The Survival Guide to Kabul©

Published internationally in July 2003 as Kabul: The Bradt Mini Guide.

First published in Kabul in September 2002 as a pamphlet.

 

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Last updated July 2004

 

See also photo stories: Kabul MuseumKabul ZooBabur GardensChristian CemeteryPanjshirIstalifBamyian

 

November 21 2003 Pictures of the military tour of Kabul.

 

 

July 2004 Walking in Kabul articles.

 

KABUL

There’s a lot to see, even if most of it is wrecked. Touring Kabul is certainly best done on a Friday when the city is quieter. A three-hour trip will give you time to visit some of the must-sees such as the spectacular views from TV tower hill, the Darulaman Palace, Kabul museum, the destroyed west of Kabul and King Nadir Shah’s tomb.

 

Of course cameras and foreigners attract the baksheesh brigade but everyone is very friendly. Afghans love posing for photographs and digital cameras mean you can show the results immediately or print them out and deliver copies later (photographs as gifts are much appreciated). However, do remember, Kabul is one of the most mined cities in the world. Never wander off the beaten track.

 

No trip around Kabul is complete without Nancy Hatch Dupree’s pocket guidebook widely available at street bookshops or at the Intercontinental Hotel. Originally published in 1965 the second edition was printed in 1972.  Five suggested tours around the city are laid out in detail with sights to see and maps to guide you. Needless to say Kabul has changed dramatically in the last 30 years but the book gives an interesting insight into what the city was like. Eight tours for outside the city are also suggested. Most notable is a trip to Ghazni to see the minarets, though these days the 140km drive takes closer to four hours in a 4x4. The shopping section offers an interesting insight, which has perhaps changed little today: The richness of Kabul’s bazaars is legend: they are as fascinating today as they have always been. We recommend departing from this general guideline so that you may experience the pleasure of discovering a favourite bazaar or an unique “find.”

USA Today travels around Kabul in 2002 using Nancy Dupree’s 1972 guide.

 

 

WEST KABUL The whole of West Kabul sums up the wanton destruction the city has seen. West Kabul used to be a huge residential area with the grand avenue leading to the Darulaman Palace and Kabul museum. Thousands of people were forced to flee, however, as the rival Mujaheddin factions rained shells at each other across the avenues and villas from their strategic positions in the surround hills. As a result of that sustained shelling, the area was reduced to rubble and dust. Today it’s a haunting reminder of Kabul’s recent history with the palace and the museum being the most striking evidence of the bitter legacy of war. Just beyond Kabul Zoo is a roundabout with the Maiwand Memorial Column in the middle. The completely destroyed surrounding buildings are what most TV crews have filmed over the years to emphasize the destruction of Kabul.

 

 

KABUL MUSEUM The Kabul Museum is in front of the Darulaman Palace and is undergoing extensive renovation. The museum was famous in central Asia for its prehistoric to 20th century collection. But over the last ten years 70% of the collection has been lost. The museum is closed but the editors of The Survival Guide did manage to get inside and meet the director and his deputy. The director Mr Omara Khan Masoudi, who’s worked at the museum for 24 years, showed us the rooms being renovated; mostly for storage though he hopes exhibitions will open by the end of 2003. In the foyer is a magnificent huge black marble basin dating from the 15th Century. Back then the basin would be filled with juice for the pilgrims to the Sultan Mir Wais Baba shrine in Kandahar to drink from. The basin is surrounded in Islamic text. On the wall down the corridor is a 12th Century calligraphic frieze from Lashkar Gah. Opposite the frieze is a 12th century reconstructed mosque also from Lashkar Gah. There’s a lovely 19th Century Arabic style marble door that belonged to the royal family. In March 2003 the main corridor was full of old steel filing cabinets that used to house the museum’s collection of 40,000 coins. Sadly all the coins, many dating from the time of Alexander the Great, have been looted.  At the time of writing, rooms were being restored with help from organisations like the British Museum and UNESCO, but there were no exhibition rooms open. The library has a collection of books, mostly stored in trunks. Fortunately the Taliban didn’t destroy many of the museum’s books, but outside you’ll see the destroyed statues of lions and horses. The second floor of the museum was completely destroyed in a fire in the mid-90s. In 1995 the museum did try and start the process of retrieving objects but then the destruction began under the Taliban who destroyed around 2,000 pieces. The museum director says there’s a huge job to be done to restore the museum and the collection. He’s also worried that people are still looting Afghanistan’s heritage: ‘I’m sure there are some ancient pieces on Chicken Street, but we haven’t checked’ he says. Though he says most of the ‘guns on Chicken Street are new and not ancient.” Mr Masoudi also says many of the museum’s pieces are still in secret hiding.

