Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Prelude to Madness

They (I would really like to know who this ‘they’ are!) say, there’s method in madness while I say there can never be a method without madness, at least not the kind of methods I follow or apply. I am shortly heading for another madcap enterprise of mine that is not my creation or concoction. Since the chances of getting back from it is remote and slim (just like my physical entity) I thought a prelude is in the order if not the conclusion; which may or may not be in the offing in the days to come. So here goes.

I am headed for Afghanistan in less than two weeks, which, if I do manage to cross the obscure borders and enter, and get the entry stamped on my passport, would perhaps become the 137th or 138th country of my nomadic life. This does make me happy on one hand and also excited on the other. Excitement and thriving on the edge is my way of life, I know of none other even then this very exciting and decidedly dangerous expedition is not my doing; not entirely in a manner of speaking. And this expedition marks several ‘firsts’ in my life as well – now that’s a tall claim indeed.

Learnt from reliable sources this Afghan expedition was conceived (in a vague manner perhaps) during the latter half of the previous year by my friend Pat from New Zealand, who is arguably one of the finest alpinists in the world today. One day I learned of this enterprise where Pat was going to attempt an obscure mountain in an obscure part of our world, a part where I have always wanted to go, with her sister as a two-woman team. Out of pure jest I asked Pat if I could come along, hoping that she would decline, since to agree to climb with Pat one had to be at a standard that most cannot achieve or conceive.

Pat returned forthwith consenting to have me in the team under the following conditions: -

I will do all the cooking, cleaning, washing
I will haggle with and handle the unruly Afghan porters
I will volunteer to be kidnapped in case Taliban’s attacked
I will be the security guard for the ladies
I will learn Afghani lingo to save on an interpreter
I will do everything possible to take care of the women

I, promptly agreed, though I should have noticed that there wasn’t any word about my abilities as a climber. But then such silly simple things don’t and shouldn’t matter between buddies. I was happy on two counts: chance to go to Afghanistan without much hassle (for Pat was doing all the mind and brain breaking planning and negotiations with the Afghan people, which itself can be killing) and that I was the only male member of a all woman team (a first for me) and to that some of you might even say, ‘lucky you.’

And from that day on, when my proposal was accepted and we agreed to form a trio, things just turned from stupendous to phantasmagorical with such rapidity and alacrity that my slow and often absent-brain just couldn’t cope up. My mail inbox filled up with things I had never heard of or even imagined would have to hear one day. And then a nice and big spanner was thrown into our well-laid plan by none other than Mr Barak Obama, Osama Bin Laden and whoever controls Taliban in Afghanistan. Mr Obama tasked CIA to annihilate Osama, which they finally did (completely erasing my chances of catching Osama and winning the 50 million US $ prize tag), annoying and pissing me off completely, not that I had any love lost for CIA to begin with. And with that all hell broke loose in exactly the place we intended to travel. Our contact in Afghan disappeared, replaced by someone else, who only piped up to tell us what all was impossible and that included almost everything. Pat fumed, her sister fretted and I smiled like Buddha, since he says when one can do nothing then one shouldn’t do anything – a dictum I follow all my life.

Now a brief brief about what we are trying to do (other than being killed or abducted or blown up by landmines of course). The plan is for all three of us to travel to Tajikistan – hang on, let me explain, I know what you guys are thinking; where did Tajikistan come from!

We intend to attempt a new route on a peak called Koh-e-Baba Tangi that is located deep within the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan. Wakhan Corridor is a spoon handle shaped narrow corridor bordered by Tajikistan (Pamirs) to the North, China (KunLun Mountains) to the East and Pakistan (West Karakoram Mountains) to the south. It is the heart of the Hindu Kush Mountains that used to get many climbers in the early 70’s before severe unrest and turmoil, fights, Soviet invasion etc made this area totally hostile and out of bounds for outsiders. There are sky kissing peaks, mostly unclimbed or uncharted in this area and it is a climber’s delight. The ideal way would have been to fly into Kabul and then travel to Faizabad, which is the HQ of Wakhan Area. But Afghan presently has no internal flights and the roads out of Kabul are completely taken over by the Taliban. So the only recourse we had was to enter via Tajikistan.

Now for the plan. We would assemble at Dushanbe, do our local food and grocery shopping and then travel to Khorog (in the Pamirs) in a 4X4 vehicle. Cross border at Ishkashim where we would join a representative from Wakhan tourism. After gathering our porters, guide, and vehicles (if there are roads left) we would travel to Kezget (a remote village in the valley) and from there onwards to the Base Camp. Our porters and guide would leave us here to our own destiny. From BC above we would be completely on our own, self-supported in terms of everything. No outside help or communication would be possible thereafter. It would be a pure alpine style attempt of a big mountain. We would again return via the same route. This all looks devastatingly simple and puerile.

I soon discovered that there was only one weekly flight (Tuesday) from Delhi to Dushanbe operated by East Air. So I had to book myself a ticket for 12th July and would be there for few days on my own before Pat and her sister arrived. Next I had to look for someone in Dushanbe where I could park myself for free during the waiting period. The cheapest hotel there would cost me 50 $ per night. I located a friend who kindly agreed to host me.

