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.
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.
My sigh is of relief. Here, there is no Taliban, which means that when journalists and aid workers enter the valley, their mind can shut off – freed from the constant vigilance that is Afghan life.
"Aid workers love coming here," says Jennifer Brick, a Kabul-based researcher for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, as she munches on bread and rice in a restaurant while here to study a key government program.
Most of the New Zealander soldiers sent here to maintain peace can't believe their good fortune. Col. Roger McElwaine, commander of the Bamiyan Provincial Reconstruction Team, says it is so safe that his troops can go out on weeks-long patrols, driving to the remotest corners of the remote province to make their rounds.
When he mentions this to colleagues in other parts of the country, they're dumbfounded. In the south, for example, patrols leave the safety of their base for no more than a few hours at a time.
Curiously, the creator of this unusual eddy of Afghan peace is none other than Genghis Khan. The people of Bamiyan clearly look different from most Afghans: Their features suggest a Mongol origin, giving rise to the belief that they are the descendants of Genghis Khan's horde.
The Taliban certainly believe it, which is one reason they want to exterminate the people of Bamiyan and central Afghanistan, known as Hazaras, who are Shiites in an overwhelmingly Sunni country and are seen as outsiders.
By virtue of its staunch opposition and remote location, Bamiyan held out against the Taliban five years longer than Kabul, falling in 2001 – only months before it was freed by US-backed Northern Alliance forces.
Bamiyan's ethnic heritage also means that its uniqueness is not confined to its landscapes. Long derided as brutal and beastly by the bigoted among Afghans, Hazaras are, in fact, among the most progressive groups in Afghan society.
At the office of a leading Bamiyan cleric sits his head of financial affairs, Latifah Naseri, bashful but not in a burqa. In two weeks in Afghanistan, I can recall sitting in a room with only one other woman – the wife of a Westernized Afghan who lives half the year in Germany.
Outside Kabul and perhaps one or two other cities, women are not to be seen or heard by male guests. Lavish dinners are cooked by women, and then served by their sons and brothers, so that the women may do their duties in anonymity. In another part of the country, I told a dinner host to pass my compliments to the women who'd made the food. He looked perplexed, as if I was asking him to recite the quadratic equation. It simply didn't compute culturally.
But here, in the office of a senior cleric of the province, was a woman, doing a job – openly.
"I feel so comfortable when I go to any part of Bamiyan," said Ms. Naseri, who looked rather uncomfortable answering a Westerner's questions. "But I have been to Baglan and Kabul, and even in Kabul I feel threatened."
It is why President Hamid Karzai appointed a woman as governor. People see her sex as irrelevant. The farmers and traders of this valley care about electricity and roads, and their concerns are understandable. Bamiyan, in some respects, has been the Land the World Forgot. There are no paved roads and no connection to the meager Afghan electricity grid – when the local diesel-powered plant shuts off in the afternoon, there's no power, save personal generators.
Yet there is an allure to that – as if the whole valley is hushed in one sustained exhale. At daybreak, a haze of smoke settles in the valley as wood stoves kindle homes into the day's activity. And again at midnight, when there is only moonlight to illumine the valley walls, and the distant barking of dogs alone breaks the stillness, Bamiyan seems a world best left alone.