2012
06.06

SYNOPSIS:  THE DREADED TRANSIT BACK TO KABUL.  ABOUT ICE CREAM AND FOOD, BRIBES AND CARS.

I had braced myself for hell again and that was good so – since traffic lacked any animal herds today and for several stretches the race-driven Afghan drivers held back, a whole hour was shaved off the hellish part and the ride felt almost manageable; but only in comparison to day 28.  Not once did we have to back up – amazing!  But don’t get me wrong.  Knowing what I know, I would never again agree to this trip unless the tunnel is fixed.  There are flights after all…

The lack of any new material today will allow me to catch up on a few odds and ends I have been observing and thinking about.

TRAFFIC AND CARS: 

The streets of Kabul (and the rest of the country) are almost a history book of the 20th Century struggles for power in Afghanistan.  There are the occasional Moskvitch cars which are still bumping along the road.  They are robust.  We had them in East Germany and just recently I had seen them again in Uzbekistan.  Only in a once Soviet-occupied country will you find them; and here they were – testimony to the 1970’s and 80’s.

What baffled me completely was when I first realized that most drivers sit behind the wheel on the left side of the car as I am used to, but then there are others who sit on the right side of the car like in Pakistan or India.  But they do drive on the right side of the road…  How is that possible?  These cars speak of the ambitions Pakistan once had.  As part of their expansion policy lots of cars must have made it into Afghanistan.  I am sure they would have liked to turn around the driving direction as well, but that obviously did not happen.  These cars are grandfathered in now.

When you look at the many UN vehicles or other NGO cars, you will find almost only Japanese models – this is an observation Neil made – while all the police and military vehicles you see are Fords, or American-made.  Both types are huge 4WD, often armored and equipped with antennas which allow for coded messaging.  Why are UN vehicles armored?!  It speaks volumes of the situation in this country.

And on a side-note:  Only in Mazar-e-Sharif did I see functioning traffic lights.  Everywhere else in the country they are either lacking or look like they at best worked 30 years ago.  Nobody seems interested in fixing them either.  Here and there you see traffic police in their yellow vests trying to do their best to keep the flow of cars going.  It becomes really ridiculous when one of these big police vehicles tries to go through and via loudspeaker yells at people to keep moving.  Where to?  When you are boxed in between four cars all trying to turn somewhere, to ask people to keep moving is a futile order.

FOOD AND ICE CREAM:

I am very surprised that I have not gotten any stomach problems yet.  Knock on wood!  In 16 days on the tour I swear that we had oily rice with raisins, mutton and shaved carrots 12 if not 13 days for lunch, which is the big meal of the day in this part of the world; but we also had it for dinner more than once.  One notable exception was the fabulous buffet we had at the hotel in Herat.  The other was more recently when Mubin had picked up some triangles made out of dough stuffed with beans and then deep fried.  We dipped them into a spicy tomato sauce and that was delicious.  But… Mubin got sick from it; the rest of us did not.  And the other night, Mubin and I went out for dinner – for many days I had replaced dinner with a trip to the ice-cream store (rice once a day is really more than enough) – and we had something else:  spicy spinach and a “vegetable” dish with beans, potato-cubes, and some peas mixed together.  If you are a pure vegetarian (or god forbid a vegan), you can forget it!  Even the so-called vegetarian dishes will have come in contact with greasy, oily fats or worse.  In all fairness, Mubin assured me that the Afghan cuisine women provide inside the home is a lot more varied.  I am not sure if it is a lot healthier though.

And speaking of ice cream:  Nowhere else in the world I have seen the way of making ice cream like in Afghanistan.  A scoop of cooked milk is combined with sugar and flavoring such as rose water, vanilla, or mango, and put into a round metal container sitting in a bath of ice.  The ice maker now manually has to twist and turn the bucket to solidify the liquid into ice cream.  It happens slowly at the top edges of the liquid and with a wooden spoon you hasten the process by mixing the solidified top with the still liquid bottom.  The more you put into the bucket, the longer the process takes.  Therefore, the ice-maker carefully calculates the amount needed and you are almost always guaranteed to get freshly made ice cream.  Many of the ice-cream makers also take pride to scoop out the cream in interesting shapes.  Like nice slim towers, or even cup-shapes with handles.  I had to try this to see how hard it is.  It’s not that bad if you do it for a few minutes.  But I could already see myself with unbearable back pain if I only had to do this for one single day.  What happens here is that 10-13 year old boys will start to help out in their father’s shop.  And then they are on a career path from which there is little escape…

BRIBES:

Perhaps, the most surprising little tidbit I learned from Mubin is how many bribes they have to pay!  In his company, they employ several guards, always one or two on shift at the compound and a third one available to go out with clients.  They support at least four licenses for machine guns and other weapons and the men bearing the arms 24/7.  Each Kalashnikov costs them $2500 in bribes per year (!).  And the price has just gone up to $3000 this year.  Unbelievable.  No wonder hiring this (or a similar) company is so expensive here.  The overhead costs are boggling the mind.  I wonder who is lining their pockets with this.

