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AROUND KABUL

110 AROUND KABUL •• Panjshir Valley

by India, their coffers rich from trade with China and Rome. Any echoes of Kapisa have long been muffled by the sound of military aircraft. Since the war, Bagram has acquired a black

name. It is the site of a notorious detention facility in the ‘War on Terror’, used as a way station for the US prison at Guantánamo Bay. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused the authorities of torture and widespread prisoner abuse at Bagram, allegations denied by the US army, despite their admission of the assault and homicides of several Afghans in custody. The small town of Bagram on the edge

of the airbase has an interesting bazaar (busiest on Friday) selling US army goods and supplies that have been ‘lost’, sold or otherwise disappeared from the base – any- thing from army-issue sunglasses to ration packs. A scandal hit the base in 2006 when computer hard drives on sale were found to contain sensitive military information. Minibuses run to Bagram from Ka-

bul’s Serai Shomali motor park (50Afg, 45 minutes). Alternatively, travel to Charikar (40Afg, 30 minutes) and change there. Chari- kar is famous for its handmade knives, and there are several chaikhanas on the main town roundabout. The big unnamed place on the southwest corner of the roundabout does a heaving trade – as well as kebabs and pulao it has great peppery shorwa (soup), and some divine almond ice cream.

PANJSHIR VALLEY

ﺮﻴﺸﺠﻨﭘ رد

The stunning Panjshir Valley has become one of the most celebrated places in Af- ghanistan. Its charging river and fields and orchards made it a popular tourist destina- tion in the 1970s, but a decade later it be- came known as a symbol of resistance to the Soviets, the unconquerable redoubt of the mujaheddin leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Having fought for over 20 years, Massoud was killed by Al-Qaeda in September 2001, and his tomb halfway up the valley, near his home village of Jangalak, is a must-see for any visitor. The name Panjshir means ‘Five Lions’,

for five brothers from the valley who mi- raculously dammed a river for Sultan Mah- moud of Ghazni in the 10th century AD. A ziarat (shrine) to them stands near the mouth of the valley.

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Panjshir is possibly the most beautiful val- ley in Afghanistan. Starting at Dalan Sang, the narrow gorge that forms its mouth, the road proceeds up the valley, which gradually widens to reveal carefully irrigated fields of wheat and maize dotted with villages and walnut and mulberry groves. The Panjshir River itself is rich with fish. It’s quite com- mon to see men thigh-deep in the water cast- ing nets and the catch is often for sale cooked at roadside stalls. In late spring, snowmelt turns the river into a torrent, but even in late summer there are plenty of rapids. A few enterprising expats have even managed to take advantage of the fast flowing waters by bringing their own kayaks. The Panjshir has always been an impor-

tant highway. Nearly 100km long, it leads to two passes over the Hindu Kush – the Khawak Pass (3848m) leading to the north- ern plains, and the Anjoman Pass (4430m) that crosses into Badakhshan – used by the armies of Alexander the Great and Timur. The Red Army had some of its darkest days in Afghanistan here. Panjshir was ideally located for guerrilla

attacks on Bagram and the supply convoys crossing the Salang Pass. As the Soviets learned to their cost, it was also brilliantly defensible. In the first three years of the war, there were six major offensives against the Panjshir, all of which ended in defeat for the Russians. Armoured columns could be easily attacked from the mountain walls, and the road easily cut by the mujaheddin. Destroyed tanks still litter the valley floor. Several times Massoud ordered the entire evacuation of the civilian population, to reduce casualties caused by high-altitude bombing. In total there were ten failed as- saults on the Panjshir, causing the Russians to call a ceasefire with Massoud, unheard of during the war. As well as a place of hiding, Panjshir was a source of income for Massoud. Me- dieval Panjshir had been famous for its silver mines, but repeated Soviet bombing

WARNING – UXO

The Panjshir Valley remains heavily affected by unexploded ordnances (UXOs), with local hospitals regularly reporting casualties. Al- ways stick to the well-worn paths.

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CROSSING THE KHAWAK PASS

In the winter of 329 BC, Alexander the Great was pursuing the remnant army of the Persian empire across Afghanistan, final victory always one step ahead of him. The Bactrian warlord Bessus had claimed the throne and retreated north of the Hindu Kush, razing the ground behind him, safe in the knowledge that no army could cross the mountains without supplies in winter. Alexander had a different idea. He led his army up the Panjshir to push across the Khawak Pass, still deep in snow. Local villagers had buried their winter food, so the army had to carry all they ate. They ran out of food and slaughtered the pack animals, eating them raw due to a lack of firewood. Alexander, himself sick with fatigue and altitude sickness rode up and down the great column, driv- ing his men on. The epic crossing took 17 days, when the exhausted army descended to bountiful villages on the northern plains. Incredulous at the feat, Bessus panicked and fled towards the Amu Darya, where he was cornered and executed, the last gasp of the mighty Persian empire. Today, the Khawak Pass can still only be passed on foot. Locals ascribe the cairns at the summit

to the Greek soldiers who fell on the march. 2300 years later, Ahmad Shah Massoud used the pass as a supply corridor to the Panjshir, to harry the soldiers of another superpower.

revealed seams of emeralds in the moun- tain walls that were mined and smuggled to Pakistan. The emeralds are of extremely high quality, but the mining technique still favoured – using old military munitions in barely-controlled explosions – frequently cracks the gems, reducing their value.

Massoud’s Tomb

Ahmad Shah Massoud’s tomb is about 30km from the mouth of the valley, high on a promontory with a splendid view across the Panjshir.

A modest and attractive whitewashed tomb with a green dome was built soon after Massoud’s funeral, but when we most recently visited this was being replaced with a far more grandiose structure, a strange hy- brid of ancient and modern. The traditional dome and tiles clash with the overblown 21st-century vernacular, all plate glass and fake columns. It’s not a particularly happy collision. Only the actual tomb chamber inside, with the simple grave strewn with wild flowers seems to reflect the character of the slain leader.

In comparison, the half-destroyed Rus- sian armoured vehicles next to the grave offer a starker reminder of Massoud’s leg- acy. There’s a small kiosk next door selling cards and books about Massoud, but noth- ing in English. Almost the entire (male) population of

the Panjshir attended Massoud’s funeral in September 2001, and thousands of mourn- ers still visit the grave on the anniversary of his death. Official commemorations are

held in Kabul on 9 September, moving to Panjshir the following day. It’s an emo- tional scene, held under tight security. Despite his death, Massoud maintains a powerful presence in the valley. His portrait is everywhere, even on the windshields of vehicles. While other Afghans may hold mixed feelings about the man, Panjshiris are proud of their most famous son. In the immediate post-Taliban period, the Panj- shiri faction of the Northern Alliance held all the main reins of power, and immedi- ately upgraded the valley to full provincial status.

Getting There & Away

Minibuses to Panjshir run from Kabul (100Afg, 2½ hours) every day, via Jebal Saraj. Ask for Rokha or Baharak, the near- est villages to Massoud’s Tomb. A return trip in a taxi should cost around US$50. The road through the valley is paved. Security is tight in the valley, and all

vehicles are stopped at a checkpoint just past Dalan Sang. It’s advisable to bring your passport, and if travelling by private vehicle, a driver who has been to the val- ley before. Permission from the amniyat (security officers) is needed to travel past Massoud’s Tomb.

In theory it is possible to continue up the valley to cross the Anjoman Pass ( p166 ). It is essential you check in with the amniyat if trying this, as they will probably insist on your being accompanied by a soldier (and paying for it). Failure to do so would almost certainly result in arrest.

AROUND KABUL •• Panjshir Valley 111

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