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Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Reminiscences – The Navy Lark Up the Khyber – 2

Way back on 13 March 2014 I blogged the first excerpt from an article featured in the book Under the Queen’s Colours (Voices from the Forces 1952-2012) by Penny Legg (2012). Rather belatedly, here is a second excerpt, which ties in nicely with more recent blogs. That blog can be read here

This was written in 1969, shortly after the events, when I was twenty-one, a long, long time ago!
Shortly afterwards, we left and separated for our adopted abodes.
            Mary’s house was virtually identical in construction to the one we’d just left.
            Briefly, we talked and I tasted my first Pakistani beer – an expensive one-litre bottle. Apparently, there was a shortage of bottles at the time. Cold from the fridge. “By jove, I needed that!”
            Relaxing for a few minutes, I met the two young girls of the family, Debbie and Carol – evidently at the inquisitive age and quite unabashed. Freckles swamped them both, inherited from their mother.
            Then I discovered that each household had a servant who cooked, cleaned and shopped. While his wage was small by UK standards, he was nevertheless the best-paid member of his family. I found servants an embarrassment.
            Before the beer had a chance to cool me down, we left the house and headed for the nearby swimming pool. On the way, just round the block, I learned that the elegant still-new bungalows at the entrance to the pool were planned to be demolished. The British lease had expired on the land and the government wouldn’t agree to renewal. Hence the erection of New Site. It seemed a shame, and I wondered how many homeless might make ample use of them.
            On nearing the pool I was warned that the water might not be too clean. There was a water shortage, so the water couldn’t be changed. Mary explained that the Community wasn’t allowed a swimming pool, though the merciless heat tended to justify one. We were going to swim in the static water tank. This tank was mandatory for fire-prevention. My surprise was complete on seeing the well appointed pool. It had to be the best static water tank in existence!
            The round of swimming and drinking and sun soaking ended about 1pm and we again split up and walked back with our respective hosts for lunch. I was already appreciating that time was of the essence on this visit. The programme our hosts had prepared was so tight and exhaustive and we had a lot of ground to cover – literally – in a weekend.
            At 2.15pm we were deposited in a mini-bus and Bernie’s own car, and took off for the hills. Our target was the summit of the nearest height in these parts – Murree – about 4,000 feet high.
            Our journey took us along dirt roads. There was a definite shortage of road signs. Braking to avoid a collision, Bernie explained between invective that drivers here didn’t need a licence or take a test and were dangerous.
            To begin with, the mini-bus was quite comfortable, but as we progressed the jogging was insistent and the heat oppressive. Sweat became uncomfortable. The windblast through the open window was too warm and didn’t refresh or dry us at all. Clothes were soon stained and clinging. Still, minor discomforts aside, we enjoyed the trip.
            We passed a number of British residences festooned with cyclamen and the odd banyan – a member of the mulberry family, reputedly sacred. The name is said to be derived from bunya, a corruption of a Bengali word for a native grain-dealer, for originally merchants sold their wares under banyans.
            The few mosques we saw suggested the Persian origin of the Moslem conquerors.
            As we drove on I reflected that we really needed much more than a weekend to take in this place – and a great deal longer to get to know the area, its people and customs. First impressions may never be enough, but they had to suffice.
