Afghanistan

Capital Kabul
Currency Afghani (AFN)
Population 31,108,077 (2013)
Electricity 220V/50Hz +/-50%
Country code +93
Time zone UTC+4.5
WARNING: Travelling in Afghanistan is extremely dangerous, and independent travel/sightseeing is emphatically warned against, due to the armed conflict between Government forces and Taliban insurgents. The current Afghan government has little control over large parts of the country. Although parts of Kabul and the north are calmer regarding Taliban activity, the country is a war zone. Threats are unpredictable and the situation can change very quickly.

Trips should be meticulously planned and travelers should keep abreast of the latest security situation throughout their stay. If, despite the risks, you still find yourself heading there, see War zone safety and the "Stay safe" section below.

(Information last updated Nov 2012)

Afghanistan is a landlocked and mountainous country in the heart of Asia, bordered by Pakistan to the south and east, Iran to the west, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the north. There is a short border with China to the far northeast, but in extremely inaccessible terrain. The country has great many valleys.

Afghanistan has been the center of many powerful empires for the past 2,000 years. However, in the last 30 years the country has been in chaos due to major wars—from the Soviet invasion of 1979 to their withdrawal in 1989 and from warlordism to the removal of the Taliban in 2001 and the ensuing US/NATO invasion. Economically, Afghanistan is considered poor compared to many other nations of the world. The country is currently going through a nationwide rebuilding process.

Regions

Note

English spellings of Afghan place names vary. For example, Q may replace K as in Qandahar or Qunduz. Kunduz will be seen spelled as Konduz, Qunduz, Qundoz, Qundoze and variations on these. Bamiyan is often spelled as Bamian or Bamyan. Khowst may be spelt as Khost.

Cities

View of Herat from a hill in 2009.

Other destinations

Band-e Amir National Park in Bamyan province

Understand

Afghanistan has spent the last 3 decades in the news for all the wrong reasons. While visiting has not been advisable for several years, it has much to offer the intrepid traveller. That said, even the more adventurous should consider looking elsewhere for thrill-seeking at the moment.

Climate

Temperatures in the central highlands are below freezing for most of the winter, and snow is common at higher elevations. Summertime highs in lower elevations (such as Jalalabad or Mazar-e Sharif) can exceed 50°C/120°F. In higher areas such as Kabul, summer temperatures can be 30°C/90°F and winter around 0°C/30°F. The most pleasant weather in Kabul is during April, May and September.

Terrain

Mostly rugged mountains; plains in north and southwest. The Hindu Kush mountains run northeast to southwest, dividing the northern provinces from the rest of the country, with the highest peaks found in the northern Wakhan Corridor. South of Kandahar is desert.

The lowest point is Amu Darya at 258 m, and the highest is Nowshak at 7,485 m.

People

2011 Afghan Youth Voices Festival at Babur Gardens in Kabul

Afghanistan is an ethnically diverse country. Tribal and local allegiances are strong, which complicates national politics immensely.

The largest ethnic group is the Pashtun, followed by Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek and others.

Baloch tribesmen, still largely nomadic, can be found anywhere between Quetta in Pakistan and Mashad in Iran, including much of western Afghanistan. They make marvellous rugs, if somewhat simple.

There are thousands of Hindus and Sikhs living in different cities but mostly in Kabul, Jalalabad, and Kandahar who belong to the Punjabi, Sindhi, Kabuli, and Kandhari ethnic groups.

Hazaras in the central mountains look much more Asiatic than other Afghans. According to some theories, they are descended from Genghis Khan's soldiers.

The two largest linguistic groups speak Pashto and Dari (Afghan Persian). Pashto speakers predominate in the south and east, Dari in the north, west and central Afghanistan. About 11% of the population have Turkic languages, Uzbek. or Turkmen, as their first language. Many of them are in the north, near Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Minor native language groups include Nuristanis, Pashais and Pamiris, found in small pockets in the east and northeast.

