The Inertia Travel Guide to Afghanistan
Is Afghanistan ready for tourism? Is it safe? What’s there? How crazy am I? These are all understandable and legitimate questions to be asking. It’s hardly a surprise that the country is not the world’s most popular travel destination— invasions, war, insurgency, political instability, and a Taliban problem have made things difficult in Afghanistan since the 1970s.
However, it’s worth noting that Afghanistan used to receive hundreds of thousands of tourists on the “hippy trail” from Europe to India in the 1960s. The country is beautiful, culturally diverse, architecturally stunning, and what you can learn from the stories and experiences of the people of Afghanistan can be life-changing.
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When to Go
Afghanistan has cold, snowy Winters and hot Summers, making the Fall and Spring times most pleasant for a visit. Depending on where you’re going, Summer is a nice time to be in the mountains— especially in Bamyan and the Wakhan Corridor. The two Eid holidays and Nowruz (Persian New Year) are also excellent times to be travelling in Afghanistan from a cultural perspective.
Most international flights flying into Afghanistan arrive at Kabul International Airport, with cities like Dubai, Istanbul, Jeddah, Delhi, and Sharjah being the most popular departure points. There are also international flights from Istanbul to Mazar-e Sharif International Airport, as well as occasional international flights to and from Iran, Russia, India and Pakistan to Mazar-e Sharif, Herat and Kandahar International Airports.
Overland travel to Afghanistan is possible at several of the entry ports on their international borders. We’re not including every border here, as there are many open international crossings with Tajikistan into both Badakhshan and Kunduz Provinces, rather, we are focusing on the major ones open to more significant international traffic.
Afghanistan-Tajikistan Border Crossings
Eshkashem Crossing: it is currently safe to cross the Tajik-Afghan border at Eshkashem in the Wakhan Corridor and travelling east into the Wakhan Corridor. Taliban presence may be found in the western parts of Badakhshan Province, making travel west of Eshkashem dangerous.
Shegnan - Khorog Crossing: this overland route from Tajikistan into Afghanistan’s Badakhshan near Lake Shiva is currently dangerous and not advised due to Taliban presence in the area.
Shir Khan Bandar - Panj-e-Payon Crossing: this route between Dushambe and Kunduz is the main trukking and shipping route between the two countries. It is currently dangerous and not advised to cross due to Taliban presence across Kunduz Province.
Afghanistan-Uzbekistan Border Crossings
Hairatan - Termez Crossing: this overland route between Uzbekistan and Mazar-e Sharif is currently safe for tourists to cross and relatively stress and hassle free.
Afghanistan-Pakistan Border Crossings
Khyber Pass (Torkham) Crossing: this overland route is occasionally closed to foreigners, but has been somewhat open since 2018. At the time of writing, it is possible to cross here, but comes with significant risk, as there is significant Taliban presence in and around Jalalabad, not to mention issues dealing with bureaucracy on both sides of the border. It is easier to travel from Afghanistan to Pakistan, rather than the other way around, since approval to transit through the FATA must be obtained in Peshawar and there may be some resistance from Pakistani authorities to do so.
Wesh - Chaman Crossing: this overland route between Kandahar and Quetta is currently not open to foreigners. Travel within Kandahar Province outside the city centre is dangerous due to Taliban presence.
Afghanistan-Iran Border Crossings
Islam Qala - Dogharoun (Taybad) Crossing: this is the main crossing between Herat and Mashad. It’s a popular route and the road conditions are good between the two cities. The crossing is open to foreigners during the day, provided they have their visas in order, and it is a good idea to arrive early.
Afghanistan-Turkmenistan Border Crossings
Turghundi - Serhetabat Crossing: this is the main crossing between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, connecting the city of Herat with Mary. The border is not guaranteed to be open, as the security situation in Herat Province has deteriorated in recent years. The road is in good condition, but it’s important to check on the crossing’s status before making an attempt.
Due to safety and insurgency concerns, overland travel between cities and regions in Afghanistan is in a constant state of flux, as the safety and security situation changes constantly. Therefore, you’ll have to check closer to the time of your trip to investigate the situation with overland travel. Foreign tourists are not recommended to use public transportation in Afghanistan, especially between cities.
Air travel around Afghanistan is the safest and most recommended way of getting between cities. Kam Air is decently reliable and provides air connections between Kabul and most major cities in the country, especially to Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat and Kandahar. Flights between Kabul and Bamyan may or may not resume soon.
