Oh, I see! moments
Travel Cultures Language

Travel Adventures in Afghanistan

by Meredith Mullins on June 7, 2016

Kurdish family in Herat, Afghanistan, characters that provide travel stories and travel adventures. (Image © Meredith Mullins)

People play a key role in travel adventures of the memorable kind.
© Meredith Mullins

Memorable Moments Live On in Rekindled Travel Stories

Sometimes a journey is so memorable that you can relive every detail—every sensory impression—decades later. My travel adventures in Afghanistan were such a journey.

The powerfully felt “Oh, I see” moments are rooted deeply in my memory.

  • The colors—from the lapis blue of the Band-e Amir lakes to the jewel tones of the women’s burkas.
  • The tastes and smells—from juicy mulberries washed fresh in the mountain streams of the Hindu Kush and crispy nan (Afghan bread) to the smoky incense of the wood fires.
  • The summer heat—from the unrelenting sun above and the baking earth under my feet.
  • And the characters—weathered by hard life, but hospitable and generous with what little they had.
Afghan girl with bird, a character in the travel stories that yield memorable travel adventures. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

The journey begins (Herat, Afghanistan).
© Meredith Mullins

The Call of the Silk Road

The year was 1972. I found myself moving east—from Italy to Greece, Greece to Turkey, Turkey to Iran, and Iran to Afghanistan. I met each country’s eastern border with the explorer’s cry of “Why not?”

The Silk Road beckoned, so I began to follow this ancient trade route from Europe to China.

Afghanistan was key to the plot—exotic and wild . . . and beautiful—before so much war took its toll.

Map of Afghanistan, the site of travel stories and travel adventures of the memorable kind. (Image © Rusian Olinchuk/Hemera.)

Afghanistan: Exotic, wild . . . and beautiful.
© Rusian Olinchuk/Hemera

Travel Adventures on The Northern Route

With a fellow adventurer, I chose the road less traveled from Herat to Kabul. The Northern Route, as it was known, was so “less traveled” that, in fact, there was no road. Only tracks in the desert sand, laid by drivers in the know.

Well in Afghanistan, part of the travel stories that led to memorable travel adventures. (Image © manxman/iStock.)

Water on the Northern Route was scarce. We got so thirsty that we couldn’t wait for our purifying tablets to take effect. (But we lived to tell about it.)
© manxman

There were no buses, only small open-air Russian trucks, which were packed with layers of people, chickens, and fat sacks of grain and potatoes.

There was no transport schedule. You waited in each town where you were deposited until there was room for you on another passing truck.

When we got a ride, we sat stoically in the back of the truck, covered in desert dust. We watched the kilometers of endless sand and studied our fellow passengers’ faces.

Afghan woman in veil, a character in the travel stories that lead to travel adventures. (Image © luxG4/iStock.)

The women were veiled, making it difficult to know what they were thinking or feeling.
© luxG4/iStock

On one trip, after five hours with no stop, an Afghan woman passenger beat on the cab of the truck to brake. From under her burka she brought a sick baby, a surprise to all of us. We had no idea he was there. He had been a young stoic until then. The truck stopped, and the baby was cradled back to peaceful silence.

After days on trucks and weeks of waiting in small villages for a place on the next truck, we arrived in a soon-to-be favorite town—Tashkurgan (now known as Kholm), famous for its labyrinthian Silk Road bazaar.

Tashkurgan

We seemed to be the only visitors to this sleepy town, certainly the only Westerners.

We found our way to the one hotel—an unfinished giant cinder block built by the Russians, with plumbing fixtures that had never been connected and, thus, no running water.

A grandfatherly Rip Wan Winkle came to greet us, rubbing his eyes as if he’d been asleep for 100 years.

His name was Mustafa, a gentle soul who treated us like family and would have done anything for us—anything, that is, except allowing me to photograph him.

We spent our days at the bazaar, ogling intricate tribal embroidery, silver and amber jewelry, carpets, and quilts.

Afghan embroidery from Tashkurgan, part of the travel stories and travel adventures in Afghanistan. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

Afghan embroidery
© Meredith Mullins

We did not have to walk from stall to stall. Since we were the only visitors in town, we were treated as royals.

We were given throne-like chairs and tea in the center of the market, and each of the merchants paraded his wares in front of us. If they saw our eyes light up at something, they brought more of the same. A cavalcade of treasures.

As the only travelers in town, we had real bargaining power. The dialog went something like this:

Me: I’ll offer 270 afghanis ($4) for that embroidery.

Merchant: Yes. OK. 

Although ordinarily this would clinch the deal, I realize he is too quick to agree.

Me: How about 135 afghanis ($2)?

Merchant: Yes. OK.

He is anxious to make a sale and doesn’t realize that the bargaining has taken a different kind of turn.

