2012
05.31

SYNOPSIS:  INSTEAD OF GOING TO BAMIYAN WE HAD A PICNIC AT A SUBDIVISION IN THE MAKING AND VISITED A NEARBY VILLAGE ON THE ROAD TO BAMIYAN 25 KM AWAY FROM THE TROUBLE.

Our bubbly tour guide Mubin never runs out of jokes, and many of his sentences start with:  Let me tell you a story!  He never runs out of stories either.  He is really trying to make up for four days worth of something that should have been Bamiyan and Bande-a-Amir, the two most famous and worthwhile sites in all of Afghanistan.  It is really heart-breaking that we not only lose one but both due to troubles on the road.

If I understand all this right, then there are two roads to Bamiyan.  One of them, for years, has been under Taliban control and cannot be used.  The other has been fine up until recently, when the Taliban decided to use a bridge at the bottom of two hills – a very fine bottleneck in the road – as a trap.  They stop cars in search of government officials and foreigners.  A government worker had his throat slit and an entire family was murdered there recently.  I get it!  We can’t go.  What put the ice on the cake is that this morning the news came through to Mubin and the ALT office that active battles were unfolding on that road between government troops and Taliban fighters.  It was just the final confirmation after the decision had already been made, that it was out of the question to travel in that direction.

What to do instead?  Full of enthusiasm, Mubin promised us a great picnic on a mountain overlooking an area where he had recently purchased land and is planning to build a house for himself, his wife and his five children; away from the dust of Kabul, away from the barbed wire.  The land out there cost him $50,000 and to build the house another $150,000.  According to Islamic Law (Sharia), you don’t borrow money, but save and pay in cash.  He worked hard for this over the last 15 years, in tandem with some of his brothers who purchased land next to him.  He proudly pointed to the brown lots in the desert outlining where the school would be and the mosque, the park and the shopping center.  In his imagination it was all there already and it was going to be beautiful.   I am sure it will be.

We had a good time on the hill if you forget for the moment that I expected to be on the road to Bamiyan.  For the picnic we purchased some goat cheese and the biggest loaf of bread I have ever seen in my entire life.  The bread was as long and almost as wide as the entire back row of our 4-wheeled vehicle!  Of course, even up there on the mountain, the Kalashnikov came along.  Picnic with a Kalashnikov; I don’t do that every day.  We were at 2000 meter altitude and I could feel it, climbing up there.  The air is getting thin.  But the temperature has been perfect; much milder than in Uzbekistan.

From there, we took the road we would have taken to Bamiyan to Charikar, a small village.  We roamed the bazaar and people were incredibly friendly, inviting us for tea into their stalls.  We declined, but delivered big smiles of appreciation left and right. One of the men mocked me by pointing to a bearded guy telling me that he was with the Taliban.  To their amusement, I played his game and pretended to run away in fear.  We all had a good laugh. It is really hard to imagine how 25 kilometers further, there are people who would slit my throat or press for ransom if they could get hold of me and here, I can joke around with people who would love to invite me for tea instead.

Further down the road, at Jabul Seraj, was a river with some restaurants where we were going to have fish.  But the condition of the fish was so questionable that we went on to another restaurant to have the standard rice-raisin-lamb dish instead.  Hundreds of trucks had backed up along the road as traffic towards Mazar-e-Sharif is regulated at times to only allow trucks to go in one direction or another, but not both.  Some of the trucks looked like they had been camping out for days.   Many of them clearly had come from Pakistan – sporting the bright and  colorful decoration so typical for Pakistani trucks.  As we were eating, some of the traffic began to flow and soon there was madness on the road with everyone scrambling to get through.  And so we went back on a little side-road until the truck madness was behind us.

I am trying really hard to find something unique and educational in this day, worth the huge sums of money I spend for every hour in this country and I have to look high and low.  Perhaps, it is the surprising realization that Afghanistan has moved in consumption prices for many goods (especially housing and services), to world market prices while income has lagged behind for most.  There is a growing but still small number of entrepreneurs who are making money hand over fist with the influx of army, aid workers, and the currency that follows them.  Will this last?  Will the economy here collapse just like the rest of world once these people are gone and these conditions change?   I am grateful that through Mubin, we have a window into some of these realities.  I hope that he will find the paradise of which he so often talks in his gated suburban community out near the mountains.

Through the traffic delays, we got back late.  It was almost 8 PM – two hours behind our imposed curfew.  As every night, I sit down with my computer and work through the images and the events of the day.  I can’t quite get Bamiyan out of my mind.  All would be well if we could avoid the road.  If there were just an airport!  Perhaps, some day.

Good night.

2012
05.25

SYNOPSIS:  BACK IN KABUL WE VISITED THE SANDY GALL AFGHANISTAN APPEAL CENTER.

Another red-eye was supposed to take us back from Herat to Kabul.  We were red-eyed alright, but the plane did not take off until 10:30 AM, a few hours later than scheduled, without any announcement or explanation.  I guess we can be thankful that we made it so far without experiencing any of the technical problems or baggage losses Afghanistan’s airlines are known for.  Instead, I had time to write my blog and the ride was smooth and uneventful.

Check-in and waiting areas are neatly divided between men and women.  And since about 10 times more men than women travel, I typically get through the checks much quicker than the guys, sit in the less crowded areas, and can board the plane first.  I might as well enjoy the few privileges that come with being a woman around here.

It was time for lunch after we finally had settled back in Kabul.  We went to the same Herat Restaurant we had been to a couple of days ago.  It has that unique garden with animals and a very pleasant atmosphere.  There are not many of these around.   Here in Kabul we are back to the routine: confined to the car mostly and accompanied at all times by Shirin, our Mujahedin-guard.  No more freedoms like in Herat.  The geese and cranes in the garden minded their business, but it was a pretty fierce looking ram that took interest in us and literally poked his head into our shoulders.  Despite its appearance it seemed a very mild-mannered animal which enjoyed to be patted.

The plan for the afternoon was to visit the Sandy Gall Afghanistan Appeal (SGAA) Center.  Contrary to previous practices we found out that one now needs a permit for this visit, too!  Bummer.  After the guard had stared into our disappointed faces long enough, he allowed us to come in and at least watch a basket ball game that was going on between four teams of 3 wheel-chaired men each:  The reds against the blues, and then orange against green.  One man in a white T-shirt seemed to function as instructor and one guy walked around the field filming.  This was interesting.  It was also interesting that Shirin, our armed guard, and his gun had to stay outside!  That was a first.  I learned, BTW, that Shirin’s gun license cost over $2000 (recently closer to $3000) in bribes every year.  This is outrageous.  These must be government officials who are lining their pockets with these bribes!  I had no idea.

The SGAA is based on the Scottish Journalist Sandy Gall who in the 1980’s reported regularly from Afghanistan and wrote books about the country as well.  In 1986, he founded this non-profit organization which today is run by the International Red Cross and outfits patients with artificial limbs.  It has provided prosthesis for over 20,000 patients injured through war and polio and provided physiotherapy for more than 50,000 patients since its conception.  Nobody is turned away; anyone with needs will be taken care of, as many as 250 patients per day.

