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The Lakes of Band-e Amir, Afghanistan


Any automobile can drive on any street, so long as the motive force is set sufficient.

Journey has taught me this lesson time and time once more, and the drive to the sapphire lakes of Band-e Amir, Afghanistan’s first nationwide park, is but extra proof.

The street begins innocently sufficient. Contemporary black asphalt cuts via the sparse plains round Bamiyan, a city excessive within the Hindu Kush mountains, solely half an hour from Kabul by airplane. The street from Bamiyan to Band-e Amir feels new… and possibly will stay that method for years to return, given the one indicators of life on the street are shepherds, their flocks, and the occasional bike. However all good issues should come to an finish, and the brand new street to Band-e Amir is not any exception.

Cattle in the road to Band-e Amir

With a jolt, asphalt offers strategy to a rocky dust street. Our driver for the day, Abdul, grips the wheel, turning the automobile off the already questionable dust street onto a dangerously slender path trailing down a hill. He expertly navigates the little 2WD Toyota Corolla round gaping holes, small boulders, and yawning ditches that will give a Jeep bother. My associate and I wobble like bobbleheads because the little silver automobile hobbles over the tough terrain. Abdul is unconcerned and someway manages to mild a cigarette with one hand as he bounces the automobile down the trail.

Resistance is futile, so I cowl my mouth with my headband to maintain out mud and lean out the window, eyes looking out the panorama for the primary telling sliver of blue amongst the white and pink cliffs.

The automobile crests a hill, and a touch of blue emerges from the dry plains—the primary lake! Abdul parks the automobile for a photo-op and casually steps out to smoke yet one more cigarette, unruffled by his latest off-road stunts. I soar out of the automobile to get a greater view, whooping with pleasure, incomes a fleeting smile on Abdul’s in any other case stoic Afghan face. We’ve made it to Band-e Amir.

 Afghanistan’s First Nationwide Park

Six lakes make up Band-e Amir nationwide park. Band-e Haibat is probably the most well-known, whereas Band-e Zulufikul is the biggest. Following up are Band-e Pdina, Band-e Panir, Band-e Graman, and Band-e Kanbul, although the latter has almost dried up. Whether or not or not it nonetheless counts as a lake appears to be a bit subjective—“official” lake counts fluctuate between 5 and 6 relying on the place you’re wanting.

Native legend has it that Ali, cousin, and son-in-law of Mohammed, created the lakes a whole bunch of years in the past to save lots of a household imprisoned by a king. Because the story goes, Ali disguised himself as a slave, and the daddy of the household traded Ali to the king in change for his kin, claiming slave Ali might work wonders.

The king set Ali the seemingly inconceivable activity of stopping the stream of a river, and thru a collection of grand efforts involving a sword, boulders, and a little bit of cheese (no, actually), Ali created the six lakes and the dams in between. The lake names are a testomony to the wild story; Band-e Panir means “Dam of cheese” in Dari, the Afghan model of Farsi.

Regardless of the story of their origins, Band-e Amir’s lakes have been common ever since. In latest many years, their shores have been frequented each by locals and by wandering foreigners smoking their method alongside the Hippie Path within the 60s and 70s. The primary try and declare the lakes a nationwide park was in 1973, however the effort stalled within the face of presidency upheaval, and, ultimately, warfare. The violence started with the Soviets, Saudi Arabia and Iran perpetuated it, and combating dragged on because of the Taliban, the US, and Pakistan… to call just a few.

4 many years and lots of invasions and assaults later, the state of affairs remains to be dire on one of many enjoying fields of the Nice Sport. As you’ll be able to think about, establishing a nationwide park system will not be excessive on any war-stricken nation’s priorities checklist.

However towards the percentages, and with help from USAID and the Wildlife Conservation Society, Band-e Amir was lastly declared Afghanistan’s first nationwide park in 2009. Even higher, the nationwide park declaration meant the lakes could possibly be thought of for a UNESCO World Heritage listing. Different mineral lake formations world wide, reminiscent of Plitvice in Croatia and Jiuzhaigou in China, have already secured pure UNESCO Heritage listings. Afghanistan hopes Band-e Amir can in the future do the identical.

Summer time vacay… in Afghanistan?!

In fact, a query then arises: would anybody truly go to a nationwide park in Afghanistan today?

