Travel for tourism to Afghanistan is increasing, in spite of the past and current situations existing within the country. In August 2015, I spent a week as a tourist in Afghanistan: split between Kabul and Panjshir Valley vicinities.
Kabul is a pretty interesting place (cultural context considering), although it has a reputation for being boringly hectic. Although Kabul is the most accessible city, it is definitely very unsafe, as is most of Afghanistan, unless you’re as prepared as possible to visit (obligatory disclaimer). I enjoyed my time in the city, and I explored the typical tourist spots. Sure, I spent a lot of my evenings alone in my dingy room unable to go outside after dark as I knew nobody, but I still enjoyed my outings.
Unless you know people in Kabul, it’s going to be pretty boring. My guesthouse hosted one other foreigner, who was there for work purposes. I spent about 3-4 hours a day driving around Kabul with a taxi driver, visiting some of the following:
Shrine of Hazrat Ali, Kabul – Apparently a pretty close copy of the Mosque in Herat. It was fun to visit for a photo, and it has cool mountains behind it.
Qargha Lake, Kabul – This place was “closed” (aka the restaurant being closed) when I visited as it was during Ramadan. It did still rent out peddle swan boats though, if that’s your thing. There were also some Afghan tourists here.
Darul Aman Palace, Kabul – Probably my favourite place that I visited in Kabul. This picture doesn’t even attempt to do the place justice, so visit it for yourself. I had to stand outside it for 1 hour while my taxi driver convinced the guards on-site to let me in.
Nobody ever really batted an eyelid at me during my time in Kabul. I seemed to blend in pretty well (I am 100% Irish, and I wore the above outfit basically every day). People spoke to me in local languages and according to my taxi driver, just assumed I was a rude odd local. I walked around the streets/markets relatively stress-free, and I genuinely felt like nobody noticed me. Obviously, that’s probably not the case and I stuck out like a sore thumb. However, when I did actively interact, every move was scrutinised.
After a few days of Kabul, I linked up with a local (via online social networking) who invited me on a road-trip to Panjshir Valley with his ten friends. That was my best day in Afghanistan (besides the extreme sun-burn I suffered). All of them were incredibly polite to me, even catering to my vegan dietary requirements like it was no big deal (which it is in Afghanistan).
On the road to Panjshir Valley – quite impressed with my iPhone-while-driving-fast photography skills.
Road-trip! – Yes, that’s whiskey and coke. Yes, we were listening to the Spice Girls and Rihanna blaring out of the window the entire time.
All in all, my week in Afghanistan is incredibly difficult to capture in words. This blog entry is purely meant to promote Afghan tourism, as it really is a country that has a lot to offer. It is definitely a dangerous place to be, and that should not be underestimated. However, with some common sense, cultural sensitivity, and some luck, you will have a recipe for a successful trip.
Negative experiences: I didn’t really have any negative experiences in Afghanistan. I really don’t have anything too bad to say, as it is Afghanistan after all. I did once experience an explosion at 02:00, on the street outside, which was incredibly scary. These things are common (I witnessed the aftermath of many in Kabul), and they did shake me up a bit at the time for a few moments.
Tips: Open-mind, listen to advice of locals whom you trust using your intuition, answer yes if asked “do you believe in God?” (it happens!), and bring $USD and a flashlight. When you land at Kabul airport, fill out the foreigner registration card and give it to the staff right by the door to sign. Nobody will prompt you to do this. Keep this card safe, as apparently you need it to exit the country later on (I wasn’t asked for it though). When you exit the first door of the airport, you’ll enter the foyer. Here, purchase a sim-card from the kiosks selling junk food and cigarettes. You can also change some cash here. Following that, go outside and hop on a bus to the car park (it’s free). I just got on the first one I saw. When you get to the car park (about 10 minute drive), whoever-you’re-waiting-for will pick you up.
If I can do it – you definitely can. Be prepared for plans to change (don’t make plans); I wanted to go to Bamiyan but all flights cancelled and the drive was too risky at that time. Whatever vision you have of your upcoming trip there will not be accurate ;). I’m a tourist who is heavily tattooed (I wore long sleeves at all times, although locals whom I did show apparently loved them), vegan (everyone was understanding and did not question it), and gay (subsequent stories that I will only exchange in person!). I always felt “on-edge”, much more so than I did in neighbouring Pakistan. Regardless, this buzz is one of the reasons I travel to such places.
Good luck, and have fun!
- This blog entry includes only some of my moments/memories of Afghanistan. The best moments were not caught on camera, or they are personal.
- This blog entry is of my experiences only! Please do not rely on the information as current, as the situation changes constantly.