Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Donkey Story

On the extreme upper right of Afghanistan is a little finger reaching out East. It's the Wakhan Corridor. Straight north of it is Tajikistan's Pamir mountains, South of it is Pakistan's Hindukush and the provinces of Chitral on the left part, and Gojal, on the right part.
Well, there is a trek in Pakistan that takes about 13 days and follows the border of Afghanistan and the Wakhan Corridor.
These people that we encountered throughout this trek have a name: they are Wakhis. Wakhis are Ismaili, followers of the Aga Khan who lives in France. They are also called the mountain Tajiks. They speak a funny language of Indo-European origins, made of lots of guttural and nasal sounds. It sounds sometimes like stones rumbling underwater in the river bed. Otherwise, Pakistan's lungua franca is urdu - a language that both Mareile and I speak. I also have basic of Wakhi. Of course, this was essential to our trek - being understood by the head of the village as well as by the shepherd.

But donkeys speak a different language, and we had to learn this one.

After 2 days travel by jeep from Gilgit over the famous Shandur pass we arrived in Lasht Yarkhun, in Chitral Province, the start of our trek. We would have to trek for 13 days, in an arc motion, to reach the end of the Chapursan valley, the shrine of Baba Ghundi, in the Gojal Province. That's about 140 km through the Hindukush, crossing 5 high passes. With a donkey we would have more freedom - unlike guides or porters, it needed no tent or food. We also had more responsibility: we were on our own, we couldn't expect to be rescued by anybody in case of trouble and we just didn't want to end up with a dead donkey···
Anyway, on the way to Lasht, talking on the roof of the jeep with a Wakhi, I found out that Lasht was, as you say in Urdu, a "gada ka dunia". A "donkey world". You would trip over them since they were so plentiful, roaming the hills and covering the muezzin with their plaintive "Hi-Han"! That was a good start. We reached Lasht in the night, after 8 hours on a dirt track, dropping passengers and picking up goats along the way.
We unpacked the tent quickly, and cooked some noodles. Some border police came by, smiley faces in the night, we offered to share our noodles with them but they knew better - "western food is funny looking, we like to stick to our Chai and Chappati". They asked us where we were heading - I said up the hill as usual. "No guide" "Nope" I answered "no need, we speak the language and have experience in these hills".
In fact, we actually needed a permit to enter this zone, but knowing Pakistan and its "flexible rules", we knew there would be a way around. There is always a way around, unlike other countries like china for example···
Next day, we met Shams-u-din ("light of the Islam") and his father. They were going the same direction as we were, towards the first pass we would encounter: the Boroghil Pass, bordering with Afghanistan. His father had land and family relatives in Afghanistan, in the Wakhan Corridor, in Sarhad (meaning "border"), the main village you went through after passing the border over the Boroghil pass.
I told Shams-u-din we needed a donkey, and we agreed that 3000Rp (about 50 Euros) would be a fair price. We didn't have to move to meet the locals, they were coming to us. After 10mn, we heard that someone went to fetch a donkey for us. An old man, with black kolh in his eyes and the rolled up Chitrali hat, came back pulling on a rope. At the end of the rope was a white snout. And attached to this white snout, droopy eyes where looking down, trying to spot a good tuff of grass. This could be our donkey for 3000Rp I was told. Shams-u-din said her "power" was good, using the word in English and pressing on her back. To my eyes she was a donkey, power or no power. And she could carry our 20 kilos it seems. Shams-u-din even did a small 3m ride on her back, demonstrating his point. We could get the dirty rugs and the wooden frame covering the donkey for the same price. We would need this to attach our luggage. We looked at each other with Mareile··· "Done deal?? - yeeeeaaaah! We have a donkey" . I gave the guy 3100Rp, the extra 100 for the dirty rug and the wooden frame. He was the happiest man in the valley. Before parting, I asked him the name of our new long-eared friend. He pronounced something out the back of his throat while clinching his teeth··· I could get something similar, but had to pinch my nose at the same time, not practical I thought. It was a tough one, it sounded like "yisch" with the "I" behind like a "wet" sound. It simply meant grey! I was expecting something more romantic. Turned out that all donkeys, horses or camels are called by their color characteristics, not by the imagination of their owner. Other simple names include "khukhoon" (white), "shioo" (black), "rakhsch" (brown) and "sszerd" (striped). But with our alphabet, it is impossible to translate these sounds on paper. I am just trying to give you an idea of the complexity of the task. Hence our decision to name her "Clementine". That way I would have both my hands free when I called her name through the mountains. Surely that name change revolutionized our poor donkey's world, but that's another story - the one where Clementine tells us about those 2 strange looking fellows sporting colored backpack and speaking in strange tongues···
Next thing we bought some 5m of rope, one of the rare things for sale in the lonesome shop (that last one we would see for 13 days) and we packed the beast.

