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Published: August 18th 2014
buzkashi - fast and furious
Inaiat, our cook, is on the rearing horse (as usual!)
A Varanasi silk-seller once said to me, “Visit India for a week, and you’ll write a good article. Visit India for a month and you’ll write a better one. But visit India for a year, and you won’t even be able to pick up a pen.”
I’ve got the same problem with the Afghan Pamirs. I could probably have strung a few paragraphs together after our first day on the track up from Wuzed. My scribbles would have been better the next day after we’d stayed in our first Wakhi village. But now, back in Dushanbe after three weeks’ away, with a spectacular but long four or five days’ drive at each end, and the intensity of the eleven days’ trekking in the middle, I’m struggling to get my thoughts into any kind of order. I hoped that going through my photos would help, but I’m left thinking, “Was I really there? Did that really happen to me?” Exchanging messages with my erstwhile companions the last couple of days – don’t you miss the audience in the yurts at mealtimes, riding yaks across icy rivers, putting on the same pair of socks for a fourth day in a row, trying
to escape the locals for a quiet moment with nature behind a distant rock – feels mechanical: I’m writing what I feel I should be writing, but the Me who experienced it all feels like someone else.
News that I was going trekking in Afghanistan had, predictably, generated a variety of reactions. “Sounds brilliant. Very envious!” “My friend who is an aid worker draws the line at Afghanistan. If she won’t go there, you probably shouldn’t.” “Amazing!” “You do realise that the UK is pulling troops OUT of the country, don’t you?” “Cool!” “You’re mad!” I was going to the Wakhan Corridor, that curious finger of land between Tajikistan, Pakistan and China created as a no-man’s land by Russia and the UK during the Great Game, and, to date, free from the country’s problems thanks to its remoteness even by Afghan standards. When Secret Compass’s January mailshot said there were two places remaining in their 2014 trip, “Connecting the Pamirs”, it seemed serendipitous: my original plan to join the inaugural Silk Road trip of a friend’s new overlanding company had just fallen through. I didn’t deliberate long; I was thrilled to have the opportunity to go to a part
of the world about which I’d read extensively, but which I never thought I’d ever visit.
Despite a more bureaucratic-than-usual process – including being interviewed for the trip, submitting application and booking forms, and battling with the niceties of applying for Tajik and Afghan visas and permits – I was so distracted by a number of things going on in the UK over the spring and early summer that the expedition ambushed me in early July. Suddenly I found myself with only a few days to get organised. Conscious of the likely physical demands of the trek itself, I’d managed to keep up a reasonable, if not superlative, programme at the gym but I was all too aware that my hiking boots and I had not spent much time together since my last South American adventure two years’ earlier. But there wasn’t much I could do about that now; I concentrated on kit, putting more thought into what I had to take than at any time since my Mongolian and Tibetan peregrinations in 2007. Like them, this was not going to be a destination where I could rely on finding whatever I’d forgotten; this was going to be Remote.
My companions, many of them bleary-eyed after landing in Dushanbe only a few hours’ earlier, comprised an international mix – an Australian, a Canadian, an Italian, two Singaporeans, three Dutchmen and three other Brits – and ranged in age from 23 to 44. Implicitly preselected by the demands of the expedition, we found ourselves with a greater commonality of outlook and tolerance than on any other trip I’ve ever done, and we muddled along well, supporting and helping out each other when laid low by altitude sickness, dodgy stomachs or sheer exhaustion.
It is not easy to get to the Wakhan. On the face of it, you can fly to Kabul and get a connecting flight to Eshkashem, but the Taliban has a bit of a thing for Kabul Airport at the moment, and Afghan internal flights aren’t the most reliable at the best of times. Instead we faced a long two days of driving just to get to the Afghan border. From Eshkashem, where we would meet up with our local team and stock up with food for the trip, it was only another 205 km to our official starting point at Sarhad-e Broghil, but describing distance
in terms of kilometres is misleading here: this was to be another two days’ drive along roads that made me nostalgic for the sandy and rocky roads of northwest Namibia.
