This three part trip includes Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia and can be easily extended to include more destinations at the start and end of the trip!
AsiaIndia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan25 days / February 2020
Highs & Lows
Getting to experience Afghani culture first hand
Security concerns can make certain aspects of the trip a little stressful.
Afghanistan is a destination that can either fill travelers with dread or with excitement. More well known for never ending war than its jaw-droppingly beautiful landscape, incredibly welcoming (and often, insanely attractive) people and mind-boggling diversity, Afghanistan has sadly been mostly overlooked as a tourist destination since its days as part of the overland "hippy trail."
Afghanistan has a lot to offer visitors and while security concerns ARE an issue, reputable tour operators and experienced guides will know how to mitigate your risks. PLEASE NOTE: DO NOT TRAVEL TO AFGHANISTAN ALONE AND ALWAYS USE A GUIDE.
During my trip, I combined an overland border crossing from Delhi to Islamabad via Amritsar and Lahore with a two week guided tour of Afghanistan. I crossed from Afghanistan into Uzbekistan and then continued to Tajikistan. I flew back to India from Dushanbe with a one day layover in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Central Asia is very easy to travel around so this itinerary can easily be extended to include more time there.
I started and ended this trip in Delhi as I was living there at the time. However, for people traveling through India who wish to add Pakistan and Afghanistan to their trip, Delhi is the perfect starting point.
Delhi is a powerhouse of culture and history and a must-visit for anyone traveling through India. Although the city's reputation makes it seem very daunting, the city itself is actually very manageable with an extremely efficient metro system, tons of things to see and mouth-wateringly delicious food to eat.
I recommend spending at least a few days in Delhi before venturing northwest towards Pakistan and enjoying the best of what the city has to offer. I loved going to the Lodhi Gardens and to Humayun's Tomb and could spend hours trying different types of street food there!
Amritsar is the heart of Sikh culture and religion and the city is a must visit for any history/culture buff. The Golden Temple is the highlight of any trip to the city. On my first trip through Amritsar, I visited the Golden Temple numerous times throughout the day to see ceremonies and to take part in langar which is the free meal served at most Sikh temples. Do not be shy about joining in. This is an important part of Sikhism and is a great way to experience the warmth and generosity of their religion.
To better understand the geopolitical history of India, I explored the Partition Museum and Jallianwala Bagh which was the site of a heartbreaking massacre by British troops in 1919. The excellent Partition Museum gives great insight into the division of India and Pakistan and gives you a great framework to understand the animosity between the two countries. Despite reading a lot about the division and what lead to it, I could never fully understand why and how it happened so this was my first stop after the Golden Temple.
My next stop was Jallianwala Bagh. The 1919 massacre is now commemorated in the park where it happened and it is a sobering experience. The park is completely enclosed and it is easy to imagine how terrified people were when guns started firing at them.
I also visited the border closing at the Wagah Border which was certainly a site to see! The pomp and circumstance is unbelievable and it was crazy to think that Pakistan and India are geopolitical enemies when you see their soldiers having what looks to be a dance-off! (Please note: there is no way to do the border crossing AND see the closing ceremony on the same day so you will have to spend an extra night in Amritsar if you want to see it. I highly, highly recommend it!).
The next morning, I hired a tuk tuk to take me back to the Wagah border. I recommend taking a car because it turned out to be a very cold ride!
I arrived at the Wagah Border between India and Pakistan in the early afternoon (double check what time the border is opening before you venture out there) after taking a tuk tuk from Amritsar. I would not recommend this unless it is very hot as it was very, very cold ride out there.
The border crossing was relatively straightforward and I was the only foreigner there at the time. From the immigration checkpoint, I took a bus to the border itself and walk across. I was allowed to take as many photos as I wanted of the empty stadium and of the border itself and then went through immigration on the Pakistan side.
There were tuk tuks and taxis waiting directly at the immigration terminal but I was supposed to be meeting a driver so I walked around 10 minutes to exit the border area. Everyone was very nice and I was even asked if I would like a Pakistani husband!
