Afghanistan is a landlocked country in the heart of Asia, bordered by Pakistan to the south and east, Iran to the west, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the north. There is a short border with China to the far northeast, but in extremely inaccessible terrain.
Afghanistan has been the centre of many powerful empires for the past 2,000 years. However, in the last 30 years the country has been in chaos due to major wars -- from the Soviet invasion of 1979 to their withdrawal in 1989 and from warlordism to the removal of the Taliban in 2001 and the ensuing American and NATO invasion. Economically, Afghanistan is considered poor compared to many other nations of the world. The country is currently going through a nation-wide rebuilding process.
Afghanistan has spent the last 3 decades in the news for all the wrong reasons. While it has much to offer to the intrepid traveller, it is a true war zone. Even the most adventurous travellers would be best advised to look elsewhere.
Temperatures in the central highlands are below freezing for most of the winter, and snow is common at higher elevations. Summertime highs in lower elevations (such as Jalalabad or Mazar-e Sharif) can exceed 50°C/120°F. In higher areas such as Kabul, summer temperatures can be 30°C/90°F and winter around 0°C/30°F. The most pleasant weather in Kabul is during April, May and September.
Mostly rugged mountains; plains in north and southwest. The Hindu Kush mountains run northeast to southwest, dividing the northern provinces from the rest of the country, with the highest peaks found in the northern Wakhan Corridor. South of Kandahar is desert. Kandahar is beautiful in places, and amazing people like Nargis my dear friend is from there.
The lowest point is Amu Darya at 258m, and the highest is Nowshak at 7,485m.
Afghanistan is an ethnically diverse country. Tribal and local allegiances are strong, which complicates national politics immensely.
The largest ethnic group is the Pashtun, followed by Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek and others.
There are about three thousand Hindus and Sikhs living in different cities of the country but mostly in Kabul, Jalalabad, and Kandahar who belong to the Punjabi, Sindhi, Kabuli, and Kandhari ethnic groups.
Hazaras in the Central mountains look much more Asiatic than other Afghans. According to some theories, many of them are descended from Ghengis Khan's soldiers.
Afghanistan is a multilingual country in which two languages - Persian (Dari) and Pashto are both official with Persian being most widely spoken in the country. Pashto speakers predominate in the South and East, Persian in North, West and central Afghanistan. About 11% of the population have Turkic languages, Uzbek or Turkmen, as their first language. Many of them are in the North, near Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Minor native language groups include Nuristani, Dardic and Pamiri, found in small pockets in the east and northeast.
Mir Wais Hotak, an Afghan tribal leader, rose up against the oppressing Shi'a Safavids in 1709 and made Afghanistan an independent state by establishing the Hotaki dynasty, with its capital at Kandahar. His son Mahmud later conquered what is now Iran and Iraq but the Hotaki dynasty collapsed in 1738. In 1747, Ahmad Shah Durrani re-established an independent Afghanistan and expanded it to include what is now Pakistan as well as northeastern Iran and the Western parts of India. The country has a long history of warfare, mostly against invaders such as Alexander of Macedon, Persians, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, and the British. On the contrary, it was once the second major Islamic learning center after Baghdad. Many world renowned scholars, scientists, mathematicians and poets hail from what is now Afghanistan. This includes Avicenna, Al-Biruni, Rumi, and others.
The Taliban grew out of this chaos in late 1994, providing a solution to what was by this time a civil war. Backed by foreign sponsors, and inspired by a conservative sect of Islam, the Taliban developed as a political force to end the civil war and bring order to the country. They seized the capital of Kabul in September 1996 and controlled most of the country by 2000, aside from some areas in the northeast.
After the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the world focused on the situation in Afghanistan. Washington accused Osama bin Laden and al Qaida for attacking the US, requested that the Taliban hand these people over to US authorities and destroy all al Qaida training camps inside Afghanistan. The Taliban refused this on principle setting the stage for US and NATO-led invasion of Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban regime.
That same month, representatives from all ethnic groups of Afghanistan met in Germany and agreed to form a new democratic government with Hamid Karzai as Chairman of the Afghan Interim Authority. Following a nationwide election in 2004, Hamid Karzai was elected as President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. A year later, in 2005, legislative elections were held and the country's parliament began functioning again. In addition to occasionally violent political jockeying and ongoing military action to root out anti-government elements, the country suffers from poverty, opium cultivation, and widespread corruption.
