LOREN STANDLEE.

Loren Standlee left his body on March 20, the first day of spring, after a long illness. A long-time resident of Woodstock,. Loren cast a light of joyous enthusiasm, innate wisdom, inclusive love and incomparable humor upon everyone he ever met. It was impossible not to love him.

Loren grew up in Southern California in an artistic family. He learned to surf and ski at an early age, becoming a master of both sports, which he savored all his life. He attended the Webb School in Claremont, Ca, and then the University of Oregon. He left before graduating to go to the San Francisco School of Fine Arts where he studied pottery and created some of his first experimental art. In the mid-sixties, he caught a steamer to Algiers and began an odyssey of travel throughout Europe, the Middle East and the East that would last for over a year and change his life.

In Europe he lived for a time in an ancient Phoenician tower on the Island of Formentera and did psychedelic research for Sandoz laboratories, makers of LSD.  He also began experimenting with musical sound by playing his flute into empty wells for the echo effect. He then hitchhiked to India where he spent over a year traveling and meeting the great Indian spiritual masters of the time. When he returned to Paris, he joined his life partner, Ziska, who lived in Paris, and together they began to hand-paint silk, (not tie dye) which was then made into clothing and sold to the rock luminaries of the time… the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and so on. Their silk was sold at the famous Apple Boutique in London and even to the designer for the Queen of England, Hardy Amies.  While in London in the late sixties, Loren and Ziska appeared in the film “Dope”, a cult classic, made by filmmaker Sheldon Rochlin.

In Paris Loren and Ziska met Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth when the group “Gong” was founded. Loren played several instruments with “Gong” most notably the alto flute. They performed, wearing their hand-painted silk clothing, at the Museum of Modern Art in Sweden among many other venues, and numerous times in Paris. In 1968, Loren recorded music jams that he later put into the album Dreaming the Magic of Your Maya.  It is now a rare collector’s item.

On returning to New York, Loren met the poet/film-maker Ira Cohen and they became founding members of the “Universal Mutants” a very special group of creative free spirits numbering about five members. At that time Loren and Ziska appeared in yet another cult classic film, Ira Cohen’s “The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda” which has had screenings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and around the world. Also during this time, Loren worked with the Pablo Light Show, the company that created the stunning light shows for rock groups then playing in New York. In 1969, Loren and Ziska self published their first book of poetry called The Orphic Egg. Cool Grove Press will publish their second book, The Orphic Egg II in the coming year.

And of course they went to the Woodstock Festival, sat in the rain and mud, used their “Universal Mutants” name badge to get back stage and everyone thought they were mysterious performers. It was the Woodstock Festival that introduced them to the area, which later became their home.

In the early 1970s Loren returned to India, spending almost a year there traveling and meeting the great Tibetan Buddhist masters of the time, including his root Guru, Kangyur Rinpoche. He also met Ven. Kalu Rinpoche, the 16th Karmapa, Dungtse Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, HH Khyentse Rinpoche, HH Dudjom Rinpoche, and received teachings from them all. On this journey, he also met the revered Indian saint, Babaji, with whom he spent several days in Northern India, Gangotri Baba, Anandamayi Ma, Muktananda, Neem Karoli Baba, and other Indian Saints. The Tibetan Buddhist teachers he met on this journey, would guide and enrich him for the rest of his life.

In 1972 Loren and Ziska purchased land in Woodstock and later built their house on Byrdcliffe. Loren’s work in cut and paste collage began seriously in 1972, using only black and white images. Soon he began using color and his work evolved, sometimes taking over a year to complete one piece, often working on several at one time. He sold his work to collectors and it was exhibited in New York as well as regional exhibitions, especially at WAAM where his work has been included in numerous group shows including several Far and Wide Regional Exhibitions. His digital collage work was shown at the MoMA PSI and he collaborated in the creation of light shows for the group Living Color among others.

From the time their house was built to the present, Loren and Ziska hosted a number of great Tibetan teachers in their home, where many teachings were given. Loren was one of the first people to encourage bringing the Tibetan Dharma to the West. It was during a visit of the great Kalu Rinpoche to their home in the early 70s, that Loren drove Kalu Rinpoche up Mead Mountain Road to the top of the mountain where the old Mountain House was for sale.  Rinpoche got out of the car, looked around, came back to the house, called the 16th Karmapa and after a few calls was told to buy the land. That was the start of KTD.

In 1974  Loren had the idea for the now classic film: Nepal, Land of the Gods. He collaborated with film-maker and friend Sheldon Rochlin and Mike Spera  in making the film. He wrote and co-produced it as well as doing sound. Later, he was involved in hours of editing. They traveled to Nepal and spent several months filming.. Magical Blend Magazine wrote: “Perhaps the most educational film to date on the practices of the Hindu and Buddhist religions”. It has been part of Mystic Fire Video’s roster for many years.

In 1980 Loren entered the first three-year retreat of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, held in the Dordogne, France, under the guidance of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Dudjom Rinpoche, and Tulku Pema Wangyal. When he completed the retreat he returned to New York and Woodstock.

Shortly after his return, he got his first computer and began a thirty- year study of computer technology that opened the doors to digital experiments with collage. Later in the 80s, he worked for Cool Grove Publishing, designing books.

Through out his life, Loren wrote rich, evocative poetry and prose, inspired especially by the French Pataphysicians, and DADA. He wrote mostly when he was traveling in the East. And he played alto flute, Native American Flute, almost any flute, masterfully.  He was a man in whom creativity flowed without ceasing and he left us all with a rich legacy.

Although he never referred to himself as such, he was a great teacher and brought countless people into the Dharma through his example. He was a ‘secret’ teacher, a true treasure of knowledge and wisdom.

He is survived by his partner, ZIska, his sister, Crispen Limacher, his nephew Robbie Limacher, and his niece Jennifer Cooper.

Loren fully inhabited himself and generously, spontaneously, non-judgmentally, loved the life he was blessed with.

~Ziska

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Captured by Bandits on the Afghan Frontier.

 

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The Afridi bandits gather round to stare at the unusual foreign prisoners their young men have just brought in from the pass this morning

April ’73: The Horse Company is Captured by Bandits and Held to Ransom

(This story is a sequel to and continuation of the earlier blog, “The Company of the Horses.“)

Tent-pegger & his horse, .

Could be Hajji Yusuf…

We told Hajji Yusuf, owner of the stables in Kabul, that we’d decided to leave for Swat in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province as our visas were running out, and we’d take our horses with us. He warned us, aside, that by Royal Decree all Afghan horses ultimately belonged to King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan, and their export by anyone other than the King himself was banned. He reassured us, however, that this only meant that we couldn’t take them through the official border post; they’d have to be smuggled out through the hills into Tribal Area, or Yaghistan (‘the cold country’) where the ‘Free Tribes’ lived beyond any government control. This was perfectly normal. He looked in his address book and gave us a Shinwari contact of his in Jalalabad, the last town before the border, who would know exactly how to get them through to the Pakistan side, but warned that we should watch out for the Afridis, “they’re all thieves and bandits”.

Bandits? We’d been warned about bandits on the Frontier for as long as we’d lived and travelled there but never had the pleasure. “We are the bandits!” Rafiullah told him, laughingly.

“OK” he said, “but pay some money for Shinwari tribal escort to the other side. Then they will be responsible and you’ll be safe, even if Afridi bandits come. It is their own business, believe me. This is what they do.”

“Alright” we said, half in jest, “it’s bandit versus bandit!” But we got the message and given our knowledge of how things worked on this border and amongst the Pashtuns, it made good sense.

He laughed and embraced us. “May Allah be with you and keep you safe.”

We had far too much stuff to take by horse so Archimedes and Renato agreed to accompany an Englishman called Alistair we’d befriended to carry the excess over the border in his Landrover. But first we’d all ride down to Jalalabad together. Rafiullah and I got our hair dyed black to be less noticeable as ‘ferenghi’, and disguised ourselves as locals as well as we could to pass unnoticed. It was a fairly futile ploy, considering. We packed our gear, loaded up and gathered at the stables to saddle up and get moving.

“Bismillah” said Rafiullah, as was his habit when starting anything, as he mounted the tall, dappled white Sharoban.

The rest of us followed suit. Five riders including Archimedes and Renato, two leading the two extra horses on a rope, trotted out and down the busy main road from Kabul to Jalalabad. Twenty eight horseshoes clattered noisily. Savoy eased into the lead, lending his unruffled calm to the rest as trucks, buses and cars whizzed past, klaxons hooting, with people yelling ‘chu!’ or whooping at us. It’s not often they’d see well-mounted, turbaned Europeans in colourful local garb riding smartly along this road in a tight bunch, trotting the bouncing Turcoman trot.

Once out of Kabul we crossed a plain heading for the first range of mountains. The Kabul river flowed alongside, deep and slow. We came to a narrow gap sliced deep into the mountain wall where the river plunges from sunshine into shadow and transforms into a raging, foaming torrent of white water rushing and crashing down over colossal boulders, from pool to pool.

The road zigzags down alongside it until the river disappears into a deep gorge. Below towering crags it takes a longer, tortuous descent with dizzying views, twisting and turning halfway down beetling cliff-faces, descending as if into the bowels of the earth. Suddenly it emerges onto a new plain. From here the river meanders lazily again towards Jalalabad as a series of lakes, blue as the sky.

There was still another mountain range to cross. Khyber Pass and Pakistani Tribal Area lay on the other side, with bandit country in between. We reached Jalalabad on day two, in the middle of the plain, to the south of which lies the magnificent, sparkling white wall of the Safed Koh, the ‘White Mountains’ with its Torabora caves where Osama Bin Laden holed up nearly three decades later. We’d have to cross a spur of this range to get to Landi Kotal, the smugglers’ town at the head of the Khyber.

The Shinwari and the Afridi tribes share this area, and we would have to pass through the territory of both. Their business is smuggling, and they compete, each tribe and clan jealously guarding its own territory. They regard the combination of borders and high customs duty as a good business opportunity. Anything can be exported or imported if you ask the right people and pay their ‘tax’. Their land is generally so poor that they need to charge such taxes to supplement their income.

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Jalalabad agent.

In Jalalabad we went to Hajji Yusuf’s contact who would know how to export horses without troubling the Afghan customs officers at the border. He arranged for us to keep our horses in the little-used sports stadium down by the river, to munch the lush green grass. We stayed at the nearby inn over the corner kebab restaurant, where all the ‘Afghan Post’ buses between Peshawar and Kabul stop for lunch.

For getting to across to the other side he directed us on to a village called Gurrdi Ghaus at the foot of the range to the south. We should ask for Hajji Khan, a Shinwari, he said.

“He will guide and protect you over a pass on a smuggling route through the Azad Gabile – free tribes area – into the Pakistan side” he assured us in Pashtu.

“What about bandits in the free tribes area?” asked Rafiullah.

“You are foreigners and outsiders and therefore everybody’s guest, nobody will rob you. Only locals, Indians and Pakistanis, Punjabis and Bengalis who try to avoid our tax, are to be robbed or kidnapped and have their hands cut off, or killed” he added, reassuringly. “Do not worry, you will be safe. Hajji Khan will pass you through Afridi territory. He knows them, and they know him.”

Hajji Khan’s chowkidar?

Thus mollified we rode out of Jalalabad, heading for Gurrdi Ghaus. We were off the main road now, on trails used by smugglers’ mule trains. Our steeds were well rested and well fed and we barrelled along at a good pace, letting them canter and varying the pace by reining them in to conserve energy. We had a long way to go. They were full of energy, smooth and powerful and we enjoyed the ride, swiftly consuming the well-worn trail between fields, through open meadows and into the more stony foothills. The mountains loomed.

At Gurrdi Ghaus we asked for Hajji Khan and were shown to a fortified compound near the foot of a rocky, pine-forested hillside. Built on a slope studded with massive rocky outcrops and massive, ancient pine trees it was a small village in itself. Enclosed behind long, twenty-foot high blank mud walls with towers at each corner there was a solid metal gateway big enough for loaded trucks to pass. We tethered our horses under the trees outside and spoke to Hajji Khan’s clansmen who welcomed us through a small door into a guest room and served green tea. Hajji Khan eventually emerged to discuss our needs, a giant, jovial, hook-nosed figure complete with huge belly, flowing orange-hennaed beard and a stiff white turban wrapped around his domed, gold-thread-embroidered skull-cap.