 

 

DARULAMAN PALACE The palace built by King Amannullah in the 1920s is set into a small hill in front of the Kabul museum with the once impressive four-mile avenue (once lined with poplars) past the former Soviet embassy, schools and ministries leading to it. Fighting from 1992 onwards destroyed the building but it remains one of the most impressive, albeit shattered structures in Kabul. The palace was used by King Amannullah and was later used as the Justice ministry and Defence ministry. The equally striking former Defence Ministry is on the hills behind.

Photo.

 

 

KABUL ZOO Kabul Zoo is a soulless complex and is not a great place for its inhabitants. In 2002 China donated two lions, two bears, two pigs and a wolf. In addition there are a number of other species including nine bears, jackals, birds, rabbits, eagles, wild boars, foxes, guinea pigs, monkeys, owls and six huge vultures. In total the zoo has 116 animals and a staff of 60 to care for them. Conditions are poor but it is a popular place for Kabulis and up to 3000 people will visit during a week according to the director Sheragah Omar who has worked at the zoo for nine years. A British animal protection group, the Mayhew Animal Home in London, ensures there is enough food for the animals, and the 25 kilos of meat the two lions Zing Zong and Dolly eat every day. Zookeeper Aziz Ahmad is also an obliging guide with gruesome stories about the fate of the zoo’s last elephant (the elephants house is completely destroyed) and for a small tip will show you the final resting place of the zoo’s most famous resident, Marjan, the one-eyed lion. Donatella the famous bear is undergoing daily treatment for a nose infection from German ISAF. The zoo is open from 06.00--18.00 every day and entry costs five Afghanis.

 

 

Marjan the Lion In January 2002 the most famous resident of Kabul Zoo, Marjan the one-eyed Lion and veteran of so much fighting, died. Marjan, the only lion in the zoo, was a gift from Germany 38 years ago and was estimated to be forty years old. Half blind and almost toothless he’d survived all the fighting in Kabul, especially in the 1990s as rival Afghan groups fought for control of Kabul. The zoo was on the frontline and in the direct line of fire from rocket attack from the nearby hills. Marjan lost his eye when a Taliban fighter climbed into the lion’s enclosure. The starving Marjan killed and ate the man. But the man’s brother returned the next day for a revenge attack and threw a grenade into the cage leaving Marjan blind and lame. In his last few weeks of life Marjan enjoyed a heated cage and plenty of food and medicine.

 

 

BABUR GARDENS On Sarak-e-Chilsitun road. Open every day 07.00--19.00. Entrance two Afghanis. Mark our words! These 6 hectares of walled gardens are going to be one of the most beautiful spots in the city. After more than two decades of conflict, which saw the rival factions fire their rockets either over or into this former imperial park, the place was little more than a wasteland. However, today more than twenty gardeners toil away at the site, landscaping and planting. Already new shrubs and the layout for a rose garden are visible. Trees and flowerbeds are also being planted. The gardens were built in the mid-16th century at the behest of the first Mogul emperor, Zahir-ed-Din Mohammad Babur Shah and remain one of the few cultural landscapes in Afghanistan to retain their original shape. The entrance to the gardens is from the Sarak-e-Chilsitun main road that runs in front of the mountain. The gardens start out as a gentle climb up the mountainside. The last stretch is steeper, but it is worth going all the way up. Tucked away on the final terrace at the top is the tomb of the former king himself, Babur Shah. His wife is buried separately, but her tombstone is possibly even more beautifully carved than that of her husband. Just below them is a wonderful little marble mosque built by Babur’s successor, Shah Jahan, also dating from mid-1600. A restaurant is also being built towards the top end of the gardens with a breath-taking view over Kabul below and the mountains beyond. Though currently under construction the garden director is confident that it will be finished for the summer of 2003. Despite their poor state, the gardens serve as a much-needed respite to the inhabitants of Kabul who come on Fridays (the Muslim equivalent of the Christian Sunday) to picnic and relax in the relative calm. If you get a chance, make sure you put your head around the door of the large greenhouse in the far left-hand corner of the gardens as you look up the mountain. It is locked, so you will need to find the head gardener, but once inside you are in for a treat. It is packed with colourful flowers and shrubs awaiting transplantation. One look in here and you know it is only a matter of time before Babur is returned to its former glory.

