Buddhist caves of Afhanistan in the Hindu Kush mountains
The Buddhist caves of Afghanistan An unexpected enclave of peace up in the Hindu Kush mountains
The Buddhist caves of Afghanistan Bamiyan is the relatively safe part of Afghanistan.
Published on 19 Jan 2015
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 Afghanistan as a favourite stop for travellers on the hippie trail from the 1950s-’70s seems remote. It therefore takes an open mind and a brave heart to brace the challenges that navigating this fascinating nation 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 2,500m, around 240 kilometres northwest of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. 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 West, and was not only a major trading route but also an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists.
Visitors still flock to the town to visit the sacred site, but today they are met with empty niches where two colossal Buddha statues once proudly stood. The pair, 58m and 38m high, survived centuries of war and erosion until 2001, when they were destroyed by the ruling Taliban who saw them as an affront to Islam. The move resulted in widespread condemnation from the international community, and shortly after their destruction 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. Indeed, despite the cultural desecration and vandalism that has befallen the statues, 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 Bamiyan itself, such as a honeycomb of caves and grottoes carved into the cliffs beside the mounds of rubble where the two Buddha statues once stood. The small Buddha niche contains caves with well-preserved frescoes (dating back to the 5th century) depicting the remaining vestiges of Buddhist legacy. On the ceilings, paintings of Buddhas have had their faces defiled by the Taliban.
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 the holy 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 Bamiyan valley, an area which is well worth exploring as well. 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 potato and wheat 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 all makes for idyllic, incredibly photogenic scenes that leave an indelible mark in your memory. It certainly seems a world away from the violence and religious controversies of most Afghanistan-related headlines.
Essential info- Where to stay- Noorband Qala
Located along Bazar Road and beside the football stadium in central Bamiyan, Noorband Qala (+93 0 799 669 024; http://www.noorbandbamyan.com) offers travellers comfy accommodation (370-490RMB/night) and great food (meals from 22RMB) at reasonable prices. You won’t get a view of the Buddha niches from the hotel as it’s located behind the bazaar, but it makes for a good base to explore the area.
One of the newest accommodation options in town, the Highlands Hotel (+93 0 799 409 897; http://www.highland.af) is located along the central Yakawlang Road and it offers residents a pretty spectacular view overlooking the vast surrounding mountains and valleys. Breakfast and WiFi are included in the room rates, which start from 430RMB a night.
The Hotel Silk Road
If you’re looking for an indulgent, more luxurious stay, The Hotel Silk Road (+93 0 798 405 486; http://www.silkroadbamiyan.com) offers clean rooms and excellent meals, but you’ll need to pay a daily fee for WiFi. Room rates start at 490RMB per night, including breakfast. Please note that this hotel is currently closed until April.
How to get there
Emirates (emirates.com) flies from Shanghai to Kabul from around 10,000RMB return. From Kabul, the most convenient mode of travel is by air via East Horizons Airways. The flight time is about 30 minutes in an old Russian aircraft. You can purchase tickets at their office on 11th Street in Kabul’s northern Wazir Akbar Khan district. Prices are around 1,230RMB for a round trip between Kabul and Bamiyan.
Travelling by road is the cheapest option but it is not recommended for foreigners as they can be prime targets for kidnapping by criminal gangs and insurgent groups, especially in the summer. If you really want to take your chances by road, it’s best to go in a 4WD and not a local bus. Mustafa (+92 796 448 751), who is based in Kabul, is a reliable driver. A trip on a 4WD takes around nine hours and prices vary depending on the season.
Know before you go
Afghanistan is not the easiest of places to get around and numerous foreign embassies advise against travel to the country. All nationalities require visas and these must be obtained in advance. Visas are available through the Afghan Embassy in Beijing, contact email@example.com for more details (there is currently no Afghan Consulate in Shanghai).
Spring (from March-May) brings pleasant weather to the country and though June, July and August are known for scorching temperatures around Afghanistan, Bamiyan’s climate remains pleasantly manageable thanks to its location in the mountains.
In the main town of Bamiyan, there is little more than a row of shops lining a single main street with a modest bazaar at its centre. It is the main place to stock up on supplies. It’s best to carry US dollars and change your currency in Kabul instead as better rates are offered. The ATM machine does not always work with foreign ATM cards.
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