The Taxis of Kabul

Derek Afghanistan, Travel Tales 29 Comments


The fact that Kabul lacks anything resembling efficient planning and the fact that street signs are as common as synagogues (there is one!), naturally leads one to believe that tackling this metropolis by foot would be a foolish endeavor. Certainly it would be much easier to jump into one of the 40,000 registered taxis driving around the city, pay the ridiculously cheap fare and enjoy a comfortable ride to your next destination.

However, as any visitor to Kabul quickly discovers, one’s feet, despite the never-ending maze of nameless roads and the abundance of heavily-armed citizens, are infinitely more reliable than any local taxi you’ll find.

I learned this lesson during my first day in the city, after being forced to ride in four different taxis. The problem was that I didn’t use four different taxis to reach four different destinations. Instead, I needed the four taxis just to reach one single destination.

When I had walked out of my hotel (read this and if you’ve ever stayed in a nastier hotel, I’d love to know about it!) in the Zar Nagar section of town, I wanted to pay a visit to the Iranian Embassy. (Even though US citizens are not able to obtain independent travel visas to Iran, I figured I would give it a try anyway.) Assuming that a taxi would offer the most direct, and safest, journey across this mysterious city, I flagged down the first one I saw.

NOT AS EASY AS I THOUGHT

I jumped in and gave the driver my destination, which the manager at my hotel had written down in Persian on a scrap of paper. The driver read the note, pointed off into the distance and nodded his head several times. He then drove me three blocks down the road, stopped the vehicle, turned around, shrugged his shoulders and said “Sorry!”. When I repeated the words “Iran Embassy”, he just shrugged his shoulders one more time.

A bit confused, I climbed out of the taxi and immediately hailed another one. But this time, before I opened the door, I asked the driver, “Iran Embassy?”. He confidently repeated the words several times and invited me to sit in the front passenger seat. Then, as we approached a traffic light two minutes later, the driver stopped the car and asked me whether he should go straight, turn left or turn right at the intersection.

My reply was a blank stare, which led the driver straight into a bout of hysterical laughter. And when he finally regained his composure, he simply threw his arms up in the air and, with a smile on his face, informed me, “You go bye bye”.

You see where this is going I’m sure.

It took me forty minutes to hail another taxi, and after being driven around in circles for twenty more minutes, I found myself being politely kicked out once again.

Finally, the fourth taxi of the day was able to take me the rest of the way to the Iranian Embassy, dropping me off exactly 90 minutes after I had left my hotel. It felt as if I had traveled across the entire country, but I later discovered that the Embassy was only 2 miles away from my hotel.

Unfortunately, my visit to the Iranian Embassy didn’t last long at all. As I crossed the street and walked toward the entrance, I stumbled straight into a group of over 500 Afghanis, all trying to storm the front door of the building despite being beaten with long wooden sticks by a handful of armed guards. Not wanting to get caught up in whatever situation was taking place, I quickly jogged off in the opposite direction.

A DECISION TO MAKE

Confused, lost and a bit on edge, I seriously considered jumping into another taxi. But after the first driver that approached me shook his head when I mentioned the name of my hotel, I decided to just start walking instead. And off I went, despite having no idea where I was going.

However, it should come as no surprise that what turned out to be a six hour walk back to Zar Nagar proved to be the most rewarding and educational day of my visit to Afghanistan. During my adventure, I met a team of workers responsible for clearing the mine fields in the heart of the city, a group of children who insisted on holding my hand and guiding me around their neighborhood, the famous ‘King Fixer of Kabul’ Wais Faizi, a woman who had started one of Kabul’s first internet cafes and a friendly travel agent who was determined to grow his business despite having lost his sight and one of his legs in a bomb explosion.

Let me just say that when I finally walked back into my hotel room that evening, I was a different person from the one who had hailed that first taxi almost nine hours earlier.

THE TAXI EXPLANATION

The following morning, as I ate a breakfast of watery spinach and mushy peas with bread, the owner of the restaurant came over and sat down next to me. We had a good conversation, especially when he explained why my taxi experience was the most common kind of taxi experience in Kabul.

Apparently, the need for taxis was quite non-existent during the days when the Taliban controlled the city as people were unable to move around too freely. When the Taliban left Kabul, taxis were suddenly in high demand as the city began to grow rapidly and its citizens now had places they needed to be taken to.