Pashtun Shinwari

Looks like Hajji Khan!

He pressed more of the obligatory green tea on us and listened to our request. “OK no problem. One horse, five hundred Afghanis. Seven horses, you pay me three thousand five hundred. Up to Land Kotal.” It was about $40. From his point of view, Landi Kotal, that infamous resort of bandits, outlaws, robbers, gangsters, smugglers, drug-dealers and kidnappers was a safe refuge representing civilisation and security.

“What about guides, protection?” asked Rafiullah.

“Yes, of course. I send three men with guns to escort your passage up to Landi Kotal. Food and tea for all person and horses, I pay” continued Hajji Khan, in Pashtu. “No trouble. One and half day’s journey. You stop and rest at night before the pass. I am responsible, my guarantee. Cash payment in advance pay now, leave tomorrow afternoon. Arrive Landi Kotal next day. No problem.” he added, with reassuring authority and finality.

All part of the day’s work and if Hajji Khan personally guaranteed our safety we had nothing to worry about. We supposed that three westerners with seven good horses was a high-profile deal crossing this border and Hajji Khan’s reputation and honour would be paramount, bandits or no bandits.

We counted out the cash and handed it over. “Everything will be arranged. Now you take rest, food will come” he concluded affably with a crushing handshake. Food was duly served and we passed the time diligently rubbing more mutton fat into our leather gear and grooming our steeds. The horses had plenty of hay and young maize leaves. The next morning we fed them with barley grains to give them energy for the tough ride ahead.

That afternoon we saddled up and rode from the village up a dry and sandy streambed from Hajji Khan’s place. Three young Shinwari escorts armed with rifles took the lead with Rafiullah, Kevin and me following up behind with one rider-less horse in tow on a rope. Alistair took the rest of our stuff in his Land Rover via the official route, accompanied by Archimedes and Renato.

We passed silently over the soft sand of the streambed between tall scrub and bushes, entering the rocky mountain range to cross the Durand Line. We were soon joined by several fast-walking travellers who must have been locals taking the same route on foot. We gradually gained altitude, penetrating deeper into the range. Our escort and their companions on foot talked rapidly between themselves in suppressed tones. As we climbed higher the riverbed got stonier and rougher. Its banks became steeper and more thickly covered in a tangle of dense scrub and trees.

As the sun sank behind the hill we picked our way in a long line along a broad, level section of the stream bed which now had a little water trickling in between the rocks.

Bandit blog

An old photo of Pashtoon tribesmen with jezails (muskets)

Suddenly the peace was rudely interrupted by a furious yelling as several wild-looking men came charging down the banks towards us, stooping to grab lumps of rock from the stream bed as they went and hurling them at us forcefully while screaming violent imprecations. Up above, there seemed to be a home or hamlet amongst the trees and bushes where some women were also shouting angrily and making threatening gestures. Our startled horses reared up and wheeled as nasty rocks flew dangerously close past our ears and our escort seemed to protest ineffectually from the rear. I couldn’t understand the problem except these wild and crazy people seemed intent on intimidating us or driving us off. It was an ambush.

“Bandits!” shouted Kevin from the front. Deciding that attack was the best defence he manifested a wrathful aspect which few people ever saw. Normally Kevin was one of the most peaceful, gentle and harmless people you could ever possibly wish to meet, but under this sudden and unprovoked attack he morphed into some kind of wrathful avenger. Rearing his horse up with a baleful cry, as it came back down he urged the magnificent Flamador to gallop towards them as if to trample them under his hooves. Standing in the stirrups, eyes bulging, beard bristling he forced his horse straight towards them waving his whip and shouting incoherently.

At the sight of this wild-looking character galloping at them they stopped in their tracks, dropped their rocks and turned and ran. Rafiullah and I followed suit and cavalry-charged after Kevin as they scrambled up the bank. We reined the horses in, turned back in an upstream direction and rode on past, muttering, shaking our fists and glaring at them. They glared and cursed and shook their fists back, but no more rocks were hurled. Then our escort following up the rear exchanged words with them as they passed. Evidently, the sight of our escorts’ rifles helped deter any further attack and they were soon left behind, still shouting intermittently.

“Well! So much for the bandits” I remarked to lighten things up after this alarming episode, “even Kevin can frighten them off!”

Our escort caught up with us and explained these characters wanted “tax” for passing their domain, but they had no firearms to back up their demand. They thought our assailants were tribal outcasts or outlaws on the run to be living in such a place.

We continued on our way, on the alert for further attacks but none were forthcoming. Yet.

The sun had set, dusk came and a moonless night fell. Eventually it became too dark and we had to dismount, leading the horses by the reins and straining to see our way on the rough and rocky path as it narrowed and steepened. We walked the special walk that Kevin had observed Afghans using years before, called “the Afghan walk”. With each step you pick your feet up as if you’re stepping over a low bench. That way you never trip up over the rocks and stones that litter the ground in most of the country.

It was so dark that we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces and the path seemed perilously invisible. We had to keep on moving just by the almost invisible light of the stars and listening to the sounds of our escort leading their horses walking in front of us. Rafiullah called out to them to ask how far we had to go in this impenetrable darkness.

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Afridi smugglers of wood over the pass, using camels

“Don’t worry, it’s not far, we’ll soon stop. There’s a place to stay a bit further” they reassured us, but we kept on climbing, interminably it seemed. Then, at last, about to give up hope, we saw the glimmer of a light up ahead and at the same time, the pre-glow of moonrise on the ridge. The glimmer was the flame of a small kerosene lantern hung on a pole over a makeshift kitchen. There it was, a chai-khana in a rest area on sloping ground in the middle of nowhere, halfway up the mountainside. As we approached the scene gradually became visible in the emerging brightness of the moon, with a blazing wood cooking fire and two or three of these smoky little lanterns. A smugglers’ rest.

We struggled up, tethered the horses wherever there was space between other animals, rocks, bushes and stunted trees. Heaps lay on the ground near each beast, their loads which had been shed for the night. Men sat near the fire or lay on string beds and rush mats on the ground. The cook, shaven-headed and with a long beard was boiling black tea and baking thick rounds of maize bread on a crude mud stove over the blazing pine fire. Rocks that had been gathered and piled up on top of each other served as ‘walls’. A flimsy brushwood shelter on a framework of sticks covered the ‘kitchen area’; otherwise it was open to the sky.

Our horses stood out even in that feeble light amongst the mules, packhorses, donkeys and camels. We tied them by their halters and loosened the girths, leaving the saddles on as instructed by the escort. They found a bundle of fresh green maize for the horses to munch on; they were hungry after the long ride and snorted with pleasure as they snatched at it. Then we were called to sit and eat fresh-baked cornbread with black tea. We lay down by horses on rough string cots under the stars as the fire and lanterns were doused. All was quiet as we dozed, apart from the occasional nocturnal bird call and animal sounds of grunting, snorting, stamping and shifting their feet.

Before first light we were shaken awake and told to get going, as quickly as possible. We jumped up, wound on our turbans, gathered our sheets and got the horses ready. We tightened the girths, slipped on the bridles, pulled out the tethers, mounted and rode off up the steep trail with the moon now high in the sky lighting our way. The grey first light of dawn silhouetted the pass above. We leaned forward, held on the pommels and stood in the stirrups as our mounts strained every sinew to keep up with the pace of the escort. They were urging their horses on with whips to climb fast up the precipitous path, zigzagging up the mountainside. The horses soon warmed to the challenge, attacking the climb as the light ahead slowly grew stronger. After half an hour the path levelled out. We reached top of the pass.

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Bandits lie in wait

Our escort seemed to hang back as the trail entered a rolling, grassy field with protruding boulders in between mountains on either side. We’d just glimpsed the rosy glow of dawn on the eastern horizon away on the other side of the pass and were threading our way between boulders when five young men suddenly rose up from shadows behind the rocks to either side, rifles levelled. While ignoring us they challenged our escort behind. Our Shinwaris simply dismounted, handed over their guns and the reins of the horses they were riding and retreated, walking back down the path. Our new escort calmly took charge the escorts’ horses, turned to us, came up, got hold of our horses’ bridles and told us to dismount for the descent on the other side. It was all done so swiftly and smoothly that it didn’t sink in that we’d actually been captured by Afridi bandits without a shot being fired. They told us to hand over our weapons because we were entering their area, so without actually feeling under threat we gave them the bayonets and daggers that we carried in sheaths on our belts. We imagined we’d been taken over by a new set of escorts and all this was normal procedure for the next stage.

Rafiullah’s Pashtu was better than mine, however. Since he’d seen our escort surrender their rifles and nobody had said our escort would change, he was sure it couldn’t be right. He spoke with our new escort at the rear as we started down the steep and narrow, dusty trail winding between high cliffs and crags on the eastern side. Then he caught up with Kevin and me and interpreted: “Guess what, guys, they are bandits. We’ve been captured and been taken prisoner! If we try anything, they say they’ll shoot us. This is Bazaar Valley and they’re Zakka Khel Afridis. No Shinwaris allowed. Our Shinwari escorts have basically handed over their rifles and run away. Now these Afridis are taking us to their base, down in the valley below.”

As he spoke, the red sun was rising, illuminating the Tirah valley spread out far below in sharp relief, like a map, with the misty plains of the Indus valley stretching further away to the east. Seven horses and eight men moved rapidly down from the heights, harness jingling, in single file, with Afridis walking, rifles at the ready, in front and behind. The trail twisted and turned tightly down the rock face. We descended silently, picking our steps and digesting this news as our captors joked loudly amongst themselves.

“So what’ll happen, then, exactly?” Kevin enquired of Rafiullah after a few minutes getting used to the new situation. Rafiullah spoke again to our captors in Pashtu.

“You’ll have to pay ransom” we were informed in Pashtu. “The white-beards will hold a jirga and decide. But don’t try anything funny, to escape without paying. Some Bengalis from East Pakistan tried that, leaving for Kabul without passports after the Bangladesh war with India in 1971. We cut off their hands. That’s what we do.”

“We’re Europeans, not Bengalis” I objected in Pashtu, thinking to pre-empt any such ideas from the start.

“Wah!” called the nearest escort to his companions in Pashtu, “they’re Angrezan, foreigners, tourists!” They looked at us again in the strengthening light, apparently amused to have captured some Europeans. They must have thought we were Turcoman or Russian.

“Is this Afghanistan, or is it Pakistan?” I demanded, in Pashtu.

“Not Afghanistan, not Pakistan!” he replied, spitting into the dust, “this is Yaghistan!” ‘Yaghistan’ is what these ‘free tribes’ call their area, literally ‘The Cold Country’, high up above the heat of the plains, proudly uncontrolled by any government.

“What about Hajji Khan, we paid him up to Landi Kotal?” I ventured.

“He’s Shinwari. We’re Afridis” he said with a leering grin. “If Shinwaris come here …” he drew his finger across his throat evocatively.

With this, silence fell again. The path was becoming less precipitous as we emerged from the crags and moved down a steady slope, losing height rapidly. The Afridis and the Shinwaris are both Pashtun tribes but there is always a lot of rivalry, and in this area they vie with each other for business and control of the smuggling routes. As Pashtun tribes, they also follow their code of honour to prevent violence and endless tit-for-tat and escalating feuds from breaking out.

“Another fine mess you’ve got us in, Rafiullah,” mused Kevin, putting the onus on him with a somewhat concerned smile.

“Don’t worry. Inshallah, everything’ll be alright,” said Rafiullah airily. “Nothing bad has happened yet. Allah will protect us. Also, Hajji Khan is responsible to get us out. It’s a matter of honour for him: he promised us safe passage all the way to Landi Kotal. He’ll have to do something.”

“This is great,” I said, “captured by bandits in the Tirah – what a story when we get home. Wow!”

“If we ever do get home,” said Kev, “I don’t fancy having my bleeding hands cut off.”

“Bollocks, man. This lot are alright. Me and Rafiullah can handle them. They’ll be eating out of our hands soon, not cutting them off, you’ll see. Don’t worry.”

“Inshallah” said Kevin with a grin. “Just kidding.”

