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A SIGHTSEEING TOUR OF KABUL, AFGHANISTAN
by Ted Cookson
Published in February 2004
About the size of Texas and with a population of 28,000,000, landlocked Afghanistan lies to the north and west of Pakistan, to the east of Iran and to the south of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Pashto and Dari are the primary languages. Sunni Muslims represent 84% of the population while Shi'a Muslims represent 15% of the population.
Afghanistan has a continental climate with less than a meter of rainfall annually, most of which falls in March. The rest of the water supply comes from melting snow. Much of Afghanistan consists of empty desert or mountain ranges. Only a small portion of the land can be cultivated while the rest is barren. Since the late 1990's the country has been suffering from drought.
Kabul, with a population of some 2,000,000, is the capital of Afghanistan. I made the notes below after visiting Kabul briefly in mid-July 2003.
I departed from Cairo on 12 July 2003 at 6 p.m. on Kuwait Airways, and I arrived in Kabul on 13 July at noon local time, which is 2 1/2 hours ahead of Cairo time in the summer. En route I spent two hours at Kuwait International Airport and eight hours (overnight) at Dubai International Airport. Interestingly, my Ariana Afghan Airlines flight from Dubai to Kabul required only 2 1/2 hours in an aging 727.
Upon arrival in Kabul, which lies at an altitude of 5,900 feet (approx. 1,800 meters), I found an interpreter and a driver with a van and proceeded to the so-called Inter-Continental Hotel which sits on a hill overlooking West Kabul. As I was only allowed to purchase a one way air ticket from Dubai to Kabul in Dubai, my first order of business upon arrival at the hotel was to purchase a Kabul-Dubai air ticket for USD 160 from Ariana Afghan Airlines. I also bought a guidebook on Kabul and some postcards at a bookstore and explored several gift shops. The airline office and the shops were all conveniently located in the lobby of my hotel. Then I went to bed as by then it seemed like I had not slept forever.
For the record, my hotel had at one time actually been an Inter-Continental hotel. Nowadays, it is no longer part of that chain, but it continues to use its old name. At about USD 100 a night for a deluxe room, the hotel offers no air-conditioning; but at least electric fans are provided. This was important in July when daytime temperatures were in the 90's.
On the morning of 14 July I awoke early and met my interpreter and driver for a sightseeing tour of the city. We began with a drive to the Kargha Dam about 20 minutes outside Kabul. Along the shore of the lake is a restaurant set in a grove of pine trees. My interpreter explained that locals sometimes enjoy picnics at this lake on Fridays.
I continued on to West Kabul which had been a residential area at one time. But during the Afghan civil war thousands were forced to flee as rival Mujaheddin militias shelled the various avenues and villas from the surrounding hills. Today West Kabul is all but destroyed.
Stopping by the Kabul Museum, I found painters and plasterers hard at work; so unfortunately there was nothing to be seen. At one time this museum was well-known for its extensive collection which extended from prehistoric times up to the twentieth century. However, during the past decade some 70% of its collection has been pilfered.
Across the street from the Kabul Museum is Darulaman Palace, built in the 1920's by King Amanullah and later used as the Soviet embassy. While fighting from 1992 onward destroyed the palace building, it remains one of the most impressive structures in Kabul.
The Kabul Zoo, which sports two pigs, some bears, a wolf and various other animals and birds, receives about 3,000 visitors a week. Blind in one eye and toothless, the Kabul Zoo's most famous resident, 40-year-old Marjan the lion, a gift from Germany, had managed to survive the intense fighting of the 1990's when the zoo had been in the line of fire of rockets fired from nearby hills. Marjan lost his eye when a Taliban fighter climbed into his cage in late 2001. Starving, Marjan ate the man. But the fellow's brother soon returned to seek revenge by throwing a grenade into Marjan's cage, leaving the lion both blind and lame. Marjan died several weeks later in January 2002.
Next I visited the Babur Gardens. Built in the 1500's under Babur Shah, the great-grandson of Tamerlane, the gardens are contained within a large walled hillside compound. The bullet-pocked tombs of Babur Shah and his wife and family may still be viewed there today. A small marble mosque built by Babur's successor, Shah Jahan, in the middle of the sixteenth century, also survives.
The last Afghan king, Zahir Shah, finally returned to Kabul in April 2002 after 29 years in exile in Italy. King Nadir Shah's Mausoleum is where the recent monarchs of Afghanistan's royal family are buried. A custodian will unlock the royal catacombs under the mausoleum for a small fee. Situated on a hilltop, the mausoleum offers a lovely view over Kabul.
From that same hilltop one can see Bala Hissar, sometimes called the "British fort." This ancient citadel, perhaps dating back as far as the fifth century, was once used by the British as a barracks. As it is surrounded by unexploded ordinance, or "UXO," the fort is currently off limits to tourists. Also visible from this hilltop is the stadium, where nowadays polo is played on Fridays but where, under the Taliban, public executions were staged.
The money market is situated near the dry Kabul River in the city center. As U. S. dollars seemed to be accepted everywhere, I changed only USD 2, for which I received 96 Afghanis. The nearby "Titanic Market," located in the dry bed of the Kabul River, is so named because, when the river occasionally floods, the market sinks. Factory-loomed Iranian carpets are displayed there.
Finally, the Ariana graveyard at Kabul International Airport features trashed aviation memorabilia, mostly from 1960 to 1985. The "collection" also includes airplanes destroyed as recently as 2001 during coalition attacks.
My overall impression of Kabul was that it is still essentially a wasteland. So many buildings have been destroyed in successive conflicts that it is difficult to imagine all of the firepower that had to have been released to do that amount of damage. My recommendation is to wait for at least five years before adding Kabul to your holiday itinerary.
ABOUT TED COOKSON: Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world! He has also visited 307 of the 315 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club). A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi. Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at: Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301. Fax 2359-1199. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web site: www.eptours.com.
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