To Bamyan, and beyond

On the road from Bamyan to Yakawlang in the late afternoon

I will spare you the details of Strategy Week. I wish I could have spared myself. (This is only partially true.)

It is already time for my three-month break, and tomorrow I’m going to meet my bespectacled better half in Sri Lanka.

I’ll be glad to escape Kabul for a few days. There’s a definite chill in the air, especially at night – I’m up to two blankets already and we’re less than a week into October. I have lost one of my two pairs of jeans, along with several other key items of clothing. I’m convinced it’s the cats. Somewhere, they are building a sturdy denim nest cushioned with shreds of Marks and Sparks’ bargainous five-pack underwear.

Security-wise, things have been tense lately. On September 8th, a national holiday in honour of Massoud, there was a suicide bombing outside NATO headquarters. It killed six children. The bomber himself was a teenager. Ten days later, twelve people – both foreigners and Afghans – were killed on the airport road in a targeted suicide bombing. The group who claimed responsibility for the attack said it was a response to The Film that has sparked protests across the world. Mostly though, things here have been much calmer than expected: protests have happened, but largely peacefully. This was not the case next door in Pakistan.

It’s increasingly difficult to find a piece of good news to balance out the misery of the morning press review. Sometimes I’m tempted to slip in a picture of a sneezing panda or a snoozing kitten, just to lighten the mood. I am re-watching the first series of The West Wing to remind myself that People Are Good. (And yes, I’m aware of the wrongness of such a reaction.)

As a result of all this we spent a couple of consecutive weekends on lock-down in the house. I have never been so keen to go for a run. In Paris, whenever the urge struck, I usually just sat down quietly until it went away. But here I have a lot of pent-up energy. Yoga doesn’t quite do the trick, especially since it’s the relax-and-breathe, ‘be aware of your big toe’ kind rather than Madonna-style power yoga. I was recently forbidden by the teacher from doing the sun salute, on the grounds that I “haven’t yet mastered breathing”. 27 years old and I don’t know how to breathe. The shame.

However, I have been lucky enough to escape the confines of Kabul twice since my arrival.

In August we had a long weekend in honour of Eid, the end of Ramadan. A few of us took a plane to Bamyan, and then travelled on to Yakawlang by road to stay at one of our bases for a few days of R & R and losing Trivial Pursuit, despite the Robert Redford question coming up again. In the end it was neither restful nor relaxing, but it was restorative. The base is nestled in Yakawlang valley and surrounded by hills. (Mountains, by Northern Irish standards.) Cue breathtaking views, shredded feet, Duke of Ed-era flashbacks and much use of the classic “What ? Trouble breathing ? Not at all, I’m just so overcome by the bucolic splendour that I’m frozen to the spot” tactic.

The first of the six lakes at Band-e-Amir

From Yakawlang we took a day trip to the Band-e-Amir lakes, which are famed for their blueness (mineral deposits; for further information, see the interwebs) and widely believed to have healing properties. We went swimming, the girls fully-clothed and out of sight of the men. It was bracing – not unlike taking a dip at Ballywalter beach. I got my photo taken with numerous Afghan families, at their own request. It would seem that in Afghanistan, pale is officially interesting (as I have long suspected).

The smaller-yet-still-massive Buddha (38m)

On our way back we spent the night at another of our bases, in Bamyan City. Bamyan lies on the Silk Road and used to be one of the focal points for Buddhism in Central Asia. It was also home to the tallest representations of Buddha in the world. The statues were destroyed by the Taliban in the spring of 2001, despite UNESCO’s efforts to protect them. You can still see their shapes: the outline of an ear, the curve of a neck becoming a shoulder. There are lots of little chambers carved into the rock surrounding them, which served as prayer or meeting rooms. The walls are still covered with defaced paintings and carvings. We were able to climb up into the head of the smaller Buddha (who is 38m tall to the bigger one’s 55m) and look out over the valley through his eyes.

There is great discussion about whether or not the Buddhas should be rebuilt, now that the technology required to do so is available. But their destruction has become such a part of recent history that many people are opposed to this idea. (Here is an interesting article about the debate: For those of you who would like a more detailed explanation, please feel free to contact my bearded brother.)

I’m reading Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, an account of his journey through the Middle East in the early 30s. He visits the Bamyan Buddhas and is thoroughly unimpressed: he declares that “neither has any artistic value”. I can’t claim to agree. He’s a terrible snob, but his writing is always witty and full of historical, architectural and artistic detail. Apparently quite a lot of the book – especially his transcriptions of conversations – is fabricated or at least embellished. It’s full of passages like this: “This morning at Bamyan, Christopher was scrambling eggs with his dagger when the fire gave out, and he asked the Curate [their guide] to fetch some more wood. He asked again. He then prodded the man with his dagger”. When I’m reading it the voice inside my head is that of Sandi Toksvig.

Bamyan from the Buddha’s eyes


In mid-September I went to Samangan Province for my first field trip. We flew to Mazar-e-Sharif then travelled by road to Aybak, where we stayed overnight before setting out for Ruy-e-Doab, five hours away by car. The base is very remote, and so almost the entire team lives there, at least during the week. Forty men with varying degrees of facial topiary. I saw some excellent beards. (Graeme, you have work to do.) The scenery is spectacular, which makes it easier to get up and into the office of a morning.

Just before our arrival they killed two sheep, and from then on everything we ate either was or tasted of lamb. Kebab. Breakfast eggs, swimming in fat. Potatoes and turnips, steeped in sheep. Rice, infused with ovine. Even the tea had a muttony tang. I smelt of sheep. We all did.

