A Travellerspoint blog

This blog is published chronologically. Go straight to the most recent post.

Border Troubles pt. II – Escaping Afghanistan

Sometimes it’s just essential to keep calm, not panic and find a workable solution. Too often on my travels I feel…

sunny 38 °C
View Asia Less Travelled on askgudmundsen's travel map.

Which country would you least be denied to exit from? If I had made a list before this trip, Afghanistan would probably have been high on that list…
When I left you in part one I was trying to figure out how to exit Turkmenistan with my transit visa expired two days before my Iranian visa started. My options was 1) Sleep in no man’s land for a couple of days, 2) overstay my Turkmen visa for a 400$ fine or 3) travel to Herat in Afghanistan.

Turkmen Border Post

Turkmen Border Post

I’ve been contemplating a visit to Herat since I was in Tajikistan, so I already had the Afghani tourist visa I needed. The last alternative therefore seemed the best by far!
And before everybody starts shouting about my suicidal tendencies, know that Afghanistan more than what you see on the news – it’s more than Helmand and Kandahar! Have some critical sense, will ya? I’m not gonna downplay the risks about travelling in Afghanistan, but it it’s durable with the right preparations!

Welcome to Afghanistan

Welcome to Afghanistan

Only trouble about me exiting Turkmenistan to Afghanistan was that I had to use a different border crossing than the one that had already been assigned to me by the foreign ministry. This was surprisingly little trouble. Only two checkpoints on the road to the border checked my passport for the Afghan visa, and only the first one had to make a phone call to someone in order to clear me for going there. So without further redo I made my way into one of the Holy Grails of travelling: Afghanistan.
The most exciting about entering Afghanistan was to find the office where I could get my entry stamp, as the whole border post is not one post, but a cluster of five or six buildings scattered around the an area the size of a couple of football fields…

Herat's Friday Mosque

Herat's Friday Mosque

After spending some lovely days in Herat – a city entering my Top 5 over favourite cities in the World – it was time to get on my way. But after getting my exit stamp on the Afghan side I got stopped dead in my tracks by the first Iranian soldier I met. There was some kind of problem with my visa and I was turned back towards the consulate in Herat.
Apparently there was a mismatch between the Islamic dates and Western dates on my visa. Iran follows a separate calendar and both set of dates are printed on the visa, but when these don't match the visa is considered invalid – or so I was told by the Iranian consulate in Herat.
Getting a new Iranian visa is no small thing and usually takes minimum two weeks. I tried my best to use the fact that the mistake was made by the consulate in Dushanbe to my advantages and I manage to get a meeting with the consul. Though he flatly denied helping as the Herat consulate didn’t deal with third-nation citizens, but only Afghans and Iranians.

Annulled Exit Stamp

Annulled Exit Stamp

Without any change of getting a new Iranian visa and no possibility of going anywhere else my only option was to go to Kabul. The consul did call the Iranian embassy in Kabul, but to my big annoyance they didn’t wanted to give a new visa without me going through the normal two week procedure. So the whole situation suddenly looked pretty grim…

I’m adventurous, not suicidal, and going anywhere overland from Herat that isn’t Iran or Turkmenistan is idiotic – so violating my principal about not flying, I spend an afternoon figuring out what to do next.

Afghan Army Patrol

Afghan Army Patrol

The solution suiting my original itinerary the most was booking a flight from Herat to Dubai with a 30 hour layover in Kabul – giving me a good day to do some sightseeing in the capital, hoping not to be at the wrong place on the wrong time when the Taliban attacks the next governmental building. From Dubai a cheap flight takes me to Tbilisi, Georgia where I can travel the Caucasus for a good 10-12 days before picking up my new Iranian visa and, inshallah; celebrate the end of the Ramadan somewhere in Iran in the beginning of August.

After making it to Kabul and not being blown up while sightseeing, the fact that I had already gone through the exit procedure at the Iranian border came back to haunt me. Already stamped out once I was no longer in the immigration police’s system and technically an illegal alien in Afghanistan (that will look cool on my resume).

HumVee guarding Kabul Int.

HumVee guarding Kabul Int.

