I woke up at 5 AM to the high-pitched twang of my cell phone. My eyes were bloodshot red – an inevitable occurrence at any morning hour before 8 – and I fumbled around half-dazed trying to gather together my clothing. My flight was at 8:15 AM – and I wanted to get to the airport a couple hours early. I’d tired of Kabul, and was determined to make it to Bamyan.
There are no commercial airlines to Bamyan – because there’s no airport in Bamyan. Just a gravel airstrip. So – I was flying on a UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan) helicopter.
The security check took about 1.5 minutes, and I ended up being 2 hours early. I had passed out on a chair in the UN terminal, when the movement control officer – an Egyptian Muslim with pale blue eyes, a gristly face, and perfect teeth – approached me and asked me where I was from.
“India,” I replied. I always say India here, because I figure (unless you’re talking to Lashkar-e-Taiba) that you’re better off saying that than America. This generally devolves into a conversation about why my Urdu isn’t better (many Afghans speak Urdu because they were refugees in Pakistan – or because they are avid fans of Bollywood) – until I finally capitulate and admit I’m American.
We then got into an awkward conversation in which he asked me if I was Muslim, whether I believe in God, if I prayed, and how many times a day I prayed. I attempted to steer the conversation towards his thoughts on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – and other dictators that are likely to die soon – to no avail. Finally, he got up and called for passengers to Bamyan. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Our helicopter fit about 10 people – and there were eight of us aboard. Our luggage was stacked in the middle of aircraft – held in place with thick, netted rope. We all sat down on green and tan checkered cushions around the sides of the helicopter, and the pilot handed us bright orange, mammoth headphones to blot out the noise. I pulled out my camera and turned eagerly towards the window. No moment of this flight was going undocumented.
After a couple of test runs – our chopper finally lifted off. And for the next forty-five minutes we flew over vast reaches of gorgeous mountains – that looked more like massive, colorful sand dunes than craggy slopes. Every so often, we’d fly over an isolated set of clay houses embedded between mountains, with no major roads going in or out. I’d go on about the beauty of the ride – but photos are inevitably better than words in moments such as these – so I’ve devoted an album to it (see below). Forty-five minutes after we lifted off, I spotted the Buddha caves and destroyed city of Ghulghula. My heart started to race. Bamyan. At last.
Click on the image below for slideshow: “View from Above”