I see Mr Key made a flying visit to Afghanistan the other day. Personally I completely understand the secrecy surrounding his visit- I didn’t tell my parents till after I got back home either. I was impressed how well they took the news, given their usual level of concern surrounding my travels in calmer areas and was highly amused to have my father offer to put me in touch with any contacts he might have there next time, if I told him in advance – his response when I ventured that we might go back in May? To paraphrase politely, it was along the lines of “don’t you bloody dare!”.
I have to say, my four day visit in January this year (we left about 36 hours before one of the biggest attacks on Kabul in the past year) was one of my most favourite holidays of all time. It’s not every day you are escorted round by a former General and national war hero who infiltrated the Taleban, stole a Russian fighter from them, shot down several of their bombers over Kabul, strafed them on the ground, and landed safely. Hats off to the General!
We bought Herati kilims (a type of carpet) on Chicken Street, visited the Darulaman Palace and Baburs gardens, ate out at a fabulous Lebanese restaurant (best kibbeh I’ve had anywhere in the Middle East), went drinking with contractors and CIA boys at L’Atmosphere (who knew there were bars in Kabul?), visited a military airbase (whoops, not really allowed), drove past the famous Hotel Serena (bombed in the attack after we left) and stopped in at the Kabul Museum. Sadly there wasn’t much to see as a great deal of the collection was travelling, or locked up in the basement at the time. Robert Fisk has a column on the collection here.
One of the contractors we stayed with nearly got me arrested after telling me I could take a photo of a mini-drawbridge outside a CIA building – I checked three times then took the photo…big mistake, but luckily it was only a residence building and the guard let me go – and I got to keep the photo. We had Blackwater over the back fence from our villa – the evacuation plan involved heading straight into their compound.
The General was also kind enough to take us out to his home village in the inimitable Panjshir Valley (see also here) which was the highlight for both me and my travel companion. Although eating whole, deep fried baby trout (complete with fins, teeth, heads…you name it) was interesting on a hangover. Travel Companion and Other Visitor (a former bodyguard of the British royal family who trained up the new Iraqi equivalent of SWAT teams who was staying at the same villa and accompanied me on the trip) had a great old chuckle watching me grimace out a smile of pleasure for the General after chomping off the whole head to start – not that either of them were game enough to eat the heads! After the first, I stuck to picking off the flesh- you can’t beat baby trout fresh from the river an hour ago.
The Valley has a proud history, being the only part of Afghanistan that the Russians were never able to conquer…nor the Talib…and nor anyone else. It’s long and fairly narrow, guarded by steep high mountains that look like they belong on a box of Swiss chocolates all the way down and a river runs though, and our General seemed to know pretty much every inhabitant we passed. It was a treat to visit his village and meet his brother (no English but extraordinarily cordial) and what seemed like dozens of nephews and nieces (also no English, but gorgeous kids, shy and super friendly at the same time), and see the well that Weston Solutions had built there at the General’s request, saving villagers a couple of kilometre trek to the nearest water source each day. Drinking from the mountain spring was divine – the complete opposite of swallowing a few mouthfuls of water in Kabul, before I decided to stick to bottled water. In Kabul it literally tasted like effluent.
We stopped sevreal times on the drive and I had a great old time climbing all over abandoned tanks and anti-aircraft artillery- we even found an old tank from WWII, which the Other Visitor was rather excited about. We also visited the tomb of Massoud (which looks nothing like the pictures on Wikipedia) and saw the wind farm built by Kiwi Tony Wood in the valley in 2008. The General was very sombre at Massoud’s tomb, having known him personally, and fought with him against the Russians, and as he reflected on where Afghanistan might have been today had Massoud not been assissinated in 2001.
The Valley was utterly beautiful and Travel Companion was very tempted to come back over her Summer break and spend a month teaching the village children English. I was pleased to pull out some Farsi from many years ago, which is almost identical to Dari, spoken in Afghanistan, and which went down well everywhere- gave me some practice for my trip to Iran in February too.
Three things we missed out on – a visit to the mountains and Gardez pass (safety measures came in here as there had been unrest and attacks on convoys recently, and also time), a visit with an emerald dealer (cheap and quality similar to Columbian emeralds) and finally a trip over to Bamiyan (an army friend of mine who served there a couple of years ago gave me a contact at our base and assured me of a warm welcome – he said they came accross a couple of Kiwi tourists (generally hikers) in his time there and always gave them a meal).
Next time we hope! The General has offered to fly us by helicoptor to Bamiyan for a visit if we come back (he thinks he can borrow one from the Americans, and given his status in Afghanistan, he quite possibly can), and has also invited us to visit his family in Tajikstan later this year. Now it’s just a matter of scrounging up some more leave…