Practical matters for visiting Afghanistan
Information provided here reflects observations and research from May 2003 and may no longer be accurate.
Is it safe?
Is it safe?
Not really, but then again neither is driving a car. Safety is subjective and relative to your own level of comfort and definition of what is and isn't an acceptable risk. It's been my experience that people base safety decisions more on emotion than on fact. I think there are two excellent examples of this. The first is the panic over SARS, a disease that took significantly fewer lives than influenza, malaria, dengue fever, road accidents, and a host of other potential events which people face every day in Asia (tourists included) and around the world and do not cancel travel plans over. The second is the panic over terrorism, again statistically speaking there are far greater risks than a terrorist act which is something you have no control over, so you're an idiot if you live in fear of it. But most people don't use a more objective statistical analysis in assessing risks, preferring, I suppose, to leave such endeavors to actuaries.
That said, is Afghanistan a safe travel destination? Broadly speaking, no, not really. While it's not the most dangerous place in the world, it's not exactly a place ready to take on tour groups and gap years, either. Obviously, people are traveling in Afghanistan and doing so without incident. I had no problems. But there are things to be careful about. Driving habits are atrocious. Land mines are everywhere. The Taliban is becoming more active. Security around the country is not good, meaning that if you choose to travel in the countryside, which I did, realize you are *on your own*. Yes, there are road blocks and vehicle searches coming in and out of most towns, but in between... sometimes nothing. As of May 2003 travel in the Kandahar and Southeastern regions by westerners was another foolish idea. If you want to go, by all means go, but be aware.
The best thing I can recommend is that if you plan to visit Afghanistan you exercise a higher than usual level of awareness of what's going on around you, don't lose your common sense, consider the motives of strangers, be skeptical, and keep abreast of the latest situation around the country. If this seems like useless and vague information than you might not be ready for Afghanistan.
With so few tourists, especially western ones, there really isn't anyone hanging around looking to prey on you, because no one is expecting you to be here in the first place. It's targets like the US embassy, ISAF personnel, US military, UN/NGO offices that would stand a better chance of being hit as they are there every day following more predictable patterns. As a tourist, you can be unpredictable and when strangers ask questions about your plans, where you stay, etc, don't be timid to lie.
A few of Gordon's travel lies:
On the positive side, most Afghans are tired of war, have no interest in a Taliban resurgence (at least not a violent one), are happy to have foreigners visit, and will take care of you as best as they can. But it only takes one extremist to ruin your day.
Another refreshing aspect of travel in Afghanistan is the lack of scams. Having no tourists, there hasn't been the motivation for shady characters to cook up scams that separate gullible westerners from their cash. No doubt, when the tourists do start arriving, so too then, will the scam artists.
Relatively easy to obtain. In Pakistan, where many people get their visas, the fees are presently $30 (US) though this price may vary elsewhere. Some embassies and consulates will issue a 30-day visa valid for thirty days, others will issue a 15-day visa valid for ninety days. In Pakistan, the Peshawar consulate will probably issue the 30/30 visa while the embassy in Islamabad is more likely to give you the 15/90 visa. Some embassies will ask for a letter from either your own embassy, or if you're going with an agency or on business, a letter from your employer. If asked, you may be able to talk yourself out of this requirement as I was.
Land and air. The most popular route is from Pakistan via Torkham and the Khyber Pass. My experiences in doing this are detailed in the Introduction section. There is also a border crossing to the south near Quetta. Check the security situation before you use this route. As of May 2003, using the southern route was not a very intelligent idea. From Iran you can enter from Mashad to Herat. The logical progression is to then travel onward to Kandahar and north from there. Again, as of May 2003, not a good idea. If you want to travel this route, check the situation before you do. There are also border crossings with Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. The Kabul Caravan website has more detailed information on the Central Asia crossings.
By air, Ariana flies a number of regional international routes to Kabul. Check their website for the latest schedule. Pakistan International also offers an Islamabad to Kabul flight.
Ariana has weekly and now cheap domestic flights between Herat and Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul. But driving is more fun, if not a little less safe. Options are bus, Hi-Ace van (fourteen seats), TownAce vans (seven seats), and share taxis (usually four seats). Predictably, each form of transport becomes more expensive as the number of seats diminish. Some bargaining may be necessary for foreigners, but in general, every passenger, in theory, should be paying the same. Roads are mostly in poor condition (Cambodia travelers will feel right at home) and driving habits can be atrocious. Some roads are problematic in the winter due to snow and ice. For long distance ground transport, the vehicles depart from different locations scattered around the outskirts of Kabul depending on the destination. There is no central depot.
Mostly overpriced and of poor quality. There are decent options in Kabul but you'll pay. Of course, compared to Europe or the States, accommodation is a bargain, but Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world so the comparison shouldn't even have to be made. Read my Kabul section for more opinions on lodging and the costs involved.
Things to bring
A jacket. A map. An open mind. Patience. A Dari/Farsi phrase book or dictionary. A bit of knowledge on Afghanistan's history. A bit more knowledge on Islam. Packets of Nestle 3 in 1 coffee mix (if you're a coffee junkie). A camera. Two cameras. Pictures from home.
Things to know
Up-to-date info on the security situation. Islam. Afghanistan's history. Some Dari. Where you're going.
Should you go?
Please do not e-mail me asking this question, I'm not your mommy. If you can't make this decision for yourself, then my answer is don't go. I will, however, be happy to answer intelligent questions to help you make up your mind about what to do. So read all that you can and make an informed decision.
Toilets and showers
Yucch. Toilets are almost nonexistent and when you do find one, you'll wish you hadn't bothered. As for showers, you'll either have to drop some cash for a hotel room with running water or avail yourself of the public bathhouses (hammons).
See the resources section.
Practical matters for visiting Afghanistan
All text and photographs © 1998 - 2010 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.