Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Now is a good time for some Classical Archaeology

I took quite a few Archaeology classes a Michigan. I probably would have ended up as a classical archaeologist if the Air Force hadn't been the ones paying for my school. (Maybe Philosophy...) Anyways, in the spring of 2001, I first heard of the Taliban Regime in Afghanistan. The reason I heard of them was not as most Americans did because of Sep 11, but because of their active systematic destruction of everything that could be construed as blastfamous or against their brand of Islam. I remember seeing pictures and hearing descriptions of hundreds of men going to work for weeks in museums in Afghanistan, smashing every artifact. Then of course the crown of heritage destruction, the reducing of the 1500 year old giant buddhas in Bamyan to sand. There were debates about what could be done, if wether it was a worthy enterprise to spend millions to rebuild the buddhas and preserve an archaeological site when there were starving people nearby... etc.

All this was before Sep, 11... the war in Afghanistan, the ousting of the Taliban, etc. Shit, I was 20 years old. It was even back when I thought flying something pointy and fast was the way to go. I saw the pictures of the artifacts being smashed, felt sick to my stomach, and went on with life. What could I do about a bunch of shit heads in the middle of Asia that want to destroy stuff. So their are assholes in Afghanistan. That won't effect me.

Fast forward 7 years... as it turns out, I am in Afghanistan. I am here and need a place to train the Afghan pilots in tactics and navigation that will keep them safe from what ever threats they might encounter. The problem with "training" in Afghanistan is that nothing is simulated. You plan a training route, and you don't have to say things like, "we are going to assume for training purposes that this route has the threat of ground fire and possible man portable surface to air missile..." because it actually does! So I am faced with the problem of where can I fly with these guys where we can practice before we go play with the real bad guys. As it turns out, the one of the more secure areas of Afghanistan is the nearby province of Bamyan! (It is probably secure because it is almost entirely made up of gigantic continuous 15,000 foot desert mountains... but the Hazara tribe that lives there gets plenty of credit too.) Either way, it is a good place to warm up your defensive skills with relatively low threat. Of course I didn't forget about the buddhas in Bamyan, so conveniently I urge a training route to be planned past them. I figure I might get an interesting picture of the empty holes from the air. Actually... we planned sort of a practice air assault to the gravel runway there. Hey, I'll take a relatively secure patch of flat gravel around here any day!

We had just made the last turn and were IP inbound.

Suddenly, "Dari, Dari, Dari..." on the radio.

My Flight Engineer says to me, "Mr Nick, Aircraft other, he have fuel leak."

We did the auto lead change, became the chase ship, and followed our wingman in. Already lined up to land at the gravel strip so we continued strait in for a roll on landing. On the ground, no problem. They didn't explode, but we need to investigate where and why the fuel is coming out of the aircraft. Secretly I am thinking this is great! Now we have a legitimate excuse to shut down and look around Bamyan instead of the one I was trying to make up.

Just as we shut down, i.e., cut the fuel and no longer have our engines available to take off again... two trucks roll right up to our helicopters and a bunch of guys hop out.

We are pretty committed now... What could we do... I might as well continue the shut down correctly.

After finishing shut down, we lower the stairs and step down the ladder to the dusty ground. I now know exactly what aliens feel like when they lower their ramp and encounter humans for the first time. All these dudes just stared at us with no sound... just stared. Granted the tight tribalness of the Hazaras might make the Taliban unwelcome here, but it isn't super friendly seeming to me either. Well, lets drop some Dari on these cats!

"Salam Alekum." I say. (With appropriate gestures)

"Wah Alekum a salam." is the reply. (Accompanying appropriate gestures.)

That worked! Great! I'll try some more! After all the standard greeting phrases that I know are exchanged... we are at least friends enough to exchange the cheek-kiss-hand-shake move. (note: this is well past the hand up, palm out transition to hand on heart move)

"Hey! where is our interpreter!" By the time the interpreter makes it out of the helicopter, everybody is cheek kissing, hand shaking, and talking in Dari way faster than I can keep up with anything.

After a few more minutes, talking to the lead guy through the interpreter, we are now invited to the provincial governor's house for tea.

I figure it would be rude not to go... Who am I to refuse the provincial governor's invitation to tea? After figuring out the fuel leak we pile into the trucks and head down into the main part of the village. The guy that was driving the truck that I was in seemed to have absolutely no sense of self-preservation when it comes to driving. The primary means of vehicle control for this guy was the horn. A tight blind corner at high speed, no problem a few angry horn honks can't solve! WEEEEE!!!!!!! It's not like the road was gravel, edged with cliff. I think the horn actually increased traction for the tires too.

Gravel ricochetting off the wheel wells, children leaping out of the road like pigeons being harassed, the horn blasting to warn trees to get out of the way... the interpreter, Sophi, shouts to me, "we go now, Buddhas!"

Fuck Yea! I am really going to get to see them!

We drive up to the base of them. I am more than a little trilled! Never did I dream when I was in school discussing the Taliban destroying 6th century monasteries did I ever expect to actually find myself there in person. It didn't stop there. The crazy driver guy has the keys... the keys to the archaeological site itself! Granted he had the key to what amounted to a chicken wire fence with a few posts that is meant to keep keep trespassers out... but either way, we were about to get the grand tour!

This is the base of the larger, female, Buddha.

Me, in front of the male buddha. I have pictures of other people, but for security conserns, I don't post them.

Up inside the monastery. These carved stairways into the rock are pretty steep. They must be about 60 deg or so. It is like being in a giant ant farm. This place is not for people with bad knees or shortness of breath. The entire mountain seems to be tiny crumbly sandstone stairways, all at 8400 feet. It seems designed to make you dizzy and fall to your death.

Looking out on Bamyan Valley from one of the carved caves.

To end the day, we came back with no further problems.

I am pretty sure that this is the area that gets described in the Christopher Moore book, "Lamb."

As I have been thinking about it. It almost seems that the buddhas are more powerful in their destroyed form. I am sure they appreciate that.


amateur.sophist said...

you win again

(how was the tea?)

Allison said...

Great post, Nick!

Notorious said...

It is funny you should ask about tea. At about 1130 we were finished at the monastery and we were back in the trucks bouncing along. I didn't know where we were going but it didn't feel like the right way to the Governor's House. I asked Sophi "where are we going?"

He replied back, "We go the airport now."

"Airport? What about the Governor's House? Didn't she invite us for tea?"

"THe Governor is not home. She is in Kabul with some business... not at home you see!" he then did his crazy-man laugh that he uses when he tells me something that is completely absurd.

"Who invited us for tea then?

"The governor is in Kabul." I tried a few times but all I could understand get was the absurd laughter and we that did not offend her by not going because she is in kabul.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the continued reminders that I need to do a better job putting myself in random, crazy places (and surviving) (and then later telling people about it).

You need a matching sidearm for that other leg.

Notorious said...

You're welcome.

A matching sidearm on the other leg... that is a little to Laura Croft for me. I am going more for the Indiana Jones thing. He is more my style for fictional Archaeologists.