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Technology: How to Get Around

Intercity taxis

The main way to travel between Afghan cities is by a shared taxi. The technology of that is quite simple.

On the morning of departure you should come to a taxi station as early as possible. It takes six–twelve hours to get from one major city to another, so it pays to depart very early. Six o'clock in the morning is the time when everything is at full motion at the stations, and you should try to get there by that hour.

A taxi departs when it is full. Usually, only one car is being filled up at any given moment for any specific destination. Meaning that the drivers do not fight for the passengers, and you will not end up in a situation where five cars have one passenger each and wait for another 20 to come. You will usually wait 10–20 minutes for your taxi to fill up.

The prices are fixed, there is no need to bargain, and tourists are practically never cheated. In any case it is better to learn in advance what the cost is — for example, in your hotel since prices for major destinations are usually well-known to anybody who lives in that particular city.

You pay on arrival. However, sometimes the driver will want to buy gasoline while on the road, and he may ask for some of the money right there. This is normal.

There are a few nuances in the price system.

My jeep from Mazar-i-Sharif to Herat. The driver changes a wheel under the car. Notice a girl in a blue burqa in the trunk.

Depending on the make of the car, the front passenger seat takes one or two persons. The back seat always takes three persons. Therefore, a car can take four or five passengers. You may think that the first variant is more convenient. But there you have to pay 25% more than you would pay in a five-passenger car. Because the cost of gasoline and the driver's salary are same in both cases, but there are fewer paying persons in a four-passenger car.

So, it makes sense to take the four-passenger taxi only if you get the front seat there, and only if you want to pay 25% more. Sitting in the back in such car is pointless — you would ride in the same conditions as in a cheaper car but pay 25% more.

Actually, the prices are so low that I am telling you about all this only so that you understand the system. Otherwise you may take the front seat in a car that normally has two people there, and the locals may assume you want to ride there alone, and then in the end you will have to pay double the price. For women, in particular, this situation is practically guaranteed, but more about that later.

Therefore, the first thing you should do if you take the front seat is to ask the driver or people around what kind of a car this is. If this is a two-passengers-in-the-front car, then it is better to move to the back seat if it is still available, or skip this car otherwise and take the next one. Because spending 10 hours on the front seat with somebody else — be it your friend or a local guy — can be difficult, especially so on the Afghan roads.

Alternatively, you can pay double the price and ride there alone. But this is not economical. Or friendly to other people in the car. Of course, you can pay for all five seats and take the whole car for yourself — and sometimes you will be offered that, — but that would be even more bizarre. The only situation where something like this makes sense is when there are three of you, and it is a long run, and you want to stop a few times to take pictures in interesting places — in this case the three of you can pay for five seats and ride in comfort.

So, the best seat in a five-passenger car is at a window in the back. In a four-passenger car that would be the front seat.

When the seat price is clear to you, you need to ask about any additional fees for your backpack. Some drivers ask for half the seat price to put your luggage in the trunk. There is some ground to that because some cars take extra passengers and put them in the trunk, especially women. However, taxis the kind you take do not really do that, and you should flatly refuse any additional charges and threaten to go to another car. That immediately solves the question in most cases. It is interesting that the locals usually do not have any luggage at all; thus the attempts to charge foreigners extra money for their huge backpacks.

Well, these are all the nuances for guys. It is more complicated for women. An Afghan will not sit next to an unknown woman. That would be an equivalent of putting a woman on your knees in the Western world. Perhaps, actually, many people would like to do just that, but it is plainly inappropriate in Afghanistan. And it has nothing to do with women being foreign — that is why the local ones are put in the trunk, to make everybody happy.

Therefore for a single woman the choice is clear: to pay double and ride alone in the front. For two women there is also one variant only: to pay for three seats in the back. For a woman with a male companion it would be the back window seat for her and the middle seat for him.

That is why if a single woman shows up at a taxi station, it will be assumed by default that she wants to sit in the front alone and pay double. And this may lead to problems on arrival if she was not aware of the system. And she can not even say before the departure that she does not mind if someone else sits next to her: she does not, but everybody else does. Do not try this, since it will only cause problems for everybody.

Minibuses

Minibuses depart from the same stations as the taxis. They are slightly cheaper, but this economy is not sensible. Minibuses are stuffed with passengers, and sometimes windows do not open. They are significantly slower because they have less maneuverability and have to slow down to navigate between the bomb craters on the road. A minibus makes sense only if you are really on the budget, or if it is the main transportation mode on a short route.

Jeeps

From Mazar-i-Sharif to Herat through Maimana you can get by a jeep only because the road is completely unpaved. The run takes three days, 12 hours of riding per day, lots of adventures, and I liked it a lot.

