The Panjshir Valley, situated about four hours north of Kabul, is known as the birthplace of legendary mujahedeen leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, and as home to some of the best Buzkashi players in the country. The sport, which is a cross between rugby and polo, is fast paced and rough. Teams of about thirty players each form a semi-circle and wait for the ringleader to drop a headless goat carcass in the middle of the field. Rules are difficult to ascertain, especially for foreigners, but the gist is for riders (or wrestlers as they are known) to converge at high speed, bend down from the saddle and grab the goat by any means possible, race to a green flag at the far end of the field and race back, to drop the carcass at the foot of the crowd. The carcass ended this match with just two legs left intact. Rumour has it that until not so long ago, the preference was to start the match with a live goat.
Buzkashi games in the Panjshir Valley, unlike other popular locations like the northern city of Mazar e Sharif, have a couple of benefits: incredible scenery and no sidelines. The crowd sits as close as possible to the action without risking the loss of a limb. No barriers or crowd control here. And strictly no women.
Normally winter snow in Kabul is nothing special. But warmer weather this season has meant an unusually dry few months, with falls of the white stuff intermittent at best. Kabulians are already predicting another year of drought for their regional counterparts, who rely on snow melt to fill the rivers and irrigation systems. This is Kart e Sakhi mosque, which sits below TV Hill in the suburb of the same name.
Few foreigners make the effort to scale the mountains around Kabul or track the Great Wall the remnants of which mark the ridge of the first hill 'captured' by iconic mujahideen leader Ahmad Shah Massoud in 1992, as the civil war took hold in the city. Each warlord held a different hill position from where they launched rockets at each other, most of which invariably fell short, razing the old city centre below. At the top of Massoud’s hill, bits and pieces of an original British outpost still stand, patrolled by two bored twenty-something guards and a pair of scarecrows, assembled from war junk and clothed in old police and army uniforms.
For Afghan boys no game is as cheap, easy to play, or potentially deadly, as palachman. Looping one end of a long woven chord around their middle fingers and holding the other, the boys place snowballs (or rocks) into the cradle before swinging the slingshot round their head with whipcracking speed, releasing the free end of the chord and sending the chosen object flying. During the civil war, the mujahideen used the palachman to fatal effect. Nowadays, in places like the insular Panjshir Valley, foreigners are still occasionally used as target practice by rogue teenagers. But in Kabul, the kids are generally satisfied rocketing snowballs at each other. That’s not to say they don’t sometimes hide stones inside the snowballs to give that little extra clout.