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I t is always a shock reaching Bamiyan, coming face to face with the two huge cavities in the cliff face. The upright tombs stare out over the valley, a splash of vegetation surrounded by wild mountains. The town straddles the Silk Road, close to the point where it used to enter Persia, dwarfed by two massive mountain ranges, the Koh-i-Baba and Hindu Kush.
The void left by the two destroyed Buddha figures is appalling, it rouses an emotion almost more powerful than their once tranquil presence did for centuries. To understand what happened you must go back to the beginning of The Taliban-led regime was on very poor terms with the international community and increasingly tempted by radical gestures. Demolition work at Bamiyan started at the beginning of March and lasted several weeks , the two figures — 58 and 38 metres tall — proved remarkably solid.
Anti-aircraft guns had little effect, so the engineers placed anti-tank mines between their feet, then bored holes into their heads and packed them with dynamite. The world watched this symbolic violence in impotent horror. Now almost 14 years on, reconstruction work has yet to start as archaeologists and Unesco policy-makers argue. The two cavities resemble open wounds, a blemish on the long history of Afghanistan , which experienced the fervour of Buddhism long before the arrival of Islam.
For 15 centuries the two mystic colossi gazed down as the trading caravans and warring armies streamed past. Monks came from China to worship here. Others meditated in nearby caves. The two Buddhas , draped in stucco robes, are testimony to a unique case of cross-breeding, which flourished in the early years of the first century AD, drawing on Buddhist influences from India and Greek aesthetics left behind by Alexander the Great. It gave rise to the kingdom of Gandhara and made a mark so deep that even the disciples of Allah, who reached here in the ninth century, made no attempt to disturb it.
Today the site has recovered a certain serenity. Children play volleyball below the cliffs and archaeologists work unhindered. Whereas a low-intensity war is still rumbling on elsewhere in Afghanistan, the central Hazarajat region and its capital Bamiyan population circa 60, has been relatively spared. Most of the inhabitants are Shia Muslims and they had little sympathy with the Sunni Taliban from the Pashtun south.