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.