Driving through central Afghanistan

by AFP/Lynne O'Donnell, Oct 12, 2009 | Destinations: Afghanistan / Kabul

Getting caught in the crossfire of battling warlords or caught short with dysentery might not be the best selling points for the holiday of a lifetime, but in Afghanistan it's all part of the adventure.

A recent group of intrepid -- some would say ill-advised -- travellers who drove through central Afghanistan had to deal with security forces on heightened alert for insurgents bent on disrupting national elections.

For three weeks they bedded down in tiny guesthouses after days spent bouncing along war-pitted roads in an unsprung minibus, being roughed up by police at armed checkpoints and facing daily fear of kidnap.

Amid the discomfort and fear, they discovered the warmth of people who spontaneously invited them home for tea and cake, as well as breathtaking scenery and some of the world's greatest but least visited historical sites.

Geoff Hann, a Briton who specialises in travel through seemingly inaccessible parts of the world, has been bringing tourists to Afghanistan -- on and off depending on the security situation -- for 30 years.

Leading his latest group of five, he arrived in Kabul on August 2 for a tour of some of the many sites, including the minaret of Jam and the mountainside niches that once held the Bamiyan buddhas, that could make Afghanistan, once again, a tourism hotspot.

But as a Taliban-linked insurgency expands its footprint across the destitute country, the flow of tourists that reached a peak in the 1970s has slowed to barely a trickle.

European tourists first started coming to Afghanistan in 1959, when 600 came to see historical sites on horseback, said Sayed Amanuddin Baha, director of the culture ministry's Afghan Tour travel agency.

By 1977, when Afghanistan was a fixture on the hash-hazed hippy trail, the country was earning millions of dollars a year from about 120,000 foreign visitors, he said.

Since then, Afghanistan has been mired in violence and during the rule of Taliban fanatics from 1996-2001, few foreigners were granted visas.

Things began to pick up after the Taliban -- who refused to expel Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks -- were overthrown in late 2001 in a US-led invasion.

But with the insurgents having re-established a permanent presence in many parts of the country, visitors who come for pleasure are rare.

Hann's group ranged in age from 29-year-old Mark Hansel, an electrical engineer and history buff from London, to 79-year-old Jo Gilbert, an inveterate traveller from San Francisco and one of two women on the trip.

After a day spent bumping over cratered roads, the group would sometimes turn up at a remote teahouse, the only accommodation available, to find they had to share a room and, yet again, forgo a shower.

"I didn't mind the conditions at all," said Gilbert, a former prison officer who described herself as "a traveller and a blogger".

"We became tolerant of each other's foibles," she said, as Hansel mumbled: "It's not like we had a choice."

Hann said he aims for a few tours a year -- 10 travellers being the optimum number -- despite the deteriorating security situation, and finds most problems are more to do with the digestion than security.

"We get people who get dysentery. One lady broke a foot -- she stumbled along on a crutch. Three or four years ago we were caught up in a warlord's battle and we had moments in 2001 when we came up against the Taliban.

"My philosophy is that you could be in your hotel and get blown up, which is fairly unlikely. We are not in the danger area for IEDs," he said, referring to roadside bombs the Taliban deploy against foreign and Afghan troops, mostly in the south where their influence is strongest.

"When it comes to kidnapping, we don't advertise where we're going or what we're doing, we use local transport hired on the spot and I find that people look after us as their guests -- and they want the money," he said.

For those willing to risk a war-zone vacation, insurance costs 200-350 pounds (325-570 dollars) for three weeks, he said, and double that for the over-75s.

Gilbert said she has been traversing the globe since 1976, largely alone since her husband died in 2003.

She wanted to see Afghanistan "outside the urbanised bubble of Kabul", she said. Because the war-ravaged country is in such dire need of help rebuilding itself after 30 years of war, she would like to do voluntary work.

"I can teach, I was a prison officer so I can work with the police, work in jails, as a consultant," she said.

After a couple of days in noisy, dirty Kabul -- where most buildings are hidden behind massive blast-proof walls and barbed wire, and traffic follows no discernible rules -- the group headed north to Mazar-i-Sharif.

That meant driving through the Salang tunnel on what has become, just weeks later, one of the most dangerous highways in the country.

Locals report increased Taliban activity as the insurgents target a new supply line from Tajikistan for the more than 100,000 foreign troops under NATO and US command.

Mazar, a bustling trading cross-roads for Central Asia, is famous for its carpets and textiles, and the Blue Mosque, which is revered by Shiite Muslims and which is under a constant cloud of circling white doves.

From there they drove to Bamiyan, formerly home to the famous Buddhas carved into the side of a mountain 2,500 metres (8,200 feet) above sea level about a thousand years ago but destroyed by the Taliban in early 2001 as idolatrous.

The group visited some of the country's most famous landmarks, including the minaret of Jam in Ghor province, a region so poor that even the capital Chaghcharan has little electricity or running water.

Not far from the minaret, the group had an unnerving encounter when their minibus was flagged down by two armed men.

"It was a nervous time for about five minutes," said Londoner Kulvinder Matharu, 44, a telecoms engineer and keen amateur photographer.

"I was thinking we'd have to get the dollars out and pay these people off," he said, the memory of his fear still fresh.

In contrast, he said, he was delighted by the charm and hospitality of the western city of Herat, regarded as Afghanistan's most cultured city and where Iran's influence is strong.

"In Kabul it's edgy and you feel slightly under siege but Herat seemed like a different country," Matharu said.

"Out of the blue, this family asked us to share cake and tea with them, and I thought that was wonderful."

Security considerations forced Hann to change some plans -- arriving by air rather than driving through the famed Khyber Pass from Pakistan and spending time in Kabul around the election rather than venturing too far from safety.

Nevertheless, Gilbert said the August 20 poll "was one of the reasons I was glad to be here at this time, to see how involved the people were everywhere we went in the election".

The vote has since descended into farce amid allegations of fraud that could force President Hamid Karzai into a run-off against his main rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

* * * * *