'Rest day' in Drosh.
Misra and Habibullah go to Chitral to talk to the D.C., to get permission to enter Kalash, and to check on horse food. Ayesha and I spend hours looking for food for the horses in Drosh. We walk though the fields trying to find some wheat that has been threshed so we can get some boose (straw). Combing the bazaars for flour, barley, anything. Never thought we'd be so happy as to find a sack of barley. The flies in the barren lot behind the hotel the boys are staked out in are loathsome. The stench of their old bread and barley shit is nauseating.
The next morning we leave Drosh. Horse's withers are bad, and coming down the Lowry Pass Shokot's withers have started developing the same type of hard lump that Horse started with.
Misra rides Hercules and Ayesha rides Kodak. Habibullah and I walk leading Horse and Shokot. We stop at an animal husbandry hospital on the outskirts of Drosh to see what can be done for them. The dispenser washes their wounds with the same orange wash we are using. Then he powders them with the white powder. He has a boy bring out a bottle of oxi-tetracycline. There is only one shot left in the bottle, the rubber seal has already been punctured, and he plunges the dark green fluid into Horse's neck.
The boy goes to the bazaar to bring some more. We have tea with the dispenser on the veranda. The liquid in the fresh bottle is a pale amber color. He gives Shokot a shot. Misra and Ayesha leave Drosh ponying Horse and Shokot. Habibullah and I remain to get supplies and hire a jeep to Ayun. It's enjoyable doing business in the bazaar with Habibullah. Habibullah does the bulk of the talking. No one knows I'm foreign. Just a couple of simple Pathans from down country. It's nice not being the show for a change, just a part of it.
Habibullah and I hire a jeep to take us and the gear to Ayun. Habib will find another jeep there, insh'Allah to take him on to Kafiristan. I plan to meet Misra and Ayesha at the old suspension bridge spanning the river. We pass them on the road. An hour later I get off before where the bridge, built in 1927, crosses the muddy rushing Chitral River. Beyond the bridge the road becomes dusty dirt, on the west bank of the river, on to Ayun. It saves the distance of first riding to Chitral before back tracking to Ayun. Misra has already obtained our passes to enter Kafiristan when he had gone to Chitral with Habibullah. My job is to wait at the bridge for them to help them cross the four horses over.
I sit on a grassy hill side overlooking the river with streamlets of clear cool water gurgling through the short grass and tumbling down the rocky banks to join the swirling river. I smoke a cigarette and idly watch some grazing sheep.
Misra, Ayesha, and the horses arrive shortly after noon. Before crossing they join me on the grass for lunch. A can of sardines, crackers and water. Asadullah wants to take pictures documenting our crossing of the suspension bridge but it is not to be. Before we can shoot anything a soldier comes up to us and tells us that it is illegal to photograph the bridge. He is an older soldier, approaching middle age and a potbelly, who could probably only be posted in such a useless post as guarding some stupid bridge (in all fairness we were right on the war sensitive Afghanistan border).
We show him our letters from Islamabad, first the English one to duly impress, then the Urdu one so he can read it. He's rude. He can't read Urdu very well anyway.
"We don't give a shit about your stupid bridge, anyway." I tell him. "We just want pictures of our horses crossing it. What importance can it have? It's an antique. That is why we want the pictures."
Misra and I discuss shooting him, but wisely decide just to head on. We still have a long hot ride to Kafiristan, and besides, bullets are costly.
After crossing the bridge I walk along with them leading Horse. He is becoming lethargic and needs to be coaxed along. The bank of the river is rocky and forty feet below us. The water is impossible to get to. In half an hour I decide to try to catch a ride on the next jeep passing us, to get into the valley of Kafiristan before the horses and to make sure all arrangements are satisfactory.
Kafiristan is the home of the Kafir Kalash - primitive pagan tribes, known as the wearers of the black robes. Their origin is cloaked in controversy. Legend says that five soldiers from the legions of Alexander the Great settled there and are the progenitors of the Kalash. They live in three valleys in small villages built on the hill sides near the banks of the Kalash River, and it's tiny tributaries, in houses of rough hewn logs, doubled storied because of the steepness of the slopes. The lower portions are usually for animals and fodder storage for the long harsh winters. They practice a religion of worship of nature. It is the only area in Pakistan-Afghanistan that hasn't been converted to Islam, though that is slowly changing with the times. Across the mountains, in Afghanistan, the Kalash were converted in the 1890's by Amir Abdur Rahman, the iron amir of Kabul, and Kafiristan became Nuristan.
