Lal-sar-Jangal – early winter 1989
The journey to visit Qurban’s family was rapidly approaching and my chance to fulfil a lifelong ambition to learn to ride a horse. As a child I had wanted more than anything to own a pony, badgering my parents to no avail. The “we can’t afford its” won. I contented myself with devouring every horsy book I could lay my hands on. I succeeded in cadging the occasional ride on a friend’s fat pony and the occasional riding lesson. My passion waned although it never completely left me.
Now, horses suddenly appeared to be very large. Qurban’s horse seemed particularly huge, and every time I passed close to where he was tethered, I had the uneasy suspicion he rolled his eyes at me in a wicked and knowing way.
We set off in the afternoon for the three-hour ride. I was relieved to see my horse was considerably smaller than Qurban’s. Dredging my memory for all the theoretical knowledge about horsemanship stored away since childhood I declined Ibrahim’s offer of help to mount and, one foot in the stirrup I gracefully swung the other leg over the horse. The ‘How to’ books hadn’t said anything on the subject of mounting a horse while wearing Afghan dress and long chaddar. My graceful manoeuvre was marred by the necessity of having to make hasty rearrangements to my clothing to regain my modest appearance.
I took the proffered reins, afraid to grip too tightly in case the horse thought this was a signal to go, but refused the whip which was also offered. I had read my Pullen-Thomson, and knew that the bond, which would surely soon be formed between me and my horse, would be sufficient for me to direct her with the lightest of touches on the reins.
Qurban arrived, his horse impatient to be off, stamping his hooves and circling round and round, nostrils flaring. Ibrahim turned my horse around and led us to the edge of the village where I managed to raise one hand in a tentative wave of farewell to everyone who had turned out to watch. All went well for the first fifty yards. My horse stopped, refusing to put a hoof in the shallow stream we had to cross. Qurban was already miles in front, oblivious to the fact that I was no longer with him. I felt a complete idiot. Having tried the pressure with the knees bit, the gentle tug on the reins bit and even – principles are soon abandoned in the face of acute embarrassment – a sharp kick or two with my heels, I didn’t know what else to do. Some men working in a nearby field saw my predicament and alerted Qurban, who sent his young brother, Bashir, to the rescue. He took the reins and led us through the water.
We plodded on. Plodded, rather implies a dogged determination to reach one’s destination but my horse’s speed and enthusiasm for this venture was demonstrated by a laconic shamble. I named her Slowcoach.
Qurban was still a long way ahead, half way up a mountain. On the gentle, lower slopes Slowcoach stopped. I urged her on. Qurban, impatient with my uselessness, yelled advice from far above, “Kick her!” I kicked; Slowcoach gave a huge sigh, moved forward ten yards and stopped again. I kicked, I kicked harder then, thinking I was perhaps being too squeamish about this business of getting a horse to move, I kicked harder still. Slowcoach sighed heavily again, but she did not move. Bashir had to run back down the mountain to lead her on. It was all very embarrassing.
Qurban said nothing when we finally caught up with him. On the summit of the pass he dismounted, saying we should lead the horses down as the slope was too steep for them to carry our weight. I was delighted. I made faster progress on my own two feet than on Slowcoach’s four.
We paused for a photo session of the superb views from a height of around 3000 metres. For miles an endlessly repeating pattern of mountains and valleys, the landscape patch-worked in shades of brown and russet and golden yellow, glowed in the late afternoon sun. We were in a totally silent world. Suddenly a huge bird soared into the sky from a nearby mountain top, circling and swooping in its lonely search for prey. Qurban said it was an eagle but I knew he would have called any large bird an eagle, and debating cheerfully about other birds of prey we continued down the mountain.
The journey which he said took three hours actually lasted for more than six and, long before our arrival, it had assumed a nightmarish quality for me. Qurban assured me Slowcoach was not lazy and offered to exchange horses to show well she could go. I agreed, but as soon as I mounted his horse, sensing my nervousness, he began to prance around. Qurban speedily reclaimed his horse before I did any lasting damage to him, and I returned to Slowcoach with some relief, but an even greater sense of failure.
When darkness fell Qurban switched on a torch. We were walking along the edge of a precipice, on a path barely wide enough to accommodate a bicycle never mind a four footed animal. I wished Bashir was still leading me but he had gone to sleep behind Qurban, exhausted after climbing so many mountains, twice, to help me. When we finally arrived I dismounted and hobbled after Qurban like an old woman. I was already dreading the horrors of the return journey, when Qurban told he’d accepted an invitation for us to visit a patient’s house next day. “It’s not far, an hour by horse.”
“At your speed or mine?” I asked fearfully.
Qurban considered, gave a ghost of a smile and amended his estimate, “Well, maybe three hours.”