In 2005, Afghanistan and the US signed a strategic partnership agreement committing both nations to a long-term relationship. In 2012, the two countries signed another more important strategic partnership agreement in which Afghanistan was designated a major non-NATO ally (MNNA). Afghanistan also signed a strategic partnership agreement with India, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, and many other nations. In the meantime around 50 billion US dollars is being spent on the reconstruction of the country.
Officially 220V at 50Hz. Electricity supplies are erratic but slowly improving in major cities. Voltage can drop to below 150V in some places. The Afghans' enthusiasm for home-made generators or modifying low quality ones means that the frequency and voltage can also vary wildly.
There are three types of electrical outlets likely to be found in Afghanistan. They are the old British standard BS-546, the newer British standard BS-1363 and the European standard CEE-7/7 "Schukostecker" or "Schuko". The latter is the standard and obviously most common. Generally speaking, US and Canadian travellers should pack adapters for these outlets if they plan to use North American electrical equipment in Afghanistan. You may also find cheap universal adapters in the local markets.
English spellings of Afghan place names vary. For example, Q may replace K as in Qandahar or Qunduz. Kunduz will be seen spelled as Konduz, Qunduz, Qundoz, Qundoze and variations on these. Bamiyan is often spelled as Bamian or Bamyan. Khowst may be spelt as Khost.
Most visitors need to apply for a visa in advance, but those are often easier to obtain than you might expect. See the Afghanistan Foreign Ministry's visa webpage .
Kabul International Airport or Khwaja Rawash Airport (IATA: KBL) in Kabul is the main entry point to the country. In late 2008, the barely functioning old terminal was refurbished and is now being used for domestic flights, while the brand new Japanese-constructed terminal is up and running and fielding international flights.
There are a number of roads into Afghanistan:
As of mid-2009, none of these routes can be considered safe. The Torkham and the Quetta to Kandahar routes are particularly dangerous.
Buses run regularly between Jalalabad and Peshawar, Pakistan. Also, between Herat and Mashad, Iran. Buses of both countries are thoroughly checked by border police for possible drugs or weapons, so expect delays.
Planes fly between Kabul and the major cities (Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-e Sharif) at varying frequency. If weather is suitable, flights are operated daily. Most flights depart cities in the mornings before 11:00 only. Civilian aircraft are not operated after sun-down.
There is a growing network of public transportation between the country's cities. Buses ply some routes and Toyota vehicles have a near monopoly on minivan (HiAce) and taxi (Corolla) transportation.
A new highway connects Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif. The highway is in good condition and is considered "relatively" safe. The trip takes a minimum of 5h. The highway goes through the famous Salang Mountains and cross the Hindu Kush mountain ranges. If you hire a relatively new Toyota Corolla, this would cost you about US$100 (if bargained by a local) for one direction from the Mazar Station in Kabul to anywhere in Mazar-i-Sharif.
There is no metered taxi in large parts of Afghanistan. Taxis are yellow and clearly identifiable. You should normally strike a deal with the driver before you take a seat. You can consider 2-3km of road in ideal conditions to be around USD1 worth (AFN50).
Jeeps and Land Cruisers are available for hire along with drivers who speak some English (do not keep your hopes high that you might bump into one of them). There are tour operators in Kabul that can provide a car and guide; these people are available for hire at the Kabul International Airport itself. Petrol stations are scarce in the countryside, and fuel is expensive.
Paved roads are the exception, not the rule, and even those roads can be in poor repair. Once outside the major cities expect dirt roads (which turn to mud during rain or snow melt). The highway between Kabul and Bagram is dominated by military convoys and "jingle trucks".
A new highway links Kabul to Kandahar. The highway is in good condition but should not be considered safe due to frequent attacks by anti-government forces such as the Taliban who often plant powerful mines (bombs) next to highways in which civilians are killed , and the poor standard of driving. The trip takes a minimum of 5 hours.