Spending half an hour in the chief’s office, trying to explain the annulled exit stamp in my passport, he finally threatened with banning me from re-entry the country for the next five years. Just wanting to leave and catch my flight, I told him that he should follow procedure and that I would be fine with whatever that involved as long as I would be able to catch my flight out of Afghanistan. This apparently did the trick – either because it nursed his sense of authority or his sympathy – I was allowed to leave and that without getting banned from re-entering…

Goodbye Talibanistan

Goodbye Talibanistan

It was a very interesting week, and (North) Afghanistan is a fantastic country to travel in when you don’t die. But when it comes down to it am I fairly happy to finally have escaped Afghanistan…

Posted by askgudmundsen 11:22 Archived in Afghanistan Tagged visa border afghanistan herat iran_visa Comments (0)

The Afghanistan You Don’t See on TV

The most welcoming people I’ve ever met in my life: Genuine curious, interest, concerned and happy to see a foreigner visiting their war-thorn country.

sunny 38 °C
View Asia Less Travelled & Australia 13/14 on askgudmundsen's travel map.

So, Afghanistan is a backwater of medieval clan leaders fighting to resist any attempt to modernize their country, educate girls or limit their opium growing, while they are blowing up government buildings in Kabul… right?

Private Security Guard

Private Security Guard

The conceptions of Afghanistan are clearly created by the news – war and terror sells, and so are that the only things you hear about. Trust me, real Afghanistan might be a conflict zone, but there is a lot more it than Kandahar and Helmand.
“Afghanistan is a fantastic place to travel if you don’t die,” as I told a friend over Skype. This blog entry is therefore dedicated to the fantastic travel bits of Afghanistan and not the dying bits… And anyone who has been to Afghanistan not wearing a M16 assault rifle will know that the country’s biggest draw is its people.

Karokh Fields

Karokh Fields

Already before I’d gotten my entry stamp, had multiple people welcomed me to Afghanistan and pointed me in the direction of a trustworthy driver who could take me through 15km of Taliban-land and on to Herat. And what a welcome that driver gave me to the country!
Suddenly drinks and snacks were included in the fare, before going out of the way to pick up his English speaking nephew who could act as guide/translator. The hospitality continued when I was invited for a giant dinner and to sleep in their apartment instead of an “expensive hotel”.
Next day was spent on a drive to their home village of Karokh where I got lunch (picnic style) and visited a farmer, who not only invited us for tea, but also showed us around his fields giving tasters of about everything.

Afghan Farmer Washing Grapes

Afghan Farmer Washing Grapes

This display of hospitality is by no means exceptional. During my five days there I was invited for lunch seven times - every time just because I happened to be in a shop, at a sight or in a workshop around lunch time. Even the guys at the bus office got me lunch when I walking in to buy a ticket.

As anywhere in the Islamic world, guests are seen as a gift send from God. But in Afghanistan guests are so rare that they go out of their way to welcome us. Though Herat is the second biggest city in Afghanistan the number of foreigners is ridiculously low.

Islamic Students Posing

Islamic Students Posing

People like me, who just walks the street with no bodyguards or translators, are extremely rare because everybody working there for a longer period of time will be driven around in their own bulletproof four wheel drive with little local interaction.
Individual tourists are actually so rare, that most people stared at me. Some with suspicion, others with all out joy – and in the case of the latter the stare was usually followed by a laud “Welcome to Afghanistan!” or “Where you from?” or “What are you doing here?” Most people though, had surprise in the stare they gave me…
The only way to deal with it was to put a big smile on my face, put my right hand over my heart (traditional greeting) and welcome any stare with “Asalam Allaykom” meaning ‘Peace be Upon You’. This very traditional Islamic greeting would usually turn even the most suspicious look into a friendly smile.

Sultan Hamidy, Glassmaker

Sultan Hamidy, Glassmaker

Add to the friendly population in Herat a bazaar area that have been standing since medieval times, a huge citadel and one of the Islamic World’s most beautiful mosques, and suddenly Afghanistan’s second biggest city is very well worth a stopover is you happen to be in the neighbourhood… Especially if you like tea, because just about everybody who had stared at you, welcomed you, sold you something will before anything else offer you a cup of tea.

Herat's Friday Mosque

Herat's Friday Mosque

By tradition any host must offer a cup of tea to a guest or customer (and the visitor is expected to drink it) before they begin to talk about business or anything else.

With this the extreme hospitality continued unabated and the hardest part of dealing with the Afghan population is actually to make enough time to see everything you want to see without being sabotaged by tea, lunch-offers and general friendliness.

