Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Buddhas of Bamiyan

To see the immense statues of Buddha in the Bamiyan Valley, meant travelling about 250 km west of Kabul in the centre of Afghanistan. This required a 50 km drive north to Charikar, then a 200 km 4WD trek west over a narrow mountain pass to Bamiyan. It was cold and snowing in Kabul so how bad were conditions going to be over the mountains?
We were travelling with some friends we'd met in Iran, Mike and Sally, but they only had a 2WD Ford Transit van so we combined forces and they came with us in our Land Rover with 4WD, and we might just need it.

A frozen river north of Kabul

As we drove north from Kabul the bitumen road wound through cold arable land towards the mountains at Charikar. There we turned left on to a single lane cart track which got icier as it wound alongside the frozen Bamiyan river, past small villages stuck to the hillsides and through the Ghorband valley. Then we ground slowly upwards through gorges in the Koh-e-Baba mountains towards the Shibur Pass.

The road to Bamiyan

The eastern entrance to the Shibur Pass

The Shibur Pass
After a couple of hours of negotiating slippery hairpin turns we reached the top of the snow covered Shibur Pass, where we experienced almost total whiteout with snow like whipped cream. We were in 4WD by then of course, and the map said the top of the pass was 10,000 ft, which we could well believe. The Bamiyan valley is at 8200 ft and that was far below us.

White-out at 10,000 ft on the summit of the Shibur Pass

Once over the top things got a bit easier, the track across the top of the pass was fairly flat for a few km and we could enjoy the spectacular view of the snow covered Koh-e-Khwaha Ghar mountains which are part of the Hindu Kush range, before descending into a cold but fertile valley and on to the small town of Bamiyan.

The scenery on the Shibur Pass was spectacular

Descending the western end of the Shibur Pass

A stop to enjoy the mountain scenery
Bamiyan Valley

It was not an easy drive to get to the Bamiyan valley and we had to carry food and fuel for 4 people for several days.
The 250 km took us almost all day and apart from the ice and snow and the high altitudes, the track was winding and rough, although by Australian outback track standards it wasn't too bad because there were no corrugations.

"To drive to Bamiyan is to earn it. It is to rattle along roads unfit for goats until at last you arrive in the cool vales of Bamiyan, coated in dust".
These were words, which I've paraphrased, written in 2007 by Mark Sappenfield, staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, so obviously not a lot has changed in 30 years, but it was worth the effort.

"If there were paradise on earth, it might look somewhat like Bamiyan"

That's how Frank Harold described Bamiyan in his article on Buddhist Afghanistan (see here). Rather flowery words but it really did look a magical place as we descended to the valley floor.

Entering the Bamiyan Valley

Bamiyan is on the old caravan trade route known as the Silk Route between China and western Asia, and since the early centuries AD it had been a major centre for Buddhist monasteries until the expansion of the Islamic world in the 9th and 10th centuries.
The statues of Buddha are part of the remaining monuments of that era.

The wintery Bamiyan valley in early morning sun. The statues and many monastery alcoves are visible in the cliff face.
(Compare with a summer photo here, taken many years later)

Horsemen on a snowy plain
Women carrying water pots in Bamiyan village
A Cold Night
But it was getting late in the day now and the temperature was dropping fast so we found a room in a small hotel for Mike and Sally and we were going to camp outside. Gad it was cold, although we didn't know just how cold until the next morning. As the temperature continued to drop we made a life-saving decision. We would eat dinner in their room and stay the night there too.
The hotel room was small, comprising 2 single iron beds with coily springs, a 40w light globe swinging from the ceiling (although there was no electricity obviously, since it was winter), 2 oil lamps and a pot belly stove in the corner with a steel flue going up through the roof. The manager brought us a pile of fire wood and after dinner we stoked up the fire and soon had the stove and the flue glowing red hot, and kept it that way all night. We didn't care that it was a fire risk, it was warm which was all that mattered right then.
How cold was it really?
We enjoyed a warm but squeezy night and next morning I went out to the Land Rover to fetch some food for breakfast. It was a brilliant, clear sunny day but felt "a bit chilly" as I took a few photos of the morning mountain scenery. I unlocked the Land Rover, which was difficult since the locks had frozen up, and went inside to check the thermometer, 0ºF (-18ºC), inside. No wonder it felt chilly.

