Impressions of Afghanistan

Our first couchsurfing host was a 21 year old married man, living with his mother, wife, son, brother, 3 sisters, step-father, and some other cousins and extended family. One day we accompanied his older sister to school, where 650 of the 1000 enrolled students were female. Girls and boys only mix in the kindergarten classrooms, and the rest of the school day is split up – girls in the morning, boys in the afternoon. We met with the principal and the English teacher who acted as a translator. We learned that the school had been open (for girls) for the last 20 years, which includes a time under Taliban rule when they weren’t allowed to go to school. During those times, they taught the girls within an unmarked compound, and had a back door they’d let the girls run out of if any police came.

Band-i-amir in the north of Afghanistan

Band-i-amir in the north of Afghanistan

The English teacher talked a lot, and told us everything. He even asked me to help him find money or a wife, because currently he’s found a wife (his cousin) but his father says he can’t afford her at the moment. This happened more than once, also in Iran, that people looked at a visiting foreigner as a way out. The major difference is that in Iran, the government imposes most of the restrictions, and in Afghanistan, family is the most important rule-enforcement.

Here, wives are often chosen by the father, or given to a man by her father, in some cases as young as 13 or 14 years old. They’re not given away for free – a hefty price, in the thousands of dollars, is paid, and in Kabul, weddings are a big big business. Weddings are attended by thousands of guests, sometimes 4,000, and cost tens of thousands of dollars. In very small, traditional villages of Afghanistan, some girls are also given to the enemy’s family as a way of resolving (often bloody) disputes. It would be tough to be wedded to your brother’s murderer and imagine ever having a happy family life of your own.

Every person we met in Afghanistan told us not to trust anyone. This was hard to do, especially since we were couchsurfing, and meeting and staying with a stranger, meeting all his strange friends, and had little options of making last-minute changes or not trusting the people around them. Our host in Kabul had his driver and cousins take us around, his butler feed us and lit our nightly shishas, and even took us to work one day (he works within a government ministry) and had one of their drivers take us home. We had recently learned that ministers are a huge target for kidnapping, and ministries for attacks, and that very morning there was a suicide bomb attack outside the Ministry of Defense, killing six and injuring dozens. On our way to the Ministry of Commerce, listening to the news of that mornings bombing, literally nothing changed, and people were only slightly inconvenienced from the increase in traffic due to a few road blocks around the explosion. I cant say people weren’t affected, but I saw this as a sign of their resilience. In your average European city, any suicide bomb would have caused a state of emergency, and no one would consider stepping outside or going to work.

street scene from Kabul

street scene from Kabul

During the evenings at his home, we were surrounded by other ministers and important people in business and government, and one frozen yogurt franchiser. The first night we arrived to a yard of 14 men smoking shisha and playing badminton – at this moment I was very glad to be traveling with a fake husband. They all spoke perfect English, and had lived or studied abroad, and had many family members abroad. Still, some of them had left as refugees, and I cant believe their lives in Germany or elsewhere were any happier than in Kabul, especially since many of them had returned. Sometimes security is not as important as work and family, so they may be safer abroad but certainly not better off. They all agreed that the current safety crisis in Afghanistan is actually the reason why government officials and business men make multi-million dollar transactions; a state of peace would surely bring an economic crash. Can you imagine trading peace for money? Or job security?

Our host in Kabul explained it was dangerous to be in politics, work for (any) government, and all the international ex-pats or NGO’s or armies just make it more unstable. But without them, billions of dollars wouldn’t rush into the country every year. For him, the safest way to be was low profile. The same roads we had once driven in a bullet proof Land Cruiser with an armed guard, we would walk late at night, because of this reason. He felt safer walking in a hoodie in the dark than getting into a car where he was supposedly protected. During our night walks, it was always smoggy with a combination of fog, exhaust pollution, and the smoke of burning garbage. Seeing stars in Kabul was impossible, though the one I did see was a shooting star.

Bamyan from the top of Shahr-e Gholghola, or 'City of Screams'

Bamyan from the top of Shahr-e Gholghola, or ‘City of Screams’

Four foreigners were kidnapped the week before we go to Afghanistan. An ex-pat friend of mine living in Kabul told us not to worry too much about that – foreigners are usually stalked and specifically targeted after weeks of planning, so we were low-risk kidnap suspects. However, some instincts are hard to suppress, and once in Herat we walked into a tour agency office to ask for an ATM, and they told us sit down, they’ll make a call. We politely said no thanks, we’ll ask someone else, and got the hell out of there.

