MarySmith’sPlace – AfghanistanAdventures#52 legends, dragons & Genghis Khan

Bamiyan, Afghanistan, December 1989

Once on the main road, Jon tilted the passenger seat and dozed until I woke him to inform him I’d achieved fourth gear on the reasonably smooth road and the giddy-making speed of forty miles per hour.

We passed the turning to the Valley of the Dragon, named after the dragon-slaying feat of Hazrat Ali. It had been terrorizing the citizens of the area, wreaking havoc and devouring everything until the king made a deal with him. Providing the dragon was given sufficient sustenance each day, including, amongst other fodder, two camels and a virgin, he wouldn’t bother anyone.

Valley of the Dragon, near Bamiyan. Pic from Wikipedia

Understandably, many families were still upset by the way their daughters kept disappearing.  Given the task of destroying the dragon, Hazrat Ali, split it in two with his sword, Zulfiqar, leaving its dead body blocking the entrance to the valley. Blood and tears poured from its body and head. The illusion is retained by mineral springs trickling from the giant beast’s head, and the groans of the dragon can be heard at the place where Ali’s sword sliced the dragon.

It was late evening, and bitterly cold when we reached Bamiyan. At the hotel we were given a small back room to ourselves. Rahimy took the sheep for a short stroll down the street but couldn’t find fodder for it. It was singularly unimpressed by the dry nan it was offered and so went to bed hungry.

Shahr-i-Gholghola also known as City of Screams

There was a strong smell of sheep clinging to our bedding, but by then I was coming down with a heavy cold and was spared the worst of it. We huddled close together, under assorted layers of blankets and sleeping bags while we ate our kebabs. I was shivering when I snuggled into my sleeping bag, feeling wretched. Everyone else was equally cold and miserable, but in the morning we cheered up, after the hotel’s breakfast speciality. 

Our first task, before becoming tourists, was to find the clinic run by a French medical organisation. We hoped their doctors could operate on Ghulam Ali, thus sparing him the hardship of the long journey to Pakistan. There were two French doctors, one male, one female, on duty, and they invited us for coffee. A warm sun had banished the previous night’s cold and we sat in the garden admiring the late roses in bloom. A table was laden with goodies: breakfast cereals, jam, biscuits and drinking chocolate. Our hosts looked surprised when the three Afghans ignored the pot of tea, clearly brought for their benefit, and helped themselves to the instant coffee. 

On the summit of Shahr-i-Gholghola looking over the Bamiyan Valley

The doctors said they could perform the minor surgery on Ghulam Ali the following day which would allow him to return to his home before the road was closed by snow. When they heard we were staying in a hotel they invited us to spend the night in the clinic buildings. There was an empty room if we didn’t mind sharing it. We accepted gratefully, hoping it would be warmer than our room at the hotel. As Ghulam Ali was unable to walk far we left him sitting in the sunshine outside the room.

Rahimy let the sheep out for some exercise and fresh air. Finding food for her was still proving difficult but a man, who seemed remarkably unsurprised at the sight of a sheep being driven around in a Toyota by foreigners, kindly shared the fodder he’d just bought for his own five sheep. 

The first visitor attraction on our itinerary was the giant Buddha. I’ve already written about the visit HERE.

From there we drove through what had been Bamiyan’s ‘new’ city, built in pre-revolution times. The Government offices, hospital and tourist hotel, all of which must have been incredibly ugly edifices of concrete, had been bombed out of existence. We gazed up at the summit of Shahr-i-Gholghola, the ancient mountain citadel of Bamiyan. A mujahid yelled an invitation for us to climb up.  

Defending the city

We followed a well-defined path which twisted and turned as it rose steeply towards the top.  Just off the path some areas were roped off, like valuable exhibits in a stately house and, thinking one of them looked suitable to be used as a loo, well hidden from view, I was about to step off the path over the rope when Rahimy gave a shout of alarm. “Those are mined areas,” he explained. I decided to wait.

Three mujahideen welcomed us, as we rounded the final bend and, delighted in their role of tour guides, proceeded to show us around. We scrambled about on the earthworks, in between and over sandbags, all the while being given a detailed account of the battle which had forced the Russian troops to flee. Apart from the path up which we had climbed there was no other route to the summit, and seeing the awesome, sheer drop it was easy to imagine that whoever held that position must have felt reasonably safe.

Earthworks and foxholes, all part of the defence system

We stood drinking in the tremendous view of the fertile Bamiyan valley below us, until our guides led us to inspect the rubbish tip which was full of empty tin cans left by the Russian soldiers. The mujahideen spoke with such dismay and disgust about this environmental vandalism he gave the impression he thought the invaders should have had the decency to take their rubbish with them, or at least bury it deep in the mountain. 

