The Journey In

 

 

 

 

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At the time Harry worked as a mechanic for an engine development company, and he took care of the rather superior version of an Austin K9 ex-WD truck that had been bought. This probably explains why it got us there and back with a lot less problems than the previous epic; I had been the “mechanic” then, more of a bodger really. In my defence, the road had also improved a lot in four years, there was now tarmac all the way. We took the same route (click here for map) as far as just after the Kabul gorge, where we had turned left up the Kunar River at Jalalabad for Nuristan in 1970. This time we just carried straight on over the famous Khyber Pass to Peshawar then Islamabad.

The stifling heat of this, the administrative capital, was already bad enough, though we were told that it was cool compared to the rest of the country, being already a bit higher. The traditional wrangling with officialdom was taken care of and with Ickbal, our young liaison officer, installed we were soon off again, back West towards Peshawar, then North to Chitral. He was in fact an altogether pleasant character, barely older than us but already well started in his military career, unlike us! He spoke perfect English as well as Urdu and other dialects and proved to be invaluable in negotiating with the locals on numerous occasions.

The frontier area was still very wild, much more so than the Afghanistan that I had known – everyone seemed to be armed and Ickbal told us that the zone was very dangerous because of the smuggling that went on between Afghanistan and Pakistan. I remember very clearly our first night on the road to Chitral, eating in a restaurant under the steady gaze of a group of locals at a nearby table, black turbans, long black hair and beards and bright, piercing dark eyes, belts of cartridges across the breast and rifles propped up against the wall. From time to time they would turn there heads and whisper together before resuming their curiosity. It was more impressive than frightening, they were a fine group that would have made a superb portrait, Pathan warriors straight out of a Boys Own story. When we left Ickbal guided us to the nearby police compound where we slept safely behind the thick walls with sheet steel turrets at each corner. He said not to worry, he thought it was advisable, that’s all!

The road leads up over a high pass, until recently a cable car was used in winter but they were building a new, all weather road. At one point we had to stop while dynamite was used just ahead; boulders could be seen falling quite nearby as we all hid behind the truck. Ours was higher and wider than most of the other lorries and at one point I had to break off a few overhanging rocky spikes with a peg hammer as we crawled along with the offside wheels visibly squeezing out the retaining wall above the river gorge below, splendid memories. The end of the road for us was an old suspension bridge just before Chitral which was too narrow for traffic.

Chitral was picturesque, Tirich Mir making a perfect backdrop, narrow earth streets and low houses with thick mud walls. The bazaar was like so many others, with the inevitable cafés packed with stoned Europeans, trying to look local. Generally the latter laughed when they pointed them out, with that finger to the temple sign which is understood throughout the world.

One little event that has stuck in my mind, whereas so much hasn’t, concerns a strange encounter one evening. I don’t know if it was Colin or Ickbal, but somehow we went to meet a local personage of some importance who had invited us to his house for the evening. I have a dream-like recollection of driving high up on a hillside behind Chitral and spending the evening chatting with this mysterious character. He wore the typical clothes, hat with rolled brim, baggy trousers and waist-coat, but was clearly someone of much education. He spoke to us without pretension, and listened politely to our naďve remarks, inscrutably, and with a slightly amused twinkle in his dark eyes. One point I recall was when he explained how he admired the Chinese, not so much for any simple political reasons but because they got the people to work; the problem with Pakistan and India, he said, was that hard work wasn’t in their culture and what poor countries desperately needed was governments that got their peoples down to work. It seemed a good point.

The evening was a long pleasant one with food and drink and much conversation, who he really was I never knew, only that Ickbal referred to him as an important man, a prince.* Was it a dream, or did it really happen? He was perhaps in his thirties or forties then, so by now he would be quite an old man; I often wonder if he managed to realise any of his plans, was he one of the clan leaders involved in the latest Afghan wars – Chitral is just over the border from Nuristan, a short walk down the river? Whatever he did or didn’t do, he still lives on in my memory at least.