 

 

BALA HISSAR The ancient citadel and home of some of Afghanistan’s most important kings is now off limits and extremely dangerous owing to unexploded bombs and landmines. However this magnificent building dating, it is believed, in parts from the 5th century has played a role in every twist and turn in the city’s often violent history. Bala Hissar sits to the south of the modern city centre at the tail end of the Kuh-e-Sherdarwaza Mountain. The famous Walls of Kabul, which are a staggering 20 feet high and 12 feet thick, start at the natural fortress and follow the mountain ridge in a sweeping curve down to the river. Bala Hissar was originally divided into two parts. The lower fortress where the stables, barracks and three royal palaces were contained and the upper fortress called Bala Hissar which housed the armoury and the infamous Black Pit, the dungeon of Kabul were situated. However the arrival of the British in Kabul marked the end of the citadel. From 1839 onwards the British used it on and off as their barracks until the massacre of the British Mission by mutinous Afghan troops in 1879. General Roberts was dispatched to Kabul to quell the situation and took the citadel. Shortly afterwards an explosion in the powder magazine partly destroyed upper Bala Hissar. General Roberts decided to finish the job off and ordered the destruction of the rest. Perhaps, however the last word lies with the founder of the Mogul empire, the Emperor Babur who captured the fort at the start of his conquering career and went on to write of the magnificent building:  “The citadel is of surprising height, and enjoys an excellent climate, overlooking the large lake, and three meadows which present a very beautiful prospect when the plains are green.” Today the fortress is home to the 55th division of Kabul. The big green gates are adorned with photos of Karzai and Massoud. Visitors are not allowed in.

 

 

SHAH-DO-SHAMSHIRA MOSQUE This beautiful square building on the Kabul River opposite the Pul-I-Shah-do-Shamshira Bridge is the Mosque of the King of Two Swords. According to legend the mosque takes its name from a 7th century battle that took place between attacking Islamic troops and defending Hindus. Despite fighting heroically with a sword in each hand, one of the Muslim head commanders fell in battle. It is his memory that is honoured by the mosque today. The two-storey edifice was built in the 1920s on the order of King Amanullah’s mother on the site of one of Kabul’s first mosques. Today, the building has seen better days. Bullet holes can be seen in the façade, but the doors are still open to worshippers and visitors alike. Women are advised to visit on Wednesdays when the mosque is closed to men.

 

 

THE NATIONAL GALLERY Reconstruction and painting is being carried out at the National Gallery but it should be open soon. The gallery used to have some 820 paintings and portraits but 50% have been looted or destroyed; the director said the Taliban destroyed 210 portraits. Most of the collection is of European and Afghan landscapes and portraits of famous Afghan writers and kings and a portrait of the French writer Victor Hugo.

Photo.

 

 

THE NATIONAL ARCHIVE Salang Wat Street; tel: 070 29 7805. Open everyday 08.00--17.00, except Fridays. President Karzai reopened the National Archive in March 2002. There are some 15,000 documents and books but only photocopies are displayed in the two exhibition rooms. The originals are housed in a secret location, but written permission from the Ministry of Information and Culture will allow you to see the documents. The most famous exhibit in the collection is a 300 hundred-year-old copy of the Holy Koran. One exhibition room houses poetry and writings by famous Afghan authors; the second room houses historical documents, newspapers and photographs including the 1919 independence from Britain agreement and old Afghan currency. Perhaps one of the most striking things about the National Archive is the building itself. Emir Adurrahman Khan built this beautiful 100 year-old mini palace for his son. The building reverted to the state on the Emir’s death. The archive is still active. Every day new publications are stored for posterity. Official government documents, however are only available for public viewing 40 years after the date of publication.

 

 
ROYAL FAMILY MAUSOLEUM King Nadir Shah’s Mausoleum is the resting place for the recent monarchs of Afghanistan’s royal family. King Zahir Shah returned to Kabul in April 2002 after 29 years in exile. King Zahir’s wife, Queen Homaira never made it back to her homeland. She died in Italy at the age of 86 while waiting to rejoin her husband in Kabul and is now buried here The Queen is survived by seven of her nine children and by 14 grandchildren. Usually there’s a man on duty at the mausoleum who will take you into the catacombs. There are good views of the city from here giving you an idea of how the infighting Mujaheddin fought over the high ground and just destroyed the city from it.

 

 

OMAR MINE MUSEUM The OMAR mines and UXOs museum on Street 13 in Wazir Akbar Khan (tel: 020 2100833; email: omarintl@ceretechs.com) has a collection of 51 types of mines out of the 53 used in Afghanistan over the years including cluster bombs and airdrop bombs used by the US in 2002. OMAR stands for Organisation for Mine Clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation. Unfortunately the museum is not really open for casual visitors who just turn up. You need to go the main OMAR office on Street 10, House 206 in Wazir Akbar Khan and try and organise a time to visit. A typical tour round the garden and display cases will take around 45 minutes. Ask for Dr Shah Walie who knows everything there is to know about mines.

