The third “stan” – Uzbekistan

Day 1,856 since October 10th 2013: 162 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.  

(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross)

 

“Stan” is Farsi and means country or region

pano

I wish, I wish, I wish that I was able to traverse the “stans” hundreds of years ago when there were no phones, trains or cars and when we didn’t really know what our world contained. Oh well, it’s not like I do know everything yet. However there is a little less “wow” today compared to seeing a giraffe for the first time in your life having traveled for months across deserts.

The saga is on a roll these days but that does not mean I do not have my concerns. I’m slightly concerned that I’ll struggle getting the Chinese visa for overland travel in the upcoming countries. I am slightly concerned that I’ll run out of free passport pages before I reached another country with a Danish embassy. And most of all I’m concerned that the Karakoram Highway between China and Pakistan might close do to snow before I get there. So I am pushing hard. It’s forward, forward, forward.

The Saga has been included on MovieHustle.com as one of the top travel blogs of 2018 (click here to see the list).

Meanwhile I just want to say a few things about Turkmenistan which I didn’t get around to last week. I think comparisons stating that Turkmenistan is a cross between North Korea and Las Vegas are ridiculous. Mainly because I believe that most people’s thoughts will go straight to the negative. Applying for a Turkmenistan tourist visa is not an easy thing to do. However a lot of people get transit visas which offer five days inside Turkmenistan so that offers an easy fix. Also it can surely be said that Ashgabat is a spectacular city and that the amount of money which has been spent on getting it to look like it does is mind boggling! However it is an actual city with actual people and real lives. It does seem kind of empty but I think that is in part due to how large everything is. If you only have a hundred people at a stadium then it will look empty too. It’s actually refreshing to visit a capital which does not suffer from the same problems which other overcrowded cities do. Mind you that most cities are well over the capacity that they were built for – Ashgabat is not. Turkmenistan provides free gas and electricity to all its citizens and even provides Afghanistan with free electricity as aid. The country was once the poorest of the Soviet states and they are in a rapid recovery. Who is to say how it should be done? And yes…you cannot take photos of government buildings and military establishments. However that is not unusual for a very large portion of our world. You are perfectly fine to take photos most places. And yes…an amount of internet sites and online applications have been censored and blocked by government. However that is also not quite uncommon around our globe and it doesn’t matter anyway because everyone just downloads a VPN. A VPN is a Virtual Private Network which comes in the form of a program or application which you switch on and fool the system to think that you are somewhere else than where you really are. Let’s say that you are in Iran and run into a blocked website. With your VPN on it may appear as if you are in Germany or the Netherlands and you can now access the site. And I do wonder why the governments even bother to block anything since the locals always know which VPN is currently working best. If the government blocks a VPN then ten new ones usually appear to replace it. Ah…people and governments…

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Walking across the border.

And then I left Turkmenistan. It was actually Bairam and Vepa from last week’s blog picked me up at the hotel and drove me to the border with Uzbekistan. That border was in the middle of absolutely nowhere. A real desert border with long fences running through the landscape. Bairam and Vepa could only drive me so far before I had to say farewell and walk. But a minibus which taxis people to and from immigration shortly arrived and I was given a seat. Clearing immigration was no issue and neither was customs. Then I walked the rather long distance across no man’s land and reached the Uzbek immigration which was also straight forward. And so were the customs procedures. Uzbekistan and a lot of the other “stans” have taken steps toward becoming more visitor friendly and easing up on restrictions and visa procedures. For me and many other nationalities the Uzbek visa is now available online as an E-visa for just $20 USD. And it took less than 48 hours for me to have it confirmed as an email with a PDF I had to print out. Easy.

caravan

Imagine weeks of this and then a city.

Uzbekistan is another wonderful country for a curious visitor. And I am still kicking myself for not spending any time in Bukhara. Bukhara was yet another prosperous and very important city on the ancient Silk Road. However I’m on the clock so I bypassed it. Literally! A shared taxi got me from the border to Alat and from there I joined a shared taxi to Bukhara. Bargaining skills come in handy in some parts of the world. The price for a seat between Alat and Bukhara started at $120 USD and landed at $5 USD. The driver was somewhat displeased but polite and I figure he wouldn’t have taken me at all if he wasn’t still earning something. Left and right there were lots of fields and lots of space. The landscape was flat all the way around us. Just imagine traversing these wide open spaces on a horse, a camel or on foot. And meeting people from all over the world who were doing the same. And being at risk from bandits but being royally rewarded when reaching your destination. What a life that must have been.

food

This was my second meal in Uzbekistan. MUCH better :)

In the outskirts of Bukhara I waited a few hours for a shared taxi to fill up with passengers. I had my first Uzbek meal which wasn’t impressive and consisted of a piece of bread with a sausage baked into it. I had decided to spend a few nights in Samarkand which is another legendary Silk Road city. And it has a nice ring to it too. Samarkand…I find that the name is up there with Aqaba, Timbuktu and Ulaanbaatar. That shared taxi cost $10 USD for a four hour drive. And we did not move slow!! Ali who was the driver seemed to think he was in a race with all the other drivers. He was quite skillful but also slightly reckless which nearly ended the Saga when a tractor suddenly changed lanes right in front of us!!! However a quick maneuver ensured our safety and we were soon ahead of the tractor while the radio was roaring Boney M’s 1978 hit: “Ra Ra Rasputin, Russia's greatest love machine!!” that song came on a few times during our four our ride but Ali mostly played Spanish music in his race car across this former USSR state.

fields

It has become freezing COLD for me lately. Keep in mind that I am a man who has spent most of the year in the Middle East during the warm season and I’m now heading across the “stans” in the early winter months. I might be a Viking from the kingdom of Denmark in the high north of Europe. But I haven’t seen that kingdom for the past five years and my body has acclimatized to my new surroundings. Now I need to acclimatize again because the +3 degrees (37.4 F) is far too cold for me. Especially within the shade. However the sun in this part of the world and at this time of the year is relentlessly sharp. So I’m either cold or hot. Fortunately Berghaus in Norway has outfitted me with some high quality jackets so I’ll be fine. I just need to acclimatize. Come on old body…acclimatize NOW! Did you know that Uzbekistan has an extreme climate? It is generally warmest in the south and coldest in the north. Temperatures in December average -8 degrees (18 F) in the north and 0 degrees (32 F) in the south. However, extreme fluctuations can take temperatures as low as -35 degrees (-31 F). During the summer temperatures can reach 45 degrees (113 F) and above and the humidity is low. These temperatures go for the neighboring countries as well and I’m crossing my finders that I will avoid the extremes because I’m frankly not in the mood for any extra challenges right now.

room

My room at Hotel Legende.

