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Beyond the Headlines: Exploring Afghanistan's Untapped Beauty

Updated: Jan 31

An independent, free-spirited, atheist traveling SOLO as a woman of color in a TBAN-ruled Afghanistan. Do I DARE? Yes, I do.

Bamiyan's Cultural and Historical Marvels
A Frame of Bamiyan

There is a common misconception that travelers like me who go to such countries are crazy fearless extremists. On the contrary, these are the trips I spend months preparing for - mentally and emotionally. I do a thorough study of the country: where are the danger zones, where are relatively “safe”, when I cannot go, and when there is a relative lull in the country and I CAN possibly take a chance. I am always very careful choosing the guides who will accompany me on my solo trips and with whom, in fact, I trust my life. On this trip, they risked life and limb for me, defying the TBAN on more than a few occasions.

I won’t be telling you can waltz into the country without preparation, or that everything distributed by the media is a legend. This time, some of it is true. When you’re here, on the inside, everything feels different - yes, there are a bunch of people with gu** but there are also real people, living a routine life, and they learn about all the happenings, like the rest of the world, from the news. They are not dodging bullets every second of the day, not anymore. For the first time in decades it’s almost “safe” to visit (by Afghan standards), you can go anywhere in the country, IF you have all your permits + a local guide.

Lush Greenery in Samangan of Afghanistan
Samangan Valley

Let me also tell you that this country is not for everyone. To decide to go here I didn’t necessarily have to be brave, BUT I needed to forget everything I thought I knew about the place, strongly believe in strangers and MYSELF. The injustice to women is clearly visible, without reducing any of that, there is also another side to the country, which is what I am showing.


The good: the history, culture, landscapes. The people. How much they go through. How different their lives are. How incredibly kind they are. It’s a completely different world out here. It’s full of untapped beauty, if you look only in that direction.


The not-so-good: the omnipresent TBAN. When I’m traveling like this, I chose to be a traveler that just observes and learns. I’m not an activist, I go to observe the reality, not to criticize a culture that I don’t fully grasp.

My experience was still vastly different from that of the Afghani women. I was offered courtesies most locals are not. As a tourist, who was only passing through, barely scraping the surface in 8 days, I could only gauge so much but I am determined to share an unbiased opinion, and show the reality as I experieced it.


8 DAY AFGHANISTAN ITINERARY

Day 1 Land in Tajikistan early in the morning. Cross over to Afghanistan through the Shirkhan Bandar border. Stay in old town of Kunduz.

Day 2 Drive from Kunduz to Mazare-Sharif & Balkh. Stay in Mazare Sharif.

Day 3 Drive from Balkh to Samangan. Stay in Samangan.

Day 4 Travel from Samangan via Panjshir Valley to Bamiyan. Arrive late night. Stay in Bamiyan

Day 5 Bamiyan. Stay in Bamiyan.

Day 6 Band-E-Amir Lakes. Stay in Bamiyan.

Day 7 & 8 - Kabul. Fly home from Kabul.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
FLIGHTS + VISA

As I mentioned, I flew to Dushanbe, Tajikistan and then did a road transfer to Afghanistan. I did a road transfer because I did not want to spend $300 for a visa at the embassy nor did I want to risk chance of rejection as a woman. That said, if you have a visa stamped before you visit, then Dubai is one of the few cities in the world from where you can fly directly to Afghanistan. It is a short 3 hour flight. You will have to book a Kam Air flight to Kabul.


Now, for the VISA, the good news is that it is FREE OF CHARGE for Indian Passport holders. The bad news is that Dubai and Washington DC are the only two cities where you can get a visa ahead of time. For the visa, whether on arrival at the border or at the embassy, you need a LETTER OF INVITATION from a local agency and passport photos.

LANGUAGE

Dari, Pashto, Uzkek/Tajik are the main languages spoken here. Some people speak Urdu or Farsi. You will rarely hear people speak in English.


BEST TIME TO VISIT I went in September, which was just the start of Fall in the country. Best time to go is late September to end of October, where the temperatures are manageable and most of the roads are accesible. Any later than that, you risk being stuck on terrible snow-covered roads.
Majestic Cliffs on a road trip around Afghanistan
Fall colors in Afghanistan
CURRENCY

The Afghani Afghan is the main currency. Carry dollars and I would suggest changing dollars to local currency once there.


HOW LONG TO SPEND IN AFGHANISTAN
You can spend up to a month in this country and not be bored. It is massive, takes time to get around and offers SO much. I spent 8 days. Honestly, I wanted to spend more time - but my family were already petrified about my solo trip. I didn't want them to be stressed for much longer. I would suggest 8-10 days at the very minimum for this itinerary of mine.