Pashto and Dari, an Afghan dialect of Persian, are both the official languages of Afghanistan. Most Afghans are able to speak in Dari and Pashto. The latest CIA country profile mentions that Dari is spoken by about 50%, mainly in the Kabul, Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Central Afghanistan regions. Pashto is spoken by 35%, mainly in the South and East; it is also spoken in neighbouring Pakistan. The remaining are Turkic native language, primarily Uzbek and Turkmen, and there are also 30 minor languages such as Balochi. You'll find a few people in Kabul who speak a little English but otherwise it isn't widely understood. Quite a lot of people also speak basic Urdu/Hindi due to the fact that millions of Afghans lived in refugee camps in Pakistan and the popularity of Bollywood in this country.
As to English it is now at the climax of its flourishing in Afghanistan and the percentage of those who speak English now has reached unprecedented rates. President Karzai and his cabinet are fluent in English. English was taught at past from the 7th grade, but now is taught from the fourth grade. Signs in English in the streets are becoming common now all over the country. English is the second foreign language in Afghanistan.
The afghani (AFN) is, perhaps non-surprisingly, the currency of Afghanistan. As of Nov 2014, USD1 equals about AFN58, while €1 trades at about AFN72.
Haggling is very much part of the tradition.
Afghanistan's most famous products are carpets. There are carpets described as "Afghan", but also at least two other carpet-weaving traditions. The Baluchi tribes in the South and West weave fine rugs, and the Turkoman tribes in the North do as well; both groups are also found in neighbouring countries. All three types tend to use geometric patterns in the design, usually with red as the background colour and with repeated elements called "guls" to make the pattern. Generally, these are not as finely woven as carpets from the cities of neighboring Iran. However, many of them are quite beautiful and their prices are (assuming good haggling) well below those of the top Iranian carpets.
It is fairly common for rugs woven by nomads — such as many Baluchi rugs and some Turkoman — to show minor irregularities. The loom is dismantled for transport and re-assembled at the new camp, so the rug may not turn out perfectly rectangular. Vegetable dyes are often used, and these may vary from batch to batch, so some colour variation (arbrash) occurs and this may be accentuated as the rug fades. To collectors, most such irregularities come in the "that's not a bug; it's a feature" category; they are expected and accepted. In fact, a nice arbrash can considerably increase the value of a rug.
Turkoman designs are widely copied; it is common to see "Bokhara" carpets from India or Pakistan, China produces some, and the Afghan carpet designs show heavy Turkoman influence. To collectors, though, the original Turkoman rugs are worth a good deal more. Good Baluchi rugs are also quite valuable in Western countries. Afghan rugs, or lower grade Baluchi and Turkoman rugs, generally are not collectors' items; most travellers will find the best buys among these. Experts might pay premium prices for the top-grade rugs, but amateurs trying that are very likely to get severely overcharged.
Kelims are flat-woven fabric with no pile. These are nowhere near as tough as carpets and will not survive decades on the floor as a good carpet will. However, some are lovely, and they are generally cheaper than carpets. Things like purses made of carpet or decorated with kelim weave are also common.
Another common product and popular souvenir is the Afghan sheepskin coat. These have the wool on the inside for warmth and the leather on the outside to block wind, rain and snow. They often have lovely embroidery. Two cautions, though. One is that the makers use the embroidery to hide flaws in the leather; top-quality coats will have little or no embroidery. The other is that Australian customs have been known to incinerate these coats on arrival, to protect their large sheep population from diseases (notably anthrax) that poorly tanned Afghan products might carry.
There are also various bits of metalwork — heavily decorated pots, vases and platters, and some quite nice knives.
Guns are very common in Afghanistan and some are of considerable interest to historians and collectors.
These make a rather problematic souvenir. Importing a firearm anywhere can be difficult and it may be impossible in some places. If you are travelling overland and passing through several countries before you reach home, it is almost certainly not worth the trouble. Also, if you actually fire any Afghan gun, there is a risk that it will blow up in the face of the shooter.
Afghanistan has several sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List, including:
Afghanistan has many exciting places to visit.
The mountainsides in Afghanistan are also stunning, many different scenic hikes can be done in this area. The Pamir mountains are the largest of all. These run along the Kabul Pass.
There are mainly three types of Afghan bread:
Rice dishes are the "king" of all foods in Afghanistan. The Afghans have certainly taken much time and effort in creating their rice dishes, as they are considered the best part of any meal. Wealthier families will eat one rice dish per day. The Afghan royalty spent much time on rice preparation and invention as evidenced in the sheer number of rice dishes in their cookbooks. Weddings and family gatherings must feature several rice dishes and certainly reputations can be made in the realm of rice preparation.
