It has been on our wishlist ever since we left for Afghanistan: the Panjshir valley. A little over 100 km northeast of Kabul, it had the promise of nature, of an independent people that neither the Russians nor the Taliban could conquer, of the tomb of Massoud, the iconic warlord who is revered through photos in many parts of Afghanistan. Arranging transportation turned out to be more complicated though: the price we had read about turned out to be impossible to get from the various guesthouses we tried. Since we never met any taxi drivers in Kabul who spoke English, and our Dari was not sufficient to explain what we wanted, we ended up with a late-minute deal through our guesthouse. The next morning, our driver is at the hotel early, and we set off through the still low traffic, heading north. The driver does speak some English, and eagerly points out spots where the road is damaged: detonated roadside bombs caused bumps in the asphalt. He also warns us while driving through a few villages: according to him, they are controlled by the Taliban at night, and are more or less safe during the day. He is relieved when we leave the main road to the north, which we have taken on our bus ride to Mazar-e-Sharif the week before. We see street stalls with enormous bags full of grapes, and are very tempted to buy them, but then we realize we will never be able to eat them all.
We take a left, and drive into the Panjshir valley. We are soon stopped at a checkpoint, where the soldiers want to see our passports. Just a little ahead: an arch with pictures of Massoud. He is omnipresent in Afghanistan, but an even bigger hero here. Massoud was dubbed the Lion of the Panjshir because of his courage: he fought the Soviets, and then the Taliban and others. The Panjshir is all about lions: it translates to Five Lions (making Massoud the Lion of the Five Lions). I expected entering through a mountain pass, but after driving through a narrow gorge with water rushing by on our right hand side, the Panjshir opens up, and we see tree-less mountains on both sides, with a green valley bed through which the river runs in between. Villages with adobe houses cling to the mountain slopes, we see fields where crops are grown, we see rusting Soviet tanks at the roadside and in the river, we pass through one village after the other. The Panjshir turns out to be much more populated than we expected. The driver is from the Panjshir, greets more and more people until he proudly points out his own house before turning left and driving uphill to the resting place of the Lion of the Panjshir. In the middle of the valley, on a small plateau overlooking the Panjshir, an impressive mausoleum is built. The water does not run in the white channels. A local opens the door to the domed building in which Massoud rests. After warning that a big attack on the US was imminent, he was killed just two days before the September 11 attacks of 2011. After all the pictures we have seen almost everywhere, it is surprising that we are the only visitors of his tomb today.
After driving down, our driver wants to return to Kabul, and we have to convince him to make a left, as we want to see more of the Panjshir. He now also discovers that he has run out of fuel, and we lose some time looking for a refill. We make a phone call to our guesthouse in Kabul to make sure that he understands our plans for the day (which we thought were clear). We drive further northeast. There are more Soviet tanks, some still at strategic positions, some in a row, some slowly disintegrating in the Panjshir river. The more we advance, the narrower and more spectacular the valley becomes. Behind the mountains of the valley itself, appear snow-topped mountains of the Badakhshan province. We have been dying to get closer to nature, and when we are on our way back to Kabul, tell our driver to let us walk, and meet up later. We finally walk next to the river, have better views of the surrounding mountains and villages, see some of the sturdy old adobe houses, some of which have curious shapes. We meet a small group of shepherds, and while their sheep are grazing next to the Panjshir river, have a chai with them while trying to find out what their lives look like. On our way out of the valley, we have a quick bite at one of the many restaurants at the riverbank. During our drive back to Kabul, we realize that while visiting Afghanistan has certain risks of kidnapping and terror attacks, the biggest risk is the traffic on roads with too many vehicles, and where the only rule seems to be that there are no rules. That evening, one of the guys at the guesthouse gives us a plate with Panjshir grapes, and we dig into those sweet delicacies with fond memories of the Panjshir.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Panjshir Valley (). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Panjshir Valley.
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