HERATj

Perhaps more than any other city in Afghanistan, Herat speaks of the country's position at the heart of the Silk Road. At the crossroads of trade routes leading to the Middle East, Central Asia and India, Herat has often been coveted by neighbouring powers as a valuable prize. It has flourished throughout history as a rich city-state, a centre of learning and commerce and even one-time capital of the Timurid empire. Such history has given the city a cultured air of independence that can sometimes make Kabul seem a long way away. In the 1970s, Herat was a popular stop on the Hippy Trail for its relaxed air, and rightly so.

Herat's place in history has often been overlooked in favour of Samarkand and Bukhara, but its inhabitants are proud of their past and the city's reputation as a place of culture. Although many of the monuments to Herat's glorious past are in a sorry state, ruined by British and Russian invaders, the city is still the most rewarding sightseeing location in Afghanistan. With its Friday Mosque the city still possesses one of the greatest buildings in the Islamic world, while the Old City is one of the few in Afghanistan to retain its medieval street plan.

Herat's post-Taliban recovery has been less rocky than other parts of the country, due in no small part to the customs revenues from trade with nearby Iran. Visitors coming from Kabul will instantly notice the difference: a reliable power supply, streetlights and public parks. Although street crime can occasionally be a problem, it suddenly seems remarkable to see families out on the streets at 10pm going to ice-cream parlours.

Things haven't been a bed of roses, however. Despite his removal by Hamid Kar-zai, Herat's longtime 'amir' Ismail Khan continues to dominate the city's political

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and economic scene, and the city's links to neighbouring Iran play an important role. The insecurity along the Herat-Kandahar highway occasionally ripples back to the city, although the presence of an Italian-led PRT has generally been well received.

HISTORY

Herat's history begins as Aria, an outpost of the Achaemenid empire, overrun in Alexander the Great's eastward expansion. In typical fashion he renamed it Alexander Arian in his own honour. The city grew and reaped the benefits of the new Silk Road under the Kushans and Sassanids and into the Islamic era.

Herat's expansion was checked by the visitations of Genghis Khan in 1221, who characteristically levelled the place, killing all but 40 of the populace after they rebelled against his power. But this just proved to be the preface for the city's greatest period, as a new power thundered out of the steppe 150 years later.

Timur founded his empire at Samarkand, but following his death in 1405, the capital moved southwest to Herat. Under Timur's son, Shah Rukh, Herat became one of the greatest centres of medieval Islamic culture and learning. A patron of the arts, Shah Rukh packed his court with scholars, poets and painters. Jami composed his greatest poems here and Bihzad's refined miniature painting would later go on to influence Indian art. The ruler's wife, the extraordinary Gowhar Shad (see boxed text, pl38), commissioned many fine buildings from mosques to madrassas.

Such glory couldn't last. After Shah Rukh's death, there was a debilitating squabble for succession and Timurid power started to wane. Sultan Baiqara provided one last hurrah at the start of the 16th century, but the rot had set in. The future Mughal emperor Babur visited Herat at this time and left a lively description of the city, joking that you only had to stretch your leg to kick a poet, and complaining of the royal court's drunkenness. In fact, Baiqara so preferred to drink wine rather than exercise power that Timur's empire soon fell under the arrows of Uzbek invaders.

Herat spent the next centuries being fought over by the Mughals and Safavids. It finally regained its independence only to find itself swept up in the superpower rivalry of the Great Game.

The Persians were the first to make a move on the city, laying siege to it in 1837. Russian officers aided the Persian army, while a single British officer, Eldred Pot-tinger, rallied Herat's defenders. The Afghans held the day, but the siege influenced British policy for the remainder of the 19th century. Herat was dubbed the 'Gateway to India' and the British were insistent it should stay in their realm of influence - and out of Russian hands.

Dost Mohammed incorporated Herat into the Afghan kingdom in 1863, but trouble was never far away. Russian expansion towards the border in 1885 nearly brought the imperial powers to war. The British ordered Herat be prepared for an attack and many of Gowhar Shad's buildings were demolished to allow a clear line of artillery fire for the defenders, although war was ultimately averted.