And so, just like that, hundreds of taxis appeared out of nowhere.

The only problem was that none of the drivers had any experience given the earlier absence of taxis and as a result, nobody had any clue how to get anywhere. In addition, new businesses, schools, hospitals and more were popping up all the time and there simply was no way for the taxi drivers to know the exact location of the growing list of potential destinations. Throw in the changing of street names, frequent road closures and a population that doesn’t speak a common language, and its quite understandable that taxi driver’s spend much of their time shrugging their shoulders and asking their passengers for directions.

Needless to say, during the remainder of my stay in Kabul, I walked everywhere. Every day involved getting lost, several times at least, but by the end of my visit, it seemed that I had literally explored every single street, lane and alley. And all of that walking led to even more unforgettable interactions with an endless stream of local Kabulis, which is exactly what I hoped for when I made the decision to visit Afghanistan in the first place.

Of course, when I needed to get to the airport on my final day in order to catch my flight to Delhi, I did decide to give the Kabuli taxi system one last chance. After all, I didn’t feel too enthusiastic about walking the 16 miles with my backpack on.

Yet despite what I considered to be a very clear impression of an airplane – with my arms spread out wide, my back hunched over and airplane noises shooting out from my mouth – and despite hearing “Ah-ha!”, “Yes!” and “Okay!” several different times, I ended up being dropped off on three different street corners once again. Not one taxi driver knew how to get to the only International Airport in Kabul.

Luckily, just as I began calculating how fast I would need to run in order to reach the airport in time to catch my flight, another friendly local noticed me stranded on the side of the road and offered me a ride in his beat up SUV.

Photo: Kabul with mountains

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Comments 29

  1. Shamim

    I’ve caught dozens of taxis in Afghanistan and never had a problem getting to my destination. Could the issue be, perhaps, that you don’t speak the local language? Imagine someone coming to America with no English and trying to catch a taxi through hand signals – it’s unlikely they’d arrive at their destination either. Wish you all the best.

  2. Daniel

    hey Earl. I live in Toronto, Canada, origianlly from Russia. I just stumbled across your blog a month ago and been reading stories on your visit to North Korea, Aghanistan, that bullet found in your pocket by US customs and more. All incredible stories. I was away myself in 2012 for 10 months in South Pacific from Easter Island to Australia to Tahiti, and I thought that after coming back I would get traveling out of my system, would settle down, and get a family (I will be 34 in a month). How wrong I was. I just opened a pandora box that will never be closed. These days I will work on a “donwpayment” for traveling as a cushion fund and I will go in a year or two to lead a lifesytle of self-support while traveling. Your “42 ways of making money while traveling” post was very insiping. My questions for you are,

    1. As an American, you could still get a visa to North Korea, Pakistan and Afghanistan?
    I thought that would be a no-no to Americans.
    2. I am jewish. I lived in Israel between Russia and Canada for a while. So I have Israeli as well as Canadian passport. I think you mentioned being jewish in one of your posts (I may be making this up). But as a jew, what would you say traveling to Pakistan and Afghanistan, or even other more firendly Middle Eastrn countries is like? I am thinking as long as I present Canadian passport (with no Israeli stamp), I am ok. But part of me thinks they will check my background, somehow find out I lived in Israel before, and I will get in trouble..:). Did this worry you when you decided to travel to Middle East countries, especially to Aghanistan and Pakistan?

    thanks,
    Daniel.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Daniel – Thanks for the comment and you really don’t have much to worry about. I am Jewish as well and have never had a problem, although in some places, I don’t exactly go around telling everyone my religion of course. As for visas, it’s all quite easy to get those for N. Korea (you do need to be on an organized tour though as you can’t travel independently here at all), Pakistan and Afghanistan, although Pakistan sometimes stops issuing tourist visas in general depending on the current situation.

      And if you just travel with your Canadian passport, you’ll be all set. I’ve never had anyone at any border or any police or anything like that ever ask me about my background and nobody has ever done a full check. Again, when in certain places, it might be best to tell locals who ask that you are a different religion but overall, it’s not something to worry about.

