WARNING: Traveling in Afghanistan is extremely dangerous. Because large parts of the country, and in particular, most of the South and East; are effectively a war zone. Threats are unpredictable and the situation can change very quickly.
Trips should be meticulously planned and travellers should keep abreast of the latest security situation throughout their stay. If, despite the risks, you still find yourself heading there, see War zone safety and the "Stay safe" section below.
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 center 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 so that it can once again become a sovereign and peaceful place as it was before 1979.
Afghanistan has spent the last 3 decades in the news for all the wrong reasons. While visiting has not been advisable for several years, it has much to offer the intrepid traveler. That said, even the more adventurous should consider looking elsewhere for thrill-seeking at the moment.
Temperatures in the north can be below freezing for most of the winter, and snow in the higher elevations is common. Summertime highs in lower elevations (such as Kandahar) can exceed 50C/120F. In higher areas such as Kabul, summer temperatures can be 30C/90F and winter around 0C/30F. 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.
The lowest point is Amu Darya at 258 meters, and the highest is Nowshak at 7,485 meters.
Afghanistan is a very ethnically diverse country. Tribal and local allegiances are strong, which complicates national politics immensely.
The Largest ethnic groups are the Pashtuns, Tajiks/Persians, Hazaras, and Uzbeks.
Baloch tribesmen, still largely nomadic, can be found anywhere between Quetta in Pakistan and Mashad in Iran, including much of Western Afghanistan. They make marvellous rugs, if somewhat simple.
There are about 30,000 to 150,000 Hindus and Sikhs living in different cities but mostly in Jalalabad, Kabul, 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, they are descended from Ghengis Khan's soldiers.
The two largest linguistic groups speak Pashto and Dari (Afghan Persian). Pashto speakers predominate in the South and East, Dari 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.
Afghanistan was created as a nation in 1747 by Ahmad Shah Durrani, with its capital at Kandahar. The country has a long history of warfare, mostly against invaders such as Alexander of Macedon, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Persians, and the British. Its recent history is no exception.
The Afghan Girl
The June 1985 cover of National Geographic displayed the most haunting image of the Afghan War: a young Afghan girl, with piercing sea-green eyes and a dilapidated hijab. The photo, taken by Steve McCurry in Pakistan in 1984, became the icon of the troubles in Afghanistan. But, for 17 years, no one knew the girl's name. Then in 2002, following the defeat of the Taliban, National Geographic finally located the girl and her identity: Sharbat Gula. She vividly recalled being photographed and recognized her face as the one in the photo. Today, in her honor, NG now runs a fund to educate young Afghan girls, who were denied education under the Taliban.
The Soviet Union invaded in 1979, to support a local socialist government. They were forced to withdraw 10 years later by anti-Communist mujahideen rebels, who were supplied and trained by the US, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran and others. Fighting subsequently continued among the various mujahideen factions, giving rise to a state of warlords.
The Taliban grew out of this chaos, providing a solution to what was by this time a civil war. Backed by foreign sponsors, and inspired by a conservative sect of Islam, Taliban developed as a political force to end the civil war and bring security to the country. They eventually seized power and controlled most of the country, aside from some areas in the northeast.
After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, the Taliban refused to hand-over Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida militants. The US and allies decided to take military action with support from anti-Taliban Afghans and Pakistan's government, causing the Taliban's government to fall in December 2001.
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, corruption, and widespread opium cultivation.
In 2005, the United States and Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership agreement committing both nations to a long-term relationship. In the meantime approximately 30 billion US dollars are being spent on the reconstruction of the nation, most of this funding came from America with some from European and Asian countries such as Britain, Germany, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran and others.
Officially 220V 50Hz. Electricity supplies are erratic but slowly improving in major cities. Voltage can drop to below 150V in some places. The Afghans' enthusiasm for homemade 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". There is no single recognized standard. Hence, you may encounter any or all of these outlet types there. Generally speaking, U.S. and Canadian travelers 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. Konduz will be seen spelled as 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, and are often easier to obtain than you might expect. See the Afghanistan Foreign Ministry's visa webpage .
Kabul International 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.
