Read my original nature poems right here!

Read my original nature poems right here!

Why I’m Traveling to Afghanistan in 2024

I’m traveling to Afghanistan in August 2024.


That’s a question I’ve gotten a few times since booking the trip with Against the Compass, but I don’t feel like I’ve articulated my reasons very well. I’m not sure they can be articulated. Why go there?

I’ll try to answer that, if you’re interested in knowing.

There are quotes that live in our hearts. They’re planted by strangers, parents, books, movies, athletes, poets, and great thinkers. I write down lots of quotes as I read. Early in 2024, I started The Gulag Archipelago. Unfortunately my Volume 1 had a misprint and skipped 40 pages, and I got sidetracked with some other books (including a few good books about Afghanistan), so I never made it past the first 150 pages.

BUT, a good friend read it shortly after my attempt, and he read it quick. It’s a powerful read, after all.

He shared a quote that stuck with me. It formed a compass in my heart and mind. It’s possibly my answer to the question: Why visit Afghanistan?

“Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag. Use your memory! Use your memory! It is those bitter seeds alone which might sprout and grow someday.

Look around you—there are people around you. Maybe you will remember one of them all your life and later eat your heart out because you didn’t make use of the opportunity to ask him questions. And the less you talk, the more you’ll hear.”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The Culture

What is the culture of Afghanistan? Well, I’m not entirely sure. The West has filtered its glances at the Middle East (though Afghanistan seems to be much more Asia than the Middle East) through a lens of war and tragedy. But aren’t there individuals there, too, who have stories other than war and strife? I hope so. I’ll go and see.

Frankly, the last 25 years of Afghanistan’s bloody history don’t weigh heavily on me, as a soon-to-be visitor nor as an American. I can’t conjure the wide-eyed fear or pessimism the name Afghanistan excites in people.

Instead, I’m quite curious.

I’m glad I can visit Afghanistan, those mountains, that ancient Silk Road route, the usually off-limits world heritage sites and national parks. Truly, truly, Afghanistan is an adventure like no other.

I want to trek the Wakhan and share meals with yurt dwellers (and that’s on the agenda). I want to see the mosques and tile shops and markets which are sure to be so strange to me, a guy born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. I hope to speak with locals in Kabul, intrigue them by learning a few words in Dari or Pashto, see the world through their eyes, if only for a moment.

…know languages, know countries, know people as Solzhenitsyn wrote. And what a thing to live that quote out! What a thing to learn something truly new, something which cannot be grasped or explained, something that can only be understood by knowing languages, and countries, and people.

The smells and sights and sounds…every sensation of something new…are gifts more precious than dollars and interest. I wrote a book about sensation! And so it is sensation–every moment of newness in a place as strange of Afghanistan–that entices my curiosity.

Perhaps culture is sensation. Aren’t travelers just seeking new sensations? new moments to carry forward for all their lives? These moments recreate who we are and what we become.

Know languages, know countries, know people!

The Mountains of Afghanistan

I have a bucket list of mountains I want to see.

Guess which mountains are #1 on the list?

The Hindu Kush.

The Hindu Kush range is an ancient passage for conquesting empires and Silk Road traders. It’s a 500 mile long mountain range that lives between Pakistan and Afghanistan, even touching a bit of Tajikstan and China. The highest peak in the Hindu Kush is Tirich Mir (25,230 feet / 7,690 meters), in Pakistan close to the Afghan border.

There are a few stories about how the Hindu Kush got its name. Some say Hindu Kush translates to “Hindu Killer,” noting the bloody slave trade which lead to the deaths of multitudes of Hindu slaves being transported across the harsh mountains. Others, with some finger-wagging at the seemingly fantastical explanation of “Hindu Killer” say that Hindu Kush actually translates to “mountains of India” and/or “sparkling snows of India.” However, this article cites a primary source which concludes the more curious (and brutal) history of the mountains: “Hindu Killer” is the correct origin and meaning of the name.

These towering mountains are desolate, remote–it’s even said that the Wakhi people of the Wakhan corridor knew little about the long wars ravaging their country for years, because they’re so far isolated.

In short, I can’t explain it

I just re-read that short explanation for my reasons for visiting Afghanistan, and it doesn’t really capture the wide-eyed awe I feel. It feels insufficient: culture and mountains? The United States has those…well, it’s got mountains at least. And why does Afghan culture appeal to me? It’s not exactly romantic and charming. It has a heavy scent of brutality–from the mountains down into the cities and towns. Has anyone reading this ever said “Let’s go get Afghan food”? Unlikely.

I don’t mean to poke fun or belittle this country I want to visit, to see, to experience.

It just seems so far removed from my reality.

I can sum it all up as mountains. Or culture. Or something massively different.

Or perhaps I cannot quite sum it up at all.

I’ll post some photos of Afghanistan here when I return. Maybe that will help me untie this mystery of curiosity and explain myself. Though I think it’s one of those if you know, you know feelings.

Can I leave it at that?

George Callahan is the creator of Pine Tree Poet. He is an author of fantasy stories and an adventure poet. He prefers mountains and pine trees to most other things, and usually takes his dog Cowboy along for the ride.

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