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Published: September 23rd 2010
The path crawled up and up, out of Sarhad-e-Broghil and past the last vestiges of civilisation, the few lonely mud and stone huts and irrigated fields that clung loosely to the outskirts of the village at the end of the 200km road that led east from Ishkashim. Sarhad was apparently at 3300m above sea level, and the pass we had to cross today about 1000m higher, but any thoughts or feelings of tiredness and altitude sickness were banished by the excitement of finally beginning my journey into the roadless Afghan Pamir.
Eventually we reached the pass, a small, relatively flat, grassy expanse of land that took ten minutes to cross. Orange, furry marmot heads popped out of their burrows to our left and right as we passed to trill at one another in their bizarre, high pitch language that for the previous few days I had been mistaking for birdsong. When we reached the other side of the plateau the land dropped away from us at an alarming angle. The path somehow picked its way down this near-verticle rockface until it reached a river perhaps as much as 1000m below and shot immediately up the other side of the canyon
on whose lip we now stood.
"Road?" I asked Said Faqir, the owner of the donkey that was loaded with my bag, pointing at the line that scratched its way sickeningly across the canyon wall opposite us, a sheer rock face extending for hundreds of metres below and above the path. In the enormous void that stretched between us and this undoubtedly vertigo-inducing trail, an eagle circled lazily.
"Yes," he nodded. "Problem?"
"No, no problem," I lied.
An hour or so later we were making our way up that mountainside, the path just as vertiginous as I had imagined. I tried to glue my eyes to the way in front of me but, as always seems to happen in these situations, some sort of sick irrationality kept drawing them to the enormous drop that lurked just inches to my right. Sometimes the path was wide enough not to cause worry; at other times it more or less disappeared, becoming just a few inches of slightly more compact than usual gravel at a thirty degree angle above the drop. A howling wind had picked up and screeched in our faces, forcing me to hold onto my hat
to stop it blowing away.
"Eat!" I shouted at Said through the gale, having managed to catch up with him. Although I was hungry, it was more due to tiredness and the need to give my legs a rest that I had told him I wanted to eat.
"No! Problem!" he yelled back, blowing and moving his hand to indicate wind. "Eat!" he shouted, pointing further on. I assumed he meant we would eat on the other side of the mountain where it was less windy.
The path's slope levelled off about two thirds of the way up the mountain, skirting around its side rather than going over the top. The drop to our right was still enormous and the wind maddening but after half an hour of following this newly level trail we found a spot that was slightly protected by a huge boulder sitting on the right of the path. In the end it provided little shelter, but we only realised this after we had already unloaded the donkey, got the bread out and sat down to eat.
Two more mountain crossings later found us descending a steep, winding trail towards an unusually green
canyon bottom, a small area of trees and bushes supported by a stream that descended from our left and continued several kilometres to our right to join the larger Langar River that had been visible from higher up.
"Showr!" Said told me, pointing at the greenery. I knew this as the name of the uninhabited place where we would spend our first night, in the middle of the nomansland between Sarhad and the first villages of the Pamir.
My leg muscles, which had been more or less fine all day, finally began to seriously ache during the long, hard, steep descent to Showr, eventually burning with an intensity that made me ask Said for a rest even when I could see we were almost at the valley floor.
"Nooo, sleep!" he said. I looked at where he was pointing and saw some sort of stone-walled structure, presumably a herders' shelter, partially hidden by trees a few hundred metres ahead of us. I pushed on despite the pain in my calves and within two minutes we were jumping streams and picking our way between trees on the stony valley floor. The vegetation was sparse even here but it
felt like a lush desert oasis, a small bastion of life and hope amid the unending, deathly barrenness we had been traveling through all day.
The shelter was roofless and one of the walls had collapsed. Two of the others were made only of stones piled on top of each other and the third was formed by a huge, slightly overhanging boulder. As soon as we arrived, Said gathered some stones and wood and built a fire, cooking plain rice in our one pot. When it was ready I took out a tin of tomato puree just to add a bit of flavour. Said looked at it suspiciously.
"Meat?" he asked.
"No, no meat," I replied. Assuming he was worried about eating Western food containing meat that had not been prepared in a way acceptable to Musim tradition, I pointed to the pictures of tomatoes that covered the tin. He looked at them with a puzzled frown.
"Me - no..." he said, shrugging his shoulders and pointing at the glowing, bright red vegetables. Could he really be saying he had not seen tomatoes before? I tried to mime picking something from a tree to indicate that
this was fruit and veg but I was not sure he understood.
"Ishkashim!" I said, telling him where I had bought it.
"Ishkashim?" he asked, surprised.
"Yes," I replied. "Very, very good." It was not very good but it would make plain Afghan rice more palatable.
"Meat no? Fish no?" he asked.
"Meat no, fish no," I answered. He took the tin in his hands and looked at it for a long while.
"Me no," he finally decided, handing it back to me.
