Remains of the day: Bamiyan valley, Afghanistan

The niche in the Bamiyan cliffs where one of the Buddha statues stood. Photo: iStockphoto

The niche in the Bamiyan cliffs where one of the Buddha statues stood. 

Syed Zafar Mehdi

The Buddhas may be gone forever, but the valley remains a treasure trove of history and heritage in a strife-torn country

Bamiyan valley, which sits in the lap of the towering Hindu Kush mountains, about 180km north-west of Kabul, is among the most breathtakingly beautiful areas in Afghanistan. It is also considered one of the most peaceful regions in the war-ridden country. Its history dates back more than 2,000 years, and its archaeological heritage is a confluence of Persian, Turkish, Greek and Chinese cultures.

In 2003, Unesco listed the “cultural landscape and archaeological remains of the Bamiyan valley” on its World Heritage List and the List of World Heritage in Danger, two years after the Taliban had blown up the sixth century Buddha sculptures that were Bamiyan’s biggest attraction. And in June, it was officially declared the first ever “Saarc capital of culture”, for the year 2015-16—Saarc stands for South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. A series of cultural and sports events have been planned throughout the year; all the Saarc countries are taking part.

I travelled to Bamiyan at the invitation of the provincial government, to join the celebrations following the announcement of its new-found status. There are two roads one can take from Kabul; both are fraught with danger. One goes through the Taliban-infested Ghorband valley in the central Parwan province, considered an insurgency corridor owing to the heavy presence of militia groups. The other road passes through the Maidan Shahr district of Wardak province, crosses the 3,700m high Hajigak Pass, heading across the Koh-i-Baba mountains, and descending into the Bamiyan valley.

A 10km stretch of Maidan Shahr is considered a Taliban stronghold, and the roads have been damaged by landmines. Being kidnapped is a possibility, as is being blown up by freshly planted mines. But it is the quicker route, and also the more scenic, so I take it.

I am a khariji here, a foreigner, and have to don Afghan garb for my safety. And stay silent. I do as told and settle in. Soon enough, all thought of danger dissipates as our ride winds through the landscape, hugging towering mountains and past lush fields, scattered villages and rolling farmland. It has been raining, which makes everything that much more beautiful. We stop for chai in Maidan Shahr and in Jalrez, the former district predominantly Sunni Pashtun and the latter Shiite Hazara, but both equally warm and helpful to visitors.

When I arrive in Bamiyan the first thing I want to see, obviously, are the niches where the Buddhas were. I was in boarding school in Aligarh when the two imposing Buddha statues, Salsal (55m) and Shamama (38m), were razed to the ground by the Taliban in 2001. It made headlines and broke many hearts, including mine. Standing near the niches of the destroyed statues, I can only think of how resilient they had been through history—many invading armies had vandalized the statues, including the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s—only to be felled by the Taliban.

Local Muslims tell me stories about how—before the Taliban, before even the Soviet invasion—they used to routinely host foreigners, mostly Buddhist pilgrims, from across the world. Monasteries and mosques in the valley, an elderly man tells me, represented a cultural diversity and religious tolerance that had no parallel anywhere in the world.

In a bid to woo tourists and promote Bamiyan’s cultural heritage, Unesco and the Afghan government recently teamed up to establish the Bamiyan Cultural Centre, near the Buddha niches. The centre will house ancient artefacts, including the Buddha sculptures discovered by archaeologists over the years.

One of the Band-e-Amir lakes. Photo: Naimat Rawan

One of the Band-e-Amir lakes. Photo: Naimat Rawan

While the ruins of the Buddha statues and the caves that form an assembly of erstwhile Buddhist monasteries are the prime attraction in Bamiyan, there are other wonders too. Band-e-Amir, a collection of six sapphire-blue lakes, is a stunning sight. The six lakes are separated by travertine walls that form natural dams. Local lore has it that Band-e-Amir was created by Hazrat Ali, Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, during the reign of an infidel king, Barbar. The king was so impressed that he converted to Islam. A revered shrine of Hazrat Ali today stands a few hundred metres from the site.