We continued descending the sandy, stony trail in silence except for the steady, muffled plodding of eight men’s boots and shoes and seven horses’ hooves, the gentle jingling of harness and the occasional snort or chomping on the bit from a horse. Down below at the foot of this mountain, in the lower reaches of the Bazaar valley a surreal landscape emerged and gradually began to take shape as we approached. It resembled some weird landscape from Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’.

Some freak of erosion had caused scores of knolls or towers of rock to be left standing high on the plain below, a few hundred yards apart and maybe two hundred feet high. Many had habitations on the tops which were flat and broad enough for the extensive walled settlements of houses and fortified compounds that were built on them. As we drew nearer we could see that most of these settlements were huddled around high, square stone central towers with firing slits on all sides and parapet-like walls round the tops. They were little fortresses. Each inhabited tower was thicker at the base and had a zigzagging pathway with steps cut into it on its least steep side, evidently for people and animals to climb up and down. On the flat and stony ground stretching in between all these towers there were no buildings to be seen, just walled fields and dry and barren-looking pastures suitable for goats. It was bizarre.

Thinking it would be good to chat with our captors a bit, Rafiullah struck up a conversation in Pashtu with the spokesman, a lanky, clean-shaven young fellow with black oiled hair, since apparently none of them spoke English. He wore baggy white shirt and trousers, no turban, with tough, open leather sandals and held his rifle in his left hand and the ends of Gul-e-Badam’s reins in his right. Translated literally, the discussion went something like this.

“Hey, boy! Listen to my talk a little, won’t you?” This got his attention, then, pointing towards the settlements: “What are those towers for, in those settlements?”

“Those are our compounds. From those towers we are able to shoot down onto any enemies who may come against us” he explained, somewhat patronisingly. Wasn’t it obvious? “Then, if we have a problem with our neighbours,” he added, “from those towers we can also shoot at them inside their own compounds.”

“Oh, we understand,” we said, nodding sagely, “very good, very useful.” After a pause for reflection on this, Rafiullah waved at the whole group of scattered settlements dotted around below and asked “This village, what’s it called?”

Bandit blog.

An old photo of tribal ‘lashkar’ fighters

“That’s no village, that’s all one-one house;” he said with a leer. “One family, one house.”

We paused again to absorb this information. It seemed tribal and communal togetherness had its limits here.

“I understand. Now, where are we going? Where are you taking us?”

“Over there” he answered, pointing one of the nearest fortified towers of solid rock, “that’s our family’s compound, on that mount.”

As we got near, approaching the foot of our downhill trail, he cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted loud and long, calling to a lookout on the top of the tower that they’d “captured some booty, with eight horses”, and to “get ready for three prisoners.”

Reaching the valley floor and still some distance from our captors’ family tower we goggled at the collection of towers standing like a range of fantastic sentinels in a science fiction movie, on another planet. Our escort called out again to several women of different ages telling them to disappear. Dressed in brilliantly coloured shalwar-kamees, crimson red velvet with decorative borders and silver jewellery, some carried water on their heads in earthenware or brass pots, others were driving animals up the steps for milking or down for grazing. They had to make themselves scarce since three ‘outsiders’ were arriving. By the time we reached the foot of the staircase zigzagging almost vertically up the tower’s side they had melted away into the scenery. They hid discretely behind rocks, but not before they’d hung about in our path as long as they reasonably could to have a good look, calling out between themselves with loud, cheeky-sounding comments about us or the horses. Finally, the way was cleared to start climbing up the side of the cliff, leading the horses by the reins as directed by our captors.

It was a stiff climb up to the top of the tower and there, when we reached it, our journey ended in the wide open central courtyard with its magnificent vista of the range of mountains we’d just crossed. The horses were taken away and tied up around the perimeter and their saddles removed and taken away. We were by then surrounded by a crowd of inquisitive urchins, old women and young men, some of whom carried rifles. Between them, with great amusement they rudely relieved us of whatever we still possessed. Water flasks, silver-handled buzkashi whips and all the contents of our pockets disappeared in rapid succession. Passports, knives, matches, silver-buckled belts, each item was carefully checked before being passed around or grabbed and claimed. Some were fought over by different parties, with tugs of war over the fancy buckled belts accompanied by laughter, thumps and imprecations.

“We’ll just have to see how this all pans out” said Rafiullah as he was made to pull off his riding boots which were upended and shaken in case of hidden daggers, then like other items submitted to a careful frisking for other hidden weapons or money. “Wait until we can meet some elders and see if we can talk with them”.

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The welcoming committee …

“Right” I chipped in, reluctantly handing over my Swiss army knife with its thing for getting stones out of horses hooves, “and what about Hajji Khan’s men? He took our money and promised safe passage to Landi Kotal in return. He is responsible. He said so himself.”

“What an amazing place” said Kevin laconically, unhitching his Sam Browne belt with the bayonet sheath he’d carved from wood and handing it over. “God, I could do with a chai.” It was true, we’d been on the move for several hours since leaving the smugglers’ rest on the other side of the range on the Afghan side before first light, with only water to sustain us.

Rafiullah had what he called a ‘Zalmorah’, a rough garnet crystal as big as a golf ball, a preciously guarded bequest from his old Sufi master the late Saeen Baba, which he always kept in an inside pocket as a safeguard and good luck charm. An old woman snatched it and disappeared. He was dismayed but there was nothing he could do. Stripped of everything but our clothes, we were taken to a safe corner and told to sit on the ground on an old rush mat. Rafiullah asked them to kindly water the horses, they had been walking for hours.

“There’s nothing left except the horses,” said Rafiullah with a shrug, “all they can do is ransom us.”

“Oh, we’ll only be held to ransom” said Kevin, amused, “Well that’s alright then, no problem.”

“It’s better than being mutilated, or shot” said Raf, “we’re worth more alive than dead. They’ll have to look after us.”

“And what if we can’t pay the ransom?” said Kevin.

“Shut up you two, wait and see. As Rafiullah said, ‘nothing bad has happened yet’.”

“Inshallah.”

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Afridi bandit family

The elders heard the news and were summoned to decide our fate. They trickled out of the buildings to this courtyard, bearded, turbaned, with whiskers, wonky spectacles, dun-coloured robes, embroidered waistcoats and bandoliers charged with brass shells and cartridges. While they sized up the horses, boys pulled string beds out for them to sit on and set rickety wooden tables with water glasses and jugs, and spittoons on the ground. Young men squatted to prime tobacco water-pipes. Some elders packed pistols in holsters on their belts, others had old Lee-Enfield 303 rifles slung over their shoulders or laid across their knees. It was well before the Kalashnikov era. Once all settled and in place, they stuffed plugs of ground tobacco into their gums and checked their faces in the mirrors on the tins. Little round tea pots and small bowls were brought, tea was poured, the grace of Allah was thanked and the discussion kicked off.

Our ransom value was weighed up against potential backlash from the authorities for bothering western tourists, within the framework of tribal custom and the Pashtun code of honour. Pipes did the rounds, smoke was blown out, tea leaves tossed away, chai bowls refilled, gum-tobacco replaced, spittoons spat into. We sat and watched. They’d have to reach consensus. What would be our fate?

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Please, mister, photo!

In low voices, keeping one eye on the proceedings, we were holding our own discussion. What could we do?

“Hajji Khan is absolutely responsible” asserted Rafiullah. “We paid him, he’s liable. He promised us safe passage to Landi Kotal, in front of people.”

“This lot don’t seem to think so” I said, indicating our captors.

“His escort just pulled out” he continued. “He’ll have to sort it out. These guys just want a piece of the action. The Afridis and Shinwaris have to cooperate on the through routes that pass through both their land. If it isn’t settled in a compromise, there’ll be a tribal war.”

“I’m dying for a chai” I complained. “What kind of hospitality is this?”

“I bet they spotted us with the horses in that smugglers’ rest. Maybe it was the guys who were walking with us yesterday. They must have made a deal with our escort. It all happened too easily.”

“If we act all meek and mild they’ll treat us like shit” opined Kev. “Why don’t we have a go? I mean stand up for ourselves as guests and demand chai? They’re all sipping chai while we stay thirsty and we are the guests, aren’t we? I thought these Pashtuns were supposed to be big on hospitality?”

“Good point” grinned Rafiullah. “Let’s do that … but let’s see what they say first, then let them have it.”

“Yeah” said Kevin, “we might be infidels but at least you’re a Muslim.”

“No,” Rafiullah corrected him, “it makes no difference if your guest is an infidel. In fact, it’s better to serve infidels than other Muslims.”

“OK” said Kevin, “that settles it. Wait for the verdict and if we don’t like it, let ’em have it.”

We rehearsed some choice phrases of Pashtu abuse and selected what might work.

“Don’t call them ‘sons of pigs’” said Rafiullah “they’ll kick the shit out of us. ‘Sons of donkeys, sons of camels’, that’s OK. And we complain about their hospitality. The further that your guests have come, the more they should be valued.”

“We´ll play it by ear”.

The jirga chairman was summing up, counting three points on his fingers and the rest assented. Two young men came over to convey the verdict and squatted on their haunches.

“Jirga finished” said the nominated messenger. “Number one. You can go free, no harm. Number two. You also take your horses. Number three. You pay one lakh Afghanis in tax for crossing Afridi land.”

A lakh is a hundred thousand, the biggest number they could think of, about $1,500, more than twice what all the horses cost. The elders observed from across the courtyard.

We looked at him then at each other with mock surprise, and raised a chorus of angry protest.

“What? No way! Are you serious?”

“You sons of donkeys! Nonsense!”

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Either war-path, or chai-path

The messenger was taken aback. His jaw fell, and the elders sat up. We followed up with more indicators of discontented guests, a curse on any Pashtun host. “We’re worried! We’re angry!”

Our messenger looked round at the elders. Rafiullah pointed his finger at them and raised his voice. “We came 10,000 miles to enjoy some Pashtun hospitality. Is this it?”

“Yes” I chipped in, “we heard the fame of Pashtun hospitality far away, but so far this is terrible!” They hesitated, and Rafiullah felt encouraged.

“It’s the worst hospitality I’ve ever seen in the whole Muslim world” he said, waving his arms, Italian style, eloquently and dismissively. “May Allah curse all those who mistreat travellers and guests, and send them all to hell.”

“Afridi hosts sit on cushions, drinking tea,” he mocked, “while their guests sit on the ground like animals, dying for a sip of water!”

We all laughed and they began to squirm.

“You pay Pashtuns for protection, then they stab you in the back!” said Rafiullah gleefully, “I think Punjabis are more trustworthy than that!” We laughed again.

I decided to go for broke. “Bring tea, and be quick” I called to the jirga, then lowered my voice so only the messengers could hear “or we’ll screw all your wives!” This coarse Pashtu term of abuse is extremely insulting, but not quite as bad, I hoped, as ‘son of a pig’.

The messenger’s faces darkened, they frowned, and they rose to their feet as if about to reach for their daggers. Help! I’d gone too far.

Rafiullah, however, saw the funny side and suddenly started sniggering, involuntarily. This proved infectious. We began to giggle then laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of the situation. At this, the messengers looked at each other and decided it would be best to treat this grave insult as a joke. They relaxed, grinned then laughed with us and squatted down again, looking round to the elders, who’d been watching these exchanges, as if for guidance. At the same time, the head of the jirga, who hadn’t heard the final insult, stood up and called for tea “for the guests.” It seemed he’d got the idea.

We breathed a sigh of relief as a boy hurried over with a pot of fresh green tea and three bowls, set them before us and poured. All would be well. We sipped the tea with pleasure while discussions resumed and continued.

After a few minutes the messenger was sent to open a door in the wall and we were ushered through it into a cool and shady guest room with ceiling fans, well-made tables, chairs, and cots with cushions. A middle-aged man was deputed to keep us company. He shook our hands and introduced himself, pouring more tea into our bowls.

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My mum & sister (left) sit in a Shinwari smuggler’s hujra nr Landi Kotal, ’76

“I’m Sher Afzal Afridi. Welcome to Bazaar. Don’t worry, don’t be angry. You are our guests.” The key words had been spoken. We were no longer prisoners.

“A message is going to Hajji Khan,” he announced “It’s a tribal matter. Everything will be settled. We didn’t know you were coming. He should have informed us. These boys who captured you are hot-heads. They did not know that you were foreign guests.”

