I’m going to Australia for three weeks tomorrow. Brilliant! Exciting! Yay! But one of the biggest things about my impending travels I’m looking forward to is my reading material: I’ve just bought a copy of Khaled Hosseini’s And The Mountains Echoed. And Afghan-born Northern California resident Khaled Hosseini is the man at least partially responsible for my most unexpected and unquellable travel desire.
If you haven’t read Hosseini’s The Kite Runner or A Thousand Splendid Suns … do! Believe the hype! They are at once crippling and uplifting, desperately sad and desperately captivating, beautiful books. And theirs were the words that crystallised a niggle that’d been lurking in the depths of my head for – who knows how long? Years?
I want to see Afghanistan.
Now, before my mother has a heart attack, I will say that I’m not expecting to book a one-way to Helmand next week. This is a travel desire to cultivate, to feed, and then, one day when the time is right, to fulfil.
I want to walk down the hillside and through the streets of Herat. I want to taste the shade of the almond trees in Kabul - “One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs, or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls” - and see the lakes and the mountains and feel the heat and the dust. I want to see the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan and see “Mr Tom” Gouttierre’s high school basketball team whip out the world’s most complicated zone press defence. I am well aware that to a large extent what I want is to see the Afghanistan of the 1960s, and it’s deeply saddening to know that that place is gone. The Buddhas are bombed out; everything’s bombed out. It’s all changed. But, for me, the allure remains.
Of course (and, regretfully), there are large areas of Afghanistan it would be completely bonkers of me to suggest travelling to. But there are parts where it’s significantly less bonkers.
The section of Afghanistan currently thought of as being the “safest” is the Wakhan Corridor in the far north-east: a thin arm of Afghanistan that reaches between Tajikistan to the north and Pakistan to the south to form a short border with Xinjiang in the far west of China. It’s not a particularly strategically important place at the moment, so is pretty much untouched by warfare. It’s a mountainous region (and damn tricky to get to – but companies like Be Travellers organise group trips) and it’s stunning; a place of rocky plains, sweeping valleys, rippled mountain ranges, icing-sugar snow, glacial lakes, green fields, waistcoats, embroidery and horseback.
I live in hope that within my lifetime the whole of Afghanistan will know calm. And it’ll be possible to safely visit the rest of the country, to experience its beauty and meet its people and – yes - bring them tourism dollars.
But for now … humm. And The Mountains Echoed will do.
PS – Lose yourself in our Afghanistan Pinterest board here!
PPS – Have you travelled in Afghanistan as a civilian? What was it like?