Last week, driving up the magnificent Panjshir valley in northeastern Afghanistan, 150 km north of Kabul, I saw beauty in its most pristine form. The spectacular landscape that leaves you gasping for breath; crystal-clear waters surging down the glacial heights; shimmering lakes moving with faultless rhyme and seamless rhythm; brooding and majestic mountains invisible through a shroud of damp white mist; lush green meadows spread like a beautiful carpet; serpentine roads with towering cliffs, and gentle breeze kissing you like a beautiful mermaid.
The drive from Kabul to Panjshir, meandering through rugged mountains, is nothing short of spectacular. The beauty of this valley, sitting in the lap of Hindu Kush Mountains, has inspired many poets and artists over the centuries. The picturesque peaks and the gurgling waters make you fall in love with it.
Panjshir valley, which translates into ‘valley of five lions’, gets the name from five brothers who quite astonishingly made a dam here for Sultan Mahmoud Ghazni in early 11th century, the prominent ruler of the Ghaznavid empire. Their small, modest shrine greets visitors at the entrance of valley.
Surrounded by majestic Hindu Kush Mountains, which divide Central Asia and South Asia, Panjshir valley with its shimmering lakes and rocky terrains is an incredible sight to behold. The valley starts at Dalang Sang and stretches to 100 kms right till the Anjoman Pass, through extensive fields of wheat, maize, walnut and mulberry.
Panjshir has emerged as favorite destination of foreign tourists not only because of relative calm and pristine beauty, but also because of the history and legends associated with this place
The gurgling Panjsher River, which passes through the valley, is famous for fishing escapades. Many local restaurants serve you freshly fried fish taken from the trout-filled streams. For many foreign tourists and water sports enthusiasts, the river is ideal for kayaking, which has evolved into a popular water sport here.
Passing through well-irrigated farms, you come across a beautiful football stadium, which is still under construction. According to locals, celebrated Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud used to play football in the green fields here. Hailed as the ‘Loin of Panjshir’, Massoud quite famously fought Soviets and also the Taliban and Al Qaeda as the commander of Northern Alliance. He was assassinated two days before the 9/11 attacks, and his green-domed mausoleum on top of hills is among the prime attractions here. The destroyed Russian tanks lying next to his mausoleum tell the incredible tales of his chivalry.
Massoud has left deep and enduring imprints on the lives of people here. His portraits are everywhere from streets to shops to government buildings to cars plying on the road. People here have kept his legacy alive and it is pretty much evident. His close associate and former Vice President Mohammad Qaseem Fahim, who passed away recently, is also highly revered by people in Panjshir. His palatial bungalow on the banks of Panjshir River is a big attraction. Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, who hails from Panjshir, has a huge following here. The people here seem disheartened because of the alleged fraud in Presidential runoff.
Panjshir valley was not just a hiding place for Massoud and his fighters, the emerald mines in mountains were the main source of revenue for his party. The legions of miners are still burrowing deep into the snow-capped mountains looking to extract some of the world’s finest emeralds. The huge deposits of rubies, sapphires and lapis lazuli, which are currently sold for about 200 million USD every year, could lay the foundation of robust gem industry here in future.
Panjshir has emerged as favorite destination of foreign tourists not only because of relative calm and pristine beauty, but also because of the history and legends associated with this place, which is the central setting of Ken Follett’s 1985 spy novel ‘Lie Down with Lions’. However, the desperate attempts to breach the security continue. Earlier last month, a powerful car bomb exploded at a checkpoint that marks the entrance to the valley. At least 12 people were killed in the attack. But comparatively, Panjshir province is by far the safest in Afghanistan. During the Taliban regime, many people had flocked here from Kabul and other provinces to escape the brutality of rulers.
Surrounded by majestic Hindu Kush Mountains, which divide Central Asia and South Asia, Panjshir valley with its shimmering lakes and rocky terrains is an incredible sight to behold
The travel time from Kabul to Panjshir has considerably decreased because of well paved and maintained roads. The road that connects most of the villages and cuts through some of the most difficult mountain terrains was constructed by The United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The narrowness of roads and absence of street lights, however, make the drive difficult after sunset. Many accidents have occurred on this road, making it dangerous.
At the entrance of valley, there is a police check post where cars are stopped for security check. Security arrangements have been tightened especially since the May 1 suicide attack, which was a rare assault by armed insurgents in Panjshir. If you don’t carry passport, you might be grilled by security guards manning the gate.
Once you have entered the valley, the adventure trails begin. The small shops selling kebabs and tea dot the road along the Panjshir River. Kebabs are served with traditional Afghan bread. There are also shops selling cherry, mulberry and pomegranates. You also find some quirky cafes serving burgers and various desserts.
Along the road, there is a 40-bed hospital developed by the Afghan Ministry of Health in partnership with World Bank and Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), which caters to thousands of people living in the area. The hospital is not too far from Bazarak, the center of valley. There are few more hospitals in the interior areas, which serve the local populace.
Many children, especially girls, can be seen walking long distance to reach their schools. Unlike in many other provinces of Afghanistan, the progress made in the area of education here is tremendous. As one local told me, Panjshiris understand that education is the key to a more promising future.
The villages in Panjshir are peaceful and calm and people are incredibly hospitable. The total strangers walk up to you and greet you in chaste Dari. Many of them even invite you home. All the houses in villages are made of mud, surrounded by lush-green orchards. Icy-cold water surging down the mountains feed the agricultural fields below. There are not many shops and lifestyle is simple. Unlike the villages in other provinces though, electricity here is uninterrupted.
The drive back to Kabul from Panjshir is again thrilling, but you tend to miss the place. The chaos and commotion of Kabul is in sharp contrast to peace and tranquility of Panjshir. This is also the one place that reminded me of home.
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