On the other hand, Mubin told me how corrupt the police used to be just a few years ago.  They would stop you, confiscate your bike and then force you to “buy” it back from them, just to give an example.  On the contrary, when we hiked up along the citadel rim, the guards at the police station invited us for tea.  Mubin proudly pointed out the positive development in that area.

Another day passed with “nothing”, well with a 12 hour bumpy tour on the road.  So it goes.

Good night.

 

2012
06.06

SYNOPSIS:  A VISIT TO AN ANCIENT BUDDHIST SITE OBSCURED BY THE LEGEND OF ROSTAM.

Takht-e-Rostams are numerous in Afghanistan – the “Throne of Rostam”.  Rostam, if I understand this right, is kind of the Gilgamesh of Persian legend, a hero written about in the famous 10th Century Shahnameh, or Book of the Kings by Ferdowsi (Firdausi), a Persian writer.

Takth-e-Rostam near Samangan is an unmistakable Buddhist site due to the presence of a rock-cut Stupa.  Both Mezar-e-Sharif and Samangam are safer places than Balkh and my crew was a lot more relaxed today compared to yesterday.  I was even invited to walk around the bazaar, but it did not look like anything worth exploring.  However, the main attraction near Samangam, two hills with ancient Buddhist architecture will certainly count among the highlights of this trip for me.

Just outside of town, there are rolling hills which look like nothing much.  Even as you stand right in front of them, you do not suspect much behind some holes in the mountain.  But there are five caves, four large ones and a tiny one full of litter.  Cave One is circular and has a large single niche, likely carved to house a Buddha figure and a soot-covered ceiling in which you can still make out the petals of a huge lotus flower.  Cave Two is probably the most surprising as it has several niches carved out between two corridors.  The corridor closest to the mountain face is almost at level with the niches, but the one deeper inside, going parallel is substantially lower.  Conventional wisdom has dubbed this cave the “bazaar”, but the layout makes no sense as a bazaar.  It makes little sense as anything, really.  If these were monks’ chambers, why the second, lower corridor; why no privacy, and no third wall?  No decoration has survived but many chambers here too, are blackened with soot.  Cave Three is a big square with four niches and remaining carved columns on either side and atop the niche.  The corner architecture is interesting as it is reminiscent of the early muqarnas, an architectural form that developed in Islamic architecture to bridge the transition from square to round and eventually culminated in the signature “stalactite” effect found in many mosques today.  Cave Four has a curious floor indentation thought to be a bath and Cave Five is little more than a hole in the wall full of litter.

Without the stupa hidden in the second hill, these caves may leave even more questions unanswered.  Given the proximity to the stupa, it is safe to assume that their use was connected and that the caves were likely a monastery.

The stupa is completely unique as it has not been built up, but carved down.  Stupas are ancient burial mounds which since the death of Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, have become Buddhist reliquaries and monuments for meditation, often associated with Buddhist monasteries.  A devotee would enter the monument through a gate on the East and find him- (or her-) self inside the circumambulatory pradakshina path.  The devotee would surround the monument clockwise as often as desired, shielded by a high fence from the outside world.   There usually was a secondary pradakshina higher up which symbolized progress towards enlightenment.

In this case, the stupa was dug down into a 28 meters (90 feet) tall cliff.  The shielding from the outside was automatic as the devotee would find himself engulfed in a narrow shaft between two rock walls.  But of the 28 meters, only about 8 meters remain, the rest seems to have filled in over time, or perhaps were never cut out.  You enter the lower path through a cave-corridor with a heart-shaped opening.  A badly damaged and hardly visible vestige of a staircase to the North of the entrance could have been the way up, long ago.  Today, in order to get up, you climb the rock face to reach the upper rim which allows you a look down into the shaft.  You are then also at level with the harmika, or superstructure which typically tops a stupa.  An umbrella indicating the central axis of the monument would have rounded up the set.  In this stupa, an unusual niche is carved into the Northern face of the harmika.  Did it once hold a statue?  That would be unusual, too.

If you want to follow the Rostam legend, then this is his throne and he got married here to Tahmina, the daughter of the king of Samangan.

It was first under the 3rd Century BC Mauryan Emperor Ashoka and later under the 2nd Century AD mighty Kushan Empire that Buddhism was promoted as a state religion and flourished.  And it was the proximity to the Silk Road that helped to spread and support Buddhist monasteries.  The Bamiyan Buddhas were the greatest extant record of this movement and of a style which merged Greek and Indian elements into what is also known as the Gandharan style.  Perhaps, the Buddhas which once stood in these niches were of this style?  What happened to them will forever elude us.

Mubin had a migraine for the second day in a row and was unusually quiet.  No jokes today, no stories.  I did not want to bother him with any additional requests for activities and decided to enjoy my VIP hotel room instead, and watch some news for the first time in a month on my big flat-screen TV.   I am finally caught up with all my work.  My computer has tried to rescue itself from whatever is going wrong internally.  I now have an automatic alternative desktop screen, have quarantined all but the most essential files and seem to be able to limp along for hopefully the remaining days of this trip.  Only one more week…

Good night.