I have recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan.
Yes, I went there on holiday. And no, it was not a suicide mission.
I wrote earlier in 2018 that my travel plans for the year included Afghanistan. Mainly for safety reasons though, I didn’t reveal the exact dates and went social media quiet during my trip. I also kept the trip private from the vast majority of my friends and colleagues, instead vaguely stating that I was heading to “one of the ‘stans” in Central Asia. And I told nothing to my parents – why should they worry in vain? – leaving my husband as the chief keeper of my secret.
But it was not only the concern for safety that kept me silent for two weeks. Over the months of 2018 leading up to this trip, I had fallen into a terrible bout of depression; nothing seemed to be working the way I planned plunging me, with each blow, further and further into a feeling of sheer hopelessness. I was sleeping terribly, eating too much, drinking to excess nearly every day and reacting painfully to the slightest provocation.
Honestly speaking, I was not looking forward to travelling to Afghanistan at all. I badly needed a holiday, but, in my destroyed state of mind, longed for something familiar. I wished I had instead planned to travel to Greece, my cultural haven where I always feel instantly at home. Or I could have taken a sick leave – heaven knows I could have easily justified it – and headed for a couple of weeks of hibernation in my flat in Riga under the watchful eye of my oh-so-protective mother. Indeed, it was with a reluctant heart that I boarded a flight to Dubai one rainy London evening, the first step of my journey to Afghanistan.
I could not, in my wildest dreams, imagine that the following two weeks in Afghanistan would restore my confidence and mental health to levels I no longer remembered I once had.
As I am still digesting the experience, I will leave the details of my incredible recovery until the next post. For now, though, let me address numerous questions I have received, from my readers and friends alike, concerning practical matters of travelling in Afghanistan. There are several good blog posts out there already (see below for the list of my favourite ones), but most have focussed on travelling in Afghanistan independently. I went to Afghanistan with a local guide arranged through a well-known Western travel agency; as it was a private tour, I was in full control of my daily itinerary to the extent permitted by safety considerations.
WHY I WENT TO AFGHANISTAN
Despite what many of you have suggested, I did not travel to Afghanistan for a sheer thrill of visiting somewhere “dangerous”. I am not tempted by outright unsafe destinations and will steer clear of the places such as Somalia, Yemen and Venezuela until their safety records improve dramatically. While Afghanistan is without doubt the only dangerous place I have ever visited, it was not its poor score on personal safety or widespread terrorism threat – and whatever “kick” I may have got out of them – that drew me to the country.
Perhaps unbelievably, I had for years been captivated by Afghanistan’s deeply troubled history. Torn apart by the opposing grand powers of the colonial world for centuries, Afghanistan has emerged shaken, battered and unstable. Terrorist attacks are common, and suicide bombings pose an everyday threat in many parts of the country, including the capital city of Kabul. Most of the country is marked as off-limits for visitors by Western governments, and most expats living in Afghanistan rarely venture outside their heavily secured compounds.
And tourists? Needless to say, leisure travellers are a rare sight in Afghanistan. Some 20,000 tourist visas were reported to be issued annually in 2016, a significant number of which I suspect includes non-tourist visitors and is therefore inaccurate. Security in Afghanistan has worsened in the last couple of years due to the resurgence of the Taliban and the emergence of Daesh leading to a growing threat of violence nationwide, and you are unlikely to run into fellow tourists in the country. Nevertheless, there is a small but steady flow of intrepid (stupid?) souls continuing to visit Afghanistan.
I, too, had for a long time thought of Afghanistan as an unattainable dream – a forbidden land of unmatched historic heritage and natural beauty contrasted by its truly volatile safety situation. But reading and hearing accounts of several travellers successfully visiting Afghanistan (some of them listed below) gave me a glimpse of hope. I was keen to see the conflict-torn country with my own eyes, even if travelling there posed considerable risks.
