The Company of the Horses
by Sean Jones
March 1973, return to Afghanistan and the Formation of The Horse Company
It was nine hectic months after quitting my exciting office job at the Tarbela Dam on the Indus River. Work and business behind me, I was speeding back towards Pakistan in a nearly new, dark green Mercedes 280SE which I’d bought from a street dealer in Munich. I’d written to my old friend and fellow-traveller Kevin Rigby, who’d been staying with my erstwhile colleague Lus Jailloux in Tarbela, to meet us in Kabul if he liked and we’d take it from there. I was taking another friend called Mandy Diaz as passenger.
In search of some spiritual fulfilment she was headed for Dharamsala, the Indian Hill Station where the exiled Dalai Lama of Tibet had lived for the previous ten years amongst his fellow refugees and escapees from Chinese communist occupation. Not ready for this yet – it would take me a couple more years of blundering adventures before heading that way myself – I was very much at a loose end and vaguely planning on chilling in the familiar northern hills of Pakistan’s NWFP, in Swat Valley in particular, and taking things easy for a change. I’d driven from Ankara non-stop for a day and a half, crossed the Iran border and kept going to Tabriz, the first city in Iran. All was good as the superb Mercedes cruised smoothly over the new black asphalt of the little-used highway. I should have rested in Tabriz but couldn’t be bothered; I was too spaced out. I just took the bypass round the city and kept going, following the signs to Teheran.
|Tarbela Dam as it is today and the Indus valley debouching onto the Attock plain.
I really was too tired. Leaving Tabriz behind, I made a high speed driving error which would have serious – and endless, nay life-changing – repercussions. In the dark, I mistook an arrow sign pointing right on the brow of a slope for a ‘keep right’ sign, meaning the road went straight on. Roundabouts didn’t exist in Turkey. I forgot that I was now in Iran, where they do. I hardly slowed down. But this sign meant a sharp right turn to go around a large, flat roundabout. My passenger Mandy saw it. She warned me, twice, “Sean, roundabout!” but I was so fixed in my speeding groove that I didn’t listen, I didn’t hear. I didn’t brake, either. When we reached the top of the slope, we were going far too fast to turn. The car went straight at the roundabout, mounted the kerb, ploughed across and off at the other side onto the road. Luckily, it was a flat roundabout and there were no solid obstacles in the middle. Just grass. We continued straight on as if nothing had happened. In the middle of the night though, the red oil-level warning light on the dash flashed on. I stopped at a service station to top up but on checking under the engine in the morning I saw oil very slowly dripping onto the ground. The impact with the kerb had caused a hairline fracture of the crankcase. We were losing oil. After that, I topped up regularly, hoping it wouldn’t get any worse, and carried an extra can of oil just in case.
It did get worse. Suddenly. Crossing Afghanistan several days later the engine quietly blew up as we cruised up the concrete highway towards Kabul at 160kph. Engine power ceased abruptly and a cloud of thick white smoke filled the rear-view mirror. The dead car continued silently. With the power steering and power brakes gone it was like a runaway tank but I managed to wrestle it safely to a halt at the roadside. Damn! We were now stranded in the vast empty silence of the Afghan desert, somewhere between Kandahar and Ghazni, with a car that could only be sold for scrap now.
After a while a truck came along. I waved it down and negotiated a price with the driver to take the Merc to Kabul. Taking us in the cab he towed it to Ghazni where he winched it onto another truck. A few hours later we reached the crowded and primitive looking motor mechanic’s bazaar in Kabul’s old city. I was directed to a diminutive master mechanic called Nasser, a Mercedes Benz specialist. He claimed he could rebuild the blown-up engine in his tiny workshop and put it back on the road without too much fuss. He was clad in greasy overalls with a spanner in his hand and a confident grin on his face.
Turkey near the Iran border, after an all-night drive.
“No problem, mister,” said the Nasser, patting me on the arm after surveying the engine from all angles and carrying out various tests. “Only crankcase, pistons broke. Maybe need new crankshaft. Water and oil mix, high speed, boom, finish! All broken” he concluded waving his arms to indicate an explosion. “But I can fix it.”
“What about spare parts?” “All parts available at spare part depot” he assured me. “Crankcase, piston, piston rings, connection rods, crankshaft. Everything have, from old broken Benz.”
