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108 AROUND KABUL •• Paghman

irrigation canals, and rooting out thou- sands of acres of vines and fruit trees. The plain is still heavily mined, (so always stick to the beaten track), but since 2001, the vineyards have made an amazing recovery. In summer the main road through the plain is lined with stalls selling grapes by the box- load, from sweet seedless ones the size of your fingernail to larger juicier varieties. The mountains rise up dramatically on either side of the plain, and about 55km north of Kabul a side road bears west and starts climbing towards Istalif. The road curls around the slopes through orchards and poplars, and crosses a small river to emerge in the main bazaar. At the far end of the bazaar is a small mosque with an unusual hexagonal minaret. There are won- derful views of the Shomali Plain and the mountains from here.

The bazaar is lined with small shops sell-

ing pottery. Istalif has been known for its pottery for at least 500 years, and there’s a large variety of plates, bowls, pots and even candlesticks on offer. A medium- sized bowl should cost around 100Afg to 150Afg. The decoration is usually a deep blue or brown glaze with simple designs etched onto the surface. They’re rustic but utterly charming. All the pottery is made on hand-wheels and fired in wood kilns.

The Turquoise Mountain Foundation (www.turqu is currently working with local potters to improve glazing and firing techniques to give Istalif better access to the export market. There are a couple of chaikhanas in the bazaar, but there are plans to develop a traditional-style guesthouse with modern facilities in the village, as well as a visi- tor’s centre. On the road into Istalif, there is a food stand at the Takht, set amid plane trees. A hotel stood here in the 1970s and is now used as a police station – with luck they’ll allow you onto the terrace, which has sublime views. The police are particu- larly proud of their nursery of geraniums and roses, which make a strange con- trast to the collapsed roof of part of the building – blown up by the Taliban. Minibuses to Kabul (30Afg, 90 minutes)

leave from near the bridge when full – the route is busiest on the weekend. From Kabul, minibuses leave from the Serai Shomali motor park.


As we were going to press there were reports of anti-government elements operating in Paghman and the surrounding districts. Take trusted security advice before considering a trip to Paghman.



King Amanullah built Paghman in the 1920s as a showcase for his ideas on modernising Afghanistan. It was decorated with pleasure gardens and ornate buildings, including a Victory Arch freely copied from the Arc de Triomphe, celebrating Afghan independ- ence in 1919. Its gardens have since been a popular picnic spot for Kabulis. Despite its model status, Paghman has played a key part in Afghan conservatism. In 1928 Amanullah held a loya jirga here, which ended in turmoil. The delegates rebelled against his insistence they wear Western dress (top hats, no less), and the subsequent arrests of delegates helped pre- cipitate the rebellion that closed Amanul- lah’s regime. During the 1980s, Paghman was the base for the fundamentalist Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who was a key figure in bring- ing Arab fighters to Afghanistan and had strong ties to Osama Bin Laden. Despite being implicated in war crimes during the civil war in Kabul, Sayyaf has remained hugely influential in the post-Taliban scene as an advisor to Hamid Karzai. Paghman was much battered during the war, but still remains green and pretty in places, including the grass amphitheatre of Bagh-e Umumi that held the disastrous loya jirga (Amanullah was even said to race elephants here in his more idle moments). The Bahar Restaurant at the top of the village has simple dishes and drinks, and lovely views over the plains. Minibuses leave for Paghman from Ka-

bul’s Serai Shomali motor park (25Afg, 30 minutes). If you have your own vehicle, it makes sense to also pay a visit to nearby Qargha Lake, which is passed en route to Paghman.


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Qargha Lake is another popular picnic spot for Kabulis, just 10km from the city. It’s an artificial lake created in the late ’50s by

Golf Club (x079 9226 327/9029 011; www.kabulgolf; greens fee 750Afg, club rental 250Afg, caddie fee

250Afg; h7am-dusk), which must be one of the most unusual courses in the world. King Habibullah introduced golf to Afghanistan in 1919, and is even buried on Jalalabad’s municipal course ( p183 ). The Kabul course reopened in 2004 after 26 years’ closure. Its reconstruction was led by Muhammad Afzal Abdul, who was the club’s last pro in 1978. The club is at the end of the dam. The course is nine holes, with the back nine played off different tees. The greens are actually ‘browns’, a mix of sand and en- gine oil brushed to make a smooth putting surface. Unsurprisingly, the roughs are pretty rough, but even the fairways would challenge Tiger Woods. The club guidelines make interesting reading. Comparing the course to St Andrews’, players are advised ‘don’t even ask for the stroke index because this is Afghanistan and they’re all tough.’ A second caddie is recommended, to go ahead of your shot to spot your ball. At the end of the round, the branded accessories (even golf towels) make unusual souvenirs. Every August, the club hosts the Kabul

President Daoud as a recreation facility for Kabul, and the clear air and cool waters make a great respite from the dust and fumes of the city. On Fridays the area throngs with families, and there are plenty of tea and food stalls and children running around to make quite a festive atmosphere. Qargha Lake is also home to the Kabul

Desert Classic tournament, a fundraising match organised by expats, with proceeds going to local charities.


The treasures excavated at Bagram illustrate the rich tastes of Kushan Kapisa. Glass from Alexan- dria, lacquer from China and Greek bronzes have all been discovered. The greatest of these are probably the Bagram Ivories.

Dating from the 2nd century AD, the ivories are a series of intricately carved panels, originally used for decorating thrones and boxes. Their style is instantly recognisable as Indian. Female figures are shown with full bosoms and wide hips, wrapped in transparent veils. Parrots and elephants decorate floral scenes, all carved in painstaking relief. Coupled with the rest of the Bagram finds, they contribute to a uniquely Afghan, yet international culture. The current fate of all the ivories is unknown. Following the looting of Kabul Museum in the 1990s they disappeared from view. Several pieces have turned up on the international underground art markets, with price tags in the hundreds of thousands of dollars – one was famously bought by a Pakistani army general. The Kabul Museum managed to save some of the ivories from the looters, but they remain hidden in safekeeping. For more on the Kabul Museum, see p88 .

AROUND KABUL •• Bagram 109

Spojmai Lakeview Café (x079 9003 333; spojmai@; fee for non-members incl one drink 100Afg,

mains from 500Afg) is a members club over- looking the lake. Cushions are strewn on the terrace and roof for lounging around in and catching the sun and breeze. Barbeques are a speciality, especially the chupan kabab (grilled mutton). Sports on offer include tennis, jet skiing and horse riding. A return taxi to Qargha Lake from Kabul should cost around 1000Afg. Minibuses (25Afg, 30 minutes) run on the weekend from Serai Shomali.



The site of both an ancient city and a mod- ern airbase, Bagram is 50km northwest of Kabul, near the town of Charikar. Modern Bagram was built by the Soviets, and was a key supply route during their occupation. Its possession was much contested between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, and at the time of the American-led war in 2001 the two armies controlled opposite ends of the base. Bagram is now home to around 10,000 international military personnel, mainly American. The site’s history as a military camp is far

more ancient. Alexander the Great founded the town, naming it Alexandria-ad-Caucasum, and used it as a base for his invasion of India. It was a major Graeco-Bactrian city and became the summer capital of the Kushan empire in the early centuries AD. Then known as Kapisa, it was one of the most important stops on the Silk Road. Kapisa was a cultural melting pot, its many Budd- hist monasteries displaying art influenced

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