Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

A Giant Arch, a Secret Garden, a Dragon and Myriads of Mud-Coloured Frogs: Our summer travel tips for Bamyan Province

Fabrizio Foschini 9 min

Bamyan is one of the most famous places in Afghanistan and has, in the last 12 years, probably received a greater share of visitors than aid. Travelling Bamyan is a treat and a must for everyone, Afghan or foreigner, who is able to arrange transport there – which is not always easy. The start of the Fifth Silk Road Festival this week presents an opportunity to enjoy Bamyan’s landscape together with musical and cultural events, most of them in the province’s centre, Bamyan city (1). However, also beyond the centre, there is always something new to be discovered, especially if you are willing to move beyond the Band-e Amir lakes up onto the Northern Plateau or into the secluded recesses of Yakawlang district. In view of the summer plans of our readers, AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini goes on a tour of known and secret sites of this legendary would-be cradle of Afghan tourism.

Chihil Burj, Bamyan's secret garden [Fabrizio Foschini]

Experience tells that once you got into Bamyan, you are fine. Everything before, though, can be tricky. Mountain-locked in a landlocked country, Bamyan used to be reachable from Kabul through a long and tiresome but altogether safe route passing through the Ghorband valley, north-west of  the capital. However, in mid-2010 the presence of insurgent groups was first reported in the Siahgerd and Shinwari districts west of Charikar. Since, things went so awry (read our previous blogs here and here) on that stretch, that currently not many foreigners dare travel on it, and even locals do so with uneasiness – as they do not have much of an option. The only other major access route from the capital, over Hajigak Pass through Wardak province, had seen security problems long before.

Those who can manage to fly to Bamyan and land on the dirt airstrip beautifully embedded in the mountains, allowing a first glimpse of the famous Buddhas’ cliffs to one side while descending. Previously, one could only fly when registered with the UN or one of the NGO airlines. As of December last year, though, an Afghan company inaugurated a Kabul-Bamyan connection, with flights three days a week.

So, assuming you have arrived safely, there is plenty to do. While AAN has previously looked at the local botanics or the local gossip about security, this time we shortlist a few places worth a visit.

Buddhas and balconies

First of all, of course, the Buddhas – only more conspicuous for their absence. Just sit at dawn or dusk on one of the balconies above one of the kebab restaurants or guesthouses in the bazar and the spectacle of the rising or setting sun illuminating the cliffs with all shades of yellow, orange and red will convince you that any trouble coming here was worth it. Think of all the different faces these rocks presented through history: the bare stone before the first Buddhist monks started piercing it with a maze of caves around the 2nd century BC; the gaudy colours of the huge statues as vividly described by the Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang in the 7th century AD; the damaged and faded, but still colossal statues who stood in place for centuries; and today’s empty niches, with the Buddhas’ ghosts still lingering.(2)

It is not clear who damaged the statues before 2001. According to many sources it took three bigoted invading armies to wipe them out completely: Aurangzeb, the sixth Mughal emperor, tackled the legs in mid-18th century, while amir Abdul Rahman defaced them in 1893 (although in some of the first European sketches, drawn in early 19th century long before Abdul Rahman was born, the statues already look faceless). The Taleban – thanks to technological progress – finished the job thoroughly in March 2001. Yet, none of them could erase the fascination that the archeological site and the landscape conjure together.

Climbing the staircase that led pilgrims to circumambulate the idols is still an impressive experience, as it is to visit the neighbouring caves. Unfortunately, the few frescoes which survived vandalism and international collectors give only a pale idea of the striking blend of Hellenistic, Sasanian and Indian paintings that once embellished the site. However, there is a newer decoration pattern to be found inside the caves: one that bears testimony to their more recent use as shelter by many refugees or militiamen during the civil war and the Taleban campaigns from the 1990s. The vaults and domes, blackened by the smoke of many winter and cooking fires, have been stamped all over with the dusty track of a hundred shoe-soles.

Fantasy book atmosphere

That’s for the first day. The second should be dedicated to climbing up to Shahr-e Gholghola, the hilltop towering over the central section of the valley. Its story is told by its name, ‘the city of sighs’. The fortress was the scene of a major siege by the Mongol troops of Genghis Khan in 1221, ending with the slaughter of the whole population to avenge the death of Genghis’ nephew in the invasion of the valley. Legend has it that Leila khatun, daughter of the local king (a fictionalised version of the historic Jalaluddin Mangburni of the Khwarizm dynasty) betrayed the garrison by showing to the attackers the subterranean canal that supplied the citadel. The young princess would later meet death in form of a lethal shower of stones hurled at her by the unappreciative Mongols.