Band-e-Amir was declared Afghanistan’s first national park in 2009. Nizamuddin, a local resident and self-proclaimed Bollywood buff, who goes by one name, informs me that some of the scenes in the 1975 Bollywood film Dharmatma, starring Feroz Khan and Hema Malini, were shot at Band-e-Amir.

Just a 20-minute leisurely walk away from Bamiyan valley is Shahr-e-Gholghola (the city of screams), which was conquered by the Mongol troops of Genghis Khan in 1221. The Shahr-e-Gholghola fort offers a panoramic view of the valley, right up to Kakrak valley in the east. The 2 hours I spend there, sitting and watching the breathtaking landscape as a cool breeze blows gently, feel like years of meditation. I feel rejuvenated.

The Kakrak valley is one of the three most sacred sites for Buddhists in the region, after the Bamiyan and Shah Foladi valleys. More than 100 caves and niches are cut into the surrounding cliffs. In 2001, when the standing Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban, a sitting Buddha in the Kakrak valley too was wiped out, though this did not make the headlines. You can still feel the spirit of the Buddha resonate in the valleys.

Almost 9km from the Bamiyan valley is the ancient city of Shahr-e-Zohak, named after a legendary character in Persian poet Ferdowsi’s epic poem Shahnameh. The imposing fortress of Shahr-e-Zohak, at the confluence of the Bamiyan and Kalu rivers, dates back to the sixth century. It provides a spectacular view of the nearby Hajigak valley, which contains the largest iron-ore deposits in Afghanistan.

Bamiyan city by night. Photo: Naimat Rawan

Bamiyan city by night. Photo: Naimat Rawan

East of the Bamiyan valley is the shrine of Syed Hazrat Yakhsuz, which sees a tremendous rush of devotees on festive occasions such as Nowruz (New Year), Shab-e-Qadr (the special night of prayers during Ramzan) and both Eids. I see many women draped in blue veils praying at the shrine.

People in Bamiyan are deeply conservative, but the radical ideology of the Taliban has no takers here. Unlike other central provinces, Taliban insurgents have failed to gain a foothold in this province.

A trip to Bamiyan is incomplete without a visit to the Shah Foladi valley, known for its towering peaks—particularly the 5,050m-high Shah Foladi peak—glaciers, flora and fauna. The peak was recently declared a “protected area” by the National Environmental Protection Agency of Afghanistan.

On my last day in Bamiyan, I spend the afternoon at a kebab shop in the main market of Bamiyan. The shopkeeper, a friendly man, speaks about his insufficient earnings and three unemployed sons. We discuss Bollywood, cricket and Isis (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

Isis, he tells me, wants to turn Afghanistan into another Iraq or Syria. “But they will not succeed here,” he says. “We are famous for mehman-nawazi (hospitality), but we also know how to kick out unwanted guests.”

Bamiyan has immense potential for tourism, and efforts are being made to project it as a world-class destination. As the authorities move to protect and conserve heritage sites, new hotels and markets are coming up. If the security situation improves, especially along the highway, all routes will lead to Bamiyan in the next few years.

TRIP PLANNER

Go

Kabul is connected by flights to Indian metros via Delhi. Bamiyan is a 180km drive from the Afghan capital. Detailed route options are available at Cultbamyan.af/how-to-get-there.

Stay

The Shahi Hotel (+93-794228090) is the expensive choice, while the Naseeb Hotel (+93-744437555) is a value-for-money option.

Eat

There are plenty of kebab shops around Band-e-Amir; the restaurant at Naseeb Hotel is also a good place to get a meal.

SAFETY ADVISORY

The security situation in Afghanistan continues to be volatile. Most recently, on 7 August, three suicide bombings rocked Kabul, killing at least 42 people and injuring 313. This was followed by another car bomb attack at Kabul airport on 10 August that left at least seven civilians dead and 18 injured.

The alarming escalation in militant violence makes travelling to Afghanistan dangerous. However, Bamiyan itself is relatively safe. If you decide to visit, abide by the rules and recommendations of the local tour operators.