Visas and Permits
Obtaining a visa for Afghanistan may or may not be too complicated of a task depending on where you apply. Since Afghan embassies all operate at their own accord, they will require different documentation depending on where you’re applying and where in Afghanistan you plan on going. Some require in-person applications, while others may be done by post.
To be safe, it’s a good idea to have a Letter of Invitation from your host in Afghanistan, along with their Certificate of Incorporation or copy of their National ID Card. Some consulates require this, others do not, many will ask for it anyway.
You will certainly also need to fill out the application form, attach the required number of photos, and also provide a self-written letter explaining that you fully understand the risks of travelling to Afghanistan and that you are fully responsible for yourself on your trip.
Most Afghan embassies or consulates can process the visa in a week, or in 3 days for an additional fee.
If you’re travelling to only the Wakhan Corridor, it’s possible for most nationalities to get your visa in Khorog, Tajikistan in just a couple days (or less if you pay more). The Afghan Consulate in Khorog will not issue you a visa if you are planning on travelling beyond the Wakhan. Additionally, a Permit for travel in the Wakhan Corridor is needed, and you can obtain this through your host there.
Kabul is Afghanistan’s capital, centre of political power, and home to some five million people. While travel to Kabul is safe, you should remain vigilant and cautious here, since attacks do happen. It’s best to maintain a low profile while travelling around the city on foot. Traffic is insane here, so keep that in mind as well. It’s best to not stay any longer than 30-45 minutes in one place in public at a time. Highlights include:
National Museum of Afghanistan
Gardens of Babur
Chicken Street Bazaar
Bibi Mahroo Hill
Daoud Khan Memorial
Mazar-i-Sharif & Balkh
Located in the north central part of Afghanistan, this fabled city is one of the most progressive in Afghanistan. Most of the population are ethnic Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks, and this city is located not too far from the Uzbek border. Mazar-i Sharif is home to the Blue Mosque. The city is generally safe for tourists, as is nearby Balkh town. However, many areas within Balkh Province are not safe due to ongoing clashes, so it’s important to stay within the city. The road to the Uzbek border is secure, and the road to Kabul is generally okay, but this can change at any time due to fighting in rural Baghlan and Kunduz provinces. Highlights include:
The Shrine of Hazrat Ali (Blue Mosque)
Ancient city of Balkh
Mazar-i Sharif old city gate
Buzkashi playing grounds (during Buzkashi season in the Fall and Spring)
Bamyan & Band-e Amir
Bamyan is the centre of Hazarajat— meaning the homeland of the Hazara people— in central Afghanistan. The Hazara are Shia Muslims and were terrorized by the Taliban, who accused them of being heretics. Today, the Hazara are one of the most educated ethnic groups in Afghanistan and their home region is safe for visitors. Of course normal precautions should be maintained while in Bamyan. This region is home to the Buddha niches (the ones that the Taliban destroyed in 2001), as well as Band-e Amir, Afghanistan’s first national park. Transportation to Bamyan may present a problem, as regularly scheduled flights have not been operational for the past two years. Overland travel from Kabul is occasionally okay, but one must keep a close eye on the situation in Parwan Province, as this area must be traversed to reach Bamyan. Highlights include:
Buddha Niches of Bamyan (UNESCO heritage site largely destroyed/damaged by the Taliban, but still of interest)
Band-e Amir Lakes National Park
Panjshir & Parwan
The Panjshir Valley in Parwan Province is the homeland of the Tajik resistance to the Taliban and Soviets alike, and is a Tajik cultural and political stronghold to this day. The valley is beautiful, with snow-capped peaks surrounding small villages, and is an excellent place for hiking. The region is near Kabul, just to the northeast of the city, and is considered safe for tourism.
Hiking and trekking in the Panjshir Valley
Mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Massoud
Herat is located in the far northwest of Afghanistan, nearby the borders with Iran and Turkmenistan. It’s an ancient Persian city, replete with Ghorid and Timurid architecture, and a population of friendly Farsi-speakers who in many ways have more in common with Iran than Kabul. Herat is home to the Friday Mosque, ancient Ghorid minarets, a bustling bazaar and artisan workshops. It’s also easily accessed by air from Kabul, as well as by road from Iran and Turkmenistan. Overland travel from Kabul, Mazar and Kandahar is out of the question at the time of writing, as the situation in central Afghanistan has become highly unstable, this includes the Minaret of Jam.
Friday Mosque and Tile Factory
The Herat Citadel
Musalla Complex & Minarets of Sultan Baiqara
Herat Bazaar— one of the most interesting in Afghanistan, with busting streets, some older covered parts and more.
