Hippy Trail 1975 Part 2. Penniless in Pakistan
“Life’s no joke, wondering where to go
All by yourself up the valley
Life’s a glue of what I’m about to do
All by myself up the valley
There’s lots of other types all juggling their hypes
All by themselves up the valley”
En-route to Madyan town, Swat valley, North-West Frontier Province, Early July 1975
From ‘Pindi to Peshawar it is four hours on a comfortable train, with a buffet car in which you can sit alone at a table and watch dry pre-monsoon Pakistan roll by outside the window. On arrival, the horse-drawn tongas take you down from the railway station to the old city, past garish hoardings advertising movies and batteries. They squeeze between the overloaded trucks that block the thoroughfares and belch black gases into your face from beneath their gaudily painted rear ends. The bus station, in the narrow streets behind the bazaar, is thronged with dilapidated vehicles and boys bawling their bus’s destinations and hustling passengers on board to beat the competition.
From here there is a fast minibus service to Mingora, Swat’s capital. It costs a little more than the State buses but it will not stop for man or god. If you take it you are spared the frequent, lurching halts where, after unloading goat and sacks of corn from the roof (where he has been sharing their windy perch) peasant, together with chaudar-clad woman, black from crown to toe (who to exit must fight the length of the jammed interior from the wired-off woman’s section at the back) makes off into an apparently empty wilderness.
Take it! For you will soon have to experience the latter for two wrenching hours on the climb up from Mingora to Madyan, and will have plenty of time then to experience the identikit thoroughfares of the half dozen indistinguishable villages that lie between them. You will see plenty then of the rows of drab shops, selling gritty wheat and shrivelled raisins in baskets, displaying fly-blown meat and cans of Chinese cooking oil and kerosene. Assuming you managed to claim a window seat, you can peer then to your hearts content through the windows that are permanently jammed open, into the dark recesses of identical smoky teashops, with their cauldrons of whitish chai and glass-fronted stands protecting dusty, ancient sweets.
You will soon be tired enough of the deafening rattle of loose window glass, of the hectic, senseless, horn-filled rush between stops. But at least you will be able to thank heaven, and the Pakistani Government, that the fine, paved road has recently been completed all the way to Baharain, the next village after your destination of Madyan, before it grinds into a mountain track. You do not, yet, have to travel further into those regions beyond, where you may be required to help your fellow-passengers in clearing a rock-fall from the road before you can proceed, or glimpse a shattered bus at the foot of a precipice on a particularly unlucky hairpin bend.
So then, because you have sold your blood (fifty rupees a pint) and have therefore for the first time in two months cash in your pocket, you will lean back relatively comfortably as your minibus takes the climb up the Malakand Pass quickly, passing the lumbering giants who left Peshawar an hour before you. The driver will shout raucous encouragement to the small boy who gives the tickets, as he clambers out of the window of the rollicking vehicle to take money from the roof riders. Outside jagged rocks dance in the baked air, all traces of vegetation cooked to dust in the kiln of this climate; while above you crumbling towers on the fired cliff tops guard, empty-eyed, their desolate panoramas.
You will take this chance to enter a dreamy state and consider Alexander and his Macedonians, who passed this way, four thousand fighting miles from the home few of them would ever see again. Or imagine, on the old foot trail winding wearily through the shimmering boulders below the modern road, a camel train laden with goods destined for the Silk Road further north. You can see it in your mind’s eye as they sweat the hours and weeks away while you whistle past in a rush of wind and dust. The bones of the British are not even that fortunate: they lie unmoving under the ruined watchtowers that were once theirs. At the top of the pass there is a fort with a cemetery; a well-preserved monument on a grassy bank records the names of the otherwise-forgotten regiments who defended this outpost in the chaotic days of the North West Frontier, and whose members died like flies from sickness and the bullets of the locals.
Malakand Tribal Agency is next up, indicated by a warning notice not to stop or leave the road at night. The road will pass briefly through this zone where Pakistani Government writ is very thin on the ground, your misdemeanors would be judged by tribal custom, not Civil Court, and it is doubtful whether bearing a British passport would cut much mustard in any disagreement. Until finally your musings are cut short as the road flattens out, greenery appears and breathtakingly, the Swat River is before you. It meanders through emerald fields, lush with ripening wheat, as the distant hills on the far bank perform exquisite changes of silhouette against a brilliant sky. They say it is as beautiful as Kashmir and that Padmasambhava, who brought Tantric Buddhism to Tibet and who was born here, ate his heart out on the barren plateau, pining for his lost homeland.
