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Bamyan, Bamyan Valley, Afghanistan, Shahr e Gholghola, Budda Niches, Bamyan Buddhas

Bamyan Travel Guide

Updated April 2020, The Bamyan Travel Guide was originally written in February 2019

We weren’t supposed to get here (safely, anyways) according to my research prior to our arrival in Kabul. Thanks to a terroristic act on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul carried out by the Taliban, 9 of the 22 victims were pilot or crew members of Kam Air, Afghanistan’s main airline. Subsequently, 50 additional foreign Kam Air employees departed the country (understandably so), forcing the airline to cancel many flights and completely ax the Bamyan route. Driving long distances isn’t regarded as safe, so we had already turned our focus to Kandahar.

Shortly after our arrival into Kabul, Noor was briefing us on our itinerary and the do’s and don’ts of Afghanistan. As we sat in anticipation waiting to hear about Kandahar (the Afghan city I knew the least about) Noor shifted on from the Kabul plans— he told us we’d be driving to Bamyan the following morning.

But this journey didn’t come without risk. Stretches of the road through the Parwan Province passed areas too close for comfort for most to Taliban controlled areas. Even through extremely conservative villages with some inhabitants known to snitch out foreigners to Taliban that could set up trouble ahead on the road.

Start here: The Afghanistan Travel Guide

But We’re Two Women..

Noor went on to explain that we could pick up a couple of the famed blue Afghan burqas from a bazaar near Istalif on our way up the road.

One perk of being a foreign woman in Afghanistan? Without much effort, we can be disguised to look no different from local Afghan women.

Shortly after dawn broke the next morning we made way toward Bamyan, stopping into Istalif for our quick burqa shopping spree, and another break for security proceedings at the borders of Parwan and Bamyan Provinces where we swiftly had our vodka from Dubai confiscated before arriving to the Bamyan Bazaar.

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Dara e Ajdahar

Dara e Ajdahar: Why You Don’t F*** With Ali

We arrived and had enough time to get in a quick lunch of a traditional Bamyan dish with soft bread soaked in warm yogurt and some mantoo before catching sunset at Dara e Ajdahar (Dragon Valley).

As we made the 7km journey to the Dragon Valley we passed through Ajdahar Village, a village built by the UN for Hazara that had fled Bamyan under the siege by the Taliban that forced many to seek refuge in Pakistan and Iran. Many families have returned as the situation in Bamyan has improved.

In ancient pagan Bamyan times, a dragon terrorized the village, feasting on its residents and even camels. Dara e Ajdahar is the resting place of the beast that plagued the area. All attempts to slay the dragon failed, that is until Ali, the son in law of the Prophet Mohammed came to town.

Ali had just created the dams of Band e Amir to free a family enslaved by the local king with his trusty sword named Zulfiqar (and subsequently the name of the largest lake of Band e Amir). Ali, upon hearing of the Dragon’s devastation on the village, headed to Dara e Ajdahar and sliced the dragon in two.

The dragon is marked by a spine of volcanic rock rising from the desert floor with a gash running the length of the dragon’s body. Two 2-meter high horns rise from the resting place of the dragon’s head near two volcanic springs— one clear with dragon tears and the other run red with dragon blood. An unmissable blue shrine sits along the dragon’s body giving views down on the valley, particularly stunning at sunset.

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Sunset at Dara e Ajdahar

How To Get To Dara e Ajadahar

Dara e Ajdahar is located about 7 km west of Bamyan Bazaar. You can reach Dara e Ajdahar on foot if you so desire, otherwise you can hire a taxi from Bamyan Bazaar for about 500 AFS return, including waiting on you. There is a shared taxi that departs the Bazaar as well for the village of Dara e Ajdahar for 30 AFS per seat, but departures are as the van fills up so timings can be a bit erratic.

Check out the quick guide to Dara e Ajdahar

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The unbelievable blues of Band e Amir

Band e Amir

The next morning welcomed us with icy cold temperatures, chilled enough to see the breath escaping your lungs. We got an early start for a visit to one of Afghanistan’s most beautiful natural wonders— Band e Amir National Park.

Band e Amir is home to 6 lakes (although one has dried up, leaving 5) all of differing shades of blue set against the Koh e Baba foothills of the Hindu Kush.

As mentioned earlier Band e Amir was where Ali first went to set free an enslaved family. Using his sword Zulfiqar, some boulders and even a bit of cheese he dammed off the Balkh River creating the 6 dazzling lakes and thus converting the area residents to Islam.