I was really sad that we could not tour the facilities.  In front of us the game was unfolding, but there were many buildings to our right, in front of which beds had been put out with patients to enjoy the mild summer day.  About 20 minutes into the game I saw a group of 5 Westerners being led around by a doctor…  I decided to run after them and to ask if they would allow me to join their tour.  They did.  Unfortunately, they were at the end of the tour, but I got at least a little insight into what was going on:  Over 200 Afghanis work at the facility as trainers, cooks, cleaners, doctors, nurses, mechanics, and all.  Many of them are former patients, including the doctor who led us around on an artificial limb and with a cane.  All the wheel-chairs and limbs are produced in-house and maintained for the life of the chair and the patient.  The facilities the group had already toured comprised the medical tract, the reception areas, doctors’ rooms, and the clinic.  The building they were about to enter was the physiotherapy track and the mechanics area.  I was impressed!  This was the solution to the problems I had seen out there all along.  But why, if this facility was here, why would there be so many people without limbs and legs, still?  A cynic in the group thought it was because they made a business out of their disability.  I guess that is true for some, but I also think there is more to it.  Perhaps it is ignorance, or skepticism?

I felt much better after seeing this place thinking that I would donate some money to them at the end of my trip.  Most likely, that is a much more effective way to make a contribution than giving anything to street beggars.  This was a well-worth visit.  I wonder if there is a factory, or a place where these many people could find suitable work and a disability-ready environment.  The number I came across is that 3 out of 100 people in Afghanistan are disabled.  That is a staggering statistic.

To round out the day, Mubin took us up to yet another of the many hills in Kabul for a mango-picnic. The sun was setting, the wind was blowing gently and it was one of those picture-perfect summer evenings.  From the hill you could look down one way (North) into an old and obviously poor neighborhood.  People had small mud homes with flat roof gardens.  From the other side of the hill you could look down (South) into rows of fancy villas and embassies surrounded by lush gardens.  The class system works everywhere, no matter what, doesn’t it?!

Good night.

 

2012
05.24

SYNOPSIS:  ABOUT THE JAMI MOSQUE, A FAILED VISIT TO THE CITADEL, A DISCOVERY AT THE CISTERN AND LIFE AT THE BAZAAR.

Herat has one of the most complete and most beautiful shrines in Afghanistan, the 12th century Masjid-e-Jami, or Friday Mosque.  It is in style and layout very similar to the shrines of Uzbekistan and Iran:  Pishtaks, court yards, minarets, and beautiful tiling.   No wonder, as it was heavily restored in the 15th Century Timurid Period.  You just can’t get away from Timur, it seems!  We got up at 6 AM to see it at the early morning hour and at the best light.  It was great.  Hardly any people at this hour either.

This mosque originally was built entirely out of brick and stucco.  Only in a few small sections has the original brick work been preserved.  The appearance would have been drastically different.  For the most part the shrine now sports drywall in the Iwans, and brand-new tiling made at a workshop integrated into the mosque complex.  Unfortunately, that was closed.  One of the most interesting objects of the complex was a 13th Century bronze cauldron filled with a cool drink, which used to greet pilgrims.  These days, it has been put behind lock and key inside a dusty glass and wooden pavilion.  What a shame.

I am dressed just about as impeccably as can be with my loose clothing and my nearly stylish head scarf, but at the mosque, as early in the morning as it was, and outside prayer time, there was a turbaned man who nonetheless found fault with me:  I did not wear any socks!  Neil, my travel companion surrendered his socks, but the point of the matter was that other women also came in with slippers and without socks and they were fine…  oh, well.

A second visit at the office responsible for giving out permits to the sites in town was as unsuccessful as the first.  For whatever reason, we were not worthy of the official stamp of approval.  We only could try to go anyhow and convince the door-keeper otherwise.  But that, too, failed.  We were left with some beautiful external views of the fantastically restored citadel which seemed to be closed to everyone and all.  Why bother with the restoration, I ask?

Right across the citadel was one of the old cisterns in town, the Malik Cistern.  I had seen many of those, much bigger even than this, in Iran.  These are typically round buildings dug deep into the ground, which can store water (even ice) to supply the population during droughts.  This one had been nicely restored as well, and became home to an artist’s workshop!   Landscapes, portraits, and genre scenes were displayed up high in all kinds of media.  About six students were busy at work copying pieces of art as the master artist walked around looking over their shoulders.  That was the last I had expected here!   Through our tour guide Mubin, I found out a bit about the artist Mohammed Ebrahim Habibi:  Under the Soviets, he had gone to Pakistan and studied art.  And based on the Soviet invasion, he painted a canvas about his country with visual commentaries on the atrocities that went on at home:  shelling, explosions, bombed out homes, people losing loved ones and limbs.  After the Soviet’s defeat, he returned to Afghanistan and the canvas was briefly displayed at a government office.  But when the Taliban took power, they sliced and discarded it.  The artist had to flee again; this time to Iran.  About ten years ago he returned.  He found the discarded canvas, repaired it, and was allowed to open a private art school in the restored cistern of the town.  That’s where he and his canvas are today.

Except for this one canvas, most of his art is rather conventional and not even very good (I am sorry to say and I definitely leave this open to individual tastes).  But I liked his story and even more the fact that today he is teaching a young generation how to be artists.  If you would see his pictures you would find nothing of the reality of life here; everything is pretty, idyllic, and romanticized.  Perhaps, the tragedy of life as it is, sits too close to his heart to paint it.  His art is an escape into an idealized world which hopefully will become reality in Afghanistan, some day, again.  This was a great visit and one we did not even plan on or need a permit for.  So it goes.  Surprises like this are always the best.

After a big and delicious lunch and an hour of sleep, we went off to one of the few surviving older parts of town where much of the bazaar is located.  We walked for more than three hours and saw everything from bakers to tailors, carpet shops, blacksmiths, carpenters, burqa-stores, and tire-recycle shops.  That was perhaps the most unusual craft:   An entire alley of shops was dedicated to the recycling of old tires, big and small.  From car parts to ropes, to waste baskets and water buckets, just about anything you could imagine was created out of these tires.  We watched the workers cut these huge tires, remove the steel lining and go to work.  As all the other jobs, this was hard work, especially in the heat.  And everywhere you saw fathers and sons working together.

According to Mubin, the literacy rate in Afghanistan is still only around 30 percent.  More and more illiterate parents send their kids to school, but many still depend on them for work.  As a result, a whole row of people were sitting alongside the mosque offering writing services.  Any illiterate person could go there and dictate whatever document they needed; it is a service like having your shoes fixed or your clothes tailored.

We had convinced Mubin to dispense with the driver we were going to have today and to do this day on foot.  Both Neil and I are quite OK walking for hours and we definitely enjoyed this opportunity to “be free”, to see, and to smell.  The smells can become quite challenging given the trash and the open sewage canals.  But it was all worth it.  In Kabul we will be put inside a car again soon enough.

