Alistair Caldicott

Batting for Pakistan

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13 - Brandy on the Bumboret

A couple of hour's drive west from Chitral were the Kalasha valleys. I hired a vehicle to go and visit them. It looked like a jeep, but on closer inspection was more basic. With no windows and a loose plastic roof cover, it was more like travelling in a tin can on wheels with rickety suspension.

Shortly before setting off for the Kalasha valleys, I learnt that there might be a special festival on. Visitors were normally required to take a live goat with them to sacrifice. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a spare one to slip into my hand luggage.

With some very dogged driving, we crossed the Bumboret river and then followed one of its narrowing tributaries. Water from the mountain streams was very fresh and messy. There were hidden canyons and violent torrents.

The road was no more than a rough track, choked with rubble, which had barely been slightly crudely chipped off the edge of a very shear cliff face. It was what I had originally imagined the Khyber Pass to be like, and it was far more dangerous. We seemed to be going under the edge of the mountain rather than around or along it.

Such a tight squeeze left no room for driving error, or places to pass other oncoming vehicles. There would no room for those brightly coloured trucks with their elaborate facades here, I contemplated. We were regularly clinging on by our driving fingernails, constantly inches or a few sliding stones away from plunging into an abyss.

Uneasily we edged over a high wooden bridge in a very low gear. My grip on the frame of the vehicle got increasingly tighter, as did the driver's grip on his steering wheel.

Sometimes the long steep roads threatened to chew our jeep up altogether. There was the constant threat of a heavy rock fall or landslide. The road surface was frequently nothing more than a loose collection of large stones and boulders. It left my rag doll like body shaken and stirred, as I went round and round, up and down, rattling and juddering in motion with the vehicles bumpy excesses.

Adding to a heightened sense of edge was a substantial coating of slushy ice, which provoked some nerve-fraying minor skids now and again, as we crunched and glided a passage over it. Going downhill was more perilous than climbing up. It was a case of controlling the speed of the vehicle's slide.

Pipes ran nakedly parallel to this road. There wasn't really enough room for two vehicles to pass each other, so some very careful reversing was necessary if another vehicle approached. Angry torrents of concentrated water gushed ferociously beneath the road. Snow and ice made poor roads even more treacherous.

It was close to mid-morning, but entire valleys and fields had not yet been exposed to the winter sunlight. Somewhere as difficult to get to and remote as this seemed a good place to hide away from the world.

Plenty of the human life here had also not been exposed to the march of time and progress. Traditional ways of life continued. These were people that lived without central heating, television, telephones, never mind in-car satellite navigation systems, celebrity gossip magazines and play stations.

This was Kafiristan, the land of the non-believers, seen by many elsewhere in Pakistan as infidels. There were a few thousand of them here in the Kalasha valleys, pushed to the very margins of their own country, spread out into just a handful of villages. It was very different to rest of Pakistan. No one can really pinpoint exactly where the Kalasha originally came from.

In these picturesque looking villages with dry stone walls, the Kalasha had their own language, dress, customs and religion. The Kalasha didn't rely on modern technology, apart from the occasional generator. Their lifestyles remained largely traditional, and very detached from the rest of Pakistan.

Seeing human faces here for the first time was not something you could easily forget. It was refreshing to see the exposed faces and hair of women. Some of the women had blond hair, light skin and sparkling blue eyes. There was a spirited cheerfulness. The women looked me in the face with a frank inquisitiveness, which I was not used to. Sometimes they started giggling.

Girls meandered along attentively guiding cows with sticks. Men ambled along with sticks over their shoulders, weighed down by various loads and belongings.

I reached the last house of the last village. If I kept going after that, there was no road, but it would not take long to reach the Afghan border. I was back within touching distance of Afghanistan. Except there wasn't really any sort of border at all here. It was a long, isolated and porous line on a map.

In fact, in an area so close to Afghanistan, it was not always clear what country you were actually in. During winter one of the main road routes south form here to Peshawar becomes submerged with snow. Many of the mountains were impenetrable. So it was common for buses and other vehicles to deviate through large chunks of Afghan territory before returning back into Pakistan again.

Weapons could also be easily smuggled from one country to another along the rough mountain tracks. I could probably have detoured off for a light spot of jihadding before lunchtime if I had so desired. This part of Pakistan was cut off from its own country by winter's harshness, but it was not cut off from Afghanistan.

Outside the house a man greeted me. His name was Shahzada and he beckoned me inside. It was cosily warm with a wooden cooking fire crackling away. He handed me a cup of water. At least I thought it was water, but it turned out to be home-made firewater, or white brandy. He produced it from a large, cloudy industrial looking vessel, the sort of container that gathered dust in school chemistry laboratories.

