Istalif village in Afghanistan is high up in the mountains, and surrounded by pleasant lands. It’s also rather famous for its colourful and somewhat rustic pottery. I bought a few pieces of pottery here 10 years ago. The people then were very happy to have their photos taken and to show-off their pottery. The village itself has been through quite a few traumas over the years, and its heritage and livelihood are at risk. Construction and security can certainly help, but it needs visitors, or a way to get its pottery to a wider market. Here, a young lad took me into his store and was very keen to show me the brightly coloured ceramics.
The ancient Minaret of Jam in Afghanistan, 2009. It does have a significant lean but there have been efforts to stabilise the tower. This quote from the Lonely Planet Afghanistan Travel Guide (1st Edition, published 2007) is what really got me interested in going to Afghanistan…
Crossing the centre of the country along the spine of the Hindu Kush is one of the most remote and adventurous journeys it’s possible to do in Afghanistan, but one that rewards travellers with a continuous parade of stunning mountain scenery. Travelling from Bamiyan, the route travels through the Hazarajat over a series of high mountain passes to the heart of the medieval Ghorid empire. This is a land of tiny villages, marginal agriculture, and nomad caravans with their camels and yurts. At its centre lies the fabled Minaret of Jam, hidden from foreign eyes for centuries, and even now is accessible to only the hardiest travellers.
Bamiyan, Afghanistan. The place where two giant Buddha statues, the Bamiyan Buddhas, stood for over 1,500 years before being obliterated by the Islamist group known as the Taliban in 2001. I managed to get there in 2009, and explored the area for historically significant sites.
The valley is quite fertile with many small farms. On our long walks between the Buddha statue niches and our yurts, it was quite common to cut across these farms. I encountered this young boy who had been looking after some sheep. He was quite a happy lad and enjoyed having his photo taken.
There we were, travelling along the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. A journey through mountain passes and dry valleys, along dried river-beds and empty places on lonely roads, with nothing more than dust-devils keeping us company. Low temperatures and the glare of the sun added to the harshness of the landscape.
However, it was a challenge that I enthusiastically seized in my quest to reach the fabled Minaret of Jam, a place that only a few travellers reach. But here, in the middle of nowhere, there was human activity; a rest-stop for truck drivers hauling their goods across the country, a place to stretch the legs and take shelter from the elements.
Although it was August, the place was cold, and I couldn’t imagine what this place would be like in winter. A hardy landscape creates a hardy people. This man tendered to our needs with chai and food, his face betraying the challenges of the environment.
Northern Afghanistan, near the ruins of the ancient city of Balkh, in the region once known as Bactria.
Balkh was once a majestic city, and one with an illustrious history. It was likely a base from which the Aryan civilisation spread through the region. Zoroaster is claimed to have been born here, and it is where Alexander the Great married Roxanne, a local Bactrian. A place once renowned for its Buddhist monasteries and stupas, a place the Arabs called the “Mother of all cities”. But after centuries of war and climate change, those days are long gone.
The remains of probably the oldest mosque in Central Asia can be found here, itself having been built on the ruins of Buddhist and Zorastrian temples. This is where I came across the site’s caretaker (chowkidar). He allowed us access to the ruins and to roam the area.