Video: Destination Afghanistan

Afghanistan certainly doesn’t rank highly on most people’s bucket lists. This wasn’t always the case. In the ’60s and ’70s Afghanistan was a key stopover on the hippie trail to India. Kabul and Kandahar, cities that conjure up images of explosions and war, were more famous for their melons than bombings (though it’s unanimously agreed that the best melons come from Kunduz).

Tourism in Afghanistan these days takes some convincing, but if there’s anything to help it along it’s videos like this. These images taken by a former aid worker show a country long known for its rugged beauty whose star has sadly dimmed. Our own Anna Brones found reasons to go when she traveled there last year. These images provide a few more.

What Does Kabul Really Look Like? Exploring The Streets Of Afghanistan’s Capital

The first time I sat in a car in Kabul I was tense. This was the place of car bombs and terrorists after all, wasn’t it? My eyes darted back and forth between the driver, the road and all that was taking place around me. It was sensory overload.

The security situation is ever present in Kabul, there’s no denying that something could happen at any point in time. Then again, the same thing could be said for any city. Yes, Kabul is the capital of a conflict zone, and bombings do happen. But that doesn’t stop life from happening. People walk, vendors sell street food and there’s a general hustle and bustle to the city that feels like many other big cities in the developing world that I have traveled to.

In “The Kite Runner” Khalid Hosseini wrote, “I looked westward and marveled that, somewhere over those mountains, Kabul still existed. It really existed, not just as an old memory, or as the heading of an AP story on page 15 of the San Francisco Chronicle.”

Kabul does exist. It’s just different than many of us have envisioned it.


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]

For The Intrepid Traveler: The Top 5 Destinations In Kabul

Kabul might not be the world’s number one tourist destination, but there’s plenty to see in and around the busy capital that boasts 5 million residents. Hire a driver and check out some of the city’s top destinations.

Babur Gardens

This historic park, locally called Bagh-e Babur, is a calm respite from the rest of busy and congested Kabul. The gardens, situated on the western slopes of Ser-e-Darwaza Mountain, just south of Kabul, were laid out by the Mughal dynasty ruler, Muhammad Zahir al-Din Babur in the early 16th century. At about 27 acres, they are the largest green space in the city, and with their roses and poplar trees, arguably, the most beautiful. Ruined during the civil war, the gardens have since been restored, laid out on the classic charbagh (four garden) pattern. High walls, giving it a very protected and peaceful feel, surround the garden and it’s popular with local families who come to picnic and enjoy the natural space.

Kabul Zoo

A camel and a Ferris wheel all in one place, the Kabul Zoo is an opportunity to enjoy Kabul as locals do. The zoo and its accompanying mini-amusement park are popular with families, but this is no Western zoo. The cages are small and protection between wild animals and spectators minimal. You will, however, see a few colorful birds, lions and bears up close, so for the curious it’s worth the visit.

Shah-e Doh Shamshira Mosque
Located just off of the Kabul River in the city center, the Shah Shamsira Mosque is a central place of worship that’s also well known for its yellow walls and popularity with birds. It has more of a European feel than Afghan, and its two-story structure and bright color make it stand out against the other surrounding buildings.

Royal Palace of Darul Aman

Built in the 1920s, Darul Aman Palace was once a bastion of grandeur. Today all that is left is a gutted skeleton of a structure, reminiscent of the mass destruction that Kabul has seen over the past few decades. Surrounded by a border of barbed wire, it’s off limits to visitors and protected by a crew of Afghan National Army, but if you’re lucky and have a good translator, you can manage to let them give you the full tour and show you around.

Afghan National Museum

Until 1992, the National Museum of Afghanistan was home to over 100,000 arts and cultural artifacts from two millenniums of Afghan history. That all came to an end during fighting in Kabul in the following years, leaving the museum looted and destroyed. The museum staff managed to hide the best pieces, but of the ones that remained, they suffered the policies of the Taliban, which ordered all art objects depicting the human form to be destroyed. The artifacts that made it through, however, provide an intimate look into Afghan history. Thanks to contributions from other museums and archeological efforts, today the museum spans 50 millenniums of Prehistoric, Classical, Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic history. The museum is open everyday of the week except for Thursday and Friday afternoons.