The taxi pulled into Samarkand late in the evening and I found a taxi driver who could bring me to a guesthouse I had reserved a room at. I decided to splurge a bit on two night in Samarkand to give myself a chance to catch up a bit. And this particular guesthouse had a nice location and the main building was from 1828, which I personally think is pretty cool. It is operated by the family who also lives there and that turned out to give it much more of a home feeling than guesthouse usually does. If you’re curious then it is called Hotel Legende and I highly recommend it. The family’s son greeted me on arrival and was surprised that I took my shoes off before entering the room as he said: “foreigners usually do not do that”. But it is common practice around this part of the world so of course I did. As soon as I had dropped my bags he invited me to join him for dinner and “a little vodka”. I might have said yes if it wasn’t for the vodka. So I excused with being tired which was an understatement. Breakfast was served the next morning at 09:00am and I slept like a baby.

Uzbekistan

In front of the unbelievable Registan complex!

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Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

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In recent years the Uzbek government has cracked down on the black market for money exchange which is a good thing. It might be fun for a visitor to get far more value for their USD than what the official rate offers – however it is a slippery slope for a countries economy. At least I think so? Because I have pondered before if it might be good for a countries economy when tourist get more money between their hands because they tend to spend them, which in turn benefits more people and potentially grows the economy – or? Anyway, on my first day I was on a mission to take a “welcome to Uzbekistan” photo and have some USD exchanged which you can only do at banks. It took me a while but I managed to find a bank in which I could draw USD on my MasterCard. It is good to have some USD in this part of the world. EUR will do too but around here they tend to favor USD. I ended up walking about in a great deal of Samarkand’s streets and seeing a lot of the areas where I doubt that most tourists would ever venture. The inner city area of Samarkand is simply spectacular and boasts a ton of impressive architecture. The Registan is the main attraction though, which used to be the heart of the ancient city during the Timurid dynasty. The name itself means “sandy place” or “desert: in Farsi. Looking at the awe inspiring Registan sent my imagination toward large caravans of camels and foreighn goods finally arriving to lay their tired eyes upon a structure which rivals Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia or the Notre Dame in Paris. The effect of standing across from this impressive architectural achievement in 2018 is one thing. However imagine coming from a village 400 years ago and seeing such an impressive structure for the first time?!? I bet those people could hardly believe their eyes. The Registan used to be a public square where people gathered to hear royal proclamations and witness public executions. The open area is framed by three beautifully ornamented madrasahs which are Islamic schools. What a place to behold! And obviously a UNESCO World Heritage site.

registan

 

market

Siab Bazaar.

I also had to secure myself a train ticket from Samarkand to Tashkent which is the capital city of Uzbekistan. I was on the outlook for a bus line which turns out has been replaced by a tram made in the Czech Republic. And it ran about slow enough for me to make the same time by running. However it was a welcome pause in a day where I had already walked quite a lot. At one point I just kind of let my feet carry me away and ended far from where I intended and in the midst of a massive Jewish graveyard. You never know where your feet might take you… Samarkand is a great city for walking and I looked up what kind of perishables it might be famous for. One of the things Samarkand is famous for turned out to be really small pistachio nuts. So I purchased some at the Siab Bazaar near the impressive Bibi-Khanym Mosque. It was sort of inspiring to walk about eating pistachio’s while thinking that someone could have done the same hundreds of years ago. At the train station getting the train ticket was easy enough and I was set for traveling to Tashkent.

tram

Possibly the worlds slowest tram? But it got me there.

The following day I did some more sightseeing in Samarkand before heading to the train. I was walking down a narrow street when I heard a terrified child scream and then giggle. That repeated itself several times as I approached an old man holding a toddlers hand while walking towards me. On the other side next to the toddler there was a young boy of around seven years of age. The boy had a set of florescent plastic vampire teeth in his mouth and would switch between smiling at the toddler and closing his mouth. This had the old man and the boy laughing along with the toddler in between the cries of horror. First of all it’s funny how quickly a toddler can change its mood from happy to scared. However what struck me more than anything was that it could have taken place anywhere in the world. That is the kind of thing most young boys would do to a younger sibling. And the old man could have been a grandfather and he was amused by it too. He looked up at me and smiled as we passed each other and I smiled back.

train station

Arriving in Tashkent.

It was a quick four hour train ride to Tashkent and I reached my hostel around 11pm. It was a proper hostel!! I didn’t quite expect that because I haven’t seen any for a while. However three guys who had been hosting couch surfers for a long while decided to open up a hostel with all the experience they carried as hosts but also from traveling and staying at hostels themselves. I really liked their hostel which they named Topchan. A “topchan” is sort of a raised floor attached to a very low table which is commonly used for meals and chilling at in this part of the world. Their original idea was to have the hostel consists only of topchan’s but they thankfully abandoned that idea and I got to sleep in a bed. There were three Nigerian’s there too which I found odd as I didn’t expect to run into Nigerians in Uzbekistan? And anyone who has met me within the last few years knows that I am really fond of Nigeria. It turned out that they were professional footballers looking to advance their careers. Good guys.

RC1

This sweet old lady thought I was lost and insisted on walking me to the door of the Uzbekistan Red Crescent Society (URCS). I was in fact just hanging around in the neighborhood while waiting for it to be time for my meeting. Anyway, the URCS was founded in 1925 and they do a great job! I had the pleasure of entertaining and interacting with staff and volunteers for a few hours. Good people. Check them out HERE :)  

RC2

I also met two of the owners of the hostel who both remembered hosting Graham Hughes a long time ago. Graham is a Britt for Liverpool who completed a project several years ago which he called the Odyssey Expedition. His aim was to reach every country in the world all without flying. Does that sound familiar? ;) Well, I met Graham when he invited me to come and stay at his island (Jinja Island) off the Panamanian coasts back in 2014. Graham is a great guy and did something amazing with his Odyssey. However we disagree on some of the fundamentals on what it means to reach every country in the world without flying. We essentially come from two different angles. Graham was on an “80 days around the world” kind of race, where he sprinted through countries and did not have a problem with flying as long as he would return to the same place. I think a flightless journey to every country should be exactly that. Anyway, when Johnny Ward (One Step 4Ward) and I met up in Chad back in 2015 he said that there isn’t much debate until I have completed the Saga. Until then Graham is the closest thing the world has got. And there is some truth to that. It is the second time I meet someone who has met Graham before. The first time was on Saint Vincent in the Caribbean when I was looking for a boat.

Emily

At the Emir Timur Meydani statue with the locally famous Uzbekistan Hotel in the background. Great people those Britts ;)

Emily is a teacher at the British School of Tashkent and she has been on to the Saga for about a year. So when I reached Tashkent she invited me out for dinner and brought her colleague Tristan along. We had a great night out talking and debating and the food was good too. I might just add that the Uzbeks are like the Afghans and the Turkmen very fond of horses and meat. But not horse meat. I had some kebab and Tristan and Emily went kind of vegan which is always a good conversation starter for a Viking like me. It’s not that they don’t eat meat…they just eat less meat. That is unfortunately the direction I see the world taking and I say unfortunate because I like to eat meat. However I will one day be married to a doctor and she might tell me that I’m not at all as dependent on meat as I would like to think ;) One thing lead to the next and I was soon invited to join Emily’s students for a little session the following day. She just needed to have it approved as the school she works at is pretty high security. I was game and we broke up to meet again the next day.

