to go if they had absolutely no contacts on the ground. A conflict zone is the kind of place that it’s essential to know the right people and to have some sort of community to fall back on when something goes wrong. But people go, and the ones that do, find a very different people and place than what we so often see in the Western media.

Knowing that I probably wasn’t going to head to Afghanistan on an individual trek anytime soon, the chance to go with Mountain2Mountain was one I couldn’t turn down, and one letter of introduction, a few extra passport photos and an Afghan visa later, I found myself on the long trip to Kabul.

At the end of October, Anna Brones spent two weeks in Afghanistan with nonprofit Mountain2Mountain working to produce several Streets of Afghanistan public photo exhibits. This series chronicles the work on that trip and what it’s like to travel in Afghanistan. Follow along here.

[Photo Credits: Anna Brones]

Mes Aynak, One Of The World’s Great Archaeological Treasures, Is About To Be Destroyed

mes aynakTime is running out to save one of the world’s great archeological sites. On Christmas Day, archeologists who have been working to preserve Mes Aynak, a stunning archeological site in Afghanistan with more than 5,000 years of history, will be forced off the site to make way for a Chinese mining company that plans to extract copper from beneath the site.

The Chinese government owned company, China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC), plans to destroy Mes Aynak’s temples, monasteries, thousands of Buddhist statues, and a mountain range in order to extract what they believe is $100 billion worth of copper. But Brent Huffman, a Chicago-based documentary filmmaker and others are still hoping for a last-minute solution that could preserve the site.
Huffman, 33, is making a documentary about Mes Aynak and we caught up with him before he departed for what may be his final trip to Mes Aynak before it’s completely destroyed to learn more about this site and to find out if there’s anything that can be done to save it.

What is the historical significance of this site?

The top layer of Mes Aynak is a Buddhist city that is about 2,400 years old. There are monastery complexes, temple structures, and over 400 life-sized Buddhist statues. Underneath that, there’s a 5,000-year-old Bronze-Age site. Archeologists are just starting to make discoveries in the Bronze Age site.

You’ve been there more than 10 times. How do you get there?

I can’t spend the night there because it’s in Logar province, which is Taliban country, so when the sun goes down, it’s too dangerous. The Afghan archeologists don’t stay the night either. It’s about 25 kilometers southeast of Kabul, but because the road is so crude, it can take an hour or an hour and a half to get there. And it’s dangerous, you have to travel through a few villages that are supportive of the Taliban and have a history of firing rockets at cars passing through or placing landmines on the road. So it’s nerve-racking just getting to the site.

Is it easy for Americans to visit Afghanistan?

People are surprised how easy it is. I go on a tourist visa. You need a letter of recommendation from your employer, but that’s about it. Emirates flies there, Turkish Air flies there. I’m going back to Afghanistan in December and I’ll take Turkish Air through Istanbul, then a direct flight from there to Kabul.

In your piece on CNN, you compare this site to Machu Picchu. Is it as awe inspiring as that?
Yes. The first time I saw it, I was blown away. Awe-inspiring is the right phrase. It’s a very Indiana Jones feeling. It’s an enormous site in a very isolated location.

mes aynakWhy isn’t Mes Aynak a UNESCO protected site?

I can’t really say for sure. This is just a rumor, but I’ve heard that UNESCO is going to leave Afghanistan altogether in 2014, which would leave the Buddhas of Bamiyan completely unguarded. A lot of NGOs in Afghanistan think it’ll be too hard to operate in the country after the troops pull out, so that may be part of their thinking.

Does the fact that this is a Buddhist site explain why the Afghan government hasn’t protected it?

Not exactly. The copper that is under the city is worth more than $100 billion. For a country where some citizens are starving, any economic activity like this sounds pretty good.

So this Chinese company, MCC, plans to destroy the site to extract what could be $100 billion worth of copper?