            It was soon apparent that we were motoring toward an agricultural belt of land. Three quarters of the population were occupied with agriculture. Verdant slopes beckoned, solidifying from out of the myrtle haze.
            “We’ve seen little evidence of the millions of pounds injected into the country by countries such as Australia, Canada, Britain and the States,” I commented.
            “Apart from the development going on in and around Islamabad with its Pindi road linkup, you’ll see very little in your short stay,” Bernie answered. “Some years ago the capital of Karachi was transferred to Islamabad. From the ground the development may look haphazard. But I’ve seen aerial photos of the whole area – and it’s all set out in a workable plan. Islamabad is a completely new city – and already new ministries have moved in. Some areas still need constructing, so for the time being Pindi is the interim capital. When it’s finished, it should really look something.”
            “That’s news to us – moving the capital.”
            “Well, Karachi isn’t very attractive, you know. Ask anyone. Uncomfortable, crowded. Smelly, even. While up here, it’s admirable. The air’s fresher. Less overcrowding, the land’s fertile. There may be political or economic reasons behind the move, but I’ll wager they’re set on coming up here because they like it.”
            “Flying up, everything looked so barren. Yet there’s quite a lot of vegetation here.”
            “Yes. Leastways, around this area – the valley. The most beautiful gardens can be found up in Peshawar. You’ll be flying there tomorrow.”
            “Just before we get to the Khyber Pass?” I’d read the hectic itinerary.
            “That’s right. As for the country itself, in the beginning it was wholly agricultural. And it’s still one of the world’s largest producers of raw cotton and jute.” As an afterthought, he added, “There’s also plenty of large sources of hydroelectric power in the hills.”
            At last we motored into the mottled shade of trees dotted in the foothills of Murree. Palms and date trees overshadowed us. Roadside stalls of citrus fruits on the one hand, leather-merchants and wickerwork basket sellers on the other. We pulled in at the fork in the road, near a few buildings with straw rooftops and shops on either side. All were open stalls and doorways. Mineral drinks piled high and cooled in buckets of water standing in the shade. Batches of fruit had a dull patina. Flies were unusually scarce. The vegetables were apparently very cheap and in good condition.
            The local people were friendly, jostling for our money, seeking precedence over their competitors. Even up here the language barrier didn’t seem insurmountable. Pidgin English is probably the most universally used language of all.
            Once back in the vehicle, the road wound as it rose, and the gears got lower. In parts, the road seemed dangerously narrow.
We climbed and climbed in the heat.
The engine rasped and growled.
We’d cleared the tops of the tallest trees and the incline was anywhere between one in five or six, curving and winding all the time.
Up ahead, two overloaded lorries strained in first gear under immense loads, their radiators hissing fronds of steam.
Reaching a rare almost even stretch, we stopped.
Stretching my legs, I noticed a group of three women and two little boys coming down the road towards us. The boys asked for some rupees while the women walked by, eyes peeking darkly over their chadors, carrying vegetables and bread in wooden bowls on their heads.
As they dwindled off round the bend below, we stared out and down, at tall fir trees and uneven hills covered in vegetation that spanned away into the distance. The heat-haze was increasing. Just below and to our left fell away slopes cultivated in steps. An unusually deep ochre-brown earth lay well hoed on these broad steps. Underbrush and yellowed grass filled the foreground. The few bushes were an insipid green, the sky empty.  