Wedding halls, malls, hotels and hospitals are some of the biggest businesses in Afghanistan. The biggest, brightest buildings were wedding halls, the grand casinos of Kabul, so to speak. The malls and hotels were hidden behind security checkpoint containers, walls and barbed wire, since they’re suicide bomb attack hotspots, and hospitals seem to run without making any difference except for the rich few. We visited one private hospital in Herat, and the 5 storey building had more doctors, technicians and administration than patients. The first hour of our visit there wasn’t a single patient to be seen, and the surgery room looked like it had never been used since the hospital was opened two and a half years ago. We met the hospitals CEO in his office, where an unplugged, unwrapped, printer sat on his desk. He told us Afghanistan is the only country in the world where polio is still present, few people can afford private care, and just the other day a woman’s child died after being delivered from a major tumor that could have been seen only weeks into pregnancy – if she’d gotten an ultrasound.

The Big Buddha's cave

The Big Buddha’s cave

We also traveled north to Bamiyan, a city only 2 or 3 hours away by road, but since its regularly checked by the Taliban, it was safer to fly. It costs $110 to fly 30 mins one way, but who can put a price on safety? Though we found out its probably more dangerous for the Hazare people, an indigenous group from the north of Afghanistan, to travel or be there. They’re characteristically more Asian featured, and having narrow eyes is seen as unlucky throughout Afghanistan. People believe if you paint black lines around a child’s eyes, it will make them open wider as they grow. I wonder if that’s been proven to work.

Being in Bamyan for a couple of days made the entire trip to Afghanistan worth it. We couchsurfed a construction site, with a man in his half-built home, and shared our meals with the construction workers, his son, and his daughter. We slept in a room heated by a coal stove, and there wasn’t any running water in the bathroom but we managed with our babywipes and one tap in the garden. Bamyan was a village in a valley, surrounded by caves dug out in cliffs from an ancient Buddhist civilization that once thrived there. In 2001 the Taliban tore down the 53 and 35 m budda statutes that had stood there for 1700 years, in an anti-islam purification effort, but their giant impressions still remain, hollowed out into the mountain, overlooking the peaceful village of Bamyan.

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Planning a trip to Afghanistan

Traveling to Afghanistan has a lot of barriers, both mental and physical. Before going, you ask the inevitable question: is it safe? And everyone has a different answer or a different experience. Once you make a plan to go, you have to decide how to go – by road in almost any direction is risky. By air, you have to go thru multiple security checks just to enter the airport, and again before you enter the plane – to get in and out of Afghanistan. It’s hard to know what will happen even after you know how you’ll go.  Explaining to the Afghan consul in Tehran why I wanted to go as a tourist was as difficult for me to explain as it was for him to understand. So even after I finally had a plan and my visa, I still didn’t know if it would work out or be okay.

I made a plan to enter overland from Iran. I was going to couchsurf, but all I had was the names and numbers of people I had no idea where they lived, how they lived, or with who. So even though I kind of know where I was going, I didn’t have any idea how to get to the exact place. The border was fairly straightforward, but they never gave me a tourist registration card (which I found out later I needed to leave Afghanistan). I got to Afghanistan, and my host in Herat told me he doesn’t like living here because every time he leaves his home he’s not sure if he will come back home. Very reassuring…

the Citadel in Herat is a major tourist attraction with no tourists

the Citadel in Herat is a major tourist attraction with no tourists

We did get home, all three days, and spent a lot of time with him at work in a cell phone shop, since walking around was always a little stressful. I noticed an immediate change in the people, they were more intimidating, but though the people were taller and dirtier, they were somehow more handsome. There were no visible signs of danger – only a few armed guards – but the strange looks on peoples’ faces who saw us never allowed us to relax.

I was traveling with a fake husband, Michael from Germany, mostly because its unusual for females to move without other members of their family or a husband. He wore traditional Afghan clothes, and I was covered in black, but the way we walked probably gave us away. But every day, after we returned within the safe walls of his family’s home, we were surrounded by 12 or 13 family members (almost all female), and taken care of with a kind of hospitality even my own family wouldn’t give me. But every kind person we met still advised us not to trust anyone, even the next kind person we met, so we hesitated to ever fully enjoy all our positive experiences.

Kabul from afar - a little more inviting than on the streets beside the walls and barbed wire

Kabul from afar – a little more inviting than on the streets beside the walls and barbed wire

Leaving Herat by plane, but only to Kabul, caused the KamAir flight attendant who greeted us on board to flash us a worried look, so after boarding was completed he decided to upgrade us to first class and we sat in the first row with a hot meal – but no champagne. We relaxed a little, but still couldn’t understand why Google maps said Kabul Airport was permanently closed even though we were sitting on a plane bound for it.

