Editor’s note: Both the US and British governments both warn against any travel to Afghanistan. Although, our Central Asia-based writer, Stephen Lioy, visited recently and lived to tell his story, does not mean it’s safe for foreign travelers.
Though once a common stop on the Hippie Trail, Afghanistan is no longer a common destination on the modern-day tourist routes through Asia. With a good mix of determination and luck, though, visiting this ancient but war-plagued state is very possible and can be relatively safe.
To avoid the complications and dangers of travel through Kabul and the South, one of the best ways to visit Afghanistan is via Central Asian neighbors like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, or Tajikistian. Tajikistan’s GBAO region, in particular, borders relatively strife-free regions of Afghanistan such as the Wakhan Corridor and Badakhshan Province’s Pyanj River Valley.
Getting to Afghanistan from the Tajik GBAO is at heart a question of bureaucracy. Once you collect all the necessary visas (see http://caravanistan.com/visa/), permits, stamps, and receipts, the only question left is to decide which border to cross.
Tajikistan Visa Issues
Tajikistan visas are available before arrival, from Tajik consulates worldwide, and can be issued for up to 45 days for many nationalities. Visas are also potentially available on-arrival at Dushanbe International Airport, but usually limited to 30 days. Importantly, if you intend to visit Afghanistan and return to Tajikistan be sure to apply for a double-entry Tajik visa. Tajikistan visas are date-specific, so determine your schedule before you apply so that your visa will be valid for the period you intend to be in Tajikistan.
Travelers going to Afghanistan via the GBAO region also require a permit for GBAO. This is most easily obtained with your initial Tajik visa application, but can also be obtained in Dushanbe at the OVIR office with some bureaucratic hassle.
Travelers who intend to visit Afghanistan will require a visa for this as well. Rules for applying for an Afghan visa seem to differ from embassy to embassy, and some Western embassies will not issue tourist visas. All in all, this seems easiest to do in Central Asia rather than from home before your trip.
Getting Visas in Khorog
The Afghan Consulate in Khorog (capital of Tajikistan’s GBAO region) offers a painless tourist visa application process. Fill out an application at the Consulate (on Gagarina, beside the road up to the Pamir Lodge). Visa fees ($51 in 2012, payable only in USD) are accepted at the Tojik Sodirot Bank (48 Lenin St., on the north side of Leninskaya just east of the bridge). From the front gate of the Consulate, minibuses to Leninskaya run west and then turn north to cross the main bridge. After collecting your receipt, return the same afternoon or the next morning to collect your passport and visa.
Note: At the time of research this Consulate was unwilling to issue visas for solo female travelers.
If you forgot to apply for a multi-entry Tajik visa, this may also be possible in Khorog. From intersection of the bridge and Leninskaya, head east. After passing a pedestrian bridge across the river, continue a short way to the Ministry of Soviet Bureaucracy, GBAO Aqimat’ on 26 Lenina . This building, with a collection of bronze busts in the street front plaza, may be able to provide the necessary stamps.
Take your passport and proof of application for an Afghan visa (we used our receipts from the Tojik Sodirot Bank). Turn right on the ground floor into a long corridor, in the second-to-last office on the right side of the corridor, where hopefully you’ll find an extremely helpful government official who can help you add an entry to your visa. There was no charge for this service when we attempted it, but this may be prone to change.
Going to Afghanistan
From Khorog, there are two nearby border crossings for foreigners to enter Afghanistan.
The closest, leading to the Afghan market town of Shegnan, is several kilometers outside of Khorog. From the main bazaar, minibuses run regularly to a bus stop nearby the border post. After crossing through both countries’ passport controls, the road runs several kilometers to the Shegnan bazaar or a day’s drive to Lake Shiwa. If visiting Shegnan, local police may ask you to register at the main station.
Several hours’ drive from Khorog, the Ishkashim border crossing also allows foreigners to pass between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. On most days this border is relatively quiet. Note, though, that at midday the Afghan border shuts down for an extended lunch break. Try to get here early in the morning, to get through before lunch.
Additionally, travelers visiting the Afghan Wakhan (anywhere past the village of Eshkashim) will require a Wakhan Permit. This is available on arrival in Afghanistan, but trying to arrange it yourself may require several trips between the village and border post. Instead, it may be easier to arrange via guesthouses in Eshkashim.
If passing through the area without an Afghan visa, travelers are often allowed to visit the cross-border market that comes to life every Saturday in between the two posts. If the security situation is considered stable, soldiers on the Tajik side of the border hold your passport as you wander through the market. When you’re finished, simply return to the Tajik side of the market and collect your passport. It is not necessary to have a double-entry Tajik visa in order the visit the market here.
Other border crossings for getting to Afghanistan
Other potential border crossings (see: http://caravanistan.com/border-crossings/) from Central Asia to Afghanistan:
– Tawraghudi (Turkmenistan) on the road to Herat (Afghanistan).
– Imam Nazar (Turkmenistan) on the way to Mazar-i-Sharif (Afghanistan).
– Termiz (Uzbekistan) en route to Mazar-i-Sharif (Afghanistan).
– Shir Khan Bandar (Tajikistan) leading to Kunduz (Afghanistan).