After this, Herat's population were happy to be left alone for most of the 20th century, but still resented Kabul's influence. It declared support for the rebel Bacha Saqao when he seized the throne from Amanul-lah in 1929 and increasingly resented the communist influence from the capital in the 1970s. Events came to a head in March 1979 when the city rose in open revolt. Led by local mullahs and a mutinous army garrison commanded by Ismail Khan, around 100 Russian advisors were killed with their families. The Russians helped the government quell the rebellion - by carpet-bombing the Old City. Around 20,000 civilians were killed.

Following invasion, the mujaheddin harried the Russians, in one of the most hidden corners of the war. Iran provided crucial support. After the Russian withdrawal in 1989, the city quickly fell to the mujaheddin, with Ismail Khan installed as Herat's ruler.

Nothing could save the city from the ascendant Taliban, however. In 1995 the city's army crumbled in the teeth of a Taliban advance and Herat was captured without a fight. Ismail Khan himself was taken prisoner, but later escaped to Iran.

The educated Heratis chafed under the occupation and Iran closed its borders. Herat's population swelled with an influx of internally displaced people (IDPs) fleeing drought.

Ismail Khan returned at the end of2001 as the Taliban were swept from power. Increasingly conservative with age, he retained his own army and a version of the Taliban's Vice and Virtue Police, styling himself as the Emir of Herat. The city, however, boomed on customs revenues from trade with Iran, once again becoming a quasi-independent city-state, as it has been for much of its history.

Central control over Herat (and its taxes) finally came in late 2004 with Ismail Khan's replacement as governor, an event accompanied with much rioting. Tocal politics have trodden a sometimes uneasy path since, but the city still remains a beacon of progress compared with much of the country.

ORIENTATION

Herat sits in a wide plain, watered by the Hari Rud. To the north the ridges of the Safed Koh mark the boundary with the Central Asian steppe; to the south the road leads to Kandahar and the Indian subcontinent.

Only the core of Herat's Old City remains, around the crossroads of Chahar Su and the Friday Mosque. The Citadel dominates the northern edge of the Old City, looking out to the minarets of the ruined Musalla Complex. West of this is the wasteland created by Soviet carpet-bombing. Much of this area is undergoing a boom of new building, with glass-fronted villas sprouting up almost daily.

The New Town (Shahr-e Nau) is east and north of the walled city, home to the majority of government and NGO offices. The streets are lined with tall pine trees and decorated with parks, considerably improving the urban environment. Watch out for the working traffic lights - almost unheard of in Afghanistan.

Herat's airport is 8km south of the city. If arriving overland from Iran, Herat's minarets make a ready landmark. Most road transport leaves from the area south of the minarets, near Darb Malik on the edge of the Old City.

INFORMATION Emergency

Ambulance ( (§) 040 223413) ANS0 West ( (D 070 405 697/079 9322 192) Fire Brigade ( (D 040 445721) ISAF((D 079 9885 181)

Police ( (§) 040 222200; Jad-e Ghomandani, opposite the Friday Mosque)

Internet

Prices are around 50Afg per hour.

Lord (offeenet (Jad-e Walayat)

Microsoft Internet (Jad-e Walayat)

Valentin Internet Club (cnr of Park-e Gulha & Jad-e

Ghomandi)

Medical Services

The area around the main hospital has plenty of pharmacies.

Herat Hospital ((D 040 223412; Jad-e Walayat)

Money

Street moneychangers remain the best option in Herat: there are stands between Darb Malik and Chowk-e Gulha. Kabul Bank (cnr of Park-e Gulha & Jad-e Ghomandi) Has a branch of Western Union inside.

Post & Telephone

Phone stands and PCOs are everywhere in Herat.

FedEx ((D 040 220301; charahi Haji Ayoub) Post Office (charahi Mostofiat)

Tourist Information

ATO (Afghan Tourist Organisation; §§ 040 223210; Sarakh-eMukharabat) Can provide drivers and guides for US$40 a day each (US$20 for half a day) and also arrange transport to the Minaret of Jam.

DANGERS & ANNOYANCES

Since Ismail Khan left Herat, security has decreased slightly. Political problems have occasionally spilled onto the streets, usually in the form of quick-to-fire demonstrations. As always, keep an ear very close to the ground. In 2006, violence also flared between Sunni and Shiite groups during Ashura.