If you’re planning a trip to Afghanistan, do trust people, and enjoy Afghan hospitality. Get your visa, if you can, and enjoy being one of the only tourists there. Travel by plane if you can afford it, and Kabul International Airport is open and has many direct flights daily. Don’t try to check in less than 1 hour before departure because they will leave you behind. And take into consideration there are about 5 security checks or searches before you even enter the terminal. If you want to overland into Afghanistan, the road is apparently only safe between Mashhad and Herat, and also one or two roads to Tajikistan might be passable.

Getting a visa is tricky for some (a German backpacker was denied a few days after me in Tehran) and I had to take a blood test against HIV, Hep B and Hep C. I tested negative for all of the above, thankfully, so I got my visa. Other countries need a letter of support, and other countries (mostly in the west) simply don’t give tourist visas anymore. Read more about the visa application process at the Afghan Embassy in Tehran at the Caravanistan website.

Customs in Iran

Iran was what I expected it to be, in many ways, but I learned about some very strange customs. I always thought Iran was a safe, conservative society full of fairly well-off, educated people – atleast compared to the rest of central Asia. I learned about siga, a form of legal prostitution supported by the government. It’s a system where men can pay a woman to marry her, for 1 hour, 1 week, or even 1 year, and during this rental time, the man can have sex with her without her being called a prostitute or insulting the no-sex-before-marriage custom. For women that do this, or just any ordinary girl who may have lost her virginity to a boyfriend, she can buy her virginity back, through a surgical procedure that takes less than an hour, but has a woman bed-ridden for a week or more, and may take a month or more to recover from. This is probably more expensive than the rental wife, but I don’t know the figures.

Cheaper for women is to spend money on nose jobs, and I don’t know the statistics on that but a lot of women do it. A cheap surgery can be under $1000USD, and wearing the white bandage on your nose out in public during the healing process is like an honour badge, a proud mark of being able to buy a more beautiful nose.

The eyebrows are arguably the second most important facial feature. The natural uni-brow is embraced as a traditional kind of beauty, grown only by the lucky few in the history of Persia’s great empire. Women with detached eyebrows often paint them darker and thicker, sometimes in unnatural shapes or lengths that don’t really make sense to me. Also their lipstick often spills out of the natural boundaries, and then you’re left with a lot of women who have a brightly coloured mouth under their cosmetic noses and piercing eyebrows, all carefully framed by a scarf or hijab.

Food in Iran was amazing, but I was unlucky enough to have my two worst meals within the first 24 hours of being in Iran, and this was because they weren’t typical Iranian foods. My first lunch was a $3 Turkish doner, 95% comprised of an oversized loaf of bread, and %5 shaved meat, and since I’m avoiding gluten, I ate the few scraps of meat and decided to stay away from doners unless Im back in Europe. My first breakfast was a green tea latte (quite good) and a bagel with cream cheese – the bagel was dry, fluffy bread in the shape of a circle and the cream cheese was like those pie-shaped spreadable cheese you get at hotel breakfast buffets. After that I decided to stay away from any international foods and everything was fine, except for being unable to avoid the inevitable bread that follows all meals.

I saw a lot of beautiful mosques and shrines, from behind my hijab and mandatory chador

I saw a lot of beautiful mosques and shrines, from behind my hijab and mandatory chador

All the Iranian meals I ate had that home-cooked feeling, even in a restaurant, and the sauces, pickles, spices, herbs and tea that followed them were equally delicious. Bread is always served with breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the bread type varied from home to home and city to city. You are meant to eat with your hands, usually with a piece of bread in it, or else you’re only offered a spoon and/or a fork. Knives were not part of the dining experience, even if you had a lamb shoulder or steak kebab.

Most meals were followed by an offer of fruit for desert, and now was the time for mandarins, pomegranates and apples. Strangely enough the fruits were always served on a plate with a knife, and I’ve rarely eaten fruit so often or formally.

Iranians have a word in Farsi called ‘ta-arof,’ and it refers to the kind of hospitality they offer that you cannot refuse – they insist until you either admit you’d appreciate it, or just take whatever it is to avoid the argument. When offered fruit, you’re directed ‘Eat pomegranate.’ Noone asks or cares if you want it, just eat it. If you refuse taarof, its an insult. If it is a question, like “what table would you like?” or “would you like to sit?”, then your answer is barely heard, since your host quickly refutes “no, this table is better” or “please sit here its more comfortable for you.”

