Welcome to Hotel Silk Road

A Japanese woman journalist brings delicate Japanese cuisine into the ravaged and beautiful landscape surrounding the historic Bamiyan Valley where once the great Buddhas stood

Aunohita Mojumdar Kabul/Bamiyan

It was the famous potato crop of Bamiyan's valleys that helped Hiromi Yasui build her hotel. The central highlands of Afghanistan produces little other than a good crop of potatoes and almost everything she needed to build her hotel in Bamiyan town had to be imported into the province - building materials, furniture, and furnishings for the hotel that now looks across the potato fields onto the famous Buddhas  - or what remains of them in the crumbling niches in the sandstone cliffs.
 
Transporting the goods was no easy task. Though the distance between Kabul, the capital, and Bamiyan town is a mere 237 km by the safe road across the Shiber pass, it is a backbreaking journey of 10-14 hours in a four- wheel drive, across a rutted track that jolts you up and down. The other southern road, through the Haji Gak, is shorter (177 km) and has seen many ambushes. It is used only by the brave or foolhardy. Neither road is asphalted, but is cratered, pitted and often stony with enormous wear and tear on the vehicles. Carrying materials into Bamiyan is expensive. To get concessional rates, Hiromi hired the trucks carrying potatoes to Kabul which would return empty to Bamiyan. Even so, it took all of four years as Hiromi and her husband scraped together the funds to build their dream hotel. And even when the furniture did arrive in the last year, most of it was broken, unable to survive the back-breaking drive.

Though put squarely on the international map by Taliban's decision to blow up the enormous Buddhas in 2001, Bamiyan remains an impoverished area with little in the way of development. Populated largely by the Shia Hazara community, who have traditionally faced social segregation, political marginalisation and economic deprivation, Bamiyan has no industry and till recently did not have even a kilometer of asphalted road. While internationally it was the destruction of the Buddhas which drew opprobrium, the Hazaras of Bamiyan's valleys had faced horrendous violence at the hands of the Sunni Taliban who were intolerant of the Shia community. There were several brutal massacres in which hundreds of Hazaras lost their lives and had their entire villages burnt down. Today, several mass graves stand mute testimony to those events though they attract little attention.

Post 2001, there have been plenty of projects for economic development, but the lack of an economic base and infrastructure due to years of neglect has meant that these small projects have remained limited in their contribution. However, Bamiyan continues to draw tourists and the provincial government has been keen to develop eco-tourism for some economic benefits for the local population.

The Buddha niches are still the main draw for international tourists. Though the graph of violence in the country has seen a sharp increase with the resurgence of the Taliban and other armed anti-government groups, Bamiyan remains relatively safe and largely insulated from the ongoing conflict. Combined with a local culture that is far more accepting of outsiders, Bamiyan allows foreign tourists a relaxed holiday and has become a must-see on the itinerary of foreigners working in Afghanistan or the small number visiting the country purely as tourists.

While the number of international tourists has seen a decrease over the last two years, what makes Bamiyan special is the large number of Afghans visiting it each year. The summer months sees busloads of tourists and pilgrims who flock to the province which is replete with folklore, legend and history. Three hours away from Bamiyan town are the spectacular Band-e- mir lakes which were recently declared the country's first national park because of their unparalleled scenic beauty and rich biodiversity. Here too, the land is replete with the legends of Hazrat Ali, a revered figure among the country's Shias. The formation of the series of crystalline lakes is attributed to him as is the slaying of the local dragon which lies in a massive rock formation an hour away from Bamiyan town, its long and large crevice seen as the wound caused by the sword of Ali, while its small hot water geysers spout the dragon's tears.

Historically, the area was also home to the Shahr-e-Gholghola or 'city of shrieks'. The city, where the king's daughter betrayed her father to Genghis Khan, saw all inhabitants slaughtered by the Mongol invader. The daughter was not rewarded for her treachery but met the same fate as the other inhabitants.

It was Hiromi's visits to Bamiyan and the lack of facilities, she says, that convinced her that a clean hotel with facilities measuring up to international standards would be a good investment as well as a contribution to her adopted country. A woman of many parts, Hiromi is a Japanese journalist and photographer who fell in love with Afghanistan during her many visits to the country beginning in the 1990s. In 2002, this relationship was further cemented when Abdul Saboor, a Panjshiri who used to work with visiting journalists, fell in love with her and wooed her. "He used to take me out on dates for mango juice near Karte Parwan (a Kabul locality dominated by the Panjshiris) where his house was. You know there are not so many ways one can date in Kabul. Dating was so difficult and we had to do it secretly. Slowly, I fell in love. He was so honest. Finally, there was no way to continue so we decided to get married."

This was in 2003. Hiromi and Saboor went to Turkey and married there, with Hiromi converting to Islam, before returning for a ceremonial wedding reception that was muted - by Afghan standards. She also took the Afghan name 'Mursal' (Rose), the name that all Afghans know her by. Intercultural marriages often run aground on the dry sand of cultural differences, especially in Afghanistan, where conservative cultural mores prevent women from participating in public life. However, Hiromi has deftly negotiated her space within the conservative culture, adapting to Afghan customs while keeping her independence as an individual.

There were few ties to Japan with both of Hiromi's parents having died when she was young. Her sister and a good friend, whom she visits every year, were not surprised at her decision to marry. "I was outside Japan for the better part of the year and they expected me to marry a foreigner. They were just a little surprised it was an Afghan."
"In the beginning it was difficult. He used to be angry with me and I did not know why. For example, I would be speaking to a man - just speaking, you understand - and he would be angry. I would ask, 'why are you angry'? I thought: What is happening? But over time, he understands me better. Even now he sometimes gets angry. But he is not like other Afghan husbands. He knows me. He knows I am Japanese, not Afghan. He says, 'If you don't have a job you won't be able to live in Afghanistan'. He accepts that I need to work."

