The Panjshir Valley, & an ancient Buddhist stupa

Turquoise Mountain Foundation Compound
Kabul, Afghanistan 9:04 a.m.

sorry–this is a long post!

Yesterday we launched on an epic adventure far from Kabul’s center of gravity and dove deep into the serious mountains of northeastern Afghanistan. We’d been looking forward since last week to our planned day trip to the Panjshir, but I had no clue that the evening would also bring us face to face with a stunning 3rd or 4th century Buddhist stupa in the hills on the outskirts of the Shomali plains, in a place that seemed forgotten by time and Taliban alike.

We left around 8 a.m., a group of seven: our driver Reza bringing myself and Sara, Jenny and Conrad, the English earth-architecture builder Grahame and Fatma, the Afghan native raised largely in the Netherlands. Two or three hours of driving brought us to the narrow entrance of the stunning Panjshir Valley, or valley of the five lions—a region neither the Soviets nor Taliban were ever able to take and hold from the local people, led by Ahmad Shah Massoud. The Taliban sent a pair of “reporters” to interview and assassinate Massoud a day or two before the September 11th attacks, finally neutralizing one of their most hated foes just before the bull pucky that was about to start flying hit the fan. Before that, he had long outfoxed them and earned his reputation as “the Lion of Panjshir” and the hero of the people of northern Afghanistan. I’ve seen Massoud’s picture emblazoned everywhere I’ve been, on car windshields, billboards, posters, shop windows, you name it.

The steep, stony canyons of the Panjshir were littered with hundreds of rusting hulks of Soviet tanks, some scattered randomly in the fertile plains, some half-buried with only portions of their formerly fearsome iron mass emerging to remind one of the long and violent history still too fresh in local memory. An entire generation of Afghans has lived with constant doses of war, violence and brutality—starting in 1979 under the savage Soviet occupation, then the civil war amongst various warlords and tribal armies competing to fill the vacuum left by the Russians’ departure. Finally the Taliban emerged to offer stability and a relative quiet still remembered fondly by many here. I’m still wrapping my mind around how much Taliban appreciation exists here in the capital and in the supposedly anti-Taliban north: there’s not a lot of black and white here, at least not that my unstudied eye can perceive.

(The post-Taliban history is at least distantly familiar for many Americans by virtue of the largely monolithic press coverage that has come our way: good America vs. evil Muslim fundamentalists, America rides in to save the day. How easy to forget that only months before 9/11, George Bush’s government representatives and American oil company executives were hosting their friends the Taliban in Texas, negotiating oil pipeline deals. When the Taliban were not cooperative enough, threats of an October US invasion of Afghanistan were made well before 9/11—when such an idea suddenly made sense for other reasons. The CIA funded support of Osama bin Laden and his fellow “freedom fighters” during the Soviet war, support that by 2001 had already gone badly awry. These and a host of other uncomfortable details only serve to muddy the waters. But that’s a rant for another day, and a more honest time in America’s future, should that era ever come.)

As we made progress into the valley, we all stopped to pay our respects at the still-under-construction burial shrine of Ahmad Shah Massoud, on top of a low hill in the midst of the precipitous stony walls of the Panjshir. I spoke for a few minutes with a group of young Afghan men who, like me, were ambling about on the two dead Soviet-era tanks in the shadow of Massoud’s grave. As an American, I have generally gotten a pretty warm response—not as super-friendly as Indians usually offer, but not hostile either. As usual, a gesture of respect and a friendly smile go a long way. Sometimes it’s amazing how much can be shared between individuals with no history and no shared words.

Heading farther north from there, the valley’s lush fertile farmland blossomed with springtime’s verdant regeneration. We kept driving on what was, by far, the smoothest, best-paved road I’ve yet seen in Afghanistan. Apparently, the first Karzai cabinet was composed largely of Panjshiris, who deftly diverted many other reconstruction projects’ dollars into their own neighborhood, establishing a modern access route into this remote mountain valley. At some point, the smooth asphalt turns into a bumpy, dusty and pock-marked one lane mountain death trap route up to Tajikistan; we drove just far enough to experience a small amount of that—it’s a bone-jarring routine.

We stopped in a small village en route to score some fresh lamb kebabs for lunch—this is not a vegetarian-friendly country, unless bread and rice suffices—and drove on until we found a good access point to the Panjshir River where we could have our little picnic. I don’t think I’ve eaten lamb in more than 25 years, but when in Rome—well, I’ve tried to abide by the maxim that when someone offers me food, that food is in some way blessed, even if it is not strictly in accordance with our personal dietary preferences. I’ve heard even the vegetarian Dalai Lama eats meat when it is offered to him.

We peeled off our shoes and socks and enjoyed a pleasant picnic on the river’s grassy plain. Ambling afterwards along the river’s edge, finally we took off as many clothes as we could while still respecting local customs and enjoying a dip in the Panjshir’s chilly flowing waters. I looked up to barely notice in the distance a single shepherd winding his way across the massive rocky mountain face with his sheep and cows—a nicer office environment I have rarely seen. Later a few of his cows ambled by, nimbly picking their way along the river’s edge while we splashed and enjoyed a rare moment of frolic.

I have for years enjoyed, though on too rare occasions, hiking and “seeing all” in various regions of high mountain splendor: Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, California’s High Sierra, the Torres del Paine in Patagonia, the icy crags of India’s majestic Pir Panjal. Few things match the simple, elemental glory of seeing a new range of high altitude rocky peaks reveal themselves before me. Just soaking it all into my eyes was a balm to my already Kabul-addled senses. I was a very happy camper.

