Afghanistan's Bamiyan on frontline of warzone tourism

Published July 22, 2015
This photo taken on June 19, 2015 shows a general view of Band-i-Amir Lake in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan. — AFP
This photo taken on June 19, 2015 shows a general view of Band-i-Amir Lake in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan. — AFP
This photo taken on June 19, 2015 shows a general view of Band-i-Amir Lake in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan. — AFP
This photo taken on June 19, 2015 shows a general view of Band-i-Amir Lake in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan. — AFP
This photo taken on June 19, 2015 shows a photographer taking a picture of Afghan youths near Band-i-Amir Lake in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan. — AFP
This photo taken on June 19, 2015 shows a photographer taking a picture of Afghan youths near Band-i-Amir Lake in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan. — AFP
This photo taken on June 19, 2015 shows Afghan visitors as they use a paddle-boat on Band-i-Amir Lake in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan.— AFP
This photo taken on June 19, 2015 shows Afghan visitors as they use a paddle-boat on Band-i-Amir Lake in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan.— AFP
In this photo taken on June 19, 2015, an Afghan man walks at the Shahr-e-Gholghola on a hilltop over looking Bamiyan.— AFP
In this photo taken on June 19, 2015, an Afghan man walks at the Shahr-e-Gholghola on a hilltop over looking Bamiyan.— AFP
This photo taken on June 19, 2015 shows Afghan visitors as they use a paddle-boat on Band-i-Amir Lake in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan. — AFP
This photo taken on June 19, 2015 shows Afghan visitors as they use a paddle-boat on Band-i-Amir Lake in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan. — AFP
In this photo taken on June 19, 2015, scaffolding is pictured in front of the empty site of two Buddha statues, which were destroyed by the Taliban, in Bamiyan.  — AFP
In this photo taken on June 19, 2015, scaffolding is pictured in front of the empty site of two Buddha statues, which were destroyed by the Taliban, in Bamiyan. — AFP
This photo taken on June 19, 2015 shows a general view of Band-i-Amir Lake in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan. — AFP
This photo taken on June 19, 2015 shows a general view of Band-i-Amir Lake in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan. — AFP
This photo taken on June 19, 2015 shows Afghan visitors (C) as they use paddle-boats in the middle of Band-i-Amir Lake in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan.— AFP
This photo taken on June 19, 2015 shows Afghan visitors (C) as they use paddle-boats in the middle of Band-i-Amir Lake in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan.— AFP

BAMIYAN: Trudging halfway up a jagged goat trail, guide Mohammad Ibrahim extolled the panoramic view ─ a vast, ancient landscape of russet-hued cliffs that is on the frontline of Afghan efforts to jumpstart warzone tourism.

Bamiyan ─ famous for empty hillside niches that once sheltered giant Buddha statues that were blown up by the Taliban ─ is a rare oasis of tranquility that has largely been spared the wrenching conflict that afflicts the rest of Afghanistan.

Once a caravan stop along the fabled Silk Road, the central Afghan city was recently named this year's cultural capital of South Asia, igniting hopes of restoring its place on the global tourism map.

One obstacle, however, remains: Bamiyan is hemmed in by war.

Read: Bamiyan haunted by Taliban massacre

Figuring out how to get to the ancient city ─ endowed with stunning landscapes but wedged between volatile provinces ─ itself is a challenge.

But that doesn't stop Ibrahim, head of the local tourism association with a penchant for Indiana Jones-style straw hats, from making his sales pitch.

"Bamiyan has caves with the world's oldest oil paintings, the country's first national park and during winter it's home to Afghanistan's only ski slopes," he said, sounding like a walking tourism brochure.

Also read: Afghanistan's Bamiyan hopes to attract skiers

Hiking up to the ruined ramparts of Shahr-e-Gholghola ─ the City of Screams, which was destroyed by Genghis Khan in the 13th century ─ Ibrahim stopped to catch his breath and picked up a spent bullet shell from the ground, one of many Soviet-era casings that litter the windswept trail overlooking the sandstone cliffs and snow-clad pyramids of the Hindu Kush range.

"Bamiyan is the envy of Afghanistan ─ it has peace," he said.

