To most, the idea of visiting Afghanistan is absurd. The knee jerk reaction of any traveller, however hardy, is one coloured by industrial Hesco sandbags ringed with razor wire and hostility.
In fact, when you scratch below the surface, Afghanistan offers a friendly welcome, a rich culture, fantastic weather (apart from the one month a year or so when it rains, around Feb) amazing mountain landscapes and a treasure trove of archaeological remains.
Afghanistan's first national park staffed by female rangers. Like a flooded Grand Canyon with clear blue skies and even clearer water.
Even after they were dynamited by the Taliban in 2001, the cliff face and the niches in the Bamiyan valley is still a marvel. It is mildly comic the Talibs tried to destroy the physical manifestations of a religion based on metaphysical and rebirth. There's also an ongoing mystery about a third Buddha, which might be lying down in front of the others. There's a Japanese owned hotel in Bamiyan so it doubles as one of the best places to get sushi.
While you are in Bamiyan there is also the City of Skulls, an old fort used by Genghis Khan, and the Red City, just outside Bamiyan, both ancient hill top settlements. (In fact, drive from Bamiyan in almost any direction and you will likely pass some ancient earth fort.)
In winter, the Hindu Kush mountains promise pistes fit for skiing. As a subtle and comedic reminder, the slopes are scaled by donkeys in lieu of a cable car, or, rather often, a passable road.
Snow leopards and Badakhshan. Hiking in the Pamirs. (Also ancient "Chinese" forts). The Wildlife Conservation Society have done really interesting work with camera traps there. (They are also heavily involved in the National Park).
The Minaret of Jam - a bit harder to reach, but then the journey is part of the pleasure - a seemingly random mud brick minaret in the middle of a steep-sided valley junction, where two rivers meet.
The carpet hub of Kabul. A great place to waste a morning bargaining over carpets and trinkets and lumps of Lapis Lazuli from the ancient mines in Badakhshan, which provided the pharaohs with blue dies and paint. Tucked behind the Pul-e Khishti Mosque in Kabul, there is a peculiar nook carved from the city’s walls quite literally, for a song, find birds of all shapes and sizes, including kowk (fighting partridge), which are made to fight on Friday mornings with bystanders betting on the winner.
Any journey outside Kabul will likely be dotted with the remains of soviet era tanks. Panjshir is a beautiful valley, about two hours outside Kabul across the Shomali plain, now with a gaudy Mausoleum to Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated on the eve 9/11 attacks. It is also the setting for Eric Newby and Hugh Carless' attempt to summit Mir Samir.
Also on the road north of Kabul, the pottery town of Istalif. Emperor Babur wrote about getting blind drunk on the wine from Istalif. These days you're unlikely to find more than chai and kebabs. But it's a beautiful starting point for a mountain walk, and there used the be a guesthouse at the top of the valley (possibly run by missionaries, but they never advertised that).
Start at the Bala Hissar, where British and Afghans fought nearly 200 years ago, and hike the length of the old city wall, for amazing views of the city, finishing at Bagh-e Babur or Babur's Gardens, which have been recently restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
Visit the section of the old city restored by Turquoise mountain, for glimpse of what the city would have looked like when Alexander Burnes was seducing its women in the weeks before he was cut to pieces by an angry mob. Turquoise mountain have done a fantastic job (despite their founder's often obnoxious self-promotion).
Miraculously Kabul has survived much of the carnage and there's still plenty to admire in the ancient Afghan capital. There are beautiful parks, the ancient walls of the citadel, Bala Hissar, and several newly restored museums.
This autumn, the second in the Bamiyan province, amidst the mighty mountains of the Hindu Kush in central Afghanistan. The astonishingly beautiful valley, a UNESCO world heritage site, is recognised as one of the safest provinces in the country and remains almost completely untouched by violence. The second edition of the marathon will take place in autumn 2016. It was the first international marathon that was run in Afghanistan.
For a rather unusual experience, visit the ICRC orthopaedic centre. While the centre is not normally a tourist spot, it offers visitors the chance to acknowledge Afghanistan’s ongoing troubles and see the awe inspiring work being done every day in spite of its challenges. Everyone who works at the centre making fake limbs for those injured by conflict and turmoil is, astonishingly, an amputee themselves.
Kabul’s own bowling alley, battered old cinema and Russian Cultural Centre alongside the once stunning Darul Aman Palace which is now a bombed out shell, but, is still hauntingly beautiful on the edge of the city, and it's right next to the museum which houses a collection of the king's old cars, as well all manner of ill-gotten gains and treasure. (A lot of which was hidden in a vault in the presidential palace when the Taliban took over, to stop them defacing anything that was depicting a human, and thus to them idolatrous.)
Any and all travel plans should only be made after discussions with the FCO and UK Embassy Travel Restrictions. gov.uk