But this is not Fodor’s guide and my awakening is accompanied by the familiar anxieties that four of these trips between city and village have not assuaged. Neither the Peshawar branch of Grindlays Bank, to which I entrusted my two last half-burnt Fifty US Dollar Thomas Cooke travellers cheques, nor their head office in Rawalpindi, have any news at all about when the damaged cheques might be validated or funds reimbursed. They have been forwarded to London, where they were issued, or to New York because they are denominated in US currency, or might be anywhere in between. They are certainly not present and payable to this skin-and-bone foreigner who shows up every couple of weeks to be sent away disappointed and who is in consequence utterly penniless in a country of mostly penniless people.
Familiar stomach cramps appear as I transfer to the local bus heading up the valley to Madyan. Normally I’d ride the roof here, and look blank and smile when the ticket collector clambers up with his hand out. This time I’m inside with a ticket and half the passengers craning their heads to fix me with long uncomprehending stares. And this is what is starting to strike me as odd about the whole Hippy Trail circus of which I am part: there is no connection between us and the locals except trade. I am an alien dropped into this land; an alien who rent rooms from them, buys their hash, hangs out in their chai shops and will disappear again once an Indian visa is granted, foreign exchange transfer comes through, or dreams of a better destination ahead turn imperative.
Disembarkation at the fag-end of Madyan’s bazaar, a rubbish-strewn yard surrounded by mechanics hammering away behind piles of old tires. A quick shame-filled glance over my shoulder at the patch of green that indicates the town cemetery where, shortly after I first arrived and ignorant that the trees shaded anything of significance, I began to take an urgent piss; to be interrupted by angry shouts and stones whizzing past my cheeks. A rude awakening to the fact that about this very traditional and conservative Muslim society, remote from modern influence until quite recently, I know absolutely nothing.
I walk north up through the bazaar parallel to the Swat river booming unseen below on my left, temporarily forgetting about the pocket full of blood money and thus on automatic to check the chai shops for friends or acquaintances who might buy me a meal. At the junction where the tandoori baker fishes flat breads out of his beehive-shaped oven, I leave the main drag to turn right, parallel now to the Chail stream coming in from the east. “Home” beckons as I cross through the apricot orchard and down onto the stream’s floodplain and make the short hop over the narrow log that spans one of its many braids.
I am one of five living here in a half-roofed cowshed amidst boulders and scrub willows: J-P, mid-thirties Frenchman, my mentor and disciple; French Sacuntala, who stretches her long limbs out every morning for extended yoga practice and whose cool self-assuredness is both a barrier and a come-on to me; Pedro, grizzled, avuncular Uruguayan, always smiling and filling a chillum; and Francisco, Spanish bhakti, clad in immaculate white, chanting by the stream. Together with Danish sisters Dana and Nonnie who sleep elsewhere but pass by often to join in the cooking and to mother me a bit, this makes up a little tribe. They’re all older than me, much more travelled, and all into food this lot: porridge every morning, chais and chapattis and subjees on the boil all day. So I eat and eat, am still hungry and in the morning it all comes pouring out……
“My vows were to sensations
Novelty, food, despair
Drugs, frantic company: deceptions
To keep me clothed when I was bare.”
Time to backtrack and see how all this came about. I pad out my memories with extracts from the sparse and half-garbled jottings of narrative, fantasy and doodles that form my diaries from the time.
Penniless in Pakistan is the sequel to part 1 of my diary which takes me from London to the Turkey/Iran border, in company of my Scottish girlfriend Liz; a two-month journey by hitchhike, bus and train along the famous ‘hippy trail’. The diary stops on our headlong rush through Iran, and through a few increasingly hash-filled days in Afghanistan. A desperate hope that there must be something more fulfilling than our experience of the hassle-choked path beaten by so many travellers during the ten years previously, keeps us moving on into Pakistan and up into what is rumoured to be the idyllic valley of Swat.
