On an Autumn morning of 1968 in Afghanistan two friends and I set out from Kabul in a Land Rover to spend a few days visiting the statues of Buddha at the valley of Bamian in the Hindu Kush Mountains.
The road out of Kabul is the same road leading over the Salang Pass and on to the town of Tashkarghan where it forks left to Mazar i Sharif and Uzbekistan, right to the towns of Faizabad, Kunduz, and up into Tajikistan and China. Traveling north from Kabul and some kilometres before the Salang Pass there is a dirt track leading off west from the village of Pul-i-Matak, it leads to Bamian Valley, up to the Band-i-Mir lakes and Maimana in the region of the Hazarat. This dirt track is strictly for animal caravans and four-wheel drive vehicles; it is the only route stretching across the centre of Afghanistan and only open from April to October. The drive from Pul-i-Matak to Bamian is some 150 kilometres through gorges and valleys and takes several hours to negotiate.
A hotel sits on a hill outside Bamian Village, a simple and welcoming government managed hotel and mainly used by archaeological teams, historians or the rare tourists like ourselves who visited the area. It gave a wonderful direct frontal view of the village on a poplar lined river and on to the 55 metre and 38 metre statues of Buddha, which stood in niches carved from the sheer rock face of the base of the Hindu Kush Mountains that rise behind them. From this position the statues appeared to be holding up the mountain range. These wonderful statues were later destroyed by the religious intolerance of The Taliban. In 2006 a team of archaeologists began examination to view the possibility of re-creation. Rebuilding would be necessary as there is nothing left to restore.
Arriving at Bamian in the evening we checked into the hotel, ate and went to bed.
The following morning, awaking early and after breakfast I decided to walk to the Buddhas and make some exploration of the caves (monks cells) that are carved into the rock walls surrounding the statues. Arriving in front of the largest statue I was met by a Hazara Tribesman who offered to guide me around the cave complex, I accepted and we set off through a series of caves and ancient cells of former monks, until having climbed a steep rock staircase cut deep inside a cliff we emerged onto the top of the head of the Buddha. From here, standing on the head of the Buddha we were facing south into the wild jagged Kohr-i-Baba Range, beyond which to the south lay Kabul. The mountains seemed impenetrable and I commented on this to my guide, he replied that this was true except for the Hajigak Pass, open three summer months. leading from Bamian to Ghazni, and another pass through the Kohr-I-Baba mountains toward Kabul and that this latter pass was a track usable only by walking men and animals. He mentioned a third carved stone statue of a Buddha, known to archaeologists as the Sunburst Buddha, residing in a cave near the entrance to the nearby Kakrak Valley.
Also, from the top of the Buddha where we stood I could also see a hill in the centre of Bamian Valley on which is the ruined town of Shahr-I-Golgola (The City Of Screams,) so named because the grandson of Genghis Khan was killed here in battle and Genghis beheaded the entire population. Other names of some places in Afghanistan reflect a harsh land with a lurid past. Besides Shahr-I-Golgola, (The City Of Screams) there is Dasht-I-Marga ( The Desert Of Death) and the Hindu Kush Mountains ( The Indian Killers) in which I now stood, so named for the countless soldiers, traders and adventurers who have died in them on this part of the Silk Road track to the trading centres at Samarkand and Bokhara.
The Hazarat part of the Hindu Kush Mountains is regarded as not being accessible from the south by motorized vehicles except by the two summer passes. The mountains rise over 23000 feet.
To the east, in the adjoining Pamir Range are mountains over 24000 feet high and known to the nomad transients as The Roof Of The World. North of the Hindu Kush, through Alexander’s Pass and some hundred or so miles north west of Balk, the town of Shibergan is nearby, and where not discovered and unearthed until 1979 were over 20,000 artifacts of gold buried in the graves of Kushan kings. And it was here on this wild frontier one night in 1972 that a Greek American friend known to some of our wandering family – won a gun fight with bandits who were trying to steal his horse.
An example of the obscured history and remoteness of some regions of The Hindu Kush is the 200 foot high Minaret Of Jam. Built in 1194 in the Hazara district of Ghor, it was first only first discovered by the western world in 1866.
Twenty severe passes, each of about ten thousand feet height above sea level on the road from Bamian must be negotiated to reach the minaret.
Nobody knows why at its hundred feet high mark it bears a verse in Arabic celebrating Mary and the Virgin Birth of Jesus, or who were the people buried in a twelfth century Jewish cemetery nearby, or why there are ruins of forts for more than twenty miles around.
After my guide and I descended from the head of the great Buddha and down through the rock staircase to the ground level we came out of the caves and onto the track in front. I told my guide that I would like to visit the smaller of the two standing Buddha’s, so we walked east along the track until arriving in front of the 38 metre statue which rose above us in its’ niche on a steeply angled shale slope.
When I told my guide that I wished to walk up the slope to the statue he replied that this Buddha really did not like being disturbed and had been known on many occasions to throw stones at inquisitive visitors. I told my guide that all I wanted to do was walk up and touch the statue. He told me that I was welcome to try but that he was not going any closer than where we stood. I thought then that he did not want to climb the shale hill.
