A few decades ago, before the communist coup in the late 1970s, tourists used Afghanistan as their overland route to Europe, travelling on public buses or in Volkswagen combi vans, and staying at local hotels and hostels. The giant Buddhas of Bamiyan had been one of the major tourist drawcards.
Today the Buddhas themselves are no longer there. The Taliban regime destroyed any trace of sculpture or artwork that was not Islamic, including the two statues of Buddha that had been carved into the cliff face in the Bamiyan valley in the 6th Century. They’d been blown up in early 2001. A few months later, the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, organised from within Afghanistan, set in train the events which led to the end of the Taliban government and the arrival of foreign advisers and aid workers. I think, however, it was actually the destruction of these ancient, World Heritage monuments that was the point at which the world decided the Taliban had to go.
Even though the Buddhas weren’t there anymore, a group of us thought that Bamiyan would be worth visiting. At the time it was one of the more peaceful parts of Afghanistan. In the 18 months I’d been working there, my life had been largely confined to Kabul. We’d made some short trips to the US military base at Bagram to the north of the city, where we indulged in American fast food and the exotic items available at the PX store, and to Paghman, the former summer capital in the hills outside Kabul, once a popular holiday retreat for the wealthy. But since then travel almost anywhere outside the city had become dangerous and seemed to be getting more perilous by the day.
The original plan was to drive to Bamiyan for the weekend in a convoy of hired cars, but this was vetoed by our Security Director who insisted we would need an armed escort, and then said he couldn’t provide one. However, a small aircraft normally used to fly humanitarian aid workers to remote towns was available for charter. We pooled our money and booked a one day return trip.
At 6am we were the only members of the public at Kabul Airport. It was a clear sunny day and we had a beautifully smooth flight up into the mountains in the twin engine Beechcraft. As we flew into the Bamiyan Valley it seemed as if we were gliding a few meters above the surface of the hills, and the wing of the aircraft almost clipped the rocks jutting out from a long abandoned fort. The wheels ploughed into the gravel of the airstrip and the plane parked on a single square of concrete. There was no airport building, just a dirt road running across green paddocks towards a group of mud brick houses.
The air in the valley was clear and fresh. The mountains around us were still topped with snow but we were surrounded by bright green crops and delicate new-leafed trees. Already, at eight am, the sun was fierce. From where we stood we could see across the valley to the red cliffs, pockmarked with caves which were once filled with Buddhist statues and shrines.
While we waited at the airstrip for the vehicles that had been organised to meet us, a group of young girls walking to school clustered around, watching curiously. Soon we were surrounded by a small crowd of male onlookers as well.
Most of the people in this area are Hazara, the Asiatic descendants of former Mongol invaders. The Hazara are Shias, while most other Afghans are Sunni. This has made them the victims of discrimination and persecution from time to time, particularly under Taliban rule.
Unlike the Shia in nearby Iran, where women are expected to wear sombre clothing, the Hazara women dress in bright colours and the curious schoolgirls were a riot of hot pink, vivid purple and green scarves over sequined, velvet tunics.
Two minibuses eventually arrived and took us across the valley to the cliffs and the gaping hole in the rock where the smaller of the two giant Buddhas once stood. A pile of stones at the base of the cliff was all that remained of the statue, but we climbed the spiral stairways carved into the rock and looked into the niches where smaller Buddhist statues and paintings used to be. A few geometric wall paintings and carved domed ceilings which didn’t offend Islamic sensitivities could still be seen in a few alcoves. Someone had added chalked graffiti in Persian script. Centuries ago, timber staircases led up the cliff to even higher caves but they were now inaccessible.
A team of Italian engineers was working on the cliff face with hydraulic drills and metal cables to prevent more of the rock from splintering and falling away. Apart from them and a few young goat herders, we were the only people there. We may have been the only visitors in weeks.
After we’d seen the remains of the other destroyed Buddha we went to the office of the guardian of the site to pay our entrance fee. It was a leisurely process. We sat on sofas in his office as he laboriously wrote our names and nationalities in his log book, delighted to have such interesting company.
