I land at Kabul airport in the evening. It’s dark already and I have to wander around a bit before I can find the driver my couchsurfing host has sent to pick me up. As we drive to the apartment we pass a long row of colorfully and brightly lit buildings. I say that this must be the Las Vegas of Afghanistan. The driver laughs and says they are wedding halls. I didn’t really know what to expect from Kabul, but certainly not a long row of fluorescently lit buildings.
When we get to my couchsurfing host’s place it turns out that it’s being rented by him and his brother as somewhere to relax and smoke shisha – a hangout for a bunch of friends. The building is in a fancy part of town, the office of the ICRC is just across the street, and the entrance is perpetually watched over by a rotation of friendly broad-shouldered guys in olive-colored uniforms with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders.
I take it easy in Kabul. I spend just four or five hours a day going outside. I don’t exactly know if it’s the city’s reputation or that I’m subconsciously picking something up in the streets, but I just don’t feel entirely at ease wandering around town. But I do notice that there are no other visible foreigners on the streets. Nobody seems to pay real attention to me, but if I stop somewhere for a few minutes a police officer or soldier invariably comes up to me and says I have to keep moving. I guess if I stand still I’m asking for trouble.
I’ve spent my first two days in Kabul looking for an ATM which will take my card. The stress of an increasingly empty wallet is a good distraction from the stress of walking around the center of a city dominated by blast walls and frequent sightings of armed men in the street.
One of the places I’ve most looked forward to visiting in Kabul is the history museum. It’s one of those institutions that is in itself worthy of being a museum. Situated next to the ruins of the old royal palace, the museum’s collection displays the country’s fascinatingly rich historical past with artefacts that were fairly recently taken out of hiding or painstakingly reconstructed after the Taleban were driven out of Kabul.
Another day I walk to a part of the city called ‘Mikrorayon’. Built by the Soviets and inhabited by the upper middle class the area is an orderly and leafy yet drab neighborhood and if it wasn’t for two young beggars following me around I would just as soon believe I’m in some nondescript post-Soviet town. I run into a guy in his late teens walking around with his siblings who’s keen to practice his English. After a few selfies with his iPad he distracts the begging girls while I make my way out of the labyrint of Khrushchyovki.
Two years ago I spent half a day trying to find a museum in Andijan, Uzbekistan. It was dedicated to the founder of the Mughal dynasty, Babur, who was born in that city. After leaving the Ferghana valley and conquering a fair bit of the Indian subcontinent, Babur decided he wanted to buried in the city he found most beautiful of all, Kabul. A park has been laid out around his grave for which admission is currently charged. After having paid I spend a few hours in the place, together with well-off Afghans fleeing the dust and noise of the world outside the park’s gates.