Another unbreakable custom was some men’s insistence on not smiling in photos. “Real men don’t smile” I was told, and everyone kept their stone face in my selfies. I also couldn’t understand their strict rules on public behavior – unmarried or unrelated males and females cannot walk in the street together, even if they’re a meter apart on the sidewalk, but on my overnight train to Mashad I shared a 4 person sleeper cabin with 1 woman and 2 men. I could not sit on the back of my friends motorcycle and move thru traffic, but I could get into his car and drive away to anywhere we pleased. I rode one overnight bus as well, and it was the most luxurious bus I’ve ever seen. They call them VIP buses, and a single, reclining leather couch seat was on the left, and basically a loveseat sofa on the right, complete with armrests and a steward that served us snacks and tea.

Traveling times and daily routines were always a little surprising. Overnight trains and buses began in the afternoon, before sunset, and would usually arrive at their destination in the wee hours of the morning before sunrise, just in time for the first prayers of the day. The work week is Saturday to Wednesday, and staying awake til 2 am on a work day was normal, and waking up at 4 am on the weekend was also not unheard of. It’s the year 1395, and none of the months or days of the week are familiar.

I couchsurfed my whole time in Iran, so I often followed my hosts schedule or sleeping patterns. Sometimes I could nap or sleep earlier, but I enjoyed being awake from sunrise to sunset. There isn’t much to do in the evenings, since nightclubs are illegal, although Iranians are crazy about going to parks at night. The conversations I had with my couchsurf hosts were often the same, about my country, my family, my work, and my impressions of Iran. They talked to me about the same, but usually focused more on how they could get to my country, or a wife from outside, or a job in Europe, and shared their less-than-glamorous opinions of Iran. Everyone seemed to want a way out, to get any chance of escaping to the outside world, and had little hesitations about leaving Iran and never coming back. If they didn’t have the vocabulary to explain these feelings, they were still happy to use me as a means of practicing English, and then came more questions about me, my age, and my future plans for marriage and children – since every woman must have those plans.

In many ways, Iranian culture wasn’t so different from western cultures, and my first host in Tehran told me that women basically could act and do the same things we do at home. But after a few weeks of traveling alone in Iran, I realized the few things that do differentiate us are based on really strict, important customs, so it was better not to ask any questions and just conform.

Things to do and Surprises to Expect in Tehran

I’ve been looking forward to traveling to Iran ever since I made my first Persian friends at University more than 10 years ago. Persian hospitality was excellent even in Vancouver, so I could only imagine what it’d be like in Iran. Its also a place surrounded by mystical exoticism, a far-east land that few (mass) tourists go, but at the top of all real traveler’s list.

People inside and outside of Iran told me it’d be cheap. My first surprise after arriving in Tehran was that it’s not all that cheap (maybe because I had just been in Georgia), and getting out money is impossible, so the $400US I had had to last for 3 weeks. The metro in Tehran was clean and modern, but contains entire stations without subway maps (making it difficult to navigate for a first time user), and at rush hour, I witnessed two people get trampled in the mob-effect of people crushing in (or out) of the train in the 30 seconds the doors are open (but usually can’t close for another 10 or 20 seconds because all the bodies can’t quite squeeze in).

Darband Street

Darband Street

The first home I stayed at was on a street with old and new house numbers, so the address 16 9th street was actually 74 9th Ave, and impossible to know unless you read Farsi numbers. The spelling of translated Farsi words can sometimes get confusing. “E” and “I” are interchangeable, so you have to search for Imam and Emam and Isfahan and Esfahan on a map. “S” and “Z”, and “G” and “Q” are also used inconsistently, and I saw a lot of interesting ‘lost in translation’ phrases on street signs. I saw “3th Alley” and “41th Street”, and highway warning signs for “Use Law Gear” and a few km later “Use Low Geer”.

Nature Bridge by night

Nature Bridge by night

The weather was pleasant, warmer than an Icelandic summer, but if it got too warm I couldn’t enjoy the wind in my hair because I had to wear a hijab. Once a gust of wind blew my hijab off the back of my head, and some nearby taxi drivers gawked at me like I had dropped my pants. It’s just hair, and Iranian women have their hair sticking out the front and back of their scarves, but somehow dropping the scarf is ultra revealing. I also didn’t know I had to cover my hips, and thankfully one sweater I had covered my butt, but I quickly bought a longer black robe to better camoflauge.

