While working for an NGO in Kabul, British expat Marc Perry went to explore the precipitous Panjishir valley in northeastern Afghanistan.
It had been my dream to visit Panjshir ever since I’d arrived in Afghanistan. Historically a geographic safe haven slicing through the Hindu Kush from Afghanistan to Tajikistan, this craggy, high-altitude valley is the final resting place of the legendary “Lion of Panjshir”, Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of “the only cohesive military opposition to the Taliban” until his assassination in 2001.
I began my journey in Kabul. The valley is accessible to the adventurous by a private company car – with a security guard included for a few hundred dollars – but I judged it risk-free enough to find a cheaper route. After a bus company weighed me up as a westerner and quoted US$500, I left empty handed and laughing; for a local it would more like US$15. In the end I called Samsoor, a good friend. I promised petrol and food in return for wheels and good company.
The road north took us past Bagram air base and along a vast river-cut plain from which the mountains of the Hindu Kush rise impossibly sharp and steep in the distance. The occasional jet screamed overhead, sending rolls of thunder across the valley and echoing off the mountainsides. We passed nomadic herdsmen camping among their sheep in the foothills.
After climbing for some distance the road began to run perilously close to the river Panjshir, which cuts inside a ravine of rock strata faulted at absurdly acute angles. We stopped at an armed guard post where my passport was checked – giving the impression that the valley represented a kingdom of its own. A huge billboard of Massoud, wearing a customary woollen pakul hat, greeted us beyond.
We continued on through high gorges, following the tumbling waters of the river upstream. Mud-built villages clung to the hillsides while farms and fat-tailed sheep filled the valley floor with colour. The air was as clean as the Pennine hills or the Yorkshire dales and the stone walls separating the fields reminded me of home. It was liberation from the stifling enclosure and pollution of Kabul. We stopped for food at a restaurant on the riverside where we were served a fine spread of freshly fried fish, rice and lamb curries washed down with chai.
Eventually we reached Bazarak, the town that holds Massoud’s tomb. Massoud is revered as a strategist and fighter and his portrait hangs all over northern Afghanistan; in cafes, shops, police cars and in taxis. He oozed handsome charisma – like Bob Marley but with a bazooka. He secured his place in history long before two Al Qaeda-linked suicide bombers detonated their deadly devices in his presence two days before 9/11 – no unfortunate coincidence. Tanks scatter the valley like tombstones here; the rusting remains of the Soviet invasion he resisted in the 1980s.
The tomb itself is set inside the arches of a domed tower made from stone and glass. It is a simple and regal space, the raised black marble tomb covered with glass panels inscribed with passages from the Koran. We stood on deep red Persian rugs and my Muslim friend cupped his hands in prayer. Massoud himself would approve, I thought: he was devout in observing prayer but was widely recognised for holding a moderate, liberal interpretation of Islam.
Next door, a tourist centre was under construction, ready to welcome the masses – inshallah or “god willing” as they say in Afghanistan. Maybe one day, should peace prevail, visitors will wend their way here from the far corners of the earth. If they do, the proud people of Panjshir will make welcoming hosts.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advise against all but essential travel to Kabul and Panjshir.