Prose version of Afghan 200 Mile Hike

Here we are, as dusk approaches, making camp on a snow-covered pass over 14,000 feet high, cooking our supper.  A kind Afghan shepherd has helped us up the last steep approaches by carrying “Mama-sahib’s” pack, and is now demonstrating how to achieve this meal with a fire of dried sheep-dung.  The fire is smoky, but does the job and we are eventually sharing our noodles and vegetables with our benefactor before retiring to our tents for the night, as he wraps up in his all-purpose blanket-shawl.

We are into the second week of an ambitious back-packing trip in northeastern Afghanistan, over the Hindu Kush (name means Hindu-killer!) mountains, a western extension of the Himalayas.  The time is July 1969, the “we” is the Frantz family of parents John and Mary, and daughters Margaret age 15, Caroline age 12, and Winnie age 9, plus a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, Fran, a farm-boy turned agricultural engineer.

How on earth did we end up here?   Planning began soon after our arrival 10 months previously to serve as Peace Corps medical school teachers in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.  We had been US mountain backpackers for many years, and didn’t want to miss the opportunity to visit this fabled mountain range.  And, of course, we wanted to see how people lived in these remote areas, far from the city where we taught.  The intervening months were spent in gaining permission to make this trip, which involved leader John in endless cups of tea in endless government offices, resulting not only in the coveted permits, but also some excellent maps made some years back by a US aerial survey.   We had brought from home tents, sleeping bags, and appropriate clothing—also a cache of freeze-dried back-packing food, which was easily supplemented with bazaar purchases of rice, dried fruits, etc.  We had a kerosene-burning camp stove for situations where wood (or dung) wouldn’t be available.

The Hindu Kush range divides the Panjshir River from the Anjuman.  The former flows via the Kabul to the Indus into the Indian Ocean.  The latter flows into the Amu Darya (historically known as the 0xus), whose waters travel west to be ultimately evaporated in the Aral Sea in central Asia.  The highest peaks are from 15 to 23 thousand feet, snow-covered and carved by glaciers as are high mountains all over the globe.  The lower valleys are divided by tributary streams, but with wide gradual slopes, which were probably formerly forested.  Irrigation is by channels from the streams, and crops depend on the elevation and the terrain—wheat, barley, a few vegetables and fruit trees, and some pastures for sheep or goats.  Tiny villages of 5-10 extended family compounds occur every few miles in the lower valley.  A few larger “towns” of up to 1000 residents are still just overgrown agricultural communities, with no industry, shops, or differentiated crafts.   We need to be self-sufficient, as we cannot count on any purchases in these remote areas.

The six of us journeyed on an all-day bus trip from Kabul up the Panjshir River to the end of the road, where a sizable village with a mosque and a school would be our take-off point.  Here we camped for the night and next morning purchased two donkeys to carry some of our gear and food (although we still carried substantial packs ourselves—perhaps 20-25 pounds for Winnie and Caroline, 30-40 for Mom and Margaret, and 50-60 for the men. We named our new four-legged friends Boro (burro) and Bekhayr-- the call made by the bus-drivers all over Afghanistan, meaning roughly ”Let’s go!”  I don’t think the donkeys grasped the meaning, as they were not always as quick to start as an Afghan bus, but the local people appreciated the names.

Our first day’s trip was deceptively smooth along a well-traveled trail with a gradual climb.  The first stream crossing was by a wide-enough wooden bridge, but the donkeys. would have none of it.  With John in front and Fran behind each donkey in turn was “persuaded” to move across.  (After a few more crossings the donkeys became pretty well resigned to the inevitable—but later in the trip we had more than one formidable crossing on narrow bridges without railings, high over rushing rivers.  On the worst of these we waited to see if a nearby traveler on horseback made it successfully before we ventured out.

