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16

Getting Started

By any stretch of the imagination, Afghanistan isn’t the simplest country to travel in. For the visitor, it’s a world away from backpacking in Thailand or island-hopping in Greece. It’s a country recovering from nearly three decades of war, with a host of continuing problems. You’ll need to invest time getting the latest safety information, and news from other travellers or colleagues working in the country. But with the right preparations, and a constant ear to the ground once

you’re there, travel in Afghanistan is not only a possibility but also incred- ibly rewarding. The post-Taliban scene has brought investment to the country for the first time in years, and the logistics of getting around and finding somewhere to stay has become increasingly straightforward. Not only that, it’s an addictive country to visit. Once in Afghanistan, there’s something about the people, the history and even the air that can get in your blood and promise to draw you back again. Do your research, and you’ll find Afghanistan a truly rewarding country.

Foreign women shouldn’t attempt to wear the burqa – for more information on dress codes see p211 .

SHOULD YOU GO?

The rebuilding of Afghanistan’s shattered infrastructure continues to be painfully slow. Its culture has been pillaged and its people scattered, and discontent in the south and east has reignited into a full-blown Taliban insurgency. While many international workers continue their jobs under often tricky conditions, Afghan embassies are happy enough to give out tourist visas to those who ask. But should you go? The prime concern is security, and we do not advocate people putting

themselves at risk. It’s vital to understand that safety and security issues are anything but static in Afghanistan – things can change rapidly and it would be irresponsible of us to give prescriptive safety advice. Be aware that at the time of research, the US, British and Australian governments were all advising against non-essential travel to Afghanistan. For a detailed analysis of security issues in Afghanistan, see the Safety in Afghanistan chapter ( p68 ), but remember that this chapter is only a starting point for your own research. Only you are responsible for your safety, so it’s absolutely

DON’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT…

 An Afghan visa in your passport (see p210 ).  A travel insurance policy that actually covers you for travel to Afghanistan (see p205 ).  The latest news from the ground, and safety information (see p68 ).

 Non-revealing clothes, with arms and legs covered for both sexes. Headscarves for women are strongly recommended. Wearing respectful attire will get you a better reception in Afghanistan.

 Water purification treatment.

 Lip balm, sunscreen, sunglasses and hat for protection against the strong mountain light and desert sun.

 A torch for when the electricity inevitably fails.  A sleeping bag – essential for winter, and useful for anywhere off the beaten track.

 A taste for tea – no business or social meeting can take place without an endlessly replenished cuppa.

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GET TING STARTED •• When to Go 17

essential that before considering a visit you assess the security situation from reliable, up-to-date sources. Choosing to travel in an organised tour, where a company has experi- ence on the ground and access to reliable security information can be a preferable alternative to going independently without any support network, and there are now several reliable tour operators working out of Kabul. If security constraints allow it, we believe that visiting Afghanistan can

be a highly positive experience. Tourism is by no means a panacea for Afghanistan’s myriad problems, and the tourist vanguard has a special responsibility travelling in a socially conservative country recovering from war. One of the most common laments you’ll hear in Afghanistan is how the world forgot them after the Soviet War. Foreigners can help Afghans reconnect with the world, and to allow them to be seen as in- dividuals rather than victims of war, while putting money into the local economy has a more tangible direct benefit. A visit to Afghanistan, with its amputees and women begging in burqas, can be a shock. If you want to have a more positive impact, you might want to consider donating time or money to aid agencies working in the country. There are dozens to choose from, and some are better than others, so pick carefully. Ask how long they have been working in Afghanistan, what role the local community plays in their projects and how sustain- ability is monitored.

WHEN TO GO

Assuming that the political climate allows you to make a trip, the most pleasant time to explore Afghanistan is spring or autumn, in particular April to early June and September through October. In spring, north Af- ghanistan turns from dusty ochre to bright green, as the desert and hills spring into life and are studded with blooms of flowers. Autumn is harvest time and brings the best of the Afghan fruit – melons from the north, grapes from the Shomali Plain and fat pomegranates from Kandahar. Summers can be blisteringly hot at lower altitudes, with cities like

Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, Jalalabad and Kandahar sweltering in tempera- tures topping 40°C. The mountains mitigate this heatwave, and Kabul, Bamiyan and Faizabad are all more manageable at this time, and their altitude blesses them with deliciously cooler nights. June to September is the best time to head to the higher mountains – much of Badakhshan (including the Wakhan Corridor) is inaccessible for the rest of the year due to snow. The white stuff can also make crossing central Afghanistan to the Minaret of Jam extremely difficult outside these months, as roads and high passes close for the winter. Even the Salang Pass, the main ar- tery between north and south Afghanistan, experiences avalanches and blockages a few times every winter. Winter is harsh across the country barring the extreme south, with

temperatures sitting below zero and heavy snow in Kabul and elsewhere. The spring melt can bring trouble of its own, with frequent floods wash- ing out poorly maintained roads. At the end of winter, everyone looks forward to Nauroz on 21 March,

the Afghan New Year celebrations. This can be a joyous time to visit the country, and one of the best times to see the national sport, buz- kashi ( p57 ). Conversely, the month-long fast of Ramazan (Ramadan; p203 ) can be a trying time to be on the road, as restaurants and tea- houses are closed during the day, and frequently shut up shop for the entire month.

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