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.

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.