Biking In Afghanistan: The Power Of Two Wheels To Change Perspective

“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bike.” John F. Kennedy

Bikes have long been a simple mode of transportation, getting us from point A to point B. But riding a bike doesn’t just get you somewhere; the process is fun. There is joy in riding a bicycle.

When I travel I am always on the lookout for bikes and what the local bike culture is. In my hometown of Portland, Oregon, bikes are everywhere. It’s a city filled with commuters, cross racers and road riders. It’s a city with a strong bike culture and thanks to the work of bike advocates and groups like the Bicycle Transportation Alliance there are plenty of incentives to ride.

Coming from a place like Portland, it’s easy to take my easy bike commute for granted. Other cities are not always graced with the same ease of life on two wheels; but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

My first day in Kabul, we were in the midst of afternoon traffic hour. Cars, minivans and motorcycles were everywhere. There was even the occasional goat on the side of the street. In the midst of this chaotic hustle and bustle, men on bicycles wove in and out of traffic, dodging cars and doing the kind of cycling maneuvers that are normally equated with bike messengers.I was stressed, and it had nothing to do with being in a conflict zone. The thought of bikes in this mess of traffic was too much.

I thought back to my own close calls with cars – the near misses that keep you aware every time you get on your bike. I shuddered and wondered if I would have the mental capacity to deal with cycling in the midst of Kabul traffic on a daily basis. The phrase “this isn’t Portland …” kept popping into my head.

Making a U-turn in the middle of a busy road to avoid a traffic jam, we nearly hit a man with a kid sitting on his handlebars. Both the driver and cyclist insisted on their right of way, resulting in the bicycle tapping the front of our minivan and both our driver and the cyclist shouting at each other. I looked at my friend Shannon who has worked extensively in Afghanistan and knows the ins and outs of daily life. She just looked at me and shrugged. This was normal apparently.

What is not normal, however, is seeing a woman on a bicycle. As Shannon said in a recent interview about her own experience with biking in Afghanistan, “I had one man say to me, with this very shocked look on his face, how impressed he was, that it takes a lot of intelligence to ride a bike, alluding that that’s why women don’t ride bikes,” she said. “It became an interesting conversation starter.”

But that perspective is changing. There’s an Afghan women’s cycling team that competes internationally. One day we happened upon a girl riding to school just south of Kabul. In a country where conflict is a constant and women’s rights have a long way to go, it’s things like this that keep you inspired. Small change leads to big change.

In the rural village of Istalif, Shannon and I were even invited to take a cruise down the main street on a well-outfitted old bicycle, complete with a siren-sounding bell and streamers on the handlebars. The men laughed as we pedaled back and forth. A woman on a bicycle? How amusing!

It’s interesting to think about how much a simple thing like a bicycle can do to change perspective. As Susan B. Anthony once said, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel … the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

The simple joys that come from riding a bicycle are undeniable; the smiles from a group of young Afghan kids on their way to school stopping to ride with Shannon when she was out on her mountain bike are a vivid memory. If there is a cultural bridge to cross, a bike may very well be the way to do it.

At the end of October 2012, 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.


Faces Of Afghanistan: Why A Personal Connection Is The Most Important Part Of Travel

“The people are sweet, the country’s a mess.”

I had asked an NGO worker with a teaching and military background about his perspective of Afghanistan.

It’s always hard to sum up a place in a sentence, be it Australia or Afghanistan, but this one kind of said it all, in a particularly heartbreaking way.

Read a newspaper article and you get to know a place. Have an exchange with an individual in that place and you get to know a person. It is a lot easier to make assumptions about a place when we don’t have that personal connection. I am reminded of the Dagobert D. Runes quote, “People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.”

Ignoring is the easy route, facilitated by our illusion of being informed. In the day and age of the Internet and television we can know a lot about the rest of world, without ever leaving our homes, but how many of us stop to question how much we really know about the places that we read or hear about? If we do in fact “know” a place, do we take the time to do anything about it?

We travel because it’s the alternative to taking the easy route. It forces us to be compassionate. To make the kind of connections that are about more than what we have read about or heard on the news.

