Alistair Caldicott

Batting for Pakistan

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11 - Back to the Afghan Border

So my time in Peshawar meandered to a contented end. I had to leave and take transport north to the mountain town of Chitral. I had a ticket, or rather a piece of paper at least with something incomprehensible scribbled on it.

Being the beginnings of winter, daylight had ended abruptly. A man raced off with my scrap of paper, which had been exchanged for another piece of paper with something else scribbled on it. He was disappearing quickly into the dark back streets of Peshawar's old city.

I was running to keep up with him and also not to get completely lost. After a couple of sharp turns and twists, there it was. A battered old minibus, on which I had reserved myself two seats.

Initially, it didn't look if I would be lucky to have just one seat to myself. And true to form, directly behind my designated seat, in the cramped, intimate environs of the bus interior, there was a wailing baby doing its best to shatter the decibel levels.

The cries of the baby, who was probably thirsty in the stuffy atmosphere, were soon superseded by some loud music. After just five minutes on the road, I had the sinking feeling that we had already broken down. But it was soon fixed.

Climbing up into the lawless mountains north west of Peshawar, the air got sharply colder, but the other people around me on the bus were, as ever, warm and friendly. Sometimes excessively so with their intrusive curiosity.

It was challenging to sustain a conversation in near darkness with a crying child ambushing my ears from behind, loud music from the front, and in a language I could barely speak more than ten words of.

After a few hours or so, I started to realise why the poor baby had been crying so vehemently. Her father had been nonchalantly chain smoking, sometimes hashish, with her in his arms.

As always seemed to be the way, my bag had been thrown last on to the roof and was most exposed to the elements as the mountains unleashed some precipitation on us. Meanwhile inside the vehicle my knees felt like they were being gradually shaved off by the absence of any legroom.

So much for booking two seats, I was now lucky to have half a seat to myself. Still, matters of discomfort were the least of my worries, as outside the night got darker and colder. There was a silver bowl of a half moon and many dazzling stars. The terrain looked increasingly more inhospitable and therefore, lurked with real and imagined dangers of many kinds.

Such areas the bus was traversing through were now beyond the control of the police, the army and the government. Bribes had to be paid to men in ponchos who hovered with guns on treacherous mountain passes with torches and menace every time our vehicle pulled over. In my tired state, I started to become obsessed about having sufficient room for my own body parts to rest with some degree of comfort.

In the complete middle of the night, just as everyone had reached the point of crashing into sleepy sub consciousness, good old Pakistani logic reasserted itself. Lights were turned on. Music was turned up. Cigarettes were defiantly lit and singing started. I felt like I was part of a rodeo fairground ride.

We jolted up and down, round and round, side to side for some painful hours of intense bodily banging. Various parts of my anatomy were crudely contorted and slammed at random into some very hard, solid surfaces of the bus interior. Sleep was an unavailable luxury.

The road to Chitral necessitated climbing a 3,000 metre pass and negotiating over forty hairpin bends. It was not a straightforward or smooth journey, particularly in the darkness of night, to a region which was cut off from the rest of the country for a few months of the year.

Deadly avalanches could ambush the slender sliver of rough road at any moment. The Lowari Pass was the solitary connection to the mountainous settlements. It was also the only other feasible route was to go through into Afghanistan and out again. The pass should have been closed by snow when I was travelling in mid December, but the real heaviness of winter had yet to properly make its mark. The weather-beaten track of a road just about scrambled its way over the top and my bus did the same.

5 am. I had succumbed to a deep slumber, but was brought to consciousness by the shouts of men outside the vehicle. We had stopped. The pre-dawn air outside was bracingly fresh. A couple of pieces of paper were poking inside the window. My body had wedged itself into the most awkward contorted and twisted position imaginable.

As the only foreigner on the bus, I was being asked to fill out a form for the police checkpoint. I scrambled for my passport, scribbled a few letters which loosely resembled my name, before wanting to go back to my sleep slumber.

