Afghanistan's pockets of peace open to travelers

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters Life!) - Tell people working in Afghanistan that you’re there just to look around, and the response is likely to be the same -- raised eyebrows followed by an incredulous: “You’re here on holiday?”.

Afghan boys Play football in the old part of City in Kabul, June 12,2007. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

Reports of suicide bombings in Kabul and attacks elsewhere are enough to keep even longtime expatriates from exploring the capital, let alone the country.

But there’s a side to Afghanistan rarely seen in news reports: the bustling street life in Kabul and the serenity of the northern country, scenes that demonstrate how fear does not dictate the lives of the vast majority of Afghans.

Travel in Afghanistan is not risk-free. Backpacking is not recommended, and forget about the south, the stronghold of the militant Taliban movement. But daily updates on the security situation and a good guide can allow for safe travel in other parts.

Kabul is well worth a few days, a city of 4 million that is busy remaking itself, covered in clouds of dust kicked up by an endless stream of cars, armored vehicles and people.

But to see up close what peace looks like in Afghanistan and to better meet the locals, head north, starting in Balkh, once called by Arabs “the mother of cities”, 14 miles west of Mazar-i-Sharif.

It has a rich history: Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan both conquered this region, which was also the birthplace of Zoroaster. Now eroded walls enclosed vast fields that once held a majestic city.

Balkh is home to Afghanistan’s first mosque, the Masjid-i-No Gumbad, or Nine Towers. Most of the domes are gone, but restoration work has begun on what remains. The mosque, dating back to the ninth century, was once a dazzling white, as newly exposed parts of pillars show.

Heading further west, stretches of green fields flank a two-lane highway to Andkhoy, a sleepy town that time seems to have forgotten. It perks up on Mondays and Thursday, when people from neighboring areas come to sell their goods.

Foreigners are rare in Mazar-i-Sharif, but in Andkhoy, they are non-existent. A distant glimpse of a visitor will have children crowding around a school window, standing on chairs for a better look. Men will openly stare but smile when asked for a picture.

“If they see a foreigner, maybe he or she is coming from the moon,” joked Sakhi Danishjo, who leads tours in northern Afghanistan for Great Game Travel.

The Afghan sense of hospitality is evident instantly, and not just in Andkhoy. Visit any shop, and the owner is likely to ask you to lunch or offer you tea. Walk around some ruins, and someone who lives nearby will venture to answer your questions or to ask you a few of his own.

Afghans are more likely to approach foreign men or foreign women accompanied by a man, as the customs governing how men and women interact are stricter in the north compared with in Kabul.

As a result, female travelers have less leeway in moving around, but there’s one place they can go that their male counterpart can’t, and that is women’s day at the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, the turquoise blue mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif.

Every Wednesday, the city’s women shed their dingy royal blue or black burkas and put on their brightest clothes -- hot pinks, blues, yellows. Calf-length denim skirts are paired with tight long-sleeved blouses. Many go with their head uncovered.

It has a feel of a huge party, and only women and children are invited. Foreigners who have dressed for comfort may feel more out of place than usual, especially after being looked up and down by a woman in full makeup, sequins and heeled sandals.

Like most of Afghanistan, it’s a side of the country that you’d never glean just from reading the news reports.