The Travel Episodes



Since 1978, Afgha­ni­stan has been at war. Never­theless, Josh Cahill wants to visit the capi­tal, Kabul, some­thing he’s been drea­ming of since he was a child. An adven­ture with an uncer­tain ending… With photos by Jim Huylebroek.

The sun is shining into my room, it’s a cosy morning. Ameri­can Black Hawk heli­cop­ters fly over the buil­ding and yes, I’m a little nervous. Today, I will explore the city. 

Kabul. Since my child­hood, I’ve drea­med of seeing this place. Some­thing has always fasci­nated me about this coun­try in Central Asia. In fact, has fasci­nated me so much that I can blend out all the terri­fy­ing news that is repor­ted from Afghanistan’s capi­tal. I enjoy being one of very few tourists in a city, an expe­ri­ence I made while hitch­hi­king in Iran, in Iraq or during the Arab Spring. In times of globa­li­za­tion, such places are very rare – I obtain it through an increa­sed risk. But to me, it’s worth it.


Now, I am actually here and can’t wait to get out into the stre­ets of Kabul. Grab my camera and go. Am I afraid? No, I feel more like Neil Armstrong, before he became the first person to set foot on the moon. And although I am not on some distant planet, the world here is still comple­tely diffe­rent: a post­war capi­tal. Kabul is among the most rapidly growing places in the world, with a gene­ra­tion of people who have never expe­ri­en­ced true peace. I want to meet them. 

Over­whel­ming scenes. Young boot­blacks sit at every corner, the traf­fic is dense and the crossings chaotic. Ever­y­thing is grey, as if cove­red by a thick layer of dust. A few women in black burkas cross to the oppo­site side of the street when they see me. 

Some freeze, stop­ping their daily busi­ness; they can’t grasp that a young blond man is ambling past them. 

Others call »Welcome to Afgha­ni­stan!« A group of teen­agers eyes me suspi­ciously.

* * *

Second Chapter


In order to better under­stand this coun­try, I want to plunge into its history. My first stop is the ruin of the Darul Aman Palace.

In former times, the king lived here, but for over thirty years, this impres­sive buil­ding has more and more dete­rio­ra­ted. Some say the palace is cursed. In any case, many people lost their lives here. 

Alone the drive to the palace is spec­ta­cu­lar. A long boule­vard takes you directly there, and only upon arri­ving does the smog slowly lift its curtain and set the view of the seemin­gly myste­rious ruin free. A big arc of suspense, enter­tain­ment à la Afgha­ni­stan. To me a special moment, to the locals ever­y­day life.

The palace is fenced in with barb wire, soldi­ers are stan­ding on its roof. A very old man squats between a few plants and bushes. He’s trying to tell me that he used to be the garde­ner of Amanullah Khan, but it’s hard to believe: the king ruled Afgha­ni­stan from 1926 until 1929. That would make the man at least a hund­red years old, and that in a coun­try where the average life expec­tancy is below sixty. But who knows? I pretend to believe his story. A little bribe gets me into the buil­ding. There are bullet holes ever­y­where. The palace, which was built in the German tradi­tion, nearly only consists of rubble, debris and graf­fiti. Really not your typi­cal sight­see­ing, far from a guided tour through a museum.

These are power­ful impres­si­ons, this place is still part of the past, but much more a symbol of the present. 

Vis à vis, the future is being built: the new spar­k­ling parlia­ment will soon be hosting the government. This is called progress and one can tell how much the people care not to stagnate. 

The next morning, I stroll through the big market, time-travelling into the past. Cows, goats, chickens, heaps of spices, western and tradi­tio­nal clothes, and oodles of vege­ta­bles. Life pulsa­tes. People bargain, clamor, laugh and rant. No compa­ri­son to a placid Sunday market back home in Germany. No, this is about survi­val: every day, people fight to make a living for them­sel­ves and their fami­lies.