Hippie trail

Pre-civil war days are a subject of whispered nostalgia in Bamiyan, when it wielded control over strategic mountain passes connecting trade routes from India, China and Persia and the local markets swarmed with stoned backpackers hopping overland on the so-called "hippie trail".

It has failed to revive the heyday of tourism after decades of war, including the Taliban's 1996-2001 reign when they destroyed two massive Buddha statues carved into sandstone cliffs, labelling them an affront to Islam ─ an act globally condemned as "cultural terrorism".

Also read: Osama’s fingerprints seen on ruins of Bamiyan Buddhas

Reliable statistics are hard to come by but officials admit that the number of foreign tourists has fallen off a cliff in recent post-Taliban years as pessimism abounds about the state of Afghanistan, trapped in a quagmire of escalating violence.

But in an effort to lure tourists, especially from the sub-continent, Bamiyan was last month inaugurated as the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) cultural capital for 2015 ─ a move welcomed by local hoteliers and shopkeepers, though few are optimistic.

Bamiyan's single-runway airport can only accommodate small aircraft, with just one commercial airline operating thrice weekly flights from Kabul.

And both land routes connecting it to the capital ─ through the mountainous Ghorband valley in neighbouring Parwan province and Wardak province in the south ─ can be deadly.

Travellers who cannot afford the $200 round-trip air fare say Taliban militants harass them with impunity.

"If you are an Afghan travelling by road, wear a ragged tunic, abandon all government ID and say your prayer," quipped Umaidullah Azad, a tourist in Band-e Amir, widely known as "Afghanistan's Grand Canyon" for its azure lakes and rolling limestone cliffs.

"If the Taliban flag you down, you have a good chance of surviving if you look like a country bumpkin. But no chance if you have government or foreign connections," said Azad, 24, a telecom official who recently made the perilous journey from Kabul.

Good security, bad economy

Mohammad Sajad Mohseni, a prominent cleric recognised as the "Facebook mullah" for his connections with the Afghan youth on social media, was in Bamiyan when the Taliban pummelled the Buddha statues.

When days of shooting and cannon fire failed to destroy them, the Taliban drilled holes into the idols and filled them up with explosives, he recalled.

"What they blew up weren't just stones. They were our history," he said. "In 2001, US warplanes forced the Taliban to go on the run, hide in caves.Within 13 years, they have spread into almost every city, every village."

But few expect a spillover of the insurgency into Bamiyan, dominated by ethnic Hazaras, Asiatic descendants of Genghis Khan who suffered extensively under the Taliban.

Unmoored from turmoil, the quiet in Bamiyan is broken only by the echoes of muezzins and the occasional slamming of a rocket in neighbouring towns.

Security men bristling with weapons are few, a rare sight in a country synonymous with snipers, checkpoints and suicide bombings.

A common refrain among local residents, though, is that "security is good but economy is bad".

The moribund economy offers few employment options other than potato farming.

A large replica of a candle lantern adorns the city square ─ a mocking symbol erected by activists to highlight that Bamiyan has no power grid, with students forced to study under solar-lit street lamps.

Shops selling trinkets and rugs emblazoned with images of buzkashi ─ a rugged equestrian game ─ admit living a slow death until tourism blossoms.

"Tourists are unlikely to come to Bamiyan," said antiques shopkeeper Ghulam Ali, "until the war outside Bamiyan ends."

Opinion

Editorial

Injustice undone
Updated 13 Jul, 2024

Injustice undone

The SC verdict is a stunning reversal of fortunes for a party that was, both before and after general elections, being treated as a defunct entity.
Looming flour shortage
13 Jul, 2024

Looming flour shortage

FOR once, it is hard to argue against the reason that compelled flour mills to call a nationwide strike from...
Same old script
13 Jul, 2024

Same old script

WHEN it comes to the troubling issue of enforced disappearances/ missing persons — either Baloch or belonging to...
Misery and despair
Updated 12 Jul, 2024

Misery and despair

Is a life lived happily and respectably too much to ask for from your country?
Temporary extension
12 Jul, 2024

Temporary extension

THE cabinet’s decision to allow ‘legal’ Afghan refugees — meaning those with Proof of Registration cards —...
Anti-smog strategy
12 Jul, 2024

Anti-smog strategy

BY acknowledging that smog is a year-round problem, and not just a winter issue, the Punjab government has taken the...