It was only five o'clock but already very cold, so we ate quickly, me keen to get into my sleeping bag and he under his blankets. The shelter's three walls probably offered enough protection from the wind for us to sleep comfortably as long as it did not rain, I thought, glancing at the overcast sky through the non-existent roof.
"No rain - very good!" I said. During the cesura I left between the first and second halves of that sentence, the first droplet fell from the sky and splashed on my nose. Gradually more lone droplets began to fall, eventually increasing to a drizzle that was light but
threatened to make our clothes wet enough to be uncomfortable in the undoubtedly near-freezing temperatures we would experience during the night. We finished our food quickly, got into our sleeping gear and wedged ourselves as far as possible into the angle formed by ground and the overhanging wall of the boulder. Thankfully the rain was verticle and the overhang just enough to protect us from it. Dryness was a blessing but nevertheless the cold and the bumpy ground were enough to ensure that I slept lightly, waking up again and again.
During the early morning I lay awake in the darkness, waiting for the first hints of light to filter into the sky. When they did, shortly before five o'clock, we were up and getting ready to go. I ate the remains of the previous day's rice but Said chose only bread, saying, "Rice, breakfast, me - problem," and pointing at his stomach.
The path climbed steeply uphill from Showr until it reached a small plateau at roughly a third of the height of the surrounding mountains. Crossing it, we met a donkey caravan coming the other way. A hurried conversation between them and Said, followed by a
slow and confused one between me and him, revealed that the deserted village of Baraq which Said had thought was three or four hours further than Showr, was in fact just below us, down the other side of the plateau. An hour and a half after setting out we were passing the handful of stone-walled houses that made up the village, many of them incorporating caves into their structures.
After crossing a rather precarious footbridge and passing another donkey caravan returning from the Pamir with yaks and sheep they had acquired there, the path began climbing sharply up the face of an enormous mountain. It was here that I began to realise how much the previous day had taken it out of me; as the black waters of the Langar River grew more and more distant below us, my energy quickly sapped. My legs did not ache but I felt a general tiredness seep over me and in the end I simply could not go on without rest. We took five minutes two thirds of the way up, then fifteen minutes at the top. By now my head was spinning and the thought of walking any further was unimaginable.
I was fairly sure this must be altitude sickness setting in due to our increased elevation.
"Problem? Problem?" Said had been asking me all the way up, clearly noticing that I was in a bad way.
"No, no," I had repeated with increasing annoyance and volume every time he had asked until I had been shouting at him angrily, making it even clearer that there most definitely was a problem.
At the top the path mercifully leveled off but after ten minutes I finally had to admit to myself and him that there was a problem. I lay down, pointed to the ground and said, "one hour."
"Nooo, nooo, very big problem," he said. "Sang Nawishta five hour!"
"One hour," I said, shrugging my shoulders as if to say 'what can you do?'
We lay there mostly in silence, he occasionally indicating that we should get up and go, me shaking my head apologetically and overcompensating with huge smiles for my previous irritation.
Eventually we got up and walked along the more or less level path for just over an hour. As we passed a particularly impressive view
of a row of jagged mountain peaks I reached into my pocket for my camera only to find it missing. Suddenly with horror I remembered laying it on the ground next to me back where we had rested. Using our rapidly developing code language based on certain words, combinations of words and hand gestures, I told Said where I had left my camera. He immediately said that he would go back and get it. Guilty but too exhausted to argue, I accepted.
"Me wait here ," I said.
"Nooo, you wait house," he said, pointing further up the hill. "Small road." Could Sang Nawishta really be close? I did not believe it but assumed that if he was telling me to continue on my own then the path at least must be easy to follow. I continued uphill with the donkey, occasionally whipping its backside with a long wooden stick as he had shown me to do, while he headed off back the way we had come. To my shock, two minutes later I came to a village. Two rows of three dark, stone-walled, low-roofed houses stood opposite one another across a small
patch of grass. I peered through the open doorway of each but all were uninhabited.
I sat outside for a while, grateful for the opportunity to relax, but soon a freezing wind blew up so I decided to herd the donkey into one of the houses and get some shelter. Inside I lay down, dizzy and exhausted, and waited.
After two hours Said returned with my camera. It was now two o'clock and we were faced with a problem: it was, he said, four hours to Sang Nawishta. Darkness would be complete by six thirty. Would I be able to continue while taking only minimal rests? Should we press on to an inhabited place, to warmth, or should we overnight here in a cold, empty house?
"Here cold. Village - Warm - two hours," Said suggested, pointing up the mountains.
"Sang Nawishta?" I asked, surprised. I was pretty sure two hours would be ok with plenty of rests, especially with the prospect of a warm village at the end.
"Noo, Warm," he replied.
"Warm - name village?" I asked.
"Yes," he nodded.
"Warm to Sang Nawishta - how many hours?" I asked.
"Three," he answered.
"Village Warm - are there man, woman?"
"Oh, yes," he nodded. So we were heading to an inhabited village called Warm, slightly out of our way but closer than Sang Nawishta.