We were let off lightly at the border crossing in both directions, though our leader, Luca, had wisely continued to play the “pessimism card”. The border area is rife with drugs problems, and both the Tajik and the Afghan guards were likely to search our luggage, however daunting a dozen or more tightly packed holdalls and rucksacks might appear. However, this was Ramadan and, as the Afghan border guard reminded us every few minutes, he had “no obligation” to be here. We’d found out only earlier that day that, during the fasting month, the border closes at 2 pm, and we couldn’t get there before 3.30 pm, though the time difference – Afghanistan is half an hour behind Tajikistan – helped us slightly. He was doing us a favour, negotiated by our Afghan fixer, and he knew it and made sure we couldn’t forget. We murmured our appreciation dutifully and regularly, and three of us women, already shrouded in headscarves, succumbed to the third degree in his office about
why we weren’t married and endured his emphatic conclusion that even the 23-year-old was “on the shelf” in Afghan terms. When he had finally processed everyone’s passports, he began searching our luggage primarily, on this side of the border, to look for alcohol (Afghanistan is officially a dry country) and blasphemous material. Vicky found her collection of trashy novels examined in more detail than they deserved, and water bottles were sniffed suspiciously. But after eight or nine packs he got bored, and, softened by Monique’s gift of a Dutch souvenir, waved us through. Mine hadn’t been touched, and the Tajiks had been put off by my pack’s numerous zipped compartments (I like to think my socks scared them off, though that would have been more likely on the way back after days of dusty trekking): I was hugely relieved.
We’d left our comfortable, air-conditioned Toyota Land Cruisers on the Tajik side of the border, and now squeezed into too-few scruffy, noisy cars for the short ride through town to our guesthouse. We looked around curiously. Greeted by the obligatory burnt-out APC in no-man’s land, we found ourselves transported back in time where the mechanical noise of our current transport
was the only echo of even the late twentieth century. Eshkashem is a town only by the standards of the rest of the Wakhan Corridor. Its main road aspires in vain to be a dirt track. The rocky surface is not one on which I’d want to drive my own elderly wheels, though Afghan drivers show no such niceties, needing no encouragement at all to put their foot down and overtake each other, regardless of any other two- or four-legged occupant of the road. The sides of the road were lined with what looked like oversized wardrobes on raised legs, stalls which opened up to reveal a surprising array of merchandise, including Cadbury spin-offs (“Top Dug”), toothpaste that tasted like detergent, colourful scarves and dresses, rather sad-looking fruit and vegetables, small purportedly-electrical goods (though the supply of electricity is, at best, decidedly Heath Robinson), and gum boots. Although it was still Ramadan, we found one place the next morning that was prepared to sell us tea in its upstairs lounge area, and Monique found an English-speaking local who was happy to teach us the basics of Dari which she scribbled down for future reference. (Easily the biggest shopper of us
all, it was she who would make best use of this Dari 101 lesson, including such phrases as “how much is this?”, “you must be joking”, and “is this your best price?”.)
If the town’s main road aspires to be a dirt track, the track along the Wakhan Corridor hasn’t even heard of such levels of sophistication. I had understood our destination, Sarhad-e Broghil, to be at the end of the road, perhaps – optimistically – with the road ending in a nice turning-place as it does in the West Highlands of Scotland but, driving back down it last week, I realised that what passes for a track stutters out some time before Sarhad, leaving drivers to navigate their way across the Wakhan River’s tributaries and the pebble banks in between as best they can. At least the river and the mountains lining the valley keep people oriented in approximately the right direction.
In the meantime, Vicky, Kellie, Natasha and I found ourselves at the mercy of Boy Racer, a young and self-considered dashing driver, who was determined to show off to his taxi cooperative colleagues that he was the one with the all-female car. Despite being told
at least once to hang back and let another car take the lead, he revved up the engine and, hand on the horn, dustily whizzed past the other three vehicles in the convoy. Luca came to check up on us from time to time, uncomfortable with the guy’s actions but all too conscious from previous experience that there was little he could do about it. Secret Compass’s risk assessment of the Pamirs expedition rates this, the road journey from Eshkashem to Sarhad, as the riskiest leg – no mean feat when the rest of the trip includes ten days’ trekking at over 4,000m and in an area where the pre-agreed escape plan involves an illegal border crossing. Two days’ later, when Boy Racer overtook three cars in a row, screeching back to what passed for his side of the road on two wheels, we were inclined to agree.