This was not possible however. Soaring white-capped peaks of mountains around Chitral, combined with the brutal early morning temperatures, brought me reluctantly to life. It was well below freezing. Before long, I was stumbling out of the bus and hauling my backpack down from the damp roof. I was in the town of Chitral, which filled a narrow river valley close to the Afghan border.

I walked down the main street and found somewhere to stay. I desperately wanted to crash out. But before doing anything else, as I had learnt the hard way in Peshawar, I had to go and make myself valid and legitimate at the police station.

Amongst their forest of questionnaires, I came across a new bureaucratic question.

"What is Army, Navy, Air Force rank?"

I decided to become a colonel. By the usual treacle slow standards of Pakistani bureaucracy, the whole process was remarkably and uneasily straightforward. Maybe this was because they thought I was a colonel.

I tried to go back to sleep in my new hotel room, but it was only marginally warmer than a fridge freezer. So I moved myself out of the town to a place called the Riverside Lodge, which was right on the bank of the main river flowing though the town. The noise of rushing water instilled a quieter peacefulness, which was a pleasant contrast from the compact and bustling centre of Chitral.

The Riverside Lodge was next to an old fort, which had splendid views across the river and beyond towards the Hindu Kush mountains. The landscape was dominated by the white icing cake of Tirich Mir, a momentous up thrust of the earth's surface and at over 7,700 metres high, one of the worlds highest mountains.

Surrounding the old fort were trees of fading, falling leaves and what looked initially to me like a couple of fields of wild cannabis. Its long extended walls and red brick structure gave the place a faded sort of charm. It retained some crumbling and decayed dignity, and was a brief reminder of the towns relatively modern history.

Chitral was once an independent mountain kingdom of its own. Having retained its identity through successive invasions from Greeks, Persians, Mongols and the British, to name a few, the mountain kingdom of Chitral finally became part of Pakistan as a result of the 1947 partition of India.

The British had developed a significant presence here in the nineteenth century. It was seen as a backdoor route for the expanding Russian empire to stretch its ambitious tentacles towards the riches of India. As a result the British had retained a major garrison here at the fort. In 1895 there was a major siege in Chitral. Sikh troops who were under the command of British troops even had to resort to eating their own horses to survive.

I had the place to myself. No wonder they looked so pleased to see me. I was their first paying guest for a month. What swayed my decision to move in was the fact that cricket was being played in the grounds. I got asked to play, but instead of putting my body on the line once more, I opted to umpire. The place was more like a personal house than a hotel.

Winter's tentacles were gradually tightening their grip on life in the mountain town of Chitral. It was the final scrapings of autumn. The last of the rusty brown leaves were dangling form the trees. I took a walk around the town.

Cricket games were being played everywhere with the familiar brick piles for wickets. The most impressive arena proved to be an elongated polo field. It was a very long, well looked after grass rectangle, maybe three or four times bigger than a standard football pitch. It was full of school children.

Every boy wanted to show what he could do - batting, bowling, fielding - at a furious pace and with boundless energy. The wonder of playing in such a scenic location was totally lost on every single one of them.

Polo was a game even bigger than cricket here. Many Chitralis claim that polo in its earliest form originated here. It is one of the world's oldest team sports. And the rugged freestyle version of the game, without the need for rules or referees, was strangely classless.

"You do not need money to play polo here", the man from my riverside lodge later said to me.

Although, now it was winter, the cold was too much for the horses in, what was for them, an extremely physical and demanding sport. The cold and the altitude put great strain on their bodies. After exercising their sweat didn't dry off properly and gave some of them hypothermia. It was the wrong time of year for polo.

Chitral had a much gentler pace of life, which was much appreciated. Maybe this was because any human activity seemed so insignificant compared to the size and presence of the surrounding mountains. Colourful mountain trucks illuminated the foreground, while white snow and blue sky loomed far, far beyond.

It felt like a sprawling village rather than a town. You practically tripped over some business and market stalls, while others almost seemed to be covertly tucked away. Stalls crammed to breaking point with fruit and chickens chaotically merged into each other, emitting an intriguing assortment of sights and smells.

