Thousands of feet above Kabul, the picnickers have returned

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Kabul may still look and feel as if a giant in hobnailed boots did some kind of mad dance all over it, but one little bit of life as it was before is back in place: the Friday afternoon picnic. There may not be electricity all day, the American anthem can still be heard piped tinnily every morning from deep within the barbed wire enclosure of the embassy and the odd landmine can still open up a two-metre crater in the centre of town but come prayer day the people of Kabul shake off the dust and torpor of the city and head for the mountains.

Kabul may still look and feel as if a giant in hobnailed boots did some kind of mad dance all over it, but one little bit of life as it was before is back in place: the Friday afternoon picnic. There may not be electricity all day, the American anthem can still be heard piped tinnily every morning from deep within the barbed wire enclosure of the embassy and the odd landmine can still open up a two-metre crater in the centre of town but come prayer day the people of Kabul shake off the dust and torpor of the city and head for the mountains.

The idea of spreading a blanket and your loved ones on the ground and unpacking the kebabs in the most mined country in the world may be an odd one but for decades they have been doing it for fun and more than 20 years of war hasn't stopped them, even though the Taliban, now famous for the huge list of things they didn't like (everything from kite flying to squeaky shoes), halted picnics because they involved people having fun.

Life has improved but there is still precious little in the way of entertainment. The city has one or two fleapit cinemas but as our driver, Marai, explained: "Here, bad people are going to the cinema and everyone is shouting and smoking so we don't go." There is the sports stadium, former scene of execution and mutilation, which is now given over to football and the odd game of buzkashi, the sport where a goat's carcass is fought over by men on horseback. And there is picnicking, the perfect antidote to life in a city that looks like a bad dream.

We set off on a startlingly clear morning in the direction of Paghman, 15 miles west of Kabul and one of the most popular picnic spots sitting at the foot of snow-streaked mountains, part of the Hindu Kush. It's a 40-minute drive out of the centre on a decent road, which runs out a few miles short of our destination. Before we leave town we stop at the kebab shop for some traditional Kabuli picnic food.

Leaving the city behind, the temperature drops as we move nearer the mountains. On the approach to the village, the road is flanked by metal freight containers that people have turned into homes. Some have opened immaculate shops inside them, selling fruit and vegetables to picnickers.

Paghman was hit badly in the last round of fighting and what's left is a medieval jumble of shops and shacks with a dirt road, but as we pass beyond it the countryside opens out into an expanse of greenery and rocks split by a lively stream and all against the backdrop of the mountains. It's a pretty spot, more than 2,000 metres high, where cherry and peach trees grow. The air and water are crystal clear and there are no landmines for miles. What's also clear is that every Kabuli picnicker considers it a point of honour to cross the fairly deep stream by car, although the picnic site opportunities look identical on both sides. Even in a 4x4 we burst a tyre on the jagged rocks halfway over and are forced to inch clankingly the rest of the way, hemmed in by cars and truckson both sides.

An Afghan picnic has a fairly strong flavour with no place for soft tartan rugs, cutlery and Tupperware. We have a hefty six-metre-square carpet, six rugby ball-sized kebabs, hot black tea and evil Japanese cigarettes. It's the first time the three Afghans in our party have been back to Paghman since the Taliban and they are enjoying the moment.

Daoud, neat in white shirt and fake Armani khakis, laughingly shows me how long his beard used to be under the Taliban. With our shoes off and three foam sofa seats and a couple of thick blankets thrown on the carpet we are ready to start. As we spread the food out a filthy boy pops up out of nowhere trying to sell us his plate of homemade yoghurt. He watches the food like a wolf.

Beside us a flashy 4x4 empties out a party of dark, lavishly turbaned men. They've gone for the communal kebab option, a huge round platter of meat topped with a flying saucer of bread. They whoop with delight as it is carried to their carpet. The hot sun and riotous Afghan music blaring out from our neighbours' tape machine helps to raise our kebabs above their predominant taste of lighter fuel. The music is broken by the occasional rusty bray of a donkey.

The site fills up but as far as I can see around me the picnickers are all male. As a phenomenal gust of wind signals time to go, Marai beckons the wolfish boy and packs up our leavings and uneaten food for him. The men with the monster kebab are leaving too. As they stand up a group of 10 children descends on their leftovers like rats. As we bounce back along the dusty road to Kabul we pass a file of women, their blue burqas caught like sails by the wind and moulded momentarily to their bodies.

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