2012
06.14

SYNOPSIS:  A WILD GOOSE CHASE TO FIND THE GULDARA STUPA.  THE LAST SUPPER WITH THOMAS AND NASSER AND A LOOK INTO THE EXPAT SCENE OF KABUL.  A LONG BLOG WITH MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.  FOR SPECIAL INTERESTS ONLY.  NOT WORTH READING FOR ANYONE IN A HURRY.

By the time the three of us sat down for a late lunch in the afternoon, exhausted and sweaty from seven hours of a useless search, I was in tears.  I could feel how my nose got red and my face puffed up as the tears started to roll.  Navo, the lanky, tall driver and Shirin, my stocky “gun” looked away, uncomfortably playing with their food, not knowing what to do with me now.  They had tried so hard, but we had been doomed to fail from the get-go.

It all started yesterday when at the Kabul Museum, I saw a full-sized wall picture of a Buddhist Stupa I had studied under my beloved Professor Kane years earlier at the University of Michigan.  I recognized it instantly and I had listed it on my original wish list for sites to visit in Afghanistan:  The Stupa of Guldara.   The confusion started immediately.  I asked the guard on duty if the stupa depicted was still standing.  I thought I made myself perfectly clear with the few appropriate words at my disposal:  Aks pier?  Aks yavonne?  Stupa chub?  Kudjost?  Is this an old or a recent picture?  Is the stupa all right?  Where is it?  The guard seemed to indicate that the stupa was leveled.  When I dragged her to a nearby map to determine the location of the stupa it became clear that she was illiterate.  She had no idea where this building was, nor could she read the map, nor had she ever seen it.  But a nearby officer, busy with the two important British ladies pointed to the map instead:  According to the map, this place was south of Kabul, not far at all!

To get more reliable information, I approached the office of the Museum Curator.  A nice woman behind the desk was happy to tell me that the stupa was well and standing and that the picture was indeed quite recent.  Not only that, only two days earlier, some museum staff members had visited the site and one of them entered the office as we spoke!  He confirmed:  The stupa was standing and accessible and in his assessment safe enough for a visit.  It was also reachable within a day.  What was I waiting for?!   The curator told me that the stupa was near Charikar.  But that was north of Kabul…  I was confused.  That was the road I had traveled so many times, I did not even want to count anymore.  Why had Mubin kept this from me?!  Why was I at Istalif, or Charikar when there was Guldara!?

Back at the ALT office, I confronted Mubin and put my foot down for the first time:  I showed him the picture of the stupa, explained how important it was for me, and requested a car for the next day including a driver who knew his way to the site, and all of this without charge.  Bamiyan had been skipped; this should have been its replacement.  The only acceptable replacement in fact; not picnics, not Istalif, not Charikar.  The museum staff had been there recently; it was safe, it was accessible, and I was going.  End of discussion.  ALT owed me.  I inquired why on earth he had not included this in the itinerary in the first place.

One of Mubin’s talents is to tell stories when he wants to avoid an uncomfortable answer.  He is good at that and the stories he has up his sleeves are usually entertaining and delivered in true theatric fashion, like this one:  A very mean police officer is in charge of Guldara and gave him and a group of clients a lot of hassle the last time he had gone there.  The details of the exchange with the officer started to drag on and I had to cut him off:  if that was the problem, I would take my chances.  Just give me the car and a knowledgeable driver and that by 9 AM.  Everything else would be my problem.  Was there anything else I needed to know?   Any wisdom, he could share about this monument?  No.

And that’s how Navo and I started out this morning.  I had tried to consult online resources to find out more about the stupa and its current status.  The sources online could not agree any more than the map with the curator at the museum.  Some put the stupa north, some south of Kabul.   I could not make any sense of it.   I had to trust the driver.  In typical Mubin fashion, he had decided one more thing without consulting me:  Shirin, “my gun” was to be picked up on the way for extra security.  If ALT would pick up the pay, I had no reason to object.

And so we came to pick up Shirin, on his day off at a small police checkpoint on the main road.  He showed up without a gun, in a fine, white traditional shawal-e-kamiz.  As a former mujahedin he is known in the valley and Mubin must have figured that he could put in a good word for me when needed and that I would be better off with two men, gun or not.  I almost felt that I had more chances playing the dumb tourist, pushing both my German nationality (Afghans light up when Germans or French come their way) and my “teacher” button, but Mubin got it his way.  I could not hurt.

