Afghanistan[dead link] is a landlocked country at the crossroads of Central and South Asia. The country shares borders with Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Pakistan, China, and the disputed Kashmir territory.
Once the centre of many powerful empires, the country has been in chaos and turmoil since the 1970s. Political unrest is rampant, and the country suffers from many social problems, such as war, drought, a public health crisis, terrorism, corruption, warlordism, poverty, and low literacy rates.
However, under less extreme circumstances, this vast, mountainous country offers a lot to the adventurous, thrill-seeking traveller. Its landscapes are simply majestic, the history lover can appreciate numerous historical sites from all eras, and the architecture lover can feast their eyes on such wonderful Islamic architecture. There's even a shrine that houses a cloak once worn by Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam.
Afghanistan is a melting pot of cultures, with Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks constituting the largest ethnic groups. Islam is the state religion, hence the name "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan". A majority of Afghans are Sunni Muslims, although about 20% of them are Shia Muslims.
Under less dire circumstances for the country, tourists might find themselves being treated as celebrities here; in fact, they might be showered with a lot of hospitality and care, even if they unintentionally make a few cultural blunders.
|West Afghanistan |
A predominantly Turkmen region with the city of Herat.
|East Afghanistan |
The traveller's main entry point. The capital, Kabul, is situated here.
|Northwest Afghanistan |
An Uzbek majority region; the main city is Mazar-e Sharif
|Northeast Afghanistan |
Home to the beautiful Wakhan Corridor
|South Afghanistan |
The region around the city of Kandahar
The south and east are predominantly Pushtun and the Hindu Kush mountain area has many Hazara, but all regions have considerable mixing of ethnic groups.
English spellings of Afghan place names vary as there is no regulation of names when written in the Latin script. 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.
- 1 Kabul - in the east, the capital city
- 2 Balkh – once one of the greatest cities in the region and capital of ancient Bactria. Although much of it lies in ruins, the remaining architectural and cultural elements are little changed since Alexander the Great set foot there.
- 3 Bamiyan - The remains of the Buddhas. Once considered one of the wonders of the world, these tall stone carvings were destroyed by the Taliban in a notorious act of cultural vandalism.
- 4 Ghazni - in the south-east, between Kabul and Kandahar
- 5 Herat - in the west, gateway to Iran, has a strong Persian influence and several interesting historical sites
- 6 Jalalabad - in the east, between Kabul and the Khyber Pass
- 7 Kandahar - a very conservative city in the south. Known as the home of the Taliban.
- 8 Kunduz - a major city in the northeast, and crossing point to Tajikistan
- 9 Mazar-e Sharif - home to the impressively tiled Blue Mosque, and the staging point for trips into Uzbekistan. Ethnically diverse, Mazar is considered the most liberal city in the country after Kabul.
Other destinations edit
- 1 Band-e Amir National Park – 5 stunningly turquoise lakes in a remote and beautiful setting not far from Bamiyan
- 2 Khyber Pass – the gateway to India and historic route of invasion and trade
- 3 Minaret of Jam – well off the beaten path but some say worth the journey – possible as a roundtrip from Herat or when traversing the Central Route from Herat to Kabul
- 4 Nuristan - an isolated mountain area with its own culture
- 5 Panjshir Valley – a beautiful trekking area leading to the famous Anjuman Pass
- 6 Salang Pass – a high mountain pass and tunnel linking Kabul to the north
- 7 Shamali Plain – a green plain north of Kabul that produced a lot of the food for central Afghanistan. From Kabul it extends north through Charikar, Parwan province to Jabal os Saraj. The Taliban destroyed the irrigation systems and it is just beginning to recover.
- 8 Wakhan National Park – one of Afghanistan's most isolated areas, with soaring mountains and unique culture
|Currency||Afghan afghani (AFN)|
|Population||37.4 million (2021)|
|Electricity||240 volt / 50 hertz (Europlug, AC power plugs and sockets: British and related types, Schuko)|
|Time zone||UTC+04:30, Asia/Kabul|
|Emergencies||112, 100 (police), 101 (fire department), 102 (emergency medical services)|
|edit on Wikidata|
Afghanistan has been in the news since the late 1970s for all the wrong reasons. While visiting has not been advisable for many years, it has much to offer the intrepid traveller. However, even the more adventurous tourists should consider looking elsewhere for thrill-seeking.