Posted by askgudmundsen 09:24 Archived in Afghanistan Tagged travel tourist visit hospitality afghanistan herat Comments (1)

Staying Safe(ish) in Afghanistan

Do you think the Taliban is the biggest threat on personal security while travelling in Afghanistan? Not at all – find out what’s more imminent here…

sunny 36 °C
View Asia Less Travelled on askgudmundsen's travel map.

“Ask, it’s damn stupid to enter a war zone. If somebody wanna go to Afghanistan they can become a soldier.” This was a reply from an acquainted when I told Facebook I considered travelling to Afghanistan.

Afghan Carpet

Afghan Carpet

Climbers talk about subjective and objective dangers on climbs – I’ve adopted that languish. Subjective dangers are the ones you can affect yourself, like not walking the streets after dark, dressing conservatively to minimise misunderstandings or doing proper research before heading into what most would call a war zone.
Objective dangers are those you cannot control. Just as climbers accept a certain level of objective dangers on climbs, so do I while travelling. My destinations are surely not always considered ‘safe for travelling’, but with the right preparations I’m willing to risk the unlikely scenario of me getting court in a gunfight or a bomb blast.

I’m not suicidal – most regions of Afghanistan are certainly war zones and absolute no-go places for independent travellers. Safe(ish) places were travel is possible currently comes down to this rather short list: Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif, Herat and the villages around it, the Wakhan Corridor and the valleys of Panjshir and Bamiyan. And almost all travel between these places need to be airborne as ground transportation is too dangerous.

Private Security

Private Security

Obtaining information about the safety at your entry point prior of arrival can be done through security briefings at Afghan consulates and embassies – where most will be happy to give this to you if you ask them while applying for your tourist visa. The ANSO (Afghan NGO Safety Organization), who publish a detailed report every quarter, can also be helpful with further details about specific regions of the country.
Once you’re in take local advice seriously. If people tell you a place is not safe for travel don’t go there. Or if it should be reached in a private car and not public transportation because it’s dangerous to stop – don’t try to save money by going on the bus!

Military Checkpoint

Military Checkpoint

Minimizing risks should be taken very seriously and Afghanistan is certainly not a place for novice travellers. Personally I think any traveller going to Afghanistan should have some travel experience in two certain environments.
First in places with high crime rates, such as the big cities of Africa or Latin America (sorry for the generalisation here, but J’burg, Nairobi, Caracas, Guatemala City, etc. have earned their reputations somehow).
With the military and police having enough work cut out for them keeping down Taliban and the insurgencies it means that the rule of law is less upheld in Afghanistan than in other countries. Criminal organisations and opportunist can act fairly more freely and are thus a more imminent danger than the Taliban!

The second, and more importantly, environment should be from conservative Islamic countries. Afghanistan has a very conservative population and knowing how to act in such a place is necessary to gain friends on the ground and not to insult anyone unknowingly. Friends are important for gaining help and safety advice while not stirring unrest or negative emotions is necessary for keeping a low profile.

Conservative Afg.

Conservative Afg.

Keeping a low profile is possible the best precaution against kidnappers. Another precaution is changing your patterns of movements as much as possible. Most people – including myself – familiarizes us self with a certain streets and areas once visiting a place for the first time, taking the same routes over and over again, making it easy to plan a kidnapping. Further good advice is to not to stay at the same hotel too many days in a row, take cabs after dark or whenever moving with luggage was essential, minimising some of the risk describes here.
Kidnappings are common. Foreigners have been kidnapped in and around Kabul recently while it has on been locals only in Herat so far – knock on wood!
Getting kidnapped you’d most likely to be sold to the highest bidder – which will not be your government (unless you’re South Korean) – instead have opium financed Taliban promised to target tourists.

Lastly, just to mention the risk of being caught in a Taliban bomb blast or fire fight between rival fractions (in Afghanistan this includes rivalries between different security forces from the government). The risk of getting caught in the wrong place at the wrong time is very, very slim. Most people’s fear of being caught in a terrorist attack is hopelessly exaggerated. And while the risk in Afghanistan is much higher than in Madrid or New York it is still slim.

