old roads, older cities to 03 to 07-08-2016

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.

a break in Bamiyan 29-07 to 02-08-2016

I have to make a hard decision. I’d like to go to Bamiyan. The flight is expensive and boring but the road may be unsafe. My couchsurfing host makes some calls on my behalf and after getting assurances from a friend who lives along the safer of two possible routes that the trip should be okay I decide to chance it. With the help of the guy I met in Mikrorayon I buy a chador which even covers my face so as to be as inconspicuous as I possibly can be.  Early the next morning my host’s driver takes me to a shared taxi stand and negotiates with the driver. He instructs me to take a seat in the front so that I won’t sit directly next to any of the other male passengers and emphasizes that I am not to talk to anybody.

The landscape is beautiful and after some hesitation I start taking pictures. Everything is going smoothly until we stop at a roadside cafe. I hadn’t counted on this happening and am unsure what to do now. The driver says something to me, but I don’t understand a word. I don’t even know if he’s speaking Dari or Pashtun. He points to a room which after having gone inside I see is the family room. A waiter comes in and asks something. I really don’t know what to do but manage to say ‘chai’ in the hope that that instruction will suffice and stop any further attempts to communicate with me. I figure I must have blown my cover but who knows, in this country where so many different languages are spoken and women are supposed to be quiet and invisible my appearance might not be that noteworthy.

After finishing the chai I get back in the car and wait for the other passengers. After fifteen or so minutes we are off again. Not long after we get to a checkpoint. Bamiyan is an area of relative peace and its entrance roads are well protected like some mini-state. ‘The soldier wants to see your passport’ says the guy sitting in the middle behind me. I’m kind of relieved I have somebody that can explain things to me now. After we get talking he reveals to me that what gave me away so easily was my footwear. Afghan women don’t wear sandals he tells me. He translates the comments of the other people in the car. The driver expresses worry about what would have happened to him if the car had been stopped by robbers and I kind of feel like a jerk. In making the decision to travel by road I hadn’t even taken the safety of my fellow passengers into consideration.

The guy in the back of the car turns out to be a civil servant working for the culture ministry who’s visiting his family in Bamiyan. ‘Would you like to stay at my mother’s house?’ he asks me and I gladly take up the offer relieved that I don’t have to wander around town in search of a hotel.

We drive through farmed fields for about twenty minutes until we get to his family’s compound, a modest collection of mud-brick buildings where his mother, brothers and their families live. Over the next few days we visit a collection of sites: the remains of the Buddhas, Band-e Amir (a lake so beautiful it looks photoshopped), and the ruins of a city destroyed by Genghis Khan.

Meeting my new friend turns out to be an absolute stroke of luck. The context he provides about the things I see gives me an unexpected insight into the daily life of the people around me. And the chance to hang out with his mother and sisters-in-law at the family home, and to picnic with the female half of his relatives who we run into at the lake make me feel so much more free and relaxed than in Herat and Kabul. But that’s not just about having a personal connection. I’m far from the only tourist around, it’s just that all the other tourists are Afghans. Bamiyan’s relative safety, beautiful scenery and rich history provide the perfect backdrop for a weekend getaway.

sightseeing in Kabul 24 to 29-07-2016

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.

first days in Afghanistan 21 to 24-07-2016

I suddenly realize I have to leave Iran today and not tomorrow. I got a 30-day extension to my visa and I had previously miscalculated how many days I’d been in the country: this is the 60th day I’m here, not the 59th. But with the help of a a local guy I get a seat in a shared taxi to Afghanistan. I sit wedged between the door and a fat lady totally oblivious to any discomfort as I closely watch every detail of the landscape rolling by. After an uneventful border crossing we set out to Herat. We don’t pass that many villages, and most of the ones we do pass are abandoned. Or maybe it just looks that way.