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.
The lowest point is Amu Darya at 258 m, and the highest is Nowshak at 7,485 m.
Afghanistan is 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 is an ethnically diverse country. Tribal and local allegiances are strong, which complicates national politics immensely. The largest ethnic group is the Pashtuns, followed by Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and others.
Hazaras in the central mountains look much more similar to East Asians than other Afghans do. According to some theories, they are descended from Genghis Khan's Mongol soldiers.
The two largest linguistic groups speak Pashto and Dari (Afghan Persian). Pashto speakers predominate in the south and east, Dari in the north, west and central Afghanistan. About 11% of the population have Turkic languages such as Uzbek or Turkmen as their first language. Many of them live in the north, near the borders with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Minor native language groups include Nuristanis, Pashais and Pamiris, found in small pockets in the east and northeast.
Afghanistan borders Persia, Central Asia and South Asia, and various Silk Road routes cross it to connect those regions. It has been described as "the crossroads of Asia" and has history of trade going back to before 2000 BCE.
The country has a long history of conflict – raiding and banditry, battles between tribes, and resistance against invaders including several Persian Empires, Alexander the Great, the Arabs during the great expansion of Islam (starting with their capture of Herat in 652 CE and spread over several centuries), the Mongol Empire in the 13th century, and the British Empire in the 19th. Its recent history is no exception: the Soviet Union invaded late in the 20th century and a U.S.-led coalition invaded early in the 21st.
The Afghans have given all invaders trouble; the country has been so difficult to conquer that it is known as the Graveyard of Empires.
The modern-day country was founded by secession from the Persian Empire in 1709. Since then, there have been several dynasties and at times the Afghans ruled what are now Iran, Iraq, most of Pakistan and parts of India. Mohammed Zahir Shah was the last king, ruling from 1933 until 1973, when the constitutional monarchy was overthrown in a coup and the country became a republic.
The Afghan Girl
The June 1985 cover of National Geographic showed the most haunting image of the Afghan War: a young Afghan girl, with piercing sea-green eyes and a dilapidated hijab. The photo, taken in Pakistan in 1984, became the icon of the troubles in Afghanistan. Following the defeat of the Taliban, in 2002, the magazine finally searched up the girl and learnt her name: Sharbat Gula. She vividly recalled being photographed and recognized her face as the one in the photo. During the interregnum between the two periods so far of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, National Geographic ran a fund in her honour to educate young Afghan girls who were denied education under the Taliban.
In the late 19th century, Afghanistan became a buffer state in the "Great Game" between the British Empire and the Russian Empire. After the Second Anglo-Afghan War Britain gained control of Afghanistan's foreign relations as part of the Treaty of Gandamak of 1879. In 1893, the ethnic Pashtun and Baloch territories were divided between Britain and Afghanistan by the Durand Line, which forms the modern-day border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Afghanistan became fully independent from the British in 1919.
In the 1960s and early 70s, Afghanistan was a popular destination for adventurous travellers, part of the "Hippie Trail" Istanbul to New Delhi overland route. Dirt cheap, culturally fascinating and with plenty of excellent hashish; what more could a hippie want? However, it has not been anywhere close to safe since the Russian invasion of 1979.
A coup in 1978 brought a socialist regime to power, but they were by no means universally accepted; some of both their officials and their Soviet advisers were killed. The Soviet Union invaded in December 1979 to support the regime and a long messy war ensued, with the Soviet and their Afghan government allies on one side and several groups known as the Mujahedeen on the other. The Mujahedeen were armed and funded mainly by the United States, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf Arabs, Iran and China, and many were trained in Pakistan. By February 1989, all Soviet forces withdrew from the country, and the Soviet Union collapsed two years later in 1991.
After the Russians left, the country was somewhat chaotic, apparently reverting to its tribal past with no effective central government and various Mujahedeen leaders ruling separate fiefs and sometimes fighting each other. Taliban (lit. students) — made up primarily of ethnic Pashtuns and inspired by the fundamentalist Deobandi interpretation of Sunni Islam — emerged as a political force in the early 90s, heavily backed by (some would say created by) Pakistani Intelligence and largely funded by the CIA, to end "warlordism" and bring security to the country. They seized Kabul in late 1996 and controlled most of the country by 2000, aside from some areas in the northeast.
