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Afghanistan Part III: Bamiyan

October 8, 2009

My friends and I arrived  in the famous valley of Bamiyan, intent on visiting the massive Buddhas carved from a stone cliff behind the village of the same name.  The statues were hundreds of feet tall, recessed into the mountain and accessed through a warren of Buddhist meditation caves dating from a thousand years ago.  We knew the monuments days were numbered. One chief goal of self-civilizing countries it to erase the human past of their predecessors, no matter how advanced and spiritually their artifacts, if they threaten present-time revisionist history.

The main street of  Bamiyan village was a dirt track, lined with tea houses, souvenir shops, and mud-brick homes.  The town was not an imposing place, but we immediately saw the giant statues  to the north, carved as lasting memorials to the time when the district was of Buddhist persuasion and part of the great caravan route from West to East.  Below the village, rows of poplar trees provide shade and borders between the nearby plots of cultivated land.  The climate was quite cool, except when the sun shined and cast a warm glow on the landscape. Bamiyan was one of those must-see areas of  Afghanistan, although I always had the impression that most backpackers never went to the (considerable) trouble to reach the place.

We began the trip from Kabul by riding a pubic bus, which let us off at the intersection of the gravel road that led west toward the monuments. Hitching was a simple matter of flagging down the first vehicle that passed us by.

We found lodging in a traditional Afghani tea  house.   Every night local musicians put on a performance with their tambours and percussion instruments.  One particularly charming young girl danced to the music with technique and talent far beyond her years, as the musicians slowly built their sound to emotional and creative heights.  The girl, who could not have been more than four or five, danced to the rhythm like a practiced expert, enhancing the feelings we  felt of being swept away in the moment.  My friends and I both picked up stringed instruments to try to accompany the masterfully played chords of the Afghani musicians, but  none of us were up to the task.  After a time the music diminished  and we crashed on the thick local wool carpets, Afghanis and foreigners alike, waiting for sleep and the inevitable beginning of a new day.

1) Steve playing tambour in the Bamiyan teahouse, our residence in the valley

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2) Poplar trees, Bamiyan Valley: Photo by Steve Routhier

We still had to visit the statutes, and finally one morning we scrambled through the scree and eroded rocks to gain the bottom of the cliff where they stood.  Of course we could find no direct path to ascend the Buddhas, so we made our way into the warren of stone cells – monks’ meditation quarters, if local knowledge was correct, and climbed staircases deep within the rock to the top of the monuments.

I remember scrambling to the top of the head of one of the Buddhas, some 200 feet above ground level.  Long ago pious Muslims had scratched out the faces of the human figures, but above the chamber into which the head had been carved, beautiful painted scenes from the Buddha’s life remained with vivid life-like depictions of his ascension to the great spiritual beyond.  The frescoes were finely preserved in the dry atmosphere of central Afghanistan, and the Hindu Kush range was perfectly framed by the portal around the Buddha’s head.  A magnificent view of snow-covered high mountains told of impassable terrain to the south and of mountain fastness never trod by modern humans.   The image made me think of the perfection achieved when both humans and nature augmented and shaped their complimentary attributes to the glorification of both.

As the world knows now, the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan are gone, exploded and shattered into pulverized  stone by the guns of the Taliban.  Are the Talibs so dedicated to the destruction of pre-Islamic human accomplishments that they are blind to the sublime aspects of higher existence.?

We will probably  never know the answer until the next time ordinary travelers are permitted to visit this wonder of the world. The Soviets and the Americans in their turn allowed a harmless country to be pulled into the tide of “modern advancement” with the aid of  night-strike air missions and depleted uranium munitions.  Even the old Russian base at Bahram still operates at full capacity as a black hole dungeon under its new American masters.  All too soon, the famous statues at Bamiyan will join the Alexandria Lighthouse and the Gardens of Babylon as another myth about the remote past.

As we continue a long, sordid history of wrecking humankind’s greatest achievements.

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3) Bamiyan Valley, pre-Taliban: Photo by Steve Routhier

4) Another shot near Bamiyan town: Photo by Steve Routhier


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