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Afghanistan The peaceful country that I knew
Text and photos by Bizzie Frost
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 21 - 07 - 2010


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Compared to Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif was much warmer, and quite sophisticated – gone were the domed mud buildings, and in their place were solid stone houses. Like Herat, there was a beautiful mosque in the center of the town, covered with elaborate ceramic tiles. The large courtyard was the home of hundreds of white doves whose combined voices bizarrely sounded like a strong gale blowing over a desolate plain. At night, the mosque looked rather like a funfair because of the numerous different colored lights draped all over the domes, as well as blue neon strip lights in the surrounding gardens.
Not far out of the town are the ruins of the ancient city of Balkh, but far more memorable for us than the ruins was the drumming that we heard there. We could hear the sound of tambours and tablas coming from behind one of the ruins, and clapping and sounds of people enjoying themselves, so we went to investigate. There were about ten men there, all sitting on a rug. They invited us to join them, and they all took it in turns to dance and play the drums. And then a small boy of about seven arrived on a bicycle with his father and sat on the rug. With a certain reverence, the older men handed him the tabla. The boy immediately immersed himself in his drumming, demonstrating a mastery of percussion well beyond his years. We listened and watched, completely enthralled, as his small hands and fingers flashed over the skin of the tabla, weaving together subtle sounds and rhythmic patterns. I sometimes wonder what became of him in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan that banned any form of music.
As both of us had an interest in hand-woven rugs, Allie and I spent many hours in carpet shops, talking and drinking chai. One evening, two brothers, Afzal and Salé, invited us back to their home to meet their parents, five more brothers, and six sisters. There was an electrical power cut, so the house was lit with paraffin lamps and the girls were cooking supper on an open fire outside and making chai for us. Once again we had a language barrier that was completely transformed by music. We were left with the six sisters who immediately put some music on and took it in turns to dance. They had heard of the Beatles and wanted us to sing some of their songs and dance as well. After a while, they insisted that Salé come in and dance for us too. Although he and Afzal were part of the family, all the girls immediately covered their hair when their brothers came into the room.
Bamiyan
After a few days, it was time to move on to Bamiyan, our next destination. We were up at 4.30 A.M. to catch our bus but the driver forgot to stop at Dowshi, the town where we were supposed to change buses for Bamiyan. We continued to Kabul, via the Salang Tunnel, the major north-south connection through the Hindu Kush Mountains. The tunnel reaches an altitude of 3,400 meters (11,200 feet) and is only 2.6 kms long but it cuts a colossal 300 kms off the mountainous journey via the Salang Pass.
Kabul was much smaller, quieter and slower than we expected, and a lovely town to walk around. With plans to spend more time there on our return, we caught a bus to Bamiyan in the Hazarajat region the following morning. Although only about 180kms, it was a 7-hour journey on a rough, unpaved road, going over the arid Unai and Hakigak Passes at 3300 and 3700 meters respectively.
By the time we reached Bamiyan (still cool and high at 2,500 meters), we had got talking to several other passengers: Khushnava, an Afghani working for Radio Kabul, invited us to come to his home later in the day to meet his wife and seven children, and some Afghanis and Americans who worked for the Afghan Health Programme who invited us to join them in a truck to see the Red City (Shahr-e-Zohak). We had discovered that Afghanis love to pick wild flowers and give them to people. It was June, and spring flowers were out in profusion. As we stepped off the bus in Bamiyan, Khushnava picked a bunch of flowers by the roadside and handed them to us.
The ruins of the Red City are about 20 kms east of Bamiyan. They sit 800 feet above the entrance to the Bamiyan valley on the confluence of the Bamiyan and Kalu rivers. It was the primary defence for the valley and the Silk Road in the 12th and 13th Century and in 1221, it was attacked by a grandson of Genghis Khan. He was killed, and the Fort held, but Genghis Khan took revenge and attacked and destroyed everything. The Red City was never rebuilt after this attack.
At that altitude it took a lot of energy to climb up to the top and we were greeted by a gale force wind. It was worth it to see the fantastic views over the red sandstone mountainside and hear the haunting sound of flutes (the Afghanis loved playing flutes!) and the tragic howls from a donkey echoing up the Bamiyan valley. Some children were selling small chunks of green crystallised stone and one of the Afghanis bought one for me – I still have it to this day, a precious souvenir of a country that was once at peace and safe to travel through.
Back in Bamiyan, we walked up a hill to find the Khushnava family and again, in place of conversation we enjoyed an evening of music. His wife had prepared supper for us, and after we had eaten, Khushnava played his harmonium and sang for us while one of his daughters danced. They asked me to play and sing something so I sang “Edelweiss” from “The Sound of Music”. Like the rest of Bamiyan, their home was a simple mud brick house but had no electricity. At the end of the evening, his wife kissed us goodbye like we were old friends, and then he walked us back down to the village in the pitch dark, by the light of a hurricane lamp. Once in the town, we discovered that we were not allowed to walk on the pavements after dark and a local policeman insisted that we walk down the middle of the road. Our accommodation in the Green Hotel in Bamiyan was very basic – low slung string beds in a dormitory – but then it was only costing us the equivalent of about SR2 a night, which even in 1976 was extremely cheap.
Meanwhile, we had not failed to observe the main attraction of Bamiyan: the village faces a high sandstone cliff into which are carved numerous caves and two immense Buddhas inside sheltered parabolic arches. We had heard they were big, but we were truly astonished at the size of these 1800-year old statues. They are four hundred meters apart: the first one was built at the eastern end of the cliff and is 38 meters high; the taller one at 55 meters and further west along the cliff. Like everyone who has ever visited Bamiyan, we were upset and horrified when the Taliban decided to destroy these historic and spiritual icons in March 2001.
