No Kabul? Yes, Kabul: #6

Norm Gibbons

Due to a state of aroused fugue, or perhaps it was nothing more than chronic restlessness, during the month of August, 1962, I lived with the nomad peoples of the Kyrgyz in the Afghan region of the Pamir, also known as Bam-e-dunyahe, or roof of the world. Below their territory lies the Wakhan Corridor, a thin strip of land wedged between Pakistan and Tajikistan, stretching 350 kilometers and connecting China to Afghanistan.  Later, when I got myself to a decent library in Tehran, I read that the Kyrgyz are the most isolated, high-altitude community on the planet.

In the summer greening months, they move their livestock to altitudes exceeding 4000 meters, but retreat to lower regions before winter. Winter lasts six months and the temperature drops to -40°C. While with the Kyrgyz, an interpreter told me that if these people joke, which is seldom, they claim that their mountains are so high, and their air so thin, that even the birds have to cross the passes on foot. Then they double up with laughter. Whenever I saw a bird walking on the Bam-e-dunya, I chuckled to myself thinking how perplexed the creature must feel discovering that rarified air is traction-less.

As September approached, I decided to trek west and see what Kabul had to offer. The others I travelled with decided to hitch back into China. That was okay by me, as I’d had my fill of socializing. I wanted to be alone on the road, where there is little else to do, but think and observe.

The day of my departure, the trails down to the Corridor highway whitened with a powdery snow. I congratulated myself on the good timing in the decision to leave.  On reaching the road, a bus came along, so I waved it down. Luckily, the driver spoke a few words of English. We quibbled over the fare and soon settled on an amount. I carried a variety of currencies including a generous supply of Wrigley’s Spearmint Chewing Gum, which I had used before in barter situations. We settled on the fee of one package, five sticks.

I thought I was the only passenger aboard until I noticed a young Kyrgyz girl, perhaps nine or ten years old, dressed in formal finery. The child’s hair was done up in long braids and inter-spliced with tinsel. She wore a woolen red garment embroidered with silver epaulettes, silver waistbands and a host of bangles hanging from the sleeves. Her cheeks were heavily rogued. Though I couldn’t be certain, as she sat at the back of the bus, whereas I had chosen the seat across from the driver, it seemed that she wept.

We drove for approximately 25 kilometres and then pulled onto the shoulder. At first I thought we stopped to let a flock of sheep cross the road; instead, the driver opened the bus door and got out. He engaged in a long conversation with  two Kyrgyz shepherds. One shepherd, who seemed more affluent than the other, was dressed in a blazer and pleated trousers, the style reminiscent of the 1920’s. Over top the blazer, he wore a great coat, a hand-me-down from the Great War. He’d plastered his hair with some awful grease concoction.

Once the three men settled their business, the driver invited them aboard. When they saw me, an argument quickly ensued. The shepherds pointed at me and then the young girl, indicating, I believe, that this situation was intolerable. The driver shrugged his shoulders, as if to say there was no problem, however, his smoothing efforts didn’t satisfy the other men.

The driver took his package of chewing gum from his pocket and said, “Give gum.”

When I asked, “Why?” he repeated, “Give gum.”

I pulled a package from my rucksack and opened it, thinking I would give one stick to each shepherd.

Now irritated, the driver insisted, “All.”

I gave the better-dressed shepherd the package of Wrigley’s Spearmint Chewing Gum, and that settled the dispute. This easy resolution convinced me to place my trust in the driver. Judging by past experiences, tense situations inevitably came down to trusting someone, and doing it sooner rather than later, usually got you through a bad patch.

The three men walked along the aisle and stood in front of the young girl. The child cast her eyes down and pulled a veil over her face. The well-dressed shepherd removed her veil and lifted her chin so that he could look into her tearing eyes. He gave an affirmative grunt and the three men left the bus.

Then the men herded the sheep into the bus. I’m used to riding with the odd chicken, and once even sat beside a fellow, who carried six lizards with their eyelids sown shut, but an entire flock of sheep felt like an exponential leap. As each sheep boarded, it would quickly engage my eye and then move on for a better spot. They seemed to know that two sheep sit on one seat. They crowded along the aisles and beneath the seats on the floor. They bleated and baaed. And they crowded on the doorsteps. Perhaps, we had half the flock aboard. One sheep climbed up beside me, and when I looked into his eyes, they said, or at least, I imagined them saying, “This is the only option available.”

The driver started the bus and we headed back in the direction we came from. After a few minutes, I asked the driver, “No Kabul?” He said, “Yes, Kabul.”

We drove past the spot where I had been picked up earlier and in another few kilometers stopped in a tiny village. The sheep poured out of the bus and the local townspeople checked them over. An older man, who seemed like the village elder, climbed aboard. He nodded his head at the young girl, gave me a quick once over, and stepped off the bus. He engaged in an argument with the driver about the irregularity of the Westerner riding with the young female child. I quickly took their hand gestures as a cue, reached out the door, and gave the elder a package of Wrigley’s Spearmint Chewing Gum. When it seemed that everything had settled, the driver said, “Okay.” He turned the bus around and we drove back towards Kabul, the child still aboard.

Soon we arrived at the spot where we had picked up the sheep. The two shepherds still waited there. The driver signaled to the young child to get off. As she walked by me, I thrust a package of Wrigley’s into her hand, which she quickly stashed inside her sleeve. They loaded the remaining sheep, this group as easy going as the last, and my seating companion as apologetic as the last.  And again we headed back to the village. Once we completed the delivery, with the second inspection approved, and another packet of Wrigley’s Spearmint Chewing Gum given to the elder, the driver said, “Okay, Kabul.”

On the way, we gestured and spoke – words here and there understood – about the delay in the trip, how Kyrgyz customs call for patience, and that there are rules for everything. I learned facts one doesn’t find in books or hear from interpreters: women are expensive in the Bam-e-dunya, because they die young, as many perish during childbirth. A shepherd needs one-hundred sheep to buy a wife, even though he only earns one sheep per month.

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Author’s note: Many times an anonymous, unidentified black and white photograph suggests a story. I’m working on a B & W series.