As to how it was possible to live without money for so long, the following prices give a picture of just how cheap it was in the East in those days. At 25 Pakistani Rupees to the pound sterling, one rupee would buy you a quarter kilo of lamb, a kilo of tomatoes or a packet of twenty cigarettes. Seventy-five paisa bought a big pot of yoghurt in Nowshera, while ninety paid for yellow split pea dhal and two fresh tandoori naan in a Madyan restaurant. Basic rooms were renting at US$4, or two pounds, per month.
15th May, Madyan
Liz and I arrived in here a couple of days ago, worn out from the road, stressed out from the unrelenting pawing of sex-starved local males, disorientated from the breakdown in our relationship that two months of constant movement through Europe, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan has provoked. It was supposed to be the mountain haven that would give us respite and recuperation time. Instead it was just more of the same. She left today in utter disillusionment. Despite the fact that she’s still two months short of eighteen, I let her; accompanying her down to Mingora on the local bus, helping her find her seat on the express bus for Peshawar, crying with her, but letting her start alone on the five thousand miles back to Scotland.
I just am not ready to abandon what we started yet, so I come back, hollow-hearted, and wander aimlessly through the banana groves beside the Chail, wondering where I will sleep tonight. I can’t face a hotel room, the company of other foreigners or the loneliness of a single bed. A jaunty and bearded figure appears suddenly coming towards me on the path is and for no obvious reason we stop to talk. Next thing I know I’m invited to stay at his place by the river.
“Daybreak, the clear sky
Thrills with birdsong
Cockcrow into morningtide”
J-P likes to sermonize me as we sit beside our outdoor fire and wait for the food to cook, or watch the impressive rush of the Chail stream that runs just behind our hut. It’s an earnest mix of Christianity and Eastern philosophy that goes right past me however much I try to follow. Our friendship is based on our unspoken agreement that in inviting me to live here he has rescued me, and that he therefore has the right to rescue me from ignorance too. Fair enough, I suppose. I guess for me he’s a father figure and I’m certainly aware that without his intervention I would never have found myself living in such a spot and with such an interesting crowd. Pedro hasn’t enough English to do more than smile indulgently on all this and pass the chillum.
We sleep, wrapped up in blankets, outside by the fire. Placed as we are on a kind of island, surrounded by the rush from the main course and the trickle from the log-bridged braid stream, and with the great boom of the Swat River in the distance, we are immersed in water sounds. I hear great symphonies as I lie stoned under the stars at night, and amongst them this song:
“Don’t be alarmed, your life is charmed.
Don’t be afraid, what wasn’t born can’t be destroyed”
Insecure, confused and lonely as I am, it is a comfort to me.
Sacuntala and I pass a day up in the pine forests, high above the town. She is a window into a different kind of traveller than the ones I have met so far on the road. She seems somehow more worldly than them, which is paradoxical, because she’s the one with a guru! She rarely smokes charas, for a start, and although a big eater, hardly ever talks about food. I ask her about the name she’s been given in India, and that uncovers another layer of paradox. It’s original in the Mahabharata is an ideal, long-suffering wife, devoted to her Lord and master and destined for rescue by Him at his leisure. But the Sacuntala who tells me this with a mischievous smile doesn’t act in the least overawed by the four men she’s living with here!
The town is full of other ‘freaks’ scattered in rented rooms and old farm buildings like ours. Amongst them is Palestinian Ahmed, rumoured to be on the run after dropping out from the PLO, whose shouts of “Arabi falafel!’ ring out from his upstairs window whenever he has fried up a batch for sale; and Dragan, a massive Yugoslavian, who breasted the chest-high Chail stream behind our hut for a bet, a feat that everyone had figured was impossible; and a wild-haired Italian with no name who, bearing only a staff and a tiny shoulder bag, can be seen striding into the bazaar from the forests into which he disappears for days on end. A mysterious American, who everyone assumes is either ex- or even current CIA, runs a big ranch with horses on the other side of the Swat and holds parties for exclusive guests.
The Government Hash Shop sits on the main street, displaying tired-looking wares of varying colours. None of us would dream of shopping there at Rs 2 -7 per tola (eight to twenty-eight UK pence per 12 grams). That’s for regular travellers (one of whom I would be but for burnt cheques and J-P), who take rooms in the town’s hotels and soon move on. Mysterious goings-on around our hut, and suspicious-sounding flights to Europe, ensure that we have a ready supply of far better quality.