I struggled uphill against the gradient and my own exhaustion. Somewhere along the way it began to snow, quickly becoming so heavy that visibility dropped to about ten metres. When, after just one hour, at the top of one last, awful slope, the houses of Warm popped into view, I felt like laughing out loud with relief. Now we could have food, rest, hopefully borrow some blankets for the night, have a fire.
Said walked ahead of me through the driving snow, popping into each building he passed. He lingered in none, spoke to no one, and my heart sank as I realised that this village was also deserted. Said looked in the last house, turned and walked back towards me, shrugging his shoulders. We went into an empty house and unloaded the donkey.
"Rice," I said, by now ravenous.
"Wood no, water no - problem," he said, shaking his head.
"Wood no? Water no?" I asked, pointing
outside. He went out to have a look.
He returned half an hour later with a few sticks. The upshot was that he had found a small amount of wood but no water: we could have short-lived warmth but no rice.
I ate as much of the foul bread as I could stomach and fell quickly asleep as Said's tiny fire dwindled.
We woke up to find everywhere blanketed in almost a foot of snow.
"Very very problem," Said said. "Me - road - no!" He did not know the way on to Sang Nawishta and the path was hidden under all the snow.
After more confused conversation it was agreed on that we should go back to the previous deserted village. At least we knew where there was water near there. We packed up and went outside. For a moment we both stood there in silence, contemplating retracing our footsteps to a village that was also freezing and even further away from our goal.
"Sang Nawishta road - maybe no problem?" I asked.
"No problem!" Said suddenly decided. I laughed out loud with happiness and we trudged off through the snow, leaving
the village in the opposite direction from which we had arrived. What had made him change his mind I do not know, but I was only too happy to go along with his decision.
Any happiness rapidly disappeared though as we found ourselves struggling yet further uphill, myself by now completely out of it with altitude sickness, the snow filling my shoes and melting into icey water, my toes stinging with the cold. Eventually we reached the top, just as I felt my last reserves of energy were about to fail me, and the path more or less levelled off.
Said's donkey suddenly attempted to bolt and he ran at it, screaming at it in a manic, high-pitched voice and whipping it's backside berserkly with his stick. I collapsed in a fit of high-altitude, semi-delirious giggles. When he finally got the animal under control he punched it angrily in the neck and kicked it in the ribs, still shouting at it. It was a scene that would be repeated almost daily from that day onwards.
"It's my big problem," he said, pointing at the donkey as we finally got back on our way.
Despite my empty
stomach, spinning head and exhausted body I somehow managed to settle into a dogged, compulsive march through the snow, barely aware of my surroundings, my tiredness or even the fact that I was walking. Before I knew it we were cresting a small hill and there was Sang Nawishta below us, one yurt and four of the low-roofed buildings we had seen at Warm and the other deserted village, basically no more than piles of stones with mud roofs supported by long sticks, the gaps in whose walls the wind blew savagely through. We descended the hill, passing a villager heading out into the blizzard with his flock, and approached the yurt. Despite the village's high altitude, I was conscious of vast peaks towering far above it, their whitewashed forms moving between visibility and invisibility as the snow storm waxed and waned.
No one was inside the yurt but we unloaded the donkey, put our bags in a corner and I sat down while Said went to look for people. The design of the yurt was exactly the same as the ones I had seen in Kyrgyzstan: the vertical, circular wall reaching about a metre in height then sloping
Scenery in between Sarhad and Badge Goz
Every one of those mountain ridges to the right of the river (and more beyond them that are not visible in this picture) required crossing in a single day
inwards, supported by many long sticks, to a large hole in the centre roughly three metres above the ground. I later found out from the owner that he had bought it from the Kyrgyz who lived further in the Afghan Pamir, those who had fled their homeland for Afghanistan when Russia invaded, the last of their people to live a year-round yurt-dwelling, nomadic existence. The strange thing here was that the hole in the roof had been left open, despite the heavy snow. Where the large, light flakes were falling in the centre of the floor the carpets and rugs had been rolled back so that a large, muddy patch had developed. Even the rugs, blankets and pillows where I was sitting on the far side from the door were getting damp.
After a minute or so Said appeared with a man in a small Afghan cap and a long, brown coat. I stood up to introduce myself.
"Salam aleykum," I said, offering my hand.
"Wa aleykum as salam," he replied in a quiet, distant voice, shaking my hand lightly, almost absent-mindedly. Something spaced-out in his manner and his slightly glazed-over eyes made me suspect almost instantly
that he was on opium. I had heard that lots of people here, particularly the Kyrgyz, were addicted to the drug that was brought in year-round by traders from neighbouring Badakshan province.
"What's your name?" I asked him in Wakhi.
"Sarfiroz," he replied, but did not ask me for mine.
"I'm Edward," I offered anyway. He nodded, no doubt having instantly forgottten what I had said.
