The Different Faces of Afghanistan

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May 28th 2013
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The bright sun beat down onto the metal bridge that reverberated every time I planted my foot. Each laboured step weighted by my two backpacks took me closer to Tajik border post, where a fluttering flag stood atop a simple rectangular metal shed. Surrounding me were bare white rocks scattered across an equally pale ground that glared brightly into my eyes.

I glanced to my left and my attention was arrested by the stupendous peaks of the Hindu Kush, where mountains in excess of 7000 metres cut through the cloudless blue sky. Apart from the breeze, everything was eerily quiet – it truly felt I was crossing a border at the outmost edge of civilisation.

I arrived at the Tajik building via a short flight of metal stairs, where commenced a detailed search through my baggage for prohibited items. This process was overseen by several border guards with spare time on this quiet crossing. With the search completed, I repacked my bags and proceeded to the passport officer in the next room. He scrutinised my passport, copying down the necessary details as there were no electronic scanners. After a prolonged wait, he grimly stamped my exit from the country, which coincided with arrival of a young solider with freshly made tea. The customs official offered me a cup and we stood together sipping tea as if to commemorate my departure from Tajikistan.

I strode from the building towards a similar one only 100 metres away, but with an Afghan flag flying from its roof. I could feel the excitement rise within me – it was exhilarating. I recall a recent comment by fellow blogger, Anastasia78, who said that I had an adrenalin addiction – perhaps she is correct.

Entering customs saw a more thorough baggage search – clothes, books, my cross from Almaty’s Zenkov Cathedral, computer, camera – all was laid out for the cluster of security people to see. Everything though was cordial and the Afghan border guards were welcoming and enthusiastic about my arrival. For the second time in thirty minutes, I repacked my bags and moved to face a friendly and talkative passport control officer. He was slightly confused about my origin:
“Where you come from?” he spoke in slow, deliberate English.
“Australia” was my reply.
“No, Australia.”
“Yes, Austria.”
I produced my passport and pointed to the kangaroo on the cover. “Kangaroo, Australia!” I stated.
“Ah, Australia!” he said in realisation
A laminated map sat against the wall, so I pointed to Australia and identified the cities – Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney...
“Sydney!” he exclaimed.
Sydney and kangaroos – the two most identifiable Australian icons; guaranteed to distinguish my origin as being from the Antipodes rather than Europe.

Another period of waiting ensued as documents were filled and details checked. The thud of stamp against paper informed me that the process was concluded, and after a shake of the hand I departed.

A baby-faced soldier led me through a narrow fenced corridor towards a metal gate, which he swung open as I approached. Nodding in thanks, my foot stepped on Afghan soil and my fist punched the air in triumphal excitement – I had entered Afghanistan!

Awaiting me was Hameed, my young blue-eyed guide for much of this journey. We entered a battered vehicle complete with cracked windscreen, and my first experience of Afghan roads showed their condition was far worse than those in Tajikistan. We were physically shaken around the cabin as our transport jumped across the rough surface.

Shortly after my arrival, the sun disappeared behind threatening clouds that brought a bitter wind blowing from the mountains, so I hurried to the guesthouse which held fine views of Ishkashim and its surrounds. That evening was particularly cold and I hoped this was not a precursor of the week’s weather. Thankfully, the following morning saw brilliant blue skies, puffy white clouds and a fresh layer of snow on the nearby peaks. Though being the first days of summer, it was still cold enough to bring snow.

Such better weather allowed a prolonged visit to Ishkashim, the entry point for all travel into the Wakhan Corridor, where I would travel the following day. It is rare for a place to be exactly as one’s imaginings, but Ishkashim was one of those places. The town is a loose collection of flat-roofed buildings sprayed across the countryside, but the sole semblance of a main street hosts the bazaar, the only market of note for hours in any direction. Running through two main streets and several smaller side ones, they are lined by square shops, many with flimsy canopies to protect them from the elements, but the dust from the dirt streets was a constant annoyance, kicked up by frequent winds or occasional vehicle. After lunch prayers shopkeepers would water the street section in front of them with buckets to provide some respite.

The bazaar was filled with men wearing loose fitting earthy coloured, black or white garments with a variety of headwear. Shopkeepers would recline on the floor or sit on plastic chairs in their stalls, usually totally covered with their wares. Consuming tea was a common pursuit, and adjacent stall owners would gather in the roomiest shop to share a drink and conversation. Another popular pursuit was chess and a variation of checkers called shatran.

