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Where giant Buddhas once stood

After Kabul, Bamiyan is probably Afghanistan's most accessible and most secure destination. Though it's an horrific road that takes eight to ten hours to cover what is only one hundred and eighty kilometers, the scenery along the way is worth the price of the ride and the village of Bamiyan is a quiet little one-street town that makes for a relaxing change from all the chaos of Kabul.

Farid and I left at some ridiculous early morning hour as most long distance transport in Afghanistan leaves by 6 to 7 in the morning, or earlier. We took the back seat of a TownAce van, which usually holds seven people but as the two of us took the back, this trip it only carried six. We left shortly after six in the morning. The trip begins on the road south to Ghazni which is an excellent road, though we had to stop about twenty klicks out for a rather thorough vehicle and body search. A few kilometers more, we turned off this wonderful road on to a gravel track that got progressively worse as the day wore on.

This route to Bamiyan crosses over the Unai and Hakigak Passes (3300 and 3700 meters respectively) and like most trips of more than a few hours the landscape makes many subtle and even not so subtle changes along the way. First, snowcapped 5,000-meter peaks, then rocky desert, a canyon, more rocky outcroppings, more snowcapped peaks, more rocks of different colors and shapes. There was also no shortage of war remnants along the way, tanks and things, but not nearly as many mine fields as were evident between Torkham and Kabul or as I would see later, in the Salang Pass area. I also caught a few glimpses of nomadic herders with their small tents pitched out on the open fields, their camels, herds of sheep, and ornery dogs. I wonder how all the land mines in this country are affecting the lifestyle of the nomads who have for centuries traversed this land without such an interference?

We reached Bamiyan in the middle of the afternoon. There are now several places to stay in the village. We headed for the Mama Najaf which is the most centrally located guesthouse, though given the size of Bamiyan, location is not really a concern. A couple of large airy rooms upstairs are the choice options. According to some internet reports I had printed out, they would rent one of these rooms for $10. They asked for $15. I produced one of the printouts that said $10. Okay, $10, as the owner then delighted in relating how he recently got some French to pay $20. One of the reports I had spoke of small thieves running around this place. I don't know what they are talking about, I didn't see any kids lurking about let alone kids lurking about that might have wanted to relieve us of any of our possessions. The upstairs rooms are divided by thin walls that aren't much more than cardboard and yes, you can listen to your neighbor's conversation quite clearly should you find it more interesting than your own.

Bamiyan is one main street lined with mostly single-story and two-story mud brick dwellings. There are plenty of convenience store/drink shops, restaurants (kebabs! pulao! bread!), moneychangers, and even a place to make an international call if that's important to know.

The locals are mostly of the Hazara minority, a rough oriental looking race that remind me more of people I have seen in rural China than people of Afghanistan.

Apparently until recently, this village was lacking in toilets as UN Habitat has constructed a couple of toilet blocks - raised cement sheds with four cubicles offering small holes to squat over. I suppose having a central location for people to do their business is an advantage, but it's obvious that the UN does not inhabit itself anywhere near their habitat toilets. Depending on the direction of the wind, you are well aware of these places long before you see them. They really are disgusting.

The two giant Buddhas, destroyed by the Taliban over a two-week period in 2001 are about a twenty-minute walk from the village and about a ten to fifteen-minute walk from each other. Their empty enclosures are visible from anywhere in the village and beyond. Between the two Buddhas are dozens upon dozens of caves presently home to a number of refugees.

These two giant Buddhas had survived for centuries. The smaller of the two dates to the late 3rd or early 4th century, the larger came a little bit later. There also had been fresco paintings surrounding these figures and in small rooms nearby, but of those paintings which had survived until 2001, many were destroyed by the Taliban as well.

Although the figures have been completely destroyed I'm going to refer to them in the present tense as if they still survive. And many would say that as the spirit will live forever, then so, too, do the Buddhas. And besides, it's easier to say "the Buddhas" than to say "where the Buddhas once stood".

We walked up to each of the Buddhas. At each a gate blocks entry and a UNESCO sign warns to stay away. There is very little left in the pile of rubble and certainly nowhere near enough to begin a restoration process. A guard approached us and the first thing he wanted to know was did we have a letter authorizing us to be here. Well, that's a marvelous way to promote tourism! Require letters of permission to visit the tourist sites! Well of course we didn't have a letter but we did have 100 Afghanis (about $2) and with that we were told to return tomorrow morning around 9 a.m. for the full tour. So it was back to the village for dinner (kebabs! pulao! bread!).

