18 Mind Boggling Facts and Insights about Afghanistan

photography by: Monika Szczygielska

Reading time: minutes

It’s probably one of last countries you’ve considered traveling to, as for years Afghanistan has been portrayed as a dangerous war-zone where soldiers and terrorist fiercely fight each other, and while it’s true to some extent, this intriguing land has so much to offer that you’d be surprised to know how many magnificent places are still waiting to be discovered. There is no intention to deny the country’s troubled present and the lack of any tourist infrastructure due to its political instability and ongoing terrorist attacks, however, Afghanistan still has plenty of relatively peaceful cities and regions that the adventurists among you might consider exploring.

On the Way to a Brighter Future

Once a prosperous and modern nation with strong standing human rights and equality, open mind set and high ranking educational system, Afghanistan was frequently visited for decades by backpackers and mountaineers.
Years of internal and external conflicts took their heavy toll, yet the Afghani people still manage to live their lives while striving to significantly improve them as much as they possibly can. Evidently, year by year Afghanistan changes and things that were unimaginable just five years ago are now the normality throughout the country.
Therefore, since the alleged withdrawal of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan once again attracts curious travelers, nevertheless, there isn’t sufficient information on the country at the internet or in up to date guidebooks, whereas global media tends to portray Afghanistan as a disastrous and terrifying place, consequently, the only feasible way to truly appreciate the county’s day to day life is by getting there or alternatively having an online glimpse across the web, such as this article (written by someone who actually lives there).

photography by: Monika Szczygielska

The Journey Begins

As all roads led to Rome at ancient times, all roads in Afghanistan lead to Kabul. It’s the capital, the largest population center and a hub for whoever opts to travel to any other part of the country, mostly since the city’s international airport also serves as the country’s main gateway for foreign travelers.
Completely devastated following the civil war between several mujaheddin militias, Kabul now enjoys a relative prosperous time, where modern amenities are once again an integral part of its existence.

Hustle and bustle in the center of Kabul. Despite the cold of winter, the streets are full of stalls and hawkers, offering of all kinds of goods.

photography by: Monika Szczygielska

Kabul – a Jungle in the City

There aren’t many places in Kabul that can be purely considered as tourist attractions, but a handful of colorfully painted mosques and historical buildings definitely worth a visit, particularly the Darul Aman Palace, king Amanullah Khan’s former residence, located just in front of the National Museum, which prior to its looting during the civil war, was one of the finest in Asia.
Serving as a green oasis within the city, the Bagh Babur park, centered around the grave of Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire who travelled across Afghanistan in the 16th century, is the perfect place to have a relaxed stroll and ponder, while another interesting site to explore is the nearby Kabul Zoo, unfamed by the story of Marjan the lion, who was severely injured by the Taliban insurgency, subsequently memorialized by a statue marking the entrance to the menagerie.

The city itself hustles and bustles every day, evident by the hectic morning and afternoon traffic, the numerous street bazaars where you can find just about everything and the smoke cocktail of barbecue and cars fumes.
While Kabul has its own charm, it’s a frenetic city in so many aspects, whose residents and visitors often choose to venture out into the countryside during the weekends, attempting to have a break from Kabul’s constant noise and pollution.

Located in the southern part of the city, Darul Aman palace is one of the symbols of Kabul. After being left in ruins for many years, it’s finally being restored into its original shape and style.

photography by: Monika Szczygielska

Getaway Destinations

Nestled at the outskirts of Kabul are the Qargha Lake and the nearby town of Paghman, and while the former is famous for superb restaurants, small theme park and being a magnet for swimmers and rowers, the latter was used to be a getaway refuge for the past rulers of the Afghan capital.
Surrounded by hills, Paghman is situated on a higher altitude relative to Kabul, making it slightly cooler, temperature-wise. Interestingly, the city was partially inspired by European architectural style, reflected in the myriads of classically designed buildings and structures, one of which is the jaw-dropping replica of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Strolling in Paghman might feel like visiting Paris. The center of town is home to the local version of Arc de Triomphe and numerous buildings inspired by European architectural style.

photography by: Monika Szczygielska

Hometown of a Hero

Kabul is merely the starting point for travelers in Afghanistan, as the country has far more to offer beyond its capital.
Revered by nature lovers as a charming natural jewel, Panjsher Valley is famous for being the birthplace of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a national hero who led a guerrilla war against the Soviets, and later the Taliban. Reachable by just a two hour drive from Kabul, Panjsher can easily serve as a one-day trip destination, while the curvy road from the capital is breathtaking by its own right, providing stunning views of the surrounding snowy mountain peaks.
Roughly at midway between Kabul and main city of Panjsher, Bazaarak, lies a graveyard of Russian tanks and other armed vehicles, where vast amount of rusting wreckage was collected and dumped following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, ultimately left in that field, guarded by the national army.
The most outstanding highlight in Panjsher besides the surrounding natural scenery is the mausoleum of Massoud, where the main celebration of Shah Masood’s Day (9th September) takes place every year.

