I’ve been busting to get some stuff on Afghanistan written and there will be a load more posts to come from my adventures to places like Tashkurgan, Masar e Sharif, Balkh, Samangan and Hayratan. I’d love it if you can all read this article, like it, share it and inspire more backpackers to venture to more remote spots like Afghanistan. If you’re in doubt of the beauty of this country, this photo below was my first glimpse of Afghanistan as I backpacked my way to Khorog in Gorno Badakhshan and later to the Friendship Bridge border crossing in Uzbekistan.
So on my ongoing “reality show” tour of the Stans region of Central Asia, Afghanistan was next up and this is still one of the least touristic countries in the world. I was pretty excited ahead of my trip to Afghanistan and after sourcing my visa in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan I was ready to plan my route in!
Getting to Balkh, 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 and you want to stay safe, meet the locals and see the best known touristic sites in the country. So 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 Balkh, you’ll be coming here with your guide, don’t hop on a bus from Kabul or Masar e Sharif, and don’t consider train lines, hitch-hiking or overlanding in a Range Rover!! No no no! 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 – the easy option if you want to “tick off a country”. But although I spent about 4-5 days in the Afghanistan border areas of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Gorno Badakhshan, I made sure I was getting to see the country properly with local Afghan people showing me the sights. For the same reason I also didn’t want the easier option of flying in and out of Kabul, I like to cross borders on foot. So after securing an Afghan Visa in Bishkek, I wanted to overland into the country myself. Once you have the tour sorted, the logistics work themselves out. I ended up arriving into Afghanistan via the Friendship Bridge to Hayratan.
I was driven to Balkh by Sakhi and my guide Noor and his friend Reza. From the border town of Hayratan, I started off in the city of Masar e Sharif and it became my base for these side trips. The first of the side trips was Balkh. If you’re thinking of going to Afghanistan, please get in touch with Untamed Borders, I’ll mention them a lot more and write about some brilliant tours. So in short – getting to Balkh on public transport isn’t an option for tourists at the time of writing – go with a local guide please!
My guide was Noor and my driver was Sakhi and we toured a load of the best sights in the northern part of country. One of the first ports of call was the town of Balkh. Backpacking in Afghanistan hasn’t taken off completely yet, most tourists unaware of the key sights, how to get a visa, how to cross the border etc. So with this in mind, Balkh came as a huge surprise and I loved my time in this town. Not all of the key sights are in the city centre by the way, so you’ll need a driver and you’ll need to be on a tour of course. Backpacking it alone in Balkh is not really recommended, so I have to stress that. Go on a tour and check out these epic sights. Balkh is the name of the city, but also the province. The city of Balkh is quite small and houses around 77,000 people, check these top 10 sights out.
1.Haji Piada’s Tomb (No Gonbad)
Here in the wilderness is a lonely tombstone for Haji Piada also known as No Gonbad. It’s a green coloured tomb out in the countryside near Balkh. You’re killing two birds in one stone here as the same location houses ancient Zoroastran ruins.
2.Home of Zoroastrianism
If you’re unaware of Zoroastrianism, then you’re in the same boat I was before I went backpacking. However in countries like Iran, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan I have now seen many Zoroastrian sites, notably in Kerman and Yazd.
But the cool thing about Balkh in Afghanistan is that this is the home and birthplace of Zoroastrianism. It is here that you can see the ruins of a Zoroastrian building. The religion is one of the oldest in the world and its ideals revolve around water and fire and some holy acts. The Zoroastrian purpose of life is”be among those who renew the world…to make the world progress towards perfection”. The building here has leaves on it, a symbol of nature though it was later taken over and turned into a Mosque.
The ruins have been covered and protected and there is no entry fee, information booklets or souvenir shop as yet. But the guided tour from Noor is perfect. The guy that started the religion was called Zoroaster.
3.Bactria: Alexander the Great’s Lost City Walls
Seeing these magnificent walls is a pure fire highlight, this place merits a post of its own and may well do when I’m back online properly. Modern day Balkh was once known as Bactria. This was in the days when Alexander the Great ruled the roost here.
He built an incredible city inside walls, which still exists. You can see the outline of the walls and scale them. Again, Noor, Reza and my driver Sakhi took me out here. Alexander the Great also lived here in the city and married Roxana of Bactria after killing the king of Balkh. These days, locals ride horses in the area which is a completely “epic lost city in the desert” feel to it, though it’s only a few minutes drive from Balkh City itself.
4.Rabia Balkhi’s Shrine
Afghanistan’s legendary female poet Rabia Balkhi has a moving tribute here in downtown Balkh. It’s a shrine and a tomb in the central park in front of Afghanistan’s Oldest Mosque.
I liked the way there was a sign in English here – hopefully more places like this will introduce English and the country will eventually become more touristic, as right now, it could do with the money and more importantly a changed opinion in the media. Too many people have negative things to say about Afghanistan without actually having been there.
Rabia Balkhi’s story is a sad one as she killed herself after falling in love with a slave of her brothers. Her brother didn’t like it and imprisoned here. She wrote poems in blood until her death and her grave remains in good position here in the central park in Balkh.
5.Khwaja Parsa Mosque
If you want to see the oldest Mosque in Afghanistan, then you’re in for a treat here. The Khwaja Parsa Mosque sits prominently as the town’s centre piece and dates back to the 9th Century. Around it some tombs of important figures in both Islamic and Afghan history. The tiling is stunning and the Mosque remains busy day by day. I caught a lunchtime call to prayer on my visit.
