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  The Magazine  


ISSUE 189 - NOVEMBER 25, 2019

 

 

INTRODUCTION AND NEWS   


A travelogue on a little visited place...
Today, while the Bougainville independence referendum is ongoing and we wonder whether we will soon have our much anticipated 194 UN member, we do away with most of our regular features as we have opted for a travelogue from our Founder, Harry Mitsidis, who will recount his experience last week in Kandahar, Afghanistan. We believe this will be quite interesting for most of you travellers out there. 

Meanwhile, just a quick reminder that this Wednesday we are having a traveller meeting in Zagreb, Croatia. Log in to our meetings or contact Milana at milana@nomadmania.com. See you there!


24 Hours in Kandahar

Hello there, I'm Harry Mitsidis, the Founder of this Community. In line with our 'NomadMania Team' rubric, I will introduce myself first. I was born 47 years ago in London, UK but grew up in Athens. Greece. The mix of the two has made me organised yet chaotic, outgoing yet a loner. I studied sociology to Masters Level and then did an MBA in Rotterdam, after which I worked as a lecturer in business, leadership and quality management in a number of countries. But in the end, wanderlust prevailed. I landed in my final UN country, Equatorial Guinea, in March 2008. 

And I founded NomadMania because after doing every country I still felt I had seen very little and needed a more established way to decide what could mean 'having travelled a lot' - I was not entirely satisfied with the way other clubs divide the world. Luckily, I found Artur Anuszewski - believe it or not we still haven't met in person - who worked with me on the initial division into 1221 regions, exchanging more than 400 emails. Little did I know when I first decided on getting a website online that it would mean the start of a true community which would become a standard of sorts and by which experienced travellers base some of their travel decisions. Today I spend most of my non-travel time looking after some of the aspects of NomadMania, primarily heading our two Committees and some of our newly founded Ministries (luckily for me, Milana has taken over a lot of the other necessary tasks). I will also be focusing on our Charity aims, so you may hear from me again about this...
That's me at the Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif
Now, down to the meaty stuff. I just spent a fabulous week in Afghanistan and feel that some of this, especially my 24 hours in Kandahar, should be shared. I'm certainly not the first to have gone there this year. Just a month ago fellow NomadMania members Michael, Ben and Harris made their way to the former Taliban stronghold, and earlier this year Felix daringly ventured there too. Gul also told me there were a few other solo travellers he took there this year. There is even a local tourist organisation which apparently, as of this year, encourages visits. So yes, this is possible now, if you are so inclined.

Before I say anything more, some things of note. Afghanistan really is dangerous. The statistics say that 43,000 people (civilians and non) were killed as a result of the conflict in 2018 alone. That's a huge number, and should not be brushed aside just because we are travellers who sometimes like obscure and 'hardcore' places. Having said that, most trips go ok, with some sensible planning and precautions. I would say that if you are really daring, you could even attempt to do the 'safe places' on your own - more about where these are at the end - without a fixer, though the visa may be tricky without an invitation letter. At any rate, I went straight to the source with Gul, the owner of Silk Road Afghanistan, taking care of my stay. He is the best local guide I have ever had anywhere (though admittedly I haven't had that many as I prefer to travel alone), incredibly friendly, reliable, with a twinkle in his eye and loads of local connections, Gul is a real personality. In short, if you want to go to Afghanistan, just get in touch with Gul - find his details in our Fixer section.
My 24 hours in Kandahar started with the flight down from Kabul. Going by road is out of the question unless you really have a death wish. Kam Air may repeatedly make the cut in the Top 10 worst airlines, but they are decent enough and they had the route served with a massive A340 aircraft which was almost completely full. Even the locals don't take the road. There was a couple of Chinese on board who I would end up seeing a lot of the following day.