The mausoleum of one of Afghanistan’s most admired heroes, Ahmad Shah Massoud, constructed on a hill, from which the entire Pnajsher Valley and the nearby mountains are marvelously visible.

photography by: Monika Szczygielska

Buddha’s Land

You can’t visit Afghanistan without traveling to the mountainous province of Bamyan, at the country’s geographical heart. Listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, Bamyan is accessible by a 6 hour drive or 30 minute flight from Kabul to its main city, which unsurprisingly shares the same name, Bamyan.
Bamyan is formerly home to two giant Buddha statues, notoriously blew up by the Taliban in 2001, leaving two empty large niches. The site is also pierced by dozens of small caves, deemed as the meditation place for monks during the era, when this area was predominantly Buddhist.

Tucked away twenty kilometers downward from the Buddha niches is another ancient site called Zuhak City (The Red City), once a town of 3,000 people, Zuhak served as a stronghold, overlooking and guarding the Bamyan basin, eventually razed in the siege of Bamyan in 1221, when Genghis Khan army invaded Afghanistan, resulting in a large scale slaughter of the local people. It’s commonly believed that in the aftermath of the carnage and annihilation of the local Afghani population, Genghis Khan repopulated the area with his own troops, who ultimately became the ancestors of the modern-day Hazara people, an ethnic group distinguishable by their Mongolian facial features.

The stunning views of the cliffs of Bamyan, dominated by the empty niche, where once the enormous Buddha statue stood, prior to its destruction by the Taliban in 2001.

photography by: Monika Szczygielska

The Hidden Gem of Afghanistan

One and a half hours away from Bamyan, Band-e-Amir is Afghanistan’s first national park, created in 2009, it consists of a series of six blue lakes, separated from each other by natural dams. Being one of a kind, with very few similar places throughout the world, it attracts thousands of tourists every year, some of whom probably watched the Bollywood film “Dharmatma” that was partially filmed at the park during the 1970’s.
The best way to travel to Band-e-Amir is by having an overnight stay in one of the local accommodation options, as it gives you much more time to explore the area’s myriads of lovely sites.
The park’s beauty culminates during wintertime, when the lakes and waterfalls freeze, resulting in a spectacular sight to behold and awe at, furthermore, the nearby ski resort provides an excellent opportunity for the winter-sports enthusiasts among us to enhance their sliding skills.

It’s also possible to rent a boat or a water-bicycle, chilling out at the crystal-clear waters of Band-e-Amir’s lakes.

photography by: Monika Szczygielska

Stupa in the Middle of Nowhere

When heading further north from Kabul, crossing the famous Salang Pass on the way to Mazar-e-Sharif in the province of Samangan, you’ll come across an unusual place with historical significance called “Takhte-e-Rostam”, where a massive rock is carved into a Buddhist stupa.
Constructed between the 3rd to 4th centuries, what makes it so utterly unique is that this stupa is technically underground, while from an outside perspective one can only see the top of it, but the closer you get, the illusion fades away.
It’s possible to reach the bottom of the stupa and even climb to the top, yet extra caution is constantly needed in every step. Remarkably, the stupa has a carved water storage facility, originally used as a water reservoir for the harsh months of the summer, whose extremely dry conditions require considerable amounts of water to survive. Suffice to say that nowadays, people use much more modern tanks, leaving the stupa’s carved one empty and redundant.
Takhte-e-Rostam is located only two kilometers from the main city of Haibak, the central city of Samangan, which is short distance away from the main Kabul – Mazar highway.

The mysterious and interesting Buddhist site, Takhte-e-Rostam, located on the dry lands of Samangan, making it one of the truly undiscovered places in Afghanistan.

photography by: Monika Szczygielska

Blue Colored City

Roughly 1.5 hour drive north of Takht-e-Rostam, Mazar-e-Sharif is Afghanistan’s fourth largest city, historically important for being the resting place of Ali, the cousin of Prophet Mohammed. Whereas the majority of the Muslims don’t accept this theory, the tomb of Ali is believed to be located in the city center, more specifically at its most iconic place, the Blue Mosque.
Hundreds of people flock to the site every day, offering prayers, visiting the shrine or simply hang around the mosque area, where street hawkers selling ice-cream or snacks.
Interestingly, the locals claim that the famous hand-made milk ice cream called “sheer yakh” was invented in Mazar-e-Sharif, evident by the incalculable number of ice cream parlors all over the city. Sheer yakh is made in a special pot, filled with milk and cooled by ice. Manual pressing and turning the pot upside-down eventually freezes and thicken the milk, transforming it into a gelato.

