MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan Adventrues#37 One more sleep before Lal

Autumn 1989 somewhere between Yakolang and Lal

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Juma Khan, the truck owner joined Khudadad and me for tea in the guest room. He was accompanied by his elderly wife whose eyes were filmed by cataracts. Pointing to his wife’s eyes he asked what could be done; did I have any medicine to make her see again? My heart sank. I was going to be a very disappointing guest.

I shook my head, explaining only an operation would help. The nearest hospital where such surgery could be performed was Kabul. We all knew, without further discussion, that Juma Khan’s wife would end her days in darkness. More patients from the village arrived for consultations – children with eczema, children with scabies, malnutrition, diarrhoea. The picturesque rural scene I had seen as we arrived disguised the poverty, ignorance and disease in the village.

Apart from a couple of doctors of doubtful qualifications in the bazaar of Yakolang no other medical facility was nearer than our clinic in Lal. Some years ago, an American Government funded mission group had built a hospital in Yakolang. It had been closed, even before the Soviet invasion, amidst rumours of spying and proselytising.  I had seen the modern buildings as we drove through the bazaar earlier and, faced with so many children for whom I could do little to help; I wondered why one of the many aid organisations working in Afghanistan did not re-open the much needed hospital. Our organisation was tiny, but where I wondered were Oxfam, Save the Children, the UN agencies?  Khudadad answered, ‘This place is too far from Pakistan. They don’t want the bother. It is easier for them to help in the nearer, Pashtun areas.’

Although he spoke in English, on hearing the word “Pashtun” Juma Khan’s wife let out a long wail of anguish followed by a voluble speech full of anger and grief. Khudadad explained, ‘This family are originally from near Jaghoray, but the Pushtoon took their land and forced them to move. Many, many families lost their lands at that time and moved here.  The land is not good and farming is hard. They will always hate the Pushtoon people. That is why the Hazaras must have some power when there is a new Government.’

It was quite a speech from Khudadad and the emotion in his voice was clear. ‘When did this happen?’ I asked.

‘During the time of Abdur Rahman Khan,’ he replied. ‘They will never forget.’

L0020789 Emir Abd or-Rahman, Rawalpindi, April, 1885

Abdur Rahman Khan ruled from 1880 to 1901 and is known for uniting Afghanistan after years of fighting when the Durand Line was being negotiated with the British Raj. He also forcibly removed thousands of Hazaras from their lands which were given to Pashtuns. Thousands of Hazaras were killed, raped, sold into slavery and many thousands more left Afghanistan for Iran, Baluchistan (in what is now Pakistan). The Governor of Baluchistan reported to the foreign department of India that he believed Abdur Rahman was intending to exterminate the Hazaras.

Even though she was not even born in the days of Abdur Rahman Khan’s rule I understood Juma Khan’s wife’s anger and grief. At home in Scotland people still talk about The Killing Times, as though they took place a couple of decades ago. It was a period of church conflict in the 17th century.

The rest of the party soon arrived for dinner. More tea was served. Having seen the tea consumption of the average Afghan, I fail to understand why the English are considered to be a race of tea drinkers. Dinner was “sheer brinj” (literally, milk rice) and for me it was a first to see it served as a main, savoury dish rather than as a pudding. I watched to see how I was supposed to tackle the moulded ring of glutinous rice, surrounded a well of hot oil. As he dipped balls of rice into the hot oil, Khudadad muttered, under his breath, complaints about the fare.

I found it unappetising myself but, not surprisingly it was a filling meal and I soon felt that I had eaten more than enough. The driver bellowed a question which Khudadad translated, ‘He wants to know why foreigners eat like birds while Afghans eat like donkeys?’ I mumbled something about how hard most Afghans work compared to us puny foreigners, which provoked much laughter.  I was amazed at how much food they managed to put away, especially as not one of them, even the giant conductor, was even slightly overweight.  If the amount of food they consumed was impressive, the tea drinking which followed was truly awesome. Two enormous kettles containing several gallons of tea were brought, with a smaller teapot for the foreign bird.

