Saturday, September 23, 2006



Next morning, before departure, Dr. Ali Mohammed presented me with four apples, and I was again in the road. By then it was impossible to foretell that these apples were going to be decisive in securing my entrance to China. After twenty minutes waiting A Nissan truck pulls by. The trucker is a man from Peshawar, sporting a white shawar camisse and dark bushy beard. It could be said that he has looked for a truck like him, judging by the hairy look of hundreds of metal chains that hang down the front bumper. The bearded man and his fellow had alarming levels of testosterone, and during all the trip to Passu didn't fail at spotting any of the women of questionable sex appeal that were tending the fields, with a happiness only matched by Columbus sailors at spotting land. Even if the truck was going all the way to Sost, the last Pakistani settlement before China, I decided to stop in Passu to photograph the immense glaciers that literally reach the road here. I had to wait an hour before hopping into another Sost-bound truck. This time, one of the drivers was an educated person who spoke English and Arabic. Unfortunately, he mistook my curiosity for Arabic language as curiosity for Islam, and therefore tried to pack it and sell it. He insists that Islam is the only religion that prepares us for the life that will come after the inevitable apocalypses. He was rather surprised when I told him that almost all other religion predict the same sequence and that more than one prophet promoted the same after hour. So focused was that man with the life after death that he was hardly sensible to the subtle harp of the present moment. He additionally committed a classic local contradiction, and with the peculiar logic of intolerance, he stated that all Muslims were brothers, and that the Ismailies were not Muslims. Otherwise, as most Pakistanis, he was a soft and overwhelmingly kind man who would have never rise a finger to kill a fly.

Sost was a typic border wasteland redeemed by the exotica conferred to it by the parked Chinese tracks waiting to unload, their incomprehensible characters an advance of the forthcoming world on the other side of the Khunjerab Pass. Before crossing to China I had another piece of challgenge for myself, namely, visiting the most remote Hospitality Club member I have heard of, excepting those in Antarctica. Alam's mail, confirming his readiness to help in his native village of Zoad Khon, in the Chapurson Valley, had come as a surprise and a challenge. Firstly because Zoad Khon didn't turn up in any normal map. Secondly, because when it did turn up in a trekking scale map, it resulted that Alam lived in the last stretch of a valley extending all the way north from Sost to Afghanistan's Wakhan corridor, a particularly cut off area where Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and Tajikistan are all within fifty kilometers of each other. While smooth buses or are usually enough to make it to European member's doorstep, reaching Alam's home demanded walking twenty kilometers in the darkness, with the flash of my camera as only defense against the rare but probable snow leopards, before miraculously meeting a jeep out of any schedule. Chapurson Valley was only "opened" to foreigners in 1999. Despite this, the isolation of the valley acts as a filter, and only eighty foreigners make it here every year. Its 2000 inhabitants, who share Wakhi as their mother tongue with thir neighbors of Northeast Afghanistan, peacefully make a living from growing weath, potatoes and tomatoes.

Most probably, Alam is the only cosmopolitan man in the valley. He is fully entitled to the adjective, not only for speaking English, but mainly for having an e-mail address and the only computer in the valley. Internet? That will have to wait, since post, land telephones and mobile coverage have been on the queue for even longer. As a good Wakhi, he receives me with a salted tea, and introduces himself. Only looking at Alam, a long haired, strongly built, easy laugh man is enough to agree that the matrix of the traditional Wakhi suffered a mutation at the decisive moment of creation. Mountain guide, musician, poet, but principally, horseman, he seems to know each valley and stream of his country, and has even discovered new mountain passes into Afghanistan. Besides the tourism related activities Alam bids to improve education in the area, and believes that local kids should not be disadvantaged having never confronted a keyboard. It was thanks to his contact with a North American benefactor that his village became the first in the valley with running water.

