In the belly of Bamiyan

June 8, 2014

In the belly of Bamiyan

That morning at Kabul airport, when I looked at the plane that was flying us to Bamiyan, my heart sank, taking along my faith in the religion of adventure. It was an old, rickety Russian plane called Antonov something. It had rusty looking propellers, big round windows and resembled a Fokker Friendship aircraft that PIA has grounded for quite a few years now. The inside of the plane reeked of old leather and diesel fumes.

The middle-aged Uzbek-looking airhostess was short, stocky and had high arched pencilled eyebrows. She glared at the passengers, mostly Hazara men, who scampered for seats in a rowdy manner.

The aircraft creaked as it rolled down the tarmac. I was looking out from my window seat when two big batteries were wheeled in on a trolley and parked right next to the wing. And then I witnessed something incredulous. The man took a huge plug connected to the batteries and shoved it in a socket in the side of the aircraft. Then he flicked a button. The plane shuddered a few times and became alive with a jolt.

I had never seen a plane being jump started with batteries. My heart sank again but this time with a lot of nervous, uneasy butterflies fluttering in my stomach.

I was travelling around Afghanistan on a filming assignment and was headed to Bamiyan, along with my crew, to film this magical land and its beautiful people.

The vintage plane took off and made a few wide circles over Kabul so it could gain enough altitude to clear the high, snow-capped mountains that form a huge ring around the city. And then with a full thrust of its whining engines, the plane hurled itself high into the sky and cleared the snowy ridges with a narrow margin. With my face pressed against the window, I took a deep sigh of relief as I saw the ground move away, less than a 100 meters below us.

The scenery was spectacular as we cruised towards Bamiyan.

After about 40 minutes into the flight, suddenly a voice crackled something incomprehensible over the intercom and the plane went into a steep nosedive. At that point, we were flying over a high, snowy plateau and the aircraft seemed dangerously close to the mountain tops, as it flew downward through a narrow valley and I saw the ground approaching fast as it prepared to land.

But for the life of me, I couldn’t see the runway as the plane prepared to land.

The man took a huge plug connected to the batteries and shoved it in a socket in the side of the aircraft. Then he flicked a button. The plane shuddered a few times and became alive with a jolt.

With an ashen face, I peered out of the window and then, suddenly to my horror, there was a screeching sound as the tyres touched down and the aircraft started bouncing and lurching on the gravel ground. That is when I realised there was no runway. We had just landed on a dirt strip.

The plane came to a halt in front of two under-construction rooms and we all filed out into the cool crisp Bamiyan air. It was chilly outside. A strong wind was blowing. There was no airport or terminal per say and the passengers going to Kabul were waiting for the plane, looking forlorn as they lolled along the landing strip.

Located in central Afghanistan, in a region called Hazarajat, Bamiyan is one of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan. Its capital city is also known as Bamiyan. Once the cradle of a thriving Buddhist civilisation and lying on the crossroads of the silk route, Bamiyan has a breathtaking landscape, an ancient history and a rich cultural heritage.

Bamiyan is also famous worldwide for its highest standing Buddha statues carved in a sandstone cliff on the edge of the city. Unfortunately, the Taliban destroyed these tremendous Buddha statues in 2001.

Bamiyan is indeed a magical place, a high altitude valley that still exudes an archaic air of the bygone Buddhist times. Calling Bamiyan a city, I personally feel, would be an overstatement -- as this sleepy town is spread around a narrow valley with brown desolate mountains in the foreground and white snow-capped peaks in the backdrop. The town has more of a rural feel to it with its cultivated fields, irrigation channels, mud adobe houses and a bustling bazaar that runs through the middle of the town.

After leaving the airport, we literally drove down for one minute on a long straight road lined with poplar trees, took a left and arrived at the only five-star ramshackle hotel that has an awesome view of the snow-capped mountains and the sandstone cliffs. It was a one-storey stone building with rooms on one side and a big shared bathroom on the other. There was electricity generated by a solar panel, a wooden stove heated the rooms and the running water in the bathroom was freezing.

The ploughed field in front of the hotel was littered with a few dead tanks, grim reminders from the past wars. Little Hazara kids were playing on their rusted and damaged hulks. From the window of my room, I could clearly see the two empty alcoves in the cliff side, where once the statues of the great Buddhas stood in peace only to be destroyed recently by bigoted philistines. As I went out to take a walk and breathe the refreshing Bamiyan air, a little kid in school uniform smiled at me and greeted me in Darri. "Welcome to Bamiyan," he said.

Next day equipped with our cameras, we visited and filmed the empty Buddha alcoves where once stood two of the highest standing stone Buddha statues in the world. Now there is nothing but a sad emptiness and some faint remnants of a world heritage blasted by Taliban ignorance.

The whole sandstone cliff face where these Buddhas were carved is pockmarked with large and small meditation caves and caverns long abandoned by monks and now in use as residential quarters by the locals. It is amazing that there are still people living in these caves around Bamiyan town in the towering sandstone cliffs.

