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

 

7011 T1#09

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 ….

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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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15 Responses to “The Company of the Horses.”


  • I understand much better now many things that were so mysterious to me about your background and what brought you to Qamarlandi and how it came to be.

    I also now realize something of Alexandro’s origins before he arrived in Goa, exactly as you describe him. It must have been soon afterwards.

    Over the years, I befriended him and watched his sad decline into drugs that even he couldn’t handle.

    He returned to Spain and, so I was told afterwards, and he became something of a TV talk-show wheel-on (Spain’s maddest hippy or something like that) until his death, not long after.

    After all, I feel greatly honored that your remarkable adventure intercepted with my life for those few months in 1974, during the time of the company of horses.

  • I remember these horse people. I saw them in Kabul in the winter of ’73, when there was still a bit of snow on the ground. This is before I met Ian (my husband).
    It was a Friday and we were at Sigrid and Henry’s place in Shar-e-Nau, having breakfast and recovering from a night of hard partying.
    One of our friends, a Finnish giant named Marco, came running into the house saying in one breath: “there’s this group of Europeans nearby riding horses and I did a bit of riding with them, right there in the field, and you should all come and we can all take rides and they’re going up North to ride in the desert…”
    We rushed out and sure enough there they were, dressed up in Afghan clothes, looking like actors in search of a movie set (Chekov?). I never got to talk to them as a small crowd had already gathered around them and I get rather shy around horses.
    I’m so happy to learn they succeeded in their adventure and survived to tell the tale. I’m certainly looking forward to reading more. Tashakoor.

  • Elizabeth Selandia

    Sean,

    You should warn your readers to empty their bladder before starting your journey.

    I knew Alexandro from Bombay and you accurately describe his silver belt and armbands and hair and overpowering presence that faded quickly if the challenge was beyond him.

    The horse photos are wonderful. My dad was part of the trio that imported the last pure Arabians to US in 1947 to San Simeon Arabian Horse Ranch at WR Heart’s behest, so I grew up visiting the stables on weekends for BBQs. Have put the photos they took into book, need publisher: wonderful old Cairo, Damascus, tent meeting in Syria, Beirut, Marsailles, hurricane off Cape Hadrasetc. photos, but none of train trip back to San Luis Obispo. We had Thanksgiving at the stables the next day after their arrival: 14 horses in all. My dad vetted them; John Williamson, grandson of WK Kellogg, took the photos; and Preston Dyer was the stable manager. Know of anyone who wants to publish this? It is ready to go … many pictures of horses not purchased, etc.

    Anyhow, can hardly wait to find out about the Mercedes …

    Will send link to all my friends.

    Thanks for the memories and I really am impressed that you became a horseman and what you did is believable to me because I’ve also been there, even though it was not by horseback …

    Cheers!

    Elizabeth Selandia

  • Elizabeth Selandia

    PS: I met Roland and Sabina Michaud in Herat and later was their guest in Paris. They recently visited with me here in SF Bay Area, and we send cards irregularly, mostly because of their frequent travels. Wonderful people and very good friends of mine.

    Note: Do you want their address to clear having their photos available? They do have an expensive rep in Paris …???

    Elizabeth Selandia

  • Elizabeth Selandia

    To continue: Those posters you have seen of their work, Sean, all have permissions for use of the images, paid for at very high prices. I once inquired about this potential and learned from their Paris rep of the prices, and it caused me to shelve that idea.

    Since their photos are their business, they will protect their copyright and a “thank you” as you have indicated will not suffice. Cold, hard cash will. I’d give the reference to their two published works on Afghanistan and remove the images to protect your pension and savings for old age, if I were you. Although nice folks, this is their livelihood, and they are French, after all.

    Back to Tirch Mir mountain in Chitral, a Brit named Robin Ade painted a watercolor of the mountain as seen (on the right) with sunrise light and (on the left) with sunset light, put domes of blue heaven over each and a red circle in between. I traded him for it in Koebenhavn in 1976; and, just above my head here as I write, it is resting peacefully in the frame I housed it in. Do you happen to know him? If so, tell him “hello” for me and ask him to get in touch, please.

    Can hardly wait for the remainder of the story …

    ES

  • Thanks for the advice, Elizabeth. I thought the photos were from the 1960s, over 50 years ago, and therefore out of copyright, but I now remember the law is 50 years after the artist’s death. I have therefore deleted the gallery. Too bad! I don’t expect they will give permission free.

    No, unfortunately I don’t remember meeting Robin Ade.

    I dunno any publishers that might publish your story. I tried to find one for mine but it seems they only take personal memoirs from people who are already celebs these days, with a guaranteed massive fan base of buyers. So I’m putting my stuff out here for people to enjoy, I hope it also helps readers understand a bit better the good people of those parts who get such a bad press everywhere. Such big-hearted hospitality!

  • Elizabeth Selandia

    Sean,

    Happy to have saved you from the streets in your old age.