“How much will it cost and how long time?” I asked him dubiously.
“Two-three weeks, insh’Allah. You come with me to spare part depot, you buy parts, maybe fifty dollar, one hundred dollar. My work charge total, maybe two hundred dollar. Complete. I make your motor very nice, very good, same-new, ready to go.”
|Sean’s Mercedes after a crash with a bus in Swat, 1973.
I agreed, took my bags, left him to take out the engine and went with Mandy to check in at the Green Hotel. Next day we went to buy the parts. The ‘spare part depot’ situated on nearby waste land looked like a massive rubbish dump. It was a ten foot high, fifty yards long pile of old parts from cannibalised cars just heaped up and rusting away in the open air. Nasser went all around the ‘Benz section’ picking out bits from the jumbled mass. He knew where to find everything, collecting items in a large bucket as he went around. Then he negotiated a price for the lot with the friendly and agreeable dump supervisor. Forty-five dollars in all.
There was a snag. My ruined engine was a recent fuel injection model and the only available piston assemblies were the right length, but thicker than my broken ones. Nasser said they had to be exactly the same weight and borrowed a spring balance from another mechanic to weigh them carefully. They were 300 grams too heavy but he knew what to do. To correct it, he proposed to grind exactly a hundred and fifty grams of metal off each side of all six connecting rods. Then it would all be ‘good as new’.
Mechanics from neighbouring repair shops who were listening in with interest confidently assured me that Nasser knew what he was doing and was the man for the job. I’d have just to wait in Kabul for a few weeks. There was no alternative so I gave him a hundred dollars advance, left him to it and went for a walk. Mandy was anxious to get to her final destination, the Tibetan refugee settlement in Dharamsala in India where the Dalai Lama lived so instead of waiting around with me for weeks she decided to continue on her own. We had a Kabuli pulao, steamed rice cooked with nuts, raisins, carrots and lamb and I put her on the fast Afghan Post Bus through Khyber to Peshawar with directions how to proceed from there.
Free to enjoy Kabul alone and at my leisure, I wandered around the tourist areas of ‘Chicken Street’ and Sharenau, the most modern district of the city, which I hadn’t seen for several years.
|Chicken Street in Kabul, in the day of King Zahir Shah.
I was on the look-out for Kevin, who was supposed, perhaps, to come to Kabul to meet me. It was the end of winter, snow and ice had been piled up at the sides of the roads and became slushy only in the heat of afternoon sun. Sharenau is spacious and open, with wide paved avenues lined by deep drainage ditches. The Kabul River, enclosed within its walled banks was only a trickle since winter snows had not yet begun to melt. Unpaved side roads, however, were very muddy during the day as the sun melted the ice. The air was fresh, clean and stimulating.
For the moment, King Zahir Shah was still on the throne and Afghanistan was a fine, peaceful and cheap place for overland travellers to stay and enjoy good food and copious quantities of excellent hash, if that was what they liked. It was the best place to relax and chill out between Europe and India. It was always great to cross the Afghan border after passing through the slightly less friendly and hospitable Turkey and Iran, which could also be irksome at times. With few exceptions, the Afghans you’d meet were always kind, welcoming, tolerant and hospitable to all kinds of tourists who came there in peace to enjoy a good time the Afghan way. Kabul was a comparatively emancipated city at the time, especially in the cosmopolitan area of Sharenau with its impressive buildings and broad, spacious roads. The conservative religious movement was always there but suppressed by the forces of modernity and very much unseen in the background.
|The astonishing photos of Roland Michaud were on display in Afghanistan at this time. Having travelled extensively throughout Afghanistan, Michaud published large posters that were printed by the national government. These posters, depicting close up photographs of Afghans, were displayed throughout the country. One such photo can be seen in this Kabul chai khana located on Chicken Street. Michaud’s legendary photos later appeared in National Geographic magazine and became the subject of his book, Afghanistan: Paradise Lost. In addition to inspiring an entire generation of travellers such as Sean, Kevin and Rafiullah, the Michaud’s lent their assistance to Madame Catherine Waridel, a Founding Member of the Long Riders’ Guild who rode solo from the Crimea to Mongolia.