HOW I ORGANISED MY TRIP TO AFGHANISTAN
Let’s repeat: travelling to Afghanistan is not safe. As always, you can familiarise yourselves with a dry summary of facts on the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office website. It suffices to say that three terrorism incidents took place during the two weeks I spent in Afghanistan: first, the horrific attack on 30 April which killed over 30 people including nine journalists; second, the shooting by the police of a would-be suicide bomber targeting a blood donation group on 7 May; and third, three large explosions followed by prolonged confrontation between gunmen and Afghan security forces on 9 May. All of the above attacks were in Kabul – scarily, the blood donation gathering took place in a park directly opposite my guesthouse – though I was not in the city at the time. Further terrorist attacks were carried out in Kandahar and Jalalabad (the former being relatively safe while the latter should decidedly be avoided), in line with the Taliban’s annual spring offensive, declared shortly before my trip. Yes: the timing of my trip could have been far better.
With this in mind, I could not risk being blasé about my visit and outsourced the planning to a well-known travel agency specialising on locations with security challenges: Untamed Borders. There are several other travel agencies running organised tours to Afghanistan, of which the best known are Afghan Logistics & Tours (AL&T, the only local company in the list), Wild Frontiers, Young Pioneer Tours and Hinterland Travel. I dismissed Hinterland Travel immediately due to an incident in 2016, which saw their foreign visitors ambushed by the Taliban. The group were attacked while travelling through an unsafe mountainous area between Kabul and Herat, somewhere they should never have been in the first place. Needless to say, I could not put my life in the hands of a company with such poor judgement.
Wild Frontiers are currently not running tours to Afghanistan, pending an improvement in security. Young Pioneer Tours have since 2016 advertised running 3-4 tours to Afghanistan per year, with itineraries not published online and places open to their existing clients only. I requested quotes from Untamed Borders and AL&T, partly expecting the latter to come out cheaper – but was very surprised to find AL&T more expensive. I did not travel with them and cannot speak for the quality; however, do bear in mind that AL&T provide their guests with armed bodyguards and off-road vehicles and select relatively high-profile hotels. An obvious foreigner inside a 4WD with a guard by their side to my mind screams “this looks like someone important” to potential kidnappers, the main reason I did not end up travelling with AL&T.
On the contrary, Untamed Borders’ guests travel in generic local taxis and stay in low-profile guesthouses. Low-profile is your best friend in a dangerous environment. Given the better price – albeit by far the highest I have paid for any of my organised trips – I decided to go with Untamed Borders.
Untamed Borders have several fixed-date group tours to Afghanistan every year, which are a great way to visit Afghanistan if you enjoy the company of other travellers. However, to increase security further – and to spare others from my social awkwardness, especially given my state of mind at this point – I decided to splash out on a private tour. A group of obvious camera-armed foreigners ferried around together definitely attracts more attention than a single traveller. I am ethnically ambiguous enough to pass, in the right clothing, as a lighter-skinned Afghani; even better, my guide and I were close enough in age to pass as a couple – which many locals assumed we were, further helping my disguise.
Having returned from my trip, I realised, with a painful heart, that I could have paid substantially less had I gone directly to a locally registered Afghan travel company rather than through a Western establishment of the calibre of Untamed Borders. All things on the ground in Afghanistan are actually handled by several local individuals, some of whom have their own travel companies and run similar tours. Unless you are travelling on one of the fixed-date organised group tours in Afghanistan – for which Untamed Borders engage their stellar guides and are indeed famous – the role of a foreign company, such as Untamed Borders, in organising your trip is limited to taking and passing on your information, processing the payment – which significantly exceeds the expenses on the ground in Afghanistan – and answering questions. It is the local contacts that book domestic flights and hotels, arrange guides, vehicles and drivers, make all local payments and prepare the Letter of Invitation (LOI), a key document to receive an Afghan tourist visa. It is easy to see that I could have easily bypassed Untamed Borders in my planning by going directly to one of the local companies.