Numbers and statistics turn to an individual interaction. A person. A brother. A sister. A mother. A husband. A personal connection puts a face to a place, and in the process changes our perspective and attachment to that place.


In Afghanistan, as I was offered cups of tea from strangers, taught words in Dari and asked about my own perspectives of the country, it was clear that for me this place of conflict was shifting from a far off war zone to a collection of faces and personalities. Before, when someone said the word “Afghanistan” my mind immediately went to suicide bombers and AK 47s. Now it goes to a handshake, a necklace given as a parting present, brunch in someone’s home overlooking a garden, an email asking if I am keeping up on my Dari.

We need policy and diplomats and humanitarian organizations to build a platform for positive change in this world. But we also need personal interactions – the kind that shape how we look at and understand a place.

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]

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]

More Cow’s Head: Eating Local In Afghanistan

“Chaay?” Tea?

“Balay lotfaan.” Yes, please.

Yet another glass of tea was being served. Tea is the social lubricant of Afghanistan, the thing that brings people together, fuels meetings and provides for an afternoon excuse for a break.

There are no pints of beer or glasses of wine or whiskey gingers, but in a dry country, there’s always tea. That’s the thing about food and drink, we can be anywhere in the world and they bring us together. Eating is one of the things that we all share, no matter who we are or where we are from.

Twenty-four hours into Afghanistan and I was quickly instructed on the several varieties of kebab, the chicken an orange color from a saffron marinade and the lamb version named “Sheppard’s Kebab.” Our fixer made sure I noted this all in my notebook. “We will do a Dari test tomorrow to see if you remember.” You don’t want to upset the fixer who is in charge of ordering your food at lunchtime, so I made sure to master the appropriate food vocabulary.

Food is not only a connector; it’s also a great lens for comparison. What people buy, how they make it, how they serve it.

At home, in my native Pacific Northwest, we’re very concerned with where our food comes from. I am reminded of the “Is it Local?” “Portlandia” episode where the couple goes out to eat and inquires about the chicken on the menu and ends up visiting the farm that it’s from. It doesn’t matter how conscious we are about the origin of our food, in the United States we live in a processed and packaged society, and even the artisan butcher has nice labels and butcher paper to wrap his cuts in. We rarely really see where our food comes from and how it got to a servable state. In Afghanistan, however, it’s hard to miss.

Walk past any butcher shop and bloody carcasses hang in the doorway, the animal heads lined up on the ground below. A cow’s head here and goat’s head there. Sometimes you’ll even see bloody skins, freshly removed from the carcass. I got some weird pleasure every time I saw the aforementioned scene, my eyes on high alert for a butcher shop during every taxi ride. There was beauty in the rawness of it all; the fact that it was impossible to not know how your grilled kebab made it from living animal to your lunch plate. No discounted containers saran wrapped Styrofoam packages in this country.

Reminders of just what you are eating are everywhere. It’s impossible to avoid. The adorable sheep being hugged by the little boy on the street is destined for sacrifice a few hours later. That chicken that walks up to you in a restaurant garden is most likely tomorrow’s lunch.

After a day spent at Afghan national hero Ahmed Shah Massod’s tomb in Panjshir Valley, we found ourselves sitting around an outdoor table at a restaurant on the banks of the Panjshir River. The standard meal of Kabuli rice, rounds of naan bread and kebabs was served; Afghan food was once described to me as “meat, oil and bread,” which is a very true statement. We ate with our hands, ripping off pieces of naan to soak up the grease leftover from the kebab on our plates, the sounds of the river our background music.

It was dusk as we left the restaurant. Upon exiting, we passed a group of men sitting on the ground by the entryway, busy prepping what appeared to be the following day’s meat platter. Slabs of raw meat were strewn about on a plastic groundsheet. My initial reaction included some eyebrow raising and the men immediately began to laugh.

“Aks mekonum?” Can I take a photo?

“Balay balay!” Yes yes.

The Meat Crew. A photo that for many may be hard to stomach, but also a reminder of the fact that in most parts of the world, knowing where your food comes from and how it’s prepared isn’t just fodder for another “Portlandia” episode.

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]