The walk out and return journey   <---


Le retour


The weather had certainly turned, and after the by now traditional haggling with the porters and owners of horses and donkeys we set off down the valley in the clouds and drizzle. We stopped for the night at the first village, Pacygram, and bought some chickens which Moumil Khan prepared, cutting them up into small pieces which were cooked in fat, all being eaten with the local flat bread from a communal pot. After weeks on tinned food this was real feast. We were all winding down after the climbing and this, combined with the harvest-home come end-of-summer atmosphere, made us feel like we were getting back to the real world, our stay in the mountains was already going through that mysterious transformation from experience to memories.

A sad event

This made another far less pleasant incident all the more touching. We had noticed a group of people in what seemed to be a cemetery, and also that there seemed to be fewer people about than on the way up. It turned out that a few days before some animals had been stolen and a young goatherd, a child, had been brutally murdered in the process. Most of the men had gone off after the thieves, armed and set on revenge. This put our contentment into perspective, we were in a very hard country and I could only wonder why we were never ourselves subjected to anything similar. Compared to the Nuristanis even impoverished students were wealthy, just our equipment was worth more than any of them would earn in a lifetime. Did they leave us alone out of respect for guests, as one often reads in guide books on Afghanistan, were they simply scared of what the consequences would be if they harmed a foreigner or were we just lucky; we will never really know as communication was only possible at a very superficial level.

Of horses and donkeys

We continued our walk, livened up at one point by a horse which bolted fully loaded with a several hundred pounds of our luggage, we realised why, for serious work, donkeys are preferred. Despite their small size they are much calmer and plod along steadily all day, only requiring either a prod with short stiff stick or a slap with a thin whippy one, both techniques being employed by the drivers according to personal taste. Others seemed to get by using verbal means alone; I wonder if their counterparts in times long past in England used the same methods, would they have understood each other? I think they probably would. On many occasions, there is this impression of time travel in Nuristan, even the clothes, especially the head gear, seem to come straight out of a medieval painting.

While on the subject of donkeys, something we learnt by experience was to be careful not to follow too closely on the steep bits, the extra effort required seems to work wonders on their digestive processes, you have been warned!

Everyday life - agriculture

The wheat was cut by now and the women, who do most of the work in the fields, were busy heaping up winter forage on the flat roofs of the houses. Gathering firewood for the long winters, when snow would make moving about very difficult, was also well underway. Nominally, at least, this was the responsibility of the men, though even old women could often be seen bent under huge bundles of brushwood, their men were undoubtedly employed in more vital tasks.

In the lower, more fertile parts of the valley, melons could be seen growing amongst the corn (maize) plants. All this cultivation was only possible by irrigation; the rainfall was far too irregular. Everywhere narrow, one or two feet wide channels carried water from higher up the valley, sometimes for miles nearly horizontally, either dug in the earth or carried by rough hewn wooden conduits past rocky buttresses and across side gullies until they reached the fields they were designed to water. Often a system of moveable sluices allowed the irrigation of different fields according to what must be a complex system of water sharing. It probably gives plenty of scope for feuds and bickering too.

Barg-e Matal - another incident

After two days we reached Barg-e Matal, where Dave and Rich had been getting Albert ready. Two soldiers had kept watch on it while we were away and we were glad to learn that the battery had held its charge well and the old vehicle had started up like a good‘un. How we could have charged the battery if this had not been the case I do not know.

One incident, which spoke long about the social situation in these high valleys, is worth mentioning. We had by now built up a fairly easy relationship with Moumil Kahn, and as we entered the village he was wearing one of our blue duvet jackets. Among the small crowd on the path watching our arrival was a young man, no more than a boy, but better dressed than most of the villagers. He walked up to Moumil spoke to him most aggressively, and then gave him a hefty slap on the face. Our soldier, a grown man, perhaps twice the age of this unpleasant brat, said nothing, took off the jacket and gave it to one of us without the slightest protest. It turned out that the well dressed but uncouth youth was the son of the chief of the village, perhaps out of jealousy or just plain spite, he had taken objection to this non-standard uniform and had thought nothing of publicly humiliating our friend. The near feudal situation that this nasty little scene demonstrated made us furious, but Moumil was more embarrassed for us than for himself and made it clear that we should not try to do anything about it; he “knew his place” like Thomas Hardy’s farm labourers. The cosseted life of a London student does not prepare one for such scenes of everyday submission.

Soon we were loaded, and not without much regret we left Nuristan by the same, and only, road by which we had arrived. The road was the same, but to coin a much abused cliché, we were not.





29/10/2001 Updated 27/04/2014