Next to Kabul River, it’s a diffe­rent picture. A dried-out river­bed, full of trash. Men, young and old, who have long given up, come here to smoke heroin. Not ever­yone copes with the harsh living condi­ti­ons. The years of war have caused deep wounds ever­y­where, the terror that conti­nues to flare up slows down the healing process.


A little food on the roadside, a green tea. I try to grasp and absorb the city’s soul. So much ambi­v­a­lence: the people here are often very kind and grate­ful, the struggle a daily reality, the future uncer­tain. Some­ti­mes Kabul and the surroun­ding Hindu Kush are full of beauty, then again, dest­ruc­tion and infi­nite suffe­ring.

I finish my tea and walk back. My host has alre­ady prepa­red a water pipe and dinner. His friends also join us, only men of course. The cordial, wonder­ful Afghan hospi­ta­lity!


* * *

Third Chapter

Miles Away

Today I will travel to the North of the coun­try.

After stay­ing in Kabul for one week, I start my road trip to the capi­tal of the province Balkh on a sunny morning. I’m very exci­ted to disco­ver what’s hidden behind the moun­ta­ins that surround the city. Maybe you are trying to imagine what such a jour­ney might look like: a bullet proof vest, a helmet, a Kalash­ni­kov, as part of a NATO convoy. Nope, not quite! Rather: a white 90s Toyota Corolla, ten CDs with the best of Indian pop music, green tea and a little bread. My biggest fear? That I might be able to speak fluent Hindi after enjoy­ing the CD collec­tion…

Tanim is our driver. During the rule of the Tali­ban he fled to Paki­stan, but after several years of asylum there, he deci­ded to return in order to start his own busi­ness. He sells surveil­lance came­ras in his little shop in Kabul. Tanim has a big heart – and many ideas for the new Afgha­ni­stan. He wants to show me some of his coun­try, which is why he suggested driving to Mazar.

While I wait on the street for him to pick me up, a frow­ning secu­rity guy glares at me, his AK47 ready to fire. These guys always look like they will shoot you any minute. And since this has alre­ady really happened here a few times, a bad feeling comes over me. Normally, people here react when I encoun­ter them in a friendly way, when I wave or smile. But this guy here, he just doesn’t want to be my friend. 

Alright, I think, I guess that’s the disad­van­tage of trave­ling to Afgha­ni­stan, you can never feel safe.

No surpri­sing reali­za­tion, I admit. 

Finally, our friend comes and off we are. As soon as we leave the city behind, the scenery beco­mes mono­to­nous. Kabul alre­ady seemed grey, but this here – really lacks any color. We pass a few check­points without any major issues. Time and again, there’s a Russian tank wreck on the road, which is slowly turning into a dirt road, follo­wed long by nothing. Afgha­ni­stan seems empty.

Tanim explains that the Salang Pass connects nort­hern Afgha­ni­stan with Kabul, »and it’s one of the most famous passes in the world!« In fact, it’s an adven­ture: at nearly 4.000 meters, the Hindu Kush is crossed, and I have never expe­ri­en­ced such an impres­sive drive. We go higher and higher. The rise seems to have no end. At times, jagged cliffs tower into the sky on both sides, then the slope stee­ply drops down right next to the road. At 3.400 meters, we enter the Salang Tunnel, which was the highest tunnel of the world until 1973. By the way, the mobile recep­tion is excel­lent – so much for deve­lo­ped coun­tries!

Now that we are slowly approa­ching the valley, the grey vanis­hes and finally the coun­try shows what it has to offer: red rock, deep blue rivers. I try to imagine what it looks like in spring when the bushes and trees dip-paint the land­s­cape into a vibrant green… 

We have crossed half of Afgha­ni­stan, when we enter Mazar-i-Sharif after an eight-hour drive. Mazar, as the fourth biggest city of the coun­try is refer­red to, was the first city that was freed of the rule of the Tali­ban by inter­na­tio­nal troops in 2001. And since this day, it also remai­ned one of the most peace­ful places of Afgha­ni­stan. Tanim has found an accom­mo­da­tion, a kind of hotel, where we park our car. I enjoy strol­ling through the stre­ets, many young people approach me – in asto­nis­hin­gly good English! – to ask me where I’m from, what brings me to Afgha­ni­stan, how I’ve been. I feel very welco­med.