Running ahead of myself, I travelled to Afghanistan for the second time in October 2018, this time booking through Let’s Be Friends Afghanistan, a local company run by a native of Mazar-i Sharif called Noor Mohammad Ali Chopani. Formerly an NGO worker, Noor speaks excellent English and knows his way around the country, while Sakhi, Noor’s partner, is a superb driver whom I would trust with my life. The price I paid for my second trip was less than one fourth of what I paid to Untamed Borders (granted, my first trip was a solo tour while my husband joined me on the subsequent visit), and, honestly, I wish I had discovered Let’s Be Friends Afghanistan sooner. I cannot think of a reason why anyone would prefer paying substantially more to a Western international company when the same services can be delivered locally for a fraction of the price. Note also that trips organised Let’s Be Friends Afghanistan tend to be all-inclusive while Untamed Borders expect guests to pay for their meals – which are admittedly very cheap in Afghanistan.
Another local company I strongly suspect is good is Silk Road Afghanistan, run by a local of Bamyan called Gull Hussain who frequently leads Untamed Borders’ tours in addition to his own. I haven’t travelled with Gull myself, but ran into him several times during my first visit to Afghanistan.
For honest opinions from other travellers, reach out to the travelling community: I recommend Every Passport Stamp, a Facebook group full of hardcore travellers where I have frequently been given useful travel advice and where Afghanistan is frequently discussed (join the club!).
Finally, I do not recommend visiting Afghanistan without a good, trusted local guide and / or driver. Travelling unaccompanied or picking a stranger off the street for the day is possible, but there is simply too much risk involved. Moreover, very few locals speak English, and those that do tend to look for well-paid positions with embassies, international organisations and NGOs. Finding a trusted English-speaking local willing to accompany a tourist in Afghanistan is nearly impossible at short notice.
If you do travel to Afghanistan (or even are seriously considering going and want a better perspective on security), I recommend that you join Afghanistan Security Sit-Rep, a Facebook group focusing on security notifications in Afghanistan. An average post would contain details of an explosion in a district of Kabul. Not all incidents in Afghanistan, however horrific, make it to the international media. If anything, being on the group gave me a sense of proportion of how widespread security threats are.
WHERE I WENT IN AFGHANISTAN
A relatively safe way to visit Afghanistan is by crossing the border from Tajikistan to the so-called Wakhan corridor. This part of the country was never under the Taliban, and is a popular first introduction to Afghanistan. There is no shortage of travel companies offering treks in Wakhan, and I will most certainly be returning to Afghanistan one day to hike in the backdrop of Badakhshan’s spectacular vistas.
However, on my first trip I wanted to see not just a remote corner of Afghanistan but its core. Perhaps reluctantly, I spent a couple of days in Kabul – despite it being the most dangerous place on my itinerary, I could not miss the country’s capital and centre of activity. It suffices to say that Kabul is a stressful city best summarised by endless concrete walls, barbed wire, heavily armed guards and horrendous traffic.
Surprisingly though, Lake Qargha is also within Kabul’s borders and is a popular getaway spot for Kabulis
Considering the several terrorist attacks that took place around the time I was visiting, it is perhaps understandable that I did my best to escape Kabul as much as possible. I took several excursions out of the city: a day trip to Panjshir valley (beautiful valley and Ahmad Shah Massoud’s final resting place) and half-day trips to Paghman village (famous as a picnic spot for Kabulis with restaurants lined up along a river), Istalif village (famous for its pottery tradition) and Qargha Lake (which is really a man-made reservoir and a dam in the far northwest corner of Kabul, popular for picnic, boating and horse-riding). The biggest drawback of all of those was being stuck in Kabul’s notorious traffic on the way in and out. Truly, Kabul did not become my new favourite city.
I also visited the well-known cities of Herat and Mazar-i Sharif. With its spectacular architecture, Herat reminded me strongly of Iran and was my favourite part of the trip. Unfortunately, security did not allow venturing outside the city. The magnificent Shrine of Hazrat Ali aside, Mazar-i Sharif was a lot less interesting as a city, but excelled at the variety of excursions outside it. I took a day trip to Samangan and half-day trips to Hairatan, the Hazara village nearby (“Qariye Hazara” in Dari) and Balkh. Hairatan was by far the most random destination of the above: its sole attraction was Amu Darya, the river separating Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, and, to a lesser extent, the bridge connecting the two countries. It was certainly a long drive to see not exactly much – but we had a whale of a time.