When we stop at the driver’s office in Herat I borrow his phone to call my couchsurfing host. As I wait outside on the street I notice I don’t really know how to act. No differently to in Iran I guess, but it’s just that the reputation of the country leads me to second guess myself more. To be sure I just go into the waiting room until my host shows up on a scooter and we drive back to his place. Later in the evening we walk to a restaurant and sit down in a side room, the family section where men and women can sit together freely. My host advises me to wear a longer shirt and I realize that even though there are no government-enforced dresscodes in the country it’s better to dress more conservatively than I did in Iran.

Next morning I walk alone to the center of town. I’m pretty sure I stand out, even though I’m wearing a long shirt and a headscarf. The latter is an unusual shade of turquoise, and I still haven’t managed to be able to wear it without having to constantly readjust it. But nobody seems to pay any attention to me. The first thing I visit is the Friday Mosque. It’s quiet, some people are hanging out under the shade of the arched entryways, but the central court is empty. It gives off a very serene impression. Next I try and fail to find a place that accepts my ATM card – not a real problem as I still have some Iranian money left. I exchange it with a guy who had lived in Enschede in the east of the Netherlands while waiting for his eventually unsuccessful asylum application to go through.

The next day I walk around the old center. First I stick to the main roads, then I decide to wander through the alleyways of a neighborhood. It looks mundane enough, the names of famous football players are graffitied on high sand-colored walls, and the narrow alleyways turn left and right at random points every several dozen meters. I quickly decide it’s too much of a maze and I turn to go back. As I walk towards the main road, a man shouts a few words at me. The only thing I understand is ‘Taleban’. I don’t know if he’s threatening or warning me. Afterwards I pay a visit to a famous collection of minarets and the old citadel which now houses a museum with brightly lit displays. My day is finally starting to feel more and more like a normal tourist’s day out.

The next day a local guy I’ve contacted through couchsurfing takes me to see some more out-of-the-way sights. We visit a Sufi shrine. After being mobbed by a crowd of young boys offering incense and a watchful eye over the car in exchange for a bit of money in the parking lot, the shrine itself does seem like a sanctuary for contemplation and quietness. Afterwards we head out to the Jihad museum, build by a local warlord to commemorate the fight against the Soviets. It features a collection of guns, including some ancient Enfield and Winchester rifles, and an incredibly detailed diorama.

I’d love to take the backroads to Kabul, past the Jam minaret, but several people tell me that road is now in the hands of the Taleban. Even the main road past Kandahar is too risky and I decide to fly. After a taxi to the airport I have to go through three security checkpoints before I board a plane. It kind of feels like cheating, and I regret missing out on the beautiful landscapes that I will undoubtedly be flying over, but I guess my stubbornness has finally reached the limit of the risks I’m willing to take.

two worlds, one city 17 to 21-07-2016

Mashad is known as Iran’s most conservative city, and on the streets that’s certainly noticeable. Most women wear chadors and it even looks like there are just fewer women out on the streets. Except that is near the shrine where I have to slowly shuffle past security amongst a never-ending stream of visitors until I’m fished out of the stream by some women who instruct me to wait until a personal guide shows up. She takes me past some museums and a specially trained cleric whom I can ask theological question, though unfortunately for him I’m much more interested in the actual history of the shrine itself. I can’t get to the actual shrine itself though – I’d have to convert to Islam first which seems like more trouble than it’s worth.

The stifling strictness of Mashad ends at the front door. The place where I’m couchsurfing seems to be the gathering place for the city’s secular. In the evening I join some people going to a casual get-together where on offer to the guests, alongside the expected chips and fruit juice, are bottles of vodka and weed. Virtually the last things I was expecting to run into in Mashad. The next evening I end up exchanging old Soviet jokes with jokes about Ayatollah Khomeini with some people who invite me over for dinner.

My impressions are balanced out by meeting up with another guy I met through couchsurfing. He grew up in a very traditional family, and takes me over to meet his sister to show her that women can travel by themselves. I spend some time at his mother’s house too where several generations while away the hours in the living room by drinking endless cups of tea.