As the guests talked and talked I grew more and more sleepy. I might even have fallen asleep had I not been diverted by the antics of a little mouse, scampering nimbly over the bedding and cushions round the edges of the room.  Khudadad caught my eye and grinned when he saw what I was watching but no-one else appeared to have noticed, so engrossed were they in their conversation. At last, the driver upended the kettle. It was empty.  Juma Khan immediately offered to have more tea brought and I smothered a sigh at the thought, but apparently the signal for departure had been given.

Khudadad had been unusually quiet throughout the evening, taking little part in the talk, and I wondered if something was wrong but he replied, ‘No, no. I was a little bored. They were talking about their business.’

While we prepared our beds Khudadad continued to talk, translating chunks of the after dinner conversation, delighted with the improvement in his English which enabled him to be so articulate. I lay down, but Khudadad carried on talking, making up for his silence earlier in the evening. When he had completed his run down of the evening’s discourse, which seemed to have been mainly about the price of goods and transport costs, he began on the political history of the revolution. I would have found this a more interesting topic but, unfortunately, at this point, his English failed him and he turned off the lamp.

There was a sudden scampering by my head as the mouse ran across the pillow, seeking his bed for the night. After a while, I realised he’d found it, inside my pillow case. ‘Khudadad, the mouse is inside my pillow.’ He switched on his torch and we took turns trying to dislodge the mouse, until the ridiculousness of the situation struck us and we both dissolved into helpless laughter. I chose a different pillow, leaving the mouse to his peaceful slumber.

MarySmith’sPlace – Afghanistan Adventures #36 Will we ever get to Lal?

Autumn 1989

In the morning, our breath escaped in great clouds of steam. The mountains to the north were topped by white snow caps, glistening in the early sunshine. With no sounds from other travellers to disturb us we had slept late and it was after eight o’clock before Khudadad, went in search of transport.

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I watched a donkey train being led into the compound. Two very young ones frisked around playfully, kicking their heels and nipping at the necks of the older donkeys. They bore this abuse stoically before suddenly nipping back, in a far from playful fashion.

Khudadad returned, saying he’d finally tracked down a driver who was going past our destination on his way further north. We would leave around midday. He looked depressed. ‘Well, that’s good, isn’t it?’ I asked. ‘Even with a late start we can still reach Lal today can’t we?’

He nodded, ‘Yes, yes, we can reach Lal today.’ I’d still not fully learned the Afghan habit of giving an answer the person asking most wanted to hear, with a disconcerting disregard for truth. I accepted his reply, assuming his desolation was only in having to travel in another boneshaker rather than a Mercedes.

We sat outside where it was warmer in the sunshine than in our ice box of a room and watched the donkeys. The littlest one had by now decided that the compound was no longer big enough, it was boring, and he wanted to see the world. Off he went, out of the compound and down the lane towards the bazaar. ‘We better catch him,’ said Khudadad, and we gave chase. By the time we reached the main street the donkey was galloping along, hotly pursued by his master and a couple of passers-by.

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Leaving them to it we crossed the street of what, Khudadad explained, was the new bazaar, turning down a little track which led to open fields bordered by a wood of poplars. Their leaves, dressed in autumn shades of gold, shivered and danced in the breeze as we wandered towards the river. It was wide and fast flowing, although shallow. ‘In spring, when the snow on the mountains melt it becomes very big, very deep. All the land is flooded then,’ he explained.

Soon after lunch we boarded the truck but did not, as I had anticipated, take to the open road immediately. Instead, the driver went to the old bazaar where he took an incredibly long time to load up with apples, bound for some market place beyond Lal. I was becoming increasingly impatient to be on our way, afraid that if we delayed much longer we wouldn’t reach Lal that night. When the driver eventually began to rev the engine, three men pushed their way on to our bench and, although Khudadad protested to the driver, we had no choice but to squeeze up. An additional passenger who tried to gain entry was vociferously refused a place by all five of us, now squashed like sardines in a tin. He was found a space behind, making a total of nine people in the cab.