Naturally, it was Alam to advise me to walk 10 km further to Babagundi, a hamlet near the Afghan border used as meeting point for trade with Kyrgyz nomads from the Wakhan corridor. In this corner of the world the Pamir mountains keep modernity at bay, and harbour the last breezes of the Silk Route. It's six hours walk, among fields where complete families harvest wheat manually using curved knives. Finally, there it is, Babagundi: a dozen stone huts, a meteorological tower, and some twenty obese cows grazing within a large fence. Once in the "center", landmarked by the teahouse, the encounter couldn't have been more direct: three men with baggy pants, boots, Cossack style caps and knives by the side organize in the windswept ground a whole diversity of objects, from carpets to cooking pans. A little to the side, another two stitch flour bags. They are Kyrgyz nomads! And the fat cows, yaks. The first I ever see. Mi arrival has coincided with that of a caravan of twenty yaks, led by eight horsemen. As I drink the tea that eventually came from some side, I ask my self: what century is this? As Richard Bach, I start to believe that time is an invention of mortgage salesmen and car designers. On their way to communism, places like the DDR achieved, instead eternity... The image of the stretched eyed, red worn skin, and angular beards, loading flour bags in his yaks, belongs to no time. They have traveled five days on horseback, bringing with them sheep and goats, and yak cheese, to trade for all sort of objects from shoes to lighters. Every object is precious back in the Pamir Mountains. Visiting a doctor implies a week trip by horse. This seclusion redounds in self-medication, a record maternal mortality and opium addiction rate. Communication is difficult: the Kyrgyz have never seen foreigners and smile nervously. Their language is XX % Farsi, language I can only understand by a XX%. In spite of percentages playing against us, one of them, called Talaualde, makes an extra effort invites me to ride his yak. The Kyrgyz anchor their yaks by using ropes that, in one extreme locks the beast's nose holes and, in the other a heavy stone. May the wind not blow them away. Another of them, older and involuntarily hilarious, carries a key tied to his jacket by a yellow thread. Looks like a car key. I spent hours trying to think an object a nomad would need a key for.

A goat was slaughtered to seal the trade, and both parties ate on the ground after praying together. Witnessing the killing didn't, as expected, resulted in me becoming vegetarian. Apples and candies were distributed, the first ones being pocketed among the nomads with resolute speed. After lunch the Kyrgyz went on loading their yaks with rolled carpets and the Pakistanis their jeeps with yak cheese, just thirty meters away, but several worlds away.

Two days later I crossed the Chinese border in a pick up of the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation, being legally forbidden to cross the border independently. Cyclists on the route faced the same interrupted liberty. On the Chinese side the road becomes smoother, and enters a plateau surrounded in the distance by the wide, rounded, Pamir Mountains. Austerity is such that makes one think of the Nemesis of a condemned Eden. Double hump Bactrian camels obstruct at times the road, and the Chinese custom guard at Taxqorgan lifts in havoc the bag with the four apples Dr. Ali Mohammed had given me and asks, clearly upset at the apples: "What is this?" (Will continue).


"Traveling among mountains is like undressing a maiden". The poetic exaltation penned down by German explorer Wilhelm von Goldberg as he crossed the Atlas range could easily be transported to Northern Pakistan, where each valley unfolds to reveal exclusive language, culture and traditions. The high peaks seem there as a veil for a parcel of this world that only confusedly has seen itself entangled in the phenomena called globalization.

From Chitral, my plan was to cross the Shandur Pass onto Gilgit, an from there start slowly the trip northwards through the Karakorum Highway towards China. It's been seventeen months on the road. I had been lucky enough to get a direct ride to Gilgit with a Chitrali merchant bound for Gilgit bazaar, the main gateway for incoming cheap Chinese goods. Trade has become the first income for some graduated Pakistanis who cannot find a job in their field. The prophet, who had urged his followers to seek knowledge, if need there be, as far afield as China, could have never imagined they would come, in search of household goodies and plastic toys. The bazaar, nevertheless, doesn't say it all about Gilgit, a town that for a century was in the eye of the Foreign Office as the last sure footed bastion of British India in a power wrestle with Russia for the contol of Asia. Those were times of bayonets and spies in pilgrim disguise. But much before that, Gilgit's claim to fame was its horsemanship. Polo is thought to have originated in the Northern Areas as a training game for the ruler's cavalry. Each year, the archrival teams of Gilgit and Chitral clash for honour over the world's highest polo ground at the Shandur Pass.