The following morning the guard, along with some young relative in possession of a Kalishnikov, took us first to the larger enclosure and asked if we wanted to walk to the top. Well, sure. And we were lead up a very narrow and treacherous staircase that eventually left us in a small opening above where the Buddha once stood. Two things crossed my mind - first, life preservation. One slip on the already loose dirt and I was going to be one with the pile of rubble and damaged beyond the abilities of any UNESCO restoration team. Second, I considered that this opening had us completely above a Buddha figure, meaning our presence and our feet were above a Buddha figure and that is an absolute no-no, even if the Buddha no longer exists in a material sense.

If by any chance, an appreciable number of tourists return to Bamiyan they will most certainly have to prevent people from walking up these stairs. Mostly for safety reasons as the stairs are steep, narrow, dark, and in several locations open to the Buddha's recess where one misstep and it's a long way down. Secondly, there is the issue of people sitting themselves above a Buddha figure, even if the Buddha is no longer there. While UNESCO has stated they will not rebuild these figures, which would seem like an almost impossible task anyway, there is no doubt that the Buddhist world still considers these ancient monuments important and if money is ever needed from outside sources for some kind of restoration or preservation project I would expect the Buddhist community might chip in - but not if people are sitting above these figures every day. I realize Afghanistan is an Islamic country, but it would probably go over well not to have people higher than the tops of these figures.

Off to the sides, there are small rooms which have a number of wall paintings. Some are Christian, some Buddhist, some Islamic, some secular. However, the Taliban made a point of destroying all human images. By the looks of the paintings it appears that eyes, hands, mouths, were either chipped away, or more likely shot up with bullets.

I had asked our two young escorts about the destruction of the Buddhas and paintings, but they had little firsthand knowledge. Like most residents, they were recently resettled war refugees.

We returned to the village to inquire about getting a car to visit Shahr-e-Zohak - a 13th century hilltop fort some 17 kilometers away, and Shahr-e-Gholghola, another hilltop citadel from around the same era, this one located only a kilometer or two from Bamiyan village. The guesthouse initially quoted $30 for the trip. I protested with the usual, "I am not NGO! I am not UN!" and the price dropped to $10.

We drove first to Shahr-e-Zohak arriving to meet a small group of Afghan military personnel. There were two commanders there, meaning double baksheesh. The first thing they want to see is do I have a letter of permission to be here. What? Again! And I wondered whose idea this was in the first place. Anyway, of course I didn't have a letter, so they wanted money, reaffirming the pointlessness of the letters. They start by asking for $200. That's right two hundred US dollars! Well, in a few minutes we were down to 400 Afghanis (about $8.30), which was still too much but as there were two commanders there they both needed a cut. An escort was provided and we walked up to the top of what little remains of the red fort that once withstood an attack by a grandson of Genghis Khan. There is very little to see now and 400 Afghanis for the privilege was really stretching it.

Shahr-e-Gholghola is even less impressive in its ruins but affords some spectacular views of the Bamiyan valley. No one charged money to walk to the top, however an escort is necessary as the hill is heavily mined. The path up is well marked with the standard red rocks, but it's still nice to have someone's footprints to step in along the way. The top of the hill is littered with small military hardware: mostly shell casings and ammunition boxes.

Above left: red paint marks the path between the land mines leading to the top of Shahr-e-Gholghola.
Above right: Young residents of Bamiyan.
Below left: View of the airstrip and US military base at Bamiyan.
Below right: View of Bamiyan village. The giant Buddhas are in the cliff seen just beyond the village.

The return to Kabul would necessitate another early start. Transport starts leaving around 4:30 am. We were ready to go at 5:30 am and by then, most of the transport was already gone. Eventually a Hi-Ace van filled up, well, partially but at least to the satisfaction of the driver, so we left anyway hoping to grab some more passengers along the way, which we did. At one point nearer to Kabul the driver stopped for one elderly man who he quoted a price of 40 Afghanis for a short ride. They argued for a minute and the old man never did get in the van. A few klicks later four people got in for the same short distance and the driver allowed each one on for only 10 Afghanis each. Farid explained that the one man was charged 40 Afghanis because he was from a different tribe. Well, at least it's not just us foreigners that face racist fee policies.


Introduction - over the Khyber




Practical matters for visiting Afghanistan

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All text and photographs 1998 - 2010 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.