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Update: Afghanistan

In the 1960's and 70's, tourism in Afghanistan was a much less perilous business. For travelers on the overland route from Europe to Asia, Kabul offered a tantalizing curtain- raiser to such Oriental capitals of hedonism as Goa and Kathmandu. The sex was necessarily furtive—out of deference to local Muslim sensibilities—but the hashish was cheap and easily available. In Afghanistan a few months before September 11, I ran into a middle-aged Australian who said he "did it" with his companion—"smoked hash," he quickly clarified—sitting on top of the tallest Buddha statue at Bamiyan, which, built during the third or fourth century a.d., was 174 feet high. He couldn't recall how he got up there or, more important, how he had gotten down. Everything he saw or did in Afghanistan in those days had passed for him in a happy daze.

The Australian had forgotten about the statues until he heard that they'd been destroyed by the Taliban. And, no, the news hadn't upset him much. He now traveled to Afghanistan as an exporter of carpets, and saw the country with the eyes of a businessman. He was worried about the infrastructure; he didn't care particularly who was in charge, or whether the Taliban were much more oppressive than the country's previous rulers. He was concerned about the hotels, particularly the Inter-Continental in Kabul, where the Taliban required all foreign visitors to stay. The damp walls and surly waiters and non-flushing flush toilets were a poor return for the $100 per night you had to shell out. You got better service, he said, at the flea-infested chaikhanas, or teahouses, he stayed at in the smaller cities.

The Australian was unexpectedly passionate about the need to keep up standards at the Kabul hotel. However ugly its concrete bulk and, at times, uncertain its purpose, the hotel, which was built in the seventies, marked a stage in Afghanistan's long-delayed tryst with modernity. It had an aura that even rival warlords respected during two decades of vicious war, when much of downtown Kabul was damaged. It was no use saying that human needs were minimal in Afghanistan, and that the idea of luxury for many Afghans was a roof, however leaky, over their heads. The country had to attract more foreign visitors like him and join the world economy. There was no other way. He told me that he urged the same message upon the Taliban leaders he met on his business trips.

In a country where you paid children in rags to fill the potholes in the roads, the Australian appeared absurdly incongruous, and I half-wondered if he was a spy. But perhaps the leaders of the Taliban didn't entirely ignore the views of the unsentimental foreign businessmen they encountered. In April of last year, the Taliban announced the reopening of the swimming pool at the Kabul Inter-Continental. This was part of an effort by a few moderate ministers to attract tourists to Afghanistan. It got a fair bit of publicity. I remember seeing a photo in a Pakistani newspaper of young Afghans splashing about in the newly filled pool, trailing long Taliban-style beards in the azure water.

The vigorous Afghans might have seemed inviting to a certain kind of male tourist, who usually lurks on the beaches of Thailand and Sri Lanka, even if they deterred tourists looking for more conventional pleasures. Nevertheless, the reopened pool offered hope: it hinted that the more sensible among the Taliban might yet tire of the austerities of radical Islam and embark upon the pursuit of happiness.


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