Al-Qaeda (translated, the base) began in 1988 as a group of mostly Arab volunteers aiding the Mujahedeen; like Taliban they were supported in the 90s by Pakistan and the US, but they also got considerable Arab support. By 2000 they were led by Saudi Arabian Osama bin Laden, and guided by the very strict Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam.
Al-Qaeda would later orchestrate the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. The US government demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda militants for trial in a US court. Taliban refused, though they did offer to try Osama in their own shariah court if the US government shared "solid evidence" of his alleged guilt with them, and also expressed willingness in principle to consider extraditing Osama to a third country for a trial before a shariah court there. The US refused to share whatever evidence they had with the Taliban and considered the Taliban's offers insufficient, so they and their allies chose to take military action with support from anti-Taliban Afghans — mainly Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen warlords from the north of the country who fought in the Northern Alliance — causing the Taliban regime to fall in December 2001.
The same month, representatives from all ethnic groups of Afghanistan met in Germany and agreed to form a new 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 sufferred from widespread election fraud, poverty, corruption, and opium cultivation.
In 2021, U.S.A. and other NATO countries withdrew their troops, and the Taliban seized control of most of the country. The U.S.-backed Afghan government swiftly collapsed, and the Taliban formed a new government. Though active fighting between different armed forces appears to have greatly decreased since then, terrorism, such as from the Islamic State organization, is still a problem. A more pressing issue is shortages of food and other goods due to drought and sanctions that were imposed due to the overall human rights situation and especially the draconian restrictions the Taliban imposed on women, who are now not permitted to go to university and allowed to hold jobs in very few professions.
Officially 220 V 50 Hz. Electricity supplies are erratic, but slowly improving in major cities. Voltage can drop to below 150 V 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 and the newer British standard BS 1363. But the European standard CEE-7/7 "Schukostecker" or "Schuko" is the standard and the most common. Generally speaking, Canadian and Americans 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, but make sure you have an understanding of electrical systems and the nature of adapters.
Afghanistan, for thousands of years, has been a crossroads of many civilisations, in experience of empires and influx of cultures, earning it its dubious distinction as the "roundabout of the ancient world". It maintains its Persian influence and preserves a heritage and traditions of the country's multiple tribal groups.
- Afghan Scene Magazine[dead link]
- A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby – a hilarious account of pioneer trekking in Nuristan in the 1950s
- The Places in Between by Rory Stewart – a fascinating post 9/11 travelogue of Stewart's walk from Herat to Kabul just after the fall of the Taliban.
- The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini – a beautiful and heartbreaking tale of childhood in Afghanistan
- Good Morning Afghanistan by Waseem Mahmood - a true account of the setting up of the first public radio station in Kabul after the Taliban fell.
- An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliot—a travelogue from the period between the expulsion of the Soviets and the ascension of the Taliban. He went everywhere.
- For a Pagan Song by Jonny Bealby - a brilliant account of the author's journey to retrace the footsteps of Rudyard Kipling's heroes in The Man Who Would Be King to discover the land of Kafiristan (now Nuristan) and the people who inhabit the region.
- Flashman - a hilarious historical novel recounting the disastrous 1842 retreat from Kabul during the First Anglo-Afghan War
The official languages of Afghanistan are Dari (an Afghan dialect of Persian), which serves as the country's lingua franca, and Pashto, spoken by the largest and most influential ethnic group, the Pashtuns. According to the CIA World Factbook, 78% of Afghans speak Dari, and 50% speak Pashto. Many Afghans are bilingual in those two languages.
You're more likely to find a Pashto speaker in areas close to the border with Pakistan than anywhere else. There are also some speakers of Urdu along that border and of Persian along the border with Iran.
As Afghanistan is a diverse, multi-ethnic country, hundreds of languages are spoken throughout. Some of the most commonly spoken minority languages include Uzbek, Turkmen, Pashayi, Baloch, and Nuristani.
Although English is taught from the fourth grade, very few Afghans speak English. According to the CIA World Factbook, less than 5% of all Afghans speak English. You're likely to find an English speaker in the capital city, Kabul. A solid knowledge of Dari and Pashto is essential for the daring, independent traveller.