Tehran had a lot of interesting tourist attractions, like the National Jewelry Museum, beautiful palaces, and an endless bazaar, and the city is backdropped by snow-topped mountains you can hike up thru a street of villages (don’t miss Darband street near Tajrish village!). Tehran is a huge city with millions of people, but parks, green spaces and trees are everywhere, so you don’t really mind the traffic as long as you can easily escape it. Strangely the parks are much busier at night, with couples discreetly holding hands or smoking cigarettes behind the blanket of dark. Tehran doesn’t get any good reviews from travelers, locals, or guide books, but I spent a week there happily visiting parks, strange museums, bazaars and shrines.

Bazaars always sell carpets

Bazaars always sell carpets

What not to miss in Tehran:

  1. the Nature Bridge park
  2. The National Jewelry museum (if you like sparkly things) or the carpet museum (if you want to see a bunch of 19th century hand woven carpets)
  3. The Tehran bazaar (Within the span of one hour, I saw 5 mosques, 4 nose jobs, 3 midgets, and enough carpets to cover all of Iceland, so its not only entertaining but also a lot to window shopping.
  4. Shahr-e-ray shrine (and bazaar)
  5. Darband Street and Tajrish village
a glipmse of Yazd

a glipmse of Yazd

And, if you only have time to visit one other place outside of Tehran, make it Yazd – locals there were the nicest people I met, although my host refused to walk with me in fear of getting in trouble, so I had to trail a few meters behind him. But wandering thru the bazaar and old city there was something like living a day in the movie Aladdin.

Welcome to Iran

Here’s a letter I wish someone from the Iranian tourism authority had sent me before flying one-way into Iran alone. 

One of the many beautiful gardens, this one in Fin, Kashan

One of the many beautiful gardens, this one in Fin, Kashan

Dear Tourist,

Welcome to Iran. We are a land famous for beautiful mosaics, Persian carpets, and ancient empires, and a people known the world over for our hospitality and endless supply of tea. However, please be aware of the following things before traveling in Iran.

We have a rich cultural history surrounding our bath houses and hammams, but presently social bathing is illegal and all our historic bathhouses have been turned into museums. There are banks on every corner, but none will accept your debit card and withdrawing money from abroad anywhere in this country is impossible. Bring a lot of cash because visa and mastercard (or any other international credit cards) are not accepted, and get used to a lot of zeros because even small things, like a taxi fare, are counted in the hundreds of thousands. Our money is printed as and called rials, but people refer to tomans, which is ten times less, so don’t get ripped off by paying ten times too much or insult someone by trying to pay ten times too little. However, for anything touristic, such as entrance to a museum, you will have to pay for an entrance ticket three to ten times more than a local. Also a taxi ride or a hotel room will be (legally) charged at a higher rate, since the government enforces different costs for foreigners. The same cup of coffee will not cost the same for you and a local, even if you order together.

You are not allowed to wear shorts, skirts or sleeveless shirts or anything else that would show your knees or shoulders. Please learn how to read Arabic numbers, since house numbers, streets, costs and bus numbers will usually only be written with them. Drivers are a little crazy and crossing the road inside or outside of a car are equally dangerous. Make sure you ride the metro or public bus in the right compartment – men in the front, women in the back!

If you are a woman, please also note: You must wear a hijab or wrap your head in some sort of scarf in all public places and inside cars. You cannot wear a skirt, but you must have a long enough jacket or shirt or skirt over your pants to cover your hips, so make sure you layer your pants under more clothing, preferably black. You cannot sing or dance in public or infront of men. You are not allowed to drive a motorcycle, or get on a motorcycle behind a man driving, since touching another man who is not your spouse or family member is a crime. Walking down the street with someone of the opposite gender who’s not related to you is also not allowed. Depending on the city you’re in, it’s also illegal to ride a bicycle, smoke cigarettes, or play pool. You must sit in the women’s only section of public transport, and of course mosques have a smaller women-only section which you can enter after wrapping yourself (and every part of your hair) in a chador (a big sheet, usually supplied to you).

Facebook, Twitter, and wordpress are some of the websites blocked in Iran, so make sure you get a virtual hotspot app if you want to access any of these sites. Airbnb and Coucshurfing are technically illegal too, and some couchsurfers are simply using the site to find an outside connection for help out of here, either with a visa, a foreign wife, or better-paying job offer. If you are a single woman, some men may consider trying to marry you, so pretend you’re married and wear a fake wedding ring. Or better yet, travel Iran with a man; it will save you a lot of hassle from taxi drivers wanting your phone number, men in bazaars following you, or random creepy men that assume western women are all super horny and none of them are virgins.

Since you are a tourist, many of these rules slide, but if an ethics police officer harasses you more than 3 times for any of the above, the punishment is prison or lashes, and adultery or rape will get you executed.

Welcome to Iran. We hope you enjoy your stay!

Women only

Women only