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Backstory: An Afghan road less traveled

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 2, 2007



ON THE ROAD IN AFGHANISTAN

Zalmay and the car he's driving seem to be having a disagreement while in the passing lane. As Zalmay presses the accelerator, heedless of the oncoming cars blinking their lights in a panicked Morse code, the engine of the Toyota Surf audibly shrugs. Finally, he admits defeat and slides back into his lane as relieved traffic whooshes by.

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Zalmay, my brazen driver, likes to be in the passing lane. The Toyota Surf, however, is not at all convinced. Perhaps it is a prescient piece of metal, because the four-hour drive to Panjshir will involve a slalom course of potholes, hairpin curves clinging 1,000 feet above a valley floor, an ominously hissing front tire, and 50 minutes where we jostled like Jell-O on a dirt road leading to the roof of the Hindu Kush mountains. There, last winter's snows stretch their besooted fingers to the remote village of Khenj – our destination for a story about emerald mining.

So there's no need to get worked up only 10 minutes outside Kabul on a perfect piece of asphalt. Driving toward the Hindu Kush from Kabul is like that scene in "Star Wars" where the Millennium Falcon is being sucked toward the Death Star. Every passing minute brings you closer to an immensity that strains the neck and the imagination. Fortunately, the Hindu Kush – being rock – hasn't yet mastered the complexities of a tractor beam, meaning that, unlike Han Solo, we were allowed diversions along our way.

***

An hour outside Kabul, Ahmed, our guide to Khenj, veers off the highway in his white Corolla onto a dirt road. We follow in the Surf. I look with befuddlement at Farouq, my Afghan interpreter and purveyor of slightly sinister jokes. He's clueless, too. Usually not a good sign.

Moments later, we arrive at the base of a treeless hillside, eroded to form a perfect natural amphitheater. It swarms with shivering Afghans. Below, at the foot of the hill, kiosks selling hot food steam in the winter sun. Boys no older than 12 hawk snacks and cigarettes. "Dogfighting," Farouq says knowingly.

He's right. Thankfully, this is not the "bloody" kind – to the death. But dog fighting (and betting) is big business in Afghanistan, and the crowd "ooohs" when the action begins.

For someone who grew up wanting to save the whales, it's rather uncomfortable. But this is Afghanistan. Outside Kabul, there are no think tanks or yoga studios, only the rusted carcasses of countless Soviet tanks, turrets half buried in the soil – a roadside rosary of Afghanistan's unyielding spirit. The Soviets didn't leave because the Afghans were soft, and Panjshir is no exception. Quite the opposite.

The valley is, in fact, part of national myth. It is Afghanistan's unassailable fortress, a cleft of rock that has lured conquerors to its doorstep for centuries and then defied them. Here, Ahmed Shah Masood led the last pockets of resistance against the Taliban before he was assassinated by Al Qaeda operatives – two days before 9/11.

How strange, then, to stop at the mouth of the valley, where cliffs of granite squeeze the Panj- shir River, and to meet only a clutch of kids asking for pens and photos of themselves.

It's one of the many faces of Afghanistan. While the Taliban have seized entire towns in the south, they are virtually nonexistent in the north, meaning we can stop and click photos like any tube-sock-wearing tourist.

OK, I wear Afghan clothes. But there is hardly the scent of fear here, just the smell of wood-burning stoves struggling against the cold in a place still awaiting reliable electricity.

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