Kabul Calling

A man rides his bicycle on a cold afternoon on the outskirts of Kabul April 1, 2014. The Afghan capital is slowly rebuilding after decades of war. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

The once war-torn city is nearly ready for business

BY Robin Mills and Habiba Hamid

We still can’t work out whether or not Kabul actually wants tourists. It’s not as though the city’s residents are not welcoming—they are, entirely. But you’d never know it from the visa process. The ambassador relented and allowed us in, after what was one of the most gentle interrogations that we have had to encounter. Why go to Kabul? Why, indeed.
We flew Fly Dubai and Safi Airways from Dubai. Both are excellent, low cost airlines that put their European antecedents to shame. Great food and the legroom was good, cattle class. Flying over the Pahjwok Mountains is an indescribable experience, about an hour after you leave the Gulf. In the Quran, it is said that mountains hem the earth and hold them steady.

Afghanistan does this. It levels any visitor, conqueror or invader, and reminds them of the inconsequential minutiae that shape lives. You surrender to the majesty of its valleys, its verdant steppes and striking purple hues. Mulberries and mellow grapes, replanted post-Taliban across pastures with mountains that lean over them. Plains that melt orchards and then into snow-capped mountains, with mists that settle over interlocking spurs and crests of rock.

So it was that we ended up in Kabul, a city recovering from decades of war. We didn’t use bodyguards or armored vehicles. The management style of the Intercontinental, where a few of us stayed, can be best described as inept. It’s arguably Kabul’s best—it’s certainly clean, secure and well appointed, but a nightmare to book. The hotel genuinely doesn’t seem to want guests; no bank cards are accepted, no ATM sits on the premises, and they can’t change currencies. But then things got better.

To walk through Bagh-e-Babur, the Gardens of Babur, is to walk through history. The gardens have it! Green-fingered and creative, Kabulis seem to have a yearning for beautifully tended gardens and roads, parks and walkways and the integration of horticulture with the architecture of the commons.

“How can one forget the pleasures of that country?” said Babur of Kabul, the base from which he went on to found the Mughal Empire in India in the 16th century. His austere tomb lies atop the walled gardens he had fashioned; beautiful rows of fountains and rivers that cultivate its green spaces. Tadpoles meander in the green waters of a pond from which water runs down through the gardens, a classic synthesis of Persian and Mughal architecture. Today, Afghan families, women, children and sometimes couples stroll and picnic under the trees in the pleasantly warm spring weather. Next to Babur’s tomb is a small mosque built by his great-grandson, Shah Jahan, wrought with pendant marble reminiscent in miniature of his masterwork the Taj Mahal.

The garden is a quiet refuge from the jauntiness of downtown Kabul, with its gaudy wedding halls and new stores proclaiming “Emirates this”-and “Jumeirah that!” Pollution, bustling traffic, potholed roads; and ever-present armed police, blast walls, security checkpoints, metal detectors and body-searches feature throughout Kabul’s streets. Beyond them lie the lands of the Hazara people, and Bamiyan where the famous Buddha statues once stood.

Often in a hostile environment, you’ll find many understandably wary of being photographed. It’s never easy to judge the intent of someone snapping away in an ostensibly conflict-ridden zone after all. On the contrary however, Kabulis are more than happy to share a cigarette, pose for a good photo and talk about their crops with you.

At the Darul Aman Palace, steel ribs jut out from the shattered roof; brickwork is pockmarked by bullet holes; and carved stone lion-heads have lost their bodies, wrecked by fighting between mujahidin factions after the Soviet withdrawal.

The National Museum of Afghanistan next door preserves Greek and Buddhist statues, carvings restored after being pulverized by Taliban looters, and—a true museum piece—an Ericsson mobile phone once belonging to former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. A poster reminds us that “A Nation Stays Alive When Its Culture Stays Alive.”

Visiting the museum is obligatory, as is Chicken Street which has a carpet vendor to shame all carpet vendors. Once a lively souvenir district in the 1960s for those on the travelers’ trail, after the Taliban, aid workers and United Nations personnel came and went, there are now almost no foreigners to be seen. The softly-spoken Wahid Abdullah owns the Herat Carpet Center. A true connoisseur, he has sometimes declined to sell special carpets to unsuitable owners. Among traditional designs from Herati, Uzbek, Turkmen, and nomad tribes, are some of modern inspiration: One kilim features Soviet tanks, and another’s abstract geometry resolves itself into U.S. drones.

Nearby, other stores showcase Afghanistan’s wealth in surprisingly affordable gems: the intense blue lapis lazuli, most associated with the country, along with turquoise, sapphire, and emerald. The upright owner of one, Haji Noorullah, stayed throughout the Taliban occupation, selling leather, before opening his jewellery shop after they were driven out.

The Shomali Plain, previously ravaged by the Taliban in a scorched earth campaign, is now surprisingly green and lush with grapevines. The famous U.S. airbase at Bagram lies to the north of Kabul, a blimp tethered over it keeping watch from the skies. At Charikar, scenic houses cling above a fast-flowing river, and the road parts, one way to the north, Tajikistan and China, and the other way up the famous Panjshir Valley, where the river descends from the Hindu Kush.

For lunch, by the idyllic Qargha Lake, we eat kabuli pilau—steamed rice and lamb topped with slivered carrots, pistachios and raisins—and drink doogh (salted yoghurt). We head out west to the hills of Paghman, whose famous gate adorns the Afghan flag. The palace is closed; President Ashraf Ghani, the noted development economist and latest leader to grapple with ruling Afghanistan, is holding court. We traverse an orchard of apple trees and cherry blossoms. An old villager tells us they have no electricity, but adds reassuringly, “Na Taliban, na Daesh.”

The mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Massoud is still unfinished, its quiet open spaces overlooking the green terraces of the valley, dotted with pistachio trees. Massoud repeatedly repelled the Soviets from the Panjshir, and later fought the Taliban, before he was assassinated by a suicide bomber two days before September 11, 2001. The charismatic leader’s portrait is accompanied by a quotation expressing his wish to see an Afghanistan uniting all tribes, languages, religions and sects. Would the country have turned out differently were he still alive? A collection of rusting Soviet weaponry, captured by the mujahidin, recalls Babur’s injunction, “We conquered the world with bravery and might, but we did not take it with us to the grave.”

Kabul’s security is shaky; sporadic bombing incidents throughout the winter months pepper the city and ensures that Kabul still holds its breath. But Afghans are building, building, building. Wherever they can make an improvement to something, up goes a building, here a joist, there a cement piling; in anticipation and readiness for prosperity.
The day after we return, Kabul is struck by an earthquake, then by a devastating Taliban car bomb. But we will not forget the country: the landscapes, heritage, food, and the courtesy, humor and endurance of its people

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