Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bountiful Bamyan

Vacant Buddha Niche

Bamyan (or Bamiyan, or Bamian depending on who you ask) is something of an urban legend among expats in Afghanistn, and has some pretty amazing legends that go along with it anyhow.

Both a province and the capitol city, Bamyan is a modestly sized town of perhaps 60,000 if you count the outlying caves. Indeed, caves are a huge part of what makes Bamyan so special, and the huge rock faces are littered with thousands of caves, many of which are occupied, and have been for centuries.

Sadly, the best known caves and their associated niches are those that once held massive male and female buddha statues that managed to offend Taliban sensibilities after standing as a testament to spirituality and ingenuity for over a thousand years. They were shot at with tanks and then dynamited. Now, the niches, the associated monastery (built into the caves of that cliff face) and a third "sleeping" buddha which is being excavated, are part of the burgeoning (yes you heard me right) tourist industry of the town.

Although the a sizable portion of the visitors are aid workers or others working in Afghanistan, there is a growing number of hard core tourists who are making it out to Bamyan, and telling their friends. An active (and well-funded) tourist bureau has gone so far as to hold a ski competition to advertise the charms of Bamyan, and the Bamyan ski club is making a name for itself despite challenges, like the lack of a ski-lift (a shortcoming that is soon to be remedied).

A Typical Bamyan Scene
(Trout Fishing may be the next fad)

Probably of equal importance to the popularity of Bamyan among expats is the "battlespace owner" of the province- New Zealand. The food and hospitality of the "Kiwis" is legendary, and serves to confirm all the positive stereotypes about the friendly, rugged, sporty folk who call the Middle Earth (Lord of the Rings was shot in NZ) their home. Less known, but equally delectable and charming is the cuisine and hospitality of Malaysians, who share the NZ PRT, and run a series of medical programs (which in fact was my excuse to visit them).

The Fearsome Kiwi Stands Guard

Part of the magic of course is that Bamyan is safe. Not entirely without threats of course, but far better than the average inner city in north america. This has to do with various things, from geography, to the competence of local security and the coalition - but is mostly because most of Bamyan is populated by ethnic Hazaras, who suffered more than the destruction of their cultural treasures under Taliban rule, and are quick to detect and report anyone who doesn't belong. Consequently, it is common to see expats strolling town without a phalanx of bristling guards and a convoy of tank-like vehicles. It's normality was incredibly refreshing, and we relished the opportunity to do simple things like buy bread and kabobs from a street vendor, or stop to haggle amiably over carpets, jewelry and assorted other kitsch.

Sadly, the Hazaras, who have a distinctly asian appearance, are thought to be descendants of Mongol invaders, one of many armies that swept down the silk road over the centuries. One of the sadder stories (yes, things can get much worse) has to do with Gholghola - the "City of Sighs" (or of screams) a large hill, covered in ruins left since the 13th centure. The city stood for months, resisting the onslaught of (ironically enough) the mongol hordes of Genghis Khan which have become closely tied to to Hazara identity. After a traitor revealed the secret water supply for the city the mongols prevailed, and in the aftermath Genghis allegedly gathered the entire population on the hill (men, women and children) and killed them all as a lesson to other potential troublemakers. Their sighs/scream still echo in the consciousness of the residents.

(in foreground)

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