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.

5 comments so far

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  1. Sad and disapointed. But I like your attitude. The Buddha would be proud.

  2. Someone less optimistic than you would have taken the “rumble” as a disapproving sign that they should not be there. Love your outlook! Go ET!

  3. I’m sure that another wonderful adventure awaits you – just a different road than you ever expected to travel. Good luck!

  4. Thinking about ya! Great photos of all the women! Love her Red Dress, ( from yesterday). What a kick in the pants about not getting to Bamiyan, maybe something will become safer while you are there and you will be able to get over there. Be Safe, Have Fun, Enjoy!
    Ps. We moved in yesterday! Looking forward to drinks on the deck!

  5. Wow…your arrival at the ALT compound sounded like something out of a science fiction novel…I can just see the buildings in my mind’s eye. And then an earthquake…other-wordly for sure.
    Even if you don’t get to Bamiyan, you will see so much we only have heard about in the news…and that from a news media which probably covers up most of the truth.
    Remember my critique paper on the Monuments and Cultures course…I mentioned perhaps a Buddhist monument as being a possible contender for inclusion…well Bamiyan would certainly be interesting…maybe as an adjunct to the 9/11 Memorial. Wow…that sounds kind of heavy!!! In NY, destruction followed by hope/memorial. In Bamiyan, Afghanistan, destruction followed by something entirely different! Kind of makes my head swim!