As with any destination, you can approach a place as an observer or a participant. Whilst watching a game of shatran by the side of the street, I was invited to challenge the champion, a man called Boba. Thus came the pivotal moment of this portion of travel – whether one decides to interact and immerse or withdraw and witness. Since my usual approach is to immerse in a destination, I agreed, and the crowd voiced their approval upon taking my position at the board. As the
The main street of Ishkahsim - AfghanistanThe main street of Ishkahsim - AfghanistanThe main street of Ishkahsim - Afghanistan

Where the bazaar is located.
game progressed, the audience grew to a considerable size, with some suggesting moves, and most laughing in response to my exclamations when Boba’s unforseen move saw one or more of my pieces removed from the board.

As expected, I easily lost the game, but I won in other ways, for gradually these strangers surrounding me were friends and for the remainder of my time in Ishkashim, I was frequently invited to share a tea and learn Afghan Persian (known as Dari). Afghanistan for me now became very different from what is portrayed in the mainstream media. There was no violence or danger here, but instead welcoming eyes and faces promised plenty of hospitality, laughter and tea.

Such warmth increased further for the Afghans are partial to being photographed, so after securing some lovely portraits, I offered to give copies of the photographs to the relevant subjects. Distributing these photos on my last day saw even more offers for tea and invites to people’s homes.

Hameed assisted in obtaining my permit for the Wakhan Corridor, which involved visits to the local government office, obtaining authorisations from the police and military and finally sitting on the floor in a
A man of Ishkashim - AfghanistanA man of Ishkashim - AfghanistanA man of Ishkashim - Afghanistan

Look at those lovely eyes.
room with the official who controlled the final approval. Hameed was excellent during this time, and after a prolonged translated conversation that included discussion on Islam’s superiority over Christianity (that I handled with the adroitness of a seasoned diplomat) my permit was approved.

During these wanderings, one noticed the minimal presence of women, and all those sighted in the bazaar were fully covered in a usually metallic-blue burqa. The absence of women perusing the bazaar could be attributed to some husbands forbidding their wives from going out in public. Women never walked alone, but always in pairs or group, and if women were in the presence of men, they always walked behind. One particularly striking scene was a family of three I sighted in the bazaaer – a man and his two teenage children. The man and teenage son walked in front, and the short daughter, covered in a small burqa, trudged along, head lowered, at the rear.

It is impossible to imagine life under the burqa, but conservative in dress does not mean conservative in attitude. Women talking amongst themselves and with shopkeepers were animated and forthright. Once when standing next to an apparently teenage girl in the street, I heard the unmistakable chewing and popping sound of someone blowing bubble gum from underneath their veil. My later brief encounters with females revealed an inner determination and strength – it was a pity that I was unable to engage in a deeper conversation with any of them.

Though the burqa intended to enforce modesty, it does not lessen a woman’s allure as a conversation with a young man revealed:
“What do you think of Afghan women?” I was asked.
“I don’t know because I cannot see them and have not met any,” was my reply
“They are beautiful!” was his response as our eyes turned to observe two burqa covered women glide by.
“See, they are beautiful!” he exclaimed, thus demonstrating that men consider that the burqa exudes feminineness and beauty.

A more noticeable presence is the military and police, and they are highly regarded. It was difficult to identify the police due to them wearing standard civilian clothes, thus I always (and probably incorrectly) assumed that any gun-wielding man striding down the street was a police officer. The military were easily identifiable by their beige and brown patterned uniforms, and their numbers were significant.

But what of the mujahedeen and the Taliban? One young lad told me, “We don’t like mujhadeen or Taliban. We like peace, we like freedom." Yet, a police officer stated in simple English “mujahedeen, good; Taliban, bad.” mainly because the mujahedeen fight against the Taliban, who are despised by everyone I met in this area. This is probably because an immensely popular Badakhshan Province mujahedeen leader, Mr Najnudin, was assassinated by them – and his picture adorns many vehicles and shops as a tribute.

The relationship between the various ethnic, political and armed groups in Afghanistan is very complex, and deserving of far more explanation than the cursory treatment in this blog. However, my brief time identified the impossible task television news has of explaining how incidents in Afghanistan relate to the intricate dynamics of the country in a 90 second news segment.

