Afghanistan Part V: Band-i-Mir
All Photos by Steve Routhier
After spending a few days in Bamiyan, I elected, with some other travelers, to continue west along a dirt track and visit one of the great natural sites of Central Asia, the seven sacred lakes of Band-i-Mr. Seven is a number with magical qualities in many cultures, so we took it on faith that indeed, seven bodies of water lay somewhere lost in the Hindu Kush.
During the 1970s, no proper road accessed the region. The size of the resident population didn’t warrant construction of a road, even if the central government of the time, run by Daoud and his cronies, had thought to spend the money to build one. This was an unlikely prospect, as this same government was busy ingratiating itself with both the Soviets and the Americans while shipping buckets of cash out of the country in preparation for their inevitable overthrow. No doubt they wanted to provide a means for a quick getaway should events turn sour. We all know how that turned out.
Meanwhile, traffic between Bamiyan and Band-i-Mir was accomplished by truck. Cargo vehicles of uncertain provenance plied the route, bringing essential supplies to the hardy backwoods locals. We hitched a ride on one of these, a two-ton pick up with a flatbed. Into this unprotected space twenty Afghans and perhaps five Westerners squeezed themselves for the seventy kilometer ride. The track wound around the hills, constantly gaining altitude until we reached a height above sea level of about 3500 meters. I would guess the journey took three hours; that the truck traveled slowly was a blessing. Even though we passed no bottomless gorges – or other vehicles – excessive speed on the part of Afghani drivers was something to be avoided if you valued your life.
The roadway widened into a huge valley, reminiscent of an Adam Ansel photograph. The truck stopped with a great crunch of the gearbox. We’d arrived.
I jumped off the back and blinked. Now what? In every direction was desert terrain without a trace of greenery that no pages of prattling descriptive cliches could adequately describe. Towering mountains blocked the sun overhead. Luckily we were soon told about a guesthouse walking distance from the truck stop. It turned out to be a low adobe building constructed as if it was part of the very earth. A sign above the hovel announced, “Kuchi Hotel.”
1) The Kuchi Hotel: in the background are the mountains where I had a confrontation with an armed Afghani who put me through an usual test (see “When the Lee Enfield is Leveled”)
The establishment was run by a Hazari gentleman, one of the nicest guys I met during my time in Afghanistan.
2) The hotel owner
We settled into the hotel, a one-room shack with a hand pump outside for fetching water, a wood stove inside to generate heat during the frigid nights, and carpets on the floor to spread our sleeping bags on. Since there was no town, no stores, no nothing anywhere but wilderness of a scale that rendered us humans as insignificant specks, we relied on the hotel owner to feed us and also to give advice about how to conduct ourselves in this remote part of the country. He was a Living Master, I am sure, and had dedicated his life to teaching Westerners about living and thriving in this forbidding climate. A truly wonderful man.
Time passed slowly in this valley. We explored the various lake sites. Truly the most astonishing of the collection was the one closest to our lodging. One end of this body of water, which was a good ten meters above the valley floor, was held back by a solid rock dam. The dam looked natural, but I have never been able to figure out how such a formation evolved. This feature has to be seen to be believed.
We met a number of other locals. They used to hang out at the lakes, fishing. This was great sport and the local fish made great fare on the dinner table. The Afghanis used long hand lines to which they squashed old bread onto crude steel hooks. The fish were some kind of carp species, I believe, although I can’t say if they were native or if the lakes had been stocked with them.
I tried the fishing procedure over and over again. The fish ate well of my bait, but I never even got a bite. They must have smelled the farang at the far end of the apparatus and decided, “To hell with him, we’re staying in this nice fresh cold water.” Oh well, I have never had much luck at being a fisher person. Not part of my duties on the planet or something.
Nonetheless, we had a fine time visiting the different lakes. I don’t remember if there were actually seven of them, but they all had formed in individually unique conditions, and all were colored startling shades of azure and turquoise. The lakes provided a startling counterpoint to the barren waterless landscape. I easily saw why both the ancients and moderns would consider such a place sacred.