I thought our day was complete, lacking only the long drive back to dusty civilization. I had no idea that the little sign-post “town” of Toop Dara, most of the way back down into the Shomali plains, held for us such an ancient gem. Grahame had mentioned that he had heard of, but never visited, an old Buddhist stupa somewhere in the hills up there—why don’t we try and find it? The slow incline, up the steep road with no guard rail to protect against a precipitous and deadly fall, became the sort of winding, slippery dangerous ascent that only a minivan in balding tires can truly provide—there were definitely a couple of moments in which we didn’t quite have control; the wrong slip could have been pretty awful. But we persevered and arrived to the end of the road, nestled between two groups of mud-walled houses (bristling with small children) that seemed less like villages and more like extended clan settlements. We caused a bit of a local stir, and walked up maybe 10 to 20 minutes until we came within sight of a round, somewhat decomposed but largely intact stone stupa maybe 30 feet across and 40-50 feet high—an ancient signal from another era.

Grahame said it was back in the 3rd or 4th century that Buddhism was thriving in these hills, making this old spot maybe 1800 years old—amazing. But if I had to guess, I’d say we were the first visitors this old stupa had seen in many moons—we were pretty clearly the most exciting thing this neighborhood had seen in a dog’s age. Before long the few folks we had walking along with us became several dozen people—children, young men, older men. All men, come to think of it.

Somewhere, the all men part got sticky. Some comments were made, some photos taken even after Fatma requested no photos, and things snowballed. Sara and I had somehow gotten separated from where the rest of our group wandered—we stayed near the stone monument itself and wondered where everyone had gone—and we were taking in the sunset gloaming on the far-off snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush. We were surrounded by maybe 10 or 20 guys, all seeming pretty friendly, doing our best to communicate over the language barrier. I had a good laugh when, in the shadow of this ancient monument, I attempted to share my response with one of the senior-feeling men with a rifle who had climbed up beside me. We got nowhere, but when I looked at him and said “Wow!” he laughed and said “Wow!” and somehow, I realized that Wow is one of the crucial elements of the universal language. It was a fun moment.

With darkness coming quickly, it was clearly time to be leaving soon—but suddenly our group reappeared and we were all leaving swiftly, with an energetic ripple of “something had gone wrong” and it was time to go now. Slowly it became evident: there was a breach of honor and/or protocol afoot and, as can apparently often happen out here, things had the potential to snowball rapidly into an out of control situation.

Here in the central Asian mountain cultures, the idea of the “headman” of the area, from whom decisions, permissions and policies flow, is very relevant–in fact, a defining characteristic. Conrad just recently graduated from Princeton with a degree in Near Eastern Studies, thus making him the most knowledgeable in history, culture and language of any of our group (even including Fatma and Reza). Nonetheless, at 23, he is a bit young to be our “headman.” But in reality our headman he was, and being as how the leading man of the village or group is the point of contact and negotiation over weird situations like this, it was he whom we counted on to negotiate our way through what could have careened out of hand. Dusk encroaching, a car full of gringos and strangers at the end of a dirt road far from civilization, a sudden clash of honor arising—this had all the hallmarks of something that could get quite ugly, and quite quickly at that.

It was something, watching Conrad and the local headman, a white bearded man with soft eyes and a gentle feel to him, communicating and negotiating a mutually honorable solution to the conduct of the recent hour, while surrounded by dozens of noisy neighbors, protagonists and bystanders alike. I gathered very few words, but the gestures and demeanor were clearly serious, though all along I felt hopeful of a civil end result.

But it was a case study of one of the root realities of life here in Afghanistan: tribal culture has its own very distinct rules and practices, and a westerner like me has little grasp on the contours of this culture. Still, every action taken can cause ripples that I would have zero idea of. And traveling with someone like Sara—blond, white, female and energetically spunky—simply creates its own gravity and external social responses no matter how innocuous, gentle or inoffensive we are imagining our intentions or behavior to be.

There’s a reason many western women visiting here take on the trappings of this culture: covering the head, arms and bottom absolutely at all times, touching no man even in a handshake, making no eye contact with strangers, etc. Even though it seems messed up, unfair or ridiculous—and it often feels like all those things—still, the actual reality on the ground is that, this is how the culture operates here. When a western woman here thinks “oh, I’m just rolling up my sleeves, or smiling or offering to shake a guy’s hand, it’s no big deal,” the local men, with their own worldview and extreme sensitivity to minor gestures, aspects of dress and behavior, are liable to think instead “oh, this is one of those loose western whores we’ve been led to believe the majority of white women are” or some variant of this theme.

I do not pretend to understand any of this—I am very new to this world. But, both during the episode and our de-briefing of it with Jenny and Conrad later in the evening, both Sara and I felt a kind of cultural chill. Here we are wandering about with video camera rolling, being largely ourselves with our respective gregarious and bubbly personalities, smiling and doing our best to be kind and communicative with people here, yet in reality we may be having a completely different effect than we think or hope.

When we arrived a week ago, Conrad said to us: “In Kabul, it’s not a war zone. Outside of Kabul, it is a war zone.” Getting out of here in one piece, even with only occasional forays into the lawless territory that is “Afghanistan” outside this capital city of Kabul, might not be as much of a given as it’s been easy to imagine. As a fellow press person (a western male) wrote to Sara last week: “don’t get lulled into a false sense of security.“ After last night’s adventures, we each had a starker sense of what he meant, and how quickly it can all get weird over here.

In some ways, yesterday’s brush with local mountain culture seemed, in retrospect, like a fairly low-cost reality check. We all escaped unharmed, despite the awkward moments. For me, as much as I’d like to continue traveling about (northern) Afghanistan—Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Bamiyan—I’m starting to count our blessings and look forward to another good push of work here followed by a return to the relative safety of India and, eventually, the good ol’ US of A. It won’t be long…


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