Travel

A rare oasis of solace

Scenic city of Bamiyan spared the conflict afflicting the rest of Afghanistan

Trudging halfway up a jagged goat trail, guide Mohammad Ibrahim extolled the panoramic view - a vast, ancient landscape of 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 Taleban - is a rare oasis of tranquillity 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 - a move welcomed by local hoteliers and shopkeepers, though few are optimistic.

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

Indeed, figuring out how to get to the ancient city - endowed with stunning landscapes but wedged between volatile provinces - itself is a challenge.

But that does not stop Mr Mohammad, head of the local tourism association with a penchant for Indiana Jones-style 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.

Hiking up to the ruined ramparts of Shahr-e-Gholghola - the City of Screams, which was destroyed by Genghis Khan in the 13th century - Mr Mohammad stopped to catch his breath.

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

FLIGHTS

But it has just one commercial airline operating thrice-weekly flights from Kabul, AFP reported.

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

Travellers who cannot afford the US$200 (S$270) round-trip airfare say Taleban militants harass them with impunity.

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

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".

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.

- Mr Mohammad Ibrahim, head of the Bamiyan tourism association