Crime has reportedly become more of a problem in Herat, with an increase in street robberies. Several female international workers have reported severe harassment, bordering on violence, so particular care should be taken when walking in the city.

SIGHTS Old City

Herat's Old City, measuring approximately 1200 sq metres, is the most complete traditional medieval city in Afghanistan. Four main streets branch out from the bazaar of Chahar Su (literally 'four directions'), quartering the city and leading to the old gates that once pierced the city walls (they were pulled down in the 1950s). Characteristic of medieval urban design, the Old City has three focuses - the commercial centre (Chahar Su), the Royal Centre (the Citadel, opposite) and the Religious Centre (the Friday Mosque, right).

The four main roads leading from Chahar Su are lined with booths and shops. Until the 1930s, these roads were covered, with Chahar Su itself crowned with a large dome. Only small portions of the old vaulting survive, in the southeast corner of the city. Behind the shops there are plenty of serais - enclosures for caravans that served as warehouses and inns for traders and craftsmen.

Away from the main thoroughfares, the streets turn into a labyrinth of unpaved lanes, hiding the city's houses behind high mud walls. Wandering the streets and serais is one of the best ways to get a taste of traditional Herati - and Afghan - urban life.

That the Old City survived the Soviet carpet-bombing of Herat is a miracle, but its fabric is now under threat from the city's construction boom. Unlike Kabul, where an official ban on new construction in the Old City prevails, Herat's historic quarter is undergoing 'redevelopment' on an unprecedented scale. In the absence of building controls, owners are demolishing historic properties to rebuild in the popular modern glass-and-concrete style, with little thought for the city's character.

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) is currently working with Herat's government to rescue buildings and create a sustainable development plan for the Old City. Using a mix of satellite imagery and door-to-door surveys, they produced the first detailed map of the Old City, showing over 15,000 buildings with 62,000 residents, but with old buildings being lost on a weekly basis. AKTC has launched a conservation programme for several historic houses that promotes traditional building techniques, encourages self-built repairs and shows the potential for improving living conditions within traditional city homes.

AKTC has also helped restore Herat's traditional cisterns. The Chahar Su Cistern, at the centre of the Old City, and the Malik Cistern, opposite the western gate of the Citadel, are what remain of Herat's medieval water-supply system. Filled by aqueducts, they provided year-round clean water for the city's residents, even during the Persian siege of 1837-8. They only ran dry during the 1980s. Both have gorgeous brick vaulted ceilings, with the octagonal Chahar Su Cistern having a span of over 20m. Surrounded by bazaars and mosques, the cistern's restoration should hopefully provide a focus for further economic regeneration in the Old City, although at the time of writing their exact future use was under discussion with community leaders.

Friday Mosque

Over 800 hundred years old, Herat's Friday Mosque (Masjid-e Jami; ® closed to non-Muslims during Fri prayers) is Afghanistan's finest Islamic building, and one of the greatest in Central Asia. A master class in the art of tile mosaic, its bright colours and intricate detailing are an exuberant hymn in praise of Allah.

Most visitors enter the mosque via the park on its eastern side, which leads up to a huge and richly tiled façade. The entrance corridors are to either side of this, but they are frequently locked outside the main prayer hours, forcing visitors to gain access to the mosque proper via the small street entrance on its northern wall. This is actually a more atmospheric choice, as the cool dark of the entrance corridor suddenly gives way to a bright sunburst of colour as you enter the main courtyard. Don't forget to remove your shoes at this point.

The mosque is laid out in a classical plan of four iwans (barrel-vaulted halls) with arcaded walls around a central courtyard nearly 100m long. Two huge minarets flank the main iwan. Almost every square centre is covered in breathtaking mosaic, surrounded by blue bands of Quranic script. Only the simple whitewash of the iwans adds a note of modesty. The minarets, with their repeated bands of stylised flowers, arabesques and geometric patterns are simply dizzying.

The mosque was originally laid out by the Ghorid Sultan Ghiyasuddin in 1200. Originally it would have had quite a different appearance, as the Ghorids preferred plain brick and stucco decoration. The Timurids restored the mosque in the 15th century and introduced the bright mosaic, but by the early 20th century so much of this had been lost that visitors remarked on the mosque's dullness.