The local legend about the two Buddhas is that the main 55-metre tall Buddha was a male figure by the name of Salsaal and the 38-meter tall statue carved in the same sandstone cliff about half a kilometre away was a female figure by the name of Shahmama. And that they were both lovers. Interestingly enough, there is a smaller sized empty alcove in the middle of these two statues where once a smaller Buddha statue existed that the locals thought was the resultant baby of the bigger two statues. This baby statue of Buddha was also destroyed by the Taliban.

There are stairs carved inside the cliff on both sides of the now non-existent Shahmama statue that lead up to meditation rooms and terraces built on three levels and have spectacular views of the fantastically brown Bamiyan valley and the snow-capped mountains all around.

Hazara people with their Mongolian features are the natives of Bamiyan province. They are mostly Shias and can easily claim their descent from the hoards of Mongolian armies that came charging through these regions in 11th and 12th centuries. Hazara are a beautiful, peace loving and docile people, who mostly keep to themselves, are generous hosts and seemed to be quite liberal in comparison to their compatriots in other parts of Afghanistan. In the bazaar where we strolled in the evenings, in the restaurants where we ate and in the shops and small markets where we filmed, we were always met by welcoming smiles and curious but very shy and timid looks. During the Taliban regime in the 1990s, these lovely people were massacred in thousands by Taliban because of their religious belief.

Even though it was springtime and the blossoms on the trees were showing, Bamiyan valley was still shivering with cold winds and the temperatures dropped to almost freezing point on some nights. On one such shivering evening, as the icy winds berated the naked poplar trees outside, we filmed a couple of Bamiyani artists singing and playing haunting Bamiyani melodies while strumming away on their two stringed Damboras.

About two hours drive away from Bamiyan town is the Bande Amir National Park that is famous for its six incredibly beautiful deep blue lakes. Nestled in Hindu Kush mountain range at an elevation of about 3,000 meters above sea level, Bande Amir is an important international tourist destination.

We drove out of Bamiyan town early in the morning and travelled on a beautifully metalled highway towards Bande Amir. The road travelled through narrow sandstone and rocky gorges climbed up into a snowy plateau and then snaked through the roof of the world covered completely in snow. The vast high altitude plateau ringed by high mountains is an inspiring sight that dwarfs you in your shoes.

After about an hour and a half we turned left onto a dirt track that soon became snowbound and our vehicle could go no further. There was about five feet of snow all around us and Bande Amir lakes were still about 30 kilometres away. There we stood sad and disappointed for we had come so far to visit and shoot these world famous lakes only to be stalled by the late season snow. We were snowbound and had to turn around with heavy hearts.

On the way back, we stopped in the middle of nowhere on the windswept snowy plateau and my Afghan crew set about buying indigenous cheese called Karut from a small settlement along the highway. This white crystallised cheese is very salty and is quite a delicacy in the mountain regions of Afghanistan. But I couldn’t develop the taste for it and went wandering around.

As I walked around the shops and a few mud adobe houses, marvelling at this miserable and inhospitable looking hamlet and its poor inhabitants that were dressed in inappropriately unkempt clothes and were going about their daily chores stoically, I ran into a young man badly beaten up, who wanted medical help from me, thinking I was some kind of a foreign doctor visiting their settlement. I asked him what happened in my poor Darri and he told me he got into a fight the night before and now his head hurt badly. I gave him some aspirin tablets from our medical kit but he refused to take these and told me to take him along to Kabul for treatment. All along this conversation, he had a wild grin on his face and looked deranged.

So, utterly confused and not knowing what to do, I left him standing in that Godforsaken place, nursing his badly bruised face.

We drove back to Bamiyan. But a few kilometres before the town, we took a right turn into a narrow valley and followed a dirt track to a place called Darre Azhdaha or the Valley of the Serpent, where according to the local legend, a big bad snake used to take a pretty girl every month as a sacrifice. However, one fine day, according to the local myth, Hazrat Ali came by and killed the serpent with his mighty sword.

The road moved through a narrow gorge that opened into a small dead-end valley. We drove up to the top of the pass and came upon the dead serpent. The wide ridge did look like a serpent that snaked for about half a kilometre above the cul-de-sac. The ridge was neatly cleaved in the middle and was indeed a bewildering sight.

We walked over the sliced serpent’s back to its far side where the ridge tapers off and takes the shape of a snakehead. Here, from the two small holes in the rock that supposedly form the eyes of the snake, sulphur water was bubbling out, turning the whole rock face chemically white and scaly. It was an amazing sight, as the serpent, it is said, is still crying and repenting for his evil deeds and from the consequent pain caused by the blow of the mighty sword.

The view from the top of the ridge was breath-taking. The snowy mountains all around and the brown desert valley in the middle looked magical and I felt like I was in some epic phantasmal land of fairies and jinns.

As we entered back into Bamiyan town, an icy wind was sweeping across the valley; the people were scurrying around, looking for respite from the forbidding winds. My film crew turned up the music and as a heart-breaking Darri song came on, I peered out of the window and an ancient, melancholically romantic feeling crept over me, inspiring and nudging my nomadic spirit to travel on.

In the belly of Bamiyan