Travelling Tips To Afghanistan
I do not seek to be a Fodor’s or Lonely Planet, two of the more comprehensive travel guidebooks around. But for myself — and possibly other travellers, researchers, humanitarian workers — on future trips, I have decided that this list would be a useful reminder of the things to pack and take with me.
1. When applying for a tourist’s visa from the Embassy, take the letter of invitation (for example, by the NGO, or your Afghan friend who has invited you) with you together with your passport, the application letter (see link), as well as 01 x passport photo.
For persons working with/for an NGO, they should also provide a letter with a four-digit number. Print that out and show it to the Consular Officer.
2. Based on my most recent experience at the Afghan Consular Office in London, you can now pay the £73 by debit card. Previously, I had to go to the bank, get a money order and return to the consular office with the receipt.
3.One week later, return to the Consular Office with the receipt to collect the documents.
4. Operating Hours are as follows (no appointment is needed):
Application: Monday through Friday from 9:30am to 13:30pm
Collection: Monday through Friday from 2:30am to 3:30pm
Embassy of Afghanistan in London
31 Princes Gate
London, SW7 1QQ
I prefer getting off at the Knightsbridge station because walking through a section of the Hyde Park always refreshes my mind.
(Source images from link.)
2. In Afghanistan, the voltage is 220V, alternating at 50Hz (cycles per second). A voltage converter is necessary if your devices do not fit these outputs. Singaporeans, or even people from the UK or Europe, should not have any problems with their appliances.
3. I only needed to carry a travel adaptor with me. In many offices and Afghan homes, their extension cables are already multi-plugged, so there is no necessity to fret over multi-travel adaptors.
FLIGHTS TO/ FROM KABUL
Based on my limited experience, three airlines fly into Kabul Airport (KBL) from Dubai (DBX):
1. Safi Airways http://www.safiairways.com/
2. Kam Air https://www.kamair.com/home.php
3. Fly Dubai http://flydubai.com/
* Emirates has a partnership with Fly Dubai, so booking through Emirates directly to Kabul is possible.
ARRIVING AT KABUL AIRPORT
1. Queue up for your turn to see the Customs Officer. I don’t remember having my fingers scanned at the machine. But have other supporting documents (e.g. letter of employment from the NGO) ready, if you are asked for it.
2. Once you leave the Customs desk, you will see an information desk that requires you to fill in your particulars on a form. You will need to submit that form, together with 02 x passport photos, to the personnel behind that desk, who will in turn issue you a Foreigner’s Registration Card.
3. Some Afghan men will immediately ask for your luggage tags and they will wait at the carousel to claim your bags. I have done this twice, and on both trips, they appear very friendly. But when they return with your bags, they want a tip. One of the men insisted that I gave him USD$30. I gave a $3 tip instead. This is always a dilemma for me. As a foreigner in the country, I don’t want to encourage and feed into the corruption that is already so prevalent, but I also do not want to put my life and security at risk, or at least feed into the fears.
If you are firm enough, I would suggest avoid passing them the luggage tags in the first place.
4. Always collect your luggage tags from them (if you had passed it to them earlier). An officer will check your bags and matching luggage tags as you walk through, after you have claimed your bags.
5. Your bags will be scanned at the exit point through the X-ray machine.
LEAVING KABUL AIRPORT
1. Upon exit at the airport gates, passengers usually take the airport shuttle bus to Car Park C. No trolleys up to this point. Car Park C is where the general public — and your welcoming hosts — will wait for you. Once the bus drops you off, walk with your suitcases through the stone pillars that act as arrival gates. This is where your hosts will be waiting.
Note: The shuttle bus driver will also ask you for a tip. Have a few USD $1 notes handy, maybe in each pocket, so you avoid taking out your wallet in public. Say you don’t have US or local Afs currencies at the moment, but give a small tip anyhow.
COMMUTING WITHIN THE CITY & PHOTOGRAPHY
1. Always carry your Passport and your Foreigner’s Registration Card with you at all times when you are in Afghanistan. Road checks and entry checks (even into departmental stores) by security officers sometimes require you to produce these documents.
2. At certain places, bags and/or cameras are not allowed. So make sure your valuables can be kept in your jacket pockets, if necessary.
3. Often, your NGO or company will have their own drivers. UN officials have their armoured vehicles. However, if you need to travel by yourself, taxi companies that are trusted by the expatriate community are as follows, in alphabetical order:
(i) Golden: 0779 898400
(ii) Zoohad: 0799 409030
(iii) Afghan: 0700 043311
The cost, apparently, is about USD$5 within Kabul, but arguably more if the journey covers a longer distance.
4. Do NOT take photos of women, children, soldiers and security guards, even if you are travelling inside a vehicle. While this is arguably a sensitive issue with regards to photography in all conflict zones where safety may be compromised and ethical implications violated, it is always best to seek permission before taking any photographs.
Note: As foreigners, we must avoid taking photographs of the locals at their expense, i.e. if you are intending to publish these photographs for profit, you are exploiting the generosity and hospitality of the local Afghans. After permission has been sought and pictures taken, always show them what you had taken. The trust that the international community had built up with the locals must not be broken by any of your unethical practices.