We turned into the valley only 15 km outside of Kabul.  That seemed a bit too soon, but what do I know?  Navo and Shirin both assured me that we were going the right way.  Within a few more kilometers we came to the police station described so dreadfully by Mubin.  A friendly officer checked my passport, wrote down my name and my father’s name (just like at the Panjshir Valley) and wished us farewell.  Was that the end to the hurdle?!  I had to wonder how many other decisions Mubin had based on bad stories from long ago.  In Afghanistan one thing is clear:  Security issues change like the weather.  What was dangerous yesterday could be fine tomorrow; but it also worked the other way around.

We wound our way up into a picturesque valley, alongside a river, drove through walled in vineyards and past small mud-brick homes.  Eventually, a plaza opened up with a few shops.  That must have been the heart of Guldara.  And on we went along a bumpy one lane dirt road with little more traffic than our car and a few donkeys carrying loads of grass, wood, and other equipment.

My mind drifted.  If I could see Guldara, the whole trip would be redeemed; the loss of Bamiyan would be offset.  Guldara is the best preserved stupa and monastic complex in all of Afghanistan.  As a reminder of the region’s Buddhist past, it is most likely as interesting as Bamiyan, especially since the giant Buddhas and sites such as Hadda have been destroyed by age-old fighting and the Taliban.

Guldara is ancient.  4th Century AD easily, perhaps even older.  The stupa has a drum faced with Greco-Bactrian columns and is a testimony to the cultural and intellectual exchanges that took place along the Silk Road.  Two stupas are at the site and several cells around a courtyard from the adjacent monastic complex.  I got so excited.  To walk in professor Kane’s footsteps was the original impetus for this trip. To finally see at least one of the monuments and how it had changed since she had been here more than 30 years ago would be just so, so special!

We reached a small widening in the road and definitely the end of all drivable territory.  A narrow footpath led us out of the village and into the mountains.  A man passed us who looked like some sort of authority.  In typical Afghani fashion the three of them greeted each other as if they were old friends, exchanging pleasantries.  But my two guys did not look too happy after he parted:  According to the man (the local veterinarian), there were Kuchies (gypsies) out here and the Taliban was about 10 km away.  Do gypsies attack, I asked?  No.  Then let’s go.  We went and went and went.  I knew the monastery was outside the village, but I did not know how far.  We were walking through rolling hills covered with vegetation but I knew the stupa sat on a barren hill.  Where were the barren hills?  How far, I inquired?  We don’t know, was the answer!  What?

It turned out that neither Navo nor Shirin had ever been at this site!  Mubin told me that he would give me a knowledgeable driver.   What on earth did he think that meant?!   Now we all got a bit worried, especially since there was no more phone service.  We could not call Mubin for clarification of the way.  Two clueless men had passed us with their donkeys.  I had shown them my digital picture of the stupa.  Kujost?  Where is this?  They did not know.  How could they not know?!  They may not know the significance of this monument, but they live here.  They must have seen this, for god’s sake!

At some point we decided to turn around.  Just about then, two more sophisticated looking men approached us – thank goodness; somebody to ask who might know something!  But they were not here to answer questions.  They had come to fetch us!  Word had gotten around in the village that three strangers were on a hike that made no sense.  These were two plain-clothed officers that had been sent after us.  Warnings of kidnappings had been issued in the area since some of the kuchies had started to collaborate with the Taliban.

I am worth a minimum of $100,000 to any criminally minded person scrupulous enough to deliver me to the Taliban.  To the Taliban I am worth a minimum of $500,000 but more likely close to a million.  Or I am just a nice “picnic” for them, as Mubin joked around once in a while, a foreigner to be killed…  What are you doing here?  I showed the men my picture…  They looked at each other bewildered.   They had never heard of the stupa of Guldara.  What are you doing here?!  Didn’t we hear about the warnings?  Well, sort of…  Driver and gun were visibly relieved by the arrival of this guard and with the two-officer escort we retraced our steps back to the village.  That had not worked out so well.  What next?

