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NORTHEASTERN AFGHANISTAN

MAZAR-E SHARIF &

152 MAZAR-E SHARIF

•• Dangers & Annoyances

Post & Telephone

There are plenty of phone stands and PCOs on the four main streets surrounding the shrine.

Post Office (Chowk-e Mukharabat)

DANGERS & ANNOYANCES

Although Atta Mohammed has gained a firm hand on Mazar-e Sharif, factional dis- putes do occasionally break into outbursts of violence, so it’s essential to keep your ear to the ground.

SIGHTS

Shrine of Hazrat Ali

The twin blue domes of the Shrine of Hazrat Ali (hdawn-dusk, Wed women only) are one of Af- ghanistan’s most iconic sights, and pilgrims come from across the country to pay their respects at the tomb contained inside. Al- though non-Muslims are forbidden entry to the shrine building itself, views of the building are to be much enjoyed from the pleasant park that surrounds the complex. Popular Muslim tradition contends that the Ali is buried in Najaf in Iraq, near the site where he was murdered in 661AD. Af- ghans typically tell another story. Instead, Ali’s followers reputedly took his body to be secretly buried near Balkh. The burial was carried out in secret for fear of reprisals from Ali’s enemies, and its location was lost until the 12th century when Ali appeared simultaneously in the dreams of 400 nobles from Balkh to reveal the tomb’s exact posi- tion. A nearby hill was excavated, to dis-

NAUROZ IN MAZAR-E SHARIF

The Shrine of Hazrat Ali is the centre of Afghanistan’s Nauroz celebrations, and people have tradi- tionally converged on the city from across the country for the holiday. Banned by the Taliban as being unIslamic, over a million people attended the first Nauroz in 2002 following their overthrow. Numbers have since dwindled to a more manageable 100,000. On the morning of 21 March, huge numbers of people converge on the shrine to witness the raising of the janda, a large religious banner. It flies for 40 days, with people crowding to touch it for blessings. Tradition holds that the seriously ill can be cured by praying at the shrine during Nauroz. In the afternoon the provincial government hosts a buzkashi match, on the meidan (plain) on the southern outskirts of the city.

Since 2004 the Foundation for Culture & Civil Society (www.afghanfccs.org) has hosted the

Gul-e Sorkh International Music Festival in Mazar-e Sharif, with free music concerts across the city featuring musicians from across Afghanistan and its neighbours. The crowds are huge and although security is tight you should watch out for pickpockets. Ac- commodation is at a premium and should be reserved well in advance, but if you can get a room, Nauroz is a fantastically exciting time to be in Mazar-e Sharif.

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cover a tomb chamber behind a steel door. Ali’s body lay behind it, his mortal wounds as fresh as they day he received them. The Seljuk Sultan Sanjar immediately built

a large shrine above the tomb, but it was razed a century later by Genghis Khan. With Balkh’s population decimated and scattered, memories of Ali’s tomb faded until revived by the Timurids in the 15th century. Sultan Baiqara rebuilt the shrine that still stands today.

The rich blue tiling that covers every sur-

face of the shrine is modern. The Timurid decoration fell into disrepair and the build- ing was covered with a simple whitewash until the 1860s when it was restored by Sher Ali Khan, the amir swept away by the start of the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Sher Ali Khan’s tomb is to the west of the main shrine door. A larger tomb next door is that of the other great scourge of the British, Wazir Akbar Khan, who died three years after driving the British Army out of the country in their disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842. On the east side of the shrine is a tall minaret-like pigeon tower. The doves in the shrine complex are famous across Afghanistan. Every seventh pigeon is said to contain a spirit, and the site is so holy that if a grey pigeon flies here it turns white within 40 days. There is no entrance fee to the shrine complex, although guards on the southern gate sometimes ask for a spurious ‘camera fee’. Beggars and mendicants flock to the site, equally demanding of your attention.

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Amo Hotel (x050 2478; Chowk-e Shadian; s/d/tr

US$10/20/30) This is a well-located cheapie, directly opposite the south entrance to the shrine: many of the rooms have great views across the domes. The rooms need a lick of paint, and the hot showers never seem to be more than lukewarm, but it’s the best budget choice in town.

