Afghanistan has been at the crossroads of civilisations for millennia. From Darius the Great to Alexander the Great, Marco Polo to George Bush, the world’s shapers and invaders have all been here and left their mark. It has always been, and still is, a place of world interest – whether from politicians or tourists.
Afghanistan is a place of legendary hospitality to guests and legendary hostility to invaders. Any trip here is an adventure. The remains of the giant Buddhas of Bamian, the unreal blue of the lakes at Band e Amir or the first sight of the almost-unreachable Minaret of Jam are incredible. But most visitors’ lasting memories of Afghanistan are on a more human scale: flying kites with kids, drinking tea with ex-mujahedin or walking with catapult-wielding Hazara children.
A trip to Afghanistan offers the opportunity to see a country that has been off the tourist map for 40 years, to visit a place that is starkly beautiful and to interact with people and places that you probably know best from news reports. Whether you’re interested in Afghanistan’s ancient history or its current circumstances, we think that the experience of seeing such a striking and hospitable country will stay with you for a long time.
Of course, as well as offering some incredible experiences for the intrepid traveller, Afghanistan has some equally unique risks and dangers. Please contact us for further information and to find out what we do, to ensure you have a memorable time for all the right reasons.
Afghanistan’s capital first received an influx of foreign tourists in the late 1960’s when it became an essential stop-off on the hippy trail towards enlightenment. Chicken Street was the home of cheap hotels and souvenir shops. Chicken Street is still here, selling souvenirs to aid workers, although the chickens have gone. Much of the rest of the city has changed beyond recognition in the last 30 years, new buildings in the city centre, promising signs of post-invasion reconstruction, give way to rubble and ruins on the outskirts. Yet there are occasional outbreaks of tranquility. Many mosques and mausoleums of interest remain standing, as do the lush Gardens of Babar, and the European Cemetery, final resting place of Auriel Stein, the great Silk Road explorer. With the UN and NGO agencies in residence, the parts of Kabul with pizza restaurants and shops with western goods feel like nowhere else in the country. There is little left of ancient Kabul although the city walls and the Bala Hissar (sadly off limits and used by the Afghan military) still stand to give a glimpse of what it was like. There are also plenty of interesting places revealing Kabul today. The Omar land mine museum is a sobering introduction into some of Afghanistan’s more modern history.
Bamian lay on one of the silk routes and was an important religious site for the Gandharan Empire that included Takht e Bhai and Taxila in Pakistan. The cliffs overlooking the town are riddled with large numbers of caves in which Buddhist monks lived and worshipped. They were often highly decorated with Buddhist motifs including large statues of the Buddha. The giant Buddhas of Bamian were completed in the 6th century AD and stood 55 and 37m high respectively making them, for nearly 1,500 years, the highest standing Buddha statues in the world. In the 11th century, Buddhism was replaced by Islam in the region, Bamian became less important and the Buddhas fell into disrepair. The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb destroyed the legs of the largest Buddha in the 17th century and the Persian, Nadir Shah fired a cannon at them in the 18th century. Despite this, the statues retained their world-renowned status until March 2001 when the Taliban used artillery, anti-tank mines and finally dynamite to destroy the Buddhas over a month-long period. Even without the Buddhas themselves, the valley of Bamian is still striking, the ruins of 2 forts guard the entrance to the valley and at sunset, the rock takes on a beautiful hue. It is also possible to climb into the caves and view the valley from where the largest Buddha’s head would have been. Bamian is also host to the Marathon of Afghanistan, and also where we run our winter ski touring trips, a great way to experience rural Afghanistan in winter.
BAND E AMIR
Sometimes places of note fail to live up to their reputation. No-one we have met has ever said that about Band e Amir. A series of 5 interlocking lakes that flow into each other over dams made from mineral deposits. The lakes are of such a deep blue that photos often appear to have been Photoshopped. Legend has it that the dams were created by Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Mohamed. The place does feel touched by God especially after the ride through the dark lifeless mountains that surround the lakes. It is possible to swim in the lakes and in the summer we can arrange boat trips and overnight stays.
MAZAR E SHARIF
Mazar e Sharif is the largest city in Northern Afghanistan and is home to many of Afghanistan’s ethnic Uzbeks. In 12th century a local Mullah had a dream that the final resting place of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Mohamed was not in Najaf, modern day Iraq but in the small town where he lived. The shrine and indeed the town of Mazar-e-Sharif (Tomb of the exalted in Dari) exist as they do because of this. The original 12th century shrine was destroyed by Genghis Khan and much of what is on display today has been restored over the years. The blue tiled mosque is a fine sight and is the holiest place in Afghanistan for both Shia and Sunni Muslims. During Nau Ruz, the Persian new year, the town is packed full of pilgrims. The shrine is surrounded by flocks of white pigeons. Legend has it that if a black pigeon arrives within a month it will turn white. Mazar e Sharif is also only a short drive from the ancient Silk Road city of Balkh.
