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|Introduction to Afghanistan
Friendly, beautiful Afghanistan was once well known on the backpacking circuit as the place to stop for unparalleled hospitality, fantastic food, great hiking and...um...OK, we'll say it, that legendary hashish. Things, sadly, have changed.
More than 20 years of war and Taliban rule left the dramatic countryside peppered with landmines and reduced many of the finest monuments and minarets to rubble. The poverty left in war's wake has taken an impossible human toll and encouraged the theft and sale of priceless national treasures.
Between 1996 and 2001, everyone was kept under close watch by a skittish and heavily armed military theocracy that could not find legitimacy abroad. Then it became the focal point for the West's wrath because of suspected involvement in the September 11 attacks. Today Afghanistan is taking slow steps towards recovery. Progress isn't easy and the path is strewn with pitfalls. But the Afghans desire peace more than anything and their resilience provides the best key to the country's future.
Afghanistan remains highly insecure, especially outside the capital, Kabul. US-led military operations against remnants of Taliban forces are ongoing. Acts of violence, often targeting foreigners, continue within and outside Kabul.
Landmines, banditry, and ethno-political conflict add to the grim picture. Visitors should maintain a very high level of security awareness, avoid demonstrations and policital gatherings, avoid travelling alone and in the dark, and contact their consular representative for the latest information.
Full country name: Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan
Area: 652,000 sq km
Population: 28.71 million
Capital City: Kabul
People: Pashtun (40%), Tajik (25%), Hazara (15%), Uzbek (6%), other (14%)
Language: Persian, Pashto, Russian, Uzbek
Religion: Sunni Muslim (84%), Shiite Muslim (15%), Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, Baha'i (1%)
GDP: US$21 billion
GDP per capita: US$800
Annual Growth: unavailable%
Major Industries: Textiles and rugs, fruits and nuts, wool, cotton, fertilizer, soap, fossil fuels, gemstones
Major Trading Partners: FSU (Former Soviet Union), Pakistan, Iran, EU, Japan, Singapore, India, South Korea
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Visas: Travellers don't need to register with the authorities on arrival in Afghanistan. In towns not used to seeing foreigners, some hotels may ask you to register with the police before they allow you to check in (or they will summon the police to take your details). Visas for Afghanistan are easy to obtain. Tourist-visa applications do not require a letter of support, although bemused consular officials may occasionally ask applicants to explain why they want to holiday in Afghanistan. Those travelling for work purposes require a supporting letter from their office. In neighbouring countries, New Delhi, Peshawar, Tehran, Mashhad and Tashkent are good places to apply for an Afghan visa. One-month single-entry visas cost US$30 and are generally issued on the same day. Afghan visas are not issued on arrival at Kabul airport or at any land border.
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +4.5 (Standard)
Dialling Code: 93
Electricity: 220V ,50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
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Even if you're brave enough to visit Afghanistan these days, you should still avoid large gatherings, particularly those marking national and Muslim holidays. But, should curiosity get the best of you, cover yourself according to the strictest local custom and check out these celebrations.
One of the most important holidays in Afghanistan is Nawros (New Days), celebrated around March 21, on the spring equinox. It's an Islamic adaptation of far more ancient festivities, and special foods - wheat for the ladies and veal for the men - are prepared. Wine is also traditionally part of the service.
Liberation Day takes place on April 18, and probably isn't the time to flaunt any connections you might have with the West. It's followed by Revolution Day, April 28, making the whole month a great time for flag waving. May 1 means Labor Day, and Independence Day is celebrated on August 18 with at least some fanfare.
The four major Islamic holidays are celebrated according to the lunar calendar, so check the dates and plan ahead. Eid al-Azha, the Feast of Sacrifice, marks the beginning of the haj (pilgrimage to Mecca). Those who can afford it buy and slaughter an animal, then share the meat with friends and strangers. Moulid an-Nabi, the Prophet Mohammed's birthday, is much more low-key.