Although the information might lead you to consider in any other case, there are many individuals in Afghanistan dwelling comparatively “regular” lives. These well-off sufficient love to do what any household does on holidays and weekends: go on trip!

Band-e Amir’s banks are common with road-tripping households, overseas assist employees, and pilgrims alike. The shores of its blue waters are excellent for picnicking, a well-liked pastime in Afghanistan. Male guests can go for a dip in its waters (alas, girls should sit this one out—no bikinis allowed in Afghanistan). A modest shrine to Ali, grand creator of the lakes, stands watch over Band-e Haibat and is frequented by pilgrims. Significantly pious individuals consider the deep blue waters have therapeutic properties and journey nice distances to wash their issues away.

In fact, that doesn’t imply individuals all world wide are speeding to move over to ogle the blue lakes. Hazarajat, the area surrounding the park and close by Bamiyan, has seen a lot violence and genocide in previous many years. Although the violence has quieted down, and the world across the park is now thought of protected for Afghan requirements, Taliban occupation within the mountains surrounding the path to the park made visiting troublesome. Locals—or these feeling significantly fortunate—can drive in through a protracted mountain street from Kabul, however many guests favor to fly into Bamiyan.

Dangers apart, the Nationwide Park sees a wholesome variety of guests for Afghanistan’s requirements throughout the spring and summer season months—round 6,000 a yr—however in the present day is a brisk October day, and winter’s chill is within the air. The lakes are about three,000 meters above sea degree, and my lungs and fingers can really feel it. There are few guests in sight as we traipse in the direction of the water’s edge, dodging skinny patches of ice laying wait within the shadows.

A path results in the sting of a cliff overlooking one of many lakes, and I yelp as I peer over the sting, giddy with infantile delight. Holy s*#t, the water is so blue!

The colour can’t presumably be actual. Vibrant blue coloration runs all the way in which as much as the water’s edges, making it appear virtually pretend. The colour is akin to the sickly synthetic blue water you see at theme parks in the US. You understand, the fountains and swimming pools full of chemical blue dye to cover the entire trash inevitably mendacity on the backside.

However right here at Band-e Amir, the colour is actual, and the dye, pure.

Feast Your Eyes on the Bluest Water within the World

Within the shallow streams and swimming pools in the beginning of the lakes, the water is crystal clear. It trickles via small swimming pools and rivulets lined with golden grasses and shrubbery earlier than tumbling down into the following startlingly blue lake.

The azure hue is because of the water’s excessive mineral content material. Travertine partitions, a kind of limestone constructed from mineral buildup over time, create giant, cascading dam partitions between the totally different lake ranges. Because the lakes deepen, so too does the water’s hue. Peering down into the lake waters of Band-e Haibat is like gazing up into the clearest twilight sky.

Abdul pries us away from the primary lake and drives us additional into the tiny village on the heart of Band-e Amir. Right now of yr, it’s removed from hopping. The one tea stand seems to be to be closed, and the liveliest guests are a herd of donkeys on the hunt for grass amongst the pebbles. The season is over, however the setting remains to be undeniably gorgeous.

We proceed our stroll alongside the lakeside of Band-e Haibat. On this clear October day, there’s not a gust of wind within the air, nor a cloud within the sky. The lake waters match the blue of the sky above, and solely the tiniest ripples ruffle the water’s floor. The scene is postcard excellent, disrupted solely by probably the most quintessential a part of any journey to Band-e Amir: swan paddleboats.

The lurid plastic fowl drift over the waters as a small handful of locals paddle their method throughout the lake. What normally appears to me like a cheesy lover’s gimmick turns into an amusing sight amongst the desolate Afghan panorama—it’s not day by day you see males in turbans paddling round rainbow chicken boats!

Amusing as they’re, I can’t assist however discover how the boats conflict with the pure great thing about the world. At first, my cynical thoughts considers them an indication of issues to return: over-commercialization, disregard for pure magnificence, ominous foreshadowing of the harmful powers of poorly dealt with mass tourism. Nationwide parks ought to give attention to pure magnificence, not on theme park sights… proper?

I take a psychological step backward, reprimanding myself. Afghanistan is a particular case. In a rustic the place males with Kalashnikovs guard household eating places and bomb blasts are a official concern on your afternoon outings, you’ll be able to’t actually fault guests for having a reasonably paddle via their nation’s first nationwide park. Any park is best than no park—cheesy love boats or not—and for now, something that makes vacationers completely happy can solely be a blessing.