Known as Bactria to the Greeks and Umm Al-Belaad (Mother of Cities) to the Arabs, Balkh was the capital of the fertile area watered by the rivers running down from the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs. It is the birthplace of Zoroaster, the founder of the Zoroastrian religion and the renowned poet Rumi was also born here. Today, desertification, the increasing importance of Mazar e Sharif and a Malaria outbreak in 1911 have left Balkh as a bit of a backwater. However, there is still plenty of the cities 4000 year history to see. The blue tiled shrine of Khoja Parsa, 1500 year old Buddhist Stupas, No Gombad Mosque (the oldest in Afghanistan) and the tomb of Baba Koo-i-mastan (the holy man who first refined hashish) are some of the highlights.
Also known as Takht e Rostam (Throne of Rostam), the stupa-monastery complex at Samagan is named after the leading protagonist of an ancient Persian legend. In the most famous section of the tale, Rostum meets his own estranged son Sohrab on the battlefield and when Sohrab refuses to identify himself, they fight and Rostum kills Sohrab. This doesn’t seem to affect Rostum too much as he continues with his adventures with seemingly little remorse. The complex dates from the 4-5th century and it is carved out of the bedrock and has therefore remained well preserved from the passing of time and vandalism it may have otherwise received. In keeping with Buddhist tradition the stupa should be circumnavigated clockwise.
100km to the North East of Kabul lies the lush Panjshir valley leading up out of the plains up to the Hindu Kush mountains abd is regarded by many as the most beautiful part of Afghanistan. Panjshir means five lions, legend has it that the lions were 5 protectors who defended the valley for Mahmood of Ghazni in the 12th century. It is a famous emerald mining area and home to the largest concentration of ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan. It was also the base of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the lion of the Panjshir. Probably the most famous mujahedin leader from the soviet war. His poster is seen over much of Afghanistan and is often mentioned as “our national hero”. His tomb is located at the beginning of the valley.
MINARET OF JAM
At 63 m high, the Minaret of Jam is the world’s second highest free-standing minaret. It is thought to belong to a set of similar minarets built between the 11th and 13th century in Afghanistan, India and Central Asia. It is also believed to be the inspiration of the Qutb minaret in Delhi, currently the tallest in the world. However, their settings could hardly be more different. It is hard to believe that this remarkable structure was “lost” until 1886 when the Anglo-Russian boundary commission “re-discovered” it. Since then only a handful of people from outside of Afghanistan have seen the minaret, located as it is tucked up a high valley over 200 kilometres from the nearest town of any size with the only connection on truly terrible roads. Still, that makes the sight of this incredible structure all the more remarkable. Due to ever-changing security issues in Ghor province, we do not have any set itineraries that visit the minaret. Please contact us for the latest information if you wish to see this remarkable structure.
“Stretch a leg in Herat and you’ll poke a poet in the ass”. So says an ancient Farsi saying. The poets may be thinner on the ground these days but Herat’s history as a centre of culture remains and it boasts the best concentration of ancient buildings in Afghanistan. The skyline at sunset is sublime with minarets and domes peaking out over the rooftops. In many ways Herat has more in common with its Persian neighbours in Iran than Kabul on the other side of the Hindu Kush and has been fought over for millennia due to its strategic position and agricultural wealth of the surrounding valley. Tamerlan’s son made Herat his capital in 1381 and the minarets of the Mussallah complex still remain from the Timurid rule. From June to September Herat can sometimes get caught up in the ominously named “bad-i-sad-o-bist-roz”, the “wind of 120 days”. However, this wind is a welcome relief from Herat’s equally notorious summer heat.
WAKHAN VALLEY & AFGHAN PAMIR
The Wakhan valley is situated at the point the Hindu Kush meets the Pamirs. Based half in Tajikistan and half in Afghanistan this is an area of incredible natural beauty. Due to its remoteness, it escaped the ravages the rest of Afghanistan experienced over the last 30 years and therefore is one of the few places that is accessible for trekking and horseriding. In fact, the area is considered the premier trekking location for wilderness experiences in Afghanistan. The Agha Khan foundation has invested in some guest houses but the draw of the area is its remoteness and the hospitality of the Wakhi people and the Kyrgyz nomads. Maybe 150-200 visitors make it to this area each year so any visit to the region is a step into the wild.
