(*not including all the photo ones)
After four hours on our way back from Bamiyan, we took a detour at a car wash/berry stand for a detour into the heavenly Panjshir valley. We had just passed a convoy of military trucks and emerged from the dirty, windy roads of Taliban territory onto smooth highway. Gull, my guide and the founder of the new Rah-e-Abrisham tour agency, looked infinitely happier. We waited while two boys meticulously sprayed and scrubbed the car back to white, and looked out at the road ahead: the road to Panjshir was safe, controlled only in parts by mafias — those who dealt in drugs, not people — and most of them could be bribed.
The berries were outside the town of Charikar, and we ordered them from the mechanic by claiming a woven dish of many thousands of white, pink, and purple fruits that resembled mini raspberries, and popping them into our mouths with scientific precision. The darker berries were the sweetest, sometimes too much so. The whitest were tart, and the pink and multi-colored could be anywhere in the middle. Gull and Ali Akbar, our fearless driver, were experts. Flitting across the surface with their fingertips, they avoided the mushiest and would put together a cocktail of two or three berries of different colors to toss back in the cup of their palm. Only I ever put four together or had one alone. After half an hour, in the pile wider than a large New York pizza, we had made respectable damage and returned the basket to its roadside table, where it waited under the shade for the next hungry travelers.
There is a checkpoint somewhere along the silver Panjshir river. The jagged walls of the gorge shoot up almost vertically, and a guard waved from a booth chiseled into the rock face for me to display my passport. There are small towns along the road, or by the wrong turns we took, but most of this detour is uneventful. For brief moments, with early afternoon light just right, wide open fields are golden with grain. But the big pay-off comes suddenly, right around one final turn…
Any snapshot of the Panjshir Valley looks like the Hollywood vision of paradise. Its Wikipedia image is one taken by the United States Air Force, but the boys in blue only caught the canyon in shadow, sunlight disappearing over the tops of the hillside. At midday, when the clouds move, the olive and emerald farms fade into the far end of the dale, the silver river glints under a Monet-worthy footbridge; the sky is blue in the direction you’re looking. Panjshir refers to “Five Lions,” five guardian brothers of the valley in the eleventh century.
The summit of the lookout is crowned with a tall mausoleum for a modern day “Lion of Panjshir” born in the province: Ahmad Shah Massoud was credited by the Wall Street Journal as “the Afghan who won the Cold War”. First an engineering student at Kabul University, Massoud became a military commander largely responsible for expelling Soviet forces from Afghanistan. In 1996, he lead the newly founded United Islamic Front, a multi-ethnic government organization created to expel the Taliban and promote democracy. Two days before September 11th, 2001, Massoud was assassinated by Al-Qaeda suicide bombers. Now, Afghan daytrippers pose by the monument, and snap pictures with their cellphones of the sweeping landscape down below.
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The departure hall of the Kabul International Airport has three gates, all without numbers. All three open onto the same hallway, to be followed in one direction past the signs marked “EXIT/BAGGAGE CLAIM” (this is also the arrival hall) and down an unlit staircase onto a huge bus. There are no TV screens, no lists of departure times, no announcements when the scheduled boarding, check-in, and flight times come and go like the country’s summer afternoon rains. An hour or two late, the flight is announced in Dari. Maybe English, too. Guards in plainclothes search bags and give farewell pat-downs onboard the small prop plane while passengers squeeze by into creaky seats. Pat, pat. And off you go.
All the photos from Afghanistanhere.
Pakistan is next.