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something this place addresses wonderfully, with great chunks of delicious barbecued chicken. Next to the Bahaar Supermarket, there’s a small off-street seating area hid- den behind a wicker screen where you can tuck in.

Royal Oak Hotel Restaurant (x079 9383 127;

next to Governor’s house, Darwaza-ye Balkh; dishes from

US$8) Worth a splurge if you’re missing some home comforts, this guesthouse res- taurant has a changing daily menu, with anything from lasagne and risotto to some generous club sandwiches. Alcohol is served, and there’s even a full English breakfast for US$10, complete with sausages and marma- lade. Non-guests are advised to call before arriving.

Tashkent (Chowk-e Mukharabat; dishes from 100Afg)

In the middle of the divided road, this is an Afghan fast-food place that delivers ex- actly what is promises. The pizzas (200Afg) aren’t bad, but the burgers (110Afg) are tastier, served with a handful of chips.

Ice cream shops (Chowk-e Mukharabat; bowl of ice

cream from 20Afg) If you’re hankering for dessert, head here for a bowl of thick hand-churned ice cream, piled high in tiny bowls. There are a couple of un-named shops – several locals claimed that the one with the flame decor serves the best ice cream in the north.

Juice stands (Chowk-e Shadian; juice from 20Afg) This

cluster of juice stands are a great refresh- ment stop. The banana or mango smooth- ies with cream and chopped almonds make a breakfast in themselves, while the sharp lemonade will cool you down on a scorching summer day. The perimeter of the shrine usually has plenty of stalls selling street snacks – look out for those cooking up tasty boloni (stuffed vegetable pancakes) and falafel. You can fill yourself for less than 30Afg. Self-caterers will find fresh produce in the market on the northwest corner of the shrine, around Chowk-e Mandawi. Nasrat Supermarket (Chowk-e Shadian) is well stocked for imported goods.


Mazar-e Sharif is an excellent place to pick up gilims (woven carpets) and needle- work, the traditional handicrafts of north Afghanistan. Most of these are Uzbek, while the carpets tend to be made by Turk- men. Suzanis (spreads embroidered with

either silk or wool) make particularly good souvenirs. There is a line of carpet shops along the east side of the shrine, stocked high with rugs, embroidery, lapis lazuli, and antiques (old and new). Prices are slightly cheaper than Kabul and the sell isn’t so hard.


Both airline offices are opposite the Ira-

nian consulate. Ariana Afghan Airlines (x075

5010 075; Kheyaban-e Nasir Khusrau) flies to Kabul

(2500Afg, 40 minutes) on Tuesday, Friday

and Sunday. Kam Air (x070 513 030; Kheyaban-e

Nasir Khusrau) were starting a service to match at the time of writing, but also fly between Mazar-e Sharif and Herat (2500Afg, 50 minutes) every Monday and Thursday. Transport for all points south and east

leaves from the Ah Deh depot on the eastern outskirts of the city. Minibuses leave from early morning throughout the day to Kabul (500Afg, eight hours), Samangan (120Afg, two hours), Pul-e Khumri (200Afg, 3½ hours) and Kunduz (350Afg, five hours). Shared taxis are equally plentiful. Trans- port also leaves from here to the Uzbek border at Hairatan – for more information see p217 .

Transport offices on Darwaza-ye Balkh near the shrine sell tickets for large buses to Kabul (400Afg, nine hours). The vehicles aren’t as fancy as advertised. The services continue to Herat (1000Afg, two days), but as these travel via Kandahar and the southern highway warzone they should be avoided. Shared taxis to Balkh (30Afg, 30 min-

utes) depart from Charahi Haji Ayoub. Minibuses and shared taxis to Shiberghan (100Afg, two hours), Andkhoi (150Afg, 3½ hours) and Maimana (400Afg, eight hours) leave from near the Kefayat Wedding Club in the west of Mazar-e Sharif. It’s possible to travel to Herat via Mai- mana in a three-day burst, but this is only for the most hardcore and is subject to serious security concerns – see p142 for more details. An office on the east side of the shrine sells seats for the three-day Landcruiser trip for 1400Afg. The un- marked office can be hard to find – it’s on the corner, on the 1st floor on the left – ask at the offices selling the big buses to Kabul. As the road effectively finishes two hours

from Mazar-e Sharif at Shiberghan, break- ing the journey at Maimana is strongly recommended.


