Kuchi Encounter in Badakhshan Province
Having driven one on some of the remote roads and tracks in Afghanistan, I have long made the argument that a Volkwagen bus is as good a choice as a Land Rover for off road travel in out-of-the-way regions. LR worshippers will cry sacrilege. And I must admit I did not drive a LR to the Pamir. What I know is that the 1965 VW I bought from my friend Gulam Charikari delivered my friend Gary and me there and back again without once becoming mired, stuck or otherwise delayed. For $200.00 out of pocket I am required to sing the VW’s praises.
Once we had the ownership papers in hand, the first order of business was to equip the van with a wooden deck to serve as a sleeping platform and a small, narrow table fastened to the back of the driver’s seat to provide a “kitchen” counter. The engine was good, the tires were fair and the brakes seemed to function well enough. We bought a couple spare tires with rims and mounted them on the roof. We bought a two-burner propane stove, some pots and pans, dishes and cutlery and a couple jerry cans each for extra fuel and water. Our food stores included rice, sugar, tea and coffee, some onions and not much more. We’d have all kinds of fresh produce available from the markets we passed and could buy nan, that wonderful Afghan bread, in any village we encountered.
Using a map printed in 1968 by the Afghan Cartographic Institute we planned our route to Feydzabad and Eshkashem and beyond into the Pamir peninsula to where the famed Afghan lapis lazuli, and other precious gems are mined.
Heading north out of Kabul for the Salang Pass we were armed with several cameras and a load of film, color and black and white. We passed the road to the left that would take us to Estalif, famous for its rather coarse pottery with the fine glaze ranging from turquoise to deep azure – reminding me of the waters of the high elevation lakes at Band-e Amir; and not so much further along the road to Charikar. These we passed up and focused on getting to the Salang so we could cross before dark.
The vehicles one encountered on the highways in Afghanistan were anything but “usual”. As we drove along that road we were met by the usual array of oddities. Massive hand made busses piled high with unimaginably gigantic bundles of household goods, goats, sheep and other livestock. Sleek Mercedes over-the-road busses and the ubiquitous Volgas, tangas, and Russian “jeeps”.
But I think the most unusual and engaging sight was the long gatherings of camels, horses, donkeys, mules and men, women and children riding these beasts or herding them along on foot. These nomads were the famed Kuchi tribes coming from Baluchistan and beyond, enroute to their summer pastures in the folds of the Wakhan Corridor in the high Pamir peninsula. The sight was not just reminiscent of the caravans of the Silk Road, these were the descendents of those nomad tribes, following the same centuries-old routes. It was difficult to imagine that they would be climbing the highway and passing through the long Salang tunnel with their herds of camels and fat-tailed sheep!
The Salang tunnel sits at over 3,400 meters (11,200 feet) elevation and is nearly 2.6 kilometers (1.6 miles) long. The approach to the tunnel was crowded with the buses, trucks and mini-vans and “jeeps” previously mentioned and the passage was excruciatingly slow. Perhaps the caravans detoured to the nearby Shibar pass, but we saw several such groups as we approached Salang. We wondered out loud about these hardy individuals with their highly decorated camels, hundreds of head of other livestock, their unveiled women, rugged-looking men and scruffy children. They were a sight from another age, and what an amazing sight they were.
We reached the north side of the pass and exited the exhaust fume-filled tunnel to be greeted by a gorgeous sunny afternoon. The highway was flanked to the left by a raging torrent. After a short distance we were surprised to see a boy beside the road holding up several long strings of fat brown trout for sale. I’ve long forgotten the price, but I recall buying a large number of them and shortly after locating a small pull-off by the road with access to the river. Here we stopped for the night, set up a camp and proceeded in preparing a feast of fire-roasted trout, rice and fresh baked nan washed down with sweet green tea. We cleaned the dishes in the river and settled into the van to sleep, the river roaring in the background.
