Hidden Afghanistan

From the apricot and walnut groves of the beautiful Panjshir valley, to the strips of cultivated green set against the dry pink and tan of the mountains in Bamyan, to the glittering sapphire blue lakes of Band-e Amir, I went in search of the real Afghanistan.

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.

As part of my work on a book called Life in the Himalayas — looking at people’s everyday working lives throughout this diverse and magnificent mountain range, from the high plateau of Tibet to the foothills of Myanmar — I spent three weeks documenting the lives of agropastoralists in Afghanistan, and exploring this battered but beautiful country. I set out to focus on rural areas, everyday life and culture, going in search of the real Afghanistan, away from the vestiges of war and terror.

Kabul

I started off in the bustling markets in the country’s capital, Kabul, a chaotic little jungle of trinket shops, carpet sellers and giant chunks of Lapis filling windows. Occasionally I felt uneasy under the stares of watchful eyes as I poked my way through the dusty streets. Mostly it felt like any other vibrant bazaar in Asia, people going about their busy day.
 

I ate 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.
 

Panjshir Valley

From Kabul I travelled 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 turn the river 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 percent 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 to introduce improved varieties of wheat and educate farmers on methods for improving yields and irrigation.
 

Bamiyan

In the heart of the Hazarajat, Bamiyan is surely one of the most beautiful parts of the whole country. It was a popular tourist destination during the 1970s, but a decade later became a symbol of resistance to the Soviets. Today, although the valley is still dominated by the gaping cavities 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 all of 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, with the thin strips of cultivated green in neighbouring valleys like Fulladi providing 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 appear to 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 main source of transport in this rural province, and shepherds and their flocks are often compelled to walk long distances.
 

Band-e Amir

Meanwhile, the glittering sapphire blue lakes of Band-e Amir are one of Afghanistan’s most astounding natural sights. In April 2009, Band-e Amir was named the country’s first national park, 36 years after a previous attempt to do so was interrupted by decades of political strife and war.

Formed by the mineral-rich water that seeps out of faults and cracks in the rocky landscape, the six linked lakes of Band-e Amir sparkle like jewels against the dusty mountains that surround them.

Over time layers of hardened mineral deposits called travertine have built up on the shores, to create the dramatic sheer sides that now hold the lakes in place. Local lore tells a different story, asserting that these natural dams were thrown into place by Hazrat Ali, the prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, during the reign of the infidel king Barbar.

Before gaining its status as a national park this region experienced significant habitat destruction for firewood and farmland, overgrazing and overhunting — the snow leopard has now vanished here — and also damaging fishing practices that involved using hand grenades. Today Band-e-Amir is protected by a small group of park rangers, and is still home to ibex (wild goats), urials (wild sheep), and wolves. Although numbers of visitors to the park remain small, it is hoped that in time, this region will become an important area for tourism in Afghanistan.
 

Herat

Finally in Herat, the country’s old cultural heart, I felt 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 — I spoke openly with burqa sellers about the state of the country. Here I discovered 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 humour.

On my last day, insurgents attacked one of the big hotels in Kabul. I could hear helicopters and sirens all day and was advised that it was best not to leave the house. The next morning a gunfight broke out beside the road on the way to the airport. Sand bags and gun turrets occupy every corner and the frequent security checks are a sobering reminder of how unstable and precarious daily life is for the people of Afghanistan, whose resilience remains under great strain in these troubled times.

Let us hope that one day, a 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.
 

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.

ALEX TREADWAY

Driven by his passion for travel, the environment and remote cultures, Alex Treadway has travelled to dozens of countries around the world on assignment.