Kabul

WARNING: Travelling in Afghanistan is extremely dangerous and is strongly discouraged. The current Afghan government has little control over large parts of the country; in particular, most of the South and East including Kabul is effectively a war zone. Threats are unpredictable and the situation remains volatile.

Trips should be meticulously planned and travellers 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.

A section of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

Kabul has been the capital of Afghanistan since about 1776. The city has been badly damaged during the various 19792001 wars, particularly its western parts. For a few years, Kabul has been going through a period of reconstruction and development, with some modern style tower blocks and a handful of glitzy shopping malls appearing over the last few years. Many roads, particularly the main feeder routes have been reconstructed and upgraded. However, in outlying areas roads and other infrastructure remain in poor condition. Electricity supplies in Kabul are now quite reliable.

Understand

History

The city is believed to have been founded between 2000-1500 BCE. It is mentioned in Hinduism's sacred Rigveda text (c1700-1100 BCE) as a vision of paradise set in the mountains. It was an important center of Zoroastrianism and later Buddhism. The city remained of little importance for much of the first three millennia of its existence. It was controlled variously by: the Persians, Alexander the Great, the Seleucid Empire, the Mauryan Empire, the Bactrians, various Hellenistic kingdoms, the Sassanid Empire, and by the 5th century CE was its own kingdom known as Kabul-Shahan. This last kingdom before the Islamic conquest built a large wall to protect the city from invasion when the Arabs arrived at the edge of the kingdom; parts of the wall have survived to this day and are visible above ground within the city.

In 871 Kabul fell to the Islamic invasion (nearly 200 years after invading Muslims reached modern-day Afghanistan). The Kabulistan empire was formed covering much of Afghanistan and parts of western modern-day Pakistan. The city once again passed uneventfully through the hands of several empires, including the Samanids, Ghaznavids, Ghorids, Timurids, Mughols, Durranis, and the Barakzais, before conquest by the Mongols in the 13th century. The famous Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta visited the city in 1344, noting, "We travelled on to Kabul, formerly a vast town, the site of which is now occupied by a village inhabited by a tribe of Persians called Afghans."

Under the rule of Tamerlane in the 14th century, the city developed into a regional center of trade. In 1504, the city was captured by the Mughal emperor Babur.

In 1747, Kabul came under control of the Durrani (or Afghan) Empire. In 1776, Kabul would become the empire's capital, although the empire soon fell into tribal civil war. In 1839, the region was claimed by the British and Kabul was established as the location of British government and the British Indian Forces. They were very unpopular amongst local tribes who revolted and in 1841. Within a few days, a series of events led to the massacre of all but one of the 16,000 occupying British and Indian civilians and soldiers within miles of Kabul as they attempted to flee to Jalalabad, a famous blunder known as the Massacre of Elphinstone's Army. The British returned in 1878 and 1879, but were both times thousands of them were killed and they were forced to retreat.

Map of Kabul, from early 1980s.

In the early 20th century, electricity was introduced to the city and the Darul Aman palace was constructed for the royal family. The 1930s-60s were good times in Kabul. Kabul University was opened; the roads were paved; modern shops, offices, & schools were opened; shopping centers and a cinema were opened; and the Kabul Zoo opened. The city also saw a vibrant tourism industry appear, largely due to the Istanbul-New Delhi "Hippie Trail" which passed through Kabul in the 1960s-70s.

The 1970s-80s brought a turn for the worse. The city saw two coups, in 1973 and 1978. The second coup was carried out by the Marxist PDPA, which a year later invited the Soviet military to maintain their power over the country. From 1979-1989, the Soviet Union maintained military and governmental headquarters in Kabul. After the Soviets left, the government collapsed in 1992 and left local warlords to fight over the city leaving tens of thousands dead and (according to the UN) 90% of the city's buildings destroyed. By 1994, the city was without electricity or water. In 1996, the political movement known as the Taliban captured the city, publicly hanging the former (pre-1992) president and imposing notoriously strict Islamic rule over the country.

A US-led military force invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, bombing strategic installations throughout the city to rout out the governing Taliban, who quickly fled the city. The city was named the capital of the Afghan Transitional Authority and subsequently the capital of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The city saw many suicide bombings between 2002–2007, but they have become rare since 2008. In late 2008, control of the city's security was passed from the NATO ISAF force to Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Army. Since 2001, billions of dollars in aid and foreign investment have been used to improve the city. Most of the major roads have been paved and improved, government building have been extensively renovated, new hotels and shopping malls have opened, the zoo and many museums have reopened, and utilities have been extensively reconstructed.