Qorma is a stew or casserole, usually served with chawol. Most qormas are onion-based. Onions are fried, then meat is added, as are a variety of fruits, spices, and vegetables depending on the recipe. Finally water is added and left to simmer. The onion caramelizes and creates a richly colored stew. There exist over 100 qormas.
Pasta is called "khameerbob" in Afghanistan and is often in the shape of dumplings. These native dishes are wildly popular. Due to the time-consuming process of creating the dough for the dumplings, it is rarely served at large gatherings such as weddings, but for more special occasions at home:
Desserts and Snacks
Since Afghanistan is an Islamic country, alcohol consumption is illegal. However, it is tolerated in western restaurants in Kabul.
Hotels and guesthouses are available in all major cities, and while some may not meet international standards they are usually friendly and reliable.
Many foreigners are finding well paid work in Afghanistan as part of the reconstruction efforts. Often with the UN or other non-governmental organisations. Most of these jobs are within Kabul. Local wages are very low, especially outside of Kabul. However, everyone should read and understand the travel advice published by their respective governments or in the Stay safe section below.
Afghanistan is a volatile country, and downright dangerous in the southern and eastern areas -- non-essential travel is strongly discouraged. The Taliban has now declared abduction of foreigners to be one of its primary goals. In July 2007, twenty-three Koreans were kidnapped from a public bus in Ghazni province, south of Kabul. Two of them were murdered while the rest were set free several weeks later after controversial negotiations with the Korean government.
The northern part of the country is considered to be safer than the south and east; however, occasional incidents can still occur anywhere and a seemingly safe place can become the opposite in an instant. Several German media reporters were killed in the northern parts of Afghanistan, most likely by criminals or anti-westerners. 10 doctors (8 foreigners and 2 translators) were murdered in August 2010.
Landmines and other UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) remain a problem across the country, so plan to stick to well-worn paths, avoid red and white painted rocks, and do not touch or move any suspicious-looking item. According to the Afghan Red Crescent Society, approximately 600-700 people are injured or killed every year in accidents due to landmines and UXO. This is greatly reduced from over 1,600 in 2002. While travelling in Afghanistan you are likely to see mine clearance organisations at work.
Improvised Explosive Devices are a problem, even on well-worn paths, particularly in the south. IEDs can appear in areas said to be clear of landmines.
Insects, Arachnids and Snakes are also something to be careful of, as the mountainous country has many vicious tiny creatures such as scorpions, spiders, snakes, etc.
In some areas, altitude sickness is a significant risk.
Organized criminal activity is endemic in Afghanistan's South and Southwest, primarily connected to the heroin trade. Rival criminal factions have violently settled disputes in broad daylight. Criminal gangs generally pose less risk to tourists than the Taliban.
If, after considering the risks, you still choose to travel in Afghanistan, hiring an armed escort or travelling with an experienced guide are ways to decrease the risks. You should also check with your embassy, and be clear on what they can and cannot do for you in an emergency.
See also: War zone safety
Afghanistan has its fair share of health issues, and it would be wise to consult a travel doctor ahead of your trip about vaccinations and health risks. Respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis and food-related illness are common, and malaria is a risk in many parts of the country.
Afghanistan is one of the dustiest countries in the world, and you should be prepared to be covered in it and breathing it for most of your stay, even in the major cities. Pollution from diesel engines can also make life unpleasant.
Flies are notoriously heinous here, likely due to poor sanitation. Winter brings some relief, but they come back full-strength when spring arrives.
Food should be approached with a discerning eye, as hygiene standards can often be lacking. Hot, freshly cooked food is generally safer. Bottled water is also advised, unless you have your own purification system.
Bring any prescription medicine you may need from your home country, and don't count on being able to find it locally. You may also consider carrying pain relievers and anti-diarrheals, as they'll be hard to find outside of major cities.
As in most parts of Asia, squat toilets are the norm, with toilet paper optional and sometimes scarce. Western-style toilets are seen occasionally in newer buildings and some private homes.
Fixed line telephone service is available in major cities (digital in Kabul) and mobile phones in most cities. SIM cards are available and international calls to Europe/US typically cost less than USD0.50/minute. Outside of major cities your options are limited to a satellite phone.