I walk the hillside paths above the Chail, back into the rural hinterland beyond any roads or tourist presence. They track stone-sided leats and flumes carrying water from upstream and distributing it to tiny plots of wheat and barley. The farms are high-walled and shaded by giant walnut trees. Curious children peek out from branches or wall to watch me pass. None of them have a single word of English and all are too shy to interact with me.
25th May FULL MOON
Party at the house of Kenji, Japanese ocarina player and Goa habitué, with his stories of full moon beach parties, hard drugs and black magic. There’s a huge chocolate cake and I gorge. Weird sensations start to come over me while walking back through the darkness of the town with J-P and I realize that the thing had been absolutely loaded with hash. We come to the log bridge in front of our hut; I skip over as usual but turning am surprised to see J-P on his hands and knees on the far side. I go back over to find him gibbering with fear at the sight of the couple of meters width of water that he has crossed without difficulty a hundred times before. I pull him to his feet and help him across, where he collapses again at my feet. ‘You saved me,” he moans, fixing me with enormous eyes. “You are Jesus, the Saviour, the Messiah…..”. We prop ourselves, unspeaking, against the wall of our hut for hours, the full moon rising above the mountain tops blazing down on us like a laser. I hold him like a mother holding a baby, soothing him as he recovers from whatever epiphany he has just been through, while slowly trying to piece together the pieces of my own reason, fearing that it might be shattered forever.
“Rolling and joking one day with some Frenchies
Up on the top of the Nigar Hotel
Talking of wonderful places to go
Chitral and Kasar Devi, Nepal and Ceylon
Wherever you aren’t, it’s a pure paragon!”
I seat myself under a tree beside the Chail stream and tell myself that I will not move from this spot. All will be admissible here; so that every sensation, every thought, merely occurs until the experiencer becomes the experienced. I don’t even remember how I came upon such an idea; is it a half-digested nugget from ‘Be Here Now’ or some other spiritual guidebook that I have thumbed through back in England?
So here I am writing soon afterwards and what did this earnest would-be Buddha experience? Chaga! Bowel trouble mainly. It didn’t take me long before I was forced from the spot after all.
So down to Rawalpindi it is, lugging my partly-burned travellers cheques from bank to bank, remembering that surreal moment in Herat when I turned over in half sleep towards the bedside table where I had casually tossed the contents of my pouch; to find a lighted candle had tipped over and was slowly beginning its destruction. At the British High Commission in Islamabad some nameless servant of the State was languishing away behind his desk. “Consular Office” the local employee who ushered me in to the crowded room whispered in an awed voice into my ear. The Consul was telling an ex-Hong Kong policeman who had been wounded in service in 1941 that his X-rays were out of date and he would have to be re-examined. His wife rang while he was talking and he lowered his tones and mentioned needing the car on Saturday. Then there were applications for someone-or-others cousin to be allowed to visit UK. It came to me and passed me and I was walking back through the plate glass and aluminium, out of the air-conditioning and into the blast of midday sun. I was suddenly very clear that I didn’t want to be flown out of the East just yet and was glad to find a rickshaw to return me to reality.
So I have no money, apart from twenty-five rupees that an American lawyer pressed into my hand last night after hearing my story. I’d bumped into him in the foyer of the Intercontinental and he’d treated me to a drink at the hotel bar. Feeling pretty pissed, I made it as far as some shrubbery in the forecourt garden and unrolled my sleeping bag for the night right there.
Yesterday and today I ate nothing solid, which did wonders for my belly. So this evening I treated myself to a posh nosh of chicken curry and haven’t felt stronger in ages.
J-Ps and my relationship is starting to feel complicated, wobbling between warmth and cool distance; I’m disillusioned with his preaching about love and God, perhaps because of my growing suspicion that in trying to convince me of the error of my unspiritual attitudes, he’s actually lecturing himself. He’s uniformly kind and friendly with others and welcomes all comers to the cooking fire at our place, but with me his eyes occasionally fire up with what looks like quickly-supressed anger. He and Francisco share long conversations in French which seem to be far more easy-going than most of ours.