A visit to this fortress can be coupled by one to Shahr-e Zohak at the eastern limits of the Bamyan plateau where the road bifurcates, leading either to Shibar or to Hajigak. The proximity to the huge iron ore of Hajigak lends a dark shade of red to the rocks into which – high up – the fortress was built. This second citadel was named after a truly devilish character from literary sources – Zohak from the Shahnamah, the Persian epic by poet Ferdawsi; in fact, the Afghan dynasty of the Ghurids (XI-XIII century AD) used to claim descent from this legendary character. Not only did Zohak usurp the throne of Iran, but he soon found himself with serpents sprouting from his shoulders, lusting for human brains – a souvenir left by a kiss from the devil.

There is a fantasy book atmosphere about Bamyan, with its vivid legends and dreamy landscapes, and Darra-e Ezhdehar, the Valley of the Dragon, is another of its chapters. A short ride west of Bamyan bazar, it opens up as yet another canyon-like valley with strange rock formations. But had it not been for Hazrat Ali who kicked the dragon to death, exploring the valley would entail far more dangers than puncturing a tyre. The dragon is still there, a several hundred meter long petrified mound, his back deeply cut by Ali’s forked scimitar named Zulfiqar, tears of chagrin (well, white chalky water) dropping from its snout.

The shrine of Sayed Hazrat Yakhsuz, located in a shady grove immediately to the east of the bazar of Bamyan, is another interesting place, particularly during festivals; it is adorned and visited by locals on Nawruz (the new year on 21 March) and on the night of Qadr (the anniversary of the first Quranic revelation to prophet Muhammad). The holy man himself came from Shindand in Herat province to Bamyan during a cool spring in the 13th century, only to be met by an even colder reception by the locals. Therefore he sent his disciples to fetch big slabs of ice from the higher slopes of the mountains and, wondrously, made them burn on the fire – the miracle gave him and his descendants lasting celebrity in the valley.

However, the attractions of Bamyan province are by no means limited to its town centre and the surrounding area. Apart from more Buddhist sites in the nearby Kakrak valley to the east of Bamyan town, there are now offers for mountain tourism with both a winter season of skiing and a summer one with trekking and climbing, especially around the Shah Fuladi, the tallest peak of central Hindu Kush with its over 5000 meters. It is also on its way to become a protected area.

For those with the ambition to move even further away, huge and sparsely populated Yakawlang district offers a few more incredible spots.

Pitch your tent right under the earth

Most visitors enter Yakawlang district without even being aware of it: they come to visit the unparalleled beauty of the turquoise Band-e Amir lakes (3). They leave without even reaching the district centre, only a half hour further down the newly asphalted road. A stop overnight in Yakawlang bazar, or even better in Band-e Amir itself, where tourist guesthouses have much improved, is a treat. It allows you to explore places more removed from the beaten track.

North of the lakes, in fact, lies an endless expanse of several thousand square kilometres of wilderness, with scant surface water sources and therefore dotted with only a handful villages. These have fancy names like Siahkhak (Black Dust) or Dozdan Chashma (Springs of Thieves), no electricity except solar panels and no means of transport except horses. There is a dust track, however, and with a four-by-four jeep and a good driver to master some really bad spots, you can drive some 80 kilometres all the way up to Hazar Chashma (Thousand Springs) to the border between the so-called Northern Plateau of Yakawlang district and the Dara-ye Suf district of neighboring Samangan province. The area of Hazar Chashma includes three tiny, lovely hilltop villages as detached from the world as in your wildest adventurous dreams, and the largest stone arch of Afghanistan. The outside world discovered it only recently. It apparently ranks 12th in the list of the world longest natural arches, but its location and the beauty of the trip that brings you there pull it up at least another five places. Walking for the last five kilometres makes it all more worthy, especially as you will walk in a narrow and sinuous gorge whose bottom of dried mud is cracked into huge clods. When evening comes, out of the cracks spring myriads of tiny mud-coloured frogs that leave you wonder where the hell they came from in this high-altitude desert and sweat over not stepping on any of them.

Given the distances and difficulties involved, this is not a one-day excursion. You can pitch your tent right under the arch, or lodge more comfortably in the village a further 30 minutes away. Of course, in either case you need to contact the rangers of the Band-e Amir National Park and hire one as a guide(4).