In reality the lakes of Band e Amir were created by Travertine dams, a precipitate that has built up over time from the mineral rich waters of the area.

Read more about the Lapis Lazuli Lakes of Band e Amir

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How To Get To Band e Amir

Hiring a taxi from Bamyan Bazaar is likely the best way to visit Band e Amir and easily see the lakes in one day. Plan to pay about 1,500 AFS to hire a taxi for the day. For 250 AFS each way there is a shared taxi that departs Bamyan Bazaar bound for Band e Amir. There is a gate once you arrive at Band e Amir where you will need to pay a 200 AFS national park entrance fee.

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Sukhadar Village

Sukhadar

I must have missed it with my sleepy eyes as we left Bamyan in the morning. On the way back to Bamyan from Band e Amir we passed the most amazing village with its homes set into a cliff face dotted with caves that housed some of the families.

How To Get To Sukhadar

Sukhadar is interesting for a quick stop on your way to or back from Band e Amir. You could choose to walk here too, but the village sits about 8 km west of Bamyan Bazaar.

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The Buddha Niches

Buddha Niches

As the morning sun beamed down we followed the dusty track to Shamama, the smaller of the two famed Buddha Niches that loom in the cliffside that serves as a backdrop to the town of Bamyan.

It is estimated the Buddhas that once stood inside these niches sculpted right into the cliffside were carved between the 3rd and 6th centuries AD as Buddhism made its spread along the ancient Silk Road. Until the successful March 2001 destruction of the Buddhas by the Taliban under the orders of Mullah Omar there had been numerous attacks on the Buddhas to no avail.

At the base of the smaller of the two famous Buddhas, popularly called Shamama we entered a small cave opening. At first glance, the cliffside, much like many areas around Bamyan looked like a honeycomb of cave openings in the rock. An intricate series of grottos, niches, and stone-hewn steps bring you high up around and finally to a lookout where the head of Shamama once rest. The most impressive caves with lantern style (similar to Pamiri style) ceilings are the ones that lead behind the Buddha Niche that sits perched high on the cliff-face between Shamama and the larger Salsal Niche.

Near to the Niche of Salsal sits a covered area housing the remains of the dynamited Bamyan Buddhas, though many pieces were sold off by the Taliban to antique dealers and taken to Peshawar over in Pakistan.

At the time of our visit (September 2018), the Niche of Salsal was filled with scaffolding due to fears of the Niche collapsing and the cave entrances to the grottos around the Niche closed. This was also the case on my most recent visit in March 2019.

Bamyan is full of honeycombed cliff faces with countless caves to explore.

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Walking between the Buddha Niches of Shakhmama and Salsal

How To Get To The Buddha Niches

The niches are located about 1 km north of Bamyan Bazaar, thus making a visit easy enough to manage on foot, though taxis will gladly charge you a few AFS for the short drive. Once to the niches, you will need to pay your 300 AFS Bamyan Entrance Ticket, there is a small office at the Bamyan Director of Information & Culture. Nearby there is also a cafe ran by local women to grab a chai and a snack at. This ticket is also good for admissions to Shahr e Gholghola, Shahr e Zohak, and Chehel Situn.

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The remains of Shahr e Zohak, destroyed by Genghis Khan during the Siege of Bamyan

Shahr e Zohak: The Red City

We drove out of the Bamyan Bazaar just after lunch and began the hike up to Shahr e Zohak in the shade created by the massive red craggy mountainside. Shahr e Zohak is an ancient Ghorid (and eventually Khorezmian) city, perched above the  convergence of the Kalu and Bamyan Rivers in the valley below. Shahr e Zohak gains its nickname as the Red City from the bloody story behind the legend of these red rocks.

The city of Shahr e Zohak was built in the 6th century by the Ghorids to guard the Bamyan Valley against attack. It was here that none but Genghis Khan was impenetrable. Genghis made his way into the Red City after receiving the news that his grandson Mutukhan was killed by the Khorezmians at Shahr e Zohak. In typical Genghis Khan fashion, he went on a murderous rampage through the city, killing everyone in his path before descending onto Shahr e Gholghola. As the residents of Shahr e Zohak lie dying in the cliffside city the blood of the victims drained out, staining the barren rock and fortress walls the chalky pink-red color that you see here today.

Shahr e Zohak was mined during the Afghan Civil War, in fact, you will see an old military tank atop the fortress. Do take care and stay on the beaten trail to avoid any remaining landmines.

