The first five-star hotel opened in the Afghan capital on Tuesday, part of a construction boom that is changing the face of dusty Kabul nearly four years after the ouster of the Taliban.
President Hamid Karzai inaugurated the Serena Hotel in a ceremony attended by ambassadors, foreign aid workers and others. The luxury hotel joins a shiny office block and a glitzy shopping mall, two other new additions to a city nearly destroyed by a quarter-century of war.
And though many of Kabul’s crumbling buildings are now being torn down, the city is far from being a modern metropolis.
It has electricity only a few hours a day. The vast majority of residents remain impoverished, living in single-room, mud-brick houses and drawing water from wells sometimes polluted with cholera.
Militants occasionally fire rockets into downtown areas, and the threat of being kidnapped forces many foreigners to live in tightly guarded compounds surrounded by concrete bomb barriers and to travel in armored convoys.
A room at the Serena costs between $250 and $1,200 a night — a fortune in a city where a government salary is about $50 a month.
With a large swimming pool, a health club, a pastry shop, two restaurants and a neat mustard-colored exterior, it sits in sharp contrast to its surroundings.
On the pavement outside, crippled old men compete with ragged street children and burqa-clad widows to beg for change from passing cars. About 300 yards away is the Murad Khani slum, where thousands shelter in flimsy shacks next to open sewers.
A short distance from the Serena, another construction project is nearing completion — a new U.S. Embassy building and an adjoining apartment block for its staffers. Painted brightly in yellow and orange, the buildings stand out from the rest of the drab, mud-colored city.
Since 2001, the mission has been operating mainly out of modified shipping containers. Staffers have often had to bunk together in small rooms and work in cramped offices.
'It’s so beautiful'
The fancy shopping mall, the Kabul City Center, was an instant hit after it opened earlier this year. Afghans throng there on weekends, marveling wide-eyed at its shiny escalators and elevators.
“I am amazed by these moving stairs,” said Ahmad Jan, a 23-year-old tailor visiting Kabul from the eastern town of Gardez. “I just had to see this building. It’s so beautiful.”