As we flew into Kabul, the view from the plane was stunning. The city sprawled below a mountain range in a patchwork of browns and greys. There was no snow on the mountains and the horizon was just a mass of grey dust / pollution (?).
Passport control was easy and the customs routine was just one x-ray machine. The baggage hall was also relatively painless, with a few baggage handlers politely pestering us to be allowed to act as our porters (declined – we travel light). We then took the local transit bus to a stop outside of the terminal to pick up taxis to take us into the city (no taxis or cars are allowed in the airport vicinity).
The ride took 25 minutes through traffic (and driving styles) that reminded me of Libya – aggressive, take no prisoners, using the horn frequently. Beaten up, yellow taxis jostled with buses, SUV s, 4x4s, police, military cars and expensive limos. Some passengers openly stared at us and one lady smiled and waved. The airport road had heavily armed police and military checkpoints approximately every 30 yards and they all had machine guns mounted on pick-up trucks. There were huge, fortified compounds with towering walls. Razor wire lined the streets. It was a scene of dusty disrepair – a dramatic first impression.
We didn’t see any Westerners on the streets and there were only a few visible in private vehicles. It looks as though Kabul isn’t a walking city for us. Our taxi drivers wished us well as they dropped us off at our hotel and it seemed a genuine sentiment.
Our hotel was a local one, overlooking a market and a dried up, rubbish strewn river. We’re deliberately going to avoid all NGO or Western business type hotels because it’s safer. The hotel was shabby and barely functioning (except for an excellent large lift) but we were made to feel safe and welcome, which was far more important. Our room was large and had definitely seen better days. We had vibrant orange and black walls and a bathroom that struggled to maintain a functioning flush but there was running water and electricity, so everything was good – including the obligatory, interesting cockroaches.
After a brief rest and a chance to freshen up, G gave us a stern briefing about personal safety and staying alert at all times. The three women in our group (including me) have to wear headscarves whenever we are in public and our dress has to be modest, no bare legs or arms. Men must never, ever touch an Afghan woman. We are not to go out alone under any circumstances, nor should any of us be out after dark. We have a military post opposite the hotel but that wouldn’t provide enough deterrent and kidnapping of NGO workers is not unheard of.
We went out together into the local streets. People stared openly at us but there was no hostility. My partner and P were taken to a local tailor to get measured for their necessary Shalwar Kameez while we girls lurked in a shaded alley next door, providing great interest to the passing locals. We were greeted by a plain cloths police officer and told that we were safe.
Later we are stopped in the market by a lad from Derbyshire who was delighted to see us. He told us that he’s Afghan but has lived in the UK for 12 years and is back to visit his family for the first time.
The money changers had set up shop in the market using cardboard boxes to display about 20 different currencies in neat piles, held down by packing twine. They vied to supply the best rates but one man won all of our custom and the others took his good fortune with easy shrugs and smiles. The exchange rate is 40 Afghani to the dollar (70 to the pound) and we changed up $300 to get us through the next 3 weeks.
We then purchased large quantities of water and some locally made biscuits (there are some fabulous cake shops near our hotel) and manage to drink 2 litres each in our rooms by the end of the day.
My partner then accompanied G and P to Chicken Street to buy Pashtun hats and search for postcards in the Kabul Bookshop ( made famous by the book written by Åsne Seierstad).
In the evening, before dinner in the hotel, we watched prayers live from Mecca on the TV in the foyer (it’s Ramadan) while the large electric fans powered warm air around. We then vacated the space to let the hotel workers pray.
Dinner was great. We sat in the large dining room, its sole occupants, and ate beautifully cooked chicken, freshly baked bread and black tea – all for 160 Afghani (about £3). G entertained us with tales of previous trips and of the numerous journalists and writers who tried to wangle their way onto the tours for free. We’ve been joined by our last group member, another female Brit, Q.