Sunday, February 7, 2010

Week in Mazar, part I

It's been a long week here in Mazar i Sharif, in the north of Afghanistan about an hour's drive from the Uzbek border.  Mike, Jo and I came up for various reasons, but for me it was a chance to see how a field office runs, get out to meet some businesses, get out to meet some international buyers and hear out their questions and concerns.  Mazar is a more permissive environment than Kabul, without all the high-value and high-profile governmental targets.  As a result, you can see the industry growing fast as soon as you leave the airport.  The road is choked with congestion notable for its difference from the gridlock in Kabul--here, the traffic is more heavy trucks, more people moving about, and exponentially fewer armored Land Cruisers blasting through town on their merry old way.  Construction is everywhere, in the center of city and on the edges.  Fueling stations are in keen competition, with one industrious owner covering his in gold foil in a cutthroat business maneuver.

Yes, the kitsch in Afghanistan puts Hungary's to shame.  Commanders, or warlords if you prefer, put statues of roaring lions on top of their poppy palaces while the holiest site in the city, the blue mosque, final resting place of Imam Ali, has a bright red billboard announcing its name defiantly positioned on top of the already notable bright aquamarine dome--already the highest point in the city.  At nighttime the mosque gets lit like Vegas with flashing lights competing with flocks of white pigeons.

The white pigeons--known as "doves" when they don't come by the ten thousand, are a famous story to themselves.  Any pigeon that makes its way to the shrine will turn white within three days.  There's not a single dark colored pigeon on the grounds--the very few that have occasionally dark feathers simply haven't been here for three days yet.  The magic doesn't extend to the ducks though, which are dark gray.

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It's been a long week now because Mazar sits at the shoulder of the Hindu Kush, with the flat Uzbek plain stretching from here to the north pole.  Winter weather sweeps in unabated and runs headlong into the mountains, sitting and dumping rain for days on end while it decides what to do.  At least there's no snow, which would be stunningly beautiful, but which would also render the rutted mud 'roads' useless to wheeled travel.  And I don't have a donkey.

The real lockdown has come from snow in Kabul--no flights have landed in the last several days, and it's supposed to snow at least through tomorrow.  Leaves more time to enjoy the relative freedom of movement, the ability to actually walk to dinner once in a while.

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