We drove past the police station.  Why did you not ask them for help, I inquired?  They don’t know.  Really?  It is not their responsibility. Really?  Just like Mubin, Shirin and Navo made up the weirdest excuses at times.  I did not get it.  Let’s call the Kabul museum.  They know.  OK, it’s a plan.  But we had no number…  Let’s call the ALT dispatch.  Let them find out the number.  OK, why not.   Mubin was not there…  The dispatch did not know how to get the number…

By now we had reached the main road again:  Square one, where we had picked up Shirin this morning, next to a small checkpoint.  Both Shirin and Navo were on the phone simultaneously now, explaining the situation to various dispatches at the office.  Finally, Mubin surfaced at the other end of the line.  He started to tell his story about the mean policeman again!   Stop it!  Please get me the Kabul Museum’s phone number!   Come back to Kabul, go to the museum and get the information face to face, was his response. He must be kidding!  That’s a 45 minute drive.  For god’s sake get me a phone number!  The atmosphere got tense, but after losing contact, after valuable minutes waiting, after even more minutes calling and recalling, we had two phone numbers for the Kabul museum.    Thank goodness.  Now, let’s call them.

Navo did and talked and talked and talked and then hung up.  What did he say?  He had gotten some engineer at the museum?  Somebody who had never heard of Guldara?  Geez!  Why did you not ask for somebody else or ask for another phone number or somebody who can speak English!?  Navo called again.  No answer.   We waited.  He called again.  No answer.  We were still at square one…  Call the other number!

Navo did and talked and talked and talked and then hung up.  What did he say?  This time, he had gotten the director of the museum!  That man knew exactly what we were talking about.  He told Navo that he needed to go to the Ministry of Culture and Information and get a permit to visit Guldara and a guide and all.  Why did you not let me talk to him?   This man obviously did not understand that we are on the road and don’t care about permits.  We need to know which village we need to go to!  We are in the wrong village, don’t you get this?!!  We need information, not a lecture!!  Where is this damned stupa?!

Not knowing the language and constantly being at the end of the information flow certainly took its toll on me.  Shirin and Navo were trying hard.  But their communication skills were limited and their knowledge of the site, zero.  We had been up and down a very bumpy road in vain.  We had been hiking for miles for nothing.  But at least they were not giving up.  I needed to be kind.  Please, let’s call the Kabul Museum again.  The director knows, but I need to talk to him in English, OK?

Navo called again.  No answer.  We waited.  He called again.  No answer.  And still, we were at square one.  Shortly after, Shirin came running to the car.  He had been on the phone with who-knows-whom and a boy overheard him.  The boy knew!  Shirin showed him my picture and the boy confidently pointed to a hill across the street.  There it is!  I was impressed.  A bit earlier, we had picked up a teacher and given her a ride.  She had never heard of the Guldara stupa before nor did she recognize my picture.  But the boy knew…  This was too good to be true.  With renewed energy we took off following the boy’s directions.  All my hopes resurged.  This was going to work out after all!

We crossed the street, went into the village and all of a sudden everyone knew.  We were pointed in a seemingly consistent direction.  A local man even offered to lead us on his motorbike.  The mountains were bare over here.  We were near!  The man’s destination however, seemed questionable.  But confidently, he led us up a pass, towards a sandy hill, arriving and proudly pointing at it:  The Dragons’ Caves!  Dragon?  I shook my head.  There was a cave, but give me a break!  It looked nothing like my picture.  What was he thinking?  Does anyone around here know the difference between Buddhas and Dragons?!  But the man did not give in.  There was more.  The real thing was on the next hill.  Just another 20 minute hike.  This could not possibly be right!  But did we have a choice?

Can we please call the Kabul Museum again?  Please?!  Whenever anyone was listening to what I had to say, I repeated my plea:  Let’s call the Kabul Museum!   But by now we had lost the phone signal again.  On another hike we went and of course, there were more “dragon” sand hills at the end but not a sign of a stupa.  For Pete’s sake, did you tell these people we are looking for a BUDDHIST STUPA?!  Buddhist!

It dawned on me that neither Nova nor Shirin would have a clue what a Buddhist Stupa is.  In all their efforts to get the locals to assist, I have no idea what they even told them we were looking for.  My picture was clear but in their eagerness to help, every local who directed us was seeing what they wanted to see and pointed us to what they were familiar with.  It was much better to give us wrong directions than to admit ignorance.  What a total mess this was.  Can we please, please call the Kabul Museum?!

After another futile hike to the next hill of dragon caves we turned around.  And once again, we found ourselves at square one, the little checkpoint at the main road.  The officers there now took notice and seemed perplexed about our return visits.  They came to the car and got to hear the whole story from my two trusted men.  They took great interest in my picture and then my two men and the two officers started to scan the hills, wrinkling their foreheads, and finally, a light-bulb went off!  Fingers were pointed and the excitement mounted!  It’s up there!

