….the chilling words of warning Kipling issues….
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’go to your Gawd like a soldier.
…the Wakhan corridor, a narrow valley that juts out from the main body of the country….. and acts as a buffer between Tajikistan, China and Pakistan. It was the wildest, most remote and inaccessible part of Afghanistan.
….infamous Hindu Kush mountains – or the Hindu Killers – so named because of the vast numbers of Indian slaves who died while being transported through them en route to the Khanates of Central Asia, during the Middle Ages.
The old adage was true; the Afghans simply loved fighting each other. But when foreign powers dare to invade, they have a habit of putting their differences aside and ganging up to oust the invader. Most of them weren’t, and still aren’t, particularly inspired by religious fanaticism, but rather an innate sense of war, one that is in the blood after centuries of violence.
….the Wakhan corridor….the reason that this remote strip of land belongs to Afghanistan is that it provided a convenient buffer zone during perhaps the most intriguing of all the political conflicts of recent times: the Great Game.
‘The Afghans say that the Pamir is so high, even the birds must cross on foot.’
The Wakhan is in fact the most impoverished region in Afghanistan. Farming is virtually impossible because of the harsh climate and there are no roads. All of the borders are closed and so trade is limited to that which occasional merchants can smuggle over the high passes from Pakistan or China – which isn’t much. As a result, there’s no need for currency and people simple barter a yak for some sheep, or a guard dog for a rifle. There’s just a few basic school houses…..and there are no clinics or medical facilities. The Wakhan has the highest rate of infant mortality in the world – every second child dies at birth; the average life expectancy is under forty.
…..the Irshad valley ….Malang ….laughed…. ‘They love a good drink. We are Ismaili here. We’re not like those Sunni Muslims. We don’t do Ramadan and look around – do you see any mosques?’
[Pakistan]…The trucks were painted like Wedgwood china vases…..Pashtu tradition from Peshawar…. ‘Isnt it unislamic to draw pictures of living beings?’ I asked, wondering how the tribesmen of the North West Frontier, the wildest men in Asia – supplier of recruits to the Taliban and supposed religious fanatics – reconciled this art with their version of Islam.
‘They were drawing pictures much before Islam came. These Pasthtuns have a very long history, and good art.’
Sost [Pakistan]…. Reminded me of one of those Wild West frontier towns… Inspite of the fact that Ramadan had begun just a few days before nobody seemed to be paying the slightest attention to it…. ‘I am Wakhi, you have seen how we live, we do Ramadan all year round, just drinking salty tea and eating bread. We don’t need to fast any more to show we are good people. And anyway I am Ismaili, and the Aga Khan has shown us that these Sunni ideas are just stupid. Those Muslims in the south are bad people and fasting won’t change that.’
….the majestic 7,800-metre white face of Rakaposhi, which Wilfred Thesiger described as one of the finest mountains he’d ever seen….Here the people were from the Burusho tribe among whom, like in Afghanistan, they liked to claim descent from the soldiers of Alexander the Great. Their dialect is unlike any other in the world, bearing no relation to the neighbouring Pashtun, Urdu and Persian languages and has left anthropologists bewildered for centuries.
….literacy rate for Pakistan…..average is sixty-three per cent…in some tribal regions it’s only twenty per cent, and for women, ten……in the Hunza….We have ninety-five per cent …..because we aren’t like those Sunni barbarians….before we became Ismaili we were pretty savage ourselves. We prayed to trees and rocks and birds and stuff like that……You know that we have the longest lifespan in the world here….No processed food, we grow it all ourselves and we drink clean water from the mountains….
….Nagar valley. If Hunza was spectacular, then the Nagar was sublime… Gilgit lies just north of the confluence of the Gilgit and Indus rivers, marking the exact convergence of the Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Western Himalaya mountains…Some of the names of the villages, like Ganish and Gorikot, indicated a Hindu heritage. Other signs clearly showed Buddhist influence. At Kargah Nalah, a vast image of the living god is carved into a cliff-face, too high for vandals to desecrate. It was chiseled in the seventh century, when the whole of Gilgit-Baltistan was part of a greater Tibet, and later China. Muslim rule cam much later…..
