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The great escape

The Taliban’s luxury hotel

The Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul towers over the city “like a castle”, says Andreas Babst in Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Up among the pine trees, “the noise of the car horns can no longer be heard”. It opened in 1969 as Afghanistan’s first luxury hotel, back when the country still had a king. At lavish parties, Afghan popstars with long hair and guitars rode the golden lift to the fifth floor Pamir Supper Club and played concerts by the pool while female tourists swam in bikinis. Even after the king was deposed in 1973 and the country descended into civil war, “the parties went on”. For more than four decades of constant conflict, leaders came and went, and “every one of them was here, at the Intercontinental”.

But today the hotel is run by the Taliban – and things are very different. As you arrive, a smiling Talib directs you to the Weapons Handover Point; those with Kalashnikovs receive a locker number, and will get their gun back when they leave. Guests still check in at the vast marble counter, but since the country is largely cut off from international banking, credit cards are not accepted. One “arrives with a plastic bag full of cash”. Only half the chandeliers in the lobby are lit, to save on electricity. Of 198 rooms, just a fifth are occupied. The UN are in the Khyber Suite – the Intercontinental’s penthouse – running a course on “how to solve interpersonal conflicts”. A group of Russians are staying on the third floor, but “they keep to themselves”. A photo on the wall from the hotel’s best days shows people swimming in the pool. “Someone has painted over the women on the deck chairs with white paint.”