When I visited Herat, I flew from Kabul, but when it came to visiting Mazar Sharif I did an eight hour road trip. This drive meant passing through Afghanistan’s mountains before reaching the country’s northern borders. Part of the trip took us through some tunnels, such as the one to the lower left that hugged the mountain so that rock slides would pass over. On the right is one of the more serious tunnels we went through that cut inside one of the large mountains. The tunnel was a gift from the Soviet Union, but after so much war the tunnels have been neglected and the insides are badly damaged. Even with your lights on, with nothing to reflect the headlights, the inside of the tunnel is nearly pitch black. Large puddles of water from leaks also make it an interesting ride.
Initially I saw nothing but steep dry terrain, but after descending down a large mountain the terrain flattened out and we found ourselves surrounded by dry land and occasional farms. By the end of the trip, the land was completely flat where we sometimes were able to cruise as high as 90mph! After leaving the mountains, most of the trip went parallel to a fast flowing river that allows villages to survive in this otherwise dry land. Above are two photos of the river, one with sheep sleeping on the banks and the other a close up of the clear mountain runoff. On the left is a rice field in a small village. I saw many other crops as we drove north, even corn was being farmed here! One of the places I stopped by at had some domesticated camels who were grazing in the fields. I went up to take some photos and the kids that take care of the camels decided to try to show off by jumping on them. The camels had been happily eating and started screaming after they were interrupted. I seriously thought the kids were about to be attacked but they ended up winning the battle. On the lower left is one of the camels as his dinner was being interrupted.
Some of the other villages seemed long abandoned and only walls and wells remained. This was a place where it seemed that little has changed over the past few centuries. If it wasn’t for the highway passing by I would wonder how often people here would see foreigners or even Afghans from other cities. The man on the right was in a village and can be seen carrying an enormous amount of hay. I’d normally expect a farm animal to deal with this kind of work! I suppose after a life time of this work he is probably incredibly strong and used to it, he would no doubt be prepared to climb Denali.
One place on the way north worth stopping at is the Takht caves. These caves were built in the 4th century by Buddhists, when it was Afghanistan’s main religion. Rooms were carved out of the mountain that are connected by hallways with small holes in the top to allow sunlight. No one is sure how it was decorated or what artifacts were found once here. Most who study Buddhists in this region believe that small statues or other items were temporarily placed in these caves and moved from site to site rather than having them kept permanently here. On the left is another Buddhist structure that was built outside of the Takht caves. So much has changed over the centuries that it’s hard to imagine traveling in Afghanistan over 1,000 years ago and find nothing but Buddhists!
Finally after eight hours of driving I reached the city of Mazar e Sharif, often just called Mazar for short. The city itself didn’t seem to look different or be unique from other places in Afghanistan, but I did notice a different fashion of burqas here. Like Herat, blue were still the most popular, but I saw one gold and many white burqas that I hadn’t seen anywhere else in Afghanistan. The statue on the left was at the southern entrance to Mazar, apparently just for decorations and not a monument.
Once inside Mazar e Sharif, I found it to be kind of a smaller city with more of a village atmosphere. On the left are some Afghans riding in the back of a truck going on their own road trip. I took their picture and waved and most of them actually waved back and smiled. On the right is a horse pulled chariot I saw inside Mazar e Sharif, they seemed to be a popular way to travel here in the city.
No question about it, the highlight to a trip to Mazar is their famous Blue Mosque. The Blue Mosque is also known as the Shrine of Hazrat Ali. The son in law of the Prophet Mohammed, Ali ibn Abi Talib is considered to be Mohammed’s successor by Shi’ites after his death. This belief is actually what ended up splitting the Muslim believers into two groups. Sunnis believe Ali was the fourth and final Rashidun, a religious leader in the community. Most agree Ali is buried in Najaf Iraq, but some claim he was transported to Afghanistan and is now buried in the Blue Mosque.
Like the Friday Mosque in Herat, the Blue Mosque in Mazar is decorated by thousands of tiles. Originally a shrine was built in this location and destroyed by Ghengis Khan in 1220A.D. In the 15th century it was rebuilt and over the years decorated until it looks like it does today.
Something unique at the Blue Mosque is that there are hundreds doves, and unlike other parts in Afghanistan every single one of them here is white. There is a local saying that if you bring a dove to the mosque, it will change to white within 40 days. Above are two shots of the white doves at the Blue Mosque. The photo on the upper left is perhaps the best shot I ever took; click here to order a print of your own!
Mostly left to ruins, another important religious place near Mazar Sharif is called the nine column mosque or the No Gumbad Mosque. It is considered to be the oldest and first mosque in Afghanistan built by Arabs in the 9th century. Nothing much remains except for a few columns and arches, but when I visited it was under restoration. Outside behind the mosque I found an old man sleeping on a cot, who asked for a donation when he woke up.
Alexander the Great’s empire also included Mazar over 2,000 years ago. Above is the remains of what was a village with fortified walls during his time. Everything was made of mud, so it ‘melted’ over the years and doesn’t look interesting nowadays. The city walls on the right where in really bad shape but pretty well preserved compared to the rest of the village. I did a hike on top of the wall, jumping over several large holes and even the occasional wasp nests seen below.
I would have liked to visit some of the lush mountains that Afghanistan has along its eastern borders for the purposes of camping and viewing wildlife. Unfortunately I can only share some reptiles and these potato like bugs, rolly pollys as we call them back home. This is the only unique bug or animal I saw in Afghanistan that I hadn’t already seen before. In the right photo one of the bugs is eating one of his dead companions, suggesting that they eat anything. What makes this place pretty nasty is that these bugs are in a cemetery and there were tons of them walking around and coming out of the tunnels they built. The graves in this cemetery were built by poor people and are nothing more than a pile of dirt on top of the bodies. Its pretty obvious what the colony of bugs living here are using as food and must be a gruesome site underground.
I did catch this large gecko in Alexander the Great’s Walls and this other lizard during my trip. The gecko on the left was actually pretty big, maybe three times the size of the smaller lizard on the right. I believe the lizard on the left is called a leopard gecko, common in many US pet stores. I’m not sure of the species of lizard on the right, but I do know that his red throat or dewlap will actually came out when he gets excited.