Though blighted by war, Afghanistan is still rich with natural beauty, history and culture, as Zann Huang finds out.
Mention Afghanistan and images of war, poverty and terrorism spring to mind. Such negative connotations have been propagated by the media for so many decades that the notion of the country as a favourite stop for travellers on the hippie trail from the ’50s to the ’70s seems remote. It therefore takes an open mind and a brave heart to brace the challenges that navigating this fascinating land can present, but the rewards are astounding. Surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountains, Bamiyan (also spelled Bamyan and Bamian) lies at an altitude of about 2,500 metres northwest of Kabul, the capital.
It’s name literally translates as ‘the place of shining light’ and located on the ancient Silk Road, Bamiyan still ‘shines’ today as the highlight of a trip to Afghanistan. In its heyday, Bamiyan was situated at the crossroads between the East and the West and was not only a major trading route, but also a pilgrimage site for Buddhists. Visitors still flock to the town to visit the site, but today they are met with empty niches where two colossal Buddha statues once stood. The pair, 58 metres and 38 metres high, survived centuries of war and erosion until 2001, when they were destroyed by the Taliban. Shortly afterwards, the area was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The empty caves still tower over Bamiyan, and though only outlines of their former inhabitants remain, the site still holds a reverential air. Bamiyan is still worth a visit – it was recently named as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation’s cultural capital for 2015. The Bamiyan valley, relatively safe compared to the rest of the country, is one of the most picturesque regions of Afghanistan. There are plenty of exotic sites to explore in the area itself, such as a honeycomb of caves and grottoes carved into the cliffs. The small niche contains caves with well-preserved frescoes (dating back to the fifth century). A walk around the Buddha niche will also allow you to witness the small community of people who have set up home in the shadows of this site. Driven there partly by poverty and partly by the Taliban, their living conditions are primitive. The spartan cave homes are literally holes in the wall – some carved by wind and rain, others hand-cut decades or even centuries ago. The cave homes are without any proper sewage systems, running water or electricity. Most of the locals eke out a living by working in the potato fields in the Bamiyan valley.
From the peak of the Buddha niches you can take in breathtaking panoramic views of the valley, an area which is well worth exploring. A visit in the evening is highly recommended as mesmerising sunsets bathe the entire landscape in a wondrous hue of gold. In the summer, one can see the locals as they toil and harvest in the fields.
Various streams are used as irrigation channels, and it’s not unusual to catch the local children collecting bottles of water and carrying them home on their donkeys. Local girls and women still sometimes wash their dishes or do their laundry by the banks of the stream. It makes for idyllic scenes that seem a world away from most Afghanistan-related headlines in the newspapers.
Need to know
Emirates and Flydubai both fly direct to Kabul from Dubai. From Kabul, the most convenient mode of transport is by air via East Horizons Airways. The flight time to Bamiyan is about 30 minutes in an old Russian aircraft. You can purchase tickets at the East Horizons Airways office on 11th Street in Kabul’s northern Wazir Akbar Khan district. It costs around Dhs720 for a round trip between Kabul and Bamiyan. The frequency of the flights varies so check with the airline when planning a trip. Also note that the airport in Bamiyan is a gravel runway and that flights may be cancelled without any prior notice. Travelling by road is the cheapest option, but it is not recommended for foreigners, as they can be prime targets for kidnappings by criminal gangs and insurgent groups, especially in the summer.
Where to stay
Noorband Qala Hotel
Located in central Bamiyan, Noorband Qala offers travellers comfy accommodation and great food.
www.noorbandbamyan.com (+93 0 799 669 024).
This property is located along Yakawlang Road and offers views of the vast surrounding mountains and valleys. Breakfast and wi-fi are included in the room rate.
www.highland.af (+93 0 799 409 897).
The Hotel Silk Road
This hotel, which opens in April, offers clean rooms and excellent meals, but you’ll need to pay a daily fee for wi-fi.
www.silkroadbamiyan.com (+93 0 798 405 486).
Know before you go
Afghanistan is not the easiest of places to tour and many foreign embassies advise against travel there. All nationalities require visas, which must be obtained in advance.