Teetering on Crumbling Walls + Hash with a Baba in Ancient Bactria
Updated January 2023, Getting High on Old Balkh: Old Walls, Blue Tiles & Hash was originally written in January 2019
Welcome to Old Balkh.
First Stop: Haji Piyada
It’s almost unbearably hot, even in September as the dust settles. Today we left Mazar e Sharif with Madhi and Elyas leading the way to the first stop at Haji Piyada Mosque (also called Noh Gonbad Mosque. English: Nine Cupola Mosque). Or I should say what remains, Haji Piyada is the oldest known Islamic structure in Afghanistan. Carbon dating estimates the building being built around 794 AD and has been badly damaged over the years.
As we walk away from having a look at what remains of Haji Piyada we were stopped by an elderly man on the way out, I assumed he was either asking for a donation or to question where we were from and what we thought of Afghanistan. Once I heard the word ‘hashish’ enter the air, mixed in the string of Dari he spoke I knew what was coming.
Madhi looked at us and said, “he’d like to know if you want to smoke some hashish.”
بله (Baleh), I mean we are in Afghanistan after all
The frail turban-clad, bearded baba motioned us to follow him into the trees on a narrow scorched earth path.
Isn’t this the scene all those Taliban videos they showed us on the news when I was in high school warned us against?
Nah, I think he’s safe. There’s a dog and puppies following him. All dog people are good people right?
We arrived at his small home where he welcomed us to sit in the shade of the trees at the front step. He ran inside to grab his hashish and his bong so he could prepare the morning rip. Oh did I mention there were puppies? He also had puppies.
Our new friend returns with all his supplies in hand and begins preparing the hash, all the while telling us his life story. Apparently, his entire family was killed (I am assuming by the Taliban) and felt as though he had no other purpose in life aside from becoming an expert in growing hash. He even proudly showed us his plants and tried to gift us some to take for the road (I didn’t want to take any more from him than we already were, so I declined several times), good old Afghan hospitality at its finest.
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High On Old Balkh
After getting adequately stoned we said our goodbyes and headed for the nearby crumbling walls– the Bala Hisar of Old Balkh.
These are the old walls of the ancient Bactrian Kingdom. These walls have over 2,500 years’ worth of history.
From the alleged birthplace of Zoroaster and Zoroastrianism to the times of the Greco-Roman Empire led by none other than Alexander the Great. Later the ancient city came to be inhabited by Buddhists for a stint before Genghis Khan leveled the Bactrian Kingdom, only to have Timur come along later to decimate and rebuild the ancient walls yet again.
The Bala Hisar at one point in time was lush, green, and a major trading point on the Silk Road. Now it lies in desolate desertification 21 km west of Mazar e Sharif.
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Madhi grabbed our hands and yanked us up atop the crumbling walls of the remains of the Bactrian Kingdom (Did I mention, normal me has somewhat of a generalized but not paralyzing fear of gravity?).
We walked along the narrow remains of the walls giggling, squinting from the blinding sun, and asking Madhi every question we could think of given our state. At one point I realized that I’d be mildly panicking on the inside had I not already had a decent dose of hashish before climbing up here.
After we came down, off the wall I mean, we made our way past a dead petrified dog in the blistering sun and a giant swing set sat in the middle of the deserted land within the ancient walls on our way back to Elyas and the car to continue on our way through Balkh.
Khodja Parsa Mausoleum & Rabia Balkhi Mausoleum
Next, it was a quick stop for energy drinks (this was an emergency, we were so droopy after the hashish sesh), and next onto Khodja Parsa Park in the heart of Balkh. Khodja Abu Nasr Parsa was a spiritual leader of the Naqshbandi order from Herat who lived during the 15th century. In his memory, a mausoleum was erected in the center of what today is a tree-lined, shaded park.
Just a few steps away is the Mausoleum to Rabia Balkhi, who is a legendary figure in Persian literature, and one of the first (and possibly THE first) female poet in the history of new Persian poetry. Harith, her brother murdered her for having an affair with a slave named Bektash. She wrote her most famous poem in her own blood on a wall as she lay there holding onto her last moments of life in her basement.
An Old Zoroastrian Cave
Did you know that before Buddhism, and later Islam was introduced into what is present-day Afghanistan Zoroastrianism swept the land? In fact, it is believed that Zarathustra, the founder of Zoroastrianism was actually from the ancient city of Bactria (Balkh).
On the side of the highway in Balkh next to a sign there is a large cave, believed to be a Zoroastrian Fire Cave, and possibly the first of its kind (though, I’ve never stumbled across any citations proving this). This cave was a place where Zoroastrians practiced their ancient religion.
The Tomb Of Mullah Mohammed Jan & A Revisit To The Bala Hisar
Near a vantage point on the crumbling walls of Old Balkh, sits a small tomb set amongst agricultural lands at the wall’s edge. This is the Tomb of Mullah Mohammed Jan, a famous Persian scholar. A short climb back up the walls took us up to a vantage point where a troop of young men and boys welcomed us with a warm ‘Salaam Aleykum!’ and excitedly posed for photos.
Read the Mazar e Sharif Travel Guide + Photos
How To Visit The Sites Of Old Balkh On A Day Trip From Mazar e Sharif
- Hire a taxi for the day from Mazar, expect to pay about 1,500 AFS (about $20 USD) for the 5-ish hour trip
- I recommend hiring a guide, such as Let’s Be Friends Afghanistan to arrange your trip, especially if you’d like to learn about the history and facts about the sites you’ll visit
- You can arrange the trip on your own, but I’d recommend reading up on the history before departing so you understand what you’re looking at
- Guesthouses and hotels can arrange a taxi driver for you, just ask
- You will stop at: Haji Piyada Mosque, Bala Hisar (Walls of Balkh), Khodja Parsa Park & Mausoleum, Rabia Balkhi Mausoleum, Tomb of Mullah Mohammed Jan, and an ancient Zoroaster Cave. There are many small shrines and mosques in Balkh as well, so there is the possibility of additional stops
Where To Stay In Mazar e Sharif
- Budget: Barg e Sabz Guesthouse $20 USD/night, double
- Midrange: Arsalan Hotel $40-60 USD/night, double
- Splurge: Royal Oak Hotel (Renaissance Hotel) $70 USD/night, double
The Aga Khan Development Network with the help of several foreign groups are working to restore and preserve several of the sites mentioned in this article. If you’d like to help support the AKDN click here.
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