    Here are the exact citations for the two works on Afghanistan by Roland and Sabrina Michaud:
    Caravans to Tartary, Viking Press, NY, 1977
    ISBN: 0-670-20384-X
    Afghanistan: Paradise Lost, Vendome Press, NY, Paris, Lausanne, 1980
    ISBN: 0-86565-009-8

    I assure you that they will respect you greatly for respecting their work in taking it down. The books can be ordered either online or through the library, so all is not lost to those reading your work and wanting to know more about Afghanistan visually.

    Roland has also printed wonderful works more recently where he takes photos that are nearly identical to historical paintings and places them side-by-side. They were here in SF Bay Area for their first time doing research at the Asian Art Museum looking for art images that match his works. “I know every picture I’ve done, so all I do is go through the books looking for matches …” to quote him.

    When I was in their home in Paris in 1974, one entire room was devoted to boxes of slides of their work; I assume that now their son–who has become an astrologer, writing a dictionary of astrology–is no longer living with them, his room is now also occupied with their unceasing work. Roland told me then that he is going to get monsoon down-pouring images, and has headed to Assam the past three seasons.

    I have two old Russian cracked and patched with metal staples teapots, like that shown in your picture and theirs. One day, I went to every tea shop I knew of in Kabul and looked for the old ones. Some I sold in my shop Langtboerdtistan in Koebenhavn, DK, but these two I am fondly keeping. I had not heard the explanation given that you supply about this making the tea stronger, but it does explain why some of the shops would not sell their collection to me. I spent many hours watching this work in Bazaar-I-kooni-frushi (bazaar selling old things) in Kabul. The old baba sits there using large hammers to pound fragile porcelain to join the fragments together with metal stables handcrafted by him. Why the work does not further fragment the porcelain, I have never figured out.

    I agree whole hardly with your sentiment about the people of Afghanistan and Swat Valley and extended regions. I do not have enough fingers and toes to count the number of times they saved me in so many different ways from perils or certain death, so ignorant I was to the environment and political settings there. It is a dangerous place but those who have hearts of gold seemed to turn up when needed so many times it is difficult not to take them for granted. The people there with no hearts at all should not be allowed to frame the reference to the area, and your works will help achieve this goal. Thanks.

    Dr. Elizabeth Selandia, OMD, CA

  • Elizabeth Selandia

    Sean,

    Facebook currently is denying me access because those I know in Bhutan or Nepal take too long to accept “friend requests,” so while I was able to read your message, I have to reply here.
    1. Please write to my gmail acct, available at my profile at LinkedIn under “contact” to give me yours, so I can send my private writing re Agarn.
    2. Born in Santa Barbara, raised in San Luis Obispo County, CA, so US citizen, descendent from colonizers in mid-1600s on both sides: dad’s is Dutch, mom’s is Irish/English.
    3. I am positive the jeep road from Chitral to Gilgit was there and had been there at least 2-3 years before taking it in Nov 1974. Those bridges I describe were slabs of concrete supported with short, narrow arches attached to sheer faced cliffs that weight alone would cause to crack the connection. There were about 8-10 of them along the route and the driver only laughed at our fear. I sucked in my waist, and began to pray. In fact, this experience taught me prayer works, because we should have ended up on the rocks below … I know for certain this date because my then husband was traveling with me and it could not be Nov, 1973, because I was just returning from 4-months in Geneva, and it could not have been Nov, 1975, because the last time I was in that part of the world was Sept, 1975.

    ES

  • Elizabeth Selandia

    Sean,

    #56 of 79 of these images of Swat Valley by Alan Schaaf, available at:

    https://plus.google.com/photos/102592650812376963590/albums/5186265993790024993?banner=pwa&authkey=CMv0wbrVsLnAFw

    shows the road I took.

    Enjoy, ES

  • Elizabeth Selandia

    So, for those of you who do not understand the teapot mender picture, here’s the explanation.

    In his right hand, he is holding a slightly bowed stick with a string that allows him to rotate the drill on the stick he is stabilizing in his left hand by use of a teapot lid. He is drilling a hole into a teacup held between his feet, either to insert wire to hold sections of the cup together (in which case, the hole would go all the way through the porcelain), or he’s opening a small hole to use to place a metal staple to bind the pieces together. The metal tools found near his legs are those he uses in his craft.

    At his feet are those pots that he’s in the process of mending. Often broken and repaired pots are returned for further repairs, so unless one is there to examine each piece and to hear the stories he tells, there is no way of knowing from this image which have just arrived for repair, which are in the process of being repaired, or which are finished and can either be sold or returned to the chai khanna (tea house) for use.

    Those that you see pictured are for the most part imported from Russia and are newer. The newer Russian teapots are usually red or blue with a floral design in a circle; the antique Russian ones are white with floral design in a circle. (Thus, in this picture, there is possibly one antique white Russian teapot.) The pot with yellow to the far left of the picture is from China. Note that some of the spouts have metal on them: This is because the spouts were broken and repaired. Also, note the blue pot at the bottom (next to the yellow pot): Notice the metal bands that are attached at the opening at the top of the pot and extend down over the entire pot to hold the piece together.