“But what about our horses and all our things?” asked Rafiullah.

“Don’t worry about anything. Everything will be returned to you and you will be free to go with your horses. We can escort you up to Landi Kotal, if you like. Horses will be fed also. If you need anything, just ask.”

Breakfast was served, then we rested. When we awoke, Hajji Khan’s envoys had arrived and parleyed and a deal had been cut. To satisfy honour and custom, we had to pay for crossing Afridi territory. A nominal fee of 1,000 Afghanis was fixed, hardly $15, plus another thousand for the return of captured firearms. This was a small matter of honour. They apologised, but there had to be a small consideration to satisfy honour and custom. We were given credit, we could pay on safe arrival at Landi Kotal. Then the whole clan gathered in their meeting hall for a celebratory lunch, with us as guests of honour. Chicken curry, channa dhal, yoghurt, spinach and hot maize bread were served up with lassi.

“You’re lucky to escape like this” croaked a very old man at the lunch, “last time any British came here was 1897. We fought them off and killed many, by the grace of Allah.”

“No,” said another, “they came to punish us, but these are travellers. They came here to enjoy. Anyway, what about that Jan Mohammad, he was in the Panch Piris bandit jail last year. He’s British.”

“He’s not British,” said a third, “he’s a lying Afghan. No British can speak Pashtu like he does. He’s an imposter.”

“No, he is British but he converted to Islam, by the grace of Allah” insisted the second, “he’s a good Muslim.”

We wondered who this Jan Mohammad was, since we thought that we knew or at least had heard of all the Pashtu-speaking Westerners, who were few and far between.

Lunch finished, the order was given for all our things to be returned. Everything was produced and handed over, even my Swiss army knife. We collected all our horses and all our gear, saddled up and walked them down the precipitous path from the bandits’ hideout to the level ground below. Then we rode across the Tirah, out of Bazaar Valley to Landi Kotal escorted by four Afridi bandits whose job it was to ensure our safe arrival without further trouble. They rode the four spare horses with rifles on their shoulders.

There was only one snag, one regret, especially for Rafiullah; he forgot his Zalmorah stone, the gift from his Sufi master, and never regained it. The old hag didn’t bring it back and in the excitement it slipped hs mind, to demand its return. By the time he realised it was missing we were two hours ride down the valley and it was felt too late to turn back to Bazaar for it. He was downcast, and swore his luck changed after that.

In Landi Kotal, we met our other companions in the nominated serai and paid our Afridi taxes, $30 in all. Our Afridi escort took the money, offered to return it if we were short, embraced us, wished us luck and melted away into the dusk, leaving us to take care of the horses and settle in for the night.

Afghan-Pakistan border at Torkham, with Pashtuns walking through

The Afghan border at Torkham, from the Pakistan side

It had been quite a day.

Next day we backtracked up the main road to the Torkham border post to get our Pakistan entry stamps in our passports. With a knowing wink and a friendly smile the immigration desk officer quietly asked “how’re the horses?” and ordered chai to be brought for us. Clearly, our story had already made the rounds. Although all the customs and immigration officials knew we had crossed the border illegally, smuggling these horses out of Afghanistan, not a word was said and we were treated with affection and respect. We were foreign guests, we had paid our dues to to pass through the tribal territory and that was the deal. It would have served no purpose to make a fuss, since we’d been unharmed and nobody was complaining.

With a keen sense of history we rode out and over the Khyber Pass later that day and down the other side, the route of so many military invaders of India over the millennia. I had a sudden flashback to Preston’s Harris Reference Library where, as a sixth-form student of history I was doing my homework. I had been fascinated by an account of Khyber I’d chanced upon in the Victorian archives of the ‘London Illustrated Magazine’. There with dramatic engravings of the ‘fierce Afridi tribesmen’ with turbans, robes and muskets lying in wait on the heights to ambush and harass invading troops ‘passing through the defile’. Now, fourteen years later, here I was, riding down the selfsame road having just emerged from an Afridi bandit ambush myself. I wondered why this memory had lingered, why I felt so much at home here, and whether there was a connection; a premonition. Or perhaps a karmic affinity from a previous life.

It was almsot dark by the time we rode our troop up to the exit check post at the foot of the pass and it was already closed for the night with a bar across the road, locked and chained. We were halted by the Frontier Scouts Militia.

“Who goes there? Nobody can pass at night” said the captain, standing in front of the locked metal gate across the road with his rifle across his chest and his finger on the trigger, “You will have to stay in that chai-khana” he said, seeing we were tourists and pointing to a small wayside inn back up the road, “and we’ll open the gate at five o’clock in the morning.”

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Frontier Scouts checkpost

“Come off it” I said, “can’t you see that we’re leaving the pass, not entering it. Let us out.”

“I can’t. It’s the law. It’s an old British law, in fact. So at least you British should obey it.”

“I’m Italian thanks be to Allah. Forget the law” said Rafiullah, “let us go.”

“Yes. Fuck the law” I said scornfully, warming to the challenge, “we are outlaws, can’t you see?”

“Yeah, we just screwed a whole tribe of Afridi bandits in Yaghistan” said Rafiullah, warming to it, “so open up, or else!”

He could see we were just a bunch of hot-headed tourists and ignored this bravado, getting into bed with a dismissive smirk, next to the other guards lying in a little row of cots. Propped up on their elbows they stared disbelievingly at our bizarre group, then got under their covers.

“You won’t sleep if we have to stay” threatened Rafiullah.

The captain simply pulled the quilt over his head and ignored him. We were furious.

“Come on Rafiullah” I said, “let’s wake them up, then.”

We jumped down from our horses, went over to two of their cots, lifted up one end and dropped them heavily back on the ground. This made them whip their quilts off and half get up, looking astonished and infuriated, but we just lifted their cots up again and banged them down again even harder, yelling loudly in Pashtu “open the gate! Open the gate! Don’t you want to sleep?”

It was too much. They could hardly shoot three tourists so the captain made a sensible decision. “Alright, OK” he said, “stop it, you can go.”

He opened the gate, we rode through and continued on our way to Swat, thanking him and wished them all a good night’s sleep. He wished us ‘safe journey’ as we clattered off down the road towards Jamrud and Peshawar, the bandits’ hills silhouetted and receding in the last glow of the sunset behind us. What would the future hold?

Tribal Area, between Thal & Miram Shah, 1971 B & W

Tribal Area scene between Thal and Miram Shah, on a trip out from Tarbela, 1971

After establishing its base at Madyan in Swat, the Company of the Horses kept going with various changes in personnel as its members and horses changed, went, left and returned, and roamed across the North West Frontier Province from north to south over the next four years. Some of the exploits are further illustrated in the photograph galleries below, composed from old albums, prints, slides and negatives that have somehow survived for four decades!

GALLERY 1: The Horse Company at the Palace Hotel, Mingora, Swat, May 1973. After escaping from the bandits and arriving from Landi Kotal the company took up residence for a few weeks at their favourite hotel, which had a large compound adjacent which was used as a paddock for the horses. Before leaving to move up the valley like a bunch of nomads, just one film of poor quality black and white stills was taken of us horsing around, using a Kodak camera, and this film was rediscovered at the house built later at Qamarlandi, Swat, in 2006 and rescued before the 2010 floods destroyed whatever was left. Some prints had been pinned to the wall there for 30 years, which explains their poor condition. Despite this, due to their uniqueness it is hoped it is worthwhile to exhibit them here for the record. A few other shots of the Palace Hotel interior from our visits from the Tarbela Dam period from a few years earlier have been included in this gallery.

GALLERY 2: The Company Establishes its base at Qamarlandi, Madyan, Swat. We couldn’t stay at the Palace Hotel forever. Mohammad Ishaaq had magnaminously declared that “My hotel is your hotel” but when it came down to it he couldn’t accept our reply that “Our bill is your bill”! We moved out upriver with the horses, camping wherever we could but this was not horse country in the way that Afghanistan was, and Caravan-serais didn’t exist here. We met an American called Agarn whom we mistook for a Waziri tribesman, until he spoke in Pashtu with a Californian drawl. He lived in Madyan 30 miles up-valley and arranged a field by the riverside that we could lease from its owner, an antiques shop keeper in the bazaar. We tethered the horses, set up our tents there and planned to build a 16-room complex as the Horse Company’s permanent HQ. This Gallery traces the development of this establishment from inception to total destruction in the great floods of 2010.

GALLERY 3: Buzkashi and the Great Trek of 1974: Swat, the Indus Valley, Gilgit, Chitral, Dir and Back to Swat! In the summer of 1974, Kevin having gone to Dharamsala to become a Buddhist monk, and Rafiullah having left with Jill, whom he eventually marries, Sinjan, having finished building the house and stables on his own decides to make this trek with his villager Trevor from Preston, who, like Kevin, had been a student of Sinjan’s father at Preston Grammar School years before they became friends. They train the horses to go in pairs, one rider leading the second horse as a pack-horse, enabling plenty of gear and supplies to be brought, including enough barley grain to feed the horses well daily. Riding south to Khwazakhela then turning east to cross the Shangla pass into the massive Indus Valley, they ride up the Karakorum Highway north to Gilgit and then west for a month through Gilgit and Chitral, before turning back south into Dir State and east back toward Upper Swat and finally south again, back to base, to complete a 1,000 KM circular ride lasting three months, with a number of scrapes and adventures on the way. This time, cameras and photos were taken and most of the films were sent to New York with Susan, a friend of Jill’s, but poor Susan tragically died in a road accident en route to Rawalpindi Airport and all the films were lost. A few images remain, however, somehow or other, and these shots are the only ones to survive that are worth posting. Better than nothing, though!

 GALLERY 4: The Story at Zarki Nasrati, Tehsil Karak, District Bannu. This is Rafiullah’s village, not far from the Waziristan tribal area where the USA is currently attacking Taliban extremists with drones. In October 1970 Rafiullah came from this village seeking a job at Tarbela Dam, where we met and became friends. His visa registration had been refused in Zarki because some jealous villagers had filed a false report against him with the local police, because he would not desert his friend Billawar and accept their hospitality instead. He expected having a job at Tarbela would enable his registration to be effected so he could stay in Pakistan, but ultimately this was not to be the case. Two weeks after he arrived it was the annual Muslim Eid holiday and he invited me to join him going back to this village for the weekend. The first four photos in this album have survived from that memorable trip. I returned many times over the years, especially in the mid-70s with the Horse Company. As foreseen, we rode the Company horses south to Zarki each winter, when Swat was cold but Zarki was cool. Tent-pegging is a local winter sport in the region and the sandy ground is ideal for impromptu horse competitions when people gather with their animals at the weekly village markets. This gallery records a few of the typical market and tent-pegging scenes when this took place, in 1975, ’76 and ’77.

GALLERY 5: Tent-pegging Competitions at the Kohat Mela and Local Polo in Gilgit. In late 1973 Rafiullah met the Commissioner of Kohat who invited him and the Horse Company to take part in the tent-pegging competitions at the annual fair or ‘Mela’ at Kohat, the largest town in between Peshawar and Bannu. Along with our horses we were invited to stay at Circuit House, Kohat, where Judges would stay from the British time on their tours of duty. Although we had not yet fully mastered this sport, Rafiullah, Billawar and I took part with Jill in attendance and enjoyed a modicum of success. We also participated in 1976, when my parents also attended on their visit to the Frontier. In the summer we would also attend the polo and tent-pegging tournaments in the far north at Gilgit, situated in Pakistan-held Kashmir. The local version of polo has its own rules and is fairly wild; it is allowed to trip an opposing rider’s mount by thrusting one’s polo stick between its legs. One can also catch the ball in one’s hand and score by galloping through the goal, ball in hand; so when someone catches the ball a no-holds-barred battle usually occurs on the field since the opposing team can then use any means to prevent the rider from riding through the goal. We stayed care of the ace Gilgit Scouts team with their captain Hussein Ali and these snaps were taken in the summers of 1974, ’75 and ’76.

