Afghanistan / Travel

Salang Pass, Salang Tunnel and The Last Battle

Many people seem to have the impression that Afghanistan consists of nothing more than sterile deserts. A drive through the Salang Pass will go a long way in dispelling that image. Along the way, the Hindu Kush mountains (through which the Salang Tunnel passes) I was reminded of everything from the Italian Alps to the Eastern Sierras… The air is rather thin and cold at the summit of the Salang Pass, more than 3,000 meters above sea-level.

Heading out from Kabul and getting up into the Hindu Kush mountains… This reminded me of the Italian Alps:

hindu-kush

This is a tough place to scratch out an existence. We were here in late April on a sunny day and it was biting cold. I can’t imagine what the winters are like, but the numerous indications of intense avalanches and from everything I have heard, they are brutal. Home on the edge:

hindu-kush

hindu-kush

I thought this was an interesting home squeezed between the road and the river:

salang pass

As with most of Afghanistan, the people that live here are just awesome.

I snapped this out the car window to give a sense of the people and scenery. The old boy on the end has a falcon perched on his hand:

afghan man with falcon

This man had quite a story… His mother, wife and son were gunned down by Soviet troops in a punitive response to an attack on a nearby Soviet convoy. This left him with only two daughters. The Taliban took care of them after it was determined they had spoken out against the Taliban occupation. Because he had not done more to keep his daughters in line, he was subjected to horrific torture to help “re-educate” him. All alone now, he told me that he treks for days at a time in the high peaks of the Hindu Kush to cope with his loneliness:

afghan man salang pass

This is what a cargo container looks like after it has been stuffed full of prisoners and had a fragmentation grenade tossed inside. It’s also been popular to stuff the cargo containers full of prisoners and simply machine gun the sides. Apparently, the bullets ricochet around inside and one doesn’t need to use as many bullets as would be required if the prisoners were simply lined up and executed. A very economical use of the resources… One stumbles across quite a few such relics from Afghanistan’s seemingly continuous conflicts:

cargo-container-grenade

The Salang Pass area has been a theater of conflict for decades now. In the 1980s, the Russian forces occupying Afghanistan were repeatedly ambushed by the Mujahideen when traveling through this region, while more recently this was a front-line between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.

Anti-tank mines remain a problem alongside the road (often within one or two meters of the main road), although groups like the HALO Trust are doing much to improve this situation… Progress is slow, however, as depending on the season, the ground is either baked rock-hard or frozen rock-hard, making the task of unearthing the mines rather more difficult.

Crawling up the Salang Pass toward the summit:

salang pass

The view towards Kabul from the summit:

salang pass

Driving through the pass:

Some of the peaks around the summit… These were taken right outside the Salang Tunnel. The Salang Tunnel was constructed by Soviet engineers in the 1960s to give Afghanistan a much-needed north-south road artery and supply route while seeking to curry favor with the Afghan government.

After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the Salang Highway became the principal military supply route linking Kabul with the southern Soviet republics. The Soviets paid a high price to keep this road open as one can tell from the countless tanks and APCs, scarred with bullet and rocket fire, still rusting away by the side of the road…

One example from 1982: A fuel tanker in a military convoy exploded inside (the cause of the explosion remains somewhat in doubt with the Russians still claiming it was an accident and the Mujahideen still claiming it was a successful attack) the Salang Tunnel, unleashing a chain reaction of fiery explosions and death. Drivers of cars, trucks and buses evidently continued to enter the tunnel after the explosion. Soviet troops, fearing that the explosion might have been a rebel attack, closed off both ends with tanks, trapping many inside. Some burned to death; others were killed by smoke and by carbon monoxide escaping from vehicles whose drivers kept their engines idling to stay warm in the freezing cold. As many as 700 Soviet troops and 2,000 Afghan soldiers and civilians may have died.

Both ends of the Salang Tunnel were blown up by the forces of the late Ahmed Shah Masood in the 1990s in an effort to stop the Taliban advancing northwards.

salang pass

salang pass

salang pass

salang pass

Entrance to the Salang Tunnel – headed towards Kabul… Once you get inside and away from the light provided by the outside world, it doesn’t matter that one has their headlights on. You’ll still only be able to see a few meters in front of the vehicle. The lights make no difference through the cloud of dust and exhaust fumes which makes the drive more exciting because there are massive holes inside and the road is covered in water in some places:

salang tunnel

Driving up to the tunnel entrance (driving in the direction toward Kabul):

Entering the tunnel:

This is the road sign you see when you exit the tunnel heading away from Kabul. We were headed to Pul-i-Khumri on this day… Pul-i-Khumri housed a major Soviet base at one time. Now when you drive by, there are just a few hollowed out buildings and some ripped up tarmac. It made me wonder if the legacy of Americans in Afghanistan will be reflected in the same way.

Pul-i-Khumri

The weather here is rather volatile… This was taken just minutes after the pictures in the bright sun:

hindu-kush

About these ads

6 thoughts on “Salang Pass, Salang Tunnel and The Last Battle

  1. Very interesting. I had heard of the Salang pass and tunnel and now I was able to see what it looks like. Here in Chitral, NW Pakistan where I live we are making a tunnel through the Lowari Pass. It is going to be 8.6km long. WE have already dug 6km into the mountain.

  2. Thank you for your comment and readership. I was in Pakistan before visiting Afghanistan and loved it. I’m sorry I did not get to visit the Chitral region on this trip, but intend to do so in the future.

  3. We drove through the Salang Tunnel in 1974 in both directions. There was very little traffic but I recall that the tunnel is not flat. It actually ascends to a peak inside the tunnel and then down again. Very strange sensation.
    It’s sobering to read about the tragedies that have occurred in the tunnel since then.

  4. 1974 must have been an interesting time to go through there. What brought you to that area then? Turkey has done some work on the tunnel and so it is more level inside now, but it is still quite an experience, I can assure you.

  5. Pingback: Disaster Tourism Destinations | The Velvet Rocket

  6. Pingback: Rebuilding one of the world’s highest tunnels in a war zone | U.S. | TIME.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s