The War Is Over, Afghanistan Tourism Is on the Rise — See Bamiyan, the Country's Best Hidden Gem

·Editor at Large

One of the coolest things about travel is wandering into a place that time seems to have truly forgotten. These days, locations like that are few and far between — but they still exist. One of the most special to me is Bamiyan, Afghanistan. I went there earlier this year for the Afghan Ski Challenge. At first, I was very nervous. After all, it’s Afghanistan: It’s war-torn and medieval. And I kept wondering, “Will I have to wear a burka?”

Related: Brave or Insane? This Woman Cross-Dressed Her Way Across Afghanistan


Boys playing outside the location of the ancient Buddhas, where were blown up by the Taliban in 2001 (David Fox)

Well, yes and no. It is no longer war-torn. The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan ended its combat mission on Dec. 28, 2014, meaning officially, the war is over. And In fact, northern Afghanistan has long been considered peaceful — the Taliban was very harsh to the local Hazara people and blew up the famed, ancient Buddha structures in 2001. But when the United States troops invaded in 2002, the Taliban was swiftly routed and kicked out. They have yet to resurface there.

Tourism is even on the rise in Afghanistan — with tour operators offering trips for adventurous travelers. Hinterland Travel reported 2014 as its busiest year yet for bookings to Afghanistan.

Still, Bamiyan, once a critical hub on the Silk Road, is remains medieval. It just got (spotty) electricity last year, thanks to a solar power plant built by the New Zealand government, and sharia law still rules on the outskirts of town. But there is some modernization. Among the donkey carts are cars and people still dressed in the embroidered clothing and salwar kameezes that their ancestors wore but also carrying cellphones.

In the fields lie the ruins of Shahr-e-Gholghola, also called The City of Screams, which was razed to the ground by Genghis Khan, who killed every last man, woman, and child in the city. Hence the name. It has not been touched since it was demolished. And you can almost hear the screams if you climb to the top of the once-fortified stronghold.


Cattle crossing through the town (David Fox)

And no, not all women wear burkas. Some do, but most don’t. In fact, Bamiyan is a small, liberal stronghold, sporting some liberation. The member of parliament for Afghanistan from the region is a woman, and the local women have a ski race every year called the Afghan Ski Challenge. But for all intents and purposes, the year could be 2014… or 1014. Because not much has changed. And it’s fascinating.

Related: Avalanches, Death Threats, and No Lifts. Welcome to the World’s Most Dangerous Ski Race

So today, while you’re celebrating the end of combat and contemplating adventure, watch the video above, and get a little slice of ancient life. It may make you cuddle your remote, iPhone, and Roomba a little harder.

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