GALLERY 6: Other Places, other People, other Scenes. Here is a random cross-section from various albums of images of the usual suspects and other characters in these and other situations, to give further backgound on the culture of the Horse Company and the intrepid members and friends in these parts. They are mostly from those happy years in the 1960s and ’70s when westerners were absolutely welcome to stay amongst the Pashtuns anywhere at all, all over the North West Frontier and Afghanistan. I twice brought my mum, dad and sister from the UK for tours of the tribal areas (Khyber, Kohat, Parachinar, Zarki, Swat, Kabul etc.) in ’74 and ’76! Included here are a few later photographs from the 1980s to show what some members of the Horse Company got up to in the ensuing years, even after the era of the horses had passed; including how the intrepid and fearless Rafiullah tragically met his end in Afghanistan, four years after poor Kevin had passed away in Swat.

GALLERY 7: The Company’s Last Trek: From Mohmand to Chitral, Summer of ’77. All good things come to an end and by mid-1977 even the Company of the Horses ran out of steam and broke up. Keeping horses is a big commitment in terms of time and energy and after 4 solid years the members of the Company were all called away into other walks of life and other adventures, even Sinjan who had taken primary responsibility to keep the Company and its horses going long after the other founders Rafiullah and Kevin had left their permanent positions on this scene and moved on. Crucially, the main conceiver and creator of the Horse Company, Rafiullah Khan, got married to Jill in Italy. They returned to Swat and Zarki but in 1975 they emigrated to her native Australia to start a family; within a few years they had three children. However, Kevin returned from his life as a Buddhist monk with the Tibetan exile community in Dharamsala to resuscitate his membership of the Horse Company one last time, and in 1977 he took part in the last trek of all, from Tangi in Mohmand to Chitral. This gallery records some scenes of that last trip, in which Sinjan and Kevin were joined by a couple travelling in very slow stages from Mazaar-i-Sharif to Goa by horse: Ariane, a Belgian with her black horse, Geronimo and Ted, her Jamaican partner with his white horse whose name the writer can’t recall.

Gallery 8: Postcards of the 60s and 70s and old scenes from Afghanistan and Tribal Area. A selection.

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The Company of the Horses.

Horse trekking in Northern Swat2

Members of the Company of the Horses trekking in Upper Swat in Summer 1974

March 1973, return to Afghanistan and the Formation of The Horse Company

Tarbela Dam, Indus River

It was nine hectic months after quitting my exciting office job at the Tarbela Dam on the Indus River. Work and business behind me, I was speeding back towards Pakistan in a nearly new, dark green Mercedes 280SE which I’d bought from a street dealer in Munich. I’d written to my old friend and fellow-traveller Kevin Rigby, who’d been staying with my erstwhile colleague Lus Jailloux in Tarbela, to meet us in Kabul if he liked and we’d take it from there. I was taking another friend called Mandy Diaz as passenger. In search of some spiritual fulfilment she was headed for Dharamsala, the Indian Hill Station where the exiled Dalai Lama of Tibet had lived for the previous ten years amongst his fellow refugees and escapees from Chinese communist occupation. Not ready for this yet – it would take me a couple more years of blundering adventures before heading that way myself – I was very much at a loose end and vaguely planning on chilling in the familiar northern hills of Pakistan’s NWFP, in Swat Valley in particular, and taking things easy for a change. I’d driven from Ankara nonstop for a day and a half, crossed the Iran border and kept going to Tabriz, the first city in Iran. All was good as the superb Mercedes cruised smoothly over the new black asphalt of the little-used highway. I should have rested in Tabriz but couldn’t be bothered; I was too spaced out. I just took the bypass round the city and kept going, following the signs to Teheran.

Eastern Turkey near Iran border after driving all night

Turkey near the Iran border, after all-night drive

I really was too tired. Leaving Tabriz behind, I made a high speed driving error which would have serious – and endless, nay life-changing – repercussions. In the dark, I mistook an arrow sign pointing right on the brow of a slope for a ‘keep right’ sign, meaning the road went straight on. Roundabouts didn’t exist in Turkey. I forgot that I was now in Iran, where they do. I hardly slowed down. But this sign meant a sharp right turn to go around a large, flat roundabout. My passenger Mandy saw it. She warned me, twice, “Sean, roundabout!” but I was so fixed in my speeding groove that I didn’t listen, I didn’t hear. I didn’t brake, either. When we reached the top of the slope, we were going far too fast to turn. The car went straight at the roundabout, mounted the kerb, ploughed across and off at the other side onto the road. Luckily, it was a flat roundabout and there were no solid obstacles in the middle. Just grass. We continued straight on as if nothing had happened. In the middle of the night though, the red oil-level warning light on the dash flashed on. I stopped at a service station to top up but on checking under the engine in the morning I saw oil very slowly dripping onto the ground. The impact with the kerb had caused a hairline fracture of the crankcase. We were losing oil. After that, I topped up regularly, hoping it wouldn’t get any worse, and carried an extra can of oil just in case.

It did get worse. Suddenly. Crossing Afghanistan several days later the engine quietly blew up as we cruised up the concrete highway towards Kabul at 160kph. Engine power ceased abruptly and a cloud of thick white smoke filled the rear-view mirror. The dead car continued silently. With the power steering and power brakes gone it was like a runaway tank but I managed to wrestle it safely to a halt at the roadside. Damn! We were now stranded in the vast empty silence of the Afghan desert, somewhere between Kandahar and Ghazni, with a car that could only be sold for scrap now.

After a while a truck came along. I waved it down and negotiated a price with the driver to take the Merc to Kabul. Taking us in the cab he towed it to Ghazni where he winched it onto another truck. A few hours later we reached the crowded and primitive looking motor mechanic’s bazaar in Kabul’s old city. I was directed to a diminutive master mechanic called Nasser, a Mercedes Benz specialist. He claimed he could rebuild the blown-up engine in his tiny workshop and put back on the road without too much fuss. He was clad in greasy overalls with a spanner in his hand and a confident grin on his face.

Sean's Merc after a crash with a bus in Swat, 1973

Sean’s Merc after a crash with a bus in Swat, 1973

“No problem, mister,” said the Nasser, patting me on the arm after surveying the engine from all angles and carrying out various tests. “Only crankcase, pistons broke. Maybe need new crankshaft. Water and oil mix, high speed, boom, finish! All broken” he concluded waving his arms to indicate an explosion. “But I can fix it.”

“What about spare parts?” “All parts available at spare part depot” he assured me. “Crankcase, piston, piston rings, connection rods, crankshaft. Everything have, from old broken Benz.”

“How much will it cost and how long time?” I asked him dubiously.

“Two-three weeks, inshallah. You come with me to spare part depot, you buy parts, maybe fifty dollar, one hundred dollar. My work charge total, maybe two hundred dollar. Complete. I make your motor very nice, very good, same-new, ready to go.”

Street scene in Kabul, in the day ...

Street scene in Kabul, in the day …

I agreed, took my bags, left him to take out the engine and went with Mandy to check in at the Green Hotel. Next day we went to buy the parts. The ‘spare part depot’ situated on nearby waste land looked like a massive rubbish dump. It was a ten foot high, fifty yards long pile of old parts from cannibalised cars just heaped up and rusting away in the open air. Nasser went all around the ‘Benz section’ picking out bits from the jumbled mass. He knew where to find everything, collecting items in a large bucket as he went around. Then he negotiated a price for the lot with the friendly and agreeable dump supervisor. Forty five dollars in all.

There was a snag. My ruined engine was a recent fuel injection model and the only available piston assemblies were the right length, but thicker than my broken ones. Nasser said they had to be exactly the same weight and borrowed a spring balance from another mechanic to weigh them carefully. They were 300 grams too heavy but he knew what to do. To correct it, he proposed to grind exactly a hundred and fifty grams of metal off each side of all six connecting rods. Then it would all be ‘good as new’.

Mechanics from neighbouring repair shops who were listening in with interest confidently assured me that Nasser knew what he was doing and was the man for the job. I’d have just to wait in Kabul for a few weeks. There was no alternative so I gave him a hundred dollars advance, left him to it and went for a walk. Mandy was anxious to get to her final destination, the Tibetan refugee settlement in Dharamsala in India where the Dalai Lama lived so instead of waiting around with me for weeks she decided to continue on her own. We had a Kabuli pulao, steamed rice cooked with nuts, raisins, carrots and lamb and I put her on the fast Afghan Post Bus through Khyber to Peshawar with directions how to proceed from there.

Free to enjoy Kabul alone and at my leisure, I wandered around the tourist areas of ‘Chicken Street’ and Sharenau, the most modern district of the city, which I hadn’t seen for several years. I was on the look-out for Kevin, who was supposed, perhaps, to come to Kabul to meet me. It was the end of winter, snow and ice had been piled up at the sides of the roads and became slushy only in the heat of afternoon sun. Sharenau is spacious and open, with wide paved avenues lined by deep drainage ditches. The Kabul River, enclosed within its walled banks was only a trickle since winter snows had not yet begun to melt. Unpaved side roads, however, were very muddy during the day as the sun melted the ice. The air was fresh, clean and stimulating.

For the moment, King Zahir Shah was still on the throne and Afghanistan was a fine, peaceful and cheap place for overland travellers to stay and enjoy good food and copious quantities of excellent hash, if that was what they liked. It was the best place to relax and chill out between Europe and India. It was always great to cross the Afghan border after passing through the slightly less friendly and hospitable Turkey and Iran, which could also be irksome at times. With few exceptions, the Afghans you’d meet were always kind, welcoming, tolerant and hospitable to all kinds of tourists who came there in peace to enjoy a good time the Afghan way. Kabul was a comparatively emancipated city at the time, especially in the cosmopolitan area of Sharenau with its impressive buildings and broad, spacious roads. The conservative religious movement was always there but suppressed by the forces of modernity and very much unseen in the background. Meanwhile smart, well-to-do Afghan women

Mullahs demo in Kabul, 1970

Mullahs demo in Kabul, 1970

were often seen going around in western dress unescorted, also groups of schoolgirls with satchels, braided hair wearing school uniforms, skirts and long socks. Traffic police in scruffy brown serge uniforms with diagonal white belts and well-worn peaked caps stood on platforms at intersections waving their arms and blowing whistles to direct traffic, a mixture of motor vehicles, horse-drawn and man-handled carts. On closer inspection it seemed more like the natural flow of the traffic was directing the traffic cop’s signals. He didn’t want any trouble and encouraged drivers to carry on as they were. If a car had stopped because a truck was passing in front he would blow his whistle and hold up his hand while waving the truck on. The circle of snow-covered peaks around the city made a fine back-drop to the picturesque scene.

Wandering back to the hotel, fifty yards further up the pavement I saw a familiar, black-caped figure entering a tourist’s antique shop with a pakhool hat worn at a jaunty angle. With that straightblond hair cut in Sufi style, it had to be Rafiullah.

Rafiullah Khan, 1970, Zarki Nasrati.

Rafiullah Khan, 1970, Zarki

It had been a year since he’d turned up out of the blue one night at Lus’s house in Tarbela, dressed the same, with his caravan of crazy Italians. We’d been out of touch since he’d left again and I’d quit my job with TJV. I had no idea where he was in the world or what he’d been doing in the intervening year. Now, unexpectedly at a loose end in Kabul I wondered what would come of this chance encounter. I followed him into the shop smiling in anticipation. He was looking through a pile of old Afghan muskets.

“Hey! Rafiullah Khan!” I said behind him. He turned round in surprise and did a double take before realising who I was. I’d let my hair grow and reverted to overland traveller mode since I left the Tarbela Dam accounts office.

“Sin Jan! Dio cane!” he exclaimed, using the Pakistani version of my name and his familiar old Milanese expression. We hugged like long lost brothers and stared at each other in surprise, arms on each other’s shoulders.

“What you fuckin’ doing here?” he asked, grinning broadly. “Nothing! What the heck are you doing?”

“Nothing …” he said, “where are you staying, when did you get here, what are you up to?”

“I’m at the Green Hotel, I arrived yesterday, my car blew up. I’m stuck here. Where are you staying?” “I’m staying at an Italian house in Sharenau” he said, with a welcoming grin, “just chilling and enjoying Kabul, beautiful Afghanistan.”

“Wow! Are you on holiday from TJV, or what?” he asked, referring to the dam-building consortium Tarbela Joint Venture.