3) One of the lakes – here my fishing talents proved insufficient
A few days later my traveling friends, Steve and Renee, became tired of Band-i-Mir and decided to descend the road to Bamiyan and from there return to Kabul. But I thought, what great trekking country. I only had to look in any direction at the heights above the valley and think, “That mountain looks climbable; I wonder what I might see from the top.” Providentially the high places were covered by a low round bush. One only had to pull a specimen from the ground and strike a match to it, and a wonderful fire would immediately ignite. This bush burned hot and fast, and on many occasions I used it to keep warm during my day-long hikes.
My first ascent involved crossing the valley beside the lake dam. On the far side rose a forbidding peak, on top of which appeared to be a plateau. What could lie up there? The peak was at least 2000 meters above the Kuchi Hotel, although relative heights were difficult to judge in the rarified atmosphere. So I decided one morning to attempt the peak and see what happened.
4) The mountain I judged suitable for climbing with the rock dam in the valley
The initial eighty per cent of the ascent involved scrambling through loose scree and gravel. Two steps forward, one slippery slide back. The climb was exhausting. At the top of the mountain a sheer wall of rock prevented easy access to the summit, but I spotted a formation that looked like a chimney and fortunately I discovered a method to shimmy up the final hundred meters via this route. I am not a climber, but managed to squeeze myself into the narrow vertical fissure and force my way to the top. The task was grueling, made more complicated by the fact that if I slipped there was nothing to stop me from falling down to the steep slope and from there sliding a few thousand feet at breakneck speed to the valley floor.
With an effort I would not care to repeat, I braced myself between the edges of the chimney and gained the summit. Just as I had expected, I had reached a broad plateau, the size of several football fields. I walked around the flat space, now trying to figure out how to get back down. In the distance I saw the high snow-covered peaks of the central Hindu Kush range. The view extended for at least a hundred miles. Very cool, very breathtaking, but now I became focused on my escape. Daylight was waning, and it wouldn’t do to get caught on these heights come nightfall.
On the opposite side of the plateau I perceived a cleft in the precipice. I headed down on my hands and knees. I was unable to view the bottom of the mountain from here, and the thought never crossed my mind that if I was able to lower myself to valley on this far side, I would find myself facing a twenty kilometer walk around the massif back to the hotel. But I gamely began the descent. The slope was soft and mostly sand. I found myself sliding, barely able to stop my forward momentum. But I dug my fingers into the grit and came to a halt just above a sheer drop of 500 meters. I mean sheer, as in straight down. Peering over the edge, I realized I had come within a hair’s breath of falling to my death. To a place where weeks would pass before anybody noticed my crumpled and broken body. Bad idea.
I quickly tried to regain the plateau, but found the ascent daunting. I had a difficult time of it, again on my hands and knees, desperate to keep from sliding down to the cliff face again. In the end my luck held and I reached the summit for the second time.
Now what? I couldn’t retrace my route back down the original chimney I had climbed; my mountaineering skills were not up to the task. As I walked about aimlessly, wondering what to do, I heard a pair of voices. Two Afghanis, one young man and his boy accomplice, were herding goats on the plateau! To think I had believed myself a lone adventurer. Here were a couple of farmers tending their flock. I guessed I would not be joining the ranks of the premier Himalayan climbers after this conquest.
They ran to me, happy to see a foreigner. The older guy was dressed in the traditional shalwar kameez, and the boy sported the remains of a Western track suit. Both sets of apparel looked more like rags than proper clothing. We didn’t share a common language, but with smiles and pantomime we became fast friends. As it happened, while we sat together on the rocks the younger boy spotted a ball point pen some other wanderer had discarded. We tried the instrument but it didn’t work. The Afghanis, sure that my Western knowledge included arcane abilities to fix such implements, handed the pen to me with questioning looks. Could I make it write? Now, I am not an expert in these affairs. A pen is something you buy when you need one, and if it doesn’t work you pitch it and buy another one. Ball point pens were cheap in the 1970s and they don’t cost more today.
