Afghanistan, December 1989
As we prepared to leave Arif’s clinic he became unusually quiet until, as he was saying goodbye, I realised how upset he was by his young brother, Sharif’s departure. He was coming with us to Pakistan where Arif had arranged for him to attend school in Karachi. I promised to take care of him, and with tears in his eyes he finally released Sharif from a tight embrace. If Sharif felt similar emotion, he concealed it well, appearing self-possessed about the prospect of not seeing his family for several years.
We stopped for lunch at the edge of Naoor where I noticed Sharif patiently helping to tear up Zahir’s nan before requesting a spoon for him, without which it was impossible for him to eat. His right wrist, which had previously flopped about, had now been firmly splinted. We feared a bone was broken (in fact X rays in Karachi showed the bone had not broken, but had crumbled away, attacked by pus bacteria which had presumably started life in an old, infected wound.) Despite his sorry state, Zahir still retained his high good humour, dissolving into his terrifying asthmatic giggle at the slightest thing. He was also becoming less self-conscious about his appearance, no longer keeping his face hidden behind his turban tail.
As there was only another three hours travelling in front of us to Malestan we decided there was no need to re-fill the thermoses at the chaikhana – more fool us. As the road began to climb steeply, becoming increasingly twisty and treacherous, we found ourselves, once again, in a snowy landscape. There was nothing to be seen, except a few rocks, appearing bald-headed, where wind had swept off their snowy caps.
Piles of snow drifted along the edges of the road, often obscuring dangerous ice patches. The single set of tyre tracks preceding us indicating how rarely this lonely stretch of road was used. We cheered ourselves by thinking of the welcoming tea we would soon be sipping in Malestan.
Near the top of the pass Jon had difficulty negotiating a tight corner. Reversing, to make another attempt, one back wheel slipped off the edge of the road. Further attempts resulted in all the wheels going off. Tyres spinning in the snow, the vehicle slid a few yards down the mountain. For the next two hours we struggled to get the vehicle back on the road.
We unloaded everything and tried pushing, to no avail. We attempted to build a “road” with suitably flat stones, laying them in front of the Toyota like offerings to propitiate some angry god – which is how it felt by then. Nothing worked. By the time the sun began to sink, resulting in a dramatic drop in temperature, we had to admit we were well and truly stuck and we knew no other vehicles would come this way before morning. Jon decided to walk back to the bazaar, hoping to find someone with a truck and a tow cable. Realising we may have to spend the night on the mountain, Rahimy, Sharif, Zahir and I made ourselves comfortable in the Toyota.
We had plenty to eat – dried fruit, toffees and busrock (a deep fried biscuit) but no hot water for tea or coffee. Very soon the inside of the windscreen iced over, and we were all becoming shivery. I switched on the engine, turning the heater up full. This alarmed Zahir, huddled in a blanket beside Sharif in the back seat. ‘Turn it off! The jeep will run down the mountain.’ I tried to assure him this was extremely unlikely but he was not convinced, afraid I would fall asleep in the warmth, nudge the gear lever and send us crashing to our doom. I switched off the engine, suggesting Zahir try to sleep but he refused. Sharif sat quietly, as always, seemingly unruffled by events, calmly chewing toffees.
When we could no longer see out of the windscreen because of the layer of ice, I’d turn on the heater, just long enough to melt the ice, and stop us all from freezing to death before the rescue party turned up. Rahimy became quite chatty, using the opportunity to practise his English. I asked if he would miss his family very much and he began to talk about his two wives and children.
I was interested in the way Rahimy spoke with evident fondness for both two wives. His first marriage had been arranged when he was young, and seemed to have been happy enough. Then Rahimy had met and fallen in love with the woman who became his second wife. He was worried about how his second wife would manage without him. Her family had disowned her when she married Rahimy, and she lived far away from his first wife and the rest of Rahimy’s family. Before I had a chance to ask how and where he’d met his second wife, Zahir made us all jump by suddenly crying out, ‘Gurk! – Wolf!’
I peered excitedly out of the window at the expanse of snow gleaming in the moonlight, ‘Where?’ I demanded. Zahir explained he hadn’t actually spotted one but they were everywhere around here. He was now worrying Jon would be eaten before he reached the bazaar. I reassured him that, as winter had only just begun the wolves should not yet be hungry enough to tackle Jon.
After about four hours, when I was thinking we really ought to try to sleep, we caught the sound of an approaching truck. We listened intently to the faint but unmistakable sound which, though still a long way off, surely signified help was on the way. Zahir, however, now started to worry about robbers and we looked helplessly at our piles of baggage heaped at the edge of the road. At last, an ancient truck rumbled into view, stopping a few yards in front of us. Jon leapt out of the cab.
The first tow rope snapped as soon as the truck took the weight of the Toyota but, finally, after a great deal of shouting and yelling between all parties, the vehicle inched slowly forward, until it was standing safely back on the road.
Jon paid our rescuers and I urged Zahir to stay in the jeep while we re-loaded our baggage. He was turning blue in the bitterly cold night air, coughing and wheezing in a terrifying way, as he struggled to help lift heavy bags with one hand. At last, we set off, everyone sitting in silence until Jon negotiated the last of the corkscrew bends and then, feeling the worst was over, we relaxed a little. Rahimy, Sharif and Zahir soon fell asleep, so they missed the next pass which was even more hair-raising. The summit was 3,600 metres and the bright moonlight illuminated the frozen snow, the hairpin bends and the sheer drops in a way which was both awesomely beautiful and terrifying.
Although exhausted, I was reluctant to sleep in case Jon, who must have been even more tired, did the same. It was a great relief to reach the valley and know that we were almost “home” in Malestan. At the clinic, Khala and Baba, unperturbed by our arrival at three o’clock in the morning, hastened to provide tea. Then we collapsed into bed.