(First published in HT’s Mint Lounge)

Advertisements

Pamir – Life on the roof of the world

Post

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Meeting point of three majestic mountain ranges and three rivers, Pamir is both beautiful and brutal

Dizzying heights, snow-capped peaks, shimmering rivulets and hanging glaciers. Known as Bam-e-Dunya (roof of the world), Pamir is one of the world’s best-kept secrets. It is the point of convergence between three majestic mountain ranges – Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Pamir – and home to isolated, high-altitude, bewitched and arid land of Wakhan Corridor, inhabited by Afghanistan’s Kyrgyz nomads. The place has remained virtually unscathed by years of war and violence, owing to its remote location and inaccessibility.

The strip of Wakhan corrdior consists of two picturesque valleys tucked away in the mountains of Central Asia. It is also the meeting point of rivers flowing towards east and west, including the Amu River, the largest river in Central Asia. Not many travelers and explorers have ventured here because the treacherous terrains can prove dangerous. The corridor was born out of 19th century ‘Great Game’, when the British and Russian empires took on each other for influence in the region.

According to historians, the legendary Mongolian warrior Genghis Khan led his Mongol troops here while setting out to invade parts of Europe. His successor Tamerlane, whom the great Arab historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun called ‘peerless ruler of the world’, also ruled here.

The corridor was born out of 19th century ‘Great Game’, when the British and Russian empires took on each other for influence in the region.

In 1866, the first Russian expedition landed in Pamir, spearheaded by veteran explorer Fedchenko, who explored the Zaalaiyskiy Mountains and the glacier that was till recently considered the biggest in the world. The Russian expedition was followed by English and Swedish expeditions. With the passage of time, the place became prominent on the map but there are still many unexplored and unchartered peaks and valleys in Pamir.

While melodic paeans can be written about the incredible beauty of the place, but not everything is hunky dory here. Inhabitants are trapped in the grinding web of poverty. They live in yurts; tend to flock of sheep, goats and yaks. They eat whatever is cultivated in their small fields perched at almost 14,000 feet above sea level.  The winds are fast and furious, temperature can be too cold for comfort, and there is little vegetation.

It takes three days to reach the nearest road through rugged mountains and one more day to reach the nearest town with shops and medical clinic. This isolation from outside world has alarmingly reduced the average life expectancy of people living here.

These Kyrgyz nomads are always on the move with their flock of animals. They are all illiterate. Money for them is a luxury they cannot afford.  Sheep is the basic unit of currency for all their basic requirements. Many of them are also into opium cultivation. The easy availability of drugs has made them addicts over a period of time. They also trade opium to dealers from Badakhshan province in exchange of sheep.

Though there is no insurgency, violence or fighting like in other parts of country, life for these nomads is a constant struggle. They live on a razor’s edge but they seem to have become used to this life now.

(First published in Afghan Zariza)

 

Leh-Ladakh: The rugged beauty

Shia Development Goals IV.jpg

Syed Zafar Mehdi

The picturesque snow-clad peaks kissing the clear azure sky; the icy cold waters surging down the glacial heights into the brackish lakes; the rhythmic chant of the monks in beautiful, ancient monasteries; the rugged terrains, expansive meadows, rich wildlife, glorious cultural heritage. Their remains no sense of date and time in Ladakh. The Roof of the World as it is called; a journey through Ladakh’s rocky landscape is simply breathtaking.

Bordered by two of the world’s largest mountain ranges and surrounded by alpine desert, Leh’s dry barren landscape full of historic Buddhist monasteries makes it an incredible sight to behold. A silent, blissful place, its intimacy belies the rugged 6,500 mt peaks enveloping the former kingdom. Travelers can trek through the hilly terrain of Ladakh, enjoy a game of polo or watch an archery contest where local residents compete in a contest that has remained unchanged for years. White water rafting, wildlife tours and mountaineering are hit here.

Three regions

Ladakh comprises of three main regions, all distinct in their own way.  Perched at 3500 mts, Leh & Upper Indus Valley is the historical and cultural heartland of Ladakh, home to numerous Buddhist monasteries, quaint villages, fairs, festivals and bazaars. Other is the Zanskar Valley, a relatively isolated valley to the south of Indus Valley. Among Ladakh’s remotest regions, Zanskar is ringed by mountains and only accessible by high passes. The twin peaks of Nun-Kun, its monasteries and its extremely rugged, awe-aspiring landscape are its main attractions. Then comes Kargil & Suru Valley, falling just behind the famous Zoji La Pass. Kargil is a small town with cobbled streets surrounded by apricot grooves.