And what about Bamyan, I hear you ask? Disappointingly, I had to skip this mountainous region renowned for its spectacular natural beauty which had been my primary objective when originally planning my first trip to Afghanistan. Many of you have heard about the Taliban attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul in January 2018, in which 22 people were killed. Nine of the victims were international staff of KamAir, Afghanistan’s leading airline, including pilots and crew members from Ukraine and Venezuela. The subsequent departure of over 50 more foreign staff meant that the airline grounded several of its planes and cancelled over half of its international and domestic flights. The Bamyan route was one of them, and the flights have not resumed to this day.
Why didn’t I simply drive? Like most land routes in Afghanistan, the two roads from Kabul to Bamyan are considered dangerous, and the risk of rapid deterioration of security is high. As I was travelling with a reputable international travel company, they were not prepared to take the risk of transporting me to Bamyan by land. However, it is not impossible: see “Getting Around Afghanistan” below.
Spoiler alert: I did finally reach Bamyan on my second visit to Afghanistan in October 2018! Yes, I drove
Armed with my LOI arranged for Untamed Borders by one of their local partners, I had no problems receiving my tourist visa at the Afghanistan embassy in London. It took two weeks and cost a whopping £140; I later realised that I could have saved half of that had I used my Latvian passport rather than the British one. Too bad the former is almost full…
Tourist visa rules vary across embassies. Most ask for a LOI, but reports emerge from time to time about travellers obtaining tourist visas sans LOI (for example, at the embassy in the Hague, see here). Regulations are known to change without notice, so it is best to double check with the relevant embassy or consulate directly. The consulate in Khorog (Tajikistan) takes 1-2 days to issue a tourist visa; last time I checked, a LOI was not required. Reportedly, a visa from the Khorog consulate is only valid for the Wakhan corridor and will not be accepted by authorities in Kabul. Note that the Bishkek embassy, formerly a painless option for an Afghan visa, no longer issues visas for tourists. If you can easily enter Pakistan, I hear that the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad does not require a LOI and is one of the easiest places to obtain an Afghan visa these days (see this post by Lost With Purpose). Also check here for the comprehensive information on the latest visa situation for Afghanistan.
ARRIVING BY AIR
Some of you were surprised to discover that Kabul receives international flights. But of course! The city may be unsafe but it is by no means a permanent war zone. Very usefully, there are daily flights to two major international air hubs: Istanbul and Dubai. I travelled on British Airways to Dubai and then on the low-cost Flydubai to Kabul: it is important to remember that Flydubai flies from Terminal 2 in Dubai, effectively a separate airport a short taxi ride away from Terminals 1 and 3. It is of course possible to travel on a single ticket all the way from London (and elsewhere served by Turkish Airlines and Emirates), but I just really, really love British Airways.
Kabul airport’s international terminal is relatively small and arrival is easy. Foreigners need to fill out a form to receive a temporary ID card (really a handwritten piece of cardboard with your passport photo stapled on): the booth is in the baggage reclaim hall and the process takes 5 minutes. The ID card itself was asked of me a couple of times during my two weeks in Afghanistan: do carry it with you, but it is otherwise a formality. In theory, it should be collected from you on departure, but nobody asked for mine on either occasion I was exiting the country.
Perhaps the most time-consuming part is exiting (and entering!) the Kabul airport itself. There are three levels of security, and non-passengers are not allowed beyond the car park outside the airport, only police vehicles being allowed to drive up to the terminal buildings. All of this means lugging (or pushing) your luggage for about 500m to and from the international terminal. The domestic terminal is nearer the entrance/exit.
When travelling with a foreign or local travel agency, your guide and / or driver will be waiting for you in the area near the car park. If nobody is waiting for you in Kabul (not a situation I would wish upon anyone), do pair up with an accompanied traveller during your flight or seek help from the police around the airport. Needless to say that you want someone trustworthy near you from the moment you arrive in Afghanistan.
