Introducing Panjshir Valley
The stunning Panjshir Valley has become one of the most celebrated places in Afghanistan. Its charging river and fields and orchards made it a popular tourist destination in the 1970s, but a decade later it became known as a symbol of resistance to the Soviets, the unconquerable redoubt of the mujaheddin leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Having fought for over 20 years, Massoud was killed by Al-Qaeda in September 2001, and his tomb halfway up the valley, near his home village of Jangalak, is a must-see for any visitor.
The name Panjshir means ‘Five Lions’, for five brothers from the valley who miraculously dammed a river for Sultan Mahmoud of Ghazni in the 10th century AD. A ziarat (shrine) to them stands near the mouth of the valley.
Panjshir is possibly the most beautiful valley in Afghanistan. Starting at Dalan Sang, the narrow gorge that forms its mouth, the road proceeds up the valley, which gradually widens to reveal carefully irrigated fields of wheat and maize dotted with villages and walnut and mulberry groves. The Panjshir River itself is rich with fish. It’s quite common to see men thigh-deep in the water casting nets and the catch is often for sale cooked at roadside stalls. In late spring, snowmelt turns the river into a torrent, but even in late summer there are plenty of rapids. A few enterprising expats have even managed to take advantage of the fast flowing waters by bringing their own kayaks.
The Panjshir has always been an important highway. Nearly 100km long, it leads to two passes over the Hindu Kush – the Khawak Pass (3848m) leading to the northern plains, and the Anjoman Pass (4430m) that crosses into Badakhshan – used by the armies of Alexander the Great and Timur. The Red Army had some of its darkest days in Afghanistan here.
Panjshir was ideally located for guerrilla attacks on Bagram and the supply convoys crossing the Salang Pass. As the Soviets learned to their cost, it was also brilliantly defensible. In the first three years of the war, there were six major offensives against the Panjshir, all of which ended in defeat for the Russians. Armoured columns could be easily attacked from the mountain walls, and the road easily cut by the mujaheddin. Destroyed tanks still litter the valley floor. Several times Massoud ordered the entire evacuation of the civilian population, to reduce casualties caused by high-altitude bombing. In total there were ten failed assaults on the Panjshir, causing the Russians to call a ceasefire with Massoud, unheard of during the war.
As well as a place of hiding, Panjshir was a source of income for Massoud. Medieval Panjshir had been famous for its silver mines, but repeated Soviet bombing revealed seams of emeralds in the mountain walls that were mined and smuggled to Pakistan. The emeralds are of extremely high quality, but the mining technique still favoured – using old military munitions in barely-controlled explosions – frequently cracks the gems, reducing their value.