History

The main mosque in Kandahar, adjacent to which is the mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Durrani and the site of the Prophet Muhammad's Cloak

Mir Wais Hotak rose up against the Persians in 1709 and established the Hotaki dynasty, with its capital at Kandahar. It later included what is now Iran and Iraq but the Hotaki dynasty collapsed in 1738. In 1747, Ahmad Shah Durrani re-established Afghanistan and expanded it to include much of Pakistan as well as northeastern Iran and the Western parts India. The country has a long history of warfare, mostly against invaders such as Darius I, Alexander of Macedon, Persians, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, and the British. Its recent history is no exception.

The Afghan Girl

The June 1985 cover of National Geographic showed the most haunting image of the Afghan War: a young Afghan girl, with piercing sea-green eyes and a dilapidated hijab. The photo, taken by Steve McCurry in Pakistan in 1984, became the icon of the troubles in Afghanistan. But, for 17 years, no one knew the girl's name. Then in 2002, following the defeat of the Taliban, National Geographic finally located the girl and her identity: Sharbat Gula. She vividly recalled being photographed and recognized her face as the one in the photo. Today, in her honour, NG now runs a fund to educate young Afghan girls, who were denied education under the Taliban.

After the April 1978 revolution and successful coup by pro-Communist forces, the Soviet Union invaded in December 1979 to support the new socialist government. By February 1989 all Soviet forces withdrew from the country but fighting continued between Soviet-backed Afghan government forces and mujahideen rebels, who were funded by the United States, Saudi Arabia and others while trained by Pakistan and Iran.

The Taliban grew out of this chaos in late 1994, providing a solution to what was by this time a civil war. Backed by foreign sponsors, and inspired by a conservative sect of Islam, the Taliban developed as a political force to end the civil war and bring security to the country. They seized the capital of Kabul in late 1996 and controlled most of the country by 2000, aside from some areas in the northeast.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden or other al-Qaeda militants to the United States, though they did offer to try Osama in their own shariah court if the US government shared "solid evidence" of his alleged guilt with them, and also expressed willingness in principle to consider extraditing Osama to a neutral country for a trial before a shariah court there if such an action would stave off US-led invasion. The US refused to share whatever evidence they had with the Taliban and considered the Taliban's offers insufficient, so they and their allies chose to take military action with support from anti-Taliban Afghans — mainly Kazakhs and Kirghiz from the north of the country who fought in the Northern Alliance — causing the Taliban's government to fall in December 2001.

That same month, representatives from all ethnic groups of Afghanistan met in Germany and agreed to form a new government with Hamid Karzai as Chairman of the Afghan Interim Authority. Following a nationwide election in 2004, Hamid Karzai was elected as President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. A year later, in 2005, legislative elections were held and the country's parliament began functioning again. In addition to occasionally violent political jockeying and ongoing military action to root out anti-government elements, the country suffers from widespread election fraud, poverty, corruption, and opium cultivation.

In 2005, Afghanistan and the US signed a strategic partnership agreement committing both nations to a long-term relationship. In 2012, Afghanistan and the US signed another more important strategic partnership agreement. It also signed strategic partnership agreements with India, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, and many other nations. In the mean time, around 50 billion US dollars is being spent on the reconstruction of the country.

Electricity

Officially 220V 50 Hz. Electricity supplies are erratic, but slowly improving in major cities. Voltage can drop to below 150V in some places. The Afghans' enthusiasm for homemade generators or modifying low quality ones means that the frequency and voltage can also vary wildly.

There are three types of electrical outlets likely to be found in Afghanistan. They are the old British standard BS-546 and the newer British standard BS-1363. But the European standard CEE-7/7 "Schukostecker" or "Schuko" is the standard and obviously most common. Generally speaking, U.S. and Canadian travellers should pack adapters for these outlets if they plan to use North American electrical equipment in Afghanistan. You may also find cheap universal adapters in the local markets.

Read

Get in

US and Afghan officials at Kabul International Airport.

Visas

Most visitors need to apply for a visa in advance, and are often easier to obtain than you might expect. See the Afghanistan Foreign Ministry's visa webpage.

By plane

Kabul International Airport (IATA: KBL) in Kabul is the main entry point to the country. In late 2008, the barely functioning old terminal was refurbished and is now being used for domestic flights, while the brand new Japanese-constructed terminal is up and running and fielding international flights.