The lavish tiling that now covers the mosque is the product of the mosque's tile workshop, an ongoing restoration project since the 1940s. While many of the mosaics are based on Timurid originals, the workshop has also introduced its own designs, colours and calligraphy. This traditional-meets-modern approach has led to the creation one of the gems of contemporary Islamic abstract expressionism.

The workshop is in a courtyard to the left of the main portal entrance in the garden -ask to visit it at the small office of the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, just inside. The courtyard also contains one of the few remnants of the original Ghorid decoration, overlaid with Timurid tiling - a demonstration of the continuum of artistic styles that the mosque has witnessed. The craftsmen are normally happy to show off their work, from glazing the raw tiles to laying out the intricate mosaics.

It's normally not a problem to take photos in the mosque, but this should be avoided during prayer times. Early morning is the best time to catch the light on the tiles. Donations for the mosque's upkeep can be placed in the ceremonial bronze cauldron in the eastern arcade. Cast in the 13th century, it would have originally been filled with sweet drinks for worshippers on religious holidays.

Herat Citadel

Towering over the Old City, the Herat Citadel (Qala-ye Ikhtiyaruddin; admission 250Afg; ® 8am-5pm) has watched over Herat's successes and setbacks with its imposing gaze for centuries. The oldest building in Herat, it is believed to stand on the foundations of a fort built by Alexander the Great. It has served as a seat of power, military garrison and prison since its construction until 2005, when the Afghan army presented it to the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, opening its doors to outsiders for the first time.

The Citadel is built on an artificial mound and stretches 250m east to west. Its 18 towers rise over 30m above street level, with walls 2m thick. A moat once completed the defences, although this was drained in 2003 to lay out a public park in the grounds. The present structure was largely built by Shah Rukh in 1415, after Timur trashed what little Genghis Khan had left standing. At this time, the exterior was covered with the monumental Kufic script of a poem proclaiming the castle's grandeur, 'never to be altered by the tremors of encircling time'. Sadly, most of this tiling has been lost bar a small section on the northwest wall, the so-called 'Timurid Tower'.

Time's tremors inevitably did great damage to the Citadel. Repeated conquerors pillaged the Citadel, with locals prizing the valuable roof-beams and baked bricks. The greatest indignity came in 1953 when Herat's army commander ordered its complete demolition in order to move his military base on the outskirts of the city. Only the direct intervention of King Zahir Shah halted the destruction. Subsequent neglect caused several sections to collapse. An extensive renovation programme was launched in the 1970s, completed just two months before the Soviet invasion.

Visitors enter through the modern western entrance to the Citadel's lower enclosure. Most of this section is currently closed, so you are instead led through an imposing wooden gate and atrium to the upper enclosure. This is the most heavily fortified part of the Citadel and has its own wells, which were used to allow defenders to withstand sieges. Archaeological excavations are still ongoing in the main courtyard. To the left, there is a small hammam with beautifully painted but damaged walls, showing flowers and peacocks.

The biggest attraction is the Citadel's huge curtain wall topped with battlements. These offer tremendous views over Herat, looking south towards Chahar Su, and north to the minarets of the Musalla Complex. It's also possible to make out the last remains of the Old City walls.

Leaving by the western gate there is a small museum, which is planned to open in 2007.

Musalla Complex & Minarets

Herat's Musalla was Gowhar Shad's masterpiece, comprising a mosque, madrassa, mausoleum and over 20 minarets. At its height, it rivalled any of the great showpieces of Islamic architecture from Samarkand to Esfa-han. Today, only five minarets and Gowhar Shad's mausoleum remain. The loss of the rest is a testament to the sorrier type of imperial meddling in Afghan politics.

The Mausoleum of Gowhar Shad (Bagh-e Gowhar Shad; admission free; ® 8am-sunset) sits in a small park, currently undergoing extensive replanting. It's a textbook example of Timurid architecture, with its square box topped with a high drum and ribbed melon dome, albeit one largely denuded of its turquoise tiling. The door to Gowhar Shad's tombstone is normally locked, but the chowkidar (caretaker) can unlock it for you. The inside dome is beautifully painted in blue and rust-red. Shah Rukh was also originally buried here, until Ulughbek removed his body to Samarkand. Also inside are the broken remains of the mosaic that covered the exterior, mostly knocked off by Soviet shelling. The building next door holds the tomb of Mir Ali Shir Nawai, Sultan Baiqara's prime minister.

