This was going to be a brief post, but I got a bit carried away and ended up with a word count of over 3000, and I haven’t finished yet, so I decided to split it into two. The second part will follow later this week.
‘A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’ by Eric Newby is a delightful and amusing book about Mr Newby’s trek round the inhospitable region of Nuristan, an area north of Kabul, Afghanistan which borders Pakistan’s North West Frontier region in the mountains of the Hindu Kush. A recommended read for anyone who enjoys a well written travelogue.
I just noticed it this morning on my bookshelf when I was looking for something else, and not having read it since the eighties, decided it deserves another read, which is what I’ll be doing over the next week or so as and when I find the time. It also sparked a bit of a trip down memory lane, which is the subject of this post.
Newby’s travels in the area were in about 1956 – 1957, which is ten years before I arrived in the region, so nothing much had changed in the interim, and many of his descriptions are very familiar to me, which is why I bought the book in the first place.
In fact, although I spent several periods in Afghanistan in the late sixties, I didn’t explore the Afghan side of the Hindu Kush where Mr Newby went, but instead spent some time on the Pakistani side, which was geographically the same area but with a theoretical (and very porous) border running through it.
I crossed from Afghanistan to Pakistan via the Khyber Pass, the main border crossing in that part of Afghanistan / Pakistan, running through the Tribal Areas – semi autonomous regions that were a bit like an Asian Wild West. There were villages which specialised in making guns and rifles – many of them copies of well known firearms, and every man you saw on the street was armed to the teeth, with a rifle slung across his shoulder and a bandolier of ammo across his chest. It paid to be discreet when in the Tribal Areas, as most arguments were settled with a volley of gunfire.
I became quite familiar with the Khyber Pass, as I had traversed it a number of times pursuing an, ahem, trade opportunity, to make some much needed cash. In fact I got to know the Pakistan border guards so well that I didn’t have to wait in line in the hot sun with the other bus passengers to have my passport stamped, but would be invited into the office to drink tea and smoke a water pipe with the boss while one of the minions took my passport to be stamped. How very civilised.
Anyway, my first trip to Chitral in the Hindu Kush was in 1968. I have to admit that my motivation was not some noble desire to explore far-flung regions, but because Chitral had the reputation for producing some of the best hashish in that part of the world, and I wanted to get to the source so as to be able to sample their wares first-hand. The journey into the mountains from Peshawar was ‘interesting’, and I described the trip in some detail in an earlier post. One of my enduring memories of arriving in Chitral that first time was of the jeep pulling up outside the chai shop at dawn, and all the weary travellers heading inside for a warming cup of tea. I, as seemed to be the norm for me when abroad in those parts, was suffering from ‘Delhi Belly’ (it’s the water – all foreigners fall prey to it to a greater or lesser extent), so I grabbed the proprietor and asked him where the loo was. This was achieved through pantomime, as the language barrier precluded just asking him, and involved me squatting on the floor while blowing loud raspberries, much to the delight of the watching customers. He got the message, and beckoned for me to follow him. Out we went, and headed across a field. When we got half way across, he stopped. I looked at him quizzically, and he swept his arm around in an all-encompassing gesture to communicate to me that ‘the world was my toilet’; or at least, this field was. I thanked him and waited for him to depart, which he didn’t. I was by this time desperate, and so not too concerned about the niceties of the situation. So with him seemingly rooted to the spot, I dropped my trousers and squatted down to do my business. The chai shop owner then squatted down beside me (as you do) and over the noise of my exploding bowels started making small talk: where was I from, why was I here, etc etc. It was really quite unnerving – not a situation I’d ever found myself in before. One thing about travelling is that it does enable one to leave behind some of those very western inhibitions…
That first trip to Chitral I didn’t do very much at all. I was still recovering from malaria, and on top of that had managed to pick up hepatitis, so it was more of a rest and recuperation sojourn than anything else. I did, however, locate the hashish shop in the bazaar, and made friends with the owner, who was also a grower, having a farm further north. The shop was stacked floor to ceiling with blocks of hash. 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade. Lower than 3rd grade got sold to go down to the rest of Pakistan. The criteria of quality was that if when you smoked it, it knocked you out, it was low grade. If, on the other hand, the effect was purely cerebral rather than physical, then it was top quality. I was fortunate enough (having made a friend of the shop owner) to be given on a regular basis chunks from his own personal stash – the cream of the crop, so to speak. Truly amazing stuff. To be honest, even the 3rd grade was better than most I’d smoked. And the cost of the 3rd grade was 10 Rupees a Seer. At the time there were about twenty Rupees to the Pound Sterling, so ten Rupees was about ten shillings, or 50 Pence in new money. And a Seer was a Pakistani measure of about three pounds weight. At the time in London, you would pay eight pounds for an ounce of mediocre hash.
The next time I went to Chitral a year or two later, I’d recovered from my illnesses of the time before, and was able to do a bit of exploring. I also took a camera with me, and was able to get a few photos.
In the background you can just about see Tirich Mir, one of the highest mountains in the Himalayan range. These photos are scanned from old prints, so not as clear as they could be, unfortunately. And the mountain is snow-clad, so disappears into the pale sky background. But if you squint a bit, you’ll see it! 🙂
You’ll also notice an absence of cars. I understand that they have built a road (a proper road) to Chitral now, so I’d imagine the place has changed beyond all recognition.
‘Jungly’ (on the left), was a slightly bonkers feature of Chitral who survived on charity. He was always to be found sitting on his charpoy on the side of the street, chatting to passers-by. I would often stop and share a chillum or two of hash with him, and locals would pass by and give him a small pastry here, a bowl of rice and curry there, a few Paisa for his cigarettes, a small chunk of hash. He never wanted for anything. He was a friendly guy. Bonkers, but friendly.
I’d checked in to a guest-house thingy, which wasn’t very comfortable, and since I was intending to be there for a month or so, was looking for something else. I was walking by the river just by the palace, and there were three apparently vacant bungalows right next to the river, so in an attempt to find out who owned them, I knocked at a door in the back wall of the palace.
A chap came to the door, but spoke no English (my Urdu was pretty rudimentary), but gestured for me to wait, and scuttled off. Five minutes later, a very urbane chap who spoke perfect English came to the door and asked how he could help. I explained that I was looking to rent a house for a month or so, and asked if he knew who owned the bungalows. “Ah, sorry” he said. “Those bungalows are palace guest houses, and not for rent.” “But if you like” he went on “You can stay in one of them rent free for a month”. Ha! Bingo! It turned out he was the prince regent, and it was within his gift to make offers like that. So I moved in. And not only did I get to stay there rent free, he also sent servants to clean the place daily, and most days sent food from the palace for me too.
Sometimes luck smiles upon us!
To be continued…