In Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley, peace and a woman rule
Genghis Khan and the Taliban notwithstanding, serenity survives where peacekeepers haven't had to fire a shot since 2003.
There is a check post at the entrance to the Bamiyan Valley – one of the scores of shacks set along the earthen roads of Afghanistan designed to provide some appearance of security or, at least, a quiet place for policemen to sip their green tea.Skip to next paragraph
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But this one is different. It's not merely that the building marks the blessed end to an eight-hour ride over unpaved roads that shake the body like a box of matchsticks. It is that this shack seems to mark the entrance into an Afghanistan of which the world has never dreamed.
Beyond it, flowering fields stretch between stark gray mountainsides like a green carpet interspersed with the gold of wheat ready for harvest.
In an unpretentious governor's residence sits the only female governor in Afghanistan's history – appointed to rule over a province where 52 percent of the registered voters are women, 10 percent higher than the national average.
And on a rocky plateau, behind knots of barbed wire, stand international soldiers who say they've drawn the long straw in the Afghan war. The area is so safe, they haven't needed to fire a shot since they arrived in 2003.
All Afghanistan reveals surprises upon closer inspection, but no place more than Bamiyan, where history and geology conspire to produce a people and place of incomparable beauty.
To drive to Bamiyan is to earn it. Granted, it is no wagon train across the Continental Divide, beset by snow, starvation, and wild beasts. But by the measure of 21st-century convenience, it's not too far removed. It is to rattle along roads unfit for goats, skipping though pockets of questionable security, until at last you arrive in the cool vales of Bamiyan, coated in dust. Upon arrival, my hair had the properties of a light-brown helmet.
Yet there is something almost spiritual in the drive. Nearly 1,400 years ago, a Chinese pilgrim named Huien-Tsaing made a similar journey, cresting what he called the "Snowy Mountains," that he might come to this valley where two towering Buddha statues had been carved into sandstone cliffs and dozens of cave-monasteries honeycombed the ruddy rock beside them.
Today, those Buddhas are gone, destroyed by the Taliban in an act that, ironically, brought Bamiyan more global attention than it had ever enjoyed. But the echoes of those pilgrimages remain. I've never been to Lhasa, the former home of the Dalai Lama, but this is how I imagine one would approach it: a slow and winding climb through flat-roofed villages, clinging to bare mountainsides that scratch the watercolor sky.
I am with Farouq, my friend and colleague who accompanies me on all my Afghan travels.
"Does it get better than this?" I ask him.
He merely smiles with forbearance as my camera whirs along the constant incline as we follow the courses of creeks and rivers, until the neutral browns and grays of the Afghan palette give way to conceited greens that seem aware that they are, in this arid corner of the world, extraordinary.
Here at the check post, Afghanistan becomes Montana, Switzerland, or some other idyllic place. The 90-degree F. roast of Kabul has turned into what seems a pleasant autumn afternoon. Beside the road, the Bamiyan River gurgles serenely over slick stones . "The nature of Bamiyan puts you into deep thinking appropriate for a place of meditation," says Zemaryalai Tarzi, an archaeologist who has worked extensively in Bamiyan.
At the heart of the Bamiyan Valley rises an ancient citadel city, pale white against brush strokes of green, the seat of an empire conquered by Genghis Khan. Clearly, we are back in Afghanistan – though I must feel rather different than did Genghis Khan when he stood here 800 years ago. In his anger, he destroyed the citadel, and ever after, the wreck of a city – never rebuilt – was known as Ghulghula, or the City of Sighs.