Rafiullah, born Raffaele Favero in Milan, Rafiullah Khan had studied architecture and worked as a musician, playing drums in Italy’s first psychedelic rock band, I Propheti, before hitchhiking overland to India in the same month as I had, July 1967. He’d met a wonderful Sufi master on the way in Bannu, converted to Islam, built a house in his adopted frontier village of Zarki, near Bannu, eventually coming to the Tarbela dam site for a job two years earlier and working alongside me in the main office, where we’d become the best of friends. The main contractor was also from Milan and his family had some connection with it so they took him on. His job had been calculating the quantities of cement that would be needed in the dam over the next five years, while I’d been responsible for the equally boring job of controlling subcontractors’ accounts, including cement suppliers. However, after six months work Rafiullah been officially expelled from Pakistan, falsely accused by some jealous villagers of spying, making maps, photographing tribal women and, bizarrely, forging Pakistani coins with a water-pump he’d brought there from Italy for irrigation purposes. Even the senior Pakistani Director of the company, Brigadier H M El-Effendi, had been unable to have this ridiculous expulsion order quashed.

“No way, man! I had enough” I told him, “I’m finished. I quit TJV last summer. I’m on the road again, free, free as a bird!”

“No TJV, you’re free!” repeated Rafiullah clapping me warmly on the shoulder, “sounds great – congratulations! What shall we do? Come on, let’s have a chai.”

We walked down Chicken Street looking for a tea shop and blow me down with a feather, there, sitting at a table by the sidewalk with a large bowl of creamy fruit yoghurt was yet another very familiar figure. It was the wild-haired and red-bearded Kevin Rigby from my home town of Preston. Kevin was a highly gifted artist, following his own very particular kind of Zen beatnik ideal, always on the road, never carrying more than a shoulder-bag, and our karma was severely intertwined. Before we even met at the age of 17, he knew my father who’d been his art and geography teacher at Preston Grammar School. Pioneers of the 1960s “turn on, tune in, drop out” generation, by 1965 Kevin and I decided to quit the west to travel on foot to India together, hitchhiking, getting off the Channel ferry in Calais with £5 between us; although it would be 1967 before either of us actually arrived in the subcontinent.

Kevin Rigby, Shahbazgahri, 1972

Kevin, Shahbazgahri, 1972

He spotted me strolling towards him with Rafiullah and raised his arms in the air in mock astonishment. He rolled his eyes to the heavens so his beard stuck out horizontally then gravely stood up, bowing like a Zen patriarch as I introduced him and Rafiullah to each other. At last. Though I’d known them both for years it was the first time we’d all been together in one place. We sat down and the chai and the conversation flowed. All three of us had plenty of catching up to do between us. Things were getting interesting!

Rafiullah took us over to the large and well-furnished house he was sharing with Italian friends, in residential Sharenau. It stood in a large walled garden, there was a menagerie of cats, Afghan hounds, fish, quails, songbirds, falcons, tortoises and it was all colourfully decorated with Afghan drapes and carpets. One of Rafiullah’s friends, Archimedes from Rome, who strikingly resembled a Roman centurion,  had a fine Afghan Buzkashi horse staked out in the garden, which he used to ride around Kabul. Another, called Alexandro the Great, larger than life, hoovered up all the lines of cocaine that were put out on a mirror to share around the group. He was trouble. Rafiullah and Kevin, however, had already heard many stories about each other from me and though very different characters they got along together very well from the start. All three of us were at a loose end now; I was stuck here until my car was ready and none of us had any fixed plan.

“How about we do something together in Afghanistan?” I ventured. “I’ve got money, we can go anywhere, do anything. Any ideas, Rafiullah?”

Rafiullah was never short of ideas for such situations and had an original proposal ready without even stopping to think. “Yes. Definitely,” he said with conviction “I tell you what we do – if you like. We go on a horse trip. This is perfect horse country. Oh, have you ever read ‘the Horseman’, by Joseph Kessel?” he said, taking a well-thumbed paperback from a side table and waving in the air. He raised his voice, knitted his brow and shook his fist with excitement. “Never mind your Mercedes Benz, Sin Jan, now you go by horse, we all go by horse! A good horse here, perfectly trained, cost one hundred dollar. We can explore Afghanistan off-road, by horse. OK?”

“No,” said Kevin, flatly. “Not me. I can’t ride a horse. Never been on a horse in my life. Too much. You know me, I like to run along the razor edge of life in a singlet, one step ahead of all the rest carrying my scroll with the secret of the meaning of life, unencumbered with material possessions like horses and all that goes with ‘em; like the white bird that passes without leaving a trace.”

“Nor me” said I, equally sceptical. “I can’t ride either. How about something slightly less complicated and challenging?”

“Come on” said Rafiullah, “don’t be so pathetic. Anyone can ride a horse, it’s easier than riding a bike. It’s natural. You learn to ride a horse by getting on it. Let’s go and rent some horses from the stable and try them out on the maidan, the park. They’re all really well trained, you just sit on the saddle and direct them with the reins and your heels. It’s a fantastic feeling, on a horse. Afghan horses are really good to ride. You’ll see!”

We stared at him, dumbfounded. It was more than I’d bargained for, but Rafiullah never did things by halves. “We can form a band of horsemen. ‘The Company of the Horses’ …” he mused, warming to the theme, “yes, we’ll join together and form ‘The Company of the Horses’. Three cavaliers, riding across the Afghan plateau from place to place. This Afghanistan is a fantastic country, the best country in the world, completely unspoilt, totally natural. We can buy good Buzkashi horses in Mazaar-i-Sharif or Kunduz and see Afghanistan on horseback, riding across the steppe from serai to serai. It’s a healthy life, a noble life, the perfect life, have adventures, we can strike out and see the real Afghanistan – away from the all tourist and hippie places. Yes, come on, guys, let’s do it. We’re all free now, all in the same place at the same time, we’ll never have such a good opportunity again.”

image001

‘Sinjan’ in tribal gear, Swat 1977

“But look, even so, horses need looking after properly, they eat a lot and we’ll be stuck with them” objected Kevin after a little thought, being unusually practical for him.

“Never mind, it’s no problem, we just sell them again whenever we like” said Rafiullah, shrugging eloquently like a good Italian. “Afghans deal in horses all the time. So let’s go down to Hajji Yusuf’s stables in the city and get some practise in. If the worst happens and you fall off, so what, you get up and get back on again!”

We also loved the rugged, primal Afghan countryside and as Rafiullah eloquently argued what better way to enjoy it than from the back of a horse? There were no other suggestions about what to do so we agreed to at least give it a try though I had my doubts and Kevin felt it was all a bit ‘too mucho’. After wavering all night, the next morning he got up at dawn, packed his few possessions and left the house while the rest of us were sleeping, leaving us a farewell note behind on the table saying he really didn’t feel this horse trip was for him and wishing us well. He was going back to Mother India. We groaned. But there was a snag, he forgot to pick up his passport which he’d also left on the table, with the result that he arrived back from the Pakistan border late that night looking sheepish.

“You see!” said Rafiullah triumphantly, delighted to see him back, “it’s fate. Allah made you forget your passport. You have to be one of our Horses Company!” Kevin grinned, we all laughed and he gave in. He would stay and participate in Rafiullah’s dream. This time, Allah had won. We were still the three would-be cavaliers and all we needed was to get some practice and a few horses.

Kessel’s book ‘The Horseman’ was inspiring and centred round the ethos of horsemanship in the Central Asian tradition through an extreme game of the Afghan national sport, Buzkashi, ‘dragging of calf’. It is played by the toughest horsemen in the country, called ‘Chopendoz’. The Chopendoz ride the toughest horses. These horses are specially trained to rear up and force their way through a solid mass of other horses while their riders try to unseat each other, pushing and shoving and even hitting each other in the face with their short, heavy horsewhips. It was traditionally so violent that classic Buzkashi match wasn’t considered a good one unless at least one Chopendoz got killed. The book tells the story of a heroic Chopendoz who breaks his leg but escapes from the hospital in Kabul, retrieves his horse and heads through the mountains of central Afghanistan to get back to his family in the north. The ancient landscape and deeply traditional culture are vibrantly and vividly described.

Buzkashi - game on

Buzkashi – game on

We were hooked, and being in Kabul in the middle of the country gave it an extra, palpable almost tangible reality. To be initiated as horsemen Rafiullah took us to Hajji Yusuf’s serai, or stables, deep in the narrow mud-brick alleys of the old city to rent horses for the afternoon. Stable hands saddled up three well-fed and fit-looking stallions and adjusted the lengths of the stirrups for us. With a slight sense of dread Kevin and I, leading our mounts by the reins, followed the already-mounted Rafiullah and the bearded and turbaned Hajji Yusuf. There was no going back. What had Rafiullah got us into now? We pushed through the narrow, teeming city streets, across a busy highway and onto the tree-lined maidan, an expansive grassy open space. It was a sunny morning and a few people were strolling and picnicking on the grass. We went to the middle of the maidan and stopped there. Hajji Yusuf tightened the girths, checked the stirrups and tied the reins over the wooden pommel so the horse’s neck was curved.

“Be careful” said Rafiullah, “they’ve been well fed with grain this morning and will be full of energy.” I’d soon find out what he meant. Holding the jumpy horse still, Hajji Yusuf helped me mount and checked my feet on the stirrups. He put a whip in my left hand, the reins in my right, stood back and shouted “Chu!” which in Afghan horse language means “go!” As it moved off, just to make sure it would go he cracked my mount hard across the rump with his whip. The stallion started, reared and bolted off across the field at full speed, fully out of control. Taken by surprise I could only just stay on the saddle, hanging on to the reins, the pommel and the mane for dear life. My feet lost the stirrups but I kept hanging on while four hooves battered the ground and the wind whistled in my ears. The grass seemed a long way down!

“Pull on the reins!” they yelled while still in earshot, laughing their heads off, “haul him round to the side!” I pulled, I hauled, but horses always know when their rider’s a beginner and he had the bit between his teeth. He’d decided to get back to his stable by route one: we were headed straight for the six-lane highway full of moving traffic. Holding the mane in one hand and the pommel in the other I managed to wriggle my feet back into the stirrups and stood on them, leaning back and hauling on the reins with all my might, shouting “Whoa!” but it made no difference. Leaving the edge of the field between two trees as pedestrians on the sidewalk scattered, he went slipping and sliding madly with his metal shoes across the asphalt between trucks and taxis. Then as grinning drivers all blew their klaxons, in the middle of the highway he changed his mind, veered to the side, turned back and across the maidan, then back and forth and round and round. I gradually figured out how to control him a bit and, more importantly, he got out of breath. Eventually, I got him back to my starting point in one piece, and quite miraculously without falling off.

Learning to ride in Kabul

Riding lesson, Kabul

“Bravo!” they all cried, convulsed with laughter and slapping their sides, “you stayed on!” “That’s lessons one to ten” laughed Rafiullah. “See, you can ride!” A bit late, Hajji Yusuf showed me how to regain control more easily when the horse gets the bit between his teeth and bolts like that. You haul on just one side of the reins with both hands and lean back. It helps to keep your feet on the stirrups! Like that you can pull the horse’s head to one side. This forces him to break his stride, veer to that side and slow down. I’d been hauling on both sides of the reins, but normally, when they don’t have the bit between the teeth, their mouths are soft and sensitive and they turn with just the slightest pressure from the reins.

Kevin also passed his riding test, forewarned with my experience, soon got the hang of it and warmed to the idea of Rafiullah’s ‘Company of the Horses’. With his bristling red beard and an impressive turban he sat up straight and actually looked the part, like a Cossack horseman. All we needed now was our own horses and the Company would be fully launched.

In Rafiullah’s little red Renault 4 we drove up past Charikar and Bagram to the north of Afghanistan over the Hindu Kush Range, through the long tunnel over the top of the 16,000 foot high Salang Pass. We were accompanied whether we liked it or not by the large, convivial but somewhat overwhelming Spaniard famously known on the Goan hippie scene as ‘Alexandro the Great’, who was in Kabul to visit the Italian household. It was he who’d hoovered up all the coke on the mirror in Kabul. Someone explained that he came from some special Spanish family or caste whose members traditionally considered themselves on a level above and beyond the law – in fact, they were a law unto themselves. With a shaggy mane of black hair over his broad shoulders and an impressive beard and red turban he had decided to adopt us and came along for the ride. Sporting massive silver armbands from Rajasthan on his biceps and a heavy solid silver belt that he never seemed to take off he comported himself like some great hero from a bygone age.