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I marvelled at how little the others seemed to mind the discomfort. Even Khudadad, had he been travelling alone, would not have voiced any protest about the cramped conditions. The alternative to travelling for hours this way was to walk, for maybe up to two days. I wondered how I would cope, faced with a two day hike to Lal, and tried not to feel too resentful about Khudadad’s elbow in my ribs.

The driver was a large man, but his conductor was a giant. An oblong of solid muscle whose clothes, all stopping well short of his ankles and wrists, gave him an uncanny resemblance to the Incredible Hulk. An elderly, white bearded man, who sat very erect – or it may have simply been that he had no choice but to sit bolt upright sandwiched between the travelling companions on either side – was the truck owner.

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By the time we left the bazaar Khudadad had fallen asleep. As well as his elbow in my ribs, I now had his full weight against me, squashing me against the window. Feelings of resentment grew. When we stopped after little more than an hour’s driving – much too soon for a tea break – I asked if we had a puncture. Khudadad looked a bit shifty. ‘The truck owner lives in the village over there and has invited us for tea.’

I couldn’t just about see a huddle of houses in the distance. ‘But if we stop for tea now  how will we reach Lal tonight?’

Khudadad looked shiftier still. ‘He says the driver is going to stay here for the night.’  Interpreting my expression as one of concern that we were being abandoned by the roadside, he added, ‘We are invited too.’

I was furious with Khudadad. He’d known all along we wouldn’t reach Lal that day. Added to the day’s accumulated delays and discomforts, this “invitation”, which could not be refused, was the final straw. The realisation I had absolutely no control over events in my life while travelling made me doubly angry. I jumped from the cab, refusing to be helped by Khudadad, and marched towards the village, thinking bad thoughts about so called hospitality  thrust on one whether wanted or not. By the time we arrived I had succeeded in regaining my composure – throwing a tantrum, though it may have temporarily relieved my feelings, wouldn’t change the situation.

The village was lovely. Bathed in late afternoon sunshine the half dozen mud houses and tiny mosque had a picturesque appearance complemented by the browns of the surrounding fields, newly ploughed. A sparkle of water indicated where the river cut through a thicket of poplars.  Khudadad and I were installed in a room which had beautiful gilims and rugs covering the floor. The mattresses were at least a foot deep and their enormous bolsters all wore matching, embroidered covers. I began to look forward to bed time.

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MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan adventures#35 Goodbye Bamiyan, Hello Yakolang

Autumn 1989

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Khudadad was full of apologies for the fact the truck was very old, and indeed I had reservations about its ability to take us very far. It resembled something made out of a rusty meccano set. There was no back seat as there had been in the Kamaz and I was delighted to be perched up front, assured of an excellent view.

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The driver took his place, his conductor squeezing in between him and the door. Khudadad sat next to me. It was a little cramped with four of us in the small cab then, just as we began to pull away another man opened the passenger door and pulled himself up beside Khudadad.   I couldn’t slide any further over without sitting on the driver’s lap but, somehow, the man managed to hoist himself in. Now so little space he couldn’t shut the door properly and had to travel with his head, shoulders and one arm out the window, holding the door closed with his other hand.

Khudadad muttered and moaned by my side, apologising profusely for the discomfort. I was thankful we were not travelling on Jaghoray’s roads with their potholes and rocks every other yard; this road was the best I had experienced since arriving in Afghanistan, straight, almost smooth even. The occasional bump, therefore, was disconcerting as the five of us would suddenly fly roof-wards in unison like a troupe of acrobats performing a circus trick. I was worried the man hanging out the window might be decapitated.

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Smooth (!) roads, snowy mountains ahead.

After the first half hour I lost all interest in the passing scenery as I tried to find a way to change the position of my cramping limbs without everyone in the cab having to do the same.  It made me think of the children’s song, “There were Ten in the Bed” when each time they all rolled over one fell out. Khudadad continued to apologise and I continued to lie, I’m sure by then unconvincingly, that I was perfectly happy and enjoying the journey. I wished he would shut up, allowing me to be miserably uncomfortable in silence.

