Afghanistan – Crossing the border from Tajikistan

Afghanistan – Crossing the border from Tajikistan

Traveling to Dushanbe, Tajikistan
The morning of my travels to Afghanistan begin with a jarring message – my local contact who was supposed to meet me at the border was no longer available due to some sort of emergency. This was an interesting mental twist in a journey during the preceding months where I found myself slowly building up the courage to independently travel through Afghanistan. A place where 20 years of news coverage was rarely positive, and just 2 years after the “Fall of Kabul” the world had watched panicked thousands descend upon Kabul airport hoping to catch an evacuation flight ahead of the approaching Taliban forces. I was about to go there?!

A range of questions and emotions flowed over me, and I pondered whether I should cancel my trip altogether. I hurriedly reached out to many of my contacts in the country. Something in me, perhaps call it pure “travel momentum” pushed me forward and I headed to the Amsterdam airport without a plan and boarded a flight to Istanbul. KLM upgraded me to business!

Maybe this was a positive sign? In Istanbul as I waited on my connecting flight to Dushanbe, I spent some time in the IGA Lounge (a priority pass lounge) which seems like a second home in recent years. The lounge is massive, with all the normal staples, plus a pool table, and even has its own duty free store. From Istanbul I boarded a Turkish flight to Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

Passport control in Dushanbe was easy, and 5 minutes later I was searching for an ATM. Spoiler – none work. Despite literally dozens of ATMs, everywhere – none of them accept foreign debit cards. Fortunately I was staying at the Salvo Hotel, only $18 and a short 25 minute walk from the airport. On the way I passed what I can only guess was hundreds of non working ATMs, in groups by the dozen. Mocking me. I entered a supermarket and bought a small bottle of vodka and some snacks. Since I had no cash, the supermarket owner swiped my credit card charging it 10 cents to verify whether it worked, and then gave me 10 cents. It happened so quickly, without asking, I laughed. The hotel Salvo had a nice breakfast in theory – though we had to wait for the power to turn on. The wait for power was too long, and they gave me some yogurt and bread to take away. My driver Nasim arrived on time to take me 4 hours to the Shir Khan Border for $55…but first a stop at the large bank downtown where ATMs supposedly worked. A nice man +992907344349 and +992 90 763 0404. We arrived at the Tajikistan – Afghanistan border at 11:44. From 12 noon to 2 they go out for lunch. They radioed ahead and kept the border open for me. Very nice border guards. From the first stop, you will need to take a taxi for 1$ from the first border checkpoint to the border where your passport is stamped. After getting stamped out of Tajikistan I began the long walk across the Amu Darya river. Sher Khan Bandar Bridge

Afghanistan Border Crossing
I walked alone across the long bridge over the Panj River between the two countries. Military vehicles and watchtowers on both ends reminded me that I wasn’t really alone. At the end of the bridge there is a large gate controlling the entrance into Afghanistan. I had a long walk to ponder the wisdom of my decision to travel through Afghanistan, but I was eager to witness the current state of affairs, learn more about Afghani daily life, and see some of the amazingly beautiful sights we hear far too little about.

I arrived at the gate at the end of the bridge and it was locked. I laughed. “Well that was a good try”. Where was everyone? Was the border closed? Was it just lunch time? I made a clanking noise on the metal gate to get the attention of nearby guards. A Taliban soldier came to the gate but seemed surprised to see me, and wasn’t super interested in opening the gate for me at that time. Fortunately a group of Pakistani travelers arrived several minutes later pouring out of a small van. Now there was a group of us standing in the scorching sun, and the border guard sighed and unlocked the gate, ushering everyone into a small building to the left of the gate. I was officially on Afghanistan ground! The Taliban run the government and the first border guard to see my passport exclaimed, “American? You are the first American to enter Afghanistan at this border with Tajikistan since 2021”. Two years earlier the Taliban had taken over the country, sweeping into power and subsequently creating the Taliban-controlled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Huge changes rippled throughout the country. But before I could witness these changes – I was about to spend the longest, most difficult time entering a country in all my travels.

The highlights? Being asked several times if I was a spy. They thought my job as a logistics analyst was suspect. I mentioned airplanes and then they asked if I was a pilot. A large Taliban soldier took my smartwatch thinking it was a secret recording device. The green flashing lights for the heart rate monitor completely surprised him. Fortunately some nice Pakistani travelers were also crossing, they had smartwatches and calmed him down. I was allowed to stay in Afghanistan, I was not arrested, and he reluctantly gave me back my watch. Several soldiers wanted photos with me. As we waited I was given lunch and sat on the floor eating lunch with the border guards and a few of their children. This was a surreal experience as we chatted about normal things, differences in our lives back at home. One of the soldiers was really nice and semi jokingly asked “you are not a soldier are you? Or you promise not to become a soldier once you are in Afghanistan. ” lol. No. The American passport really throws them off. In order to pay for the visa I had to travel over a 1 mile (2km) into Afghanistan (without a passport) to a nearby village and use a bank to pay for the visa, where I got the necessary receipt proving payment. This was super confusing. Lots of paperwork, my fingers blue from fingerprinting, I finally had the Visa in hand only to next go through an exhaustive bag search – where I had to spend 10 minutes explaining what things like beef jerky was, and where it came from etc. They didn’t trust my speaker. The Taliban soldier had never seen Chapstick, so I had to demonstrate. My M&M’s were suspicious for some reason, and I needed to pour them out on a table.

Every single item in my bag was curious to everyone. My gimbal was curious to them. Overall a very hot and stressful experience, but in the end, everyone was very kind and laughed once they had been convinced that I was not some sort of spy wielding secret M&Ms. However one guard was not convinced, and remained skeptical of this “American Tourist”. After my bag check I was escorted by soldiers to separate compound past several bombed out ruins of armored personnel carriers to a building which held a Police office. At this point I was fairly sure I was getting arrested. Another half hour passed, and a lot of questions, but finally they announced I was free to enter Afghanistan! This all took 4 exhaustive hours and once I was done, visa sticker in passport, bag checked – we got in a share taxi to the city of Kunduz. But we weren’t really done. I then discovered I needed to go to the local government ministry in Kunduz, over an hour away, to get my passport and visa stamped to signify that I had entered the country, and we had to get there before the office closed! The office closed at 5pm, but since the border took so long, we arrived at 6:20 pm – thankfully they opened for us! The most bizarre border crossing of my life. On leaving Kunduz we watched the sunset next to a river overlooking the valley. Ahead of us was a long stressful night of Taliban checkpoints on our way to Mazar i Sharif.

1 Comment

  1. Myra Feuquay says: Reply

    This is so interesting. I would have been scared, but curious as to what might come next, praying that it wouldn’t be my death.

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