HumVee Guarding the Airport

HumVee Guarding the Airport

By far the biggest risk is in Kabul and staying away from governmental buildings (airport, ministries and police stations) as well as embassies will reduce the risk. Making sure that any driver keeps a very good distance to any military or police vehicle will further reduce risks of being caught in crossfire.
All in all, while Afghanistan is an absolutely fantastic country to travel it poses some unique risks. And while traffic accidents are still the biggest killer in Afghanistan, these unique risks must be addressed before anyone should travel in the country.

My taxi hit by truck

My taxi hit by truck

If I had to choose I’d surely rather die during one of my adventures than when crossing the street at home back in Denmark. And while some still think it’s stupid to visit Afghanistan I, just as climbers, accept some risk to do what I love. So if I had to “check out” during my travels I’d at least go smiling – or at least I’ve promised myself that plenty of times on this trip…

Please note that any advice here is not a bulletproof west and that travelling in Afghanistan is indeed risky. However if you’re thinking of going I’ll be happy to help you plan or offer any advice I might have. Just through a message this way.

Posted by askgudmundsen 10:08 Archived in Afghanistan Tagged travel tourist safety safe kabul afghanistan taliban herat kidnapping Comments (0)

Cultural Shock

I don’t normally get cultural shocked… Sorry, too much travelling and television and a ready for everything attitude. But I wasn’t ready for everybody apparently going on summer vacation in the Caucasus…

28 °C
View Asia Less Travelled on askgudmundsen's travel map.

I’ll admit I’m kind of arrogant about this whole travelling business. But it’s hard not to get that smug feeling about yourself and your travels when you’re away for a significant period of time, travel over land and go off the beaten path a lot.
Somehow there’s a gap between long time travellers and people going on a two week trip. I can’t help feeling a bit like a pro talking with amateurs. It snobbish, I know, and I’ve met plenty of fantastic people who are only away for two weeks or so, but I’ve always been able to tell them a thing or five about travelling.

Tourists!

Tourists!

It’s the same with overland travel vs. someone who have just flown in. The satisfaction of reaching a place by bus, or bike for that matter, the hardship earned along those bumpy roads, means a lot of satisfaction. Especially compared with checking in at the airport to cover 3000 km in a few hours before touching down in a foreign place with no idea about the graduate change of landscape, languish or culture.
And thus my only real “cultural shock” of this trip have been flying out of Afghanistan – a place basically nobody visits – to Georgia in the middle of everybody’s summer vacation.

Geghard Monastery

Geghard Monastery

I’ve manage to travel in shoulder season through this trip – when crows are low, but guesthouses and sights stay open. This is all over now and the crowds have descended upon the Caucasus’ and my itinerary.
To much frustration for your snobbish blogger here, who’d endured and educated plenty of summer holiday goers. Not that everybody just went on vacation without having a clue about their chosen destinations, but too many times have I seen people been rejected access to religious sights because of their clothes (eg. short skirts, shorts, etc.) and the like. Too many have been pissed about it too - but that’s honestly what happens when people don’t do any research into the places they’re going.
If these people had done any research they would know that Armenia and Georgia is the two oldest Christian states in the World and that traditions and conservatism runs high in the churches here, but nooo – they were too busy drinking local wine the day before…

Tsminda Sameba Cathedral Clock Tower

Tsminda Sameba Cathedral Clock Tower

I do sound negative, mostly because a lot of getting to know the local people and culture disappears when caretakers or priests have to constantly keep an eye on the hordes of groups arriving at the monasteries and churches, which the majority of sights in these two countries are. And when locals desperately are either trying to dodge or sell off the hordes.

Church Visit

Church Visit

And most groups do not make good travellers – honestly. Groups close around themselves, shutting out both fellow travellers and locals interested in where there are from, etc. Not only isn’t conversations in an understandable languish, which is extremely excluding (whether in a bus with locals or in a hostel common room), but the focus on each other inside the group takes up all concentration and then everybody else turns invisible.
The worst example of the latter was I Yerevan, Armenia. A Dutch group of 10 arrive at my hostel at two in the morning. They were split between two dorms, but instead of settling quite into bed, not disturbing people already sleeping they put on lights, started unpacking, having loud conversations on how exciting it was to be in exotic Armenia and how cheap a dorm bed at 16$ a night was… The conversation even included shouting through the wall between the rooms. I was almost surprised when they didn’t give us shit when the rest of us told them to shut up and go to bed…

Armenian Family Bus Trip

Armenian Family Bus Trip

This is of course the worst bits I’ve brought to the table here, but it just seems to be a lot worse than anywhere else I’ve been on this trip, so I’m not only shocked, but I’ve been struggling enduring these two-weeks-we’re-here-for-us attitude of tourism culture… Not that I’m on my trip for anybody else than myself, but somehow it seems different from the eyes of a lone rider whose main goal is trying to understand the lives of the people living around him…

On a more positive note have I gotten my Iranian visa and are heading out to a place where strict laws on clothing, alcohol and food makes it impossible not to do a considerable amount of thinking about local culture and how you’re behaving in general – it’s gonna be a relief!