WHERE I STAYED

I moved around quite a bit during the trip, staying in small lodges. They were very safe, sometimes with a western toilet, not always clean but did the job for the night. The hospitality of the people in the lodges was beyond exceptional.


WHAT TO WEAR

Before I spoke to the guide, a lot of people online had shared how a full niqab or burqa was necessary for women. I spoke to the guide and found that this was not necessary at all. For women, conservative loose-fitted clothes, fully covering your neck, arms and legs are recommended. A hijab or head scarf is also necessary. For men, Shalwar Kameez or full length pants and shirts are necessary.

an image of the iconic blue chador worn by women in Afghanistan
The iconic Afghani Chador
LOCAL GUIDE + COSTS

When I first started planning this trip, I found information online saying you can travel alone in this country. That maybe true BUT I don't recommend this. The whole essence of a country like this is to understand the cultural nuances, which you can only learn from interacting with the locals. In a country as complicated as this, being a woman also comes with many hurdles. I DO NOT recommend traveling without local help since there are restrictions you will have NO idea about. The rules are ever-changing for women, you may be caught off guard or banned from entering. You also need permits for every city, and need to visit the TBAN office every morning in the city. These things that can be daunting to figure out on your own.

As per usual, I did extensive homework and found. I contacted the guide, who lives in Australia now, to understand the rules and restrictions of going alone to this country.

He was patient, reasonable and hooked me up with two exceptional local guides, Hanif and Omid, from his company to take me around Afghanistan. These two treated me like their own, bursting to show me the beauty of their country. My heart is forever indebted to them for standing up for me when I was caught in a tiff with the TBAN.

For my solo trip, I paid $1400 all inclusive of stays, food and local transportation &without international flights. Note that if you plan to fly instead of driving, then you need to fly domestically and this quickly increases the costs.

UNDERSTANDING THE ETHNIC GROUPS OF AFGHANISTAN

Four prominent ethnic groups define the cultural mosaic of this nation. The Pashtuns, renowned for their vibrant traditions and hospitality, dominate the southern and eastern regions. In the west, the Tajiks bring their own flavor with a rich history of art and literature. The Hazaras, primarily found in the central highlands, showcase a distinct cultural heritage. To the north, the Uzbeks contribute their unique customs and cuisine.

SOLO TRAVEL + SAFETY + TBAN

While Afghanistan boasts incredible beauty, it's crucial to be well-informed and prepared. In the wake of the takeover in 2021, things have changed quite dramatically for women in this country.


For the first time in decades, you can go anywhere"safely" (by Afghan standards), IF you have all your permits in order. As a tourist, you will not be harassed in any way - it is part of the new regime's tactic to show the world they are "open" and "friendly". Is it a facade? Probably so. Just be aware that there will be TBAN check points every few miles. So if you think you can go to Afghanistan and get away without bumping into them, you would be very mistaken. They exist, like in any country, to enforce order.

I had to meet the TBAN head in every city, where each of them tried to find the right words in Pashto to figure out what to say to welcome me to the country they call their own. There’s a look of surprise most people have as well. “What are you doing here? You’re alone? How did you think of coming by yourself? Haven’t you read the news?” “Hindustani? Mashallah”. The TBAN heads asked me those exact questions out loud. Did they expect me to be scared of them? I would not give them the satisfaction. I offered a defiant smile, a nod and moved on. My face giving nothing away. Recalling what my husband said before the trip: remember to pick your battles, stay quiet, and get out. Keep things in perspective. Don't get emotional. I tried to meet women but I couldn't find them anywhere apart from the markets and the ones I found there were scared to share. As a tourist, you have little say in what goes on here, and more importantly, they don't care for your opinions. You just have to nod and move on.

As a traveler, you need to respect local customs, dress conservatively, and stay vigilant. Connecting and utilizing a reputable local agency provided me with an added layer of security as well as precious cultural insight.

pictures of women in Afghanistan
Afghani women in traditional attire
VEGAN + VEGETARIAN FOOD

Surprinsgly, I could savor a variety of plant-based dishes that showcase Afghan flavors at their finest. One must-try dish is "Afghan Bolani," a savory stuffed flatbread filled with vegetables and herbs or "Mantu," steamed dumplings typically filled with spiced pumpkin or leeks. Lastly, the "Aushak," a delectable Afghan dumpling topped with a tomato and lentil sauce, complemented by a dollop of tangy yogurt.

