I spend two more days in Kabul after returning from Bamiyan before heading up to Mazar-i-Sharif. Before I leave, my couchsurfing host and his driver are in disagreement over whether I should go in full chador or wearing just a niqab. The road is not entirely safe but the chances of something bad happening are not great so I go with the niqab.
Again the views from the road are stunning: dusty hills, wild rivers and mud-brick villages. The road itself is pretty atrocious, especially the Salang Tunnel up in the Hindu Kush mountains. It’s the only land road for cars connecting the north and the south of the country. It takes ages to snake up to the tunnel entrance and then pass through it. The asphalt and the tunnel itself are in bad need of repair but closing the pass would cut off one of the country’s major roads.
Mazar is the first place where I stay in a hotel. I could not find anybody to stay with on couchsurfing, but luckily a friend of a guy I met in Tehran is willing to show me around. Which is perfect because it gives me a chance to visit the ancient city of Balkh, perhaps Afghanistan’s most historically significant city. What was once the largest city for hundreds of kilometers around is now not much more than a big village, so the attractions are spread around different locations. Without somebody showing me the sights I’d be pretty lost.
Mazar-i-Sharif itself is not much more than a few neighborhoods centered around an important shrine. There’s not much to see in the city so I walk around a few streets until I notice a man is following me. Not quite sure what to do, I decide to stand still on the sidewalk between a few market stalls figuring somebody will probably help me. And people immediately notice: a few people tell the man to go away and a women in a blue burqa puts her hand on my shoulder to indicate that everything is alright.
The guy I’ve been hanging out with shows me a different side of the city. Together we go back to the shrine, but this time he points out certain details, not just historical knowledge but also really poor attempts at restoration and signs of neglect. He also takes me to a one-hundred-year-old building built by Russians. It is the local ‘Lincoln Library’, a US government-funded place for people to surf the web and read books in English. In the evening we visit a guitar teacher friend of his who performs a few covers of Beatles songs and some other things. The next day we go to his family’s house where I meet his mother who spent some time studying in Moscow. These experiences remind me of Iran, where it felt like the spaces on either side of people’s front doors were located in different countries.