Uzbek Hotel

The view from the top of Uzbekistan Hotel. Had a chat with Tristan up there.

The next day came. They always seem to do so. This was also the day I was gunning for crossing the border into Tajikistan. However my bus was wasn’t until 4pm so I had time. I made it to the school and joined Emily for lunch at the cantina which is always a good start. Chicken and pasta for me. Then I was asked to do three sessions with children from several classes and that was a lot of fun. Unfortunately I do not as of this moment have permission to post any photos from the school. That’s alright though. The questions were great and ranged from how can I document that I’ve been to all these countries to “have you been to Paris?” I’ve said it before and I’m not shy to say it again: I often find that I get the best and most interesting questions from children as they are not boxed in to the standard questions just yet. The mind of a child is free and relieved of conformity. For much in life; that is a good thing.

metro

Until recently it was forbidden to take photos of the legendary metro stations beneath Tashkent. But now it is free game :)

I ran a lot of practical errands in Tashkent while I was there. You guys sometimes ask me where I do my laundry so here’s a treat for you: I did it at Topchan Hostel. I also broke the zipper on my pants (again) and found a seamstress who fixed them to be as good as new. Throughout the Middle East all such repairs have been done by men but around here it’s a woman’s job. I like being in countries where they are accustomed to repairing stuff and not just replacing it. It probably wouldn’t have been worthwhile repairing them in Denmark but in Tashkent it was a matter of a few hours and very affordable. And a very good job too. Anyway, I did a detour from the school to the Ko’kaldosh Madrasasi in Tashkent before making to the bus terminal where my bus was going to take me across to Tajikistan and to Khujand near the border. And to tell you that story would require several pages because that turned into an eventful 36 hours :)

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Heading across the border into Tajikistan.

 

Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - unhappy with poor internet!! (this blog took 9 hours)
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

 

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Turkmenistan – from dust to white marble

Day 1,849 since October 10th 2013: 161 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.  

(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross)

 

What comes of wild horses and majestic carpets

pano

Only few will understand the accomplishment of visiting Turkmenistan and coming overland from Afghanistan. Fortunately for my visit to Turkmenistan many of those who understand live in that country. Have you ever heard of it? You’re in for quite a ride!

I left you a few days ago as I walked into the dust having been left at the Afghan/Turkmen border. The last few blogs have been delayed for various reasons. The most recent one from Afghanistan was delayed because the Danish Red Cross (DRC) had requested that I would not post anything while in Afghanistan for security reasons. At that is perfectly in line with the security measures of Once Upon A Saga as it was in e.g. Libya and Yemen. The one before that was delayed because I will not pull out 5-8 hours of blogging while my fiancée is around and that was the case in Armenia. And now here we are. In Turkmenistan. Which by the way is not a country which is famous for widespread internet connections. It is however a country which is famous for having played a significant role within the ancient Silk Road, it is famous for breading some of the most beautiful horses in the world and it is certainly famous for its magnificent handmade carpets. Let’s see what else I can tell you ;)

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As I mentioned (twice) in the previous blog, Turkmenistan is a hard country to visit for a man with a Danish passport. It has got nothing to do with Denmark and I imagine it is equally hard to get a visa if you hold a passport from most other nations. I’ve asked around and the answer is probably to be found in Turkmenistan’s not too distant past. I heard that not too long ago it was quite difficult for the Turkmen to move around and before 1991 Turkmenistan was a part of the Soviet Union, which kept this wonderful country a well hidden secret for the rest of us. Now you simply can’t boil an egg in a few seconds. Anything worth doing right takes time and Turkmenistan is a developing country. In fact a very fascinating one at that in my opinion. So the difficult visas are in other words likely a remnant from the countries past and the progressive development of Turkmenistan will more than likely make visa procedures a lot easier in the future. But do not be deterred by the possible struggle of providing your diploma (?) and a lot of other details which might have you scratching the back of your head. Because I would argue that Turkmenistan is worth it and that this pearl of a country actual will provide you with something worth seeing.

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I have built up more than my fair share of experience with “no man’s land” which is that speck of dirt found between two bordering nations. And there was really no need for adding a sandstorm to the experience! But I got a good one between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan at the Towrgondi border coming from Herat. It had me wondering how much grinding from the sand and dust my eyeballs could take before…uhhh…better not think too much about the consequences of that!! And I’m quite positive that I in a very real sense am carrying a solid mix of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan in my stomach. Needless to say the Afghan immigration was surprised to see me but they stamped me out of the country after I paid my $20.00 USD exit tax. It wasn’t a bogus tax as I had to pay it at the “bank” and got a receipt. Having processed that I was told to go to another window which read “exit”. At that window a man invited me into his office and said that he was some sort of section head. After some small talk in his office a matter of $15.00 USD, which I needed to pay according to him, came up. That was obviously not a real thing and it was kind of fun to deal with this kind of light corruption after the last many proper borders. However this poor man had no idea who he was dealing with. I wonder how many of his “clients” have crossed every land border on four continents…and then some ;) I didn’t pay him anything and we departed as friends. Minutes later another fellow showed up wanting to check my bag. Yes. Not my bags…just my one bag. So I let him look in it while it drew a crowd of other curious border personnel. That was really mostly what his drive felt like: curiosity and not security. Then I was finally permitted to go while the section head of something offered me tea which I kindly declined as I walked back into the sandstorm.

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After a while I came across a small guard house with three Turkmen soldiers which all wanted to shake my hand. That was nice. Then after a while more I began to approach a proper large border complex. I entered the glass door and was immediately pointed towards a doctor who took some details from my passport. Meanwhile I was looking out through the window at the crazy weather. When the doctor was done with me I continued deeper inside the modern complex and met an immigration officer who began handling my case. He was really nice and it turned out that we share the same blood type. It’s a slightly amusing thought, and very reconfirming as well, to know that a man from Denmark and a man born in Turkmenistan share the same blood type. In fact I share the same blood type with more than two billion people but this was listed on the front of his uniform next to his name. He also spoke English quite well which he had taught himself through internet courses. After some calculations he told me that I had to pay $105.00 USD which I was more than happy to given the nature of the difficult visa. But then ten minutes later he corrected himself and I only needed to pay $91 USD. That’s when I knew I was entering a good country. Regarding entering Turkmenistan a lot of people choose to apply for a transit visa which will buy you five days within the country. That could have been a good option for me if I felt sure that I would get it. Unfortunately the Saga couldn’t quite bear the risk of being denied the Turkmenistan visa at which point it gets profoundly more difficult getting it after that. Keep in mind that I do not fly and that would complicate matters further. I would assess that Turkmenistan’s visa is among the five hardest for me within this project and the other four are behind us. I got the Letter of Invitation (LOI) for Turkmenistan by approaching the Turkmenistan Red Crescent Society (TRCS) long ago and telling them that they would become country number 161 within a grand promotion of the worldwide humanitarian movement. Generally I find that receive a lot of warmth from National Societies these days and much more recognition than previously for my efforts to promote the Red Cross and Red Crescent. It has however been a hard road to get to this point and I would love to see someone else try…so I could laugh at them! ;) Nah, there is some truth to the laughing part but this journey within the movement has also been rewarding at times. And on a personal level I have built up an enormous knowledge on the world’s largest humanitarian organization.