  3. Jenna

    Wow, Earl, I am seriously impressed! I’ve been dying to visit Afganistan for the last five years or so, it is definitely number one on my bucket list. This is the first time I’ve read about someone visiting on their own, just for the heck of it. I was wondering, based on your experience, what do you think it would be like for a woman travelling there? Would it be safe if I kept my head covered?

    Thanks,
    Jenna

    1. Earl

      Hey Jenna – It’s tough to say. In Pakistan, I met a few solo female travelers and they didn’t have any problems at all. In fact, they were allowed to do things that local women weren’t allowed to do because they were given a status of “honorary men”. Of course that’s a strange thing but it did give them access to mosques, ceremonies, sights, etc. that they otherwise would not have been able to visit.

      As for Afghanistan, it’s not really a tourist-friendly country and I can only imagine that a solo female would find it to be quite challenging. There probably won’t be much interaction with locals (you’ll rarely see women around town who are not covered up in a burqa) simply because they’re not used to travelers. It’s probably just as safe for a female as for a male as long as you respect local customs but it won’t be the easiest place to visit.

  4. Jason

    Earl, great story, it amazing what gets thrown infront of you on what should be just another day. I love the Afghani people, and had a chance to meet several of them (refugeees) in the Northern Provices of Pakistan during a visit in 1995. At the time there was no land crossings open into Afghanistan for foreigners. Im curious as to when you were there. You mentioned flying out, but did you fly in as well. Ive only met one other person in all my travels that has been to Afghanistan, so Im jealous of you.

    1. Earl

      Hey Jason – I actually crossed overland into Afghanistan, through the Khyber Pass. It was a bit of a challenge as I had to secure a couple of permits to travel through the tribal regions and hire an armed guard (who spent the entire 4-hour drive to the border trying to convince me to pay him 100 rupees for a chance to shoot his gun into the mountains) to escort me from Peshawar. But that day was definitely one of the major highlights of my 11 years of traveling so far.

      Did you visit the region for work or while traveling? I’m sure you must have seen quite a different version of the Northern Provinces back in 1995.

      And the Afghanis and Pakistanis that I’ve met over in that region have been some of the warmest people I’ve encountered as well, something that seems so incredible given the constant hardships they’ve been facing. A lot of lessons to be learned there.

      1. Jason

        Earl, we also required permits to travel through the tribal area’s during 95. We were traveling overland from Europe to Australia. It’s a shame you didn’t get your Iranian visa, as it was a great place to visit. The people of Iran made us feel like rock stars the whole time we were there. We really enjoyed our time there, also great people.

        1. Earl

          Hey Jason – I tried hard to get an Iranian visa, visiting 3 consulates in Pakistan but of course without success. I’ll get there one day…all of my friends who have visited have mentioned the same thing as you did – that the Iranian people are AMAZING!

  5. Nate

    Hey Earl – wow, definitely quite a story! I have to be 100% honest and say that I’d be a bit skittish in going to Afghanistan, especially with the rise in violence and what seems like the strong return of the Taliban. Did you get any insight into any humanitarian or aid efforts going on in the region? I absolutely love the book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen. That guy is a frickin’ saint and an incredibly amazing man. His work started in Pakistan building schools for children (especially to educate girls), but I know he has also expanded his operations into Afghanistan, but I’m sure it’s in more remote areas of the country.
    .-= Nate´s last blog ..The Power of Intentions =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Nate – That’s a great question and is actually one of the main reasons I went. I had heard so much about the ‘reconstruction’ of Kabul and improvement of living conditions and I wanted to learn exactly what was taking place. Unfortunately, the situation was so much different than any of the stories and media accounts I had read prior to my trip.

      I visited several NGOs and other aid organizations in Kabul and most of them told me themselves that they weren’t able to actually do much as funds were disappearing, their security wasn’t so secure and the lack of organization in the country made it impossible to make any progress. Out of all the projects that I did see in Kabul, I’d say that 80% of them involved the reconstruction of foreign embassies, building stronger walls around Wazir Akhbar Kahn (the wealthy neighborhood of Kabul) and building expensive guesthouses for foreign workers and volunteers to live in.

      I literally didn’t see a single project – humanitarian, construction, etc. – going on in the main part of the city where the majority of Kabulis lived. And the conditions there were terrible, with crumbling buildings, open sewers and most troubling, hundreds of homeless women begging for money while holding their dying children in their laps. To say it was disturbing is an understatement.