Lakes taking breath away

The major attraction is Pangong Tso Lake, located at an altitude of almost 4,500 meters, a five-hour drive from Leh, most of it through rough mountain route, traversing the third-highest pass in the world, the Changla pass. The Pangong is a delight to the eye. The golden colored range to the north, with its rolling spurs culminating in chiseled peaks, spreads before your eyes a panorama of spectacular dimensions. In winter, the lake freezes completely despite being salt water.

Then comes Tsomoriri Lake, a beautiful mountain bounded expanse of water, located at 14,000 ft in Rupsho Valley. The nomads are focus of attention here, who graze herd of goats and yaks on lakeside. Tsokar Lake, around 76 kms from Tsomoriri is also a breathtaking lake. A trip to these two lakes can be organized in two or three days by jeep or two to three weeks by trek.

The sights to behold

The village Alchi situated on the bank of Indus River is home to one of the oldest monasteries in Ladakh known for its 11th century wall paintings, depicting both artistic and spiritual details of Buddhist and Hindu kings of that period in Kashmir. Down the Indus, on the route to Balistan, at an altitude of 2600 mts, lies a small community called the Drokpa, tracing their roots to Aryans. They are Buddhist but also worship nature gods and spirits. Numbering a few thousands, they have preserved their racial purity through centuries, but only two of the five Drokpa villages are open to tourists. The Nubra valley, referred as the orchard of Ladakh, because of being richer in vegetation, offers unparalleled trekking opportunities for adventure travelers.

Spectacular side trips

Among the most spectacular side trips from Leh is a journey along the Zanskar River. You’ll see hanging glaciers, green villages, Buddhist monasteries, and towering Himalayan peaks. The Nubra Valley, on Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable road, is another unforgettable trip. The sights of Himalayan icicles, wild yaks, horses, and hairy double humped camels, you’ll be rewarded with water, mountains, and desert all in the one area.

Monastries, the cynosure of eyes 

Among the largest, oldest and most famous monasteries in region is Hemis Monastery, around 45 km from Leh. Here Hemis festival is celebrated every June. Shanti Stupa, located on the hilltop, boasts of state of the art work, which pulls in lot of tourists to the place. Stok Gonpa and Palace, 14 kms from Leh, is the residence of present day royal family. The three days trek from Stok to Spituk and the 8 days trek of Markha Valley starts here. The palace has an exquisite collection of royal dresses, and king’s crown that is open for visitors. Lamayuru monastery, remarkably built on a rock, on the Leh-Srinagar highway is a major attraction too. Besides these, Thiskey Gonpa, the most beautiful of all the monasteries in Ladakh is the place for witnessing amazing sunsets.

Adventure trails

Ladakh provides great opportunities for adventure sports such as river rafting, trekking, mountaineering and mountain biking. Adventure tourism has contributed in a big way to Ladakh’s economy. For trekkers, Ladakh offers numerous trails to choose from such as the ones from Likir to Temisgam, and Markha Valley from Spituk. The joy of walking through tough tracks, deep gorges and rivers can be a rewarding experience for all levels of enthusiasts. The trekking season is roughly between May and October.

Mountain biking is also a hit here. The most popular route for biking is the Manali-Leh. Biking tours generally involve a 12 to 13-day bike rides. After a few days of fairly easy biking along the Manali-Leh route, the difficult ride begins with the climb to Baralcha (4,880m) as the altitude increases. The toughest part of the ride is the climb to Lachung La (5,065m). Mountain climbing trips can be booked to peaks such as Stok (20,177 feet), Goleb (19,356 feet), Kangyatse (20,997 feet) and Matho West (19,520) in the Zanskar Mountains. For river rafting, the best stretch is between Spituk and Saspol on the Indus, as well as the Shayok River in the Nubra Valley, and Zanskar River in Zanskar. The Nubra Valley offers camel safaris as well.

