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NORTHEASTERN AFGHANISTAN

MAZAR-E SHARIF &

NORTHEASTERN AFGHANISTAN

MAZAR-E SHARIF &

158 MAZAR-E SHARIF TO BADAKHSHAN ••

Tashkurgan

Sleeping & Eating

There are no hotels in Balkh, which is close enough to Mazar-e Sharif to make a day trip the best option. There are a few chaikhanas on the main road from the highway to the park: the Balkh Restaurant and Khorasan Restaurant offer pulao, shorwa (soup) and kebabs. For the desperate, there would probably be a space on the floor to sleep for the price of dinner. There’s a fruit and vegetable market on the northern edge of the main park.

Getting There & Around

Share taxis run throughout the day to Balkh from Mazar-e Sharif (30Afg, 30 minutes), and leave in the opposite direction from either a stand on the main highway or one on the eastern edge of the park. Hiring a taxi for the return trip (including sightsee- ing) should cost 300Afg to 400Afg. Balkh is small enough to explore by foot, although there are horse-drawn garis should the mood take you.

MAZAR-E SHARIF TO BADAKHSHAN

نﺎﺸﺧﺪﺑ ﻟا ﻒﻳﺮﺷ راﺰﻣ

The road from Mazar-e Sharif to Bada- khshan performs a large V, heading south past Tashkurgan and Samangan to the junc- tion town of Pul-e Khumri. Here it switches north towards Kunduz before leaving the plains and climbing into the mountains of the far northeast.

TASHKURGAN

نﺎﻏﺮﻘﺷﺎﺗ

The old bazaar town of Tashkurgan, 60km from Mazar-e Sharif, would once have been a key stopping-off point for any traveller to Afghanistan. Sometimes also known by its old name of Khulm, Tashkurgan was the site of the last traditional covered ba- zaar in the country, a wonderful maze of mud-brick streets and stalls that put visitors firmly in touch with Marco Polo and the Silk Road. The bazaar was levelled during the war, another sad testament to the recent destruction visited on Afghanistan’s cul- ture. Little remains for the modern traveller to see, except a small palace built by Abdur

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Rahman Khan in the late 19th century in Indian colonial style. Maps show a road heading due east

from Tashkurgan to Kunduz, but this is not used, being in complete disrepair and reportedly mined. All traffic heads south instead. The highway passes through the stupendous gorge of Tangi Tashkurgan, where the mountains suddenly loom from the plains and enclose the road in sheer walls 300m high. In summer, watch out for the impromptu fruit stalls here – the local pomegranates and figs are delicious.

SAMANGAN (AIBAK)

Samangan is an ancient town in a valley of rich farmland where the Hindu Kush starts to meet the Central Asian steppe. It was al- ready old when the Arabs and Mongols vis- ited, having been a major Buddhist centre under the Kushans in the 4th and 5th cen- turies AD. The remains of this site, Takht-e Rostam, sit on a hill above the town. The town was a medieval caravan stop known as Aibak, a name many locals still use today. Samangan still holds a sizeable weekly market every Thursday and is noted for its craftsmen who make traditional Af- ghan musical instruments such as the dutar (two-stringed lute) and zirbaghali (a drum made from pottery). Ask for the Bazaar-e Danbora Faroshi (Lute-Sellers’ bazaar). Samangan’s bread is equally renowned – round Uzbek loaves that are sold by the roadside to vehicles travelling between Mazar-e Sharif and Kabul. There is a large Uzbek population in the town, and you can see pictures of General Dostum on display. The town sits just west of the main high- way, with the road into town leading to the main square and bazaar. Takht-e Rostam is 3km to the southwest, a 100Afg ride in an autorickshaw. There are no decent ho- tels in town, but it’s an easy day trip from Mazar-e Sharif.

