The country’s rich cultural history, rugged landscape, and the legendary generosity of Afghan people have long been a draw for adventurers and travellers alike but for now, still struggling with deep-rooted insurgency, Afghanistan remains firmly
The country’s rich cultural history, rugged landscape, and the legendary generosity of Afghan people have long been a draw for adventurers and travellers alike but for now, still struggling with deep-rooted insurgency, Afghanistan remains firmly off the radar for most. Plagued by terrorism and war, the most recent cycle of bloodshed and instability has left the country with a reputation for violence and little good ever makes our TV screens in the West. For too many, our narrative around countries like Afghanistan has been reduced to a single story.
In the bustling markets in the country’s capital, Kabul, you can find a chaotic little jungle of trinket shops, carpet sellers and giant chunks of Lapis filling windows. You can occasionally feel uneasy under the stares of watchful eyes as you poke your way through the dusty streets. However, it’ll mostly feel like any other vibrant bazaar in Asia, people going about their busy day.
You can eat in smoke–filled restaurants sitting cross-legged on cushions. Whole sheep carcasses are hung directly above the stove and the cook simply butchers off the bits he needs and throws them into a big black pot, along with fistfuls of fresh herbs and spices. Huge roundels of hot naan breads are piled high on the tables and you pay for what you eat. There is a genuine old-world feeling in Kabul that is rare to find these days.
From Kabul to Istalif, a district famous for its distinctive blue pottery and then by road to the stunning Panjshir Valley, one of the most celebrated places in Afghanistan, located in the heart of the Hindu Kush mountains. Its name means ‘Valley of the Five Lions,’ which according to local legend, refers to five spiritual protectors or ‘wali’ who built a dam here during the early 11th century AD for Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni.
The Panjshir river starts from a narrow gorge where snowmelt turns into a torrent, rich with fish. It gradually widens into the valley to reveal carefully irrigated fields of wheat and maize dotted with walnut, apricot and mulberry groves. 90% of farmers in Panjshir Province practice subsistence agriculture and the war has destroyed irrigation canals and orchards, making many aspects of farmers’ lives a challenge.
In recent years, however, international initiatives have assisted local and regional government leaders in introducing improved varieties of wheat and educating farmers on improving yields and irrigation.
In the heart of the Hazarajat, Bamiyan is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful parts of the whole country. It was a popular tourist destination during the 1970s but became a symbol of resistance to the Soviets a decade later. Today, although the gaping cavities still dominate the valley in the cliff face and the rubble is a constant reminder of the Taliban’s rage and destruction of the two ancient Buddha, there is far more to Bamiyan.
Guarding the entrance to Bamiyan valley, the ruins of Shahr-e Zohak form a dramatic citadel — perched high on the cliffs at the confluence of the Bamiyan and Kalu rivers. The towers here are some of the most imposing in Afghanistan and are made of mud-brick on stone foundations, with intricate geometric patterns built into their walls. With no doors, they were accessed by ladders that the defenders pulled up behind them.
Looking down from the citadel, the views are incredible. The thin strips of cultivated green in neighboring valleys like Fulladi provide a striking contrast to the dry pink and tan of the Koh-i Baba mountains.
At first glance, the barren hills of the Bamiyan valley promise little but the snowmelt that issues from them each spring allows the farmers here to irrigate the valley floor and grow crops like potatoes.
Donkeys are still the primary source of transport in this rural province and shepherds and their flocks are often compelled to walk long distances.
Finally, in Herat, the country’s old cultural heart, it feels more welcome than anywhere else in the country. Chatting to passing nomads on the outskirts of the city, inside its little bazaars, visiting the Friday Mosque — one of Islam’s great buildings — you can speak openly with burqa sellers about the state of the country. Here you discover an Afghanistan most people simply don’t know exists. Afghans are proud of their culture; they are welcoming, generous and have a sharp sense of humor.
Let us hope that one day, lasting peace will come to this battered but proud and ancient country, allowing travellers to experience its beauty and welcome and to step onto the fabled silk route once more.