Box:

Getting to Leh:

Flights to Leh operate regularly from Delhi. Flights are also available to Leh from Srinagar and Jammu. Alternatively, the roads to Leh are open for a few months of the year, when the snow has melted. The Manali Leh Highway is open from around June to October each year, and the road from Srinagar to Leh is open from June to November. Bus, jeep, and taxi services are all available. The trip takes around 2 days because of the difficult nature of the terrain. If you have the time and are in good health, do travel by road as the scenery is amazing.

When to Visit Leh:

The best time to visit Leh is between May and September, when the weather is the warmest. Ladakh doesn’t experience rain like elsewhere in India, so the monsoon season is the perfect time to travel to Leh.

Stay in Leh:

Hotels in Leh Ladakh include various budget hotels, luxury hotels, mid-price hotels and homestays. A family-run Oriental Guesthouse in the hamlet of Changspa, is an ideal place with clean rooms, hot water, Internet, library, delightful garden, and stunning view. The new Spic n Span Hotel on Old Leh Road is another popular choice with modern amenities. Double rooms start from 2000 rupees. The Grand Dragon Hotel is more upmarket and is Leh’s first 4-star hotel, with prices starting from 6000 rupees for a double.

(First published in Hindustan Times)

Ghazni: The Capital of Islamic Culture

Corbis-AL008102.jpg

Syed Zafar Mehdi

“The greater part of the town is in ruins and nothing but a fraction of it remains, though it was once a large city,” writes the famous Moroccan traveler, Ibn Batuta, who visited this beautiful and bustling city in the central east of Afghanistan, way back in 1333. Yaqoot Al-Hamawi, the Arab chronicler, described it as the ‘great city and a large province at the frontier between Khurasan and Hindustan on a road abundant with bounties’.

Sitting at a height of 2,219 meters above sea level, Ghazni, which was once the capital of Ghaznivid Empire and a popular commercial and cultural hub of the Islamic world, is nestled between Kandahar to the southwest and Kabul to the northeast.

Like other cities of Afghanistan, Ghazni has seen many military invasions. According to historians, the city was inhabited by Buddhists and Hinduis in pre-Islamic period, before Arabs came and introduced Islam in the 7th century. The city was destroyed by one of the Ghurid dynasty rulers but was rebuilt by other rulers later.

dupreechapter9.jpg

Known for its diverse Islamic architecture, the city of Ghazni is home to some magnificent mausoleums and minarets dating back to 12th century. Mausoleum of Abd al-Razzaq, tomb of Mahmud Ghazanvi, minarets of Bahram Shah, palace of Mas’ud III and Ghazni citadel, are some of the prime attractions. Most of the visitors come here to see the mausoleum of Sultan Mahmud and the tombs of poets and scientists like Al Biruni. The two ‘victory towers’ constructed by Mahmud of Ghazni have survived invasions and wars for eight centuries.  Designed in an intricate fashion, some minarets have been destroyed during war

After the intervention of US led allied forces in 2001, a military base was set up in the city. The international forces have carried out many reconstruction projects and trained local police and army personnel in all these years.

Town and Citadel of Ghuznee.jpg

Last year, the city grabbed headlines after it was officially declared as the Asian capital of Islamic Culture for 2013 by United Nations, calling it a country full of archeological remains and full of history. A number of projects to renovate some historical sites were carried out last year. In 2007, the city was chosen as the capital of Islamic civilization by the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO).

(First published in Afghan Zariza)

Summer fun in the mountains of Panjshir

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Last week, driving up the magnificent Panjshir valley in northeastern Afghanistan, 150 km north of Kabul, I saw beauty in its most pristine form. The spectacular landscape that leaves you gasping for breath; crystal-clear waters surging down the glacial heights; shimmering lakes moving with faultless rhyme and seamless rhythm; brooding and majestic mountains invisible through a shroud of damp white mist; lush green meadows spread like a beautiful carpet; serpentine roads with towering cliffs, and gentle breeze blowing freely.

The drive from Kabul to Panjshir, meandering through rugged mountains, is nothing short of spectacular. The beauty of this valley, sitting in the lap of Hindu Kush Mountains, has inspired many poets and artists over the centuries. The picturesque peaks and the gurgling waters make you fall in love with it.

