Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Bamiyan and Koh-i Baba

(Originally on 14 September, 2012.)

I spent three days in the province of Bamiyan, located on the central highlands of Afghanistan; in Bamiyan town and in the valleys, villages and highlands of the Koh-i Baba mountains. It was very good to escape for some days the air of Kabul that is filled with pollution, security measures and restrictions on movement.

The Koh-i Baba, "Grandfather Mountains", constitute a part of the majestic Hindukush, and forms the most important watershed of Afghanistan. From here, rivers flow to different directions: west through Parwan and Wardak to Kabul, south downstream the Panjab and the Helmand, and north to Samangan and Balkh, to join the Amudarya. The highest peak of Koh-i Baba, named Shah-i Foladi, the "Iron Shah", reaches up to more than 5000 metres altitude, although already in Bamiyan town we are at over 2000 metres.

Bamiyan town is probably best known for the gigantic Buddha statues, which were carved into the steep rocky precipice that rises up at the edge of the town, and which the Taliban in their religious fervour shelled into rubble, considering them as harâm images of idols. For several thousands of years had the memorials to Bamiyan's ancient faith been standing at their site without any of the local population, who had long ago converted into Islam, wanting to destroy them. Then in two days the young and fanatic Taliban fighters, most of whom were Pashtuns from southern Afghanistan, demolished those cultural monuments. The empty niches where the Buddha images used to stand still remain, as do the cave temples, vaults and corridors carved into the same rocks. A religiously motivated Japanese organization is planning to reconstruct the statues from their pieces by using modern computer modelling.

The place where the Buddhas used to stand has obviously served as a remarkable religious centre at the time of the Silk Road. At Bamiyan, several Silk Road trade routes crossed, connecting the Indian south with the Turkestani north and the Chinese east with the Persian west. Once Bamiyan indeed was a centre of lucrative trade. Now it is a rather sleepy provincial capital, and the monuments of the long past Buddhist civilization lay dormant aside with Sufi and Shi'ite shrines and Muslim graves. They are surrounded by the green fields of the Bamiyan Valley, and beyond, arid and rocky mountains stand in guard for the valley.

Another sight in Bamiyan is the "City of Cries", Shahr-i Gholghola, a desolate hill filled with caves and ruins that stands alone at the outskirts of the town. The name of the ruined hill refers to the last moments of the Ghorid dynasty that once ruled Bamiyan. Genghis Khan had invaded Afghanistan with his Mongol hordes, and conquered the area, as the Bamiyanis made the heavily fortified hill their last stand. The Ghorid King Jalaluddin's own daughter, however, betrayed the defenders of the fortress in hope of a good marriage, and the Mongols took over the hill, slaying all men and boys. Even the treacherous princess wasn't saved; the khan put her to the sword.

The Mongols left their genetic mark in the local population, thereby giving birth to the contemporary Hazara people. The Hazaras differ from the rest of the Afghans by their Mongol appearances, in addition to the fact that the Hazaras are nowadays Shi'a, whereas most of the Afghans belong to the Sunni majority of Islam. Even though the Finnish explorer Ramstedt still managed to find Mongol speakers in Afghanistan, today the Mongol language no longer persists. Modern Hazaras speak Dari, the Afghan version of Persian, although they have an even stronger localized accent than the Tajiks of Kabul and northeastern Afghanistan.

Most of my time in Bamiyan and the Koh-i Baba, I travelled in a group consisting of three Irish naturalists (an environmental expert, a botanist and an ornithologist), one American from Maine, one half-Briton half-Persian, one Tajik and a few local Hazaras. The autumn passage of many insectivore passerines was in full speed: there were particularly many Tree Pipits, Yellow Wagtails, Eastern Stonechats, Pied Bushchats, Lesser Whitethroats, Booted Warblers and Long-tailed Shrikes. We could also see quite many Red-headed Buntings and Bluethroats. Upon the mountains we could see many interesting local species, such as Grey-necked Buntings, Persian Wheatears, the red-bellied subspecies of Black Redstart, and Red-billed Choughs. In our first day we were also crossed by some two thousand Eurasian Cranes, apparently on their way from Siberia towards their wintering grounds in Pakistan and India.

Since we spent a lot of time in the villages and on the mountains of the Koh-i Baba, we were not bothered by the moderate unrest that took over Bamiyan town in one of the days, as local people got enraged at the governor and the political elite for two murder cases that upset the community. In one of the cases there were rumours linking it to a local Hazara warlord and the governor, who also happens to be the only female governor in Afghanistan. The daughter of one of the warlord's bodyguards had been raped and shot to her back with an AK-47, yet she was claimed to have committed suicide. Meanwhile in the poorer outskirts of the town where a man had had his throat slit for revenge. None of us knew the details of these two cases or whether they were in fact connected, but a lot of people were upset and demonstrated. By the time we returned from the mountains everything seemed calm again.

In addition, the Taliban had been at large along the road linking Bamiyan to Kabul, and they had ambushed and murdered a group of students traveling the route by minibus. Meanwhile, in the restless Ghorband Valley local bandits had robbed and killed Afghan travellers. Such incidents, however, were not to be seen in the peaceful villages we visited in the mountains. Quite the contrary, the locals everywhere were most hospitable and friendly towards us, we were often obliged to dine or drink tea with them.

The Bamiyan bazaar was rather well equipped and one can also have excellent Afghan meals in its chaykhânas. Yet alcohol of course is not available - all the beer in the shops was non-alcoholic. The market had some very sweet and soft Iranian dates, and the famous melons brought from the southern provinces.

Kabul is today sunny and warm. Trees and bushes are full of Lesser Whitethroats on their passage. People are all worried about whether today's Friday sermons are going to foment rage due to the anti-Islam film that seems to have upset the world. It already led to violent attacks against American consulates in Cairo and Benghazi, and at the latter place four American diplomats and some Libyan employees were killed. Lately the Libyans have been demonstrating against the arson, killings and terrorism, especially as the murdered US ambassador was known as a keen friend of the Libyan revolution.

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