20th June, Madyan
Just back from four days walking to Kalam (2070m) and the Ushu valley. Fourteen-odd miles a day, and all on a couple of chapattis and some ladies fingers, not forgetting several chais. The locals, rough and tough in reflection of the physique of the lands they live in, found me as a tourist without money, most unbelievable. But they freely gave me enough to keep me going.
Pushing along those rock-hewn roads, the murky river boiling and thrashing beside me, tall, desiccated hills rising all around, snowy peaks tipping into view above – so often I just wasn’t there (just as I’m not here now?). Mind projecting ahead to food or chai in the next village; or mentally fumbling with figures of the number of miles to go, or gone; worrying about where to put my sleeping bag down for the night. When I was alone, as approaching Madidan in remote Ushu – I was lonely; when in company, as in the Khalid Hotel in Kalam, with its floor-full of Anglo-Saxons smoking and ordering omelette and chips – I was irritated.
But my body got what it needed: the exercise stretching calf muscles; the regular breathing of clean air as I puff up yet another steep incline; above all perhaps an empty stomach, which meant I could get up fresh every morning and walk seven or eight miles even before the first cup of chai. It wasn’t difficult to obey my body’s needs rather than my mind’s desires on those mornings. But the gloomy forests of the Ushu valley, the approaching snow-clad mountains and the increasing sharp cold of the mornings forced my retreat, so I headed back down, taking the bus thirteen of those long miles. Back to find on a Government Tourist map “ Don’t travel at night…especially between Bahrain and Kalam…” Back to dhal, falafel and chapatti, apricot compote and yoghurt, tons of glucose supplement….Yes, you guessed it – I was back on the shits again this morning!
So why do I come back? I have to reconsider my over-hasty judgements of those fellows in the Khalid, because the answer is: to people! J-P and Sacuntala are so genuinely pleased to see me again and I feel ashamed to realize that while I have been focused on others to satisfy my egocentric need for security (not to mention food!) their unearned appreciation and friendship has been given generously to me. With a rush of emotion I see how this then is what it means to grow spiritually: to be open minded like a child in every situation and accept that whatever I thought I knew before, no longer automatically holds for now. That I am not very successful in clearing away the mental trash of what was and what will be from the Now, is the point at which the search for true religion begins.
I am invited for dinner at the home of a local teacher who I met in the bazaar. His questions about what I am doing here meet with my garbled answers (as if I knew!) so in puzzlement he soon turns to proudly educating me a bit about where we are.
His sketched geography sets my head whirling. It is possible to jeep and trek further on from Kalam (where I took the Ushu river fork) along the Utrot river. After a long curve south to avoid the glaciers of Kohistan, part of the Hindu Kush range, and then north again, I would join a road that eventually ends up in Chitral. There I could visit the Kalash, a small tribe of polytheistic people of Dardic stock in their remote valleys on the Afghan border. Then I could head east and hit the Karakorum Highway in Gilgit. This is nearing completion, he assures me, and would soon allow me to cross by a 4,693-meter pass into Chinese Tibet. Up in those regions they speak a curious language isolate called Burushaski, unrelated to any other language on Earth. Just one of more than sixty languages of Pakistan, he tells me proudly. His wife, relatively modern and educated, is the first local woman I have even seen outside a burka, let alone talked to since I arrived in Madyan. She won’t sit to eat with us, but joins us after serving ours and clearing away. Turns out they both went to college in Punjab in the plains, which is what makes them different.
Letter from Mother, with the news that my travellers cheques have been forwarded on from London to New York for validation. She encloses five pounds in cash, which miraculously survives the journey. Liz has written to her from Istanbul, she relates, having hitched there from Teheran together with an Aussie girl.
Early July Rawalpini
‘Pindi’s heat glares down. I bum a fag, having given all mine to the three lorrymen who dropped me here. Dana gave them to me, expensive Western ones from the duty-free on her flight from Copenhagen. She’s spending hundreds of dollars back and forth to Europe and here’s me trying to change ten Yugoslav Dinars into some nice viable rupees to live on. I’d felt sick from smoking too many of them anyway.
