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In Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley, peace and a woman rule

Genghis Khan and the Taliban notwithstanding, serenity survives where peacekeepers haven't had to fire a shot since 2003.

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There is a check post at the entrance to the Bamiyan Valley – one of the scores of shacks set along the earthen roads of Afghanistan designed to provide some appearance of security or, at least, a quiet place for policemen to sip their green tea.

But this one is different. It's not merely that the building marks the blessed end to an eight-hour ride over unpaved roads that shake the body like a box of matchsticks. It is that this shack seems to mark the entrance into an Afghanistan of which the world has never dreamed.

Beyond it, flowering fields stretch between stark gray mountainsides like a green carpet interspersed with the gold of wheat ready for harvest.

In an unpretentious governor's residence sits the only female governor in Afghanistan's history – appointed to rule over a province where 52 percent of the registered voters are women, 10 percent higher than the national average.

And on a rocky plateau, behind knots of barbed wire, stand international soldiers who say they've drawn the long straw in the Afghan war. The area is so safe, they haven't needed to fire a shot since they arrived in 2003.

All Afghanistan reveals surprises upon closer inspection, but no place more than Bamiyan, where history and geology conspire to produce a people and place of incomparable beauty.

To drive to Bamiyan is to earn it. Granted, it is no wagon train across the Continental Divide, beset by snow, starvation, and wild beasts. But by the measure of 21st-century convenience, it's not too far removed. It is to rattle along roads unfit for goats, skipping though pockets of questionable security, until at last you arrive in the cool vales of Bamiyan, coated in dust. Upon arrival, my hair had the properties of a light-brown helmet.

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