Though at NomadMania we don't believe in airport visits as a real 'visit' to a place, I can say that in Kandahar, the airport is certainly part of the experience, the multi-arch passenger terminal dwarfed by all the military installations around it. It apparently used to be the largest airport military base in the world back in the day, or that's what Gul told me. The military aircraft and overall extent of it all are mind-boggling, as are the numerous winding checkpoints that lead you out of the airport complex, zig-zagging through barricades until you are finally out on the main road. Above, in the blue sky, three Zeppelin-like surveillance 'blimps' are in the sky - you can read about the one in Kabul here, but in Kandahar, there are three flying above and supervising from the sky.
The highway into town has 4 lanes in each direction - not what I expected. Even less so was the existence of 'New Kandahar' which, as the word suggests, is an entirely new residential area to the east of the older town (and nearer the airport). Clearly having Islamabad as its inspiration, this somewhat gated safer zone, developed in the past ten years, is full of ample parallel streets left and right, with relatively modern buildings, some beautiful villas and a number of colourful mosques. As the flight landed on-time at 4.15 pm, it was twilight by the time we got to this area around 5 pm. A quick drive around some mosques was then followed by going to our accommodation, whose name I will withhold for safety reasons. While I am sure there are better hotels in Kandahar, Gul opts for this one because it seems to be 'under the radar' and relatively quiet, even if it's not exactly the Ritz. There was warm water however, and it was clean enough. 
My looks have helped me in many of my world travels - I could be anything from Brazilian to Italian to Lebanese, and donning local clothes, it seems Afghan as well. Without a camera or any words spoken, nobody looked at Gul or me twice. So I suppose that was part of having some good luck, and it was genuinely entertaining to wear local clothes. In Kandahar the hat is distinct from what is worn further north, and Gul provided the appropriate one for me to pass somewhat unnoticed. I didn't shave either, for good measure.

We had dinner near the hotel - a great meal, influenced highly by Indian-subcontinent cuisine in this town not so far from Pakistan. I can't take spicy stuff and they really listened when I said 'no spices' so the dal dish I was served was just right. If you really must have a burger or a pizza, they had that on the menu too.
The real exploration was left for Day 2 and we set off at 8.30. Though you may want to spend more time in Kandahar, I can say that in terms of the sights themselves, one day is certainly enough. You can't go far out of town anyway, and Gul will not risk taking you for more than 24 hours. I suppose the main fear is kidnapping and that will take some organising for which 24 hours may not be enough - but 48 may well be if word gets out there is a foreigner in town.

We drove from the Eastern edge of town - New Kandahar - all the way to the west, crossing the central avenues. Given Kandahar's general reputation, I did not expect to see a 'normal city' but, within the constraints of the local environment, this is what Kandahar is, with people going about their lives, with traffic, shops and a significant number of checkpoints as well.

Our first destination was the colourful shrine of Hassan Abdal (Baba Saab). Upon arriving there, a number of children appeared who adamantly refused to have their photos taken, as they considered this 'haram' (sin). On the other hand, the Chinese couple from the flight were very happy camera-clickers indeed. I was not the only tourist in town! Their English was minimal but I did manage to ascertain they were from Beijing and that they were daringly staying two nights. Gul was quick to note that 'the Taliban do not bother with the Chinese as China supports the Taliban.' That's what he said at least.

At the entrance to the shrine is a very healthy looking hemp plant. In plain view, for all to see and enjoy. If you help yourself, nobody will care. It would appear most travellers to Afghanistan seem to make the most of what the country has to offer, if you get my drift. Not me, I'm goody two shoes who doesn't drink or smoke, just for the record.

We then headed to what was a playground, above which, following the checkpoints, was another shrine with an agreeable panorama of the centre of Kandahar. The Chinese couple were again next to us, leading to some unexpected cramming as we were all trying to take photos. But this was the last I would see of them.
In the photo above, you can clearly see the 'blimp' Zeppelin in the Kandahar skies.
There are remains of a former castle in one district, but upon our arrival there, we were stopped as they were working on the site (in anticipation of tourist hordes?). At any rate, there was nothing much to see other than rock and dust, so we headed down small alleys and approached the centre again, where we visited the pretty mosque that was the favourite of none other than Mullah Omar himself. The people there were all incredbly friendly and happy to see a foreigner, and I was free to take photos of the premises, including the small room where the Mullah loved to stay when he was in Kandahar, apparently.
Driving around seemed pretty safe to be honest. I was never afraid, and just lowered the window and took photos of everything that we passed, which was all quite normal - again, given the environment. Very few women around the streets and, unlike Kabul where a large proportion do not have their faces entirely covered, here I only saw two women who were not entirely hidden before a burqa. In Kandahar, burqas come in a variety of colours, unlike the north where they tend to just be blue.

