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144 THE NORTHWEST •• Andkhoi

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THE DASHT-E LAILI

The Dasht-e Laili desert takes its name from the story of Majnun and Layla, the Romeo and Juliet of Persian literature. Their love for- bidden by Layla’s father, Majnun wandered the desert alone until he lost his mind. Layla was forced to marry another. Years later, fol- lowing her death, Majnun made a pilgrimage to her grave, whereupon he lay down next to her and expired. The two lovers were finally reunited in the afterlife. Every spring, the Dasht-e Laili springs briefly into life with the rains, turning an electric green and studded with flowers. Its name may also be a spin on laleh, the Dari word for the tulips that bloom so brightly here at this time.

breeze-block architecture lends the place a certain awkward ambience, and although the menu promises a choice of dishes, you’ll end up with kebabs whatever you go for. Not signed in English, look for the glass kiosk outside with the brazier, next to the UNHCR compound. There are several snack and juice stalls

clustered around the south gate of the park; if you’re lucky they’ll be selling boloni

and mantu.

Getting There & Away

Ariana operates an erratic flight to Kabul: check at the office on the northeast corner of the park, although it’s frequently closed. Minibuses to Shiberghan (300Afg, six

hours) and Mazar-e Sharif (400Afg, eight hours) leave every morning from a stand by the river, 500m north of the main square near the police station. The road follows the direct route via Daulatabad and the Dasht-e Laili desert. Transport to Andkhoi (280Afg, five hours) leaves from the same area, but is less frequent. HiAces make the epic trip to Herat (1000Afg, two days) daily at around 4am, leaving from the Sadam Yush depot, near the Municipal Hotel.

ANDKHOI

ﻮﺧﺪﻧا

Visiting Andkhoi feels a little like stepping back in time to a part of Central Asia that no longer exists. It’s a modest place given its history – it thrived in the medieval era and

Timur visited in 1380 where he received an omen to conquer Herat. Now a mixed Turkmen and Uzbek farming community on the edge of the Dasht-e Laili it feels far removed from the bustle of most Afghan towns, and a long way from anywhere. The old street plan is yet to be despoiled by the ugly glass-and-concrete buildings so popular elsewhere in Afghanistan and there’s barely a scrap of Western clothing in evidence. You’ll never have seen so many people wearing chapans (robes). Bazaar days (Monday and Thursday) are the best time to visit. The main bazaar area is between the streets west and north of the town square. Huge piles of melons line the streets when in season, competing for space amid the blacksmiths, dried goods and tea stalls. Although there’s no animal market, it can still sometimes feel like the town has more donkeys and camels than motor vehi- cles. The real reason to come here however is for the carpets and textiles. Andkhoi has been a carpet centre since the 1920s, when floods of Turkmen refugees, fleeing from the aftershocks of the Russian Revolution, entered north Afghanistan. The flocks of karakul sheep they brought with them transformed the local economy, producing high-quality skins and rugs. The main road west from the town

square, surrounded by shops selling wool, is where you’ll find most of the carpets. Dealers from Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif buy and commission much of their stock from here. Watching the traders make a deal is a fascinating process. Although the carpet sellers are mainly wholesale, they’re always happy to make a sale and the prices are considerably less than you’ll find elsewhere. Tucked amid the carpets, you’ll also find people selling textiles – hand-woven silks, suzanis (spreads embroidered with silk or wool) and clothes. The haggling is about as laidback as it comes and if you can throw in a few words of Uzbek or Turkmen, don’t be surprised if your purchase comes with an invitation home for dinner.

Sleeping & Eating

The only hotel in town is the Andkhoi Hotel

(Muncipal Hotel; Main square; r 500Afg), a big pink-

and-blue building on the northeast corner of the square. Rooms are basic but big, with simple shared bathrooms. Staff are friendly

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and usually surprised to see any foreigners pitching up. There are plenty of chaikhanas in the bazaar – the height of Andkhoi’s dining experience.

Getting There & Away

A smooth tarmac highway leads to Shiber- ghan (70Afg, one hour) and Mazar-e Sharif (150Afg, 3½ hours). HiAces and shared taxis leave throughout the day from a stand on the road, east of the town square. Heading south, HiAces leave most morn- ings to Maimana (280Afg, five hours) on a poor desert road. In theory it should be possible to cross into Turkmenistan from here via the border town of Imam Nazar, although the border is currently under dis- pute and no transport was running when we visited (for more information, see p216 ).

SHIBERGHAN

نﺎﻏﺮﺒﺷ

Another of the old khanates that ran across the north like knots on a string, the city of Shiberghan is the centre of Uzbek power in Afghanistan and the hometown of Gen- eral Abdul Rashid Dostum (see boxed text, below ). A nondescript sort of a place, its lowslung appearance belies its history. Shi- berghan was part of ancient Bactria, the great range of steppe that hosted the war- ring city states of the Greeks and later, the Kushans. In 1978 archaeologists working at

GENERAL DOSTUM

In the towns of the northwest, Ahmad Shah Massoud posters have been replaced with pictures of a stocky bullish man with a heavy moustache. This is General Abdul Rashid Dostum, undisputed heavyweight of Afghanistan’s Uzbeks. Dostum was a paratrooper for the Afghan army when the Soviets invaded and commanded

a large Uzbek militia that fought the mujaheddin across the north. In 1992, he sensed the wind was changing and switched sides – a defection that precipitated Najibullah’s ultimate downfall. Dostum helped Massoud capture Kabul, but once in the capital the Uzbek militias became feared for their orgies of rape and pillage. Within two years he switched sides again and teamed up with Hekmatyar to bombard the city with heavy artillery. Dostum’s control of the Salang Pass meant almost total control of the north, which he ran like

a private fiefdom, printing his own money and even running his own airline, Balkh Air. Newly independent Uzbekistan provided much backing until Dostum’s world collapsed with the Taliban capture of Mazar-e Sharif in 1997.

In 2001, Dostum became just another warlord back on the make after the Taliban’s col- lapse, but has had to share the northern spoils with more powerful Tajik rivals. At the time this guidebook was researched, he was Chief of Staff of the Afghan army, personally appointed by Hamid Karzai.

THE NORTHWEST •• Shiberghan 145

Tillya Teppe outside the city uncovered a major Kushan gravesite containing a wealth of gold artefacts – the so-called ‘Bactrian Gold’ (see p89 ). Other visitors commented on a dif-

ferent sort of treasure. When Marco Polo stopped in Shiberghan he noted that ‘here are found the best melons in the world in very great quantity.’ Mod- ern travellers may well agree. In addi- tion to farming, Shiberghan’s economy is now boosted by its natural gas fields – the pipeline to Mazar-e Sharif follows the main highway. The city has many Turkish NGO offices, evidence of Dostum’s period in exile there in the late 1990s. Posters of the big man himself are everywhere. There’s not much to see in Shiberghan

itself and although you might spend a night here if you’ve come from Maimana, it’s just as easy to push on to Mazar-e Sharif. The small Turkmen town of Aqcha lies 50km to the east off the main highway and has an interesting traditional bazaar every Mon- day and Thursday, with carpet and jewel- lery sellers.

Sleeping & Eating

If you need to stay the night, the Shibirghan Hotel (Main Square; r US$20) is the best option. It’s on the northern edge of the main square – look for the phone towers and football pitch. Rooms are adequate, but nothing fancy.

NORTHWESTERN AFGHANISTAN HERAT &

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