 

 

BIBI MAHRO HILL Take a walk up the Bibi Mahro hill behind Wazir Akbar Khan for some superb views of Kabul city especially at sunset. There’s an old Soviet Olympic size swimming pool at the top of the hill and old trenches and armoured personnel carriers. Many of the expatriates living in Wazir Akbar Khan below use the short climb to the top of the hill as their daily exercise routine and you may even see a few joggers. The area has been cleaned of mines but still take the necessary precautions. Despite the relative acceptance of foreigners here, women should never go unaccompanied. There have been isolated incidents of stone throwing here by the youths who linger around the top of the hill.

 

 

CHRISTIAN CEMETERY Char-i-Shahid, Shahre Naw. Open every day 07.00--16.00. This walled graveyard of around 150 graves is behind large arched wooden doors about 150 meters beyond the martyr’s shrine on Char-i-Shahid. Christians have been buried here for more than 100 years. The most famous grave is that of the scholar, author and explorer, Mark Aurel Stein of the Indian Archaeological Survey. He was born in Budapest in 1862 and died in Kabul in October 1943. His simple tombstone alludes to his travels throughout Asia and his contribution to the west’s understanding of the region. More recent additions to the cemetery are the ISAF memorial plaques. As you walk in, to the right, there is one to the British soldiers and officers who died in the Afghan wars in the 19th and 20th centuries, which was placed in the wall in 2002. Opposite at the other end, there is a memorial plaque to the German soldiers and officers who lost their lives in Afghanistan placed by German ISAF. Other plaques to ISAF soldiers can also be spotted in the perimeter walls. The cemetery guardian, 60 year-old Rahim Mullah has been tending the graves for 17 years and can give lots of extra insights into the history of those buried here. For Rahim the Taliban period was a difficult one. He confesses that he was heavily criticized during that time for continuing to tend the cemetery. And though he was salaried, his income dried up after the NGO who was paying him, International Organisation for Migration, was bombed and pulled out of the country. Money was sent in from Peshawar in Pakistan, but it was an uncertain trickle of funds. He was even confronted by Mullah Omar three months before the fall of the Taliban in November 2001. The Taliban headquarters were in the buildings that line the right wall of the cemetery as you enter. One day, the famed, one-eyed leader of the Taliban movement decided to see the graveyard for himself. He was shown around by Rahim and stayed for twenty minutes. But before leaving Mullah Omar asked Rahim what he thought he was doing working in such a place. “I am an illiterate man,” answered Rahim. “And everyone knows that to be illiterate is like being blind (and therefore ignorant).” To which Mullah Omar is reputed to have replied, “But I too am blind!” before clapping Rahim on the back and bursting in to laughter. Today the British Embassy in Kabul pays Rahim’s salary and he looks forward to passing the mantle of service on to his oldest son. Around 50 people visit the graveyard every week.

 

 

PAGHMAN GARDENS King Amanullah brought in foreign experts to redesign the Paghman district after his tour of Europe, India and Iran in 1927--28. The small village of Paghman at the bottom of the Hindu Kush became a holiday retreat with villas and chalets and an Arc de Triomphe style arch. The gardens were beautifully laid out and copied from European designs. But as with west Kabul and the same elaborate Darulaman palace area built by the same French and German architects, Paghman became a Mujaheddin battleground. Today little is left at Paghman though the arch still stands. But in the summer Paghman is popular for picnics and days out of the city.

 

 

ELSEWHERE

There are plenty of places to discover in Kabul, depending on your interests and how you feel about being followed around everywhere you go.

 

Certainly visit the money market. Experience the stomach-churning thrill of seeing garrulous old men spirit away your hard earned hard currency and present you with a bundle of unknown notes. Despite the distinctly non-high-tech setting the money dealers have all the latest exchange rates at their fingertips, (they were the first people in Kabul to get satellite phones) and it is no problem to change Dollars, Pounds Sterling, Euros and Pakistani rupees.

 

Then there’s the Titanic market in the Kabul River. This is the place for those plastic soap dishes and factory produced carpets from Iran.

 

You can buy any type of bird in the noisy Ka Farushi bird market near the Blue Mosque in the old city across the main bridge over Kabul River.

BBC article on the bird market.

