What image does your brain conjure up when I mention Afghanistan? Do you expect bombs to go off every second? Afghanistan rarely ever comes across as a country where you would expect people to spend a day outdoors doing touristy things. But my recent trip to this war-torn country changed that parochial mindset and for good.
Until I came to Afghanistan, I almost always imagined it to be a warzone, devoid of any joyous moments. But all it took was a short trip outside the city to shatter that belief. When my friends offered to show me countryside spring, I had not expected it to be a mini-celebration in the lilac meadows where thousands of people were scattered along the mountainous slopes, speckled with deep-pink hues.
Golghondi Hill, also known as “the flower hill,” is located in Charikar city of the ancient Parwan province about an hour away from the capital city of Kabul. When we started on our journey that day, it seemed as though everyone was headed in the same direction as we were–and sure enough they were! The highway was swamped with cars, packed to the hilt with large families. It took us a little more than an hour to arrive at our destination that was bursting at the seams with thousands of Judas trees and local people who came all the way to spend a leisurely afternoon in the valley’s pink shadow.
Nestled in the lap of Hindu Kush mountains, the lush valley of Parwan is known for its breathtaking scenery and stunning landscape. Also known to be one of the safest regions in the country, Parwan remains unaffected by the years of war and conflict. Arghawan flowers of Gul Ghondi have a short lifespan of just a week. But despite that, these flowers are so famous that the country’s government hosts an annual festival to mark the beginning of spring and to commemorate the region’s cultural heritage. The event is graced by poets, musicians, and writers who come together to celebrate the blossoming of Arghawan.
Arghawan bloom is a yearly phenomenon during the spring months of April, May, and June where people from all parts of the country travel to Northern Afghanistan just to witness this natural splendor. But the tourist activity is at its peak around the Nowruz weekend when people come here for picnics and to celebrate Islamic New Year. It is one of those brief moments when the Afghans are able to look beyond the war that has decimated lives and villages for decades.
Each spring, Golghondi Hill attracts thousands of local Afghans who visit the province to bask in the sun and crimson shade of Arghawan, also known as Judas flowers. The pleasant spring afternoon offers a perfect opportunity for its residents to escape the city. I was lucky to be among them and experience this first-hand. The delightful view of its pink flowers is visible from the Kabul highway, almost as if they are inviting you.
When we arrived at this popular tourist spot, I was transfixed by the beauty that lay in front of my eyes. It took me just a second to forget that I am right now standing in an active war zone that was only recently shaken up by IED blasts. I forgot that some of these families that appeared so happy and content in the company of their loved ones may have been directly or indirectly affected by the ongoing conflict.
It was a welcome sight to see women, children, old and young, gather together to celebrate nature as families sat huddled under the cool shadows of Arghawan blossoms. There was manic activity around me. The sky was dotted with colorful kites and the only fight one could see was between burly men trying to outdo each other in the fierce battle of kite flying.
The air in Golghondi hill on that day was thick with floral scent interspersed with local street food that lines the road leading up to the meadow. The French fries searing in hot oil and the smell of roasted kebabs wafting through the landscape, just like its birds and kites.
Amazed at the festive spirit that peppered the purple landscape, I pulled out my camera and started capturing jubilant faces that welcomed spring in true Afghan spirit—with a wide grin. It was almost therapeutic to see a happy side of Afghanistan that often gets overshadowed under the grim news of bomb blasts and suicide attacks. It was a pleasant surprise to see an entire city gather at the edge of Kabul to revel in the warm glory of the spring sun.
As I sat there taking in the activity around me, I couldn’t help but notice the children that seemed to be glowing under the soft silhouette of the trees, blissfully gathering the pink flowers. Women sat sprawled on handmade carpets and prepared hot lunch for the kids as they went scouring for nature’s bounty. Their smiles and innocence painted a cheerful picture that is deeply etched in my brain.
This was my second trip to Afghanistan and I saw a resilient country that knows how to make the most of small windows of opportunities to get together and have some fun. I engaged all my senses as I sat perched on Golghondi Hill. My eyes feasted on joyful dance performances where people twirled like entranced dervishes. There was a heady mix of scents in the air as the fragrance of freshly-prepared barbeques intertwined with that of Arghawan. I could hear the laughter of children as they ran up and down the hill.
I just sat there, soaking it all in. I chuckled when I saw my friends win at a cutthroat game of kite flying with a stranger on the other end of the meadow. It was all too surreal, almost too good to be true. It was an Afghanistan one rarely sees or expects to see, the one laced with blooming shadow of Arghawan.