I have to make a hard decision. I’d like to go to Bamiyan. The flight is expensive and boring but the road may be unsafe. My couchsurfing host makes some calls on my behalf and after getting assurances from a friend who lives along the safer of two possible routes that the trip should be okay I decide to chance it. With the help of the guy I met in Mikrorayon I buy a chador which even covers my face so as to be as inconspicuous as I possibly can be. Early the next morning my host’s driver takes me to a shared taxi stand and negotiates with the driver. He instructs me to take a seat in the front so that I won’t sit directly next to any of the other male passengers and emphasizes that I am not to talk to anybody.
The landscape is beautiful and after some hesitation I start taking pictures. Everything is going smoothly until we stop at a roadside cafe. I hadn’t counted on this happening and am unsure what to do now. The driver says something to me, but I don’t understand a word. I don’t even know if he’s speaking Dari or Pashtun. He points to a room which after having gone inside I see is the family room. A waiter comes in and asks something. I really don’t know what to do but manage to say ‘chai’ in the hope that that instruction will suffice and stop any further attempts to communicate with me. I figure I must have blown my cover but who knows, in this country where so many different languages are spoken and women are supposed to be quiet and invisible my appearance might not be that noteworthy.
After finishing the chai I get back in the car and wait for the other passengers. After fifteen or so minutes we are off again. Not long after we get to a checkpoint. Bamiyan is an area of relative peace and its entrance roads are well protected like some mini-state. ‘The soldier wants to see your passport’ says the guy sitting in the middle behind me. I’m kind of relieved I have somebody that can explain things to me now. After we get talking he reveals to me that what gave me away so easily was my footwear. Afghan women don’t wear sandals he tells me. He translates the comments of the other people in the car. The driver expresses worry about what would have happened to him if the car had been stopped by robbers and I kind of feel like a jerk. In making the decision to travel by road I hadn’t even taken the safety of my fellow passengers into consideration.
The guy in the back of the car turns out to be a civil servant working for the culture ministry who’s visiting his family in Bamiyan. ‘Would you like to stay at my mother’s house?’ he asks me and I gladly take up the offer relieved that I don’t have to wander around town in search of a hotel.
We drive through farmed fields for about twenty minutes until we get to his family’s compound, a modest collection of mud-brick buildings where his mother, brothers and their families live. Over the next few days we visit a collection of sites: the remains of the Buddhas, Band-e Amir (a lake so beautiful it looks photoshopped), and the ruins of a city destroyed by Genghis Khan.
Meeting my new friend turns out to be an absolute stroke of luck. The context he provides about the things I see gives me an unexpected insight into the daily life of the people around me. And the chance to hang out with his mother and sisters-in-law at the family home, and to picnic with the female half of his relatives who we run into at the lake make me feel so much more free and relaxed than in Herat and Kabul. But that’s not just about having a personal connection. I’m far from the only tourist around, it’s just that all the other tourists are Afghans. Bamiyan’s relative safety, beautiful scenery and rich history provide the perfect backdrop for a weekend getaway.