Monday, September 8, 2008

Travel to Northern Afghanistan

A lot of people we've talked to on our trip have been interested in Northern Afghanistan. The Lonely Planet has just released a guidebook for the country and it is generally considered to be relatively safe. As a result we've spent some time debating the risks vs rewards of doing a quick trip through some of the more stable cities in the North. This would not only allow us to see a country that is by all acounts an amazing place to visit, but it would also give us an excuse to get an elusive Turkmenistan transit Visa. Turkmenistan is a wacky little country that is almost impossible to visit unless you are travelling through it, and we'd love to see the flaming gas craters, rotating golden statues of the president, cable cars, ministry of fairness, and other weird stuff.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) for us the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated terribly in the last two weeks. Our source of information is a NGO worker who spends much of his time in Afghanistan doing community development work. According to him things have gone completely to hell and the NGOs (who have been working in the area with limited problems for the last six years) have banned all road travel between the cities. While the cities themselves are safe, he describes them as islands in a shark infested sea. The highways have become incredibly dangerous, kidnapping for ransom and robberies being the main risks.

Apparently the kidnap and robbery gangs have now gotten so organized that information on the location of foreigners is sold up a food chain to those who are willing to act on it. If you are seen checking into a hotel or taking a taxi it may result in a phone call to an armed gang that would be only too happy to show you the side of Afghanistan that you didn't want to see.

Needless to say, we won't be going.

For those who are still interested it is extremely easy to get an Afghan Tourist Visa in Khorog. The Embassy is open daily until 2PM. You need to write a letter explaining why you want to go (handwritten is fine) and bring your passport and a passport photo. After filling out a form you must go to the bank to pay $30.00, for which you get a receipt that you can trade for a Visa. The whole process takes less than an hour.

All travel entails some risks, and many of the places we've visited have been lawless by any reasonable standards. With adequate precautions I believe it is possible to travel through these areas. After all, it is not fear of the law that causes us to behave kindly to each other. We've met the most amazing people in the remotest places and never had a reason to feel worried.

The situation changes however, when you become a target simply because you are a tourist. There is no substitute for local knowledge. Don't let outdated guidebooks and second-hand information lull you into a potentially fatal decision. If you are going to a potentially dangerous area like Afghanistan you owe it to yourself to talk to somebody who has extensive, on the ground experience in the area. We are glad we did.

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