The first few nights we camped in meadows by rushing tributary streams, away from the villages, but on the third afternoon we visited in a small village and were invited to spend the night there.  First a family entertained us hospitably on a breezy roof-top with a spectacular view of valley and distant mountains.  These folks actually did feed us some tea and “naan” (the Afghan flat bread) with yoghurt, and we reciprocated with some of our dried fruit.  While the men talked, mother and daughters wandered through the little village.  We were invited into a typical one-room house about l0 feet square with no windows, an earthen floor, and walls of rock, with a smoke-hole in the roof.  We sat on rolled-up mats on the floor, and as our eyes became adapted to the dim light, we could see the furnishings—a small corner fireplace with two pots, a shelf with tea kettle and a few basins, a few clothes hanging from pegs in the wall, and the bedding on which we sat.  We were welcomed by the women with gracious smiles, mutual compliments on our children, and inevitable friendly questions which might seem unduly personal to westerners, but are standard social exchange here:  “How much did your watch cost?” “Why isn’t your 15 year old daughter married yet?”  In this village a wife costs 50,000 Afghanis (about $800), a sum which seems incredible in this poor country.  We were surprised to hear that there is a school in the next village for boys up to 4th grade, and really astonished to hear that in this very village the girls from both communities have a school.  We had reason once again to be grateful for those months of Peace Corps language training, which permitted us to converse, although haltingly and with lots of gestures.

Most of our sociability during our trip was with men and boys visiting our camp sites, or even the spots where we stopped for lunch.  Some were delightful guests who welcomed us to their village, sat and visited a while, then took their leave.  Others were a bit more of a problem—curious to the point of obtrusiveness and unwilling to call off their incessant questioning and comments—e.g. “Why are you walking instead of riding?”; “Where are your horses?  Donkeys Are bad”; “The donkeys’ loads are too high” (or too low, or too far forward, or too far back). Fran became expert in fielding the questions and asking his own, so we could do our food preparation relatively undisturbed.  We called these sessions Fran’s noontime forums.  Despite his Minnesota accent, he managed to use his Farsi fearlessly, even managing to discuss religion without causing offense.  We found information about trail distances and difficulties rarely reliable.  Misinformation seems to have a variety of motives:  to discourage the traveler from doing what the informant prefers he not do, to make the traveler feel optimistic about the next part of the trip, or conversely to be unduly apprehensive, to indulge a grudge against the people in the next village, and often just to make the informant feel important.  Although we really enjoyed talking to people there were times when we would have valued time to ourselves.  People everywhere associate foreigners with medical skills and goodies, but we had only a bare kit of emergency drugs for our party, so were not able to dispense any.  Once people realized this we may have been able to be a bit more helpful, actually, with our interest and advice about such matters as hygiene and child care.  Afghanistan’s many medical problems are compounded by unreasoning superstitious trust in pills and injections—but that is a whole new subject.

As the days went on, we reached higher elevations with stunted trees and finally no trees at all—tundra such as we knew from other high mountains, rocks, mountain flowers, patches of snow and finally the totally snow covered pass mentioned in the opening paragraph.

From the pass we could see the fantastic geography—the high mountains of Nuristan off to the south, even taller Himalayan peaks to the north and east, and the Indian Ocean drainage behind us.  Below us to the north lay a beautiful wide valley with deep blue lakes reflecting the sky—the magical place where we would be spending the next few days before the longer descent to the end of our trek. 

Yesterday we were camping in the snow near  the 14,000 foot Anjuman Pass.  In the morning, we boil some more snow for cereal and coffee and pack up.  To the north we can see the beautiful valley of the Anjuman River, with several blue lakes among the green tundra.  “All downhill from here, right?”  No, we will actually go up and down over unnumbered ridges as we follow the Anjuman downstream to the Kokcha, and the Kochka down to the northernmost  provincial capital, Faizabad.  Rivers have a way of cutting deep gorges in the formerly glaciated terrain, and each time the riverside trail encounters a rock wall it ascends as high as necessary to get over the intervening ridge, then descends to the inevitable stream crossing of the tributary—sometimes by a shallow ford and sometimes by a bridge of variable competency.  (At one village all the populace assembled to watch us cross and after our success we learned that a week before a traveler had fallen off the bridge and drowned—they didn’t want to miss another interesting catastrophe.)