My stay in Gilgit, though, had nothing to do with Her Majesty's service or enraged horsemen. I wanted, for the first time in my life, to cross a glacier. Since this wandering began, road has meant anything from an old Roman Via in Syria to the spotless German Autobahn, from the cross- Baltic E-sixty seven to a maddeningly bumpy jeep tracks in Afghanistan. But it had never meant glacier. Finding a glacier in Northern Pakistan was decidedly short of being a challenge, for it's one of the most heavily glaciated areas on Earth. The challenge rather consisted in pulling myself over one of them, considering I regard the inclined plane as the most diabolic figure of the Pantheon of geometry... My hope was, of course, to parasit someone else’s experience and join a fit party. Madina Guesthouse, in Gilgit, was the obvious place to meet travelers with similar intentions. While in Indian guesthouses any bunch of travelers will be invariably found exposing their sayings about yoga, the Mayan calendar, and reincarnations, the patio at Madina guesthouse was a conference on climbing permits regulations and cycling technique. That's where I met Agneska and Martin, from Poland, and Sdanek, from Czech Republic. My new friends were committed to trek to Rakapochi (7780m) base camp on the following day, and from there, weather conditions allowing, they were hoping to cross Minapin glacier, as a side trip. Soon I realized that the two days walk to the 3500m high base camp and the glacier crossing were little more than a stroll for these guys, who now started to compete over who had smoked a cigarette at the highest altitude. Martin was quick enough to say I was welcome to trek with them, and slow enough to realize that they were climbers and I was a hitch hiker. At least there was one thing that, them being Eastern European and me being South American, needed no discussion: we would not hire guides or porters and we wouldn't use any of the official campsites.

The next most boring thing to describing mountains is describing trekking among them. For the reader is enough to know that more than once, as predicted, the author needed to be hand-towed as a kindergarten boy crossing an avenue. In a particular incident, I had resorted to having my backpack lifted with a rope to become light enough to ascend safely a vertical rock face. Standing over the southern Moraine of the glacier, we not only gained perspective over the magnificent river of ice and snow, but we also understood that we were in front of a live creature, the ice blocks cracking perfectly audible under our feet. Rakapochi wasn't n an static being either. On an hourly basis the sculptor sun would melt snow hangovers in any of the mountain's faces to unlock a sweeping and thunderous avalanche. Any climber on its way would have known how it feels to be a flea when the dog starts to scratch. Navigating the glacier was, to my surprise, the easiest part of the job, and I say it without underestimating crevasses and internal rivers. For a moment we looked like weird interplanetary beings jumping around an ice world: nothing else was visible except for the ice and the rocky edges of the moraines. The way back didn't lack an epic flavor: as a result of our policy of avoiding official campsites we were escorted a few meters by a local armed with a rifle, who vaguely claimed that, actually, the whole flat terrain belonged to the campsite....

When my little Artic adventure had concluded I headed on the Karakorum Highway, the road linking, since 1982 Pakistan and China. Almost twenty years were required to tend a double lane highway over one of the highest mountain ranges on Earth: the Pamir and the Karakorum. At that time the project was also an ostensive sign of the alliance of the two countries against the common enemy: India. The asphalt link greatly overlaps with the classic Silk Route, an commercial-ideological artery that until the 20th century saw generations of traders and scholars smuggling East-West and vice versa everything from walnuts to religions. It was also on these tracks that Islam made its way into China in the 20th century. The religion remains the main faith in Turkic ethnic Xinjinag province in Western China. Centuries brought, nevertheless, dust and oblivion, and the region fell in a medieval isolation that lasted until little time ago. Dervla Murphy, the Irish cyclist that in 1963 visited the region relates the story that, when in 1954 the fisrt jeep reached Chilas, the villagers provided it with a loadful of fresh cut grass. They believed that the jeep was the offspring of one of those strange metallic birds that occasionally flew over the valleys, and which if properly fed, would eventually fly.

From Gilgit northwards the road traverses the old kingdoms of Nagyr and Hunza, where fratricide and caravan preying was once as natural as the seasons. Hunza River marks also the geologic limit between Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, which collision against the earlier cause the Himalayan range to rise. After two disappointingly short rides in two fast new cars, both driven by Bank of Pakistan's employees, a philanthropic taxi driver and a motor biker, I arrived to the village of Nilt. Besides common features as apple trees, irrigation channels and old men hanging around teahouses, the village will always stay in my mind for a sign by the roadside... It goes like this: "Pepsi Agency: beat your thirst by the cold drink products". I tried my luck, only to discover that the pompously announced shop didn't have refrigerator. It is curious to see how the esthetic of the "American way of life" becomes eerily compatible with hatred for the same. Frequently I have spotted boys drinking their Cokes with the background of "Down with the USA" graffiti’s.