Then I visited Tajik Embassy in Delhi and befriended the all-purpose officer. Who took three weeks of smiling before issuing me with the visa right in front of my eyes. I couldn’t figure why he had to wait for three weeks, whereas he could have issued it to me on the very first day! It was simplicity itself. Both the days that I went to the embassy, it was absolutely devoid of any human or action, save the all-purpose officer and the Indian receptionist and the tobacco chewing gateman. I filled up the form, attached photocopies of my passport first and end pages along with one picture and a self declared letter as to my intent of going to Tajikistan. Visa fee is 1750.00 for 45 days and I paid additional 500.00 for obtaining double entry. This I paid in their RBS bank branch. Once I handed over the payment receipt to the smiling officer, he took out the visa stamp and stamped my passport right in front of me.

Next I headed for Afghan Embassy, where again there was no one on that day. But soon few people trickled in, all from security agencies who would be joining UN peace keeping forces there or those traveling for work. Again very simple process, though my heart was thumping at the prospect of getting an Afghan visa on my passport. Just fill up form, paste one photo, photocopies of my passport, a self declaration letter and no visa fee for Indians. Within fifteen minutes of handing over my form, I was called in for an interview. The visa officer was hospitality itself and he was shocked when I told him my purpose of visit. He smiled broadly and shook my hand profusely and wished me luck. He claimed this was the first time he was processing Afghan visa for someone who was going there to climb and enjoy the beautiful landscape. He told me that I should publicize my trip as much as I can and tell the world that Afghanistan is not about war or Taliban or poverty or danger. I got the visa in a jiffy.

Now I am assembling and putting together all the stuff, equipment, gear, food, etc that I need to carry with me for the climb. These last few days are always hectic. In between I also went up for a short ten day long intense climb and hike trip just to train myself and get my fitness back (I would write about it in the next post). I now have less than a fortnight to go and so much to do. Meanwhile Pat and her sister are finding it hard to get the Afghan Visa for reasons that are beyond logical comprehension.

As I always say, the toughest part of the expedition is always the one before you reach the Base Camp; thereafter everything is simple and natural and are very much welcome. The climb itself is never complicated though mostly dangerous and exciting. Our Afghan expedition is proving me right on every count.

We still don’t know if we would be able to make it, or if we do, when we would be able to make it. Our visas could run out or our flights could all get jumbled up, canceled or mislaid. There’s a good chance of you all seeing me on CNN or BBC as a Taliban hostage trying to convince them that I am an out and out penniless pauper. We have no idea if the roads ahead of Ishakashim still exist or have been washed away by recent rains, earthquakes or floods. We have no idea who our guide would be, and as Pat says, in all possibility it would be the first guiding job for the guide (whoever it might be), so he would be as lost as us.

We have no idea how many porters would we be able to gather, or how much load would they carry, if there would be a vehicle or if we would get a cooking tent or kitchen items at all from our support agency. We have no idea if we would be able to buy the food we intend to buy at the places we intend to buy from. And we have no idea as to the kind of weather that would accompany us during the expedition. There’s much that we don’t know, yet, in true climber’s spirit, all three of us are gung-ho about the trip with as much joy and happiness we can ever muster.

For us what matters is our intent and our attempt in realizing our intent to make it a reality in whatever manner possible. So Pat is fuming, her sister is fretting and I, characteristically, am doing absolutely nothing.

So that’s my prelude to madness and if we return I would let you all into the conclusion. Till then, as they (again that ‘they’) say, ‘when a great man sees empty space he sees infinite designs; when an ordinary man sees empty space, he sees nothing’. I am not sure what I am seeing right now and since this applies only to men; I am not sure what Pat and her sister are seeing as well.

We climbers are certainly among the maddest of people on this planet and we laugh at our own madness and make fun of ourselves above all, only by doing so can we retain our sanity and purpose in life; only that makes us ‘conquistadors of the useless.’ Else imagine, whether we step on a virgin piece of ice on top of some godforsaken mountain summit or not, what difference would that ever make to us or to you or to humanity at large. Yet you are reading this piece; now if not for some humor, then for what! And with that I will take leave for now, since I got to take out my sleeping bag from its hibernation and give it a good dusting and sunbathing before it goes where very few have ever gone before.

Note: All of what is mentioned in this post is true though certain things have been exaggerated and I hope you will read it with the intended humor rather than in the literal sense. Picture courtsey Pat


  1. My Madcap friend, you are the only one i know who can be humorous when others would be biting their nails till the end! Maybe that's why the climbing world and us novices love you so much!

    <3 the reasons for Pat taking you along, specially the last one since i am sure you will protect them with your life. No better climbing partner then you, my madcap friend!

    But while saying all this very bravely, my heart still frets for you, so i wish you all the very best for this climb.. my prayers will be for you every day. Please come back safe and full of stories.. come back soon too.. xxooxx

  2. Best of Luck, Buddy!
    "LUCKY UUU" ;)

  3. I hope Pat and her sister survive your cooking.

    The Taliban will probably cheer you guys on, they love their land a great, great deal. Besides,I'm certain they're smart enough to realise that you're about the worst hostage they could hope to land. :)

  4. wish you all, all the best for the trip!
    I look forward to reading about the trip and staring awestruck-en-ly at the pictures!