One night in Kabul

(or the night I may have slept in Osama bin Laden's bed)


As I was checking in for my early morning Ariana Afghan Airways flight to Kabul at New Delhi's airport, I recall thinking that I had never seen people checking in so much baggage for a flight. Baggage trolleys were piled high with cartons containing stereo systems, microwaves, pressure cookers and all sorts of other household utensils.  I wondered how people could afford to pay all the excess baggage charges, but I didn't see any money being handed over.  Maybe they just loaded it all on and prayed the aircraft was not overweight! 

It was late September 2003, and I was on my way from Kuala Lumpur to London, and was stopping off in Kabul for a day for business meetings.

Although we were allocated seats at check-in, when we got on board it turned out to be a free-for-all for seating.  I managed to get a window seat not too far from the front. The plane was a 25 year old Boeing 727 and didn't look in too bad a condition inside except for the windows which were very dirty, both inside and out. There were no safety cards or anything in the seat pockets, and there didn't seem to be any concern about where you put your baggage.  Across the aisle from me a passenger had wedged a large cardboard box between an empty seat on the aisle and the seat in front, but none of the flight attendants gave it a second glance.

Halfway through the flight to Kabul, I took a walk down to the back of the plane to use the restroom.  I wish I hadn't done that as it completed changed my perspective on how well the plane might have been maintained.  The seats in the six rows at the front of the plane were in relatively good condition (I was in row 5), but behind that the seats had armrests missing, padding was falling out, and one seat had completed collapsed.  The last few rows of seats were piled high with loose suitcases.  The restroom was falling apart, and the floor was so corroded it felt like you would fall through the floor if too much weight was placed on it.  I tried not to wonder whether the rest of the plane was maintained as well as its interior.

As we approached Kabul through a valley, we were close to and below the level of the top of some mountains out to the left hand side of the plane.  I remembered the Ariana 727 that crashed into mountains on its landing approach to Kabul in 1998, and thought how easy it would be in bad weather to stray off course slightly and fly straight into them.

I had been looking forward to my trip to Kabul as it was my first visit to Afghanistan.  The city was much larger and busier than I expected it to be, but I didn't feel unsafe.  There were quite a few people carrying guns, but the general impression that I had was of a city that was gradually getting back to normal after the war, and was busy with the enormous task of reconstruction.  I didn't see any American soldiers -- only a few of the Canadian peacekeepers making up the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). (Sadly two ISAF soldiers were killed the day after I was in Kabul when their vehicle ran over a landmine). The only thing that scared me about Kabul was the driving. There are no lines on the roads, none of the traffic lights are working and they drive like stockcar racers. They race through intersections dodging cyclists, pedestrians and mules pulling wooden carts. Driving is on the right, even though many of the cars are right-hand drive, and they occupy any part of the road that is vacant. Cars drive down the middle of the road at great speed and we narrowly avoided several head-on collisions. Nobody else in the car flinched though, so I got the impression that this was all regarded as very 'normal'.  The driving style seems to be as flat out as the rough roads will allow, swerving sharply around anything obstructing the way, and only braking when the way is completed blocked. Perhaps it is a driving style that originates from the days when drivers were dodging bullets. I was amazed that I saw no accidents in the day that I was there.

After my morning meetings, I was taken to lunch at a nearby restaurant. As we strolled down the dusty road to the restaurant I was approached several times by women in burkas begging for money.  It seemed strange being asked for money by a person whose face you could not see. All around the city there were children and young men flying kites. I was told that kite flying was banned by the Taliban (as was music and television) and people are now flying kites as an expression of their freedom.  Apparently there have been quite a few children killed falling from buildings when they have tried to retrieve kites that have got stuck, but the new government is reluctant to impose any rules restricting kite flying as that might be seen as returning to the old Taliban ways.

I finished my afternoon meetings at about 4 pm, and my hosts offered to drive me up to the top of one of the mountains overlooking Kabul to view the city from there.  All up the sides of the mountain people were building mud brick houses in precarious positions that looked as if they would be washed away if ever it were to rain very heavily. The road up the mountain was rocky and narrow, and as we were in a two wheel drive vehicle, our driver was racing up at some speed to keep the momentum going on the steep stretches. Suddenly on one of the bends he skidded to a halt as we came face to face with an ISAF tank on its way down the mountain, and for a few moments we were staring down the barrel of a machine gun mounted on the front of the tank. Stories about American soldiers shooting up vehicles that have surprised them at checkpoints in Baghdad flashed through my mind, but fortunately the soldier manning this particular machine gun kept his cool and just kept a close eye on us as we backed down the road, to a section of the road that was a little wider, to allow the tank to pass.

At the top of the mountain there was a lot of abandoned artillery equipment, and all of the ground was littered with spent artillery shells -- some of them nearly a metre long. As I was wandering around in the rocks looking for a place to take photographs from, I came across a couple of steel ammunition cases still containing live shells. I was told there was live ammunition all over the place, as nobody has the time to clean it up.

On the way up and down the mountain, children came out of the mud brick houses to wave at us as we passed.  They were dirty because they have no water on the mountain, but they all looked happy and many shouted words in English like "How are you" and "Hi Joe". My hosts also took me to see some of the formerly 'wealthy' areas on the outskirts of the city that were the most badly bombed during the war, including one of the previous king's palaces. It was sad to see so many beautiful buildings now lying in ruins. As we headed back into the city for dinner, we passed areas where people were living in rows and rows of shipping containers, and there were several streets comprising nothing but shipping containers that had been converted into small shops.