The picturesque Blue Mosque of Mazar-e-Sharif, believed to be the place where Ali, Prophet’s Muhammad’s cousin is buried. During daytime the place is crowded with people while in the evening, it’s being illuminated with blue lights.

photography by: Monika Szczygielska

The Town of Poetry and Religions

Located around 25 kilometers from Maza-e-Sharif, the town of Balkh, called Bactria in ancient Greek, is the historical center of Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. This place is known in the Buddhist world because of two monks, the first lay disciples of Buddha, which over their remains two stupas were constructed.
The Chinese monk Xuanzang, who visited Balkh in the 7th century, described the place as a Buddhist epicenter, populated by a large number of monks while also being dominated by many stupas and monasteries, one of which was later converted into a Zoroastrian temple, ultimately destroyed by Genghis Khan’s army in 1220, along with the rest of the city.

Balkh is well-renowned not only by its turbulent history, but also because of the many poets who were born here, most notably Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet who is usually associated with Iran.
Another honored key-figure of Balkh was Rabi’a Balkhi, considered as the first female Persian poet in the history, who following an affair, was locked in the basement by her brother, where she strikingly wrote her most famous poem on the walls with her own blood.

Cultural Diversity

Bordering neighboring Uzbekistan, Balkh province has a large population of Uzbek people, one of 14 ethnic groups in Afghanistan, mentioned both in the country constitution and in the national anthem, with the largest one being the Pashtuns, then Tajiks and Hazaras.
Every ethnicity tends to be concentrated in one region throughout the country, while Kabul serves as the melting pot of all Afghanis, regardless of their ancestry.
Central Afghanistan, with Bamyan being its largest city, as aforementioned, is predominantly populated by Hazaras, whereas their land is also known as Hazarajat.
The northern parts of the country are populated by Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz people, while south and east regions are mostly inhabited by Pashtuns.

Afghanistan is also home to an area, which up until the end of the 19th century was called Kafiristan, directly translated as the land of the infidels, where the locals gradually converted their religion from Animism to Islam. Nowadays, the province was renamed “Nuristan”, or the land of the light, yet people there still vary a lot from the rest of the Afghani nation. Distinguishable by much lighter complexion, often accompanied by green or blue eyes and blond hair, their facial features are commonly attributed to Alexander the Great invasion to Afghanistan in 330 BC.
Nuristan is one of the most isolated regions in Afghanistan, where many villages are still vastly disconnected from the rest of the world, accessible only by foot. The province lies in the slopes of Hindu-Kush mountain range, traversing the entire country, from the Badakhshan province in the northeast to the central plains of Hazarajat.

The ancient mosque in the center of Balkh, still featuring the magnificent blue tiles.

photography by: Monika Szczygielska

Cut off from the Civilization

Considered as one of Afghanistan’s most popular travel destinations, Wakhan Corridor is part of Badakhshan, cut off from the rest of the country for more than 6 months during winter time, while even at the summer, the only way of getting there is by a virtually empty and unpaved road.
The travelers who come here often hire a guide accompanied by a horse or donkey, covering the distance from the last closest large city, Ishkashim, to the end of the valley, while others enter the valley from Tajikistan due to the unstable situation on the way from Kabul to Badakhshan. It usually takes a couple of weeks to thoroughly explore Wakhan Corridor and entails high costs, yet the wild scenery definitely worth the time consuming and expensive journey.

The valley is mostly populated by Kyrgyz people, whose culture and clothing are completely distinct, as the bulk of them are shepherds and nomads, moving around the corridor in search of pastures for their livestock, while spending the cold winter months in less isolated places. Luckily, the sheer inaccessibility and harsh conditions result in no Taliban activity at the Wakhan Corridor, making the area extremely safe for backpacking and camping, in fact, it’s frequently visited by travelers who wish to experience Afghanistan without the risks of encountering militant insurgency and terror attacks.