And off we went - Mareile, Shams-u-din, Khaniq, another unknown fellow who was heading the same direction, the donkey and myself. The valley at this point was wide and we just had 5-6 hours to go to Kishmanja, our spot for the night. Shams-u-din was hoping to rent a horse on the way for his father. It turned out impossible. All the horses were up in the high pastures··· Old Khaniq will have to endure.
It felt good to be on the trail with an animal bobbing along. This is both entertaining and comforting. But it proved quite a bit of maintenance as well. The luggage was always sliding on the side, needing constant readjustment. I wanted to join in the roping up but was told to sit back, relax - they probably thought my roping capacities was inadequate, and I am not blaming them - so I sat, paying close attention, knowing in 2 or 3 days we would really be on our own, and that would be my daily task···
Anyway, coming down to river level with old Khaniq singing along, we reached a point were 2 huge boulders obstructed the way. There was a big 1 meter high step and there was no chance Clementine could step that high. On the right were the rushing grey waters, on the left a steep scree. We had to go this way. A shepherd arriving from the other side, the only person we met the whole day took a look at it and suggested we lifted the donkey over the obstacle. Clementine's eyes were drooping by the seconds··· We unloaded her and Shams-u-din standing in front, reached under her belly and lifted the front of her body. Standing behind her, I pushed and shouted one big scary SHHHHHHHoooooooooWWWaaaa! Her two front legs were leaning on the high step. She struggled forward and finally got a grab on her back leg, lifting herself up in one awkward motion. She was probably 3 or 4 years old, and by the way she walk on the trail, it didn't look like she had come around here before. Now, faced with such obstacles, she must have started to wonder which way she was heading, probably hatching a plan of escape···

We eventually reached Kishmanja where we set camp in a small forest. Soon a man came with his son. They were really dirty and looked really poor. We talked in Wakhi, him asking me the usual Where When Why and the final "Who is your guide?". Me responding France, 1 month ago, because we like trekking and "our Guide? The donkey right there!" And the laughing that followed··· Another man came, he had a little bit of a hallucinated look, with a constant beatitude in his smile. I knew that when you come close to the Afghan border, some of the Wakhi were using opium, although the consumption had reduces tremendously in the last 4 years since the Aga Khan, their spiritual leader, had delivered an edict telling them to stop this harmful habit. But this guy looked funny and I wondered··· He looked at me frying onions over the stove while Mareile went to fetch water at the spring. We were back in the routine. After so many treks with Mareile, we were tuned and this - camping in wilderness - was business as usual. The guy eventually left and I chewed on some horsemeat.
We settled in our tent. I fiddle on the short wave radio, an indispensable element for journeying through the mountains. When nature called, I went out, did my thing, then went checking on Clementine, seeing that the rope was still attached to the tree and the grass plenty. I came close with my headlight, and when I was 4 meters away a strange thing happen. She looked like she was convulsing or trying to throw up, her belly compressing itself, her mouth closing and opening. She emitted a strange sound - like a squeak. It took me a few seconds to realize what was going on. She was trying to bray, but was obviously unsuccessful··· Could that be true? Could I erase from my list the feared early morning wake-up call brassy, raspy bray, the characteristic Aw-EEEE, Aw-EEEE sounds assimilated with all donkeys! I couldn't believe our luck, yet it turned out to be true: we had a mute donkey!!!!
I came back skipping to the tent and revealed the unbelievable truth to Mareile. She had a startled look. She had actually thought the same day that it would be nice to have a mute donkey··· Maybe, like in the fairy-tale, her wish had come true··· Anyway, lying in the tent; I became convinced that this donkey had been such a great bargain because of its muteness. This was a win-win situation! I fell asleep with a smile on my face. Lots non-braying day ahead!

extract from : "Thirteen days following the Karambar An trek with our donkey Clementine, on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan - Hindukush, Pamir and Karakoram mountain ranges. September 2004"