Today we left the traffic and pollution of Kabul behind and took a day trip to the beautiful Panjir Valley, north of Kabul. We passed through the wide Shomali Plains, once the foodbowl of Afghanistan, now almost wasteland due to war and the planting of thousands of deadly landmines there – although there are signs of rehabilitation now that the area has been de-mined. The earth here is naturally fertile and resilient, and farmers were at work tending the fields to prepare for the fruit crops, most notably grapevines. We stopped at a place where a shepherd was tending his flock and, quite by accident, witnessed the birth of a new lamb right in front of our eyes. I hope there’s some symbolism there! The green and brown plains were framed by the majestic, snow-capped Koh Daman mountains of the Hindu Kush. We passed through several large, bustling villages with colourful market stalls selling just about everything, rickshaws darting in between the trucks and far more women in burqas than in Kabul.
We passed the road to Bagram air-base, America’s largest base here – home to thousands of troops and the notorious detention centre. But we were surprised to see several “new” NATO military bases along the way to Panjshir, surrounded by concrete and shiny razor wire – obviously planning to be here for the long haul. Several military convoys also passed us by.
The road led us to a narrow gorge and rushing river – the entry into the Panjshir Valley – a place renowned for its beauty – not to mention its fiercely independent streak, record of defeat of foreign armies and home to a national hero, Ahmad Shah Massoud.
We follow the road along the river, which flows calmly in some places and transforms into rushing rapids in others. The valley opens to up to fertile field dotted with crops, fruit trees and villages, surrounded by the high mountains. At times the view is idyllic.
But you are reminded of the valley’s experience of invading armies when you see the rusted Russian tanks along the way. The design of the valley made it easy to defend and hard to penetrate thus Ahmad Shah Massoud’s excellent record of victory against the Soviets and the Taliban. It is now one of the most secure places in all of Afghanistan.
We joined Afghan families out for the day visiting Massoud’s tomb, on top of a hill offering wonderful views, with a graveyard of Russian tanks nearby as a reminder of his legacy. Children climbed on the tanks to get photos. There are pictures of Massoud everywhere in Panjshir – poster in shops, billboards on hillsides and photos on car windows. I wondered more than once what might have happened if the independent leader was still alive when the US forces invaded Afghanistan. (He was murdered just a few days before Sept 11.)
We had a full, wonderful, insightful day out of Kabul to see and learn more of Afghanistan and see and learn more of its complex history. Lots to think about.