During dinner a Turkish soap dubbed into Dari plays in the background. It looks like the Turkish version of Plus Belle la Vie – same seaside setting, same multi-purpose Baddie, same love triangles, same ‘I’m human, honest’ acting style. The women’s shoulders, necks and legs are all blurred out. The blurring must be a difficult job since, in order to know which parts to blur out, you surely have to look at them first. Between segments there are ads urging viewers to join the Afghan National Police. Never do they warn you about the astonishingly high death rates.

I was there to work with the Programme Manager on collecting information for a report. My home for the week was the agriculture department.

The entire department – peopled mostly by men of a marrying age and disposition – is still in love with my predecessor. Let’s call her Madeleine. All week I felt like I was being tested to see how I compared.

“Miss Rachel, would you like some raisins ?”

“No thank you, I’m not a big fan of raisins.”

*Judgmental / wounded pause*

“Miss Madeleine liked raisins.”

(Someone else joins in.) “Oh yes, Miss Madeleine loved raisins.”

*Moment of nostalgia as they all imagine Miss Madeleine enjoying some raisins.*

Or: “Miss Rachel, do you like mountains ?”

“Euh . . . yes ? Do you . . . I mean I like to look at them. I’m not very good at climbing them, but I do like to. Slowly. With frequent picnics.”

“Miss Madeleine liked mountains. She climbed a mountain every Friday on her day off. She could RUN UP MOUNTAINS.”

We had lengthy, almost philosophical discussions of the meaning of different words. One day it was the difference between ‘knowledge’ and ‘attitude’. There was a twenty-minute debate about the meaning of the word ‘trend’ which I’m fairly sure I lost despite being the only native English-speaker in the room, simply because the others were so determined to be right. They keep thanking me for coming, when in fact it was me that should have been thanking them – I was eating their lamb, using their internet connection, asking them for the fourth time to explain what exactly a jerib is. (NB. A jerib is a unit of measurement equal to 0.2 hectares. So it is.)

One of the rules that govern the universe is that if there is a stream available to fall into I will fall into it. I don’t like to disagree with the universe. So I obligingly fell into a stream on the first day and sprained my hand.

We went to admire the potatoes and courgettes growing on the research farm. I saw – or rather smelled – the difference between an ‘improved’ barn and a normal barn (the key is ventilation). We visited fruit tree nurseries, and small-scale irrigation projects that had been constructed as part of the programme I was writing about: retaining walls, aqueducts, and so forth. The area is prone to both drought and flooding, which makes cultivating anything difficult. This project is designed to limit the damage inflicted by extreme weather conditions and natural disasters, and to revitalise the local agricultural system. It’s a bridge between emergency relief – which the NGO I work for is best known for – and longer-term development. The distinction between the two is one of the great debates that divide the humanitarian sector.

One of the techniques we use in this project is the Progressive Relay Farmer system. Selected farmers – be they potato or wheat growers, animal breeders or horticulturalists – attend training sessions, and agree to share the knowledge and new techniques they acquire with five to ten other farmers, who are called Contact PRFs. Contact PRFs then share this knowledge with another ‘layer’ of farmers. I attended a training session with female vegetable-grower PRFs on compost, ‘compost’ being the only word I could make out; and pest control (there was a diagram – it looked more like a vampire bat but I’m fairly sure it was a greenfly). My translator, being a young man, was not allowed into the room. (Older, ‘barbes blanches’ have different access rights.) I nodded sagely, drank my tea and smiled inanely. Apparently they liked my face.

Back in Aybak, we were twice invited to eat at one of the Afghan staff’s houses: once for mantoo, which are meat-filled ravioli served in a chickpea sauce; the second time for chicken and chips. The presence of chips of course led to a potato-based discussion. I learnt that in Afghan agricultural college, the Irish Potato Famine is taught as an example of the dangers of monoculture. One of my colleagues was lamenting that he was below the target weight for his height, and wondered aloud how he could best go about bulking up. I helpfully suggested that he maybe wasn’t asking the best set of people, as they all seemed to be in a fairly similar situation. “No !” he said. “Look, he’s fat. (Pointing.) That boy, he’s a bit fat.” Neither of the people who had been deemed fat seemed bothered by it. “How much do you weigh ?” he asked. I put down my chips.

On both these occasions, we saw only glimpses of those who had prepared the food, and who were waiting for us to finish before they could eat.

So tomorrow, Sri Lanka. We’ve rented a house on the south coast, not far from the shore. My favourite feature – without having been there – is the reading corner. THERE’S A READING CORNER. What a marvellous idea. My Dad and I were speculating via Skype the other night as to what the reading corner might contain, other than a chair. I thought at least one of those three-in-one John Grishams you can buy for a fiver in Stewart Miller. Big John bet on a telephone directory from 1943. We’ll see who’s right. I have downloaded a Dari manual onto my Kindle, but what I really need is a Dougal Campbell of Dari.

I leave behind me a report which is as full of holes as Mitt Romney’s manifesto. Reading it is a bit like walking down a street in Kabul and putting your foot out to find that instead of more footpath there is a gaping chasm that, why not, might well be a portal to the underworld.

My office-mate, the Deputy Food Security Coordinator, who was supposed to be helping me out, has helpfully gone to Mecca, without warning, for 45 days. Now I understand why every time he leaves for the evening and I say, “See you tomorrow !” he holds his hand up to stem my enthusiasm and says, “Inshallah”.

Author’s note: I should confess that since I wrote that bit about the cats stealing my jeans I have in fact been reunited with them. However, since I felt that this episode lent some much-needed drama to the piece, I left it intact.


One thought on “To Bamyan, and beyond

  1. Anne

    You accused cats of a crime they did not commit. You will be punished by the international corporation of cats.


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