Nilt, Thole, and the other settlements along Hunza valley practice Ismailism, a more secular branch of Islam. Thus, for first time in a long time, I see women walking down the streets. Mosques have also left the landscape: Ismailies pray in their jamaat khana, or people's house, to which not only men but the whole family has access. Having left Gilgit fairly late, I was caught by darkness in Thole. When asked about a feasible place to camp, the village chemist, against my predictions, actually answers my question instead of inviting me into his house. I seat down by small general shop to wait for something. A gas fueled electric bulb coming from the shop made me visible to potential charitative souls, but after half an hour I had only gathered a bunch of local kids for whom I had become an effectively entertaining mix of clown and parachutist, as they deducted from the large backpack. Finally a tall mustached man wordlessly ordered me to follow him. He is the watchman of a health unit, where I would sleep that night.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


The day of my departure Azam handed me an envelope. It contained a letter of introduction to a relative of him, who lived in Naghar, on the way to Chitral, and who could put me up for the night. He referred to whim as “the prince”, which I thought was a nickname. But I was wrong; Azam’s brother in law belongs to the former Royal Family of Chitral. Let’s say it better: hadn’t royalty titles been abolished by 1969 he would be King of Chitral. Finding his residence, Azam explained, would be easy: you cannot miss a fort built on an island amid the streams of the Chitral river and linked to ground by a suspension bridge. I was shown a picture and hit the road. It was what I would call a nominal adventure: regardless the outcome, hitchhiking in search of a prince’s fort was quite the event alone. The towns of Chakdara and Dir set the turning point where, slowly, Pashtuns begin to give way to Chitralis. More and more frequently, I see white skinned, green-eyed people. Caucasoid features is something you wouldn’t expect from Pakistan, but the Northern Areas are truly an unfinished Rubik Cube, with patches of different people here and there, and many valleys speaking their own languages” Pashto, Khowar, Wakhi, Kalashmun, Farsi, Shina, etc Some of these people have migrated from neighboring countries centuries ago, following ancient trade routes. But the origin of some others still remains a mystery.

Exiting Dir I couldn’t resist the temptation of boarding an old Bedford trucks that was slowing down and inviting me with the horn. Pakistani trucks are giant rattles: from their entire perimeter hang metallic chains whose clash announce the truck from half a mile. The carved wooden doors seem to have been made for a temple, and the truck itself may well be a wheeled rococo cathedral. Boarding such a slow monster would have been a terrible mistake if the truck had been going far. But soon I was free and got a lift in the minivan of two engineers, bound to the other side of the Lowari Pass. After Ladakh’s high passes, I will need a one-year spiritual retreat in Holland to recover the adrenaline when going over 3000m.

Two hours after the pass the Prince’s for appear behind the bend of the river. When I arrive he chatted with his servants in the garden. Bore has diluted casts… As there aren’t anymore “regal” issues to be busy with, the kind prince, whose name was Salahudin, runs a small guesthouse inside the very fort. That’s where I met Richard, a Brit who had driven his BMW motorbike from England, and who gained my respect when saying that “work” once meant for him traveling to Sudan to arrange the exportation of sheep to Yemen.

Chitral seems a never-ending chain of farms under the dramatic background of Tirich Mir (7708m) among other Hindu Kush giants. While the entire bazaar was suggesting I should go to a hotel, a small man, dressed in white pants and shirt, and sporting a black navy cap with the embroidery of a war ship, called me apart. His name was M.I.Khan, and he was a lawyer. He promptly produced a wonderful speech on equality among men, and gave me the key to his office. He was one of that universal minded men that, if lucky, you may find even in the most remote of this planet’s provinces. Eventually I was off to explore the bazaar carefully, discovering that many vendors there spoke Farsi, since they are originally Tajiks from neighboring Afghanistan. Proximity to such country legally forced me to register in the local police station, where the sound of Olivetti typing machines still silences the few dusty oversized computers. “It is for you own safety Sir”-said the policeman there. I explained that I had been a month inside Afghanistan with no inconveniences, but let them fill the forms anyway. In the streets of Chitral I also met Richard again, who was trying to get the local mechanics to fix the electronic starter of his motorbike. Richard held the curvature of his head as the mechanics unscrew everything they found with the only inspiration of the Holy Quran, let alone the User’s manual.