I asked Gul if he would be ok bringing women travellers to Kandahar and he even pointed out to the possible advantage of the full cover of a burqa. While men travellers are more vulnerable, especially if they look foreign, with women willing to don a burqa, nobody would ever know - they could walk around freely. Taking photographs would be somewhat problematic, however.
Next in line was the highlight of Kandahar, the Mosque of the Cloak of Prophet Mohammed. You cannot go inside to the place where the cloak of the Prophet lies, but the whole area is serene and the mosque very beautifully built. As always, there will be children around it seems. I asked if they go to school and was told that they do, but it so happened to be exam time so they were out early and roaming the streets and the mosques.
You will not go hungry in Afghanistan, I repeat - and Kandahar offers a number of good restaurants where you can have anything from kebab to rice to salad. It is always interesting seeing the locals in such places. Once again, as in almost every environment, this is male only, there will be no women eating in the open areas of the restaurant. I do assume that foreign women travellers would probably be exempt though. 

At around 1.30 pm, we headed for our final stop, which would include a walk in the bustling market area. I would certainly not rate the Kandahar market in the same league as the well known markets of the Middle East, but it has its colour, and extends a considerable distance. Gul and I walked around entirely freely, both in the street and in the numerous covered areas. There was one souvenir shop with trinkets and stuff, but I would suggest giving this a miss, you're better off in Kabul in terms of variety and it seems there is little of local interest. If, on the other hand, you are into jewellery, there are plenty of stores which will oblige.
The flight back left at 5 pm but even though it is a short domestic flight, one needs to be at the airport two hours ahead because of all the multiple checkpoints, including separate luggage screenings. This is all a necessary evil but again affords a chance for people watching and marvelling at the variety of features of the Afghans - nowhere else would I say does the indigenous population have so much variety in looks.

In the civilian terminal, all the security is in the hands of the local Afghans, so you won't be seeing any of the considerable foreign forces who are in compounds in the vast airport complex. Everyone is friendly and professional throughout.
I've focused on Kandahar - if I tried to give an account of the whole week I would be taking way too much of your time. But let me finish with three quick observations. First, there are clear 'safer' areas in Afghanistan where travellers can get to without too many difficulties though there always is a risk. Don't read the official government security pages, just ask Gul. The safe areas are, apart from Kabul and environs (including a pleasant lake), Panjshir valley and Bamiyan valley, both of which are essentially entirely safe and free to go around - photos of lovely Bamiyan, a World Heritage Site, are below. You can get to both by road, and are also flights to Bamiyan three times a week (prone to cancellation). Also, Mazar i Sharif is ok, and you can go to Takht e Rosham around two or so hours drive away to see the old castle. Then there is Herat in the west, but that's only safe within the city itself. Badakshan in the northeast is popular and one can do this either directly from Tajikistan or by flying from Kabul to Faisabad; this is a popular region for trekking in the mountains and you can in theory go all the way east where the country meets China. A day trip from Kabul to Jalalabad is probably ok too, if slightly more adventurous. Gul is looking into Nuristan, but at the moment that seems dicey. It might also be possible to fly to Lashkar Gar/Bost in Helmand province but nobody has done that in recent history - but if you really must, perhaps this can be arranged, the problem being you're stuck there with unreliable, rare flights out. But that's about it in terms of areas. I repeatedly asked about going to the second World Heritage Site of the country, the Minaret of Jam, but that is currently not possible.
Second, foodies be prepared. The food is seriously fantastic. Just like most places which are buffer zones and at a civilisational crossroads, Afghanistan has been influenced by all its neighbours to good effect. There is plenty for vegetarians and vegans, earthy tastes of chickpeas and vegetable dumplings, but meat lovers will enjoy the variations of lamb, beef and chicken, all of which taste so pure and fresh somehow. Firni is a delicious milky dessert, I could down ten of those in one go given the chance. 
And finally, I will break your hearts a little bit, because I think I have made it all to joyous and enjoyable but Afghanistan is ultimately a country that will break your heart, if you listen to the stories of its people attentively enough. In my case, the change of mood came so suddenly and unexpectedly on the last day of my visit in the small town of Balkh, near Mazar i Sharif, where the ancient Greco-Bactrian empire extended from - not much evidence left of that, I must add. A moment of hilarity was visiting a small hut where I was given a 'hash-inhaling demonstration' by very eager locals, and thinking how respectable people go to demonstrations of glass blowing or tango dancing, and here in Afghanistan they demonstrate what they are famous for, replete with intense coughing and dramatics by the old bearded man who gave it his all.

