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Afghanistan

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Travel Guide Asia Afghanistan

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Introduction

Gazar Gah

Gazar Gah

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Afghanistan is a landlocked country in the heart of Asia. Over the past several decades, it has been largely off-radar for tourists, as the country has been dominated by civil strife and war. The United States' war in Afghanistan toppled the Taliban regime in 2001, but the country remains far from secure.

Sadly, many of Afghanistan's best attractions, including historic buildings and cultural treasures, have been destroyed during the decades of war. But the remnants of Afghanistan's rich history remain, most notably at the country's two UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Minaret of Jam and the Bamyan Valley. Meanwhile, Afghanis have worked hard to rebuilt their country since the overthrow of the Taliban, with cities like Kabul and Herat growing and developing more infrastructure for tourism. But even there, security remains a huge issue, with frequent violence.

Travel warning: On September 10, 2008, the United States Department of State issued a warning that people are strongly advised not to travel to Afghanistan. Currently (mid 2010) the situation has not been getting much better.

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Brief History

Archaeology has revealed human settlement in Afghanistan stretching back for thousands of years. Aryan tribes were some of the earliest inhabitants, while Afghanistan also caught the eye of surrounding empires. The Medes, Persians, Greeks, Kushans, Hepthalites, Arabs, Turks and Mongols all invaded and conquered parts of Afghanistan.

The modern state of Afghanistan was created in 1747 by Ahmed Shah Durrani, who also founded the Durrani Empire, which stretched across modern-day Pakistan and parts of Iran and India. In the mid-19th century, the British Empire fought to gain control of much of Afghanistan; it was not until 1919 that Afghanistan again started to be able to exercise its independence. Between 1933 and 1973, under the rule of King Zahir Shah, Afghanistan enjoyed a period of stability.

A coup in 1973 saw Mohammed Daoud Khan become the first President of Afghanistan, ousting King Zahir Shah, who was his brother-in-law. This set off a period of political turmoil, aggravated by the United States and Soviet Union, who were embroiled in the Cold War. The former began covertly training Mujahideen forces to fight against the Soviet Union, who invaded the country in 1979. The Mujahideen were able to force the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989, a victory for the United States, but the US failed to provide adequate assistance to post-war Afghanistan, which suffered from ongoing civil violence between Mujahideen factions. The Taliban seized control of Kabul in 1996.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the United States launched a military campaign to overthrow the Taliban and destroy al-Qaeda terrorist training camps in the country. By the end of the year, the Taliban had been overthrown and former Afghan leaders began the work of forming a new democratic government. In 2004, Hamid Karzai became the first democratically elected President of Afghanistan.

While the political developments in the past few years have seen a positive move towards democracy and greater rights for women, national stability is undermined by ongoing violence by the Taliban and al-Qaeda, poverty, large numbers of live land mines and a thriving opium trade.

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Geography

Afghanistan borders Pakistan (east and south), China (north-east), Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (north), and Iran (west). Geographically, Afghanistan can be divided into 3 distinct regions:
Most of the country is dominated by the Central Highlands, a mountainous region in the centre of Afghanistan. The Hindu Kush is a rugged mountain range between Afghanistan and Pakistan, home to the famous Khyber Pass, which is the most common overland route between the countries. The most dramatic peaks are located in the east of the country, with the mountains gradually becoming smaller further west. Besides the Hindu Kush, there are smaller mountain ranges in Afghanistan, including Koh-e Baba, Salang, Koh-e Paghman, Spin Ghar, Suleiman Range, Siah Koh, Koh-e Khwaja Mohammad and Selseleh-e Band-e Turkestan. The Southern Plateau is a desolate region consisting of sandy deserts and high plateaus, south of the mountainous centre of Afghanistan. The city of Kandahar lies in this region. The Northern Plains are a fertile region where the country's agriculture is focused.