We made camp by the uppermost lake and spent a most enjoyable three days there.  A pleasant and helpful man took us to his nearby summer camp to meet his extended family of wives and sisters who spent the summer there with the grazing goats.  The abundant milk was heated in huge copper pots over a fire of twigs, then curdled to make yoghurt, then pressed and dried to make round balls of “croot”, a cheese, which would keep through the winter and supplement the limited winter food.  An especially vivacious lady also demonstrated milking a goat. The creature was quite tolerant and actually produced milk in response to the lady’s vigorous pummeling, obviously much exaggerated for our benefit.  We returned to our camp after inviting the women to visit us the next day.  They had given us a container of fresh milk, which we boiled with our tea the next morning—a pleasant change from the usual breakfast.   In anticipation of the ladies’ visit, John and Fran absented themselves.  They made a two-day climb of a major peak to the west, camping high on the slopes beneath a glacier, which they ascended next day to the summit of 17,500 ft.  Meanwhile back at the ranch we prepared for our guests, with some American Kool-Aid, walnuts, and dried fruit.   The ladies appeared in all their finery,  with much giggling and glances to see that the men were truly gone.   The refreshments were a big hit, as they had seen none of those items before.  Empty cans, bottles, and plastic bags were much appreciated “bakshish” or gifts.  We gossiped about our lives and our children, and had a thoroughly delightful afternoon.  Apparently the summer arrangement, though involving lots of work, is a great break for all—each villager has several wives (up to four), so can easily send some to the mountain camp while others are taking care of babies and husbands in the village.

The lake was also abundantly populated by trout, so we had fresh food for a change, and were somewhat reluctant to be on our way.  The next day we reached the sizable town of Anjuman, where the entire population turned out to visit us on the village green.  The donkeys feasted on the rich grass while we visited the villagers over tea.  We ladies were invited into a spacious house of several rooms, but still a dirt floor and no windows. Several generations of women were working together spinning (which is done by twisting wool in the fingers as the ball twirls by its own weight below the hands—we saw men and women both spinning as they walked along the mountain trails).  Others were crocheting brilliant wool socks (we didn’t see the wool dying process).  Infants were in little swings or crawling on the floor close to the women. The toddlers meanwhile were outside the door, blissfully free of any impeding clothing, fetching icy water from the stream and pouring it over each other.  We didn’t see any weaving, but saw the products:  coarse rugs of natural goat hair and soft heavy woolen coats and blankets. 

A sub-governor from the province was visiting on horseback.  As he caught up with us on the trail he perceived that we were Americans and greeted us with “Congratulations on your moon!”  Apparently he had heard on his little radio of the Apollo moon landing.  We were excited, naturally—but when he reported the news in the village of  Anjuman many of the villagers muttered among themselves that that couldn’t be so—no one could go to the moon and return alive, because the moon is in the fourth of the seven heavens of Islamic cosmology.  The main purpose of his visit had been to investigate the aforementioned death of a traveler while crossing a stream.

Much as we enjoyed the visit to this sizable town, we had to proceed on our way.  Traffic to and from the village of Anjuman and Kabul is over that 14,000 foot pass we had crossed, because the route to the north is longer and less maintained, as we were to discover.  On our way north we passed a tall pole surrounded by a few large curling goat horns.  We were told this was a fertility shrine—but no further details as to who used it and how. As we continued downstream on the Annjuman River we were on our own, with no villages for a day or two—so we were able to camp with unusual privacy, even having the opportunity for a bit of stream-bathing in the icy waters.  At one point along this stretch of little used trail we came to a section between some rock outcropping that was not wide enough for our donkeys with their saddle bags.  Rather than unload them and portage the gear, we decided to do some public service and set about widening the trail with our climbing axes, which served the purpose admirably.  We actually appreciated the chance to exercise some different muscles. 