Together with him and a cousin I spend a day visiting an old caravanserai and Nishapur, once one of Asia’s most important cities until it was burnt down by Genghis Khan’s hordes.  Though its current incarnation doesn’t reflect its former status well, just thinking about the city’s history leaves me in awe.

some nice surprises 07 to 16-07-2016

I’m still not hitchhiking. I guess I just got lazy and tired of the cultural misunderstandings. But I really miss the practicality of it when I try to find the bus to Sari. I read that there are several a day but I can’t even find the bus station. A random lady giving me a cookie in the middle of the street only slightly improves my mood. And I’m finally saved when a local person comes up to me out of nowhere and asks if I need help in English. I guess in a place like Tehran you can never be truly lost for too long.

Being picked up from the bus station in Sari by my couchsurfing host is a reminder that overbearing Iranian hospitality does have its perks. The guy is super friendly. In the evening over a glass of wine we talk about our favorite books and  his plans for the future.

I spend a day walking around the town, through its narrow market in search of an old museum. It’s still hot, and having moved closer to the coast of the Caspian Sea the humidity is getting worse. Fortunately it gets better as I move closer to the border with Turkmenistan, to the city of Gonbad. There are actually a few camels to be spotted in the desert north of the town, but more impressive is the hippodrome where young horses are being trained.

Despite it having a fascinating history, there is not much to see in Gonbad. Its biggest, and only tourist attraction is an old tower in the center but entering it doesn’t seem like it’s worth the entrance price. There is also the slight trace of an old wall on the edge of the town which my couchsurfing host tells me might be a remnant of the Great Wall of Gonbad. I do get super lucky though when a friend of my couchsurfing host offers to drive me around the area’s beautiful countryside.

My host in Bojnord is not from couchsurfing, instead he’s a friend of a guy I met in Tehran. Maybe because he’s not used to having guests he takes extra care to show me around. He works for a local tour group and we join one of the company’s outings along an ever deeper stream, till we end up swimming, fully clothed, to a waterfall. The sun is so hot, my clothes are bone dry again not long after I get out of the water. We also visit a few local museums and the ruins of a huge fortress. Pretty impressive for a place I hadn’t even heard of a week or so before my arrival. It makes me realize that Iran has so much more to offer than what I have time for. With my visa running out I head toward the holy city of Mashad.

different worlds 23 to 07-07-2016

  The bus to Tehran departs nearly empty, so it’s no surprise that after an hour or so the few passengers are transferred to another bus. Still things seem rather calm and orderly, a last few hours of peace before arriving in the huge metropolis. I am staying at one of the most famous Couchsurfing places in the city. The host has several of hundred positive references of people who have stayed with him. Or rather in the basement of his family house which he has turned into some kind of free hostel. Perfect since I’ll be in the city for a while arranging visa which during this scorching hot month of Ramadan I suspect will take some time. I can stay as long as you want and he doesn’t want anything in return. Plus the host organizes couchsurfing meetings and get-togethers to read Darwin, the Avesta and Farsi poetry, he seems like a great guy.

I don’t actually get to meet up with him a whole lot, but do join in for a few of his meetings and one iftar meal with his family. The rest of my time I mostly hang out with other tourists and the handful of young men who regularly visit the basement. And since the city is huge there’s plenty to do during my three weeks stay in the city.

I visit several museums vilifying the regime’s enemies, praising its heroes and being fairly ambivalent about the country’s past. It becomes clear that museums should have a moral lesson when I conclude that the best designed museum in the city by far is the one dedicated to the Iran Iraq war. I spent other days visiting different neighborhoods and parks, including a surprisingly blatant gay cruising spot and one occasion even attending an overpriced but still fascinating slightly experimental music concert in an art gallery. Still it feels like a difficult city to understand, I know there must be many interesting things going on but I’m too much of an outsider to get caught up in them. So when I have received my Uzbekistan and Afghanistan visa I head out to the bus station and leave town.

changing history 20 to 22-06-2016

My next hosts are almost polar opposites, as close to a yuppie couple as I have met in Iran, living in a big house with a nice yard in the center of Hamadan. It feels like the government control stops as soon as the garden gate is closed and both the husband and the wife disappear to change into more comfortable clothing.