Fifteen minutes after walking on ahead of Misra and Ayesha a jeep passes. I climb in. On the front seat are two fellows along with the driver. The older of the two, with a bushy brown wavy beard and wearing a pakul cap, asks me if I have heard of Rambur Valley. He tells me he is the headman of the village of Rambur. I vaguely remember him but to my good luck he doesn't recognize me. When he last saw me, two years ago, I was speaking Farsi and English, not Pashtu. We had fought because I had defecated down by the river, which I hadn't known at the time, was their Kafir holy place. He had wanted me to wash in the river to rectify it but I wasn't going to bathe in that icy cold water. I told him the hell with him and his foolish Kafir superstitions. I promptly left and walked the ten miles back to Bumburet.
We drive past the Kafiristan turnoff, a steep dirt road leading up and west, leading into the narrow valley of Kafiristan. The jeep stops short of Ayun and I walk the remaining distance. Habibullah isn't anywhere to be seen. I assume he has gotten a jeep into Kafiristan and that everything will be prepared for our arrival.
I sit at a table set up in the wide dusty street with some chairs around it and a tattered canvas overhang overhead to shield customers from the sun and drink a mango sherbat with delightfully cold dirty shredded snow ice. Ayun is dead, as usual. It always reminds me of a semi-deserted western ghost town. It is getting late in the day, almost 3 P.M., and there aren't even any jeeps waiting around to go to Kafiristan. I decide to start walking the distance. I can't sit and if a jeep does come through there is only one road. And I'll be on it.
I head back down the road I had come into town on. I make the sharp right turn up the dry rocky mountain leading to the Kafir valley. Winding back and forth up the mountain until I am high above the silvery Kalash River winding and twisting through the valley below me on it's way to join the Chitral River. At my feet a steep incline of jumbled rocks, tumbling chaotically down to green and golden fields of wheat, nurtured on the life giving waters of the river and ripening in the warm summer winds.
Good news, I think. Wheat is ripe and ready for the thresher. There will be boose available for the horses if we need it, though still I am dreaming of fields of tall green grass in Kafiristan. At the highest section of the road it leads through rock cliffs, the road precariously carved into the mountainside, rocks completely overhanging the road. Virtually two miles of rock tunnel. I had been in this rocky tunnel before two years ago. Then I rode standing on the back bumper of a cargo jeep with two Pathan traders. We had to duck our heads in order to keep them from being chopped off by the sharp rocks overhead.
The northern side of the road drops vertically straight off and down to the rushing Kalash River. High up on the opposite mountain side is what appears to be an even more precariously narrow rock road. In reality it is an aqueduct bringing water from higher up, where the Kalash River comes out of Afghanistan, down to Ayun.
The way is long and I speed up my pace. I want to arrive before the horses to make sure Habibullah has gotten it together. I don't mind walking, in fact I rather like it, as long as I'm not carrying anything. Now I'm only carrying my pistol and its weight bumps against my hip but it's a weight I've gotten used to. A reassuring feel.
All the way into Kafiristan only two jeeps have passed me. One is full of tourists and they don't pick me up. I look too Pakistani. The other jeep that comes by is completely piled with Pakistanis'. They really know how to load a jeep in these parts. Two fellows are sitting perched on the hood and a double layer of them hanging off the rear bumper. I shout to them as they grind dust and gears past me if there is any room, but obviously there isn't and they don't bother breaking their momentum for me.
It takes me three and a half hours to cover the distance between Ayun and Bumburet. I walk past the Pakistani government check post. I imagine my vibe is too local for them to bother with me (even Pakistanis' from other parts of Pakistan need a permit from the D.C. in Chitral). The same happened the last time I passed this way, though at that time I was covered under the guise of a turban. Afghan Mujahideen don't need any permit. I guess with my white Peshawari cap and pistol I look too Pathan to bother with. And everybody knows a Pathan's pistol is his permit. What is the point of my entry permit?
I chuckle to myself thinking of a story told me by Anwar Khan about a policeman who asked a notorious badmash to show him his pistol permit. The badmash drew his pistol and shot the policeman in the leg. "Do you want to see another page now?" he asked the stunned policeman.