There were two options for lunch. The Hotel Bamiyan, which had been here when our guidebook was written in the 1970s, was still operating and still provided the option of sleeping in yurts. Instead, we chose the new ‘Roof of Bamiyan’ hotel, on a rocky plateau with a view across the river valley to the Buddha caves. Neither hotel had much business these days.
The road to the restaurant was a tortuous, potholed track winding through mud brick villages and irrigation channels across vivid green rice fields. The fields were bordered by freshly planted trees, delicate young silver birches with trunks not more than an inch or two thick.
After lunch, the drive out to Dragon Valley, which we had been told would take 20 minutes, was more like an hour of rugged off-road driving, from the lush fields into a desert valley, across dry creek beds, and past towering eroded cliffs. The dragon lying across the middle of the empty river at first seemed to be just another rocky hill, but as we drove towards it, in this empty place, we were surprised to see that it was crowded with women and children, all wearing their best clothes. Some were boiling pots of tea on small fires. Older girls sat in a tight group at the edge of the rocky outcrop, looking down into the valley. Dozens of small girls and packs of little boys clambered on the rocks. I couldn’t see any vehicles parked nearby so I have no idea how they all got there.
From the top of the hill the dragon was very clearly a dragon. The curved rock was split neatly down the middle by some long ago earthquake and the jagged rift was unmistakably an animal’s spine. At the far end, the head of the dragon sank down into the valley and steaming water from a hot spring seeped from its nostrils leaving a white sulphur residue across its lizard face.
Our guide told us it was a religious site. An ancient Shiite leader slew this mythical dragon and rescued the maiden he was about to devour. The story sounded familiar. It also explained the presence of all the women. They were there for a wedding ritual, to seek a blessing from the shrine – a conical mud and straw structure standing on the high point of the rock, like a pimple on the dragon’s back.
The women and children found the foreigners, who included women with uncovered blond hair and one black American, as exotic and interesting as we found them. The children came to shake hands and have their photos taken, the girls even more forward than the boys.
After the lurching drive back to town, the final site on our tour was the Shar-e-Rholrholha, the city of noise. The legend is that the entire population of this hill fortress was murdered by Ghengis Khan and one can still hear the screams of the women and children as they were separated from the men and taken away to be slaughtered. It’s a steep rocky hill sitting in the middle of the green plain, covered with lumps of weathered stone forming the geometric foundations of a town that had stood here hundreds of years ago.
We still had time to shop before our flight back to Kabul. The main street of Bamiyan village was lined with small timber storefronts. It had the languid atmosphere of a one horse frontier town or, in this case, a one motorbike town. A noisy Suzuki 100cc was almost the only vehicle we saw. The stores were stocked with dusty handcrafts, carpets and jewellery that could very well have been here, in the same shops, when the last hippies came through.
Nearby, a group of workmen were laying stones on the road, by hand, one by one. This was part of the UN-funded ‘labour intensive works program’ widely advertised on billboards throughout the valley. Local men were employed to carry and lay the stones and received a small salary to feed their families. It was a slow process, but better than bringing in trained plant operators from somewhere else to dump rocks with a tip truck and spread them with a grader in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost while the local people watched on and went hungry.
The New Zealand military’s contingent of the multinational peacekeeping effort in Afghanistan had been assigned to the Bamiyan ‘Provincial Reconstruction Team’. It looked like a fairly comfortable posting. Their well camouflaged base was located next to the airstrip and as we waited for our Beechcraft to collect us for the return flight to Kabul several soldiers were out for an evening stroll. They included two leggy young women in short black shorts and tight brown T-shirts carrying large rifles. They would have attracted attention almost anywhere. The Afghan police guarding the airstrip were standing with their mouths hanging open.
The pilot of our chartered plane also found the sight of several people with guns strolling on the runway disconcerting and aborted his first landing attempt. Luckily he returned and landed safely. A Maori serviceman with elaborately tattooed forearms drove over from the New Zealand base to collect a delivery of medical equipment from the plane.
It was then just a exhilarating 20 minute flight down from the mountains into dusty Kabul. Afterwards, the whole excursion felt like some kind of dream.
Bamiyan could be one of the great international tourist destinations, but it will be a long time before it is available to any but the most adventurous, or foolhardy, traveller.