“Afghanistan is a stark beauty, vicious and seductive. A certain type of person will brave any difficulty to get there, then having arrived, continually pinch themselves to ensure they are not dreaming.” —Christopher Kremmer, The Carpet Wars
Even the most hard-bitten of travelers can get a bit gushy when they talk about Afghanistan. They may have the dust of 70 countries on their boots, but here they find a singular allure that few can articulate. They romanticize about the hospitality, the lunar landscape, and confluence of history, but the word they most often use to describe the country is, “stark.”
“It’s beautiful, in a stark, brutal sort of way,” says Geoff Hann, a British tour operator who first visited Afghanistan with his family in 1970. “It’s got this air of wildness, this sense of danger about everything.”
Afghanistan is that rare place that eludes time itself, where a traveler can wander into an almost Biblical village and be treated to melons on rust-colored carpets in an orchard, where a child is sent up into a tree to shake a branch of ripe mulberries, which fall onto a sheet held by his siblings below. In a world that is increasingly well-trodden, Afghanistan is an adventurer’s final frontier. “There is nothing,” says Hann, “quite like it.”
Hann’s company, Hinterland Travel, started organizing tours to Afghanistan in the ’70s, when Afghanistan was a stopover for hashish-smoking hippies traveling overland from Europe to India. The Soviet invasion, subsequent civil war, and five years of Taliban rule ended his operations, until 2004, when he began leading groups there again. Forty years ago his biggest worries were bandits. Now it’s a corrosive Taliban insurgency and the residue of 33 years of continuous war.
Hann isn’t the only traveler to step hopefully into Afghanistan with an optimistic eye toward the future. Since Operation Enduring Freedom removed the Taliban from power, adventure travel outfitters that specialize in destinations like Turkmenistan and Iraq have sent emissaries to scope out possible itineraries. Lonely Planet sent a writer to Kabul to start work on its first guidebook to the country in 25 years.
“You could see the glimmer of potential there,” says the writer, Paul Clammer. “People were very optimistic and hopeful that they could begin to put the last 30 years behind them.” In 2003, and again in 2006, Clammer crisscrossed the country by road, taking notes and mapping cities. He visited the 1,500-year old Buddha statues of Bamiyan, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, but still impressive, silent testimonies of the country’s recent history. He saw the spring-fed lakes of Band-e Amir, Afghanistan’s first national park, which stand out like a string of sapphires in the desert. He traveled onward, past the remote 12th-century Minaret of Jam (“one of the most stupendous sights I’ve ever seen”), to Herat, once a great city of the Silk Road.
“The news never shows you that it’s a beautiful country,” he says. “It’s a stark sort of beauty, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.”