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Farmers picking cotton. It's a major industry in Turkmenistan.

Once I was done with immigration and customs (who were also super nice) I was ready to walk back into the sandstorm. To my surprise I was immediately met by two representatives of the TRCS. Said-Allah who’s the branch manager and Mohammed who I’m still not sure I understand what does? Apparently they had been waiting for me for four hours!! I had been communicating with the TRCS HQ in Ashgabat (Turkmenistan’s capital) and as I would need to pass through Mary on my way to Ashgabat I had agreed that I could interact with the TRCS branch in Mary if they wanted too? I guess they wanted too because that was a three hour drive to Mary! So let’s recap on that: they drove three hours to meet me, waited four hours and then had three hours back again! That is ten hours right there in what I would call extraordinary hospitality. Unfortunately we couldn’t really speak as I know next to nothing in relation to Russian and just as little Turkmen. We did communicate a bit on the road to Mary but eventually we all fell asleep while the sandstorm was roaring outside the 4WD. A whopping 80% of Turkmenistan is desert.

room

My hotel in Mary looked fabulous! However there were more than a few things that you could point your finger at ;)

I had set up a place for me to sleep just outside Mary through a couchsurfing host but that was out of the question for Said-Allah and Mohammed who took me to a large and impressive hotel. Then they took me out for local food and brought an English student as a translator for us (Rouch). We had some local food and they were proud to announce that Turkmenistan has the world’s best meat! I’ll add that to the long list of countries claiming that they have the world’s best drinking water ;) However the meat was really good. The night ended with them dropping me off at the hotel.

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Volunteers and staff at TRCS branch in Mary. Women tend to dress traditionally but not all of course.

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That is Said-Allah on the right and Rouch on the left. Great guys.

food

These dumplings are called manti in Turkmenistan and closely resemble khingali in Georgia. They taste good in both countries.

The next day I was picked up again and brought to the local TRCS branch where I got to meet the key staff members who had been waiting for me the day before under the impression that I would have crossed the border from Afghanistan four hours earlier? However I was delighted to meet with them and especially as it was a Sunday which was their day off. They were really kind and there is no doubt that they do a really good job with dissemination of movement values, first aid training's, youth engagement and disaster management. They especially have focus on setting systems in place which can alarm the most vulnerable people ahead of a natural disasters. Afterwards Said-Allah informed me (through Rouch) that they had purchased my train ticket from Mary to Ashgabat on the night train and that I better check out of the hotel. Then we drove out to the nearby UNESCO World Heritage site known as Merv. It is one of Turkmenistan’s many historical sites and the ancient city dates back around 4-5,000 years. Unfortunately it was raining slightly which made it both cold and very muddy. So we basically just checked out a few sites and then headed back to the hotel.

Merv1

Merv is an amazing archaeological site and a place I would love to explore more of some day.

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Mary

Now don't think for a second that all of Mary looks like this. However the city center is this flashy and according to the plan the rest is to come.

Both Said-Allah and Rouch had to excuse themselves as it was Sunday and their day off. So they left me at the hotel lobby along with my train ticket…and Mohammed? Apparently Mohammed would be traveling to Ashgabat with me?? We had a good five hours at the hotel before the train left and I tried to get some work done. However in all honestly with the stress levels off traversing Afghanistan a few days before suddenly dropping along with the new impressions and cold moist climate I was feeling pretty week and tired. And don’t forget that I spent hours in a dust/sandstorm the day before all of this. When the time came we boarded the train and went to sleep…kind off.

trainstation

At Mary's train station I did some people watching. Fun thing about Turkmenistan is that married women cover their hair while single women often do not.

train

Early next morning the train reached Ashgabat which is quite a city. I’m fairly sure I’ve seen nothing like it before and neither has anyone else. It is a true accomplishment of mankind. Functioning fountains everywhere in spite of no rivers in the area. A white city largely built out of marble imported from Italy at first and later on from Turkey. Surely among the world’s cleanest cities, possibly one of the safest and most definitely the whitest!! I tried to picture all those building blocks in a grey concrete color and it would have been significantly duller. The white color turns the city almost majestically. Ashgabat is flanked by a tall mountain range with Iran on the other side and you cannot climb to the top as it is prohibited by the military. The streets are wide and traffic does not appear to be a problem. The traffic which exists is mostly made up out of white vehicles and even the city buses are white. The sidewalks are wide and there are parks everywhere in an effort to terraform the desert which the city lies within. There is plenty of glorious architecture which would have ancient Romans drooling as much of it is adorned with gold as well. Sometimes actual gold! The city is home to multiple Guinness World Records which makes me compare it to Dubai in the UAE or to Doha in Qatar which are also impossible cities under impossible conditions. It is a vision that all of Turkmenistan with its six million beating hearts will someday live under such extravagant and futuristic conditions. However Turkmenistan is a developing country and there is still some way to go. It is however an impressive beginning and Mary actually also had a bit of it although not as much as Ashgabat.

Ash1

I told you so!! In Turkmenistan there is definitely something to see!!

horse

This photo has a lot of Turkmenistan in it: the president, a horse and a carpet!! :)

Gas has made Turkmenistan a rich country which enables it to leapfrog as a developing country and into grand visions. The most famous example of Turkmenistan’s wealth must be a blowout of a gas well in Darvaza which they lit on fire in the 70s but still burns today out of a gaping hole in the ground. It is supposedly a spectacular sight and has earned the nickname “gateway to hell”. Tourist who make it to Turkmenistan often venture there but it unfortunately wasn’t on my ticket for this visit. In spite of having only six million citizens Turkmenistan is a rather large country. More than ten times the size of Denmark which also has around six million beating hearts. Did you know that gas and electricity is supplied by the government of Turkmenistan to its citizens FOR FREE? Well that is true up to a certain level and within reasonable consumption. Turkmenistan is even supplying Afghanistan with electricity FOR FREE! The electricity is mostly generated via turbines on a river in the east of the country. And during Soviet times a canal was dug leading water from the east to the west which explains how Ashgabat can have all those fountains switched on.

