|Herat, as seen from the citadel.|
Afghanistan is the 10th least visited country in the world. Go figure. Then again, I always thought it would be even less visited. Not because of its beauty, cold mountains and fantastic scenery, but because of regular bombings, terrorist attacks and being the home turf of Taliban. War zone tourism never really did catch on.
|Me, drinking tea with a tomb guard.|
- Asbjørn, can you fix me a beer?
Marius soon picked up on the art of frequent nagging our newly appointed fixer.
- Yes, and don't forget to fix-shine my shoes, fix-iron my war shirt and fix-taste that my food hasn't been poisoned.
Admittedly, I was probably far worse than Marius.
Entering AfghanistanThe three of us flew in to Mashad in Iran. Entering via an airport enabled us to get a visa on arrival. A single entry one. Take note, travelling overland into Iran does not give you the same privilege. No visas are issued at land based border posts.
On the plane to Iran, we met an friendly Afghan guy. He was heading our way, to Herat in northern Afghanistan. We shared a car there. Our visas to Afghanistan were safely stamped inside our passports, but we didn't have visas to get back to Iran where we would meet my brother five days later before continuing to Turkmenistan.
|Marius (left) putting on the bravest of faces while walking|
into Afghanistan. Let's see if we can find a taxi.
I think he did. Afghanistan is a photographers paradise. Marius is a photographer. He shot hundreds.
We met Maroof and his brother outside Herat, after having crossed the border. The the two locals asked if we needed a ride. They even agreed to drive us around for our entire stay, and we soon realized that they took personal pride in our safety. Much appreciated, although that task must have taken its toll with us exploring various neighbourhoods as if there would be no tomorrow.
|THE hotel, Herat.|
What to do in Herat
|Close up of tiles at the mosque.|
Herat also used to have many minarets, but most of them have fallen thanks to the unstable foundations of the ancient city. A lot of heavy traffic on the circle road around it certainly hasn't helped either, but at least the Fifth Minaret is still standing. It gives you a chance to see such a historic structure in relatively good shape.
There are also mountains outside town, but we were given polite suggestions of not going there. Kidnappings had recently occured. We listened. Especially Marius. We didn't go.
And of course, the market. Amazing fruit, traditional carpets, cooking utensils, leather shoes, ornaments and burqas. One particular burqa shop, exhibiting nothing but blue burqas, somehow caught our attention.
|Me in Herat. Photo: Marius Arnesen.|
Both Marius and Asbjørn are bigger than me. They both had girlfriends at the time. Both girlfriends were allegedly my size. For some kinky reason or another they wanted to buy burqas as presents to their girlfriends. Do not ask why. Needless to say, I had to try them on. I have ever since struggled with mental images of what the burqas I wore have since been used for. And as a bonus, a photograph Marius took of me with the burqa on has since appeared on the front page of a French newspaper with the photo caption "Close up of Afghan woman. Photo: Marius Arnesen." Thanks, mate!
|Fancy a pan?|
Getting back out
|Me trying to fight my way to the visa window.|
Photo: Marius Arnesen.
|- Do you need to get somewhere fast?|
- How soon do you need the visa, sir.
- Tomorrow. Or in maximum two days.
- I am sorry, sir. That is impossible. It will take at least a week.
- A week?
|- Or in style?|
- I really want to help you, sir. Come back when you have completed them, please. I will see what I can do.
We quickly filled out the forms, and I jumped the queue again. Even fewer smiles this time around. A fair amount of the next three days was spent nearby Herat's Iranian consulate. They needed two photographs and a copy of the application form (photographers and copy shops were conveniently located across the street - no discounts were offered). Theconsulate staff wanted to know about our parents' religious backgrounds. I then had money in cash, but the consulate demanded that it was deposited into it's bank account. Which could only be done through a specific bank in town. They later demanded proof of payment. And a negative HIV test. We had to find a clinic to have our HIV tests taken. I will from now on carry a negative HIV test in my pocket for such future instances. The hygiene level of the clinic seemed to be good, and the needles used for the blood tests look reasonably clean.
- If we don't currently have HIV, I am sure that we'll get it here, Asbjørn joked.
Neither Marius nor I laughed.
|The workers are busy working. Honestly.|
- We have what we need. Please come to the entrance door.
Wow, a breakthrough! No more back-busting-tiny-window-in-a-wall correspondence. Marius looked particularly happy. I knocked and stated our names and nationality when asked to do so. A porter let us in to a waiting room. There were 9 people already there. It turned out to be interrogation time. On an individual basis. No chance to make sure our stories matched.
I was first up. I was taken into a big room. There was a desk. Some big man was seated behind it. I tried to shake his hand, but he wasn't having it. He even knew what he was doing or had seen too many shady Russian cop shows. He pointed at a little chair by the opposite wall and touched his well-trimmed moustache.
- What are you doing in Afghanistan?
He asked calmly. We had entered on a journalist visa, but I somehow didn't think that was the right time to reveal that particular technicality.
- We are here as tourists to see the beautiful city of Herat and the scenic surrounding areas. We have heard so much about it. Great place!
He hit his fist on the desk.
|Locals watching tourists. There aren't|
supposed to be any of them in Afghanistan.
He clearly wasn't finished despite his two long seconds of silence.
- Are you a spy?
I decided this was not the time for bad jokes, but I stuck to my story and explained that we wanted to explore for ourselves this country we only heard awful things about in western media. As tourists. He probably didn't believed a second of it. Then again, he had two others to interrogate. I still stayed there for another 20 minutes, telling about other trips, and that we had already travelled a lot to a number of unusual destinations.
|Maroof, Marius and Asbjørn.|
- And you think that will make us look like anything but spies?
Asbjørn questioned my cunning plan of synchronized stories before he was called in. Having returned from his 15 minutes of Iranian consulate fame, Marius told me that he had received some of the same questions as me and that he too had reassured the Iranian that we were only tourists.
|Dr. Vodka (aka. Asbjørn) with his sleaziest smile. |
Photo: Marius Arnesen.
- He shook my hand and just laughed. Are you really here as tourists, he asked me? Before shaking his hand and calling us you crazy, crazy guys!
Just one more wait later, and we had our passports in hand. With the precious Iranian visa in it. Marius looked 10 years younger.
Time to relaxWith our return sorted, we had time to properly act as tourists in Herat. We had seen the citadel and the mosque between consulate action earlier, and we decided it was finally time to get postcards. But where do you get postcards in a country without tourists?
|One of the minarets in Herat.|
Good stuff, but of course the friendly shop owner didn't have stamps.
- Try the post office, he suggested.
A groundbreaking idea. Maroof drove us there. We walked across the big courtyard and into a building. We found a counter in a dark room in the back. No one there spoke English. We showed the postcards, and asked for stamps. Our requests were returned by headshaking. Maroof started translating. He told us that we couldn't send anything without an envelope.
- But they are postcards. They don't need envelopes. They are designed to be envelope independent, I tried to explain.
|Asbjørn, Maroof, Marius and border guards.|
Almost back in Iran.
|Marius back in Afghanistan. Slightly more confident.|
Photo: Marius Arnesen (or a colleague, rather).
And Marius? He has been back to Afghanistan half a dozen times. Well protected by the Norwegian army while filming news reporters and making award winning television documentaries about the Norwegian operations there. On his next visits he had his return visas sorted out in advance.
I don't blame him.
|A typical Silk Road styled mosque.|
|Visible signs of the Soviets. The building in the |
back is for weddings and other parties.
|A little village between Herat and the Iranian border.|