Iranian influence in Afghanistan’s “West End”

Afghanistan’s far west is home to a city not to be missed, Herat, as the country’s second largest metropolis is full of history, traditions and culture which represent a different facet of the Afghani nation.
Herat’s location on the plains at the foothills of Hindu Kush mountains makes the weather around the city much warmer in comparison to Kabul or Afghanistan’s northern regions, while its proximity to the Iranian border has been shaping its character for centuries, whether it’s the clothing, architecture, cuisine or language, all of which are far more culturally linked to Iran than in anywhere else throughout the country.

The Marvelous Architecture of Herat

The city of Herat still has many extant historical buildings, of which the Heart Citadel stands out as the most prominent and renowned landmark. Situated on the hill overlooking the city, the citadel is practically an intact massive building, housing a history museum in its indoor parts.

Dominating the city center is the great 800 years old mosque of Herat, where every Friday crowds of devoted adherents flock to the beautiful religious complex to pray, meet and socialize.

The Herat Citadel is the most prominent and historically significant place in Herat. It’s a must-see site for all visitors who travel to this Iranian-influenced city in the western region of Afghanistan.

photography by: Monika Szczygielska

The Intriguing Tradition of Glass-Blowing

Adjacent to Herat Great Mosque is a unique shop, where one-of-a-kind items can be found, most notably blue glass pots and vases. The history of this handicraft is many decades old, dating back to a time in which glass blowers were mixing crushed stones with a glass, giving it the distinct color and structure. Nowadays, more modern methods are being practiced, yet this family of glass blowers remains the only manufacturer throughout the country to carry on with this tradition, while their shop offers far more than just the glorious blue glass, including antiques, old-style instruments and carpets.

The last family which follows this decades-long tradition. From their modest hut, the handmade blown glass items have became a symbol of Herat.

photography by: Monika Szczygielska

Last-Standing Minarets of Herat

Standing along the city’s busy Shahzadegan road, the picturesque Musalla Minarets of Herat outshine almost any other building in the local skyline.
The four minarets are the sole remnant of a madrassa, an Islamic religious school, once covered with blue tiles, none of which survived to these days, yet fortunately the four chimney-like towers still have some marvelous carvings to behold at.
Beside the minarets, Musalla Complex also consists of a former mosque, madrassa and a pair of mausoleums honoring two local key figures, Mir Ali Sher Navai and Sultan Husayn Mirza Bayqara, a renowned city-born poet of Turkic origin and the 15th century ruler of Herat respectively.


Interestingly, like Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat has a widespread tradition of sheer-yakh, the aforementioned artisanal ice-cream, as this scrumptious dessert is available in many flavors throughout the city’s myriad of ice-cream parlors.

The last standing minarets of the former madrasa are a stunning relic of Herat's most prosperous period in history.

photography by: Monika Szczygielska

In the Alleys of Herat

The old town of Herat is a medley of small alleys and mud houses shadowed by its exceedingly turbulent past, conquered by Alexander the Great in 330 BC, the city used to have strong Greek influences until it was razed by the Mongols in 1221 and 1383, ultimately rebuilt by the Timurid Empire, becoming its capital.
Herat strategic location in the crossroad between Asia and Europe played a major role during the times of the Silk Road both commercially and culturally, so much so, that the city’s iconic sites were deemed as models upon which numerous buildings in other predominantly Islamic cities were built.

The artisanal milk ice-cream known as Sheer Yakh, a popular dessert in Herat.

photography by: Monika Szczygielska

Far more cities to visit, sites to see and stories to tell

It’s difficult to overstate Afghanistan’s sheer number of places waiting to be discovered, some of which are challenging to access due to road conditions or lack of security, while others are not sufficiently promoted to become a tourist destination.
Despite its turbulent history and current volatile status, Afghanistan offers a microcosmos of cultures, cuisines, garments, traditions and natural gems, all of which make the country a fascinating place to visit, particularly for travelers who seek to explore authentic places, where the 21st century lifestyle still hasn’t corrupted people’s life.
It seems as if in vast parts of Afghanistan, the time stood still, practically making them a relic of another epoch, where visiting villages feels like traveling back in time, to an era where all houses are built with mud-bricks, food is cooked on a bonfire and donkeys still function as the only mean of transportation.

Despite being a warzone for more than 40 years, Afghanistan is still a nation of warm-hearted and hospitable people, who far more often regard foreigners as guests to cordially welcome rather than as an invading enemy.

About Me

I was born and grew up in Poland, and since 2011 I’m a traveler, hitchhiker and a freelancer. Fond of spicy food, high altitudes and off the beaten path places. Currently based in Afghanistan, where I’m working as an English teacher.

Monika’s Instagram

Monika’s Blog

photography by: Monika Szczygielska