Rustam 2

In front of the TRCS in Ashgabat together with Rustam. He is a great guy.

bike

As a biking man from Denmark I took interest in this Turkman in a suit on a green bike with the word "Turkmenistan" across it :)

Well, Rustam Babayev works for the international department of the TRCS and was there at the train station to pick Mohammed and me up. And then we spent a few hours driving around the glorious capital in search of a low cost hotel for me. I had spotted something online for $10 USD but when we showed up they didn’t have any rooms ready and the actual price was actual twice as much. Rustam is a really good guy who found his way to the movement from a career within the gas industry. We had no luck finding a cheap room and when we finally did it turned out that the rooms were all taken due to the upcoming world heavyweight championship. So we decided to head to the TRCS HQ. As soon as we reached the office Mohammed, who had chaperoned me on the train, said farewell and headed to the airport so that he could fly back to Mary. After a while I had a meeting with the TRCS in which I sat across from the TRCS Secretary General and President who are two very lovely and profoundly capable women. And once we were well acquainted they gave me a ton of gifts such as a towel, blanket, coffee cup, candy, backpack, t-shirt and cap. There might have been more stuff but you get the idea :) And then they wanted to set me up in a hotel at their expense. I tried to back out of it by saying that I was there for their benefit and also that I couldn’t really carry all that stuff. Just imagine if ten countries national societies all give me a coffee cup then how would my backpack then look!! And I would be more than happy to make my own accommodation arrangements. However there was no debating with the Secretary General and all the stuff went into my new backpack :)

engage1

From the engagement party.

engage2

engage3

The day continued as we drove out to an engagement party at which a bunch of traditional dancers had been hired to entertain in elaborate costumes. And then there was some group dancing which included a national dance which has been included in the UNESCO word heritage list. And there was the unwrapping of gifts which was a huge ceremony in which the ones unwrapping the gifts also got gifts. And the unwrapped gifts were held up high so that everyone could vote for or against if they didn’t like the quantity or quality. At one point a woman was symbolically throwing toys at all of us and the amount you could catch would amount to how many children you would have. There was also a lot of food and laud music along with plenty of dancing.

volunteers

I might be a Goodwill Ambassador...but it is just a tittle. I really identify with the volunteers and these ten were fantastic.

We soon rushed off to meet with ten TRCS volunteers who had been waiting for us and I briefly got to interact with them while a man from national TV filmed it all. Then we finally reached the hotel and I got connected to some wifi internet. Someone once suggested that I must need wifi like oxygen and I suppose that’s is about right. I texted my fiancée that I was fine and had arrived and then I fell asleep. The next day continued with more filming along with the same ten volunteers and I did my best to motivate them by telling them all which I had been though to come and meet with them. I concluded that if I was able to do all which I have done as a single individual them how much would they be able to do as volunteers when they worked together? And for the rest of you reading along just imagine how much the movement’s 12 million volunteers are capable of doing on a global level! It is one big family you know…all working towards a common goal for more than 150 years. And yeah…this entry might be a little Red Cross Red Crescent heavy by I guess you understand why ;) I was dropped off at the hotel early afternoon to rest a few hours before some afternoon sightseeing but I soon had to call in sick with nausea, headache and stomach issues. Nothing too serious but I was definitely better off in bed. My fiancée who’s a medical doctor suggested that it could be a lot of things but that high stress levels across Afghanistan and pulling it off as well as I did might have influenced my health. Yeah, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan were two biggies within the Saga and I’m happy it went well. I slept ten hours straight and woke up in the evening to work a few hours until the Afghanistan blog was online. Then back to bed.   

Ash2

This is the most expensive hotel in Ashgabat. And you can see the terraforming efforts ongoing around it.

The next day I was game again albeit weak. I met up with the volunteers once more as we visited the carpet museum and the national museum. The TV guy was there again so we must conclude that the TRCS got excellent visibility of my visit which makes me happy. I had lunch with Rustam at a cool little restaurant which Ashgabat has many of and then I was dropped off at the train station again. Rustam admitted that there was a certain level of control with my movement since I was in the country on a business visa and that the TRCS was directly responsible for me in a country which is bureaucratically strict. So fair enough.

map

Another night train got me to Turkmenabad which is ancient city which got a new name when the Soviet Union collapsed and Turkmenistan became independent. It is also a city which played a great role in the ancient Silk Road and it is furthermore very close to the Uzbekistan border. Vepa and Bairam where at the train when it arrived, ready to welcome me to Turkmenabad. The two are good friends and Bairam is the head of the TRCS branch in Turkmenabad. Vepa is second to the principal at a school and speaks English so he acted as our translator. It was early morning and Bairam wanted to know if I wanted the $60.00 USD hotel or the $20.00 USD. With my budget it’s always the cheaper option. They asked what I wanted and I replied that I would appreciate some sleep so I got three hours of shuteye before they picked me up to go and visit the local TRCS branch. I once again interacted with staff and volunteers before we took some group photos and selfies and left again. We were on our way to lunch when Vepa wanted to know if I drank “hot drinks”? What did he mean: tea, coffee? He meant alcohol. I replied that I enjoy alcohol now and again as I am Danish but not in Islamic countries. I try to follow the traditions and cultures of where I am. Vepa assured me that it was no issue as Turkmenistan is a secular country and those who want to follow Islam can do so while those who won’t do not have too. For lunch we pulled up to a place which would have been “Bada-bing!” if this was an episode of Sopranos. However the food was decent and while it did not look like a family environment I saw a few senior ladies dinning there too. Along with our food we had a bottle of Arak which is 40% spirits and I was hoping we would stop at one or two shots. But the three of us finished that bottle. I do not know if women can understand that there are situations like these in which a man has to drink and cannot say no? Man my weak body felt that Arak and more followed… A toast was said every time and Vepa, Bairam and I were soon brothers.

badabing

Our "Bada-bing" lunch.

arak

Arak is a part of life in Turkmenistan.

astanababa

Astana-Baba is a sacred place and dates back around 800 years. The architecture is spectacular but I was not allowed to take photos inside so use your imagination.

average

Turkmenistan is a great country and not all of it looks like Ashgabad yet. But give it time. This country can definitely make it!

Yeah, we are already on six pages here so I’ll cut the blog short. The women are beautiful in Turkmenistan. Every country has beautiful women but some tend to have more than others. I like Turkmenistan. It has a pretty firm structure but maybe that is what it takes to get things in line. The cotton picking farmers may be far from the white buses of Ashgabat that pull into the white bus stops. However Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was Turkmenistan. The day after Vepa and Bairam invited me out and poured some Ararak into me it turned out to be Bairam’s birthday so after some sightseeing at Astanababa in Kerki, which lies about three hours driving from Turkmenabad. I think you can easily account that road trip into more of Turmneistan’s hospitality. And on the way   back we had to celebrate Bairam’s birthday with lunch and more Arak which is really not my favorite game. I’m almost forty years old and that drinking stuff is way behind me. Needless to say I felt the alcohol in my body and still had to maintain operational. Not just because I’m in a foreign country but also because this project is demanding beyond what I ever imagined. And here I am at an internet café trying my best to get this entry online in spite of internet not being the most developed aspect of Turkmenistan. Happy birthday Bairam. Now let’s get to the next country…let’s just keep on keeping on!

soup

 

Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - Ready for "stan" three.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

 

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Once Upon A Saga

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Afghanistan – Herat…thousands of years later

Day 1,847 since October 10th 2013: 160 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.  