The national carrier, Ariana Afghan Airlines, is flying with a small fleet of about 14 Airbuses and Boeings (plus Antonovs). They have daily flights from Dubai, and periodic flights from Frankfurt, Islamabad, Delhi, Istanbul, Baku and Tehran. Ariana is particularly bad at keeping to schedules, flights can be cancelled or delayed without notice.

A better option is the independent operator Kam Air, which has twice daily flights from Dubai, twice weekly flights from Delhi and weekly flight from Almaty, Istanbul and Mashad. Some of the flights on the Dubai to Kabul route stop in Herat if you'd prefer to enter the country there. Pamir Airways is a new private airline that offers daily flights between Kabul and Dubai (USD330 inbound, USD210 outbound), some stopping in Herat. Safi Air also provides flights between Dubai and Kabul. They are the only safety-accredited airline in Afghanistan. Safi is the only Afghan airline allowed to fly into Europe and has direct flights to Frankfurt. The service is good and planes are sound. Staff are professional.

Air Arabia flies 4 times per week from Sharjah - however they have currently suspended operations. Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flies 4 times per week from Islamabad and 1 time per week from Peshawar to Kabul. Another route in may be via through Tehran or Mashad in Iran. Iran Air has periodic flights from Tehran to Kabul. Air India operates six flights a week from Delhi to Kabul. Turkish Airlines also began flights between Kabul and Istanbul in 2011.

Flights to other cities such as Mazar-e Sharif may be available if you can hook up with the charter company PACTEC however seating is very limited.

By car

WARNING: The famous Khyber Pass is currently closed to anyone except Afghans or Pakistanis. Some travel blogs/forums claim that hiding in a vehicle and bribing the border guards works, but doing so is very risky and could lead to imprisonment. Even more risky, however, is the threat from Taliban near the pass, who have been known to kill/kidnap Westerners and other foreigners. You are strongly discouraged from passing through the Khyber Pass. (May 2009)
Inside the Afghan customs and border patrol station at Torkham in Nangarhar Province, the busiest border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There are a number of roads into Afghanistan:

As of mid-2009, none of these routes can be considered safe. The Khyber and the Quetta to Kandahar route are particularly dangerous.

By bus

Buses run regularly between Jalalabad and Peshawar, Pakistan. Also, between Herat and Mashad, Iran. Afghani buses are thoroughly checked by Iranian border police for possible drugs, so expect delays.

Get around

By plane

Planes fly between Kabul and the major cities (Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-e Sharif) at varying frequency. If weather is suitable, flights are operated daily. Most flights depart cities in the mornings before 11 AM only. Civilian airplanes are not operated after sundown.

By car

Long distance coach in Mazar-i-Sharif
Colourful Afghan truck

There is a growing network of public transportation between the country's cities. Buses ply some routes and Toyota vehicles have a near monopoly on minivan (HiAce) and taxi (Corolla) transportation.

A new highway connects Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif. The highway is in good condition and is considered "relatively" safe. The trip takes a minimum of 5 hr. The highway goes through the famous Salang Mountains and cross the Hindu Kush mountain ranges. If you hire a relatively new Toyota Corolla, this would cost you about USD100 (if bargained by a local) for one direction from the Mazar Station in Kabul to anywhere in Mazar-i-Sharif.

There is no metered taxi in large parts of Afghanistan. Taxis are yellow and clearly identifiable. You should normally strike a deal with the driver before you take a seat. You can consider 2–3 km of road in ideal conditions to be around USD1 worth (AFN50).

Jeeps and Land Cruisers are available for hire along with drivers who speak some English (do not keep your hopes high that you might bump into one of them). There are tour operators in Kabul that can provide a car and guide; these people are available for hire at the Kabul International Airport itself. Petrol stations are scarce in the countryside, and fuel is expensive.

Paved roads are the exception, not the rule, and even those roads can be in poor repair. Once outside the major cities expect dirt roads (which turn to mud during rain or snow melt). The highway between Kabul and Bagram is dominated by military convoys and "jingle trucks".

WARNING: Stay out of the way of military convoys.

They travel slowly and are heavily armed. You are not permitted to overtake these vehicles. Driving too close or approaching quickly from behind will be interpreted by them as a hostile act, and they WILL OPEN FIRE.

