Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

Bamiyan, Afghanistan. From the Taliban to the Buddhas

Saturday, October 25th, 2008
Meet the Taliban.

As per usual, most of the fun is getting there. The road from Kabul to Bamiyan in Central Afghanistan has got to be the epitome of this. Take a bunch of guys, stuff them into an old Toyota Van and go riding along a dusty track through the mountains with amazing stark mountains rising out off narrow valleys. Some of the most amazing scenery you are ever going to see anywhere. All the while weaving through upturned Russian tanks, potholes, the occasional mine field, heavily ladened oncoming trucks and the odd military convoy. The sound track to this is nothing less than Indian Bollywood music while the guys in the back clap along while emptying the cigarettes I gave them and refill them with hashish. I don’t need to go to Mars, I’ve been to Afghanistan.

Meet the Buddha, or at least what’s left.

This is also a part of the world where the Russians amongst others have tried and failed to take. Stark reminders of this are in the innumerable green and red flags that dot the roadside. One for each martyr that died in battle. Coming over the pass past another flurry of flags sits an old Russian armored personal carrier surveying the pass. The driver slows, points at the carrier on the hill and says “Taliban…..Taliban…”. A not so subtle reminder of what I am in the middle of.

Minefield Etiquette. White=good, Red=Very,very Bad

This adventure brings me to Bamiyan, one of the oldest and most impressive Buddhist archaeological sites in the world. Well at least it was. Two Buddha statues were carved into the sheer cliff face in the 6th century. One measuring an impressive 55 meters high, the other 38 meters. Unfortunately the same decree that saw a hammer taken to the Kabul Museum I wrote about earlier, also saw the destruction of the Buddha statues in 2001. This of course was was a big job. When a line of tanks failed to do the job, a demolition team was called in from Pakistan to do the job “right”. What’s left is the towering caverns where the statues used to sit leaving only the feet and a pile of rubble to show for what was there. A German archaeological team is currently clearing and cataloging the rubble to evaluate if it’s feasible to re-assemble what must be the worlds biggest jig-saw puzzle. Their job is not made any easier buy the various explosives that are still hidden in the site, some pulled out the day I was there.
Still, the site is worth visiting. A myriad of caves through the cliffs lead to caverns that still bear some of the old Buddhist artwork, albeit with most of it chipped away or covered in Taliban graffiti.
In a sad way you might say this creates a new kind of history all of it’s own.

Landmine Museum, Kabul, Afghanistan

Friday, October 24th, 2008
Snap Quiz; are these (a) children’s toys, or (b) Land mines. If you guessed B, you get to keep your leg.

Here’s a museum only Afghanistan could host.(or possibly Somalia, Sierra Leone, Burma or a few other counties I’ve visited of late)
The Organisation for Mine Clearance & Afghan Rehabilitation (OMAR) have been working for years attempting to clear the many thousands of land mines as well unexploded ordinance (UXO) that litter the country.
The OMAR also host an odd sort of Museum which has many of the dozens of types of land mines and UXO they have cleared on display. A highlight has got to be the Russian made “Butterfly” mines. These plastic mines are normally air dropped and have little kind of wings to float them to the ground. They also rather sadistically come in a range of kid friendly colours making them a kind of bizarro world children’s toy. This has rather sickeningly created missing arms a plenty.

 

70′s Tupperware or anti-tank mine?

Another nice one is the Italian made TC-6 anti tank mine. It looks more like 70′s Tupperware than an explosive device. Definitely not dishwasher safe. Another fun feature of these and some other mines is that they are mostly made of plastic. This makes them difficult to detect with the usual metal detector approach. For these they have specially trained explosive sniffer dogs to find them. Unfortunately they loose the occasional dog when it gets a bit too excited about it’s work.
None the less, the OMAR keep working to clear Afghanistan of the nasties above as well as educate the people to their dangers. Who knows how many lives have been saved by their work. When I asked they were hoping to have the country clear of mines and unexploded ordinance by around 2012. I’m not sure if they have factored in the amount of UXO being dropped on the country as we speak.

