First Impression Of Kabul: 'Much More Mellow' Than Baghdad

All Things Considered producer Graham Smith arrived in Kabul over the weekend. He's there with NPR Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman and NPR video producer David Gilkey. They'll be in Afghanistan about five weeks and are set to spend part of the time embedded with U.S. forces in southern Afghanistan.


This photo, taken in February, captures a typical traffic day in central Kabul. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

While there, the three will be sending us their thoughts, observations and photos. Here are some of Graham's initial impressions of Kabul. He starts with the view as he flew in and some comparisons to Baghdad, where he has also reported from in recent years:

We took an extra loop over the city because there was a plane on the runway. The city is totally ringed by mountains, so it was nice to look at. The farms around town have those beautiful terracing steps. Looked very peaceful from above.

Kabul airport is nothing like Baghdad. In fact, there's not much about this place that reminds me of Iraq — aside from the Kalashnikovs everywhere. But things aren't nearly so militarized, and in general it just seems much more mellow than Bagdhad when I was last there in early '08.

Where Baghdad International with its tragic Icarus statue is a hardened military base, this was more like a post-soviet Manchester. Plus a bunch of guys hustling to help with the bags. Sure, there were UN helicopters and a bunch of aged Russian gunships around, but not an American soldier in sight.

Wonderfully present though was our local "fixer" N (name withheld for his safety). He's a medical doctor who's worked for NPR's various correspondents for years and he's amazing. Huge smiles as he greeted us and got us through the hassles with paperwork and bags. He and David laughed and caught up as he walked us out to the Toyota truck that'll be our chariot. Not an armored car, but these Japanese 4x4s have been the transport of choice for decades and they can handle the incredibly rotten roads as well as anything.

We took our bags to the Gandamack — a lodge and oasis here run by an expat Brit named Peter Jouvenal and his Afghan wife. Peter used to be a cameraman, and once filmed an interview with Osama bin Laden. They greeted us in a grassy courtyard with smiles — especially for David, who has stayed here before. Peter's little girl — maybe 3 years old — clung to his knee, wanting to drag him off on an adventure. Our rooms were set for a couple of days with an invitation to stay longer if need be, "You can stay a year — two years if you like," said the manager Fayez with a smile.

Having dropped off our bags, we wanted to take a drive around the city to get a sense for it, and to get some cellphone credits. N. said it was safe, but I was still a bit nervous. You don't want to stay in any one place too long.

The truck, I might mention, has the steering wheel on the right. Many of the cars here do, but about as many are on the other side. People drive on the right side, mostly. And go round roundabouts counter clockwise, mostly. You get the sense that it's a mash of leftover vehicles and laws from the Brits and Russians and everyone else who's fought over this place. With a lot of improvisation thrown in.

We stopped and shopped briefly near Chicken Street — the famous market. Bit of a run-down alley, but it had charm. Apparently some western folks really avoid it right now, but because of that, it's not a big target. Anyhow, it was fine and we got what we needed, had decent interactions and lots of smiles, and got back to the car safely. People on the street don't stare but seem curious. Very few hard looks.

When I was in Baghdad the first time, in spring of 07, it was theoretically like Afghanistan today: pre-surge. But back there, back then, there were bombs every day. Multiple ones. And gunfire and pairs of Blackhawk helicopters swooping thunderously overhead and truckloads of armed men speeding around who you knew you had to make way for and quick. Here, even when we did see a couple truckloads of police, they participated in the halting flow of traffic and yielded to us instead of pointing guns and shouting us out of the way.

While there weren't big groups of them, almost every block seemed to have a cop or soldier of some stripe. Some in white uniforms, some in brown or green fatigues. They made me feel safer instead of threatened.

Ranging around town, we saw crowded diesel and dust choked streets and lots of merchants selling fruits and vegetables, lots of sunglasses, kids on the corner hawking scratch cards and maps, a whole street full of butcher shops with lamb and cow carcasses hanging down, bakeries displaying wonderful flattened ribbed breads that we stopped for and gulped down, lots of people on bikes and lots of little kids doing the windshield washing shake down. Incredibly dangerous, the way they were running next to us in the middle of traffic.

As the sun started to drop to the mountaintops and the light became warmer in the dust, we drove up to the top of the mountain/hill in the middle of town — a hill described in Ghost Wars as the place little Ahmed Shah Massood played war with his friends. It's gorgeous — a rocky bare peak that rises out of sprawling concrete houses. To get up, we drove an impossibly deteriorated road past huge mansions that are apparently being built for the sons and friends of warlords with poppy heroin money. Up there was the only wreck of a Soviet vehicle I've seen so far — a hollowed out APC. And there were a couple teenage boys — looking out over their city.

Back at the lodge, we sipped gin and tonics in the courtyard and talked with N. about his country and what's going on. The elections, the war, and his upcoming fellowship in the states. We were joined by colleagues from an Arab news agency and had a nice supper talking about the state of play and what we hope to get from the embeds.

Not so much sleep last night — bed at 1:00 and up at 5:00. Hoping that'll change for at least a night before we go to the field. At least the shower is hot and strong. Just keep your lips sealed unless you want some of the local gastrointestinal charm.

Note from Mark: In 2002 I opened a bureau of sorts for USA TODAY at the "original" Gandamack Lodge in Kabul. Jouvenal was then using what was said to be a home and attached buildings that once belonged to the family of one of bin Laden's wives. It was, as Graham says about the current Gandamack, a European-style B&B in the heart of Kabul — staffed by some of the kindest and most attentive folks imaginable.

Book lovers might be interested to know that the lodge takes its name and some of its inspiration from the Flashman Papers, an entertaining series of books by the late George MacDonald Fraser. The first book in the series, Flashman, is a fictional (but quite historically accurate in many ways) account of the retreat from Kabul by British forces in 1842 and their last stand at Gandamack, Afghanistan. If you like your "heroes" to be rascals, Harry Flashman is a character you may want to check out.



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