When the driver pulled up at a small, makeshift chaikhana I had to force protesting limbs into action. Khudadad ordered tea but, leaving it untouched, excused himself and went outside.   Minutes later, a totally transformed Khudadad beckoned me from the doorway. He was grinning from ear to ear. Eager to see what had brought about this dramatic change of mood I hurried after him. He had found a big, shiny, lovely Mercedes truck whose driver was willing to take us to Yakolang.

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Not the Mercedes. Khudadad, third from the left

The difference between this super luxurious vehicle and the rattling old boneshaker in which we had been travelling was unbelievable. The cab was spacious with comfortable seats and there were two full length bunks behind. Khudadad was so pleased with himself that he couldn’t stop grinning. But when I endorsed his praise of the vehicle he commented, ‘I am sorry this is not the latest model. It is even better.’ He really was a bit of a glass half empty kind of a guy.

A rather elderly mujahid travelling in the truck was at first rather surly at having to give up his place for us but Khudadad was so obviously delighted by the change of transport and by his own cleverness in finding it that his infectious good humour soon had the older man smiling and chatting.  I stretched out on the bottom bunk, pillowed my head on my handbag and, wishing we could always travel by Mercedes truck, fell fast asleep and did not wake until we reached Yakolang.

It was late, nine thirty, extremely cold, and there was no room at the inn. The driver and his mates kept me company while Khudadad searched for accommodation, eventually returning to say he had secured a room in a still to be completed hotel.

It was a building site. Our room was an empty, concrete shell with no glass in the tiny window. It looked onto a central compound, around which similar rooms had been, or were in the process of being built. It was bleak and cheerless and bitterly cold. Pulling a blanket round my shoulders I squatted close to the small kerosene lamp the landlord had provided.  Khudadad went out in search of food.

He returned five minutes later, rather shaken, ‘The mujahideen here don’t like people to use a torch in the night. They just threatened to shoot me. I’m sorry I have to take the kerosene lamp.’ He disappeared again. I sat in the dark, listening intently but as I heard no shots ring out I assumed he’d been allowed to continue on his foraging expedition. He reported back glumly that there was no food left but the landlord had agreed to cook rice for us.

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This is a filling station

It took about an hour for the rice to appear, plain, boiled and accompanied by some very cold, hard nan. Freshly baked nan is one of the most delicious foods on earth but within a few hours it seems to undergo some kind of chemical change after which it resembles and tastes like something one would use for repairing shoes. I was too cold and tired to eat much of the unappetising fare but was very grateful for the tea which helped warm me sufficiently to think about preparing for bed.

It was cold enough to make Khudadad abandon our cross country hike to find a ‘loo’ and point to a place just outside the compound which I discovered next morning was completely exposed to public view on all sides. Despite the thickness of my sleeping bag the chill from the concrete floor forced me to search in a trunk to find another blanket to provide some insulation. I was beginning to worry, not least because the mountains ahead were already snow-capped, about how much colder it would be in Lal, which Khudadad said we’d reach tomorrow. He forgot to say Insh’Allah.

Guest Post: Mary Smith

I’m a guest on BeetleyPete’s blog today, talking about why I love blogging – and letting people know No More Mulberries, my novel set in Afghanistan, is currently on sale for only 99p Do pop over to have a look – Pete’s blog is well worth a visit.


I am delighted to feature Mary, a published writer, local historian, and fully-engaged blogger who resides in Scotland. Mary has lived and worked in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and her travels and experiences are fascinating to read about. She has special offers available on one of her her books from today, and I urge you to check it out.

**Please share this post on any social media you use, to help Mary**

Here is her own short bio.

