Next project: Afghanistan, plus one

It’s close to one year since my last major trip to Turkey and India and although I was on the road for close to three months in 2012, I promised myself to make the year 2013 even better.

4 weeks, in Afghanistan and a neighbouring country

Afghanistan has been on my list for a while and I was initially planning a six month trip from Kabul to Istanbul. Central Asia is a absolutely beautiful region and I am quite curious to see it. You may know that I like history and geography – to a geeky level. This region, on the silk road, has been at the crossroads of civilization for centuries. With functional knowledge of Russian, Turkish and Farsi, I imagine it would be lot of fun to travel in Central Asia. Unfortunately six months is a long time commitment so I am thinking of doing something shorter. Parts of Afghanistan are now free from the Taliban and safe (well…) to travel and I am looking into traveling to the following places:

Kabul: The capital city,
Bamiyan: Ruins of Buddha statues,
Mazar-e-Sharif and Balkh: Northern cities with beautiful architecture,
Panjshir: Hiking and trekking in the Hindu Kush mountains.

Option 1: Afghanistan and Iran

I have heard nothing but great things about Iran. First hand accounts of warm hospitality, friendly people, stunning scenery and delicious food have tempted me to visit this country for a while. An itinerary I am working on is similar to the one above but includes Herat, a large city in Western Afghanistan closest to the Iranian border. From here, it is possible to cross the border into Iran and travel to Mashhad, the next big city. Indian passport holders can get visa-on-arrival at Iranian airports, but that’s not true for land border crossings.

There is a problem though (besides the Iranian regime prosecuting westerners, homosexuals, women, minorities etc)…

The Israeli stamp problem

I travelled to Israel and the West Bank in late 2007 to early 2008; therefore I have an Israeli tourist visa and immigration stamps on my passport. A bunch of Islamic countries will refuse to let you in if you have shown any evidence of having visited Israel. Iran is one of the countries that imposes this rule strictly.

Many people get around the issue by renewing their passport, getting immigration stamps on a separate piece of paper (an option not available for Indian passport holders), visiting Israel after traveling to the Muslim countries that impose this ban, or travelling at the end of your passport validity. None of these are applicable for my case so I am left wondering.

Few travel websites have suggested that if the Israeli stamp is several months old, Iranian authorities won’t be too concerned. However, given current political situation, that might be a huge risk.

To conclude, I am still undecided about Iran.

Option 2: Afghanistan and Uzbekistan

This route sounds safer at the moment. If my prayers are answered and the Uzbek-Afghan border is open for tourists, I get to checkout fantastic stops on the ancient Silk route: Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, etc. in Uzbekistan and maybe even Dushanbe in Tajikistan.

Initial preparations

  • Languages: I’m thinking of learning basic Farsi (Persian), a language that would be useful to know in this region. Afghanistan has two main languages: Pashto and Dari (Afghani Persian) and learning Farsi will help me communicate verbally as well as read signs. For Uzbekistan I may have to brush up my Russian and Turkish. None of this is necessary but as you may know, I like learning foreign languages at a beginners level.
  • Research: Networking with recent travellers and locals would be the key since government reports are usually not very helpful.
  • Airline of choice: Doubtlessly, Turkish airlines. The airline not only provides excellent on-board service but also is well connected to almost all corners of the world.

Stay tuned for more!

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Thanks for reading!