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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Walking in Kabul

July 2004

 

A WALK THROUGH KABUL

By Paul Vickers

 

This walk is for those who are new to the city and who want a gentle introduction to a few of its sights and sounds. It starts at the Mustafa Hotel, the best hotel for first time visitors and ends at the Deutsche Hof with a stein full of ice cold German beer. It takes less than an hour and you could make a day of a round trip and a good lunch (the Hof is closed on Tuesdays). Take a camera.

 

There’ll be more walks in future issues, including a trip to the Ka Farushi bird market in the middle of the teeming bazaar, the Bibi Mahro hill and the Royal Family mausoleum. But for now, take a trip through central Kabul and get to know a little of the city and its people.

 

Kabul is a fast-growing city where tall modern buildings nuzzle against bustling bazaars and wide avenues fill with brilliant flowing turbans, gaily striped chapans, mini-skirted schoolgirls, a multitude of handsome faces and streams of whizzing traffic”: so wrote Nancy Hatch Dupree of Kabul in her 1972 guide to Afghanistan.

 

Well the mini-skirts are no more and some of the taller buildings bear the scars of war, but in spite of everything, the rest is pretty much the same.

 

If you’re worried about security ask for advice at the Mustafa Hotel. The owner, Wais Faisi, is streetwise and knows more about what’s going on than most of the security experts from western agencies here.

 

I have walked all over Kabul on my own day after day for weeks on end in 2003 and 2004. I have never had any bother. The only thing that frightens me is the traffic. But make sure you check all is well locally before you set off.

 

OK, so you’re standing with your back to the Mustafa Hotel entrance watching the Afghan police shouting at Corolla drivers.

 

Check out the kebab shops opposite – the grills and the Bollywood radios come on at 7.00am and last well into the night – and if you’re not hungry, turn right.

 

Kabul’s shops still cling to the last vestiges of their medieval guild system. Here they sell computer discs, stationary and camera equipment. Outside you might see some of the small army of street clerks, who are hired by illiterate Afghans to fill in visa applications and official documents: there are several government buildings further up the street you’re on. Ahead of you will be a sign that says “Chicken Street”.

 

Turn right into what was known as Chahrahi Taurabaz Khan until the hippies turned up. It’s lined with shops selling beautiful carpets, kilims, George Bush rugs and tasteless 9/11 war rugs that even the shopkeepers who stock them seem ashamed to display. There are also, sadly, illegally poached furs on offer, particularly in the shops on the right as you enter the Mustafa end of the street.

 

Shopkeepers will invite you to see their wares. By all means take up the offer. Some westerners complain that the shops here are expensive and that you’ll be ripped off. In my view that’s rich coming from some desk jockey on $4,000 a month – twenty times the average Afghan salary. But it’s up to you and it’s always free to look.

 

As you walk down Chicken Street you are bound to meet some of the baksheesh kids who sell old maps or copies of the Kabul Weekly. If you’re really cool you’ll have bought your copy of this magazine from one of them.

 

Make friends with them. Get to know their names. They’re good kids and they’ll be keen to practice their English – and yes, most of them go to school these days.

 

Last time I was there, the latest commodity on sale was a stash of Iraqi bank notes bearing a picture of Saddam. You never know what they’ll come up with next. And if it all gets too much, pile into a shop for a while until the excitement dies down.

 

Burkha-clad women, waving prescriptions for drugs that they’ll beg you to help them buy will also approach you. Don’t. It’s a scam.

 

The best shop in Chicken Street? Well if you walk almost to the opposite end of the street on the left-hand side, four or five shops from the main road and ask for Khalid, you’ll find it.

 

Right. So now you’re at the bottom end of Chicken Street. Cross the road in front of you (bloody carefully) and enter Flower Street. Here you’ll find grocery shops and on the right hand side about 50m down, there are the most fabulous fruit and veg stalls tucked away in a short alleyway.

 

A bit further down and you’ll find dozens of shops that sell artificial flowers for wedding parties. If you’ve brought a limousine with you they’ll decorate it expertly for the happy occasion. If you haven’t, you could always watch someone else get the floral treatment or just have a peek at the designs in any of their shops.

 

Time now to double back as far as that road that you crossed. Turn right and keep walking. You’ll pass the Chelsea supermarket (“Be Happy All The Time”) and see some great views of the mountains to the west ahead of you. Keep going until you reach the entrance of the Shahre Naw Park on your right and go in.

 

This is a great park: people playing volleyball and cricket, soaking up the sun, chatting. Amble across it towards The Park Cinema once again showing all the latest Bollywood releases. This is a busy part of town even when the cinema is closed: lots of stalls selling snacks and kebabs. It looks great at night, but be careful.

 

As you leave the park, the road in front of you is called Jadayi Sulh. Turn left and follow it right to the end.

 

Shortly you’ll see a mosque on your right. It’s known as the Roshan mosque because of the huge telecom billboard some philistine has erected in front of it.

 

But it’s properly known as the Masjid-I-Haji Yaqub, or Sherpur Mosque and it’s worth a look, as long as you ask for permission. Built in 1957 it is full of blue tiles from Herat and is a peaceful spot to pause for thought and prayer.

 

Keep going along the Jadayi Sulh and you’ll come to a t-junction. Turn right. On your left on a hill overlooking the city is an impressive fort known as Kolola Pushta. It has been fought over for centuries, notably in the battle for Kabul in 1929 and was garrisoned by troops until the mid 70s.