But the temperature on top of this mountain was very cold and augmented by a bitter wind. Perhaps, I thought, the pen was as cold as I was. The barrel contained plenty of ink so that was not the issue. Producing a cigarette lighter — and giving a smoke to each of my new friends – I proceeded to heat the tip over the flame. I prayed that the end of the pen wouldn’t melt into a blob of plastic. After a few seconds I withdrew the lighter and tried the writing tool. It worked! Just great, in fact. I gave the pen to the herders. They were impressed beyond words.
The next question was how to get down from the mountain. The sun was about to set but they knew the route and they bade me to follow them to the far end of the plateau. Here a steep but navigable slope plunged straight to the valley floor. With further body language and hand motions, they invited me to race with them down to the valley. The terrain was rock-covered, but looked as if it afforded solid footing.
What I didn’t tell them and couldn’t possibly convey I had wished to, was that I had spent my teenage years as a competitive downhill skier. So I figured I might give them a run for their money. We stood together and somehow, waving our arms, began the run downhill together.
I ran fast, pretending I was on a steep ski hill, weaving and jumping between boulders, on top of boulders, and let caution slip away. Really, I bounced from mogul to mogul, weaving like a freestyle skier. I ran faster than I have ever done in my life. I wasn’t about to let these herders, who were probably in far better shape than me, show up my lack of ability to thread my way down the slope. Long story short, I beat them both by a good hundred meters, plunging about 1500 meters in one go.
At the bottom, out of breath, the Afghanis ran to me. Their eyes shone widely. They couldn’t believe that an kafir had beat them at their own game. The older guy reached into a torn pocket and produced a handkerchief. Not some cheap dime-store cast-off, but a beautiful work of art, dyed with a natural green color and intricately hand-embroidered with flowers, probably by a woman in his extended family. The cloth was old, very old, and I believe it had been passed to him as an heirloom. In appreciation of my running skills he handed the object to me as a gift.
I was overwhelmed and thought I couldn’t possibly accept such an offering. My refusal was futile, of course, and after a moment I accepted his token of appreciation, now feeling extremely humble.
With that gesture we parted company. Once again, cultural barriers had been broken and I had shown these Afghanis that I was a real person, not an inferior representative of a degenerate society. We shook hands and ended the day, me as a victor in a foot race, the herders having gained a new respect for the outsider who was willing to share their world.
5) another lake
6) Salt-tinged landscape – the lakes must have been larger in times past
On another occasion in the region, we were invited to witness a game of bouskashi. This is a violent pastime, practised with great enthusiasm by Afghanis across the country. The rules are simple; a ring of stones in placed at one end of the field – or valley floor, whichever is most convenient, and the two teams beat, thrash, and whip each other as they fight for possession of a headless goat. The team that first drops the goat into the stone circle wins the match.
As we arrived where the game was to be staged, a deep ravine formed an obstacle to entering the village . My companions dismounted their horses and led them through the ravine. However, with most of 0f the villagers watching, I wasn’t about to be considered another wimpy foreigner, so, digging my heels into my horse’s flanks, I told the animal to jump. The ravine must have been over six feet wide and was at least 10 feet deep. I had no idea what would happen; would I land in a heap under the horse at the bottom, or would he successfully jump the gap?
To my everlasting astonishment, the horse gracefully reared and jumped, with me barely holding on to the reins. We made it to the other side to the appreciation of the watching Afghan crowd. They immediately invited me to take part in the bouskashi game, but I demurred, thinking that a good thrashing wasn’t something I needed.
Another test passed, another welcome given freely to a stranger. This is another reason I like Afghanis so much; if a traveler plays by their rules, then he or she is accepted without question into their world.
7) Audience waiting for the bouskashi game
8) Team captain (I think)