On the second day after arrival I departed for the Kalash valleys. Who are the Kalasha? Nobody truly knows. In a country with 120 million Muslims, the Kalasha, that once dominated the whole Chitral, are the last 4000 survivors of the Kafiristan (or land of the unfaithful). Technically, they are the only Indo-Aryan people of Central Asia that was not (yet) converted to Islam. You can walk from Kashmir to the Turkish Mediterranean, and the only non-Muslims you will find are going to be the Zoroastrians at Yazd, Iran, and the Kalasha. Their beliefs are closely linked to the pantheism of old Vedic religions. Until the late 19th century the Kalasha lived relatively isolated, on both sides of the Hindu Kush, protected by a labyrinth of valleys and mountain ranges. Little was known about them, and the Royal Geographical Society considered Kafiristan the last mystery in Asia. The fate of the Kalasha changed when the British Empire, in their desire to avoid Russian influence in Central Asia, opted for a solid Afghanistan, drawing the Durand line in 1893 and arming the Emir of Kabul, who immediately launched a military crusade to convert the Kalasha on the Afghan side to Islam, through gunpowder… On the Pakistani side they still retain three valleys: Birir, Rumbur and Bumboret, although even there are outnumbered by Muslims (new settlers and converted Kalasha).

I thought the suspension of the jeep was going to cede before we would make it to Rumbur. The valley was comprehensibly narrow, being the sanctuary of an endangered culture. There is nothing in the valley big enough to be called a town. Only hamlets, where two storey houses edge the mountainside in order to take the most possible profit of the narrow even land used to cultivate corn or tomato. In Grom, one of the settlements, I met Engineer Khan. “Are you an engineer?” –was the first question to make him. “No, my father named me that way cause he wanted me to be the first one in the family to attend school” What was a family experiment had an unexpected outcome when the young Engineer announced he was ready to go to university. Both parents looked each other in dismay, in sought advice in their ancestors through the voice of a shaman. With the permission of the past (and not before swearing his grand mother that he wouldn’t convert to Islam) Engineer left his valley for the first time to study in Chitral, and came back years later with a degree in Political Science, becoming the first graduated ever among the Kalasha.

Having learned about politics, Engineer knew better than anyone that politics wasn’t at all what the Kalasha needed, and instead founded the first school in Kalashamun, their native language. It’s a pleasure to learn a few words of a language that is only spoken by a few thousand people. We must remember that a language is much more than a channel of communication; it’s a unique way to organize the universe. And the entireness of the Kalasha universe is still under threat: a group of Greek intellectuals have introduced the idea that the Kalasha may be the descendants of Alexander the Great’s lost legions. A romantic explanation we would all like to believe, but without scientific back up, unless you consider the prevailing green eyes as an argument. There are some who even think that these Greek are creating a small Christian community among the Kalasha, and that they are waiting for a larger number to build their first church. I spent two days walking around the plantations. From everywhere I could here a melodic “Ishpata, baia!” (How are you brother!). Regardless their blood links, the Kalasha refer to anyone as brother or sister. You feel like in a Rainbow Gathering. As usual, cultures based in brotherhood and harmony have the worst cards against a destiny that plays kings and aces. I am walking towards Gilgit: China is inching closer.


I had left India with the pace of an escaping inmate, with extreme nostalgia for Muslim hospitality, and reached Lahore, the first city in the Pakistani side of the Punjab, with the anxiety of that who has accumulated the thirst of several deserts. In Lahore Tabreez, my Hospitality Club host waited me. When you see Tabreez sitting in the conference room of his company, eyes fixed in his laptop with a stock market like preoccupation you wouldn’t guess he is checking hitchhikers forums and websites advising how to sleep in airports. Since his country cannot provide him with a credible passport, Tabreez travels through his guests, to who he treats as ambassadors. In this way, even if I normally enjoy walking around cities, I wasn’t brave enough to reject the offer of an air conditioned Corolla manned with a kind chauffeur.

Beyond static wonders, such as the Badshahi Mosque and the Mogul built Red Fort, the jewel of Lahore is by far the Sufi music nights every Thursday. Sufism is Islam in its mystic variant, a staging through dance and percussion of the mourning for the death of Emam Ali, the leader of Shiite Muslims, murdered 13 centuries ago. Far from being a tearful ceremony, Sufi nights in Lahore are a causeway for the very human instinct of party, so repressed in modern Pakistan, where discos are criminalized. But how do we pass from the mourning to a hypnotizing drum jam witnessed by a hash stoned, head shaking mob? I just know that we humans owe our survival to the fact our morale is made of plasticine. Obviously, most attendants wish, at least once a week, to do without the unperturbed understanding imposed by Islam and embark in a trip.

