It was in August 1975 (or perhaps 1976) that my footloose impulse prompted me to undertake a journey by road from Peshawar to the idyllic land of Kafiristan. This week’s piece is composed of memories of what was nothing short of a thrilling adventure and also an ode to the many people, who made the trip worth its while. I am also indebted to my three companions, who said “yes, let’s go” without an iota of hesitancy.

We scratched out a third party suggestion to take a flight to Chitral and set about obtaining a four wheel drive transport and the gear required for the fortnight long trip. Past Shabqadar, we were stopped by a Frontier Corps checkpoint at Yusufkhel and warned that the road ahead, up to Nawagai lay across the Mohmand Tribal Belt, devoid of effective government jurisdiction, and any attempt to cross it without an escort would be risky. The ‘chopper’ was then dropped on us as, with a bland face, the man in charge of the check post told us that no escort being available, we could not proceed.

It was after an hour that under our persistency to proceed and a written statement that we were doing so at our own risk without holding the Frontier Corps liable, in case something happened to us, we drove across the barrier. Almost halfway through, with craggy and rugged mountain slopes on both sides, we found our way blocked by stones deliberately placed across, what was supposed to be the road. A cold chill ran through us, when we saw a group of heavily armed individuals loping down the hill towards us. We were fortunate that two members of our team had a working proficiency in Pushto and were therefore reluctantly pushed forward to resolve, what to us appeared to be a dangerous situation. We sat in the vehicle watching the dialogue with seemed to carry on and on, finally ending in the return of our ‘heroes’ with wide grins on their faces. It turned out that what we had assumed as bandits, were in fact ‘khasadars’ (a force of local people recruited by the political agent to assist in maintaining law and order). It was after a lot of hugging and backslapping that we were allowed to proceed.

The Nawagai Pass is a beautiful piece of God’s country with stands of pines growing amidst rocks and a flat high plain dotted with apple and pomegranate orchards, irrigated by natural springs. It was perhaps the adrenaline rush during our previous encounter that had made us ravenously hungry, forcing us to pull up and park inside the first orchard that we came to. No sooner had our tea flasks and rolled up parathas (carried on the insistence of my wife) been placed on the bonnet of the jeep, when we were surrounded by four wild looking individuals carrying automatic weapons pointed at us. Our in house interpreters informed us that we had transgressed into an orchard owned by the Khan of Nawagai and not only had we trespassed, but had added insult by eating our own food. While trespassing could be ignored, since we were travellers from afar, but violation of hospitality could not be ignored and we would have to make amends by extending our stay until we had eaten from the Khan’s larder.

What followed next was a display of traditional tribal hospitality that blew us away. A fat ‘dumba’ was first paraded and then slaughtered right before our eyes. The entire animal was then skewered onto two sturdy sticks and roasted over a fire with a generous sprinkling of salt. A corner of the fire was covered with a large piece of slate and used to bake thick yeasty bread from a ‘runny’ dough that was poured on the hot stone and then spread by circular movements of the hand. The whole process took over three hours at the end of which, four hungry ‘hostages’ and their ‘hostage takers’ tore into one of the most delicious meals of tender roasted meat and stone baked bread that I have ever eaten. The sun was setting as we left our hosts on our way to Khar, where an alarm had already been raised on our failure to arrive before sundown. That night we snuggled into our sleeping gear humbled by the hospitality of a people unadulterated by the stresses and guiles of modern lifestyles.

We shall, God willing, continue our journey beyond Khar next week, as our adventure continues, enriched by characters, more than ready to open their homes and hearths to strangers. Spiced with interesting incidents involving a headless chicken, a couple of French Tourists and miniature potatoes.

 

The writer is a historian.