“Of course, of course, Bamiyan is a part of Afghanistan. The overall security situation will impact the security in Bamiyan,” Ibrahim says when I push him on security concerns. But he points out that a private airline last year began flying three times a week from Kabul to Bamiyan.
“We need to link Bamiyan to the outside of Afghanistan. Maybe with direct flights from Bamiyan to international airports, we can solve the problem of security in Afghanistan,” he says.
Once they arrive in Bamiyan, travelers also face infrastructure challenges. Cellphone reception evaporates 10 minutes outside of town, which will surely deter many from traveling in the surrounding area. Many roads in the province have been paved, but going east, the rugged way to the Red City, or Shahr-e Zohak, is less than 10 miles long but takes half an hour to drive.
The Red City was built as a fortress 1,500 years ago at the confluence of two rivers, to a backdrop of tan mountains and jagged copper ridges stretching through the landscape like giant lizards’ tails. The fortress was trashed by the Iranian army in the 14th century, and later used by the Taliban as a hideout during the 2001 invasion. Mounds of bullet casings still litter the site.
Bamiyan is one of the best places in Afghanistan to be a young woman
Three decades of war have put its mark on the landscape. Through the years, insurgents on all sides have scattered mines around the province. In March, an old explosive killed seven children as they were playing. Rain had carried the mine down from the mountains and washed it onto a field a few meters from the main road.
Bamiyan has much in common with Iraqi Kurdistan. Both the Kurds and the Hazaras are religious minorities who have found their own refuge in a country torn by war. Both of them also often claim to be more open-minded than their countrymen. In the case of Bamiyan, that includes a certain measure of gender equality.
“Bamiyan is one of the best places in Afghanistan to be a young woman,” Fatima Nazeri, a 16-year-old female student, tells me. “Here it is safe for women to study and go to university.”
To be fair, Bamiyan is not the only place where Afghan men encourage women to study. But the presence of women in public life here is unusual. In 2005, the first female governor in Afghanistan’s history, Habiba Sarabi, was appointed to Bamiyan. Earlier this year, the town organized its first running and cycling races, both with separate competitions for women.
In the middle of the bazaar, a group of women, supported by a Western NGO, have started a women’s café (no access for unaccompanied men). Even the annual skiing competition is open for women, as long as they observe Islamic dress code and wear helmets.