Sarhad was supposed to be our destination, the idea being that we’d go as far as the road would take us, and then trek north, west and south in a big semi-circle to intersect with the road at Sargaz, several hours back towards Eshkashem. But the river had other ideas. It
had been an unusually warm couple of days and glacial melt had swelled its waters to an extent that worried Malang, our Afghan guide and fixer. At Sargaz, we should have crossed the river, but the bridge had not been mended in almost a year. While we could possibly have moved the remaining wooden slats around to allow the vehicles gingerly to cross, the drivers were not prepared to risk it, so Luca and Malang went off to look at whether the track was feasible on this side of the river, particularly the section only a little further on where the northern side of the river lapped the bottom of the cliffs. It was a no-go that afternoon, and the river was still too high the next morning. (Driving back through it last week after a spell of cooler weather involved one of the drivers wading hip-deep to check it out first, and it was probably just about at the limits of drivability; we had been prepared for having to trek another two days in order to meet up with the cars at Sargaz, though were hugely relieved not to have to do so.)
In the meantime, Luca, Jan
(the team’s Dutch mountain expert) and Malang pored over maps working out a Plan B. Malang Darya is far from being simply a humble – if invaluable – fixer; rather, he is a celebrity in Afghan mountaineering terms, being the first of two Afghans to summit the country’s highest mountain, the second highest peak in the Hindu Kush, Mount Noshaq, in 2009. Yet, apart from proudly showing off his trekking certificates and national medal, he is remarkably unassuming; a warm, reassuring person with whom to venture into the unknown, clearly delighted that we were so enjoying the whole expedition and our surroundings.
Soon they reported back to us. We’d simply do the trek in reverse. There was a little bit of juggling required to ensure that we could still acclimatise to the altitude in a considered way, but that, essentially, was what we would do. By the end of the trek, we were all in agreement that Plan B’s west-to-east routing was the best way to do this particular trek in any event. It meant we had the persistent dusty westerly wind of the Big Pamir at our backs, that the trip culminated in the spectacular ascent of the
Shaur Pass, and that, as we wound our way down the 1,300m descent to Sarhad on the last day, we were treated to a glorious array of the Hindu Kush in front of us and a 180 degree view of the Wakhan Corridor at our feet. In the meantime, all that needed to be done logistically was for someone to scamper up to the high pastures and negotiate some yaks and horses for our first few days – instead of our getting them from Sarhad as originally planned – so we had an unexpected “down morning” a little further back down the road at Wuzed, and, in the afternoon, Jan led us off on a half-day acclimatisation trek on the other side of the valley from which we could see the next day’s path winding tantalisingly up the side of a steep-sided gorge.
The next day, in the already-warm sunshine of the early morning, we geared ourselves up, checking water bottles and pole-lengths, and watched the yaks being loaded. Yaks can carry 70kg (or at least this was the limit imposed by the yaksmen to ensure that we paid for as many yaks as possible), so all our luggage
had been weighed, bag by bag, to ensure it was loaded evenly. The staggering 892kg of luggage included 50kg of each of oil and flour, 35kg of potatoes, 20kg of rice, 15kg of porridge, and an astonishing 9kg of toilet paper, most of which I’m glad to say came back with us, but Luca’s previous trip to this part of the world had needed of a fair amount (to put it delicately), so he was being cautious.
Malang’s team included Azim, his smiley-faced number two, and Inaiat, who kept us extremely well fed with a superb array of trekking nourishment, including chips, pasta, dal and potato stews, as well as a daily dose of porridge (which some of us ate more under sufferance than others), and in Wuzed we picked up another two helpers, Lalajhon and Rashid. The final, somewhat unofficial member of the team, was Wazil. We were due to change yaks and horses almost every night so that as many villages throughout the Pamirs could benefit from the tourist dollar as possible, but somehow we found ourselves with “Mashki”, a docile mare from Wuzed, with her all-too-proud owner Wazil, for the whole trip. Although Wazil’s English was
finally leaving Tajikistan behind
For three days, we'd hugged the border formed by the Amu Darya (the Oxus) on one side or another: here we left it to follow its tributary, the Wakhan river
just as non-existent as our Wakhi and Dari, his ear-to-ear grin at our “tashakor”s and our genuine appreciation for his mare’s resilience (not to mention our round of applause when Mashki reappeared, having been assumed stolen one day) surmounted any need for language.