The contract was signed in 2007 for a 30-year lease of Mes Aynak and MCC paid a little under $3 billion for the exclusive rights to mine the site. MCC paid a first installment of $800 million and they were accused of bribery. The former Minister of Mines was allegedly paid a $30 million bribe in Dubai but he’s no longer in the government. The Chinese were never told that the Buddhist site exists before they signed the contract.

How could they not notice it?

I don’t think they actually visited the site.

mes aynakAnd MCC eventually agreed to allow archaeologists to have three years to excavate the site?

Yes. There was a highly critical story about their plans in the Wall Street Journal, and MCC saw it as a PR nightmare, so they gave a three-year reprieve starting in 2009. And for the archaeologists, it’s been a sporadic three years because the area the site is in is so dangerous.

Who are these archaeologists?

There are three groups. The main group is a French organization, DAFA. And then there’s a team of Afghan archaeologists who are doing all the work, they are kind of the heroes in this story. They are the ones risking their lives every day to excavate the site. And then there’s an international team working underneath the Ministry of Mines, who are staying inside the Chinese MCC compound and you can see the conflict of interest there. The three groups are all doing different things and not working very cohesively together.

And now they need more time to excavate the site?

Right. Philippe Marquis, who is heading the DAFA team, said it should be a 30-year project to properly excavate and preserve the site and to discover these layers of civilizations.

I assume that there is no way to mine copper while preserving the site?

It might be possible to save the structures by using a different mining method but MCC proposes to use the open pit mining style, which is the cheapest and fastest, but most environmentally destructive method. Mining experts are telling me the Buddhist sites and the mountain range will be destroyed and they’ve already destroyed six villages in the area to prepare the site.

Were the people in the villages bought off?

Right now, the locals are extremely angry and they’re part of the violent attacks that have occurred at the site – rockets have been fired, land mines have been placed in the road – MCC and the Ministry of Mines negotiated with the villages, but the people were promised money and I don’t think they were ever paid, so now you have a lot of angry, homeless people in the area that used to live there and are now fighting back.

mes aynakHave the archeologists themselves been attacked?

Yes. When MCC came in, they brought in members of the Kabul police force, so they have some officers protecting the mine. Eleven of those officers were killed recently and a landmine killed four Chinese workers. And one of the Afghan archeologists accidentally dug up a landmine at Mes Aynak. It blew up in his face and he lost his eyesight.

What about you, aren’t you concerned about your own safety?

I am. I love the site and I’m passionate about Afghanistan but it’s very difficult. I have a daughter who will turn 1 on December 12, right before I leave for Afghanistan. It’s very dangerous – every trip to Mes Aynak, I feel it.

So why are you willing to take the risk?

It’s a good question. My wife doesn’t understand it. My mother hates that I do this too. It’s really a love of Afghanistan. I started traveling there in 2004 and I fell in love with the country. To me, this destruction of this cultural heritage in Afghanistan, it represents something far greater than just this site. I fear that this will set a precedent where lots of cultural heritage sites could be destroyed.

If the international community could rally, we could stop this from happening and prevent a horrible precedent from being set.

buddhas of bamiyanHow did this site survive when the Buddhas of Bamiyan were attacked? Why was this site spared?

It has been heavily looted already. It wasn’t flat out blown up like the Bamiyan Buddhas. The huge irony is that with MCC arriving on the scene with the Kabul police, they have served to protect the site. If MCC left, the Kabul police would go with them and because of all the press Mes Aynak received, it would be completely destroyed by looters. If UNESCO or someone like them doesn’t get involved to protect the site, it doesn’t look good.

And time is running out, MCC is set to start mining on Christmas day. Is there time left to save this site?

The December 25 date is when archeologists will be forced off the site. I won’t be there on Christmas but I don’t think they’d allow me to film the destruction of this site anyways.

What is the U.S. government’s stance on this issue?

Recently, because of my Facebook page and others who are working to spread awareness, Thailand has gotten involved to save the site in a huge way. Thais protested outside UNESCO’s office in Thailand to save the site.

I’ve also been working with the Smithsonian, who has been talking to the State Department. So we’re trying to stop this altogether or at least buy more time.

