Masar e-Sharif is Afghanistan’s third biggest city. It boasts an estimated population of around 1 million people and sits shyly, unknown to most backpackers, in a country less ventured. On my tour of Central Asia, I made sure I got this place on my list. Masar e Sharif is home of the famous Blue Mosque and Shrine of Hazrat Ali and is a city with a vibrant edge, a chilled demeanour and a mass of colours. I witness a green, white and blue sparkle in its winter air. A hat-trick of colours that suit the Don’t Stop Living logo and a Northern Irish football fan.
Getting to Masar e Sharif, Afghanistan
To get to the heart of Afghan culture, ways, history and the current political situation, get yourself booked on a tour. It’s the only proper way to see the country at the moment, that’s just the way things are. I got in touch with Untamed Borders, a company run by a cool English guy whose passion to explore and travel to off the wall spots is the same as mine.
In terms of getting to Masar e Sharif, don’t hop on a bus from Kabul and don’t consider train lines, hitch-hiking or overlanding in a Range Rover. Visiting Afghanistan is best done with a guide. This is far more cool and you get to the core of Afghan culture and make local friends. I know some backpackers just get an Afghanistan visa in Khorog and cross the border to say they’ve been to Afghanistan and back, but although I spent about 4-5 days in the border areas of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Gorno Badakhshan, I made sure I was getting to see the country properly. For the same reason I also didn’t want the easy option of flying in and out of Kabul. After securing an Afghan Visa in Bishkek, I wanted to overland into the country myself.
When you book through Untamed Borders, they will arrange for your guide to meet you in Hayratan, border town on the southern side of the Friendship Bridge to Uzbekistan. You cross your border, get your visa, insurance and documents sorted yourself of course, but the guided tour is brilliant.
As an overland backpacker, Masar e Sharif also offers a fairly accessible, if scrutinous border crossing on the Friendship Bridge. Especially the checks on the Uzbekistan side, as my backpacking buddy Nate Jacobs also found out. Once you arrive in Masar e Sharif, your guides can help you check out the best sights in the city. I stayed at a homestay with a local family here as well as in a city Hotel. Here’s my top 10!
1.The Blue Mosque and Hazrat Ali’s Tomb
Put simply, the tomb of Hazrat Ali is Afghanistan’s most important religious site. It’s a blue tiled tomb bang in the city centre of Masar e Sharif. It’s sensational and has to be the number one sight in this city for me. In fact, this is my number one sight from 2016 so far. I simply was in awe of this complex.
This Mosque is much much more beautiful than any I seen in Iran, Turkey, Iraq or Azerbaijan (amongst other Islamic countries). I checked it out day and night and also listened to the call to prayer.
It is a simply inspiring Mosque and no entry fee. Non muslims cannot enter the actual shrine. Shoes must be removed, you must cover up and if you visit at night, there will be police and army everywhere.
2.Watching Buzkashi at Maydani Stadium
Well – you have to put Buzkashi on your list – this is Afghanistan’s National Sport! I have a full report on this to come, it’s a sport where men on horses chase after a man clinging onto a cow to win!
I had a grandstand seat, entry is 20 Afghanis (about 30 US cents) and the sport is very special here, especially since it flourishes now after being banned during the Taliban regime.
3.White Pigeon World
This mini zoo is a feast for any birdwatchers. But yet, here, a Northern Irish backpacker loved this quirky place. What brought all these pigeons here? Why are they white? Why are they all white?
My guide Noor told me a story that every pigeon that ever flocked to Masar e Sharif has turned white within 6 months. It’s magic. And when you see these white pigeons flocking past the blue mosque in the winter sunshine, you get a good feeling.
Local families have picnics and basque in the winter sun, kids feed the pigeons and local teenagers take selfies with them too. The weird thing is that there is a Mosque in Kabul (the Afghan capital) that has only black pigeons by contrast! That Mosque is called Shahi Do Shamshiva (the King with two swords).
4.Balkh Tourist: Afghanistan Souvenir Shop
I have to admit I enjoy the souvenir hunt in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Transnistria and Nagorno Karabakh. As a tourist in Masar e Sharif, there aren’t a great deal of souvenirs to be found.
