About two hours north of Kabul lies the Panjshir Valley, final resting place of Afghan hero Ahmad Shah Massoud and a site of relative tranquility amidst the struggles that have plagued Afghanistan for so long. The Soviets and later Taliban never controlled this territory after 1989—a band of fighters stretching north into southern Tajikistan known in the west as the Northern Alliance formed to preserve their homeland and was largely successful in expelling the Red Army and Taliban forces.
On the drive out of Kabul proper, we encountered several luxurious villas under construction. My guide complained of the endemic corruption in Afghanistan, with particularly harsh words for President Hamid Karzai. As it turns out, Karzai does receive a generous allowance from the US Central Intelligence Agency, though that hasn’t stopped billions (with a b) of dollars in U.S. aid that has mysteriously gone missing. Check out Rachel Maddow’s book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power for more on that—very illuminating. I suppose this sort of thing is rather commonplace in the developing world, but it still makes me shake my head—surely foreign aid distribution can be more closely monitored.
As we drove over bumpy hills and left the big city for green fields and small villages we came to the Panjshir River, our first stop. Water was rushing and the outside temperature was a perfect 55ºF. Earlier, we had stopped at a roadside produce stand for green grapes and now spent the next 30 minutes sitting by the river and eating them. I had a bottle of water with me, but there was no need for it—the river provided fresh, pure, and cold water that we scooped up with our hands.
About a mile down the road stood a security checkpoint to enter the Panjshir Valley. Take a look at the image below—talk about daunting! That man is the aforementioned Ahmad Shah Massoud, the hero of the resistance who led the Northern Alliance and was assassinated by the Taliban on September 9, 2001. His grave would be our next stop.
Our journey took us up a winding mountain road, past more farms, fields, and even the construction of a football (soccer) stadium, which stands abandoned in the base of the valley.
We reached the resting place and monument to Shah Massoud, which is surrounded by Soviet tanks captured or abandoned during the USSR’s regrettable attempt to extend the Soviet Empire to Afghanistan. I do not have a picture, but on the way home we passed a field with thousands of captured tanks now collecting dust. Thanks in part to Shah Massoud’s resistance, the Soviets retreated very quickly from the “Bear Trap” of Afghanistan in 1989.
A little old man was tending to the memorial and welcomed me with a handshake and toothless grin before unlocking the memorial door and leading us into the room where the tomb lies.
My team – plus the caretaker of the memorial
The views from the monument are stunning and a resort is being developed around the monument: an odd juxtaposition but there is ample room to build. Like many projects in Afghanistan, progress has stalled as money has dried up. I hope the complex is completed as planned in the next two years, but I strongly doubt it.
On the way back to Kabul, we stopped for lunch at a small roadside restaurant, which I will describe further in a future post.
It took 2.5 hours to reach Kabul again, including about a 30-minute break taken so my detail could pray. As we reached the dusty capital city, it was apparent it was rush hour, Kabul-style. A 2km journey took another 40 minutes as the lack of lanes, lack of traffic signals, and lack of any semblance of order on the roads made for an aggravatingly annoying experience to get to my compound where I would spend the night.
I should have walked…it would have saved a lot of time.
Tomorrow: My Hotel Compound in Kabul
Read more of my Saudi Arabia + Afghanistan Trip Report–
Introduction: A Journey to Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan
How to Obtain a Saudi Arabian Transit Visa
New York JFK to Jeddah in Saudia Economy Class
Review: Park Hyatt Jeddah
Pictures from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Jeddah to Dubai in Saudia Economy Class
Dubai to Kabul on Ariana Afghan Airlines
Arrival in Afghanistan
The Panjshir Valley of Afghanistan
My Hotel, er Compound, in Kabul, Afghanistan
Kabul – TV Tower Hill and Darul Aman Palace
Kabul – National Museum of Afghanistan
Kabul – Gardens of Babur and Kart-e Sakhi Mosque
Kabul – The Green Zone and British Cemetery
Kabul International Airport and Departing Afghanistan
The Afghanistan Dilemma
Kabul to Dubai on flydubai
Dubai to New York via Jeddah in Saudia Economy Class
Thanks for posting this and the great pictures. It’s really nice to see more than the usual airlines report, hope you continue with this because you visit some fantastic places.
Looking forward to the post about the compound.
This is great stuff. Please get some pics of the Russian tanks! And seeing the memorial of Massoud was remarkable, he was a real badass!
You are very brave for drinking the water. During both of my trips, I stuck strictly to bottled water and wouldn’t think of eating fruits.
Ahmad Shah Massoud isn’t considered a “hero” by the majority of Afghans – he was a turncoat (according to the CIA) who regularly took bribes from the Russians. In Kabul, young women in the Makroyan apartment complex threw themselves off the roof when his troops came into town, to avoid the mass rape he and his men had become known for. The only reason he is being lauded a hero now is because the NA became a US ally in toppling the Taliban, and the current administration sees it as a way to appease the Tajiks. A family friend knows Massoud’s family and they’ve been buying up property all over Europe from the money this “hero” laundered during his time as a warlord. Nauseating, really, the way his posters are plastered everywhere and people are implored to worship him.
Thanks for the insight on Massoud. I am not an expert in Afghan history and you put a very different perspective on how the story was told to me.
It’s very similar to going to any country with a dictatorship and seeing the leader’s pictures and statues plastered on every corner. It doesn’t necessarily represent how the majority feels about him – just the way they are told to. There is a minority that love him purely out of ethnic loyalty, but the legend of Massoud wasn’t born until after he was killed and the NA cooperated w/ the US in toppling the Taliban.
Those pix are amazing and you are truly a world traveler. But are you out of your f…ing mind going there?
Being a former Red Army solder, I am blown away by the pictures, especially abandoned Soviet military equipment. I am sad that my people played a role in destroying the country and ashamed, that when I was young, I wanted to fight in Afghanistan. Propaganda is an awful thing!
Hope to visit Afghanistan one day and maybe do something good there.
Great post, but you lost me when you used Rachel “Madcow” Maddow as a credible reference.
@Tim: I’m no fan of MSNBC and the bile that network spews, but her book is a thoughtful look at the situation and I would encourage you to actually read it, even as a conservative.
Looks like the same checkpoint:(.
Yes indeed. How sad.