Our Journey Begins
I awoke at 5:30 AM on July 1. Fifteen minutes later I stumbled into the dining room with my wife’s younger brothers. A breakfast of omelets and toast was already on the table. Everybody seemed to be in good spirits and I was glad to see that my brother-in-laws weren’t planning some twisted prank to get back at me for arranging such an early wake up call. The day before, their dad had graciously arranged for a guide to take us up to the nearby summit after I had expressed a desire to get out and hike around the countryside. My hope was that we could reach the top in a couple hours and double back in time to join the rest of the family at the Kalash museum.
We checked the supplies, grabbed a few bottles of water, and hit the trail. Our guide was already waiting outside with a gunman who would also accompany us. Rahmat was carrying his water and all of our lunches in plastic grocery bags. Apparently the concept of backpacks has yet to hit the area. Despite the Guide’s awkward approach to the day’s trek, I felt more sympathy for the gunman and his AK-47 along with his extra magazines, and bulky handset (so we could keep in contact with concerned parents).
All of us formed into a single file line and crossed over a brightly painted bridge to the south side of the creek. We moved through a trail covered by overhanging tree branches and between 2 stacked rock walls. This area is supposedly occupied by Muslim families. There is genuine concern that their repressive influence could mean an end to the life of festivals, wine-making, and dancing that is such a big part of Kalash culture.
Sun making its mark on the valley below
At 6 AM the valley was still in a shadow, but the skies were already a bright blue above us as we exited the cover of trees. There was plenty of light to see by and the temperature was cool. Conditions couldn’t have been much better for us. An old timer with a thick gray beard followed beside us for awhile and kept warning us that we were going too fast. Guess he didn’t know who he was dealing with. His cautionary voice faded off as we kept truckin’. We did catch a few breaks to enjoy the vistas, take photos, drink water, etc. I saw at least 2 other old men on the mountain that could have been the first wise-man’s twin brothers.
A group of young kids flew up the hill beside us as well. They must have been around 12 yr old and were totally unimpeded by the steep slope and elevation. At first I was surprised that so many people were on the hill gathering firewood, or herding animals so early, but I guess your schedule is usually dictated by the sun when you live without a dependable source of electricity. The boys seemed pretty happy to have their picture taken by an out-of-breath American. I also managed to catch a cow’s attention long enough for a close-up portrait.
Mountaineering cow poses for photo
Rahmat had mentioned how this trip would be a good way for him to practice English, but he ended up speaking urdu for most our journey. My hiking partners would translate the important details of his stories. He mentioned how a Japanese man who had been coming to the Kalash valleys for several years had just managed to purchase a young wife from the areas; much to her distress. This story had been going around town and I had already given up trying to guess the actual ages of parties involved. Here’s another blogger’s account of the story (Kalasha Times). Rahmat also enjoyed telling us about local folklore and the healing powers of all kinds of plants. Somewhere up on one of these ridges is a stone in the shape of a man. History says that this rock was a guy who was so enamored with the spectacular view that he asked God to turn him to stone so that he could enjoy the sight eternally.
The guide recounted a story about some mystical lake that only the purest of heart could approach. Unworthy people would see their true nature reflect back at them from the lake surface and suffer some sort of tragic, and bloody fate. Keep that one in mind next time you want your kids to stay away from the water’s edge. Rahmat and I exchanged facts and figures about ourselves and family. He was married to a 12 yr old when he was 15. He maintains that his marriage continues to be very strong after 15 years. His newborn son seemed to be a source of great pride… then in just about the same breath, he mentioned his young girlfriend in the valley opposite the ridge we were currently climbing.
Looking 3 kilometers below
As we neared the top, our fearless leader began to talk more and more of this girlfriend. He even mentioned how we’d be able to see her. I remember thinking to myself “How large is this woman if we can see her from 5 km away?” Anyway, we trudged on. I noticed the gunman straining a bit under his heavy load; All things considered, he was still going strong. Rahmat kicked it into full gear and did some Olympic speed-walking for the last 100 yards of our climb while claiming the pace to be his norm.
I was happy to see that we were only about a half hour behind my desired schedule. Surely we could make up for that on the way down. That’s when Rahmat hit us with his little surprise. We weren’t coming back down the same way we climbed up. Instead, we would be going down the other side and into the valley of Birir. While chewing on my omelet sandwich, I instantly realized how we would be able to see this girlfriend of his. Our gunman radio-ed down to command central, partially to brag our conquest, and mostly to let those in control know of our change in plans. Each of us accepted that we would not make it to the museum in exchange for the extended adventure, and my father-in-law agreed to send vehicles to meet us on the other side.