The mausoleum is at the heart of the old complex. By the park entrance is the sole standing minaret of her madrassa, tilting at a worrying angle and braced with steel cables. The tiling, a series of blue lozenges filled with flowers, only survives on its one side, where it is protected against Herat's abrasive wind. There are two balconies - just below the lower storey, mortar has taken a horrible bite out of the minaret.

On the southern edge of the park, the stump of another minaret is the only sign of Gowhar Shad's mosque. It was destroyed by Soviet artillery. Tantalising fragments remain of the beautiful mosaic and its white marble facings. Noting that minarets are usually the simplest parts of a building, Robert Byron was so moved by its fine decoration to write 'if the mosaic on the rest of the Musalla surpassed or even equalled what survives today, there was never such a mosque before or since.'

The loss of the complex rivals the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas for deliberate cultural vandalism. In 1885, when the British feared a Russian invasion of Afghanistan, they persuaded Abdur Rahman Khan to prepare Herat for defence. In a matter of days, British engineers dynamited almost the entire complex, to give a free line of fire for artillery. The invasion never came, but the damage was done. Two further minarets fell to earthquakes in the early 20th century, while the Soviets turned the whole area into a free-fire zone in the 1980s.

Opposite the park, four huge minarets mark the corners of Baiqara's long-gone madrassa. The minarets were covered in a delicate blue mosaic framed in white and set with flowers. Some tiling remains - war and abrasive wind has wiped out the rest. The towers now lean like drunken factory chimneys and exert a particularly mournful air at sunset. A road between the minarets still allows traffic to trundle past, the vibrations damaging the fragile foundations. Several tombstones lie abandoned in the area, including an exquisite yet eroded black marble tombstone, carved in the intricate Haft Qalam (Seven Pens) style. Tong abandoned to the elements, a better-cared-for example can be seen at Gazar Gah (below).

Gazar Gah

This shrine, 5km northwest of Herat, is one of Afghanistan's holiest sites, dedicated to the 1 lth-century saint and poet Khoja Abdullah Ansari. Run by Sufis from the Qadirriyah order, it receives hundreds of pilgrims from across Afghanistan daily; Gazar Gah's name means 'the Bleaching Ground', a Sufi allusion to the cleansing of one's soul before Allah.

GOWHAR SHAD

The wife of Shah Rukh, Gowhar Shad, was one of the most remarkable women in Afghanistan's history. Although her name meant 'joyful jewel', she was anything but the trophy wife her name suggests. She was a great patron of the arts and commissioned some of Islam's finest buildings, including Herat's Musalla Complex and the Great Mosque in Mashhad (Iran). She also paid an active part in politics. Her son, Ulughbek, was made the viceroy of Samarkand and following her husband's death, she was heavily involved in the manoeuvrings over his succession. Her other son, Baisanghor, drank himself to death, so Gowhar Shad planned to make Ulughbek the ruler of Herat. Years of disputes followed, with her various sons and grandsons fighting for power, ultimately sowing the seeds of the empire's downfall. She finally met her end at the ripe age of 80, murdered by a rival after plotting to install her great-grandson on Herat's throne. Her gravestone reads she was 'the Bilqis [Queen of Sheba] of the time'.

The shrine is the most complete Timurid building in Herat and is dominated by its 30m-high entrance portal, decorated with restraint with blue tiles on plain brick. More tiling fills the inside, much of it showing a distinctly Chinese influence - possibly a byproduct of the embassies that Shah Rukh (who commissioned the shrine in 1425) exchanged with the emperor of China. The courtyard is filled with the gravestones of the many of Herat's old ruling families.

The saint's tomb is at the far end beneath a large ilex tree. An intricately carved 5m-high white marble pillar also stands guardian, contained behind a glass case. It's fascinating to sit and watch men and women offering prayers to the tomb before turning around to perform the full prayer ritual facing Mecca. Prayers are also tied in rags to the ilex tree, usually by women having problems conceiving.