Very few areas of the bazaar have been restored, notably one large hall.  But others, gorgeous courts with shops and living quarters above them, khans similar to those you would find in Syria, are visibly neglected.  They serve as parking lots, trash heaps, or at best as storage areas.   Some of them are noticeably old, built with beautiful brick-patterns, but their beauty seems to go unnoticed.  In some areas the old mud-brick city wall can be made out.  Most of the time it has been incorporated into newer houses, shops, or courtyards.  Many of Herat’s old buildings have fallen victim to war.  This area, one of the few that is left, will soon be victim of neglect and lack of funds.  But life has to go on.  People who have barely enough to subside would be hard-pressed to consider the historical value of what little they can call their own.  I understand, even though it saddens me.

At a chaichone (tea house) we finished the day.  We came by a narrow, dark and dirty stall furnished with wooden beds and lined with old carpets to sit on.  The man at the back of the stall brews tea and there you sit, sip, and chat.  At this hour the chaichone was empty.  At night, rows of men would be expected there finishing off the day.  As everywhere we go, people start to crowd around us and within minutes we had a few onlookers who found it most interesting to watch us drink our tea.  We have been welcomed with smiles just about everywhere throughout the bazaar.  I asked people if I could take their pictures (only men, of course) and often was granted permission.  I hope you will enjoy the weathered faces of some of these people as much as I do.  With their turbans and their traditional shalwar kameez (loose pants and shirts) they look beautiful.  I wish, Mubin, our tour guide would dress in traditional garb.  But he has to wear western-style clothes as part of his office protocol.

After less than four hours of walking, I was pooped again.  A delicious dinner buffet awaited us at the hotel.  And so went another day in Afghanistan.  The views from the hotel roof garden are spectacular, particularly in the evening and morning sun.  When you look down at the traffic and the people of Herat, you can almost forget where you are.  But this peaceful surface deceives even here.  Outside of the center of town things are not calm.  You have to know where to go and where not to go.  I certainly could not have done this alone.  I am usually the spot of attention – all heads fling around when I walk by no matter how conservatively or dark I dress.  I am used to that and pretend I don’t notice.  But it is comforting to have Mubin and Neil with me.  I am not sure how I would feel without them.  Most people are friendly, but at least one guy gave me a very nasty look and the finger as I walked by.   How many hostile thoughts there are, I will never know.  Mubin has talked about how many people have been educated about foreigners and have a positive outlook.  But even he estimates hostility in the population at over 50 percent.  In Herat, there is law and order.  The government is in control.  That is not the case in much of the rest of the country and as always, what we can see on the surface is less than half the picture.

I enjoy understanding and practicing a few recurring phrases which I have mastered so far, such as:  What is your name?  Where are you from?  How long will you be here?  How old are you?  What time is it?  How much does this cost?  Nice to meet you.   I am a teacher.  I have a son, etc.  Dari and Farsi are so close.  People understand what I say, but they have to slow way down and reduce their vocabulary to a few essentials for me to follow them.  It’s a good ice breaker when I approach strangers.  It usually helps to endear them to me just a little bit.  One of the ALT drivers told me that too often he is meeting foreigners (and that holds mostly true for Americans) who after 10 years in the country still have not made any efforts to learn the local language.  What that tells the locals does not translate into mutual respect, or acceptance.  Given the last hundred years of foreign behavior on top of that, no one wonders that anti-foreign sentiments run so high.

Good night.

2012
05.23

SYNOPSIS:  FLIGHT TO HERAT AND SIGHTSEEING AT THIS IRANIAN FRONTIER TOWN. 

The red-eye took us to Herat in about an hour.  The entire time, we flew over rugged terrain, low enough to see how sparsely it is populated.  Only when there is a stream is there some green lining a narrow valley.  In many cases there were a few houses clustered around the green and you can only wonder if these people have ever gotten out of their pocket of livable space, if they have a refrigerator, or if they still live in the Stone Age.

You immediately get a sense that Herat is different from Kabul.  It’s a real town with real stores, offices, mosques, and parks.  You have to strain to find a building behind barbed wire and nowhere did I see the wall segments so prevalent in the center of Kabul.  Yes, there is security.  Wherever you go you will be padded down or inspected, or have to be known, for example when entering the hotel we live in.  The Nazary Hotel in Heart is the newest place in town and frequented most likely by quite an exalted clientele.  Yesterday, a black guy walked in accompanied by three armed military.  Neil claims to have seen that one of the soldiers tasted his food!  A black guy in this country (outside a US military base) is quite a sight and one who has three armed guards tops even that.  I bet you this hotel has a few more stars than what I am used to.  Everything was functioning from the shower to the internet.  OK, there were a few electric outages, but the hotel generator kicked in almost immediately.  What fascinated me the most was a huge electric “stabilization box”, for lack of a better word.  Electricity here fluctuates so badly that it does great harm to electric devices.   This hotel obviously went through great lengths to provide stable current.

And the food…!  After all my doubts about Afghani food, I can report that the food we get at the hotel is excellent.  For both lunch and dinner, there is a huge spread of different meats and vegetables, rice with saffron and raisins, spicy noodle dishes and fried potatoes.  Everything tastes great and again, just like in Uzbekistan was mainly mild, except for the noodles.  I have to watch not to overeat.  In this heat, I can only handle little tastes of it all.  But it is fun to have this great variety.

As we landed, I was wondering why so many women wore chadors instead of the signature Afghani burqa.    Of course, we are next to Iran!  Cultural traditions do not stop at an artificial border.  Mashad, one of the most holy places for Shia Muslims, is just a bus ride from here.  In town, a huge line of men had settled in front of one office and as I found out, it was the Iranian Visa Division.  Hundreds of Afghanis seek work visas for Iran as the pay is better.  Not that there would not be enough work here; but pay is low comparatively speaking.

Herat is safe enough for us to walk around without an armed guard.  That is a relief.  After a well-deserved afternoon nap, we visited some sites this town is known for, or what is left of them…  We also saw a few things that I could not have imagined, like a whole “grave yard” of discarded Soviet tanks, missiles, and shells just littered at the outskirts of town.  It’s not even that they have been piled up there; they were just left after the battles were over.  It is bizarre to look over a swimming pool (for men only, of course) into a nice park towards town with all this war debris in the middle.  A young boy was sitting in the park playing the drum and singing to the amusement of several bystanders.  As we walked up, we were immediately waved into the circle and the boy started to address songs to us, later to an officer in the crowd.  Amazing!  Just like the old medieval bard tradition.  He had such talents and most likely, it will go unnoticed and underutilized.

Herat boasts a number of shrines of famous Sufis who often were responsible for converting the local population to Islam.  Their tombs are held in high esteem.  We visited the necropolis of Gazar Gah which houses the shrine of the 11th century saint and poet Khoja Abdullah Ansari. One side-effect of all this guarding in Afghanistan is that these armed guards have so little to do that they make it their business to enforce some imaginary rules, like forbidding photography!  What on earth?!  This is a shrine and I am a tourist.  What’s the harm?  But they mean business and that means that I have to walk around taking pictures from the hip, hiding behind tomb stones, or hoping that the guard is busy enough not to hear my camera’s conspicuous clicking sound (the disadvantage of an SLR).   I managed just enough images to be able to recall the site, some of them awkwardly crooked.