Welcome To Your Choice Hair Dresser, read the sign above one rickety wooden building. Behind a line of washing hung outside. There was a very unflattering picture of a woman who had been painted blue for some reason. A whole new meaning to going in and asking for a blue rinse perhaps.

Slightly further on there was the Paradise Department Store. It seemed rather low on supplies of anything remotely useful, the sort of place where custom was a surprise, rather than an expectation. You didn't come to Chitral for the shopping.

A large and very photogenic main square had a huge football pitch, which always seemed to have plenty of activity on it, belying some of the town's sleepiness. Behind was a very exuberant, flamboyant mosque, which looked like an extravagantly iced wedding cake and was relatively modern. And behind the mosque were more dollops of white mountains.

I happily got involved in another game of cricket near the grounds of the old fort. My batting got into full flow. I didnt want to stop. However, the leg side was largely off limits. It was the river. On more than a couple of occasions we thought we had lost the ball. But some splendid recovery work in the field rescued it just in time before it rolled into the torrent.

When it came to bowling, I was still woeful. I made an excuse about my shoulder still being stiff from the bus journey, as if it made any difference. The ball kept disappearing back over my head into the trees and undergrowth, which constituted a very deep mid off area, quite a challenging chase for any pursuing fielder.

Very welcome tea breaks were strictly enforced. Genuine tea breaks, where hot steaming tea was delivered out onto the wicket area on a tray. It was a habit I could have got easily used to. Hours and entire days could be consumed by such a pleasurable pastime. Cricket and tea in the mountains.

I learnt that the owner's son was in England.

"He is a liar in England." Farooq told me with beaming pride

"He is a liar?"

"Yes very good liar. Works with criminals. Earns a lot of money."

"Oh he is a lawyer."

"Yes, how is it you say in England, he has been to the bar?"

"The bar, yes."

"I think this would not be possible in Pakistan!"

The ball disappeared onto roofs, into trees and nearly into the river many times, as we all tried to out hit each other while batting. Not for the first time in Pakistan, I felt like I was eight years old again.

However, when the sun disappeared behind the huge mountain, everything changed. There was little to do. It felt like hibernation in the dark. The only warmth was to be found in the kitchen area where, for some reason, it took the combined might of five people to prepare and serve my food. Being the only guest, I was privileged to have personal service. It was like residing in an old stately home, or a royal residence. Which in fact it was.

Chitral's old fort was owned by a royal family. Old, intriguing looking pictures clung to bare walls in a huge dining room, in which I could hear every scratch and echo uncomfortably loudly. And never at any point during my days here was I anything other than well attended to.

Just sitting down for a meal involved one space being laid at the end of a long table which could easily have accommodated twelve. One of the staff would deliver my food. A separate person had the role of bringing the condiments, while a third man looked after drinks. It was like a prolonged, drawn-out relay chain of functions. After a few days I took to going directly to the kitchen myself to save them the unnecessary work.

Typically, I would be forced to go to bed early and read a book. Unsurprisingly, with a scarcity of light and warmth early in the morning, it was challenging to get up. I had to wait until I was sure that the sun had crawled itself high enough to the point where it would be able to bestow some much needed warmth on a human body. The men, who worked here had been up since dawn. I saluted their bravery.

As I shivered next to my electric heater, I was finally able to work my television and came across BBC World. It was cheeringly uplifting to find a pretty weather forecaster mentioning it would plummet to minus nineteen degrees Celsius in Ulaan Bator. Then a following news item showed an image of Margaret Beckett in tears, which dissolved some of this early cheer.

I smiled at the serene ridiculousness of being to able to watch a fuzzy repeat of Top Gear in a location and country, where motor vehicle ownership, let alone use, must surely have been one of the lowest anywhere in the world.

I flicked over to a music channel, only to be confronted by the horror of seeing over-exposed artists from my own culture, who I had happily hoped to forget long ago, like Gareth Gates and Steps.

However cold it got, I reminded myself what it must have been like for the earthquake victims in such temperatures. And there was always the comforting thought of a sign in the town centre I had noticed earlier:

"Sleep Well. Police Is Watching You!"

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