There is some sadness with the Khwaja Parsa Mosque and Shrine however as during the conflicts in this country, parts of the exterior and tiling have collapsed and been destroyed. Funds and financial aid have arrived to help rebuild parts of the Mosque so it’s looking well.
6.Baba QoO Mastan’s Grave
The Balkh region of Afghanistan is notoriously famous for the old “hashish”, cannabis, Balkh offers Asia what Amsterdam and Christiania offer to Europe. A hero figure in Hash history, Baba QoO Mastan is buried here. You can check out his grave.
7.Khwaja Parsa Gate
The Khwaja Parsa Gate is actually the original front entrance to the Mosque of the same name, but it’s situated across the park from the Khwaja Parsa Mosque.
During moments of violence and gunfire in Balkh, sadly the mosaics and blue tiling were destroyed and now you can see the remains of the Gate. Again, funding has helped clear the place up and it’s all part of history now.
On the other side of the road from Baba QoO Mastan’s Grave, there is a fantastic viewpoint over the current city of Balkh. It also means climbing up more of the walls of Alexander the Great’s city!
9.Tomb of Famous Scholar Mullah Mohammad Jon
At the entrance to the city, we saw the tomb of the famous Scholar Mullah Mohammad Jon in an area also used for agriculture. This is also at the viewpoint on the walls and opposite Baba QoO Mastan’s grave.
10.Home of Rumi, the Poet
While backpacking in Balkh, my guide Noor also tells me about Rumi the famous poet who was from Balkh. We don’t actually visit his former home but it finishes off a really classic top 10 sights in Balkh. We also walked through the central park and ate some corn we bought from a street vendor.
Be Discreet in Balkh, Afghanistan
The only real thing to add here is you still need to be discreet when taking photos. Locals can still feel that those who take photos can be foreign spies, but you’ll be with Noor most of the time and he will keep you right! On our trip in and out of Balkh, there was a checkpoint and at various points, there were armoured trucks and an army presence.
In Masar e Sharif, I also ate Mantoo, smoked Shisha and watched Buzkashi while backpacking in Afghanistan! I’m buzzing writing about this and have lots more tales to come from Afghanistan, Gorno Badakhshan, the Republic of Karakalpakstan and Uzbekistan, hope you enjoyed this one, 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
Email: [email protected]
I will add my YouTube videos as soon as I can! I can’t wait!
17 thoughts on “Backpacking in Afghanistan: Touring the Ancient City of Balkh, Top 10 Sights”
Freddie Mercury was actually a Zoroastrianist! Probably the most famous one of all. I thought the religion originated out of India, but you learn something new every day I suppose. That’s pretty cool how much of an impact that Afghanistan has on world history from Alexander the Great to the Hippie Trail to religion!
Hi Ray, that is a brilliant fact. The thing is you could go to India and someone there will also claim it. Almost as crazy as the “My flagpole is taller than yours debate” or the “this is the highest Irish Pub in the world debate” but because I loved Afghanistan, I’m trusting that it did indeed originate here. Yes, it’s got a huge history, more posts to come of course but really busy travelling and writing! Safe travels, Jonny
Thanks for the memories! Spent a month there back in 73,and loved the place! Bet it still hasen’t changed that much.Loved Harat and Kabul too! We liked to hang out at a tea house there and were even treated with a concert of traditional folk music.Good for you.
Hi Robert thanks for the comment. Wow that is hardcore – back in 1973 must have been so much more difficult back then for visas, tourist info etc. Luckily in these internet times, it’s a tad easier to organise. Afghanistan is a cool place – shame the bad publicity it gets overshadows the sights and friendliness of the people. Safe travels. Jonny
I don’t know if you’re still taking comments on this post but I’m going to try. My husband and I traveled in Afghanistan in 1969, part of an around the world trip we took a couple years after we were married. We were essentially backpacking, though we had one small suitcase for stuff we bought along the way until we could get to a place where we could mail them home. We went overland from India to Istambul. In Afghanistan we spent time in Kabul, then rode on the top of a bus with a bunch of men to go up to Mazar e Sharif and Bamiyan. Even though I was an American woman and not covered up like the Afghan women, I was accepted and treated politely by all the men we encountered. Unfortunately I was never able to talk with any women. We got to see the Bamiyan Buddhas before they were egregiously blown up. In fact there was a way to climb up and sit on top of the Buddhas heads and look out at the landscape. I was able to sit in coffee shops with my husband and men and have conversations. We went across the desert in a jeep, toward Balkh and our driver stopped at one point, ran his fingers in the sand and produced a bunch of pottery shards which he gave me as “Baksheesh from Balkh.” I treasure them and have used some in contemporary mosaics I now make. I loved reading your posts and on an earlier one I think was also from you, I saw that some of the remains of temples in Balkh contain pottery with the same exact tourquoise color as I have in some of my shards. We loved Afghanistan, and were devastated by the events of the war, as we were with what went on in Cambodia after we left there. We have some wonderful artifacts from our time there including camel bags and decorations, a belt that has implements needed for using rifles, flints, poking tools, etc., and a few other objects.
Thanks for the comment and story. I had taken a break from blogging and backpacking in the wake of depressions cause by liars and Guru Gods. Glad you enjoyed Afghanistan, it was a great time there. Safe travels. Jonny