"I also think I succeeded because I know Afghan culture very well. I had begun learning the language when I would travel to the Panjshir during the time of the Taliban to report on the country. I stayed in Panjshir houses and in the evening I would be talking to the women there." Hiromi now is so fluent in Dari, the most widely spoken language in Afghanistan, that she can converse easily, do business and even administer the occasional scolding without missing a beat. Those are skills that were essential when she moved professionally from being a journalist to an Afghan businesswoman.

If it was hard work building the hotel in Bamiyan, which she named the Silk Road, it had been hard to keep it going as well. Hiromi works with locals teaching them how to cook the exquisite Japanese cuisine and runs a small crafts shop where she sells cloth and artifacts made by Bamiyan women. Teddy bears in traditional Afghan clothes, colourful swatches of cloth woven by the women, modern jackets with delicate traditional embroidery, beadwork and a host of other crafts.

To find women to work with her, Hiromi travels into the remote side valleys of Bamiyan province. "Those working in my hotel came from some of these valleys and they knew who needed work and who was poor. I would confirm their stories and then see if the women had the skills to learn the work." Most of the women were the breadwinners of the family, and with the work they did with Hiromi "all of them were able to buy land and two even build houses on it" she says.

While the women have exquisite traditional skills passed on for generations, they had no access to the market either to buy the raw materials - threads, beads, cloth, or for selling their products. And this is where Hiromi forms the bridge. Indeed, procuring raw materials takes considerable effort and she often travels to Pakistan and India to source it. "See, this cloth was from the Khadi Gramadyog in Delhi. I buy the thread from the Kinari Bazaar in Chandni Chowk. I just get into a rickshaw and travel through the inner lanes of old Delhi. It is so crowded."

It is not just handicrafts that are a challenge. Bamiyan hardly grows any fresh vegetables and there is no regular supply for the extensive Japanese, Afghan and continental food that Hiromi serves in her hotel. "We go down to the bazaar and see what vegetables are available and then plan the menu for the day. Sometimes, when I desperately need something, I go directly to the farms and buy it from there."

For the Maki sushi, Hiromi brings in seaweed paper from Japan, some of the special sauces and even cleaning material for her hotel. Now she can source some of her supplies in Kabul - like the dried Shitake mushrooms and sesame oil which were not available when she first came here. 
Bamiyan's severe winter, blocked roads and heavy snowfall has meant that Hiromi shuts down the hotel from December to mid April though she continues paying salaries to her staff to help them survive through the harsh winter months when costs increase and fuel is needed to keep warm. This year, however, several of them travelled with her to Kabul. As a part owner of Gallerie which showcases the crafts of five Afghan entrepreneurs, Hiromi opened a small crafts shop and restaurant in the heart of Kabul.

There are small differences in working in the two places. Kabul has fresh vegetables throughout the year and most things cost less. In comparison with the hotel where there would be a fixed number of guests, Kabul has customers wandering in at will requiring quick and fast service, something her Bamiyan employees are slowly getting used to.

There is Atifa, a fresh faced 26-year-old, who is already the mother of three children. Atifa is from the remote Panjao district and wants to study. She is happy to be in Kabul because the environment back home did not encourage her ambitions. There is Qadir, who is 24-year-old and had studied upto class 6. The manager of Gallerie helps him study after-hours.

Though Japanese cuisine with its delicate and fresh taste is starkly different from the rich oil heavy Afghan cuisine, the employees of Silk Road have learnt to like it, being forced to taste it while cooking. So has her husband. Hiromi looks shocked when asked what she eats at home, insisting that she cannot eat large quantities of the rich Afghan food. "My husband also likes Japanese food. He likes crab, shrimp and would you believe it, he even likes Miso soup!"

For customers in Kabul, the opening of the restaurant has been a moment of celebration, a chance to get away from the rich cuisines that are served even in international restaurants. Though the restaurant's cuisine and prices puts it beyond middle class Afghans, the 'internationals' and elite Afghans provide a steady customer base. Old customers from the hotel stroll in greeting Hiromi by name. "We missed you in Bamiyan the last time but the food was great," says one, paying perhaps the greatest compliment to Hiromi's ability to transfer her skills to her employees. "Earlier, they would work hard, but just do what they were told," says Hiromi. "They would not think for themselves and could not do anything without orders. I told them you have to learn to think for yourselves. With these skills you can one day open your own restaurant."

Hiromi expects that the restaurant in Kabul will stay open even when she returns to Bamiyan to yet again open her hotel in the spring of 2010. But she also expects most of the Kabul restaurant's work to be home deliveries and take-outs. "People are not going out as much as they did because of the insecurity."

As violence has worsened, internationals working in Kabul city are often subjected to lockdowns and restricted travel. Many areas are declared out of bounds; travel can be limited to essential travel from work to home, or require a convoy of armoured cars. The UN downsized its presence by 600 following the attack on the UN guest house and it is unclear whether it will be restored to its original size.
Hiromi misses some things about Japan, chiefly, the fresh raw fish, sushi, Udon and Ramen Noodles, and also Japan's famous hot springs. The first day in her hometown, Osaka, requires a good sushi meal, sometimes even at the airport.

However, her identification with Afghanistan is so complete that she does not expect to leave the country even if the situation gets worse, though she continues to hold a Japanese passport. "Here, I see people develop, and grow. You can see the changes when people make their lives better. It is not like Japan. Why would I leave if the violence got worse? I am a journalist. I would report on it. I fell in love with this country and then I found my husband here. When I go to Japan, I miss my house here," says Hiromi.

"Now this is my country and Japan is somewhere to travel to."

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2010

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