JOURNEY TO BAMIYAN & BAND-E-AMIR

 

September 1972

 

"No doubt Fate will decree it was madness to leave Kabul". He was shouting to himself, muffled because he had pulled the headdress over his nose and mouth to prevent the air, teeming with wind-driven sleet, from freezing his air passages.

 

The night before it had rained, an unusual occurrence for September, and he’d had to cower into a corner of his room to avoid being soaked by the water splashing through the sodden matting on the roof. And in the morning, approaching the Hindu Kush, on his way to Bamiyan, he’d stopped a few times to put on extra clothing and to worry about the fresh snow powdering the eastern flanks of the ridge, which was the first obstacle he had to cross. Still, the bike had been going well, the engine droning smoothly, giving out a pleasing low-pitched growl. He hadn’t noticed the ridge at all; a narrow corridor, also used by a river that came perilously close to the road, cut through it, giving access to a broad brown valley with occasional green blotches pinpointing the villages on the flats between the river cliffs. The road had been an uneven, stone-encrusted snake of a thing, whose serpentine course and pitted skin demanded his full attention. He had never noticed his red sleeping bag being dislodged from the pillion by the constant jolting: and when he went back to look, it had vanished.

 

The worst was behind him now - the Shibar Pass, watershed of South-West Asia.  He had stopped at its foot to clear the wet snow from his goggles, so as to peer upwards at the track looping in tight hairpins across the hillside. A figure in baggy pants, eyes expressionless, the face concealed by the loose end of the turban wound round it, had approached, hunched against the wind, hands massaging one another. Its finger raised had indicated a single petrol pump lurking behind a wooden shutter. The man had pumped while the motorcyclist held the nozzle, happy in the knowledge that he could attempt the Pass and still have enough fuel to get back if he failed. A lorry, a pair of black crescents staring from under its fresh winter coat, had whined down the road, so he knew that it was passable. It hadn’t been too bad, just bitterly cold, on the Pass. His Arab headdress had kept out the worst of the weather. On the other side, the villagers had been amazed and had taken him to thaw out in a teahouse, staring as though at an apparition while he ate, dipping the leathery bread into the tea to make it soggy.

 

He steered cautiously down a crazy paved ramp at the entrance to a gorge, stopped, and clumsily, because of mittens, manipulated the camera. “She would be proud of this,” he thought, thinking of Hilary: a bike, small and partly obscured by blurred splashes on the lens, parked in a gorge beneath impending brown walls beside a tumid stream. He took another picture then stuffed the camera back into his bosom and remounted. Further on, the stream, the Bamiyan River, escaped the straitjacket of the gorge into a broad green vale. It meandered among a landscape of inselbergs whose flattened pates bore a fringe of trees but the cliffs which encircled them like grey bandages fed flaking skin to the bands of red, green and black screes below. He felt impatient for the appearance of high walls enclosing a green-floored cwm, for only these could house the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan; cursed the brochures for lies when they failed to materialise around the next corner; twisted the throttle open to put on speed, but forgot to be careful on the glistening, muddy, surface and came off as the rear wheel lost its grip and slewed sideways on yellow sludge.

 

It was four o'clock when he entered a high-vaulted tunnel of willows and poplars, like the ceremonial drive to a grand house. At a junction a sign said, ‘Bamiyan’ and he looked between the grey trunks at a furrowed cliff of red sandstone. A mesh curtain of scaffolding hung across a huge sentry box-like recess, its incumbent a looming hulk: the first, and the smallest, of the two giant Buddhas. Crawling, supine, at the foot of the cliff, was a scrawny string of dosshouses and stores, the village of Bamiyan. The Great Buddha had not yet been committed for restoration work but, even from the road, he could see the delicate craftsmanship of the fluted plaster veneer, the figure’s robe. Its visage, 150 feet above the ground, was a sheer, blank wall, devoid of expression: the iconoclasts of the first Muslim invasion, perhaps troubled by the Buddha's all-seeing gaze, had obliterated the upper part of the face, leaving only the rounded overhang of the lower lip to give a hint of "the countenance of a perfect oval of the egg". He could see this, looking across the vale from the high bank of the river. An encampment of centrally heated nomad-style yurts lay in a meadow on this prime tourist viewpoint. He reflected, on reading the tariff, that a night spent in one of them would probably cost its tribal designers a year’s savings. So, like the tribesmen, he came to the village to doss on the floor of a teahouse, paying no rent on the understanding that he bought his meals there.

 

It was cold in the night, around the dead fire without his sleeping bag, and the morning was slow to thaw. He spent it on the cliff, exploring the rash of caves dug out of the soft rock by Buddhist monks. Moving through them, as if through the pores of a great sponge, the valley a classic watercolour hanging at each entrance, he saw that the caves had carbon-black roofs. Some had benches hacked from the walls while others bore shallow rectangular pits in their floors. A few of the more accessible, less draughty cells were the homes of Afghan families, and some were evidently used to shelter sheep and goats. Later, a young Afghan boy led him, pleading for baksheesh, to a chamber high on the cliff above the Great Buddha. The ceiling bore scattered outbreaks of Buddhas, painted there in delicate, now fading, colours many centuries before. He sidled gingerly to the edge and looked down the cliff at a pair of oblong mounds - feet. "This head Buddha, big man," said the guide. And, “baksheesh, meester?"