GETTING AROUND AFGHANISTAN
If you are a tourist in Afghanistan, you are likely to limit your visit to Kabul, Herat, Mazar-i Sharif and Bamyan, as well as areas around those cities, security permitting. As mentioned, entering the Wakhan corridor from Tajikistan is also a popular way to get a glimpse of Afghanistan in relative safety. Travelling on to Kabul from Wakhan by land is not advisable for foreign nationals, and all visitors to Wakhan exit by re-entering Tajikistan. Some travellers have also visited Kandahar without incidents, including when I was in Afghanistan; the city itself is relatively safe, but the road connecting it to Kabul passes several Taliban-controlled areas. Luckily, there are flights between Kabul and Kandahar, and I am already planning to include the Pashtun city in my next visit to Afghanistan.
TRAVELLING BY AIR
Whichever cities you decide to visit, the best way to get from one to another is by air. I would go as far as saying that intercity land routes in Afghanistan are all of different degrees of danger, none entirely risk-free and with quick deterioration of security a very real possibility. There is a high risk of kidnapping or indiscriminate attack by terrorist groups like the Taliban or Daesh. As I mention above, a group of tourists travelling by land from Kabul to Herat was attacked by the Taliban as recently as 2016. Domestic flights are not cheap, but many locals prefer to fly rather than risk their lives. Foreigners, especially expats based in Afghanistan and working for international governments and organisations, tend to travel solely by air or, in limited cases, overland with armed escort but this latter option inevitably attracts attention and could actually increase the chances of an attack.
I flew on the Kabul-Mazar-Kabul ($162 return) and Kabul-Herat-Kabul ($180 return) routes. There are currently no scheduled flights connecting peripheral cities without routing via Kabul. The privately owned KamAir (which I flew) is by far the most reliable airline in Afghanistan, operating some 90% of all domestic routes as well as some international routes, including to Istanbul, Delhi and Jeddah. The entire pilot staff of KamAir is international, mostly hired from Ukraine. State owned Ariana, the only real alternative, does not offer KamAir’s variety of routes and reportedly suffers from frequent cancellations and delays.
As mentioned above, there are currently no commercial flights at all between Kabul and Bamyan. Groups have the option of chartering a smaller or larger plane, depending on the group size. Hiring a small plane costs in the region of $8k and was definitely not an option for me. Groups on organised fixed-date tours – such as the well-promoted Bamyan Marathon – tend to fly on humanitarian flights, though, technically, the latter are only supposed to carry NGO workers.
TRAVELLING BY LAND
Travelling by land in Afghanistan is possible for foreign visitors on limited routes. If you can find a trustworthy driver, hiring a private car with a trustworthy driver is a far better option than taking public buses. Get some advice from your guide or driver on what to wear (go shopping beforehand if necessary) to look as local as possible and maximise your chances of not standing out. Keep quiet during stops, including checkpoints.
Taking a public bus is far riskier. When doing so, do not take photos and do not say a word. Some locals may be tempted by handouts from the Taliban for reporting a foreigner – an attractive kidnap target – and could inform someone ahead about your imminent arrival. Even small details like an obvious western backpack or stylish sneakers – let alone not speaking Dari or Pashto – could very easily blow your cover. There are dozens of passengers on intercity buses in Afghanistan, further increasing the risk that at least one person recognises a foreigner. Don’t get me wrong: most people in Afghanistan are lovely (like everywhere else) and will shower you with hospitality, but the last thing you want when enclosed in a moving bus is attracting attention to the fact that you are not local.
I travelled by land in Afghanistan significantly more on my second visit organised by Let’s Be Friends Afghanistan. Travelling with Sakhi, already known to me from my first visit, I made sure to dress more conservatively than I did when not driving (more on that below) – even donning a burqa once. I travelled on the Kabul-Mazar route over the renowned Salang Pass, with some of the worst roads I have seen anywhere in the world, the the Ghorband route connecting the Kabul-Mazar motorway to Bamyan. These two roads seem to be relatively safer than other roads in Afghanistan. I would certainly not consider travelling on other overland routes in the country, including the roads from Kabul to Herat, Kandahar, Badakhshan and the Wardak segment to Bamyan.