Sarfiroz brought us a huge carpet and laid it down on the rugs that already lined the floor on the far side of the yurt. I was about to sit down on it when I realised that it was soaking wet. Through a hurried conversation with Said that was only partially-understood by both parties I managed to communicate to him the idea that Sarfiroz did not need to do us this favour and that we were happy with the only slightly damp rugs that had already been on the floor before he brought the wet one. Sarfiroz's face expressed absolutely nothing when Said spoke to him but he removed the soaking carpet anyway. He returned ten minutes later with salty tea and bread, so I ate as much as I
could stomach before lying back and falling asleep.
I awoke shivering a couple of hours later at around nine in the morning. I went outside to go to the toilet and almost fell to the ground as I felt, or imagined I felt, a great blast of hot air in my face. I span around but of course saw nothing it could have come from; nevertheless, the feeling of hot air blowing lightly on my face remained. My vision swam and I swayed from side to side as I looked around me, trying to decide where to go. The whiteness of the snow that filled my entire sphere of vision seemed intolerably bright. After a few moments I stumbled drunkenly off towards a hillock on the far side of the village.
Returning to the yurt, two dogs ran towards me, barking and snarling savagely. I pretended to throw stones at them and for a second they stopped before resuming their sprint. About ten metres away they were called off by Sarfiroz who emerged from a house and yelled at them just in time.
I lay in my inebriated state for several hours. The next time I ventured
out, I felt the same bizarre blast of hot air in my face, the same dizziness and the same maddening brightness of the snow.
By early afternoon the blizzard had calmed. The snow now drifted down lightly, giving enough respite for most of what had settled on the ground to melt, swamping the entire village in mud. Without the bright, white snow I felt less dizzy and being outside was more tolerable. Gradually villagers drifted out of their houses and set to work. Two young boys, a twenty-something man and Sarfiroz were apparent, all well-wrapped up and with coats of one sort or another. Sarfiroz seemed to be completely idle, wandering around as if in a daze, but the other three were working hard. There were also lots of women and girls dressed in their colourful but dirty red and purple dresses; they seemed to be doing most of the work although, unlike the men, they had no decent clothing to prevent them becoming drenched by the snow. Drenched they quickly became, but nevertheless the village was soon filled with their gentle singing as they chased sheep and milked goats, their sodden garments slopping against their skin as they
In the afternoon Said asked to borrow my knife and I realised that in my dazed confusion I had left it back at Warm. Immediately he set off on the long walk back to get it, despite my protests that it really was not necessary. He returned later with three men, three donkeys and a horse. One of the men held out a small penknife to me.
"Me no," I said to Said, pointing at the knife and showing with my hands that mine had been bigger. The three newcomers burst into laughter, began slapping me on the back, shouting boisterously in their language and one of them handed me my knife. They then said goodbye and left the village in the other direction. For all my efforts I could not get out of Said who they were, where they were from, where they were going or why they had had my knife. One thing was clear, though: their behaviour had been more outgoing, friendly and even laddish than anyone else I had met so far.
The evening meal was the first decent one I had had in two days: bread, plain rice, home-made but gone-off
yoghurt and salty tea. Sarfiroz even closed the hole in the roof of the yurt, bringing the temperature up a degree or two. In my sleeping bag and under a couple of blankets, I was now actually quite warm. Usually, he had said, the women slept here, but as Said and I were here it would be for the men tonight. I had my first good night's sleep since starting the trek.
The next day's trekking was an easy five hours on level ground through a wide, long, grassy valley that locals called Chpodkis. All snow had disappeared and the sun was shining brightly in a near-cloudless blue sky. I had acclimatised to the altitude somewhat and despite an initial shortness of breath soon got used to walking again. We had a breakfast of bread and salty tea with Sarfiroz to the sound of the village's women and children singing as they worked outside, their clothes still soaking from the previous day, then a second one an hour later when the villagers of Mat Khuz called us over for yoghurt and bread. All in all we were in high spirits, laughing and joking together as we had at the
beginning of the trek, Said filling every moment of silence with his loud, out of tune singing. Only my still wet boots and jacket prevented the day from being perfect.
The original plan had been to cross a high pass into a place called Warmdih. At one o'clock though we met people returning from said area who told us that it was six hours away, and that we did not have time before dark. I was relieved, as I was by then tired and my legs in need of rest, so I happily accepted Said's suggestion of overnighting in a nearby village. For half an hour we crossed to the other side of the valley and climbed a few hundred metres up the other side before coming to three or four of the low, stone houses. Three men were sitting outside the first. As I walked towards them they got up, began laughing and walked towards me to slap me on the back and shake my hand. At first confused, I suddenly realised who they were when I recognised the third one to shake my hand as the man who had given back my knife the previous day.
They whipped a large, white tarpaulin out of a bag, spread it on the ground in front of a house and bade me sit down. They then brought out a teapot of luke warm tea and unwrapped a piece of cloth containing crumbs and lumps of what had one been an enormous, dry, sugarless, flavourless buscuit. Together we sat on the tarpaulin, sipped tea, helped ourselves to handfuls of the broken, crumbled biscuit and tried to understand one another. It transpired that they were traders from Badakshan, beyond Ishkashim, plying a one-month on food caravan route between their home village and the Kyrgyz of the Afghan Pamir. The eldest was called Wadud, the youngest Danuk. I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the one who had given me back my knife. The donkeys and Wadud's horse were laden with an assortment of spices, foodstuffs, cooking utensils, jewelry, medecine and all sorts.
