People

The Afghan people are linguistically and ethnically mixed. This is due to the fact that the country sits astride trade and invasion routes, not to mention its location in the center of Asia.

Afghanistan is considered to be a country made up of minorities since no group holds the distinction of being the majority, in either the ethnic or linguistic aspects. There are various ethnic groups in the country, with the Pashtuns as the largest. Other smaller groups include the Tajiks (second-largest), the Hazaras and Uzbeks (third) and the Turkmen, Baluch, Nuristani, Wakhis, Aimak, Pashai, Brahui, Kyrgyz, and Arabs.

Geography

As previously mentioned, Afghanistan is a landlocked country bordered by Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and China. It is also notable for its mountain ranges with the Hindu Kush as the highest point within the country. There are many mountain passes, major rivers and smaller waterways in Afghanistan.

As can be expected, the climate in Afghanistan embraces the extremes of freezing cold and blistering heat, all within a limited period of time. When coupled with fiery dust storms and intense wind, it is no wonder that the Afghans are one of the hardiest people in the world.

But of course, not all of Afghanistan presents an unwelcome climate. Cities like Heart, Kabul and Kandahar generally have cooler climates than the rest of the country.

History

Due to its geostrategic location, Afghanistan was settled, invaded, ruined and rebuilt by various people coming from all parts of the world. There were the farming communities 50,000 years ago, followed by various civilizations and empires like the Indus Valley civilization, Greco-Bactrian Empire and the Kushan Empire. And then there were the Islamic and Mongolian invasions, the Hotaki Dynasty and the Durrani Empire.

In the 20th century, there were the civil wars, the reign of the Shahs, Daoud's Republic and the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, the Soviet occupation and subsequent overthrow. And then the totalitarian regime of the Taliban came along, who were then ousted by the US and its allies. In October 2004, the first-ever elected president was chosen by the Afghan people. To this day, the struggle for democracy and freedom continues.

Famous Attraction

For the average tourist, positive and negative emotions war with each other when Afghanistan is experienced to the hilt, or at least its more sanitized version since portions of the war-torn country are still strictly off-limits to non-combatants.

To see a few of the tourist attractions that best symbolize the beauty of Afghanistan and its people, visit Herat for its ancient buildings and medieval street plans as well as for its rich culture reminiscent of the Timurid Empire. For the shopaholics, the town of Andkhoi is the place to be for textiles and carpets.

And of course, there is Kabul. It shocks and excites, frustrates and inspires locals and tourists alike, such that there is a sense of a strange brotherhood among its inhabitants. There are new buildings replacing the ruined structures, new cars plying the road, new shops and restaurants that cater to the new rich in the country and a new Western-influenced culture slowly emerging.

Be prepared, however, for the wrenching signs of poverty all around the city. Beggars in all shapes and sizes loiter in the streets begging for alms and a cause for more traffic jams.

Nightlife

When in Afghanistan, do as the Afghans do during the night, especially noting that if you are a woman-go to sleep. Although there are nightspots in Kabul, these are heavily guarded because of attacks made upon the premises. Alcohol is served but quite expensive.

If you do decide to check out the night scene, only do so with a heavily-armed escort to and from the venue. Travelers are even advised to wear a camouflage uniform, flack vest and a ballistic helmet when going out at night to places other than Western-controlled night spots. And don't make the mistake of hopping from bar to bar, because this is not America even if America is the latest peacekeeper.

Culture

Due to its multicultural and multilingual character, Afghan culture is marked by diversity across geographical areas and tribal clans. Visits to the Kabul Museum allow for insights into the nation's arts and culture while its World heritage Sites - the Valley of Bamiyan and the Minaret of Jam - provide glorious glimpses into its architecture.

The Afghan culture is largely influenced by Islam. As such, expect to wear head coverings in public and to experience gender segregation as well. Furthermore, Afghan societies put great emphasis on polite behavior especially from women and children.

Although bilingualism is common, English is not often heard. Instead, tourists must learn to speak a few words of Dari and Pashto to be able to get around more easily.

Cuisine

For the international tourists, the eating establishments in Kabul are a microcosm of the population. There are American fast-foods and European-based restaurants present, although the prices can be quite steep.

For a taste of Afghan food, however, it is best to befriend an Afghan family and be treated to authentically-prepared Afghan cuisine. Be prepared for cereal-based food - rice, barley, maize and wheat - as well as for fine wine.