Meanwhile smart, well-to-do Afghan women were often seen going around in western dress unescorted, also groups of schoolgirls with satchels, braided hair wearing school uniforms, skirts and long socks. Traffic police in scruffy brown serge uniforms with diagonal white belts and well-worn peaked caps stood on platforms at intersections waving their arms and blowing whistles to direct traffic, a mixture of motor vehicles, horse-drawn and man-handled carts. On closer inspection it seemed more like the natural flow of the traffic was directing the traffic cop’s signals. He didn’t want any trouble and encouraged drivers to carry on as they were. If a car had stopped because a truck was passing in front he would blow his whistle and hold up his hand while waving the truck on. The circle of snow-covered peaks around the city made a fine back-drop to the picturesque scene.
|The police in Kabul were tolerant of foreign travellers, as seen by this playful photo.
Wandering back to the hotel, fifty yards further up the pavement I saw a familiar, black-caped figure entering a tourist’s antique shop with a pakhool hat worn at a jaunty angle. With that straight blond hair cut in Sufi style, it had to be Rafiullah.
It had been a year since he’d turned up out of the blue one night at Lus’s house in Tarbela, dressed the same, with his caravan of crazy Italians. We’d been out of touch since he’d left again and I’d quit my job with TJV. I had no idea where he was in the world or what he’d been doing in the intervening year. Now, unexpectedly at a loose end in Kabul I wondered what would come of this chance encounter. I followed him into the shop smiling in anticipation. He was looking through a pile of old Afghan muskets.
“Hey! Rafiullah Khan!” I said behind him. He turned round in surprise and did a double take before realising who I was. I’d let my hair grow and reverted to overland traveller mode since I left the Tarbela Dam accounts office.
“Sin Jan! Dio cane!” he exclaimed, using the Pakistani version of my name and his familiar old Milanese expression. We hugged like long lost brothers and stared at each other in surprise, arms on each other’s shoulders.
“What you fuckin’ doing here?” he asked, grinning broadly. “Nothing! What the heck are you doing?”
“Nothing …” he said, “where are you staying, when did you get here, what are you up to?”
“I’m at the Green Hotel, I arrived yesterday. My car blew up. I’m stuck here. Where are you staying?”
“I’m staying at an Italian house in Sharenau” he said, with a welcoming grin, “just chilling and enjoying Kabul, beautiful Afghanistan.”
“Wow! Are you on holiday from TJV, or what?” he asked, referring to the dam-building consortium Tarbela Joint Venture.
Rafiullah, born Raffaele Favero in Milan, Rafiullah Khan had studied architecture and worked as a musician, playing drums in Italy’s first psychedelic rock band, I Propheti, before hitchhiking overland to India in the same month as I had, July 1967. He’d met a wonderful Sufi master on the way in Bannu, converted to Islam, built a house in his adopted frontier village of Zarki, near Bannu, eventually coming to the Tarbela dam site for a job two years earlier and working alongside me in the main office, where we’d become the best of friends.
The main contractor was also from Milan and his family had some connection with it so they took him on. His job had been calculating the quantities of cement that would be needed in the dam over the next five years, while I’d been responsible for the equally boring job of controlling subcontractors’ accounts, including cement suppliers. However, after six months work Rafiullah been officially expelled from Pakistan, falsely accused by some jealous villagers of spying, making maps, photographing tribal women and, bizarrely, forging Pakistani coins with a water-pump he’d brought there from Italy for irrigation purposes. Even the senior Pakistani Director of the company, Brigadier H M El-Effendi, had been unable to have this ridiculous expulsion order quashed.
“No way, man! I had enough” I told him, “I’m finished. I quit TJV last summer. I’m on the road again, free, free as a bird!”
“No TJV, you’re free!” repeated Rafiullah clapping me warmly on the shoulder, “sounds great – congratulations! What shall we do? Come on, let’s have a chai.”
We walked down Chicken Street looking for a tea shop and blow me down with a feather, there, sitting at a table by the sidewalk with a large bowl of creamy fruit yoghurt was yet another very familiar figure. It was the wild-haired and red-bearded Kevin Rigby from my home town of Preston, England.