But that’s not the only reason why the trip to Mazar was worth it: the city is known (and only known for!) its Blue Mosque – one of the most beau­ti­ful ones in the coun­try. Splendidly gleams its blue marble dome, espe­ci­ally in the morning. And so I stand in front of the Mosque on this Friday, the belie­vers gather for prayer and the rising sun dips the dome into a soft light. Marve­lous. The grave of Mohammed’s cousin is said to be here – but whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter, this place is fantastic. 

Back in our lodging, we are told that we can’t stay. 

More or less conclu­si­vely, the owner explains to us that foreig­ners are not allo­wed here. It’s a shock. But after a cup of tea and with a heavy heart, we decide to return to Kabul. And that, even though at night the high­way is still said to be control­led by Tali­ban, time and again. But what choice do we have? When we set out to climb the pass, the descen­ding sun bathes the city in a golden light. The risk of getting stop­ped by fake poli­ce­men or Tali­ban is now unequally higher than by day. I keep texting our posi­tion to my sister, just in case. 

And in fact, I see a Tali­ban on his way to »work«, at least that’s what Tanim assu­mes. With a turban and his face partly cove­red, he approa­ches the road from the moun­ta­ins. I catch my breath. This isn’t TV, this is reality! What if he stops us? But I guess it’s still too busy. He seems to be waiting for his friends and doesn’t pay us any atten­tion. Luck­ily, the traf­fic stays steady and that’s a relief to me.

After the Salang Pass (which is also a breath­ta­king enter­prise at night) we head back to the capi­tal. Too short of road trip, but never­theless it was worth the jour­ney! If you happen to be in the area some­time, I recom­mend this trip. 

My last days in Kabul are long and intense. The things I expe­ri­ence here show me, once again, how good I have it at home. But also, that it’s worth trave­ling to places where I can witness how history is being writ­ten. And leave again. 

An incredi­ble privi­lege.


* * *

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Alone in the Wilderness

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  • Alexandra Sefrin on 20. November 2016

    Ein wunder­ba­rer Bericht!
    Das Gefühl, durch eine Stadt zu wandern, wohin kein norma­ler Mensch reisen würde, kann ich ein biss­chen nach­voll­zie­hen. Ägyp­ten während des Golg­kriegs zu besu­chen, ist aber lange nicht so spek­ta­ku­lär, wie Kabul und Masar im Augen­blick. Was wir aber immer wieder verges­sen, ist, dass dort ja täglich Menschen leben und ein ganz norma­les Leben führen (müssen). Manche kommen mit dieser Reali­tät nicht zurecht und nehmen die gefähr­li­che Reise nach Deutsch­land auf sich. Mit eini­gen dieser Menschen habe ich in letz­ter Zeit gespro­chen, ihre Geschich­ten waren sehr bewe­gend. Dage­gen klin­gen unsere so vermeint­lich aben­teu­er­li­chen Reisen, wie ein Spazier­gang an einem Kinder­ge­burts­tag.

  • Dev Jain on 20. Juni 2020

    Great Content Bro,
    Thanks For This.You are trying to do some best of peop­les. I will share the contents with my friends. Once again thank you so much.

  • Tshewang Penjor on 9. Juli 2020

    Nice blog­ging and stun­ning pictures. Keep going !!!

  • ruke on 25. Juli 2020

    It is a beau­ti­fully cura­ted arti­cle, thanks for sharing; May god bless all the souls. Also, do an episode on Jammu and Kash­mir India, Baba Sidh goria nath Shrine in Swankha is the most popu­lar shrine in J&K if you ever come must visit there. 


  • thuonghailongvan on 31. Juli 2020

    If you want to travel by yours­elf, you have to have money first :))