 

If you watch from the road you’ll see children walking up to it on goat trails. Don’t be tempted to follow them. The site is mined and the Emergency hospital in Kabul regularly deals with casualties from places like this. You can get a good picture from the base of the hill.

 

Keep on walking until you reach a junction where you’ll find one of the growing number of shops in Kabul specialising in colourful wedding gowns directly in front of you. Cross the road and keep going (don’t turn left). Pass a school on your right and turn next left.

 

Follow the quiet, mainly residential road for about 500m and on your left-hand side you’ll find the entrance to the Deutsche Hof. You can’t miss it. The bollards outside are painted in the colours of the German flag.

 

Pop inside and you’ll find a restaurant, a hotel and a beer garden. It’s run by Gunter Volker from Thueringen. There’s draft beer and schnitzels on offer and if you’re really lucky, Gunter will be wearing his lederhosen.

 

Paul Vickers is a BBC journalist and keen Afghanophile. In the last year he’s made two three week holidays to Kabul. His website www.afghanhound.me.uk will be launched shortly.

 

 

WALKING SCENE – ON THE GRAND TOUR OF KABUL

By Vanni Cappelli

 

IT is a sad fact of expatriate life in Kabul that few of the foreigners who come here to work ever get to see this fabled city.

Boxed in by security fears, naturally reticent when faced with the unfamiliar, and unwilling to tread in places where sights, sounds, and smells border on uncomfortable, they never stray far from the path of absolute necessity or convenience. Which is a pity.

For by resolutely sticking to hotels, guesthouses, offices and restaurants - and always travelling between them by car or 4x4 - they are denying themselves a unique, unforgettable, and life-enriching experience: the magic and mystery of Kabul.

Having explored the great cities of Italy, and even my native New York, with the help of an ultra-literary Companion Guide, I know what it is to experience streets, gardens, palaces, places of worship and museums with the help of a ‘seeing eye’.

And arriving in Kabul for the first time in the spring of 2002, I was determined to do the same here because this city is also served by one of the world’s finest guidebooks, Nancy Hatch Dupree’s An Historical Guide To Kabul.

“Cities like Kabul change a little every day”, writes Nancy in her introduction. “Those who live in them note these changes in a perfunctory sort of way, bemoaning the disappearance of one landmark and lauding the appearance of another.”

Although these words were published more than thirty years ago - before tragedy overwhelmed Afghanistan - they still strike a chord with the modern Kabul wanderer because so much has disappeared … although not through progress, but destruction.

However, emerging from the ruins we are starting to see a new look Kabul, thanks to two years of reconstruction. And this is adding a real sense of wonder to the historical gloom. But, what a difference a little local knowledge makes.

Imagine looking from the must-stay Mustafa Hotel knowing that the massive pile before you is not really ‘Television Mountain’, but Kohe Asmai, named after the Hindu Great Mother goddess before the coming of Islam!

Imagine walking through the leafy streets of Wazir Akbar Khan knowing that the great sand heap of Bemaru Hill actually draws its name from a tragic love story!

And how stirring to know that the Shah-do-Shamshira mosque by Kabul River was built by King Amanullah to commemorate long-ago deeds of valour.

Everywhere you go in Kabul, stories of beauty rise from the vast vista of suffering. And I’ve been enchanted.

So much so, that by the end of my first trip to Kabul, I had become well known for braving the rubble and garbage to seek out the lost, and people began asking me to take them there too. Thus, ‘The Cappelli Grand Tour Of Kabul’ was born.

And those brave souls who - fortified by a hearty meal at the Marco Polo Restaurant - have been willing to exercise their leg muscles and accrue some good ol’ Kabul dust can testify that the high point of their Kabul experience has not come via a glowing computer or a fabulous expat party, but by seeking out scenes of past and present grandeur.

Thus, those who are willing to go behind the Bala Hissar - Kabul's ancient citadel “where few feringhee dare to tread” - can experience the majesty of the Shohada-i-Salehin cemetery, with its hillside tombs, vegetation, and leaping frogs . . . living proof that life forever springs forth from death.

Thus, those who are willing to plunge into the labyrinth of narrow streets behind the Pul-i-Khisti mosque can revel in the colour of the Kah Froshi - Kabul's ancient bird market - where you can get anything from a parrot to a peacock.

Thus, those willing to walk beside the luscious fields beyond the Pul-i-Arten bridge will learn of Kabul’s two feline guardians - Marjan the Lion and Dost the Kitten. They keep watch on either bank of the river below Sher Darwaza ‘Lion's Gate’ Mountain and Babur's (Tiger's) Garden.

But, don’t get me wrong. Kabul is no tourist’s paradise. We live in a city still at war and there are many potential causes of concern: landmines, open drains, treacherous rubble, and terrorists. However, not listed among these concerns are the Kabulis themselves.

Over some three years of extensive and dogged wandering, I have never felt any serious threat to my safety and my interactions with the citizens of this fair city have been far more pleasant than they have been annoying.

So, go get yourself a copy of Nancy Dupree’s guide - update it with Dominic Medley and Jude Barrand’s indispensable Survival Guide To Kabul - and find some kindred souls willing to turn a tour of duty into a great adventure.

I promise you, you’ll look back on it as the time of your life.

 

Vanni Cappelli is a freelance journalist who has covered Afghanistan since the Emergency Loya Jirga. He’s a co-founder and the current secretary of the Afghanistan Foreign Press Association.

 

 

 

كابل، افغانستان

The Survival Guide to Kabul©

www.kabulguide.net