Though Ishkashim is peaceful, being Afghanistan, one can be assured that troubled areas are not far away. I was often told that travelling west to Faizabad was perilous, and it was from west of Ishkashim that I met an interesting Afghan man who was running from the Taliban, and for a good reason – he was Christian.

We met in a room surrounded by his Muslim friends. With tea on hand, and squatting on the floor adjacent to an open window that provided the only light, he surmised his life via Hameed:
“You know Taliban?” he questioned.
“Of course I know Taliban”, was my response
“Taliban,” he spat the word whilst raising a finger to his neck and mimicking a slicing motion.
“I run. They follow me. I keep running, they keep following,” he spoke with an eagerness, his eyes never leaving mine.
“But you are safe here,” I proposed
“No, they are always chasing me” was his emphatic answer, and he repeated the neck-cutting gesture. “I want to leave Afghanistan. It is not safe for me.”
The air hang heavy as the room reflected the tone of the conversation. The man continued, “I want a new life.”
An extended pause prefaced the next statement “Can you help me?”
I knew this question was coming, as it has often been asked by others who seek an Australian visa as they search for a better and wealthier lifestyle. However, this was
Street scene on a cool day - Ishkashim, AfghanistanStreet scene on a cool day - Ishkashim, AfghanistanStreet scene on a cool day - Ishkashim, Afghanistan

The photography store is on the left behind the motorcycle.
the first time someone’s reason was not monetary, but survival.
“I do not live in Australia anymore,” was my response. The expression on his face lowered. “But I spend a lot of time in Dubai. I know that Afghans work there. Perhaps I can find some information for you?”
“Yes,” his voice now sounded brighter.
“I cannot promise you a job, but I can promise information,” I offered.
“Okay,” he nodded in approval.

Shortly after, I requested his photograph to which he consented. With a dull light illuminating the left side of his face, I snapped several pictures. Upon reviewing the images I gasped, for without translated language to distract me, I could examine his face and observed a powerful image of an emotional man consumed by fear and hopelessness. I gazed up at him, and he was awaiting my verdict of his photo, “Good” came feebly from my mouth, but my answer should have been “Bad” for the image potently conveyed the visceral impact of violent intolerance, something for which the Taliban is renowned. It is such a terrible and tragic pity that the kindly, hospitable people of Afghanistan must be torn asunder by
Inside the photography store - Ishkashim, AfghanistanInside the photography store - Ishkashim, AfghanistanInside the photography store - Ishkashim, Afghanistan

Hameed is sitting nearest the camera.
the pursuit of power.

I cannot publish this image in order to protect his identity. However, if he secures a passage to safer shores, I wish to retake his photograph to see that sadness in his eyes succeeded by joy, and the gaze of fear replaced with a look of hope.

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26

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Bad weather in Ishksahim - AfghanistanBad weather in Ishksahim - Afghanistan
Bad weather in Ishksahim - Afghanistan

It snowed during the evening.
A game of shatran - Ishkahsim, AfghanistanA game of shatran - Ishkahsim, Afghanistan
A game of shatran - Ishkahsim, Afghanistan

I played the following game with the champion, Boba.
Carpet seller - Ishkahsim, AfghanistanCarpet seller - Ishkahsim, Afghanistan
Carpet seller - Ishkahsim, Afghanistan

This man helped me with a few move suggestions in my game of shatran.

Comments only available on published blogs

27th June 2013

Gorgeous photos!
27th June 2013

Emotions created
Shane your writing is spectacular. My heart raced as I read each word. Immersing yourself is what you do and the acquaintances made will be forever memories. Your kindness toward the young man is not surprised. Maybe someday you or someone can help him escape. Living is fear is a horrible thing. Your portraits are masterful. Your heart has been touched. Thanks for sharing your experience.
27th June 2013

Emotions sought
Thank you for your very kind words. I do seek to evoke emotions when writing my blogs, and knowing that it has in your case has made those hours working on the words and sorting through photographs all worthwhile.
27th June 2013