July 12th Madyan
Pedro, Francisco and Sacuntala leave for Kabul. A depressing emptiness is left in their place, with J-P and I now here alone. There is this constant nagging sense that he wants something more from me that is never articulated. It occasionally crosses my mind that he might dream of moving our relationship onto a physical level but he never gives any hint of that. Simply a more enthusiastic endorsement of his spiritual guidance perhaps? Or more motherly soothing a la post-epiphany under the full moon? Could it really be that he hopes for a further revelation of my messiah-hood? So much remains unsaid between us. Wrapped up in our sleeping bags outside the hut last evening, we get caught in a terrible storm and struggle, soaked through, along the river track to Dana and Nonnie’s house for rescue. With them he is as usual in his mature and confident exterior pose, but I get glimpses through it to the troubled soul within.
Or are they just glimpses into my own? I’m feeling utterly dissatisfied with everything. I’m unable to find the will, the energy or the light to break out of my food trip, which takes the form of constant mental preoccupation with what I’ve eaten, or am about to eat, or long to eat. I’ve made two trips to Peshawar within a few days, trying and failing to say goodbye to Madyan, being pulled back to this place of comfort but not joy. So, prepared to consider all possibilities (even the recurrent ‘back to Europe?’) I find myself directionless here once again.
Jul 23rd on train Peshawar to Rawalpindi
Hoping yet again for good news re money in ‘Pindi.
Yesterday some locals stop in a car as I walk towards the hospital to sell blood. ‘Come to Kohat and join the circus!” they shout. We speed a couple of hours over the hills via a peek at the gun shops of Dara Adamkhel. I spend the night in a gypsy encampment on a shrivelled grass maidan in the town. But despite being the celebrated foreigner and fed juicy tidbits etc, I feel insecure and the next morning I ride the roof of the bus back to the familiarity of Peshawar.
The idea of heading back to Madyan is no longer very attractive. I wonder what J-P is up to back there with the newly-shaven face and kurta-pyjamas he suddenly presented himself in the day I left? My 3 months visa-free in Pak is running out soon and the only thing pulling me ‘onwards to India’ is the idea of better food. Not much of a reason to go, is it?
In Jan’s in Peshawar eating baked fish in a/c. Seen scrawled on a hotel room wall: “If the truth were known, it would not be me that knew it”.
New Moon August 10th, Madyan
The khana house beside the Rainbow hotel, scene of so many chais, parathas and yoghurts. I’m preparing once again to leave this little town, this time finally. Of the many people I have met and been fed by here in their hidden-away places dotted throughout the landscape, apart from Dana and Nonnie, who are anyway out of the country right now, I feel to say goodbye to none. It’s not that I’m ungrateful, I just don’t have any cheer to share.
I sit with J-P on the roof of our hut and he asks me to return to Europe with him. Does he want me to be his disciple, does he want to be mine? Does he need my presence for his sanity since his revelation that full moon night? But I have locked that whole experience away in a place marked ‘unexplainable’ (together with an uncanny feeling that that searing white moonlight burned away some nameless and age-old dross in me) and I can’t ask any of this. I just say ‘no’ to him and he turns away from me in despondency.
The wise man perhaps leaves only a very small hole when he sinks through the pavement and out of sight. Poor mad me: I leave a gaping hole and much pain for those who love me….
Following some chaotic scene about contested hotel rooms, and J-P fighting with the police, I find myself walking towards a line of hills with him as darkness falls. I know we have been here before. The scenery is odd, a pattern as if seen from directly above. Other shadowy figures are on the road too. Up in the sky to the left we notice a formation of birds – birds that are like golden points of light. A feeling grows on me like an awesome portent that they are in fact UFOs. They move rapidly overhead and dissolve into a huge silver disc filling half the sky. Around me there are gasps and cries of wonder and fear. The disc grows smaller and becomes a painted face. I grip J-Ps arm in horror as it begins to morph from one contorted cartoon feature into another, all showing pain and grief. I understand that that the face is a caricature of my own.
Later that same night I hear voices in another dream. They tell me I have something wrong with my testes and will never be able to have children. It seems very real.
My next diary entry is August 21st from Kabul, Afghanistan, recording that I had left Pakistan the day before. I have no memory of my last ten days in the country, except that I bought a chawdar (shawl) that held a lot of meaning for me as a souvenir.