Kabul, Afghanistan

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008
19th Century weapons, a long history of war

Ah Kabul, Sunny and warm. Reminds me of home. All except for the ever present heavily armed police, crazy traffic, constant dust, the hum from a myriad of dodgy home made generators lining the streets, the war weary buildings hastily being replaced.

Despite all the bad press of late it’s not all bad news. For the most part the city is peaceful and the people are friendly. And although Kabul is emphatically not being a tourist town, it still has it sights.

Amongst them is Kabul Museum (yes Kabul actually has a museum). That said one of it’s most noticeable features is it’s near emptiness. Decades of war has taken it’s toll on Kabul’s culture scene. First The Museum was ransacked by the Mujaheddin’s in the 90′s and a lot of what was left got a hammer taken to it in Taliban times by the the ironically named Minister for Culture. Apparently they took a disliking to the un-Islamic nature of Afghanistan’s early Buddhist history. None the less, Thanks to the Dutch embassy, a lot of the rubble has been pieced back together and put on display. It should be taken as a success that Kabul has a Museum at all.

Darulaman palace, a little rocket weary

Sitting next to this is Darulaman palace built in the 1920′s. It too has seen better days. It’s war-torn shell stands on a peak which makes it a nice place for a military base. Thus now it is, resplendent in it’s razor wire and gun turrets. Still, the people are forever hospitable and after drinking copious amounts of tea and and chatting with the guards, a short wander around the Palace/military stronghold is made possible.

photos follow.

Feel free to comment below.

Kabul

Kabul Museum.

Darulaman Palace

Another Ill-advised adventure.

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

Next Adventure begins October 2008

The last few years have been a bit of a cavalcade of odd and often ill-advised adventures (Sierra Leone, Somalia, Chernobyl, Burma, Zimbabwe to name a few). All this in the name of seeing if the world is as bad as it’s made out to be. Generally, so far at least, it’s not

This year is no exception.

So here’s this years destinations complete with bad press and dire travel warnings

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Afghanistan

Afghanistan

Destination # 1 – Afghanistan
The one question I get most after “are you nuts?” is “Gee Carl, why don’t you just go to (inset name of high profile American led war)?”. Well, to all those, now is the time to shut up.

For those of you who have been living under a rock the past few decades, Afghanistan is the scene of any number of invasions/civil wars/insurgencies. The past few decades alone have seen a Civil war, then the Russian invasion, then Taliban rule and currently the US led attempt in it’s “War on terrorTM”.


Pakistan

Pakistan

Destination # 2 – Pakistan
When I first booked this ticket a few months ago, there seemed to be a lull in news out of this Central Asian Country. Since then Pakistan has been making the news for all the wrong reasons. Pakistan is also home to the old wild west of the Northwest frontier Provence as well as the Tribal area’s famed as the part of the world it’s guessed Al-Qaeda (including Osama bin Laden) is currently hiding.

If this wasn’t bad enough. It seems the hotel I was going to stay at in Islamabad is having some difficulties. Guess they wont be taking my reservation for a while.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

Destination # 3 – Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka should be famous for it’s beautiful beaches, endless tea plantations and warm tropical climate. Indeed it’s these things that attract over half a million tourists each year.

Unfortunately it is also home to one of the worlds longest running civil wars. For 25 years the Sri Lankan military has been fighting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), commonly known as the Tamil Tigers.

This war has cost anywhere between 70,000 and 338,000 live depending on who you ask.

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As per usual, this whole thing will be played out as it happens right here. Fell free to Sign up to the news letter or leave a comment.

Circumstances beyond my control.

Friday, September 14th, 2007

To the disappointment of some and the relief of others, I’m ending this trip early.
Thus this now puts me back in Sydney in one piece as per usual.
Catch up with those that worry about me at some point.

Alice in wonderland, Carl in Somaliland.

