(warning: beautiful pictures follow. will induce intense wanderlust and mountain craving.)
I lived in America for 26 years. I never looked like anyone there, other than my sisters. I lived in Hong Kong for 8 years. I never looked like anyone there either, except when my sisters came to visit me. I have been living in Afghanistan for 2 years (math! I’m about to turn Very Old!), and here I finally look like a local, and can melt deliciously into the crowd. The Hazara ethnic group is widely assumed to be descended from Mongols, who invaded Central Asia during the time of Genghis Khan. Years of intermingling with Turkic and Aryan ethnicities in this region have resulted in a distinct mostly-Asian look, which is unique from the other ethnic groups in Afghanistan. The Hazara are the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, and the first largest in my neighborhood. As such, I conveniently blend in with my Japanese-Swedish-ness, and I have not met a single person here who did not automatically assume I was Afghan. Most people speak to me in Dari, and I get stopped at the airport with my two allowed khoregi (foreigner) bottles of alcohol every single time. It is so wonderful to look like my neighbors and adopted countrymen—I feel like I actually BELONG here.
The current heartland of the Hazara is the Central Highlands. During the reign of Abdur Rahman Khan (1880-1895), they were forcibly pushed upwards, geographically and topographically, from the more southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar during a brutal genocide that saw the destruction or displacement of over 60% of the Hazara population. The Central Highlands are some of the most isolated and impoverished areas of the region, but they enjoy a much higher level of safety and security than all other provinces of Afghanistan. One of my friends once told me that Hazaras are the most peaceful ethnic group in our turbulent country because their terrible history had shaken all of the violence and revenge out of them. I don’t know if that is true, but I do know that Bamyan is incomparable to Kabul in regards to safety. Bamyan is the main city of the Hazarajat, and one of the most significant cultural capitals of the entire Central Asian region. It was once a Buddhist centre, and it is here that the famous centuries-old standing Buddha statutes were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001,
When you fly from Kabul to Bamyan, the airplane must make a sharp left turn to get out of the bowl and over the mountains that ring the city. This is followed by an endless continuation of mountains, as far as your eye can see. You will be subsequently treated with a peak-skimming voyage, and realize just why Afghanistan is so special, and so unique in every way. There is, simply, nothing but mountains. Every once in a while, you may spot a surprising cluster of houses; this absolutely boggles the mind- how on earth did they get there? There are no trains, no airports, no roads, there are just mountains.
From the moment you step off the plane into what is little more than a tidy parking lot, you are transported to a different world. From the tarmac itself, you can already see flat topped mountains, snow capped peaks, and the freshness and stillness of the air fills you with life. The valley here is old, historical, spiritual. The niches which the Buddhas used to occupy are stark reminders of what once was; however, this absence is not the most spectacular thing about the famous valley. The niches are set into high golden cliffs riddled with hundreds of caves in which monks used to pray and meditate. A scramble through these caves reveal ancient paintings in red and blue and green hues- images of Buddhas and lotuses cover ceilings and cracked facades. Peering out the caves onto the valley below reveals the crumbled old bazaar, a shock of vegetation unfamiliar to Kabul city folk- wheat and potato fields ringed with irrigation canals, and, in the distance, layer upon layer of ever growing mountains. When you think your eye is focusing on the tallest ridge, you notice the backdrop is not cloud, but more mountain. And behind that, still more and more mountains.
Gazing out over this surreal landscape, you get a sense as to why the ancient Buddhists chose Bamyan as their home. There is mystery and wonder in the air. The morning mist rises through the swaying trees and dissolves into the air like the prayers of the monks; memories of the giant stupas and domes of Borobudur, and the thousands of temples materializing through the misty Bagan sunrise tug at your heart as your breath catches in your throat. It is not often in life that you get to see the most beautiful thing in the world, but in Bamyan it is a daily experience.
Due to the crippling incompetence of the now bankrupt and grounded Eastern Horizon airlines, my first stay in Bamyan was extended multiple times. I could not be more grateful. My friends and I took advantage of our additional holidays by walking every inch of land we could manage: Band-e Amir, Shahr-e Zohak, Gholghola, Foladi Valley, and a strenuous, but rewarding 16km up and down mountains trek to the Dragon Valley. My second trip, with the infinitely more dependable UNHAS flight was even more adventurous, featuring midnight motorcycle rides through inky black valleys, a Buzkashi, and sinking into 3 feet of snow while hiking up mountains for the ultimate off-piste skiing experience!
Trekking Through the Beauty:
My surname is Moberg, which is the Swedish word for mountain. My mother’s maiden name is Yama, the Japanese word for mountain. My Chinese surname is Shan, which means mountain. Bamyan, Afghanistan, these mountains surrounding me, towering over me… this is where I feel most comfortable, the most “me.” Trekking through these mountains is both exhilarating and grounding, surrounded by the sheer enormity of nature. You stand a thousand feet in the air, with the sensation of being on top of the world, only to realize the rock on which you are perched is a foothill compared to the surrounding peaks. You feel wholly alone, and yet completely at one with the universe at the same time. You are a tiny speck. You are, as Rumi so eloquently said, “the universe in ecstatic motion.” This place is too special not to visit– the beauty will change you.
As we crested the hill approaching Band-e Amir, I had the sensation that I had been there before, in my literary imagination. My immediate feelings were that I had read about this place in a C.S. Lewis book, and that this place was surely what he had in mind when he wrote about Narnia or Malacandra. This place is entirely perfect- as if God created it for the sole purpose of marvelling at the beauty. It is the kind of place that makes you Believe. It is the kind of place that steals the breath from your lungs, and the words from your mouth, that makes you incapable of doing anything but whirling around with your arms outstretched and praying “Thank You for letting me live long enough to see this!!”
Bamyan in Winter:
Buzkashi is Afghanistan’s most famous sport. Played in the winter months, buzkashi consists of two teams of horsemen, vying for the carcass of a recently deceased goat. If you have seen Rambo 3, you know that it is a crazy, violent sport, which sometimes involves the horsemen charging into the crowd of spectators. This is a must-see in Afghanistan– wild, beautiful, full of life.
Snowboarding in Afghanistan, say what?? As this is the country of mountains, it seems logical. However, this is also the least developed country in the world (fact), so ski lifts and groomed runs are not exactly a high priority for infrastructure and development. That said, there are no fewer than six winter sport organizations in Bamyan, and we had the good fortune of hooking up with the Bamyan Ski Club for a day of strenuous hiking, peppered with a few runs. Though insanely difficult (imagine a not-quite-five-feet individual, yours truly, hiking through 3 feet of powder up a huge mountain with a snowboard on the back. besyaaar sakht!!), the views were spectacular, and the experience just out of this world. The conditions were *challenging*- the slope is not groomed, so in some places it is 3 feet of powder on an ice pack, in others, chunks of rock, in others, bushes and trees growing through the snow. Despite this, seeing local girls, village kids, and your odd foreigner trudging up and sailing down this barely touched mountain was absolutely fantastic. Only in Bamyan could this be so!
Whenever I am feeling beset with doubts or discouragement, whenever I am feeling that Afghanistan is lost, that this place is beyond redemption, I remember the beauty and serenity of Bamyan. I remember that, in the midst of uncertainy, chaos, destruction, violence, corruption, and inefficiency exists this perfect place- a place of harsh beauty, of intense spirituality that permeates every sense and arrests the soul. Bamyan is the Afghanistan that once was, and that still can be.