There are several other graves worth noting in the shrine. Amir Dost Mohammed, that great survivor of the First Anglo-Afghan War, is buried to the left of Ansari's tomb, having died soon after capturing Herat in 1863. His grave is surrounded by a white balustrade and marked with another marble pillar. One of Sultan Baiqara's sons also lies here. His tombstone is an incredible example of the Haft Qalam style of carving - interlaced flowers and arabesques painstakingly carved into seven layers of relief. The tombstone is kept in a locked side room, so you'll have to ask to be shown it.

There are more graves outside the portal entrance. Look for the much worn statue of a dog immediately outside. Local tradition ascribes this to the grave of Gazar Gah's architect, who wished to sit humbly before the Sufi master into the next life.

Slightly to the southwest of the main shrine is the Zarnegar Khana ('Golden Pavilion'). Built during Baiqara's time, it is a retreat for the shrine's Sufi adherents, who hold their zikr rituals inside. The interior has a fine domed ceiling, painted in blue and red, and picked out in gold leaf. The Zarnegar Khana was closed for restoration at the time of research. The grounds of the shrine also contain a second domed building, the Namakdan pavilion, and a cistern containing water from the holy Zam Zam spring at Mecca.

There's no entrance fee at Gazar Gah, but the Sufis who tend the shrine will welcome a small donation. Don't forget to remove your shoes on entering.

Buses run regularly to Gazar Gah from Chowk-e Cinema (5Afg, 15 minutes). A taxi costs around 50Afg.

Jami's Tomb

Mawlana Abdur Rahman Jami was Herat's greatest poet and one of the greatest Sufi poets who wrote in Persian. He was a regular at the court of Sultan Baiqara, where he composed many treatises on the soul's meditation of the divine. He died in 1492 and is still revered by modern Hera-tis, who can often quote from his greatest work, Haft Awrang (Seven Thrones), and regularly visit his grave (Sarakh-e Tanki Mawlawi; donation welcome, ® sunrise-sunset).

The tomb is a quiet and contemplative place, inside a modest enclosure under a pistachio tree, with a finely carved headstone. A large pole is hung with green banners and has had many nails hammered into it as prayer offerings. The tomb is visited by both men and women, who sit either side of the grave, in prayer or meditation. It's commonplace to walk around the grave and to take a pinch of earth as a blessing. There is also a small donation box here.

A larger mosque stands adjacent to the grave. Both are modern, rebuilt after being severely damaged by Soviet shelling in 1984. A taxi ride from the centre of Herat costs 80Afg.

Shahzada Abdullah

Two shrines sit on the main road just south of the Musalla Complex. Built in the late 15 th century, they contain the tombs of two princes, Abdullah and Qasim, who died in the 8th century. Abdullah's tomb is the one nearer the road. The exteriors are plain fired brick with ogee portal arches, while the interiors are richly decorated with tiling -probably the best surviving tilework from medieval Herat.

Even a couple of years ago, the tombs were clearly visible from the road, but they have now been largely obscured by Herat's construction boom. The tombs' guardians, who also tend the many pigeons outside, appreciate a small donation from visitors.

Takht-e Safar

Spread across a hill 5km north of Herat, Takht-e Safar is a popular place for picnics. Built as a pleasure garden for Sultan Baiqara in the 14th century, it's an oasis of green, with good views to the city. It's a popular place for picnics and to catch the sunset (when cars full of wedding parties often descend on the scene).

At the bottom of the hill is a small theme park, complete with rides and a giant concrete pigeon. As you go up the hill, you pass a large swimming pool, popular with men species in the summer months. There's a small café offering drinks and ice cream. Further up the hill is a wedding club, backed by a large mural of Ismail Khan with Ahmad Shah Massoud. Climbing these steps provides the best views of Herat.

Pul-e Malan

This fine old 22-arched bridge is a few kilometres south of the city, visible from the road when driving from the airport. Believed to have been constructed by the Seljuks in the early 12th century, it has survived the floods that have washed away countless other bridges on the Hari Rud. According to legend, two sisters, Bibi Nur and Bibi Hur, collected egg shells to mix with the clay of the bricks, making the structure stronger than steel. It's no longer used for motor traffic, but is worth a visit for its picturesque setting.

SLEEPING

Sleeping options should change dramatically in Herat during the life of this book, with the opening of the city's first five-star hotel under construction on the outskirts near Takht-e Safar.