HIGHLIGHTS
Shir-Khan Bandar Border Crossing

This has got to be one of the most eventful border crossings I have ever done. After I landed, and after a day in Dushanbe, I hopped on a taxi from Tajikistan to the Shirkhan Bandar border close to Afghanistan. The drive takes about 4 hours. I got to the border at about 1 p.m. only to be told that I won't be allowed to cross on my own, as a woman. While I was trying to fifgure out how to get out of this situation, a kind older Afghani gentleman who didn't speak any English or Hindi, offered to help me out. He stayed with me for over four hours, paid for my taxi to cross the border, made sure I met women from another family there and only then did he leave. I had heard stories about the famous Afghani hospitality, but nothing can prepare you for the selfless people of this country.

In between the two borders there lies two miles of nomansland. You need to have some Afghanis cash to pay the taxi with. Once on the other side, you will be asked to go to a worn down house where a TBAN officer will ask you for all your documents. If you are a woman going without a tour, then they don't let you go without your guide coming to pick you up. While I was waiting, I met an Afghani family. The lady of the family spoke fluent hindi, she also stayed with me until my guide arrived late in the evening. At first, she was shellshocked I had come alone to this scary country but after a few hours, she was proudly sharing stories of my wild journey with other members of her family. Afghanis are truly some of the most incredible people you will ever meet. This was my first introduction to Afghanistan, and I was hooked. After some old school biometrics, I got my visa stamped, I exited the border and made my way to the border town of Kunduz for the night. Exhausted, I drank a huge pot of chaas and crashed.

Mazare-i-Sharif & Balkh

The morning started with a visit to the TBAN office in Kunduz to meet the head of the city here. Kunduz is a very conservative part of the country, so my first experience with the TBAN was very strange. The old stern looking man asks me "was everything ok with the treatment of the TBAN? Did you have any issues?" I already know the only acceptable answer is "yes, all fine" He smiles, satisfied, stamping my permits. After this, we hit the road to Mazare Sharif, arriving around noon.

Mazar-e-Sharif, known as the "City of Peace," is home to the stunning Blue Mosque, a masterpiece of Islamic architecture adorned with intricate blue tiles that shimmer in the sunlight. Note that as of two weeks ago, women are not allowed to enter this mosque.

Nearby, you'll find the revered Shrine of Hazrat Ali, a place of spiritual significance for Muslims worldwide. We then drive to Balkh. Often called the “mother of cities”, Balkh is where history comes alive. Here, the ruins of Zoroastrian fire temples and the famed Balkh Museum unveil the region's rich past. I visited the Green Mosque, a beautiful example of Islamic Persian architecture, and the Cheshme-e-Ayub, a sacred spring associated with the biblical prophet Job.

You will also find a Citadel built by Alexander the Great. Cool, right?

I spent the rest of the evening strolling through the age old bazaars, people watching, being amazed by the smoother than silk Afghani carpets and chatting with the locals in my broken urdu.

Samangan

Home of the Buddhist rock-cut temples. In Afghanistan, there was a constant sensation of being in awe. The drive from Mazare Sharif to Samangan is just inspired. The serene landscape of the Hajigak Pass greeted us with its breathtaking beauty. This mountainous terrain has been traversed by countless travelers over the centuries, and as I gazed upon the winding roads and the picturesque valley below, I felt a profound connection to the past.

As I ventured into the province, the first stop on my exploration was the awe-inspiring Takht-e-Rustam, a place many of us may have heard so little about. I stood on top of the mountain and stared down at the marvel at my feet. Here was something too strong for even the TBAN to destroy.

Takht-e-Rustam's Ancient Stupa Close-Up
Takht-E--Rostam

This an ancient Buddhist stupa dating back to the 4th century. The tranquility that enveloped the site was palpable, and I couldn't help but reflect on the rich spiritual history that had unfolded there.

I took my time and dived deeper into the Tora Bora Caves and Markets, made famous by historical events, beckoned with their enigmatic allure. Wandering through these caves, I was transported to a time when the region played a pivotal role in the annals of history. The rugged landscapes, the untouched countryside, the timeless history - Samangan is a reminder to pause, breathe and absorb the beauty of simplicity.

Panjshir Valley

My second favorite place in Afghanistan is a place I had been dreaming about. Nestled amidst the jagged peaks of the Hindu Kush, Panjshir Valley emerged as a breathtaking oasis of serenity during my Afghan expedition.The moment I entered the valley, I was spellbound by its lush greenery and crystalline river meandering through the valley floor.

Panjshir Valley's Serene Landscape at Dusk
Panjshir Valley's Serene Landscape at Dusk

The valley's natural beauty was a stark contrast to the tumultuous headlines that often dominated discussions about Afghanistan. The serene villages nestled among the verdant slopes felt like scenes from a dream, with the Panjshir River meandering through, glistening like a string of pearls. It was here that I understood why this valley has been called the "Valley of Five Lions" – its beauty is as fierce and awe-inspiring as the legends that surround it.

