A final trip

30 09 2010


First Glimpse of one of Band e Amir's lakes on the road from Bamian


My last trip from Kabul took me a day’s drive north-west to Bamiyan, the site of two 6th century Buddahs before the Taliban decided to destroy this UNESCO heritage site. Along with the lakes at Band-e-Amir, Bamiyan valley is the most beautiful thing I have seen in the region and  forms the country’s only tourist attraction unless you believe accounts in the Guardian or BBC’s Sandi Toksvig .


Arriving at Bamian Valley by small prop plane. One Buddah niche can be seen to the left with another to the right in shadow


Although the trip is drivable we flew from Kabul in a 10-seater that spirals down amongst the mountains to land on what seems to be a short, broad road cutting through the green valley bottom.


Looking across the Bamian valley from rooftops hotel to the cliffs where the Buddahs used to reside until their highly publicised destruction by the Taliban


The remains of the two Bhuddas lie in piles of crumbling stone and clay. The Taliban made no mistake and I remember footage of the pre-publicised destruction sending forward huge clouds of dust. Almost as big a travesty is that it took the loss of a piece of heritage, rather than a more human story to bring the world’s attention to the plight of the Afghan people. In a country where billions of dollars are spent on military action and mere millions go towards development and infrastructure the Japanese and Germans and Italians are attempting to stabilise the remains with a view to possibly rebuilding parts in the long run.


One of the larger lakes at Band e Amir. The deep blue comes from the high mineral content which also forms beautiful dams as the water flows from lake to lake.


Two hours further north-west lie the lakes of Band-e-Amir. These are more stunning than the valley at Bamiyan, with deep water providing a palate of blues that would make Van Gough green with envy. The water is clear and the blue sky does nothing to detract from the contrast of grey and red cliffs against the unbelievably striking tones.


Kabul restaurant owner Jerome riding on the gun-mount left by Russian forces. The bearings still run smoothly giving a spinning 360 degree view of the countryside


Nearer to the regional capital of Bamiyan, overlooking the 8-hour route from Kabul lies the Red Fort. This has been an important strategic position in these inaccessible lands and was occupied most recently by the Russians and is still heavily mined.


Prominent battlement of the Red Fort overlooking the riverside route from Kabul


The steep walk up from valley winds up through mud-brick battlements and past piles of unexploded ordinance.

Duncan DJ


Exit Strategy

12 07 2010

Overlooking the largest lake at Band-e-Amir. The magnificent blue comes from the minerals in the 150m deep water.

As the heat builds up for another dusty-blue day in Kabul I pack my things for my return to the UK. I sit recovering from the late conclusion of the world cup (2am Kabul time) and I can’t yet tell whether the time has passed quickly or actually this has been the longest year of my life. Although the country is fascinating and often beautiful it is definitely the people who have made it an enjoyable experience. As opening a British newspaper any day will tell you, looking in from the outside can be a little disturbing but conversely it can be easy to become complacent about the places and the experiences. My visit to the Russian Cultural Centre last month and occasional encounters with possible minefields are the most extreme of this.

View of the green Bamian valley seen from the caves beside small Buddha. The niche of the larger Buddha can be seen through the window.

My trips out of Kabul and Afghanistan have been essential breaks from the challenges of working here. Just returning from the ex-Buddhas at Bamian and the cliff-bound blue lakes at Band-e-Amir 200 miles from the capital I can say that these places are two of the most amazing sights I have ever seen. More beautiful photos to come on this and Darulaman Palace in Kabul.

I had planned a trip down to Lashkar-Gar to visit some historic buildings and the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) projects run by the British Army but plans change but the resulting extension to my Bamian trip made up for this.

I truss up my last two carpets that will join (by post) the 3 carpets already waiting for me at home. I take home calligraphy, jewellery and woodcarving; Three of the four TM crafts – I was kindly given a ceramic bowl for my birthday.

