Two routes lead to Bamiyan from Kabul. The northern one passes through Charrikar and Ahibar Pass and the southern goes from Kabul to Maidan Shahr and the Hajigak Pass to Bamiyan. In 2003, we took the second, because we were told it’s more scenic. And it is. The valley, snug between the soaring, craglike Hindu Kush and Koh-Baba mountains, has skies of the deepest cerulean.
We're told it’s unsafe now; it was unsafe even then. Kabul drowsed under an uneasy peace, bristling with a United Nations of soldiers spearheaded by the Americans. You fixed trips and appointments carefully, used locals for all information, even stayed in guest-houses owned by them but managed by Indians.
We travelled in a hardy four-wheel drive, dashing over partially-metaled roads. The earth and the houses, sturdy, geometric and curiously beautiful in their small compounds, seemed made of the same dun-coloured material. You seldom saw signs of life.
Fields on either side of the road had rocks marked in red. "Landmines", said our driver, brother of the guest house’s owner. He accompanied us to Bamiyan to another guest house owned by a former warlord.
A bone-breaking trip, an exuberant driver, and no rest rooms. When we indicated discomfort, the driver said something like, “Aah, zzzr zzzr”. We jumped out and zrrr zrrr-ed behind rocks and wondered if Bamiyan was worth it.
It was. Even without the Buddhas. The local minister, a woman, spoke proudly about Japan’s offer to fund the recreation of the statues and Germany’s offer of holograms instead. But even visiting the caves in which the statues had stood for 1500 years, was an unforgettable experience. The latest, of course, is that they won’t be rebuilt.
In the guest house, the warlord supervised dinner. Yards of Afghan flat bread eaten with a variety of roast meats and salad. The bathrooms, huge and echoing with emptiness, were like treks through the wilderness. LEDIS, said the sign outside one. BADROOM said another, meant only for bathing. Even Kabul seemed desirable then.
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