(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross)

 

War is contempt for life, peace is creation…

pano

This tittle is from the English translation of one of my favorite poems. It was written in 1936 by Nordal Grieg from Norway and is called “til ungdommen” (“for the youth”). This particular excerpt is from a section which reads: “War is contempt for life, Peace is creation. Death’s march is halted, By determination”. The poem was song incredibly beautiful by Sissel Kyrkjebø in 2011 (listen here).

Armenia does not border Afghanistan. Plenty of people have made notice of that across the Saga’s social media. So did I fly? Heck no! I got yet another visa for Iran and made a two day transit journey to Taybad near the Afghan border. Then after a night in Taybad I crossed into Herat in Afghanistan, spent two nights and headed north to Turkmenistan where I am now. And I did all of that while keeping you in the dark. Why? Well for starters it is considered unwise to announce your arrival to Afghanistan. In fact the entire “my fiancée is coming to Armenia” deal all came down to the delayed Afghan parliamentary election, which was finally held on October 20th. Afghanistan unfortunately has a very violent history for its elections. So I postponed my arrival a bit which opened up for a visit from my fiancée. Not as much as many think is coincidence within the Saga ;) Anyway, here’s the breakdown from Armenia to Afghanistan:

bus

Armenia sandwich

Lunch a la mystery meat.

The night my fiancée flew back home was the day I boarded a luxury bus from Yerevan to Tehran in Iran. I really mean luxury bus! Big fat leather seats with plenty of legroom. I don’t think I’ve had a luxury bus ride like that before? And it was at regular prices. The scenery was extraordinary!! Anyone would be lucky to call that adventurous and highly mountainous country for home. It looked like a masterpiece of a genius artist. Having recently been to Israel and having stood on Mount Nebo earlier this year in Jordan, I couldn’t help wonder why “God” would have called that Middle Eastern strip “the promised land”? Surely what I saw in the south of Armenia was much closer to something divine. The winding road along with a lack of both food and sleep quickly had me nauseous! And then it got harder to sleep. Catch 22. Fortunately the bus halted along the way and a sweet old lady sold me a mystery meat sandwich. After dark we reached the Iranian border and I was curious if they would notice my Egyptian exit stamp at the Israeli border? That could definitely have set me back!! But it all went really well and I was soon back in Iran enjoying a great local dinner before the bus continued through Tabriz and down to Tehran. In Tehran I opted for the night train to Mashhad which is one of the holiest cities in Iran. My friend Abbas had already bought the ticket for me a few days in advance. The train was to depart late in the evening and my bus had reached Tehran early morning. Abbas was at work and couldn’t meet up until evening time. So I had some breakfast at the bus terminal and a man came over to sit down just across from me. I figure he was a senior bus or taxi driver. In fact I might have taken his table but he was fine with me being there. The man didn’t speak much English but after a while he pointed at himself and said: “made in Iran!” I followed up by pointing at me: “made in Denmark”. After my meal I bought a simcard, got online and then made my way past the six million taxi drivers that had been harassing me since I arrived, and found my way to the metro. I picked a stop near Lahleh Park where a tree would shade me from the sun while I caught some shuteye. I observed some kids playing dodge ball and rested a few hours. Then at nightfall I met up with Abbas again for the second time this year. How cool is that given that we first met back in Libya when we were both working there (2007). Abbas is a good guy and he took me out for dinner before dropping me off at the train station. The train was comfortable and I woke up the next morning in Masshad.

train

Reaching Mashhad in Iran. 

In Mashhad a security guard helped me call an Uber (?) which took me across town to the bus terminal. From there I boarded a bus to Taybad where I met up with Morteza, my couchsurfing host. And he was a pretty amazing host!! We had a good time hanging out and talking about the world. At some point it came up that my old Iphone 5 only lasted 114 countries before dying on me. We tried to revive it in Lebanon but failed. Long story short: one of Morteza’s friends brought it back to life by changing the battery along with the flat charger (whatever that is) then he sold me two high quality charging cables and charged me USD 20 for everything! In Denmark I wouldn’t have gotten the cables for that price!?! It’s a good time to do business with Iran as prices are down due to foreign interactions from the US. And it shows at the border to Afghanistan where a lot of business is being conducted these days with the low prices benefitting Afghan business men.

Morteza

Morteza :)

The night passed and the next day arrived. It was time to go to Afghanistan. The Afghan visa had been in my passport ever since I left Dubai. She short story on that is that I had tea with Mrs Fatima Gailani whom I’ve blogged about here. She is a highly respected Afghan woman and rightfully so! While drinking tea and speaking of challenges it came up that I would need to get my Afghan visa at some point to which she made a phone call and said: “my driver will take you to the embassy now so you can go and collect it”. That’s the kind of friends I have these days. You should know that the visa for Turkmenistan is one of the hardest for me to get with a Danish passport. I’ve been working on it for a while and secured a Letter of Invitation (LOI) which supposedly would secure me a visa on arrival at the border? Getting that letter was really specific stuff which involved providing a lot of stuff including my dusty old college degree. So I had to write my school, from which I graduated back in 1998, and ask for a PDF version which they fortunately could provide. The LOI itself is very specific in relation to where I can sleep, where I must enter the country and where I must leave. So a while back, when we felt that reaching Turkmenistan via Herat in Afghanistan was safe, the LOI was created. And it is not easily changed! As a Goodwill Ambassador of the Danish Red Cross (DRC) I had been in touch with the Afghanistan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) for a while and everything seemed set for my visit. But then the DRC got involved along with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and suddenly I was unwanted in Afghanistan for security reasons. Things change so quickly some times. Due to the elections the DRC had removed all its personnel from Afghanistan and did not expect to bring them back until November at the earliest. The ICRC was also in Afghanistan on a need to be basis. All non-essential personnel had left. I have a lot of respect for the ICRC who I see as the Crème de la Crème of the RC movement. They are highly effective, highly trained and very professional. If the ICRC decides to get involved then the success rate is high. They typically deal within areas of armed conflict, prison visits and International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Consider that, and they have to be good! The ICRC is also in charge of security for the RC movement within Afghanistan and they did not want me to visit Herat. Then everyone else fallowed suit and soon I was persona non grata by the DRC and ARCS as well. That is always curious to me as I was made Goodwill Ambassador for the exact purpose of visiting every country in the world all without flying or returning home. And that is exactly what I’ve been doing for more than five years. Furthermore I have walked through the front door of RC national societies across more than 150 countries already in what is easily history’s greatest attempt to unify the entire movement in a single journey. I smile when I remember the advice which was given to me a few years ago by DRC’s communication director. He wrote that I should wait until the difficult countries would be safe to travel in. Well, I guess I would still be at the border of the Central African Republic. And now we are ready to enter Afghanistan!