An inquisitive girl and her brother near the mosque of Amir at Band-e-Haibat

Afghaniman is a young girl pictured with her brother below one of the lakes at Band-e-Amir. The people in the Hazarajat region are some of the healthiest-looking I have met, mainly I think, because of a better-fed outdoor lifestyle that is hard to come by in Kabul. They talk proudly of peace and inter-tribal harmony in these green, crop-filled valleys.

Duncan DJ

Soviet blocks and another concrete factory

4 07 2010

View from the top of the hills above the village of Begar, north of Dushanbe,

I went to Dushanbe to avoid a trip to Dubai, which is fine for escapism but dull unless you’re travelling on expenses or meeting friends. As the Tajikistan Embassy in Kabul is closed for 2 months (hefty bribes excepted and accepted) I took a punt and arrived in Tajikistan hoping to get an entry visa at the airport.  

River Varzob, literally "fast water", running through a village north of Dushanbe. The rain runs quickly through the gritty soil to erode the river banks and often washes away the road.

I had heard mixed reports of whether it would be possible to enter this ex-Russian state with only my battered passport and a couple of photos. By the time I worked out where to go the Tajik consul’s office was already quietly and efficiently issuing people with their visas. Business at the Afghan consulate was not so slick but everyone wanted to help even if it meant giving the wrong information.  

Walking in the hills north of Dushanbe.

On the way back to my hotel a man with a radio (usually the sign of a member of the secret police in Kabul) came up to me asking for ID. My Turquoise Mountain business card seemed to be enough for him to leave me alone.  

There are a few Europeans and Americans in the city. These are either language students or special forces soldiers which makes for an interesting friday night out amongst the drug dealers and prostitutes of Dushanbe’s busier clubs.  

One of Dushanbe's main streets with typical soviet-style wide streets and long views

 80 years ago the city was a market village but grew fast with when it was made capital of a new Tajikistan. Industry and textiles flourished under the soviets and now the population is around 2/3 of a million, 100 times that of 1926. It was called Stalinabad for a while which sounds a bit rubbish but was reinstated as Dushanbe by Krushchev. Menus are still in Russian although unlike Uzbekistan, since independence anti-Muslim fears are subdued, ancient Persian leaders are celebrated and Tajik is a close relative of Dari as spoken in Afghanistan unlike the rest of the ‘Stans.  

Parts of Dushanbe's cement factory bear some resemblance to Kabul's own deserted industrial masterpiece.

 Like any good ex-soviet capital it has a concrete factory. I couldn’t help sticking my head in to compare it to Kabul’s own desolate graveyard. I almost lost my camera when an excited worker didn’t like me taking pictures. He was happy once he had held his camera phone to my face and smugly taken a photograph. There is still a soviet paranoia about institutional security that survives in this 21st century society.  

The mile-long street front to the cement factory tells the story of Tajikistan in tile paintings.

The factory still seems to work although recent disputes over a dam the Tajiks are building have caused Uzbekistan to restrict gas and electricity flowing to their neighbour affecting industry. However maybe friday is a quiet day for cement-making in this moderate Muslim country.  

Duncan DJ

Docile Dushanbe

1 07 2010

Arched monument to Amir Ismail Samani, leader of the region around 900 AD

I’m in Dushanbe for a short trip. In some ways Tajikistan is similar to Afghanistan but without the decades of war that decimated people’s attempts for a normal life. This is of course a generalisation as Afghanistan kept Russian presence out much longer than other Central Asian countries. It seems as if the peaceful, almost dull lifestyle in Dushanbe is a deliberate attempt to keep the troubles from traversing north across the Pamir mountains.

I was speaking to a 20-year-old Tajik at the Afghan Consulate who was trying to get Afghan citizenship and move to Kabul. He said he was fed up with Tajikistan but I warned him that Kabul would be even more depressing. I’m sure those of his family that are in Kabul have said the same. Sometimes in life you have to be careful what you wish for.

