Afghanistan – In the Jail of the Taliban – Chapter 12

July 1973 – Is this what paradise looks like? From Kabul to Bamiyan it is a good 250 kilometres. Under Afghan road conditions, that should be about five hours of driving time. Although the Afghan capital is at an altitude of over 1,800 meters, this summer in Kabul is still extremely hot and everything is

July 1973 – Is this what paradise looks like?

From Kabul to Bamiyan it is a good 250 kilometres. Under Afghan road conditions, that should be about five hours of driving time. Although the Afghan capital is at an altitude of over 1,800 meters, this summer in Kabul is still extremely hot and everything is permanently covered with a thick layer of dust. Even at night it hardly cools down and so Monika, Michelle and I decide to drive up to the province of Bamiyan with the freshly serviced car.

The air should be fresh and clear up there, other guests at the Green-Hotel told us. Flowers would bloom everywhere, strawberries would grow and almond trees would provide shade. A hippie paradise in the middle of a country that has been the dream destination of my generation for a few years now? And we shouldn’t miss the sight of the two Buddha statues, the two largest standing Buddhas in the world, carved right out of the massive rock.

The “Little Buddha” near Bamiyan before destruction – Photo: Volker Thorwaldt

Early in the morning we roll off our common mattress. For breakfast we have strawberry shake and fresh flat bread. The hotel bill is quickly paid and the man at the reception promises to keep a room for us again four days later. At the beginning the road heads almost directly to the north. Only at the very beginning pretty straight and well developed, after an hour then a bit narrower, more winding and for long distances without hard surface. It takes a good two hours until we pass Bagram and reach the village of Charikar. A row of mud houses, a school and, a little outside the village, a factory. Straight ahead, further north, it would steeply climb into the Hindu Kush. Salang pass and Salang tunnel in the vicinity. The road goes to Kunduz and the northern regions of Afghanistan.

We turn left and continue west. If our road map is correct, it is still about 170 kilometres to Bamiyan. There we would like to have a look at the Buddha statues and stay for one night. Then we’d like to continue to Band-E-Amir, a supposedly beautiful chain of lakes in the Hindu Kush.

After a quarter of an hour it becomes very clear: we’ll have to hurry up to make it to Bamiyan before darkness falls. High mountains around us, the road runs mostly in serpentines. If paved the potholes are big enough to hide in them. However, asphalt is rare, mostly it is solidified earth, gravel or sand. We maily stay in second gear, and make a maximum of 30 kilometres per hour. Driving is a bit exhausting but the landscape is so great that the view alone outweighs all the efforts. Rugged mountains and deep valleys on both sides of the road. Rich green areas alternate with rusty brown scree slopes. Michelle lies on her back, looks at the sky through the rear window, covered with copper-brown dust. She’s sure to have had at least one eagle in sight.

“Cave” of the Little Buddha after the statue was destroyed by the Taliban – Photo: Carlos Ugarte

Looking down into the valleys, there are strawberry fields, almond and olive trees, once even an entire plantation with cherry trees. From time to time, irrigation ditches cross the ground. Paradisiacal conditions seem to be up here.

Five o’clock in the afternoon. In an hour the sun will set. We certainly still have 30 kilometres ahead of us. With the Buddha statues in daylight it won’t work anymore. Actually it is almost seven when we reach Bamiyan. The place is much smaller than we expected. Surely not more than 2,500 people live here. Maybe a lot less. It seems as if there is only one hotel – and that is fully booked. “No problem,” says the young woman at the reception. “We have a big wooden terrace, if you have sleeping bags, we’ll put some mattresses there.” Wonderful! Sleep again under the starry sky!

The people here belong to the ethnic group of the Hazara. Unlike most Afghans, they are not Sunni Muslims but Shiites. Their language is Persian, interwoven with several words from Turkish. Especially by many Pashtuns, the majority of the population in Afghanistan, the Hazara are discriminated against. Until the beginning of our century thousands of Hazara were enslaved.

For dinner we have Bolani and Pirki. Both are like dumplings filled with potato slices, vegetables and herbs and fried in hot oil. Fresh strawberries and wonderfully cool water also being served. The following night on the wooden planks of the terrace is really cold. Good that we have warm sleeping bags and can keep each other warm. Until the sun wakes us up, we haven’t seen or felt a single mosquito. Maybe it’s just too high for the buzzing pests here. The mountains around us have peaks of well over 4,000 metres.

A quick breakfast with hot soup, warm bread and fresh well water and then we finally want to see the statues. On foot it’s barely more than two kilometres. The car will stay here at the hotel. It is wonderful to walk through the still very oblique sunlight. The air is crisp and clear. There are smells of fresh tea and hay. Here and there goats and sheep can be heard. Somewhere at the edge of the village a donkey makes his noise.