Kevin was a highly gifted artist, following his own very particular kind of Zen beatnik ideal, always on the road, never carrying more than a shoulder-bag, and our karma was severely intertwined. Before we even met at the age of 17, he knew my father who’d been his art and geography teacher at Preston Grammar School. Pioneers of the 1960s “turn on, tune in, drop out” generation, by 1965 Kevin and I decided to quit the west to travel on foot to India together, hitchhiking, getting off the Channel ferry in Calais with £5 between us; although it would be 1967 before either of us actually arrived in the subcontinent.
|Rafiullah Favero – the Italian Sufi musician who became a mujahadeen and died fighting in Afghanistan.
He spotted me strolling towards him with Rafiullah and raised his arms in the air in mock astonishment. He rolled his eyes to the heavens so his beard stuck out horizontally then gravely stood up, bowing like a Zen patriarch as I introduced him and Rafiullah to each other. At last. Though I’d known them both for years it was the first time we’d all been together in one place. We sat down and the chai and the conversation flowed. All three of us had plenty of catching up to do between us.
Things were getting interesting!
Rafiullah took us over to the large and well-furnished house he was sharing with Italian friends, in residential Sharenau. It stood in a large walled garden, there was a menagerie of cats, Afghan hounds, fish, quails, songbirds, falcons, tortoises and it was all colourfully decorated with Afghan drapes and carpets. One of Rafiullah’s friends, Archimedes from Rome, who strikingly resembled a Roman centurion, had a fine Afghan Buzkashi horse staked out in the garden, which he used to ride around Kabul. Another, called Alexandro the Great, larger than life, hoovered up all the lines of cocaine that were put out on a mirror to share around the group. He was trouble. Rafiullah and Kevin, however, had already heard many stories about each other from me and though very different characters they got along together very well from the start. All three of us were at a loose end now; I was stuck here until my car was ready and none of us had any fixed plan.
“How about we do something together in Afghanistan?” I ventured. “I’ve got money, we can go anywhere, do anything. Any ideas, Rafiullah?”
Rafiullah was never short of ideas for such situations and had an original proposal ready without even stopping to think. “Yes. Definitely,” he said with conviction “I tell you what we do – if you like. We go on a horse trip. This is perfect horse country. Oh, have you ever read ‘The Horseman’, by Joseph Kessel?” he said, taking a well-thumbed paperback from a side table and waving in the air. He raised his voice, knitted his brow and shook his fist with excitement. “Never mind your Mercedes Benz, Sin Jan, now you go by horse, we all go by horse! A good horse here, perfectly trained, cost one hundred dollar. We can explore Afghanistan off-road, by horse. OK?”
“No,” said Kevin, flatly. “Not me. I can’t ride a horse. Never been on a horse in my life. Too much. You know me, I like to run along the razor edge of life in a singlet, one step ahead of all the rest carrying my scroll with the secret of the meaning of life, unencumbered with material possessions like horses and all that goes with ‘em; like the white bird that passes without leaving a trace.
“Nor me” said I, equally sceptical. “I can’t ride either. How about something slightly less complicated and challenging?”
“Come on” said Rafiullah, “don’t be so pathetic. Anyone can ride a horse, it’s easier than riding a bike. It’s natural. You learn to ride a horse by getting on it. Let’s go and rent some horses from the stable and try them out on the maidan, the park. They’re all really well trained, you just sit on the saddle and direct them with the reins and your heels. It’s a fantastic feeling, on a horse. Afghan horses are really good to ride. You’ll see!”
We stared at him, dumbfounded. It was more than I’d bargained for, but Rafiullah never did things by halves. “We can form a band of horsemen. ‘The Company of the Horses’ …” he mused, warming to the theme, “yes, we’ll join together and form ‘The Company of the Horses’. Three cavaliers, riding across the Afghan plateau from place to place. This Afghanistan is a fantastic country, the best country in the world, completely unspoilt, totally natural. We can buy good buzkashi horses in Mazar-i-Sharif or Kunduz and see Afghanistan on horseback, riding across the steppe from serai to serai. It’s a healthy life, a noble life, the perfect life, have adventures, we can strike out and see the real Afghanistan – away from the all tourist and hippie places. Yes, come on, guys, let’s do it. We’re all free now, all in the same place at the same time, we’ll never have such a good opportunity again.”
|Kevin Rigby – the English artist who became a Buddhist monk and died in Pakistan.