Bottomline: Use your discretion, but only through a humanistic lens.
COMMUNICATIONS AND ELECTRONICS
1. Take your cheaper phone and charger with you, if you prefer. If not, you can buy a no-fuss Nokia from any phone shop in the city. Most people here carry two phones anyway. Buy a SIM card and top up the value. Etisalat is the service provider that I have been using so far.
2. Depends on where you go, internet and 3G connectivity are often intermittent. I haven’t subscribed to any data plan, just a top-up-as-you-go plan. It’s also quite difficult to find an internet cafe.
3. Electrical outages are very common. So make sure you have a flashlight or torchlight with spare batteries wherever you go, literally. Especially if you are going to take a dump or jump into the shower, which happened to me a few times. Download flashlight apps on your smartphones before you get to Afghanistan, but do remember that charging your mobile phone is not possible if electricity is already down. Use your phone for calls, instead. So go around with your flashlight. My colleagues carry headlights, like a miner’s lamp, which can be worn over your head.
4. With regards to your electronic equipment, have your spare batteries charged whenever there is electricity supply available. Usually, I charge my appliances in the office.
5. For information on the electrical wall sockets used in Afghanistan, scroll up to “Electrical Accessories”.
6. The country code in Afghanistan is +93.
A local number usually starts with 07 followed by 8 other digits: xx xxx xxx.
For example, 0796 555 000 (EasyFood; see below for food delivery within Kabul)
So if you are using your mobile phone with international roaming services, the local number would require you to delete the first zero digit, i.e. +93 7xx xxx xxx
CURRENCY AND COST OF LIVING
1. They accept US Dollars. But the local currency is Afs. Generally, 50 Afs = 1 USD.
2. ATM machines accept debit card withdrawals in both currencies.
Note: Everything is overpriced in Afghanistan, especially for the foreign market. In three days of grocery shopping, I have already spent up to USD$75. Some of the things on my list included (no fresh meat):
– washing detergent
– Mars chocolate bars
– tin of butter cookies
– box of cereals
– salt and pepper
– Ovaltine powder drink
– extra virgin olive oil
DINING AND FOOD DELIVERY IN KABUL
Easyfood Delivery is a company that connects a multiple number of restaurants to deliver food to your doorstep for free within Kabul (10:30am to 9:30pm, 7 days a week).
The menus from the various restaurants can be found online (www.easyfood.af), but here are the cuisines offered.
1. Bella Italia @ Wazir Akbar Khan
2. Boccaccio @ Wazir Akbar Khan
3. Central @ Kulola Pushta Road
4. Everest Pizza @ Wazir Akbar Khan
1. Taverna Du Liban @ Wazir Akbar Khan
2. The Grill @ Wazir Akbar Khan
Indian & Indo-Chinese Cuisine
1. Delhi Darbar @ Shahr-e-now
2. Namaste @ Wazir Akbar Khan
Thai & Japanese Cuisine
1. Mai Thai @ Wazir Akbar Khan
2. Japanese @ Kolala Pushta
French & Chinese Cuisine
1. Bistro du Chicken St @ Shahr-e-now
2. Kabul China @ Wazir Akbar Khan
Afghan & Turkish Cuisine
1. Rumi @ Qala-i-Fatullah
2. Istanbul @ Macroyan II Market
Burgers and Steaks
1. Fat Man Forest @ Wazir Akbar Khan
2. Red Hot n Sizzlin @ Abdul Haq Square Macroyan I
International Cuisine and Cafes
1. Flower Street Cafe @ Taimani
2. Panaroma @ Qala-i-Fatullah
3. Wakhan Cafe @ Shahr-e-now
4. The Strikers @ Shahr-e-now
Again, the prices are exorbitant. The 10% VAT has not been included in these prices. For comparison:
- Hawaii pizza from Boccaccio costs 900 Afs (USD$18)
- Fried rice with chicken from Kabul China costs 250 Afs (USD$5)
- Phad Thai with chicken or beef from Mai Thai costs 650 Afs (USD$13)
- Mutton and rice from Central costs 450 Afs (USD$9)
- English Breakfast from Flower Street Cafe costs 575 Afs (USD$11.50)
LEAVING KABUL AIRPORT
I cannot remember this, but based on memory, here are some more tips, to be updated soon.
1. There are a number of bag checks where I was required to unlock my suitcases for security checks. So make sure you give yourself ample time before your flight departs from Kabul. The queues are often very, very long.
2. I was required to go to a counter to pay for luggage service to be directed to my final destination. It looks dubious, but it is the only counter there that “guarantees” that my suitcases do not need to be picked up during my transit at Dubai International Airport. More US dollars are spent on this service.
* IMPORTANT NOTE ON SAFETY AND SECURITY:
PLEASE USE YOUR ADULT DISCRETION. As a foreigner or expatriate, parties are not uncommon. After three days in Kabul in a guesthouse, I was already feeling the emotional and mental strain, exacerbated by the spartan living conditions where electricity, wifi, and water are limited. So it is not uncommon for the international community to party very hard to release stresses. But be mindful of inconsiderate (mis)behaviours that might put you and your friends’ safety at risk.