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]

Moments Of Serendipity: Daily Life In Afghanistan

Good travel pushes you to let go of control, and Afghanistan is certainly one of those places. Here, daily life is dictated by security decisions, which roads are safe to travel on and which ones are not, and if you are trying to stick to a concrete plan, something will surely get in the way. Afghanistan is the place for serendipity, a place that when you come to understand that you have absolutely no control, you can give in to be open to the many things that can happen all around you.

There is a constant balance between fear and awareness of your surroundings and being open and receptive to the unknown. In the midst of conflict there is beauty; the call to prayer in the dark of the early morning, a stranger offering you a glass of tea, a young woman smiling because you asked her how she was doing. If there were a definition of daily life in Afghanistan for a traveler, it would go something along the lines of: constant change peppered with frequent tea breaks.

Traveling as a woman, I was at all times aware of my surroundings and my own presence in relation to the people around me. My headscarf always seemed to be falling off. Warm in the midday heat I would go to push up my sleeves, and then remember that they had to stay covered. Men were everywhere. There were stares, a lot of them, but a few moments into a personal exchange and those stares often turned to smiles.On an afternoon in Babur Gardens, an historic enclosed park that is a popular place of respite from the dust, diesel and general chaos that defines everyday Kabul life, my friend Tony and I walked down a gravel, tree-lined path. It was the second day of Eid, a Muslim holiday, and families were out in abundance, picnicking and taking a moment to enjoy the trees and flowers.

As we walked, an old man stood up, a glass of tea in his hand. He motioned to us to come towards him. Traveling in a conflict zone makes you constantly alert to your surroundings, accepting that you must respect local customs at all times and that you should never become complacent. You have to trust your gut. Had a stranger motioned to me on a street corner, I may have turned in the other direction, but here in the privacy of an enclosed garden space, filled with happy families celebrating a holiday, I felt a certain level of calmness and security.

“I think we have to go over there,” I said to Tony.

We crossed the path and joined the family. The older man invited us to sit down on a blanket and he handed us both glasses of tea. We exchanged the series of salutations and “happy Eid,” an exchange that I had gotten comfortable doing in Dari. The man and his family smiled.

Then we launched into the get-know-you-without-speaking-your-language game, and entertaining combination of hand motions, my mediocre Dari vocabulary, and the family’s limited grasp of English phrases.

In Dari, the man asks if I am Tony’s wife.

“Balay” we both nod. Yes. This “wedding of convenience” as we later called it is easier than the truth.

The man motions to the smiling baby in his lap, whose eyes are outlined in kohl (a sign of prosperity I later learn) and points to me. “Shomaa?”

Do we have a child?

Tony has a son, so he nods. I realize this has now made me not only a wife of convenience but a mother of convenience as well.

“Balay.” Yes.

The man says a long sentence, of which I recognize the words for “where” and “America.” He is asking where the child is.

“In America,” says Tony.

The family smiles. I am hoping that they assume we have left the child with the grandparents and I am not being seen as an infidel mother who leaves her child behind.

To change the subject, I turn to one of the teenage daughters.

“Maqbulas,” I say to her, pointing to her headscarf, a striking purple color with beaded tassels, indicating that it’s pretty. As it’s Eid, she’s wearing her finest.

She laughs in a shy manner, and then moves from her blanket to sit next to me. She has noticed the assortment of bracelets on my wrist. She pulls a bracelet of plastic heart beads from her purse and puts it on my wrist.

“Tashakur,” I repeat several times. “Besyaar maqbul.” It’s very beautiful. She and her sisters smiled.

We learn from the younger boys in the group that can speak a bit of English that the older woman sitting behind the girls is the girls’ mother. Her face is tan and wrinkled, framed tightly by her black headscarf. “Their father and her husband died,” he says matter of factly. My Dari and his English aren’t good enough for me to figure out how the entire family fits together, but I assume that the older man is an uncle of some sort. So much pain and love in one family history.

We amuse them; this odd American couple that leaves their baby back in their home country, with a wife that knows a few Dari words. They in turn enthrall me, taking us into their family moment. Pouring tea for strangers.

Eventually we excuse ourselves, thanking them profusely for the tea. I leave feeling honored, like I was just given the kind of moment that will forever change your perspective. A moment that can’t be replicated. A moment that will later bring tears to my eyes because it’s representative of a shared humanity we so rarely see in the mass media. A moment that only happens because you let go of control.

We return to the rest of our group. It’s time for another glass of tea.

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]

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]