Fairly soon after our arrival in the village, which apart from us and the traders was deserted, it became too cold to sit out side any longer so we all moved into one of the houses. The traders built a fire and began cooking
on it, refusing all offers of food contributions from me other than a little packet of masala spices I had brought, some of which got added to an onion and noodle soup they were making. After the soup Wadud set to work again cooking rice with oil, salt and raisins while Danuk prostrated himself silently on the other side of the room. Strangely, neither Wadud nor their other companion prayed that evening. I went to sleep with a fuller belly than at any other point on the trek.
The next day we had a breakfast of the traders' crumbled biscuit and salty tea. Afterwards we packed our bags and took them outside into the sun, myself stumbling with renewed diziness. There was no pain in my head and the feeling was not especially unpleasant - it simply was not the sort of state in which you wanted to walk for six hours over a high pass in the Afghan Pamir.
"Are you OK?" Wadud asked me in Wakhi. I indicated with my hands that my head was spinning like crazy. He immediately took out some pieces of paper, unwrapped them and gave me two handfuls of pills, indicating
that one was for when I felt out of breath and the other for when my head hurt. I tried to offer him money, as I knew he had come to the Pamir specifically to sell these goods, but he would not hear of it and his companions backed him up in his refusal.
Together we set off, walking back to the other side of the valley then crossing a large swampy area that involved constantly hopping and jumping from one patch of stable ground to another. The land then began to rise upwards towards the pass. It was not steep but it went up and up, seemingly without end, until we crossed into a land dominated ninety-nine per cent by the colour white and were once again trudging through deep snow that gradually seeped into our boots. Everyone fell into silence when we reached the top and walked on level ground in between the peaks for two hours, my breath coming in heavy gasps.
Once down on the other side in the grassy Warmdih we sat down for a rest. Wadud stretched out and buried his head in his hands.
"Are you ok?" I asked him.
He showed me with his hands that his head was all over the place. Mine, despite a mild, ongoing dizziness, had returned to somewhere approaching normal.
After several minutes we all got up and headed on. At the first collection of houses we passed we were invited for bread and salty tea but we did not stay long, pressing on instead for the last village before the Akbilis Pass that we would take tomorrow. When we arrived, two small men, whose almost identical goblin-like features and cheeky smiles indicated that they were brothers, ushered us into the yurt that stood next to the village's three houses. There we were given a dinner of bread, rice, yoghurt and salty tea along with some blankets for a warm sleep.
I woke up in the middle of the night with a slamming headache and a parched throat. In pain and desperately thirsty, there was no way I was going back to sleep; instead I lay there, drifting in and out of semi-consciousness, perhaps slightly feverish, longing for the others to wake up. I remember becoming briefly aware of Danuk and Wadud drinking tea somewhere to my left, but bizarely chose not
to ask them for any... at some point later a stout, bearded man was chanting in a low voice, standing in front of a row of three others, all of them prostrating themselves silently in the gaps in between verses... then there was nothing other than my pain and thirst as I lay there silently... then they were chanting and praying again. After many hours dawn came and the others awoke, my headache still agonizing, my throat drier than ever and everything I had seen during the night now seeming more like dreams than reality.
"Are you OK?" Wadud asked. I replied by pretending to punch my head repeatedly and wincing to show that I had a bad headache. I then tried to stand up but the pain increased to a crippling intensity and I fell back to the ground. They spoke concernedly amongst themselves and someone was sent to bring tea. I suspected I would not be able to make it to the Kyrgyz yurt camp known as Karchynd on the other side of the Akbilis Pass.
"Karchynd walk five hours," Said told me. "You drink tea, sleep, 12 o'clock walk, no problem."
I drank around
ten cups of tea and some of Wadud's pills over a couple of hours and gradually began to feel better. By around nine o'clock I was able to stand up and walk outside, although my head still throbbed and I was extremely dizzy. Most of the time until twelve I spent lying down.
After as much bread as I could stomach, which was by now very little, the five of us set off uphill towards the pass. Akbilis turned out, thankfully, to be unusually gentle, a short uphill climb taking us to a long, level, grassy pass that felt more like a valley. It was lined on both sides with craggy peaks on whose slopes the snow line seemed to begin just a few metres above us, the occasional stream trickling down from their heights to provide us with refills to our water bottles. Marmot burrows unearthed and excavated suggested the presence of some large, strong predator.
"Bear?" I asked Said, pointing at one of the burrows. He gave me a quizzical, uncomprehending look.
"Very big," I said, holding up my hands with fingers curled like claws, opening my mouth wide and transforming my face into a
"Oh, yes," he answered, pointing at the burrows. "Bear."