Beyond its sheer beauty, there was another reason I wanted to visit it. Panjshir holds a profound significance as the heart of resistance in Afghanistan. This rugged terrain has been the bastion of unwavering resolve and resilience for decades, with the Panjshiri people fiercely defending their homeland against various incursions, yes, even today. Meeting the locals and the kids who had endured hardships but never lost their indomitable spirit was a humbling experience beyond anything I can ever express in words.

Bamiyan

My MOST favorite place during the trip was a place marred by history that continues to astound to this day.

Bamiyan's Breathtaking Red City Landscape
Bamiyan's Breathtaking Red City Landscape

This picturesque valley marked the most westerly point of Buddhist expansion in the world. The colossal Buddhas that once graced these valleys may be gone, but the spirit lingers in the soaring Hindu Kush cliffs that cradle the town.

Bamiyan's Historical Buddha Statues at Sunset
Bamiyan's Iconic Empty Buddha Niche

The crown jewel of Bamiyan undoubtedly lies in the colossal Buddha statues, the tallest standing Buddhas in the world until their destruction in 2001. Standing at 53 and 35 meters in height, these monumental figures were hewn from the cliffs, bearing witness to centuries of history. Although the TBAN's devastating act of destruction cast a shadow, the resilience of the people of Bamiyan has shone brighter.

My next stop was the Red City, Shahr-e-Zohak. The moment I laid eyes on it, I was transported to an ancient time. Carved into the rust-colored cliffs, this archaeological wonder boasts a maze of caves and tunnels that once served as homes and places of worship.

Bamiyan's Enigmatic Cliffs and Valleys
Shahr-e-Zohak

Hiking through these ancient chambers, I couldn't help but marvel at the architectural prowess of those who had carved them into existence more than a thousand years ago.

It is worth going back out to the old city to watch the sunset. The crimson hues of the rock, illuminated by the setting sun, created an otherworldly atmosphere. Can you imagine that these caves were once home to monks and hermits who lived in serene isolation, crafting intricate frescoes that still adorn the walls today.

It took me over fifteen hours of driving through one of the trickiest parts of the country protected by the TBAN but I couldn’t have been happier to have made it. Bamiyan is the singlemost intresting part of the country.

Bamiyan's Timeless Beauty Revealed in the Morning Glow
Bamiyan's Timeless Beauty Revealed in the Morning Glow
Band-E-Amir Lakes

Just one hour from Bamiyan, tucked away in an unusual corner of the world, where rustic mountains meet tranquil oases, there is a place called Band-E-Amir lakes. The blue water is like a thousand sapphires, reflecting the azure sky. These are six interconnected lakes & their color is one of the most striking turquoises I have ever witnessed - no filters necessary.

Band-E-Amir Lakes' Crystal Clear Waters Glistening in the Sun in Afghanistan
Band-E-Amir Lakes' Crystal Clear Waters

As I stood on the edge of the first lake, I was overwhelmed by its sheer magnificence. These lakes are said to be the result of a massive travertine dam created by mineral-rich springs over millennia. The deep blue waters contrasted starkly with the arid, rocky terrain that enveloped them, creating a surreal sight that seemed plucked from a dream.

This day wasn’t without its fair share of drama. Women are no longer allowed to visit this place, even with my tourist permits, I was stopped my the religiou police. My amazing local guide put up a fight with the TBAN, pulled some strings and got me special permits to go here and for that I am grateful. As the sun set over the Hindu Kush range, I realized how fortunate I was to have made it here. The local women are not offered the same courtesy.

As a woman in Afghanistan, I learnt to take things as they come. How does a feminist deal with contempt like that? By remembering that this has nothing to do with you, and by knowing when to walk away, no matter how hard it is. None of us can even imagine what daily life is like for the people here. In this world marred by injustice, I wanted to visit the lake to show that solace can be found even in the harshest of circumstances.

Breathtaking Band-E-Amir Lakes in All Their Pristine Beauty
Band-E-Amir Lakes Behind Me in All It's Glory
Kabul

As the first rays of sun hit the capital city, I took a stroll through the quiet markets, immersing myself in a world of colors and scents. Inspite of everything, this city’s ancient soul is still alive, ever hopeful and ever strong.

Blue-Tiled Mosque: unlike in Mazare, I was allowed to enter this mosque. It was spectacular and peaceful in the morning.