Thanks to the influence of Indian cinema and cordial relations between the central government and India, a sizeable number of people can speak and understand Hindi. Approximately 2% of all Afghans speak Urdu. You're likely to find speakers in Kabul.
The literacy rate in Afghanistan is low.
Get in edit
Most visitors need to apply for a visa in advance, and they are often easier to obtain than you might expect. The Afghanistan Foreign Ministry has a website which used to have a visa page. As of August 2023 there is still a link, but it does not work.
By plane edit
Kabul International Airport (KBL IATA) 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 got up and running and fielding international flights. As of September 2021, there are few flights because of the uncertainty after the power shift.
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 better option is the independent operator Kam Air, which has twice daily flights from Dubai, twice weekly flights from Delhi and weekly flights 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. Safi Air also provides flights between Dubai and Kabul. 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. The service is good and planes are sound. Staff are professional.
Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flies four times per week from Islamabad and once per week from Peshawar to Kabul. Another route in may be via through Tehran or Mashad in Iran. Iran Air[dead link] has periodic flights from Tehran to Kabul. Air India operates six flights a week from Delhi to Kabul. Turkish Airlines also began flights between Kabul and Istanbul in 2011. Air Arabia used to fly four times per week from Sharjah — however, they have suspended operations.
By car edit
There are a number of roads into Afghanistan:
- From Peshawar, Pakistan, via the Khyber Pass to Jalalabad, in the east. See above for details.
- From Quetta, Pakistan, to Kandahar, in the south. This crossing is closed to third-country nationals.
- From Mashad, Iran to Herat, in the west. This border is open to foreigners.
- From Termez, Uzbekistan to Mazar-e Sharif, in the north. This border is open to third-country nationals.
- From Tajikistan to Kunduz, in the northwest. The security situation at this border is not considered conducive to passage as of 2019.
As of mid-2023, none of these routes should be considered safe.
By bus edit
By train edit
Afghanistan has never had a national railway network and while there are a few spur lines from neighboring countries, most notably to Mazar-e Sharif, there are no passenger trains as of 2020. However there are several border towns with passenger trains, from where it's possible to continue into Afghanistan on foot or by taxi.
Across the border from Northwest Afghanistan, the city of Termez in Uzbekistan sees trains from both Moscow and Tashkent. From Pakistan, it's possible to take a train from Quetta to the border town of Chaman and continue into South Afghanistan.
Get around edit
By plane edit
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 airplanes are not operated after sundown.
By car edit
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 five hours. The highway goes through the Salang Pass and across the Hindu Kush mountain range. If you hire a relatively new Toyota Corolla, this would cost you about USD100 (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 expect 2–3 km of road in ideal conditions to cost around USD1.
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.
Exchange rates for Afghan Afghani
As of January 2023:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
The Afghani (AFN) is the currency of Afghanistan, denoted by the symbol "Afs" or "؋" (ISO code: AFN). The current version of the afghani was introduced in 2002, with 1 afghani equal to 1,000 of the previous afghanis.
Banknotes of Afghanistan are issued in denominations of 1-, 2,-, 5-, 10-, 20-, 50-, 100-, 500 and 1,000 afghanis.
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.
- Afghan rugs are generally made in city workshops, mainly for the export trade. They are often large; 3 x 4 metres (10 x 12 feet) is common. Most are quite coarsely woven to keep costs down, but others have a fairly fine weave. If you need a big rug for the living room at a moderate price, these are likely to be your best choice. Beware, however, that a large thick (because coarsely woven) carpet may be expensive to transport because it will be quite heavy.
- Baluchi rugs are usually small since nomadic people cannot use large looms; sizes up to 1.5 by 2 metres (4 x 7 feet) are common, but not many beyond that. They are popular with travellers, partly because they are fairly portable. One very common type is a prayer rug, just large enough for one person to kneel facing Mecca. Another is the "nomad's chest of drawers" — a bag, often beautifully decorated, that is a saddlebag when travelling and hangs on the wall of the tent when camped.
- Turkoman rugs, often labelled "Bokhara" in the Western rug trade, come in all sizes and a very broad range of quality. Some are woven by nomads, with the same range of sizes and types as Baluchi rugs. Others are made in city workshops; the best of these are almost as finely woven and almost as expensive as top-grade Persian carpets. One fairly common design is the Hatchli, a cross shape on a large rug.