After a couple of hours we took a rest on the shores of a small lake, poor Wadud once again collapsing on the ground as soon as we had stopped and clasping his head. "Not good," he said in Wakhi, pointing at his brow. We did not have time to rest long though, having started so late, and within minutes we were all back up and moving on.
When we came down the other side of the pass, the Badakhshi traders parted ways with me and Said. I was sad to see them go, having got used to their presence over the previous few days; they had made a great effort to overcome the language barrier with me and we had managed to build some sort of relationship quicker than you would have thought possible under the circumstances.
An hour later we arrived at Karchynd, three yurts next to a large area of mud, earth and dung on which stood a large flock of sheep and several yaks. There was also one mud-walled building on the opposite side of the field from which we were
approaching, next to which an old man sat. Before arriving at the mud and earth area, Said and I hopped from one stone to another across a stream then came to a halt, Said indicating that we should go no further.
"Sit," he said, and we both sat down on rocks. He waved to the old man, who did nothing in return. For perhaps two minutes both parties sat still, a one hundred-metre gap in between them. Then the old man stood up and disappeared inside the mud house to reappear a second later carrying a rug. Casually, he beat the rug against the side of the house then laid it out on the ground before sitting back down on his rock. Again, the two parties sat in silence opposite one another.
After a minute the old man stood up and began strolling towards us at an exaggeratedly slow pace, occasionally pausing to examine something of great interest on the ground that was invisible from our distance. Eventually he reached us, shook our hands distractedly and began talking to Said. After a minute or two we all began walking towards the mud house.
"Problem?" I asked Said.
"No, no problem," he replied.
We unloaded our bags and sat down in the house where two young men were sitting. They were apparently Kyrgyz and the old man Badakhshi, although what he was doing living so far from Badakhshan with people who were not his own I could not work out.
Cold wind rushed through the open door and, shivering, I put on every piece of clothing I had and curled up in my sleeping bag. My shivers slowly developed into shakes that then became so strong they could almost have been termed convulsions and the morning's incapacitating headache returned. No one paid any attention to me as I shook and jolted on the floor, gasping for breath, other than Said.
"Problem?" he asked.
"Big, big problem," I replied. "Hot tea - very good!"
"Tea, problem," he said, shaking his head.
"No, no problem, tea, please!" I insisted, although I understood where the problem lay: the previous villages we had slept in had been Wakhi, his own people, whereas here we were in territory unknown to both of us, without friends, relatives or acquaintances, and after the rather strange welcome we had
received from the old man he felt uncomfortable asking for anything. Still, on my insistence, he went and asked, and half an hour later salty tea and bread were brought. The man who brought them closed the door behind him, the door that I had somehow not even noticed had existed up until that moment. Why no one else had done so, considering that I was obviously freezing, I cannot say.
I forced one cup of tea down me, although it was a real effort, took a lot of time and made me feel queasy. Halfway through the second cup my stomach churned and I knew I was about to be sick. Still in my sleeping back I waddled towards the door on my knees, threw it open, fell flat on my stomach and vomited into the black, starless void outside. When I had finished heaving and wretching I crawled back to my place and fell asleep. They woke me for dinner but I could not bear the thought of eating and refused.
I awoke the next day with the headache still threatening to brain me. A couple of Wadud's pills and several hours of constant, determined tea
drinking, however, managed to get rid of it until by midday I was well enough to eat some bread and wander around Karchynd. The sun was shining, the sky blue and the temperature manageable if I wore all ten layers of clothing available to me. Two Kyrgyz women in red dresses were counting the enormous flock of sheep next to two of the yurts, their long, white head scarves held in place by a red hat trailing for over a metre behind them and rippling in the wind as they walked around the field. The men, on the other hand, lay down inside the mud house and did nothing, dozing and rarely even talking to one another.
Exhausted, hungry, ill and cold, I made the decision that day to turn back. I had planned to walk for three more days to the end of the Kyrgyz area in the Little Pamir, then heading back to Sarhad via a detour to the Big Pamir, making for a four week trek in total. But I had had enough; not just enough of Afghanistan, I decided, but possibly enough of this sort of extreme travel in general, such was my state of
mind at that point. All I could think of was getting back to Sarhad, being able to wash myself and eat something other than bread, yoghurt and rice. The further thought of Ishkashim gave me great excitement and Tajikistan had built itself up in my mind as the be-all-end-all of civilisation, a heavenly land of such delicious food, people so similar to me and such easy living conditions that I tried not to torture myself with thoughts of it.
"Tomorrow, you me, walk Warmdih," I said to to Said.
"Yes," he agreed, nodding in understanding, "You Pamir very very problem."
"Yes," I admitted, fighting back the irritation that welled up inside me at his constant, overuse of the word 'problem' in relation to me.
"Sarhad, 4 days?" I asked him. It had taken us six days on the way here but we had had bad weather, had not known the way and I had since then built up my leg muscles. Said thought about it for a while, counting out hours, days and places on his fingers and muttering to himself.