Sunday, September 9th, 2007
Somali roadside litter

Following the collapse of the Somalia government in 1991 and the still continuing civil war, the Northwest region of Somaliland split off, formed it’s own government and established a constitution. This however was never recognised by any other country or the UN. The powers that be have basically been waiting for the day the war ends and everyone makes nice. They have been waiting 16 years so far. That same war left the fledgling unofficial nation of Somaliland with the obvious setbacks of having no recognition, no infrastructure, no financial system and it’s towns destroyed by war. Somaliland has some how managed to come out of all this and thrive at least by east African standards. For the first time on this trip I see a lot of paved roads, reliable electricity, good phone systems and internet. It’s still a poor county but there isn’t the striking levels of poverty you see in even neighboring counties that have a lot more going for them. There seems to be a sort of no-bullshit-lets-just-do-it attitude that prevails. There’s a refreshing lack of bureaucracy and surprisingly little corruption. Overall it’s an African success story

Somalia’s newest citizen

The biggest question I get when about Somaliland (or any part of Somalia for that matter) is, is it safe to go there? Well that’s a debatable point.
On one hand it seems safe enough. The people generally react with curiosity rather than hostility to see a foreigner in their country. The people are proud of the relative security of their un-recognised nation. Even the money changers on the street just sit there with huge piles of cash sitting on blankets with no security whatsoever (this could be because the largest denomination note is only worth about 8 cents US and thus you would need a wheel barrow to make off with any decent amount of booty). As a side note the money changes also provide the handy service of issuing Somali passports (yes i got one, yes I’m now a Somali citizen). In a country with no recognition within another country with no functional government this is one of the few ways for locals to obtain a passport.
On the other hand there is still the element of danger here. (my own government recommends you don’t even fly over this country let alone land here). The locals also insist that you have armed guards if you travel outside the capital, Hargeisa. Whether this is because of real threats of banditry or simply over protectiveness of the few visitors they get I’m not sure. None the less I got myself some very courteous AK47 wielding guards, a bunch of Khat (a leafy plant you chew, a mild amphetamine common to east Africa) and headed off into the country side.

The posse on the beach

The history of war is still very apparent as you travel the country. Mine fields still litter the sides of the roads alongside the remains of bombed out tanks. The tanks are generally left as they were as they are considered war memorials. Besides these attractions, Somaliland is also home to one of the most significant but least visited archaeological sites in east Africa. Lass Geel houses caves with some of the best preserved cave paintings dating back to 9,000 BC. Pre-dating any organised religion, the paintings depict the native nomads of the time worshiping cows decorated in ceremonial robes. Somehow these paining have survived the harsh desert and any number of civil wars intact. I’d have to say this is one of the more impressive sites I’ve come across. Everything is left as it was first discovered in 2002. No steps, no development, no hawkers selling souvenirs. Just me, my guide and guards standing in the caves in the middle of nowhere.
Along with some nice beaches, this is actually a nice place to visit.
See it before everyone else discovers it.

Sierra Leone in a nutshell.

Monday, September 3rd, 2007
Tropical paradise?

It’s an idilic tropical paradise. Well, at least it would be if you overlook the totally decimated infrastructure, the almost total lack of electricity, the roads with potholes big enough to loose a Datsun in (I was in that Datsun at the time) and the crushing level of poverty.
In real estate terms this is is what you call a renovators delight.
From a country where so many war atrocities happened you would expect much more animosity but it just doesn’t seem to be there. Even a few of those i spoke to who lost limbs or had broken bones don’t seem to care all that much. A few I met just sit on the beach, smoke dope and continue on. Anyone else would be forgiven for wanting revenge.

If you’re missing some military hardware, call Freetown

This is of course this is the extra tragedy of these sorts of places. It really has a lot going for it, the beaches are gorgeous and devoid of tourists, it’s warm, the people are friendly and despite it’s recent war torn history and some recent scuffles over the current elections, it’s more or less safe.
Anywhere else in the world and it would be packed with drunken tourists and postcard sellers. Any country with as much mineral and diamond wealth should be crammed with all the trapping of wealth.
So if you’re looking for a tropical getaway that isn’t swamped with tourists, is a little off the beaten track and could sorely do with your fat juicy dollars then Sierra Leone is for you.

Kono, Sierra Leone. Diamonds are who’s best friend exactly?