Well-preserved wildlife and a hidden Shangri-La

The Northern Plateau is also famous for its well-preserved wildlife: it is in this area that recently camera traps yielded unique proof of the survival of the rare Persian subspecies of leopards in this part of Afghanistan. Also, some kilometres to the east, the Ajar valley, once a royal hunting preserve, is believed to host the biggest population of ibex and other mountain ungulates of the central Hindu Kush. Ajar valley, potentially a tourist hot spot with its spectacular rocky canyons and wildlife, is however difficult to access, partly because of the occasional spillover of armed militants from neighbouring Sunni-dominated Kahmard district.

Another remote valley betweeen Ajar and Band-e Amir, Dara-e Gush, is off-limits for different reasons: it is rumoured to be haunted – not an altogether strange occurrence in this part of Afghanistan, given the massacres that serial invasions have caused in history and the legions of ghosts they must have left on earth.

Once tired of the savage beauty of natural wonders, you may want to move on to more idyllic – and still unexplored – sceneries in Yakawlang district. Drive west of the sprawling Yakawlang bazar towards the green area aptly called Chaman (Lawn) and beyond you hit the road leading to Chihil Burj (Forty – or many – Towers).

Chihil Burj is another citadel of the bygone Ghurid memory, though probably more ancient as some caves very similar to the Buddhist ones in Bamyan city show. Set in a commanding position on top of a cliff above the strategic route leading to Balkhab (currently Sar-e Pul province), Chihil Burj ‘closed’ the Bamyan vale on the northwest as Shahr-e Zohak did on the east and southeast. This was the core dominion of the Bamyan branch of the Ghurid dynasty, which between the 12th and 13th century controlled much of nowadays northern and eastern Afghanistan in an altogether peaceful power sharing deal with the main Ghurid dynasts based in Firuzkuh, Ghor province, and with their Indian chapter, installed in newly conquered Delhi.

The difference to its counterpart Shahr-e Zohak, however, could not be bigger. In contrast to the red rocks of the latter, Chihil Burj lies in a remote valley which was spared most of the fighting of the Afghan conflict and where golden soil and lush green vegetation mix elegantly. To reach the towers you will have to cross a fairyland-like thicket with a well-cared-for English grass lawn and species of European trees whose existence one had forgotten about, and which create a strong and sudden illusion of being on a different continent. The AAN field team, though well-acquainted with the history and botanics of the region, was awestruck by this secret garden for which the Ghurids or Genghis Khan could hardly be held responsible. The only theory we could produce was that some of the many English prisoners of the First Anglo-Afghan War, who right before their liberation in 1842 were detained in Bamyan, had decided not to go back to Victorian England and rather settled in this most beautiful and discreet quarter of Afghanistan, devoting themselves to gardening.

This little trip too is a 60-odd kilometres ride, but the track is less demanding than that to Hazarchashma and the landscape more varied, ranging from lofty mountains to the pictoresque hamlets of Dega and Sarbam-e Chihil Burj. Just make sure, before you leave, that you have a strong commitment to someone or something back home, or you may never want to go back.

(1) The organisers did not put a program online this year, but have a look at this report from last year to get an impression of the scope of events.

(2) You can help your imagination by reading the scholarly yet fascinating descriptions of the Buddhas complex given by Nancy Hatch Dupree in her ‘The Valley of Bamiyan’ or ‘An Historical Guide to Afghanistan’, available in most Kabul bookstores.

(3) For a thorough narration of how each of the six lakes was formed thanks to the exploits of Hazrat Ali we direct visitors to the malang of the Qadamja-e Shah-e Awliya, the shrine near the main access to the lakes from the village of Band-e Amir.

(4) The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) did a great job in Bamyan province helping the Afghan government setting up its first National Park in Band-e Amir in 2009. WCS ongoing projects in the province aim at surveying and monitoring wildlife and expanding protected areas by positively engaging local communities (find out more here).

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Band-e-Amir Buddhas of Bamiyan Darra-e Ezhdehar Dozdan Chashma Ghorband Valley Kakrak valley Qadamja-e Shah-e Awliya shrine Sayed Hazrat Yakhsuz Shah Fuladi Shahr-e Gholghola Shahr-e Zohak Siahkhak Valley of the dragon Yakawlang


Fabrizio Foschini

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