Do NOT attempt to take photographs of these vehicles or attempt to operate your cell phone when they are around. They may assume you have a remote bomb-detonator and will feel threatened, and it is highly likely they will open fire at you.

A new highway links Kabul to Kandahar. The highway is in good condition but should not be considered safe due to frequent attacks by anti-government forces such as the Taliban who often plant powerful mines (bombs) next to highways in which civilians are killed , and the poor standard of driving. The trip takes a minimum of 5 hours.

Talk

Pashto and Dari, an Afghan dialect of Persian, are the official languages of Afghanistan; many Afghans speak both. The latest CIA country profile mentions that Dari is spoken by about 50%, mainly in the Kabul, Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Central Afghanistan regions. Pashto is spoken by 35%, mainly in the south and east; it is also spoken in neighbouring Pakistan. The remaining are Turkic native language, primarily Uzbek and Turkmen, and there are also 30 minor languages such as Balochi. You'll find a few people in Kabul who speak a little English, but otherwise it isn't widely understood.

The English language is at its apex in Afghanistan. The percentage of those who now speak some English has reached unprecedented rates. President Karazai and his cabinet are fluent in English. English was taught in the past from the 7th grade, but now is taught from the fourth grade. Signs in English in the streets are becoming common now all over the country. English is the second foreign language in Afghanistan.

Buy

The Afghani (AFN) is, not surprisingly, the currency of Afghanistan. As of December, 2009, USD1 equals about AFN48.50, while €1 trades about AFN70.

Afghan man holding Persian silk rug in southern Afghanistan.
Carpets sold in Kabul. 1m sq. costs around $300

Haggling is very much part of the tradition.

Afghanistan's most famous products are carpets. There are carpets described as "Afghan", but also at least two other carpet-weaving traditions. The Baluchi tribes in the south and west weave fine rugs, and the Turkoman tribes in the north do as well; both groups are also found in neighbouring countries. All three types tend to use geometric patterns in the design, usually with red as the background colour and with repeated elements called "guls" to make the pattern. Generally, these are not as finely woven as carpets from the cities of neighbouring Iran. However, many of them are quite beautiful and their prices are (assuming good haggling) well below those of the top Iranian carpets.

"Golden Afghan" rugs were fairly common in Western countries a few decades back; they were invented by Western dealers who bleached Afghan carpets to eliminate the red colour, leaving a blue or black on orange or gold design. They are rare in Afghanistan, where the traditional colours are preferred. In the West, collectors also prefer the traditional colours and bleached rugs generally bring a lower price. Also, the "golden" rugs may not wear as well as unbleached rugs since bleaching can damage the fibres. In most cases, they should be avoided.

It is fairly common for rugs woven by nomads such as many Baluchi rugs and some Turkoman to show minor irregularities. The loom is dismantled for transport and re-assembled at the new camp, so the rug may not turn out perfectly rectangular. Vegetable dyes are often used, and these may vary from batch to batch, so some colour variation (arbrash) occurs and this may be accentuated as the rug fades. To collectors, most such irregularities fall into the "that's not a bug; it's a feature" category; they are expected and accepted. In fact, a nice arbrash can considerably increase the value of a rug.

Turkoman designs are widely copied; it is common to see "Bokhara" carpets from India or Pakistan, China produces some, and the Afghan carpet designs show heavy Turkoman influence. To collectors, though, the original Turkoman rugs are worth a good deal more. Good Baluchi rugs are also quite valuable in Western countries. Afghan rugs, or lower grade Baluchi and Turkoman rugs, generally are not collectors' items; most travellers will find the best buys among these. Experts might pay premium prices for the top-grade rugs, but amateurs trying that are very likely to get severely overcharged.

Kelims are flat-woven fabric with no pile. These are nowhere near as tough as carpets and will not survive decades on the floor as a good carpet will. However, some are lovely, and they are generally cheaper than carpets. Things like purses made of carpet or decorated with kelim weave are also common.

Another common product and popular souvenir is the Afghan sheepskin coat. These have the wool on the inside for warmth and the leather on the outside to block wind, rain and snow. They often have lovely embroidery. Two cautions, though. One is that the makers use the embroidery to hide flaws in the leather; top-quality coats will have little or no embroidery. The other is that Australian customs have been known to incinerate these coats on arrival, to protect their large sheep population from diseases (notably anthrax) that poorly tanned Afghan products might carry.

