Several books on Afghanistan mention that this country is the only Asian country without train tracks. Crap. The border crossing with Uzbekistan, a simple bridge across the Oxus, or Amur Dariya as it is now called, some 60 kilometers from Mazar has a train line and is often used to ship goods in from the country’s northern neighbor. True, the train tracks, although they fan out immensely, only reach several hundred meters inland.
In the morning, we drove down to this bridge, spanning the legendary river Alexander the Great crossed on inflated goat skins, just to see and touch the river. Briefly, we tried to get into Uzbekistan, but without much luck. We’re told that obtaining a visa in Mazar takes some six weeks.
The road from Mazar to Termez, in Uzbekistan, first takes you due east, before going straight up north. At first, you travel parallel to the Hindu Kush, but when you go north, the steppes slowly turn into semi arid desert, before turning into real desert, loads of sand everywhere.
As on the last stretch before Mazar, at places we could see kids seemingly filling holes in the road with either dirt or sand. The idea is to toss some money at them for making the road easier to drive on. If they weren’t earning money, they were playing on or around the many tanks still scattered in the countryside.
After marveling at the concrete slabs of Termez in the distance and the Oxus at our feet, we drove back to Mazar to continue to Balkh, ‘mother of cities’, which was trashed by the greatest conqueror of all, Chinggis Khan. Not much remains except some nice and some less nice ruins, one of which are the remains of a nine-domed mosque which was built in honor of a strange Mazari who had managed to walk to Mecca and back. Seven times.
Also, just outside Balkh, we bumped into, literally, the Uzbekistan (or was it Turkmenistan?) pipeline going through Afghanistan. The thing is rather small, and open for everyone to see and dismantle.
After that, it was off to the mosque in Mazar, to get a glimpse of it before the crowds would storm in the next day.
We went back twice, before and after dinner. Expecting a crowd on new year’s eve, we actually found a rather quiet mosque, access being denied to all but a few students. Azif, quite the talker, managed to get us in. First onto the main grounds, and then even into the mosque.
His trick, which he repeated several times, went something like that he was guiding two foreigners, one Iranian and one Belgian and that they really needed to see what was going on and, as two of the very few foreigners in Mazar, should get a special treatment. Every single time, he managed to get us past the guards.
Since it wasn’t always that easy, he would often comment that security was good in Mazar. I somehow figured that, considering he DID get us through, security wasn’t all that good.