SYNOPSIS: ABOUT HIKING ALONG THE ANCIENT CITADEL WALLS IN KABUL, A VISIT TO BABUR’S GARDEN AND NEIL’S DECISION TO LEAVE EARLY (WHICH LEAVES ME AS A LONE TRAVELER AGAIN).
If we had actually some important sight-seeing to do, it could be quite disturbing to leave the hotel at 9 AM with Mubin only to find out that we will go boot-shopping! Mubin needed hiking shoes for our walk and we were his entourage for the task. But really, we don’t have anything important to do; the hike planned for today will at the most take us 5 hours and we were just as happy (or unhappy) to stand around in the market.
That’s where Neil made his surprise announcement: He was leaving! He asked me if I was OK with it and to his credit I assume that if I had begged him or felt in any way uncomfortable without him, he would have stayed. Neil is as unhappy as I am with the loss of not only the Minaret of Jam (we knew that all along), but his favorite part of the trip: Band-e-Amir, the spectacular nature preserve near Bamiyan and of course, the loss of Bamiyan itself. Our trip has been gutted; there is no question about it. We are standing around in a shoe market and are on our way to yet another rocky hill, just to prove the point… As I am still trying to look at my glass as half full, for Neil it was definitely half empty. I respect his decision and if I was on limited time, I would probably do the same thing. But thankfully, I do have time. I will take what is left to broaden my horizon on Afghanistan in any whatever little way possible. But it hurts to think that this is the most expensive trip I have ever done (without any funding whatsoever) and so little will come of it.
Neil asked for a stop at the airline office. And so we waited around for another hour, unsuspecting Mubin, his crew and I, for Neil to take care of his flight out, first thing tomorrow morning!
And then we were off to the other side of Kabul to start our hike at the bottom of Bala Hissar Citadel. We hiked up and along the two kilometers of the ancient preserved city wall which kept out so many invaders so successfully over time. Our final destination was the tomb of Babur in Babur’s Garden. Two kilometers sounds so manageable, but I was huffing and puffing, tripping and stumbling along, and slipping and sliding down. I joked around with Mubin asking him if he thought I was a mountain goat! It took us a full four hours, with lots of brief rests just to catch our breath at this altitude (2000 meters/6000 feet) and a nice big food break. About two hours into this I wanted to despair as I had completely underestimated the effect of the sun beating down at us with nowhere to escape into the shade. Here and there, I found a pocket of shade for a few minutes, in a hole in the wall, next to a pile of rocks, etc. but it was not enough. I survive in these countries only by avoiding sun at all costs and seeking shade whenever possible. And just like a miracle, there came a cloud! Long and narrow and going just in the right direction, slowly sliding over us the long way, shielding us from the midday heat for more than an hour. Thanks Ganesh, that’s what I call manifesting!
We passed a bunch of workers building a high-up water tank. We passed by a military watch station from where two puppies followed us and we went through a very poor neighborhood on our way up and down. Other than that, up there was nobody. The views over Kabul were fantastic. Again, you could see down on both sides of the slope. It was like the first “bean” impression of Kabul I had from up the TV Mountain (Day 20). But this time I realized that there are several of these mountain slopes around which Kabul is spreading in “multiple beans”.
This was a good walk. Neil enjoyed it and we both were happy to be above and away from the city, the dirt, the barbed wires, and the walls. Just as I was getting to know him a bit better, he was leaving. It was really too bad. But he had made his decision, not in a rush but over a couple of days. And even this walk could not convince him to stay, or to hold out for a few more worthwhile experiences.
The climax of the day for me was a visit to Babur’s tomb and gardens. This is the Mongol invader Babur whose dynasty brought forth such illustrious figures as Shah Jahan, or Jahangir. His empire had once stretched as far as Kabul and that is where he requested to be buried. His simple marble tomb lies at the peak of a sloping garden of significant size (11 hectares [27 acres]), laid out completely symmetrically, I am sure in reference of descriptions of paradise. The garden is lavishly landscaped with roses and trees and kept immaculately clean.
This area, the garden included, was the site of numerous bombings that left the place in desolate shape. Only recently, did it get its facelift by the AKTC, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. A sign poignantly stated that the future of the garden is now left in the hands of its users, the people of Kabul. One can only hope that they will take good care of it. A 20 Afghan entrance fee (40 Cents) compares interestingly to the 350 Afghan for us ($7); but if this money is put to good use, why not? The garden also houses the palace of a former ruler of Afghanistan, which is currently under renovation. And next to the tomb of Babur a small marble mosque speaks of the relationship to such famed buildings like the Taj Mahal with the same white marble and cusped arches but lacking any inlays or decoration. It was really remarkable how simple, tasteful and humble this grave site was.
Mubin, Neil and I had out last supper at a small garden restaurant which served an interesting variety of American (Burgers), Chinese, Indian, and Afghani food. Neil broke the news about his early morning flight to Mubin who really did not want to believe what was happening, but he accepted it.
And so went another day in Kabul that was meant to be spent at Bamiyan. It was a good day.