If you are already safe (well…) in one of the larger cities, I recommend hiring a driver for the day. Walking around for long periods of time is not a good idea anywhere in Afghanistan; you want to be able to drive off quickly, and tourist attractions in Kabul, Mazar and Herat tend to be far in-between. A reliable driver costs $35-40 per day in a city and $50-55 for a more expensive day trip like Kabul-Panjshir and Mazar-Samangan. When travelling on a tour, all your drivers will have been vetted; when travelling independently, ask your hotel for assistance. Non-descript, slightly battered taxis work best for not attracting attention.
WHERE TO STAY IN AFGHANISTAN
It is important to remember that large, heavily guarded hotels are an obvious target for a terrorist attack because of the psychological and propaganda impact they have. This is especially true in Kabul, where attacks on such hotels are a daily threat. The Intercontinental Hotel has been attacked at least twice, while the Serena – a heavily fortified hotel in Shar-e Noh, the safest part of Kabul – was most recently targeted in 2014.
In Kabul, I stayed longest at a low-profile guesthouse ($45-75 per night) tucked away in a leafy block in Shar-e Noh. The guesthouse is not identifiable as such from the outside – it doesn’t even have a sign – but boasts all the usual security measures of Kabul, including Kalashnikov-clad guards and a concrete maze behind the inconspicuous entrance. With its vast green lawn, the establishment was a pocket of peace in an otherwise stressful city. I stayed in cheaper hotels nearby in Shar-e Noh on my second visit, but the low-profile guesthouse remains my favourite place to stay in Kabul; interestingly, the owner spoke fluent Russian.
The situation in Herat, Mazar and Bamyan is somewhat more relaxed. Foreign tourists regularly stay in identifiable hotels and guesthouses, and I have not found reports on hotel attack in these cities. In Mazar-i Sharif I stayed at Arsalan ($40 per night), which was a bit grubby but otherwise perfectly acceptable, and Baran Imperatory Hotel ($70 per night), the best hotel in town with a massive terrace outside. In Herat, I stayed at Bustan ($40 per night), a recently opened hotel with superb bright rooms and inner balconies which I would highly recommend. Bamyan is probably the safest place you will visit in all of Afghanistan: there are several comfortable hotels, and I stayed at Noor Bandqala Hotel ($50 per night). Against my expectations, all hotels where I stayed had decent WiFi.
Another thing to keep in mind about mid-range hotels in Afghanistan is that they do not tend to offer good value for money. Rooms priced $40-70 per night do not necessarily look like what travellers may be used to elsewhere in Asia for this price. For example, the furniture at the guesthouse in Kabul looked like it had been harvested randomly in a garage sale, and none of the rooms I stayed in were cleaned in the course of 3-4 days. Design solutions may be questionable: in all hotels showers were looming menacingly over toilets – one of which was a squat variety – and all beds were ridiculously hard. Certainly do not expect luxury items such as free toiletries – even soap! I am guessing that hotels are reluctant to invest too much into their appearance given the ongoing instability. Plenty of money goes towards keeping the hotels safe, and this should be your primary consideration in Afghanistan.
I have not travelled in Afghanistan on a limited budget and cannot comment on ultra-cheap guesthouses, hostels and “chaykhanas” (tea houses, some allow travellers to pass the night on a mat on the floor). Not all cheap establishments accept foreigners, and security in those that do may be lagging to say the least. If you are travelling on a budget, this is something to keep in mind – the coward in me certainly does not recommend it.
Interestingly, I have heard several accounts of fellow travellers successfully couchsurfing their way through Afghanistan. It is not as crazy an idea as it sounds: hospitality is an important part of the Afghan culture, and most locals would go out of their way to welcome and protect a guest. If you are a couchsurfing kind of person – I am not – then this is probably a safer way to travel in Afghanistan than staying in budget hotels.
