Dispatches from Afghanistan with Vincent Pardieu, II: Food Poisoning & Lapis Deposits

By Gemologist Vincent Pardieu

Edited by Jennifer Heebner, Editor in Chief

The following are excerpts from gemologist Vincent Pardieu’s personal account of a recent trip to Afghanistan to see the famous Lapis Lazuli mines in Badakhshan. Pardieu visited the mines to expand his own private reference collection for gem origin studies—not to purchase gems for resale. Find him at @vincent_pardieu. Learn more about gem origins here. Photos by Vincent Pardieu.

Drive to Sar-e-Sang

After securing permission from the governor of Badakhshan to visit the Lapis Lazuli mines, we set out on a long day of driving from Faizabad to Sar-e-Sang, the village near the mine. The town comprised a few hundred stone houses built at the mouth of a valley on the East side of the Kokcha River.

Upon arrival, the sun was hidden low under the mountains in anticipation of darkness; we were in sight of Sar-e-Sang, but we could not yet see the mines. Plus, we still had to find the place we were told we could stay safely and get a good night of sleep to be ready to climb the mountains and finally visit the mines.

Vincent Pardieu drives to Sar-e-Sang in Afghanistan
A roadside rest near the Kokcha River before entering the Sar-e-Sang village. From left, clockwise: Sami and Mustafa from Zoa Gemstones, Kamran Wahidy from Rumi Gems, the author, Guerchouche Karim from Premacut Ltd., and Raphaël from Zoa Gemstones


While much uncertainty exists when traveling in a foreign land, what was worrying me the most was something I’d experienced several times before: the first symptoms of food poisoning. Despite my discomfort, we stopped at a local grocer for supplies and found our accommodations as well as a place for dinner.

Dinner & Spinel

During the meal, the discussion turned to gemstones. Local friends of Kamran Wahidy (from Rumi Gems) showed him some stones. But these were not Lapis, they were red, pink, and purple Spinel. Yes, we were at mines where for the past 8,000 years Lapis Lazuli was mined, but gem-quality Spinel were also found nearby.

My first thought was that since the valley is long, the Spinel mines were probably a few kilometers away from the Lapis mines, but Kamran told me the Spinel was mined just a few hundred meters away from the Lapis. I was amazed, as I could not find any mention of this in any publication I’ve read; I had never heard about fine-quality Spinel being mined in the same location as Lapis Lazuli. Yet local miners confirmed that for the past few years, Spinel had been found a few hundred meters away from the Lapis mines in a local region called Pitawak. That was fascinating!

After-dinner look at Afghanistan Spinels with Vincent Pardieu
After-dinner look at Spinels found near the Lapis mines in the local region called Pitawak

Night of Discomfort

As the evening ended—and as I expected—my first night in Sar-e-Sang was a disaster. There is something that people who have once visited a mining village in Afghanistan or Tajikistan will probably never forget: There are no toilets. So, what to do? Well, let’s say that there is an area north of the Sar-e-Sang that can be identified by its distinctive smell. Of course, as guests, we were staying in the nice area on the southern side of Sar-e-Sang, a lovely place close to the mosque where people can go to the river to wash themselves. Each time my food poisoning knocked, I had to walk through the whole Sar-e-Sang labyrinth to reach that area.

Vincent Pardieu sees a labyrinth of stone homes near Lapis mines in Afghanistan
Stone houses in the mining town of Sar-e-Sang comprise a labyrinth dotted with Lapis Lazuli specimens used in the construction of homes.

I barely slept. When my friends woke up, I was obviously not in shape to climb the mountains to visit the mines. So, they all left—except for Kamran, my friend and translator—and I stayed back to take some tea and rest.

Around 11 a.m. Karim (from Premacut Ltd.) opened the door and told me, “We have visited all the Lapis mines! It was fantastic! You should have seen it!”

Damn! It was torturous to listen to him telling me how great the trip was.

My food poisoning provided one advantage: I became familiar with the Sar-e-Sang labyrinth and had time to appreciate how the stone houses of that incredible place were built. In Sar-e-Sang you can find pieces of lower-quality Lapis Lazuli literally everywhere! It was even common to see chunks of decent, good-looking Lapis used as construction material for these houses.

Lapis Lazuli-kissed stones comprise homes in remote Afghanistan
Lower-quality Lapis-kissed rocks are used to build houses.

By 2 p.m. I felt better, thanks to activated charcoal tablets, tea, antibiotics, and a can of Coca Cola. I was still feeling weak because I’d not eaten and barely slept, but at least I could walk a bit.

Up for a Walk

My friends told me there was a new mining operation at Madan Char (which means “mine no. 4” in Farsi), the most famous of all the Lapis Lazuli mines around Sar-e-Sang, because a new vein of Lapis had been discovered. Madan Char is famous for producing Lapis Lazuli stones of pure ultramarine color without calcite, Pyrite, or dark spots. Unlike the older mines, this new operation is reportedly only about 10 minutes from Sar-e-Sang village and should have been easy for me to visit despite my weakness.

Gemologist & author Vincent Pardieu feels better enough to explore local Lapis mines
In recovery from food poisoning, author Vincent Pardieu is finally ready to see a Lapis mine.

I got ready and started walking to the mountains in the east of Sar-e-Sang. I wasn’t moving quickly, but I was motivated to finally see a Lapis mine! Upon approaching the mine, my good feeling vanished.

The “easy” to visit Lapis mine was in the lower part of a cliff!

It was only five minutes walking distance from Sar-e-Sang, but the mine was located on a 20- to 30-meter-high cliff. Plus, the path to access it was equipped with only a rope about 20 meters in length. As soon as I saw the cliff and the path, I knew there was no way I would be able to visit this mine. Going up there was daunting enough, but the return trip for somebody still weak from food poisoning and with vertigo would be suicidal.

Vincent Pardieu has a rocky hike to see Lapis mines in Afghanistan
The rocky journey to the Madan Char Lapis mine

My frustration was at a record level; I don’t think I had ever been so frustrated during any field expedition—not even when a gun had been pointed at my face. Everybody else went to Pirawak except me, and I couldn’t climb to the easiest mine at Madan Char. What a disaster! I sat on a rock and took a video of Sami and Raphael returning from that Lapis mine. But I also started a discussion with Kamran: Could he show me the Spinel mines?

He pointed to a spot over the Pitawak Lapis mining area. It didn’t look especially easy to get to, but perhaps with dinner and a good night’s sleep, it could be possible. I started to think that tomorrow could only be a better day. And so we started planning a visit to the Sar-e-Sang Spinel mines!

Click here to read Part I.

Final dispatch next week!