Babur’s garden: a sprawling garden in the center of the city, with giant flowers and resting place of the former Mughal emperor.

The New City: you can catch a glimpse of the new city from the garden.

New City's Modernity: Kabul's Urban Transformation
New City's Modernity: Kabul's Urban Transformation

Old City of Kabul: I found it to be the beating heart of Kabul. The winding alleys, the weathered walls whispering stories of resilience. My guide told me stories of how a b*omb would go off just 100 meters from his house.

Exploring Kabul's Historic Old City: A Window to Afghan Heritage
Exploring Kabul's Historic Old City: A Window to Afghan Heritage

Birds Market & Old Souq: if you want to pick up local treats or try on the iconic Blue Chador worn by the local women.

Photography with Haji Miraman:

No trip to the bustling capital city is complete without a visit to the famous photographer, Haji Miraman. Holed up in a small alleyway in Kabul, he is now the last kamra-e-faores photographer still working in Afghanistan.

Meeting the oldest Photographer in Kabul
Meeting the oldest Photographer in Kabul

The age old box camera is like a work of art and requires a bit of expert maneuvering, and even the right kind of photo paper. He shoots portraits of people outside his home, where the sun serves as his lighting. It was such a treat to witness this passionate old man at work. I also got to spend some time with his son & two grandchildren. Absolutely priceless local experience that I couldn’t recommend enough. It’s not just the photo, it’s a little lesson on how this art came to be, how it flourished and how it has involved since then. Oh and the best part is that you get to take a gorgeous souvenir back home to treasure for life.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Traveling SOLO to Afghanistan as a woman (of color) pushed me to my limits. The questions I was asked, the looks I got - “you’re married? Where is your husband” "How did you come alone? Aren’t you scared” The TBAN asked me these questions, out loud, many many times. With a thoughtful approach and an open mind, exploring Afghanistan's untapped beauty can still be a rewarding journey for solo female travelers, even amidst changing headlines.

This is a country that dances to the call of sonorous prayers. Thousands of years of history continue to fill these mountains with mystique. Until you are up close to the markets, until you are talking with the people that live here, you can’t make a proper conclusion about the country. It is a land known for its turbulent history and ongoing struggles, but beneath the surface lies a tapestry of resilient souls and untold stories waiting to be discovered. As the days progressed, I found myself captivated by the warmth and hospitality of the Afghan people. I experienced firsthand the renowned Pashtunwali code, where strangers are treated with utmost respect and protection.

Celebrating the Resilience of Afghanistan's People
Celebrating the Resilience of Afghanistan's People

Wandering through bustling bazaars, I found a vibrant culture, teeming with traditions that have stood the test of time. The aromas of spices mingle in the air, while the sounds of laughter and chatter echo through the narrow streets. Every interaction left an indelible mark on my heart, showcasing the strength and fortitude of a nation that has faced countless trials.

I was moved by the tales of ordinary Afghans who have endured hardships and loss but have not lost hope. This is a country that asks you to be ok with double standards and contradictions. My heart constantly ached here, sometimes with joy, and often, with immense pain.

My Unforgettable Afghan Odyssey
My Unforgettable Afghan Odyssey

This is what seeing the world with your own eyes feels like. It allows you to make your own decisions, adding personal experience to disconnected opinion. I wanted to challenge stereotypes, and I aim to inspire others to look beyond the surface and seek the truth for themselves. I decided not to be silent about the beauty of a country for the sake of a hostile takeover. Loving what deserved to be loved...

and if you are reading this, I hope you will as well. Go with an open heart and get ready to be swept away by the warm embrace of everyone you meet there.

Reflecting on Afghanistan's Enigmatic Charm as a Woman Traveler
Reflecting on Afghanistan's Enigmatic Charm as a Woman Traveler

Thanks for reading. Leave your questions and comments below.

Lots of love,

Anki


To explore more destinations, be sure to check out other blogs for additional insights.




4 Comments


Thank you so much for this incredibly informative article and sharing your experience. My eyes were glued to the screen the entire time. Could you please share the name of your tour guide/company you organised your guide through? I'm a single female traveler holding a US-passport (going in September) and very much want to make sure I have a trusted contact.

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Ankitha
Ankitha
Mar 02
Replying to

My pleasure, thank you for taking the time to read. I have just dropped you a private message with the guide details. I wish you a fabulous and safe trip to this incredible place.

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Anshul Chaurasia
Anshul Chaurasia
Oct 16, 2023

Very well written and extremely detailed. Kudos to your spirit for making to TBAN Afghanistan.

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Ankitha
Ankitha
Oct 20, 2023
Replying to

thank you so much for taking the time to read it. much appreciated 😊

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