    It is a good idea when buying one that you have a pot of water brought to test the pot, because not all are well repaired and some will leak badly. It is not unusual for such pots in chai khannas to arrive nearly half empty from the leakage while being transported from the samovar providing the hot water to the table or char-pied where one is seated. Afghans will object if this happens and sometimes ruckuses occur because of this problem.

    Afghan drink either black or green tea, period. The green tea comes in tins from China and the black is usually imported from India. Sugar is optional. The cups shown are all from China.

    Behind the teapot repairer is his wooden crutch leaning up against the wall. The spotted black and white garment touching it is his chapan or coat. The cloth that he’s using as his work bench will double as his satchel when he’s finished for the day and gathers his tools and work together to return to his home. There are 9 teapots and 4 teacups to be counted here. (It is possible that the gray turban located up against the wall will be used to bundle up the teapots and cups when his day is done.)

    For some strange reason, the goat bag used to carry water from the municipal water faucet to homes is placed above his work place and is used to shade his work; you can see the tip of the hand sewn bag directly in front of his turban. The shadow of the bag is the long one behind his right arm; the other shadow on the wall is that of a char-pied or four-footed bed with ropes. How this was set up to cast this shadow is difficult to discern from this image, but that’s what it is, folks, trust me. The bundle seen bottom center will hold metal pieces he’s made in the past to use in his work.

    Enjoy! Elizabeth Selandia

  • Fascinating about the teapot breaker/mender. Thanks for the detailed account.

    Having looked at the photos by Alan Schaaf, I think perhaps you travelled with Agarn & co over the Ambela Pass from Shahbazgahri into the attached but separate valley of Lower Swat otherwise known as Buneer, where Mount Ilam and Pir Baba are located. A lovely place off the beaten track and rarely visited. I was there many times and it was my short route when riding between Peshawar and Madyan – a 3 day journey.

  • Elizabeth Selandia

    Yes, did some research and came up with the same route so this is no longer a mystery. My question to you now is if this is the route taken bringing your brother back to Swat Valley for burial and was Adrienne with you on that journey?

    ES

  • Right, Buneer must be it. There are two routes in from the south, the Ambela Pass from Shabazgarhi and another pass via Totalai and Chinglai. We used to take these routes as short cuts driving from Tarbela during the dam time. The pass to the north is Karakar Pass where you descend to Barikot and on to Mingora. It’s a fantastic valley, very untouched and off the tourist routes to Swat. Few westerners ever go there, except maybe to visit the shrine of Pir Baba which is famous all over India.

    No, the road via Buneer was not the route taken for my brother’s reburial. We actually took his body for reburial out of Swat (not to it) because it was a major road we could drive fast on, this was the plan anyway.

    My brother was initially buried outside Mingora in Swat but it was decided to move him remains to Shahbazgarhi where the local Khan’s family offered some land for his grave near the Ashoka Stone, opposite the Thana, at the crossroads of the old silk route from Sind via Ambela Pass to Swat, Gilgit, Hunza and East Turkestan, and the ancient route from Kabul to India used by all invaders from Alexander to the Mughals.

    Kevin and I disinterred his coffin with the help of some muzdoors, put it in my VW camper van and drove it to Shahbazgarhi via Malakand Pass but the road via Mardan was closed and we were diverted onto a dusty country track from Darband to Shahbazgahri. This was an extra hassle because Paddy’s coffin had been filled with ice and now, a few weeks after his burial, his decaying remains sloshed around inside the coffin and gave off an incredibly powerful and sickening stench. So we had to drive along with our heads out of the windows for the rush of fresh air, but then, this diversion trail was so bumpy and dusty we had to slow right down and suffer the smell full-on for hours. It was quite an ordeal.

    Only Kevin accompanied me, Adrienne wasn’t there. She may have been at the initial burial a couple of months before.

  • Elizabeth Selandia

    So, there is another valley for me to find and visit if not in this lifetime, the next …

    Adrienne definitely was at the first funeral, and would not have endured the trip you made; that is not within her capabilities, which while many and varied, do not include the smell of the dead for any reason.

    Thanks for the clarifications. When will the story be completed??? Am waiting anxiously …

    ES

  • Shahbazgarhi is not a valley, it’s on the edge of the Charsadda and Mardan plain that stretches from Peshawar to Sawabi and Topi. We were friends of Shahid Rabbani, son of the local Khan, Khan Ghulam Nabi Khan, who was quite a character himself. They loved Paddy and gave a piece of land by the crossroads for his grave. Later Jan Mohammad built a marble headstone, since he’s known Paddy before leaving England. He’s been to Bob Dylan’s ‘comeback’ concert on the Isle of Wight, and Paddy in his Rolls Royce had picked him up hitchhiking back to London. Long story, it resulted in the Dylan Bootleg “The Great White Album”, recorded by Jan M and published by Paddy. Decades later after Paddy’s death, Jan M built a house next door to mine in Qamaralnday – all washed away in the floods.

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