BAMIYAN, Afghanistan (Reuters Life!) - Hiromi Yasui first came to Afghanistan to photograph a bloody civil war, but a decade later found herself betting on peace to build a high-end hotel in a tiny valley that was once the country’s tourist gem.
The Silk Road Hotel in Bamiyan is an unlikely find at the end of a bone-jarring, nine-hour drive on dirt roads from the capital Kabul. The hotel offers authentic Japanese food, immaculate rooms, electricity round the clock and wireless Internet.
It looks out across green fields and a traditional mud fort to cliffs honeycombed with caves that once held two ancient, giant Buddhas, blown up by the hardline Islamist Taliban in 2001.
Yasui decided to settle in Afghanistan after she married an Afghan and her parents died, loosening her ties to her homeland.
Still a part-time journalist for Japan’s Kyodo news agency, she is based in Kabul during winter months when the hotel closes, but also wanted a slower pace of life than reporting allows.
“I like Afghanistan very much and this is the best tourist place,” she told Reuters in the hotel’s cozy dining room, decorated with traditional Afghan fabrics.
It took four years to build and furnish the 13-room hotel, because the harsh weather means it is only possible to work for around six months a year and Yasui is a perfectionist.
The hotel opened in 2007. Some of the furniture came from as far as Dubai and Pakistan, and all the towels are Japanese.
Together with costs like diesel for the generator, the investment pushes room prices up to $120 for a double, a small fortune for the area — but relatively affordable for the mix of foreign diplomats, aid workers and journalists who come for work or on a break from dusty, hectic Kabul.
The country’s first and only national park is nearby and the area is dotted with historic sites.
The valley is also one of Afghanistan’s most peaceful areas because its population, ethnic Hazaras, were fiercely persecuted by the Taliban, so have not provided bases for an insurgency gathering strength in other areas.
Yasui shrugged off worries about her own safety, and that of her hotel. Japan seems more unstable when she goes back to visit, she said.
“Now when I go home, I can’t believe it, children kill their parents or kill some passerby...Here in Afghanistan we have nothing like that, just insurgents,” she said with a smile.
Because of security worries, there was no advertising the hotel’s launch, but it has been packed from the start, sometimes running at 130 percent as visitors turned up with security guards and had to cram four people into the two-bed rooms.
The nearest competition has equally spectacular views but spartan, grubby rooms that are not much cheaper.
And the restaurant adds to the attraction. Yasui returns from her native Kyoto with suitcases full of the Japanese ingredients that go into each night’s dinner.
The female staff initially applied for jobs at The Silk Road out of desperation, as working at a hotel is regarded in the local community as barely a step removed from prostitution.
But Yasui said training these women has been one of the biggest, unexpected pleasures of her own job.
“Most of the ladies had no food at the beginning, because their men didn’t have a job. Now most of them have land, are saving money and hope to build a house,” Yasui said.
“This is my happiness, I could see lives changing.”
Editing by Miral Fahmy