I think it is of interest to consider that at the time of my visits to Afghanistan I never felt it unsafe or unwise to simply make a camp in the mountains or in the desert to spend the night. In my mind it was as safe as doing so in Europe or the US. Today, tour operators and outdoor magazines write of “adventure travel”. Well, this was adventure travel! We were on our own in a remote corner of one of the most remote countries on the planet. It was exhilarating.
So we moved on to Pul-e Khumri where the pavement ended and headed more easterly toward Khanabad and Taloqan. There were virtually no road signs or indications of the name of the village we happened to be in. Somewhere, past one of those unnamed farming villages (I think is was Keshem) the road seemed to disappear up an abandoned riverbed strewn with large boulders. The only indication it might be the road was the presence of two barely visible dusty tire tracks and a stick protruding from the rubble that might once have borne a directional sign. We made an abrupt left turn and started up the riverbed.
The road continued to deteriorate and began to rise until it was clinging to the side of a cliff, a drop off to the left and sheer cliff face to our right. Several miles along, as we came around a blind bend in the road we met face to face with a large, heavily laden Bedford truck, several men perched on top of the load. Someone had to give! And it was going to be us.
So after engaging the men in a brief conversation, we proceeded to back down the track to a point where the Bedford could pass us. There was much hooting and hollering and exchange of happy words as we passed, high signs given and calling out of “boro bakhai, khoda hafez mistahr!” as we headed toward Feydzabad. At least we now knew we were on the right road.
The road became kinder as we moved north and east. The valleys were verdant and the peaks impressive in their rugged proximity. As we meandered along we came upon a large group of Kuchi nomads encamped on a hillside, their black tents and livestock spread before us.
We pulled to the side of the road and got out of the van to get a better view. A tall slender man dressed all in white and wearing a white skull-cap stood watching us while speaking to two men dressed in long robes and boots. A few minutes passed when without warning the two horsemen were astride their steeds and racing toward us trailing plumes of dust. While we were sort of frozen in place watching them come toward us, we did not see their approach as threatening exactly, but rather born of curiosity about our intentions. We were, after all, the ones who were out of place here in a remote corner of Central Asia!
The men dismounted and we exchanged a few rudimentary phrases in our particular version of Farsi. One of the men then remounted and sped back to speak to the man in white, the headman of the group. He returned moments later and extended an invitation for us to join them in the camp. Gary and I wasted no time. We grabbed our cameras and headed up the hill toward the tall figure dressed in white as he waited for us, now his guests.
Then began the slow round of greetings: offering our thanks for the invitation, inquiring about his health, the health and well-being of his family and whatever else we could muster, limited in our abilities, but making up for our literacy in Farsi with smiles, gestures and laughter. We were then introduced to the community – the men, children and even the women and girls, wearing traditional embroidered dresses and jewelry. We were actually encouraged to take photos of the family, and came away with a terrific image of a lovely young Kuchi woman wearing her treasured tribal jewelry – headdress, bracelets, and many rings. It was an unexpected pleasure to discover.
After a tour of the camp and inspection of the camels, sheep, donkeys and formidable mastif dogs, straining at their ropes and chains to get a “closer look” at the intruders, we retired to one of the tents. The ground inside was covered with rugs of many types – flat woven kilims and small, knotted pile rugs, as well as fat pillows. Soon chai and nan and yoghurt or mâst were being served along with some almonds and small sweets. Surely we were receiving the hospitality reserved for honored guests.
One of the horsemen began to admire the tall American-made Frye cowboy boots I was wearing and soon enough he was wearing them, strutting, with pant legs tucked in so all could see his new acquisition! And I was wearing his handmade sandals with car tires for soles. A fair trade I reckoned for the experience of a lifetime.
No matter what adventures might befall us during the remainder of our trip this was the high point and an event to remember for many years to come.
The drive back to Kabul, backtracking our route much of the way, was uneventful. We had abandoned our quest to see the gem mines of the Pamir, but we had experienced first hand one of the truly amazing remnants and reminders of the Silk Road.