Our cabins are down there somewhere
My GPS finally caught enough satellites to give us decent elevation info. We had climbed from 7,000 ft to 9,960 ft in less than 2.5 hours. My guess of the climb only being 1,500 ft was slightly off. Here we sat at basically 10,000 ft! Since telling people that you were basically at 10 thousand ft isn’t quite the same as saying you climbed to over the same elevation, I had to man-up. Going higher actually meant “climbing”. This had always seemed to come naturally to me, but I could tell the rest were concerned for my safety as I slithered up the rock face. Reaching the top was a breeze and it was well over the 5-digit goal.
100' above the rest of the team
After catching my breath, I took some photos, and realized that I needed to get back down sometime soon… should have paid a little more attention to the route that I took coming up. My palms began to sweat as everyone watched me scale around the rocks. Their shouts of helpful advice didn’t really aid my frustrations. Eventually I found a route that was nice and easy, but nowhere near the path originally followed.
Once again we were on the move. As it turns out, the difficulty with coming down was not just with the rock face. Trekking down the other side had its own challenges. Often there was no real defined path to follow. When there was a path it was almost always covered in loose scree. My youngest brother-in-law took a spill early on and cut his hand while trying to brace himself. Not to worry though, the gunman reached into his pack and took out a handy first-aid kit. The hand was field dressed in no time and we were back to slipping and tripping down the loose slope.
Somebody got a boo-boo
Less life on this side of the pass
“American Friend, Sing us a beautiful song in English.” Rahmat gave me a good laugh with that one. I just chuckled and pointed to the other guys who are much better at singing than myself. As inspiring as the scenery was, I just couldn’t subject everyone to my tortuous vocals… besides, a rock slide in such a narrow chasm could be disastrous. Nobody sang a word by the way. We were all too preoccupied with keeping our footing and wondering when we’d finally reach the bottom. The guide’s guess of 25 minutes had expired an hour ago.
When all hope of survival was lost, I finally handed out my last few jolly-ranchers to the team. If we were going to perish, then cavities would be the least of our worries. Hard candy wasn’t just for kids. It’s a great cure for cotton-mouth too.
Steep canyon walls
I remember lifting my gaze at about two and a half hours into our journey down. We had just came around a corner and all the sudden there was green grass and trees below. This was a welcome change in scenery from the broken chunks of marble that we’d been shuffling through. Coming down took us exactly the same length of time as the hike up. Weird. I was sure we weren’t hindered all that much by the talus.
At long last.. Civilization!
Soon we were passing by homes built on the hillsides. Some kids off in the distance began calling out something over and over. Was it a warning? Should we be scared? Should they be scared? The locals working the field were obviously aware of the foreigners who just popped out of their barren canyon. This didn’t stop them from working the fields or sitting in the shade. Rahmat greeted people here and there. Kids gave us some curious gazes and I even shook one little girl’s hand. Too bad we just ate all the candy I had in my possession.
Fearless leader working his charms
Shuffling through Birir
An estimate of 10 minutes remaining was given by our escort. We crunched the numbers in our heads and collectively agreed that this must mean about half an hour in regular human time. After speaking to a group of women, a teenage girl began pestering us for handouts. Little did she know that none of us had a single rupee in our possession because we had just planned for a quick journey up a hill and back. I felt a tinge of guilt, but was too tired to really give a serious care in the world. She eventually drifted off and probably cursed the small pack of tourists.
Kalasha primary school, Birir
We passed by a newer looking school where the sign told me we were in Birir. This valley also had a nice stream running through it. The water was a bit more calm than the raging little beast in Bumborete, however. When we reached the guest house, everyone plopped down on their rear in the shade. It was exactly half an hour from where Rahmat told us “10 minutes left”. We explained to him that the extended length of our journey would not allow for a chance meeting with his girlfriend. He pleaded a bit and said it would only take “ten minutes”. His pleas fell on deaf ears. I checked my GPS just for fun: 5,300′. No wonder the trip down took so long. We came down 5 thousand feet, where we had only climbed up about 3 thousand. The trek was amazing, though. I passed my remaining water back to the dirt caked faces in the rear seat of our vehicle and thought silently about today’s many sights.
Man-made waterfall on the trip home