There are many stories and legends relating to the great Silk Road, a major trade route across Asia for almost two millennia. Although commonly understood to run from Venice to Xi’an, the capital of China, one branch of the road continued on to the ancient Japanese capital of Nara. The fabled cities of Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bamiyan were established and prospered as a result of this trade. I have just returned from Bamiyan, which is located in a high mountain valley (2500 metres above sea level) some 240 kilometres west of Kabul. We went there to visit the Provincial Education Director and the rural Teacher Training College which serves Bamiyan province.
The name Bamiyan means “The place of shining light”. The capital of the province by the same name, Bamiyan is home to the Hazara people, one of the many ethnic groups in Afghanistan. For many hundreds of years between the 4th and the 9th century A.D. this city was a centre of Buddhist learning. Hsuan Tsang (also called Xuan Zhuang), a Chinese pilgrim, reported that in 630 A.D. there were several thousand monks living in the caves of Bamiyan and worshipping at over 50 temples.
The original Bamiyan was built on a rocky crag, with the Buddhist temples spreading out along the valley. The city has become infamous since the two giant Buddha statues in the valley were destroyed in 2001. However, it has seen other infamy in its past. In 1221 the armies of Genghis Khan swept through the region. At the siege of Bamiyan his grandson, Mutugen, was killed. In revenge Genghis Khan destroyed the ancient citadel and massacred all the inhabitants. The ruined citadel is now called “Shahr-e-Gholghola”, or “City of screams”.
As we drove out to the Teacher Training College we passed fields of potatoes being harvested. The rich sandy soil is perfect for the crop, which is grown on plots of land throughout the city and in the surrounding villages. The potatoes are harvested by hand, and we saw many families carefully sifting through the soil and piling the crop in mounds. The potatoes were then placed in what looked like 100 lbs bags, and carried to a waiting truck. Bamiyan potatoes are known for their excellent taste and texture. The province exported over 150,000 tonnes of potatoes in 2010, mainly to the domestic market in Kabul but also to the neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (Pajhwok Afghan News – http://www.pajhwok.com/en/2010).
Once our meetings were over for the day we toured the caves and climbed steep and narrow stairs carved through the rock to the top of the niches where the Buddha had stood. The steps were roughly hewn, there were no lights and steel hand-rails had been placed only on the steepest pitches. Every so often I would pause for a “view break”, trying desperately not to show how unfit I am! This at least offered me an opportunity to look out across the valley towards Shah Foladi, at 5,143 metres the highest mountain in the Koh-e-Baba range to the south. Behind me, had I been able to look through the rock, lay the great ranges of the Hindu Kush.
The caves and shrines have all been desecrated now and lie empty. In some you can see the alcoves where small Buddha and Bodhisattvas statues once stood. A small cave once housed a solitary monk, while in others there are remnants of the fresco paintings which once adorned the walls, and which have been carbon-dated to the early 5th century.
In Bamiyan we stayed at the Silk Road Hotel. In some act of cosmic symmetry, the hotel is owned and operated by a Japanese lady. Mrs Hiromi is a journalist who came to Afghanistan in 2002. She met and married an Afghan man, and has stayed in the country. The couple now live in Kabul, but five years ago bought and renovated the Silk Road Hotel. This is now open during the summer months and serves the few development workers, and even fewer tourists, who make it to the valley.
On our second and last night she made us a Japanese dinner, with sushi, tempura, miso soup, pickled ginger, wasabi, and so on. One of my colleagues, who knows of these things, commented that it was a better meal than he had eaten in any Japanese restaurant in Ottawa. The meal was made with local ingredients, except for the nori (seaweed) sheets which had been brought in from Japan. In the 21st century such imports come by plane and truck, not by camel or donkey, but the melding of cultures, customs and cuisines continues. As we ate we commented on the fact that Japanese food and artifacts may have made their way along the Silk Road to Bamiyan at any point over the past 2000 years, and to eat great sushi in the middle of Afghanistan should not have been a surprise.
From Alexander the Great (330BC) to the great Chinese explorer Zhang Qian (125 BC), from Xuan Zhuang (530) to Marco Polo (1271), from Wilfred Thesiger (1932) to Mrs Hiromi, many travellers have passed through Bamiyan and described the “the place of shining light”. The local community is now trying, with the help of numerous NGOs, to rebuild the tourist economy. When they do, I thoroughly recommend this wonderful valley as a place to visit.