Panjshir valley, which translates into ‘valley of five lions’, gets the name from five brothers who quite astonishingly made a dam here for Sultan Mahmoud Ghazni in early 11th century, the prominent ruler of the Ghaznavid empire. Their small, modest shrine greets visitors at the entrance of valley.

Surrounded by majestic Hindu Kush Mountains, which divide Central Asia and South Asia, Panjshir valley with its shimmering lakes and rocky terrains is an incredible sight to behold. The valley starts at Dalang Sang and stretches to 100 kms right till the Anjoman Pass, through extensive fields of wheat, maize, walnut and mulberry.

Panjshir has emerged as favorite destination of foreign tourists not only because of relative calm and pristine beauty, but also because of the history and legends associated with this place

The gurgling Panjsher River, which passes through the valley, is famous for fishing escapades. Many local restaurants serve you freshly fried fish taken from the trout-filled streams. For many foreign tourists and water sports enthusiasts, the river is ideal for kayaking, which has evolved into a popular water sport here.

Passing through well-irrigated farms, you come across a beautiful football stadium, which is still under construction. According to locals, celebrated Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud used to play football in the green fields here. Hailed as the ‘Loin of Panjshir’, Massoud quite famously fought Soviets and also the Taliban and Al Qaeda as the commander of Northern Alliance. He was assassinated two days before the 9/11 attacks, and his green-domed mausoleum on top of hills is among the prime attractions here. The destroyed Russian tanks lying next to his mausoleum tell the incredible tales of his chivalry.

Massoud has left deep and enduring imprints on the lives of people here. His portraits are everywhere from streets to shops to government buildings to cars plying on the road. People here have kept his legacy alive and it is pretty much evident. His close associate and former Vice President Mohammad Qaseem Fahim, who passed away recently, is also highly revered by people in Panjshir. His palatial bungalow on the banks of Panjshir River is a big attraction. Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, who hails from Panjshir, has a huge following here. The people here seem disheartened because of the alleged fraud in Presidential runoff.

Panjshir valley was not just a hiding place for Massoud and his fighters, the emerald mines in mountains were the main source of revenue for his party. The legions of miners are still burrowing deep into the snow-capped mountains looking to extract some of the world’s finest emeralds. The huge deposits of rubies, sapphires and lapis lazuli, which are currently sold for about 200 million USD every year, could lay the foundation of robust gem industry here in future.

Panjshir has emerged as favorite destination of foreign tourists not only because of relative calm and pristine beauty, but also because of the history and legends associated with this place, which is the central setting of Ken Follett’s 1985 spy novel ‘Lie Down with Lions’. However, the desperate attempts to breach the security continue. Earlier last month, a powerful car bomb exploded at a checkpoint that marks the entrance to the valley. At least 12 people were killed in the attack. But comparatively, Panjshir province is by far the safest in Afghanistan. During the Taliban regime, many people had flocked here from Kabul and other provinces to escape the brutality of rulers.

Surrounded by majestic Hindu Kush Mountains, which divide Central Asia and South Asia, Panjshir valley with its shimmering lakes and rocky terrains is an incredible sight to behold

The travel time from Kabul to Panjshir has considerably decreased because of well paved and maintained roads. The road that connects most of the villages and cuts through some of the most difficult mountain terrains was constructed by The United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The narrowness of roads and absence of street lights, however, make the drive difficult after sunset. Many accidents have occurred on this road, making it dangerous.

At the entrance of valley, there is a police check post where cars are stopped for security check. Security arrangements have been tightened especially since the May 1 suicide attack, which was a rare assault by armed insurgents in Panjshir. If you don’t carry passport, you might be grilled by security guards manning the gate.

Once you have entered the valley, the adventure trails begin. The small shops selling kebabs and tea dot the road along the Panjshir River. Kebabs are served with traditional Afghan bread. There are also shops selling cherry, mulberry and pomegranates. You also find some quirky cafes serving burgers and various desserts.

Along the road, there is a 40-bed hospital developed by the Afghan Ministry of Health in partnership with World Bank and Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), which caters to thousands of people living in the area. The hospital is not too far from Bazarak, the center of valley. There are few more hospitals in the interior areas, which serve the local populace.