WHAT TO WEAR IN AFGHANISTAN
Worry not: only once did I have to don burqa, and only to keep myself disguised during an overland trip. In fact, unlike in the neighbouring Iran, females in Afghanistan are not legally obliged to cover their heads at all. Some Afghan female singers have their hair (and more) on display on- and off-stage (see here the video for a song by the ridiculously popular Aryana Sayeed and make your own conclusions). However, Afghanistan is still a conservative Muslim country: societal and family pressures are strong, and nearly all women do cover their hair – or full body in more conservative areas – when in public.
In Afghanistan I wore a headscarf while walking in or driving through public areas. However, taking the headscarf off in enclosed areas such as nicer restaurants (not busy eateries), hotels or airports – or while driving in remote areas – is generally fine, though it will inevitably attract looks. Not wearing a headscarf in public areas is not advisable as it goes against the principle of blending in and attracting as little attention as possible. When every other woman in the street is covered and you are not, you are guaranteed to stand out.
A “good” outfit for females will include a tunic or dress coming at least halfway down the thighs (knee-length or longer is better), long trousers and a headscarf. Sleeves need to go at least to the elbows, but 3/4 and longer is much better. It is fine to wear leggings or skinny jeans with a loose knee-length top, but looser trousers are advisable if the top is shorter. Wearing sandals is fine, but many parts of Afghanistan are very dusty: dark closed shoes work best.
Headscarf can be worn “Iranian” style, only loosely framing the head. It is perfectly fine for some hair to be visible, though you will see fewer scarves symbolically “dangling” off the back of head, something I got used to seeing in Iran. Stricter hijab common in the Middle East is not necessary.
And no, females visiting Afghanistan need not look like frumps. I once again put to use the several colourful combinations of my beloved salwar kameez from India – worn extensively across the Subcontinent – and found that I blended in just fine. Many people assumed that I was either local or from Pakistan. With a better command of Dari and without my professional photography backpack, I am sure that I could very convincingly pass as an Afghani.
The situation for men is much simpler. If you are travelling with a foreign company, you will likely be asked to don the traditional salwar kameez worn by most Afghan men. The outfit consists of a knee-length shirt (which sometimes has embroidery on the front) and loose trousers of the same colour, as well as (optionally) a darker vest and headwear (turban or pakol, a flat woollen hat). There is a great variety of colours for salwar kameez – my favourite was dark purple, an eye candy! – but most local men opt for white or light blue.
But going “local” is not strictly necessary. Plenty of local men wear western clothing, including jeans and polo shirts. My guide, for one, did not even own a salwar kameez; him being dressed in western attire actually helped us look more like a modern local couple rather than an obvious foreigner + guide. Perhaps this isn’t a popular opinion, but I believe that Afghan clothing provides limited disguise to foreign men. Haircuts, skin colour, beard styles, glass frames, camera bags, etc are all instant giveaways – so why don something which on most western men looks simply out of place and indeed attracts attention?
Speaking of beards, many locals wear relatively short or no beards. Long bushy beards are associated with the Taliban and are not the best idea to import into Afghanistan. Some foreigners even got into some serious trouble in Wakhan, their long beards being a factor. Barbers’ services are cheap and many younger Afghanis keep their beards perfectly trimmed and styled.
Language: The lingua franca in Afghanistan is Dari, a version of Persian similar to Farsi spoken in Iran and Tajik spoken in Tajikistan. Few people in Afghanistan speak English, and learning a few words of Dari is very much advisable. I started listening to videos and going through study books for Persian several months before my first trip, and even the limited knowledge I gained helped me tremendously in Afghanistan. I got to the point where locals could briefly be led to think that I was a local journalist (thanks to a tonne of photo equipment) of Tajik origin (not always the case, but Tajiks are considered to be lighter skinned compared to other ethnic groups in Afghanistan).