"Yes, four days good," he said after half a minute. And so it was
settled. That evening I ate as much rice as my now severely shrunken stomach could handle and went to sleep excited by the prospect of Sarhad.
In the morning, before leaving and after a breakfast of bread and salty tea, I photographed the old Badakhshi man and the two young Kyrgyz, one of whom was so excited at seeing his picture on the screen of my digital camera that he immediately ran back to his yurt and returned carrying a present of three large, round circles of bread, thanking me profusely. We smiled at one another as we shook hands and parted, despite the fact that we had barely said one word during my stay in Karchynd.
"Kyrgyz bread no good," Said told me as we walked away, "and women no beautiful."
The first day of the return journey over the Akbilis Pass was easy. We stopped for a lunch of bread and salty tea at the first village after Akbilis before continuing on to Nawabat, the last before the pass that led to Chpodkis.
The next day at first threatened to become a nightmare: having eaten almost nothing for days, even forcing down bread was
becoming difficult and the slightest uphill gradient left me rapidly exhausted and gasping for breath. Eventually, however, we made it up the steepest part of the ascent towards the snow-blanketed pass and I settled into a dogged, miserable trudge towards a destination for the day still six hours away, a distance that I forced myself not to think about. Instead, I conjured up images in my head of juicy, tender meat, fresh salads, pints of coke or lager and concentrated on these. I knew I was hungry and lacking in energy but my stomach was so shrunken that the thought of eating seemed almost like an impossibility and indeed as we neared the top of the high pass, dizziness and delusion setting in, I seriously wondered whether I would ever be able to eat normally again.
As we walked down the other side of the pass, the juicy tender portion of meat that had been dominating my imagination for the past few hours, excluding almost all other thoughts from my mind, was as if by magic delivered to me in real life. We were by now three hours away from where we would overnight; I was walking quickly and
without thought of rest, having settled into the walk and managed to entirely distract myself from my exhausted body and empty stomach, wanting only to reach our destination as soon as possible.
We passed a caravan of donkeys and horses heading in the opposite direction with a large flock of sheep. They were slightly further uphill so we just waved to them as we passed. But, a minute later, one of them came running after us.
"Hey!" he called out from just behind. I turned my head briefly without stopping walking to see him holding up a hand with a large cut on it.
"Medecine! Medecine! Do you have medecine?" he shouted in Wakhi.
At first I shook my head at him and continued walking for a second, just wanting to rush on and get to warmth and food as soon as possible. Almost immediately, however, I realised I could not lie to this man who I had the ability to help so much: if he was headed for the Kyrgyz encampments it would be weeks before he could get back to anywhere with medecine. I came to a halt, nodded to him and shouted for
Said to stop. Said came back, unloaded the donkey and I took out my medecine bag. I washed the cut, treated it with disinfectant then covered it with sealant before putting a plaster and bandage on it.
"Thank you, thank you!" said the short man in a purple turban to me, almost deliriously grateful. He then rattled off something to Said that I could not understand.
"You me lunch?" Said asked. "Rice, meat!"
"Yes, yes, very good!" I drooled manically, rabidly. Together we walked back uphill to where his band of traders was gathered. They spread out a tarpaulin on the mountainside, five of us sitting down to drink - Lord be praised - unsalted black tea while another man cooked on a fire nearby.
After about an hour we were served a wonderfully greasy plate of rice that had been boiled with lamb, and that piece of meat that so recently had been just a wild imagining, an unattainable dream, was handed to me. I gobbled it down in seconds. We all ate from the same plate with our hands, as had been the way every time I had eaten so far in Afghanistan, squeezing handfuls of rice into squishy balls and popping them into our mouths. I ate until my my hands dripped with fat and my belly ached, then drank more black tea after the meal.
Both parties had a long way to walk, so we got up fairly soon after the meal to part ways. Just before Said and I left, however, the carcass of the sheep whose meat we had just eaten was brought forth, its organs all cut out and handed to us as a gift. I wondered for a second whether I should give him any money but instantly realised that a man with such strong principles of hospitality as his would be greatly offended by any such offer.
That night we slept in the village of Raureen and ate an insufficient dinner of sheep organs, bread and salty tea. I was almost at the point where the mere thought of this beverage would make me wretch but I still felt unable to refuse it, such was their pleasure at drinking it and the enormity of their beaming smiles as they offered it to me.
The next day I woke up starving but simply did not manage to force a decent amount of the stale bread down my throat and could only keep up a brave face for one cup of salty tea. The first three hours of my trek that day were accordingly tough, despite being along level ground. Upon arriving in Sang Nawishta I bought some rice from Sarfiroz, cooked it and ate slowly over a period of an hour, not letting myself get full while at the same time allowing my stomach time to expand back out of its shrunken state.
