The descent to Mazar-i-Sharif is spectacular. As we veer sharply down towards the small airfield I can see the jagged brown snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush disappearing on our right and a wide, seemingly endless plain rearing up to meet us to the left.
"We are diving like this so they won't shoot at us," our Finnish pilot reassures us.
They don't, but then nothing is what it seems in Afghanistan.
On the ground I am met by an empty airport, not even the hostile Taliban official who greeted me when I arrived in Kabul last July. I am here to assess the educational situation and to write an issues paper for the Afghanistan Interim Administration and donor community.
We head west to Ankhoi, a largish town famed for carpet-making. The road soon deteriorates into mud and scrub. But mud means rain and an end to drought. "The end of the Taliban and rain - we are blessed," I am told on several occasions.
We are welcomed at our first school, Afghan style, with tea, and a chance to sit together on a large carpet and discuss events.
More than one-and-a-half million pupils, many female, have returned to the school as part of the Ministry of Education-Unicef "Back to School" campaign. Staff talk about their priorities: building repairs, textbooks, salaries paid on time and the difficulties female teachers face coming to work in rural areas.
On the way back to Ankhoi we stop at a small village where we are offered more tea. Inside a cool compound we meet a household of women and young children - a local Uzbek family. They have taken in two older "internally displaced persons" - Pashtun women who arrived last year. The Pashtun women tell us that the local school will not enrol their children. "You must return to your own place," they have been told.
A day's journey to Pul-i-Khumri, an established industrial town, once dominated by a large Russian-built cement factory. The fast-flowing river runs through the town and feeds the neighbouring mulberry and walnut groves. Everywhere there is evidence of growth and reconstruction.
We travel south via the infamous Salang tunnel that has all the familiarity of a Norwegian road tunnel minus lighting, extractor fans and road surface.
We pass bright signs indicating cleared mine fields, development projects, rusting hulks of Russian tanks and swaying fields of wheat and maize. Here and there stand large white tent-schools emblazoned with the Unicef logo.
We leave behind the high mountain passes and head for Kabul and what was the front line between Northern Alliance and Taliban forces.
It is midday, hot and children are making their way home from Baghi Afghan School in the Ghourband valley just north of Kabul. This school lies across the old front line and we are sitting with a group of male teachers. During the war, three teachers and 15 students were killed or injured by rocket fire. The road has been de-mined and gradually life is returning to the valley.
Kabul. The contrast with last July could not be greater. From a tense, semi-deserted atmosphere, the city is now a hive of movement as aid vehicles, trucks loaded with building materials, blacked-out four-by-fours and the odd army truck contribute to Kabul's rush-hour traffic.
Seems Afghanistan is safer than Pakistan these days. As we drive to the airport we pass a group of schoolgirls walking to school clutching their blue Unicef satchels. There is a sense of optimism and a feeling that this is a "last chance" to gain the world's attention and support.
At the airport an official attaches a frequent flyer sticker to my bag. He smiles. I agree.
David Stephens is professor of international education, Oslo University College, Norway.
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