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AROUND KABUL

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112 AROUND KABUL •• Salang Pass

There is a Governor’s Guesthouse (r US$20)

in Rokha (sometimes known as the Royal Guesthouse or Massoud’s Guesthouse). To stay overnight, visit the Governor’s office in Rokha for written permission.

SALANG PASS

ﮓﻨﻟﺎﺳ ﻞﺗﻮ

All road traffic between Kabul and north Afghanistan must cross the Salang Pass (3363m). One of three main passes across the Hindu Kush, the Salang was pierced in 1964 by the construction of a huge tunnel. Before then, the two halves of the country were effectively cut off from each other by the first snows of winter. The Salang Tunnel is a marvel of Soviet

engineering, and its military importance became apparent as soon as Russian tanks rumbled through en route to Kabul. In the 1980s Massoud’s fighters regularly am- bushed convoys from his nearby Panjshiri stronghold, while General Dostum’s control of the tunnel gave him the keys to northern Afghanistan for several years. Since the fall of the Taliban, the pass more prosaically claims to be the site of the world’s highest mobile phone tower. The road to the Salang starts to rise into the mountains at Jebal Saraj. The centre of town is marked by a small white palace on a rise, which reputedly belonged to the Tajik rebel Bacha Saqao, who claimed the Afghan throne in 1929. The road splits here, with a spur leading northeast to the Panjshir Val- ley. Chaikhanas in Jebal Saraj double up as popular carwashes – look for the many fountains of water shooting into the air,

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powered from the mountain streams above. The same waters powered Afghanistan’s first hydroelectric station here during Ha- bibullah’s reign. From Jebal Saraj, the road is a climb- ing procession of switchbacks, passing tiny villages clinging to the slopes, and groves of mulberry and cherry trees alongside the river. In several places, the swift waters have been dammed to make pools, which locals populate with wooden duck decoys for hunting.

Around 35km from Jebal Saraj, look out for a large and recently rebuilt ziarat. In the 1970s a terrible accident was prevented when a conductor – the brakes of his bus having failed – threw himself under the wheels of the vehicle to stop it careering to its doom. It’s a popular place to stop for prayers and, after experiencing the way many drivers treat the Salang as an alpine racecourse, you may wish to do the same. The pass itself is 12km from the ziarat.

A series of covered galleries mark the ap- proach, protecting the road from land- slides. The mouth of the tunnel yawns into the side of the mountains. Nearly 3km long, claustrophobes won’t enjoy the trip, which is gloomily lit and thick with traffic fumes. Delays at the tunnel are not uncommon, with traffic frequently held up to allow one- way passage only. These delays can become even more severe with the snows of deep winter, and although the pass is kept open all year, it’s sensible to bring some sup- plies and clothes against the weather when traversing at this time.

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