There were, once, Buddhas in Bamiyan, known to locals as Salsal and Shamama, standing in the shadow of the Hindu Kush. In 2001, only two years after he had promised to protect them, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar forced townspeople to drill charges of dynamite into the statues, the largest of which was 180 feet tall — then, the world's tallest standing Buddha. With the help of anti-tank mines and rockets, the statues that had stood since the sixth century were reduced instantly to rubble. Every soul in Bamiyan wishes it did not happen.
The stark man-made niches into which the Buddhas were hewn are the face of the province, now empty, but in no way robbed of their history. Long before the founding of Islam and its arrival in the region, Bamiyan was a stop along the Silk Road at the heart of a thriving Buddhist empire.
Two short millennia later in the 1960's and 70's, it was a popular resting place on the Hippie Trail — the overland route to Kathmandu — where thousands of wayfaring flower children could smoke local weed and hash at the feet of male Salsal, "light shines through the universe," or female Shamama, "Queen Mother".
There are far fewer tourists now, though the name still rings familiar to many Western travelers. From what I was told by my hosts, owners of the new Rah-e Abrisham tour agency based out of Bamiyan, I was the first since April. But all this is changing.
In the spring, Bamiyan played host to the "First Afghan Ski Challenge," coordinated by the Swiss and Afghan members of the new Bamiyan Ski Club. Gear donated from Italy waits for March 2012, stacked neatly on shelves in an underground shed by the Rah-e-Abrisham lodge.
Organizer Christoph Zürcher hopes the event will expand beyond this year's ten Afghan participants to include dozens of local and foreign skiers, novices and experts alike. Registration is already open, and the $800 fee, which Afghan nationals do not need to pay, comes with an event parka and T-shirt — perhaps Afghanistan's first original, branded merchandise.
The town's name comes from the Sanskrit, varmayana, "colored". Assorted shades of green fields are tended by farmers; far away in the distance are the brown and gold sandstone cliffs, marked by nooks in the shape of a Russian matryoshka doll, the memory of their giant former tenants.
Across the valley floor rises the Koh-e-Baba mountain range, always black and capped with white snow at 16,000 feet high — one peak known as Koh-e-Allah, "Mountain of God", has snow drifts that spell out "Allah" in Persian script and never-melting ice. When it isn't dark gray, the sky is bright blue and rarely hot: it is fifteen degrees cooler than Kabul in the Bamiyan bazaar, 8,200 feet above sea level.
When the Taliban demolished the Buddhas, they unwittingly uncovered a series of 50 hidden caves and temples carved into the rock behind them. A dozen of these are decorated with oil paintings from as far back as the fifth century, many hundreds of years before Europeans began doing the same. In their crusade to eradicate idolatry, the Taliban helped discover the oldest oil paintings in the world.
A narrow staircase shoots up and over each massive recess, and on every landing there is something small. These caves and domed temples are mostly no wider than fifteen feet, but no two are the same: carvers had little allegiance to any particular architectural style, and the result reflects a kind of worldwide Buddhist aesthetic.
On these walls, Silk Road merchants may have painted proof of their passage with poppy seed and walnut oils. The colors are faded and much has been lost to time, but designs are still visible: a swath of red and orange, a geometric pattern around the cornice, the side of a face.
The Taliban government was ousted eight months after the statues were shattered; they now have no control in Bamiyan. The work of Swiss, Japanese and UNESCO reconstruction efforts is clearly visible in wooden sheds housing millions of stone fragments, all carefully numbered and labeled. One researcher in Munich is confident he knows how to put one back together.
Fifteen minutes due west by taxi is Dara-e Azhdahar, "Dragon Valley", a land which is home to a different legend — this one indestructible. Past a small town pinched between sharp cliffs that look like petrified theater curtains, the road turns to face a massive stone hill.
This is a once great dragon defeated by Ali, the fourth Islamic Caliph, and the defining patriarch of Shia Islam. A fissure wide enough to fall into snakes along the spine and marks the strip of flesh cut to save a young girl from sacrifice. The dragon weeps to this day: a gurgling opening at the end of the crevice noisily spits clear, salty water in paroxysmal spurts.
Another fifty miles pass by beautifully through barren, sandy bluffs and lush farmland with sheep out to pasture, all with ice-capped mountains in the near distance. Paying very close attention to faded signs along the dust and mud road, ignoring them, and then relying on his instinct, our driver takes a turn to the right.
Immediately, an enormous lake appeared a thousand feet below. This is the driveway to Band-e Amir, Afghanistan's first and only national park, home to six sapphire-blue lakes magically sprung from the alpine desert. Entry costs fifty afghanis (one dollar).
Towering cliffs form the walls of each lake, stunningly reddish brown and gray, changing colors with the sunlight; each is separated from the next by a natural dam of white, calcareous travertine and spills over its edges like an infinity pool. The overflow cascades down the calcium-rich rock in sparkling waterfalls toward the next lake. These dams are the park's namesake — Band-e Amir, named for Ali, is "King's Dam".
On the approach, we had seen Band-e Haibat, "Grandiose Dam." The others are Gholaman (slaves), Qambar (Ali's personal slave), Zulfiqar (Ali's sword), Pudina (wild mint) and Panir (cheese).
The view further along the entrance is enough to make your eyes explode — a second lake actively sloshes into the desert, accented with bright white rock and thick verdure that follow no natural pattern, all flanked by mountains that spoil whatever surprises await us on Mars (a satellite photo of Band-e Amir looks eerily like the Red Planet). In the winter, all of this is spectacular snow and ice.
Across the water is a shrine venerating Ali, and offering shelter when the afternoon gale whips dust and rain across the water on the heels of Afghanistan's 2:00 p.m. black clouds. This passes quickly, and picnicking families return to the flotilla of colorful paddle boats and kayaks that are the park's one tourist amenity — apart from this, it's all nature.
Restaurants in the area offer bread and thick local butter that tastes almost like cheese, with black or green tea and jars of blood-red jam. After a long morning of relaxing, nothing tops a spot of tea sipped reclining on pillows on the floor. In the nearby town of Yakawlang, we picked up lunch: tender chunks of lamb on the bone, wrapped in a container of fresh Afghan bread, and packed with salt and spices to sprinkle on liberally by the lake.
From the end of the road at the foot of Band-e Haibat, a short trail hugs the cliff face and drops down to the water, ice cold year-round. But this Afghan weekend getaway wouldn't be perfect without a swim, and so, in its perfection, the park offers shallow, warmer crystal clear pools with sandy white bottoms.
The pools are each like their own secluded beach, surrounded by geometric rock formations, trickling streams, and near mosquito-less greenery. Mind the fish if you go for a dip, but don't worry — all they'll do is nibble.