Many children, especially girls, can be seen walking long distance to reach their schools. Unlike in many other provinces of Afghanistan, the progress made in the area of education here is tremendous. As one local told me, Panjshiris understand that education is the key to a more promising future.

The villages in Panjshir are peaceful and calm and people are incredibly hospitable. The total strangers walk up to you and greet you in chaste Dari. Many of them even invite you home. All the houses in villages are made of mud, surrounded by lush-green orchards. Icy-cold water surging down the mountains feed the agricultural fields below. There are not many shops and lifestyle is simple. Unlike the villages in other provinces though, electricity here is uninterrupted.

The drive back to Kabul from Panjshir is again thrilling, but you tend to miss the place. The chaos and commotion of Kabul is in sharp contrast to peace and tranquility of Panjshir. This is also the one place that reminded me of home.

(http://www.afghanzariza.com/2014/07/01/summer-fun-in-the-mountains-of-panjshir/blog)

Panjshir Valley: Incredible Afghanistan Lives Here

 The picturesque peaks kissing the clear azure sky; the icy-cold water surging down the glacial heights; the brackish lakes dotting the breathtaking landscape; the lush green meadows dancing in the breezy air and the rich heritage seeped in history.

Meandering through the serpentine roads tucked into the rocky mountains; you land up in an exotic place, unarguably Afghanistan’s best-kept secret. The drive to Panjshir valley, 150 kilometers north of Kabul, in the lap of majestic Hindu Kush Mountains, is both adventurous and exhilarating.

Panjshir valley, which translates into ‘valley of five lions’, gets the name from five brothers who quite astonishingly made a dam here for Sultan Mahmoud Ghazni, the most prominent ruler of the Ghaznavid empire, in 10th century. Their shrine greets visitors at the entrance of valley.

Bordered by Hindu Kush Mountains, which divide Central Asia and South Asia, Panjshir valley with its shimmering rivulets and rocky terrains is an incredible sight to behold. A silent and blissful place, its intimacy belies the rugged 4,500 meter peaks enveloping the former kingdom.

Bordered by Hindu Kush Mountains, which divide Central Asia and South Asia, Panjshir valley with its shimmering rivulets and rocky terrains is an incredible sight to behold

The valley starts at Dalang Sang and stretches for 100 kms right to the Anjoman Pass, through beautiful fields of wheat, maize, walnut and mulberry. The fast flowing Panjshir River is famous among locals for fishing escapades.

For foreign tourists and water sports enthusiasts, the river is ideal for kayaking, which has evolved into a popular water sport.

Passing through well-irrigated farms and fields, you come across a football stadium, which is expected to become better than the one in Kabul city.

Among the major attractions of Panjshir valley is the green-domed mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Masoud. Hailed as the ‘Loin of Panjsher’ because of his resistance to Soviets, the Tajik guerilla leader also fought Taliban and Al Qaeda as the commander of Northern Alliance, and was assassinated two days before the 9/11 attacks. A massive portrait of Masoud sits at the entrance of the valley and his beautiful mausoleum attracts large number of visitors, both locals and foreigners.

Panjshir, claim some historians, was not just a hiding place for Masoud, but was a source of income for him and his party because of emerald mines. Even today, miners are digging deep into the mountains of Panjshir valley to extract some of the world’s finest emeralds. The huge deposits of rubies, sapphires and lapis lazuli, which are currently sold for about $200 million USD every year, could well lay the foundation of a robust gem industry here in future.

Panjshir has become a favourite destination for tourists not only because of the tranquility and calm, but also because of the history and legends associated with this place, which is the central setting of Ken Follett’s 1985 spy novel ‘Lie Down with Lions’. This is truly a delight.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2014/03/06/panjshir-valley-incredible-afghanistan-lives-here

Mazar e Sharif: The Bustling Beacon of Beauty

Some 400 kilometers northwest of Kabul is the second largest city and the sprawling urban centre of Afghanistan. They call it Mazar e Sharif. The province is tremendously popular with foreign tourists thanks to its breathtaking landscape, and more importantly, peace and serenity. In all the years of civil war and political unrest, this part of the war-torn country remained unaffected since it existed as an autonomous region until the late 1990s. It borders Uzbekistan and is populated with large number of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. This diversity is reflected in the city’s rich culture, from exquisite food to enchanting music, from quirky markets to fine arts and crafts.

