Central Afghanistan. The Hindu Kush. Bamiyan. The Buddhas.
A more stunning region of Afghanistan would be hard to find, and it took me 6 years of working in Afghanistan to finally make a trip here. Bamiyan is one of the safest regions of the country, although it is surrounded by provinces with Taliban control which makes getting there harder than it used to be. Road side bombs, checkpoints, and eruptions of violence along the main road into Bamiyan have become more commonplace unfortunately. The most common way in and out for internationals is by helicopter, but luckily for internationals and Afghans alike, the airstrip was enlarged so that they could start to take small commercial flights.
I finally arrived in Bamiyan, on a dodgy flight with Eastern Horizon airlines. I say dodgy, and I mean it. I had heard horror stories from friends of the plane coming in swinging side to side, nearly clipping the hillside of the City of Screams on its landing. Stories of flights taking off hours before their scheduled time without warning and without all the passengers, and flights leaving days late. The airline simply had a general feeling of unpredictability. Still, its the only flight going and they give you a juice box and an Iranian sponge cake for the 30 minute flight out of Kabul so how bad can it be, right? Other than my seat belt not working, and the entire row ahead of me not bolted into the floor very tight, it was a fairly uneventful flight, except for the landing where I swear something bounced off the plane when we touched down.
But how can you complain when this is your welcoming view?
Drop the bags at the guesthouse, and its time to walk. The joy of walking is amplified after the self-confinement of Kabul in the wake of pre and post election violence. Fresh air, quiet countryside, and a safe environment for foreigners, and a world famous UNESCO heritage site all to myself? Heaven. A 10 minute walk brings us to the large buddha niche and the caves that surround it. A steep hike up the side paths through the system of caves that have been inhabited like the nearby Foladi Caves until only recently, brings us to the open plateau behind the large buddha. Dotted throughout the landscape are smaller buddha niches as well – remnants from smaller statue niches carved into the rock.
While it is an area officially cleared of land mines, every springtime, the rains unearth the occasional landmine, so its important to stay on the path, although at times that was difficult to follow, or even see. But the views? Mind blowing.
After a long hike, and some scrambling through a ravine, we emerged near the small buddha niche. This niche is more stable than the large niche and you are still allowed to climb the stairs that Buddhist followers used to climb that leads up to the top where you can look out across the entire valley and descend the stairs on the other side of the niche. Lots of side caverns with remnants of the mosaic tiles can explored, but the piles of stones that are stacked and labeled at the bottom of each of the niches is a sobering reminder of what has been lost here.
Next up? Road biking with the Afghan National Cycling Team as part of the training weekend I had brought them here for. The chance to ride newly paved, empty, peaceful roads was an opportunity I wanted to share with the team who is forced to train on the busy trucking highways that lead out of Kabul. First we did a test ride through town to make sure all the bikes we had brought, new racing bikes donated by Liv/giant, were assembled correctly and the girls all felt comfortable on them. As I was the bike mechanic, I was most concerned that the brakes worked, and I hadn’t put the derailleurs on backwards!
All systems go. The next morning we were up early and riding as a team on the paved road that leads to Afghanistan’s first national park, Band e Amir.
We had hoped to take the team to the famous turquoise blue lakes after the training ride, but the road down to the lakes was still snow covered and the minibus’s tires were completely bald. There was no way we would make it. So we took the girls to visit the Buddha’s instead since none of them had ever been to Bamiyan before.
The next day we rented a LandRover and drove back to Band e Amir to try again. As its early springtime we had the lakes and the swan boats to ourselves.
We followed up the trip to Band e Amir with a short trip to visit the Red City – Share e Zohak. I had heard about this place and figured it would be interesting enough in terms of history, I’d seen a few photos and it looked like ruins on a mountain like anywhere else. When we pulled up to a field and look up at the mountain in front of us, my jaw dropped. Like something out of time of Genghis Khan (and in fact his grandson fought and died here) the city is literally built into the side of the mountain and an amazing amount of the original structures are preserved with ornate details carved into rock. The path leads from the base of the mountain and winds its way through what was once a city, and up to the tippy top of a look out fort that you can survey the entire valley in all directions. An old Soviet gun turret still rests at the top, with bullet cases surrounding it. The path is literally surrounded by white rocks and some red ones, marking land mine clearance, but as with the plateau above the Buddhas, springtime rains and erosion uncover and move UXO’s every season, so focus on staying on trail, and being aware of what was on said trail, were a high priority.
Tired, hungry, and dusty we had another big day ahead of us, so it was back to the guesthouse to eat, shower, and crash for an early morning wake up to go mountain biking through town and to the City of Scream. The City of Screams, or Share e Gholghola, was conquered by Genghis Khan and the noise from the violence that ensued earned the citadel the City of Screams. It once held another Buddha, and today is a visually fascinating hike through a period of history few get to experience due to Afghanistan’s insecurity and ongoing conflict.
At the entrance to the City of Screams, the security guards took a spin on our bikes, proving once again that bikes make the best conversation starters. Everyone loves to ride a bike.
Breakfast time and a ride back into town, which was waking up and the even the market was already bustling.
We spent the afternoon climbing back up the mountain behind the buddhas to play on the bikes on the plateau we had hiked to take in the breathtaking views one more time.
The following day was a 5am wake up in search of snow with two of the newest female skiers. We had to hike up to the snow line, but it was worth it spend time with the girls and watch them learn to turn. On the way back down I talked with the girls about skiing and sports, and school. As it turned out, one of them knew how to ride bikes, too. So we made plans to have her join our evening bike ride by the Buddhas with Zahra, a young woman who was teaching girls to ride bikes in Bamiyan and who I was working with to start the first women’s team in Bamiyan.
We met up by the Buddhas and rode for an hour or so, collecting quite the crowd as we did. All young boys, who immediately joined our gang of three and a series of impromptu races kicked up dust as our motley crew sprinted from one end of the field to the other.
As dusk fell, one of the younger boys said to me that since he rode with us, he was going to go home to teach his sister to ride. That is progress. One step at a time. In a country that is just starting to see girls ride bikes for the first time, that still considers bike riding culturally offensive, Zahra will continue to lead the charge, teaching girls to ride, riding herself, and setting an example that Afghan girls can do anything they choose to, even ride a bike. And I will continue to support them anyway I can.
photos by Deni Bechard. You can follow him on Instagram at @denibechard