Getting there & away
There are few direct flights to Afghanistan from outside the immediate region. The most popular route from Europe or North America is to fly to Dubai, from where there are plenty of connections to Kabul. Coming from the east, the most convenient hubs to catch flights from are Delhi and Islamabad.
Entering by land, Afghanistan maintains open border crossings with all its neighbours except China.
Afghanistan’s traditional position as the crossroads of Asia can make entering the country by land an evocative trip. Sneaking over the high passes like so many Great Gamers or journalists with the mujaheddin (Islamic fighters) is, however, no longer necessary: border procedures are, for the most part, a formality these days.
Crossing from Mashhad in Iran to Herat is one of the most straightforward entry points to Afghanistan. Alexander the Great pioneered this overland route, followed nearly 2500 years later by the Hippy Trail. In the 1970s, as some Afghans grew weary of the kaftan-clad hordes, a sign appeared in the consulate in Mashhad: ‘Visas will not be given to people with long beards or hair like that of beetle.’
The highway between Herat and the border crossing at Islam Qala (Taybad in Iran) has recently been upgraded, allowing a quick transit. Direct buses run daily from Mashhad to Herat (IR70, 000, seven hours), which is slightly cheaper than travelling piecemeal from Mashhad. On the Afghan side of the border, note the huge parks of vehicles imported from Dubai and waiting to clear customs. From Islam Qala it’s around 90 minutes’ drive to Herat. There are plenty of shared taxis (60Afg) after immigration. There are also direct Herat–Mashhad buses.
Mashhad is an excellent jumping-off point for Herat. The Great Mosque in the vast Emam Reza Shrine Complex is the most outstanding surviving building commissioned by Gowhar Shad. A dazzling confection of Timurid mosaic tiling, it gives a taste of how Herat’s Musalla Complex must once have looked, and should not be missed.
There are two official border crossings open to foreigners between Pakistan and Afghanistan: at Torkham between Peshawar and Jalalabad through the Khyber Pass, and at Spin Boldak (Chaman on the Pakistani side), equidistant between Quetta and Kandahar. In the current political climate, we strongly advise against attempting to cross the latter border independently.
Minibuses and shared taxis run daily from Kabul and Jalalabad to Torkham. Border formalities on the Afghan side are relaxed, but more chaotic on entering Pakistan. The road from Torkham to Peshawar passes through the Tribal Areas of North West Frontier Province, an autonomous area belonging to the Pashtun tribes where the Pakistan government’s writ is light. It is forbidden for foreigners to travel on this road without an armed guard from the Khyber Rifles – you’ll be assigned one after immigration. There’s no fee, but the soldier will expect a tip of around Rs200 once you get to Peshawar. Technically foreigners are also forbidden to take public transport on this road, leaving a taxi (Rs1200, two hours) the only option, although we’ve heard of a few travellers who have snuck onto local buses.
From Peshawar to Torkham, some paperwork is involved. You need a Tribal Area Permit, obtained for free at the Home Department of Tribal Affairs (9210507; off Saddar Rd), to travel to the border. Take your passport plus photocopies of your Afghan and Pakistani visas and the photo page to the Foreign Section staff office on the third floor. The permit specifies the exact date of travel, and should be applied for no more than two days in advance. With luck, the process takes around an hour. Make three or four photocopies of the permit to give to police checkpoints along the route.
Ideally arrange a taxi the day before travel. Before leaving Peshawar you must go to the Khyber Political Agent (Stadium Rd) to collect your gunman. Without him you’ll be turned back at the first checkpoint. There’s plenty to see as you drive through the Khyber. Look out for the army badges on the hills near Jamrud Fort, belonging to British and Pakistani regiments who served here. The massive fortified home of the notorious drug smuggler Ayub Afridi at Landi Kotal (complete with anti-aircraft guns) is also unmissable, and a keen reminder about who really rules this part of the country. There are good views of the Khyber and across to Torkham from Michni checkpoint, but ignore the children who assail you trying to sell afghani banknotes at overinflated rates.
Onward transport from Torkham is plentiful, and you’ll probably get mobbed by touts so keep control of your bags. Travelling straight through, if you leave Peshawar at 8am, you should arrive in Kabul by around 4pm.
Afghan and Pakistani authorities make regular pronouncements on establishing a direct Peshawar–Jalalabad bus service, but at the time of research, there had only been a few erratic departures. It’s not known whether foreigners will be allowed to take this service if it runs regularly in the future.