 

Two days later the herringbone pattern of rills on the ridge across the valley had vanished along with the snow that had created it. He was in the street, among the jostling villains who appeared more dignified than their origins would suggest, bargaining with a truck owner whose gleaming teeth betrayed his business acumen. The price for a lift was too high despite being told that his 4-wheel drive truck would be the only one to reach Band-e-Amir that day. So, pushing past the crowd trying to gain a foothold on the bus to Kabul, he returned to the teahouse, wheeled his bike from its outhouse garage and put on all his spare clothing. The cook, the owner and the staff were looking on with, he fancied, admiration in their eyes; he hoped no one would say it was impossible to go to Band-e-Amir on a bike.

 

The going was good at first. Here there was a red gorge where the track divided and he waited on his mount until an Afghan horseman approached on his so as to be sure of the way. Over on the horizon lay the white mass and the rock spires of the Shah Foladi, the highest of the Central Hindu Kush peaks. In front was a valley of stubble like a threadbare carpet with piles of fresh-scythed barley by the side of the road. He had to stop twice to allow the laden camels of nomads migrating to their winter pastures to pass. Then the fields stopped and a low range of hills appeared, their moorland vegetation still hidden under snow. And the track became muddy, a swamp of sticky earth. He had to go slow, had to keep his chilled fingers working the clutch and throttle in harmony, using his feet to keep balance, like a scrambles rider. And he still got stuck. He came to a teahouse, disheartened and thinking of turning back. But the truck was there, its passengers eating a tepid soup made of horseflesh, the driver scornfully rejecting suggestions that he wouldn’t make it with: “Jeep very good, 4 wheels”. He was quite willing to take a motorcyclist who had got bogged down - at the original price, of course, with no allowance for the fact that only half the distance remained. After all, only one truck was going to get to Band-e-Amir that day; he pointed to the cars and minibuses coming towards us, having failed to climb a particularly bad hill.

 

So the bike was hauled aboard and kept secure, jammed between the knees of the passengers, who sat facing each other in the back. They kept their feet well clear of a red-wrapped shape lying under the seat. It was about six feet long and one end lolled from side to side with the motion of the truck. “This Afghan, finish,” supplied the driver. A man was squatting on the far end of the bench. His beard was silky white, streaked with a few black hairs. A great Roman nose jutted from his face, which resembled twin tobacco leaves, sun-dried, brown and wrinkled, stretched over high ridges under the caves of the eyes. The eyes seemed empty; they either gazed out at the distant ranges or swivelled downwards in the direction of the dead man, seeing nothing. He wore an embroidered gown, the emblem of the landowning class. Yet his shoes were muddy bauchles - European-style cast-offs, lying lace-less on the floor. The misshapen feet stuck incongruously from beneath his white pants, twitching to keep warm. Hanging on his fidgeting fingers was a string of beads, amber, kept in motion by a jigging thumb. A relative of the ‘Afghan finish’, thought the motorbike tourist, a little slowly, for he had already, in insensitive haste, snapped the man with his camera. “A typical Afghan,” he would tell the audience at his slide show.

 

At the foot of a muddy hill, deeply scarred by the efforts of other vehicles to climb it, was a lorry, stuck. Its passengers, a family of five, were anxious to continue their journey and, after the required amount of haggling over the price, they clambered aboard and crammed themselves into the available spaces. It was a peasant family, the woman dressed in a coarse black skirt with red embroidered trimmings and a medley of coloured but ragged blouses, which appeared to be almost suffocating the baby buried in her breast; the children sported gaudy waistcoats, a fringe of assorted coins and brass discs resting on their smooth foreheads. One of them, a boy, was crouching uncertainly on the motorbike, gazing at it with large brown almond eyes. A sudden lurch of the truck into a rut, and the boy fell off the bike into its owner’s lap, was stranded there for a few seconds until he managed to scramble away as if from the clutches of a djinn. The boy's cheeks left a momentary impression of sandblasted stone, pitted by the force of grit-laden wind, though from a distance they looked as soft as a peach. Approaching a hamlet, the family got off and struck off across        the empty hillside towards nothing that was very obvious. At the hamlet, more passengers were waiting and the driver insisted the bike be offloaded. Whispered arrangements were made with a local, a price fixed, and the bike was wheeled into a yard, the floor covered with goat droppings.

 

When the truck came over the final pass and Band-e-Amir was near, most of the passengers got off and headed towards a dull grey trough in the distance, where the main settlement was hidden. Band-e-Amir itself refers to the waters in the land of the now extinct tribe of Amir. There are six blue lakes etched into a milky-brown limestone canyon, each lake flowing into the next, lower, lake over a natural rock travertine dam, the rock walls smooth and stained yellow or green by the chemicals dissolved in the water. The inaccessible and well-irrigated areas below the dams were green garden Edens set against the stark surroundings - white cliffs reflected in immobile blue water. The whole place stood still, far from the noise of cities and tourists. There was no sound of birds or even of wind whispering through the dry grass or of the shepherd following his sheep. On the plateau above the first lake stood a small group of huts, each roofed with turf. Two other groups of tourists had managed to get this far into the interior of Afghanistan and one of the hovels was to be their resting place. In the evening he sat among them, huddled under blankets in front of the stove. Four had driven from England in a Land Rover while a French couple had somehow made their way through the twisting valleys of the Hindu Kush. Experiences were shared, tales told and a strong sense of travellers’ camaraderie developed in that cold jewel of a place in the heart of Asia.

 

In the morning, everyone scattered and went for quiet walks round the lakes. Some simply sat at the edge of the cliffs and looked. Too soon, it was time to clamber aboard the minibus and return to the hamlet to retrieve his bike. The road back to Bamiyan was drier, less muddy, than the day before. The giant Buddhas kept their impassive vigil over the village. He went into the teahouse and took up his customary place in front of the fire and ordered a glass of chai.