Bamiyan 2020 | Traveller's Journal: Alex Hall

When asked where (if anywhere) I went on holiday in 2020 and hearing the answer of Afghanistan, the reactions from friends and colleagues were binary: either; you’re insane, or that is insane!

For most people, Afghanistan is seen as a war rather than a country. News reports that hit the headlines in the UK rarely dig deeper than the latest attack (those attacks which hit the headlines in the UK or US are typically particularly large. Kabul sees attacks daily, whether bombings or shooting).

However, there is a different side to the country for some. The images taken by those lucky enough to pass through Afghanistan during the height of the hippy trail in the 1960s and 1970s show people and a country a far cry from those seen today. The country portrayed then, and particularly the beauty of its people and countryside have an element of romanticism that I felt drawn to.

So coming across a trip run by ISHKAR prompted my intrigue. After a fair amount of thought, research and a healthy dose of luck, in October last year I found myself making my way to Kabul to see what the real Afghanistan is like.

Getting there – what it actually entails

It seems that the second question, after querying the state of my sanity, was “How does one get to Afghanistan?”. Luckily for anyone wanting to make the trip, there is an exceptionally easy route to Kabul straight from Dubai. Although the arrival isn’t like any other…

Landing into Kabul is ‘an experience’, to say the least. Our late afternoon flight descended through the Hindu Kush as the sun was beginning to set. The plateau Kabul appears between the mountains surrounding the city, through the dusty evening sky. The city dominates as far as the eye can see. Seeing Kabul from the sky is when one appreciates why it is touted as one of the fastest-growing cities in the world; no mean feat. The population is estimated at ~5 million, up from ~1.5m in 2001. To put this in context, Kabul would be Europe’s fifth-largest city, behind Istanbul, Moscow, London and St Petersburg.

After a short stopover, our next step is the flight to Bamiyan, which is luckily short and sweet. Peering out of the window over the mesmerising Koh-e-Baba range of the Hindu Kush, our small plane swooped down into a broader and lush valley surrounded by yet more mesmerising mountains on either side. I could not help myself peering out of any angle the window allows in the hope to catch a glimpse of the Buddhas carved into the mountainside.

The jaw-dropping lakes of Band-e-Amir

Having already fallen in love with the beauty around Bamiyan city, I’m not sure any of our group was quite prepared for the striking beauty of the five lakes at Band-e-Amir.

A short drive westwards from Bamiyan town, we left the brief comfort of tarmac to head off-road, holding on as we made our way down a beaten rural track. Before we knew it, a small streak of blue broke the otherwise solid background of the desert. Seeming like a mirage, the blue grew until the unmistakable outline of a lake appeared, almost contrasting on purpose with the mountainous background - to make a point.

Once we got closer, the true beauty unfolded: the sheet glass lakes reflected the crystal blue clear sky, with the mesmerising Koh-e-Baba mountains in the background. In my mind, this is Afghanistan’s answer to Lake Como.

Our overnight stay at Band-e-Amir, having already made it very high up the list of memories from an unforgettable trip, had one more imprint to leave. I have to say, the game of dare, or perhaps more truthfully a game of ‘chicken’, that led to myself and two other travellers taking a dip at first light in the lakes will stay with me forever; not least the -9.5 degree Celsius temperature above water.

With the sun rising over the ridges and the top of the water still frozen, we ran for it; breaking through the thin ice on top of the water to get to swimming depth before we about-turned and ran out quickly as possible. Luckily no one else was around to see the sight of three westerners being abruptly manhandled out of wet clothes!

Buzkashi

Upon hearing that ISHKAR’S ski trip earlier in the year had stumbled upon a game of Buzkashi, it seemed like we were also in luck - driving past a pre-wedding match on our way out of Band-e-Amir. For anyone who doesn’t quite know what Buzkashi is: it is the national sport of Afghanistan. A horse-mounted game where the players attempt to place a goat or calf carcass in a goal (most of the time a hole in the ground).

The immediate sight of men on horses had us stop immediately to investigate further. It didn’t take long to confirm our suspicions, and followed by a brisk walk to find a river crossing point (none of the intrepid three seemed to fancy a second cold dip that day), we arrived at the match joined by seemingly every male guest of the wedding. Afghan weddings are notoriously large and expensive. (A recent law had to be passed to set the limit on invitations to 500 guests!)

Despite not knowing the rules - or even who was on which team - the sport is a spectacle filled with all the gripping moments and close shaves one could have possibly wanted. The Afghans certainly don’t give any thought to more established health and safety rules, with young boys amongst the adult players as each team wrestled for the goat carcass. Unlike most other sports, at times it can also be life-threatening for the spectators.

The flow seemed to match the tide of who was winning, with the spectators drawing back to the few safe banks of rocks as the match drew closer to where they stood. Luckily for us, the close shaves weren’t that close. However, at one moment, a member of the accompanying ISHKAR travel team lost their tobacco pouch running around taking photographs, resulting in the entire match being stopped by one of the elders, so that everyone could be roped in to find it. It turned out to be in the car….

Upon return, and reflection

Having been back in the UK for a few months now and perhaps the effects of lockdown number three hitting hard, seeing posts from our stellar guides (Sajjad Hussaini and Andrew Quilty) I can’t help feeling the draw of going back. Given what most people think Afghanistan is like, Bamiyan is a corner of the country which is a shining light for what the real Afghanistan is about; gentle and kindhearted people, truly stunning landscapes, and a wealth of history to rival anywhere else.

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