One thing though has not changed:  the crippled people and beggars are everywhere.  Women are pushing deformed children around in little carts, or are lying on the ground in their burqas whining.  Men sit with their detachable limbs (if they have any) and quietly hold out their hands.  And at times, as crowded as the streets are here, you have no choice but to step over them!   Nothing could be more heart-wrenching and unnerving.  I understand why I am not supposed to give individuals anything.  But there is something so horrible about this that it deeply affects my enjoyment of this country.

The most impressive site with perhaps the most disturbing history in town is the famed Musalla Complex.  It was commissioned by Goharshad, the wife of Shah Rukh, who was a great patron of the arts.  Until 1885, her mosque-madrassa-mausoleum ensemble and nearly 20 huge, tiled minarets had survived and supposedly rivaled anything from Esfahan to Samarkand.  But then the British came.  They found it necessary to dynamite the whole complex, save 4 minarets, into smithereens to prepare for the eventuality of a battle with the Russians which never came.  The audacity!  Of all people the British should have some respect for cultural heritage.  I was just aghast when I heard that story.

All that is left of the complex is her mausoleum, now under UNESCO protection.  With it still stands a single, precariously leaning minaret which is now propped up and tightened every few months to possibly straighten it again.  Her mausoleum features beautiful original fresco paintings which hopefully will just be left as they are.  They retain the power of originals and even in their faded state speak of past beauty and glory.  A nice door keeper opened up for us, even though we came without a “permit”.  Herat is known for the necessity to obtain permits for visiting anything of interest.  It is not quite clear what the purpose for this overzealous bureaucracy is.  Who should be kept out?  Who will be allowed in?  The permits are free, but they are a big pain in the butt.  We were already sent away once for the permit of the citadel.  We will have to try again tomorrow.

One sight you can see without a permit is the 12th century Pul-e-Malan Seljuk Bridge – well, really, it’s so heavily restored that it is doubtful that you can find a single original brick in it.  With 22 arches it spans the Hari Rud river which provides a lot of the water for the surrounding agriculture.  Boys and men were bathing in the dark brown water, which had quite a current.  The bridge immediately reminded me of Esfahan again; several old bridges of similar design cross the river there.  As we watched the merrymaking at the river a land rover actually drove into the water and under the bridge!  These dare devils.

Not far from the bridge there was a village at the outskirts of town with an impressive old wall and several beautifully decorated watch towers.  It was just a village which had encroached unhindered on and appropriated some ancient building substance, easily 600 years old…  There it goes.  In fact, Herat has been hit hard by all.  The British leveled their historical treasures and many older parts of the town were leveled under the Soviets.  For the last few years, Herat has experienced a building boom.  The most gaudy, colorful, “Baroque” mansions spring up everywhere creating a very odd mix between the old and the new.

The days here are so hot that after 4 hours of sightseeing you feel like you have worked all day.  We had gotten up at 4 AM and after this much sight-seeing, an early dinner, and some useless struggles with the internet — or better my dying computer, I called it a night.

 

2012
05.22

SYNOPSIS:  THE OFFICIAL AFGHANISTAN TOUR STARTED TODAY WITH NEIL BUXTON’S ARRIVAL:  KABUL FROM THE TV HILL, THE LANDMINE MUSEUM, AND THE BAZAAR, FOR STARTERS.

I figured it would be a kind gesture to go to the airport with one of ALT’s drivers to pick up Neil Buxton, my travel companion from the UK, about whom I know little more than that he is one of the few people who did not cancel their trip to Afghanistan.  Up at 6 AM, out the door by 7 AM, I was on my way with Javid, a 24 year old guy, and one of the drivers who works for ALT.   He was eager to practice his English which he entirely had picked up through driving around foreigners and I had a good chance to refresh a few more Farsi/Dari phrases.  By the time we had reached the airport, we had bonded, found a place in the shade to wait and worked out our language issues.  Before I knew it, I was surrounded by about 20 people, women young and old and children, who had seen me walking around and who followed me to my shady spot to “check me out”.   We had each grabbed a brick from a nearby pile to sit on and they followed suit.  And so we sat and chatted as much as our language barriers allowed us to.  With so many women around, Javid had to excuse himself.  From a distance he watched this spectacle quite amused.  When I asked, if he could take a picture of us all, the women refused.  Only two brave ones reluctantly agreed to remain seated.  Of course, they all snapped pictures of me with their cell phones…

More than two hours passed fast this way.  We waited and waited at the entrance gate that spat out the passengers from two international flights.  When even the last one had come through, except for our guy, we knew something was wrong.  Long story short – Neil had exited through a different gate…  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it.  I had done the same thing just two days earlier.  But eventually, we connected.  Neil is in his forties and works for VW.  He bikes a lot and loves nature.  He travels a lot, usually alone and in strange places – Yemen, last year.  And Afghanistan has been on his list ever since he briefly landed here 26 years ago in transit.  Why not?  We all have our reasons.  This is what I know so far and if that’s all I will ever know it’s OK, too.  We are here to enjoy this unusual trip together and that’s exactly what we will do.

Back at ALT we were met by our tour guide Mubin, one of the four brothers who are the core of ALT.  Mubin only comes in as a tour guide.  He is in his mid-thirties, already has four children, a lot of energy and he talks a lot.  He made me laugh a lot today recalling stories of previous travelers he has been with.  I think we will have a grand time.  He is genuinely interested in presenting a comprehensive picture of his country to us, one that hopefully counters the bad news we are so inundated with.  He fully understood our grave disappointment of potentially not going to Bamiyan and promised to do his best to get us as far as safely possible; that is a good start.

We hit the ground running and were on our way to the so-called TV Hill from where you can overlook Kabul in its full spread; this is if you are lucky – the military controls the crucial top.  But we were lucky.  A dreadfully bumpy unpaved road took us through poor residential neighborhoods.  None of them are old since this area was pretty much leveled so close to a strategic overlook of Kabul.  Some of the most impoverished people live here, ironically with one of the best views anywhere in Kabul.

Kabul has a strange shape.  Picture something like a huge semicircular bean shape.  That would be the city wrapping itself around a central mountain which prevents the connection between the two ends of the bean.  And on top of the mountain you can literally look down on one side and see half of Kabul, step over a few meters and see the other half.  On the half that is South of the rim, there was no photography.  You could still see some rusty old military equipment littering down the hill.  From this breath-taking start we headed down towards the citadel somewhere in the middle of the “bean” from where you could now look back at the hill again.

The next stop was a museum that must be pretty unique in the world; it is dedicated to a display of landmines, shells, rockets, and other weapons and aircraft recovered throughout the country since the war with the Soviets.  I understand so little about weapons, that these were just metal scraps to me; many of them nonetheless very scary looking; some of them provided by the CIA, some of them sent from Egypt (and you know who is financing the Egyptian military)…  Some pictures accompany the artifacts showing people without their limbs.  That is a seriously shocking sight when you see it in reality throughout Kabul and especially near the bazaar area.  Kids are crawling on the ground with missing feet or hands, adults are on crutches, panhandlers sell their wares with missing arms, etc.  It broke my heart.  Mubin strictly instructed us not to stop, not to give money and not to talk to any of these handicapped people or any of the many beggars who approached us in the car and anywhere on foot.  How absolutely cruel this felt!