There are also various bits of metalwork heavily decorated pots, vases and platters, and some quite nice knives.

Guns are very common in Afghanistan and some are of considerable interest to historians and collectors.

These make a rather problematic souvenir. Importing a firearm anywhere can be difficult and it may be impossible in some places. If you are travelling overland and passing through several countries before you reach home, it is almost certainly not worth the trouble. Also, if you actually fire any Afghan gun, there is a risk that it will blow up in your face.

See

While ongoing violence has put an almost full stop to tourism in Afghanistan, the lack of visitors has nothing to do with the country's sights. This is a land full of mystical attractions, telling tales of ancient times and offering beautiful Islamic architecture, medieval city quarters and unexpectedly stunning nature.

Several sites are listed on UNESCO's World Heritage List. Most famous of course, were the ancient Buddhist sculptures of Bamiyan. The Taliban destroyed most of the 6th century statues in a cultural crime that outraged the world. Today, what remains in the Bamiyan valley is the silencing and still worthwhile sight of the empty niches. The salvaged pieces of what were once the largest statues of their kind in the world continue to provide a fascinating insight in the history of this place. Band-e Amir National Park, with its six interlinked lakes, is perhaps the finest natural attraction. At an altitude of 2900 meters, the blue waters in this protected natural area almost seem unreal against the sandy mountain sides that surround them.

Excellent mosques are to be found all around, with particularly grand examples in Mazar-i-Sharif and in the rapidly developing Herat. The Minaret of Jam, just north of Herat, is UNESCO listed.

Eat

Some of the popular Afghan dishes, from left to right: 1. Lamb grilled kebab (seekh kebob); 2. Afghan palao and salad; 3. Tandoori chicken; and 4. Mantu (dumplings). Afghan cuisine includes a blend of Central, Eastern, South Asian, and Middle Eastern cuisines. Nearly all the dishes are non-spicy.

There are three main types of Afghan bread:

Rice dishes are the "king" of all foods in Afghanistan. The Afghans have certainly taken much time and effort in creating their rice dishes, as they are considered the best part of any meal. Wealthier families will eat one rice dish per day. The Afghan royalty spent much time on rice preparation and invention as evidenced in the sheer number of rice dishes in their cookbooks. Weddings and family gatherings must feature several rice dishes and certainly reputations can be made in the realm of rice preparation.

Qorma is a stew or casserole, usually served with chawol. Most qormas are onion-based. Onions are fried, then meat is added, as are a variety of fruits, spices, and vegetables depending on the recipe. Finally water is added and left to simmer. The onion caramelizes and creates a richly colored stew. There exist over 100 qormas.

Bolani, similar to quesadilla

Pasta is called "khameerbob" in Afghanistan and is often in the shape of dumplings. These native dishes are wildly popular. Due to the time-consuming process of creating the dough for the dumplings, it is rarely served at large gatherings such as weddings, but for more special occasions at home:

Desserts and Snacks

Drink

Since Afghanistan is an Islamic country, alcohol consumption is illegal. However, it is tolerated in Western restaurants in Kabul.

Sleep

Hotels and guesthouses are available in all major cities, and while some may not meet international standards they are usually friendly and reliable.

Work

Many foreigners are finding well-paid work in Afghanistan as part of the reconstruction efforts. Often with the UN or other non-governmental organisations. Most of these jobs are within Kabul. Local wages are very low, especially outside of Kabul. However, everyone should read and understand the travel advice published by their respective governments or in the Stay safe section below. You will need a work visa if you are planning on working on a US military base.

