For many years Afghanistan has been a hotbed for terrorism and extremism.
Is it Ethical?
From the Soviet invasion of the 1980s to the events that were triggered after the 9/11 attack on the twin towers, Afghanistan is known as a country constantly plagued by war. Human rights abuses in the form of religious persecution and women’s rights are widespread throughout the nation. The mere act of a woman pursuing an education will be met with intimidation in the form of death threats. While the Taliban are no longer the ruling authority of Afghanistan, they are still quite active, occupying various districts and cities. With a nation still in the process of returning to normalcy, is it right to travel as a picture-snapping tourist?
When Is the Right Time?
When traveling, it is not uncommon to come across older more experienced travelers who will dazzle young backpackers with tales of the Great Hippie Trail. From the mid-1950s to the late 1970s, slews of brightly colored mini-vans and bicycles made their way from Europe to South Asia. This route took hippies along the bygone Silk Road, passing through Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. For the modern adventurer, this trail is unfeasible due to political and social unrest in these countries. Some travelers will express interest in venturing to Afghanistan but will state that now is not the right time and that they would wait for when there is a return to peace. For many of our lifetimes, all we have heard of these countries is war, persecution, and famine. It is unrealistic to believe that there will ever be a quick transition to stability. The real question is: Will there ever be a right time?
Is it Safe?
The first and most obvious concern for tourists traveling to Afghanistan is safety. Some travelers will elect to go on a tour rather than take the risk of exploring Afghanistan on their own. For many of these tours, an armed guard is provided to ensure the foreign tourist’s safety. When hiring security, a new issue arises: you are putting other people’s lives on the line to play tourist in a war zone. Of course, if both sides are in agreement there is no place for outsiders to judge. However, when traveling to potentially dangerous countries it is best to place all responsibility on yourself, not endanger other people’s lives. In the far North East corner of Afghanistan, a backdoor is open for foreign tourists to travel freely in complete safety. The town of Ishkashim and the Wakhan National Park has been free of the Taliban’s influence for decades due to its remote location. The town itself is bolstered with over 700 police officers, not including military personnel. Ishkashim is one of the few places in Afghanistan where you can rest easy and experience true Afghan culture.
Do the People Welcome Tourists?
The people of Ishkashim are all extremely welcoming. Most travelers visiting the region will skip the town altogether and head straight towards the Wakhan Valley for hiking and mountain climbing. When interacting with locals, many expressed their disappointment that more tourists did not take the time to explore the various villages which make up Ishkashim. When passing through the countryside it is not uncommon for locals to invite tourists to their home’s for tea and refreshments. Children and adults alike will wave and shout out what bits of English they have learned in school. Even more surprising was the regions rather progressive outlook on educating their daughters to become future politicians and doctors. In many ways, Ishkashim is a model community for the rest of Afghanistan. However, due to being a Tajik Shia town in a country which is 42% Pashtun and 90% Sunni, this is far from becoming reality.
Is it Worth the Trip?
Traveling to Ishkashim is so much more than having bragging rights that you have been to Afghanistan or marking another country off the list. After summoning the courage to travel to Afghanistan, the next most difficult thing for travelers is the cost of getting a visa and the price of accommodation. From Khorog, Tajikistan a tourist visa is 150 USD for Europeans and 220 for American travelers. Once arriving in Ishkashim guesthouses can cost anywhere between 20-30 dollars a night, including breakfast and dinner. With these enormous costs and safety concerns, is it still worth traveling to Afghanistan?
In short, it is worth every penny.
Ishkashim is one of the few places in the world where the people are genuinely just as happy to see you as you are to see them. The landscape is blessed with lush green terraces and trickling streams from majestic mountains which is more than enough to take your breath away. What will make you want to return to Afghanistan, however, is the people who have touched your life and made you feel like part of their family.
This piece was put together by Zachary Williams, Head Editor & Photographer at Orphaned Nation.