Posted by askgudmundsen 10:40 Archived in Georgia Tagged culture travel tourist group shock Comments (0)

Churches… Churches Everywhere!

The best of the religious sites in Georgia and Armenia...

29 °C
View Asia Less Travelled on askgudmundsen's travel map.

In AD 301 became Armenia the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as state religion. Georgia followed as the second 25 years later. Interestingly the two neighbours doesn’t share the same branch of Christianity, so while George Church is part of the Eastern Orthodox (like Greek or Russian) Armenian broke with to orthodox interpretations back in AD 451 and went on to create their own Oriental branch (similar to Egyptian or Ethiopian orthodoxy).
No matter what we might think of this superstition today, 17 centuries have left their mark on these countries. About 80 % of the man-made sights in the two countries are either churches, monasteries or a mountaintop with a church build on top.
Below have I collected a selection of the most impressive:

Tsminda Sameba Cathedral, Tbilisi, Georgia

large_IMG_3056.jpg
Starting with the biggest and newest; The Holy Trinity Cathedral stands on a hill overlooking Tbilisi 84m high. Controversially build on an old Armenian cemetery in 2004 after ten years of construction.

-

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral & Jvari Church, Mtskheta, Georgia

large_IMG_3310.jpg
The first church in Svetitskhoveli’s spot was built in the 4th century, with Jesus’ robe (the one he was crucified in) berried beneath according to tradition. This makes the church the holiest in Georgia – with the new building build around year 1020. Overlooking the Svetitskhoveli is the Jvari Church build between 585 and 610 on the spot where King Merian – who converter Georgia to Christianity – was converted.

-

Tsminda Sameba Church, Kazbegi, Georgia

large_IMG_3336.jpg
On the top of a mountain, at 2200m, is a symbol of the Georgian determination to build churches at any impossible point. Build in the 14th century the church Georgian piety and beautiful architecture.

-

Geghard Monastery, Garni, Armenia

large_IMG_3157.jpg
A series of cave churches, the oldest from the 7th century, named after the lance that pierced Jesus’ side during the crucifixion (when a Roman soldier wanted to check if he was dead yet).

-

Haghpat Monastery, Alaverdi, Armenia

large_IMG_3196.jpg
A gem of a UNESCO Herritage Site and founded in 976, the monastery really took off with and expansion in the 12th century with a new bell tower, library and refectory.

-

Sanahin Monastery, Sarahart, Armenia

large_IMG_3243.jpg
Another World Herritage Site, moss-covered and overgrown, this pearl of a monastery was established in 10th century with the Surp Astvatsatsin Church (Holy Mother of God) dating back to 928. During the next 300 years new buildings included a library, the entrance building and a medical school. Sanahin means ‘older than that one’ referring to the Haghpat, which lies in the same mountain gorge.

-

Surp Poghos-Petros Church, Tatev, Armenia

large_IMG_3432.jpg
Now easily reached by cable car, this Monastery used to house up to 600 monks (it now holds but a handful). The main church, Surp Poghos-Petros (St. Paul & St. Peter’s Church), was built in the 9th century to house important relics.

-

Gandzasar Monastery, Vank, Nagorno-Karabakh

large_IMG_3538.jpg
Lastly the 13th century Gandzasar is probably the most important shine in the quasi-republic of Nagorno-Karabakh and both important people and the common man come from the whole region to be buried here. The largest of the churches are Surp Hovhannes Mkrtish named after John the Baptist.

Posted by askgudmundsen 05:14 Archived in Armenia Tagged church monastery unesco georgia armenia karabakh Comments (0)

(Entries 36 - 40 of 50) « Page .. 3 4 5 6 7 [8] 9 10 »