Pakistan Revisited – Part 1. Kagan Valley
In 1972, at the age of 25, with a backpack and $2,000 tucked into a homemade money belt, I left Hawai‘i and landed in San Francisco. From there, I hitchhiked and rode freight trains to New York then flew to Oslo. A ferry took me to England and another across the Channel to France. From Europe, I followed the “Hippie Highway” east to India – hitchhiking and traveling third class.
While passing through Afghanistan, I was accused of being a CIA spy, arrested and imprisoned. Released during the coup that overthrew King Mohammad Zahir Shah, I continued my trek through restricted Pakistani tribal territories and, with better luck this time, managed to avoid arrest.
Fifty years later, I returned to Pakistan to retrace that memorable leg of my journey. The following are excerpts from my journals, accompanied by notes and photos from my recent return. When I am able to enter Afghanistan, I plan to do the same for the leg that ended in Kabul – all part of research for a memoir I’m writing about that life-changing 1972-74 journey that took me around the world and led me back to Kaua‘i.
Part 1: Kabul to Kagan Valley, 1973
In Afghanistan, a prisoner gets no food, shelter, or bedding. That’s the duty of the prisoner’s family. Kabul’s notorious Towkeef prison was a rotting, festering compound. I spent my first night huddled against a prison yard wall, a damp patch of dirt left unclaimed by other unsheltered prisoners, next to the foul-smelling latrines – crude holes overflowing with shit and piss.
The following day, a fellow inmate, Judge Nafisi, took mercy on me. The Judge had a large, private room, elegantly cushioned and carpeted, with a kitchen, cook, and servants. As the Judge explained to me, his political crime was writing a complete Code of Law for Afghanistan based on Enlightenment Jurisprudence. Convicted of killing his wife, a royal family member murdered just as the Judge was about to publish the Code, he said, “Why would they put me in a political prison if I was a murderer?”
I converted to Islam, washed and prayed five times daily, “La Ilaha illalah Muhammadur Rasulullah.” Allah had mercy on me. There was a coup against the King, and the rebels freed all political prisoners. I was handcuffed and loaded into the back of a military truck packed shoulder to shoulder with foreign troublemakers and driven east.
We spent the next day in an oven-hot prison in Jalalabad, locked into stacked, coffin-like cells so small I couldn’t sit up. A light bulb burned all night, adding heat and providing me with enough light to watch the bed bugs, engorged red with my blood, scurry from the cracks in the adobe walls.
Early the following morning, we were again packed into the truck, driven further east, unchained, and dumped at the border town of Torkham, Pakistan, a green oasis with a sign that read, “The photography of Tribal Women is absolutely forbidden. – P.A KYBER.”
While the Afghans took much of what I had, they didn’t take my pants, cinched to my knobby hip bones with a homemade money belt holding seventeen hundred-dollar bills folded lengthwise in thirds. Once again, I was a free, wealthy man in Asia!
But I was a mess – racked with dysentery, swollen and covered with blisters, bites, and bleeding scabs, miserable in the rancid heat, dusty roads, and filthy food of lowland Pakistan. I headed north and bought a pair of Paki Army gym shoes in the Abbottabad bazaar (a town more recently made famous for hosting Osama Bin Laden and family). I’d be trekking snow passes, and my broken-down Turkish sandals wouldn’t do. I hitchhiked to Naran, bought some great hash, and spent the night for free in the government rest house after giving the manager an English lesson and reading aloud Jonathan Swift’s “A Letter to a Very Young Lady on Her Marriage.” Music to the ears of a Muslim man.
My host told me the way ahead was snow-blocked, most bridges washed away in devastating spring floods. I’d have to walk the herders’ trails over the high snow-covered pastures to cross the mountains.
Near Batakundi, I met Mohamed Zaman Khan, a road maintenance supervisor riding on horseback with his crew, assessing the road damage. Mohamed followed Ahmadiyya Islam – a sect that believes Jesus spent his “lost years” between 13 and 30, studying at a Buddhist Monastery in Kashmir. After he was hung on the cross, the Nazareen used his yogic training to revive himself in the tomb, hopped on his donkey, and headed back to the Himalayas. His donkey collapsed in Afghanistan, just outside a town still to this day called “Donkey’s Death,” and Jesus had to walk (or hitchhike?) the rest of the way back to Kashmir. Mohamed gave me a book, “Jesus In India,” that explained that Jesus (Yuz Asaf) then lived to be 120 and was entombed in the Rouza Bal shrine on Khan Yar Street in Srinagar.