Climate

Kabul's climate is greatly influenced by its location in a valley at 1,800m (5,900ft). Summers (Jun-Sep) are hot and dry, averaging from the high 20s to the mid-30s (80-95F) with next to no precipitation. Autumn (Oct-Nov) is temperate and sees very little precipitation. Winters (Dec-Mar) are cold and the time of year which sees the most precipitation (mostly snow, but also ice, freezing rain, and sleet on warmer days). January is the coldest month, averaging 4/-7 (39/19F). Spring (late Mar-early June) is temperate with rain tapering off by early May.

The city lies in a valley and some villages on the edge of the city are a few hundred meters higher and thus cooler in the summer and colder and snowier in the winters. Many roads leading to/from the city are regularly blocked by high snowfall in winter, the most notorious is the highway north, through the Salang Pass. The main highways are cleared reasonably quickly.

Orientation

The city of Kabul is divided into 18 sectors, with each sector consisting of a handful of adjacent neighborhoods.

Get in

Afghan customs officials at the Kabul International Airport in 2010

By plane

Kabul International Airport (IATA: KBL), +93 9251-61001, is a short drive east of the city centre. The new international terminal is now fully open, whilst the old terminal is now used for domestic flights. The airport is a hub for Ariana Afghan Airways, Kam Air, Safi Airways, & Pamir Airways. Airport facilities include banks, restaurants, post office and car parking (all very basic).

Arrival

Foreigners will need to get a foreigner registration card - after immigration go to the desk adjacent to the baggage carousel and complete the form - if you have 2 passport photos with you then you can complete the registration there. Otherwise you'll have to finish your registration at the Ministry of Interior later (a major hassle - best to make sure you have those photos).

When arriving taxis are available to the city centre (AFN400), but it is safer to meet someone whom you know. Alternatively, Afghan Logistics (+93-777 443311, see below in Get Around) and the other taxi firms offer an airport pick-up for about USD25.

Departure

The Foreigner Registration card is sometimes required and taken from you when you exit Afghanistan, and a big fine / bribe is in some cases required if you haven't got it when you fly out, though sometimes arguing that no one was at the desk to issue the Foreigner Registration card will work. The registration card is free. Some people feel it necessary to 'tip' everyone at the airport when flying out, but tip one guy for putting your bag through the x-ray scanner and everyone will be on you for their share. A polite 'no thank you' usually suffices.

When flying out you will probably end up in Car Park C - and will have to get the shuttle bus to the terminal building. When flying out expect long queues and multiple ticket / passport / baggage checks, although things are now much better with the new terminal, principally because there is much more space.

International

International carriers and destinations include include:

Domestic

While Kabul International Airport is not bad for a third world country, expect very basic conditions at other Afghan airports. As of November 2009:

By car

By bus

Private operators serve most destinations in fairly comfortable Mercedes buses. Safety can be a problem, with frequent accidents. Most drivers smoke hashish before driving, so bus trips are very dangerous.

Get around

Maps of Kabul are available from Afghanistan Information Management Services who can print out custom wall maps of the city.

By bus

There is the Millie Bus which operates many routes around Kabul, but it is faster and more comfortable to use taxis. Some buses are relatively new, but many are old as one might expect in a 3rd world country.

By taxi

Taxis are plentiful and to hire the whole car should cost around AFN30-50 depending on destination and bargaining skills. Some drivers have learned basic English, but such drivers may try to charge a slightly higher price and are most likely to be found loitering near Westerner-friendly locations (airport, major hotels). While the city is fairly safe, it isn't a bad idea to be proactive and avoid catching a taxi near any sensitive location (embassy, military facilities, 5-star hotels). It is customary for women to always sit in the back seat. After dark local yellow taxis become a rarity, so keep a few taxi numbers in your phone as a backup.

By private taxi

By car

There are only a couple places to rent a car in Kabul, one of which is:

By foot

Downtown Kabul is relatively compact and walkable - a good option in the spring and fall - summers bring intolerable heat and dust, whilst winters bring snow and mud. Pavements are few, and you need to keep your wits about you when crossing roads.