After dinner my hosts took me to a guest house near the Indian Embassy where I was to stay the night.  I had previously made a reservation through Ariana Afghan Airways at the Inter-Continental hotel, but when I had arrived there in the morning I was told the hotel was full.  When I said I had made a reservation through Ariana, the receptionist had just rolled her eyes to indicate this was not the first time that reservations through Ariana had been messed up. Despite the fact that Kabul is a city of over two million people, it currently has only one international class hotel, so the local guest houses are the only alternative accommodation. The guest house I stayed in was quite comfortable and very quiet.  I was told it used to be one of Osama bin Laden's houses in Kabul.  My hosts joked that perhaps I had slept in his bed.

The entrance to the guest house was protected by thick steel gates which were guarded by a soldier with what looked like a .303 rifle.  Inside, there were many guns leaning up against the wall opposite the reception desk.  I arrived very late and left at dawn, so didn't get the chance to find out whether they belonged to the guest house owner, or whether guests checking in had to leave their guns in reception rather than taking them to their rooms. I think I was much safer in that guest house than at the Inter-Continental hotel, as a car bomb was set off at the front of the hotel a couple of months after I was in Kabul.

When my alarm awoke me at 5.20 am, I went to turn on the light -- and then remembered that my hosts had told me that Kabul only has electricity for 12 hours a day.  So I had to pack my bags in the dark and feel my way down the passageway outside to get to the bathroom for a quick cold shower.

On the way to the airport I stopped to take a few photographs of the remains of Ariana's fleet of 727s that had been bombed during the war.  All around the airport there are remnants of crashed and bombed aircraft.  Even the sides of the runways are littered with parts of aircraft fuselage and wings.  It doesn't create a very good impression for nervous travelers flying into Kabul for the first time!

When I got to the airport I was told that my 8.00am Ariana flight to Baku and Istanbul (from where I was to connect with a flight to London) had been delayed until 5.00pm.  On further questioning I found out that that the later departure time was still subject to approval from the US flight command centre in Qatar (apparently if Ariana misses a departure slot it has to reapply for permission for a new slot).  So they couldn't be absolutely sure that the Istanbul flight would get off the ground that day.

I was worried about losing my hotel reservation in London as I had arranged for some important documents to be delivered to me there, so enquired about alternative flights. There were only two other flights out of Kabul that day.  One to Tehran and one to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.  I couldn't take the Tehran flight as I didn't have a visa for Iran (and nobody could tell me whether there were any connecting flights from there onto London) so I took the Sharjah flight as I knew I could get a visa on arrival in the UAE.  I was told that I should be able to get a flight to London from Sharjah.

So I bought a ticket on the 8.00am Sharjah flight -- which actually left at 9.00am (I was told the scheduled departure time of Ariana flights from Kabul is always one hour earlier than actual departure time "otherwise people won't come to the airport early enough").  I had a 90 minute wait in the departure lounge squashed up against a large Iranian family, who were waiting for the Tehran flight, on one side, and some Afghan men and women on the otherside.  The Afghan women were dressed in their traditional burkas and seemed afraid to sit close to me, perhaps because I was the only foreigner in the departure lounge.

Kabul Airport is undoubtedly the most chaotic airport I have been in anywhere in the world.  Everything is done manually, right down to the hand-written tickets, and it can barely cope with even one flight at a time.

The flight to Sharjah turned out to be a cargo flight on another old 727.  However, they were taking five passengers as well, including myself. As we taxied towards our take-off position I saw two tanks guarding the taxiways to where the military aircraft were parked. Their guns were pointed directly at us so I decided not to take any photographs out of the window in case they thought I was an Al Qaeda spy!

We touched down in Sharjah about two and a half hours later, and as we taxied towards the airport terminal I didn't think my chances of getting a flight to London looked very good.  The airport was busy with dozens of aircraft parked along the hardstands -- but they were all cargo planes.  As we taxied towards the terminal I could see there were no other passenger planes at the airport. 

When I got to immigration, the officer directed me to a room near the passport control area.  I thought maybe there was a problem getting an entry visa at Sharjah -- perhaps the rules were different at a cargo port -- but it turned out that I had to have an iris scan before they would admit me into the country.  Perhaps they thought I was Osama bin Laden after plastic surgery trying to sneak into the country aboard a cargo plane from Kabul! The iris scan checked out okay of course (proving I am not a terrorist) and I was through immigration and customs in no time at all (there was only me and the other four passengers off our plane in the entire airport -- despite it being quite a large terminal).

I walked around to the departures area to check the departures board. There were four passenger flights out that day, but only to remote places like Entebbe and Peshawar, and definitely no flights to London, or even any European ports.

So I decided to get a taxi to Dubai.  I thought Dubai was about 90 minutes away by road, but it turned out to be much closer. I jumped into one of the two taxis parked outside the terminal and headed towards Dubai.  The taxi was an old Cadillac station wagon and the driver was a friendly old Arab (must been close to 70 years old because he really struggled with my bags) with a long white beard.  Given his age and demeanour I thought it might be a slow trip to Dubai, but once we got out of the terminal he put his foot to the floor and we were soon doing 160 kph along the desert freeway. To my surprise we reached Dubai International Airport in about 20 minutes -- partly because the airport is on the Sharjah side of Dubai, but helped no doubt by the speed he was driving.

I managed to get a seat on a flight to London that left two hours later, and arrived at Heathrow in the evening, one hour before I would have done if I had taken that day's scheduled flight via Baku and Istanbul. I needn't have worried about losing my hotel reservation after all!