Afghanistan Is One Lonely Planet

Travel tips for touring a war zone—on a budget

| January-February 2008

  • Children in Afghanistan

    Image by Funbobseye, licensed under Creative Commons

  • Children in Afghanistan

In 2004, riding the wave of optimism about Afghanistan, Lonely Planet commissioned its first-ever guide to the country. By late 2007, when the book was finished, things had gotten so bad that Western countries were advising their citizens against non­essential travel. Lonely Planet ended up printing a guidebook to a place no normal tourist would ever visit.

In theory, the book could still be useful to the 7,000 abnormal tourists—aid workers, anthropologists, diplomats, and consultants—who already live here, but most of these people aren’t allowed very far from their compounds. In Afghanistan, one’s freedom of movement is tied to the kidnap insurance paid by one’s employer: The more you’re worth, the less you wander.

As a freelance journalist, I have no insurance whatsoever and can therefore go anywhere I want. So, on a sunny Saturday morning, I find myself standing outside my friend’s armed guesthouse, having made a deal. M—we’ll call her that, so she can keep her U.N. job—will let me borrow her copy of the Afghanistan Travel Guide, so long as I help her break her employer’s security guidelines. “Rule number one,” she whispers as we stroll out, stepping carefully around the sidewalk’s rock piles and open sewers. “No walking.”

A tattooed former punk rocker, M is now draped and shapeless, her curls tightly clamped under a black head scarf. Worse, she’s dating some British narcotics agent.

“Well, he’s got a car,” she explains. (Afghanistan is like high school: Mobility is a big problem, so a guy with a car is automatically hot.)

“Plus, he’s got a beard,” she adds.

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