One Wild Journey, One Crazy Couple, One Life to Live
I wake up, somewhat stiff from the cold, to raised voices outside my tent. Groggy and achy I look for my clock. 4:50 am. Ugh. Normally, I wake up with a need to immediately find a toilet. I am hoping this is not going to be made worse by the yoghurt, tea, and bread of last night. I crawl out of my sleeping bag and shiver at the cold air. Really?! Do I really need to be up and out of my cozy cocoon before 5 am!? It’s COLD!
I pull on my gloves and sweater, roll up my sleeping bag, pack up my things and eat my Gerbers pear and an oat bar before unzipping my tent. I crawl out to find a crowd of a dozen people standing around the tent. Lucky for me, someone in the crowd has managed to find a semi-English-speaking villager to translate the chaos for me. As it turns out, the original driver who was sent from Ishkashim to pick me up from the airport in Kret, has arrived in Sarhad. He has my walking permit in hand, but wants to make sure he is going to get paid for the drive, even though someone else drove me from Kret. I can see this discussion was not going to be an easy one. I have already agreed to pay the driver who brought me here for the distance from Kret to Sarhad and the drive back to Ishkashim. This is already the price I had agreed with Juma Gul, who helped to arrange the car. If I have to pay another driver for the distance from Ishkashim and back, I will be well over budget, and frankly I do not have the cash. This is awkward.
The discussion gets somewhat heated and I start to feel uncomfortable about the whole situation. The new driver tells me that he is the one who holds my walking permit and that I cannot go any further without it. I understand this as a “you’re going to have to pay me” statement. I offer a compromise by dividing the overall price by the number of days and providing 2 days worth to the first driver, who can drive back to Kret today, and the remainder to the second driver who will have to wait for me. All seem to be in agreement, but I can see it is not 100%. I decide not to push it any further and instead ask if the donkey is also up at this unearthly hour. I set out to the bathroom while someone heads off to find me a porter.
Soon my bags are atop my new best friend who will save my back from aches and pains over the next few days. As a final touch, I ask the porter, Juma, to add my water and sunscreen to the load, somewhere accessible. With those vital items secured, we head toward the Pamirs. Our first stop, however, is the police station where I need to surrender my walking permit, which is, in fact, a hand written note stating that the governor supports my walk. I find this amusing given the fact the governor actually refused to sign off on my walk without three different versions of letters and a phone call from Kabul. The police station is a single building with an Afghan flag, in the middle of a field. The police take my permit, with barely a glance, and offer me a cup of tea. Finally my permit is passed to a young officer at the top of the room. He is the only person able to read. He reads the permit out loud while everyone in the room nods in satisfaction. I am waved out of the station with two packages of World Food Programme fortified biscuits pressed into my hand. I decide the biscuits are not on my Crohn’s diet plan and pass them on to Juma. He is happy with his gift from WFP.
From the police station, we are but a 15 minute walk to the gateway to the Pamirs. I am pretty excited. That is until I find myself puffing and panting at the top of the first hill. Notice the emphasis on hill, as we have by no means reached the height of any of the mountain passes that lie ahead. I blame it on the altitude and forge ahead, thankful that I am carrying just a daypack.
Over the first pass, we meet a couple of men coming from the other direction on horseback with huge loads of what looks like potatoes. I have no idea what time they had to have left wherever they are coming from to be reaching their destination at this hour, but I have no doubt they question the intelligence of someone walking through their mountains for pleasure. I am already envious of their mode of transport.
The sun is HOT. I did not expect it to be quite so hot, considering the warnings I was given about staying warm. I find myself constantly reaching for my water off the donkey, so decide to carry it instead. Juma, who does not have a word of English and as far as I can tell has very limited Dari, motions to me that he will carry my water. I figure I should at least show some degree of strength, given the fact that I am used to carrying my whole kit.
The scenery is spectacular. The mountains close in around us as we follow a narrow walking path along the north ridge. It is dry and dusty and I have gone through most of my water. I am also feeling the burn of the sun on my face. I stop the donkey to reapply sunscreen. I guzzle the last of my water before filling it in the stream and putting it and my sunscreen back on the donkey in preparation for the mountain pass looming above me. The climb is tougher than I had expected. By the time I reach the top I am, admittedly spent. I take a couple of swigs of water and walk to a large boulder above the path and sit, catching my breath.
During the ascent, the load on the donkey shifted. Juma takes the donkey to the top of the path, plants his foot into its belly and yanks the load back over to the other side with all his might. As he does so, I hear a crack and a small thud as my sunscreen slips off the other side of the donkey. Closely following, is my water. I jump off my rock to chase after it. My sunscreen lands on a small rock ledge and I think I may be able to reach it. Unfortunately, the much heavier bottle of water hits it from behind, dislodging it and sending it pummeling down the mountain side. Both bottles bounce and crash their way through the rock toward the fast flowing river below.
I look up at the scorching sun and feel the saliva in my mouth immediately evaporate. Juma stands at the edge of the path beside me and looks at me sheepishly. I don’t understand him, but assume he is apologizing. I now not only have no way of carry water, but I also have no way of protecting my self from become a face full of blisters in the days to come. He looks at me and down at the river as he shrugs hopelessly. The only word I have is “shit.” Looking back at me Juma echos me with a quiet “shit.”