Jam Hotel (@ 040 223477; Darb Khosh; s/d 300/ 600Afg) Tucked away in the Old City, this is Herat's best budget option. The rooms are basic, but have had a bit of a spruce-up since we last visited, making them good value for the price. The shared bathrooms are very simple and there's a restaurant for pulao (a rice dish) and kebabs. Rooms at the back have a great view of the Old City, overlooking the Friday Mosque.

Park Hotel ((D 040 223010; Park-e Girdha, r US$20) Built in the 1930s, the Park is Herat's oldest hotel - Robert Byron stayed here while writing The Road to Oxiana. It's a cavern ous, colonial-style place complete with creaky beds and overstuffed chairs, and surrounded by pine trees. All rooms are en suite. The hotel was being used mainly as a wedding hall when we visited. Full of potential, it just needs a little love (and money) spent on its upkeep.

Mowafaq Hotel (@ 040 223503; Chowk-e Gulha; with bathroom s/d US520/30) Currently Herat's largest hotel, the Mowafaq is a trusty standby and conveniently located between the Old City and the New Town. The good-sized rooms are clean but everything feels a bit tired and dusty. The pool hasn't seen water in years. Get a room looking out to the minarets if you can.

Marco Polo Hotel (§§ 040221944; heratmarcopoloi® yahoo.com; Jad-e Badmurghan; s/d from US$41/51, with bathroom US$72/82; Igl ID) This friendly and ever-expanding hotel is a great option. The rooms aren't elaborate, but there's 24-hour hot water, free internet, and helpful staff. The more expensive rooms also come with a free (nonalcoholic) minibar and laundry. Breakfast is included - a huge spread of bread, cheese, yogurt, eggs and fruit.

Green Place Guest House 070 405905; Jad-e Mahbas, lane 2; r US$50; Igl ID) A small family-run guesthouse with a friendly atmosphere, the Green Place (there is a garden) is a pleasant escape from the city. There are half a dozen rooms, all spotlessly clean and with shared bathroom. Prices include breakfast -dinner is available on request.

EATING & DRINKING

The Persian influence on Herati culture can easily be seen when you go out for a meal. Iranian-style rice (steamed and topped with sour sumac berries) is served as much as Afghan pulao. Locals also have a preference for black tea (sucked through a sugar-cube) over the green tea drunk in the rest of Afghanistan.

flrghawan Restaurant (s 040 221919; Chowk-e Cinema; kebab meal 200Afg; ® 10am-10pm) Popular with middle-class Heratis and internationals alike, the attraction here isn't so much the formal dining room as the outside seating area, strewn with bolsters to slump against for shade from the daytime. The set meals are excellent value, comprising soup, salad, bread, rice, kebabs, tea and a soft drink.

Yas Restaurant (Park-e Girdha; menu from 60-200Afg) One of the few places we found in Herat serving mantu (a type of ravioli), Yas also has a decent range of kebabs with rice, salad and yogurt. The pizzas are disappointing in comparison. The restaurant always seems to be busy -its success has allowed it to buy what could be Herat's largest TV.

Shahiste Restaurant (Jad-e Badmurghan; meals 200Afg) On the 1st floor of the Marco Polo Hotel, this restaurant offers good Iranian-style food. The menu often only has a couple of dishes, but makes up for this with generous plates of salad, pickled vegetables and yogurt.

Brothers Mohabbat Gaznavi Restaurant (Darb Khosh; meals from 50Afg) One of the better large kebab joints, busy at any time of day or night. It serves up an endless procession of kebabs, pulao and chai. Female travellers may find themselves directed upstairs to the family dining room.

Al Capon Restaurant (Jad-e Badmurghan; meals from 10OAfg) According to the sign, 'Al Capon' was a cowboy, but he rustles up a decent plate of rice and kebabs. Salads and a few Western-style fast-food items fill out the menu.

Toos Restaurant (Jad-e Walayat; pizzas 150Afg) Good for those wanting a break from Afghan fare, this place does a good imitation of Western fast food. Tasty pizzas are eat-in or takeaway, along with a few interesting variations on the hamburger theme.

Ice cream parlour (Bazaar-e Malek Zagarha; ice cream from 40Afg) This is the best place for ice cream in the Old City. With its low ceiling, wall carpets and Bollywood posters, it's a cosy place to tuck into a bowl of rosewater and pistachio ice cream. Afghan women eat here too.