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 neighbouring 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 fall into the "that's not a flaw; 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 foreigners 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.
Kilims 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. Smaller items, such as purses, made or decorated with carpet and kilims are 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.
- The makers use the embroidery to hide flaws in the leather; top-quality coats will have little or no embroidery.
- 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. They might not be the only country that will do this.
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 may be of considerable interest to historians and collectors.
- Jezail. These are long-barrelled muzzle loaders, often with brass or ivory inlay work on the wooden parts. They were widely used until the Russian invasion of 1979 when many of their owners acquired AK-47s, often by shooting a Russian.
- Pass rifle. Guns are manufactured in the Khyber Pass, mostly by hand and mainly in Landi Khotal. These are copies of foreign guns, most commonly British military weapons such as the 19th century Martini-Henry single-shot lever action rifle or 20th century Lee Enfield bolt action repeater. Many take different ammo than the original; for example guns with the Martini-Henry design are often chambered for 7.62 NATO. Pistols such as the Colt 1911 are also copied.
One of these might look fine hanging on a wall, but in most cases firing it would be extremely unwise. The steel is mostly salvaged from whatever comes to hand, often things like leaf springs or engine blocks of scrapped trucks, so it is much inferior to the high-grade steel that gun makers elsewhere use. Ammunition is also made in the pass, often with less powerful explosive than the original. Most of these guns can handle pass ammunition, but some would be likely to explode if used with other ammo.
Before the Russian invasion of 1979, most Afghan men carried rifles, but jezails were much the commonest type and pass rifles second; owning a repeating rifle was a major status symbol. Today most Afghans have automatic weapons — mainly Russian AK-47 or American M16 — so the older guns are readily available for any traveller who wants one.
Guns make rather problematic souvenirs. 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 your face.
While ongoing violence has put an almost full stop to tourism in Afghanistan, the lack of visitors has nothing to do with the country's sights. This is a land full of mystical attractions, telling tales of ancient times and offering beautiful Islamic architecture, medieval city quarters and unexpectedly stunning nature.
Several sites are listed on UNESCO's World Heritage List. Most famous of course, were the ancient Buddhist sculptures of Bamiyan. The Taliban destroyed most of the 6th century statues in a cultural crime that outraged the world. Today, what remains in the Bamiyan valley is the silencing and still worthwhile sight of the empty niches. The salvaged pieces of what were once the largest statues of their kind in the world continue to provide a fascinating insight in the history of this place. Band-e Amir National Park, with its six interlinked lakes, is perhaps the finest natural attraction. At an altitude of 2900 meters, the blue waters in this protected natural area almost seem unreal against the sandy mountain sides that surround them.
There are three main types of Afghan bread:
- Naan - Literally "bread". Thin, long and oval shaped, its mainly a white/whole wheat blend. Topped with poppy seeds, sesame seeds, nigella seeds, or some combination of these. Upon request, customers may be able to get all white flour and a helping of oil, which makes it rich and delicious.
- Obi Non - Uzbek-style bread. Shaped like a disc and thicker than naan. Usually made with white flour.
- Lavash - Very thin bread. Similar to the lavash elsewhere. Usually used as plating for meats and stews.
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.
- Kabuli Pulao (or Kabuli Palaw, Qabili Palaw, Qabili Palau or simply Palau) - An Afghan rice dish consisting of steamed rice mixed with lentils, raisins, carrots, and lamb. It is baked in the oven and topped with fried sliced carrots and raisins. Chopped nuts like pistachios or almonds may be added as well. The meat is covered by the rice or buried in the middle of the dish. It is the most popular dish in Afghanistan, and is considered the national dish.
- Chalao-White rice. Extra long grains such as Basmati is required. First parboiled, then drained, and finally baked in an oven with some oil, butter, and salt. This method creates a fluffy rice with each grain separated, unlike Chinese or Japanese rice. Chalao is served mainly with qormas (korma; stews or casseroles)
- Palao - Cooked the same as chalao, but either meat & stock, qorma, herbs, or a combination are blended in before the baking process. This creates elaborate colors, flavors, and aromas for which some rices are named after. Caramelized sugar is also sometimes used to give the rice a rich brown color.