The first hotel to appear as I walk into Bumburet is the Benazir Hotel, where I had stayed my last time in the valley. Thirsty. I don't even mind paying eight rupees for a Shazan (four rupees at most in Peshawar). I know it is difficult to get anything up here. It all has to come by jeep from Chitral. It's hard enough getting anything up to Chitral. It's ice cold, having been submerged in a metal basket with other soft drink bottles in the icy stream running across the road from the hotel. Dusk is falling as I trudge on up the road. I pass a few more hotels. At one there is a familiar face sitting at a table under the veranda, directly off the road.
I sit down with Irfan, a Pathan in his early thirties from Tangi whom we had met on top of the Lowry Pass. He had lived many years in England. He is just finishing filling a cigarette. A pot of chai arrives as I ask him if he has any news of Habibullah. As we are drinking the tea the chowkidar from the government rest house comes down the road looking for me.
In Chitral Misra had gotten permission from the D.C. to stay at the guest house in Bumburet, but there is a slight problem. The guest house is under repairs. There is no electricity (the upper end of Bumburet Valley has electricity supplied by a small water powered generator built by some Swiss people), no running water, no bathroom . . . nothing. He says Habibullah has left all of our gear there, but has gone down to the Kalash Hotel to see about making some kind of other arrangements.
As we talk, we hear the sound of the horse's bells like an audio mirage growing in the gloaming. A Kalashi boy comes running up the road heralding the approach of our little caravan. I see Misra and Ayesha. The sun has just set. The air is calm, quiet, fresh. Nothing else is. As they come up the road and into sight, sweat stained and worn out, the chowkidar is just finishing telling me the news of the guest house and of Habibullah. Just then Habibullah comes down the road. There is only one road running through Bumburet and the Kalash hotel is further up the road, the guest house further up still. After the guest house the rough dirt road becomes two trails, one leading south and up the mountain to the valley of Birir, and the other leading past the guest house following the Kalash River into Afghanistan.
We meet in confusion, all at once. Horse looks bad. Almost dead. He is covered in sweat, especially his head, neck, and withers. His large eyes are closed and tears are staining his cheeks. His legs are shaking and wobbling. He seems barely able to walk. I can see that Misra and Ayesha are exhausted from the long day's journey plus the mental and emotional strain of getting Horse this far. As we lead the horses up the road I explain to them an English version of what the chowkidar has just completed telling me. At the same time Habibullah is telling me (in Pashtu, of course) what is happening with the Kalash Hotel.
He says there are two small rooms but he neglected to make any reservations because he was afraid to give them an advance on the rooms and find out we still wanted to camp out at the guest house. He still isn't quite able to come to terms with the fact that even though we are Americans, and therefore infinitely rich, and seemingly spending so much money on a horse trip of no apparent value, we still count and watch our every rupee, which I'm sure to him seems as miserly fastidiousness.
"I know that hotel," Misra says. "I stayed there for a bit with my horse in 1983. There's a huge grassy field right in front of it. A good place to tie the horses."
"Noor Mohammada, selor Punjabian, samon sara, woose hotel la zee. Road banday ma ohleeda." Habibullah informs me.
"Habibullah says that four Punjabis' are on the road, with packs, going toward the hotel now." I tell the others.
Just then Horse collapses in the road. He won't get up. Misra, who has been leading him hands me his lead rope. I pull and Misra whips his behind with his crop.
"Get up you bloody bugger!" he screams.
"Quit it you guys. Can't you see he can't go on any more." Ayesha yells.
Habibullah doesn't say anything. He obviously can't understand our actions and motives. He thought we should have taken the horses over the Lowry Pass in a truck. He just looked at me blankly when I explained to him that wasn't the point of the trip, and besides, after Chitral there would be mountains and passes much worse than the Lowry, if they couldn't make it over the Lowry, they'd never make it beyond Chitral.
"We've got to get him up," Misra shouts, "or he'll die right here. He can't spend the night here in the road. The hotel is less then a mile away. We've got to get him there." Finally he gets up and stumbles on.
"Noor Mohammada, zer makkhi lar shah. Haghwi Punjabi banchodan akhairi kambray ba akhlee, ou beir mung ba suh ohku?" Habibullah tells me calmly in his low gravelly voice.