“But look, even so, horses need looking after properly, they eat a lot and we’ll be stuck with them” objected Kevin after a little thought, being unusually practical for him.
“Never mind, it’s no problem, we just sell them again whenever we like” said Rafiullah, shrugging eloquently like a good Italian. “Afghans deal in horses all the time. So let’s go down to Hajji Yusuf’s stables in the city and get some practise in. If the worst happens and you fall off, so what, you get up and get back on again!”
We also loved the rugged, primal Afghan countryside and as Rafiullah eloquently argued what better way to enjoy it than from the back of a horse? There were no other suggestions about what to do so we agreed to at least give it a try though I had my doubts and Kevin felt it was all a bit ‘too mucho’. After wavering all night, the next morning he got up at dawn, packed his few possessions and left the house while the rest of us were sleeping, leaving us a farewell note behind on the table saying he really didn’t feel this horse trip was for him and wishing us well. He was going back to Mother India. We groaned. But there was a snag; he forgot to pick up his passport which he’d also left on the table, with the result that he arrived back from the Pakistan border late that night looking sheepish.
“You see!” said Rafiullah triumphantly, delighted to see him back, “it’s fate. Allah made you forget your passport. You have to be one of our Horse Company!” Kevin grinned, we all laughed and he gave in. He would stay and participate in Rafiullah’s dream. This time, Allah had won. We were still the three would-be cavaliers and all we needed was to get some practice and a few horses.
Kessel’s book ‘The Horseman’ was inspiring and centred round the ethos of horsemanship in the Central Asian tradition through an extreme game of the Afghan national sport, buzkashi, ‘dragging of calf’. It is played by the toughest horsemen in the country, called ‘chopendoz’. The chopendoz ride stallions that are specially trained to rear up and force their way through a solid mass of other horses while their riders try to unseat each other, pushing and shoving and even hitting each other in the face with their short, heavy horsewhips. It was traditionally so violent that a classic buzkashi match wasn’t considered a good one unless at least one chopendoz got killed.
|Afghan equestrian culture is centred round stallions and the dangerous game of buzkashi. The most famous buzkashi photo of all time (right) was taken by the celebrated French photographer Roland Michaud. Like fellow Frenchman Joseph Kessel, Michaud travelled extensively in Afghanistan. In 1970 Michaud and Kessel brought the game of buzkashi to the attention of the rest of the world. Photo courtesy of Roland and Sabrina Michaud
The book tells the story of a heroic chopendoz, Uraz, who breaks his leg while playing buzkashi in a royal game hosted by King Zahir Shah in Kabul. Though he has been severely wounded, Uraz escapes from the hospital in Kabul, retrieves his stallion and heads through the mountains of central Afghanistan to get back to his family in the north. The ancient landscape and deeply traditional culture are vibrantly and vividly described.
|Joseph Kessel’s book, The Horsemen, tells the story of a champion buzkashi player named Tursen. In 1971 the book became the basis for a film. Made on location in Afghanistan with the support of King Zahir Shah, Jack Palance starred as Tursen.
|Omar Sherif played Uraz, the chopendoz who rides his stallion, Jahil, across Afghanistan.
We were hooked, and being in Kabul in the middle of the country gave it an extra, palpable almost tangible reality. To be initiated as horsemen Rafiullah took us to Hajji Yusuf’s serai, or stables, deep in the narrow mud-brick alleys of the old city to rent horses for the afternoon. Stable hands saddled up three well-fed and fit-looking stallions and adjusted the lengths of the stirrups for us. With a slight sense of dread Kevin and I, leading our mounts by the reins, followed the already-mounted Rafiullah and the bearded and turbaned Hajji Yusuf. There was no going back. What had Rafiullah got us into now? We pushed through the narrow, teeming city streets, across a busy highway and onto the tree-lined maidan, an expansive grassy open space. It was a sunny morning and a few people were strolling and picnicking on the grass. We went to the middle of the maidan and stopped there. Hajji Yusuf tightened the girths, checked the stirrups and tied the reins over the wooden pommel so the horse’s neck was curved.
