Afghanistan has been a crossroads of civilizations for millennium. From Darius the Great to Alexander the Great, Marco Polo to George Bush, They have all been here and left their mark. It has been and still is a place of world interest whether it is from politicians or tourists. It is a place of legendary hospitality to guests and legendary hostility to invaders.
Any trip here is an adventure. Sights like the remains of the giant Buddhas of Bamian, the unreal blue of the lakes at Band e Amir or the first sight of the almost unreachable Minaret of Jam are incredible but most peoples lasting memories of Afghanistan will be something on a more human scale. Kite flying kids, drinking tea with ex-mujahedin or walking with catapult wielding Hazara children.
A trip to Afghanistan offers the opportunity to see a country that has been off the tourist map for 30 years, to visit a place that is starkly beautiful and to interact with people and places that you probably best know from news reports. Whether your interest in Afghanistan is its ancient history or its modern history we think the experience you get from seeing such a striking and hospitable country recovering after such a long time will stay with you for a long time.
Of course, as well as offering some incredible experiences for the intrepid traveler, Afghanistan has some equally unique risks and dangers. Please go to our Frequently Asked Questions page for further information or contact us to find out what we do to ensure you have a memorable time for all the right reasons.
Untamed Borders Map of Afghanistan
Places of Interest
Afghanistan's capital first received an influx of foreign tourists in the late 1960's when it became an essential stop-off on the hippy trail towards enlightenment. Chicken Street was the home of cheap hotels and souvenir shops. Chicken Street is still here, selling souvenirs to aid workers, although the Chickens have gone and the Hotels are not so cheap. Much of the rest of the city has changed beyond recognition in the last 30 years, new buildings in the city centre, promising signs of post-invasion reconstruction, give way to rubble and ruins on the outskirts. Yet there are occasional outbreaks of tranquility. Many mosques and mausoleums of interest remain standing, as do the lush Gardens of Babar, and the European Cemetery, final resting place of Auriel Stein, the great Silk Road explorer.
With the UN and NGO agencies in residence, the parts of Kabul with pizza restaurants and shops with western goods feel like nowhere else in the country. There is little left of ancient Kabul although the city walls and the Bala Hissar (sadly off limits and used by the Afghan military) still stand to give a glimpse of what it was like.
There are also plenty of interesting places revealing Kabul today. The Omar land mine museum is a sobering introduction into some of Afghanistan’s more modern history. The Old City is not so old any more, much of it was bombed during the Afghan civil war. However the bazaar retains much of the feel of old Kabul. Modern goods mix with the ancient. An early riser will see the butchers slaughtering their animals fresh for the day, at Ka Faroushi bird market all types of birds for pets and for fighting are displayed and sold and by Kabul river, photographers still work using the old box cameras .
Bamian lay on one of the silk routes and was an important religious site for the Gandharan Empire that included Takht e Bhai and Taxila in Pakistan. The cliffs overlooking the town are riddled with large numbers of caves in which Buddhist monks lived and worshipped. They were often highly decorated with Buddhist motifs including large statues of the Buddha.
The giant Buddhas of Bamian were completed in the 6th century AD and stood 55 and 37m high respectively making them, for nearly 1,500 years, the highest standing Buddha statues in the world. In the 11th century, Buddhism was replaced by Islam in the region, Bamian became less important and the Buddhas fell into disrepair. The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb destroyed the legs of the largest Buddha in the 17th century and the Persian, Nadir Shah fired canon at them in the 18th century. Despite this the statues retained their world renowned status until March 2001 when the Taliban used artillery, anti-tank mines and finally dynamite to destroy the Buddhas over a month long period .
Even without the Buddhas themselves, the valley of Bamian is still striking, the ruins of 2 forts guard the entrance to the valley and at sunset the rock takes on a beautiful hue. It is also possible to climb into the caves and view the valley from where the largest Buddha's head would have been.
Band e Amir
Sometimes places of note fail to live up to their reputation. No-one we have met has ever said that about Band e Amir. A series of 5 interlocking lakes that flow into each other over dams made from mineral deposits. The lakes are of such a deep blue that photos often appear to have been photoshopped. Legend has it that the dams were created by Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Mohamed. The place does feel touched by God especially after the ride through the dark lifeless mountains that surround the lakes.
It is possible to swim in the lakes and in the summer we can arrange boat trips and overnight stays in yurts on the lakes edge.
Mazar e Sharif
Mazar e Sharif is the largest city in Northern Afghanistan and is home to many of Afghanistan's ethnic Uzbeks.
In 12th century a local Mullah had a dream that the final resting place of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Mohamed was not in Najaf, modern day Iraq but in the small town where he lived. The shrine and indeed the town of Mazar-e-Sharif (Tomb of the exalted in Dari) exist as they do because of this. The original 12th century shrine was destroyed by Genghis Khan and much of what is on display today has been restored over the years. The blue tiled mosque is a fine sight and is the holiest place in Afghanistan for both Shia and Sunni Muslims. During Nau Ruz, the Persian new year, the town is packed full of pilgrims.
