The Afghan highlands

Hank Paz
Exploring the region of Bamyan, Afghanistan's last frontier

BAMYAN, Afghanistan – “It’s nothing you have tried before,” my Afghan host beamed with pride while presenting what he said was the Hazara’s version of spaghetti.

At first his comment sounded strange to me, as our host – a small man with an infectious, Hobbit-like giggle – was an ethnic Uzbek. But it was another night of sub-zero temperature so the question of Afghan ethnic dynamics immediately retreated to the periphery of my mind as soon as I came face to face with a pot of hot noodle soup.

It was my last night in Bamyan (also spelled as Bamiyan), long considered as Afghanistan’s last frontier and cultural heartland of the Hazarajat. As I was scheduled to leave early the following morning, my host feted me with a traditional Highland dinner – a thoughtful but austere meal while sitting together on the rug-covered floor.

He took a bowl and poured me a thick noodle soup mixed with beans, herbs, nuts, spices and pieces of meat, the constellation of colors and ingredients swimming in the broth, wondrous to the eyes. But as I attempted my first mouthful, Alim the Uzbek signaled me to stop for a moment and put a generous scoop of yogurt in my bowl. My host was absolutely right – I had never tried anything like this before. 

Pondering that memorable dinner, I seemed to think that Alim had inadvertently brought me the essence of his country in a bowl. Like his Hazara spaghetti, Afghan society floats in a soup of diverse cultures, uneasily sitting side by side, unlikely ingredients mixed in a primordial condensation of different civilizations whose remnants are still very much alive in people’s daily lives.

MODERN TOUCH. Sign of modernity: Some cave dwellings have satellite dishes. Photo courtesy of Hank Paz

Situated in the historical Silk Road, Bamyan is literally at the crossroad of the East and West where the line between the past and present is blurred. This unique fusion was easily observed as I landed on the Bamyan airstrip aboard a rickety, Russian-made Mi-8 helicopter. Cave dwellings with satellite dishes. Small Buddha figurines sold by Muslim traders in the bazaar. And of course, the forgotten remnants of Hindu and Buddhist monasteries now occupied by shepherds in a predominantly Shi’a Muslim region. Bamyan is indeed a melting pot like no other.

Adaptation

It is said that adaptation is the hallmark of the people of the Central Highlands. The Hazara people are said to have originated from Genghis Khan’s Mongol army. These Mongol marauders are known to have settled in what is now the Central Highland region of Afghanistan. A number of them even established settlements in what is now Iran, and later in Pakistan during the latter half of the 19th century.

During the rule of the Sunni Pashtun-dominated Taliban, the Hazaras who are Dari-speaking Shiites were severely persecuted, experiencing one massacre after another.

To survive during the war of the warlords in the 1990s, the Hazara people fought the Taliban and fought with the Taliban. Some resisted. Others collaborated. And some suffered in silence and accepted the edict of any group who was ruling the country at the time, much like what these people had done throughout their long, complex and tragic history. 

The Hazara people live a perilous life, but they are hardy folk who, according to local Afghan lore, are capable of doing outdoor manual labor shoeless in the middle of a severe winter.

PASSING THROUGH. Aboard an Mi-8 helicopter passing through the Taliban-inhabited province of Maidan Wardak on the way to Bamyan. Photo courtesy of Hank Paz

By Afghan standards, the Central Highlands region composed of the provinces of Bamyan and Daykundi is considered relatively stable. Occasional rebel presence is reported along the border districts close to the South and East of the country but generally the geographical isolation of these provinces and existing ethnic dynamics contribute to the difficulty for the Taliban to gain permanently foothold in the Hazarajat. 

This relative stability is credited for supporting the development of an incipient tourism industry built around the region’s historical heritage and the dream-like beauty of its landscape. A few off-the-beaten-track tourists come to Bamyan (of course under considerable security) to ski the amazing mountain slopes during winter. A few travel services are also available offering a tour of the Band-e-Amir National Park, the country’s first. 

But historically Bamyan has gained worldwide recognition as the site of the giant Buddha statues, which the Taliban destroyed in 2001. The only reminder of their presence now is the large imposing holes where the mighty icons of Siddhartha once stood. 

Thus, one cannot help but feel a deep sense of loss when standing in front of the empty caverns – a scar of the dark and difficult time that Afghanistan went through in the past. There are ongoing efforts to restore the statues but given the extent of the devastation, it is unlikely that the Buddhas of Bamyan could to be reinstated to their former condition. 

Vibrant dynamism

But despite the region’s complicated history, one can feel a vibrant dynamism. The bazaars are lively. Traders and buyers are engaged in their daily ritualistic barter for goods and profits. A few small hotels – while not cheap and safe by usual standards – are cropping up. Shops selling souvenir trinkets, rugs and even creatively designed ornaments made of demobilized bullet casings are gaining attention from local Afghan tourists. There are signs of hope and indications of budding normalcy in a country that – for the longest time – was trapped in a stasis of violence and conflict.

Before I went to meet Alim the Uzbek for dinner, I passed by the Buddha ruins that morning on the way to Yakawlang district close to the border with the volatile province of Sar-e Pol. Our convoy stopped for about 15 minutes to take pictures and see for ourselves the extent of the destruction of the Buddha statues –absolutely annihilated. 

GONE. The cavern where the Giant Buddha Statue once stood. Photo courtesy of Hank Paz

The trip to Yakawlang was uneventful except for the spectacular wintry sights of snow-covered valleys, hills and mountains. On the way back to Bamyan central district, I got a radio call advising us to avoid the area of the Buddha ruins. It appeared that there was a report of an explosion in the area. Immediately, our convoy maneuvered to avoid that main road passing the vicinity of the ruins and took a different route.

During dinner, I asked my host if he heard anything about the reported explosion a couple of hours ago. He responded no but he promised to find out. I replied that I thought Bamyan was supposed to be safe. As he giggled, he responded with his characteristic detachment.

“Bamyan is safe my friend,” the Uzbek said, “but Afghanistan is not.” – Rappler.com

The writer is an advisor working with the Afghan government and international organizations. He is from Manila. He is using a pseudonym to protect his identity and work.