Gilgit bazaar was heaving with men. Pashtuns, Uighurs, Punjabis and Shina tribals mixed freely…. The few women to be seen in the streets were dressed in burkhas. Until now, the rural areas had seemed liberal and welcoming. The influences of Ismaili Shia Islam had given the Hunza a progressive and tolerant outlook, and I’d been surprised by the high levels of education, spoken English and gender equality. But here in town there seemed to be undertones of a stricter, less compromising culture going on. For the first time on the journey, there were large mosques and almost everyone wore salwar kameez…..the majority of men wore long beards, often with the upper lip shaved – a sure sign of orthodoxy……I had noticed a tension in the air the moment we crossed the Gilgit river; stares and squinting looks and no smiles. The people weren’t hostile, just a lot less friendly than we’d become accustomed to ….Maybe we’d been spoilt by the hospitality of the Wakhi and Hunzakut.
It is only a one-day walk that separates the Karakorum from the Himalayas, but those few miles heralded a new world – one that was less harsh on the eyes, less craggy …But something sinister remained, both in the nature and in the people that lived there.
Pilgrimages are an integral part of Indian culture. For thousands of years Hindus and Buddhists have embarked on journeys to show their devotion to God.
In many places I’d travelled, the concept of walking would raise eyebrows and protests of disbelief. In Africa the locals would laugh at me or ask if my car had broken down. ‘Only a poor man travels on foot,’ they’d say. Or they would just shake their heads and tut and tell me that I must be quite stupid…. In India it was different. Walking is so deeply ingrained in the national psyche that nobody batted an eyelid. There was no question of my motivations; of course I was on a pilgrimage. It didn’t matter which god I worshipped, or where I was going – there was just a simple understanding that I was a traveler. Nothing more, just another walker with my own mission, and that was something to be respected.
We passed shrines to Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu…..We’d left the Islamic world behind now, although there were still mosques in some of the villages. We’d entered a new world where spirituality was more tangible, more colourful and generally a bit more fun. ….Nothing was too bright or vulgar; plastic and concrete were just as suitable a medium for the gods as wood and stone.
…Umanga told us…. ‘If we see a tiger, best thing is, don’t turn your back. If you turn your back, tiger will attack. They always come at you from behind’ ….. ‘If a rhino is charging, you must climb a tree, but if we see a bear, no climbing a tree. The bears can climb very easily. In this case, you must stand your ground. The leopards are afraid of the humans, so they wont come close. No worrying about the leopards.’
Apart from the Terai lowlands, the rest of the country is so mountaineous that it is said that if you flattened out Nepal, like pulling on a creased tablecloth, then the surface would amount to an area bigger than the whole of the USA.
…the difference I encountered walking into Bhutan.
The Indian town of Jaigaoon ….was crowded, filthy and noisy….Nobody bothered to clean the streets because the monkeys and the cows would do it for them….Everyone, it seemed, thought it perfectly acceptable to spit vile globules of phlegm onto the pavement….or to piss in the gutters in broad daylight. The whole town stank of shit ….On the far side we emerged into Phuentsholing and it was another world. There were no beggars or lepers. No car horns – everything was eerily quiet. Signs everywhere indicated that smoking cigarettes was illegal. So was ‘spitting on the walls’ …..Almost all the men and women sported the traditional national dress……
Thimpu is a bizarre town. Despite being a capital city, its barely worthy of the title of city; with a population of fewer than 80,000, you can fit more people in Wembley football stadium. It must be one of the smallest cities in the world and it doesn’t have a single traffic light. There’s only one road in and out…..It was peculiarly quiet, except for the howling of a few street dogs…People moved about shiftily, looking around as if they knew that their happiness lay elsewhere – in the mountains and villages, and that life in the miniature metropolis was an unnatural sin.
I found out that in fact high-altitude mountaineering was illegal in Bhutan.
‘Its because we don’t have any rescue infrastructure here….only one helicopter….It would be embarrassing to have a foreigner die in our mountains, so we ban it.’
Behind the facade of modernity and development and cleanliness there seemed to be a mystical, almost Shamanist undercurrent to life in Bhutan. In spite of the image of a happy, pure nation there were hints at a darker, more superstitious existence.
Even though I don’t believe in superstition, after so long spent walking through this part of the world I knew never to underestimate the power of spirituality and people’s beliefs. There seemed to be some things we couldn’t just explain away. Call it God, fate, karma or magic……
Great things are done when men and mountains meet;
This is not done by jostling in the street
- William Blake