We’ve all got that mate who fancies themselves as a bit of an adventurer.
After thrashing the passport and tiring of predictable tourist traps, they take on intense and demanding trips, returning home to claim insufferable bragging rights.
So, next time they pipe up about their intrepid aspirations, we’ve got the perfect itinerary for you to challenge them with: A Camper’s Guide to Afghanistan.
Let’s get one thing straight before you read this; in no way are we advising you to travel through Afghanistan without sufficient means or preparation.
For those of you who do go, however, it should be to the picturesque Wakhan Corridor to trek its mountain paths. Driving from one location to another isn’t a safe option and neither is walking around cities. With the Taliban controlling parts of the country and ISIS strongholds to be found in many urban hot spots, camping in remote locations is the best option to avoid bumping into undesirables. Even then, it’s unpredictable, impoverished, and seriously dangerous. The likelihood of being attacked, sexually assaulted, kidnapped, and killed is very real. But for the curious…
A Bloody History
Plagued by invasion, war, terrorism, oppression, and general divisive destruction, the Ghan has been through an utterly fucked forty years. After a devastating Soviet invasion, the Mujahideen, Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS have all done their darndest to literally rape and pillage the entire country (if you haven’t read The Kite Runner, it’s a disturbing yet remarkable representation of the above). Then you’ve got the Bin-Laden fiasco, the US invasion, and ongoing civil conflict that leads us to the current chaos of the world’s most infamous 'Stan'.
On The Ground
BH caught up with adventure traveller, Bryn Colbourne, who recently spent three weeks trekking the forsaken land to hear what it’s like to put boots on the ground in one of the most destitute and war-weary countries in the world.
Having traversed 97 countries including most of South America and a fair chunk of Africa, Bryn is a pretty decent yardstick for comparing the quality of life across nations. When asked what the living conditions were like, the answer was simply, “Some of the worst poverty I’ve ever seen.”
Bryn ate nothing but rice and bread during the three weeks that he spent inside the country, camping in remote areas where the temperature regularly plummeted below -20 degrees Celsius.
“I took some medical supplies, pens and paper, and some Snickers to give out to people because I’d heard how desperately they needed supplies. It was all gone within 2 days,” he said.
“People don’t beg on the street because there aren’t any affluent people around to give hand-outs. But they will take whatever you can offer them because they’re so emaciated.”
A UN report estimated that 70% of the population was malnourished with half of all children in the country suffering from stunting and irreversible harm from malnutrition. The consequence is an average life expectancy of forty years for Afghanis.
When asked to describe the general vibe around Wakhan, Bryn says, “It’s honestly like Lord of the Rings. There’s no industry, no hotels, no shops, nowhere to stop in and get supplies or clothes. People drink tea throughout the day to try and stave off the hunger and opium tea is the only thing they have to help pass the time. Public transport is non-existent and with only forty-odd vehicles in the 600km area of the Wakhan, private taxis command exorbitant fees. e.g US$500 for a 400km ride!
Creature Comforts (or lack thereof)
“The people wear rags and big coats to survive the freezing cold. Most wear the same clothes every day and I ended up giving the majority of mine away to kids who obviously were in far greater need. I’d wear jeans under thermal hiking pants to try and stay warm, and use two sleeping bags at night. It beats me how they get through each day.”
The penny drops when the question of Coca-Cola is raised.
“Nope. No Coca-Cola. I think I saw one rip-off cola brand that was made there during my whole time. On that note, there were no big brands or large companies to be seen anywhere. I took a jar of honey in with me and people were just freaking out, asking what this amazing stuff was.”
Suffice to say, the people of Afghanistan have literally never tasted the sweeter side of life.
Getting a visa can be an absolute mission. You can’t organise it through travel companies because there are none operating in Afghanistan. When rocking up at the border it can take anywhere between an hour and three days to get your visa processed. Keeping in mind all offices are closed on Fridays and weekends, and any time there is a high-ranking official travelling through the area, and anytime there's a conflict or fighting nearby. You get the picture.
As we’ve seen from previous tragedies, all foreigners, and tourists are targets for kidnappings and ransoms that often end in jihadi-lead beheadings.
Your best chances of organising a driver or guide are through web forums like carivanistan.com, but if you’re going beyond the wire, you need to be prepared to look after yourself regardless of what connections you might have on the ground.
Best to do your diligence first by researching run-downs on the Wakhan Corridor like this one.
“Not being able to access the outside world was probably the biggest stress. There’s no internet. There’s one patchy phone company that doesn’t support data and you barely ever get reception, so you’re completely cut off from the world.”
No hotels. No hostels. Definitely no Club Med.
Guesthouses are the most likely form of abode travellers can find a bed in. Expect a dorm situation with travellers and locals sharing space. Most of the time you'll be sleeping on the floor in a common room with an oven in the centre. Most people are very generous though, so you’re just as likely to meet a family who will take you in and let you stay with them.
“At the end of the day, camping is probably the best way to go, because it’s not a whole lot different to camping anywhere else.”
Just don’t expect hot showers, powered sites, or any of the other creature comforts that our glamping spoiled asses may be accustomed to.
“I would just hitch-hike and trek until I found a quiet location by a creek or in a meadow where I could pitch my tent and hope that nobody came by.”
(For the record, he only had to survive one potential robbing by knifepoint, but was able to diffuse the situation).
So, why would anyone want to visit Afghanistan?
It’s beyond beautiful.
“For me, it blew the Annapurna Circuit and Base Camp in Nepal away. The mountains, valleys and passes are just staggering. We followed snow leopard tracks, herded yaks up ancient mountain routes, and met some incredible people along the way. It’s so raw, barren and naturally beautiful you feel like you’ve gone back in time.”
From bucolic hills to desert highlands and jaw-dropping peaks, Afghanistan is a natural wonder to behold. Moreover, in the 60s, before history took such an unkind turn, Kabul was a bustling centre of culture and a Mecca for Western hippies. Inspired by Nicholas Bouvier’s The Way of the World, artists and travellers flocked to this historic icon of the Silk Road to take in the scenic wonders and incredible way of life that flourished in the heart of Central Asia.
Believe it or not, the number of tourists visiting Afghanistan is now slowly increasing once again. As a country with little in the way of crops and natural resources, the Afghanis have always benefited greatly from trade and international relations.
So for those whose interest has been piqued and feel up to the challenge, be sure to undertake further research with this guide from Lost Without Purpose.