Saturday, September 1st, 2007
Renovators delight

I’m told the Kono diamond mining district of Sierra Leone was once a party town. The diamond wealth once brought with it streets lined with Mercedes and hookers. A decade of civil war however put paid to all that. Being the most valuable part of the country, this is the area that saw the most fighting. I’d like to say the burned out homes like the one pictured is the exception but unfortunately in the old town they are more the rule. None the less the town has been rebuild enough at least for the diamond mining to continue

Most of these photo’s are taken in an area still known as “little Lebanon”. Before the war, Kono was home to a lot of immigrant Lebanese miners. Most of them have gone now and taken their falafel with them. When war broke out, they mostly retreated to their safer and less war-torn homeland of Lebanon.
I’m not going to comment on the sad irony of this.

How da body? Body be fine.

Monday, August 27th, 2007
The pride of Russia in Sierra Leone

Apologies to those expecting a post earlier than this. Internet isn’t exactly easy to come across here.
After 41 hours, 3 flights and a rickety ex-soviet helicopter piloted by even ricketier ex-soviet pilots, I finally make it here, Freetown Sierra Leone. Freetown has one of the worlds largest harbours and unfortunately the airport is on the other side of it to the city. Thus you only have two options to get to the city; the ferry (a couple of hours but safe) or the helicopter (a couple of minutes but a bit more hair raising). Being me, I of course opted for the helicopter. It was one of these same helicopters that crashed a few moths ago killing a good number on board. I’d like to say they’ve have improved since then. Upon landing I could see the pilot waggling the controls and muttering something in Russian. Clearly he was not impressed with the handling of his craft
None the less I’m here in one piece. For those who worry about me I’d say now is the time to stop but the above probably doesn’t inspire confidence. Think I might take the ferry back.

War-torn countries beginning with “S”

Monday, August 20th, 2007

Next adventure begins August 27 2007.
Last year I traveled to some of the worlds more obscure and sometimes foolhardy destinations (Chernobyl kind of freaked people out). Behind this was one rather simple hypothesis. To paraphrase myself:

“The world is not as bad as it’s made out to be, and if it is, I’m perfectly able to handle it”

Some of the more odd reactions to that ill-advised adventure were along the lines of “Gee Carl, Why don’t you just go to Baghdad, or how about (insert name of high profile American led war)”
Yeah well, when has any of this been to anywhere high profile? That said, it does raise some interesting questions. What of all those forgotten war zones politely ignored by the rest of the world? (There have been over 60 armed conflicts since the 90’s) What are they like? For that matter who can even name more than a hand full of them? Even picking a letter of the alphabet to begin with makes a worryingly long list. Clearly I’ve done just that.
Thus I’ll be heading to a few of Africa’s neglected war zones, past and present, to see what they’re really like.
So here they are, they’ve been given a bad rap, dire travel warnings and strangely they all begin with “S”

Photo: Peter Lockyer

Destination #1 – Sierra Leone.
map and Wikipedia article

Now out of its long running civil war, this country is more know for
conflict diamonds than tourism (at least partly due to the Hollywood
movie “Blood Diamond”). Despite its rather nasty history, Sierra Leone is now more or less peaceful. Even right now having its first free elections since the peacekeepers left in 2002.

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Photo: najeeb

Destination #2 – Somaliland
unofficial map and wikipedia article

Don’t bother looking this one up in your old high school jacaranda atlas. Technically it doesn’t exist.
After the 1991 collapse of Somalia, Somaliland declared its independence, set up a government, established a constitution and printed a currency. None of this however was noticed by the rest of the world. As far as anyone is concerned, it is still part of Somalia and unfortunately shares it’s rather bad travel warnings


Photo: US DOD

Destination #3 – Somalia’s Capital, Mogadishu.

Map and Wikipedia article

Here’s where it gets interesting. The topic of the very one sided and occasionally inaccurate move “Black Hawk Down”, Mogadishu has been invaded more times than most can count. Since 1991 there has been over a dozen attempts at peace. All have failed.
Over the the last few years alone this patch of dirt has been fought over by Ethiopia, the TFG, the ICU and any number of Somali Clans


As per usual, this whole thing will be played out as it happens right here. Fell free to Sign up to the news letter or leave a comment.