Unlike many other restive provinces of Afghanistan, which are still trapped in ultra-conservative, old-fashioned, orthodox traditions; women in Mazar e Sharif enjoy complete freedom and access to higher education. There is zero tolerance for discrimination. People come across as warm and unpretentious. Quite interestingly, the local provincial government has done a fine job. There is a Women’s Music College too, something unthinkable elsewhere.

Mazar e Sharif remained unaffected in the years of civil war; however, it faced its own problems in the post-Taliban era, after 2001. The warlords and strongmen from Uzbek and Tajik tribes got embroiled in a power struggle and control of natural gas reserves. The situation has limped back to normalcy now but the tensions spark occasionally.

Worse, post 2001, this province made news for war crimes by US led allied forces. After the Taliban were ousted in 2001, fierce military operations swept the country including Mazar e Sharif. A documentary film ‘Massacre at Mazar’ made by an Irish filmmaker Jamie Doran shows the extent of involvement of US soldiers in torture and murder of captured rebels and disappearance of around 3,000 men in Mazar e Sharif province barely a year after Taliban regime was shunted out.

The noise of traffic on the road drowns in the quietude and calm of the park, the chirping and warbling of birds, the cooing of the white doves waddling all around

Mazar e Sharif is home to the national sport of Afghanistan, Buzkashi. The aggressive sport, in which players riding the horseback seek control of a goat’s carcass, is being played here since the 13th century. It is played in open fields on weekends, especially in the winter season until the Afghan New Year (Navroz) that falls on March 21. On Navroz, Mazar e Sharif turns into a virgin bride and is flooded with massive number of visitors. The auspicious occasion coincides with Gul e Surkh festival, named after red tulip flowers, invoking prosperity and productiveness.

However, the main attraction of city, which draws tourists and pilgrims from across the world, especially on the New Year, is Blue Mosque. The mosque is surrounded by the picturesque, lush-green park filled with the intoxicating smell of flowers. The noise of traffic on the road drowns in the quietude and calm of the park, the chirping and warbling of birds, the cooing of the white doves waddling all around. The doves, which are an integral part of the Blue Mosque compound, are looked after by the attendants of the mosque. According to caretakers and gardeners here, the doves are pure white in color because of the sanctity of the mosque, and even the doves with speck of color turn white here.

On Navroz, which marks the first day of spring and the beginning of Afghan New year, all the routes lead to this beautiful shrine; the festivities kick off days before and continue for more than two weeks 

The Blue Mosque, enveloped in thousands of colorful and intricately designed tiles in various exquisite patterns, houses the revered shrine of Hazrat Ali, the cousin of Prophet Mohammad. The shrine was built in the reign of Husain Baiqara. The open hall to the southeast of shrine dates back to Timurid period. The marble gravestone is from the Ghazanavid period. Legend has it that the body of Hazrat Ali was shifted here from its original burial place in Najaf, Iraq.  The deeply revered shrine was demolished by the marauding ruler Genghis Khan and his Mongol army in the 13th century, but it was later rebuilt as a pilgrimage site and a tourist destination.

Today, the shrine has become cynosure of all eyes, and people cutting across sects and tribes in Afghanistan hold it in deep reverence. On Navroz, which marks the first day of spring and the beginning of Afghan New year, all the routes lead to this beautiful shrine. The festivities kick off days before and continue for more than two weeks. Every year, on the day of Navroz, the guards of shrine (pehelwan e roza) hoist a massive flag called ‘Jahanda’ in the compound of the shrine. Thousands of people from across the country witness the ceremony, which has become a part of tradition now. Mela-e Gul-e Surkh, a popular festival of blooming tulips in Mazar e Sharif, starts a week before the New Year.

Well, little wonder why a trip to Afghanistan is incomplete without visiting Mazar e Sharif and Blue Mosque. The beautiful meets bustling here.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2014/01/27/mazar-e-sharif-the-bustling-beacon-of-beauty/blog)