Bukharan silk design on an Afghan robe, part of the travel stories and travel adventures in the Tashkurgan bazaar. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

A Bukharan silk design on an Afghan coat.
© Meredith Mullins

One afternoon we wandered out to a teahouse (chaikana) on the main road a few kilometers from town. We were so involved with the locals that we let darkness fall around us.

We began walking back to town on the lightless road, feeling our way by the varying textures of the earth and trying to move away from the barking packs of wild dogs (or were they howling wolves?) that pierced the blackness around us.

Still far from town, we saw the glimmer of a lantern in the distance. Friend or foe, we did not know. We stopped, unsure whether to move toward or away from the light. The glow moved closer. We stood frozen in place.

Finally, the light revealed the kind face of Mustafa, who had been worried about us and had come searching. We had never been happier to see a familiar face. That night, our bond grew stronger.

On our last day, Mustafa allowed me to photograph him. He had been reluctant because he was ashamed of his tattered appearance and weathered face. He didn’t know that this made him all the more dear to me.

Afghan man, Mustafa, from Tashkurgan, Afghanistan, a character in the travel stories leading to memorable travel adventures. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

Mustafa
© Meredith Mullins

Bamiyan and Band-e Amir

The last of the travel stories in this Afghan adventure takes us west of Kabul to the country’s interior. We are rewarded here with the ancient Bamiyan valley and the Band-e Amir lakes.

Nowhere else do I feel such painful sadness at the changes that have come to this country.

The Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, a destination the led to travel stories and travel adventures. (Image © picassos/iStock.)

Valley of the Bamiyan Buddhas
© picassos

Bamiyan was known for the monumental standing buddhas carved into the sandstone cliffs, guarding the peaceful and fertile fields below. The buddhas had survived many sieges of the valley since their creation in the 4th and 5th centuries. They stood strong against different warriors. Everpresent.

But in 2001, the Taliban planted dynamite in the cliffs and the statues were destroyed. I’m certain all of us who had looked up at these ancient treasures felt a somber emptiness that March day.

A bit farther west, the Band-e Amir lakes were a rugged, but beautiful paradise. Six deep blue lakes cascaded into each other amidst a stark backdrop of Grand Canyon-like colored sand.

Band-e Amir lakes in Afghanistan, a place leading to travel stories and travel adventures. (Image © Maximillian Clarke/iStock.)

The Band-e Amir Lakes
© Maximillian Clarke

At the time, there were just two small tent camps, one on each side of the lakes. We shared ground with adventurous travelers from all over the world.

The lakes provided water to drink and endless pools for swimming. Aside from the tents, there was no other shelter from the sun. At nearly 10,000 feet, we baked by day and froze by night. Paradise is not always kind.

Now Band-e Amir has been declared the first National Park in Afghanistan. Although it is difficult to travel there and is not without risk, its great beauty is valued by all who visit.

Lone figure in a fertile valley in Afghanistan, leading to travel stories and travel adventures of the memorable kind. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

The beauty of a fertile valley near the Hindu Kush
© Meredith Mullins

Nothing is as Certain as Change

The travel stories from my journey remain vivid and bring a poignant nostalgia. Afghanistan will never again be as it was then.

Perhaps the most profound “Oh, I see” moment as I rekindle these details is the commitment to cherish all moments of travel adventures. The world changes. The places we treasure may soon be only memories.

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.

 
Comments:

6 thoughts on “Travel Adventures in Afghanistan

  1. Remarkable photos, Meredith, and such a touching story, described with such sensitivity. Thank you for introducing us to this beautiful country that so sadly remains war-torn. Have you sent it to Reza?

    • Dear Pamela,

      Thank you for your kind words … and for understanding what I had hoped to communicate. Afghanistan was/is my favorite country in the world. Each time I see the ravages of war there, the sadness takes its toll. However, it helps to remember the moments that brought me such happiness.

      Warm wishes,

      Meredith

  2. It’s a blessing that your eyes and camera keep bringing to life and keeping alive the soon destroyed and forgotten beauty of the world in its many manifestations: people and their artistry and ingenuity!

    • Dear Eva,

      Your words remind me of the mixture of sadness and hope that exists as the world changes. In the arena of hope, I am pleased that we can still find so much beauty in the world. That will be my focus.

      Thank you for writing,

      Meredith

  3. I hope that some day, in the not too distant future, others may experience what you did on “the Silk Road”—it seems all but impossible now with the present situations in all these amazing places. What a blessing that you saw them all when you were young! And carried lots of film … ;)

    • Dear Anna,

      I, too, hold out hope that we can again someday travel to these beautiful, ancient parts of the world. I feel so fortunate to have seen such wonders. But I am sad that film was scarce. I treated every frame of film as if it were the most precious thing on earth. I have very few photos from that time, but am happy that the visual memories remain strong.

      Thank you for writing,

      Meredith

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