It brings back memories, not especially the photo's, though of course them as well, but the story. It is unfortunate that the country has become so dangerous now, that travel beyond isolated Wakhan is deemed perilous. I am glad I went when I went, because overlanding through Afghanistan now seems to be impossible. Back in 2006, most of the north of the country was still considered (relatively) safe. The road from Kabul to Mazar-e Sharif and Kunduz was certainly about as safe as you could get, and Faizabad and beyond was if possible even less hazardous. But even the central route was, with a bit of precaution, doable, though I did have to take one section between Bamyian and Kabul which to my dismay was designated extremely hazardous and Taliban controlled, but it was the only route that the buses took, the alternative being hiring a car for myself to take me the long way round via the north, which I couldn't afford. Well, I survived. But, in all my time there, I never really felt threatened, and the people are probably some of the most friendly I met. I remember those eyes and their humour. But, like you, I met plenty of desperate folk, who just wanted to get out. Still there was still an air of optimism in those times which I suspect has disappeared completely. Apart from those incredible people, the one other thing that still stands out till this day is the dust! When you mentioned it, it brought it all back to me, I don't think I have been in a more dusty country. Enjoy the Wakhan and the Afghans. Ps. A question, are you wearing a disguise? I mean, dressing up like the Afghans, growing a beard and so forth? I did, back in the day, but I am not sure if it is necessary in the Wakhan part of the country.
27th June 2013

Afghanistan 2006-2013
Thanks for your sharing your thoughts Ralf, and I must also thank you for being a sounding board when I was first toying with the idea of visiting Afghanistan a few months ago. From reading your descriptions the situation is more dangerous now, though I heard from foreigners in the country that Mazar-e Sharif and surrounds are still safe, so would love to see that part of Afghanistan in the near future. There is still optimism in the country, but I reckon it is localised - people spoke positively of Ishkashim and the Wakhhan, but were far less enthusiastic about most other places. Afghanistan is one tough place to live, but the people still welcome you with open arms and hearts even amongst the cold and that dust (I agree that Afghanistan, along with the Pamirs in Tajikistan, are the dustiest places I've ever seen). There was no need to disguise myself, I wandered around in my hat and usual travel clothes and never felt even the slightest bit threatened at any time.
27th June 2013

Blown away but not by the Taliban!
I really appreciate your writing style, descriptions and emotion behind it. I mean, traveling to Afghanistan DESERVES to be written about like that. I get so frustrated when I see a blogger write about an amazing place with all the emotion of a censored bland letter to mom. So keep up the great work. Your impressions of Afghanistan are valued. I mean it.
28th June 2013

Emotion and interaction in Afghanistan
Thank you for your very kind words. I do try to place emotion in my blogs and some places, such as Afghanistan, are much easier than others. If you interact with people more than the typical customer-seller relationship, the stories and emotions are bound to follow.
27th June 2013
Smiling Afghan man - Ishkashim, Afghanistan

A great set of portraits
This - and all the other terrific portraits in this blog - confirm that not everything in Afghanistan is doom and gloom. Great photography Shane.
28th June 2013
Smiling Afghan man - Ishkashim, Afghanistan

The other side of Afghanistan
Thanks for the comment, Mike. The more I travel to places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen the more I realise that the media cannot be relied on to portray an accurate picture of the situation in a country. Afghanistan has its problems for sure, but there is that other happy and welcoming side that will never make the nightly news.
27th June 2013

The people of Afghanistan are Afghans; Afghani refers to the currency. A tiny blemish in a remarkable tale.
28th June 2013

Afghans - Afghanis
Thank you SJ for pointing out my mistake, this has now been rectified.
28th June 2013

Fantastic read
What a wonderful blog, I loved reading your impressions and your adventure. I hope that you are able to retake that image of the Christian man and post it one day. Looking forward to the next installment!
28th June 2013

Retaking that portrait
Thanks Rachael, I sincerely hope so too. I've shown some people the original photo and they all comment on the intense emotion on his face. It would be wonderful if he could leave Afghanistan, but to do is not an easy journey for him.
28th June 2013

Aust-RALIA, Kangaroo
What a brilliant idea to point to the kangaroo on your passport, much more dignified than my paws together hopping act! Great blog - loved the stories.
28th June 2013

Austria does not have kangaroos
I usually engage in the hands together and jumping charade, but with the passport so close, it was easy to just show the image on the cover. The charade does have one benefit though, it helps people to laugh at and with you, which immediately removes barriers.
28th June 2013

impressive faces
hope, all the trip you will be able to make them and may be some distinctions by region will occur.. I am surprised not only of character and handsomeness, but also of..good teeth or am i wrong? I think, the men don't think of beauty of burka, when they look at women, but they just imagining whats underneath. Imagination often is better than reality :). It is nice to read of less touristy places. But again, the ability of interesting writing plays big role. Fantastic mountain views. so its the same - Hindu Kush or Himalayan belt?
28th June 2013