Mary Smith has always loved writing. As a child she wrote stories in homemade books made from wallpaper trimmings – but she never thought people could grow up and become real writers. She spent a year working in a bank, which she hated – all numbers, very few words – ten years with Oxfam in the UK, followed by ten years working in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She wanted others to share her…

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D&G Poetry Lockdown Party – Number 13 – Mary Smith

This is a lovely wee blog, quite new, which focuses on writers and poets from around Dumfries & Galloway. I’m delighted to be featured today talking about favourite writers and places.

D&G Poetry


Name your three top writers. This turns out to be much more difficult than I thought it would be. As soon as I wrote down three names another three came to mind followed by three or four more …

I left it for a few days and tried again, deciding to stick with whichever names came to mind first. My top three writers – today – are:

Margaret Elphinstone for her historical fiction. Whether we are reading about Cumbrian Quaker Mark in Voyageurs, set at the time of the 1812 war between Canada and the United States or about the Auk People following a tsunami in Scotland 8,000 years ago in The Gathering Night, every word of her fiction rings true. Now, she is writing essays about our time and there can be no arguing that her words are vitally important for us all.

Kate Atkinson. I…

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MarySmith’sPlace – AfghanAdventures #34: in which we do not star in a Japanese documentary

Autumn 1989

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As we had time to kill before our departure, we ordered more tea. Khudadad was becoming increasingly chatty as his confidence in speaking English grew and he told me how the mujahideen had succeeded in defeating the Russian troops who were positioned on Shar-i-Gholghola. This was the site of the original citadel, overlooking the Bamiyan valley. It had once been besieged and destroyed by the infamous Ghengis Khan.

Bamiyan has always been an important city in Afghanistan’s history and was once a major stopping place on a subsidiary of the old Silk Route. Khudadad was just expounding his views on the equal fiendishness of both Genghis Khan and the Soviets, when a great clattering of feet on the wooden stairs made us look nervously towards the door.

It burst open and a dozen mujahideen, bandoliers of bullets strapped around their chests, AK 47s clutched in their fists poured in. When they stacked their guns against a support pillar in the middle of the room and sat, down my immediate panic abated. We weren’t about to be arrested. They nodded in our direction, and after making the customary greetings Khudadad, suggested we move to another room. Before we could do so, more clattering sounded on the stairs and through the doorway appeared, I guessed from his air of authority, the Commander and his Second-in Command. They were followed by – a Japanese film crew. I stared in disbelief, ignoring Khudadad’s whispered appeals that we leave.

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Two of the crew were soon busily engaged in setting up their equipment while the third, clearly the director, surveyed the room, studiously refusing to catch my eye. He suddenly pointed to our baggage, ‘Get this stuff out of here!’

Khudadad instantly leapt to his feet but I caught his sleeve, tugging him back. ‘If he wants our stuff moved he can get the muj to do it. There are enough of them and we were here first,’ I whispered. I glared at the director who caught my eye just long enough to glare back at me. We were both furious, with a totally illogical anger, at finding ourselves, thousands of miles from our respective homes, in a place we each felt the other had no right to be. I suspect we had both been enjoying the ego-boosting excitement that we were the only foreigners doing what we were doing in Afghanistan.

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There he was, on what would surely be depicted for his Japanese viewers as a dangerous assignment, filming the battle weary mujahideen, in one of the most remote areas of Afghanistan. And he finds a foreign woman, with heaps of luggage, installed in his chosen location, casually drinking tea. I, of course, had been enjoying the almost certain knowledge no other foreign woman was travelling around as I was, hitching lifts from commanders and mujahideen and truck drivers. We were both put out. It was ridiculous. We might have had so much to talk about, stories to share, but the instinctive hostility was obviously felt on both sides.

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The Commander ordered his men to move the bags out of camera shot. I detected a flicker of a smile when he shot me a swift glance. Khudadad was twittering at my side, anxious to move but, for once, I chose to disagree with his advice. I wanted to watch what was going on. He subsided miserably against the wall surveying the scene morosely.

Platters of rice and kebabs were placed before the mujahideen and the cameraman zoomed in to film the heroes of the jihad shovelling rice into their mouths. Khudadad pressed himself further against the wall. ‘I am afraid they will film me,’ he whispered.

