Editor’s note: Wired.com contributor Zach Rosenberg recently returned from four months in Afghanistan, where, among other things, he learned how to navigate the streets of the country’s capital in a battered Toyota Corolla.
So you’re in Kabul and need to get somewhere, huh?
Oh sure, you can take a cab. There are taxis everywhere, they’re cheap and the drivers are, for the most part, honorable and upstanding citizens. They often speak English, they know all the cool places to go and they often have the connections to get you where fixers cannot. But the safety of foreigners is by no means guaranteed. Proceed with caution.
But you want to do this yourself, huh? Let me mention that I don’t recommend going to Kabul, let alone driving there, but since you’ve made it this far, here’s what you can expect.
The good news is Kabul is relatively safe in comparison to the rest of Afghanistan, so you’re unlikely to die violently in traffic. Still, it can, and does, happen. A UN vehicle was shot up at busy Massoud Circle in June, and a car bomb on the major Darulaman road killed several passersby in May. Bombs, gunfights and riots are rare, but of course you can’t predict when and where they might occur. So unless you have the services of an armored car and/or armed guard, your best insurance is to to fit in. Chose an inconspicuous car. Make sure the shocks are in good shape, because you’ll definitely need them. It’s nice to have windows that roll up tightly because it gets dusty in Kabul.
Afghanistan lets expats live by different rules than the locals but only behind closed doors. Out in public, you’re in their country and have to play by their rules. So ladies, don’t drive. It will attract unwanted attention, to the point that it might actually cause accidents. Women passengers should cover their hair with hijab.
Before leaving, make sure you have a cellphone and someone to call if it all goes bad. And don’t forget your passport and visa. You’ll need ‘em for the checkpoints.
Sharing the Road
High-mileage Toyota Corollas are so ubiquitous as to deserve a place on the Afghan flag. In fact, if you’re in Kabul, you’re probably driving one. Most of them are well-worn imports from Canada, the United States, Germany and other western nations and many bear stickers or flags identifying them as such. They often sport bumperstickers from their homelands. Logos of American universities are common. Less common but endlessly ironic are the occasional “Bush/Cheney ’04,” “Jesus Saves” and “My Child is a Star Pupil At…” stickers.
Kabuli car culture demands some personalization, so Afghan drivers often slap their own stickers on their rides. Masha Allah and romantic boasts are especially prevalent, but, as in America, you’ll see all kinds of crazy things. One of the most memorable I saw was a taxi that proclaimed “Girls don’t cry I will be back I will see you in hill” on the back and “Son of Panjshir” on the side.
Armored Toyota Land Cruisers and Chevrolet Suburbans carry everyone from NATO troops and contractors to NGO personnel and wealthy Afghans. They’ve usually got an armed guard riding shotgun — literally and figuratively. They make easy targets when something goes wrong: in July, two SUVs carrying U.S. contractors ran an Afghan car off the road, killing two and sparking a brief anti-American riot.
The Afghan National Police (ANP) drive green Ford pickups, often with several armed policemen in the back. You’ll occasionally see them in plain clothes and/or masked. You’ll also occasionally see a machine gun mounted to the cab. They sometimes shout through a loudspeaker at other drivers in Dari, offering an opinion on how you can best get out of their way. They’re generally ignored.
You’ll also share the road with the buses and vans that constitute what passes for mass transit in Kabul. There is no central planning authority; the destinations of these vehicles are shouted and their routes known only by precedent. They’re often so ridiculously overloaded that passengers stand on the bumpers, holding on for their lives. Technically, heavy machinery is not permitted within city limits during the day — which is why you’ll see lines of trucks on the outskirts of town, waiting for nightfall — but well-connected companies with permits or “understandings” with the ANP roam freely
NATO nations drive beefy armored vehicles on transportation and patrol missions. By far the most common are U.S. troops in tan armored Humvees, which have been replaced by MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles) outside the city. The Humvees, which travel in slow columns, have enormous machine gun turrets. Their arrival often is heralded by mounted jammers that cut off all cellphones within a small radius of the vehicles. They scare the hell out of Afghan drivers, and a nervous rear gunner with a green laser sight mounted to his gun is the only thing to command near-total submission from Kabuli motorists.
Kabul’s roads are mainly pitted dirt, which makes for a rough ride. Paved roads have unexpected gaps where tarmac gives way to dirt, and these can back up traffic for miles. And of course there often are large potholes that everyone swerves around, making traffic look something like a game of pinball. The Darulaman road is a good example.
Within the the city, roads usually are lined on both sides by open sewers and/or trash pits deep enough to trap a car. You do not want to end up in one, which explains the comment from the National Guardsman I overheard saying, “If I fall into one of those, just shoot me where I am.”
Kabul is home to roughly 3.5 million people and adds more every day, and simply is not designed for so many. The inevitable result is traffic tends to move slowly and the city frequently experiences gridlock. Frequent obstacles include pedestrians, police roadblocks, flocks of sheep, stray dogs and large rocks.
Those with experience driving in developing nations will feel almost at home, but everyone else will quickly notice there is no semblance of traffic laws. The handful of traffic signs are universally ignored, as are the traffic signals, which tend not to work anyway. Driving on the right, as most traffic does, is circumstantial. Blocking a major intersection to talk to a friend or pull a U-turn is no big deal. The manner in which drivers enter a crowded intersection is determined by who gets there first and takes the initiative. Pause and you will never get through. Obeying the occasional traffic policeman is subject to conditions.
On Friday evenings, the two-lane, bi-directional roads into Kabul become seven-land one-way expressways as picnickers stream back into the city after a day off. The traffic is refreshing in its purity; it inspires a creativity unthinkable in the United States. The only limitations to a Kabuli driver are physical boundaries, such as buildings, and his imagination. While Kabuli drivers regularly do dangerous things, they tend to move with good reason and safety under the circumstances. It is a marked contrast to the irrational, boneheaded stupidity of traffic in our own capital.
Of course, Kabuli drivers are not entirely rational either. Should an obstruction block the road, it is quite common to see drivers meet head-on and argue over who must yield. Meanwhile, traffic backs up in all directions behind them.
One of the most confusing aspects of Kabul is there are no street signs or street addresses. As a result, locations often are defined by their relation to landmarks — for example, “Shar-e-Now, 3rd door on the left on the street opposite the Dutch embassy” is the address of a major hotel. One fellow I met in Kabul painted a random number outside his house, and that became his address. This makes GPS essentially useless.
Being that you’re a foreigner, you should obey any and all discernable local traffic laws. There may be policemen directing traffic at major intersections, and while many Kabulis will ignore him completely, it is advisable that you heed his directions. The Afghan National Police has built a series of roadblocks, known euphemistically as the “Ring of Steel,” that are sometimes manned. They’ll occasionally check vehicles, so be prepared to stop, open your car and hand over your passport and visa. Strictly speaking, foreigners must have a special permit to drive, but this rule is rarely enforced and, I hear, easily circumvented with a small U.S.-denominated donation. Many streets are blocked by red and white booms that foreigners should not attempt to cross without a permit.
If you find yourself lost, don’t panic. Afghans are famously hospitable, and if you can speak Dari pedestrians will gladly offer directions. Many Kabuli’s speak at least some English, but of course there is always room for misunderstanding so beware.
In the event you get the feel for traffic in this city, successfully navigate its myriad hazards and reach your destination, feel free to park anywhere you like. Parking enforcement is just as lax as traffic enforcement.
Photo: Emilio Morenatti / Associated Press. An Afghan traffic police officer gets creative while directing traffic.