But has the U.S. government been supportive?

They have not been supportive of my efforts and my project. I’ve had contact with the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and I think they are very intent on having the mining project begin, because they want to see private industry in Afghanistan succeed. That sounds good, but because of the level of corruption and environmental destruction and China’s record of mistreating workers, I don’t think it’s good for the country.

You don’t buy the argument that this project will create jobs and benefit the local economy?

No. There’s a great example of a Chinese mining company in Peru that promised many of the same things and delivered on none of them.

mes aynakIf this site is demolished will this be one of the world’s most important archeological sites to be destroyed?

Absolutely. This site has a 5,000-year history; it was a major hub on the Silk Road. Mes Aynak is the missing link that shows how important Afghanistan was in the history of the continent.

I suppose that the idea of attracting tourists to Afghanistan is so unrealistic at this point that no one in the Afghan government sees an opportunity in preserving the site?

Yes, unfortunately that’s right. Bamiyan is getting very dangerous as well. It was dynamited in 2001.

But it wasn’t completely destroyed?

No. And it is a tourist destination still. There are direct flights into Bamiyan but it’s pretty dangerous to get there.

For those who want to do something to help save this site, what should they do?

Check out my Facebook page. And we have two petitions, one is to have President Karzai intervene and stop this from happening, and the other is to appeal to UNESCO to have them get involved. And I have a Kickstarter campaign, which is 92% funded at this point, which does three things: 1) it will help me finish the film, 2) continue to raise awareness about Mes Aynak, and 3) 10% of the proceeds will go to Afghan archeologists to buy them computers and cameras and other equipment they don’t have.

When can we see your film?

It should be out in February or March. We have a trailer but we’re not done filming (see trailer above).

So what would happen in a best-case scenario here? Who would reimburse MCC if they aren’t allowed to mine the site?

MCC could mine in a less destructive way around the site – but I know they won’t do that because it isn’t cost effective. In a perfect world, the site becomes like Machu Picchu, and becomes a huge tourist site. I would love it if mining wouldn’t happen there at all.

[Photo credits: Photos of Mes Aynak courtesy of Brent Huffman and Jerome Starkey on Flickr; Bamiyan photo courtesy of Hadi Zaher on Flickr]

National Museum Of Afghanistan Struggles To Rebuild

has a rich heritage. As a crossroads of trade it spawned numerous civilizations that were influenced by cultures as far away as Macedonia. There was even a thriving Buddhist culture in Afghanistan that created art inspired by Classical Greek models.

It’s also been rocked by decades of war that saw the destruction of many of its ancient sites and museums. The National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul was especially hard hit. During the 1990s it was shelled and caught fire. When the Taliban took over, they destroyed about 2,500 of the museum’s statues for being un-Islamic. Gold and silver artifacts were stolen and melted down or sold on the international antiquities market.

Now the museum is slowly rebuilding, Art Daily reports. An international network of police forces and museums has been tracking down the museum’s stolen artifacts, as well as those illegally excavated in lawless parts of the country, and returning them to Kabul.

The museum staff surprised the world in 2003 by producing a wealth of artifacts they had hidden during the years of Taliban rule. These included thousands of pieces of gold jewelry and coins from the Bactrian era, more than 2,000 years ago. Those pieces are now on tour around the world as part of the exhibition “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul.” The exhibition just closed in Norway and is now headed to Australia.

There are still problems for Kabul’s museum. Power cuts are a regular occurrence, and the Taliban still threaten countryside. They and other Islamic extremists would love to smash a few thousand more statues. Moderate Muslims, like the staff at the museum and the locals who come to visit, see the Buddhist statues and other pre-Islamic artifacts as the heritage of their nation, not threats to their religion. One hopes that moderate Islam wins out in a country flattened by warfare, and that Kabul’s archaeology museum, once the finest in the region, can keep its doors open without fear.

Check out the photo gallery for a sample of Afghanistan’s magnificent ancient heritage.