Caitlan Coleman and her husband Josh, the American-Canadian couple who went missing in Afghanistan this week, weren’t there for any official purpose. They weren’t among the many Western aid workers, journalists and government functionaries who have set up shop since the beginning of the war. The couple was there simply to travel as part of a trip across Central Asia — a region that is experiencing some popularity among backpackers who often underplay its danger.
“Why they actually went to Afghanistan, I’m not sure… I assume it was more of the same, getting to know the local people, if they could find an NGO (non-governmental organization) or someone they could work with in a little way,” James Coleman, Caitlan’s father, told the AP on Monday. He said that the pair, who have traveled before in Central America, had left in July for Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, finally winding up in Afghanistan.
Caitlan’s mother, Lynn Coleman, told BuzzFeed that her daughter had told her the names of organizations in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan with which the couple had been in touch, but that she didn’t recall them.
“I really don’t recall the specifics but throughout the areas that they were traveling in, they were trying to help out,” she said. “She had mentioned some different groups they were trying to work with there.”
The ancient Silk Road offers irresistible allure for experienced travelers for whom Europe’s backpacking hostels are played out and the “Banana Pancake” Asia route is old news; rugged, beautiful, and strange, the “Stans” are still the Wild West, especially Afghanistan. Afghanistan until recently was experiencing a bit of a resurgence as an adventure travel destination, complete with a write-up in the New York Times Travel section — a trend that has slowed but not entirely petered out, as illustrated by Coleman and her husband’s trip.
Afghanistan has its own section on the Lonely Planet website, which begins with a caveat: “By any stretch of the imagination, Afghanistan isn’t the simplest country to travel in,” the travel guide states, noting that the country is often “volatile” and “hostile.”
Yet, “with the right preparations, and a constant ear to the ground once you’re there, travel in Afghanistan is not only a possibility but also incredibly rewarding…Once in Afghanistan, there’s something about the people, the history and even the air that can get in your blood and promise to draw you back again.” The language echoes Lonely Planet’s guide from the 1970s, when the country was a magnet for hippie backpackers, which spoke rapturously of a “vastly appealing country – endless empty deserts, soaring barren mountains, historic old towns and ruins and best of all the aloof and detached Afghanis.”
Replete with information about Central Asia, Lonely Planet’s very popular travel forums have been shut down by parent company BBC due to “uncomfortable themes,” but elsewhere online, accounts of independent Afghan travel can be found on message boards and blogs where travelers trade tips and tricks for staying safe.
“I loved the trip and everything went smoothly and without problems,” writes Portuguese travel blogger Joao Leitao, who traveled alone in Afghanistan over the summer. “The Afghan people are very welcoming and were always very happy to see someone ‘traveling’ in their country.”
Companies have sprung up offering guides and tours, like Untamed Borders, which offers backcountry skiing trips and other vacations in Afghanistan as well as excursions to Pakistan and northern India. The company is offering three trips to Afghanistan in 2013, one of them 22 days long.
“A trip to Afghanistan offers the opportunity to see a country that has been off the tourist map for 30 years, to visit a place that is starkly beautiful and to interact with people and places that you probably best know from news reports,” Untamed Borders writes on its website. “Of course, as well as offering some incredible experiences for the intrepid traveler, Afghanistan has some equally unique risks and dangers.”
James Willcox, one of the founders of Untamed Borders, stressed the difference between what he offers and what Coleman and her husband did.
“It is not common for individual independent travellers to travel in Afghanistan but we occasionally see one or two or get contacted by independent people asking for advice,” he told BuzzFeed. “I do not know what happened with these two but if they were kidnapped in Wardak then they were in a pretty stupid place.”
“We arrange trips for tourists as well as for documentary makers, photographers, researchers and other professionals,” Willcox said. “We get information from security reports as well as from drivers that drive the roads each day to get a good picture about safety when travelling between cities. We also always have a guide that can speak the language and see the signs if the security situation is deteriorating. All things that independent travellers do not have.”
Rory Stewart, now a British member of Parliament, famously hiked across Afghanistan by himself in 2003 and wrote a well-received book about it. Matthieu Aikins arrived in the country to start his journalism career there by hitchhiking across the border from Uzbekistan.
But Coleman and her husband, whose full name hasn’t been released, didn’t have such luck. They were last heard from on October 8, when they emailed home to announce that they were in an “unsafe” part of the country and heading into the mountains. Coleman is pregnant and due to deliver the baby next month, and has a liver condition. Officials say the couple’s trail has gone dead, and they’ve most likely been picked up by the Taliban somewhere southwest of Kabul.
“We’re just trying to get my daughter back, with her husband,” Lynn Coleman said. “We don’t know any more, but we’re hoping.”