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Tips for Visiting Afghanistan: Is it Safe?

One of the things I get asked about a lot are my trips to Afghanistan. Several people have asked recently if it is safe for them to visit. I’ve gotten this question before and thought I’d address it.

Back in the 70’s, Afghanistan was a hotspot for tourism – especially the hippy crowd (can’t imagine why). My dad lived all over the country as a kid and recalls seeing tourists everywhere. People would invite them to their homes, even provide lodging free of charge. Afghans were very curious and excited about “guests” from abroad, and that was reflected in their attitude towards tourists. Nowadays, things have changed somewhat. While people are still generally welcoming towards tourists, there is a bit of distrust because of the western military presence and all that entails. You can still visit Afghanistan and have a great experience. You just need to be aware of a few things.

The security situation differs from city to city, but a few basic safety precautions will apply no matter where you’re staying. If you’re considering traveling to Afghanistan, here are a few things you should consider:

1. The War. Kabul is under constant threat of attack and NATO is scheduled to pull out in 2014. The last time a “peace maker” pulled out of Afghanistan, a civil war broke out. There’s no telling what will happen in 2014, so don’t book your ticket far in advance. Either visit before the so-called troop pullout or wait it out and see what happens afterwards.

That being said, Kabul is filled with Afghan security forces on practically every corner. Fully armed officers stand on watchtowers, keeping an eye on suspicious behavior – even going so far as to stop our car at a checkpoint because “someone wearing sunglasses was taking photos” of government buildings (guilty). Two suicide bombing attempts were thwarted while I was there, and I felt confident that the Afghan security forces had a handle on security – about as much as anyone can have a handle on these things.

Afghan soldiers chatting near an unmanned tank

Afghan soldiers chatting near an unmanned humvee

I saw kids walking to school by themselves every day. I have relatives who moved to Kabul from abroad and are perfectly content living there. If things were truly awful all the time, people would be running from the city, not flocking to it. The only places I’d steer clear of are those frequented by westerners: Hotels, restaurants that serve alcohol or cater to westerners exclusively, major shopping malls, and establishments near foreign embassies. These are targets for suicide bombers and you won’t miss out on anything by avoiding them. My advice is to find a local guide. They will help you navigate the city safely.

As for other cities in Afghanistan, Herat (which I hope to visit this year) is relatively safe. The rural areas outside of Kabul are safe, though make sure you adhere to local customs and avoid offending people (we’ll go over that later). Far be it from me to discourage you, but try to steer clear of Kandahar for now. You’ll have plenty to do and see in Northern Afghanistan, so we’ll focus the next few posts on that region.

2. The Weather. If you don’t want to take your chances, miss out, then wait another 20+ years for another semi-peaceful period, the next few months are an option. Keep in mind that winter in Kabul is brutal. It snows December through March, the roads get icy and muddy (making it practically impossible to go out to the rural areas), and hospitals are filled with patients suffering broken body parts. But don’t worry, the doctor with a cigarette dangling from his lip will gladly push your shoulder back into place and put a cast on your throbbing arm. 

Other than that, spring and fall are decent and the summer heat is bearable. You will get nosebleeds from the dust in the air, but the weather won’t conflict too much with the local dress code.

3. Personal Safety. First, I want to start by saying I felt safe during both trips. I’ll go as far as to say I felt safer walking the streets of Kabul than downtown Los Angeles. Sure, bad things happened (see trip reports), but I still went back for a second visit and am planning a third one. The air is very relaxed in that part of the world, despite the constant turmoil. People are carefree and that attitude is infectious. That being said, I was visiting my homeland and understood the culture and language. The key to feeling safe (and being safe) is knowing how to handle yourself in a foreign country and understanding the culture.

A Facebook friend recently posted the following quote on his page, which I think is great advice no matter where you’re going: “Whenever you find yourself in foreign territory, walk with a purpose. Nothing and no one will bother you…” Very true.

How safe are tourists in Kabul? I met NPO workers who’d spent a year in the city and made it out in one piece. I ran into what looked like a tourist group near Chicken Street (Koche Murgho). Overall, tourism is picking up.

Kabul Tourists

Women shouldn’t venture out without a male companion – though I saw a group of American women shopping alone at the Bagh-e-sano women-run shopping center.

Occasionally, I went to the grocery store alone. I never experienced harassment and the shopkeepers were generally more courteous to me than anyone else – mainly because they knew I was a “guest” and they treat guests with a certain level of respect. That being said, safety varies by neighborhood.

The Shahrak-e-Tilahi (Golden City) area is very safe. As is Makroyan, a middle-class neighborhood constructed by the Soviets. The Mandawi market can be overwhelming and my uncle claims a lot of “low lives” hang out there. I was apprehensive as a result, but again, experienced no harassment of any kind. A neighborhood we didn’t visit for safety issues was Jeda – again, my uncle claimed this area was full of shady characters and not appropriate for young women.

Makroyan Market

Makroyan Market

Shor-e-Nau (uptown) is where I saw the most foreigners. Lesse Maryam has a huge shopping district that I would steer clear of. They’ve constructed alot of shopping malls and that can get dangerous. There are also alot of beggars and gypsies wandering the area, and as a foreigner you will get hounded.

The only real safety concern for me were the drivers in Kabul. They are absolutely nuts, though surprisingly there is a method to their madness: Just keep moving. You’ll share the road with cattle, motorcycles, cars, bikes, pedestrians, military vehicles, and everything in between. If you’re the type of person who is afraid of flying, you will absolutely have a panic attack being driven around Kabul. Work out your phobias before you leave.

Sheep holding up traffic in Makroyan

Sheep holding up traffic in Makroyan

If after all this, you still want to visit Kabul or any other city in Afghanistan, stay tuned for the next parts in this series that will discuss what you need before you travel, how to get there, transportation, lodging, food, local customs to be aware of, sights to see, and things to do. Alot of preparation will go into this trip. However, educating yourself will make it go that much smoother.

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Ariana Arghandewal

12 Comments

  1. Very interesting report, I would love to see more photos from your trip. Any chance you are going to publish more?

    • A family friend lives in Bamyan and she cautioned us against going out there because the road to the town wasn’t safe. Apparently the area has a bandit problem. You should be ok in the north though.

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