“Bullets for your brain today, but we’ll forget it all again.” – Nicky Wire.
Afghanistan continued to inspire and we headed out past the town of Tashkurgan to the province of Samangan. It was here that I got to tour some quite simply epic ruins of an ancient Buddhist Monastery known as Takht e-Rostam. The journey had been a fantastic one, from crossing the border into Afghanistan at Hayratan, touring Masar e Sharif and Balkh town, watching Buzkashi and eating Mantoo.
Getting to Takht e-Rostam
The trip to Takht e-Rostam began in Masar e- Sharif. I was based there in a hotel and I headed with my driver Sakhi, tour guide Noor and new friend Reza south east out of the city. We crossed from the Balkh Province into the Samangan Province and after a drive through some incredible mountains, we arrived in the town of Haibak.
Haibak is a medium sized town – a lot of hustle and bustle, street markets, in fact it reminded me a bit of Dhaka in Bangladesh for some reason. There are these three wheeled vehicles called Zarang everywhere, they are only 5 – 10 Afghani for a ride.
We passed through Haibak and on the edge of the city we made our way to a magnificent Buddhist Monastery, up a hill. The monastery is known as Takht e Rostam.
When you backpack to places like Afghanistan, part of the adventure is just being there. So you can imagine how pumped I was at the fact that once I was here, the sights got better and better.
Ticket for Takht e-Rostam
It’s a flat rate of $5 US dollars (350 Afghani) for entry and you can pay in either Afghani or US Dollars. You are issued with a ticket. When I toured, my guide Noor, his friend Reza and Sakhi our taxi driver didn’t need to buy a ticket, it’s free for locals (and rightly so in my opinion).
The guy you pay is just walking around, there is no ticket booth and apart from myself and my backpacking buddy Nate who toured a few weeks before me, they rarely ever get a tourist here.
Touring the Stupa at Takht e-Rostam
We first drive up to the top of a hill on the edge of the Monastery. The first thing I notice here is the viewpoint. It’s simply stunning! So let’s admire that before we get the history lesson.
So this entire complex – the lower caves and this upper hill with a huge Stupa are remains of a Buddhist monastery complex. It’s the throne of Rostam, a legendary Persian hero from literature. He arrived in Samangan and had a horse called Rash, the entire story was then told to me by Noor, to watch the whole story, check out this video:
Awesome story, eh? And at the time admiring such gorgeous countryside while realising I am backpacking it through Afghanistan was such an amazing feeling. As we walk down to the Stupa, Noor inundates me with yet more stories and myths. This Stupa was probably built by Chinese monks. It’s obvious that it is a Buddhist area. But there are no Buddhas. They were destroyed in the intervening years.
The Stupa still remains though, completely intact and incredible. It’s been carved magnificently in the hills here and there are caves inside it.
Then as we walk around the stupa itself, Noor offers me a spontaneous souvenir…
My Bullet from a PK rifle at Takht e-Rostam
We walk around the entire Stupa. “Guns were fired here during the civil war” says Noor, “lots of casualties”. On that note, Noor crouches down and using a coin, he digs something out of the soil. I knew what was coming. It’s a bullet fired from a Kalashnikov. It’s a PK bullet. Noor cleans the mud from it and hands it to me, nonchalantly. An Afghan person can see a bullet stuck on the mud from a mile off.
As he gives it to me, he says “a souvenir from Afghanistan”, I ponder on this for a second and considered dropping it back in the soil. But then I decide to keep it. It’s a good souvenir to have.
At the time I thought about the strict border guards on the Uzbekistan side and how I’d have to pass through them twice again with a bullet in order to keep this. I later came up with a plan, which I’ll share sometime. For now, I had a souvenir bullet from the Afghan civil war!
We toured all around the Stupa before heading down the hill on foot to the monastery cave complex. It was a short and brisk 10 – 15 minute walk.
The Bazaar at Takht e-Rostam
Inside the monastery complex, it’s like a cool maze of indoor caves. Yes, it’s totally amazing, and it reminds me of backpacking to Davit Gareja or Uplistsikhe in Georgia, Kaymakli and Cappadoccia in Turkey or even Kandovan in Iran. The bazaar is like what the world’s first “shopping mall” would have looked like. However, outside the bazaar, in the open air, a football match is happening.
The Hamman at Takht e-Rostam
At the far side of the monastery complex, there is a bathing house, otherwise known as a Hamman. You can still see the parts of it where water used to be.
The Buddhist Temples at Takht e-Rostam
There are a few temples inside, all with high rooves, they have been dug out of the caves.
Playing Football at Takht e-Rostam
Forget all about the sightseeing, it’s football time! Yes, this was the highlight!
In an extremely lucky piece of fate, there are about 20 – 30 children playing football right next to the Buddhist Monastery. I stand and watch them for a while and we want to join in.
I have learned that my friend Reza, is a professional footballer who has played in the Afghan leagues, the UAE (Dubai) leagues and under 19 international football. Reza goes and asks them if we can join in – one of us two on each side. This is the real treat!
There’s me with my white Afghan clothes on, my red and black AFC Bournemouth scarf on and a grey hat and I walk onto the field. I am introduced to my team mates though obviously it’s all rather fast and I won’t remember their names. “I’m Jonny” I say and “Severn Irlandia (Northern Ireland)” as the match kicks off. As you might have read, the match was intense, it finished 0-0 and I had a few shots on goal, notably the day I lobbed the goalkeeper from 30 yards, which you can read about on that link!
When the match was over, we said our goodbyes, had another quick walk by the Buddhist Monastery and went off on our journey. It was brilliant, it was absolutely brilliant!
If you want to go whackpacking to awesome off the wall spots like Samangan, get in touch with Untamed Borders:
Untamed Borders Ltd
FF134, Dean’s Trade Centre, 1st floor, Peshawar Cantt, Pakistan
Phones : +92 (0) 345 9397639, +92 (0) 333 9397639, +92 (0) 345 9400025
Untamed Borders, 12 Harnet Street, Sandwich,
Kent, CT13 9ES, United Kingdom
Phone : +44 (0) 1304 262002
Here are some videos from my time touring Takht e-Rostam Buddhist Monastery in Samangan: