Monday, February 4, 2008
Short walks in the Hindu Kush
A photo kindly provided by the successful Noshaq 7492m Expedition in 2000.
My affair with the mountains of Afghanistan started in 1976 when I first visited the country to work for the International Red Cross in villages destroyed by earthquakes in the Hindu Kush. In 1993 I got the chance to work again in Afghanistan and have almost been there two years. During this time my work with refugees, displaced people and victims of natural disasters have given me the privilege of crossing many major passes and criss-crossing the Hindu Kush on numerous occasions and spending time in the lesser, but equally spectacular ranges. Most climbers have heard of Afghanistan's Hindu Kush but some of the lesser known ranges, between 6500m and 3000m, provide some of the most spectacular scenery and is home to hardy mountain people.
Mountains dominate the landscape of Afghanistan and these massive ramparts have shaped the lives, culture and the minds of the Afghans for thousands of years. People and carpets are named after mountains, poets write about them, artists paint them, legends abound and grow and conquering Kings fell homesick for their grandeur and beauty.
Mountains cover 653 000 sq. km and dominate the central and eastern parts covering 75% of the country. It is a land-locked country lying between 29o 35' and 38o 40' northern latitude and between 60o 31' and 75o 00' eastern longitude on the mountainous and desert areas where the Iranian plateau borders with the mountainous systems of central Asia.
Afghanistan is bounded on the north by the Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan (2380km), on the north-east by China (96km) and India (102)km, on the south and east by Pakistan (2310), and on the west by Iran (925 km) Afghanistan is roughly quadrilateral in shape, with the long finger called the Wakhan stretching east wards, bounded by Russia, China, Pakistan. The mountain systems are quite complex and erratic, but generally run north-east to south-west.
At the feet of these great mountains ranges civilisations were born, nurtured shaped or dramatically changed. The mountains were the birthplace of great religious thinkers and philosophers. Zoroastrianism and Brahminism owe their origion to Afghanistan and the two religious classics, the Rigveda and Avesta were written here. Buddhist monasteries, many carved out of solid rock, are scattered through the mountains. With the coming of Islam, it wasn't long before the mystical Sufi's with their Islamic-influenced spiritual and poetic philosophy, came from Iraq to the mountains of Afghanistan, where it was strengthened further.
The mountain passes of Afghanistan have echoed to the tramp of would-be conquerors on the march between the barren steppes of Asia and the fertile plains of India - Alexander, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, nineteenth-century British mule trains and twentieth- century Soviet tanks. The Hindu Kush is a land with a history of violence; a land of startling colours, strong passions, fierce independence where the mountains have shaped the people.
But it was travellers like the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims Fah-Hian and Sung-Yun in the 4th century, Marco Polo in the 12th and Ibn Battuta in the 13th century, who left behind records of their travels with quite remarkable detail of the mountain passes, the mountains and the people and popularised this ancient land.
Later came a more recent era, the 18th and 19th centuries, an era where madness was considered close to Godliness and there are plenty of examples of eccentric European travellers like the intrepid Alexander Gardiner in his tartan jacket and trousers who courted Kings, Kafirs and Khans and the English religious zealot Wolff who walked naked from Bamian to Kabul, a trip of a week or so.
No one has described this part of the world (Hindu Kush) better than W.K. Fraser-Tytler, a former British minister to Afghanistan. he wrote, "a wild desolate country of great peaks and deep valleys, of precipitous gorges and rushing grey-green rivers; a barren, beautiful country of intense sunlight, clear sparkling air and wonderful colouring, as shadows lengthen and rocks turn gold and pink and mauve in the light of the setting sun."