Need to Go to Band-e Amir?

For starters, you’ll want a visa for Afghanistan. They are often troublesome to accumulate in lots of international locations, although there are some go-to consulates for simpler visa processes, reminiscent of Dubai within the United Arab Emirates, and Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. Visa charges fluctuate primarily based on nationality and the place you’re making use of. In Bishkek, visas are $60 for EU nationals, $120 for UK nationals, and a whopping $160 for US nationals.

As soon as your visa is secured, visits to Band-e Amir start in close by Bamiyan. Bamiyan city is about half an hour of flying from Kabul with the home airline Kam Air. There’s one flight to and from Kabul every day. Tickets are $110 every one-way.

Alternatively, you’ll be able to spend 9 hours driving up winding mountain roads from Kabul to Bamiyan, however know that Taliban occupy some areas alongside the way in which. Driving isn’t significantly beneficial, particularly for overseas guests.

Lodging at Band-e Amir is fundamental at the perfect of instances, so until you’ve introduced your individual tent (and a heat sleeping bag!), it’s finest to relaxation your head in Bamiyan. The Silk Street Resort is probably the most well-known and established in Bamiyan, although I stayed on the Caravanserai lodge on the base of the big Buddha website for $30 per evening. Any lodge can prepare a taxi to Band-e Amir. Our taxi journey was round $25 for all the day.

If all this seems like a bit a lot, Untamed Borders is a longtime and extremely beneficial tour firm providing excursions all all through Afghanistan. They provide set itineraries for group excursions, in addition to the choice to customise your individual journey.

Bio: Alex is a twenty-something American woman backpacking her method round lesser-visited areas of Eurasia reminiscent of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan. In between getting hopelessly misplaced and consuming gallons of sugary chai, she and her Dutch associate run the journey weblog Lost With Purpose.

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Guest BloggersPortugal

The Weird Bone Chapels of Portugal


The primary of Portugal’s many Capelas dos Ossos that I visited was in Faro, the capital of the Algarve area. This southernmost slice of the nation is finest identified for its sunny seashores and energetic nightlife. Discovering on the market was a chapel embellished with human bones only a quick drive from the sun-loungers and karaoke bars undoubtedly made me elevate an eyebrow.

It was actually quirky sufficient to earn a spot on my journey itinerary, and I jotted it down earlier than absent-mindedly scrolling all the way down to see what else Faro needed to provide. It wasn’t till I used to be truly standing within the chapel, trying round, that I actually started to consider what I had come out of my strategy to go to: a chapel made up of actually hundreds of human bones.

bone chapel

There wasn’t a single part of wall that didn’t have a cranium, a femur or perhaps a phalange on it. Consider me, I appeared. I’d seen skeletons earlier than, after all, however solely in museums (or the ever-present Kiehl’s pharmacies you discover on each excessive avenue, though I’m undecided that counts). I’d by no means seen so many bones directly, and that lent this chapel additional energy. In every single place I appeared there have been bones, bones and extra bones.

However they aren’t simply bones, are they? That’s the factor. They’re human bones. They’re the bones of individuals that when existed, and now not do. The bones of people that had walked the identical medieval streets that I had on my strategy to the chapel, who had prayed within the church I’d simply toured.

I may really feel my eyes darting across the room, on the lookout for someplace secure to relaxation – someplace the place I wouldn’t be staring again at an empty cranium. However, there wasn’t anyplace.

And that’s precisely the expertise the 19th Century Carmelite Monks, who designed the chapel in Faro, need you to have. Written above the door to the chapel are the phrases “Pára aqui a considerar que a este estado hás-de chegar” (cease right here and contemplate that you’ll attain this state too). The bone chapel in Évora, the most important of all of Portugal’s bone chapels, has an identical inscription: “Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos” (We bones which might be right here, for yours await”). How’s that for a memento mori?

bone chapel support

Why do these bone chapels exist?

It began in Évora, dwelling to Portugal’s largest bone chapel. Within the 16th Century, the cemeteries in and across the metropolis had been turning into overcrowded. An answer to the overflowing graveyards was desperately wanted. Unable to convey themselves to easily transfer the bones to a different location, the Franciscan monks of Évora determined to present the corpses the consideration of being part of one thing with the next goal.