I was drinking brandy on a Sunday morning in a country where consumption of alcohol was illegal. If you were caught drinking alcohol, it would probably mean three years in prison and several lashes. This was definitely very far removed from the rest of Pakistan.

The brandy started to go down rather well.

"This is water which helps us keep warm in winter." Shahzada boasted with a smile.

It certainly provided me with a real boost of internal warmth. I learnt that the brandy was a traditional recipe made using apricots and sugar. Walnuts and mulberries were also on offer as nibbles to sample. They were grown plentifully here.

After a couple of brandies, we did something else unusual. We went outside to play golf in the glistening snow. He told me the game was called gal and it was played with wooden sticks. The sticks were more akin to something more useful in hockey than a sand iron.

A couple of his sons were practising their lusty swings on the snow covered roof. I couldn't see much of a fairway, but Shahzada assured me there was something to aim at. No wonder the men were considered lazy in this area. Drinking brandy and playing golf on a Sunday was a tough life, as thousands of middle aged men all across Surrey would no doubt be able to testify.

Elsewhere, colourfully dressed little girls charged around playing on the rooftops. Their games were more akin to hopscotch and skipping. The women were either cooking or washing.

Shahzada showed me a rather implausible looking photo on his wall, which showed him shaking hands with a very casually dressed out-of-uniform President Musharraff.

"He comes to my house for visit last year." he remarked.

"You offer him brandy?" I asked

"No, no brandy. Otherwise big trouble."

It was worth another toast.

The toilet of the main house was nothing more than a large trench running underneath the collection of wooden buildings, which were apparently hundreds of years old.

I was taken on a brief tour around the village. Piles of deep snow had been shovelled away in between houses. There were fields of dead barley.

"Soon in winter, we have very deep snow, metres of it, and cannot see where things are."

Maybe the brandy had an effect in this matter. My eyes were still watering from the smoke inside the house, or maybe it was the potency of the brandy. But it was certainly keeping me warm.

I learnt that I had missed the goat sacrificing festival. We stopped briefly to look inside a temple, which had many intricate wooden carving inside it. When we came out an old lady smiled at us. Shahzada mentioned to me that the Kalasha had a building which was the equivalent of a menstruation temple. Women had to go here and stay here whenever they had their periods, or if they were going to give birth. Menstruation was regarded as something impure, not suitable for family houses. A time for them to rest while they were less strong, was how my driver described it when I remarked on this with him afterwards.

A bit further on I came across an old man making his way slowly through the village. Someone told me he was 120 years old, but his hair was hennaed orange. He was wearing Woody Allens glasses. His face was so crumpled and creased with years of life, like the weathered trunk of an old oak tree, that it seemed someone had freshly kneaded it with their bare hands.

I wondered how much, or how little, change would impact itself on these small villages in another 120 years time. There was a risk of their unique Kalash culture, which was largely peaceful and hospitable, becoming diluted as they interacted with and become increasingly exposed to the outside world.

There was an outdoor mosque. The praying area was coated with snow. There was something strange and novel for me in seeing a mosque surrounded by snow. Not something I had come across in too many places.

I always found it a great irony that such a filthy environment outside many mosques I had seen was often exchanged, for religious purposes, for the insistence of thorough cleansing and washing due to religious purposes inside the mosque. Here the pristine white snow gave the rare illusion of outer cleanliness, while inside the mosque looked one of the dirtiest I had seen.

Before we parted, I purchased four litre bottles of his brandy to take back to the gentleman from the lodge where I was staying. I had to be rather careful not to get the clear, transparent substance mixed up with my water bottle which was exactly the same size and colour. Otherwise it would have made for a nasty shock when I came to brush my teeth or wash my face next.

I continued walking back out of the last village on the main track which eventually wound its way through the three other villages in the valley. There were terraces of fruit trees on one side, which caught more sun than the other.

Animals roamed. Children slid and skated on patches of ice. Women were washing clothes in the river. It was like a communal, if rather old and muddy, laundrette. The water may have been eye-wateringly cold but the communal atmosphere was warm. Dead tree and bush branches served as outdoor clothes lines. Men were chopping wood. Trucks were being loaded with firewood. It was the fuel of life.

My driver, who had been contentedly consuming the brandy with me, must have been well over the drink-drive limit, if such a thing might have existed. Still a healthy dose of Dutch courage might have been just the ticket for tackling the challenging road back out of the Kalasha valleys. But he had also been smoking hashish as well. He was very relaxed at the wheel.

Whether this was an advantage or not, it wasn't obvious. But I had no reason to fault his driving technique or feel in danger as we negotiated the same precipices and steep drops.

It seemed less treacherous on the return, even when we stopped because of the threat of a large rock falling from above. The gloomy grey slate roads of shale and rock were perennially in shade, while snow capped peaks of the distant Hindu Kush shone like shining white beacons. It was worthy of a toast of brandy on my safe return back in Chitral.

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