- Yakhni Palao - Meat & stock added. Creates a brown rice.
- Zamarod Palao - Spinach qorma mixed in before the baking process, hence 'zamarod' or emerald.
- Qorma Palao - Qorm'eh Albokhara wa Dalnakhod mixed in before the baking process
- Bore Palao - Qorm'eh Lawand added. Creates a yellow rice.
- Bonjan-e-Roomi Palao - Qorm'eh Bonjan-e-Roomi (tomato qorma) added at baking process. Creates a red rice.
- Serkah Palao - Similar to yakhni palao, but with vinegar and other spices.
- Shebet Palao - Fresh dill, raisins added at baking process.
- Narenj Palao - A sweet and elaborate rice dish made with saffron, orange peel, pistachios, almonds and chicken.
- Maash Palao - A sweet and sour palao baked with mung beans, apricots, and bulgur (a kind of wheat). Exclusively vegetarian.
- Alou Balou Palao - Sweet rice dish with cherries and chicken.
- Sticky Rices -Boiled medium grain rice cooked with its meat, herbs, and grains. Because the water is not drained, it forms a sticky rice texture. Notable dishes include Mastawa, Kecheri Qoroot, and Shola. When white rice is cooked to a sticky consistency it is called bata, and is usually eaten with a qorma, such as Sabzi (spinach) or Shalgham (turnips). A sweet rice dish called Shir Birenj (literally milk rice) is often served as dessert.
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 are over 100 qormas.
- Qorma Alou-Bokhara wa Dalnakhod - onion based, with sour plums, lentils, and cardamom. Veal or chicken.
- Qorma Nadroo - onion based, with yogurt, lotus roots, cilantro, and coriander. Lamb or veal.
- Qorma Lawand - onion based, with yogurt, turmeric, and cilantro. Chicken, lamb, or beef.
- Qorma Sabzi - sauteed spinach and other greens. Lamb
- Qorma Shalgham - onion based, with turnips, sugar; sweet and sour taste. Lamb.
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:
- Mantu - A dish of Uzbek origin. Dumplings filled with onion & ground beef. Mantu is steamed and usually topped with a tomato-based sauce and a yogurt or qoroot-based sauce. The yogurt-based topping is usually a mixture of yogurt, sour cream, and garlic. The qoroot based sauce is made of goat cheese and is also mixed with garlic. Sometimes a qoroot and yogurt mixture will be used. The dish is then topped with dried mint.
- Ashak - Kabul dish. Dumplings filled with leeks. Boiled and then drained. Ashak is topped with garlic-mint qoroot or a garlic yogurt sauce and a well seasoned ground meat mixture.
- Afghan kebab is most often found in restaurants and outdoor vendor stalls. Sometimes they are put into shishas. Families rarely serve homemade kebab in their home due to the need of inaccessible equipment. The most widely used meat is lamb. Recipes differ with every restaurant, but Afghan kebab is usually marinated with a blend of spices, and served with naan, rarely rice. Customers have the option to sprinkle sumac, locally known as ghora, on their kebab. The quality of kebab is solely dependent on the quality of the meat. Pieces of fat from the sheep's tail (jijeq) are usually added with the lamb skewers to add extra flavor.Other popular kebabs include lamb chops, ribs, kofta (ground beef) and chicken; all of which are found in better restaurants.
- Chapli kebab, a specialty of eastern Afghanistan, is a fried hamburger. The original recipe of chapli kebab dictates a half meat (or less), half flour mixture, which renders it lighter in taste, and less expensive.
- Bolani, made in a very similar way as Mexican Quesadilla.
- Lahndi, also known as dried meat, is a famous winter dish of Pashtun cuisine popular in amonɡst Pashtuns in Afghanistan , mostly reɡions with dry and cold weather. Consumption of lahndi is common during the winter months.