The shrine is surrounded by flocks of white pigeons. Legend has it that if a black pigeon arrives within a month it will turn white.
Mazar e Sharif is also only a short drive from the ancient Silk Road city of Balkh.
Known as Bactria to the Greeks and Umm Al-Belaad (Mother of Cities) to the Arabs, Balkh was the capital of the fertile area watered by the rivers running down from the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs. It is the birthplace of Zoroaster, the founder of the Zoroastrian religion and the renowned poet Rumi was also born here. Today, desertification, the increasing importance of Mazar e Sharif and a Malaria outbreak in 1911 have left Balkh as a bit of a backwater. However, there is still plenty of the cities 4000 year history to see. The blue tiled shrine of Khoja Parsa, 1500 year old Buddhist Stupas, No Gombad Mosque (the oldest in Afghanistan) and the tomb of Baba Koo-i-mastan (the holy man who first refined hashish) are some of the highlights.
Also known as Takht e Rostam (Throne of Rostam), the stupa-monastery complex at Samagan is named after the leading protagonist of an ancient Persian legend. In the most famous section of the tale, Rostum meets his own estranged son Sohrab on the battlefield and when Sohrab refuses to identify himself, they fight and Rostum kills Sohrab. This doesn't seem to affect Rostum too much as he continues with his adventures with seemingly little remorse.
The complex dates from the 4-5th century and it is carved out of the bedrock and has therefore remained well preserved from the passing of time and vandalism it may have otherwise received. In keeping with Buddhist tradition the stupa should be circumnavigated clockwise.
100km to the North East of Kabul lies the lush Panjshir valley leading up out of the plains up to the Hindu Kush mountains abd is regarded by many as the most beautiful part of Afghanistan. Panjshir means five lions, legend has it that the lions were 5 protectors who defended the valley for Mahmood of Ghazni in the 12th century. It is a famous emerald mining area and home to the largest concentration of ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan. It was also the base of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the lion of the Panjshir. Probably the most famous mujahedin leader from the soviet war. His poster is seen over much of Afghanistan and is often mentioned as “our national hero”. His tomb is located at the beginning of the valley.
Minaret of Jam
At 63 m high, the Minaret of Jam is the world's second highest free standing minaret. It is thought to belong to a set of similar minarets built between the 11th and 13th century in Afghanistan, India and Central Asia. It is also believed to be the inspiration of the Qutb minaret in Delhi, currently the tallest in the world. However their settings could hardly be more different.
It is hard to believe that this remarkable structure was “lost” until 1886 when the Anglo-Russian boundary commission “re-discovered” it. Since then only a handful of people from outside of Afghanistan have seen the minaret, located as it is tucked up a high valley over 200 kilometres from the nearest town of any size with the only connection on truly terrible roads. Still that makes the sight of this incredible structure all the more remarkable.
Due to ever changing security issues in Ghor province, we do not have any set itineraries that visit the minaret We guided people to see it in 2009 on a bespoke trip so please contact us for the latest information if you wish to see this remarkable structure.
"Stretch a leg in Herat and you'll poke a poet in the ass". So says an ancient Farsi saying. The poets may be thinner on the ground these days but Herat's history as a centre of culture remains and it boasts the best concentration of ancient buildings in Afghanistan. The skyline at sunset is sublime with minarets and domes peaking out over the rooftops. In many ways Herat has more in common with its Persian neighbours in Iran than Kabul on the other side of the Hindu Kush and has been fought over for millennia due to its strategic position and agricultural wealth of the surrounding valley. Tamerlane made Herat his capital in 1381 and the minarets of the Mussallah complex still remain from the Timurid rule.
From June to September Herat can sometimes get caught up in the ominously named "bad-i-sad-o-bist-roz", the "wind of 120 days". However, this wind is a welcome releif from Herat's equally notorious summer heat.
Mentioned in the Mahbarata dating back to 3000BC, Kandahar has been the largest city of the Helmund region ever since.
Due to its location at the cross roads of Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East Kandahar has been part of Turkic, Persian, Greek, Arabic and Mongol empires. Durrand Abbas Shah, founder of Afghanistan made Kandahar the capital in 1747 and his tomb is located within the city. Also found in Kandahar is a shrine reputed to contain the cloak of Mohamed. It was reported that, during the rise of the Taliban, Mullah Omah wrapped himself in the cloak when addressing his troops.
It experienced some of the most savage fighting during the occupying soviet forces and much of the old city was destroyed.
Currently the security situation means that Kandahar and all of the South of Afghanistan is not an area in which we can advise travel to.
The Wakhan valley is situated at the point the Hindu Kush meets the Pamirs. Based half in Tajikistan and half in Afghanistan this is an area of incredible natural beauty. Due to its remoteness it escaped the ravages the rest of Afghanistan experienced over the last 30 years and therefore is one of the few places that is accessible for trekking and horseriding due to the lack of mines. The Agha Khan foundation has invested in some guest houses but the draw of the area is its remoteness and the hospitality of the Wakhi people and the Kyrgyz nomads. Maybe 150-200 visitors make it to this area each year so any visit to the region is a step into the wild.