Yes, you can be a tourist in Afghanistan
This Sunday, I’m interrupting The Traveler series, for a special treat, a post from my friend Clint McLean. Clint is a modern-day Indiana Jones, except on the hunt for salt, fables and great photographs rather than buried treasure. He lives and works in Dubai, UAE but is constantly on the move. He also eats a lot of ice cream, but only on Fridays.
Afghanistan isn't really a place to just go wander. Inviting countries like France and Italy or even Yemen and Mali encourage the abandoning of maps and itineraries in favour of excited exploration, but unfortunately Afghanistan is a special case.
Due to security concerns in Afghanistan there are a lot of places off-limits and lots of other places that are best visited only during the daytime or with armed escorts and lots of pre-planning. This takes some of the spontaneity out of traveling in the beautifully rugged country. During my most recent trip there, I wondered what sort of 'tourist' things there were to do that could be easily undertaken without much risk or planning.
First stop - Kabul Zoo. Wild animals kept in cages is not especially uplifting to witness, but the zoo is an interesting place to be a spectator of people as much as animals. Mingling with Afghans in their leisure time gives another perspective on the often stereotyped people. The zoo itself is quite weathered as may be expected after decades of war and some of the visitors seem to move about it from obligation rather than enjoyment. There are others though, getting pictures taken in front of the animals, grown men with child-like enthusiasm, boys with infectious smiles running past the swinging boat's armed guard to the ride, shouts of glee from young and old alike and families happy to be spending a day together outside while the weather still permits it.
Unfortunately, it is yet another place where men and children are vastly disproportionate to women who mostly stay home or congregate with other women in places there are fewer men around.
Next up, a round of golf. Fore! I wanted to see the golf course the previous time I was in Kabul but didn't get a chance. Afghanistan is not a country I would have ever associated with the sport, but upon hearing there was a course, it was too tempting not to check it out. After passing under the Kabul Golf Club sign just outside the city, I had some difficulty actually locating the course. This is because it was a field of dirt piled with stokes of new dirt to make ready for the next season…I guess. Not only was the office closed but the course was unrecognizable and certainly not playable. Maybe in the springtime.
Souvenirs anyone? One thing any self-respecting tourist will do in any travel destination is shop. Afghanistan is great for leather goods, Russian style fur hats and all kinds of handicrafts like carpets, pashminas, carved wood decorations, jewellery and antiques. In Kabul, the place to get these things in one short visit is Chicken street. I can't explain why it is called Chicken street since there are no more chickens here than anywhere else in the city, but if you have any trouble finding the street, just look for flower street and you are quite near. Flower street, by the way, lives up to its name and is full of flower shops.
Once you have had your fill of Chicken street, why not head down to the Bush Bazaar. This is the unofficial official name of the market which mostly sells things which have made their way here from military and NGO sources. Ever wanted to try MREs (the army rations known as Meals Ready to Eat)? You can buy them here along with all manner of military clothing, electronics, body building supplements and other western products difficult or normally more expensive to purchase.
Be prepared to negotiate for a good price when wherever you do your shopping. A good price is usually about half of what they tell you the price is before saying: “at this price it is like you are cutting off my arm”.
Get outta town. Mazer-e-Sharif or Herat make relatively easy trips if you are looking to get out of Kabul. The great thing about Mazer-e-Sharif is that you can drive there - as long as it is a daytime trip. The dangerous road between Kabul and Herat is not advisable to drive for Afghans or for foreigners and is only done so if absolutely necessary. Luckily, Herat is only a one hour flight away, though it will frequently require most of a day since anything involving airports in Afghanistan tends to be agonizingly slow due to security measures and unexplained delays.
Flying to Herat goes something like this: Approaching Kabul airport, you'll need to get out of the car to be body searched well before you reach the furthest airport parking. As you are searched, the car and driver will also be searched. If you don't have much to carry, you may as well let the car return home at this point and walk the obstacle course. Otherwise, after car, driver and passenger are searched, you'll get back in the car, drive a little further and repeat the procedure again. Then you will take all your things and march them into a portable to be X-rayed and frequently will have everything removed from each of your bags item by item by security. Get back in the car (or continue to walk) and enter C parking which is as far as the vehicle can go. Grab a trolley and head towards the first building which houses the domestic airline offices and some basic food stands - you'll probably have a passport check along the way. A little beyond this building you show your passport, ticket, and perhaps be searched again. You now pass the threshold to the airport grounds - if your driver or translator is still with you, say good-bye now. Sometimes you can walk the rest of the way to the international and domestic buildings, but sometimes they force you onto overcrowded ancient buses for the last leg of the journey. Either way, you'll be at the airport building soon and you can line up for another body search and X-ray before being admitted to the check-in. After check-in it's only one more body search and X-ray. Then you can sit in the waiting room until they announce your flight is 1, 2 or 3 hours delayed and hope it's not canceled.
When you exit the plane in Herat, be careful for the icy steps if it's winter—they don't salt, sand or de-ice them. Walk across the tarmac and right out of the airport grounds, down the street with the cement barricades. These are staggered along to prevent vehicles rushing the airport to seek cover for soldiers if they are in a fire-fight. At the end of the street you'll find a cold, muddy and wet parking lot, unless it is summer time. You can stand here and wait. Eventually your checked luggage will arrive on the back of a pickup piled higher than physics can account for. Join the melee in getting your bags and then hit the road to a hotel like the Marco Polo. If it is winter, they may provide you with a heater if they have any available and your hotel will become the only place you are able to warm up in all of Herat. (Marco Polo hotel, Herat)
Hardy winter food like kebab, goat and some of the best bread in the world makes visiting Afghanistan in winter worthwhile. You will find the same foods in summer, but maybe they won't be quite as satisfying as when you need them to warm you from the inside out.
Herat is known for its amazing medieval Islamic architecture. Spend a day visiting the citadel, the shrine complex of Gazar Gah, the Sultan Baiqara minarets and the Masjet-e-Jam (aka Friday Mosque) which is a great starting point for exploring the old city. This would also be the suggested starting point for souvenir shopping.
No matter which Afghan city you find yourself in, one thing you should make time for is a studio portrait session. These take different forms depending on where you go. Some of them are outdoor shoots with no back-drop, some are in a studio where they supply not only a range of 'great' backdrops but also props and clothing. The ones that I find most memorable though are the ones where they do a passport-style picture of your face and then, through the magic of computers, paste your face onto another body in a wide range of scenes from waterfalls—complete with profile reflection of yourself—to military offensive complete with lions, helicopters and machine guns. You can get them printed out as postcards and get a copy of the digital file for future use.
The population of Herat is mainly Dari which is why the city and province are mainly free of Taliban who are Pashtun (obviously a minority or Pashtun are actually Taliban). That is not to say the city— said to be under the control of warlordIsmael Khan—is free of attacks and caution must still be exercised.
Enjoy a couple days in Herat and prepare for the reverse flight back to Kabul. This time you are dropped off at a field and load your checked luggage into the pickup. Make sure you print out your ticket as you will trade this directly for your boarding pass and there is no computer to confirm bookings.
TIPS: • Expats and security are generally the targets of attacks so try not to spend too much time where either congregate. • Choose secure accommodation in Kabul but be aware that most have been attacked at least once. • Try to blend in. Clothes in neutrals and earth tones work well, as do jeans. A scarf for man or woman will help you avoid standing out to much. • Trust your instincts. If you don't like the situation - change the situation. • Having an Afghan translator, driver, fixer or armed security will sometimes be necessary. • Don't expect the Afghanistan you see on the news - that's just a small piece of the puzzle. • There are a few domestic carriers in Afghanistan, Kam and Ariana are the main ones for Herat. I don't really recommend either.
WHERE I STAY
Kabul: Park Palace Shar-e-Now, Next to UN Main Club, across from the Netherlands embassy office: +93 700 656561 or +93 0799 736 7777 or +93 0777 284 4144 mobile: +93 799 306 663 or +93 700 284 144 email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org $55 per night
The Park Palace is a secure building in a quiet area with an inner garden courtyard, restaurant with vegetable dishes and wi-fi. Like most Afghan hotels it is a bit weathered but security is good and amenities are western style. Entry is a three stage system where outside guards grant access to a secondary holding room which is then opened by guards in a third room who will will let you pass through room numbers two and three to the outer area of the two story guest house where there is sometimes one or two more guards before you enter the hotel to the reception desk.
Herat: Marco Polo Hotel, Badmurghan street office: +93 (40) 221 946 or (40) 221 947 / mobile: +93 (0)799 206 192 or +93 0700 436 622 email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org $30-40 per night
Hotels in Herat typically don't offer the security measures that many Kabul hotels catering to foreigners do. Overall Herat is safer, but conditions can change and care should still be taken. Marco Polo is a large hotel housingwith a single guard at the entrance. Short and long term guests stay at this hotel including many working with NGO's in the city. Internet is free and there is a good restaurant on site where you can expect to pay about $4 for most meals. Vegetable dishes available.
Ahmad Store Antiques, carvings, pashminas and a really great owner Shar-e-Now - Chicken street, shop 2 +93 0799 324 876
Khusravy Box & Dastkowal store Leather goods right from the workshop Zarghona Maydan Shahr-e-Now Charrahi Tura Baz Khan +93 079 300 561
GETTING AROUND KABUL
AKL Logistics 24 hour taxi I have never used this company but they were once recommended. +93 0707 507 030 / +93 0789 507 030 / +93 0793 507 030 email@example.com / www.akl-logisticstours.com General Manager in UK: Johan Kelly +44 790 327 6524
Kabul english speaking driver (unarmed) Merza +93 0799 293 364 I highly recommend him
Kabul english speaking driver (concealed weapon) Murtazar + 93 785 657 122
Herat english speaking driver - also speaks Italian (unarmed) Nirza +93 0799 666 888
**I am not an expert on Afghanistan or security and do not suggest anyone makes trips to conflict zones without sufficient experience and planning.