The problem with Dari is that, compared to the Iranian version of the language, there aren’t that many study materials available. I chose to study Farsi spoken in Iran, only to find out, upon arrival in Afghanistan, that Iranians speak in a highly “over the top” manner, with some expressions so elaborate and dramatic that they sound almost comical to an average Dari speaker. As an example, a phrase “dastet dard nakoneh” (literally “may your hand not ache”, a common form of thank you in Iran) is equivalent to a joke in Afghanistan, often leading the parties to go through many more body parts which they wish upon another to not ache!
Money: There are ATMs in Afghanistan which take foreign cards. Fellow travellers have reported few or no issues withdrawing local currency (Afghanis). If you have easy access to Euros or US Dollars, exchanging both is easy. US Dollars could even be used interchangeably with Afghanis in some situations, for example as payment in restaurants, with change given in Afghanis.
Alcohol: Alcohol is formally banned in Afghanistan. As it happens, it is also very much available! The situation isn’t as extreme as in Iran, but finding alcohol in Afghanistan is relatively easy with a good local contact. I had beer on a couple of occasions in Mazar-i Sharif, where there is even a semblance of a “bar” hidden from view in an upper-end hotel (all very industrial: forget the concept of atmosphere). The brands on offer were Paulaner and, hilariously, Russian Baltika – I wouldn’t normally touch either, but beer choices were understandably limited in Afghanistan.
Perhaps thanks to Mazar’s proximity to the Uzbek border, beer there is cheaper than elsewhere in the country, though still ridiculously pricey at $7-10 per 0.5 litre can. Stronger drinks like wine (which, for some reason, only comes in white) and whisky are also available and are even more expensive.
Cannabis: Because Afghanistan! Smoking hashish is the first thing on many tourists’ minds when visiting the country. Did you know that Afghanistan has been reported to lead the world’s production in cannabis? Many Afghans (overwhelmingly men) smoke hashish recreationally, and certainly will not judge you fancying experiencing the “real” Afghanistan, too. A joint costs $1-2, and the quality is superior to any nonsense smelled so frequently on the streets of London. Ask your local contact to arrange one, remembering to consume responsibly.
Food: Now that we’ve discussed the important things! Most of your meals in Afghanistan will be either kebab or pilau (rice) dishes, served with generous amounts of flat bread and yoghurt. Meat definitely dominates the Afghan cuisine; salads are available but tend to be roughly chopped vegetables arranged on a plate sans dressing rather than the variety familiar in the West. A nice alternative to kebab and pilau is mantu, a kind of dumpling also popular elsewhere in Central Asia and in Turkey. The Afghan variety is filled with meat and is usually served with yoghurt.
Afghan restaurants typically have a “family” section separated from the main area, where women and mixed groups are expected to sit. Such areas tend to be tucked away from natural light, often with a curtain to enhance the segregation, and lose out significantly on the atmosphere. I absolutely resented being banished to family sections in more conservative parts of Afghanistan; thankfully, as a foreign woman, I was granted considerable leeway in cities and so always, always opted to sit with the men and have a more enjoyable experience. Whilst I did receive some looks, they were uniformly full of curiosity and well-wishing and never hostility.
If you can get yourself invited to an Afghan home, your food options increase: there are many dishes in the Afghan cuisine not typically served in restaurants. Trying some of them is the number one item on the agenda for my next visits to Afghanistan!
OTHER TRAVELLERS’ ACCOUNTS
- Alex (and, at the time, Sebastiaan) of Lost With Purpose have given the world an excellent guide to travelling Afghanistan independently (although the number of ads is mildly infuriating).
- Unchartered Backpacker’s Stephen has also visited Afghanistan independently (seriously, am I such a chicken?). Some details need to be updated, but I really like the recap of his trip.
- Stevie of Stevie on the Move has discovered first-hand how not to travel Afghanistan. Read about his (at times unbelievable) misadventures in Wakhan. What else could have possibly gone wrong?
- Finally, Nicole of Adventures of Lil Nicki has also visited Afghanistan twice, providing the world with a well-organised written guide. Like me, Nicole is already planning her next visit to Afghanistan: a fan!