Mohammad Barid, Tajikman waiting outside the Afghan consulate to become Afghaniman

So Afghaniman is actually Tajikman about to become Afghaniman. I met him again on my third day at the Afghan consulate. He reminds me of one of the younger engineers I work with in Kabul. Although life in Dushanbe is quieter my new friend told me that the education in Afghanistan is much better. In Dushanbe the education system has crumbled, often teachers don’t turn up for lessons.

There is more to come on Dushanbe including thre real reason why you would visit this sleepy capital.

Duncan DJ

Calligraphy and drums at the fort

26 06 2010

I’ve not got long to go here in Kabul so I’m going to try to knock out a few more shot and sweet posts about life in Kabul both inside and outside Murad Khane.  

Calligraphic screen acts as a window beween internal spaces


Firstly a few more pictures on progress in the Great Serai Extension, the first new build to (almost) reach completion.  

Calligraphic window in the Great Serai Extension looking out from the darkened classroom to the corridor and courtyard beyond


 This is a window between computer classroom and corridor. The design is loosely based on art work from the calligraphy school although has been deliberately abstracted so as not to be too distracting or misconstrued.  

Detail from the Calligraphic window on the Great Serai Extension


Made from mud and straw, literally kargill, with steel reinforcement it has been rendered with lime plaster for a clean-cut finish. Although constrained by concerns over ‘cultural insensitivities’ the design team have enjoyed some success with individual features in this artistic centre.  

Meanwhile the new Afghan minister for mines, an unfortunate title in a country strewn with explosives, has declared that Afghanistan’s mineral wealth will mean that Afghanistan “could be self-sufficient within a decade“.  

This is more ridiculous than claiming that the country could be secure within a shorter time-frame despite the gulf between warring parties alongside Karzai’s apparent double-dealing. He is obviously getting excited about the $4 billion deal between Afghanistan and China over the Aynak copper mines that was made possible by strong support for the agreement from the Chinese government and a likely $30m bribe received by the then minister for mines.  

A performance of contemporary percussion given by Norma Ferreira in Turquoise Mountain's fort.


This irregularity has led to the suspension of a similar deal over iron ore mines at Hajigak. China’s less regulatory approach to industry and in particular mining makes it more suited to doing business in Afghanistan but whether this opening up of Afghanistan’s deposits will lead to economic development of the country to the benefit of the people is debateable. 

Having previously focussed on a broader, lighter hand in Kabul culture the TM culture department has recently started to hold more events in the fort. The pictures here are of a performance by percussionist Norma Ferreira who is teaching percussion here in Kabul. 

Norma giving it her all on the maracas.


The following night a visiting artist in residence offered his thoughts on geopolitical issues and art. Although one or two Afghan staff thought that the contemporary percussion was too modern both events were well received and a good use of the Qala’s courtyard space in promoting TM’s cultural kudos. 

Duncan DJ

Trouble at the Russian Cultural Centre

25 06 2010

The perforated hulk of the Russian Cultural Centre in Kabul.

The ruined hulk of the Russian Cultural Centre is a place I’ve always wanted to go to, located in one of Kabul’s suburbs. Before the civil war Demazang was a relatively affluent area that was hit badly by fighting that targeted the predominantly Hazara population.

Local kids come to hang out at the Russian Cultural Centre, walking in through open gates to play cricket and football in the grounds.

The solid cast-concrete walls took repeated RPG and shell fire but the bulk of the 1980s structure remains housing some of Kabul’s drug addicts.

Kids posing on the roof of the Russian Cultural Centre with the radio masts of TV hill in the distance

A few years ago a fence was erected and hundreds of addicts evicted although many have returned, hiding in the basement to go about their business unhindered. Outside kids played cricket and football except for those who excitedly showed us around the punctured wreck. Due to the building’s history and the usual slow bureacracy of Kabul it more likely that it will be demolished than renovated but in the meantime serves as a landmark in a capital city with relatively few buildings of note.

Boys gathering around the grand entrance leading to the main auditorium. It is easy to imagine hundreds of Russian soldiers and communist sympathizers milling around during an evening of music or theatre.