One of the impressive things at the museum was that one of the aircraft had been converted into a classroom for visiting school children.  A set of photographs is used by the teacher (Mubin mock-enacted this role for us) to instruct you of the many uses of household items (like cooking pots) as improvised weapons of destruction.  A plaque was on display listing all the people who had been killed working in the business of removing land mines.  The country is still full of them.  Believe me; I will not venture from the beaten path!

We had lunch at the most pleasant Herat Restaurant.  It has a garden with the wooden platforms so typical for tea houses in the Middle East and Central Asia.  You sit on them with your legs folded under and have a little raised table in the center.  The garden housed a collection of exotic and not so exotic animals ranging from ordinary geese, to cranes.  What a pleasant environment! I was reminded one dinner I had at the banks of the river in Baghdad which was similarly pleasant and an experience you just cannot imagine watching the news about these two cities.

War does not seem to be on the forefront of everyone’s mind.  It looks like business as usual if you can look away from the many reminders of the war past, the missing limbs, the craters, and the dug-up streets.  But our next stop was another reminder that not all is well:  The British Cemetery.  It’s more than for just British.  It is the foreign cemetery.  It had plaques for a French woman, a Polish man, and Indian national, many Germans and Canadians and two rows of children from a variety of nationalities.  All these were plaques or graves for foreigners who had died giving their lives for Afghanistan while either working for the ISAF (International Security and Aid Forces) or in any other capacity aiding this country.  It was a peaceful, small garden-like cemetery locked behind a big old door, and a sobering spot.

Mubin took us on a race through the bazaar as the clock was fast approaching 6 PM, our assigned curfew.  But I managed to do one of the important purchases on my list:  A signature-blue Afghan burqa.

I had the internet for a nearly uninterrupted 15 minutes, giving me false hopes for the night.  But then it was over.  I will keep writing, and processing photographs, but from here on out I have no idea when they will be posted.

Tomorrow we will be out the door at 4 AM to catch a plane to Herat.  And I’d better start packing now!

Good night.

2012
05.21

SYNOPSIS:  ABOUT THE LIMITS OF MY NEW WORLD AND THE BABY-STEPS BEYOND:  A VISIT TO THE GOETHE INSTITUTE AND THE SUPERMARKET AND A DINNER OUT.

It isn’t so much a bomb attack you would have to fear in Kabul these days but the kidnapping.  A visibly foreign woman like me should not walk the streets without anyone accompanying her and certainly not any time after dark, really, after 6 PM.  That seems the protocol around here for visitors and NGO’s.  Since I booked my tour with ALT, I need to abide by their rules:  I can go out, but I will be driven and picked up everywhere I go (and that costs, of course).  ALT seems to have a good reputation around here.  The taxi drivers at the airport were delighted to hear that I was taken care of by ALT, and two more people confirmed this.   Muqim started out less than ten years ago with three old cars which he fixed and maintained all by himself.  Today, he is running quite an operation, over 15 brand-new vehicles, and quite a fleet of drivers, mechanics, and administrators.  He provides transportation and escorts, and a lot more than that.  The heart of the group is the four brother-team Muqim, Wahid, Najid and Mubin, my future guide, whom I have not yet met.

I have been in the ALT compound for nearly 24 hours and it is agonizing.  My view through the window is through a mesh of wires and for a broader view, I can go to the roof-top.  The internet was down for the last day and only up for about an hour today (after many hours of “fixing”), and then only intermittently.  I am going stir-crazy.  The reason I got here so early is that my flight from Tashkent only goes a couple of times per week.  It was either getting here early or exhausted and late.

Forming initial opinions about a new country based on trash, smoke, traffic and women will put Afghanistan towards the bottom.  Ann in one of her comments rightly put food on the list and I have to say, I am spoiled rotten from Uzbekistan.  Two weeks, and with the exception of Nukus, I got delicious and lovingly prepared breakfasts:  the soft round Uzbek bread with jam, butter, some lunch meat and cheese. Little dishes of joghurt, or sweet rice, fermented and curdled mare’s milk, a fried egg and perhaps, a few dried apricots.  All of this comes with either green or black tea.  The tea was neither green nor black and for my taste always on the weak side, but that would be my only complaint. Two weeks of soup and there was not one day when I did not get a filling, interesting, and wonderful meal.  Except for Nukus, where I had the same soup two days in a row, I had a different kind of soup the entire time.  I don’t know any of their names, but they were prepared with care, full of healthy ingredients and delicious.  And the plov dinner I had in the desert was phenomenal.  Overall, Uzbek cuisine is on the mild side.  I was reminded of that when on the Air India flight I was served a typically Indian, spicy cauliflower dish.  But Uzbek food was never bland or boring; just not hot-spicy.

And now Afghanistan:  There are no food shortages, but the sticky, plain rice dish I had last night was nothing in comparison with the plov in Uzbekistan.  And the bread, for breakfast; just forget it!  It was dry and came with a plain yoghurt dish, a hard-boiled egg and an apple.  There was nothing to put on the bread and there was no love in the preparation either.  I would have thought of this as perhaps just an isolated incident, had I not heard from Thomas at the Goethe Institute that he has already suffered through 6 weeks of horrible breakfasts.  It’s just not part of the culture, I guess.  I will hold overall judgment after traveling through the country.  Perhaps, it’s different in the rural areas.

I was looking for a destination which would not take away from the itinerary that will start on my official tour tomorrow:  I figured the Goethe Institute would be a great place to start to see how a cultural institution operates, perhaps, make some connections, and meet some people.  I asked to be taken there.

What Kabul looked like in earlier years, I will never know.  But it has become a fortified city with walled-in and barb-wired compounds.  Many walls have just recently been erected out of movable parts.  The Berlin Wall was once made in similar segments.  The wall between Israel and Palestine is built like it.  And Iraq is certainly full of it. It’s the same building block principle everywhere.  You can cover vulnerable openings like windows and doors quickly.  You can reinforce flimsy walls; and most importantly, you can create narrow zigzag corridors which are nearly impossible to overtake unless you come with super tanks.  The Goethe Institute is housed just behind such a wall.  I had to pass three check-points.  After I snapped three undetected pictures between check point one and two, I promptly had to surrender my camera.  My bag was inspected three times, and I had to cross security doors like in an airport.  Once inside the compound, you are in a different world.  There is a friendly house with class-rooms, offices, and lecture halls.  There is a lovely garden to sit in and even a little shop.  You are shielded from the street noise and might as well be on another planet!

First, I met Nasser, a young Afghan.  I explained that I was a teacher and curious to find out how life in Kabul is for an institution like the Goethe Institute.  He was happy to answer.   There are about 400 students (down from the over 1000, years ago) who study German mainly to emigrate to Germany.  Lectures and cultural programs are organized by the about 25 staff members of the institute.  Only two of the people who work there are native Germans; the others are Afghans.  I asked if I could sit in on the class in progress, but unfortunately, they were about to write a test.  That would have been a bit too boring.  Instead, I met Thomas, one of the native Germans.  He has been in Kabul for only 6 weeks of his 6 month contract.