Lahore is an incredibly interesting city and my main reason for going was to see the Mughal and British architecture which did not disappoint! The city actually feels very similar to Delhi with roughly the same level of chaos and pollution.
I picked up a tuk tuk at the border crossing and asked him to stop at the Mughal Gardens which were on the way to the city center. The gardens themselves weren't spectacular since it was February but it was really interesting to see the similarities between other Mughal gardens I had visited in India.
That night, I got a great sleep at the Rose Hotel and left early the next morning to explore Lahore. I hired the driver from the day before to take me around the city for the day so he was waiting outside to greet me with a huge smile. I visited the Lahore Museum which is set in a gorgeous colonial building and then went to Lahore Fort and the adjacent park. The area is full of awesome things to see so make sure to allow yourself at least a few hours to explore.
Next, we visited a Mughal mausoleum and then headed into Old Lahore where I had a delicious dinner of vegetable curry and roti and strolled around absorbing the colors and sounds of the city.
After a fantastic day, the driver dropped me off at the hotel for another good night sleep.
From Lahore, I took an approximately 5 hour bus ride to Islamabad. Before going, I was told that Islamabad looked more like an American city than a South Asian one and I was really curious to see if that was true!
Turns out that the center of Islamabad really does looks like it could be any small city in Ohio! I spent a few hours walking around in the evening and visited the famous Faisal Mosque.
I only had one night in the city before catching my flight to Kabul which was good because there isn't a huge amount to do in Islamabad. It was a pleasant place though and it gave me a place to prepare for the next part of the trip.
Kabul was a destination that I was incredibly interested to see. Like many people, I grew up hearing about war and devastation but over the years, I also began to meet people who had lived there and loved it. The more I heard about it, the more intrigued I became. Many, many things surprised me in Kabul but what I didn't expect was how much I would like the city!
When I landed in Kabul, my guide picked me up at the airport and took me to the hotel. I had to wait for a few hours until the other person on my tour arrived and soon we were off exploring the city. We visited the main attractions including the Bird Market, Chicken Street, Babur Shah's Garden (a Mughal mausoleum), the Children's Circus, Sakhi Shah-e Mardan Shrine, the Landmine Museum and the National Museum. We also took a day trip to the Panjshir Valley which was stunning.
Since many of the roads in Afghanistan aren't safe for foreigners to travel on, we flew in and out of Kabul to visit other cities and used it as a base. Each time we arrived, I found myself more and more excited to be back there. The people were incredibly friendly and overall, the city is very developed and open. Friends and families filled the streets and elderly people sat and watched the world go by.
In terms of security, I felt safe most of the time. There is a huge military and police presence and there are frequent checkpoints and cement barricades to prevent bombings and attacks. We drove through the streets in a normal car and people were either friendly or they simply ignored us like people would in most big cities.
Herat is famous for its beautiful Jama Mosque and Citadel which some people claim was used by Alexander the Great and I was extremely excited to go there.
We arrived at the airport in the evening after our flight from Kabul and headed directly to the hotel . Over the next two days, we explored the city and visited Jama/Blue Mosque, the Citadel, Tomb of Jami, Minarets of Sultan Baiqara and the Military Museum. We even got to visit a local tea shop where old men spent hours talking about their days. Herat is known for the blue burqas that you see throughout Afghanistan and although I peeked my head into one of the shops, I wasn't quite brave enough to try one on at that point.
Although Herat has a lot to offer tourists, I didn't feel completely comfortable in the city. The women were dressed extremely modestly, even by Afghani standards, and I felt very conspicuous. I enjoyed my time there but was happy to get back to Kabul where women seemed to have significantly more freedom.
Bamyan was brought into the world's attention when their famous Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. However, the region has a fascinating history and has long been the meeting point of many different cultures. As a major history buff, I really, really wanted to go there. After reading a lot of trip reports of cancelled flights from previous travelers, I was a bit worried about flying from Kabul to Bamyan and was very happy to learn that the road was currently safe enough to drive.