There are three crossing points between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, two of which are in Badakhshan. The busiest and most accessible is at Shir Khan Bandar near Kunduz. The Badakhshan border posts are at Ishkashim and Khorog.
From Shir Khan Bandar there is a daily ferry (US$10) across the Amu Darya to the Tajik town of Panj-e Payon (Nizhniy Panj on old maps). The ferry leaves Panj-e Payon at 10am, and Shir Khan Bandar after lunch. There’s no ferry on Sundays. A new bridge has been built across the river here that will make this border crossing quicker, and was due to be inaugurated as we went to press.
There are daily shared taxis between Panj-e Payon to Dushanbe (TJS50, four hours). On the Afghan side, it’s one hour by shared taxi to Kunduz (80Afg). With a very early start, it’s just about possible to travel overland between Dushanbe and Kabul in one long day.
The borders in Badakhshan are easier crossing into Afghanistan. The Tajik side of the border is the Gorno–Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) for which a special permit is required. This is normally only available in Dushanbe, but anecdotal evidence suggests that persistence can sometimes persuade the Tajik embassy in Kabul to issue the necessary paperwork. Contact Great Game Travel which also has an office in Dushanbe, and can help arrange GBAO permits.
The border crossing at Ishkashim is open Monday to Thursday. There’s a bridge across the Panj River here, a couple of kilometres from both towns. There’s a daily minibus between Afghan Ishkashim to Faizabad (600Afg, eight hours). On the Tajik side there are a couple of homestays, and onward transport to Khorog (TJS20, three hours).
The largest town in Tajik Badakhshan, Khorog also has a border crossing, as well an Afghan consulate. The border crossing is a bridge over the Panj. While a good road connects Khorog to the rest of Tajikistan, transport connections are extremely scant on the Afghan side. If you don’t have your own vehicle, hire is very expensive. A bad road leads west past Lake Shewa to Faizabad, but despite what some maps say, there’s no road south along the river to Ishkashim.
There are two official border crossings on the Afghan–Turkmen border. Torghundi in Afghanistan to Serkhetabat in Turkmenistan (Kushka or Gushgi on some maps) is the border crossing more commonly used, due to its proximity to Herat. A more obscure alternative is at Imam Nazar, near Andkhoi.
The Turkmen authorities love paperwork. To enter the country overland, you need to have your point of entry marked on your visa. For tourist visas, you generally also have to be met at the border by an official guide.
From Herat, shared taxis run irregularly to Torghundi, and you’ll probably end up having to hire one outright (1000Afg, two hours). The road is poorly maintained and may be problematic in winter. Make sure the driver takes you to the actual border, which is 4km past the town. There’s a customs fee of 550Afg. The Turkmen border is a 1.5km walk past the Afghan post, and the waiting customs officials will probably take your luggage apart. There’s an entry tax of US$10 (with US$1 bank fee). You must also declare all foreign currency and register with the police on arrival – keep the receipt as it’s checked when leaving the country.
There’s no accommodation at Serkhetabat, so the best option is to head to Mary. As the border is regarded as sensitive by the Turkmen authorities, a special permit from the capital is required to stop overnight in the area. There are road and rail links to Mary (the railway actually extends a few kilometres into Afghanistan for freight trains).
The border post in the flat steppe at Imam Nazar is far more remote, and not even marked on all maps. The exact demarcation of the border has become disputed in recent years due to the shifting Amu Darya and Murghab rivers, with Turkmenistan now claiming areas that have always been Afghan. As a result, cross-border traffic has dwindled to a trickle, but is still possible for the adventurous.
There is no public transport linking Andkhoi to Imam Nazar or on to Kerki once you’re in Turkmenistan, and as there’s barely a road a 4WD is recommended. Anticipate paying around 1000Afg for the two-hour trip. Wet conditions can make this route very tough in spring and into summer. The Turkmen border post is a 2.5km walk past Afghan immigration. Once in, take whatever transport is available to Kerki, another two hours on a rough and rolling track.
The Friendship Bridge across the Amu Darya links Hairatan in Afghanistan to Termiz in Uzbekistan. Its name became something of a bad joke when it turned into the main invasion route into Afghanistan for the Red Army in 1979. Although technically an open border, Uzbekistan’s police-state paranoia can make crossing here something of an unknown quantity at times.