The national carrier, Ariana Afghan Airlines , is flying with a small fleet of about 14 Airbuses and Boeings (plus Antonovs). They have daily flights from Dubai, and periodic flights from Frankfurt, Islamabad, Delhi, Istanbul, Baku and Tehran. Ariana is particularly bad at keeping to schedules, flights can be cancelled or delayed without notice.
A far better option is the independent operator Kam Air , which has twice daily flights from Dubai, twice weekly flights from Delhi and weekly flight from Almaty, Istanbul and Mashad. Some of the flights on the Dubai to Kabul route stop in Herat if you'd prefer to enter the country there. Pamir Airways is a new private airline that offers daily flights between Kabul and Dubai ($330 inbound, $210 outbound), some stopping in Herat.
Air Arabia flies 4 times per week from Sharjah - however they have currently suspended operations. Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flies 4 times per week from Islamabad and 1 time per week from Peshawar to Kabul. Another route in may be via through Tehran or Mashad in Iran. Iran Air has periodic flights from Tehran to Kabul. Air India operates six flights a week from Delhi to Kabul.
The best and safest airline between Dubai and Kabul is Safi Air. They are the only safety accredited airline in Afghanistan. Safi is the only Afghan airline allowed to fly into Europe and has direct flights to Frankfurt, Germany. The service is good and planes are sound. Staff are professional.
Flights to other cities such as Mazar-e Sharif may be available if you can hook up with the charter company PACTEC however seating is very limited.
The famous Khyber Pass is currently closed to anyone except Afghans or Pakistanis. Some travel blogs/forums claim that hiding in a vehicle and bribing the border guards works, but doing so is very risky and could lead to imprisonment. Even more risky, however, is the threat from Taliban near the pass, who have been known to kill/kidnap Westerners. You are strongly discouraged from passing through the Khyber Pass. (May 2009)
There are a number of roads into Afghanistan:
As of mid-2009, none of these routes can be considered safe. The Khyber and the Quetta to Kandahar route are particularly dangerous.
Buses run regularly between Jalalabad and Peshawar, Pakistan. Also, between Herat and Mashad, Iran. Afghani buses are thouroughly checked by Iranian border police for possible drugs, so expect delays.
Planes fly between Kabul and the major cities (Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-e Sharif) at varying frequency.
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.
Jeeps and Land Cruisers are available for hire along with drivers who speak some English. There are tour operators in Kabul that can provide a car and guide. 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".
Stay out of the way of military convoys! They travel fast and are heavily armed. Driving too close or approaching quickly from behind is an excellent way to be mistaken for a car bomber, and they WILL open fire if they feel threatened.
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 and the poor standard of driving. The trip takes a minimum of 5 hours.
Afghanistan has several sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List, including:
Almost every Afghan town has a fine mosque. Those of Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif are particularly remarkable.
Dari, an Afghan dialect of Persian, is the native language of about half the population. Pashto is the native language for about 35%, mainly in the South and East; it is also spoken in Pakistan. About 11% have a Turkic native language, primarily Uzbek and Turkmen, and there are also 30 minor languages such as Balochi. Most people speak more than one language; Dari is the historical lingua franca, widely spoken as a second language. You'll find a few people in Kabul who speak a little English but otherwise it isn't widely understood.
As to English it is now at the climax of its flourishing in Afghanistan & the percentage of those who speak English now has reached unprecedented rates. Mr, Karazai & his cabinet are fluent in English. English was taught at past from the seventh grade, but now is taught from the fourth grade. Signs in English in the streets now common all over the country. English is the second foreign language in Afghanistan.
Shop for Afghan peens.
Afghani (AFN) is, perhaps non-surprisingly, the currency of Afghanistan. As of December, 2009, US$ 1 equals about 48.50 Afghanis, while € 1 trades about 70 Afghanis.
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.
Being an Islamic country, alcohol consumption is illegal. It is, however, 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. You will need a work visa if you are planning on working on a US military base.
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.
Insects 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.
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, 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, 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, and toilet paper optional and sometimes scarce. Western-style toilets are seen occasionally in newer buildings and some private homes.
Fixed line 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 $0.5/minute. Outside of major cities your options are limited to a satellite phone.