Two backpackers, some angry men in turbans, and a lot of hashish in ancient Balkh, Afghanistan, capital of the Bactrian Kingdom.
Swings creak, gravel crackles, and children cackle. With every push and pump small feet fly higher, wide eyes surveying their surroundings: the dry, dusty landscape of Afghanistan.
This is, perhaps, the most desolate swing set in the world. Desert-like plains stretch all around us, and only the grubbiest, spikiest shrubs poke out from the cracked earth. There are two small mud huts with no signs of life. Several farmers are off in the distance, hacking away at the shrubbery, organizing it into neat little mounds for some very unfortunate animal later on. Flocks of sheep trot around the area, their herder sprawled on a rock, napping in the midday sun.
Dry and desolate as it may seem, however, this is not the middle of nowhere. Peering into the distance beyond the swing set, I spy crumbling remnants of towering walls, hints to the vast history that Balkh, this region, holds.
This is the land where Zoroaster founded Zoroastrianism, and where he died. People first settled in Balkh more than 2,500 years ago, and the region has seen conquerors such as Alexander the Great and Timur. One of Buddha’s disciples resided here, and the city flourished as a gathering place for Buddhists. Genghis Khan razed Balkh and Timur rebuilt its city and its walls, only to have it razed again by hawkish neighbors. In modern times, what used to be a lush region famous for its produce and riches is now a dry, weary village, thanks to the changing climate.
But right here, right now, only the walls’ ruins hint at any deeper significance. We’re just two travelers pushing a bunch of laughing Afghan boys on the most desolate swing set in the world.
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Out of nowhere, three old men appear in front of the swing set. Two are on foot, the third on a black horse, and they’re everything American news makes Afghan men out to be: turban-clad, bearded, and angrily shouting in Dari. Add in a Kalashnikov and the picture would be complete. The children suddenly go quiet, rushing to get off the swings. I freeze in panic.
Is it inappropriate for a woman to push boys on a swing? Did they see my headscarf fall off? Are we even allowed to be here? Is this the part where they kidnap us for ransom?
The children are shepherded from the swings by one of the men while Sebastiaan and I try to nonchalantly slither away. One of the men notices and points directly at us. Oh shit.
He says something in Dari, the local language similar to Iranian Farsi, and we stare at him blankly. The only Farsi we picked up in Iran was how to count to ten, the word for foreigner, and how to ask for two cups of tea. For all we know, he could be telling us he’s taking us hostage. Could we have two cups of tea with that?
He sees the confused looks on our faces, and his weathered, tanned face splits into a smile under his beard. Speaking more simply and deliberately, he tries again.
“Hashish!” he repeats more animatedly, miming smoking with a sucking noise and pointing inside one of the huts.
Nodding, we follow the man into the hut. It would be impolite to refuse his hospitality, after all.
Bong rips in Old Balkh
It’s dark inside the hut, the only light coming from the small entryway. Despite the shadows, the walls are a brilliant shade of blue, and are lined by a bench-like ledge all around. Several more men are lounging on the ledge, but they sit up and put their hands on their hearts in greeting to us: “Salaam.”
On the dusty floor in the middle of the room sits a contraption very familiar to us. Constructed from a bucket, wooden pipe, several clay pieces, and a suspiciously antique-like turquoise vase (a relic from bygone eras?), it is definitely, undoubtedly a bong. Water pipe, if you swing that way.
One of the men, who introduces himself as Hossein, pulls out a thick slab of hash as long as his finger. After placing some bits of charred wood into the bowl as a foundation, he pokes the entirety of the slab in after it, and inserts the bowl firmly into the bong.
With a grin, one of the men steps up the plate, taking the wooden pipe in his hands and preparing to take a hit. He takes puff after puff as Hossein lights match after match, the two of them creating an inferno of flame and smoke above the bowl. In mere seconds, thick smoke billows from both the bong and the man’s lungs. He steps back, heaving and coughing, and waves the next person on.
Each man takes his turn, Sebastiaan included. They all start strong, then jump back with a smokey splutter, faces going red as they cough up lungs, eyes going red and squinty soon after.
Anything you can smoke, I can smoke better
I wonder if I’ll get a turn—I’m a woman in a man’s world right now, and it might not be appropriate. Indeed, when everyone else has gone, the men look at each other with uncertainty before Hossein slightly proffers the wooden pipe to me. “Hashish?”
I thought you’d never ask.
Pipe in hand, I pull deeply, and smoky hashish flavor fills my lungs. The bong cools the smoke down, and it’s actually quite pleasant—I let the smoke out slowly, in puffs rather than coughs, and the men cackle in delight. The cackles go on as I go in for another rip, and Hossein jumps up protectively.
“Bas! Bas!” Enough, enough!
Grinning and blowing out the last of my smoke, I sit down and the cycle continues until the bowl is empty and everyone is sufficiently stoned. True to Central Asian style, the men cut up a large melon for everyone, claiming it’s the best cure to smoker’s cough.
After healthy doses of melon and some mimed conversation, we say our goodbyes—the rest of Old Balkh beckons! Each of the men takes my hand in a gentle handshake, then Sebastiaan and I step through the entryway into blinding daylight.
As my vision clears, I’m greeted once more by a view of the ancient walls of Balkh, and the realization of what just occurred hits me. I’m an American girl standing in the desert of Afghanistan, and I’ve spent the last hour ripping a bong with shepherds in the capital of the ancient Bactrian Kingdom. It might be the hash talking, but I can’t help it—I throw my head back and laugh.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Afghanistan… but it certainly wasn’t this.
How to visit Old Balkh from Mazar-i-Sharif
- A private taxi to all of the sights is $20 for 5 to 6 hours
- You’ll stop at 7 or 8 sights, including an old mosque, several spots on the walls, and various mausoleums and small Sufi shrines
- We arranged our taxi with the help of the guys at the Barg-e-Sabz guesthouse in Mazar-i-Sharif
- The taxi driver was very kind and patient despite us being derpy and high and his not speaking English
- Try reading up a bit beforehand or taking notes on names as you go—there’s not much in the way of English explanation at any of the sights
Wondering how we ended up here? Here’s why we traveled to Afghanistan.