My plan was to reach China through Pakistan’s Norhtern Areas, and the most direct way to achieve this would have been to take the Karakorum Highway connecting Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, with Kashgar, in the remote Chinese Turkestan, but a certain allergy for obvious roads and a compulsion for unnecessary detours caused me to tr4avel towards Peshawar, to only then start advancing northwards trough the Tribal Agencies of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP). NWFP is a conservative area inhabited by the rebel, proud, and fiercely hospitable Pashtun, and where the central government is as much of a tourist as I am.

The 450 km from Lahore to Peshawar were covered in a day. Fast cars driven by upper class Pakistanis were plentiful in the spotless motorway, so there was no need to stop the low, old, and over decorated Bedford trucks. Traveling north from Peshawar, Afghanistan’s proximity is evident. It’s a naïve statement, considering that Pashtuns have lived as one people at both sides of the imaginary line much before this came into being in 1893. Women covered in blue or brown burkas walk by the roadside as silent ghosts. More meaningful, a group of Kuchi nomads who clearly just arrived from Afghanistan set up their tent just meters from the now narrow asphalt lane. The artificial nature of the border is a well-assimilated notion in the Tribal Agencies. Over the last 4 years, this local phenomena has given a headache to the international community lead by George Bush, who has always accused Pakistan of not guarding its borders strictly enough, encouraging thus the free locomotion of extreme elements between the two countries. A guy called Bin Laden, for instance, is supposed to be hiding somewhere in the Chitral mountains, if you believe in Washington comic stripes.

In Malakdn district I was going to learn something more about the famous border. I was crossing Takht-I-Bhai bazaar when a Suzuki Vitara pulled by, as if arrived from another planet. The door opened…”Come in men! I am going to Sakhakot, if you like the place you can stay with us and continue traveling tomorrow” – said the driver with an unmistakable American accent. Azam had studied in Oklahoma and now occupied the main seat at the (ruling) Islamic Party of Pakistan for NWFP. I asked the, what was there of interest in Sakhakot to see. Ruins? An old mosque? Maybe somebody selling a roadmap of Pakistan? No. Azam think that it’s the bazaar that I am going to find interesting. I was about to feel disappointed, when he goes deeper: the specialties of the local smiths are guns and rifles, manually crafted. I can see their workshops and take pictures, if I like, he adds. “Wouldn’t they feel unease with a foreign photographer peeping around their stalls?” – I had to ask, because it was clear to me that, should something go wrong, 8 mega pixels didn’t stand a chance against caliber 45. Azam’s face transformed, and a bit offended, he replied: “It’s my bazaar. They do what I say”. Pashtun hospitality, either accept or choose an epitaph.

Next morning I was tidily combed and ready for my peculiar sightseeing. Azam summoned two of his nephews as escorts, and we were off. I was expecting to be conducted to clandestine cavernous workshops, to camouflaged installations, which a private militia makes sure remains off limits to everyone. And no: all along the main road, at day light, without any intention or need for cover, two dozen workshops produce and sell only one thing: guns. It’s hard to find in town where to buy bread or cucumbers, but shops displaying row after row of AK-47s and M-16s need no search. Local gunsmiths delay only three days to cut, bend, screw, and come up with a freshly baked Kalashnikov automatic rifle, charging some U$D 150 for the job. It’s a real free zone: without registers of any kind guns are bought and sold as day bread. Pakistan itself has enough landlords with personal armies to claim a substantial slice of the output. The rest travels to Afghanistan, at night, through well-established trails, joining the caravan of computers and other electronic goods that have zigzagged all the way from China without meeting any custom, from full tolerance from authorities both sides. “When the Soviet Union split there were some men here trying to sell tubes with uranium” – remembers with proud a kind machine gun seller as he re-fills my teacup.

Back in the house Azam asks me if I have ever fired a gun before. “Well, I guess I never needed to… I admire Che Guevara but I am not following his steps” The joke doesn’t manage to break the silence produced by my confession. Being gun-virgin in NWFP is worse than having never kissed a girl. (And since this is an Islamic country, the last is likely to happen much after local boys become experts in all sorts of rifles) “So do you want to try?” I knew that question was coming. “Do you have a fusil here?” “We have some 30. Sometimes we have problems with the lands and we have to use them. Kalashnikov or Mauser?” As if I had been furious with heaven, in Azam’s garden, I I fired a few thunderous bullets in the void.