"Habibullah's right." I tell Misra. "I better go ahead to the hotel quickly, before those Punjabis' get there and take the last two rooms. I'll take Herc."
I swing onto Hercules' massive back and head up the road. Behind me I can still hear the horse's bells as our weary caravan struggles up the road in the rapidly darkening dusk. Hercules can sense the urgency of our flight and gallops up the road under me. We pass the four Punjabis' and jump the small stream that crosses the path leading to the hotel.
The Kalash Hotel faces east, back down Bumburet Valley. The two story wooden building looks out over a large, semicircular grass field. The north side is bordered by the road, the south side is ringed by a rock strewn ravine, in which thirty feet below the Kalash River rushes noisily by. As I ride up to the hotel I can see some long-haired tourists upstairs on the porch. I can smell the familiar sweet smell of charras in the air. Some Pakistanis' and Kalashis' standing around the front of the hotel look up in surprise as I gallop up. I dismount and quickly tie Hercules to one of the poles holding up the porch.
A short man approaches me, followed by two others. He's wearing a Nuristani (pakul) cap over his greasy black hair hanging down behind his ears grimy with dirt. His pocked complexion also has a greasy unwashed pallor and he looks at me through close set small piercing black eyes. Abdul Khaliq is the proprietor of the Kalash Hotel. I explain our situation to him. By the time we hear the horse bells approaching the hotel hasty arrangements have been made. Several fellows go off to cut and fetch fresh green corn stalks for the horses' dinner. The sound of the bells waxes louder and our weary little caravan appears in the darkening night.
"What's happening, Noor?" Misra asks me wearily.
"Look, come, we'll unload the horses here, in front of the hotel. Then we can stake them over there." I point with my hand in the darkness to the edge of the field bordering the river ravine. "I've already arranged for some men to bring down some fresh green corn stalks from the fields."
As we talk, I am still finalizing arrangements with the hotel's jeep driver to drive Habibullah up to the guest house to get the rest of our gear. We leave the other three horses tied to the porch supports and take Horse down to the field under a tree. He collapses and is breathing very hard, laying flat on the field. After a time he lifts his head, and then rises to urinate. Misra walks him around. He abdomen is completely swollen. He alternately lies, rolls, and gets up on wobbly legs. When he rises Misra walks him gently until he collapses again. We cover him with some of our blankets. Ayesha and I unload the other horses in the light of the porch. Habibullah I send off in the jeep to collect our horse gear. We need the moogays to stake the horses securely for the night, plus we need the horse tranquilizers for Horse.
At a quarter to midnight I'm squatting outside the cook-house talking and smoking with the cook. He's an Afghan from up the valley in Nuristan. Ayesha and Habibullah are asleep in their respective rooms. Misra is laying in the field next to Horse, propped up by his saddle and covered with a blanket. I hear him call out to me. I go down and join him next to Horse.
"Horse just had some really bad convulsions." he says.
"Do you think he'll make it?" I ask.
"I don't know Noor. God, I wish now that I knew more about horse medicine. This is all my fault for not knowing more. I brought Horse into this, and I don't know enough to get him out."
"It's nobody's fault. These things happen. It's the way God wills it."
Horse gets up and we gently lead him as he walks himself. Then he starts to collapse again. He's falling against Herc and Herc can't get away because he's at the end of the rope to which he is staked.
"Pull him Noor!" Misra says hurriedly, pushing him with his shoulder to try to keep him from falling onto Herc. Misra pulls out the razor sharp knife he wears on a sheathe hanging around his neck and with one sweep he slices through the thick rope, freeing Hercules. Horse falls on the grass. He's laying on his side and kicking violently. The cook comes down and squats beside us.
"You should cut a hole in his stomach to let the air out." he tells me in Pashtu. I translate this gristly information to Misra.
"I've never heard of that." he tells me. "I'm afraid it will kill him. I still think he can make it. If he can just make it through the night."
Horse stops kicking and holds his head back stiffly. Low raspy breaths come from deep down in his throat. It's his death rattle.
"Cut his throat now." the cook tells me. "Halal him, and then the Muslim people up the hill can eat him."
I tell Misra what the cook has said but he can't hear. We both feel that some miracle will pull him through and he'll be recovering in the morning. But it's not to be. It's too late.
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Compiled by: Glenn Welker
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