Early morning view from the hotel grounds at -18º. I took other photos but the camera lens froze up
If we had stayed in the Land Rover there is a real possibility that we might not have survived that cold night. I collected some bread (which was frozen but not by choice), some eggs and a block of water. We had experienced frozen water tanks in Iran and had learned the hard way to draw some water off the night before so we could have some for morning tea. Mini icebergs then clonked around in the tanks for days until they eventually melted.
A Solid Breakfast
Back in the room we set about cooking breakfast. I cracked an egg on the side of the frying pan. Nothing happened. I tried again with the same result. The eggs had frozen solid in their shells. So we peeled the shells off the frozen eggs which then looked like marbles with the yolk suspended in clear solid glass. We put them in the frying pan and watched as they slowly melted into the more traditional fried egg shape, and finished breakfast.

Statue and monastery caves carved into the Bamiyan cliffs

Starting Difficulties
The statues of Buddha we had come to see were on the vertical side of some cliffs north of the town, about 2 km away, so we had to drive there. I doubt that many Australians have faced the challenge of starting a car engine which has been sitting all night at -18º. The water was OK because all British motorists know it's essential to put anti-freeze in the radiator, but non freezing oil? That was a new requirement.
The oil in the engine and gearbox was as thick as molasses and one battery made no impression at all. Putting both batteries in parallel allowed some rotation but not sufficient to start the engine. However our Land Rover was an early model and came equipped with a starting handle, probably one of the last vehicles to do so. I turned the engine over manually with some difficulty, to free up the moving parts, and eventually, with both batteries helping, the engine fired.
A Practical Solution?
We had seen truck drivers in Iran avoid this situation by lighting fires under their trucks at night to keep their engines and gearboxes warm. They would spill a bit of diesel on the ground and light it. Then they would pour some more on the road side and groups of them would squat around this impromptu campfire discussing the cricket scores, or whatever it is that Iranian truck drivers discuss in the evenings around a campfire. This solution was impractical for our petrol-engined Land Rover, of course.
The Statues of Buddha
With the engine started we headed for the statues. There are (or were) 2 huge statues of Buddha in Bamiyan, one 175 ft high and the smaller one 125 ft high. These were immense structures, carved out of the vertical cliff face in the 6th century (554 and 507 AD respectively), as part of a Buddhist monastery. That comprised dozens of rooms with painted frescos and passageways carved behind and alongside the statues. Many of the frescos had survived the years well and were of obvious Asian/Hindu influence. The original monastery would have been a very colourful and superbly decorated centre of Buddhist life, and apparently the statues were once decorated with gold and precious stones.

The larger and smaller statues

Frescos still visible after 1500 years
We walked around the feet of the statues and climbed up the steep internal staircases to look out over Bamiyan from the heads of the statues. Quite apart from the statues, the Bamiyan valley with its backdrop of snow covered Hindu Kush mountains made a truly impressive sight.

The Bamiyan valley looking south from above the statues
Statues No More
After surviving 1500 years of invasion, war and religious challenges, the statues were destroyed in a colossal and mindless act of vandalism by the Taliban in 2001, see this site. The BBC called it "an act of wanton desecration". This was no accident either as it was not an easy task, the statues were carved out of solid rock then covered with layers of decorated plaster.
The Taliban tried artillery bombardment, then shelling by tanks but finally an explosives team succeeded with dynamite. The statues had been partially defaced in the 11th century as the Buddhist influence in the area waned and was replaced by Islam, but they still lasted another 1000 years before the Taliban succeeded with their total destruction.