I’ll leave the photographs to describe the landscape, as words really do fail me here. Suffice to say that it was even more vast, rugged, desolate, magnificent and awe-inspiring than I had thought possible. I spent the second afternoon on yak-back as I was suffering a smidgeon of altitude sickness (we always had two or three animals spare for this purpose), and drank in my surroundings to an extent that simply isn’t possible when you’re focussed on planting one foot after another. Later in the trip my feet let me down, and I spent several days on Mashki or one of the other horses. Although yaks are a wonderfully luxurious form of armchair-trekking, I preferred the interaction, even lazy gaucho-style, of riding a horse. I didn’t want to waste time feeling frustrated with myself – I knew beforehand that the lack of recent quality time with my boots, however many miles they’d taken me in the
past, was a likely weakness given my blister-propensity – but relished the chance to ride, and to ride through such phenomenal surroundings. At times I felt a little more part of the scenery too. Locals can’t understand this desire of Westerners to walk through the Pamirs, but riding is their day-to-day life. On the way down to the buzkashi, I could almost kid myself that I was about to take part.
Most evenings we camped in villages, setting up our little one-man green tents in an incoherent rash a few hundred metres away from the dwellings. In every village we were invited to take tea in a yurt, usually with some of the villagers, and with Malang or Azim acting as interpreter. Sometimes we were given a yurt to ourselves where we could eat, rest and/or sleep, until some of us decided that playing sardines all night wasn’t the best way to a decent night’s sleep and returned to our tents. Everywhere there was undisguised curiosity at the strangers passing through. We found ourselves with a growing, uninvited audience, whether we were eating inside or outside. And the audience – almost universally male – didn’t think anything of coming
into the yurt as soon as we started moving, which made for some challenging getting-dressed manoeuvres for the women.
Our hosts were either Wakhi or Kyrgyz. Wakhi tend to be the more prosperous here because their sojourn up on the Pamirs is only seasonal, and they return to the Wakhan valley in the autumn to trade. The Kyrgyz were historically a nomadic people moving across swathes of Central Asia, but their range has been artificially curtailed by the imposition of international borders, most of which are now closed or severally restricted. Many took the decision to emigrate to eastern Turkey in the 1980s, leaving a rump population of around 1,100 in the Big Pamir. Now they are one of the most impoverished peoples in Afghanistan. Ironically, the Wakhan Corridor has been free of most of the country’s problems since the 1970s (though it was the Russians who built the road through the valley), but equally it has been free of the investment into security-enhancing infrastructure that the rest of the country has seen in recent years. But none of this cooled the warmth of our welcome. At Mulah, the women in our group were invited to tea with the
women of the village, and we goo-ed over the newest baby and giggled at the children’s antics with the balloons that Monique-the-ever-resourceful had brought with her, needing little by way of common language. When Natasha, who had thoughtfully brought an instant camera with her, gave our hostess a photograph of the baby, our hostess was overcome with emotion, kissing the photograph and pressing it to her breast – there wasn’t a dry eye among us.
Although far from geared up for tourists, we found both Wakhi and Kyrgyz more than prepared to recognise the commercial opportunity we presented. To Luca’s frustration, deals agreed with yaksmen and horsemen one evening would be reopened when we reached our destination the next day, and this despite the best efforts of the Aga Khan Foundation to smooth the way for tourism in this area with set prices – 800 Afghanis per yak or horse, and half that for a donkey. Everyone felt bad for Malang, caught between the now-now greed of the villagers and the desire to enrich the area and its peoples in the longer term through tourism. Equally, the villagers were prepared to go through their possessions and sell almost anything
to us, if the price was right. One evening saw an impromptu market take place in our cook-yurt, with Malang in the middle negotiating on our behalf – which often seemed to involve a degree of play-wrestling over the item in question – watched over by a visiting Pathan trader who eyed up the women for our resale value. (To Kellie’s disappointment, even she – the youngest – was only priced at 200 sheep, about $40,000.) The pair of well-worn embroidered Kyrgyz boot socks that I acquired is lurking in the bottom of my pack as I write. They’ll need some sympathetic mending and a generous dose of soap flakes to get rid of the evocative yak-dung-smoke smell.