Desserts and snacks
- Afghan Cake (similar to pound cake sometimes with real fruit or jelly inside)
- Gosh Feel (thin, fried pastry covered in powdered sugar and ground pistachios)
- Fernea (milk and cornstarch very sweet, similar to rice pudding without the rice)
- Mou-rubba (fruit sauce, sugar syrup and fruits, apple, sour cherry, various berries or made with dried fruits "Afghan favorite is the Alu-Bakhara")
- Kulcha (variety of cookies, baked in clay ovens with char-wood)
- Narenge Palau (dried sweet orange peel and green raisins with a variety of nuts mixed with yellow rice glazed with light sugar syrup)
Since Afghanistan is an Islamic country, alcohol consumption is illegal.
Hotels and guesthouses are available in all major cities, and while some may not meet international standards they are usually friendly and reliable.
Everyone contemplating work in Afghanistan should read and understand the travel advice published by their respective governments and in the Stay safe section below.
Prior to the recapture of Afghanistan by the Taliban, many foreigners found well-paid work in Afghanistan as part of the reconstruction efforts, often with the UN or other non-governmental organisations. Most of these jobs were within Kabul. Local wages were very low, especially outside of Kabul.
Stay safe edit
Afghanistan is a volatile and dangerous country. Non-essential travel is strongly discouraged. Banditry is somewhat of an ancient tradition in many parts of the country, including in the northern areas.
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. Hundreds of people are injured or killed every year in accidents due to landmines and UXO.
Insects and snakes are also something to be careful of, and the mountainous country has many vicious tiny creatures such as scorpions, spiders, centipedes, and bees.
In some areas, altitude sickness is a significant risk.
Any homosexual activity is punishable by an assortment of harsh punishments, including death, under Afghan law. LGBT travelers should exercise tremendous discretion.
Since the Taliban takeover, it is illegal for women to show their faces in public; all women are required to wear the niqab or burqa when in public places.
- See also: War zone safety
Stay healthy edit
Afghanistan has more than its share of health issues, and it is pretty much essential to consult a travel doctor ahead of your trip about vaccinations and health risks. Travellers' diarrhea will afflict most visitors at least occasionally, and other food-related illnesses are moderately common. Respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis are common, and malaria is a risk in many parts of the country. Meningitis, hepatitis, cholera and rabies are major health issues, especially in the countryside with lacking health infrastructure.
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. Consider bringing facemasks. 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.
Do not approach any animals, especially dogs and cats and preferably take a rabies shot before going to the country, it's one of the most rabies-affected countries in the world and finding medical attention and medications will be hard.
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.
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.
Afghans in general are welcoming and hospitable to foreign visitors. Hospitality is a cornerstone of Afghan culture, and it is very likely that you'll be treated as a celebrity by the locals.
With the regime change in 2021, a large proportion of the population, especially women, are very afraid of what will be in the future. Those who worked for the government, for foreign organisations, for human rights or for the media, or held any high profile positions may be afraid for their lives. Tread extremely lightly.
Basic etiquette edit
If invited to an Afghan home, expect to be offered the best of everything there is. You will often be showered with tea, sweets, snacks, and gifts when entering someone's home. Don't refuse any of these as it can leave a bad impression on your hosts. You'll often be encouraged by your hosts to take second helpings ad infinitum. If so, take it as a form of respect as it may leave a good impression on your hosts. Cleaning your plate will invite more to be served, while leaving too much may be a sign you didn't care for it. Aim for leaving just a little, announcing you're full, and heavily praising the food.
Honor and shame, otherwise known as "saving face" in other countries, are very important in Afghan culture. No matter how genuine your intentions may be, avoid criticising people in the open and do not make someone feel uncomfortable with your questioning. Be mindful that your actions will be reflected on your counterparts (e.g. Business partners, family members); doing anything perceived as "shameful" by Afghans will cause others to view them in a negative way. Be mindful of this and behave accordingly.
While the majority of women across Afghanistan still wear the burqa or chadori, in cities like Kabul and Herat many opt for the Middle Eastern-style hijab. Western women are highly encouraged to wear any type of head scarf (especially outside Kabul). As a general rule, the people get more conservative as you move further south.
The pace of life in Afghanistan is quite slow. Building relationships and getting things done require you to demonstrate sincere interest as Afghans try to do things in a measured, careful manner. Losing your temper is seen as disrespectful, and it can quickly make people feel uncomfortable.
As in any other Islamic country, people place a high value on personal privacy. Although Afghanistan may have wonderful photo opportunities, do not photograph or record people without their permission, especially women. Also, taking photographs of anything of strategic importance may be met with suspicion.