The drive to Bamyan was beautiful and took around 4 hours. Once in Bamyan, we visited Dragon Valley, the City of Screams, the famous Buddha niches and an elementary school located in a cave. The town itself is basically one long street of shops but it was still fascinating to walk around and explore.
Bamyan is one of the most liberal areas of Afghanistan and the only place that you can walk around without a head scarf on. It is a must visit spot for any trip to Afghanistan
Mazar was my last stop on my Afghanistan tour and by that point, I was feeling a bit more relaxed about my surroundings. We arrived late in the evening and over the next few days, we visited the Blue Mosque, which was absolutely stunning, and took a day trip to see the Jinnah Gardens and the gorgeous Samangam Valley. While Mazar didn’t have a huge amount to offer tourists, a trip into the valley makes up for the lack of touristy sites. Steep cliffs hug the side of the road as you drive through rock crevices and I was blown away by the Buddhist ruins there. I even got sung to by a famous local musician while there!
We also went to see a match at the Buzkashi Stadium where men basically play polo with a dead goat. I was originally against doing this but eventually decided to go knowing that it was an important part of the culture. I got a seat at the front of the stadium and a very patient man next to me tried to translate what was actually happening. Needless to say, I am still pretty unclear of what the rules are!
We also went to see a cock fight. I expected to see a horrific display of savagery but instead, we sat in a tiny arena and watched men repeatedly push their chickens towards each other and then quickly pull them apart if they saw things getting to violent. The chickens were then wrapped in blankets and coddled. All around me, men were making bets on which chicken would be the winner. It was certainly a very interesting thing to experience!
As we drove away from Mazar to the Uzbekistan border, I felt myself getting more and more sad to be saying goodbye to Afghanistan. I desperately hope that the security situation will improve there and that more tourists decide to make the trip.
Termez is a nice little town on the border of Afghanistan. It doesn't have a huge amount of things to do and my initial plan was to take a train from there to Samarkand. By the time I got to the train station, it was too late to buy a ticket so instead, I found a cheap hotel to stay the night in. I was ready for a chance to relax a bit and spent the evening drinking beer in the hotel restaurant. After a quick walk through town the next morning, I took a shared taxi to Samarkand.
Uzbekistan has exploded as a tourist destination and it is easy to understand why. A stunning array of monuments scattered across the country, welcoming people and well-developed infrastructure make it easy to travel around. I originally visited Uzbekistan in 2015 and fell in love with the country and was delighted to see that I could combine another trip to Samarkand with my Afghanistan trip.
I arrived in Samarkand in the afternoon and checked into my hostel. I headed back out again to see the Registan at sunset and then headed to the Pivo Street (beer street) where I was able to get very delicious beer for less than $1 a pint. It is located right next to the main brewery of the city and is a short (and cheap) taxi ride from the Registan area.
The next morning, I headed out early to visit Tamerlane’s Mausoleum, the Shah-i-Zinda Ensemble and to go into the Registan (there is a fence up around the complex so if you want to see it close up, you need to buy a ticket). I went back multiple times throughout the day to get photos of the buildings in different light. All of the buildings feature sparkly blue and green tiles, onion shaped domes and exquisite tiling and the style is very similar to what you find in Iran and Afghanistan.
Overall, the city is very clean and well-organized and it is easy to see the major sights in one day. Outside of the main touristy area, there are well-maintained streets similar to most Soviet cities and there are some nice cafes to check out. Taxis are cheap and the drivers are really helpful. I was able to show one man a photo of a place I had visited 5 years earlier and he was able to drop me off at the exact same spot!
Although I originally planned to stay one night in Bukhara, my unexpected overnight stay and a very limited train schedule caused me to visit Bukhara as a day trip. In 2015 I spent a few nights there and had an amazing time and was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t try and revisit some of the spots from my previous trip.
