PANJSHIR, Afghanistan -- Countless songs and poems have been dedicated to the beauty and captivating landscape of Afghanistan’s northeastern province of Panjshir with its soaring mountains and crystal-clear, blue-green river.
An oasis tucked away a little more than 150 kilometers northeast of the capital, Kabul, Panjshir has survived Afghanistan’s tumultuous times: the Soviet invasion, Taliban rule, and an insurgency of nearly two decades. Under the leadership of the region’s charismatic Islamist commander Ahmad Shah Massoud in the 1980s, the valley gained fame for resisting repeated Red Army incursions.
Today, the remote valleys of Panjshir are now among a handful of Afghan rural territories where peace prevails, and the population largely supports the Afghan government.
The region’s relative safety and unequivocal raw beauty is a major draw for thousands of Afghan tourists seeking an escape from a daily life that is often threatened or affected by their country’s four-decade-old war. Kabulis, as the more than 5 million residents of the teeming Afghan capital are known, are particularly fond of visiting rustic Panjshir.
Bahara Azizi, 24, is a resident of Kabul’s Khair Khana neighborhood. She tells Radio Free Afghanistan that visiting Panjshir and witnessing its picturesque beauty in person left an emotional impression.
“Panjshir Province is truly beautiful, especially with its unbelievably high mountains, rivers, and its glorious weather. It really touched my heart in an unexpected way,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan. “There are great spots for picnics, and when you sit near the water, you can feel the cool breeze hitting your face. It’s refreshing.”
Visitors like Azizi travel from Kabul with their families in large caravans during peak tourist season in spring and summer to escape the pollution in the capital and enjoy the country life. Panjshir is a favorite destination because of its proximity to Kabul and its optimal weather. Most tourists spend their time hiking, exploring the region’s valleys, and sightseeing.
But many of these visitors waited for the coronavirus pandemic to ease up before making the drive to the green valley divided by the white waters of Panjshir River amid the Hindu Kush Mountains.
Mohammed Fahim is from the Qasaba neighborhood of Kabul. He says he chose to travel to Panjshir with his family to get a change of scenery.
“Panjshir is breathtaking with so much greenery and beautiful spots to sightsee with the family,” he said. “Because of the pandemic, people could not travel as much as before, but now that the threat from the virus has lessened, we decided to take a family vacation here.”
Officials in Panjshir, too, have noticed an uptick in tourist numbers. Mohammed Amin Seddiqi, deputy governor of Panjshir, tells Radio Free Afghanistan that on average they have noticed more than 45,000 visitors arriving on Thursdays, which marks the beginning of Afghan weekend.
“Panjshir seems to be an attractive option for many tourists,” he noted. “It is considered to be a safe province, and very close to the capital,” he added. “Other provinces are unfortunately dealing with their own problems, but it's necessary for Afghans to have at least one safe haven where they can visit without worrying for their safety. Most importantly, they need a destination that will lift their spirits.”
But several incidents have marred this tourist season in Panjshir. This month, several Afghans reported on social media about the bad treatment they received from unnamed individuals who bothered travelers and even prevented some from entering the region through the mountain road that links Panjshir with the rest of Afghanistan. Some complained their musical instruments had been smashed and they were harassed.
Officials in Panjshir, however, say this type of harassment is unacceptable and they will work to stop it.
Panjshir made Afghan headlines this week after an Afghan government operation to apprehend Keramuddin Karim failed. The fugitive former head of the country’s national soccer federation has been evading an Afghan arrest warrant issued last year over sexual abuse and other criminal charges.
A stable security situation has allowed for the region to remain peaceful. But like the rest of Afghanistan, its future hinges on whether the Afghan government and the Taliban can agree on a shared future or if they will continue to push for a military victory over their opponents.
Nilly Kohzad wrote this story based on reporting by Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ahmad Hanayesh from Panjshir, Afghanistan.