The chief of police had advised against travel to the south this morning, so the Guldara Stupa trip could not take place. Instead, my partner and I walked with G to Shah M Book Co ( the Kabul Bookshop) and browsed the shelves for a while. We bought some dusty postcards, an old cookery book (1995) and a wonderful historical document from 1992 – “Afghan Jehad Quarterly Magazine of the Cultural Council of Afghanistan Resistance Vol 5 No 3 April to June” – a journal issued by the new government, including press reports, government policy and committee papers. It documents fine intentions for the new state (strengthening reading & writing skills, education for all, the protection of common cultural heritage) and sadly illustrates how far they fell from their stated Sharia ideal.
While we were engrossed in the bookshop, A and P managed to walk halfway up the city walls ( a steep and treacherous climb) before abandoning the path due to loose gravel and the 20 street kids tagging behind them.
G went off to the Embassy and came back with good news. The Director of Archaeology has agreed to let us visit Mes Aynak next week. It will mean that we will have to change our Northern itinerary but will be worth it to see such a special site.
After the bags were repacked (we’re travelling even lighter for the next leg) and our main luggage stashed securely at the hotel, we left for our Mazar flight. The 30 minute airport drive took over an hour as the traffic was heavy and slow moving. Vehicles are not allowed through the Embassy area and are diverted into small side streets, so we often had to double back on ourselves to get to main roads. There are no traffic lights and the streets were full of police, army and private security teams.
As we got to the perimeter of the airport we had to get out twice, once for a female / male body search and next for our bags to go through screening. Again, the x-ray machine wasn’t functioning, so hand searches were being done, watched by a man with a screwdriver in his hand, ready to start the repair. At the next body search booth I was waived straight through by the female security guards. We then carried our own bags 200 yards to the airport bus and loaded them on for the 5 minute ride to the terminal. The hand luggage was put through a further set of working x-ray machines and our main bags were weighed and sent off to the plane – none of them had been checked thoroughly – before we were issued with boarding cards. The sole departure lounge couldn’t cope with the two flights due out this afternoon and there were far too few plastic chairs for everyone.
At the end of our 40 minute flight to Mazar e Sharif there was a slight concern as we were about to land as the pilot suddenly abandoned his approach at the last minute. He climbed steeply and retracted the wheels, announcing that there had been “traffic on the runway”. The plane then circled for 20 minutes until it was safe to land. It wasn’t comforting seeing the fire truck waiting for us by the runway as we landed.
When we left the plane we started walking across the tarmac towards the unfinished terminal but were stopped and shepherded by police to a nearby area and told to collect our bags off the back of the unloading truck. We then walked a further 10 minutes to get outside the gates, over builder’s rubble, passing unfinished buildings, until we finally got to the taxi rank.
Mazar is one big building site. It’s not a pretty city but it seems functional and we didn’t have to pass through any further security checks. The armed guards posted outside our hotel waived us in and told us to walk up the stairs to reception but just as we got there an officer stormed in, shouting that we had failed to stop and had to have our bags searched before we came in. So, we then had to take everything downstairs and start again. The moment we’d opened our bags they told us to go back up and declined to search them. The guard is only here because we are next door to the American Legation which was attacked 2 years ago and several people were killed.
The walk down to the Royal Oak Hotel was uneventful. We ate burgers and black forest gateaux for $32 each, an indication of how desperate we were for something that wasn’t lamb or rice.