I started up the slope and got about 50 metres from the statue when I heard a whirring noise. I stopped to listen and was suddenly aware also of a crackling noise like small arms fire and that stones were flying out horizontal from the cliff face surrounding the body of the statue. The sounds I heard were of stone separating from the rock face and whizzing past my head and body. I turned and ran back down the slope with stones of a size from peas to pigeons’ eggs shooting past me like slingshot. The hail of stones stopped as I neared the guide on the track. I interpreted the event as being that my approach to the statue had set up a reverberating vibration, which had bounced off the face of the cliff and loosened stones around the statue. I was surprised when my guide, (a Muslim,) replied that the statue was benign but very powerful and that the people in the valley never disturbed this Buddha. I was forced to recognize his sincerity and also to realize that the stones around me had not been falling down from high above the statue, they were shooting out horizontally. My guide told me that this statue could only be closely approached safely from the side.
Later that day I set out alone to find the cave of the Sunburst Buddha and after some searching in the entrance to the Kakrak Valley I found the cave hidden behind boulders and bushes in a narrow gully leading off a goat track.
This Buddha is in perpetual shaded silent retreat in his shallow cave, The figure and the surrounding sunburst are carved directly out of the caves’ rear wall. The rays of the sunburst stretch floor to ceiling to floor around the statue and it is as if a message of peace is radiated from here to the rest of the world. I made my sincere respects to the people who carved this figure and to their intent that all who would find it can appreciate its’ aura of harmony and calm.
The malignant intolerance and stultifying ignorance of The Taliban is so rabid in character that to have destroyed the Standing Buddhas of Bamian is beyond all intelligent acceptance. The entire history of Buddhism is encapsulated in the atmosphere here, as it was here that Mahayana Buddhist teaching was developed from the tenets of King Ashoka, and from this point that Mahayana Buddhism spread to India and onward to China and the South East Asian world.
The day following my visits to the Buddhas, over curds and kebabs in the village bazaar chai house a local man told me the story of Alis’ Dragon.
Hajrat Ali, the son in law of Mohammed, The Prophet, may peace be on his soul, was said to have fought and bested a dragon, which had been terrorizing the people of the Hazarat. The dragon lay in the hills close to Bamian Valley and still cried with shame for it having been beaten in battle by Ali. The village man explained to me where to find it.
Some kilometers beyond Bamian in the direction of Ghor and Maimana, two red hills that I had been told to look for came into view. Driving off road along a desert defile I came to a valley between the two red hills and found a track running near them. Leaving my Landrover I walked on the track and rounded the hills. Facing me was an ancient frozen narrow strip of volcanic rock flow some 250 metres long that had formed along the spine of a ridge running to the ground from the crest of a hill.. The shape of the lava flow is that of a dragon crawling tail to head down the hill. It is of white and yellow rock along its entire length. I climbed the hill and walked back down slowly along the back of the dragon. This rock formation is truly the most amazing rock formation that I have ever seen.
When the volcanic explosion had taken place, the ground had cracked and an underground stream of water had been released to the earths’ surface. The water had broken through from underground at the same time as the lava flow and resulted in the water cooling the lava, shaping the dragon and splitting open the beast along the length of its’ body. Jets of molten lava were thrown up from the split, caught and cooled by the exploding water, so that water-cooled rock formed huge spines, rising some 1 to 2 metres in the air along the length of the dragons back. Deep inside the split shape were tall vertical rock striations blasted into forms looking like giant organ pipes in the dragons bowels and as ribs in its chest cavity. As the lava and water had flowed down the mountain the lava slowed, expanded and set into the shape of a bulbous head some 10 metres long and 8 metres across. A 2 metre tall single Rhinosceros like horn of volcanic rock rises straight up into the air from the tip of the dragons nose.
In the side of the head I saw a slow drip of water was running to the ground from a fissure shaped as an eye. The dragon really cried: And I am still truly amazed.
My friends on this trip had also spent their time also exploring and walking round the area.
Meeting at the hotel in the afternoon of the second day of our visit we were warned by the management that snow was forecast for the next day and that we were advised to leave at first light, if we did not we could be snowed in for days or possibly months. If the track back to Pul-I-Matak closed we would be stuck. I asked about the pass from Bamian that leads through the Koh-I-Baba mountains toward Kabul and was again told – as my guide of the day before had said – that it was a track for walking persons and animals only.
Later that afternoon we were again warned of snow and that it might come that night. We decided to leave immediately. Knowing that the longest drive in terms of kilometers to be covered would be to Pul-i-Matak then down to Kabul and that we could not reach Pul-i-Matak before dark, we decided to try the Kohr-i-Baba caravan track going south from Bamian. Our reasoning was that we had a Land Rover good for rough terrain and if the track was wide enough for pack camel caravans or donkeys then it would be wide enough for our vehicle. We were assured by the hotel manager that other Land Rovers had been in Bamian Valley before, but also that he knew of no motor vehicle of any kind that had ever tried to drive out by this route.
