Classic Routes

KABUL EXPLORER One Week

It's easy to get swept up in the hectic atmosphere of Kabul (p79), a city struggling through the birth pangs of recovery. There's an enormous amount to check out - the battered but recently reopened Kabul Museum, the wonderfully restored Babur's Gardens and the OMAR Landmine Museum. Take time to experience some of the more traditional corners too, such as the birdsellers of Ka Faroshi and the hustle of Man-dayi Market along Kabul River. If you're lucky, you might be in time for a kite-flying festival or a winter game of buzkashi - Afghan polo, played with a dead goat. A walk along the old city walls can bring some welcome relief from Kabul's infamous bad air.

For real refreshment, get out of the city. A short drive north across the Shomali Plain will bring you to the traditional mountain village of Istalif (pI07). The village is famous for its rustic pottery - a great souvenir. Don't forget to stop to buy sweet grapes from roadside sellers on the Shomali Plain. Carrying along the same road, switch northeast as the mountains rise to enter the Panjshir Valley (pLLO). Panjshir was home to the legendary mujaheddin commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who never allowed it to be captured by the Soviets or the Taliban; his grave lies halfway up the valley.

Closer to home, Qargha Lake (pL08) is a popular picnic getaway for Kabulis. You can even tee off here for a round at the Kabul Golf Club. The damaged model village of Paghman (pL08) is nearby - battered but green, and with tremendous views that are worth a detour.

If you're short of time or just based in the capital, this itinerary offers a series of day trips to get you out of the city and give you a quick taste of Afghanistan at large.

HIPPY TRAIL Two to Three Weeks

Enter Afghanistan by crossing the Iranian border near Mashhad and head to the old Silk Road city of Herat (pl32). There's an enormous amount to see and do here, from taking in the views from the imposing Citadel to admiring the fabulous mosaic tiling of the Friday Mosque.

After a few days, strike northwest - by air rather than land, as the latter remains a tricky security prospect. At Mazar-e Sharif (pl48) the blue domes of the Shrine of Hazrat Ali mark Afghanistan's holiest site. The ruins of once-mighty Balkh (p 155) are a stone's throw away, with crumbling city walls and ancient mosques.

As you leave Mazar-e Sharif, the plains gradually rise into the Hindu Kush mountains. Cross the Salang Pass (pll2), the main route between north and south Afghanistan. Although the road is good, the traffic is crazy, so you'll be pleased to arrive in the capital, Kabul (p79). This is a city with lots to experience, from Mughal gardens to mine museums, as well as Chicken Street - one of the hubs of the Hippy Trail in the 1970s. Kabul's lively restaurant scene will also make a change from the usual diet of kebabs and rice.

From Kabul, allow several days to make a side trip to Bamiyan (pi 14). The Taliban-destroyed Buddha statues have left a yawning hole, but the valley is still one of the most beautiful in Afghanistan. It's a short drive from here to the gorgeous blue lakes of Band-e Amir (pl22).

Returning to Kabul, you can head for the Pakistan border. Leave Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass (pl85), an iconic travel experience that has been the gateway to the Indian subcontinent throughout the centuries.

If you have a few weeks to spare, this version of the overland itinerary is the perfect introduction to Afghanistan, taking in the best of its cities, scenery and culture.

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