 

The Ariana Graveyard, as the collection of circa 1960-1985 trashed aviation memorabilia is called, will probably be the first thing you see on arrival in Kabul. The rusting heap of vintage planes lies to the right of the airport as you head into the city; much of it, the result of coalition attacks in 2001. But the real damage was done between 1991 and 1996 as rival Mujaheddin factions battled for control of the city. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of Hezb-i-Islami (Islamic Faction) launched constant attacks on the airport right up until the Taliban take-over of the city.

 

For arts and crafts you can visit the CHA Gallery of Fine Arts and Traditional Afghan Crafts at House 76 on Cinema Zainab Road just past the Emergency Hospital: tel: 020 2200101 (web: www.cha-net.org). The Afghan Handicraft Promotion Centre opposite the Indian Embassy on the Interior Ministry Road also has crafts for sale.

 

Afghans will often go to the Kargha Dam outside the city in the summer for picnics.

 

Outside Kabul you should also consider a trip to Bamyian to see the destroyed Buddhas. A road journey will take you some 8 hours, though a plane journey with UNHAS will only take you 20 minutes. A day trip to Ghazni to see the spectacular minarets is possible but it will take you about four hours to get there and 4WD is essential. Just take care walking around the two minarets. Ghazni has been heavily fought for over the years.

 

 

Day Trip/Picnic out of Kabul

Shomali Plain

Artisan’s Village, Istalif

This village 50 minutes drive out of Kabul is a terrible reminder of the devastation caused by the bitter war fought for the area by the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Today it is mostly in ruins, but a small artisan initiative is breathing tentative life into the place. The small handful of craftsmen are mostly potters and their creations have a compelling rustic beauty. The colours they use are mostly royal blue and deep turquoise. The merchandise ranges from salad bowls and plates to jugs and teacups and saucers.

To reach Istalif head out of Kabul on the Shomali road. After 45 minutes you will pass a white roadside petrol pump on the left and see immediately a turning to the left marked by NGO signposts. This dirt road leads up in to the foothills of the mountains that fringe the Shomali plain.  Follow the road for about 20 minutes. As you climb, you will come across a sharp hairpin bend, shortly afterwards, as you continue along the road you will come up over the brow of the small hill you are climbing. Bear left at the intersection here and you will then descend in to a valley with a beautiful river at the bottom. On the other side of the river is Istalif.

The first thing you will come across as you enter the village is the ‘Chai Kana’ or teahouse. This is a good place for some biscuits, naan, green tea and gossip. This bit of the village is fairly intact, but continue up through the village and you will find devastated streets and derelict buildings just behind. On the old (now destroyed) main thoroughfare you will find the outlet for the local pottery made in Istalif. An old man is happy to let you browse and will explain local history for those with enough Dari to understand him. He is a keen businessman and you should haggle for any purchase you intend to make, but after having seen the ruins the people of Istalif live in, it feels right to pay a little over the odds. At the top of the village is the mosque and some large trees. The view of the plain is wonderful from here. As long as prayers are not going on, you are allowed to sit in the shade and contemplate the scene laid out before you.

 

 
A trip to the Panjshir Valley

The Panjshir Valley lies around 100 kilometres northeast of the capital, Kabul, but the drive to get there takes more than five hours. The first 50 kilometres are tarmac road, but suddenly the road ends and after that it's just rocks and dust, making the ride rather uncomfortable.

Head out of Kabul on the Charikar road (also a good place to stop and eat at the famous Panjshir Restaurant on the main town square).

Dozens of destroyed tanks still line the road, burnt out testimonies to the violent fighting that raged in the region as the Soviets battled to subdue the Panjshir and repeatedly failed.

Massoud's tomb is a plain white building with a gleaming green dome towards the valley entrance. The pilgrimage site, as it has now become, is perched on a hill with a commanding and beautiful view of the river far below. The Panjshir River is one of the few fast flowing rivers in the country after five years of drought and the valley floor is a scene of biblical lushness, especially around harvest time in September (also the time of the anniversary of Massoud’s death).

Plans are afoot to expand the tomb and make it into a national monument. When visiting be careful not to offend others. Women should wear scarves, both men and women should remove shoes if they wish to enter the small tomb itself.

 

 

Lonely Planet Guide: on Afghanistan and the Afghanistan pages from the Central Asia Guide.

 

Robert Young Pelton’s Dangerous Places: Afghanistan.

 

August 25 2002 BBC: Kabul welcomes first holidaymakers

August 22 2002 BBC: Wish you were here?

 

January 1 2002 Daily Telegraph: Afghanistan hopes to lure back Western tourists

August 26 2001 Daily Telegraph: Backpackers risk all for the thrills of Kabul

 

 

كابل، افغانستان

The Survival Guide to Kabul©

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