Where we wild-camped, invariably in glorious surroundings and near a river or stream for chilly ablutions, Malang’s team lit a fire or two and draped blankets around our shoulders as we huddled around the “table cloth” at mealtimes. This we found particularly invaluable the night before our semi-Alpine start for the Shaur Pass (though even they hadn’t thought to soften the spoon-bending chocolate spread the next morning). Invariably we went straight to bed after dinner, our sleep patterns determined by the
sun. Not even star-gazing could tempt us to keep our eyes open.
While the trekking highlight was generally considered to be the ascent of the Shaur Pass, with its early start, just-shy-of-4,900m altitude, snow-scrambles and descent across a glacier, the social highlight of the trip was undoubtedly the game of buzkashi. We’d arrived at the Kyrgyz village of Mulah expecting to move on in the morning, as was our custom, but found it impossible to negotiate any pack animals to come with us that day. A game of buzkashi was planned, and everything stops for this crazy, iconic, random event. We were thrilled – it’s rarely held and unpredictable, and we’d been told it was unlikely we’d be able to pay for a game to be held specifically for us because of the increasingly exorbitant fees being demanded – and, in all honesty, we were also quietly happy at the prospect of a day off the long hours of trekking. We woke in the morning to a palpable feeling of excitement. Already Mulah was crowded with visiting men and horses. With no obvious “let’s go” sign, riders began mounting and moving down the hill to a sandy plateau just
beyond the river about an hour’s walk away. At the river, my friends stopped, contemplating either a lengthy shuttle service on Mashki to cross the glacial waters or a decidedly chilly paddle, but were soon rescued by potential buzkashi players who scooped each person up behind them and trotted happily across the river. Monique even found herself getting the royal treatment, being dropped right at the side of what passed for the pitch.
I’m intrigued to see that Wikipedia refers to “the establishment of official rules by the Afghan Olympic Federation” for buzkashi. There wasn’t much sign of rules, let alone refereeing, at the game we saw. Malang explained that it’s each player for himself in the attempt to scoop up the goat carcass and drop it in a designated place to score, each “goal” being worth a cigarette or somesuch decidedly inferior compensation for such a dangerous activity. The player with the carcass is hounded by the others who try to wrestle it off him (with or without the assistance of their whips), while managing to hang stay in their own saddles. Mayhem is an understatement. Amazingly, I only saw a couple of people come off; these guys
could pick a straw off the ground without leaving the saddle, their horsemanship was superb. To our delight, Inaiat, our cook, proved to be a real hot-shot, easy to spot in his cowboy hat and red neckerchief, rearing his horse up at the least opportunity and heading into the fray wherever it was most chaotic. Malang also scored a couple of times, to wild cheers from his Western groupies. It’s not a sport for the fainthearted or the sedentary spectator either. We frequently found ourselves with horses galloping down on us, and had to scamper for safer ground with some urgency, though Twan once held his cool and let them gallop around him for what must be some amazing, crazy footage. With the dust kicked up by the horses, the deep blue of the sky and the magnificent snow-peaked backdrop, it was an extraordinary few hours.
I could write a book on this trip, and still not capture its essence. The long days by car and on foot (whether our own or those of a four-legged creature) took their toll on each of us at various stages. Quite apart from the blisters and dickey tummies, the degree of remoteness
almost like home
a thistle at our first campsite, Kosh
and the description-defying wonder of our surroundings tugged heavily at the emotions. Yet there were giggles too, at the frenetic competition between half a dozen of our yaksmen as they galloped us across a particularly wide river, at the day’s “prat hat” recipient (usually awarded for some particularly blonde or altitude-affected verbal faux-pas), at the girls’ latest Wakhan song lyrics (“Every yak you take”, and other such cringe-worthies), at Ross's latest "fact" (or was it fiction? It was always hard to tell), at the transformation rendered by a plunge in unexpected hot springs, and so on.
Back in Khorog for lunch after crossing back into Tajikistan, we ordered cold beer and burgers… and felt curiously out of place in the clean sophisticated surroundings of the Serena Hotel’s outdoor restaurant. Civilisation was going to take just a little getting used to.
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