For two evenings we join another young couple, with their child, in a public park to have an iftar meal. The atmosphere is very pleasant, with families gathering now that the heat has died down and people are allowed to eat and drink again. But perhaps I feel a bit too comfortable, I get rightfully reprehended by my host because my shirt is way too short. It should cover my butt, but it only goes a centimeter or two past my the waist of my trousers. No matter how at ease I feel with other people, I should still be aware that the government controls public space.

Hamadan is one of the world’s oldest cities, and there is a huge but fairly empty archaeological site to prove it which oddly enough includes a non-functioning Armenian church with a lot of pictures depicting only Jesus and Maria. But luckily the city has a few of other historic sides including cuniform inscriptions left by Darius and Xerxes and the graves of Ibn Sina and the Esther and Mordechai.

boiling over 17 to 19-06-2016


It’s not a good morning, I couldn’t get the air conditioner to work and even the water in the bathroom only ran hot. I can’t wait to get to the next place but I don’t really look forward to another day of hitchhiking. Dragging my bag across town to the highway a young man actually offers me a ride pretty quickly and he speaks English as well, but when he offers to drop me off at the bus station I don’t even argue. I’ve had it with hitchhiking, for now.

In Khoramabad I finally have a couchsurfing host. He takes me to a friend’s house in the country for an early dinner before we go to his house. There another friend drops by. A friendly young man keen on learning English he keeps insisting I go to his house to stay with his wife and daughter. I don’t want to be rude to my host but he won’t take no for an answer and my current host seems rather ambivalent so in the end I give in.

Things turn out pretty good. My new host is new to couchsurfing, he learned English by himself but did not have many opportunities to practice, and what’s more he makes his living selling fruit on the street. His wife, who unfortunately does not speak English and is a hairdresser. A very interesting change from the usual university educated middle class host.

a trip through time 14 to 16-06-2016

A fellow passenger in the shared taxi to Shushtar has taken it upon himself to help me find a good hotel, I’ve already found a cheap place online however and after some effort I convince him that that’s the place for me. I go for a walk after checking in but it’s so hot my eyeballs hurt from the heat so I retreat to my hotel room. The air conditioning struggles against the heat but at least there’s a bit of relief.

The next day I walk around the city a bit, and hang out by the ancient water works purportedly built by a captured legion of Roman soldiers. While walking around town a few random people come up to me and state that they speak English and are ready to help. It’s Ramadan and I’m too hungry to wait for sundown so I head out to a fancy hotel where I am greeted by a fluent German speaker a former engineering student who invites takes me to the only working take away place, and then to his home where I can eat in peace while his relatives are arriving for iftar.

The next day my GPS on my phone finally stops working, it’s been spotty for days but now it’s gone completely. Luckily an English speaking guy in a car stops and offers to take me to the right crossing. The next ride takes me all the way to the ziggurat and he’s friendly overall, but something feels slightly off. So I insist that I walk back which initially goes well until it gets so hot that I hide under an overpass. Two passersby offer me a lift and I leave them puzzled when I set out on foot further. When I have to take a detour to a museum I can luckily leave my bags at a police post and once back there it doesn’t take too much effort to find another ride to Shush my last destination of the day.

I get dropped off by a shrine dedicated to the Daniel, the minor Jewish prophet. The inside of the shrine reminds me a bit of a garish nightclub with plenty of tiny mirrors but dozens of women in chadors are lounging around the the female half of the shrine. When I go outside the town’s dead. It’s still Ramadan and it’s still scorching. And once I get to the hotel it turns out to be closed. Luckily a man tells me that it will open at 5 so I drag my bags over to the museum to kill some time there until I can seek shelter from the heat in a hotel room.