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Provinces

Afghanistan is divided into 34 provinces, which can be roughly divided into five different regions:

RegionProvinces
West AfghanistanBadghis, Faryab, Ghor, Herat
East AfghanistanBamyan, Ghazni, Kabul, Kapisa, Khost, Konar, Laghman, Lowgar, Nangarhar, Paktia, Paktika, Parvan, Wardak
Northwest AfghanistanBalkh, Jowzjan, Samangan, Sare Pol
Northeast AfghanistanBadakhshan, Baghlan, Kunduz, Nurestan, Panjshir, Takhar
South AfghanistanDaykundi, Farah, Helmand, Kandahar, Nimruz, Oruzgan, Zabol

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Cities

  • Kabul - The capital
  • Panjshir Valley
  • Kandahar
  • Fayzabad
  • Herat
  • Jalalabad
  • Mazari Sharif
  • Qalat
  • Zaranj
  • Tarin Kowt
  • Kunduz

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Sights and Activities

Mount Noshaq

Mount Noshaq is the highest mountain in Afghanistan at 7,690 metres. This mountain is also the second highest mountain in the Hundu Kush mountain range. It was first climbed in 1960 by a Japanese expedition. Located on the Pakistan border this stunning mountain is not the safest place to visit.

Buddhas of Bamyan

The Buddhas of Bamyan are located about 230 kilometres northwest of Kabul and are amazing. These two colossal Buddha statutes were carved into the side of a sandstone cliff and one is 54.8 metres (180 feet) tall and while the other is 36.9 metres (121 feet)) tall. The smaller statue was built in 507 AD, while the larger statued was constructed later in 554 AD. Other caves in the areas also have small statues and grottos that hermits made while trying to reach enlightenment. This made the area a centre for Buddhist and Hindu monasteries and a religious centre for central Asia during this time. The statues were decorated in a blend of Hellenistic and Indian styles with elaborate paints and cloth. In March of 2001 the Taliban decided to destroy the two large Buddhas because they thought they violated Islamic law. Some other Islamic countries, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, tried to stop them but it ultimately failed and the statues were destroyed anyway. Today several countries have pledged money to restore and rebuild the statues. The Buddhas are considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Minaret of Jam

Built during the Ghurid Dynasty, in 1194 AD, this impressive minaret dominates the valley. The Minaret of Jam rises to 65 m above a narrow valley floor. The sides of minaret are covered in stunning brick work and amazing decorations. After the fall of the dynasty, by the invasion of the Mongols, the minaret was forgotten and lost, until rediscovered in 1957. No one knows why the minaret was built or what was its purpose, because there is no evidence that a mosque was attached to it. Some think it might be the long lost capital of the Ghurid Dynasty, which was destroyed by the Mongols. The Minaret of Jam is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the valley around it has many other amazing ruins.

Other Sights and Activities

Blue Mosque Mazar - e - Sharif

Blue Mosque Mazar - e - Sharif

© All Rights Reserved nijethorpe

  • Blue Mosque in Mazari Sharif - Visit this amazing blue tiled mosque in the northern city of Mazari Sharif.
  • Markets - Check out the local flavor at many wonderful street markets in cities like Kabul.
  • Mountain Passes- Check out amazing mountain passes in some of the most remote areas of the world.
  • Kabul Museum - Visit one of the best collections of any central Asian museum at this national museum. With over 100,000 items that date back several thousands of years there is plenty to learn here.

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Weather

Afghanistan's climate is harsh, with hot and dry summers and sometimes bitterly cold winters, especially in areas at higher elevation. Average summer temperatures are well above 30 °C during the day in most of the country, but drop to around 15 °C or a little more at night in places at higher altitude like Kabul. The short winter lasts from December to February with temperatures during the day a few degrees above zero, but averaging around
- 8 °C in Kabul in January for example. Records of 40 °C in summer and -21 °C in winter have been recorded in the capital. Summers are dry while March and April sees most of the rain.
The lower western and southern parts of Afghanistan have a (semi)desert climate with very hot weather in summer, averaging around 37 °C to 39 °C, but highs of over 45 °C are not uncommon. Nights here are still warm, around 20 degrees. Winters are mild, generally between 13 °C and 17 °C during the day, but averaging around zero at night and cold nights of around -10 °C are well possible. Average rainfall is just around 150 mm a year and is concentrated from December to February.