Now  we are on our way north from the village of Anjuman, having made some trail repairs.  We continued to travel up and down as the terrain required.  We were moving comfortably through a valley, beside the stream, when suddenly the stream made a sharp turn through an impassible defile with cliffs on both sides, while the trail went up---and up-----and up some more for more than 30 minutes to the top of the ridge and a beautiful view across acres of grain fields, fruit trees, and the small village of Skaazer.  Ditches coming down from the high mountain slopes watered the fields and orchards.  Apparently apricots were the specialty, and this was harvest season—the golden fruits were everywhere—carried in baskets from the trees to the village, where they were spread on the rooftops of the mud-brick houses in shining array to dry for winter use.  We had hoped for a bazaar to purchase fruit, or a tea-house—but as in most of these villages, getting enough to eat through the winter months before new crops are ready is an uncertain business.  Later we saw heavily burdened men carrying loads of grain from the city to the north to feed their communities.  We were invited to sample a few of the mouth-watering juicy apricots, and the girls were given necklaces of apricot pits (like almonds, but poisonous in any quantity).  (At camp that evening they found the donkeys to be unusually close and friendly as they tried to munch on the unexpected bounty).

The valleys widened as we moved from the Anjuman River to the Kokcha, which has its origins deep in Nuristan.  The river became much wider with rapid swirling currents.  After a bit, we came to the bridge of all bridges, making a high crossing over the intimidating river.  Two lengths of tied-together logs were suspended from supporting abutments on either side, then the space between was bridged with more logs, with the entire surface tilting at an alarming angle—and of course no railings.  We lurked with our donkeys the near side while we watched a solitary horseman blithely cross without incident.  Thus “reassured” we finally made the crossing one animal at a time, glad that our reluctant animals had had that earlier training on little bridges at the beginning of the trip.  At the other side of the bridge was a trail leading to a lapis lazuli mine (Afghanistan is one of the few sources of that beautiful deep blue stone).  A soldier guarded the trail and we were prohibited from exploring it. We did find a few small pieces of lapis on the trail as we went on, however.

Further downstream on this river we made camp for a few days so John and Margaret could make an ascent to a “small” peak of about 17,000 feet.  I went with them to their overnight camp, but chose a nap in the sunshine rather than the final ascent.  Then we made the long knee-killing descent to our riverside camp, where Fran and the younger girls actually had a good hot meal waiting for us.  From the top J and M had been able to discern a route up a nearby never-climbed 19,000 foot peak with an ice wall.  Later we met some Austrian climbers looking for just such an adventure and were able to clue them on the approach. The Austrians later wrote to us in gratitude, describing their climb, and inviting us to stay with them in Vienna on our trip home the next summer (another story, that six-week drive from Afghanistan to Antwerp and the freighter trip back to the US).

But wait!  Our adventures are not yet over.  The river was running higher than normal and the trail was occasionally inundated.  At one watery spot donkey “Boro” lost his footing and slipped and fell into the current! Fortunately he kept his “cool” and just floated along close to shore (thanks to his air-tight food cans that functioned as water-wings).  We ran along the shore keeping up to his floating pace for what seemed an eternity, but was probably about 50 feet, until he was close enough that Fran could reach his bridle and lift his front feet onto the bank, getting pretty wet himself in the process.  After we caught our respective breaths we all hauled on Boro and got him up the steep bank, dried him off, and proceeded to a more salubrious camping spot.  Fran calmly informed us that he couldn’t swim!  So we were glad he was so sure-footed.

Our maps showed a real road and apparent populated town along the river, but when we got there some local farmers said the road was used only by an occasional (twice a year?) truck, and the real town, Jurm, was forty miles on.  OH MY!  Our food was almost gone, so we had an evening council—deciding to make an early start next morning and walk until we got there.  This was a decidedly long day, but we made it by eating all our snacks and giving the donkeys the last of their grain.  However, Boro and Bekhayr didn’t participate in our council and didn’t understand the plan.  Several times they just lay down to sleep on the road—we gave them a few minutes then told them it was morning again and time to go.

