By KATHERINE ZOEPF
Published: January 22, 2006
CREATING a five-star hotel in a landlocked, war-torn country presents a series of fairly stunning logistical problems. By the time Christopher Newbery started work as the general manager at Kabul's new Serena Hotel in September, two general managers had already quit.
Jeroen Kramer for The New York Times
The $36.5 million Kabul Serena opened in Afghanistan's capital in September.
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For starters, almost everything that the luxury hotel requires - from European cheeses for its breakfast buffet to chemicals for the laundering of its downy white towels to the Penhaligon lotions and shampoos with which the bathrooms are lavishly stocked - must be imported. Goods are flown from Dubai into one of Pakistan's international airports, then taken by railroad to the border city of Peshawar, where they begin a 10-hour journey by truck over the Khyber Pass to Kabul.
Then, there are the problems of maintaining security in a country where Al Qaeda and Taliban supporters still stage attacks on Western interests. The hotel is surrounded by a perimeter wall, and, at the entrance, an obstacle course of barriers - wide metal tubes filled in with concrete - leads to a thick steel gate guarded by three men with Kalashnikovs. "This hasn't been the easiest of projects," said Mr. Newbery of his work opening the $36.5 million hotel. "The dangers are very real, but we're doing this for the people of Afghanistan."
The Serena is a symbol of Kabul's new status as an emerging, if risky, destination for daring international travelers. Their interest is marked by the increasing appearance of Afghan travelogues on blogs and travelers' forums like blogs.bootsnall.com and thorntree.lonelyplanet.com.
The hotel is a project of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, which, according to its promotional materials, "makes pioneering investments in fragile economies with the hope that such projects will create a slipstream of new investment."
As anyone visiting Kabul will notice, the economy of Afghanistan is undoubtedly fragile, and whether the existence of the Serena will draw high-end visitors remains to be seen. Certainly ordinary Afghans from other parts of the country won't be staying at the Serena, where double rooms start at $230 a night, or about five times the monthly salary of an Afghan government employee.
The hotel's location near Zarnegar Park, which once formed part of the grounds of a royal palace, has been a downtown Kabul landmark since the 1940's, but explorations on foot in the area are considered risky, according to the hotel guards.
And yet, for those willing to ignore the warnings for a few moments, even a short walk on Kabul's streets can be immensely rewarding. Afghanistan's ethnic diversity - Pashtuns, Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks and others - is clearly visible in the turbans, hats and other forms of ethnic dress that many wear as a badge of identity.
The bazaars are bustling, and despite the truly dire poverty, evidenced by a large number of enterprising beggars, most people seem warm and good-natured.
At a streetside stand selling boloni, deep-fried pockets of thin pastry filled with mashed potatoes and leeks and served in cones of newspaper with dollops of peppery sauce, a pair of onlookers used hand gestures to teasingly tell a visitor that the snack would surely be too spicy for her.
A clerk at a small grocery store, noting a foreign customer's curiosity about a local rapper's performance broadcast on his small television, spent several minutes describing, in halting English, Kabul's pride in the young man known as Baijan, whom the clerk described as Afghanistan's first hip-hop star, and whose rap verses in Dari, the Afghan form of Persian, focus on controversial subjects like teenage love.
Kabul lies in a basin of the Hindu Kush range, which makes for a nail-biting spiral down into the city on flights in, and also means that nearly any street scene in the city has a dramatic backdrop. With Kabul's famously soft, diffuse light, even the bombed-out buildings, of which there are many, seem gauzily romantic (though, remembering the decades of Afghan wars, and the destruction wrought by the mujahedeen and the Taliban, the visitor may feel a stab of guilt at finding them so).
On one hillside, a section of the old Kabul wall, which is said to date from the fifth century, designed to repel invaders and now partly in ruins, appears in profile like a row of jagged teeth. The Darulaman Palace on the western outskirts of the city, built by German architects in the 1920's, is utterly in ruins, its four proud towers reduced to metal skeletons. And yet this former home of King Amanullah, like so much of Kabul, remains defiantly glorious.
The Taliban attack the centre of Kabul
Targeted the presidential palace of Karzai, the Ministry of Justice, the Central Bank. Shoot-out around the Serena Hotel. Two days ago, two Chinese engineers kidnapped.
Kabul (AsiaNews / Agencies) - The Taliban launched a gun attack this morning in the capital with and at least 20 suicide bombers. The attack targeted the Ministry of Justice, the Central Bank and the palace of President Hamid Karzai. At the moment there is a battle going on between militants and security forces with gin fire being reported around Serena Hotel. This is the only five-star hotel in the capital and is owned by the Aga Khan.
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