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Getting there

By Plane

Ariana Afghan Airlines is the national airline of Afghanistan and is based at Kabul International Airport (KBL). It flies to and from Ankara, Delhi, Dubai, Dushanbe, Frankfurt, Jeddah ,Islamabad, Istanbul Atatürk, Tehran and Ürümqi. Pakistan International Airlines flies to and from Islamabad. Kam Air operates flights to and from Almaty, Dushanbe, Delhi, Mashad, Kuwait, Istanbul, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Shrjah. Few other airlines serve the country but London will have connections by Safi Airways in the near future when things have cleared up a bit in the country.

By Car

Theoretically you can cross borders with Afghanistan along most routes where public transport exist (see below). Still, due to safety reasons, it's absolutely not recommended to travel their with your own car. It is much more discrete to travel by bus or shared taxi.

By Bus

Although the country is not entirely safe, borders with all countries except China remain open.
There are direct buses between Mashad in Iran and Herat.
Border crossings with Pakistan are betweeen Peshawar and Jalalabad and between Quetta and Kandahar, though the latter is really off limits for travellers. Even the first one has become more and more unsafe during the last months due to safety concerns in Pakistan as well. One the route, taxis are the way to go, taking buses is usually not allowed.
There are also three border crossings with Tajikistan, bordering Afghanistan in the north. The busiest and most accessible is at Shir Khan Bandar near Kunduz. Two Badakhshan border posts are at Ishkashim and Khorog. It's possible to travel overland from Kabul to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, in a very long day, starting early.
There are two official border crossings on between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Torghundi in Afghanistan to Serkhetabat in Turkmenistan is the one most because of its proximity to Herat. Another more unusual alternative is at Imam Nazar, near Andkhoi.
To Uzbekistan, the Friendship Bridge across the Amu Darya links Hairatan in Afghanistan to Termiz. Hairatan is about half an hour from Mazar-e-Sharif. This border is notorious for sometimes being open, and the next time being open again, depending on the officials and current situations, so check before leaving.

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Getting Around

By Plane

Ariana Afghan Airways and Kam Air operate a number of domestic flights. Between the two there are daily flights from Kabul to Herat and Mazar-e Sharif, and to Kandahar several times a week. There's also a weekly Ariana Kandahar-Herat flight. Other services are less certain but Faizabad, Kunduz, Maimana and Shiberghan are supposed to be served at least weekly. Book well in advance.

By Train

There are no train services in Afghanistan.

By Car

Some roads are in an excellent condition while others are as poor as it gets. Many roads are being improved, but still roads in sensitive areas remain poor. Renting a car is not advised, if at all possible. Your best bet will be to rent a 4wd vehicle with a guide who doubles as a an English speaking guide. This is best arranged in Kabul. Kabul to Herat and Kandahar are the best roads. Watch out for mines and stick to the main roads.

By Bus

Some coach buses, but mainly Japanese Toyota minivans, ply the main routes between cities and towns. These can be quite uncomfortable and in some cases take hours and hours, but is a great, cheap way to get around as an alternative of a missed flight. A better option is a shared taxi which fill up quicker, are faster and only about 30% more expensive

By Boat

There are no connections by boat in Afghanistan.

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Money

See also: Money Matters

Afghani (AFN) = 100 puls.
Notes in denominations of AFN1,000, 500, 100, 50, 20, 10, 5, 2 and 1.

US dollars (US$) are widely accepted.

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Language

The main languages are Pashto and Dari Persian. English and Russian may also be spoken.

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Health

See also: Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Afghanistan. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Afghanistan) where that disease is widely prevalent.

It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Afghanistan. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid.

If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.

Malaria is prevalent in the country, but only below the elevation of 2,000 metres. Don't underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net.

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.

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Safety

See also: Travel Safety

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Keep Connected

Phone

See also International Telephone Calls

The country calling code to Afghanistan is: 93. To make an international call from the Afghanistan, the code is: 00

Quick Facts

Afghanistan flag

Map of Afghanistan

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Capital
Kabul
Population
31,000,000
Government
Islamic Republic
Religions
Islam (Sunni, Shi'a)
Languages
Afghan Persian or Dari, Pashtu, Turkic languages
Calling Code
+93
Nationality
Afghan
Local name
Afghanestan

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