MarySmith’sPlace – Falling off a mountain – snow, ice & wolves AfghanistanAdventures#57

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.

Leprosy patient, Zahir on the left, Arif’s young brother Sharif preparing to travel to Pakistan

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. 

Jon, the previous winter.

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. 

Baba and Khala outside the Malestan clinic.

83 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace – Falling off a mountain – snow, ice & wolves AfghanistanAdventures#57

  1. Am loving following you afghan story . My daughter who works as Middle Eastern risk analyst in London would be so jealous of your experiences .. her highlight so far was being arrested in Turkey ! All the best . Jane

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  2. Living in Alaska, I learned to always top off supplies. I have been stranded on snowy mountain roads more than once. My own experience left me fearful there was some foreshadowing in your story. When I get cold and nervous, my bladder kicks into high gear. Glad you all made it through okay. Those drop off roads must have been foreboding at times.

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    • We should have known by then never to assume even the shortest journey wouldn’t have its pitfalls. I imagine Alaska must be every bit as cold in winter as Afghanistan. By then I had incredible bladder control 🙂

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      • Just reading about a bouncy jeep trip over precarious roadways puts my bladder on high alert. 😂 Traveling in cold regions can be dangerous to survival should anything go wrong. So glad you made it out ok.

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  3. Mary, your adventures were scarier with every episode. Jon is a true hero. In such conditions, and walking alone in the dark and cold… But I guess that’s how things are. You have to keep going. What a life! Take care and look after yourself. ♥

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    • It was probably lucky Jon hadn’t considered the possibility of wolves or he might have opted to stay in the jeep overnight instead of venturing out to find help! You just did whatever you had to do. Usually it all worked out well.

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    • I think the bombing raid was the worst but this was a close second. It never even occurred to me – until now – that Jon might have fallen and been injured on his walk to the bazaar. The tea when we arrived was like nectar!

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      • The anticipation is often worse. Anticipating a fall if you weren’t diligent was probably a lot harder on you.

        Your saga is so fascinating. One day, you’re in a place where the rules and culture are different than another — and all in the same country. But you bring “humanness” to your stories that most of us haven’t had the chance to be exposed to when it comes to Afghanistan.

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        • For a long time I had a notion to take small groups of people to Afghanistan for a tailor-made road trip, giving them the chance to meet people, even stay in their homes. I know it’s not going to happen now but I still think it would have given people an insight into the country and way of life they couldn’t get any other way. I guess blogging about it is the nearest to doing that 🙂

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    • Thanks, Judith. I’m glad you enjoy the photos. In some cases I’ve been lucky to find photos to match the stories but often I am frustrated because there was obviously big chunks of time when I didn’t take any. Feeling not too bad, today, thanks. I’ll do an update tomorrow.

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  4. It’s the seemingly commonplace nature of your adventures that bring home how far we’ve travelled away from such stressful events in the UK. Talk about cushioned. Just a normal day – slip down a mountain, try and fail to pick up a Toyota, freeze near to death and be eaten by wolves.

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    • When you put it like that, it does sound a bit out of the ordinary rather than a normal day at the office 🙂 Some of the road journeys which took days can now be done in a few hours, which must be better for the people in Afghanistan getting goods to market, etc., so travelling would seem much less adventurous. Though the landscape must be still as amazing.

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  5. An adventure to look back on, and hopefully never experience twice. Walking back in the dark and cold must have been some endurance for Jon too.
    It reminded me of that winter of 1989. Around the time you were doing this I was on holiday in Egypt, enjoying unusually hot weather for December, on a late honeymoon. I had been married for the second time in July 1989, and we waited until December to take the Egypt holiday as it would have been too hot in the summer.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  6. Such bravery and the fact that comes so strongly through is you both just got on and did it…Kudos to you both and what lucky people they all were that you touched their lives 🙂 x I thoroughly enjoy these tales 🙂

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  7. Pingback: Smorgasbord Reblog – MarySmith’sPlace – AfghanistanAdventures#57 | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

  8. I dont know, what of the eperience you told in this sequel i would fear more, Mary. Freezing to death, or having a deadly accident with the car. Thank you for sharing. Now i am much more happy about many very small problems one has in our Western world. An every day challenge could be stressing. Michael

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    • I’m not sure either, Michael. Would it be quicker to die by plunging off the mountain? I’d hate to be lying injured at the bottom. Best not to think about it 🙂 We were rescued and survived. Nowadays, we would probably be able to phone for help but in those days there were no mobile phones.

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  9. Beautifully written, Mary! These are the adventures where when you are in the situation in real time, it is not much fun and through the cold frustration someone would say “we will smile about this in the future…” ~ and then looking back, as your writing shows, it brings a smile with the memory of Arif, Zahir and the hot and well deserved tea you did finally get at your destination 🙂

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    • That tea tasted so good! Thanks for your kind comments, Randall and you are correct, at the time you just have to grit your teeth and deal with it. I think, afterwards, we find the humour in the situation as a way of lessening the impact the fear could cause.

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  10. The thought of you initially spending two hours to get the Toyota back on the road sounded grim enough. Then it went downhill (sorry!) from there. Told with your classic understatement, humour and ability to paint the picture so clearly and vividly. Terrific – and terrifying!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: AfghanistanAdventures#57: Falling off a mountain – snow, ice & wolves ~ Mary Smith | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

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