Afghanistan, here we comeby The Listener
Two sisters set off to climb a remote mountain that had been scaled just once before.
When Christine and I announced we’d be mountaineering in Afghanistan, friends and family threw up their hands in horror. “What, you old biddies?” they said incredulously. “What about the Taleban? The suicide bombings? The burqas?” But I’d wanted to climb in this much-maligned part of the world for as long as I could remember and it didn’t take much to convince my sister Christine to come with me. “Let’s go celebrate our glorious fifties,” I said to her. We chose a mountain – Koh-e-Baba-Tangi (6515m), which was in the “Wakhan Corridor” area of the Hindu Kush and which had had just a solitary ascent, in 1963. For the next year we grappled with embassies for visas, applied for financial grants and appealed for sponsorship. I invited my Indian friend Satyabrata Dam to join us – he had always wanted to visit Afghanistan, too. In mid-July we left New Zealand bound for Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. We were finally on our way.
Arriving in Dushanbe, we were surprised to find a lovely uncongested city of elegant buildings, wide boulevards and fountains. There was obviously no shortage of water, which was surprising considering the temperature was in the 40s and the surrounding countryside dry as a chip. Satya had arrived before us and had the lie of the land. Over the next three days we inched south towards the Afghanistan border in our rented 4WD, reduced to a top speed of 20km/h by the dire state of the roads. I was fascinated by the rusting hulks of Russian tanks lying in the river beds, a legacy of the Afghan-Russian war of the early 1980s. The landscape was arid, mountainous and empty.
On the third day, Gordo, our amicable driver, bundled us out of the vehicle at a large gate fronting a bridge across the enormous brown Panj River. This was the border and it was midday and very hot. In the middle of the stony river bed were two small buildings – the Tajik Customs and Immigration and the Afghan Customs and Immigration. We towed our multitude of kit through the dust to first one, then the other. Formalities went smoothly and soon we were on our way to Ishkashim, a tiny village perched on a terrace above the river.
Wandering into the middle of town, which was nothing more than a ragged bazaar around a dirt crossroad, we were relieved to find the locals warm and helpful. There was the odd blue burqa, but also plenty of women on the street in the colourful Wakhi dress. Inside the Police Compound, which we visited for a requisite permit, the men had laid down their AK-47s and were playing chess at a large table in the sun. They invited us for lunch.
The next day, as we bumped along the Wakhan Corridor in a battered jeep, I was reminded of the overland travel I’d done in the 80s – no internet, no mobile or satellite phone, no contact with the outside world. We would be on our own, incommunicado, for almost a month; we had cut loose.
The scenery was vast – huge arid mountains with brief glimpses of glaciers and 6000-7000m ice-capped peaks up the side valleys. Remote villages of flat-roofed mud houses were encircled by insignificant areas of irrigated green, and all the while the vast Panj River barricaded us from Tajikistan and the Pamir Mountains on the far side. We learnt that the corridor was populated by Ismaili Muslims, who embraced a liberal form of Islam that deplored the Taleban, so the area had remained free of the strife engulfing the rest of the country.
Arriving in the little village of Kret late in the afternoon, we were an immediate magnet for every occupant. We were an eclectic group: two middle-aged Kiwi women, an Indian ex-submariner and eight Afghan porters (to help carry our equipment).
We left next morning for base camp beneath Koh-e-Baba-Tangi. The porters were a delightful team: funny, kind and generous, sharing their tea, rice and naan (flat bread) with us and making sure that Christine and I didn’t wobble off the faint trail. As we climbed up towards the Baba-Tangi glacier, there were glorious views of the Pamir Mountains to the north and, of course, our mountain, Koh-e-Baba-Tangi, directly above. We reached our designated base camp after two days’ walk – a rugged flat the base of the mountain – and that night camped under a crystal-clear sky with the Pamir Mountains silhouetted against the sunset.
I had climbed in many parts of the world, but to climb a peak in Afghanistan, a country dealt the harshest of blows by the hand of war, proved a dream come true. Five days after leaving the valley floor, Christine and I reached the summit of Kohe-Baba-Tangi on a cold, clear, blustery day, only the second party ever to do so. We were greeted by hazy, dreamlike views into Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, China and Pakistan and, of course, Afghanistan.
Next morning, we began our descent to the West Ridge, the route taken by the original Italian party in 1963. We found the remains of their camps, flattened areas on the rocky ridgeline and desiccated sticks from their fires. We reached the glacier the next day, silly with elation. We’d made it to the top, and so the endless organisation, bureaucratic hassles and long journey from New Zealand had all been worthwhile. Suddenly Christine spied a distant figure wandering about on the ice. We clambered onto a big boulder, and balancing precariously in our clumsy boots, waved and shouted, “We’re here! We’re here!” The figure paused and looked about. Then Satya jumped in the air, raised both arms above his head and waved back.
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