A number of sights can be visited from Bamyan town on foot, allowing you to enjoy the valley’s spectacular scenery at your leisure. The alcoves of the great Buddhas are an obvious starting point, easily reached from the main bazaar. Climb to the ridge above the Large Buddha for panoramic views. Follow the main road about 2 km west from here (towards Band-e-Amir) to see the mysterious caves of Chehel Situn (“Forty Pillars”) in a tiny village tucked in a small valley to the right.
The ancient ruined city of Shahr-e-Gholghola (“City of Screams”) lies about 15 minutes’ walk to the south of the main bazaar. The Qala-e-Chehel Dukhtaran (“Castle of Forty Maidens”) is a further 10 minutes to the southeast. The “City of Screams” has commanding views of the valley.
Dara-e-Azhdahar (“Dragon Valley”) is also reachable on foot, about 5 km along the main road west towards Band-e-Amir. The picturesque Kakrak Valley can also be reached by foot across the fields heading southeast from Bamyan bazaar.
Driving east from the main bazaar, you can visit Shahr-e-Ghoghola and the Qala-e-Chehel Dukhtaran on the way to the Kakrak Valley, where there is a smaller Buddha alcove in the cliffs. Driving up this scenic valley, you reach the starting point for hikes in the Koh-e-Baba mountains and to the ice pools of Haus-e-Koh-e-Baba
The main road to the east passes a ruined caravanserai on the way to the ancient ruins of Shahr-e-Zohak (the “Red City”), 18 km from Bamyan bazaar. From there, go up the Hajigak valley to the natural hot springs at Tangi-e-Paimoori, 6 km further on. If you have time, travel further east towards Shibar, to enjoy the scenery and visit the ruins of Lakshum Qala.
Driving west from Bamyan, visit Dragon Valley (Darra-e-Azhdar) where you can climb the ridge on foot to study the geological formations. Driving southwest from Bamyan town you can explore the Buddhist caves and alcoves of the Foladi Valley. The Foladi ice caves further up the valley require a day to visit (1 ½ hours’ drive, plus 2 hours to walk up the valley).
The dramatic series of six lakes known as Band-e-Amir are one of Afghanistan’s best known natural sites. Located in the wild plateau about 70km west of Bamyan town, the lakes are the focus of the country’s first national park. Separated by natural dams, each lake is several metres lower than the one above it, creating a natural series of ‘locks’. The largest lake, Zulfiqar, is 490 hectares in size. The dams separating the lakes are formed of travertine, a form of calcium carbonate. Band-e Amir is one of the world’s most significant examples of this type of geological formation. Waterfalls form where lake water pours over the lip of the dams, freezing into dramatic ice formations in winter. The surrounding landscape is reminiscent of the Grand Canyon, with cliffs striped in multi-hued layers of red, grey and brown. Shrubs and marshland around the lakes make them an important habitat for migratory birds. The site also has an important place in local tradition – a lakeside shrine visited by thousands of people in the summer marks the place where Hazrat Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, is said to have prayed after he created the lakes.
The lakes of Band-e-Amir are accessible by road from Bamyan (2-3 hours). The area offers possibilities for hiking, camping and horse riding in the summer, particularly as tourism facilities develop.
The Ajar valley, overlooked by mountains rising to 4300 metres, is often said to have some of the most spectacular scenery in Afghanistan. This secluded valley of the rugged Hindu Kush lies a day’s journey to the north of Bamyan town beyond the main central range. The valley is riven by the spectacular Jawzari canyon. At the spring of Chiltan, the Ajar river flows directly from the canyon wall, while downstream a natural dam has created the picturesque Lake Chiltan. For most of the 20th century, Ajar was protected as a royal hunting preserve and was an undisturbed habitat for large populations of urial sheep, Siberian ibex, Bactrian deer, common leopard and lynx. Unfortunately these species have been severely reduced by overhunting in recent years. The Afghan government, non-government organisations and local people are currently working to protect the valley as a wildlife reserve.
A visit ideally requires at least three days (Bamyan to Ajar takes up to 10 hours, so a day’s journey there, a day in the valley and a day to return), but more time is recommended.
Yakaolang and beyond
Those with time to spare can drive west from Bamyan to Band-e-Amir and continue on to Yakaolang (4 hours from Bamyan) taking in a variety of landscapes and scenery. From Yakaolang, drive northwest down the river valley following the road towards Sar-e-Pul to see the impressive ruined fortress of Chehel Burj, two hours’ drive from Yakaolang. At 1 12 hours from Yakaolang you will pass an ancient Buddhist site, the Stupa-e-Killigan.