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Blog 53 - Where Mountains Meet

I hadn’t expected to see a leopard cross the road. But then again, I had not anticipated being in this remote corner of the world where indeed mountains meet, close to the Kyber Pass, in Northern Pakistan bordered by Afghanistan and Kashmir. My fine chiffon silk scarf with its animal print brings back that fleeting moment. Was it the elusive snow leopard or the common leopard? Indeed, how could any leopard ever be common? I am no David Attenborough, so I cannot judge. This was just after New Year 1984 and I am sure this would be an even rarer sight today, even in these remote Hindu Kush mountains.

We were living in California at the time and had spent Christmas with our eldest daughter Lorne in London, a precious time with our first grandchild just fourteen months old. Our family was scattered around the world, parents in Cambridge, a younger daughter Clare who would later that year move to Australia but then with us in USA and my sister and her husband living in Karachi. It was planned we would meet in Pakistan to see in the New Year. Some of the family had already spent Christmas together there. We arrived separately to be greeted at Karachi airport by local Parsi friends we knew from the hotel industry. We were led off the plane to a waiting car and whisked through a special lounge without the usual queues and passport formalities. Back in the car and then a hair raising drive with our local friend at the wheel who fancied himself as a Formula One driver. Our large suitcases which had left San Francisco bulging with Christmas gifts now looked very empty as the last ones were handed over. What a temptation now to fill them with treasures from the bazaar, the copper and brass merchant who visited my sister’s house and laid his wares on the grass, the carpet shop… were we going to stuff four rugs into these suitcases? We did….and more!

New Year’s Eve in Karachi. That’s a lot different to a Hogmanay in Scotland, yet in some ways similar. We went to three parties in one night! First one was a grand affair hosted by a Pakistani couple in their garden beautifully decorated with a wonderful colourful embroidered fabric shamiana, a sort of marquee. It was a full scale dinner for dozens of guests. Then on to a Scottish couple’s home for Party No. 2. Only my brother in law and I survived Party No. 3, the most bizarre of the lot, with foreign consular staff mingling and an odd interchange of languages. I found myself speaking French. My brother in law Michael played football with the Bulgarian diplomat, hence our invitation. Feeling slightly out of place, we left before the vodka was a drink too far. We had a big adventure ahead of us. I can’t remember if it was January 1st or 2nd when brother in law, husband, daughter, nephew Danny and I flew from Karachi to Islamabad and thence to our friend’s hotel in Lahore, leaving my sister behind to care for our visiting parents. It must have been the 2nd….don’t think we would have made it next day after such a night. Our poor daughter was feeling rather sick at this stage. A very unusual day having afternoon tea with a Pakistani Army General friend of M and his gracious wife in Islamabad…. fine bone China cups, silver teapot, dainty sandwiches. Had it not been so humid with such verdant vegetation, one could have imagined one was having tea with the Vicar, nay, an Archbishop back in England. The General very kindly lent M a car and off we set for the North.

The roads got rougher, more narrow and less and less road signs. At one point we came to a fork, no signs. Fortunately, Michael made the right decision and eventually saw a name we recognised, Kyber Pass. Even nearly forty years ago this was a forbidden military zone. Goodness knows how dangerous it must be today. We reckoned we were roughly heading in the right direction. M was on a private buying mission, nothing to do with his job, finding old Swati carved wooden chests. He must have had an address for these but it was surely no shop. I think chickens were nesting in the chests. He did the deal, paid cash and trusted the chests would be there for later transport to Karachi. No idea how the word got out, no telephones or internet, but people would suddenly appear from nowhere with a chest by the wayside in open country hoping for a sale. Quite by accident, we came across the site of an old Ghandaran temple whilst trying to find our way. I remember only the nettles. Again a young lad had appeared by the roadside to direct us and earn some coins. By now, the light was fading and we were back on our way. It was later that the big cat leapt across the road from the dense undergrowth and was quickly gone. It was dark when we reached our destination high in the Swat Valley and checked into the old fashioned Rest House. It was very cold; handed a one bar electric fire and a candle. Fire useless, complete electricity cut in entire valley. Total blackout. Curry dinner, couldn’t see what we were eating, billiards by candlelight, slept in my clothes.

Next day’s assignment was to buy from an old guy’s home. Great secrecy. No idea if we were gullible foreigners. Through locked gate, daughter and I left outside house with young girl who offered us a seat on a dusty, very low, canvas camp bed and some dried berries from an equally dusty branch. Cherries, small plums or apricots?She was covered with scabs, chicken pox, smallpox? Declined berries. M bravely munched a few. Eventually we were invited inside. No windows, a central open fire with smoke going through the roof, rough walls with primitive painting. Very smoky and brown. The men disappeared to discuss the purchase. Eventually we left through the locked gate, got into the car which had been guarded by husband and nephew and a few minutes later the old man delivered the purchase through the car window wrapped in a dirty cloth. It all felt rather threatening for a piece of old jewellery. The one street village had every trade operating on its pavements. One could have a haircut, a tooth pulled, shoes re-soled, be offered a cup of tea with condensed milk before any purchase was made, a sticky sweet, boiled egg, or a can of Seven Up. Looking back, I now realise I never bought a scarf. I did buy lots of heavy silver tribal jewellery which in latter years has done in my arthritic shoulders. How to achieve a dowager’s hump with a heavy silver necklet!

I found the local people charming, hospitable and yes, honest. A great surprise was the fine looks of some people with golden skins and pale blue green eyes….a reminder from Alexander The Great’s military campaigns in that area? We were not robbed despite my brother in law carrying cash in his briefcase; his purchases of many chests were honoured and finally found their way to Karachi for restoration along with very low Swati chairs. I wonder if they were transported by one of these highly decorated Bedford trucks which my artist nephew Danny painted later that year? Alas, these chairs too now have limited use back in UK with ageing bad knees and hips! We don’t have to sit so near the ground to escape smoke filled low roofs. Did we miss out on some healing herbs or dried apricots in these mountains to ward off rheumatism? Maybe we were buying the wrong things. We left the antique rugs in London, then filled our cases again with Marmite, Robertson’s marmalade, strong Cheddar cheese, custard powder, undies from Marks & Spencer and set off once more across the Atlantic over the north Pole to drop down home to San Francisco. Yes, my shalwar kameez and tribal jewellery were also packed to be greatly admired at more than one Californian garden party. I can’t remember where we then left the horse’s head cover in bright colours, richly embroidered and decorated with small circles of mirror. It was later framed and now hangs on a wall in Wiltshire. A face mask with a difference!

I bought my leopard print silk scarf just two weeks ago. Talking of face masks, I got caught out today without mask and had to double wrap the said scarf around my nose and mouth. I am not likening my largish nose and occasionally dribbling mouth under layers of silk to the K2 mountain of the Hindu Kush and the gurgling Swat River, but I will still put today’s make-do mask in my memory bank!

Busy Bee, Scarf Face!

Series 2, Blog 53.

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Jul 11, 2021

Thank you Hazell for transporting Dorothy and me back so vividly into the atmosphere of the Swat Valley and new year in Karachi.


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