Afghan Training Camp: Adventures in Bamyan!

With less than a week to go before the start of UTMB, I’m trying not to think of all of the obstacles I’ve faced in my training.  Instead, I think it is a great time to reflect back on some of the pretty incredible and wacky training experiences I’ve had while living in Afghanistan.  My weekend out in Bamyan in the Central region tops the list without a question.  Here is a blog post I began shortly after the trip but didn’t get a chance to finish…Thanks for reading and thank you for visiting my fundraising page for Women for Afghan Women!! (Men, you can donate too 🙂 ) Even the smallest amounts will be noticed, appreciated, and felt.

In a recent post, I wrote about how I was battling the motivation monster – and losing. Running has always been my escape and suddenly it became my prison. At the end of the work day, I would trudge across the compound from my office to my apartment and the internal battle would start. I would try to convince myself to put on my workout clothes, lace up my running shoes, and step out the door… but an hour would go by and then another, and I would still be stuck inside on the couch. I was sick of Kompound Kilometers and I didn’t want to do it anymore.  They were driving me Krazy (heheh, sorry, couldn’t resist that one). Even the mounting fear of failing at UTMB wasn’t enough to kick me back into gear. Pathetic.

I knew I had to get out of the Kompound and out of Kabul. There was only one answer…. BAMYAN!

Bamyan lies in the Central Region of Afghanistan, just a short helicopter ride from Kabul. While it was previously possible to reach Bamyan by road, the security situation now requires all UN staff (and pretty much most internationals) to travel by air.  It is known as one of the most beautiful and stable places in all of Afghanistan… needless to say, I was dying – er – itching to go!

Bamyan made the ideal spot for my Afghan Training Camp for a number of reasons:

(1) I could run without fear of getting shot

Yes, a minor point, but a rather important one. In Kabul, I can barely wipe my own derriere without the assistance of two security officers and a guard dog. While I understand the need for security restrictions, it doesn’t make them any less frustrating.  Running outside the compound walls is strictly forbidden in Kabul.

Testing out my safety gear

However, Bamyan has – so far – been somewhat insulated from the attacks occuring in other parts of the country (with the caveat that there has recently been an increase in security threats in the Bamyan valley outside of the main city…).  The predominantly Hazara population in Bamyan have traditionally resisted the insurgency and without local support, Bamyan does not make an ideal place for the Taliban to set up shop. As a reuslt, internationals can roam relatively freely throughout the city on foot (and in running shoes) without having to travel solely by armoured vehicles.

I was, however, nicely accompanied at the start of my runs by one of our security guards, which was a nice treat. There’s something to be said for having a muscular man with an eastern european accent by your side to make you feel uber safe. Particularly in the event that nearby donkeys decide to go wild….

(2) The altitude rivals the Alps

Altitude training! Bamyan sits at 9200 ft above sea level, which is about 3300 ft higher than Kabul. Perfect for getting my lungs ready for the Alps!  And, for that matter, a much cheaper altitude training option than, say, Aspen.  This was encouraging to me because the highest point during the UTMB race, Grand Col Ferret, stands at just 8300 ft. Score!

Beautiful Bamyan hills!

(3) Unlike in Kabul, the air wasn’t filled with fecal dust

According to rumours, various studies have shown that around 30% of all the crap in the air we breathe in Kabul is, well, crap. Yeah. Whether these studies truly exist or not, Kabul has been quoted as having “the highest amount of fecal matter in the atmosphere in the world.” At any rate, I think it is fairly safe to say that when I do my Kompound Kilometers in Kabul, I am breathing in a not-so-significant amount of airborne poo. Not a great thought.

Bamyan, on the other hand, is blessed with cool, crisp, non-poo-filled air. Amazing.

(4) There were multiple cultural sights to keep me entertained

While running in the Kompound in Kabul, I try to distract myself from the monotonous scenery by focusing on different sights during each loop. One loop I might focus on the barbed wire. Another loop I might try to count the number of rungs in the ladders leading up to the guard towers. Or maybe I focus on the few sunflowers that have been planted by the new apartment blocks. It helps make the time pass, but it is definitely work and after thousands of kilometers and hundreds of loops, I’m running out of distractions.

The scenery in Bamyan is a whole different story. Not once was I bored by the sights around me. Apart from the golden hills rolling out like sandy waves from one side of the city, there were the magnificent cliffs where the famous Bamyan Buddhas once stood on the other side of the city.

You see, Bamyan was once a Buddhist pilgrimage spot. As described in the Lonely Planet (yes, there is one for Afghanistan!):

“Bamiyan’s two Buddhas, standing 38m and 55m respectively, were the tallest standing statues of the Buddha ever made, created around the 6th century AD. The statues weren’t simply carved out of the sandstone cliffs. The rough figures were hewn from the rock, which was then covered in mud and straw to create the intricate folds of the robes, before being plastered. Each statue was then painted, and the faces covered with gilded masks… Following Bamiyan’s conversion to Islam, memories of its past faded and locals imagined that the statues were of pagan kings. Amazingly Chinggis Khan left them untouched. In the 17th century the Mughal Aurangzeb smashed their faces, and 100 years later the Large Buddha had its legs chopped off. During the civil war, the niches and caves were used as ammunition dumps; the statues suffered under pot shots from the soldiers. The final indignity came with their complete demolition by the Taliban – an indelible testament to Afghanistan’s many cultural losses in recent decades.”

Despite the fact that the Buddhas no longer exist, it is still quite an impressive sight to see the holes where they once stood. The cliffs also currently serve as homes to a number of cave-dwellers, who live in spaces carved out in the rock face.  I could have spent hours running along those cliffs, imagining what the Buddhas once looked like.  It isn’t hard to see why this spot was named a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2003.

(5) I didn’t have to cook my own meals from tin cans

The final reason why Bamyan made an ideal choice for a training camp was because I was freed from the curse of canned food to which I am sentenced in Kabul!!  UN staff in Bamyan are able to stay in private guesthouses, complete with their very own cooks! Score!  For a few blissful days, I was able to swap my canned tunned, canned corn, and UHT milk for barbequed chicken, fresh watermelon juice and home-cooked pancakes. WOW.

My weekend running the hills of Bamyan was a once in a lifetime treat. Or, with any luck, a twice or thrice in a lifetime adventure by the time I leave here next year 🙂  It lifted my spirits, revived my motivation, and deepened my love for this country and its people. Little did I know that I would leave Bamyan with a bit of dysentery that would haunt me for the next month and a half… but no matter. I dare say it was worth it.

This is just one of the memories I will carry with me over the Alps next week!

All for Women for Afghan Women!!

2 comments on “Afghan Training Camp: Adventures in Bamyan!

  1. Amazing natural beauty, a tantalizing taste of freedom and heartbreaking history all in one story…thanks for sharing!

  2. Agnes Cheng

    Thx Stephanie, you really got me hooked up on making a trip to Bamyan! Can’t wait to see your first ultra there in Oct. I would have loved to come but I will have my first ever 78k second week of Oct. To someone who has never used her legs much all her life, this is a little challenge I have set for myself, hopefully to prepare myself for many others to come, including hiking in the Bamyan. Good luck with UTMB and I’m sure you’ll rock!!!

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