(ﺒا)نﺎﮕﻨﻤﺳ

Takht-e Rostam

The remains of this Buddhist stupa and mon-

astery (entry 250Afg) are one of the most un- expected sights in Afghanistan. On a hill above Samangan, they offer a commanding view of the valley below. High on the rise is a well-preserved stupa – one of the earliest forms of Bud- dhist architecture, simple mounds raised to

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THE LEGEND OF ROSTAM

Rostam is one of the great heroes of Persian literature, immortalised in the epic Shah Nama (Book of Kings) by the Ghaznavid court poet Firdausi in the 10th century. Something of a giant, Rostam was born by caesarean section overseen by a mythical bird, and performed many great feats in his life accompanied by his equally heroic horse Rakhsh, including the slaying of a terrible dragon. But like a Shakespearean hero, Rostam’s story is tinged with tragedy. His son Sohrab, who was born in Samangan, grew up alone and only met his father on the field of battle, where Rostam killed him in a case of mistaken identity. Rostam himself died at the hands of his treacherous brother Shaghad.

Many unusual rock formations in Afghanistan are accredited as the sites of the hero’s achieve- ments – look out for other Takht-e Rostams elsewhere in the country.

contain relics of the Buddha. What makes Takht-e Rostam highly unusual is that in- stead of being built up, the 28m stupa has been carved out of the rock so is completely below ground level. The trench that sur- rounds the bowl of rock is around 8m deep, giving some sense of the scale of the work involved chiselling it out. On top of the stupa is a carved stone building, a harmika that would have held the site’s relics. The roof has a hole dug into it to hold a ceremonial umbrella. Since the passing of Buddhism, folklore has dubbed this the Takht-e Rostam – the Throne of Rostam. The legendary king (see above ) re- portedly married his bride Tahmina here, daughter of the king of Samangan. The hole of the roof allegedly held the wine for the wedding feast. Tahmina later went on to bear Rostam’s doomed son, Sohrab. An in- formation board adds more information, including the vital nugget that the site was built ‘in the early years of Christmas’. A path leads down to a cave entrance to the bottom of the stupa, allowing visitors to circumambulate the stupa (clockwise, ac- cording to Buddhist tradition). Below the stupa is a series of five caves, again excavated from the rock. They’re reminiscent of the monks’ cells in Bamiyan, but on a much grander scale. The first cave has a 12m-high domed ceiling, carved with a huge lotus flower partially hidden by soot. This is followed by a wider cave with two long galleries with vaulted ceilings. There are individual cells that were used as re- treats for meditation; the light filtering in through the carved windows does indeed give it a serene atmosphere. The third cave is the largest in scope and finest in execution. An antechamber leads

into an immense domed room. Roughly square, each wall has a niche that would have contained a Buddha statue, and topped with a carved column. The corners of the room have carved arches to support the great dome, as in a modern mosque. A hole in the ceiling bathes the room in a gentle light.

The fourth cave is a series of small rooms with a carved pool, thought to be a bath- house. The final cave next to it is most likely a toilet, and is filled with rubble.

Getting There & Away

Samangan’s transport depot is on the junc- tion with the Kabul-Mazar-e Sharif high- way. There are plenty of minibuses and shared taxis throughout the day to Mazar-e Sharif (110Afg, two hours), Pul-e Khumri (80Afg, 1½ hours) and Kabul (300Afg, five hours).

PUL-E KHUMRI

ﺮﻤﺨﻠﭘ

All travellers in northern Afghanistan will pass through Pul-e Khumri at least once. It’s a large (and largely nondescript) town on a wide flood plain perfect for agricul- ture. There’s not much reason to stop in the town itself, although in winter people occasionally get stranded here if the Salang Pass is closed. The Russian-built cement factory is the town’s major attraction. Around 12km north of Pul-e Khumri is the Kushan Buddhist site of Surkh Kotal (see boxed text, p160 ). There are no decent hotels in Pul-e

Khumri, although the Zadran Hotel would do in a pinch. For onward transport, mini- buses and taxis to Mazar-e Sharif (200Afg, 3½ hours) and Kunduz (100Afg, 1½ hours) depart from a depot where the highway

MAZAR-E SHARIF TO BADAKHSHAN ••

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