Bamyan: A traveler’s delight

Mark Henry, a boisterous English traveler, came to Afghanistan in the summer of 1976 on a short trip. After taking pleasure in the modest comforts of Kabul city for a few days, he headed north to Bamyan, which was a forlorn and isolated place tucked in the Hindu Kush Mountains. The staunch lover of nature and beauty, he was fascinated by the ancient caves of Buddhist monks, the imposing statues of Buddha – one of which stood 50 meters tall, and the shimmering blue water lakes. He roamed around, clicked pictures, took notes and enjoyed his time.

Mesmerized by the beauty of rugged mountains, crystal clear lakes and awe-inspiring landscape of Bamyan, he made a pact with himself: to return soon for a longer stint. But, some years later, the country descended into chaos and Henry had to shelve his plans.

The all-out war broke out and fierce clashes erupted, mostly in the frontier border provinces. Many foreign ministries began to issue travel advisories to their citizens, singling out Afghanistan as the most dangerous destination for tourists. For the next two decades, it was all chaos and confusion. Tourists stopped coming. Many Afghans fled their homes and became refugees in other countries. Tourism sector was in shambles. The once-beautiful tourist places scared the daylights out of people.
 

Constructed sometime in the 6th century, they were a target of cultural vandalism over the centuries; and finally in 2001, Taliban rolled in the tanks and destroyed them


In 2001, the bloody juggernaut was broken, after the fall of Taliban. And, over the years, the situation has been gradually limping back to normalcy, though the war continues with different set of actors and a different stage. Henry, now 68, returned back this year after delaying it for too long. The years of civil war followed by the period of uneasy calm made him wary. But, he rues the fact that the Buddha statue in Bamyan has been reduced to rubble. The good old memories haunt him.

After groping in the dark for years, Afghanistan has bounced back strongly in the last one decade. Tourism sector is again on the boom, despite sporadic incidents of violence and the continuing war between Taliban and the U.S. forces. Like Henry, many foreign tourists are returning to Afghanistan to see and experience the ‘change’. 

Last week, I headed to Bamyan, where the giant Buddha statues, surrounded by 3000 caves, once used to be the cynosure of eyes. There are two routes leading to Bamyan from Kabul: through Parwan province, which is 237 km; and through Wardak province, which is 180 km. But, it takes no less than 6 hours to reach Bamyan from Kabul because of the deteriorated roads and poor security.

The spectacular valley, once known for the imposing statues of Buddha, is now known for ruins of those statues. Constructed sometime in the 6th century, they were a target of cultural vandalism over the centuries; and finally in 2001, Taliban rolled in the tanks and destroyed them. Soon after, the Taliban regime was ousted and the valley was declared the world heritage site by UNESCO.

There was a talk of UNESCO rebuilding the statues – both small and big – but the world body last year laid all speculations to rest, announcing that it was not considering their restoration. Now, visitors mostly go there to see the ruins, which are as beautiful as the original statues.

There are other attractions like the historic caves inside with painted frescos that attract lot of visitors. Then there is Shehr e Gholghola, a majestic fort overlooking the town that gives the breathtaking view of the whole area.

The stunning Band e Amir lakes are prime attractions here. The six shimmering blue water lakes separated by dams take your breath away. The lakes quietly sit in the lap of Hindu Kush Mountains, on the west of famous Buddha statues.

The province offers wonderful opportunities for horse riding, trekking, biking and photography. The Koh e Baba Mountains south of the valley offer a lot to adventure seekers and explorers. Towards the east of Bamyan town, the Kakrak valley is one of the three sacred sites in the region for Buddhists. Shehr e Zohak, towards the east of town, is a fortified compound dating back to 15th century, with spectacular view of the Hajigak valley. Ajar Valley is regarded as the one of the best tourist attractions in the province. 

Bamyan is known for its rich cultural heritage and civilization that dates back to early first century when it was the center of Kushanas, and later Ghoryads between 10th and 11th century. The Buddha statues were carved during the Kushana period. It is the confluence of east and west, with an archeology that has traces of Persian, Greek, Turkish and Chinese.
 

Bamyan is known for its rich cultural heritage and civilization that dates back to early first century when it was the center of Kushanas, and later Ghoryads between 10th and 11th century 


The province is mostly mountainous with no forest cover and very little agricultural land. Mineral resources are in abundance but the illegal excavation of coal mines goes unchecked. Hajikak area, bordering Bamyan and Wardak, has rich deposits of iron ore. Pujnab area is known for marble, and some other areas have sulphur deposits. These rich minerals, if exploited well, can immensely contribute to economic development of Bamyan.

The literacy rate is abysmally low and labor is mostly unskilled. Most of the school buildings here were destroyed in the years of war, and according to locals, government has always discriminated against Hazaras, who constitute the majority here.

However, unlike many other restive provinces in Afghanistan, Bamyan is comparatively safe. It is one of those places where you can move freely without being hit by a Taliban missile or an American drone. The Buddha statues are no longer there, but the beautiful ruins tell many fascinating stories 

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