If you are nervous about your safety walking around areas such as Wazar Akbar Khan and Taimani (to a restaurant, etc.), it is fine day or night. Central Kabul at night is walkable but be sure you know where you are going, and how to get back to your guesthouse. Given the volatile security situation always be aware of any demonstrations, gathering crowds, etc., which could spiral out of control quickly. Keep a low profile, wearing simple clothes and (for women) covering your hair with a scarf or shawl. It is also wise to vary your routes frequently to reduce the threat of kidnapping. People are generally helpful and polite if you ask for directions.

Be wary walking around traditional residential areas (e.g., near the city wall). Conservative Afghans are suspicious of anyone snooping around their house, and children may start throwing stones or setting their dog on you.

See

Inside the Gardens of Babur
Outside the National Museum of Afghanistan.

Do

Bowling in Kabul.

Buy

Khair Khana or District 3 of Kabul City.

The Share-e Naw area has some shops.

Money

A few ATMs that accept international cards are scattered around the city, and most dispense both Afghanis and US dollars. However, credit cards are unlikely to work or be accepted anywhere in the city, except a couple of the top end hotels.

Eat

The thousands of foreigners in the city since the fall of the Taliban has gradually turned Kabul into something of a restaurant Mecca. Restaurants can crudely be split into "places for locals" and "places for expats", with the latter having higher security, higher prices, but not necessarily higher quality. Restaurants that are UN-approved are particularly expensive. If you are looking for a place with a good mix of Afghans and expat diners the (dry) Lebanese, Turkish and Iranian restaurants are the ones to head towards.

Restaurants open and close with surprising frequency, so it is a good idea to check whether a place is still operating before heading out.

Budget

The Cafe inside Kabul City Center.

Mid-range

The vast numbers of foreigners in Kabul has lead to the city being perhaps the best place to eat in the region, and in the mid-range bracket there are dozens of good places to eat for USD15-25 per person for an evening meal.

Splurge

Drink

Despite being illegal, alcohol is pretty easy to find in Kabul's expat restaurants - buying your own supply involves befriending someone working at an embassy or military base, or dipping into the murky world of expat black-marketeering. Beer and spirits are available at UNICA, but the selection is slim.

Sleep

Kabul is not a cheap place to stay, principally due to the costs of running a generator and providing security. The hotels are good if you are just passing through, however for long term stays opting for a guest house is more popular. There are several in Wazir Akbar Khan and Shar-i-Naw, often in huge Pakistani style mansions.

It is wise to look closely at the security arrangements for any of these hotels. Many, especially those in the Splurge section, have been attacked by Taliban or other insurgent groups. Always think about escape routes and safe places to shelter.

Budget

Mid-range

Splurge

Kabul Serena Hotel, one of the best in town.
The Inter-Continental Hotel of Kabul.

Connect

Internet

Kabul Coffee House and Flower Street Cafe both have wireless Internet for customers.

Cell phones

Stay safe

WARNING: Kabul is currently extremely dangerous and sudden changes can occur in the security situation. As of April 2012 there has been extensive terrorist activity in Kabul, including suicide bombings and attacks on embassies. If your visit is essential, consult your country's embassy in Kabul and monitor US Dept. of State & UK FCO travel warnings throughout the planning and duration of your trip/stay.

Kabul is generally considered one of the safer parts of the country, and while bombings and kidnappings have waned considerably, they do remain a threat. That said, there are tens of thousands of expats and visitors to the city and considering that only a small handful have been victims of such attacks, you should be vigilant but not afraid. Avoid walking after dark, don't loiter in hotel lobbies, and (for long stays and expats), vary your routes and timings daily. Riots happen occasionally and are often accompanied by looting -- stay well away from them as authorities will respond with lethal force.

Female visitors: Make sure you wear a headscarf before landing in Kabul Airport until you fly out.

While visiting Kabul or any other part of the country, having any kind of social interaction with local people should not be a problem, Afghan people are traditionally very kind and hospitable toward guests.

Cope

Read the Scene magazine for restaurant reviews and all sorts of useful info. It is free, although street sellers may charge for it. There are many FM radio stations. However, the only widely available English language broadcast is from the BBC World Service on 101.6MHz. Tolo TV is perhaps the most popular TV station.

Embassies

Go next

Most expats take any opportunity they can to leave Kabul. Istalif in a side valley of the Shamali Plain makes for an excellent overnight or day trip destination. A day trip to the north (Shamali Plain, Salang Pass, Panjshir Valley and Jabal os Saraj), Qargha Reservoir to the west of Kabul etc.

You can fly to Dubai, Dushanbe or Delhi for the weekend also.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Wednesday, February 17, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.