Ramadan is the month of fasting. From sunrise to sunset devout Muslims who can physically handle it are asked to go without food, drink, cigarettes and just about everything else. It's illegal - not to mention very, very rude - to do any of these things in front of people observing this important holiday. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, when friends and families gather to eat, drink and, if so inclined, smoke cigarettes.
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|Best time to Visit
Afghanistan has four distinct seasons. There’s fine weather in spring (March to May) and the country blooms, but rain and melting snow can make many roads difficult to traverse. Summer (June to August) can be blisteringly hot everywhere except the mountains – Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Jalalabad all swelter, but Kabul and Bamiyan enjoy pleasant, cool nights. Autumn (September to November) is one of the best times to visit, as there is pleasant, dry weather and plenty of delicious Afghan fruit. From the end of November, winter sets in, and snow is common across much of the country. Travel in the mountains is particularly tricky at this time.
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|Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending
Currency: Afghanistan afghani
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Once Afghanistan's cosmopolitan centre and a stop on the old hippy trail to India, Kabul was ruined in the civil war. The Soviets left the city reasonably intact in 1989, but since then it has been virtually destroyed by bombardments, street battles, and many lost lives.
The Kabul Museum, which used to have one of the finest collections of antiquities in Asia, has had nearly three-quarters of its finest collections looted. It's still possible to see the remaining artifacts - those without any significant monetary value - but museum hours are erratic.
It was also once possible to talk the five-hour walk along the length of the crumbling walls around the ancient citadel, Bala Hissar, but they are now off limits and extremely dangerous due to unexploded bombs and landmines. The pleasant Gardens of Babur are a cool retreat near the city walls and one of the most peaceful and beautiful spots in the city.
The modern town of Ghazni is just a pale shadow of its former glory. The city is only 150km (93mi) southwest of Kabul on the road to Kandahar, but poor roads mean the trip still takes most of the day. Ghazni today is known mainly for its fine bazaar, featuring goods from Afghanistan and surrounding countries.
The carefully restored tomb of Abdul Razzak and the museum within are of interest. There are also some very fine minarets, the excavations of the Palace of Masud and, most surprisingly, a recently discovered Buddhist stupa that has survived from long before the Arab invasion of the 7th century.
Herat was once a small, laze-about place that everyone seemed to like, an easy-going oasis after a lot of hassle and dry desert. In the 15th century, it became the lively Timurid centre of art, blending Persian, Central Asian and Afghan cultures to create one of Central Asia's cultural highlights.
The Friday Mosque (Masjid-i-Jami), is Herat's number one attraction and among the finest Islamic buildings in the world. It has some exquisite Timurid tilework to complement its graceful architecture. The covered bazaar in Charar Su is a complex of all sorts of shops and artisans' workshops.
Kandahar is situated in the far south of the country, about midway between Kabul and Herat. It's the second-largest city in Afghanistan and lies at an important crossroads, where the main thoroughfare from Kabul branches northwest to Herat and southeast to Quetta in Pakistan.
Kandahar lies very much in the Pashtun heartland and gained modern significance as the power base of the Taliban militia. Kandahar's great treasure, a cloak that once belonged to the Prophet, is safely locked away from infidel eyes in the Mosque of the Sacred Cloak, known locally as Da Kherqa Sharif Ziarat.
A few kilometres from the centre of Kandahar towards Herat are the Chihil Zina (Forty Steps). They lead up to a niche carved in the rock by Babur, founder of the Mughal empire, which is guarded by two stone lions.
Northeast of Kabul, Nuristan (Land of Light) is mountainous, remote, little-visited, of great ethnological interest and memorably described in Eric Newby's hilarious book A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush.
Shahr-i-Zohak (The Red City) enshrines the remains of an ancient citadel which guarded Bamiyan, and is about 17km (11mi) before Bamiyan itself and 180km (112mi) northwest of Kabul. This was once the centre of the Ghorid kingdom.
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