Afghanistan is not a place I tend to take chances. Yet your guard eases up a little when you get to Bamyan. Its a special place, high up in the Hindu Kush, famous for the giant buddhas that once looked over the valley that were blown up by the Taliban . The niches where the buddhas once resided are still there, as is most of the rubble from the statues themselves. But the buddhas aren’t the only thing the valley is famous for. Band e Amir lakes have been designated part of the first national park in Afghanistan and are a popular spot for locals and tourists. Its rare that you can say Afghan tourist, but in Bamiyan, it feels natural. So natural in fact that there is a tourist board, aimed at bringing in more local and foreign tourism, thanks to the natural beauty of the landscape, the cultural history of the buddhas and the foladi caves, and the unique activities like the Afghan Ski Challenge and the Tour de Bamyan.
We were walking through town (the capital of Bamyan is Bamyan City, which is more of large village), when a man stops his car as he drives past and immediately gets out and starts talking excitedly. In Kabul I would be on guard, but in Bamyan I was curious, and Fatima translated that he was excited to see foreigners here. There are fewer and fewer every year and he loves it with foreigners come to Bamyan. He would like to drive us wherever we need to go. I was charmed. Mohammad’s eyes were animated and kind and it was gut instinct that made me smile and say “tashakur’. I looked at Steve and Fatima and they followed me into the car. Once in the car, I realized that I had just accepted a ride from a complete stranger, something I wouldn’t do in any country, much less Afghanistan. But soon we were flying through Bamyan towards the Screaming City ruins. He wouldn’t accept any money for the ride, but I insisted and asked if perhaps he would be available to drive us to Dragon Valley the next day. He smiled wide, and we had a plan.
The drive to Dragon Valley is remote, dusty, and completely barren. As we drove I began to question my willingness to trust Mohammad’s intentions so readily. We drove as far up a rocky dirt road as we could and then Mohammad parked the car, and we began to walk up the road in clouds of dust as herds of goats came down the side of the mountain searching for shade. As we neared the top I saw a little turquoise colored stone hut, I asked Mohammad what the hut was, but he just waved and said, “that is for the end of the tour.” He apparently had this all planned out.
We got to the top, and a spine of rocks became apparent. We were at the top of the dragon. Mohammad turned out to be a fantastic storyteller, explaining the legend of Dragon Valley and the slaying of the dragon by Ali. We walked along the spine, and it did feel like the spine of a dragon carved into rock. As we neared the end of the spine, Mohammad pointed at a small slit in the rock and said, this is where the dragon is crying. Sure enough, in the middle of dust and dirt, without a tree in site, the slit in the rock was leaking water. Mohammad looked pleased at our reaction and his ability to weave a tale. We walked further into the open space beyond. Then I realized that thanks to previous experiences with land mines in the area, I didn’t want to be walking around off trail.
I must have looked nervous, and asked about safety, and Mohammad’s face turned serious. “I will not let anything bad happen to you, but if trouble comes, I will step in front of you and let it happen to me.” I picked the right man, driver/tourguide/bodyguard all in one. We turned around though, he can’t protect us from land mines.
As we came back, I saw the turquoise hut come into view, with a few flags waving in the breeze, and Mohammad said, “See, I told you this is the end of the tour.” Curiously I followed him around the hut, and saw him disappear into the entrance, which was dark inside. As I was about to walk in, my eyes adjusted to the dark and I saw a body lying across the floor. Dead. “the end of the tour” seemed a lot more ominous now that I’m being led into a hut where there’s a dead body. My heart pounded as fight or flight response began to flood my veins, and then I heard it. Snoring. The body was dead, it was snoring. It was the shepherd seeking shade while his goats hid underneath a rocky outcropping below us. I walked around the other side of the hut and told Steve and Fatima what just happened and I started laughing in relief. Mohammad came out and asked Fatima why I was laughing, and she explained to him that I essentially thought he was going to murder us and leave us in the turquoise hut. His eyes widened, and then he started laughing too, patting my arm. “No, but I do want to invite you to have lunch with me and my family.”