I was so amused and positively marvelling at this when we stopped in this big dusty field because the driver needed to pee. But there was a strange yelping, wailing sound and, lo and behold, just next to us, almost run over, were four tiny pups, three of them curled motionless together and one trying to move desperately and crying away helplessly. In almost any other country, after assessing such a situation, I would have tried to find a vet or contacted some authority. But here you are, vulnerable yourself in a land where life has been cheap for decades and where there seems to be little hope on the horizon. So I stroked the pup and it was calmed for a moment, it stopped yelping, perhaps feeling tenderness for the first time ever. I tried to give it some water but it was too young to drink, it would have needed a straw, if that. Where was its mother?  Searching for water and food? Where was the future of this beautiful little thing? As I looked around, increasingly despondent and out of options, and got a resounding 'no' to the question if there is any animal welfare association around, I realised that there was nothing at all I could do to save this little creature, however much I imagined smuggling it to Europe in my small bag. It was too young to even see the world and open its eyes, but just old enough to scream with hunger and fear. The pup reminded me clearly that this is a place where most living beings have endured untold losses for decades and have to keep living with their eyes closed, hoping for some sort of miracle.

INTERVIEW WITH A NOMAD

Kach is one of the most popular travel bloggers out there, her blog being Two Monkeys Travel, with lots of relevant, up to date travel content from all over the world. We host her as she tells us a little about her many escapades.

Kach, tell us something about your early years and how your passion for travel developed.

I can remember telling my grandfather when I was 7 years old that I was going to be a millionaire and travel all around the world! Of course growing up as a child in a province in the  Philippines, not poor but certainly not wealthy, I equated being able to travel the world with being rich. I knew it was going to happen one day but I know I have to work hard to fund myself to manifest this dream since I was raised by my single mother and grandparents together with my 2 siblings.
 
In High School, I was determined to get a scholarship in the best University so I could take up pre-law degree and for me to become a Lawyer as I wanted to become a Diplomat because we all know that having a regular Philippines Passport wouldn’t easily get me visa to travel to different countries.
 
At 20 years old, I was only able to leave the Philippines for the first time when I got the chance to work in the Middle East after University. I lived in Kuwait for 4 years, it was during my time there that I met other travellers who were exploring the world on a budget. I started hosting some of them on Couchsurfing and my interest in travel only grew from there. I was able to travel to 13 countries while saving money.
 
Then I moved to Erbil, Iraq (Kurdistan) in 2013 for work when I realized that I have small savings and maybe it’s about time for me to take a 6 month trip to Asia and South America so I quit my job.
 
I started as a solo traveler until I met Jonathan, now my husband, in May 2013 while backpacking in Luang Prabang, Laos. He was on a backpacking/motorbike trip around South East Asia. We both decided to be together and started backpacking in India and later in South America where we started our travel blog!
 
Some people thought that now having a British husband it would be easier for me to travel around the world by getting his citizenship but it’s not easy to get and decided not to do it as we don’t live in the UK. Also, thankfully, we’re having sponsors and partners that help us with the cost of our travels.
 
By the time I reached visiting 100 countries in 7 continents in 2017, I started to aim bigger.
 
I’m still hoping to be one of the first Filipinos (using ONLY Philippines passport) to travel to every country in the world and hope to do it before I turn 35!
Kenya
Tell us something about your style of travelling now and what your travel aims are.
My husband and I both loved hitchhiking, volunteering in exchange for meals and accommodation. It was an adventurous and sustainable way to travel!
 
We continued travelling like this until 2015 when we became more active with our travel blogging and were able to start getting sponsors from hotels, airlines, tours etc. About this we started to experience traveling in “luxury” but just from time to time. In 2016 and 2017 we started moving more firmly into the luxury market, while still maintaining as many adventurous experiences as possible.
 
In 2017, we bought a 37 ft sailboat that we have sailed from Florida, Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico with our two cats that we adopted along the way. We just sold our sailboat last May 2019, then we flew back to Europe and have a very nice apartment in Herceg Novi, Montenegro where we plan to be based in the next 2 years.
 
I still travel on my own and try to go on solo trips for up to 2 months every year like my solo adventures and land border crossing in Eastern Africa in 2017 and a trip around the Balkans and Eastern Europe in 2018. I’ve just completed on a 2 month solo trip in Central and South Asia visiting most of the -stans, Mongolia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Bhutan and Bangladesh.
Albania
You usually travel along with your husband. What are the pluses and minuses of travelling together?
The pros and cons of travelling as a couple are basically the same as for any other part of life, but more exaggerated! You spend all of your time together, so you need to be more patient with each other when things get stressful and realise when the environment or lack of sleep is affecting your mood.
 