He was the one who not only complained about his breakfast, but made a systemic point:  Life in Kabul is hugely expensive.  And because there are few alternatives, the people who run the expensive operations like guest houses, do not have to pay any attention to service.  Changing a broken light-bulb can take 6 days; a broken bed may never be fixed, etc.  But he felt that walking around Kabul, even as a foreigner is quite possible.  The odds of being kidnapped are still (overall) low.   We agreed on meeting again in two weeks, Nasser, Thomas, and I – to see how I experienced the rest of Afghanistan on my tour and for me to see if I would be daring enough to go out with them.  I was very happy to have met them.  This kind of local connection was just exactly what I had hoped for.

I had to call the driver again, to take me back.  Not only is Kabul a city of fortifications, it is also a city of beggars.  I saw more beggars in a 10 minute car drive than I saw in Uzbekistan the entire time.  No wonder, the war must have impoverished hundreds of thousands of people.  But it is hard to drive through desolation like this knowing how privileged I am.  In Uzbekistan, most people certainly were not rich.  But the poverty there did not translate into desolation or dehumanizing lives; here it does.

The contrast became even clearer when I asked to stop at a supermarket:  I passed the obligatory armed guard, entered a narrow dusty corridor, went up a few steps and found myself in a spic and span clean Western, fully stocked boutique-style grocery store!  This felt like going to the Intershop in East Germany (for those of you who may have lived through those days).   The owner of the store, behind the cashier’s desk welcomed me proudly.  “We did not have shops like this long ago”, he explained.  “I have had this for 5 years”.  He wanted his picture taken and then gave me as a present a few coins, hard to come by small Afghan bank notes – as a souvenir!  That was a fun experience even though I would have preferred the dusty old local grocery store at the corner every ordinary Afghan would go to, not the upper-class elite one.  But I guess, I will have many more chances.

In the evening, Maya and Huria, the two women on my floor went out for dinner to an Indian Restaurant.  They allowed me to come along.  At one point, we lost our way and there was a bakery shop with beautifully presented breads.  I went out to photograph it and Maya got very worried about me since cars were slowing down when I stood there, waiting my turn to get back in the car.  There is a level of anxiety and worry that is surprising.  I did not see anything dangerous in the situation, but Huria, as a native Afghan woman certainly knows better.  We had a fun evening chatting.  Both of these women had interesting lives and careers.  I wish I had more time to find out about Huria’s past.  I think she has experienced horrible things in this country.  But I did not feel right to ask too many questions.

These were the baby-steps I took today to venture out of my ALT compound.  Now it’s back to the confinement of my compound and a non-working internet.  After all that fixing this morning…

The weather is pleasant enough.  I might enjoy another cup of tea on the rooftop, listen to the muezzin calling from the mosque which is just a stone’s-throw away.  I might watch the turbaned men walking around in a garden across the street, or see the citadel at night.  I have a view of two old looking fortress-like structures.  If I had any idea where I am, I might be able to figure out what they are.

And I will have to watch my computer battery.  Three electric shut-downs have drained me already and you can’t be sure there will be enough time to recharge.  I am, after all, in Afghanistan.  That anything works surprises me.  And much of the infrastructure seems to work, most of the time, somehow.  There is as much gurgling and hissing in the lines as there is water.  There is water at times, but not at others – as the electric shutdowns also disable the water pumps.  But there is life in the streets and on the hills.  There is a surprising sense of normalcy.  Something that struck me like this last year in Baghdad as well.  People are resilient!

And from this long blog you can tell that I have little else to do.

Good night.

2012
05.20

SYNOPSIS:  EXIT FROM UZBEKISTAN AND TRANSIT TO KABUL VIA DELHI.  NICE PEOPLE AND NOT SO NICE ONES; BAD NEWS AND AN EARTHQUAKE.

I have never seen such an unruly bunch of people at any airport as in Tashkent at the check-in counter for my flight to Kabul via Delhi.  A mix of Indians and Uzbeks were pushing and shoving to get ahead.  I got elbowed from one line into another and another.  What looked like a single traveler in front of me suddenly turned into a “group” of some obvious family members, but then more.  It was a mad house.  Shouting matches broke out and actual physical pushing and shoving followed.  I kept my stoic “I don’t care, I am not in a hurry” attitude and eventually made it to the front.

Over the last couple of weeks, my luggage had gained another few pounds in souvenirs and I was presented with the prospect of a hefty fine payable only in dollars or Euro; and you may remember my strapped cash situation.  Worse yet, my luggage would not be checked through and I may face the same situation again in Delhi, potentially getting hit with two fines for the same trip!  I must have looked quite shocked and upset.  “How are you going to pay for this?” the clerk inquired.  “I have no idea” I said.  I have to count my money.  Will you take Sum, Visa card, mixed currency?  He proceeded with his paperwork.  “Where do I pay?”  He finally looked up, smiled, and said:  “My gift to you, no pay!”

Similarly pleasant was the dreaded exit from Uzbekistan.  This is a police state after all.  Even Uzbeks are not free to come and go, and need an exit visa!  Foreign visitors are advised to make absolutely sure that they have “registration” for the entire time of their visit.  That is an official notation from every hotel certifying the dates and duration of your stay. Boarding with a family is therefore almost impossible; at least very cumbersome, and entails registering on your own at certain few offices in each town.  Thankfully, I never had to do that.  But the officer hardly looked at my neatly stacked pack of registration slips.  A quick look at my visa and I had my stamp to go.  No question about taking anything out of the country either.  Rumor has it that some people have been harassed for the souvenirs they bought and accused that they were trying to export valuable and forbidden “antiques”.

The flight was short enough, about 2 hours, and by now it was past midnight.  You definitely know that you have changed cultures by the first sight of the New Delhi terminal:  A whole row of huge mudras (sacred hand gestures) are displayed above the check-in counters and the head of a big Hindu deity is displayed in one of the commercial areas:  Surya, the ancient sun god is radiating wisdom, enlightenment and justice according to the accompanying sign!

Upon arrival the rude pushing and shoving had started again, while departing the airplane.  What is it with you people?  The luggage will take forever to arrive, so what is the hurry?!  I followed the sign pointing to the luggage retrieval and realized that I would face a dilemma.  My luggage was “in India”.  I was still on neutral transit territory and had no visa to enter India.  Now what?!  To make a long story short, It took nearly 3 hours for my luggage to be on its way again (without any additional fines) and for me to have a boarding pass…  Four o’clock in the morning, still 8 more hours before the next departure.  But my Visa card got me out of this misery and I paid to stay for 6 hours in a transit hotel.  If I would have wanted to sleep or stay longer, I would have had to pay for another 3 or 6 hour stretch.  Crazy, it almost felt like a hotel of ill-repute where you pay by the hour.

The plane to Kabul was only half full with mainly Afghans returning home, and a few foreign workers, several of whom I had met on the Uzbek flight coming in.   Another uneventful 1.5 hours of flight and we landed in Kabul.  If the world would go round, there should have been a one hour flight from Tashkent to Kabul… but the world is not going round and most likely never quite will.

A huge poster welcomes the traveler walking from the airplane to the terminal:  A dark-silhouetted man with wide outstretched arms is facing a big Afghan mountain range and the huge letters read:  WELCOME IN THE LAND OF THE BRAVE!  How I would have liked to have a photograph of that!  But this was still security zone and I could not risk being in trouble within minutes.