Stay safe

WARNING: No part of Afghanistan should be considered immune from violence, and the potential exists throughout the country for hostile acts, either targeted or random, at any time. Remnants of the former Taliban regime and the al-Qa'ida terrorist network, as well as other groups hostile to International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) military operations, remain active. Afghan authorities have a limited ability to maintain order and ensure the security of Afghan citizens and foreign visitors. Travel in all areas of Afghanistan is unsafe due to military combat operations, landmines, banditry, armed rivalry between political and tribal groups, and the possibility of insurgent attacks, including attacks using vehicle-borne or other improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The security situation remains volatile and unpredictable throughout the country, with some areas, especially in the southeast, experiencing substantially increased levels of violence.
Minefield atop a hill in Bamiyan (Oct 2008)

Afghanistan is a volatile country, and downright dangerous in the southern and eastern areas. Non-essential travel is strongly discouraged. Banditry is some what of an ancient tradition in many parts of the country, including in the northern areas. In addition to that, the Taliban insurgents have declared abduction of foreigners to be one of their primary goals. In July 2007, twenty-three Koreans were kidnapped from a public bus in Ghazni province, south of Kabul. Two of them were murdered while the rest were set free several weeks later after controversial negotiations with the Korean government.

The northern part of the country is considered to be safer than the south and east; however, occasional incidents can still occur anywhere and a seemingly safe place can become the opposite in an instant. Several reporters for German media were killed in the northern parts of Afghanistan, most likely by criminals or anti-westerners. 10 doctors (8 foreigners and 2 translators) were murdered in August 2010.

Landmines and other UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) remain a problem across the country, so plan to stick to well-worn paths, avoid red and white painted rocks, and do not touch or move any suspicious-looking item. According to the Afghan Red Crescent Society, approximately 600-700 people are injured or killed every year in accidents due to landmines and UXO. This is greatly reduced from over 1,600 in 2002. While travelling in Afghanistan you are likely to see mine clearance organisations at work.

Insects and snakes are also something to be careful of, and the mountainous country has many vicious tiny creatures such as scorpions, spiders, centipedes, bees, etc.

In some areas, altitude sickness is a significant risk.

Homosexual activity between consenting adults is punishable by an assortment of harsh punishments, including death, under Afghan law. LGBT travelers should exercise tremendous discretion.

If, after considering the risks, you still choose to travel in Afghanistan, hiring an armed escort or travelling with an experienced guide are ways to decrease the risks. You should also check with your embassy, and be clear on what they can and cannot do for you in an emergency.

See also: War zone safety

Stay healthy

Afghanistan has its fair share of health issues, and it would be wise to consult a travel doctor ahead of your trip about vaccinations and health risks. Respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis and food-related illness are common, and malaria is a risk in many parts of the country.

Afghanistan is one of the dustiest countries in the world, and you should be prepared to be covered in it and breathing it for most of your stay, even in the major cities. Pollution from diesel engines can also make life unpleasant.

Flies are notoriously heinous here, likely due to poor sanitation. Winter brings some relief, but they come back full-strength when spring arrives.

Food should be approached with a discerning eye, as hygiene standards can often be lacking. Hot, freshly cooked food is generally safer. Bottled water is also advised, unless you have your own purification system.

Bring any prescription medicine you may need from your home country, and don't count on being able to find it locally. You may also consider carrying pain relievers and anti-diarrheals, as they'll be hard to find outside of major cities.

As in most parts of Asia, squat toilets are the norm, with toilet paper optional and sometimes scarce. Western-style toilets are seen occasionally in newer buildings and some private homes.

Respect

Inside the Maulana Jalaludin Cultural Park in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Connect

Fixed line service is available in major cities (digital in Kabul) and mobile phones in most cities. SIM cards are available and international calls to Europe/US typically cost less than USD0.5/minute. Outside of major cities your options are limited to a satellite phone.

An Afghanistan number should is of the form +93 30 539-0605 where "93" is the country code for Afghanistan, the next two digits are the area code and the remaining 7 digits are the "local" part of the subscriber number that can be called from within that particular area code using abbreviated dialing. You need to dial "0" in front of the geographic area code (of 20, 30, 40, 50 or 60 for fixed lines) from outside that particular area code (but when still within Afghanistan).

Mobile phones

Mobile numbers in Afghanistan must always be dialed with all digits (10 digits, including a "0" prefixing the "70n" within Afghanistan), no matter where they are being called from. The 70n is a mobile prefix, not an "area code", as such and the third digit (the n part) denotes the original mobile network assigned. An example mobile number looks like +93 700-202-496.

Satellite phones



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