Toyota Land Cruiser takes five passengers. Depending on whether there are additional seats in the trunk area, it can be one person on the front seat, two on the back seat, and two more on the additional seats, or it can be two on the front seat and three on the back one. Naturally, the first variant is much better on such a long trip. Unfortunately, whatever you are promised at the ticket office, at 4 a.m. on the morning of departure it can be something different. You can refuse to go, of course, but this will be quite inconvenient for other passengers and the driver, since you really have to depart at 4 a.m., and waiting for the ticket office to open at nine means that nobody departs at all today.

Planes

Ariana makes daily flights from Kabul (09:00) to Herat (10:15) and back (11:15) for about 60 dollars, but this is likely to be the “local” price — dear foreign guests are charged double on all internal flights by Ariana. Does it make sense to fly? From Kabul to Herat you can get by a taxi in two days for 25 dollars, plus food and one night in a hotel. Also, flights are sometimes cancelled if not enough tickets have been sold. Yes, you can take a plane for fun, but otherwise it is pointless in a tourist trip.

There are also flights from Kabul (08:00) to Mazar-i-Sharif (08:35) — and back, I guess, although Ariana does not disclose that in its schedule, — each Tuesday for 30 dollars for the locals. When compared to 10 dollars in a taxi on the best road in the country, it is equally pointless.

KamAir flies from Kabul to Herat — $50, Jalalabad — $12, Kandahar — $30, and Mazar-i-Sharif — $30. There are also flights from Herat to Mazar-i-Sharif — $40 — and Jalalabad — $54. KamAir also services some other secondary cities. These prices are one way, and round trips are double that. It is not clear if the foreigners have to pay two times more.

Esoteric variants

Newspapers whining about tourism in Afghanistan often say that tourists impose themselves onto UN/NGO buses, causing irreparable harm to all good that is left in humankind. I have never seen these buses and have never heard about them from the locals, thus missing a chance to devilishly hurt these philanthropic giants of spirit.

Sometimes people mention “intercity buses” in their travelogs. Again — I have not seen any buses whatsoever on the roads. Perhaps, they mean minibuses, which are plenty, but in my understanding a minibus is not a bus.

Hitchhiking is possible in theory. But most vehicles are completely stuffed and simply have no space for more people. Also, many of them carry people and goods for money and will not take you for free. The UN/NGO cars are empty and do not charge anything but will never stop for you.

Equally, it is better to avoid warlords' vehicles. They are always happy to give you a lift — and food and shelter, — but remember about the possibility of being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade that was not meant for you.

As for renting a car, you can make the following calculations. For a commercial jeep from Mazar-i-Sharif to Herat five passengers pay 30 dollars per day in total. The amount, obviously, covers gasoline, road expenses, vehicle amortization, and leaves sufficient profit for the driver. Therefore, if you have a group of people, you should be able to rent a Toyota Land Cruiser with a driver for about same money. You need a jeep if you need a car because the main idea of having a car is to go to some non-mainstream destinations, and roads to those places are most likely quite bad.

What I mean by renting a car is asking around and finding someone who has a car. There are no rental agencies, and people who target the journalists and the UN/NGO people offer vehicles for crazy money, so there is no point in approaching someone who actually offers to rent a car. You need a person who does not do that normally but can do that after thinking about your offer. Professional drivers who run preset long-distance routes may go with you to custom destinations, for example.

Local transportation

This will be taxis and motorickshaws. Here you have your classical drivers who are happy to overcharge a foreigner. You should pay about a dollar for five kilometers in a taxi and two times less in a motorickshaw.

Vehicles are stopped as anywhere else in the world — by waving them down. You should agree on the price before you enter a vehicle. Most drivers speak their native language only, so you should either know names of well-known places near your destination, or to ask somebody in advance to write a name on paper in Dari or Pashto. If you do not know how the local numbers sound, bargain by showing bills for the amount you offer and by acting stunned and offended by any counteroffer.

In reality, within a city you need a taxi to get between a long-distance taxi station and a hotel only. Practically everywhere these two places are too far from each other to walk between them on foot. In all other aspects the cities are geared towards people who walk. Kabul has a public bus system.

For sightseeing trips outside the cities it is simpler to hire a local taxi for a few hours. You will have to bargain hard. Keep in mind that in Jalalabad a taxi for six hours cost me 17 dollars, and in Mazar-i-Sharif — 10 dollars for three hours. Of course, these prices are not for driving all the time — a taxi will get you to some place, you will walk around there for some time, then go somewhere else, and so on. This is why you should explain to a driver in details where exactly you want to go and for how long, so that he can estimate how much gasoline he will actually burn.

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