I crossed my fingers and indeed, my luggage arrived.  Next, foreign visitors have to register with some plain-clothed officers who expect you to have two photographs of yourself at hand!  I wonder what happens if you don’t?  You have to fill out two registration forms which will be completed with your pictures stapled to them.  You keep one and the officer will retain one.  I imagine these two pieces of paper will be united again when I leave the country?!  I can only imagine the bureaucracy and organization this takes.  Wow.  No computer involved, no database, no quick cross-search, but two pieces of paper certifying that you have come and gone.

So far so good, but then I goofed.  I was supposed to meet my driver at parking area B and I ended up at parking area C…  I was surrounded by taxi drivers who offered me rides, but when they realized I was not going to go with any of them and that I had lost my pick-up, they swung into action:  Phone calls, offers of water, a place in the shade – they took care of me.  In the 20 minutes it took for my ride to arrive, I even refreshed some basic Farsi phrases with them.  It’s time now to get the Uzbek and Russian out of my head – back into Farsi.  Dari, which is spoken here, is practically a dialect of Farsi.  If my two semesters of Farsi at the UM were good for anything, than this.   I should be able to put what I have learned to good use.  When the Afghan Logistics Tour (ALT from here on out) driver arrived, I apologized to him in Farsi.

We drove through town and if you would not know that you are in a war-torn country, you could take Kabul for any other city in a developing country; dusty, lots of unfinished looking construction, military compounds, people and cars on the street.  We arrived at the ALT office, or better, at a solid stone wall with an iron gate.  The gate magically opened after a few seconds and we were greeted by an armed guard.  There was what looked like a car repair shop and many car stalls beneath two buildings.  I was taken into one of them, a narrow building with a full front of blue glass, facing inwards towards an equally narrow building with blue glass.  I was shown a room, and left…  Now what?

I had no feeling for where I was other than inside a very secure looking compound in a room that could have been anywhere in the world.  There was a bathroom, a bed, a closet, a desk, a TV, and a fan; all neat and relatively new looking.  There was a long, narrow corridor and four more rooms like mine.  There was a very corporate looking meeting room with a table full of self-serve dishes, tea, and coffee.  I had everything I needed for a while, but I felt a bit abandoned.  A while later I was greeted by Najid, the younger brother of Muqim, the CEO of ALT with whom I had booked my tour.  ALT is a family business, pretty much run, as I understand by four brothers.  I should just ask if I wanted anything.  If I wanted to go out, I would be given a driver (and charged for it, of course).  If I wanted to stay in, I could do that, too.  No problem, no problem.  He kept repeating that.  I would have preferred some sort of briefing.  Where am I?  What can and can I not do?  Where can and can I not go?  Will there be dinner?  One thing I knew for sure, I could stay in.  And for today, that’s just what I will do.

Later two women arrived who are sharing the corridor with me.  Both of them work for Amnesty International:  Maya and Huria.  Maya is British and Huria is Afghani, but she lives with her husband and children in London.  They should be good company for me.

What I have not mentioned is that Muqim, had informed me only two days ago, that travel to Bamiyan will not be possible.  Recent incidents on the only road to Bamiyan make it too dangerous to travel over land.  And there is no flight, no alternative way, short of a helicopter.  Bamiyan was the single-most important site I wanted to see in Afghanistan.  It was practically the only reason I ever wanted to come here.   I was so upset, that I would have canceled the entire trip if I had not already been way too deep into it.  Expensive flights already had been paid for.  A huge deposit was paid as well.  The offer to come next year was useless.  Who knows what next year’s situation will be?  If you ask me, things will go down hill in this country from here on out, especially after the allied forces withdraw their soldiers. I could not just cancel. But I felt that all the wind had been taken out of my sails.  What am I doing here if I cannot see Bamiyan?!

I was just explaining this all to Huria in the corporate looking conference room when the earth under us began to shake.  We looked at each other in disbelief and it shook again, the whole building!  And we were standing on the third floor of a narrow building with a full front of windows three feet from us…  Would there be more?  Should we run?  Should we crawl under that huge corporate wooden table?  But this was the end.  It was an earthquake!  And since it was just a little one and nothing happened, I will take this as the approving rumble of the earth that I should be here anyhow, Bamiyan or not.  I know I will see things, a lot of things.  I am sure I will learn things, more than I can imagine.  And as Nicola mentioned to me:  Focus not on what you can not do, but on what you can do!   Go Afghanistan!

Good night.

2012
05.19

SHORT POST TODAY:

This blog is dedicated in pictures to the Uzbek people I met and the thousands more whom I only saw on the street.  I loved the way the women and the men dressed, often still in part in their traditional garb.  I have encountered (almost) only friendliness, openness and hospitality.  I have never felt unsafe in this country or unwelcome.  Many of my architectural images lack people, as Ann in one of her early comments noticed.  That is deliberate.  But here, they finally are:  The wonderful people of Uzbekistan.

For myself, this is a slow day.  I am packing and sleeping as much as I can to get ready for a long, long overnight transit to Afghanistan.   Even though these two countries border on each other, there is no direct way to get from here to Kabul.  I have to fly through Delhi…

From here on out, posting on the blog is very questionable and likely sporadic if at all.  But I will write and photograph as I go along. Eventually, you will hear from me again.

No news is good news!  If there is bad news, David will know and post a note.

Hope to be back soon.  ET

2012
05.18

SYNOPSIS:  A VISIT AT THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS AND A VISIT AT THE INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF TASHKENT.  ABOUT MY EXPERIENCES AS A TOURIST AND ABOUT WHAT MORE LIKELY GOES ON IN REALITY.

I can’t even help it anymore, but I wake up at 5:45, the time the sun brightens the sky enough for my internal antenna to pick up that the night is over.  There really was no reason to get up this early, but what can I do?

I had a few loose ends to take care of today:  First, visit a museum.  Second, ride the Tashkent Subway.  Third, visit an English professor at the University of Tashkent.  Fourth, find good enough Uzbek currency to take home as souvenir (you have no idea in what condition some of the bills are which are in circulation here).  I succeeded.

There is a list of ten or more museums to choose from, and as an art historian, I settled for the most natural choice, the Fine Arts Museum.  I have complained so many times about the limited scope of museums in the Arab world (from Lebanon to Syria, from Egypt to Iraq) and even in Iran.  As I sweated my way downwards the four floors of the museum, I am happy to report that there was a section of Japanese and Chinese art and artifacts, there was room after room of European second-rate European art spanning the 15th to the 19th Century, including even a Rembrandt (maybe).  There were a few pieces of Russian avant-garde art, including two by Kandinsky.  There were the Russian classics, such as Repin and Volkov and there was a substantial section dedicated to Uzbek local artists, including folk art and crafts.  There were furniture, sculpture, painting, and crafts; there were architectural elements and ceramics.  It was an impressive spread.  The condition of many pieces was not great.  In fact, that Rembrandt (if it was not a painting of the school of Rembrandt) had been so badly patched up that it was visible to the naked eye.