Jurm was a real town with an actual “guest house” (a bare building with a latrine outside and a little bath house with an icy stream running through it).  No restaurants, but there was a naan shop, and a farmer gave us some fresh cucumbers—so we feasted gratefully on warm bread and cool cucumbers with tea and lots of sugar and enjoyed our cold baths and a refreshing day of rest.  Next day a friendly local official gave us a ride in his truck to the next town, where there was a most welcome little restaurant—then on to the capital, Faizabad, where we would eventually get a plane to Kunduz on the main road south to Kabul.

We had a little international adventure in Jurm—hearing some English-speaking voices behind a hedge, we peered around to find an Oxford Episcopal priest with extensive knowledge and interest in archeology (Peter Levi), an American writer (actually Bruce Chatwin) and his American spouse, Elizabeth.  They were exploring many remote areas of Asia, and knew of an early mosque deep in the mountains near us.  We had actually passed this ruin about a week previously.

Here we are—an American family of two parents, Peace Corps volunteer physicians, with their three daughters aged  9, 11, and 15, plus a young volunteer in his 20’s—at the end of a three week trek through the mountains of northeast Afghanistan.  The place is Faizabad the northernmost provincial capital of the country. The time is July 1969 (shortly after the Apollo moon landing, in fact).   This is before the turbulence of the last 45 years, and Afghanistan was still a constitutional monarchy, peaceful, though with undercurrents of the future troubles.  We have had an exhilarating adventure, but are ready for a little time of R & R before returning to our home in Jalalabad.

Faizabad may be a provincial capital, but it is a frontier town, with dusty streets thronged with rural folk, clusters of mud-brick buildings, and minimal public amenities.   Since it is sort of a border town, with Russia to the north, Pakistan to the south-east, and a tiny border with China at the end of miles of mountainous trails to the east, there is quite a population of soldiers in the streets and a general attitude of wariness towards “foreigners”. We learn that we are expected to stay in the “Guest House”, a long one-story adobe building, with bare private rooms, public bath facilities, and no restaurant or public rooms.   Other guests include mountain climbers and tourists from all over the world.  Apparently one soldier is assigned to monitor our party, and as we six separate in various small groups to wander through the city we can sympathize with his confusion as to which cluster he should follow.   We reconnect to go together to enjoy the small restaurants.  As I said, the nice greasy Afghan food is just what we need after our camping rations.  The Afghan diners use bread plus their fingers (right hand only!) to pick up their meat, rice, and vegetables—no problem for us, but when they see we are xarengi  (foreigners), the proprietor brings us some ancient slightly rusty forks from some deep cupboard  (which we of course politely set to one side, unused).   We enjoy conversing with the local people in our “Peace Corps Farsi”.  In fact, there is a middle-aged Russian lady linguist at the guest house, and our only mutual language is that one, difficult for us all. She is traveling in the hinterland studying different dialects—wish we could have conversed more fluently.

The road from Faizabad to the main north-south highway at Kunduz is unpaved, rough, and not entirely safe from bandits—more than a day’s drive, so we choose to fly on this leg of our trip.  A plane flies west about twice a week, and there is no guarantee of seats, so each day we walk about three miles west to the airport, to put in our claim.   The charms of our stay in Faizabad are fading, and after 4 days or so we finally secure tickets, and take a taxi out to the field to wait in the hundred degree plus temperature.  In all seriousness the airport manager says that if the Indian pilot flies, he will limit passengers to 14, but if the Afghan pilot is on duty,  all 24 can get on the plane!  (The heat is such that a plane will have trouble getting enough lift if heavily laden).  Thus “reassured” we are more or less glad to see the Afghan pilot, and they crowd three or more to each two-person seat as he readies the deHaviland Otter for the trip.  The plane bounces along the rough gravel desert surface, and finally is airborne, and an hour or so later we land in Kunduz.