Our brief tourist interlude was now over and as the road beyond was too narrow for our lorry, we hired two jeeps to take us and our baggage to the road head. Ours were very old Willys Jeeps that looked like they were straight out of a D-day landing, after the battle, and probably were old enough. This didn’t stop them being loaded up with all our food and gear, with us on top. To keep the front wheels on the road they had to tie a few tri-wall boxes on the front bumpers, and then we were off. The track was more and more precipitous, fording the side rivers was the most interesting bit, the force of the water sometimes pushing them sideways as they bounced over the boulders in the bed of the torrents. There were also a number of stops for mechanical problems which the drivers always seemed to repair with bits of wire and a bang or two. They were a nice enough crew, stopping for a smoke of distinctly aromatic home rolls whenever things got too steep.

When the jeeps could go no further, we hired a mixture of donkeys, horses and porters, Ickbal’s presence was invaluable but even he lost his patience occasionally. We had more than 100 kms to walk, along the same Kunar river which joins the Kabul river near Peshawar. The valley was still wide but at this time of year the river was fairly low and we often walked along wide mud plains, baked white by the sun. Other times we were on narrow paths which climbed up the valley sides to avoid rocky bluffs but always with tantalising views of snowy mountains beyond the arid stony flanks near the river. Every few kilometres there would be a village with  its patchwork of little fields and fine old trees, all kept alive by a myriad of narrow irrigation channels, rain being rare for much of the year. All in all it was very similar to the countryside of North East Afghanistan, or Nuristan, the culture is similar too and there have been numerous exchanges of population over the centuries. One of the last was when, at the end of the nineteenth century Nuristan was bloodily converted to Islam by the rulers of Kabul. To escape the massacre many crossed the border from Nuristan to Chitral. There are still remnants of these cultures in a few isolated valleys, they have even become a tourist attraction, but most of the people here were at least nominally Muslim. The standard greeting, repeated dozens of time per day on the path was "Salaam alaikum", with the standard reply of "Alaikum salaam" (speakers of Arabic will please excuse the approximate 'phonetic' transcription!).

The walk was not generally hard, and the environment splendid, the altitude made us puff a bit and the endless haggling with the porters was tedious – it always seems to be the case that the people from lower down are more trouble than those from higher up. The best were a pair of professional donkey drivers who just got on with the job. We had an enormous stock of cigarettes, kindly given to us by the Pakistan Tobacco Company which generally could be counted on to sort out the problem and get the caravan moving again. When we were near Pecchus, the site chosen for our base camp, the view was blocked by heavy cloud. As we discovered on the walk out, this was really a bit of bad luck as we wasted a lot of time exploring the various glaciers leading up to Koyo Zom – in good weather the approach can be seen fairly clearly from the path which follows the North side of the valley.

The river now disappeared under the snout of the Chatiboi glacier, which provides a convenient bridge for men and beasts to cross to a flat stony spot on the true left moraine, just outside of the small village of Pecchus. The latter is an interesting spot, there are hot springs nearby which have been known since antiquity, and the people themselves are fairer than most of the inhabitants of the Kunar valley and speak a different language. It is said that they descend from Greeks who deserted from Alexander the Great’s army over two thousand years ago… this is a fairly frequent claim in these parts, and perhaps one day an ADN specialist will be able to discover if there is any truth in it.

The main valley carries on East to a pass which leads to China, just a few miles away, but we were to go no further for the next five weeks and our main concern was paying off the porters, putting up the tents and building a bit of a stone shelter as a communal living area. We decided to split up into three groups, two pairs and a threesome as although Ickbal was not equipped for high altitude work, he was keen to take part in the initial climbing at least. The three groups would then explore the three glaciers which come down from the highest point of the area, Koyo Zom. From East to West these are the Chatiboi, the Pecchus and the Koyo glaciers. This would enable us to get acclimatized, have a bit of fun climbing then decide on how to approach and climb Koyo Zom itself as a joint effort.

* I have since had confirmation from Rob Wild that this evening did take place, I hadn't imagined it, and the man's name was Prince Burhan-ud-Din of Chitral and he would have been 59 when we met him. For details see : burhan.htm.

 

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