From the pass, we emerged from the sub-continental landmass of India and onto the southern edge of the vast Central Asian steppe inhabited by completely different races of people. Instead of Pashtuns, this part of Afghanistan north of the Hindu Kush range is populated mostly by Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turcoman tribes. Many are nomadic using round, Mongolian-type gers or yurts. These are the wood-framed, felt-lined tents used by Chengis Khan’s Golden Hordes that resist the extremely low winter temperatures of the steppes and can be quickly dismantled and loaded on camels or horses to be carried to new sites. Variations of these traditional mobile homes are dotted about by the million all over the vast Central Asian steppes from this point north.

Refreshments on Salang pass with Alehandro

Refreshments on Salang Pass with Alexandro

After descending to the foothills we reached the rolling, grassy plain and the ancient towns of Balkh and Mazaar-i-Sharif to look for horses. There wasn’t much doing and we were told to go to the Friday market at Kunduz where there’d be good buzkashi horses up for sale. Meanwhile we familiarised ourselves and stocked up with camel leather riding boots, whips and other basic horse gear available everywhere.Kunduz was then a charming, dusty, old-world, rural market town half a day’s drive away across the steppe to the East from Mazaar-i-Sharif, in the province of Baghlan. We checked in at the solidly built but now somewhat decrepit old Soviet-style Kunduz Hotel there and let it be known that we were in the market for horses. We were soon introduced to a local tribal leader and landlord who fancied our car and offered us a deal: he’d take the little red Renault from us in return for the four horses of our choice at the Friday market. He would take care of any paperwork. To us it wasn’t much of a car and once we had our horses we’d have no further need of it anyway so we accepted and went early next morning to see our luck. He took us to the thronging, walled market on the outskirts of town where animals and farming implements of every kind were up for sale. Though there wasn’t a huge selection the horses for sale were good enough for us to choose four of the best. They were some fine-looking horses and after trying them out around and outside the market we eliminated the old, the mares, the sick and the weak and ended up with what we judged were the best four. There was a big, light dapple grey Buzkashi horse whom Rafiullah took and named Sharoban, a young bay Badakshani pony with a beautiful long mane who was christened ‘Argus’ by Kevin, and two other handsome looking bays, one of which I claimed and called Palawan.

The deal was struck, the landowner paid for the horses and took the car and we rode the horses back and tied them up in the hotel stables. I began to wonder what we’d let ourselves in for. Later that afternoon we saddled up rode out to see how it went. I took the tall, good-looking Palawan but when I galloped him in the open countryside he exhibited a severe limp. It was too late to go back to the seller, the market was closed. We went to see our dealer, who said we should have galloped him before buying; the deal was done. It was a case of ‘caveat emptor’, they said, ‘let the buyer beware’. We had bought a lemon.

Next morning, we were trotting around the suburbs of Kunduz to get accustomed to life on horseback when a party of turbaned, bearded, horse-dealing nomads walking down the road with women and animals in tow saw us and approached us. They were looking at Palawan, who was now in tow without a rider and they seemed to like him. They called us over.

“That brown stallion there, you don’t need him?” they asked us, pointing at Palawan trailing behind us on his rope.

“Yes, we need him” said Rafiullah, who spoke good Dari. He was on the ball. “He’s a very good horse. Just look at him!”

“Hmmm” they said, “maybe we could use a horse like that.”

“What? If you want to buy him, he’s not for sale” was Rafiullah’s reply.

“We need four horses.”

“No, in that case we will exchange him for this” they said indicating a handsome-looking young chestnut stallion with a blaze on the forehead that they had in tow.

“No way” said Rafiullah, “our horse is much better than that moth-eaten old thing.”

“Then we’ll pay you some cash on top” said the dealers insistently. They really must have liked this horse, or they wanted to get rid of the one they were offering in exchange.

“Depends how much” said Rafiullah dubiously, “anyway, try him out first!” We hoped they wouldn’t gallop him, and we were in the suburban streets so they just trotted him up and down and cantered a bit. They put a saddle and bridle on theirs for us to have a ride of him. Rafiullah leapt on his back, tried him out, galloped him up and down a bit, jumped off and pronounced him fine.

“Alright,” said their hoary leader with a cunning grin.

“One thousand Afghanis and this fine stallion in exchange for yours? Deal?” “No, no, no. It’s not anything like enough. Two thousand five hundred Afghanis. This horse is worth at least eight thousand.” They protested and grumbled but then came back.

“One thousand five hundred.” They must have really liked the look of Palawan. We conferred. We didn’t want to push too far and risk losing the deal.

“OK, last offer” said Rafiullah. “One thousand six hundred, and the horse is yours. Take it,or leave it. We are going for lunch.”

Flamador, from the Kunduz nomads

Flamador, from the Kunduz nomads

The bargain was struck and they made a great fuss of invoking Allah to seal the agreement. They handed over the chestnut, counted out the cash and took Palawan’s halter. We all shook hands firmly, then they stood in a circle with us in the middle of the street looking heavenwards with arms outstretched, palms upraised, calling on Allah as our witness to an irreversible deal.

“No problem” said Rafiullah; “same to you”. They all recited a prayer and gravely stroked their beards about it. We mimicked them with equal gravity. I took the new chestnut with the blaze into my personal care and called him Flamador on account of his golden main. Our fourth horse who had been nameless inherited the title of Palawan – the Mighty One.

Next day, sure enough the dealers came back and sought us out complaining about Palawan’s limp. We shrugged and reminded them how they’d sealed the bargain with ‘no come back’.

“Too bad” we said. “Caveat emptor.” You checked the horse yourself first. Then Allah witnessed the deal was done and couldn’t be undone. How can we go back on that?” They grumbled but knew they had no answer and left. It seemed as if though we were the tourists we’d outwitted the Afghan horse dealers; normally the other way round. We were on a learning curve.

The Company of the Horses now had four fine well-trained and fit stallions to ride, without the slightest limp. It was mounted and operational. So far, so good. Now all we needed was to get all the gear and learn how to take care of our charges. At the horse gear bazaar of Kunduz we compiled four complete sets of traditional, Afghan horse tackle. Decorative bridles, bits, reins, halters and ropes were chosen. Also four fancy saddle sets in eight pieces each comprising colourful cloths, supports, girths, the carved wooden saddle itself and a woven red carpet for the rider to sit on.

Riding boots maker, Mazaar-i-Sharif

Riding boots maker, Mazaar-i-Sharif

Then there were stirrups, straps and nosebags. Kevin also bought some fine cured leather which he cut and stitched into three pairs of small saddlebags to hitch over the saddles. Finally, we picked up a pair of capacious woven wool saddlebags for a pack animal, to carry extra gear and feed. We decided to use the fourth horse as a pack-horse, since Alexandro the Great turned out to be not that great that he wanted to mount any horses and didn’t seem want to join the Company. He ended up staying in the hotel while we got on with the trip, so we left him there and never heard from him again.

The three cavaliers decked ourselves out in silken, brightly-coloured, pirate-cut shalwar-kamees tailored, black silk turbans or fox-fur Chopendoz hats, knee-length camel-leather boots with thick woven woollen socks inside and long-armed, vertically-striped ‘Chapan’ cloaks, also of silk. As the insignia of our famous Horse Company we chose three broad leather belts with heavy worked-silver Bokhara belt buckles studded with turquoise. We got old bone-handled Afghan daggers to hang on these belts with our bayonets in their sheaths, bayonets that may have been taken from the British in the Afghan wars. Now, with black kohl appliedaround our eyes in local style we really began to look the part. All the locals enjoyed showing us the ropes and how to handle these horses. They showed us how to rub mutton fat into all the leather gear to keep it supple, how to feed and water the animals, how to fix the harness, handle them, exercise them, cool them down after riding them and generally how to treat them well to keep them happy and in good shape.

At last we were ready to saddle up, check out of the hotel and ride somewhat nervously out of Kunduz, off the tarmac road and towards the wide open spaces of the central Asian steppe. We picked up a nomadic trail heading southwest, in the general direction of Central Afghanistan and Bamiyan. Free, at last!

North Afghanistan scenery with camel caravan

The edges of the steppes

Far from the noise of machines and engines the gentle plodding of the hooves put us in touch with the timeless rhythm of nature. We passed the ruins of ancient forts and walls of abandoned settlements melting back into the landscape. They stood like sentinels, silent witnesses to old wars against long-defunct empires; invaders that had always been defeated by the Afghans in the end. From the ancient Greeks and Persians to the Mongols. Plus three modern invasions by the British Raj. Observing our perspective of this primordial scenery gradually change we felt in harmony with nature, emerging from a lifetime of materialistic, consumer-oriented conditioning and free at last – at home on the Central Asian Steppe. In 1973 half the population of Afghanistan was still nomadic. Their trails were broad with interweaving pathways worn in the grassland by these nomads with their animals, moving from pasture to pasture with the seasons. Camel caravans also used them as feeder trails for the silk routes, distributing trade goods between the Far East and Europe. Beige on green, the paths snaked across the rolling steppe from horizon to horizon. At night we stayed in caravan-serais, traditional travellers’ inns in suitable locations a day’s ride apart. Small or large, they appeared just when needed, always near a water supply. Laid back, turbaned and bearded hosts welcomed us with a shake of their broad hands and a broad grin, showing us to a carpeted room facing onto the courtyard where we’d tether the animals. All horse supplies and feed were available down to horse shoes and horse shoe nails and a samovar bubbled for chai day and night in the kitchen where food was prepared to order. We continued learning horse-care and horse-lore from nearly everyone we met. Cuts and grazes were treated with brake-oil, bruises with iodine ointment, for us as well as the horses. We had scrapes, bumps, kicks and falls as we learned how to groom, feed and maintain them and us and all the gear in good order. We settled into an energetic but relaxed routine to keep our small troop on the move, enjoying the timeless freedom of the steppe, laid-back Afghan hospitality and a real horseman’s life, on the move from day to day.

One morning as we rode along I severely tempted providence by kidding the others that I was the best rider, since I was the only one who hadn’t fallen off or been thrown.

“Don’t worry” said Rafiullah and Kevin together, who both had, several times.“You will.”

We came to a shack under a grove of poplars by a meandering stream and the welcome sight of a samovar and pans on a fire under a shelter of rushes. We were ready for a break so we rode up and dismounted. Hitching the reins and stirrups over Flamador’s pommel I looked round to see where to tether him down by the stream to graze on the short grass, unaware that up on the hillside were four mares, one of which was on heat, and he’d picked up their scent. My back turned for an instant, he moved off in that direction, I lunged after him trying to grab the reins but he was just out of reach and turned away. He threw out a rear hoof in warning and cantered off gently towards the mares on the hill. I stood there dumbfounded as he took off.

“It’s your horse, you idiot” shouted Rafiullah, “you better catch him!”

“Take Palawan” said Kevin helpfully, pointing at our packhorse beside him complete with saddle, bridle and halter. I whipped off his saddlebags, jumped on and spurred him after Flamador but by the time I caught up he’d reached the mares and was busy herding them further uphill. I rode alongside and grabbed his reins but he wasn’t having it, he pulled away, tearing the reins out of my grip and nearly pulling me off Palawan. Then he wheeled and turned. Rearing up on his hind legs with his neck curved he bore down on us, whinnying fiercely, teeth bared, auburn mane erect, eyes rolling, nostrils distended and forelegs flailing away dangerously. Palawan reared up defensively but was forced backwards down the slope by Flamador’s momentum. My feet shot out of the stirrups, I completely lost my seat and was thrown backwards, sailing through the air in an arc and came down badly, plumb on the middle of my back on the hard ground with a sickening crunch with nothing to break my fall. Winded and in shock I lay there, paralysed, sure that my entire spine had just been shattered and having a vision of spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair. Mercifully the prancing, duelling horses avoided me with their stamping hooves.

Then it went from bad to worse. Palawan, finding himself free now decided he might as well gang up with Flamador and head off with the mares. Kevin and Rafiullah arrived on their horses but having seen what happened to me they couldn’t get near them as they ran further away, pushing the mares up the hill. The stand-off was only resolved when two grinning nomads who’d been watching these goings-on from a distance, and probably owned the mares, came up with a long rope and told Rafiullah and Kevin to get out of the way. Stretching the rope out between them on foot they manoeuvred it to touch the front of Flamador’s neck with the middle of the rope and then keeping it taught they quickly ran round behind him in opposite directions, crossed and moved in, hand over hand pulling on the rope. As soon as Flamador felt the rope around his neck his training came back, he forgot about the mares and stopped in his tracks, calm and subdued. Palawan followed and everything was under control again.