The massive haul of opium that is cultivated, mainly in Helmand is having a growing effect on the country’s population. Although huge profits are made by abusing border controls and routes north-west to the Balkans or through West Africa linking in with re-routed Columbian cocaine adjusting to improved US drug controls. A fall in Afghanistan’s heroin production is anticipated due to a blight on the poppy fields on Helmand. A month ago most people I discussed this with here in Kabul think this is a NATO induced disease, and idea that the Taliban and angry farmers are keen to propagate.

A shell-hole window provides a view not originally anticipated by the 1980's designer.

In 2009 U.S. Department of State issued a report estimating that there are two million drug users in the country, 50-60,000 of these drug addicts are in Kabul which is surprisingly few for a city with over 10% of the population. This is because increased drug use in Afghanistan is a result of increased hardship which hits rural areas particularly hard due to inaccessibility to already limited government support. Increasingly more Afghans are abusing heroin and opium as cheap pain killers for physical and mental pain endured as a result of 30 years of war as well as ongoing economic strife. 

Heroin addict in the main auditorium of the Russian Cultural Centre, Kabul

Afghaniman is the un-named heroin addict pictured above. He followed me around occasionally coming to talk and eventually asking for money. When I refused he pulled a knife and threatened to cut himself. When I walked on he made several cuts to the inside of his forearm. I noticed a few other scars from previous occasions, perhaps in similar circumstances. He left an indelible mark on my memory (and his arm) refusing to move from in front of the car until we gave him money. He asked for 100 Afs ($2) enough for one hit.

Duncan DJ

Kabul Sport and braving the traffic

20 06 2010

Obviously life in Kabul has its differences and being flexible about what this characterful capital offers has its benefits. 

Cricket at the Qala

Playing Frisbee at the Ghazi Stadium in Kabul, Winter 2010.

Getting involved in sport, something I couldn’t do without, varies month by month. When I arrived I’d heard about touch Rugby games and hash-harriers running through town but opted to play Frisbee because the fixtures were more reliable and 2 hours chasing a flying disc kept me fit without the post-match sessions. We’ve also played occasional football matches there with local kids. 

Playing football at Ghazi Stadium overlooked by one of Afghanistan's rulers

By mid August even playing late morning led to an afternoon spent rehydrating. Cloudy days and even rain are a welcome relief. We moved from high school pitch to high school pitch to Kabul’s main stadium, Ghazi as the police became less relaxed about our presence and the ‘administration fees’ became unreasonable.  ‘Ghazi’ means hero, celebrating the Shar’s victory over the British and some people never got over playing social sport on a pitch where public executions were held.  Anyway, at the beginning of the year we were moved off, apparently for maintenance. 

Skiing in the Salang Pass in March

TM’s very own ‘Fit Club’ has kept me in shape and also entertained the guards who took a beyond-cursory interest in the international girls who were brave enough to join us on the grass terraces. The UNICA compound in town has a squash court, a bit smaller than any I’ve played on, although the original land-owner has terminated the lease and sold it for $5m  This is a high price that may be difficult to recoup before development aid tails off along with its indirect revenue. The good news is that another organisation in Kabul has built another court, soon to be finished. The bad news is that they took the measurements from the UNICA squash court so this too involves a little less running around. 

We have a table-tennis table in the fort and the occasional cricket knock-about. A game is planned between Murad Khane and those who work in the Qala. 

The clay tennis courts at the International club are busy all evenings and weekend with terrace tables to enjoy a cold beer or meal while players sweat it out on court.

With the advent of summer I have moved on to tennis, something I was convinced I wasn’t very good at although a new racket, recently picked up in Dubai,  has helped. There are reasonable, if dusty clay courts and I play a couple of times a week with players of different abilities. At $7 an hour, the price of a (small) beer here, I can forget the grind, although not the dust, of Kabul. 

Meanwhile elsewhere in Kabul the guys at Skateistan are planning their own part in GoSkateboardingDay so this week’s Afghaniman has to be dedicated the kids who will be out skateboarding on the pothole-ridden streets tomorrow. 

Duncan DJ