Over tea, Mukhtar, the self-appointed spokesman, told us tales of another invader of long, ago: Genghis Khan. He and his army had surrounded the citadel of Bamiyan but the besieged inhabitants, despite dwindling food supplies, refused to surrender. The wife of the ruler, however, realising defeat was an eventual certainty and, not wishing to share the fate of her husband and his people when it happened, decided to negotiate with Genghis Khan.            

Slipping out of the palace one night, she secretly met with the Mongolian warlord, telling him of a secret water supply to the citadel and where its flow could be stopped. Once the water supply had been cut Bamiyan soon fell. Genghis, who was always hardest on those who withstood his forces for longest, ordered that every man, woman and child be slaughtered.  The king’s wife was suitably rewarded by Genghis – he had her publicly executed for her treacherous behaviour towards her own people.

61 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace – AfghanistanAdventures#52 legends, dragons & Genghis Khan

  1. I love hearing the myths of a civilization. I can imagine someone telling a story who didn’t want to say, “I don’t know,” and thought hmmm…dragons…they’ll believe that. 🙂

    Executing the the person who betrayed their people seems to be a cultural norm.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had to wait until we got back to where we were staying! Fortunately, the long stints travelling in trucks with few stops had created excellent bladder control. It’s a miracle I never got cystitis 🙂 I think the dragons just ate the virgins but I wouldn’t have thought they tasted any better for their virgin state.

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  2. What an adventure, Mary. Genghis Kahn was a terrible man, it always astonishes me how truly evil some power hungry men are. When we were in Hungry last year, the taxis driver spoke about how Genghis Kahn and murdered so many Hungarians that the country had to be repopulated with Germans. Hard to conceive really.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bamiyan is now pretty modern city. I went back in 2006 and it had already changed out of all recognition with a new bazaar, hotels (with real beds in bedrooms). Progress has continued – televisions, internet, mobile phones.

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  3. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord Blog Magazine and commented:
    Mary Smith shares another episode of living and working in Afghanistan for ten years. It is 1989 and on the long drive to Pakistan a stopover at Bamiyan offers an opportunity to learn more about the history of the region from its dragon legends, Genghis Khan and the environmental impact of the Russian occupation… as always a riveting read and well worth heading over to do so.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful as always Mary and what a gift for Ghulam Ali to get his surgery done there rather than having to travel all the way. Poor sheep and loved the commentary on the Russians environmental impact rather than other possibly a more devastating legacy on the people and landscape. A road trip that is unlikely to be possible in our current times so thanks for sharing with us.. hugsx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, he was delighted not to have to come to Pakistan and possibly not get home for a year. Surprisingly, when I was looking for a photo of the Valley of the Dragon on the internet I came across an advert for tours from Kabul to Bamiyan, including a visit to the Dragon and to Band-i-Amir. Very expensive but I suppose the tour operator only needs a few wealthy adventurers to make it worthwhile. Not sure how much travel insurance would cost. Obviously we never bothered with that when we were there!

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  5. Looking at the images with all the weapons, one could indeed not real feel themselves very secure. What a story about the dragon and the virgins. Unbelievable how abuse was covered up in the past.Thank you for another interesting story, Mary. Be well and stay save. Enjoy the weekend! Michael

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  6. Always fascInating to read of your adventures, Mary. What a hardy woman you are… I’ve always had a fondness for dragons (the tamed ones that is…) and wrote several poems about them a while ago.I must sort some out and send one to you. What dreams you must have now and then…Take good care. Hugs x

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  7. I can see that dragon! Another fascinating instalment, Mary. Someone I know from a creative writing class wrote a piece about Genghis Khan and I was surprised at how enlightened he was in some ways and how well he treated many of the women.
    The photos of you up there with gun-toting mujahideen always make me feel anxious – as did your near foray into a mined area. I feel such a wimp just reading about your experiences!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think for the times he was living in, Genghis was enlightened in many ways. Yes, he waged war and killed thousands but if a city or a tribe surrendered and made peace he generally left them alone and didn’t interfere in their religious practices. He became interested in Taoism. Some of the Hazara people believe they are descended from Ghenghis Khan and certainly they share similar Mongolian features.

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    • Yes, I did get used to their presence. In the city of Mazar-i-Sharif we also got used to tanks lumbering down the streets. When I went back ten years after leaving (2006), the first thing I noticed was no guns. It was amazing. I fear the security situation has worsened again, though.

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