How To Get To Shahr e Zohak

Make sure you already have a Bamyan Entrance Ticket from the Director of Information & Culture (300 AFS) before making the 9 km jaunt out of Bamyan to Shahr e Zohak.

From Bamyan Bazaar it is possible to arrange a driver to Shahr e Zohak and back for around 500-1,000 AFS (plan to haggle) or you can usually hitch with cars headed east from Bamyan (they will usually expect a small payment of about 50 AFS) for the ride out there (ask to be dropped off at Tulpchi Village or Shashpul). At Shashpul there usually are soldiers on duty who will check your ticket. From Shashpul it is about a 1 km walk from here to the village of Kalu where you’ll follow the trail up to Shahr e Zohak.

Read: Shahr e Zohak, Afghanistan’s Red City

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The ruins of Shahr e Gholghola with Bamyan Valley unfolding in front of it

Shahr e Gholghola: The City Of Screams

Our final stop was at the famed City of Screams as the last golden light cast down over Bamyan Valley in the late afternoon.

Shahr e Gholghola was Bamyan’s best guarded fortress under the final Khorezmian ruler- Jalaladin Mingburnu, who would, in the end, be betrayed by his own daughter. After Genghis Khan’s slaughter of Shahr e Zohak, he led the Mongol Horde to devastate the recently turned Khorezmian villages and cities of Bamyan. Shahr e Gholghola remained the Jalaladin’s last stand after several months of being encircled by Genghis and the Horde. The Horde never managed to infiltrate Gholghola until Jalaladin’s daughter, angry at her father over his new marriage to a princess from Ghazni, became engaged to none other than Genghis Khan himself.

This was how Genghis gained access to the fortress he’d spent the last several months trying to intrude. First, he killed Jalaladin’s daughter before laying siege to anyone in his path stopping at nothing until every last resident of Shahr e Gholghola was murdered. Shahr e Gholghola gained its nickname as the City of Screams from the cries of pain and final screams leading to death as the victims lie moribund in their home.

Wanna know more about the city of screams? Read: Shahr e Gholghola

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Shahr e Gholghola

How To Get To Shahr e Gholghola

Shahr e Gholghola is easy to reach as its only a 1.5 km (20 minute) walk from the Bamyan Bazaar. Take a left at the roundabout at the end of Bazaar Road down Sayadabad Street. You will see Shahr e Gholghola to your left. Make sure and have your Bamyan Entrance Ticket from the Director of Information & Culture in case you are asked for it on arrival.

Where To Stay In Bamyan

  • Budget: You can sleep at the chaikhanas along the main street in Bamyan for about 300-500 AFS/night per person. Note that some do not have toilets and few have showers, so do ask
  • Midrange: Caravanserai Hotel $30-40 USD/night, dbl
  • Midrange: Noorband Qala Hotel $40-60 USD/night, dbl
  • SplurgeSilk Road Hotel $100 USD/night, dbl
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How To Get To Bamyan

At the time of writing, there were no commercial flights to Bamyan, so the only way to visit is by car from either Kabul or Mazar e Sharif. For those willing to take on the risks of this journey I recommend hiring a private car and guide such as the services of Let’s Be Friends Afghanistan. Update: there are flights to Bamyan, though they are intermittent and likely to be canceled last minute, so always have a backup plan to drive.

How To Get Around Bamyan Valley

  • Buddha Niches: Roughly 1 km north of the Bamyan Bazaar. Walking here will only take about 15 minutes.
  • Shahr e Gholghola: Easily reached on foot from the Bamyan Bazaar. Walk to the end of Bazaar Road and head left at the roundabout on to Sayadabad Street where you’ll find Shahr e Gholghola on the left. The walk is 1.5 km and should take about 20 minutes.
  • Shahr e Zohak: Hire a taxi from the Bamyan Bazaar for about 500-1,000 AFS roundtrip. There is a shared taxi that does the journey for 150 AFS each way from the Bamyan Bazaar.
  • Dara e Ajdahar: Dara e Ajdahar is 7 km west of Bamyan Bazaar and can easily be visited on foot. Those not interested in walking can hire a taxi for about 500 AFS roundtrip, or try to grab a shared taxi to the village of Dara e Ajdahar for 30 AFS (though they leave erratically).
  • Band e Amir: It is possible to catch a shared taxi to Band e Amir for 250 AFS each way. You can also visit by hiring a taxi for the day, which will set you back about 1,500 AFS.

Have Any Questions About Visiting Bamyan?

Ask in the comments section below.

Need Travel Insurance for Afghanistan?

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