The pros are obvious really; always having someone to share your experiences with, to support you in challenging times and to exchange ideas with. My husband is the best travel buddy and we really matched when it comes to traveling, the only hassle is when we have to do online work after our day tours!
Seychelles
You are extremely prolific on the internet. You have been published by major travel websites and you have two sites yourself. Tell us something about how you go about all this in terms of content, how much time it takes you and what your aims are with this exposure. Also, do you feel it takes away a bit from the authenticity of travel or not?
I used to work 18 hours per day writing content and being active on social media to keep everything running and growing, but that just wasn’t sustainable. Now we simply plan for the long term, so we always have at least one month of content ready to publish, social media posts that are scheduled in advance. We now also have another team member who is an absolute God-send!
 
The aim of the exposure is to drive traffic to our media channels, which in turn helps us to grow our online business and achieve more of the things we want to achieve in life! A big part of our business is people driven, like my coaching services and creating guides and advice about how everyone can achieve their own dreams of travelling the world.
 
As far as authenticity goes, I believe it all depends on how you go about it. If the tail starts wagging the dog, as in we start choosing our travels and experiences based on what people will want to see, then travel would certainly lose its authenticity.
 
People put so much time and effort into planning an “authentic” trip that what they end up with a heavily constructed authenticity, which probably disappoints them because it didn’t feel authentic enough. It’s like planning to be spontaneous, just stop overthinking and enjoy what’s around you right now!
Cancun, Mexico
Your blog advertises itself as a 'sailing, luxury and adventure' travel blog. Do you feel that luxury is an essential part of travel? To what extent can luxury and true adventure really be combined?
This really depends on your definition of “true adventure.” You can certainly have adventurous experiences with elements of luxury, or with luxury as a reward at the end.

For example, if we take on a 30 hour-long passage on our sailboat, in open water with no land in sight, with maybe some rough seas and no other vessels in radio contact, you could probably call that adventurous. When we arrive at our destination at the end of one of these passages, however, we’re the first to look along the shoreline for a luxury marina or hotel with a bar by the pool!
 
The same could be said of our motorbike trip across Morocco; riding over the Atlas Mountains in drifting snow and then halfway across the country to the Sahara Desert, where we stayed in a luxury tent camp! We find a balance that works well for us.
 
Madagascar
You have 64K followers on Instagram. How does that feel? Do you know any of these personally? To what extent do you feel yourselves to be community leaders and what does that mean to you?
We actually have less followers on Instagram compared to our other social media accounts. We do know some of them personally, either from our personal lives or because we’ve met on our travels. It can be a little surreal at times that so many people are watching snapshots of your life, but we certainly don’t consider ourselves to be leaders of anything.
 
We’re just grateful because we got featured in some mainstream media that led to having more readers and social media followers. Together with my husband, we have had previous media features in major publications like  DailyMail UK, NYTimes, Forbes.comYahoo Travel, TIME.com and Business Insider (links to the article features).
 
Our channels below:
 
Two Monkeys Travel: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter
MrandMrsHowe.com: Facebook, Twitter, Youtube Channel
Travel Blog: twomonkeystravelgroup.com
Sailing & Lifestyle Blog: mrandmrshowe.com
 
 
Estonia
So, from all these travel experiences, which two have had the biggest impact on you as a person and why?
Our 16-day trip to Antarctica was probably the biggest of all. Because it reminded me that impossible dreams really can come true!
 
Another adventure of equal importance to us was hitchhiking the length of the Carretera Austral in Patagonia, Chile in 2014. It was poorly planned and we were ill-prepared in some ways, but that made it all the more amazing!
 
Then eventually returning on 2017 driving the long route of Patagonia de Argentina but this time, we were the ones picking up hitchhikers.
Do you still think you'll be travelling this much in 10 years? Why or why not?
We’ll still be travelling, but perhaps the way we travel will have changed. We aim to have built our own house and a retreat farm and resort before then, so that would definitely affect how we move around.
Guatemala
Finally, our signature question - if you could invite any 4 people from any period in human history to dinner, who would you invite and why?
Gautama Buddha and Confucius - been always inspired about their wisdom and teachings!

Genghis Khan and Christopher Columbus - I'm interested in their conquests and what they have contributed to world history and discovery.
Kazakhstan
The photos in this interview are from Kach's personal collection and we thank her for sharing her images with us here at NomadMania!

Given December is coming along with its Christmasy vibe, we will only have one newsletter next month, on December 12, in which we hope to give you some more wanderlust!
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