Afghanistan Tourism Friendly, beautiful Afghanistan was once well known on the backpacking circuit as the place to stop for unparalleled hospitality, fantastic food, great hiking. But then, things kept changing. More than 20 years of war have left the dramatic countryside peppered with landmines and reduced many of the finest monuments and minarets to rubble. The poverty left in war's wake has taken an impossible human toll and encouraged the theft and sale of priceless national treasures.
Orientation Afghanistan is a totally landlocked country slightly larger than France, with an extremely rugged topography. It borders Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China and Pakistan, and is strategically important to all. The mighty Hindu Kush (Killer of Hindus) mountain range, the western extremity of the Himalaya, runs across the country from east to west. The average elevation of this mountainous interior is a lofty 2700m (8856 ft) and the highest peaks reach 7500m (24,600ft) in the northeast. From here rise the major rivers of Afghanistan. The Kabul river flows east into the Indus while most others such as the Helmand, Farah and Harirud disappear into the desert sands. To the north of the Hindu Kush are the low lying plains of Afghan Turkistan and the border marked by the Amu-Darya (Oxus). To the south stretches the dry, dusty Dasht-i-Margo, or Desert of Death.
Events One of the most important holidays in Afghanistan is Navrus (New Days), celebrated around March 21, on the spring equinox. It's an Islamic adaptation of far more ancient festivities, and special foods - wheat for the ladies and veal for the men - are prepared. Navrus is a family affair these days, though some communities still take it into the streets.
The four major Islamic holidays are celebrated according to the lunar calendar, so check the dates and plan ahead. Eid-ul-Azha, the Feast of Sacrifice, marks the beginning of the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Those who can afford it buy and slaughter an animal, then share the meat with friends and strangers. Ramadan is the month of fasting. Eid-ul-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, when friends and families gather to eat, eat and, if so inclined, smoke cigarettes.
The capital of Afghanistan was never a terribly attractive or interesting city, something that has certainly not improved during the last 20 years of conflict. The Soviets left the city reasonably intact in 1989, but since then Kabul has been virtually destroyed by bombardments and street battles, with an estimated loss of some 30,000 lives. The Kabul Museum, which used to have one of the finest collections of antiquities in Asia, has had nearly three-quarters of its finest collections looted. It's still possible to see the remaining artifacts - those without any significant monetary value. It was also once possible to walk the five-hour length of the crumbling walls around the ancient citadel, Bala Hissar. The pleasant Gardens of Babur, were once a cool retreat near the city walls.
Nuristan Northeast of Kabul, Nuristan (Land of Light) is mountainous, remote, little-visited and of great ethnological interest - and memorably described in Eric Newby's hilarious A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Shahr-i-Zohak (The Red City) enshrines the remains of an ancient citadel which guarded Bamiyan, and is about 17km (11mi) before Bamiyan itself and 180km (112mi) northwest of Kabul. This was once the centre of the Ghorid kingdom. Bamiyan was once home to the Great Buddhas, which stood 35m (114ft) and 53m (174ft) high, and were enclosed within dramatic shrines carved from the cliff walls. Built between the 2nd and 5th centuries, these ancient giants were destroyed by Taliban officials in 2001. You can still visit the shrines, though little remains. Shar-i-Gholgola is the most important ruined city in the valley. The name means 'city of sighs,' and climbing to the top of a dramatic nearby cliff to look across the valley at the Buddhas used to be a popular activity. The sighs of visitors continue to echo from the peak, though their timbre has changed. The incredible lakes of Band-i-Amir (Dam of the King) boast clear, cold blue water dammed by sulphurous deposits and surrounded by towering pink cliffs. It's located 75km (47mi) beyond Bamiyan.
Ghazni The modern town of Ghazni is just a pale shadow of its former glory. The city is only 150km (93mi) southwest of Kabul on the road to Kandahar, but poor roads mean the trip still takes most of the day. Ghazni today is known mainly for its fine bazaar, featuring goods from Afghanistan and surrounding countries. The carefully restored tomb of Abdul Razzak and the museum within are of interest. There are also some very fine minarets, the excavations of the Palace of Masud and, most surprisingly, a recently discovered Buddhist stupa that has survived from long before the Arab invasion of the 7th century.
Kandahar Kandahar is situated in the far south of the country, about midway between Kabul and Herat. It's the second-largest city in Afghanistan and lies at an important crossroads, where the main thoroughfare from Kabul branches northwest to Herat and southeast to Quetta in Pakistan. Kandahar lies very much in the Pashto heartland. Kandahar's great treasure, a cloak that once belonged to the Prophet, is safely locked away from infidel eyes in the Mosque of the Sacred Cloak, known locally as Da Kherqa Sharif Ziarat. A few kilometres from the centre of Kandahar towards Herat are the Chihil Zina, or Forty Steps. They lead up to a niche carved in the rock by Babur, founder of the Mogul empire, which is guarded by two stone lions.
Herat Herat was once a small, provincial, relatively green, laze-about place that everyone seemed to like, an easy-going oasis after a lot of hassle and dry desert. In the 15th century, Herat was the Timurid centre of art, poetry, miniature painting and music, blending Persian, Central Asian and Afghan cultures to create one of Central Asia's cultural highlights. The Friday Mosque, or Masjid-i-Jami, is Herat's number one attraction and among the finest Islamic buildings in the world, certainly the finest in Afghanistan. It has some exquisite Timurid tilework to complement its graceful architecture. The covered bazaar in Char souq is a complex of all sorts of shops and artisans' workshops. A short walk from the city centre are the remains of an old medressa (1417), built by the Queen Gaur Shad. The wife of Timurid ruler Shah Rukh, Gaur Shad was Timur's daughter-in-law and a remarkable woman in her own right, who kept the empire intact for many years. Her mausoleum still stands near the medressa, a carbon copy of the Gur Emir in Samarkand. The shrine complex of Gazar Gah (1425) is about 5km (3mi) east of Herat. The tomb of Abdullah Ansar, a famous Sufi mystic and poet who died in Herat in 1088, is the main attraction. The Afghan King Dost Mohammed and the famous Persian poet Jami are also buried here. The 65m-high (123ft) Minaret of Jam, 313km (194mi) from Herat and around 550km (341mi) from Kabul, is the second highest in the world, as well as one of the oldest, dating back some 800 years.
Environment Afghanistan's dramatic landscape encompasses a variety of biomes, from arid steppes to alpine fields. The seismically active mountains of the Hindu Kush, where most of the country's water falls as snow, are home to many plants and animals that exist nowhere else on Earth. The steppes and intermediary ecosystems are also of interest to the amateur biologist. But, as with many places in the former USSR, land and water mismanagement led to the destruction of many of these unique natural habitats. Unexploded artillery, landmines of every vicious sort and other implements of destruction are hidden in hill and vale; no one in their right mind would hike here without pushing a very large, very light metal detector in front of them. Though Afghanistan's tough wildlife would likely recover given just a moment of peace.
1. One visa application form. 2. One passport-sized photo (attached with cellophane tape). 3. Your passport, valid for at least 3 months past the end date of your trip. 4. If you are a U.S. alien resident, provide a copy of your Green Card.
* A letter of introduction stating the purpose of your trip and sponsorship information. You will also need to include a financial guarantee Visa application fee. (Money orders preferred.)
- Visa processed on the same day: $100.00 - Visa processed in three days: $70.00 - Visa processed in two weeks: $50.00
* If you are applying by mail, please include a prepaid, self-addressed return envelope. You may use Certified or Registered U.S. mail, or a Federal Express or UPS shipping envelope