No foreigners have climbed in Afghanistan since the Soviets arrived in late 1978. I had heard about the passes and valleys strewn with land mines so it was with some trepidation I embarked from Kabul in October 1994 on what was probably the first expedition into the Hindu Kush for at least 17 years. I travelled with two British climbers, Ian Clarke and John Tinker, to the Chamar valley for an attempt Mir Samir, a peak made famous by Eric Newby in his book, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Tinker was fresh off an ascent of Everest by a new route on the north side and Clarke was head of a British Mine clearance organisation in Afghanistan and was a necessary companion as the area had received large amounts of small scatterable mines, dropped from Soviet aircrafts to prevent the freedom fighters crossing the mountain passes. Our safety was dependent on his knowledge of mines and where battles had taken place. Tinker and Clarke attempted an unclimbed face on Mir Samir and got surprising high considering the unseasonably soft snow that had fallen. While the others were attempting Mir Samir, I climbed an unnamed peak around 5000 metres and looked over to the enticing mountains of Nuristan, formerly Kafirstan. We explored a number of neighbouring regions with the hope of returning to do further climbing. .In June 1995 I did another trip was Clarke, crossing from the Panjcher valley to southern Badakshan by way of the 4260 m Anjuman Pass. It was a unique opportunity to explore this spectacular part of the Hindu Kush and check routes on the major peaks in the area ranging from 5900 to 6500 metres. One of the best peaks in the area in Kohi Bandak. The highlight of the trip was when returning back over the Anjuman Pass when at about 3400 metres in high alpine pastures we met about 50 Kuchi (nomad) families on their annual journey to this area. Some were on the move, other camping in their black, low-slung goat hair tents. We passed strings of camels with babies and young children with intricately embroidered bonnets, tied on the backs. Young girls with page-boy style hair cuts, flashed their shy blue eyes at us as we passed. We stopped in tents to share pots of tea and watched how they cared for their animals. Young goats were inside the tent, sheltering from the hot sun, women tenderly carried young lambs in their arms, and an old lame sheep, rode past on the back of a camel. Over the hillsides women and children were gathering alpine herbs, wood, leaves and wild vegetables. Nearby an old women was weaving a carpet. This is what the mountains of Afghanistan are about, tough friendly mountain people who have a symbiotic relations with the hills. They name their children after the mountains, names such as ‘Kohzad’, meaning of the mountains.
Despite the warmth of the people, many disasters befall them. Thousands are killed annually by avalanches and landslides. In late March word reached Kabul that a massive landslides had hit the village of Qarluk, situated high in the mountains of Badakhshan.
I was part of a Red Cross survey team that walked and rode by horse to the site. The whole village had been engulfed killing 350 people, all women and children. The landslide occurred at 11 am when the men and boys were out in the fields and the women. We arrived to find only one female survivor, 11 year old Gulnesa Beg, her arm broken in two places and with her good arm, hugging her father. A whole village wiped out by nature. Here we spent weeks running a relief operation to assist during the emergency phase and started helping these rugged Hazara people put their lives back together again.
In August this year, the highlight of my time in Afghanistan was a trip to Nuristan, the legendary 'land of light'. The Afghan Red Cross is establishing a medical clinic in the Parun valley and I went with our medical staff. Nuristan hugs the southern side of the Hindu Kush and is been isolated from the rest of the country. Six main valleys make up Nuristan each with their own language and for four to five months of the year, the mountain passes in and out of Nuristan are blocked. In is an area where snow panthers, wolves and fox thrive in forests almost untouched by human hand, this is paradise on earth. These blue-eyed and sometimes blond haired people claim they are either descendants of the original Aryans, while others say they are descendants of Alexander the Great. In 1895 they were forcibly converted to Islam and even today their are remnants of their former pagan past. Nuristani villages cling to mountain sides, sometimes perched on peak-tops. a legacy of the past to avoid invaders. Like the mountain Ta
jiks, the Nuristanis are true mountaineers. In 1889 George Robertson the author of the book ‘Kafirs of the Hindu Kush’, described the Nuristanis as" 'magnificent mountaineers<-"' because of their mountain skills, fitness and agility.
In my office is in Kabul, situated at 1800 metres I am so often distracted from my work by the surrounding mountain ranges that soar to just over 4000 metres. On Friday, the only day off during the week, it is possible to climb among the various 4000 metres peaks in the Paghman range from where you get spectacular views of the Hindu Kush and Hazarajat area. Climbing 4000 metre peaks in a day makes living in Kabul a joy. Also for the enthusiastic skier, a two hour drive takes you to the Salang Pass at 3,878 metres an excellent ski-mountaineering area. My good friend Ian Clarke the mine clearance expert gives the opinion that when the area is likely to have land-mines, if it is covered with snow, and you are on skis, it is almost impossible to trigger of a mine as the body-weight is evenly distributed. Clarke did a lot of telemark skiing in the area between 1993 and 1995 in the Salang Pass are before taking up a ski-instructors job at Cadrona, near Wanaka, for the New Zealand winter of 1995.
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