Traveling safely in Afghanistan is all about having the most up to date information. Things here can change quickly, but as of November 2018 these were my observations:
Areas Covered: Mazar-e Sharif, Balkh, Samangan, Kabul, Panjshir Valley and the Hindu Kush/Salang Pass from Mazar to Kabul.
Additional places considered safe: The Wakhan Corridor, Bamyan and Herat.
Company used: Lets Be Friends Afghanistan for the most part. Independently afterwards.
How it was arranged: Noor from LBFA set me up with a Dutch traveler coming from the Heiratan border and picked me up from Mazar airport. He tailormade a trip for us with a program in Northern Afghanistan and dropped us off in Kabul afterwards.
Transport used: Noor traveled with us to Mazar, Samangan, Balkh and down to Kabul, having his cousin driving a regular afghani taxi. By using a more fancy car we would have drawn a lot more attention and with buses/shared taxis there is always the possibility that there is someone from the Taliban onboard who can turn you in. For people who want to be extra cautious, flying between the cities is reccommended.
Clothing: Wear local dresses. LBFA can buy this for you to have it ready upon arrival. Local leather shoes, a vest, scarf and traditional hat together with a Shalwar Kameez dress is the way to go for men. Hijab for women is a must and if you want to be extra cautious there are lots of places selling burqas.
Being interviewed by the Agence France Presse about how it is to travel in Afghanistan
Accommodation: The hotels used were clean, simple and low profile. I will not list the names of the hotels for the security of future travelers, but feel to send me a message and I can give them to you. Using couchsurfing is also a good way to stay safe and have locals to take you around. Just make sure to check their references first!
Trip summary: We stayed three nights in Mazar-e Sharif and drove to Kabul to stay four nights there. Mazar was used as a base to explore Balkh and Samangan and from Kabul we drove up to the Panjshir Valley. I was positively surprised that it was no problem for us to walk through streets and bazaars, relaxing in parks and eating out in restaurants every day. As long as you are with a local who knows the places and speak the language, Afghanistan can be a safe place to visit as a tourist in 2018.
Panjshir Valley is considered one of the safest and most peaceful places in Afghanistan, and as it is only about hundred kilometers from Kabul, it makes it a perfect day trip for those who want to escape the traffic and busy life of the capital city.
My couchsurfing host Naser had gathered some of his friends who were free on the weekend, and Friday morning at 7am we set off with two cars filled with good some Afgans, tea and food for a picnic that we had along the way.
The valley was guarded with checkpoints where the police welcomed us warmly after checking the car and our documents. Then we climbed onto the back of our pickup truck to have the best possible view of the beautiful scenery.
There were lots of posters along the way with portraits and slogans honoring Ahmed Shah Massoud who was a jihadi leader fighting the Taliban and the Russians trying to invade the valley. People had even covered traffic signs and the windshields of their cars with his picture, and people seemed to have big pride of him resting in a monument located in the middle of the valley which we went to visit.
The valley was one big graveyard for artillery, tanks and other military vehichles, and we stopped at some of them to take some pictures with beautiful landscape in the background. Sitting on one of the hills with my new friends and a fresh coffee in my hand I felt like I really got to suck in the scenery and the athmostphere and thought what a pity that not more people come to see this. Afghanistan has its dark sides but there is also so much beauty to be discovered and I really hope for the situation to improve so that it can grow as a tourist destination in the future.
Kabul is a massive city with its 7 million inhabitants, but with a few days to spare we were able to cover most places of interest. Noor from LBFA had arranged a room for us in a hotel that was hidden behind a kebab joint, with a narrow back room entrance and security, which felt very safe. He also took us out the first day to explore the Ka Feroshi bird market, the famous chicken street, Baburs Grave and the finishing off with sunset view from Wazar Akhbar Khan park.
The days I stayed with couchsurfers and started to feel very comfortable walking the streets with them, just as if it was any other city in the World. We traveled by buses, shared private taxis and the yellow taxis to visit the museum park, a private institute where I got to join in on a English class, to restaurants and to mosques.
It didnt seem like a lot of people noticed us much, especially as we were wearing local clothes and had a guide local couchsurfing hosts to help us ask for prices and tell directions to taxi drivers. I must say that I was a little worried about coming to Afghanistan, but after four days in the capital I have lowered my shoulders and feel much more confident about traveling in the country. On my last day I went back to the Wazar Akhbar Khan park, and while sitting there and watching all the life happening on the streets and rooftops I wish I could have spent even more time here.
Top:Ka Feroshi market. Bottom: Baburs garden
I had originally booked a flight from Mazar e Sharif, but when I heard that Noor from lets be friends Afghanistan was talking a client by road I decided to cancel my flight to join them. And it was the best decision I made in Afghanistan.
The journey started with crossing desert landscape in the Samangan province, then through some deep valleys before entering the Hindu Kush mountains. Towards the top, the roads started to deteriorate and as we entered the Salang Pass we drove through mud roads with deep holes and Russian built tunnels that had no light. From our ten o’clock start in Mazar to arriving in Kabul after dark around seven pm, I enjoyed every bit of the drive with a varied scenery on the way.
Regarding safety, there has been some cases where the Taliban previously have set up illegal checkpoints around Pul-i Khumri, but we didnt experience any of that. The road is considered safe, but in Afghanistan there are no guarantees so make sure to do your own research and get updated on the latest information before setting off on a road trip.