We continued along a much higher path than the one we had arrived in Sang Nawishta on several days previously, occasionally snaking its way down the wall of a small canyon and exhaustingly back up the other side. Thankfully, however, I seemed to be almost completely over my altitude sickness and we made quick progress, arriving in the village of Badge Goz mid-afternoon. Here I made the best decision of my entire trip: knowing that the next day's trekking, all the way back to Sarhad, would be an eight to ten hour marathon of mountain ascents and descents, I decided to take out the two emergency packs of spaghetti I had bought back in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and eat them with my last can of tomato puree for the next three meals.
"Today - spaghetti," I said to Said.
"Nooo, nooo, bread, rice, yoghurt, salty tea!" he protested.
"Bread, salty tea, rice, yoghurt, me very big problem," I finally admitted to him. "Me - no spaghetti, no Sarhad."
A similar exchange went back and forth between us several times until he understood that I was being serious and agreed to make a fire for the spaghetti. We cooked an entire packet and, my hunger being far greater than my sense of shame, I put my Western selfishness on display by claiming half of it, eating until my stomach hurt, simply unable to control myself. Wakhi people would never have done this; if they had, it would have been a source of great shame afterwards. Perhaps they looked down on me for it, or perhaps Said excused my actions by explaining that I was weaker than them and in need of sustenance; either way I had reached the stage where I no longer cared about anything other than reaching Sarhad.
The meal was not particularly tasty but the intensity of the flavour after almost two weeks of Afghan Pamir food made me feel how I imagined the first Europeans to discover chilli, nutmeg and all the other spices of the Indies must have done. Said took the other half of the spaghetti and shared it with two men from the village. He ate only a few mouthfulls before the two men noticed my tomato puree, poured it all over the food and mixed it in. Said, still suspicious of the stuff, ate only bread following that. After our night in a tent made of a large piece of cloth draped over some sticks, he refused the puree-free spaghetti I made in the morning too, saying, "Bread very very good!"
There followed a full day's trekking, extremely hard but just manageable, crossing mountain after mountain, each descent leading down to the rivers of the valleys in between. We made the last of the spaghetti at Showr. This time Said offered for me to have a portion three times the size of his, despite the fact that his donkey had awoken with a heart problem and he was now carrying my 15kg bag in its place.
"Me no problem walk Sarhad," he explained. "You very very big problem!"
And he was right, me very very big problem: my legs ached, I was exhausted, I was starving within two hours of having finished the spaghetti and to top it all blisters had picked this, the last and hardest day of my trek, to spring up all over both feet. Eventually, however, I tottered over the last mountain at a 90-year old's pace and began the two-hour descent to Sarhad, where upon my arrival an extraordinary mental transormation occurred almost instantaneously. For the previous few days my thoughts had been dominated by dreams and imaginings of getting out of the Pamir but now, suddenly, my attitude had transformed to one along the lines of 'Did I really just do that?' Did I really just spend two weeks in that world, with those people, maybe just beginning to scratch the surface of those inconceivably harsh and bland lives?
Despite the sense of achievement I felt filled with, my desire to get back to Tajikistan had not diminished in the slightest, although the intensity of the longing had declined somewhat due to being a step closer. The morning after I had arrived in Sarhad I climbed a hill to scan the surrounding area for cars and, to my delight, saw one several kilometres to the West. I walked there, asked around for the owners and found them to be several members of the Aga Khan Foundation NGO, drinking salty tea and eating bread in a small mud house in between giving lectures to the local population on dealing with unexpected natural disasters. One of them spoke serviceable English, was keen to practice it, was exactly my age, and happily agreed to take me with them the next day.
It took two days but eventually we were back in Ishkashim, so close to Tajikistan that I could see its concrete houses, four wheel drives and telegraph poles rising tantalisingly out of the rock on the other side of the river. Mohammed Ali, one of the NGO workers took me back to his house and fed me the night before I left Afghanistan. His brother, who spoke excellent English and had been to university in Kabul, provided me with the first insight I had received into a wider Afghanistan.
"What do most Afghanis think of the Taleban?" I asked.
"They're almost not human, like animaks," he replied.
"What about the Russians?"
"Well, back then we hated them of course, because they invaded. But now people think, at leat the Russians built stuff, like bridges and clinics. The Americans don't even do that, they're just interested in fighting and destroying, like the Taleban."
"So who's worse, the Taleban or the Americans?"
"They're exactly the same thing."
Aghanistan's many years of wars, repeated failed invasions and tyrannical governments had put a major stopper on its development, making the lives of ordinary people incredibly harsh while providing a fascinating but tough travel eperience for people like me, a glimpse into what Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan must have been like before the industrialisation and development brought by the USSR.
While being one of my most interesting travel experiences it had also been one of my toughest, draining my energy to the extent that I needed to spend the next week lying in a hotel in Tajikistan, eating, sleeping and reading. It had been so tough that for a while I was convinced that I would give up adventure travel altogether, spending my next holiday on a pleasant tropical beach somewhere. Now I'm recovered and not so sure though, so we'll see what next year has to offer.
Click this link for advice on independent travel in the Afghan Wakhan and Afghan Pamir
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