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…
This title 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 sung 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 at 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:
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 their home. It looked like a masterpiece drawn by a genius artist. Having recently been to Israel and having stood on Mount Nebo earlier this year in Jordan, I couldn’t help to 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.
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.
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 that 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 paper 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 had and provided. 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 followed 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 the 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!
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?
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 which 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?
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 each other 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 that 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.
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 nearby hills.
Various scrapped armored vehicles from the Soviet forces.
Khaja Abdulah Ansari Pilgrimages
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.
Traffic is hectic in Herat and the air is polluted but people are nice.
A guard on the back of the 4WD is more interested in his phone than in me.
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 this and that. 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 very little financial support comes to ARCS in order to 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 especially endangered. They are in risk of sexual abuse, being physically hurt, or 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.
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 fortune 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!
This ancient bridge was restored by DACAAR which is a Danish initiative to help Afghans. Ahmadi wanted to show it to me.
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.
Tomb of Molana Abdul Rahman Jami
Herat Blue Mosque.
Ahmadi also brought me to the memorial museum of the Mujahideen. He pointed at a painting and said: "he used to be my leader".
The Mujahideen museum clearly depicted the horror and brutality of war along with how children would take part with slingshots and women would throw 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 than between December and January. Afghans are horse people and the national sport (buzkashi) is basically regarded as the world’s wildest game. And the Afghans 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 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?
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 word 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 through. 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…
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - you are welcome.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga