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208 DIREC TORY •• Post


As digital cameras catch on in Afghanistan, it’s a surprise to see street photographers still taking portraits with old-fashioned box pin- hole cameras on wooden tripods. Sitting for your shot, the photographer takes the cover off the lens to directly expose the photo- graphic paper inside. This is printed to make a negative, which is then photographed and the process repeated to produce a slightly blurred and ethereal portrait that looks like it was taken in the 19th century, rather than the 21st. Allow at least 30 minutes to get an unusual, but very Afghan, souvenir.

deeply ironic as soon as you realise the Af- ghans’ great love of having their picture taken. Always ask ‘aks gerefti?’ (‘May I take your photo?’) before snapping away. This love of being photographed only extends to male Afghans, however, and open pho- tography of women should be avoided. It is deeply insulting to take pictures of women without permission and doing so can easily lead to an ugly scene, especially if a male relative is nearby. This can even apply if you’re shooting a street scene and a woman happens to be in the foreground. Although the ‘burqa shot’ is one of Afghanistan’s more iconic images, resist the temptation. Even if no protest is made, don’t underestimate the grave offence you might have unwittingly caused. Women photographers are often permitted more access than men, especially if they’ve established some rapport. As in many developing countries, pro-

hibited subjects include military sites, airports and embassies. Avoid these com- pletely, along with photos of international military forces.


International post is generally reliable but can be very slow. It can take anything be- tween two weeks and a month for letters to reach their destinations, irrespective of where they’re headed. Either way, if you’re only on a short trip you’re likely to beat your postcards home. A postcard currently costs 34Afg to send to Europe or Australia, and 40Afg to North America. Stamp-lovers will enjoy the process of sending mail, as the clerk picks out designs of various ages

and then carefully franks them. One card we sent reached its destination with stamps from 1969, 1984 and 2003 on it! Mail is best sent from the major cities

(Kabul by preference), which is faster and more reliable. Although many small towns have post offices, mail is liable to go astray; we’re not sure we’d entirely trust the crudely made wooden ‘post box’ we saw nailed to a tree in Samangan’s bazaar. Sending packages is a daylong process involving a complicated customs declara- tion paper chase. It’s more efficient (if more expensive) to use an international shipping company. DHL, TNT and Federal Express all have offices in Kabul. A 500g package sent from Kabul costs around US$130 to the USA or Europe, taking five days to arrive. It’s just about possible to receive mail by

post restante. Have mail addressed to the main post office (eg Shahr-e Nau, Kabul), with your name underlined. Take your pass- port; there’s a nominal fee for collection. If you’re based in Afghanistan longer term,

a more reliable way of receiving mail is to set up a PO Box. You need proof of identity (usually accompanied by a letter from your employer vouching for you) and a couple of passport photos. The fee is 530Afg per six months. Mail takes around two to three weeks from Europe or the USA.


There’s no need for travellers to register with the authorities on arrival in Afghani- stan. In towns not used to seeing foreigners, some hotels may ask that you register with the police before allowing you to check in. This is more common at the cheaper end of the accommodation, where local authori- ties sometimes place restrictions on where foreigners can and can’t stay overnight – the police and security services tend to do nightly checks of cheap hotels.


Afghanistan is full of enough interesting handicrafts and souvenirs to have you worry- ing about your baggage allowance on the plane. Kabul has the widest choice (and highest prices); Herat and Mazar-e Sharif are also good places to go shopping. Prices are never fixed, so be prepared to

haggle. There’s no rule on how much to offer, but it’s best to treat the deal-making


After the obligatory carpet, here are some of our most iconic souvenirs from Afghanistan:

 A chapan, the striped and quilted silk Uzbek robe that Hamid Karzai is never seen without

 A pakul, the pancake-flat hat immortal- ised by Ahmad Shah Massoud

 Lapis lazuli jewellery, from the mines of Badakhshan

 A delicately embroidered suzani, an Uzbek hanging or bedspread in silk or wool

 Handmade green and blue Herati glass  Rustic blue and brown pottery from Istalif

 A cover for bottles in the shape of a miniature burqa

 A CD of music by Ahmad Zahir  Opium cutter and scraper

as a game rather than becoming obsessed with driving the price into the ground. Both sides will take it in turns to be disinterested and then outraged at the prices offered be- fore finding common ground. For more on that most famous of ex- ports, the Afghan carpet, see p53 .


A limited fixed-line telephone network ex- ists in Kabul, Herat, Kandahar, Mazar-e Sharif and Jalalabad, managed by the state- run Afghan Telecom. However, Afghani- stan has quickly taken to mobile phones. Three companies currently compete for

custom: Roshan (; prefix 079/075), AWCC (; prefix 070) and Areeba (; prefix 077). A fourth

network, run by Etisalat ( was due to launch soon after we went to press. Afghanistan uses the GSM system, although demand frequently overloads the different networks at different times. As a result, it’s not uncommon to see Afghan businessmen clutching a handful of phones, one for each network. At the time of writing, Roshan was Afghanistan’s most popular network, with the widest coverage. The networks have international roam-

ing agreements with many foreign net- works, but it can work out cheaper to buy a

DIREC TORY •• Telephone 209

local SIM card on arrival in Afghanistan for about 2000Afg (including several hundred afghanis credit). Take a copy of your pass- port to the dealer. Calls within Afghanistan cost around 5Afg to 7Afg per minute ac- cording to the network, and around 20Afg per minute overseas. Top-up scratchcards for more credit are available everywhere from shops and street sellers. If you’re going to be spending time out- side the reach of mobile phone coverage, a satellite phone from Thuraya (; prefix 088216) can be a good investment, albeit not a cheap one. Handsets cost US$750 in Kabul, and phone calls cost US$1 a minute to any phone worldwide, or US$0.50 to an- other Thuraya number. To use a Thuraya phone, dial 00 to get the international code, followed by the country code, and then the number.

In the big cities, it’s easiest to place a call at a post office or an Afghan Telecom office. You give the number to a clerk who directs you to a booth and places the call. Calls to the US cost around 22Afg per minute, 22Afg to Europe and 25Afg to Australia. Local calls cost around 5Afg per minute. In addition, public call offices (PCOs) are common in the major cities, usually just an office with a desk and phone, or sim- ply someone on the street with a table and chairs and a pile of mobile phones.


Afghanistan runs on GMT plus 4½ hours. There is no daylight saving. The clocks are an hour ahead of Iran, and 30 minutes be- hind all its other neighbours.


Public toilets are effectively non-existent in Afghanistan. While midrange hotels and international restaurants will have sit-down toilets, everywhere else you’ll find squat toi- lets giving your thigh muscles a work-out.


Afghanistan’s telephone system is in a con- stant state of flux. While we have taken every care to check all telephone numbers at the time of research, it is highly likely that many numbers will change during the lifetime of this guide.

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