I laughed, ‘Don’t worry, no one in Japan knows you. Anyway, they won’t film you – you’re not exactly dressed for the part – no Kalash.’ The Commander grinned, and I realised he understood English, had a sense of humour and seemed more interested in us than in the film making process.

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The aroma from the kebabs made my mouth water. I reminded Khudadad we’d have to leave soon and, maybe we should also eat. The cook was apologetic. No kebabs were left. When plates of boring rice were put before us, the watchful Commander obligingly sent over a share of their kebabs.

He then began to address Khudadad in Dari, asking the usual questions about me – who was I, what was I, where was I going and why? When he heard I was working for a leprosy programme he switched to English to include me in the conversation. I shot a triumphant look at the film director with whom he spoke only through a translator – one up to me, I thought.  ‘You are most welcome here. We are happy you want to help our people, especially those with leprosy – a terrible disease. Are you going to Lal sar Jangal?  I know of the clinic there.’

I was surprised and impressed he knew of the clinic in Lal; that he knew something about and was sympathetic to leprosy patients was astonishing. Most people showed only fear and ignorance of the disease. The Commander, despite interruptions from the film crew who wanted to get back to work, continued to question me about the disease, its treatment and the number of people in Hazara Jat who suffered from it. He also talked about the need for more doctors and health services in the area, especially Yakolang, and asked if we could expand our programme to that area.

I was happy to tell him we were hoping to open a clinic in Yakolang, which is between Bamiyan and Lal, in the near future.

A shout from below made Khudadad leap to his feet, saying, ‘Our truck is leaving, we must go.’  He shouted for the bill but the young Commander interrupted him, ‘You are our guests. We do not allow guests to pay. I hope we shall meet again.’  I gave my thanks and said goodbye, thinking gleefully, if childishly, the Japanese director was going to have to foot the bill for our lunch.

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Goodbye to Buddha for now


MarySmith’sPlace -The Buddha of Bamiyan Afghanistan Adventures#33

Bamiyan, Autumn 1989

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The view from my window



A murmur of male voices penetrated my subconscious in the morning. A row of men wearing expressions of ill-concealed curiosity gazed in the direction of my sleeping bag. A ferocious glare from Khudadad had them gathering up their belongings and murmuring goodbyes as they hurriedly left the room. The cook, in a grease spattered apron, was busy at his stove, for some reason situated on the veranda overlooking the street. Breakfast smelt good.

Through an inch deep layer of oil I recognised a fried egg, under which was a kind of meat stew layered with slices of fried tomatoes. Scooping up some of this mess with a piece of fresh, warm nan I tasted cautiously. It was delicious. Cholesterol and calorie laden as any cooked breakfast should be, by the time I had mopped clean the dish with a final piece of nan, I felt that there would be no need to eat anything else all day.

Khudadad was going out to arrange transport. ‘Is there any chance of seeing the Buddha before we move on today?’ I asked hopefully.

He grinned, ‘Look out the window!’ Directly opposite was the Buddha, all 175 feet of him, and he left me gazing in awe at the giant figure.

A few weeks later, on my return journey, I was able to spend more time viewing the statues. Our little group of tourists comprised, Jon, Rahimy who was coming to Pakistan to be trained as a laboratory technician and Zahir, a leprosy patient coming for treatment and possible reconstructive surgery on his badly deformed face.

General consensus dates the larger, and later, Buddha from sometime in the fifth century. The drapes on the figure would once have been red, the hands and feet gilded. Nothing was left of the face or the hands and only a few very faint traces of red remained.

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The oil drums and the volley ball net give some sense of the scale of the statue

The site was now a major base for the mujahideen. Near the feet of the Buddha a net for volley ball had been erected. We are asked to take photos of the fighters but despite their outward appearance of casual welcome, they would not allow us any closer. The caves encircling the feet of the Buddha which were perhaps once used by the priests, or visited by pilgrims, were now ammunition stores, bomb shelters, living accommodation – as were the caves stretching along the sandstone cliff face between the two Buddhas. It was difficult to visualise the scene of long ago, when the monasteries would have been filled with robed monks and pilgrims from India, China and other far off lands mingled to pray and seek enlightenment and peace at the feet of the Buddha.