Just past the village of Besal, abandoned for the winter, I saw a camp in a clearing of thin Himalayan blue pine – pack horses muzzling their feed bags, attended by two horsemen wearing Chitralli pakol caps. A man with a greasy white turban prepared dinner in the cook tent while a tall middle-aged sahib and two teenage firangi sat in camp chairs around a fire outside their tent. The man called out, asking if I would join them for dinner.
“Why thank you, I’d be delighted!”
“What are you doing up here?” he asked.
He was the world’s preeminent field biologist, George Schaller, with his two boys, Mark and Eric. I’d just read this poet-scientist’s book, Serengeti Lion, and was in awe of his work, life, adventures, and physical endurance. We sat in folding canvas chairs around a camp table as the cook served dinner. George cross-examined me and, after extracting much of my life story and all of the details of my time in the Wakhan Corridor (Old George was especially interested in my sightings of blue sheep and descriptions of Marco Polo sheep horns I’d seen in the villages). He explained that they were also here for trout and would be riding to Lake Lulusar in the morning.
“Join us! Where’s your gear?”
“I have only a hand line.”
“We’ve got an extra spinning rig for you and a horse you can ride.”
After tea, George and the boys retired to the camp cots in their tent. I joined the cook and the horsemen around a lantern on the floor of the cook tent. We had another cup, and I lit up a joint of my fine Naran hash; we all had a smoke, crawled into our bags, and were soon asleep.
That morning, the cook violently shook me awake. “Get up! Take your things and go. Right now. The boss does not want to see you. Jao! Jao! Jaldi jao!” I stuffed my sleeping bag into my pack and started walking up toward the Babusar Pass, eventually following an ancient yak and mule route high on the northeast slope overlooking Lake Lulusar – the source of the Kagan River. I was hoping to wave goodbye to George and the boys; I didn’t see them, but as I searched the shoreline below, a huge vulture sailed into view on stiff wings, gliding across the lake before eventually disappearing over the wind-beaten, snow-covered summits of the Western Himalayas.
Kagan Valley, 2023
Fifty years later, I retraced my route up the Kagan Valley. With the exception of distant mountain views, I recognized nothing. Now stripped of trees and most vegetation, the dirt track and unpainted wooden hamlets I remembered were now paved over with a two-lane highway, littered with plastic trash, and lined with four-story concrete tourist traps, souvenir shops, and flashy signs: Fairyland Hotel, Troutland Restaurant, Glorious Continental, Pizza Art, Riviera the Edge, Karachi Fast Food and Ice Cream, Paradise Inn, Burger Point, Hotel Serenity...
In 1973, with the exception of George Schaller and his boys, I met no Europeans or tourists of any nationality in Kagan Valley. It was hardly any different in 2023. Pakistan has some of the greatest trekking and most beautiful mountain vistas in the world, easily rivaling Nepal and Bhutan. However, 9/11, terrorism, and ongoing Sunni-Shia sectarian violence scares most tourists away from the spectacular mountains and valleys of the tribal areas. Kagan Valley tourism is local, and like the British before them, Pakistanis from the sweltering lowland cities of Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad “head to the hills” during the hot season.
Most stay close to the highway in the hotels and restaurants or stroll the crowded bazaars, electrified night and day with pop music and glaring lights, rarely venturing further than they can drive. All I had to do was walk enough to be out of range of the highway din to time travel beyond the plastic trash and backlit signs into a pastoral scene virtually unchanged since 1973.
Small farms, pastures and hamlets scatter across forested slopes of white and blue pine, Himalayan fir, yew, spruce, walnut, chestnut, ash, persimmon, mulberry, and Deodar cedar. Well managed thinning for lumber and firewood brings enough sunlight to the forest floor to grow grasses and fodder for foraging animals. Fifty years ago, I noticed 4-6 foot diameter stumps scattered throughout the forest. I learned that they were Deodar cedar, which is insect- and rot-resistant, harvested by the British in the mid-19th century to provide ties and build cars for the Indian Railway. It wasn't hard to imagine the water-driven saw mills and the endless oxcart trains stacked with milled timber that left this valley so many years ago.
Revisiting Kagan Valley reminded me of a passage from "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star" written by my dear friend and mentor, Paul Theroux: “Most of the world is worsening, shrinking to a ball of bungled desolation. Only the old can see how gracelessly the world is aging and all that we have lost…”