The pass started as a dirt track at Bamian Valley floor level and about 3 metres wide. Then the track climbed into the mountains and narrowed to become a ledge about 2 meters 50 centimetres wide and running along a cliff face. Soon we were driving along this ledge at about half a kilometre high from the floor of a gorge on the right hand side of the vehicle. It was clear we could not turn round or reverse back down the mountains and if we met anybody coming the other way, then they or we could not pass each other.
It started to snow and dusk set in. We were at a height of about 12,000 feet above sea level and still climbing. The mountain wall was ice covered, the wet cold air was painful to breathe. The Land Rover engine changed tone as it laboured in the thin air. Night fell and we feared sliding into the chasm. To put snow chains on the vehicle two of us had to get out and fasten ourselves to ropes round the wheels while we hung over the abyss and attached chains to the tires on the right hand side. There was not enough space between the left hand side of the vehicle and the cliff face to attach chains on that side. We drove with chains on one side until we came to a place wide enough to open the driver side door and crouch with back against the mountain wall while fastening chains the on the left side wheels of the vehicle.
The drop from the ledge to the gorge floor was so deep that although we knew from hearing torrents of water tumbling down the mountainside that there was a river below us we could not see it. Our flash-lights couldn’t reach down the chasm and there were no other signs of tracks to possible villages below.
We drove along this ledge for a couple of hours, switch-backing up and down along the mountain face, the Landrover so close to the edge that stones moved by the wheels were tumbling into the abyss. We crawled along, all the time realizing the danger we were in and that we could do nothing but continue. The night turned pitch black with nothing to be seen in our headlights except the mountainside and the blowing snow.
Suddenly the ledge we were on stopped dead at the edge of a deep crack crossing our front. Between us, and the continuation of the ledge at the other side of this crack was a gap about 4 metres wide. Spanning this gap were two thick sawn flat logs laid side by side for animals and men to walk across the terrifying deep gorge. The three of us got out of the vehicle and two of us walked across the logs over the chasm and with the aid of flashlights spread the logs apart on our side while at his side of the chasm our friend at the vehicle guided the logs until we had spread them to the width of our vehicles’ wheels. Using the flashlights to illuminate the scene we got the Land Rover up onto the logs and inched it across the gap.
We had started driving along the ledge on the mountain face again when our lights showed that the ledge we had been on had ended and we were ascending and driving along the sheer face of the mountain on a shelf made of a bed of packed dirt, pebbles and stones resting on tree branches spread between crude hewn wooden stakes driven into the cliff face at a 60 degree angle. Only the stakes held everything in place and over the emptiness below. We were fortunate that the dirt surface was not completely frozen over, so we did not slide, our chains and tires gripped the stones and the spread branches. This track hanging on the mountain edge and held up by stakes was several kilometres long and at no time were our outside wheels more than 50 centimetres from the edge of the chasm.
Finally the cliff edge ledge appeared again, after which we started winding downward on a track through the mountains.
About 2AM, after a seven or eight hour drive it had taken to cover some two hundred kilometers we descended into the town of Istalif. Although nobody appeared on the single town street as we drove through, the people who wakened must have been amazed at the sound of a motor vehicle engine coming out of the pass. Lights appeared in houses as we passed.
On exiting the town we could see through a gap in the mountains the glow of the street lights of Kabul below us. We were home within another hour.
It is difficult to imagine now how we were so fortunate as to have crossed this pass safely. I think it probable that at least until that year, 1968, no other men in a motorized vehicle had ever traversed it. If any of the hotel staff we spoke with in Bamian had known what was facing us and told us, then I do not think that we would have tried.
Remembering this adventure even all these years later brings a heady rush of fulfilment. I visited all three Buddhas’ at Bamian, I walked in amazement on Alis’ Dragon, and my friends and I drove an animal caravan track through the Baba Kohr Range of The Hindu Kush Mountains.
It still feels like I just drank a glass or two of heady champagne.
Failing memory caused me recently to investigate Google Earth 5 to determine the name of the pass by which my friends and I left Bamian Valley in November 1968. It has no name, being to the mountain people merely “The way to Istalif”
Those of us who lived in Afghanistan during the 1960s and early ‘70s were fortunate to explore in a land of spectacular beauty and to share in exhilarating adventure.
Thirty years of horrific war and mindless destruction came there after us.
Afghan army soldiers now guard the hill of Shahr-i-Golgola because it is sown with Russian land mines. Bamian Village bazaar was destroyed in the 1990s by fighting for territorial gains between rival warlords. Recently I learned that The Kakrak Buddha was dynamited along with the Standing Buddhas of Bamian.
The spines and rhinoceros like horn have been smashed from Alis’ Dragon
The hidden agenda of the current war since 2002 between the Western Countries and The Taliban is that of the multinational industrial conglomerates continually buying privatized control and exploitation of Afghanistan’s substantial wealth of precious metals, gem stones, minerals and natural gas.
Bamian Valley, a UNESCO Heritage Site, and in spite of the efforts being made to revitalize tourism is targeted as a multi billion dollar industrial development. It is situated on a huge coalfield and the surrounding mountains contain the largest iron deposits in Asia, one of the most valuable in the entire world. The valley is destined for desolation by large-scale coal-mining and iron smelting operations.
Neil Rock 2009