field

A taxi got me to the border which is nearby Taybad. And I did feel my stomach in a knot while heading in that direction. I couldn’t quite work out if my gut feeling was telling me to turn around or that I would be fine but had to be careful? Probably a bit of both. A trusted friend of mine with a lot of knowledge in regards to security and safety said: “there hasn’t been a good time to visit Afghanistan in the past three decades”. People do go however. And you can no doubt have a wonderful time and come home with a lot of good stories. You might however also never return home again. That is the unfair reality of visiting a lot of Afghanistan as an obvious foreigner. What is safe to an Afghan is not necessarily safe for you. I’m not going to write ten pages about safety nor the political situation in Afghanistan as it is today. Just know that for some Afghans there is a highly unfavorable disposition towards US Americans…and anyone Caucasian looks US American to an uneducated man. I even speak English…

I didn’t enter Afghanistan blind. I had made some preparations in advance and furthermore I believe I have nearly every conflict area of the world behind me. What could be ahead? North Korea is nothing more than a political environment to a Danish national and as long as you follow the rules you will be fine. Mrs Fatima had asked her entrusted friend Mr Nourdin Ahmadi to take care of me and that turned out to be all I really needed. I just had to reach Herat from Taybad before I could meet with Ahmadi. That’s a 148 km (92 mi) road and keep in mind that you can drown in a puddle. There is however a lot of traffic between Taybad and Herat which is always a good sign. And I had spoken to a lot of people in both Taybad as well as Herat who informed that I would be fine. Crossing the border went without a hitch and I was soon stamped out of Iran and into Afghanistan. That made 160 countries in an unbroken journey completely without flying. And only 43 to go before I can return home. Why do I keep on keeping on? Well, for a number of personal reasons as well as the increasing amount of people who say they feel inspired and motivated. Do I enjoy it? Hmmm hardly any more than what most of you enjoy your lives. It has been a long road and I’m kind of warn out. But I can almost see the light now at the end of the tunnel and it is really starting to look likely that the project will finish successfully. That is when my life as a husband, father, author and lecturer is set to begin…do you plan ahead?

savingPNG

That is Rateb in the middle and the kind businessman furthest to the left.

At the border I ran into Rateb who used to be an English teacher and was the first person in Afghanistan I could have a decent conversation with. I felt him out and decided that he was a good guy. And that he was! He was one of five passengers in a taxi heading to Herat. However with me the driver was still looking for three others. I bought an Afghan simcard while the driver found three more passengers. Now we were ready to go. There wasn’t really much to look at. We were driving through a desert landscape and the road was pretty good. After a while the other passengers in the car wanted to know who I was and interacted with me through Rateb. There was a businessman who was in awe over seeing a Danish man dropping in over the border to visit Afghanistan for a few days. As the conversation developed he got more and more involved and offered that he would help me in any way that he could. And so did Rateb. If I wanted or needed anything then I should just ask. They were even willing to host me and after a few more kilometers heading towards Herat, the businessman said that he would personally drive me to the border with Turkmenistan. There was generally consensus in the car about the roads safety. However one guy looked at me and made a cutting motion with his finger across his throat. Rateb said that I had nothing to worry about and that he was just trying to scare me. However halfway to Herat as we approached a town, the businessman asked if I had a scarf. When I replied yes it was suggested that I wrapped it around my head…

On the other side of the village Rateb told me that I could take the scarf off again and that I was now completely safe. Safety is a relative thing in life and so is danger. There is the obvious danger you are aware of but you can also be in danger without knowing it. So how can you know? The smart play for me was to “keep my head down” and try not to attract too much attention which among other things meant not wearing my hat in public as it would make me more obvious than called for. My beard was up for debate weeks before entering Afghanistan. What would be better: to keep the beard or shave it off? Some advised that I should keep it while others advised that it might upset the Afghan military. So what to do with the beard? The beard does offer me more authority. It is a silly thing but it has clearly been the case. In this situation I decided to keep the beard but have it trimmed down to a well groomed level. So who are we even nervous about in north western Afghanistan? It is the Afghan Taliban, not to be confused with the Iranian Taliban or the Pakistani Taliban. Taliban is a Pashtun word which means “religious student” and it is easy to demonize them but the truth is as always somewhat more complicated. The Afghan Taliban is a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist political movement. By the end of the last century they rose to power ruling Afghanistan for nearly five years. While the Afghan Taliban is responsible for some horrendous acts of violence they also brought order, security, discipline, education and other much needed things to the country during very trying times. It is really difficult to relate to for most people but you can try to picture that you and your family are starving and a murderer steps forward to offer you bread. Would you take it? Now, there is an argument to be made, in which the Afghan Taliban that I could come across, might not be politically motivated but rather financially motivated. In other words if I ran into a checkpoint I could possible get away alive by paying. Simply stating that I’m from Denmark and not from the USA would possibly mean nothing to an uneducated man. Yeah. So that is a bit of risk assessment for you. Would you go ahead?

ARCS

The kind Mr Qari Mir-Gulabuddin and I in front of the ARCS Herat branch.

We reached Herat and Rateb and I got into a taxi which brought me to the ARCS Herat branch. Then Rateb and I said farewell to eachother and I entered the compound. Inside I met with Mr Qari Mir-Gulabuddin who was the head of the branch. He shook my hand, had a big smile on his face and welcomed me profusely. Then we sat down and had tea. He explained at as an Afghan, and especially as someone from Herat, he would like to welcome me and offer me all the hospitality in the world. However due to the situation in which the ICRC and the DRC had warned me not to enter Afghanistan and would not offer any support…then neither could ARCS. It was clear to me that Gulabuddin was conflicted between being an Afghan and being an ARCS’s employee. And I understood the dilemma. It is essentially a silly thing to be associated with the RC as a goodwill ambassador of the DRC for the exact purpose of visiting every country in the world without flying…and then being unwanted in a number of countries? However it has not been the first time and it may not be the last either. With perfect timing Ahmadi (Fatima’s friend) walked into the office and filled the room with his energy! He however does not speak English but it did not seem to matter. Ahmadi is the kind of guy who looks as steady as a rock and appears trustworthy even before he utters a word. Ahmadi was pushing for us to leave…it was afternoon and there was much he wanted to show me before the sun set. We said farewell to the very kind Gulabuddin and headed to a car. After a while we picked up a young man named Sohrab who used to teach English but now works as a driver. For Ahmadi and I he was going to act as a translator.

massgraves

Mass graves.