On the time, Évora was a really rich metropolis. The monks felt that this wealth was main native residents astray and making them overlook in regards to the fleeting nature of life. So, to kill two birds with one stone, they exhumed greater than 5 thousand our bodies from the packed graveyard. They then made them part of the brand new chapel, utilizing cement to carry them collectively.

Simply to ensure they acquired their level throughout, they hung two corpses from the wall – one in every of which was the physique of a kid. Subtlety wasn’t precisely their factor, though inside design clearly was. They even used among the bones to craft a chandelier. The development quickly unfold throughout Portugal and extra bone chapels had been constructed, together with the one in Faro.

Standing contained in the chapels is each harrowing and hallowing in equal measure. The monks actually acquired what they wished, as a result of it’s unattainable to not be reminded of the transient nature of life whenever you’re staring into the empty eye-sockets of a 16th Century Portuguese individual.

Which chapel ought to I go to?

The chapel in Évora is way bigger than the one in Faro, and 5 instances as many bones adorning the partitions (fairly actually: there are 5 thousand in Évora versus one thousand in Faro). In addition to being greater and older, it’s additionally the extra well-known of the 2 and seems steadily on Instagram and Pinterest. Regardless of this, I discovered the chapel in Faro significantly extra highly effective.

The truth that I’d visited Faro first in all probability makes me really feel biased in the direction of it, however I believe I loved it extra as a result of it’s rather a lot much less touristic than the one in Évora. I used to be the one individual within the chapel in Faro, and will actually take time to be within the second and let the morbid sight sink in. In Évora there have been at the least twenty different individuals within the chapel with me, jostling for house.

There’s undoubtedly one thing very highly effective about being the one individual within the room, alone within the tomb-like silence. You’re more likely to expertise that in Faro, or one in every of Portugal’s smaller bone chapels, nevertheless it wasn’t simply being with different people who made the expertise in Évora much less significant.

The irony of all of it

Once I walked into the chapel in Évora, each single individual in there was standing nonetheless with one arm stretched out in entrance of them making an attempt to snap the proper selfie. As I walked in, below the doorway with its ominous inscription, I needed to sidestep crowds of vacationers as they stood rigidly on the spot. The irony of what was written on the mantle and what was occurring in that room was fully misplaced on all people.

No person was current or reflecting on the transient nature of life. Everybody was interested by what number of likes their image would get on Fb, Instagram, and Snapchat. The worth of the proper image was price sufficient to them that it was price ignoring the grim sight round them and the message of the 16th Century monks.

Seeing all of these individuals standing like that’s such a weird picture and it’s stayed with me ever since – perhaps much more than the bones themselves. I typically have my cellphone out and am usually the final to complain about different individuals being distracted by theirs, however the juxtaposition of the chapel’s message with all of those individuals appearing like zombies was extremely jarring.

As distinctive as that have is, I’d advocate visiting a smaller chapel over Évora should you get the prospect. After all, I’m going to advocate the Capela dos Ossos in Faro, or the close by chapel in Alcantarilha: one other under-the-radar choice.

In the event you do determine to go to the chapel in Évora, it’s price getting there early to keep away from the throngs of vacationers. Once I arrived, there have been already greater than fifteen individuals within the chapel. Simply as I used to be leaving, a tour group of round twenty extra confirmed up. This is likely one of the hottest vacationer points of interest in Évora, if not the nation, and through the spring and autumn months, it could actually grow to be extremely busy.

Discovering a bone chapel

There are at the least six totally different bone chapels in Portugal, in addition to a number of others all through Europe. The chapels at Évora and Faro are essentially the most well-known and are the perfect for vacationers as they’ve essentially the most handy opening hours. I’ve tried to go to the chapels at Lagos and Alcantarilha just a few instances, however they weren’t open once I turned up. In addition to Évora, Faro, Alcantarilha, and Lagos, there are additionally bone chapels in Campo Maior and Monforte.

James writes the journey weblog Portugalist, a weblog about Portugal and all issues Portuguese. He has frolicked dwelling in Lisbon, the Algarve, and the North of Portugal, and has traveled extensively all through the nation. He’s virtually all the time daydreaming about his subsequent Portuguese metropolis to go to.

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