There is no public transport to the airport. The 15-minute taxi ride costs 200Afg. As Mazar-e Sharif is a compact city, and you’re unlikely to stray too far on foot from the general vicinity of the shrine complex, a taxi to most destinations within the city should weigh in at around 80Afg.





Balk h 155


Today little more than a provincial market town, Balkh was once of such stature that the Arabs dubbed it the ‘Mother of Cities’. Nowhere in Afghanistan has such a glo- rious history as Balkh, and its remaining sights are well worth the short trip from Mazar-e Sharif.

The town is possibly the oldest recorded in the country. Some Islamic traditions have Balkh being founded by Noah after the great flood, but it is better recognised as the birthplace of Zoroaster, founder of the world’s first monotheistic religion. The record is hazy here – the best estimates have him being born around the 6th century BC. The town of Bactra was established enough to be a satrapy of the Achaemenid empire


What Helmand Province is to opium poppies, Balkh Province is to cannabis. The distinctive plants can be seen growing everywhere, and are particularly visible on the road between Balkh and Mazar-e Sharif, often grown as a thick hedge around the cotton fields. Baba Koo-i Mastan (‘the divine mad- man’), a pre-Islamic holy man from Bactria, is credited with being the first to refine hashish, and his tomb near Balkh is still visited by locals and tended by a dope-smoking malang (holy man). The smoking of charas (cannabis) has a long tradition in Afghanistan, and although illegal the drug is widely available. An especially potent variety called shirac is produced only in Balkh. It needs little irrigation, making it ideal for the dry province, and although farmers earn roughly a quarter of what they would if they grew poppies, it has a short growing season and harvesting is less labour intensive. And of course, it’s a lot more profitable than growing regular crops. The Taliban banned the cultivation and smoking of charas but since the end of 2001, farmers

have returned to it in a big way, taking advantage of the lack of governmental control, and the West’s preoccupation with opium. The provincial authorities are occasionally prompted by Kabul to eradicate cannabis, but these efforts seem tokenistic at best. With such a long tradition behind him, Baba Koo-i Mastan can sleep soundly in his grave for the foreseeable future.

by the time Alexander the Great took on the Persians two centuries later. Balkh was the scene of Persia’s last stand against the Greeks, with the Bactrian ruler Bessus claiming the Achaemenid crown from the fleeing Darius, only to be killed in turn by Alexander in 329. Alexander’s men were horrified by Balkh – Zoroastrian beliefs forbade burial or cremation to avoid polluting the earth, so the Greeks took con- trol of a city roaming with packs of ‘de- vourer dogs’ who disposed of the recent dead. Balkh served as the forward base for Alexander’s Central Asian campaigns, and it was here that he married Roxane, adding Afghan blood to the royal lineage, as well as declaring his own divinity. After Alexander, Balkh was the centre of a succession of Graeco-Bactrian dynasties who held sway over the region until falling to the nomadic Kushans. Balkh prospered as a way station on the new Silk Road, with its people turning to Buddhism. When the Arabs brought Islam to Af-

ghanistan, Balkh was rich. They, and the Bukharans after them endowed it with fine mosques and palaces, and the city enjoyed a reputation as one of the great centres of Islamic learning. Rumi, one of the most celebrated of Sufi

saints, was born in Balkh, although fled the city in the face of the Mongol onslaught of 1220. When Marco Polo passed through 50 years later he still found the city ‘despoiled and ruined’. Balkh never recovered its glory, despite a brief hurrah under Timurid rule.


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