Lakes of Bande Amir
It was an early start again the following morning to take the bus to see the five lakes of Bande Amir, high in the Hindu Hush Mountains. My main memory of this trip was following a dusty river valley, with rocky, barren hills on either side, and passing a very long, camel caravan. Little children and sheep were strapped in amongst mattresses and tents on the top of the camels, children with lovely big smiles and big beautiful eyes, and the women with colorful dresses and silver bracelets, walking alongside.
When you see the first lake of Bande Amir, it is almost impossible not to say: “Wow, it so BLUE!” Perhaps the color is exaggerated by the stark brown cliffs of the canyon and mountains surrounding it, (a few in the distance still with snow on the top), and the almost cloudless blue sky above. As you get closer to this lake, even to within a few feet, the blue color retains the same intensity, and the water is so clear that you can see fish swimming far below the surface. There are five lakes altogether, on different levels and separated by natural dams, with the one flowing into the other, leaving virtually no ripples. While two are very blue and deep – about 1,500 meters - one in the far distance looked almost black, and two shallower ones were different shades of jade green. At an altitude of around 3000 meters (10,000 feet), the water is very cold, and according to the locals, has healing properties.
We spent the day with Hank (from the Netherlands) and Grant (from New Zealand) walking around the lakes, swimming and sunbathing to warm up afterwards. We discovered that travelers on the Hippy Trail were often very thin, having picked up stomach bugs, and sometimes more serious conditions like hepatitis, on the way. Both Hank and Grant had been sick and were very thin, and Grant especially was having a problem with trying not to feel too homesick, or think of home comforts too much.
In the evening, we sat outside our mud hotel, wrapped up in blankets, and listened to some young Afghanis from Kabul, singing and playing a harmonica in their tent. There were seven of them, all at the French Lycee in Kabul and they spoke fluent French. They were being sponsored by the French Government and in a month's time were off to France. We also met a German who had been cycling around the world for 12 years. He was finally cycling his way back to Germany, across the center of Afghanistan, and was wondering how he would cope with being with the same people for longer than a few days after being on the move for so long.
The next day, after a lazy morning by the lakes, we found two trucks ready to leave for Bamiyan. Along with Hank, Grant, an English boy called Sean, and a Moroccan called Kassam, we scrambled into the back of an open truck with four Afghanis. We stood up the entire way, holding onto the roof frame, exhilarated by the magnificent scenery and the cold air blowing in our faces, and torturing ourselves by taking turns to describe our favourite meals.
Our last day in Bamiyan was spent exploring the Buddhas. It was possible to go up a narrow staircase until you were actually on top of the statue. There were still the remains of old paintings, with well-preserved colors in the arch above the big Buddha. Before the introduction of Islam to the area, the valley had been inhabited by a Buddhist community. More than 1000 monks had lived and prayed in the caves carved into the cliff. Apparently, they are now inhabited by refugees.
We almost missed the Kabul bus at 6 A.M., but Hank, Grant and Sean made sure that it didn't leave without us and helped us get our heavy back-packs on board. We left without taking a single photo of the Buddhas having waited for the right light which never came. The water in the river had risen noticeably and we passed a GB vehicle which had misjudged the concrete drift crossing and had gone head first into the river. Our bus eventually broke down and we were squashed into another that was already full of people, goats and chickens. People and animals were even loaded high above the bus, on top of all the cargo. Once in Kabul, we treated ourselves to strawberry milkshakes and huge slices of cherry pie – specialities of a local café.
During our visit to the Red Fort, one of the Afghanis from the Afghan Health Programme, had promised to treat us to a day at the Intercontinental Hotel swimming pool – he figured that we had “roughed” it enough and deserved a treat. We arrived in a beat-up local taxi, and were formally greeted by a tall, magnificently dressed, and very handsome, green-eyed doorman. He wore an impeccable pair of white shalwar kameez with an embroidered waistcoat, a scarlet and green sash round his waist, and a green turban. Apart from a shopping excursion to what was known as “Chicken Street” to buy beautiful tribal Afghani dresses (I still have mine in my wardrobe) we ended up spending two leisurely days by the hotel swimming pool.
The evenings in Kabul were spent relaxing with friends in various restaurants.
After nearly three weeks, it was time to move on and we caught a bus via the Kyber Pass and Jalalabad to Peshawar. During our days traveling in Afghanistan, we had never at any time felt endangered or threatened. However, it would not be accurate to say that we were never the focus of unwanted attention by men – we were, and that was why Ramlal had given us the knife at the border. On the rare occasions that a man was seen to be bothering us, another always stepped in to help or apologize on his behalf. It seemed that because we were two women traveling alone, we were generally looked after very well wherever we went and we enjoyed the way the men we met invited us to visit their womenfolk and families.
Having seen how much Afghanis loved music and dancing, it must have been a huge blow to them when the Taliban took control and banned all music in the country. And seeing what a tranquil place Bamiyan was, and how the locals seemed to be so proud of the huge, silent Buddhas watching peacefully over the valley, it was terrible to imagine the echo of the tanks, guns, mortars, dynamite, and anti-aircraft rockets in 2001 as they blasted them out of the cliffs forever over a period of two weeks.
Now that many landmines have been cleared, brave travelers are once again heading to Afghanistan. The cliff in Bamiyan has been made a UNESCO World Heritage site, and in 2009, the Lakes of Bande Amir were secured as the country's first National Park. Hopefully, one day, peace will be restored, the people can live without fear, refugees can go home, and visitors can travel freely throughout the country once again.


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