Kunduz is a much more cosmopolitan city, on the main highway to the Russian border on the Oxus River.  It is basically a “new” city, built to support the cotton industry in the valley.  NGO’s and contractors from several nations give an international air to the streets and restaurants.  We enjoyed visiting the hospital, built by the Czechoslovakian government and run by a Czech surgeon.  We also had pleasant conversations with an Afghan doctor there, who was fluent in English and was a real fan of Harry Truman (he had a carved sign on his desk “The Buck Stops Here”).  He invited us for lunch and we enjoyed his wife and little son.  (Isn’t it amazing how a small child can speak Farsi so much better than we can?)  We stayed in a nice, somewhat cleaner, hotel, and loved the restaurants.  After a few days of the same delicious qabeli  (rice with lamb, carrots, and raisins) we asked if they had anything else.  The waiter said they had “Czechoslovakian rice”, which we ordered—only to find it was the very same dish (as in many restaurants, they “aim to please”!)   When I admired the Russian painted wooden spoons used for the soup and asked if I could buy some, the same waiter gave me four and refused payment.  It was a pleasure to visit with the several Peace Corps volunteers in Kunduz and compare notes with one of the nurses who had been in our same training group in Fort Lupton, Colorado.  Apparently their hospital shared many of the problems of ours, but had a more direct “pipeline” from their sponsoring country to improve matters.

Next leg of our trip took us to Kabul for a brief visit with friends there, then back to Jalalabad.  The taxi ride from Kabul is about 100 miles, with about a 4000 foot descent through the Kabul River Gorge.  The highway was Russian built in the 50’s, and is a triumph of engineering, with horseshoe curves, rock walls holding up the roadbed, and even a tunnel or two.   The drivers are another matter!.  If a vehicle is in sight, even at a half-mile distance, the driver won’t pass a slower vehicle.  However, if a curve blocks the view and all looks clear, off he will go, whizzing past the trucks as we hold our respective breaths.

We are delighted to be back home, although the summer heat is still appalling.  Our cook, friend—Ghulam is as happy to see us as we him, and our bouncy black puppy of course is jumping with excitement.  We comfortably resume our summer home routine—get up early and do errands in the morning, rest and nap on the cool terrazzo floor with fan blowing over us after lunch, then walk down to the river for an afternoon swim.  The afternoon rest period is also our reading-aloud time.  We take turns reading, and as a result even our 9-year old reads fluently and comfortably (“with expression”).  One of Peace Corps splendid traditions is the book locker.  Each volunteer receives a box of about 40 books of great variety—history and fiction from our host country, American classics and non-fiction, books for just plain entertainment.  Volunteers are encouraged to exchange books with other volunteers and to loan them to their students and English-speaking Afghan friends.  At the end of service, the locker is returned to the main office and refurbished if necessary.

One more brief word about our swimming adventures in the Kabul River.  The walk there through fields takes about 20 minutes, then we wade across at a shallow area.  On the far side are some deeper pools with brisk current, surrounded by rock walls, where we can take the rapid ride downstream, then get out and walk back up. This is great fun for all of us—but one day when Ghulam came with us he was unprepared for the swift ride and ended up in deeper water—unable to swim, he was buoyed up by his huge baggy Afghan pants and was able to float to shore.  “I almost died, Sahib!”  After that he paddled in shallower waters on the rare occasions when he joined us.   For the to and fro walk we girls wear our modest dresses, with our bathing suits underneath.  If there are local boys present we swim in the dresses, but otherwise can enjoy the freedom of bare arms and legs.

Thus our major adventure comes to an end, but we still have another year of our primary Peace Corps job, which is teaching Internal Medicine in the small Nangrahar University Medical School established in Jalalabad as a joint project of Peace Corps and the Afghan government.  Meanwhile those memories provide a family bond which has persisted over these 45 years.

Mary Frantz 
April 9, 2014