Afghanistan is not your typical backpacker destination. Especially not nowadays, as the country is an active warzone. But as Steve and I found out while travelling in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) in Tajikistan, it’s actually possible to visit Afghanistan via Tajikistan and be completely safe.
I’m not usually one for posting guides on how to get to places, but since there’s not much information available about travelling to Afghanistan from Tajikistan online – we had to ask around to figure out how to do it – I thought that I might as well do it. Despite only spending two days in Afghanistan, I had a fantastic time and it’s a place that I think more people should visit. It’s a very special place and far from anything I’ve ever seen before.
At the time of writing, there is only one area of Afghanistan that is completely free from the Taliban and daily bombings, and that’s the very northeast part of the country in the province of Badakhshan, the part that borders with the GBAO. It’s a beautiful mountainous region that is largely unknown to the world and a completely off the beaten path destination. Steve and I went to Sultan Eshkashim, which is a small town that shares a border with the Tajik town of Ishkashim. Going to Badakhshan will give you a rare insight into a very different culture and lifestyle, which cannot be found elsewhere in the world or even in Afghanistan. It’s a purely authentic place where not much has changed for several thousand years.
The only reason why the border towns and the Wakhan Corridor are safe areas, is because of the neighbouring Tajikistan, a country that is paranoid of terrorism and the Taliban. For this very reason, the Taliban know better than to go anywhere near the borders, as they will then get shot dead by the Tajik snipers hiding in the mountains on the other side of the Panj River, which makes up the natural border of the two countries. At the time of writing, it’s safe to travel there independently, even as a solo female, although I personally felt a lot safer having my friend there with me and I probably wouldn’t have gone on my own. The people of Badakhshan are friendly, curious and respectful – they are not the enemies, and they fear the Taliban just as much as the rest of the world.
PLEASE NOTE: Not all of Badakhshan is safe, and foreigners have been kidnapped and killed there in recent years, but the towns that share a border with the GBAO as well as the Wakhan Corridor are considered safe and free from theTaliban. It’s advised to check up on the situation before you go to these places though.
There are five steps to follow in order to travel safely to Afghanistan. This was how my friend and I did it in late May 2016, so be aware that some of this may change, but the tourist information center in Khorog City Park should be able to help you with updated information. Here goes:
1. Getting a Tajik visa + the GBAO permit
The first step to travelling to Badakhshan, is to travel to Tajikistan, which is the only country that has safe borders with Afghanistan. Most foreign citizens need a visa for Tajikistan, which is easily obtained at a Tajik embassy or on arrival in the airport. We got our visa in the Tajik embassy in Bishkek (location: 36 Kara-Darinskiy Street) and paid 55 USD for a regular visa with double entry + 100 Kyrgyz soms (1,5 USD) for a GBAO permit. Remember to bring a passport picture, when you apply for the visa and permit.
It’s important that you get double entry, if you want to travel to Afghanistan, as you need to cross into Tajikistan again after your visit. The double entry is free, so you might as well, even if you’re unsure whether or not you will go!
It’s also very important to get the GBAO permit, which you may have to ask for yourself. Without it, you won’t be allowed to enter the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan, where the safe borders to Afghanistan are located.
2. Getting an Afghan visa
Getting an Afghan visa is surprisingly easy, although ridiculously expensive. We went to the Afghan consulate in Khorog (location: 17 Khyaban Kermshayef), where we got our visas in less than an hour hassle-free. All you have to do is to fill in the application and write a letter for the consulate, and if you have the same nice staff as we did, the visa will be in your hands within the hour. Remember to bring a passport picture, when you apply for the visa.
Prior to going to the consulate, we were told that the price would be 60 USD per visa, but to our surprise, it had recently gone up to 150 USD per visa.
The consulate is open Monday-Friday at 9-12.
PLEASE NOTE: We heard that there has been some issues with the consulate not being willing to issue visas for solo female travellers, but it’s worth a try, as the situation changes all the time.
