Afghanistan has many amazing sights. Yet with the forthcoming withdrawal of US troops and the Taliban poised to seize power again it seems unlikely it will become a tourist destination any time soon. Here are just a few of the places travelers will most likely have to do without visiting for the foreseeable future..
The Buddhas of Bamyan were built in the sixth century and stood, gently turning to dust, until 2001 until they were systematically destroyed by the Taliban in possibly the greatest act of cultural vandalism of the twenty first century so far.
Although the Buddhas are almost completely destroyed one can still see the niches in to which they were carved so many centuries ago. The countryside around is of lush green, in stark contrast to the sandstone from which they were hewn. Scientists have recently announced the discovery of a sixty foot reclining Buddha which escaped the Taliban due to being buried. It is hoped that this, and possible ‘reconstructions’ of the Buddhas gifted by the Japanese nation will restore the site to at least something of its former glory.
Above is how the larger of the Buddhas looked before and after the Taliban. It is hoped that solar powered laser systems will recreate the images of the Buddhas on to where they stood. It will cost about ten million dollars and it is hoped it will be complete by 2013. So, although the statues will never be the same, at least we will have a souvenir and the site remains historically of great importance. Incidentally, the man responsible for the destruction of the statues, the Taliban governor of Bayman province, was assassinated in Kabul in 2007.What goes around.
Lake Band-e-Amir is simply stunning, sometimes known as the Afghan Grand Canyon. The five lakes are close to the site of the Buddhas so both can be seen within a few days of each other. The remarkable thing about the lakes in the Hindu Kush mountains is that the way that the water is stored is completely natural. The walls that you can see in the top photograph (and the one directly below) have come about because the water is rich in carbon dioxide. Over the millennia this water oozed out to deposit calcium carbonate and slowly the travertine walls were built by nature.
The area is not easy to get to – the terrain is harsh to say the very least and if you like your creature comforts when traveling, you can forget it. To get to the lakes you will have to traverse a thin track as the road systems remain heavily mined due to militia and Taliban activity.
Historically we know that is was foolish to mess with Genghis Khan. The people of Shar-i-Gholgholoa obviously had not got the message and in the thirteenth century they were responsible for the slaying of Khan’s grandson. Never one to take revenge lightly, Genghis Khan destroyed the city and slaughtered over one hundred and fifty thousand of its inhabitants.
The city was never rebuilt and has stood there slowly moldering away ever since. It is, however, a magnificent ruin and, being in Bamyan province is close to the Buddhas and the lakes. It is the ill advised traveler who clambers through the remains however. During their ill advised intervention the Russians mined the whole area and it is still to be made safe. The City of Silence – or the City of Screams as it sometimes known (it can’t be both, surely) remains there – but at the moment best viewed at a distance.
The city of Mazar-e Sharif houses one of the most beautiful mosques you will ever encounter. The city’s name, in fact, means the “Tomb of the Exalted” and the Blue Mosque as it is known is reputed to be the burial place of Ali. Ali was the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. He was born in Mecca, the holiest of Muslim places and was the only person to be born within the Kaaba sanctuary inside the city.
It is believed that Ali’s mortal remains were under threat of desecration so his followers placed them on to a white female camel. They followed the camel’s progress for weeks until she collapsed, exhausted, to the ground. The Blue Mosque is the latest shrine to be built on this place. Although built in the fifteenth century a great deal of the mosque has been restored, which does not detract at all from its stunning beauty.
Ghazni, in the East of the country, is famed for its minarets. Some of them are over a thousand years old and were built during the Ghaznavid Empire, within a two hundred year period. The city has always been a mix of ethnicities and religions, much like the rest of the country – and the Sikhs and Hindus driven out by the Taliban were now beginning to return until recently.
Although the main visitor attractions are undoubtedly the Islamic minarets (like the one above at Jam) there is also, somewhere, a reclining Buddha. A shelter built around the fifteen meter female statue was built in the 1980s but has since collapsed due to the wooden supports being stolen. It is hoped that she will be restored one day.
The capital of Helmund province, Lashkar Gah, holds a secret – the ancient and ruined city of Bost. No one knows who originally built Bost, although it is known to be at least three thousand years old. In 661 CE it was taken by Muslims and became the location of the royal mint of the Ghaznavid Empire. It was destroyed by, yes, him again, Ghengis Khan in 1220. Although in ruins it still holds a magnificent archway of over twenty five meters and a mausoleum. It is already accessible to visitors and the transport to and from Lashkar Gah is good.
If you are looking for high altitudes and sheer desolation then you could visit some of the passes that Afghanistan boasts. The most famous is of course the notorious Khyber Pass, which connects the country with Pakistan.
The pass has always been important militarily and for trade and is considered to be still unsafe for visitors. Only in February 2009 a major bridge was blown up by suspected Taliban sympathizers. It is thought, however, that once fully secure, the pass will be part of a new supply route that will go through several central Asian republics and will be vital in the resurgence of the country economically.
Salang Pass is high – almost four thousand meters. It connects the north of the country to the important province of Kabul. In an almost python-esque situation – “What did the Russians ever do for us?”, the soviet invaders of the late seventies achieved an astronomical feat – they tunneled underneath it. At a height of three thousand four hundred meters it links Kabul with Mazar Sharif.
These are just a few of the amazing sites of Afghanistan. Hopefully within a few years the country could be open and friendly to visitors who will be able to discover the history and majesty of this old and proud country for themselves.