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Happy to have their photographs taken but were not going to let us explore the large Buddha

It was sad to think of the countless battles and invasions the Buddha had witnessed and withstood. Even, it seemed, the notorious Genghis Khan – not averse to laying waste to all that he encountered – had drawn the line at destroying the magnificent figures. I wrote in my diary that evening, ‘If ever Afghanistan is again at peace, her doors opened once more to travellers and tourists, one of her greatest treasures, surely one of the wonders of the world, may well have been destroyed. What centuries of war and weather and vandals and thieves have not succeeded in doing the mujahideen look set to achieve in a few short years.’

Only, it was not the mujahideen who destroyed the statues but, some years later, the Taliban, who deliberately blew them up, reducing them to rubble.

The smaller Buddha, at the far end of the bazaar, still very impressive at a height of 120 feet had been sculpted earlier, towards the end of the third or early fourth century. As we started to cross the fields toward the cliff face, a blood curdling shriek stopped us in our tracks.

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Small Buddha. The second opening from top left is as far as I climbed.

It was the mujahideen halt call, a terrifying sound. A sound you did not ignore.  We halted. High above the Buddha we could make out a tiny figure, gesticulating wildly. It started running, and within a few minutes had miraculously scrambled down the seemingly sheer cliff face, and was heading towards us. He didn’t appear to be pointing his Kalashnikov at anyone in particular but we didn’t dare move. With a sweep of his arm in the direction we had been heading, this small, wiry mujahid told us we were about to walk across a mine filed.

If we wanted to see the Buddha, we should follow him. Somewhat shaken, we followed closely in his footsteps, along a barely discernible path, until we were once more on safe territory – gazing up at the unperturbable, if battered, face of the Buddha. Our guide beckoned us from the doorway, ‘You can go inside if you like.’  We liked.

At first the steps were broad and shallow but as we climbed higher they became steeper and narrower. Huge windows were cut in the rock every few feet. They made me nervous, as there was no protective barrier across the yawning gaps, and it would be all too easy to topple straight out – and down.

About three quarters of the way up a doorway led out onto a wide veranda which contained several niches where presumably smaller figures had once stood. A few patches of colour remained of the paintings on the rock walls, but we could not decipher what they had depicted.  Rahimy, Zahir and I decided to wait on the veranda for Jon and the mujahid to complete the climb to the top. Climbing up was easy enough, apart from those gaping windows, but I knew I’d have problems coming back down again, without any handrail to help in negotiating the narrow steps with their sharp turns. Rahimy admitted to having no head for heights, and we were both concerned about Zahir. His asthmatic wheezing was alarming although he assured us he was all right. Partly the problem was caused because, having no nose he had to breathe though his mouth at all times and a heavy head cold was not easing the situation.

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A seated Buddha statue on the cliff face

Jon went on, returning like a jelly, shaking from head to foot. His legs could barely hold him and he had to rest for a while. He said he’d been doing well, until on the way down his legs had suddenly started to tremble and gone on trembling, especially whenever he passed one of the yawning openings. Needless to say, the mujahid had climbed up and down as though he did it as a matter of course every day – which he probably did. He now pointed us in a direction which was mine free, bid us farewell and was back on his cliff top perch before we had even reached half way to the jeep.

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Caves, which were monks’ cells or pilgrims’ rooms, later became refuge for people whose homes were destroyed in the fighting.  

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Ancient burial sites

Khudadad returned with the news all trucks heading  towards Lal sar Jangal and beyond had left at four o’clock that morning. Of course, they had. However, he’d found a driver willing to take us to Yakolang, roughly half way to Lal, from where he assured me it would be easy to find another truck to Lal. We were to be ready to leave around lunch time.