I couldn’t find fridge magnets for my Mum, or a postcard for my brother, but at least here in Balkh Tourist I was able to pick up some pristine old school Afghani banknotes, the guy that runs the shop also sells carpets and other souvenirs including coins and jewellery.
5.Abdul Gafur Bookstore: Afghanistan Book Shop
I got to check out an authentic Afghani book store, Noor took me to Abdul Gafur Bookstore on the hunt for postcards and maps. I was able to get an excellent map here for 50 Afghanis, which is less than 50 US cents.
The owner Abdulrahman also posed for photos and was totally friendly. The people of Afghanistan are so calm, relaxed and welcoming despite the bad times the country continues to go through.
6.Eat Mantoo in Sunatala Restaurant
Noor my guide tells me about a great local dish called Mantoo. I had never heard of it before. So we head downtown to an ace local restaurant called Sunatala to try this out.
It’s a gem – it’s Afghanistan’s unknown culinary treat. If you ever get a chance to try it – do it – Afghan beef dumplings, meatballs, beans, delicious sauce and served with salad, sour cream, bread and as much tea as you want to drink. 130 Afghani per person- $2 USD. At first the waiter brought one between Noor and I but as we were scoffing it, he brought another one so we had a full dish each.
Instantly I love it! In this restaurant, they only serve Mantoo so nobody ever needs to look at a menu!
7.Buzkashi Horsemen Statue
Roundabouts all over Masar e Sharif have a statue in the middle of them, including one of the Qoran. On our way into Masar e Sharif, we see a proud Afghanistan flag and a Buzkashi Horsemen statue. It’s nice that a lot of these monuments are well maintained and not affected by the civil war and ongoing political problems within the country.
There is also an excellent mural of the Buzkashi men in the downtown area. We didn’t stop here but I caught a snap as we drove past it.
8.Abshar Shisha Lounge
The idea of having a Saturday night out with the lads in downtown Masar e Sharif was yet another highlight. We got our best Afghan suits on and headed to a place called Abshar Shisha Lounge.
In here we paid 200 Afghani ($3 USD) for the booth including all you can drink tea and the first pack of mint shisha. Incredible night out and apart from the zero alcohol – the lads and I chatted about the same things me and the boys chat about in Bangor, Belfast or Bournemouth – football, business, travel and girls!
9.Sina Football Stadium
I got to watch some live football here in Masar e Sharif but there is a sadness attached to my visit to the Sina Football Stadium.
While I pose for photos with Reza (a former Afghanistan under 19 international) and turn to watch the match, Noor reminds me of the bad times this city has been through.
During the Taliban regime, football was banned and this stadium was used as a slaughterhouse/slaughterfield. Members of the Taliban would line up people and torture and kill them, in front of Afghani people that they forced to come and watch. The stands were used for people watching death and punishment. A hollow feeling sinks in as a striker plants one in the bottom corner. Ouch. Puts life in perspective. I also played football in Afghanistan when we toured the Takht e Rostam Buddhist Monastery in Samangan.
10.Masar e Sharif Bazaars and Street Markets
As a final sight in the city, try and check out the bazaars and street markets. Differently to bazaars in Uzbekistan and Iran which are somewhat scattered, Afghanis seem to organise bazaars into clearly defined sections. There’s a fruit and veg part, there’s a clothes part, there’s a money changing section etc. And it doesn’t get overly chaotic.
I have lots more tales to come from Afghanistan, Gorno Badakhshan and Uzbekistan, hope you enjoyed this one and my story on the town of Balkh, if you want to tour Afghanistan, get in touch with these guys:
Untamed Borders Ltd
FF134, Dean’s Trade Centre, 1st floor, Peshawar Cantt, Pakistan
Phones : +92 (0) 345 9397639, +92 (0) 333 9397639, +92 (0) 345 9400025
Untamed Borders, 12 Harnet Street, Sandwich,
Kent, CT13 9ES, United Kingdom
Phone : +44 (0) 1304 262002
I will add my YouTube videos as soon as I can! I can’t wait!