KABUL, Afghanistan &

I'm at least 40 minutes into my flight &

glass of white wine in one hand, book in the other &

when it suddenly dawns on me that this is no ordinary vacation: I'm going to Afghanistan.




Like many people, my image of Afghanistan has been shaped by what I read and see in the media. Women in blue burqas, fields of opium poppies, fierce-looking turbaned men, and tanks churning through dust.




That may well be true, but what I found on a weeklong trip was a surprisingly green country with incredibly welcoming people. Often peeping from beneath those enveloping burqas I saw strappy high-heeled sandals and crimson-colored toenails.




I climbed the ruins of 12th century citadels, sacked by Genghis Khan, sat in sunlight beneath a canopy of apricot and apple trees in the Panjshir Valley drinking cardamom tea, and explored the empty niches of 5th century Buddhas famously blown up by the Taliban in Bamiyan.




With suicide attacks in the capital, kidnappings of foreigners and a resurgence of the extremist Taliban in the south, Afghanistan doesn't get many tourists. Most Western countries advise against all but necessary travel to Afghanistan, while some countries have outright banned it. The U.S. Department of State warns of "an ongoing threat to kidnap and assassinate U.S. citizens ... throughout the country."




Still, a few travel agencies, many run by former backpackers, will arrange trips there.




For me, it had become a tradition to do something unusual on my birthday. I have chased hammerhead sharks in Baja, Mexico, explored the jungle lairs of Indonesia's former separatist guerillas and hung out with street kids in China. This year it was Afghanistan.




After e-mails with friends who lived there, security agencies and by chance, the son of a former Afghan diplomat, I had a loose itinerary: Kabul, Bamiyan, and the Panjshir Valley.




Due to concerns about kidnappings, and lack of a tourism infrastructure, independent travel is not easy or recommended, especially for a single Western woman.




So I had two choices - either a foreign-run travel agency in Afghanistan, spending upward of $1,000 a day, or I could hire a driver for a third the cost.




A friend recommended her driver, Shahabudin Sultani, a soft-spoken Bamiyan native dressed impeccably in a traditional cream Afghan tunic and trousers. And so at 6:30 a.m., we loaded bottles of water and bags of almonds and apricots into a minivan for the journey.




Although it's only 150 miles from Kabul, the drive to Bamiyan takes over 10 hours along a dirt path that winds high up into the snowcapped Koh-i-Baba mountains before dipping down into a verdant valley. A faster route &

from the south &

is not recommended as it passes through some risky regions.




Dotted along the red craggy cliffs are dozens of fortress-like mud and brick houses with high walls pockmarked by rocket and bullet holes, ubiquitous reminders of war.




Children run along the path switching at donkeys loaded up with bails of wheat or herding goats past rusting Soviet tanks and abandoned mortar guns, some of which have been used as makeshift dams or bridges.




War has been a constant in Afghanistan, as regional powers battled for control of the territory often described as the cockpit of Asia, and the Bamiyan Buddhas were silent witness to much of it.




The two statues, at 174 feet and 125 feet, were hewn out of the red cliffs when Bamiyan, on the fabled Silk Road that linked Rome to China, was a thriving center of Buddhism and culture.




They survived the violent introduction of Islam in the 7th century, although Islamic leaders ordered that their golden-gilded faces and hands be sliced off. They escaped the murderous rage of Genghis Khan who lost his favorite grandson at the battle for Bamiyan's Red City in 1221, and razed the entire valley in revenge.




During the decade-long resistance against the Soviets, the honeycomb network of 2,000 caves that surround the statues housed thousands of war refugees.




Then came the Taliban, which initially promised to preserve the Buddhas, then blew them up in 2001 to an international outcry.




I stayed at the Roof of Bamiyan hotel in a yurt &

small round huts made of mud and straw and covered inside with Afghan carpets.




The next morning, my birthday, as I watched the sun cast a honey hue across the patchwork valley of green and beige fields, it was not difficult to imagine how the Buddha's gold and jewel encrusted face would have shimmered as it caught the light.




After a breakfast of warm flaky Afghan bread, scrambled eggs and scented black tea, I headed to the village for a better look.




Although Bamiyan is one of the safest places in Afghanistan, I was careful to wrap up, covering my arms and legs and twisting a scarf around my head. I picked my way down the hill and through the dusty pathways of the village, drawing few stares and the occasional smile.




The towering niches, although empty, are more impressive close up. It's still possible to see the outline of the statues, and some parts remain, as if in bas relief, although most is in rubble.




UNESCO and Afghan archaeologists have spent years collecting and cataloguing fragments of the statues and stabilizing the cliff side.




For $3 &

plus a negotiable "tax" &

it's possible to explore the caves. I'm escorted by an earnest young Afghan archaeological student to the smaller statue, Buddha's wife.




As we approach a locked wooden door in the base of the cliff, my guide begs off, saying he wants to attend a party, and leaves me with a set of heavy keys, a yellow hard hat and a warning that "some parts are still unstable."




I inch my way up a narrow, dark and crumbling staircase that branches out on several levels into empty caves, some of which bear a hint of the elaborate paintings and frescoes that once decorated the now-musty interior.




The walls crumble beneath my touch. I step gingerly on the decaying floor, acutely aware that mobile phone reception is sketchy here and shouts for help would be futile. When at last I reach the top, I sit for a while in a Buddha-shaped cave where the devout once came to pray, looking out over green fields of wheat and potatoes to the snowy mountains of the Hindu Kush.




Most people leave after seeing the Buddhas, but there are other sites worth seeing, including the lakes of Band-i-Amir, five pools of sapphire blue set amid desert canyons, and the ruins of the Red City and the City of Screams, which were built in the 12th century and razed by Genghis Khan a century later.




The Red City, or Shahr-i-Zohak, sprawls out over three levels atop a red cliff mountain at the entrance to the Bamiyan valley. Sultani, my driver, used to play there as a boy, and practically skips his way to the top following our mandatory military guide, as I scramble up the path behind, clinging to parts of the citadel's fortifications and keeping an eye out for red-painted rocks, an indication of land mines.




Both Shahr-i-Zohak and Shahr-i-Gholghola, the City of Screams, were heavily mined during decades of war, although most have been cleared.




For my last adventure in Bamiyan, we head to Dragon's Valley, a mountain ridge in a valley of undulating anonymous gray sand dunes. Legend has it that a dragon terrorized locals, demanding each day a young girl and the occasional camel to eat. Until that is, Islam's dragon slayer Hazrat Ali split the beast in two with his sword leaving a fissure — feet wide at some points, and sparking a mass conversion to Islam.




The ribbed mountain does look like a dragon's scaly back. Inside the chasm you can hear the dragon's mournful rumbling - bubbling spring water streaming like tears from the dragon's eyes.




Over the next few days I pack in a day trip to the Panjshir Valley, visiting the marble and stone tomb of Ahmad Shah Masood, a resistance hero who was assassinated by al-Qaida a few days before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The tomb is perched high on a hill with a commanding view of the valley he defended from Soviet troops.




I'm picked up early the next day by Great Game Travel company for a daylong tour of Kabul, the capital, that jumps between the 5th century city wall to 16th century Babur Gardens to the buzzing Kabul market. Here fighting cocks are sold for $100 each, and women in sky-blue burqas teeter on high heels as they jostle to buy tea and spices.




Standing on a hill looking over the city, our guide Ghulam Sakhi Danishjo points out the Kabul stadium where the Taliban once carried out public executions.




What happens there now? "Oh," said Sakhi, "now, they just play soccer."