Hindu Kush
Thanks for your comment, yes the men do have strong handsome faces and mostly good teeth. The Hindu Kush is the mountain range that effectively runs along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is adjacent to the north-west portion of the Himalayas.
28th June 2013
Hazizullah, the friendly clothes seller - Ishkahsim, Afghanistan

Boxes ticked in many ways Shane...entering Afghanistan tick...entering the Wakhan Corridor tick...feeling safe tick...your best portrait yet...tick. Well done and await the Hindu Kush.
28th June 2013
Hazizullah, the friendly clothes seller - Ishkahsim, Afghanistan

Dave's Favourite Portrait
My best portrait yet, that is high praise coming from Travelblog's resident portrait master. This photo is actually my favourite from within Ishkahsim. However, there are plenty more portraits to come from my time in the Wakhan Corridor; these will appear in my next two blogs.
28th June 2013

First of all, I love the pictures. Faces is what I like most. Many people in my country still confuse Austria with Australia, hahahah incredible. Wonderful experience you had in those lands. Love it. Would love to go!!!!!!!
28th June 2013

I would like to know if it is very dangerous for a woman to travel alone in those lands. Have you seen them?
28th June 2013

Solo Women Travellers
I only met one other tourist in the week I was there, and it was a male. I couldn't say definitely whether it would be safe or dangerous as a solo female traveller, but being a solo female would put you in an unusual social situation by Afghan standards - a woman travelling with a man not related to her as your guide/driver/translator is certain to be male. This may present some awkward moments.
28th June 2013

Take me next time!
Fabulous photos. Ever since we invaded, I've been struck by how cool Afghan men look. (Don't know about the women.) Great writing. You really should be writing travel books. I now have the bug to travel in central Asia like you do, without an entourage of mother hens.
2nd July 2013
Government office worker - Ishkashim, Afghanistan

love their eyes
beautifully written, as always. and what lovely portraits you got here. i was hooked with your storytelling. i can only hope that someday you'd be able to publish the image of the man seeking for refuge, I'll pray for him.
3rd July 2013
Government office worker - Ishkashim, Afghanistan

Beauty in the eyes
I think that the people who live in the region from Syria, through to Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan have the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen. Amazing variety of colours. I too pray for the man I met in Afghanistan, it would be wonderful if he was able to leave the country and begin a new life.
4th July 2013

Great blog!
Wow, Shane, you've got it all here! I love how you enter the culture and then become the foreigner that everyone invites in for tea and confides in. How lucky for you/us that they love to have their photos taken--you've got great portraits here. However, I was so sad to see that it's not just the Taliban that forces women into burkas. I've worn a one, and the view of the world is extremely restricted. Clearly this is one of those places where it's much easier to travel as a man. Thanks for sharing your insights!
5th July 2013

I am fairly certain that it is easier to travel through this part of Afghanistan as a man. It was very interesting to see the attitude towards women across the border in Tajikistan. Though only a few kilometres apart, the difference was stark - more about that in a future blog. Would be keen to learn more about your experience inside the burqa, and where did that occur.
8th July 2013

Blind in a Burka
Shane, you asked where I'd worn the burka. Before leaving for traveling, I was active in RAWA, an organization that raises money and for educating girls in Afghanistan. At one of our fundraisers, someone brought burkas for us to try on. It was incredibly claustrophobic and limited vision to a tiny slit. I could hardly wait to get out of it and breathe air directly. Definitely no fun!
1st August 2013

Fond memories...
...Shane your writing and photos in particular evoked many fond memories for Trish and I as we travelled to many places you have mentioned in your recent Blog entries, in particular, Afghanistan. However, and a big however...our trip was in 1978!! yes the Giant Buddha's built into the cliffs at Bamian still existed. We loved the people who were happy and hard working despite Russian occupation at the time! When I look at the faces in your photos, they could have been taken by us back in 1978. love the Blog and memories you are providing througout Asia. Cheers Mike & Trish V
11th August 2013

Afghanistan in 1978
That would have been a most amazing experience to travel through Afghanistan back in 1978! The hospitable Afghan people are certainly a major reason for travelling to the country - along with the outstanding scenery that greets the visitor. I'm glad that you really liked the blog and that it brought back so many fond memories.

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