Destruction of the Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001 (CNN Photo)

And if it wasn't so ludicrous, the following report would be funny:
The World Monuments Fund (see this site) has included the Bamiyan statues of Buddha in their "List of Most Endangered Sites" for 2008.
2008?? Surely that's about 7 years too late? At least UNESCO included the Bamiyan ruins on their World Heritage List in 2003, only 2 years too late, see this site.
[A Common Thread?
It might be interesting here to draw some parallels between the destruction of the Bamiyan twin statues and the New York twin towers disaster. Putting aside the tragic loss of life in New York for a moment, both were unnecessary acts of terrorism, both occurred in 2001, both were very symbolic in their own ways, and it seemed that neither would or could ever be rebuilt.
However, the twin towers are now being replaced by a new memorial building and the Afghan government is poised to fund the reconstruction of the Buddhas, but neither is a simple, low cost or politically easy project.
Fortunately, in Bamiyan, the many carved out monastery passageways and rooms are still there to be explored and wondered over, and more are being found as archeological work is undertaken.]
But back in 1974 all that tragedy and controversy was still far in the future. Back then it was the impressive size of the statues and the unbelievable zeal behind their construction that we had come to see and stand in awe of. Their size can be judged by the fact that Janet, standing next to the smaller one, was no taller than its foot.

Did I say tall? Looking up at the smaller of the statues

Does she look a bit cold? On and between feet of the big statue.

Having walked all around, up and over the statues and the adjoining caves and alcoves, we took a drive along the valley to warm up a bit and see things from a different perspective.
[Interestingly, the word "alcove" originates, via the Spanish "alcoba", from the old Arabic word "al-kubba" which means "the vault". How appropriate.]

The winter scenery was spectacular

Giant panorama of the Bamiyan Valley looking north

Views of Shahr-i-Golgola, the City of Screams (medieval city of Bamiyan) and graveyard

Just a few km up the valley are the ruins of a famous mediaeval city, Shahr-i-Golgola, built on top of a hill and believed to be impregnable with a secret water source. In 1221, Ghenghis Khan sent his grandson with an army to capture Bamiyan but he was killed as the people resisted the invasion. In revenge, he besieged the city by finding and cutting off its water supply and decreed that every living thing in the valley, people and animals, shall be slaughtered.
It's called the City of Screams because of the screams of people being killed there. The site is believed to be haunted and the Mongols called it the Cursed City. It has never been rebuilt.
Band-e Amir Lakes

It's a continuing regret that we didn't know enough about Afghanistan at the time to extend our trip to Bamiyan to visit the now world famous Band-e Amir Lakes, set in a dry desert environment about 80 km west of Bamiyan. That area was established in 2009 as Afghanistan's first National Park. (See this site and this site).
At the time we were pleased to have even made it as far as Bamiyan but looking back, even allowing for the freezing conditions, with a bit more knowledge and only a couple of extra days we could have included those spectacular blue lakes in our trip.
Learning more
There was much more history to see and learn about in Bamiyan which we had neither the time nor the understanding to encompass back then, and it would have taken a week or more to fully explore the whole area. Fortunately Bamiyan has been well documented and much more can be seen about the Bamiyan Valley and its statues of Buddha on the Internet, refer to this siteand this site and this site. Note that older texts spell Bamiyan without the "y", ie Bamian, or sometimes without the "i", ie Bamyan.

Back to Kabul
Back in Kabul after our cold rough Bamiyan trip, we held a putting-the-Land-Rover-back-together day. This involved changing the wheels round and generally tightening all the suspension bolts which had come loose, including the wheel nuts. It was so cold though that the wheel nuts froze to the ground. We changed the generator since the rear bush had gone and replaced missing manifold bolts. My diary notes say " eggs still frozen and no water again for the 3rd day".
We then set about organising our second big adventure in Afghanistan, a trip to the north of the country to try to get to see a Buzkashi "game".



  1. ghorband is my native place...
    and when did you take this photo from
    ghorband plz give little description about it.

    it will be your pleasure on me.

  2. Your pictures are fabulous and your journal is so comprehensive! Can you tell me what camera you used back then?

  3. SO beautiful. It's so heartbreaking that the statues don't exist anymore. Afghanistan has been through so much.

    Lovely post and pictures!