Afghanistan Travel Guide
Unless you look like a bearded mujahedin, Afghanistan is a no go area for all but the most ardent adventurers. Its terrain is rough and unforgiving, its weather is harsh and intense, and most of its infrastructure has been bombed into dust during decades of conflict, but when the dust settles, Afghanistan will be a travel experience unlike any other. Once known for its warm welcome, generous hospitality and tasty cuisine, Afghanistan still has a lot of potential as a place for scenic mountain views, great trekking or more relaxed walks through rolling plains, verdant valleys and the fields of wild tulips that bloom in the spring. Still, you might want to wait a while until some of the landmines have been cleared before venturing out of Kabul.
Hopefully the fieriest thing you’ll encounter in Afghanistan will be the food – it tends to be on the spicy side. The most common local dish is steamed rice with raisins and carrots (pulao), often served with lamb or another meat. Vegetarians therefore may have a few problems finding good alternatives. Otherwise, the cuisine has a lot in common with Indian food and is largely based on rice.
There are several modern restaurants in Kabul and the large number of foreign aid workers means that there is considerable demand for quality international cuisine as well as more traditional Afghan fare. Larger restaurants will likely have knives and forks however most people usually eat with their hand (strictly the right one) and use bread (nan) as a scoop.
You should be able to find a hotel in most towns in Afghanistan although some smaller places have been known to turn away foreigners due to the security risk they bring with them. In Kabul, there are private guesthouses and even five-star international hotels.
When to Go
Summers are often extremely hot and winters can be almost unbearably cold and snowy. Even within seasons, there are large differences in temperature between night and day, particularly in low-lying regions and in the valleys. March to May and September to November are the best times to visit, but if you are doing any traveling through the country, it’s best to pack for a variety of climates.
Getting There & Away
Kabul Airport recently reopened for a limited number of international commercial flights. Most of the traffic at the airport however is generated by military and aid planes. The airport is only 10 miles from the city, although given the conditions of the roads; it will take you at least 30 minutes to make the trip.
Border crossings into Afghanistan are lax to say the least. You should be able to cross into the country almost anywhere at anytime. That being said, the borders do close at often unpredictable times and almost always for lunch on Fridays.
Afghanistan has two internal airlines, although neither is known for being particularly safe. Ariana Afghan Airlines and KamAir have dubious safety records, at best, but at least traveling by plane reduces the risk of hitting a landmine on the long ride from Kabul to Herat.
Eighty per cent of all roads and bridges have been destroyed in the conflict; nevertheless, minibuses and shared taxis still make inter-city trips across the country.
Health & Safety
Hospitals and clinics were widely destroyed in the recent conflict and supplies of medical equipment, as a whole, are pretty thin. If you do need medical attention and manage to find it, most doctors will probably require immediate payment in cash.
If you do intend to travel in Afghanistan, unexploded ordinances and landmines are the biggest threats throughout the country. If possible, seek local advice on the area and conditions before planning your journey.
At the time of writing, many international organizations and governments advise against all but essential travel in Kabul and entirely against travel outside the capital. On the plus side, this is probably one of the few times you can justify renting an armored car at the airport. The threat to Westerners against bombs, kidnapping and other criminal activity is high and is likely to remain so for some time. As attacks against United Nations staff and other aid workers have occurred, it is recommended that foreigners keep a low profile while in Afghanistan. That means you’ll have to save the table-top dancing until when you get home.
Two days in Kabul
Two days in Bamian and Shahr-i-Zahak
One day to travel and see the Minaret of Jam
One day at Band-e-Amir
Kabul: shop for jewelry and handicrafts on Chicken street, wander through the Gardens of Babur and take in a host of ruins in this once bustling capital.
Band-e-Amir (Lake of Jewels): set amid a dusty mountain range, the high mineral content of these five lakes gives them their stunning, jewel-like color.
Minaret of Jam: you can climb these remote and mysterious 12th century towers and look down on the valley floor from a height of over 200 feet, and ponder the mystery of their construction that still baffle archaeologists.
Bamian: is the main center for travelers to the Hindu Kush mountain range and was once home to ancient Buddha statues which were destroyed in 2001.
Red City (Shahr-i-Zahak): near Bamian in the Hindu Kush mountains, here you can explore the ruins of an ancient citadel and enjoy the stunning views of mountain lakes along the way.
Panjshir Valley: this lush valley is home to the tomb of a former mujaheddin leader and has great hikes and beautiful views.
Jalalabad: the capital of Nangarhar Province and a winter resort in calmer times. The scenery is full of cypress trees, flowering shrubs and an abundance of delicious oranges.
Kandahar: indulge in locally grown grapes and pomegranates in the second-largest city in Afghanistan.
Trekking: several companies specialize in high security adventure tours that can take you high up in the mountains among the spectacular beauty of the Hindu Kush.
Shopping: two main streets in Kabul are great for shopping: Chicken street and Flower street. Afghanistan has some of the finest lapis lazuli for sale in the world and is well known for handmade carpets. If you are prepared to bargain until your face turns blue, you can walk away with some excellent finds.
Buzkashi: if you manage to catch one of these games in progress, it will be an experience to remember. The popular game sometimes involves hundreds of mounted men trying to dodge whips in order to bring the head of a calf to the goal line, sometimes up to a mile away.
Fighting kites: in competitions, beautifully designed homemade kites with strings coated in glass try to cut each other down and be the last kite in the sky.