In this entry I’d like to discuss one of my favorite places in Afghanistan. If you drive west of Kabul, you’ll eventually come to a place that is in the mountain foothills there. This is a place of unsurpassed beauty and tranquility. Places where one can relax, let their hair down and soak in the ambience, albeit in a relatively minimalist manner.
It is also a place soaked in history, and in blood, if truth were told.
This place is known as Paghman, and it lies in Paghman District, Kabul Province.
Upon the urging of my good friend Zok, and the assistance of our good friend Nawab, we set out to find this halcyon place, and did so, but not without incurring adventure.
We drove past Lake Qarga, a popular rest destination of the workaday Afghan. The funniest part about the trip was that Nawab, who is a serious eater, talked us into stopping on the way to get some delicious na’an and a bit later some roasted corn. When we entered the gate to Lake Qarga and paid the admission fee, he immediately started looking around and firmly stated, between bites of roasted corn and Afghan bread that “we need to find someplace to eat, soon!” Zok and I looked at each other and slowly shook our heads.
At Lake Qarga we saw many diversions. Open air restaurants, cool shaded picnic spots, cricket and soccer fields, a 9-hole golf course (!!!!), carnival rides, small boats and even horses to rent.
Qarga is pretty much the limit of foreign penetration though. Out on the lonely, winding highway, climbing up a near continuous incline, you see mine clearance markers painted on the sides of houses.
There is even a school sponsored by Peter Ustinov.
On the way, we decided to urge the Land Cruiser up the side of the mountain into a small valley, which had a narrow fast running stream, coming off the mountain, cold and pure. We were greeted at the center of town by a young man in a US Contractor uniform, standing outside his house having a morning cup of chai in an American style coffee cup. He blinked at us once, and then went straight into “greet the potential Westerners who can bring money to our village” mode. The first thing he did was to dispatch a series of young boys on missions. One went into the apple orchard, where they harvested some fresh apples for us by throwing rocks, hitting branches and catching the apples before they struck the ground. The other child fetched an older man with a long silver beard, who looked shockingly like my own father.
They all accompanied us to the local school, where they showed us the lack of windows, and how the weather had nearly destroyed the cheap desks and chairs, as well as made it nearly impossible to conduct classes in both the heat and the cold. While the young and old man talked to us there, we feasted on apples that were among the most delicious things I have ever tasted. The crisp and sweet fruit was almost cloying and overwhelming in flavor. We made sure to tuck extra apples away for future consumption.
After our goodbyes and promises to return back, we were again on our way to Paghman. A very short time later, and before returning to help fix up the school, we discovered that that town was center of an IED network and there was a very large stockpile of IED making material and already made IEDs at that location.
North of Qarga Lake while looking for a shortcut to Paghman through the mountains, we encountered a lone ANP post, guarded by just a few ANP and a very large Afghan dog. The ANP officer came out to stop us and see what were up to, and once we explained that we were Westerners, the ANP officer looked at all of us and said “Westerners? Westerners NEVER come out here. You guys have some serious balls….”
I must admit that that is one of the highest compliments I have ever received. I am proud to have impressed an Afghan with bravery. Or stupidity.
While still looking for this elusive road to Paghman, we encountered an old Uzbek man hauling a cart in the middle of nowhere. We stopped, assuming that he had to be a local, and asked him for directions. He responded with a stream of vitriol that enlightened us in only one way; we were not to ask an old Uzbek man in the middle of nowhere hauling a cart by hand, for directions. Or offer to help, either.
We finally arrived at Paghman over the mountain, and it was very rewarding. Standing sentinel at the entrance of Paghman gardens, the first thing one sees is a broken down UAZ jeep with a field kitchen trailer decaying and melting into the ground. There are many signs advertising various services and things for sale, especially cell phone service.
The next thing one notices, and its usually a shock, unless one is prepared for it, is a fairly large scale reproduction of the Arc De Triomphe which lies smack dab in the middle of the road. And by reproduction, I mean accurate in every possible way. It makes one gape to see it.
There are tents where goods are for sale, including soccer balls and the ever-present airsoft guns for children. Several restaurants are there, including one with a cook wearing a t-shirt saying “Jesus – King of Kings” in the shape of a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup wrapper. This wasn’t the first time we’ve seen Christian themes on popular items. I am just assuming that the Afghans see a pretty design and do not understand what it actually says.
We admired the wide array of food for sale, drove all the way through the gardens and drove up to where the road ascended the mountains to the west to the Koh-e Baba range, then hairpin turned left following the Paghman river down to Paghman city itself.
Driving out of the city back towards Kabul takes one through a series of artillery emplacements that had been cratered to the point of resembling the surface of the moon during the Civil War in the 1990s. The placement of these guns was obvious as you could see deep into Kabul City from there. We tried to find a shortcut back to Kabul “because we could see it from here” and ended up trapped in a series of terraced fields.
It was a real struggle to escape this maze of raised earth embankments, but we finally escaped, and found ourselves headed back to town.
We made it back to Kabul proper and took the opportunity to have some nice Afghan Burgar and cardamom flavored ice cream, formed in the shapes of delicate tubes, stacked upon each other. They were almost too pretty to eat. But we overcame our admiration for the aesthetics relatively quickly and thoroughly enjoyed the sweet and cold after a long day of driving.
Since that time I’ve been told by many that I potentially shortened my life through taking risks, but I disagree. I cannot imagine having a life that wasn’t full; and think a full life, full of chance-taking lengthens it in a way. But I am very glad we took this road to Paghman.