Up there?  That’s where we started at 9 AM in the morning.  It was 3 PM by now.  But sure enough, Navo and Shirin insisted on heading back up the valley.  And so we wound our way up a second time into the picturesque valley, alongside the river, drove through walled in vineyards and passed small mud-brick homes…  I was too drained to protest.  What the hell.  The day was gone.  Again, we reached the police station with the friendly police officer who already had all my data.  He too, was perplexed to see us a second time.  Now, we showed my stupa picture to anyone who was willing to look.   And from former mujahedin to current police, about 5 men now scanned the mountains, wrinkled their foreheads and pointed fingers…  But no more light bulbs went off.

The verdict was:  There is no such thing.  One mujahed had once walked the entire valley to Bamiyan.  He had seen everything between here and there.  And now he acted as the acknowledged authority.  One mujahedin story must have led to another; the men laughed and had good time when it began to sink in:  I will not see the Guldara Stupa.  This was an utterly and senselessly wasted day!

We returned to square one, the little checkpoint next to the main road.  I finally reached the director of the Kabul museum and in English explained to him that I was a scholar from abroad who was trying to find the Guldara Stupa. I needed to know the name and coordinates of the village near which the famous stupa was located:  It was 22 miles south of Kabul.  It was Guldara in Logan province, not Kabul province.  From there one has to hike about 15 km into the mountains to get to it.  I had barely hung up, when the same information came over the other phone, from Mubin.  It had taken us 7 hours to get this far: to get the right information…

It finally became clear that Mubin was as clueless as his driver and his gun.  He did not know this monument.  He had never been there.  But he had not admitted this nor had he pointed us to the right place.  At least the right place should have been known to him but I was too broken to express my anger.  When Mubin wanted pity because he had supposedly been researching this all morning and had not gotten any lunch yet, I cut him off:  Driver and Shirin had not gotten any lunch either and that was due to his ignorance.  There was nothing more to talk about.  It was four o’clock in the middle of a hot and dusty afternoon.  By the time the three of us finally sat down for lunch, exhausted and sweaty from all the hours of pointless searching, I was in tears.

I was not only in tears about today, but about all the disappointments, all the stupid picnics, all the missed monuments and all the shattered expectations.  Everything caught up with me.  This was the most horrible trip I have ever done, ever!

Back at the ALT compound, I walked straight to my room, locked myself in and avoided contact with Mubin or any of the other Jamshadi brothers.   In the evening I had a dinner date with two guys from the Goethe Institute.  I had to recover from this day first to face them.

Nasser, a young Afghan, and Thomas, a middle-aged German were my dinner companions tonight.  I had met them on my second day in Kabul and we had agreed then to conclude my trip together.  After a nice dinner at my favorite garden restaurant, Thomas mentioned an expat club in Kabul, where mostly British and American troop members as well as Afghani government officials got drunk!  That was something else!  It was part of the subculture you will never see by driving or walking through Kabul.  You just have to know.  I wanted to see this so badly.  But it was late.  No problem.  Thomas was up for a walk to the club.

There is no sign on the door, no hint of anything.  You knock on a huge, orange metal door and I guess, if you look “right” Sesame opens up.  Three armed guards greet and pad you down (not me, I am a woman!).  Another guard will take your passport and there you have to purchase coupons.  There is no more cash exchange after this point. You pay with your coupons:  $10 for a beer, for example…!   Thomas invited me to a beer and so we had a drink in the most beautiful garden of all Kabul.  A central fountain, nicely landscaped paths, beautifully lit terraces, several bar areas, a basement bar, and even a full-range food menu.  If you get too drunk you can also rent a room and sleep right there!

After an hour it got loud across the lawn and Thomas mentioned that this is no rare occurrence.   Kabul is stressful and I can’t hold it against the men (and women) who are stationed here year after year for letting off some steam.  But it also fed right into the stereotype of the loud, obnoxious and rich American to be here in the first place and to behave like this in the second.

We did not stay long, but I surely was fascinated and grateful that I had seen a slice of this part of Kabul as well.   And it was about then that I was willing to allow myself to be grateful again for having come to Afghanistan in the first place.  I did see a lot.  I did learn a lot despite all the disappointments and shattered hopes.  But it was not easy to make the glass half full again.

Good night.