Mosque of the Cloak
Tomb of Jami
This strip of land reaches out like a pan handle in between Pakistan, Tajikistan and China. Technically part of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province, the Wakhan Corridor is a sparsely populated, mountainous region of deep valleys, snow capped peaks, and dusty trails. It is the homeland of Afghanistan’s Wakhi people (sometimes called Pamiris or Pamiri Tajiks). They are friendly, welcoming and open people. The majority of them are Ismailis— followers of the Aga Khan. In the far reaches of the Little Wakhan you can still find nomadic Kyrgyz people. This region is safe for trekking and exploration, but is currently only safely accessible from the Tajikistan border at Ishkashim. Attempting to travel here from Kabul or Mazar is highly discouraged due to Taliban fighting in Kunduz and western Badakhshan.
Kandahar is the cultural capital of the Pashtun people in Afghanistan, and was the Taliban’s capital when they controlled the vast majority of Afghanistan’s territory. The safety situation in this city has only recently been improved, so while visits are possible (by air only, and only within the immediate city limits), one should be very vigilant while in Kandahar and only travel with trusted Afghan guides and fixers. Kandahar is extremely conservative; your behaviour and dress should match accordingly.
Mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Durrani
Mosque of the Cloak of the Prophet Mohammed
SAFETY AND SECURITY
Is it safe to just solo backpack around Afghanistan as a tourist? Certainly not. The risks are simply too great. Is the situation on the ground in a constant state of flux? Yes, it is and risks must be measured regularly, as the situation on the ground changes quickly? But is it impossible to visit as a tourist? No, that’s not true either. It is possible to visit Afghanistan with well-managed risk mitigation if you plan accordingly. Here’s how.
In order to mitigate your travel risk in Afghanistan, I’m including the following suggestions. Of course you’re free to take them or leave them, but I highly recommend following these basic safety guidelines.
Travel with an experienced local team (guide, fixer, driver) that is trustworthy and well-connected.
Do not travel around Afghanistan, even within cities, at night. Kidnapping risk goes up significantly in the dark. It’s best to not go wandering around in the evenings, unless accompanied by trustworthy Afghan fixers or friends.
Do not take public transportation.
Do not draw unwanted attention to yourself in public places.
Dress conservatively. Women should cover up in public— a hijab and long dress at a minimum. It’s best for men to also wear the shalwar kimiz while in more rural areas.
Know where is safe to travel to (regions, roads, transportation methods) and keep in mind this list may change constantly.
Do not photograph local women unless you have explicit permission to do so, this is especially problematic when men photograph Afghan women (less of a problem for women to photograph other women, with their permission of course).
Always have a back up plan, and then a back up to your back up plan, as the situation in Afghanistan can change at any time.
Know that the easiest extraction points from Afghanistan are Kabul (international airport) and Mazar-i Sharif (Uzbek border, and international airport).
Just a note also on the Taliban-- Taliban can be anywhere in Afghanistan-- they essentially control a majority of the territory now, especially in ethnic Pashtun regions, and as the coalition forces begin to withdraw, there is a renewed sense of wanting to make peace with the Taliban, if anything to prevent or slow their spread in the country.
Just three days ago there was an attack in Baghram, only 50 kms north of Kabul on the main road to Charikar. As the government clashes with them, they push into new regions, hence why they are in traditionally Northern Alliance pockets like Kunduz, Badakhshan, and Ghor. They do occasionally enter the cities and plan attacks, but these are typically political and or military targets and do not post a specific additional risk to tourists, apart from the general risks of visiting Afghanistan in the first place.
The Taliban do pose a threat to tourists in the country, therefore, it’s vital to know which regions are under Government control and where the Taliban are attacking or in de facto control. Having an experiences fixer on the ground in Afghanistan will help significantly in getting a reading of the situation, as will following the advice offered by the UN and INSO.
COMMUNICATIONS & FINANCE
Money and Exchange
The currency of Afghanistan is called the Afghani, and at time of writing it trades at about 75 AFN per USD. ATMs are available in major cities like Kabul and Mazar-i Sharif, but it’s best to bring cash to Afghanistan. Afghani bills are normally well worn and fall apart easily, so it’s important to have somewhere to keep them from ripping further. Exchanging cash can be done at Kabul Airport for a reasonable rate, or in many of the exchange places around Chicken Street in Kabul.
Telecommunications and Internet
3G and 4G networks are available in urban regions of Afghanistan and are quite reliable, if somewhat slow. It’s a good idea to purchase an Afghan SIM card shortly after arriving, and sign up for a 30-day plan, which can get you about 6 gigs of data for around $10.