However, even on a slightly hectic short day trip, I was able to fit in most of Bukhara’s major sights and spent a few hours walking down the streets in the old city. Bukhara was once a stop on the Silk Road and is full of tombs, madrassas and minarets and walking through it is like stepping back in time. The city center is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and I was really pleasantly surprised to see the amount of investment that had been made to the old buildings.
Dushanbe was one of the capital cities that I missed on my first trip through Central Asia due to their nightmarish visa process so I jumped at the chance to add the city onto the end of my trip after finding out that you can now get an e-visa.
While most people go to Tajikistan to travel along the Panmure highway, both of my trips have sadly been in the winter months when the highway is inaccessible. Rather than save it for next time like I did before, I figured that I may as well cross another country off of my list and get to see Dushanbe at least.
From Samarkand, I took a private taxi to the border, crossed over on foot and then got a shared taxi from the border to a town called Pendzhikent where there are ruins of an ancient city just a short walk from the city center. I visited the ruins and the nearby museum which were both very interesting and then caught another shared taxi to Dushanbe. The drive there was beautiful with snow covered mountains hugging the sides of the road and interesting shops to stop at along the way.
We finally arrived in Dushanbe in the evening and I took a quick walk through town before getting an early night sleep.
The next morning, I headed out again to check out the National Museum and the city’s old department store (these fascinating stores can be found throughout post-Soviet countries). After another long walk through the city and a quick visit to Radaki Park, I went to the Archaeology Museum which is located in an old crumbling building and has some incredibly interesting exhibits.
After the museum, I made my way to the city’s brewery and spent the evening chatting with locals and drinking more delicious beer before heading home to bed..
The next morning, I was up bright and early to catch my flight to Almaty.
I had already visited Almaty once in 2015 and used it as a base to explore Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. I loved the city so jumped at the chance to have a one night layover there on my way back from Dushanbe to Delhi.
Almaty is a very pleasant city with a good variety of food options (essential when you have been traveling around Central Asia for awhile and can't possibly eat another potato) and a large Russian bath complex. The city itself doesn't have a huge amount of tourist attractions but is the perfect place to stay when you need some R & R. After a trip through 3 countries, this was exactly what I needed!
I arrived at the airport in the early evening and took a local bus to my hotel. The bus driver did not sell tickets and luckily, a lovely woman who spoke perfect English helped me buy a digital one and even told me where to get off the bus.
I walked from my hostel to the Russian baths and spent the evening jumping between the various steam and sauna rooms and got an amazing coffee body scrub. I got an Uber back to the hostel and the next morning, I headed back to the airport where I got my flight back to Delhi.
Q & A
What would you have changed?
I would have allowed more time for Pakistan and tried to time the trip for when the Panmure Highway was accessible.
Anything go wrong during the trip?
It was pretty challenging to get the Pakistan visa despite the major improvements in their e-visa processing. Luckily, I did manage to get he visa but I didn't have enough time to explore the country properly.
I am vegetarian and most of the region is pretty meat-heavy. Be prepared to eat lots and lots of bread!
Tips you would give a friend?
If you have the opportunity to travel Pakistan and Afghanistan, do it! Although Afghanistan does have some unique risk factors, a guided tour helps mitigate the risks. Accidents, crime and terrorism can happen almost everywhere in the world so this alone should not deter you from going. The security situation does change so be sure to check the most recent updates and find a guide that has great recommendations from recent travelers.
Pack lots of layers. Thin, long sleeve shirts are perfect when you need to cover your arms and sarongs are useful as head scarves and can even be worn as a normal scarf in case it gets chilly!
In Pakistan, you can travel by tuk tuk throughout Lahore and by bus from Lahore to Islamabad. Low-cost trains connect most large cities in Central Asia making it extremely easy to get around.
Always, always check the most up to date information on visas in any country that you go to in Central and South Asia. It has become much easier over the years to travel there and most countries are now visa free or offer e-visas.
I booked the Afghanistan tour directly with the tour guide and paid cash once I arrived in Kabul. For Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, I booked my hotels using Booking.com.