Be sensitive to the country's current situation. Many Afghans have endured a lot due to years of conflict and warfare. Offer sympathy and respect when the opportunity arises.
Religious etiquette edit
Ramadan is the 9th and holiest month in the Islamic calendar and lasts 29–30 days. Muslims fast every day for its duration and most restaurants will be closed until the fast breaks at dusk. Nothing (including water and cigarettes) is supposed to pass through the lips from dawn to sunset. Non-Muslims are exempt from this, but should still refrain from eating or drinking in public as this is considered very impolite. Working hours are decreased as well in the corporate world. Exact dates of Ramadan depend on local astronomical observations and may vary somewhat from country to country. Ramadan concludes with the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which may last several days, usually three in most countries.
If you're planning to travel to Afghanistan during Ramadan, consider reading Travelling during Ramadan.
- Remember to remove your shoes when entering a religious building.
- Dress modestly and appropriately; not doing so is considered disrespectful.
- If at all possible, try not to schedule meetings during Ramadan. The workday is shortened, and since Muslims fast, they will not be able to offer you tea, which is a sign of hospitality. Meetings are also not scheduled during prayers. Also refer to travelling during Ramadan.
- Mosques are sometimes off-limits to non-Muslims so it is always better to inquire with someone before entering.
Things to avoid edit
- Do not discuss the Taliban — Some support them and others may not dare to criticize them. Any such discussion will put the local in a very awkward situation.
- Be careful when discussing Pakistan — The two countries have had a very hostile relationship, while people from the neighboring regions may have strong ties across the border.
- Be careful when discussing the foreign efforts during the former regime — Many Afghans feel that the US military did more harm than good, or betrayed Afghanistan by withdrawing. Any such discussions may also risk being interpreted as criticizing the Taliban regime, see above.
Personal subjects edit
- Family — Many Afghan people have either been separated from their families, have lost family members to conflict, or fear that they might be put into danger if they're spoken about. As a general rule, don't discuss someone's family unless you know the person well.
- Religion — This is an Islamic country, which means Afghanistan has some very harsh blasphemy laws. You can very easily elicit strong responses by speaking negatively about religion, especially from an agnostic point of view. Also, don't assume that every Afghan is a hard-line Muslim; secular viewpoints are common. On the other hand, hijabs or burqas are traditional clothing in some regions. Someone's preferred style of dress might not reflect their private views.
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 USD0.5/minute. Outside of major cities your options are limited to a satellite phone.
An Afghanistan number should is of the form
+93 30 539-0605 where "93" is the country code for Afghanistan, the next two digits are the area code and the remaining 7 digits are the "local" part of the subscriber number that can be called from within that particular area code using abbreviated dialing. You need to dial "0" in front of the geographic area code (of 20, 30, 40, 50 or 60 for fixed lines) from outside that particular area code (but when still within Afghanistan).
Mobile phones edit
Mobile numbers in Afghanistan must always be dialled with all digits (10 digits, including a "0" prefixing the "70n" within Afghanistan), no matter where they are being called from. The 70n is a mobile prefix, not an "area code", as such and the third digit (the n part) denotes the original mobile network assigned.
An example mobile number looks like
- Roshan +93 79 997 1333. The most reliable service with the widest coverage. SMS is possible to most countries. SIM cards cost USD5, local calls are Af 5/minute.
- Afghan Wireless Privately owned with 20% ownership by the government. AWCC has the only communications ring around the country offering high speed mobile and data services throughout all provinces. AWCC also offers the highest speed fibre-based connections to the outside world, with roaming to over 300 other operators in 120 countries. Services include Voice, FAX, GPRS and EDGE data services along with WiMAX and dedicated high speed internet service with 45MB links to NYC and 45MB links to Paris. SIM cards cost USD1, local calls are Af 4.99/minute billing in seconds.
- Areeba/MTN +93 77 222 2777. The cheapest cell service, offers the least coverage. SIM cards cost USD3, local calls are Af 5.5/minute.
- Etisalat +93 78 688 8888. A large network provider from the UAE, is the latest GSM network in Afghanistan. It became the first company to begin 3G services in early 2012.
Satellite phones edit
- Thuraya is the most reliable satellite phone system.