Our first stop was a mass grave for 3,000 Mujahideen fighters who had been murdered by Soviet forces during the 80s. Some had been buried alive. Ahmadi knew because he was there. Ahmadi got his science degree in 1974 but had to pick up a riffle a few years later. More than a decade later the Mujahideen pushed out the Russians and freed their country. If you want to know more then you should read up on this because it wasn’t all that simple. It was actually the Afghan government which invited the Russians in the first place. Mujahideen is the plural form of mujahid, the term used for someone engaged in Jihad, which literally means struggle. There is generally a lot of respect surrounding the Afghan Mujahideen and many of the survivors went on to become important political figures across Afghanistan. Ahmadi put down his riffle after the struggle and served nearly two decades as the head of the ARCS in Herat. While standing at the mass graves Ahmadi urged me to take some photos but then also pushed that it was time to leave. It wasn’t quite safe as the Taliban were presumed to be just across the hills next to us.

tanks

Various scrapped armored vehicles from the Soviet forces. 

mosque1

Khaja Abdulah Ansari Pilgrimages

old tree

Together with Ahmadi at an allegedly 3,000 year old tree.

The afternoon continued with a visit to Khaja Abdulah Ansari Pilgrimages, followed by a stop at an allegedly 3,000 year old tree, passing a 300 year old park which had been burned to the ground by the Soviet forces but had been restored, visiting the Tomb of Molana Abdul Rahman Jami and driving through the center of Herat before dropping me off at a hotel. I was told that I was a guest and should not pay for anything along with that I could not leave the hotel for security reasons. Then dinner and breakfast was arranged for me and we said farewell.

fruit

traffic

Traffic is hectic in Herat and the air is polluted but people are nice. 

view soldier

A guard on the back of the 4WD is more interested in his phone than in me.

Mantal1

Together with Ahmadi in front of the Red Crescent Secure Psychiatric Institution.

The next day Ahmadi and Sohrab showed up as agreed in the morning. We then headed out for more sightseeing and casual conversation about in and out. We eventually made it out to the Red Crescent Secure Psychiatric Institution. In Afghanistan only armed forces have a hospital/home for mental problems of their own officers with mental issues. Any civilians with mental issues are left to their families or to ARCS. Unfortunately ery little financial support comes to ARCS in order care for these people. In the big picture it is very basic help ARCS can provide for the mentally ill. Mentally challenged women deserted by their families because of poverty or not having immediate family are specially endangered. They are in risk of sexually abuse physically hurt even death because of cold or hunger. Nearly 40 years of violent conflict is driving a growing mental health crisis in Afghanistan. And the ARCS is doing something about it.

Mental2

Ahmadi at the Red Crescent Secure Psychiatric Institution next to a picture of him at the facility :)

Accurate data on mental health issues are not available in Afghanistan, however it is estimated that more than a million Afghans suffer from depressive disorders and over 1.2 million suffer from anxiety disorders. The mental health toll signifies a hidden consequence of war that is often overshadowed by bombed-out buildings and loss of life. The Red Crescent Secure Psychiatric Institution houses 250 patients and what fortunate for me to be guided around the facility by its founder, Mr Nourdin Ahmadi, who as earlier mentioned used to be the branch manager for ARCS in Herat, which by the way is Afghanistan’s third largest city. I was told that while some patients in the hospital showed symptoms of mental health problems in childhood the majority of people are actually there because they have developed psychological problems during the war. Fortunately some get better and can eventually return to society. But the world really owes ARCS a great deal for this initiative! For without ARCS many of these people would live unthinkable lives in the streets and elsewhere. And the institution in Herat is only a fraction of the humanitarian work ARCS does nationwide!

Dacaar

This ancient bridge was restored by DACAAR which is a danish initiative to help Afghans. Ahmadi wanted to show me it.

kites

It's hard to see in my photo. But at the end of the day hundreds if not thousands of kites come up above Herat at impossible heights. It's peaceful and beautiful.

mosque2

Tomb of Molana Abdul Rahman Jami

Mosque3

Herat Blue Mosque.

Muja1

Ahmadi also brought me to the memorial museum of the Mujahideen. He pointed at a painting and said: "he used to be my leader".

Muja2 

The Mujahideen museeum clearly depicted the horror and brutality of war along with how children would take part with slingshots and women would through stones.

I’ve heard that Afghanistan has been mentioned in the news more than any other country during the past ten years and the way our world works we know it hasn’t been for the good. It is so unbelievable easy to forget how spectacular Afghanistan is when all the media portrays is death, destruction and violence. So let’s just take a look at some of the more uplifting aspects of a truly amazing country. For starters Afghanistan is a country with around 36 million people and hospitality is more or less rampant! New Year’s (Nawroz) is celebrated on March 21st which is the first day of spring and that kind makes more sense to me. These are horse people and the national sport (buzkashi) is basically regarded as the world’s wildest game. And the Afgans are sticking to it :) There is pretty much phone coverage nationwide, the food culture is highly sophisticated due to Afghanistan’s important role within the ancient Silk Road, agriculture is a main source of income, family is important and people have been living on these lands for an estimated 50,000 years. Herat which I visited has an ancient citadel which was first built by Alexander the Great in 330 BCE. Alex, by the way, fell in love with a beautiful Afghan woman named Roxanne who bore him his only son. Oh yes, the women are beautiful around this part of the world! Herat has Poetry Night every Thursday and poetry is generally a much cherished part of Afghan culture. I’m telling you people: the building blocks are definitely here for a great country! I dearly hope that those blocks are put together in the right way. The land is very fertile and Afghanistan has long been known for opium cultivation on a mass scale. The businessman within me looks at that fact combined with the rising demand for medical marijuana across the world. Would it really be that much of a change for Afghanistan to switch the opium crops with cannabis and make that a both legal and main income for the country?

sandstorm

Now, I also had to leave Afghanistan and the plan has for a long while been to continue north from Herat and into Turkmenistan. Unfortunately safety became an issue lately and kind of fumbled the entire plan. Turkmenistan is a special country and probably among the top five hardest in the world to get a visa for. A lot of people apply for a transit visa which offers five days and I hear that the success rate for the transit visa is quite high. However Turkmenistan is not crazy about anyone who has a social media presence and I do. I had been speaking with Stantours who come highly recommended for visas, tours and transport. The world was that if you apply for a Turkmenistan visa and get denied then it becomes infinitely more difficult to get it on a second try. I had managed to get a business visa which is a big deal! Unfortunately it was quite specific in terms of which borders I should enter and exit Turkmenistan by. Also it was a hassle to come by it with all sorts of documentation needed such as my ancient college diploma, which no one has seen since the world was in black and white. Stantours can also offer transportation but we were talking about costs starting at USD 1,200.00 for arranging transport in Afghanistan. I did consider it. However after asking around in Herat I was assured several times that the road from Herat to Towgondi (at the Turkmenistan border) was safe. In fact much safer than the road I had come by from Iran to Herat? All I needed was a trustworthy driver and Ahmadi had one for me. So after two nights in Herat a friend of Ahmadi came to collect me in the morning and away we went. The road was 116 km (72 mi) and Ahmadi’s friend did not speak English. But we didn’t need to speak. About halfway to the border a sandstorm/dust storm picked up and slowed us down considerably. But we eventually reached the border and I walked into the harsh weather aiming for country number 161…          

 

Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - you are welcome.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

 

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Once Upon A Saga

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