Aria Hotel (x070 509 945; Darwaza-ye Shadian;

s/d US$10/20) Just around the corner from the Amo, the decor here seems even more peeling. The shared bathrooms (squat toilet only) leave something to be desired, but the rooms themselves are light and airy. It’s poorly signed – look for the sign on the cor- ner of the building, although the entrance is actually upstairs from the main street.

Barat Hotel (x070 502 235; Chowk-e Mukharabat;

r US$30-50; a) A much more modern hotel, with carpeted rooms, squashy beds and de- cent furniture. Bathrooms are shared but are kept spotlessly clean and have lashings of hot water. Rooms on the upper floors are nicer, and are more expensive; manage- ment also ask for more if you want a view of the shrine. There’s no restaurant, but food can be delivered to your room from nearby chaikhanas.

Mazar Hotel (x050 2703/070 159 483; Darwaza-ye

SLEEPING

Although there is a host of cheap hotels in Mazar-e Sharif, particularly on the west- ern side of the shrine, at the time of re- search they were not allowed to take foreign guests.

Balkh; r US$30-50; as) This is a hotel in 1930s style, all high ceilings, grand dining rooms and monolithic pillars. It’s a little dusty, giving the impression that it doesn’t see all that many guests, but the swimming pool is popular with local lads in the summer. En suite rooms are a flat price for single or double occupancy, and have the novelty of a bath as well as shower.

Farhat Hotel (x070 503177; Darwaza-ye Balkh;

r US$50; a) Staff instruct you to leave your shoes at the front door; inside it’s all over- stuffed furniture, bright carpets and fake sunflowers, trying their best to dispel the slightly gloomy post-Soviet atmosphere. Rooms are good nonetheless, all en suite, and there’s a fast internet café next door.

Royal Oak Hotel (x079 9383 127; sebroad3@hotmail

.com; next to Governor’s house, Darwaza-ye Balkh; s/d US$50-70/90, s/d with bathroom US$80/100; ai) In

MAZAR-E SHARIF

••

Sleeping 153

the style of a Kabul guesthouse, the Royal Oak is aimed squarely at the international contractor market. High security walls con- tain a cosy house with annexe, comfortable decent-sized rooms, plus a large lounge and dining area. It’s all run with great efficiency and has a good restaurant.

EATING & DRINKING

Mantu (steamed meat dumplings) are pop- ular in Mazar-e Sharif, so take a break from kebabs and pulao. The vegetarian option, ashak, is also available. Central Asian influ- ences are also apparent in the bread, which comes in heavy round loaves rather than the usual flat nan.

Delhi Darbar (x070 505 417; Dosad Bistar; mains

from US$4; h11am-10pm) This trusty Indian restaurant is something of an institution among Mazar-e Sharif’s expats. The menu is mainly north Indian cuisine, with a re- freshing choice of vegetable dishes. The meat/vegetarian thalis (South Indian all- you-can-eat meal) are excellent at US$6. Eat inside, or in the walled garden in sum- mer, enjoying a cold beer at the same time. There’s a sister branch in Kabul.

Pisarni Hamidi Restaurant (Darwaza-ye Shadian;

dishes from 50Afg) One of the better chaikhanas near the shrine, this basic place has good mantu amid the expected piles of meat and rice – a reliable standard.

Ibn Sina Restaurant (Near Royal Oak Hotel, Dar- waza-ye Balkh; dishes from 60Afg; h10.30am-11pm)

An Afghan place worth making the effort to get to, the Ibn Sina has a well-stocked menu including mantu, ashak and a variety of soups and qorma. The white tiles give it a canteen appearance, but you can spread out on the takhts (raised seats) as well as sit- ting at tables. The restaurant’s sign is fairly inconspicuous, so look out for the big tree outside the entrance.

Bahaar Restaurant (Kheyaban-e Nasir Khusrau;

dishes from 70Afg) There aren’t so many sur- prises at this restaurant in terms of the menu, but it’s better quality than most, with several interesting pulao and qorma on offer. With the restaurant on three glitzy storeys above its own supermarket, this is about as fancy as Afghan dining gets in Mazar-e Sharif.

Grilled Chicken (Kheyaban-e Nasir Khusrau; meals from

70Afg) A seemingly endless round of kebabs and pulao can get pretty boring at times,

NORTHEASTERN AFGHANISTAN

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