The trouble with horses is…
The next twelve days were hectic, rushed and most of all uncertain. From
Chilas the weather got substantially colder and the road began to climb. At
Gunar Farm the first ice appeared on the road and at Teleche the real mountains
began incredibly with, Nanga Parbat (naked mountain) the eighth highest mountain
in the world. We were entering Pakistan ’s Northern Areas. I met some lovely
people on the way including one Shah Jahan at Gunar Farm and the staff of
Shaheen Flour mill who gave me a free bag of bran for the horses. However.
On my final stop before Gilgit something terrible happened. I’d decided to
stop at a hotel in the village of Pari , (approximately 30kms from Gilgit). It
was cold and for the first time on the entire trip I’d decided to stable both
mares outside whilst I slept in the common room nearby. A big mistake. At 2am I
woke with a nagging field that I should check on the animals. I can’t explain it
otherwise. As I opened the outside door, three lights suddenly went berserk next
to Sparks and Kabul . They stunned me at first and I didn’t immediately
comprehend until I made out three human silhouettes running away through the
darkness. I yelled and ran after them not quite believing what had happened. But
the cretins had a good start on me and were soon lost in the maze of nearby
houses. I checked Kabul’s rope and it was untied. Please note that she never
moves during the night. This was the first time her rope had come
I ran back inside to find the hotel Malick who refused to wake up despite all
my shouting. His impish assistant was curiously absent. Whilst I was packing my
belongings to shift outside, three oafish scruffy men rolled into the dorm. They
said they were the ones previously outside. I asked them what they were doing?
Apparently they were deputies who’d been checking my animals under the
instigation of the hotel owner. Another question. Why did you run? The reply.
Because we thought you were the hotel owner. It was a ruse. I eventually awoke
the hotel owner who denied the charge. I didn’t sleep much for the rest of that
night. It was December 20th. Eleven days to go.
Horses and headaches
On the 21st December I reached Gilgit,
the biggest town in the Northern Areas and the hub of all activity. Huge rock
faces enclosed the city; the last major port of civilisation before Kashgar. A
mixed bag of different races and dialects. Bustling markets and bushy beards
alongside the raging Gilgit River . A place of many friends. One of my favourite
stops in Pakistan Good old Riaz Raja Ahmed Khan
‘escorted’ me to the PTDC motel where I was to stay for the next 3 nights.
Horses were settled with fresh grass and corn but my troubles were just
Gilgit is the biggest and only major market for horses in the
Northern Areas. There are four polo teams that play here and plenty of buyers.
People buy and sell here so what were the problems in selling mine?
Firstly it was cold. The cost of food, especially grass, in Gilgit is
incredibly high (double that of Chilas further down the KKH). Secondly, most of
the polo players were at their homes in the remote countryside or playing at a
polo tournament in Chilas). Thirdly, selling horses in Gilgit isn’t easy due to
a local chap who has a monopoly on the import of horses from Southern Pakistan .
Finally, both mares required collecting from the Chinese border at Sost which
involved hiring a truck and negotiating snowy icy roads.
There were other issues as well. The Chinese border closes on the 31 st
December. All foreigners and Pakistanis have to travel in a specially agreed
‘tour’ vehicle operated by NATCO transport authority in Pakistan . No
Pakistani’s are allowed to cross the border after 25 th December under the
China-Pak “friendship agreement”. No foreigner worth his salt would be crossing
the 4700m Khunjerab pass at the end of December. The number of passengers
crossing was uncertain and may well be zero. If I was the only one, the
transport authority, NATCO, would have to make a special booking for me which
would cost 8500Rs. I only had 4000 Rs to my name.
I also had three school visits to plan, Christmas day to organize and a raft
of small jobs to do before I left Pakistan .
Fortunately I did have allies. On the 22nd December, I obtained the
assistance of Ashraf Gul the captain of the Power and Water Department (PWD)
polo team. He spread the word about the sale of both mares to all remaining polo
teams. He also visited all the haunts where polo players are known to hang out.
I visited the ‘horse market’ where two scruffy men offered a humiliating price
for both mares and between many other jobs sat at the PTDC motel whilst many
people came and rubbed chins, gesticulated and promised to come back. They never
did. The 23rd of December arrived.
Morning began well. The British High Commission in
Islamabad had sponsored two maroon coloured high-tech horse blankets for the
ride ahead and I was able to collect them in Gilgit. They proved to be
invaluable in the days to come. I also retrieved a parcel that I’d posted a year
earlier from India . It contained hiking boots, maps, gloves and sufficient cold
weather gear to get to Kashgar.
Yet, still people came, promising to return and
never did. The PTDC staff never thought to take names or numbers (despite
constantly reminders) and the outlook got bleaker and bleaker. In the afternoon
I rode out on the horses with big FOR SALE signs on Kabul . Curious onlookers
gathered like flies whenever I stopped. Again lots of promises. I lowered the
asking price to half and rode around all the major stables. Then, in one heady
moment everything seemed suddenly to work out. A polo player on the PWD team
offered to buy Sparks for Polo and a local stall owner offered to buy Kabul .
They even offered a higher price! I couldn’t believe it. The deal was just about
to go through when I dropped the news about Sust. It bombed. It turned out that
nobody wanted to retrieve the horses from so far away.
At this point the only source of interest was the Northern Area Scouts Polo
team but they would only purchase the horses in Gilgit. Everybody knew that I
had to sell the horses and the offered price got lower and lower. Various phone
calls came from Chilas expressing interest but nothing concrete. People made
demands which I met and then they made more.
