10 Days Afghanistan Adventure Tour
Day 1 Arrive from Dubai or Islamabad
Meet on arrival and transfer to one of the city hotels.
Tour of Kabul, beginning at the mausoleum of Nadir Shah. Mausoleum is on a hill above the stadium, offering a panoramic view of the Kabul River and the old city, surrounded by the mountains. There is a clear view of the Bala Hissar, Kabul's fortress, which stands about 1 Km away on another hilltop. Babur, the first Moghul King who conqured India travelling thru Afghanistan, lived in the Bala Hissar in the 16th century, and wrote poetry extolling its commanding view. The fortress was sacked by the British in 1880 during the second Anglo-Afghan war.
From the mausoleum, we descend into the old city and the Shor Bazaar. This
part of the city was heavily shelled during the 1990s, but between the ruins of
the surrounding buildings, the bazaar has sprung back to life and the streets
are full of oriental bustle. We follow the Kabul River, stopping to see the
Mausoleum of Timur Shah and the two-storied Shahdo-Shamshira Mosque, then
continuing to the ruins of Darulaman Palace. Built by King Amanullah in 1923,
Darulaman was intended to be the new political centre of Kabul, but today the
palace is an empty shell. To one side is the Kabul Museum. Once hailed as one of
the most impressive collections in Asia; war, looting and the Taliban have left
the museum impoverished. Some of the stolen exhibits have been recovered and
fresh archeological finds are slowly rebuilding the collection – there are some
Greek/Bactrian and Buddhist artefacts worth seeing.
Heading back towards the old city, we will stop for a picnic lunch at the Gardens of Babur, just outside the ancient city walls. The Mogul Emperor so loved his garden that he asked to be buried in it and after his death in Agra in 1530, his body was returned here. Another of his wishes, that nothing should cover his grave so that the rain and sun could beat upon it, was honoured until the reign of Nadir Shah, who built a small pavilion over it. Recently the gardens have been restored to their former glory, following the 16th century layout as faithfully as possible. The Gardens of Babur are once again a beautiful and peaceful oasis in the centre of the city.
Later in the afternoon, there will be the opportunity to do some shopping in the bazaar around Chicken Street, including a visit to the shop of the Bookseller of Kabul.
Early morning drive out of the Kabul valley up over the Koh-i-Baba (Grandfather of Mountains) range through the Shibar Pass descending into the Bamiyan valley. The road up to the pass is lined with picturesque villages, colourful pennant-adorned shires of local holy men, ancient Qala (forts) and Caravanserai (rest stops for Camel caravans). The road down from the pass offers dramatic views of the surrounding snow caped peaks and eventually winds into a tight canyon with cliff faces jutting up several hundred meters on either side. Finally the road breaks out of the canyon with stunning views of Shari Zohak (also known as the Red City) perched atop the red cliffs poised to defend the Bamiyan valley from invasion.
Accommodation in a hotel on the hill overlooking the Buddhist site.
Tragically, after the destruction of the large and small Buddhas by the Taliban, the huge niches stand empty. The piles of rubble at the bottom have been collected and sorted, but will not be reconstructed. However, there is still much to see. The niches themselves are still clearly visible across the town, and remain impressive at over 60m and 40m high. A complex of stairways and caves winds its way up the side of each niche, and some frescoes remain on the walls. Above each niche is an open gallery which connects the cave complexes on each side. Preservation work has been carried out on the niches and caves and fresh archaeological work is being carried out on the site.
Rise early to view the Buddha niches in the changing light as the sun rises over the Bamiyan valley. Spend the morning exploring the cave complex built into the face of the cliff surrounding the small Buddha and then head for a picnic lunch in the shaded lawns that line the bubbling brooks of Foladi Canyon. Afternoon visits to Shari Ghulghula (City of Screams), destroyed by Genghis Khan after a local princess out of jealousy gave away the secret entryway to this fortified city, and Kakrak Valley, location of hundreds of caves, sculptures and paintings on the walls of the valley made by the Buddhist inhabitants who dwelled in this valley centuries ago.
Side trip to Band-i-Amir lakes. If the Bamiyan Buddhas represent one of man's great achievements, the lakes at Band-i-Amir provide the perfect complement – the calcite dams are a unique natural wonder. The five lakes have a rich mineral content, resulting in a deep sapphire blue colour, fading to turquoise at the edges, contrasting with the pink cliffs above. There are five lakes in all, surrounded by natural dams formed from the minerals in the water. The dam around the first lake, Band-i-Haibat (“Dam of Awe”) is 14m high. The lakes can be explored on foot or by boat.
On the way back to Bamiyan, we will stop at Darya Ajdahar –the Valley of the Dragon. Legend has it that many years ago, a dragon lived in this valley, terrorising the people of Bamiyan, who placated him with a daily offering of two camels and a beautiful girl. The dragon's reign was ended by Hazrat Ali, who split him in two with his sword. The dragon-shaped rock that can be seen in the valley today is split with a 300m fissure, and from the “head”, the dragon's tears are still pouring out in the form of mineral springs. The groans of the dragon can be heard by placing an ear close to the fissure.
Travel from Bamiyan via Shibar to Kabul. Stop for a picnic lunch along the way.
Drive north from Kabul to Mazar-i-Sharif. At Samangan, we will stop to see the Buddhist stupa known locally as Takht-i-Rustam (“Rustam's Throne”). At the base of the hill is a monastery complex consisting of five caves. Local people prefer to believe that the mound and caves mark the location of the wedding of the semi-mythical Sogdian hero Rustam to the daughter of the King of Samangan, Takhmina.
In the afternoon, we will arrive at Mazar-i-Sharif, and stay in a hotel in the centre, close to the shrine of Ali.
The central square of Mazar-i-Sharif is dominated by the mosque and shrine for which the city is named. According to local lore, this is the burial place of Hazrat Ali, and it is visited throughout the year by countless pilgrims. The shrine, constructed in 1481, is decorated in blue tile and is the most beautiful building in Afghanistan. As well as being an important religious centre, Mazar is famous for its rugs and carpets, which are sold in the shops around the shrine.
A short distance from Mazar is the city of Balkh, which some authorities claim is the oldest city on earth. Zoroaster preached here some time between 1000-600 BC and Alexander the Great used it as the base for his operations between 329-327 BC. Under the Kushans, Buddhism flourished here, and when the Arabs arrived, bringing Islam with them, they called Balkh the “Mother of Cities”. The city was sacked by Genghis Khan but enjoyed a revival under the Timurids. The ancient city walls are still intact. One building of note is the Masjid-i-No Gumbad (“Mosque of the Nine Domes”), constructed early in the 9th century. Only a few examples of mosque architecture from this early period exist anywhere in the world.
Return to Mazar in the evening.
Travel south from Mazar-i-Sharif through the Salang Pass (3,363 m) to Kabul. The Salang Tunnel, constructed by the Soviet Union (1958-1964), is 2.7 Km long with an additional 5 Km of galleries to keep the approaches free from snow. Upon descending into the Shamoli plain we will visit the hillside village of Istalif, which combines beautiful scenery with the charm of Afghan village life. The Takht (“throne”) was a favourite picnic spot of Babur. The village is famous for its colourful glazed pottery and it is possible to see the potters at work. We will then leave the village behind and head back into the bustling capital city of Kabul.
Depart from Kabul airport
Alternative: continue the trip by road north to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, or to the Pamirs and Kyrgyzstan. It is also possible to make this a 12 day Kabul-Dushanbe tour. Please see the Pamir Jeep Tour factsheet for details.