Juice in 4 Fasl (Chowk-e Gulha; juice from 20Afg) Bright and shiny, this juice bar has wonderful juices and smoothies, from thick banana to tart pomegranate. There's ice cream too, slathered with mango puree, and an upstairs seating area that's perfect for watching Herat go about its business.

Khorram Brothers Store (Parke-Gulha; snacks from 30Afg) In the small park by Chowk-e Gulha, this snack bar sells a few kebabs plus hot and cold drinks including, unusually, coffee. It's almost worth visiting just for the fountain opposite - a concrete kitsch masterpiece of towering bears, goats and waterbirds.

Kebab sellers (Darb Khosh) Calling these places chaikhanas would be far too grand -

there's hardly room to sit down - but these hole-in-the-wall joints are perfect if you're in need of a quick kebab.

Itinerant fruit sellers push carts around the Old City and there's also a market next to the Friday Mosque. If you're after imported goods, there's a good supermarket (Jad-e Badmurghan) near the Marco Polo Hotel. It even has its own shopping trolleys.

SHOPPING

Herat is famous for its blue glass, handmade in a rough and chunky style. If you're lucky enough for it to survive Afghanistan's roads, it makes a great souvenir.

Sultan Hamidy (north side of Friday Mosque) Sultan Hamidy (or Ahmad) and his family have been making Herati glass for generations. The tiny factory is two doors down from the shop, with glass-blowing every couple of days. The shop itself is an Aladdin's Cave, with everything from glass and metalwork to rugs, beads and embroidery, all displayed as an anarchic explosion of stock. Prepare to spend hours looking for antiques, both old and new.

Carpet Merchants (Darb Khosh) One of the best places to buy carpets from the region is direct from the wholesale merchants who occupy this serai on Darb Khosh. Carpets and gilims festoon the balconies and courtyard, indicating that you're in the right place. Herati carpets are usually deep red, although the merchants buy from across the west and northwest as well as eastern Iran - Baluchi styles are also sold in large numbers.

GETTING THERE & AWAY

Kam Air (@ 040 228951; Park-e Gulha) flies daily to Kabul (3250Afg, one hour), and every Monday and Thursday to Mazar-e Sharif (2500Afg, 50 minutes). Ariana Afghan Airlines

(040 222315; Park-e Gulha) also has a daily service to Kabul (3200Afg).

At the bottom of Sarakh-e Shahzada, there are large buses to Kabul (600Afg, one day), which continue onto Mazar-e Sharif (lOOOAfg, two days). Note, however, that these travel to the extremely dangerous southern highway through Kandahar and cannot be recommended. In the same area you'll also find transport offices with buses to Iran, with daily departures to Mashhad (270Afg, seven hours) and Tehran (700Afg, two days).

Transport to Maimana is found 3km west of Herat's centre on Sarakh-e Fargha. HiAces leave daily at around 4am (1 lOOAfg, two days). For more on this route, see right.

Minibuses to Obey (80Afg, two hours), Chist-e Sharif (180Afg, four hours) and Chaghcheran (800Afg, Wi days) leave from the bus station 3km south of Herat on the road to the airport. This is also the general transport depot for HiAces to most other destinations from Herat.

Transport for Torghundi on the Turkmenistan border leaves on an ad hoc basis from the same area as the Mashhad buses. For more information see p216.

GETTING AROUND

Millie buses leave irregularly from Darb Khosh to the airport (6Afg, 50 minutes), although shared taxis (50Afg) from the same spot can be a better bet. The whole taxi should cost 300Afg or less.

Most taxi rides in Herat will cost between 50Afg and 80Afg. Until the last couple of years, a highly enjoyable way of seeing Herat was to hire agari (horse-drawn buggy). The drivers take great pride in decorating their carriages, dressing their horses with bells and red pom-poms, but they are disappearing fast: on our most recent visit we only spotted a couple, having been largely replaced by scores of autorickshaws. Both cost around a third less than a taxi over the same distance.

Millie buses also ply the streets on set routes, which can be hard to fathom. Stops are on the main roundabouts, with tickets usually costing about 3Afg.

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