Could I continue? This was a truly awful position to be in and caused me no
end of uncertainty. Finishing at Gilgit had a somehow hollow feel to it after
two and a half months on the road. Further up the KKH the chances didn’t look
good either. Nobody kept horses in Hunza (105kms) or in Sust (200kms). The only
slim chance was in the Chapurson valley, near to the Afghanistan border. The
Chapurson valley has long had a tradition of trade across the Afghan border with
the people of the Pamirs. There are no roads so horses are still widely used for
trade as well as for polo.
So what options did I have? (in order of preference):
- Ride to Sust, arrange a truck, meet a friend from any interested Gilgit
party, exchange money and send horses back to Gilgit with peace of mind.
- Ride to Sust and accompany the truck back to Gilgit to exchange
- Sell to a local from Charpurson, Sust or Hunza on the way
- Gift both mares to somebody I knew.
No interested party in Gilgit was willing to send a friend to meet me at
Sust. Full stop. Don’t ask me why? Even after discounting the mares to
accommodate the cost of a truck, no one was willing to pay for one. They had me
over a barrel. Given the tangled web of money options available and the
uncertain nature of ‘buyers,’ ‘option two’ looked the mostly likely. I would
have to accompany the mares back in a truck to Gilgit in order to complete the
sale and see they had a good future home. The cost of a truck was the same as
the current asking price for one mare. Yet it would be reasonable to say that
the both mares have served me well and their value to me cannot be measured in
monetary terms. The achievement of the ride, the schools and the future of the
mares was more important and who knows; perhaps fate had something more in store
for these two equines.
Plans were eventually set. On the 24th December I saddled up,
re-shoed the horses at NA Scout’s stables and set out into the night from
Gilgit, heading for the Aga Khan
Education Service (AKES) office in Nagar valley. Since the next day was
Christmas, I had arranged to leave both mares at their office and return to
Gilgit for Xmas dinner. AKES operates a series of ‘Diamond Jubilee’ schools
throughout the Northern Areas. Many of them are operated in partnership with the
local community. The plan was to visit three AKES supported and recognized
schools over the next five days. AKES is a partner organization of R4E. Please
click here to read more.
It was night when I left. Riding by day was a luxury during this busy time. A
ray of light broke the darkness when the Deputy Commissioner (DC) of Police
pulled over in his Toyota landcruiser and offered to buy both mares for use in
Lahore . But he wouldn’t commit and it later transpired that he’d mysteriously
not realized that neither was a thoroughbred!! No comments on that last
sentence. We reached the AKES office the following morning after a cold night
spent camping on the way.
Medina Guesthouse is the main stopover for every foreigner who passes through
Gilgit. But today it was curiously empty. The owner is a wild chap called M.
Yacoob who had agreed to have a go at cooking a full Xmas dinner!! And so he
had. There were fifteen of us present; myself, PTV, a British/Canadian lady
who’d been living in Pakistan for the past 20+ years called Roina and the
Guesthouse staff. The party started at 1830.
If anybody ever passes through Medina Guesthouse in the future just ask
Yacoob if he’ll cook you his now famous Roast potatoes. With his army of cooks,
they made a fantastic dinner that made England feel that little bit closer;
roast chicken, roast potatoes, mixed peas and carrots, gravy. This was all
finally topped off by rather dubious Christmas cake. The bakery had used
chocolate sauce instead of chocolate icing and in the warm heat of the living
room the chocolate sauce had.
I didn’t return to the AKES office until late the next day. Such was the
priority to finalise arrangements for the mares. It would take a book to
describe my emotions and thoughts at this time; mainly anger at the
spinelessness of people to do as they say and their lack of honour. I was
determined to see both animals had a good home. On the 26 th December I
contacted the Deputy Commissioner (DC) and arranged for a truck to be made
available from Sust back to Gilgit. “Leave it to me, you have nothing to worry
about.” I wanted to try and avoid returning to Gilgit at the last minute as it
was inviting further problems. Despite the almost guaranteed assurance of
delivery by the DC, Ashraf Gul and myself, all ‘interested parties’ would only
pay on delivery. It was unreasonable to ask them to pay half up front and to
write me a dated money order which I could later cash at the border!! I had
already lowered the price for them and guaranteed delivery. Considering the fact
they wouldn’t send a man to meet me at Sost these people just took the
The hopeful buyer : Northern Area Scouts.
The shaky arrangements : I would accompany the horses back on the day of
the 30th December, make the transaction and return to Sust by way of hitchhiking
on local trucks.
- Gilgit has its
own share of troubles due to its ethnic makeup. However these bare little or
no danger to foreigners and many have one of the best excursions of their
lives here every year. [Back]
- - Again I would
like to thank Pakistan Tourism
Development Corporation - PTDC - for an unprecedented stay with superb
hospitality. The organization sponsored my stay for three nights in Gilgit and
the local tourist knowledge proved invaluable to leaving Pakistan . Credit to
Riaz Raja Ahmed Khan, Tariq, Sherali and all the staff. The Breakfasts were
the best! [Back]
- - The horse
blankets provided by the British High Commission, Islamabad were high-necked,
turnout ones ordered specifically from the UK . They were more than adequate
for the extremes of even Hunza or Sust over the coming days and will equally
prove useful on the coming trip through China. Thanks to Helen Ibbot for
arranging their arrival and post. [Back]