3. Preparing for the visit
Before going to Sultan Eshkashim, Steve and I did a few things to prepare for our visit. We had been told that Badakhshan in general is more liberal than the rest of Afghanistan, but still I thought it was best to be culturally sensitive with my clothing. I purchased a scarf for my hair and a loose fitting top, which covered my shoulders and came almost down to my knees. I wore thick black leggings underneath and sneakers on my feet. To our surprise, Sultan Eshkashim was much more conservative than we had been told, so I stood out quite a bit despite my efforts, but the people of the village seemed to appreciate it nonetheless.
It’s advised to bring as much bottled water as you need, as there is shortage on fresh water in the area. Food is also good to bring, as it’s quite expensive to buy and there’s not much variety, especially if you’re vegetarian like me.
For currency, US dollars are best to bring and are actually preferred there, when paying for taxis or guesthouses. Once you get to Sultan Eshkashim, you can easily change some of your dollars to Afghani, which you can use to buy stuff in the bazaar or at the local restaurants. Remember to either spend it all or exchange it back to US dollars when you leave Afghanistan, as you won’t be able to exchange it anywhere else.
4. Getting there
We were told that the border near Khorog crossing over to the Afghan region of Shighnan is very hit-and-miss, as sometimes the soldiers will let travellers through and sometimes they won’t. With this information in mind, we decided to try for the Ishkashim border instead, which we were also told is a much more interesting part of Badakhshan.
The village of Ishkashim is a 3-hour ride away from Khorog, following the Panj River with Afghanistan on the other side throughout the journey. This costs 40 somoni (5 USD) per person in a share taxi. You can get the taxi driver to take you straight to the border or to a guesthouse in Ishkashim, if you want to cross over the day after instead.
The border is located a few kilometres outside of Ishkashim, which is easy to either walk to or hitch a ride to. It opens at 9 AM, closes again for an hour at 12 and then stays open until 5 PM. Going through the border took about an hour, mostly because the Afghan soldiers weren’t up when we got there at 9, so we had to wait for them. There are a few things that you need to fill in, and the soldiers on both sides will check your bags for security reasons.
The Afghan soldiers will most likely call a friend to pick you up and take you to town, which will cost 12-20 USD for a short 5 km. ride. If you say so beforehand, you could just walk there instead.
PLEASE NOTE: There are more border crossings from Tajikistan to Afghanistan, but, at the time of writing, the Ishkashim and Shighnan borders are the only ones that tourists can safely go through, although the Shighnan border can be dodgy.
5. Once you’re in Sultan Eshkashim
Welcome to Afghanistan! If you’ve made it this far, I think you’re pretty awesome, and you’re in for a treat. But first, there are a few things that you need to go through when you arrive in Sultan Eshkashim.
We were taken to the center of the town by our driver, where an English-speaking guy was waiting to greet us. He helped us get registered at the governor’s office and the police office, which is mandatory for all tourists. If you decide to walk into the town instead, it shouldn’t be a problem to find an English-speaking person, as they will most likely find you first. It’s hard to not stand out as a tourist, as they hardly get any.
For the registration, which took about an hour including drinking tea with the governor, we paid 10 USD each. We also had to get 4 passport photos taken as well as passport copies, which cost us 4 USD each. With the help of the English-speaking guy, getting registered was an easy process.
Guesthouses in Sultan Eshkashim or in the small villages nearby are quite expensive, especially considering what you get for your money. We paid 15 USD each for a bed in a private room with no shower and no food included. To get food as well, it would’ve cost us 30 USD each.
Onwards travel from Sultan Eshkashim
It’s possible, yet very expensive, to travel onwards to the Wakhan Corridor from Sultan Eshkashim. You can either arrange a tour at the tourist information center in Khorog, or find your own transportation once you’re in Sultan Eshkashim. Petrol in Afghanistan is very expensive and since almost no one lives in the Wakhan Corridor, cars rarely go there unless it’s for tourists. Expect to pay around 100 USD per day for a car, driver and petrol. For an English-speaking guide, expect to pay 20-25 USD per day. Distances are long and the Afghan roads are some of the worst in the world, so allow yourself enough time to travel in that region.