“What were you just saying about being best rider because you never fell off?” scoffed Kevin as he and Rafiullah came over to scrape me up from where I’d lain inert after slamming backwards into the ground. I could only laugh, making the pain shoot all over my body. Paralysed from the chest down, they lifted me up onto Sharoban’s saddle since he had the smoothest gait and we rode all afternoon to the nearest serai. When I dismounted, my unfeeling legs folded and I slithered into a jelly-like heap on the ground. It was several days before I could get off my bed, stand up and slowly learn to walk again, but luckily there were no broken bones or permanent damage.

Savoy, Rafiullah, at Kohat Mela, '74

Savoy, Rafiullah, at Kohat Mela, ’74

Our visas were expiring soon so we returned to Kabul where Hajji Yusuf stabled our horses. He had two new ones to offer: Savoy, a tall, well-conformed Russian light bay in beautiful, shiny condition with a leader’s character, and Wazir, a lithe, dappled fleabitten grey gelding of a Waziristan breed with funny, comma-shaped ears that curved around so the tips touched in the middle. We took them both, after giving them a good galloping on the maidan, and Savoy became my main mount for the next five years. Smooth and fast, Wazir was also a sensational ride, totally responsive when ridden bareback without a bridle. He’d accelerate to full gallop from standing in two great leaps then streak away straight and smooth as an arrow at top speed; perfect for tent-pegging competitions. Savoy was like the London Grill he was named after, deluxe, sophisticated, luxurious, cool, with great power and heart, a Rolls Royce of a horse. Nothing alarmed him. In the city he’d move serenely between noisy trucks, with drivers blaring their klaxons; he wouldn’t turn a hair, and being so calm other horses followed behind him serenely.

Wazir, with his wooden Afghan saddle

Wazir, with his wooden Afghan saddle

We couldn’t decide whether to renew our visas or leave for Pakistan. Rafiullah and I asked Kevin to invoke the oracle, the I Ching. It advised us to ‘return’ to avoid political turmoil, even though King Zahir Shah had ruled Afghanistan serenely for several decades and all seemed calm. Rafiullah, who’d been in Afghanistan all winter, agreed, so Pakistan it was. Two Italian friends who shared the house decided to accompany us, the tall and dark Archimedes who had his own horse to export and the short Renato from Naples who sported a large beard and shoulder length fair hair.

“But where can we stay in Pakistan” asked Kevin, “with seven horses? These horses are used to being kept well in a comfortable stable anyway, and I we won’t find any serais in Pakistan. We need a base.” It was a good point.

“We can go to Swat” I suggested, “I once met the Wali’s son at the Palace Hotel and he promised to give me land there to build a house. I always wanted to live in Swat.”

Sean 'tent-pegging' in Zarki

Sean ‘tent-pegging’, Zarki

 

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Rafiullah Khan & friends in Zarki, Eid 1970

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“We can go to Zarki, too” said Rafiullah referring to his ‘village’ Zarki Nasrati, in the tehsil of Karak, way south of Peshawar, near Bannu and Waziristan, where he had built a simple one-roomed ‘house’ in 1970, after his Sufi master passed away. This Zarki was the village of his ‘pir-bhai’ (co-student) Billawar Khan, who also joined the Horse Company. “Except the hot season is beginning and it’s really hot” continued Rafiullah thoughtfully. “But we can stay in Swat in summer, it’s fresh, and ride up to Gilgit for polo, and then ride south to Zarki for the winter. They do a lot of tent-pegging there, competitions every week at the village fairs and markets.”

This sounded like a good solution and all were agreed. The Company of the Horses would migrate with the seasons between the hills in the north and the desert in the south in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. It sounded perfect. We just needed to get there from Kabul, across the McMahon Line.

At the stables one day to exercise the horses we bumped into a tall Australian girl with long red hair called Jill who was on her way to Ulaanbaatar, in Mongolia. She could ride so we invited her to join us on a ride around Kabul. Rafiullah chatted her up but she was leaving that evening so he gave her the Palace Hotel address in Swat if she wanted to catch up with the Company of the Horses on her return to the subcontinent.

“Maybe see you in Swat, then, in a month or two.” said Jill. It was a fateful tryst.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

TO BE CONTINUED in the forthcoming sequel, “CAPTURED BY BANDITS ON THE AFGHAN BORDER”

You can see some of the story told in pictures in the galleries below, which will also be continued and expanded in the sequel.

Horses line-up later, after arriving in Swat

Horses line-up later, after arriving in Swat

TWO GALLERIES: IMAGES RELATED TO THIS BLOG … [please use your keyboard arrows to go to 'next' or 'previous' image]

GALLERY 1: The Horse Company’s People, its Horses, its Places and its Exploits A cross-section of illustrations to the above blog covering the doings of the Company of Horses as it evolved over the following 4 to 5 years. Unfortunately or otherwise, at the time of the formation of the Company of the Horses as related above, we made a conscious decision not to record our doings by taking photos – we were on another trip, living in the present. So until we stopped travelling with the horses in Swat, Pakistan, there are hardly any images to record the first part of that unique adventure, including “Captured by Bandits on the Afghan Border” (to follow soon). So this selection will have to suffice …. apologies for the quality, some of these old prints and slides passed 30 monsoons in Swat before being rescued in 2006, 4 years before the floods destroyed everything else that was left ….

GALLERY 2: Afghanistan & Tribal Areas A selection of old Afghan postcards and photos of scenery and people of Afghanistan and the Tribal Areas from the 1960s and 70s to give you an idea of what it was like in those idyllic, far-off days before King Zahir Shah was deposed within a few weeks of our Horse Company’s ‘Escape to Pakistan’. This political turmoil, accurately foretold in Kevin’s I Ching reading, eventually gave rise to over three decades of destructive wars which have tragically laid waste to the country and its people.


 

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On Spammers & Blocking them.

Two years ago we averaged one hundred spam Comments a day. Last year it went up to one thousand a day. Right now we get between 1500 & 2000 spam Comments a day & I decided to do something about it. Continue reading ‘On Spammers & Blocking them.’

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Xmas with The Grateful Dead – Peter Monk

… for the management
Here we areSend this monk to the Grateful Dead.
with a price on our heads
and the coldest blood on the planet…
outside the law…
where is the law?
The law is what we do.
Surplus of prophecy
dying of habit
finding fulfillment
ties the world to music.
San Francisco / London… round-tripping…
(both those flags red, blue, and white ) …
Play it again Sam, take it from the top… A toss-up between “survival of the fittest”
and “the meek shall inherit the earth” …
In either case… He Who Is The Greater Is The Servant Of The Other…
All success… Never Blame… Transatlantis…
The idea of the Dead…
What’s in a name?
a rose by any other name would smell as dead…
a rose is a rose is a rose…
Violent night… silent and holy.
Lennon and Dylan on junk behind shades…
( mirrors at opposite ends of the room )
pray their recovery swift…
Flores por los muertos…
Hari Tamari…
So many of this Order
imprisoned on the planet…
Three on Crete… in a labyrinth…
Bear…
an angel shot in the head…
another in jail for trashing a copcar…
a third acquitted of Altamont… the Wild West wins every time…
( self defense )…
London Bridge keeps falling down
just outside Las Vegas.
In deserts
In forests
on mountains… in caves…
a few who live for freedom… never move too close !
Cellular rejection of The Brotherhood’s required…
the object is direction of one corpse.
Both the stage and the pulpit are prisons in a line of lives…
where solitudes breath’s worth pursuing.
A face that turns to meet you
turns into a skull…
the body in your arms
dissolves to skeleton
Dreamers turn to dancers… bodies to disasters…
circles within circles… a history of flesh…
In that place where The Dead Know…
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A Wanderer in Ugyen, Land of Guru Rinpoche.

Guru Rinpoche at the Jokhang, Lhasa, Tibet 1985.

Guru Rinpoche, Jokhang, Lhasa 1985.

Almost by accident in 1968 I found myself in the peaceful paradise of Swat State in Pakistan. I had no idea that this was the fabled “Urgyen” of Tibetan legend, but I did realise that this was where I wanted to live. By 1973, I’d built a house there and made it my home. The following is my account of how I came to embark upon the journey of self-discovery that would include meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama and culminate in life-changing events.

After studying accountancy, in 1965, inspired by my lifelong friend Kevin Rigby, I decided to take what might now be called an open-ended ‘gap year’ heading overland to India. We hitchhiked overland, eventually reaching Varanasi on the Ganges River by mid-1967 and exploring northern India.

We were not on a shoestring budget as we wore rubber flip-flops, neither could we be described as back-packers since we carried our meagre possessions in a shoulder bag. Nor could we be labelled ‘hippies’ because this term hadn’t even been invented yet! We were refugees and escapees from materialist society, inspired by the Beats, would-be Beatniks; intrepid travellers ‘on the road’ with no real end in view, and no plan to return.

1977 Kevin & friends to Swat.

1977 Kevin & friends en route to Swat.

After many a curious diversion on the way, back and forth, sometimes travelling alone, sometimes split up by fate as in Austria, meeting up again by pure chance in Teheran’s main bazaar six months later, only late in 1967 did we ever stop. We spent the winter in meditation huts on the banks of the holy River Ganges near Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh, where we studied a large pile of books on the religions of India. Eventually, after following the Ganges down to stay in Varanasi we went our separate ways again. With the hot season of 1968 approaching I felt drawn by the cooler air of the Himalayas in the north. Influenced by the changing attitudes of Indians who had become less accommodating and sometimes openly hostile towards the burgeoning flood of more extreme western hippies now on their trail to Kathmandu, I then took the decision to quit India in the opposite direction and ‘escape to Pakistan’ in solitude. Having heard talk of beautiful valleys in Pakistan’s northern areas I crossed the border to Lahore and set off to walk across its hills and valleys, vaguely aiming for the high mountains and the cool air of Chitral in the far northwest to ‘chill out’.

Ancient Buddhist sculpture.

Ancient Buddhist sculpture, Swat.

After several weeks of walking over the mountain ranges towards Chitral, I was tramping through the beautiful pine forests of Ayubia in the Murree Hills when I was kindly invited for dinner and to stay the night by some Pashtoons working at a small government silkworm project. They told me that a huge dam was to be built on the Indus River at Tarbela, a few valleys to the west. On learning of my accountancy training and concerned about my lack of means, they insisted I applied for a job there and kindly wrote a letter of introduction to their village chairman, a Mr Rafiq Khan. He was not only the Chief Camp Commandant of the entire dam site but also married to a cousin of the then President of Pakistan, Mohammad Ayub Khan and a very helpful person. I did not expect to find a job but as Khan’s village, Dragri, was on my route, when I reached the area I dropped in to meet him.

The diminutive Rafiq Khan was, indeed, very kind and helpful. He was seated under a vast banyan tree holding an evening jirga or council with bearded tribal elders seated all around the village square. When my letter was passed to him by an attendant he interrupted proceedings to welcome me. Wearing spectacles, a moustache and a flowing turban, he read the note, sat me next to him and called for food. He commented that my timing was good because a European consortium had just signed the contract to build Tarbela dam, one of the biggest in the world and the first expats were flying in. They were under him, he said, and he would tell them to give me a job. No problem. Then my rice and curry was served, he excused himself and continued with the discussions of the jirga.

Sean at Tarbela Dam 1968.

Sean at Tarbela Dam 1968.

Next day he took me to Tarbela in his jeep, where the mighty Indus valley opened up between the foothills and the river debouched onto the Attock plain. He installed me in a large marquee on the riverbank, used by gauge-readers who checked the river levels. Then he took me to the European consortium’s office which was in a wooden shed and introduced me to the Managing Director, who was an Italian. To my great surprise I was given a job on the spot, with the salary I demanded, but they had no accommodation or office space for me yet so I was told to come back in three weeks time to start. Continue reading ‘A Wanderer in Ugyen, Land of Guru Rinpoche.’

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