The border was officially opened to tourist traffic in 2005, but the message doesn’t seem to have reached all the Uzbek officials at the bridge. While we’ve had several reports of independent crossing here without problems, a few have reported that only people on accredited business were being allowed to enter or leave Uzbekistan here. For humanitarian workers, this involves a letter being sent to the Termiz UN office, where your details are accredited and passed on to the border officials who put your name on a list of those approved to cross the border on that particular date.
If the border continues to be subject to the whims of the bureaucrats, we suggest contacting the Uzbek embassy in Kabul before heading to the border, and asking for written permission to cross to Termiz. If you’re in Uzbekistan, talk to a reliable Tashkent travel agency or contact the Office of Visas & Registration(OVIR; 132 6570) in Tashkent directly.
Assuming the border is open, the easiest way to get to Hairatan is from Mazar-e Sharif by private taxi (500Afg, 30 minutes). Shared taxis are scarce. The Amu Darya is wide here and it takes around 10 minutes to walk across the bridge. The Uzbek border guards are pretty surly. The bridge is 10km from the centre of Termiz, and there are a few marshrutka (minibuses) that make the run into town (S200, 20 minutes).
Termiz has several interesting Buddhist and Islamic sites that make lingering a day worthwhile, but note that its location on a sensitive border means you need to register with OVIR on arrival if staying overnight.
When entering the country by air, formalities are fairly simple, but be prepared for long queues. You’ll have to fill in an entry form stating the purpose of your visit and your profession. Baggage reclaim can sometimes be something of a scrum, but at least the carousel normally has electricity these days. Customs checks on arrival are fairly cursory.
Crossing land borders is also usually straightforward, but customs checks on leaving Afghanistan to neighbouring countries, particularly the Central Asian republics and Iran, can often be exceedingly thorough.
There is no currency declaration unless you’re carrying cash worth more than 1, 000, 000Afg (US$20, 000), in which case you need a Currency and Negotiable Bearer Instrument Report. In practice, this is only checked on exiting Afghanistan, and can be obtained before leaving at Da Afghanistan Bank in Kabul or at the airport.
The changeable nature of Afghanistan means that travelling with a reliable tour operator can sometimes be a better option than going independently. Always ask about the company’s security procedures before booking.
Afghan Logistics & Tours (Pvt) Ltd (070 277408/079 9391 462; www.afghanlogisticstours.com ; House 106, Street 1, Charahi Ansari, Shahr-e Nau, Kabul) Experienced operator with individual and group tours across the country. Also offer translators and vehicle hire.
Great Game Travel (079 9489 120/077 9489 120; www.greatgametravel.com ; Street 3/1 House 3, Proje Wazirabad, Proje Taimani, Kabul) High-quality secure jeep tours and mountain trekking mainly in northern Afghanistan. Also has offices in Faizabad and Dushanbe.
Live! Travel (020 8894 6104; www.live-travel.com ; 120 Hounslow Rd, Twickenham, TW2 7HB) Tailor-made cultural trips.
Currently only Kabul International Airport (KBL; 020 2300 016) receives commercial flights into Afghanistan. There is an ATM and currency exchange at the airport. At the time of research, Ariana had announced a direct Kandahar–Dubai service.
There’s a restricted choice of airlines flying to Kabul. Since the fall of the Taliban, plenty of airlines have announced services – including Lufthansa, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines – only to cancel them abruptly, either due to security concerns, or (it’s rumoured) pressure from vested Afghan interests.
In addition to the international carriers, there are also three carriers serving the international community: the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Pactec and the UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS). While primarily operating domestic flights, they do offer some international connections to Islamabad (Pactec and UNHAS), Dubai and Dushanbe (UNHAS only). ICRC flights all originate in Peshawar. Flights are only open to accredited NGO workers.
Not many travel agencies (traditional or online) outside Afghanistan will issue tickets for Ariana or Kam Air. It’s now possible to book online with Ariana, with Kam Air about to follow suit as this book was being researched. Note that when booking return flights, both Ariana and Kam Air frequently issue open returns by default so it’s essential to check this when booking, and always reconfirm your tickets in Kabul.
There is very little seasonal variation in pricing for flights to Afghanistan, but demand can be heavy in the run-up to the Nauroz and Eid al-Adha holidays.
Flying into Kabul has always been a bit of an adventure. In the 1980s and ’90s, approaching planes had to steeply corkscrew when approaching the airport as an antimissile defence, while as recently as 2006, new arrivals were greeted by the sight of the ‘Ariana Graveyard’, a twisted and shattered junkpile of destroyed airliners. The same year also finally saw the installation of a radar system at the airport.