Very soon the two Buddhas can be seen right in front of us. More than 1,400 years ago they were carved out of the massive rock and they are the largest standing Buddha statues in the world. With a height of 53 meters the left one is clearly bigger than the Statue of Liberty in New York. It has almost exactly the height of the Ferris wheel in the Vienna Prater or the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The two monuments here in Bamiyan are not crooked, but precisely and with great effort worked out of the massive stone.

To this day, no one knows how exactly they worked. This much is certain: for both statues rock niches were carved into the red sandstone. The rough form of the Buddhas has already been taken into account. Later a mixture of clay was applied to the raw statues and the bodies were modelled with it. Scientists have found out that this mortar was a mixture of clay, straw and horsehair. With complicated rope devices, wooden wedges and rods, this layer had to be further formed and fixed. The larger of the two statues was then painted completely in dark red, the smaller must have been multicoloured. Today the monuments are sand-coloured, like the surrounding stone. After Buddhism was slowly displaced by Islam in the Bamiyan valley, the statues became less and less important for the population. Some smaller parts were destroyed, at the end of the 19th century the huge figures temporarily served as targets for artillery exercises.

In the afternoon we drive on to Band-E-Amir. Not far, only about 70 kilometres. But on the way the narrow, holey road leads over the Nil-Kowtal-Pass. More than 3,500 meters above sea level. And again we only slowly make progress with our weak VW engine in the rear. In addition, for physical reasons, the performance of combustion engines decreases considerably with increasing altitude – after all: we are moving forward and so far there have been no problems with the provisionally repaired steering system.

The scenery we see after a good two hours seems almost unreal. Like silver-blue mirrors, the lakes lie between the mountains. Sky and landscape reflect in the water surface. Every now and then a big bird passes by silently searching for prey. Otherwise complete silence around us. Beautiful and peaceful here in Afghanistan.

The crystal blue waters of the one of the lakes in Band-E-Amir – Photo: Ken Scar

Six lakes are lined up, like a string of pearls. Like a huge water staircase one is always a little higher than the previous one. They are dammed by natural dam walls that have formed from the lime of the water. Up here, at an altitude of 3,000 metres, there is nothing but nature. No village, no hotel, only one narrow road. Wild goats live here and Urials, wild sheep with big horns and a mighty mane.

In a wind-protected hollow we lit a fire and cook some potatoes and a few chunks of meat, which we had bought in Bamiyan. In an area like this the rare feeling of being one with nature can arise. Our three sleeping bags lie around the still weakly burning fire and under a completely clear starry sky we fell asleep very soon. – Until Michelle shakes me awake. Carefully I move my head out of the down sleeping bag. Gosh! That’s bitterly cold. The tea pot from yesterday evening has a layer of ice, it must be clearly below zero degrees. The Englishwoman sits down in the car, while Monika and I light the fire again. It’s a good thing we collected enough firewood. After a few minutes Michelle is with us again – it’s not warmer in the car either and let the engine run in this clear quiet night for heating? No! By regularly turning slowly in front of the fire we warm through again. Later we pack up and make ourselves on the way back to Kabul.

The next chapter of my Afghanistan Diary will be published on 18 December 2018. It’s title will be “June 1973 – A shot that changes the world”.
New chapters will follow fortnightly – more than 60 will be published in total.

Dieter Herrmann, the author of this Afghanistan diary, lives in Australia, reports from there for German television stations and is editor-in-chief of the only German-language newspaper in Australia.
He is known as a media trainer for radio and television stations all over the world as well as media trainer for senior managers, officers and pilots.
To get in touch with the author and for further information on media training by Dieter and his crew please use the “contact”-button or send an email to dieter(at) (please replace the (at) with the @-sign!)

My first trip to Afghanistan started in the early summer of 1973. Since then I have been to the country at the Hindu Kush more than 100 times and in total have spent several years in Afghanistan. I got to know all political systems from the kingdom up to the today’s Islamic Republic.

In about 60 chapters, based on diaries and memories, I describe my experiences in the country, which has not come to a rest since 1973.
Among many other experiences, I was arrested and imprisoned twice during this time, had to live temporarily in the bunker of the Turkish embassy and had an amazing interview with Mullah Muttawakil, the personal spokesman for Taliban leader Mullah Omar and later Taliban Foreign Minister.
I describe my personal feelings and doubts as well as political and human events, movements in the population and developments in the country.

Nothing about this manuscript has been invented or added – however, to avoid endangering anyone, I left out some of my experiences. I changed some names to protect friends and informants.

Whether the last chapter will ever be finished is questionable. I was supposed to be back in Kabul in 2018, but the security situation is so bad that my clients are unlikely to get me into the country. “German media trainer murdered by Taliban” would be a catastrophic headline for everyone involved.

Dieter Herrmann

Translation from German to English with the help of

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