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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Thursday, 16 September 2010

September 16th: Bamiyan

On September 16th 1978 I was in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan.

In the afternoon I took a walk back down the valley, past the bazaar, to the ancient mud brick citadel of Shar-i-Golgola, which was destroyed by Genghis Khan. As usual I went for the view and a sitting place more than for the history. I found the educated locals willing to talk as I walked and the fields were busy with Hazara harvesting. This is from my notebook, written at the top:
Sitting in the ruins of the citadel of eroded mud bricks, far above the valley.  Feeling short of breath at the altitude which I suppose to be well over the 2500 metres of the town. Below lies the valley and its trees and fields, stretching beyond the buzkashi ground and back beyond the Red City, to the left a sort of plateau, little irrigated between two subsidiary valleys leading SE and SW. To the north bare sandstone hills rising eroded behind the two Buddhas and their plateau. To the south similar hills in waves like frozen sand-dunes, but behind darker, more forbidding mountains topped with real peaks and little patches of snow and glaciers.
The fields are neat and well tended, a lot of harvesting going on, donkeys or oxen yoked and pulling a grindstone round a circular threshing floor. Other fields are decked out with a serpentine pattern and I cannot see from here what it is or why. Some others have cows and donkeys and goats grazing. Most fields are carefully mud-walled in small fairly irregular shapes - I can't make out much of the irrigation from here, just the odd stream but irrigation is widespread. Little lanes between the fields joining houses in strong compounds, the larger ones like fortresses with little turrets at the corners; inside are barns and animal areas, piles of fodder and sticks, probably dung, things drying. The one I mainly see has what I take to be rooms more on one side with clothes drying on the roof and a two-storied structure in the middle on the far side, one little gate on this side. To the south there is a big building like a palace, with high walls and I can imagine fine rooms on the higher levels; there are two large garden areas, full of different sorts of trees. Most trees around are of the familiar poplar type, big stretches of them in the valley near the river, shading paths, acting as wind breaks. Another smaller house behind the citadel is washed white, has no protecting walls, has a grass roof, or just grass drying on the roof. Little or no sign of vegetables being grown.
Ravens occasionally flying around this hill - I saw a large flock near the Buddhas' plateau earlier. Magpies inevitably in the fields, a neophron, little else. Sounds of the animals, particularly donkeys, drift up, or of people shouting at each other or at their animals, trucks occasionally along the principal road. The sun is sinking, as the mountains take on an evening light. The breeze comes into my face WSW, from the sun. 
I stayed at the Caravan Hotel, one of a few that had been developed in a bend of the river opposite the Buddhas. That evening I woke at 11.30 and outside the wooden hut which served as my room, everything was dark. There was a very obvious partial eclipse, like a brown cloud covering most of the moon, leaving the Buddhas quite dark, as if someone had turned off the floodlights when I'd got used to seeing them lit up by the nearly full moon. I remembered that the Grateful Dead had been planning to play at the Pyramids at an eclipse in the autumn.

I met two couples who were travelling overland in VWs, the first I encountered on this journey who were travelling as I had done in 1972. Their stories of stone-throwing in Turkey reminded me of my journey, though we never really encountered any. No-one had tried to cheat them at Afghan petrol stations however. There were lots of stories among the travellers of hassles ahead in India - making people simplify their plans, and nothing I could say from my experiences could convince them otherwise. There were also stories of a woman shot swimming in Band-i-Amir last year and another in Bamiyan. These matched the stories of the person killed in a gypsy caravan during my earlier journey.

The day before there had been a buzkashi game up the valley. I described it in my notebook during the event:
People are beginning to assemble around the arena. Apple-sellers, the "royal" tent where we were invited to sit, the tent for women and children, the goat now lying thoroughly dead in a little heaped up circle, flags away on the far corners, truck bringing some spectators - we hitched a ride on an Afghantours chartered wazi (jeep), beginning to see a few more horses with big strong shoulders. In front of me the bare cliffs of the Hindu-Kush, flecked green and red among the ochre, green trees along the river valley or in gardens, already turning golden.
They have to carry the goat past the flag - this achievement is reported to Caesar's proconsul in the tent - then take the goat to the centre spot; the successful rider takes a bow and some baksheesh from the punters. Mostly it's a great melee with riders reaching down and grabbing or pulling, whipping the other guy's horse, until someone makes a run for the flag and there's a cheer, but the crowd are mainly passive. A couple of umpires shout the flag-passes and the goals up to the proconsul's tent.
Everything centres round the proconsul. We waited for him to arrive while we watched a passing caravan of camels through camera lenses. He stood up and said "hello" in English, and there was a lot of laughter when he cracked a joke. In the middle of his tent are serious looking civilians, egregious generals and a little hunch-back with glasses.
Another time I walked around the Buddhas, sat at the top, looking at the paintings which reminded me of Ajanta in India, and made me think of the journey of Xuanzang and the temple of the Thousand Buddhas, which I'd been reading about before I left England. I could look down at the bazaar and my hotel. The Buddhas felt more like guardians of the valley, curiosities rather than works of religious or artistic value, lacking their red and other colours and with their faces hacked away, their power coming from their being there more than anything else.  Some of the paintings in the cave still had some force.  You could walk for miles behind on the hard sandstone surface, getting closer and closer to the coloured mountains behind. The Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang visited Bamiyan in 630 and described tens of monasteries and several thousand monks, though Peter Levi, who visited with Bruce Chatwin in 1970, points out in "The Light Garden of the Angel King" that this was probably a decline from a century earlier.

On the way back from Band-i-Amir I overnighted in a more Afghan-style hotel, sleeping on carpets on the floor. The foreigners requested and got music and dancing with a mainly Afghan audience who clearly enjoyed it. The journey over the Shibar pass back to Charikar, on the main road to Kabul, was on top of a truck, often the best way to travel in more remote areas. I noted that "we stopped for a pilau in a very unspoilt place, the best Afghan bazaar I'd seen on this trip."

Patrimonio Mundi:  Panoramas of Bamiyan, looking a bit different these days.

Valley from the Buddha Niche 1975
One of the Buddhas 1975

Pictures by Gregory Melle Creative Commons

Links:  Wikipedia - Bamiyan, Wikipedia - The BuddhasA visitor in 1977,

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