Afghanistan is ON!
Just got word from the Embassy of Afghanistan here in Madrid that they will be issuing my visa on Thursday, so it's looking like the trip has got the green light – yay!
I have had a lot of people ask me what the hell I'm doing going on "holiday" to Afghanistan, so I guess I should elaborate. I first considered backpacking through Afghanistan in 2006 while on my Silk Road trip, and was invited to come visit by my old mate Rodney Cocks. Cocksy, who I know from my days in the Australian Army, and who has worked for the UN, the US and currently the Brits in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan over the years, turned out to not be in the country as I passed by nearby Iran, and I decided it was too dodgy to do solo.
It's been on my mind ever since, and to go there would feel like I've "closed the chapter" on the Silk Road. With Cocksy soon off to the US to kick off his MBA, it was now or never. I'm also fascinated to see such a unique culture and sadly notorious corner of the globe. I'm sure the experience it will be a surprise and an awakening, just like Iran was (i.e. nothing like Fox News and CNN make out). There's a little George Mallory "Because it's there!" in my decision too. There's nowhere in the world I won't go – well I guess this decision proves that! And, I will admit, there's something exciting about the "frontier" nature of the place.
Of course it's a risk but like everything it's a calculated risk, and I've done everything possible to mitigate the risks. I'm assured that Kabul is as safe as other far-flung parts of the world I've traveled through (dodgy Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan springs to mind), and that the mountains to the north are also relatively secure. The insurgent fighting is in the south, and close to the Pakistan border, and I'm more likely to have trouble with criminals rather than insurgents.
It's a chance of a lifetime that I'll never get again, to experience such a fascinating corner of the world with someone who knows it back-to-front (and indeed makes the trip possible), so I've seized the opportunity with both hands. Not like me to do anything by half.
Cocksy has done an awesome job of organising an action-packed schedule for the five days I plan to be there (25-30 April). Of course, being Afghanistan, this is all subject to change, but if I get to do even half of what's in this list I'll be a happy chappy indeed!
- I am staying in the compund of the British Embassy in Kabul, which should be an experience in itself! I have no idea what to expect there.
- I will have a couple of days in Kabul, seeing the sights and exploring what is left of "old" Kabul (answer: not much). Some of the old city walls, the Bird Market, city views from the nearby mountains, watch the kids fighting their kites, etc.
- One day I'm there is Mujahideen Day, to celebrate the mujahideen's victory over the Soviets. It would be interesting to see, but I hear it could also turn a bit pear-shaped and a wee bit dicey. Plus probably a few too many bullets shot into the air for my liking. Instead, we're planning to be out of the city that day.
- Rod has organized a couple of fantastic day trips into the Hind Kush mountains north of Kabul, which form the very western end of the Himalaya. Together with his mate Jeremy, an Aussie journalist, we're going to kit up in local garb, jump on a couple of motorbikes, and ride off into the hills. Our objective will be the famous Salang Pass, a tunnel through the mountains that forms a strategic connection between central and northern Afghanistan, and which was the location of fierce fighting through the 20th century.
- The second day trip will be a visit to the Panjshir valley, north-west of Kabul, which is meant to be one of the most beautiful mountain valleys in the country. I will be tagging along with a UN group headed up there, and the trip is hosted by one of the grandsons of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the most famous mujahideen leader who fought off the Soviets, and who was killed just 2 days before 11 September 2001 by the Taliban.
- I arrive on 25 April, which as any Aussie knows is ANZAC Day, our most unique and sacred national holiday. Apparently we have plans to join some of the Aussie diggers (soldiers) on base, which should make it a special one.
- I put a request for some range time, figured I can't go to Afghanistan without shooting/blowing stuff up. Firing an RPG is on the wish list. Turns out I might get some range time with the Afghan National Army in training!
Getting there has also been part of the adventure. Here are a few fun facts about getting to Afghanistan as a "tourist":
- I am officially the first person to apply for a tourist visa at the Afghan Embassy in Madrid! They first said no, but after Cocksy made a call and spoke with the Ambassador (!) they have decided to make the exception. Some have said that fact should tell me something about the lunacy of my plans, but I'm wearing it as a badge of honour.
- Flying in to Kabul takes a little planning. I first need to get myself to Dubai. On my mate's recommendation I have booked the flight to and from Kabul with Safi Airlines, one of the more reputable options on that route with a fleet of two ageing 737s (but that sure beats an old Russian plane).
- Travel and medical insurance has been a concern of mine, as most insurance companies won't touch you in an active warzone. Cocksy's response to my question on it was a classic: "don't think you'll get it, however possibly the best trauma hosiptals in the world here". Reassuring indeed. As a last resort I contacted Global Rescue, a company that I knew I had coverage with through Bain. I had no idea what they did so I gave them a call – turns out they will provide medical treatment wherever I am in the world, and then evacuate me back to my "home" country. Then the key question: "Is your coverage truly global?" "No" he said, "there is one exception." "Afghanistan?" I asked, preempting his response. "No, North Korea!" he answered. Turns out they can't get anyone in or out of there. So, long story short, should the worst happen I'm definitely covered – phew!
- Cocksy has made arrival arrangements for me, as this is not a country you want to arrive in a little wet behind the ears. He's told me there will be a security detail from the Embassy waiting for me – I have visions of something Blackwater-esque waiting for me outside the arrivals hall!
- I've been asked by Jeremy, who I've never met, to pick up a package containing his new camera from another person I've never met in Dubai, and bring it with me to Kabul. This goes again every rule book of responsible and sensible travel (think: Bangkok jail) and when I mentioned this to him, his reply was classic: "What can you possibly smuggle into Afghanistan?" he said.
Not sure how much access I will have to internet while I'm there, but keep your eyes peeled to the site for desciptions and photos to come. See you on the other side!!