Flying over these mountains in a small airplane is an emotionally charged experience—whether you are flying across the plains of Pakistan, only to move suddenly up and over a mountain-high wall into Afghanistan, or flying into the country’s interior, following a river valley to the ancient city of Bamiyan.
Central Afghanistan has some of the most astounding landscapes in the country—mountain gorges, sandstone sculptures, imposing ruins and the gorgeous blue waters of Band-e-Amir. And it has Bamiyan, the city at the center of Afghanistan, with the infamous giant empty Buddha niches, 6th century frescoes and a momentous and often heartbreaking history.
Afghanistan’s story is old, bloody and dramatic. It is believed that Afghans were trading their beautiful lapis lazuli (a deep-blue semi-precious stone) with Mesopotamia and India as far back as 7000 years ago. From the time of its first recorded history, in the 6th century BC, Afghanistan has been at the crossroads of migration, invasion, cultural exchange and religious influence.
Bamiyan’s place in history is primarily associated with its function as a way station on the Silk Road and its role as a major centre for Buddhist pilgrimage. During the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, China moved vast quantities of silk along a network of roads in Central Asia to the Mediterranean. Trade passed through Bamiyan and pilgrims flocked to its temples. In the 6th century, the two larger Buddha statues were carved, 38m and 55m respectively. Until destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, they were the tallest standing statues of Buddha ever made.
Modern day pilgrims continue to make their way to Bamiyan although the land route remains arduous and dangerous. Some of us have the good fortune to work on assignment in Bamiyan, travelling there on UN flights and gaining spectacular views of the cliffs and empty niches during the descent. Once on the ground, the traveller has a number of options for room and board. For NGO workers like Canada’s former Minister of External Affairs, Flora MacDonald, life in Bamiyan is often simple, even austere. For the rest of us, The Silk Road Hotel offers comfort and sustenance .
Upon arriving in Bamiyan City, the visitor feels compelled to explore the site of the Buddha statues as quickly as possible. By climbing through passages, around and above the niches, you can reach the high points, appreciating as you ascend the complexity of the original structures. A vestibule at the top allows you to look across the valley at farmland, river and town. The wall niches for small statues and the frescoes that remain on walls and ceilings give the 21st century traveller a sense of the visual splendor that would have astonished a 6th century pilgrim.
By travelling 9 kilometers east of Bamiyan, a visitor can explore another ruin of the 6th century. Shahr-e-Zohak is a remarkable fortress, built by the Ghorids, perched high on cliffs, guarding the entrance to the Bamiyan Valley. In 1221, when Genghis Khan’s grandson died in battle here, his ensuing wrath brought death and destruction to the valley and its entire population, evoking references to “the city of sorrows” and “city of screams”.
After wiping out the local people, Genghis Khan resettled the area with Mongol troops and slave women who would become the ancestors of the Hazara people living in Bamiyan today. The long climb to the mud-brick towers of Shahr-e-Zohak is well worth the effort. Although land mines have been removed, a visitor is advised to keep to the paths.
The 75 kilometer drive west from Bamiyan to the lakes at Band-e-Amir takes the traveller over the 3300m Shahidan Pass and through some of the earth’s most spectacular scenery. In April 2009, the region of Band-e-Amir was designated Afghanistan’s first national park. Your initial sighting of the astonishing blue of the lake waters, set in magnificent surroundings, brings an intense sense of gratitude that this small and beautiful part of Afghanistan has escaped the devastation that has rained down on so much of the country.
A small shrine overlooks Band-e-Haibat, one of six lakes. The shrine is called Qadamjoy Shah-e-Aulia or ‘The place where Ali stood’. When coming upon this site, it is surprising to see pilgrims gathered, having encountered so few people during the entire trip. As the story goes, Ali, the Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law, spent a night at the site of the shrine. The story also reveals that during his travels Ali slayed a dragon near Bamiyan and, in Band-e-Amir, created lakes by hurling rocks into a river, slicing off the top of a mountain and working his powers with a piece of cheese and a sprig of mint—mythical actions that make a fitting tribute to the splendours of this incredible region.
By Barbara Reinhardus
Photo Credits: Kawa Aahangar, Zabih Barakzai, Barbara Reinhardus
© Riding the buses 2013