Bamiyan, Autumn 1989
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.