I have to add though that the State of Uzbekistan cannot exactly be credited for amassing this collection.  As I read, it was confiscated from a cousin of the tsar, a Grand Duke Romanov.  But I credit the government for preserving and caring for it and for providing it as a teaching tool.  Case in point, as everywhere else, a class of school children was guided through the museum as I was there.  The building itself looked like nothing much from the outside, but was interesting inside.  Stone balconies with little “slits” here and there opened up to a central court, mirroring in a sense the local architecture.  I very much enjoyed this visit.

Tashkent is proud of its Metro, started in the 1970’s and expanded by now into a network of lines connecting the far-flung suburbs with the center and each other quickly and efficiently.  Just like I had seen decades earlier in Moscow, great pride is taken in decorating the individual stations.  My guidebook said there was no photography allowed and that I might have to show my passport to enter the metro!  I was not checked and nowhere did I see a no-photo sign.  But each entrance and each platform I stopped at had a police officer patrolling; what man-power!  But I managed to snap a few pictures hiding from the officer’s view for a few seconds.

And finally, I like to bring back currency from each country. It is so telling to figure out what is on a country’s money.  You can tell a lot about values and history that way.  One dollar translates into about 2000-2800 Som, depending on where you exchange it.  But the largest bill I have seen in circulation is 1000 sum, less than 50 cents.  Imagine paying a hotel bill of $120 as I just did in the local currency!  People here literally carry stacks of money.  And they have a very distinguished and uniform way of counting.  Most of the bills less than 1000 sum are worn and torn.  It was no small matter to find some relatively decent bills, not knowing the language.  Everyone thought I was trying to exchange dollars and nobody could grasp the idea that I wanted to exchange ugly into pretty bills.  But I finally managed.

Through a friend, I had been put in touch with an English professor from the International University of Tashkent.  I had hoped that I would be able to get a bit of a tour of the institution as I am always curious about other places of higher education.  But already from the email exchange I could tell that this man was awfully busy.  I was able in rapid succession to ask him a series of questions but after ½ hour it was clear that he had to move on to other more pressing appointments.  I was grateful for at least this bit of time as he confirmed one thing I had suspected all along:  Daily life of Uzbeks is a lot more complicated than it appears on the surface to me as a tourist.

From my perspective, Uzbekistan is a clean, well-run, tourist-friendly, service-oriented, safe, and interesting country full of wonderful things to experience.  And that is how you would find it if you came here.  But beneath the surface, there is a still corrupt bureaucracy, there are high prices and low salaries, there is lack of work, there is a police state conflicting with tribal values, there is a rise in religiosity and religious extremism in a country proud of its secularity, there are incidents of human-rights violations and there is a general exodus of the population into other parts of the world, including Israel, the United States and Asia.  All this is invisible to me.  I travel in an elite status and many of the people I interact with in the small, privately-owned hotels where I stayed are already part of a new entrepreneur upper middle class.  This certainly does not come as a surprise; a tourist is just a tourist after all.  It is still good to remind myself that as much as I learned traveling in this part of the world, there is much, much more that I missed.

This was my first encounter with a Central Asian country.  Common denominator between the Arab world, Turks, Persians, and Central Asians is Islam.  But culturally and ethnically, the differences between these people are vast and run deep.

I am always moved when I am allowed to experience another of the colorful facets of humanity this world has produced and I am grateful that so far I continue to have the means, the health, and the opportunity to do so.  And as every night, I thank my pantheon for keeping me safe.

Good night.

2012
05.17

DAY 15 – FLIGHT

SYNOPSIS: A FLIGHT BACK TO SAMARKAND AND A DAY OF CATCHING UP WITH LAUNDRY AND BLOG. IN OTHER WORDS: NOTHING INTERESTING TO READ ABOUT.

Why don’t I follow my own advice? Planning never pays. For some odd reason I had decided to book a flight from Samarkand to Tashkent as part of my flight package back home. Of course, I could have just skipped it, but as my cash is dwindling, I would have had to dish out additional travel money and I would rather buy another miniature. But what was I thinking? There are trains and this would have been the way to experience another local way of transport! In fact, if anyone is reading this blog who might come to Uzbekistan some day here is my advice: Take as many trains as possible and avoid those bumpy roads. There should be one between Bukhara and Samarkand. And there certainly is one between Samarkand and Tashkent.

Instead I flew. Funny enough, my itinerary said that my flight would leave at 10:05 AM and arrive in Tashkent 55 minutes later. The fact of the matter was that the flight already left at 9:35 AM and got to Tashkent in a mere 25 minutes! I am glad I did not miss it altogether. The plane was about ¼ full and flew as low as I have ever flown in any commercial flight. I could see the landscape the entire duration of the flight. In fact, we flew so low that villages, even houses could be made out from the air. That meant, at least I did not miss out on the landscape.

I was impressed by the totality of cultivation between Samarkand and Tashkent. There was not a strip of land that was not tended to, that had not been plowed, or worked at. Some fields already had green crops; others only showed the plowing lines. I wondered about the water supply. For many areas it must be ground water. Only a few rivers slid through the landscape like brown snakes. Villages were neatly clustered. There was none of the urban sprawl we are so used to in the States.

I went back to the same hotel I had started out with, the Sam Buh. It is on the pricy side (that is for Uzbekistan standards), but I knew what I would get, I knew there would be room, and I knew it was close to the airport. But most importantly, I knew that it had a reliable internet connection! I recalled my first taxi ride with the Frenchies and how I got conned into paying $20 for the trip. This time, I negotiated a much fairer $5.

It is amazing how fast these last 15 days have passed. I would have liked to spend another 15 days here to see three more regions and if I would plan this trip over, I would make sure to have 25-30 days total to do this country more justice:

First, the South-East corner and the border city of Termez: That is the one Fatima and Furkat talked me out of because the military may prevent me from getting to the Buddhist sites just like they prevented me from seeing the Petroglyphs without proper documentation. It also would have added 1000km to my trip at considerable cost in time and money. It would have been exhausting.

Second, a corner I really would have liked to explore is the North-East, an area called Ferghana Valley. It is known as the hot-bed of fundamental Islam and had its share of violent incidents and clashes between government and Islamists. But it is also known for its silk production and for its unique ethnic makeup. Everyone in Uzbekistan is obviously Uzbek in terms of nationality. But in ethnic terms, most Uzbeks everywhere else are a mix of Tadjiks, Turkic people, North Koreans (there are historical reasons for that), Russians, and Uzbeks. In Ferghana, there are predominantly Uzbek Uzbeks.

Third, from Nukus I would have liked to take a day or two excursion to explore the shrinking Aral Sea and to see for myself the economic disaster created by the drainage of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya

But aside from those three areas all of which are off the beaten path, I definitely saw the most important silk-road sites, for which Uzbekistan is rightly famous. And I had the bonus of Nukus and Nurata. For six hours I processed images and wrote today. About 8 more hours of that, and I will be caught up with the blog … a beautiful little corner restaurant run by Russians, provided the setting where I spent those hours working, drinking tea and eating yet another delicious soup. This time, I even spoiled myself with a glass of wine. But it was not good.

All my laundry is washed and I am getting ready for the next stretch of the trip. But tomorrow, there will be one more day in Tashkent.

Good night.