 Cultivated steps of land...

We moved on, but only for a short while. Bernie’s car dropped behind our mini-bus and halted. It had overheated. They stopped on a bend in the track and we could keep them in view as we continued to ascend.
While waiting for them to cool off and restart, we drew in at the side of a rock fountain where a faint trickle of water dribbled into a makeshift wooden trough. On the road’s edge, perched precariously on a slight overhand, I noticed an inhabited hut. This was obviously a regular stopping place. The shack offered shade. I felt that it resembled the teahouse or chaikhana I’d read about. The ancient patron of the place kindly proffered some liquid of green and murky consistency that I surmised to be tea. It was warm and almost painfully strong; it didn’t so much attack the palate as devastate it.
A lorry overtook the others. Then at last they started up again. The motors shattered the silence of the place; the air seemed filled with man’s harshness.
As we came out of the shade of the old shack, the lorry was slowly approaching. The driver’s mate squatted on the front mudguard. The bonnet was open and he held a can of water, splashing the engine, which steamed immediately. The lorry pulled in by the fountain as Bernie joined us with the others.
Then we were on our way again.
When we arrived at the mountaintop village, the first thing we noticed was the ease in temperature and the marked freshness in the air. I felt suddenly very refreshed after the hot and heady ordeal of the climb.
The Murree road ascended further but a short way down a left-hand fork we espied wooden buildings with verandas and carpets slung out the latticed windows. As we drew to a halt just beyond this fork, a ragamuffin youngster who spoke almost impeccable English ran up and offered to guard our vehicles while we stayed. Without further ado, he was hired.
The main street of the town ran on to the left, sloping downwards. The whole country seemed to be built on slopes. On the right, a brick wall and trees, the hill rising higher behind them. To our left, houses, shacks, emporia, and stalls. Alleyways sank between many of the buildings. Fascinated, I glimpsed through from our pathway. In the far distance, blue vapour of mountains, in the foreground trees in full bloom. Plantations on the slopes of timber trees, palms, bamboo and bananas. The sun kissed a stretch of tea fields. Each alley measured about ten feet in width, with jalousied windows narrow and opened wide, verandas adorned with bougainvillaea. The stalls sold everything, anything: Burmese teak, worthless trinkets, Indian sal wood, American comics, Coke and party hats. I’d seen monkeys in the markets of Mombasa, but there were none here; maybe they were hidden away as they were considered sacred.
All the houses were built-up, the kerbs high where they existed, probably to allow for torrents in the gutter during the rainy season. Everywhere seemed to be steps, steps and more steps.
Old people looked ancient; while the young seemed older than their years, guile shining in their dark eyes.
Halfway down the street we came across an old English church. I was disappointed that time didn’t allow us to get closer; apparently, it was unused. It seemed out of place. Green-painted fences, traditional arched entrance, dun-coloured brick pillars, and a square tower, with vivid green trees. It could have been a typical English scene, but for the life going on around it. A couple of Muslims strolled by; along the churchyard wall stalls and soapboxes harboured reclining locals.

Murree & church
Returning to the vehicles, we were confronted by a man and his white stallion. Apart from scarred hocks and muzzle, the animal seemed well cared for and a fine specimen. We declined to mount and ride him, though the sum asked wasn’t particularly extortionate.
Tackling a dusty rise, we passed an unfortunate man who waged a losing battle with leprosy.
Another ten minutes of driving and the vehicles couldn’t go any further, as the track petered out. Only horse – that stallion? – goat, mule or shanks’ pony could negotiate the rest. We elected the latter.
As I walked up to the peak of Murree, I was struck by homesickness. The air, its freshness and tang, the cool breeze sifting through so-English seeming boughs, the blades of moist grass and stalks of weeds catching at my ankles, the song of birds in the fully-clothed treetops – all seemed so evocative of England. A gorgeous multi-coloured butterfly passed us. I thought of the colony builders who probably never saw their home country again, of those now working out here two or three years before going home. I wondered how they combated homesickness. Maybe by coming up here, almost the real thing?  [In all my travels since, I’ve never experienced homesickness again, and have now  live in Spain for 12 years].
Although we found it unusual for anyone to live up here, we soon appreciated their motivation. In the summer, it’s cooler. And in the winter most migrate to the lower slopes because the town and the peak are covered in snow.
Now it was time to get back. We had a long way to go and the delay with the car on the climb hadn’t helped. The evening meal and cocktail party would be waiting. So we clambered down to the vehicles.
Gradually, as we drove down, the change in temperature affected us. We set out refreshed and cool and soon donned our humid cloak of exhaustion. But we couldn’t sleep, for it was felt we’d be missing sights we’d never glimpse again.
We arrived back about 7pm. I then met Mary’s husband, Beau, freshly changed after work. He had a stocky build and powerful dark eyes and a sense of humour. His literary nickname was probably given to him when he was in the Navy.
A shower, the evening meal, and then we were out again. A short drive round to the Military Adviser’s residence for cocktails on the lawn.
I chatted with my charming hosts and discussed the declaration of Martial Law hereabouts and its negative effects on the community.
Our evening continued until 2am. The hours were beginning to tell. And, besides, tomorrow’s schedule had to be maintained: destination – the Khyber Pass.

To be continued…

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