      And actually, the reason why I tried to write a light-hearted post about Kabul is because I have a difficult time writing a more serious one after what I witnessed.

      However, people like Greg Moretenson are definitely amazing and I fully believe in his approach to the situation in that region of the world. I haven’t heard too much of his efforts in Afghanistan but I have no doubt that he’ll improve the lives of more people than many of the other organizations currently over there.

  6. agentcikay/ciki

    LOL, great post!! man , i feel for you.

    Was just wondering, One day, in the not too distant future, will u please demo – “with my arms spread out wide, my back hunched over and airplane noises ..”?

    One day if we ever meet eh? LOL (what on earth is an aeroplane noise ?! haha)

    1. Earl

      Hey Ciki – Thanks for the comment! If we ever meet, I will most definitely demonstrate my airplane imitation…that should give me some time to perfect it a little more!

    1. Earl

      Hey Mark – Usually taxis do offer a bit of relief from aimlessly wandering around an unfamiliar city, but in this case, the opposite was definitely true!

    1. Earl

      Hey Moon – I wondered how they could not know about the airport as well. But as soon as I arrived at the airport, I understood. There were two flights each day, mostly full of western businessmen, all of whom probably had their own private drivers. Local Kabulis had no reason to go to the airport and there aren’t exactly too many travelers in the city either, so the airport is simply nowhere near being a common taxi destination!

    1. Earl

      Hey Andi – The frustration was well worth it in the end! And these days I’m always up for getting lost. In fact, if I don’t get lost in a new city, I feel that I’ve not lived up to my exploration potential.

  7. Audrey

    Great story and description. The title alone sounds like you’re entering into a great book. Kabul is a place I’ve long loved to visit. When I worked at RFE/RL in Prague, I became friends with some of the Afghan journalists. Many had left in the 70s and they told me stories of the “old” Kabul. The recent arrivals from Afghanistan would tell stories of the “new” Kabul (post-2002).

    I just heard the news today of the 8 medics shot in Badakhshan in the north of Afghanistan. This is the area that borders the part of Tajikistan where we visited. Although I know these killings were not caused by locals, it is still sad to think of this area that was once a peaceful haven in Afghanistan also becoming hostile and more dangerous.
    .-= Audrey´s last blog ..Panorama of the Week- Pre-Incan Ruins of Kuelap- Peru =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Audrey – I also read about the killings in northern Afghanistan and it’s more than disturbing to see danger spread to a once peaceful place, especially a region that you’ve visited. Even when I read about some incident in Kabul, I immediately start thinking about all of the wonderful people I met there and wondering whether or not they are still smiling or able to go about their daily business in peace. Sometimes I don’t even want to know the answer.

      And what struck me about the “new-Kabul” was that despite all of the construction and growth, the ordinary people were left out (no surprise of course). The central part of the city (the less-modern section), where the majority of people live, still lay in ruins when I was there. Debris from blown out buildings blocked streets, markets were crumbling, roads were still torn up and impassable and people had to deal with endless hardship just to barely survive….

      Yet on the other side of town is where the billions of dollars that we hear about so often, were being used to ‘re-construct’ the city. While there are benefits to these projects of course, it did seem to result in a whole lot of shiny new buildings with large, impenetrable walls which simply allowed a handful of people to live in even more comfort than they already enjoyed.

      In the end, that’s why I went to Afghanistan, to see the situation for myself. And I do hope that you’ll have a chance to visit there one day as I’d love to hear your first-hand perspective on the situation!

    1. Earl

      Hey Anil – Haha…let’s just say I’m happy that nobody apart from a few people walking by on the street saw my airplane impression!

  8. Maria Staal

    Wow, Earl. I had no idea you had travelled to Afganistan. I always thought that was a no-go area.
    Your taxi story is hilarious and moving at the same time. I love the fact that you met up with so many interesting people, because you couldn’t get anywhere by taxi. You’re right to call it an adventure and I am sure it is one that will stick in your mind forever.
    Thanks for sharing this story. 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Maria – I still debate whether or not it was a wise idea to have backpacked into Afghanistan or not, but as soon as the idea came into my head, there was no stopping me! And I will forever remember just about every single minute of my stay in that country. It was just too powerful an experience to forget.

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