Mentioned in the Mahbarata dating back to 3000BC, Kandahar has been the largest city of the Helmund region ever since. Due to its location at the cross roads of Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East Kandahar has been part of Turkic, Persian, Greek, Arabic and Mongol empires. Durrand Abbas Shah, founder of Afghanistan made Kandahar the capital in 1747 and his tomb is located within the city. Also found in Kandahar is a shrine reputed to contain the cloak of Mohamed. It was reported that, during the rise of the Taliban, Mullah Omah wrapped himself in the cloak when addressing his troops. It experienced some of the most savage fighting during the occupying soviet forces and much of the old city was destroyed.
A visa is required. In most cases, the visa must be obtained in your home country or country of residency. A letter of invitation will be provided by Untamed Borders to assist in the application process. Exact requirements and documentation for visas vary from embassy to embassy. Currently, Japanese and Korean citizens will not be issued Afghan visas.
Afghanistan has northern hemisphere seasons with hot summers and snowy winters. Generally, summer is good for trekking in the Wakhan, Spring and Autumn good for cultural tourism and winter best for skiing and watching Buzkashi.
Cash is the best form of currency. In Kabul there are cash machines that take credit cards and even UK debit cards. However they are not always reliable. If you bring cash, dollars are probably best although Pounds Sterling and Euros will get easily change. Money changers in all Afghan cities will be able change almost any currency you give them. The unit of currency in Afghanistan it is the Afghani. It fluctuates a fair bit and the economy is in particular trouble at the moment. But hey, whose isn’t? For up to date exchange rates please have a look at www.xe.com
Two prong European style systems (types C and F). Although adapters are extremely common.
Most guesthouses and hotels have adequate Wifi. 3G works in cities.
Most restaurant dishes are heavy on meat, rice and bread. Traditionally the food is lightly spiced but there are often dishes from Pakistan with more heat. Fruit is often delicious and abundant in season. Not great for vegetarians.
Alcohol is illegal in Afghanistan.
Dari and Pashtu
Islam. Mainly Sunni but Shia in Bamian and Ismali in Wakhan.
Conservative. Women must wear a headscarf and long-sleeved clothing that covers the shape of the body. Men must wear long trousers.
SAFTEY & SECURITY
The FCO Advises against travel to Afghanistan. Primarily this is due to anti-government forces operating in the country. We avoid travel to certain areas of the country and take precautions in the areas we do travel. Contact us for information on where we do and do not guide in this region and how we work to minimise risk for our guests and staff.
This list is not comprehensive, in fact it is very subjective. It is stuff we like and think you may as well:
Great Game – Peter Hopkirk A rattling read about how Tsarist Russia and Victorian Britain fought a century long cloak and dagger battle over Central Asia. From Genghis Khan to Sir Francis Young. Afghanistan is at the heart of this battle for power.
The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East – Robert Fisk Robert Fisk has been reporting on the Middle East plus Afghanistan since the 1970’s and this is his incredible account of the times on which he reported.
Road to Kandahar – Jason Burke The Observer journalist reviews his 10 years reporting from the “Islamic world” from Algeria and Iraq to Afghanistan and Indonesia. Shorter than Fisk’s epic above but enlightening nonetheless.
Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini A fictional novel based heavily on the authors experiences in pre-soviet Afghanistan. Whilst we feel the ending is a bit Hollywood his images of Kabul in the 1970’s are great.
Bookseller of Kabul – Asne Seierstad Norwegian journalist, Asne Seierstad spent 3 months living with a Kabuli family. Her book describing her experiences portrays a bullying, book-selling patriarch and has been both successful and controversial (see below) in equal measure.
Once upon a time there was a bookseller in Kabul – Shah Muhamed Rais Asne Seierstad’s book (see above) was controversial as the bookseller was unhappy with his portrayal, claiming that Asne could not have understood what was going on in his family as she cannot speak Dari. He still works in Kabul and has written his own book in which he tries to set the record straight. It is available in his bookshop so for fans of this book would be able to pick up a unique souvenir as well a chance to see the man himself.
The places in between – Rory Stewart Describing Rory Stewart’s epic walk across Central Afghanistan 2 weeks after the fall of the Taliban Government in 2001. Our trips to Bamian cover some of the same ground.
A short walk in the Hindu Kush – Eric Newby We hope our trips are a little more planned than Eric Newby’s attempt to climb a remote mountain in Nuristan, only to find neither he or his climbing partner have any climbing experience. A cracking read written in a hilarious 1950’s self deprecating style.
Return of a King – William Dalrymple The definitive account of the first Afghan war and the retreat from Kabul in 1841 that saw a British army of 16,000 massacred in the passes between Kabul and Jalalabad. For the first time Afghan and Sikh court records are used to give new insights into this infamous page in Afghan and British history.
Trips in Central Asia
Kyrgyzstan, an offbeat destination renowned for its trekking and horse riding, is an ideal place to discover nomadic culture at a grassroots level. There are plenty of rarely-visited locales to explore throughout this centuries-old Central Asian nation, and our two-part…explore