Poor maintenance has been a worry for Ariana flights, and the UN and many embassies ban their staff from flying with the airline, which has also been barred from EU airspace. Much of the fleet are second-hand planes from Indian Airlines, but these are slowly being replaced. Kam Air uses newer planes and is generally regarded as being better run, but it has Afghanistan’s one recent fatal crash to its name: a flight between Herat and Kabul crashed in February 2005 with the loss of 104 lives. Snowy conditions were blamed.
Winter can cause severe problems at the 1800m-high Kabul airport, and flights are frequently cancelled due to snow and poor visibility. Factor in extra travel time if visiting Afghanistan during the winter, as delays can last several days.
Ariana operates a weekly flight between Frankfurt (Germany) and Kabul, as well as a weekly flight every Monday between Moscow and Kabul, with a stopover in Baku (Azerbaijan). The Frankfurt flight uses new planes to allow Ariana to operate in EU airspace. There are flights between Istanbul (Turkey) and Kabul every Tuesday and Friday, the latter via Ankara (Turkey). Ariana has offices in these countries:
Azerbaijan (12 93805; 16 Pushkin St, intersection 28th of May, Baku 1010)
Germany (69 2562 7940; Frankfurt Airport)
Russia (495-2026269; 8/1 Povarskaia St, 121069 Moscow)
Turkey (212-664 6930; Yenidoğan Mh. 42, sok 76 Zeytinbumu, Istanbul)
At the time of research, Kam Air had just announced a weekly Istanbul–Kabul service, and Azerbaijan Airways (12 493 4004; email@example.com ; 66-68 28th of May St, Baku 1010) flies between Baku and Kabul every Wednesday.
In the UK, agents selling Ariana and Kam Air tickets include Ariana Travel (020 8843 0011; firstname.lastname@example.org ; 136 The Broadway, Southall, IB1 1QN) and Afghan Travel Centre (020 7580 7000; 107 Great Portland Street, London).
It’s important to note that while the vast majority of international flights to Dubai arrive at Terminal 1, flights to Kabul are via the completely separate Terminal 2. There is a free airport bus (15 minutes) linking the two, alternatively a taxi will cost about 25AED. As flying via Dubai involves a change of airline as well as terminal, passengers cannot normally check their bags through all the way to Kabul. This means having to go through UAE immigration on arrival at Dubai before transiting to Terminal 2. Visas are not required for citizens of most developed countries including all EU states, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea and Singapore – but check requirements before travel.
From Iran, Ariana (021 8855 0156; Block 29, Kheyaban Khalid, Tehran) run a weekly service from Tehran, while Kam Air have a weekly flight to Mashhad. IranAsseman (021 8889 5567; www.iaa.ir ; Enqelab Ave, Nejatollahi St, Tehran) have one flight a week from Tehran to Kabul via Mashhad. Ariana also fly to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
From India, both Ariana (11-2687 7808; Ashok Hotel, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi) and Kam Air fly twice weekly from Delhi. Ariana also has an Amritsar–Kabul flight. Indian Airlines (11-2331 0517; Malhotra Bldg, Connaught Pl, New Delhi) fly between the Indian and Afghan capitals twice a week.
From Pakistan, Ariana (051 287 0618; Kashmir Commercial Complex, Fazel-e-Haq Rd, Blue Area, Islamabad) fly once a week from Islamabad. PIA (111-786-786; Quaid-i-Azam Airport, Karachi) operate an identical schedule.
There are no direct flights between North America and Afghanistan. In 2006 Ariana (866-330 3431) started offering online booking packages from the USA and Canada to Kabul, including connecting flights with either Lufthansa or Air France to their direct Frankfurt–Kabul service. In Canada, you can also try the Ariana GSA (905-389-0999; 203-801 Mohawk Rd West, Hamilton, Ontario, L9C 6C2). For Kam Air tickets in the USA or Canada contact Kam Air (888-952-6247; email@example.com).
In the USA, other agents who can arrange flights to Afghanistan include Afghan Tours & Travel (703-998 7676, ext 222; firstname.lastname@example.org ; 4300 King Street, Suite 139; Alexandria, VA 22302) or Pamir Travel (510-791 5566; email@example.com ; 37477 Fremont Blvd. Suite C, Fremont, CA 94536).