“Be careful” said Rafiullah, “they’ve been well fed with grain this morning and will be full of energy.” I’d soon find out what he meant. Holding the jumpy horse still, Hajji Yusuf helped me mount and checked my feet on the stirrups. He put a whip in my left hand, the reins in my right, stood back and shouted “Chu!” which in Afghan horse language means “go!” As it moved off, just to make sure it would go he cracked my mount hard across the rump with his whip. The stallion started, reared and bolted off across the field at full speed, fully out of control. Taken by surprise I could only just stay on the saddle, hanging on to the reins, the pommel and the mane for dear life. My feet lost the stirrups but I kept hanging on while four hooves battered the ground and the wind whistled in my ears. The grass seemed a long way down!
“Pull on the reins!” they yelled while still in earshot, laughing their heads off, “haul him round to the side!” I pulled, I hauled, but horses always know when their rider’s a beginner and he had the bit between his teeth. He’d decided to get back to his stable by route one: we were headed straight for the six-lane highway full of moving traffic. Holding the mane in one hand and the pommel in the other I managed to wriggle my feet back into the stirrups and stood on them, leaning back and hauling on the reins with all my might, shouting “Whoa!” but it made no difference. Leaving the edge of the field between two trees as pedestrians on the sidewalk scattered, he went slipping and sliding madly with his metal shoes across the asphalt between trucks and taxis. Then as grinning drivers all blew their klaxons, in the middle of the highway he changed his mind, veered to the side, turned back and across the maidan, then back and forth and round and round. I gradually figured out how to control him a bit and, more importantly, he got out of breath. Eventually, I got him back to my starting point in one piece, and quite miraculously without falling off.
“Bravo!” they all cried, convulsed with laughter and slapping their sides, “you stayed on!” “That’s lessons one to ten” laughed Rafiullah. “See, you can ride!” A bit late, Hajji Yusuf showed me how to regain control more easily when the horse gets the bit between his teeth and bolts like that. You haul on just one side of the reins with both hands and lean back. It helps to keep your feet on the stirrups! Like that you can pull the horse’s head to one side. This forces him to break his stride, veer to that side and slow down. I’d been hauling on both sides of the reins, but normally, when they don’t have the bit between the teeth, their mouths are soft and sensitive and they turn with just the slightest pressure from the reins.
Inspired by “The Horsemen,” an enthusiastic Sean Jones enjoys his riding lesson in Kabul.
Kevin also passed his riding test, forewarned with my experience, soon got the hang of it and warmed to the idea of Rafiullah’s ‘Company of the Horses’. With his bristling red beard and an impressive turban he sat up straight and actually looked the part, like a Cossack horseman. All we needed now was our own horses and the Company would be fully launched.
In Rafiullah’s little red Renault 4 we drove up past Charikar and Bagram to the north of Afghanistan over the Hindu Kush Range, through the long tunnel over the top of the 16,000 foot high Salang Pass. We were accompanied whether we liked it or not by the large, convivial but somewhat overwhelming Spaniard famously known on the Goan hippie scene as ‘Alexandro the Great’, who was in Kabul to visit the Italian household. It was he who’d hoovered up all the coke on the mirror in Kabul. Someone explained that he came from some special Spanish family or caste whose members traditionally considered themselves on a level above and beyond the law – in fact, they were a law unto themselves. With a shaggy mane of black hair over his broad shoulders and an impressive beard and red turban he had decided to adopt us and came along for the ride. Sporting massive silver armbands from Rajasthan on his biceps and a heavy solid silver belt that he never seemed to take off he comported himself like some great hero from a bygone age.
Enjoying local refreshments atop the Salang Pass with Alexandro the Great.
From the pass, we emerged from the sub-continental landmass of India and onto the southern edge of the vast Central Asian steppe inhabited by completely different races of people. Instead of Pashtuns, this part of Afghanistan north of the Hindu Kush range is populated mostly by Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turcoman tribes. Many are nomadic using round, Mongolian-type gers or yurts. These are the wood-framed, felt-lined tents used by Chengis Khan’s Golden Hordes that resist the extremely low winter temperatures of the steppes and can be quickly dismantled and loaded on camels or horses to be carried to new sites. Variations of these traditional mobile homes are dotted about by the million all over the vast Central Asian steppes from this point north.
After descending to the foothills we reached the rolling, grassy plain and the ancient towns of Balkh and Mazar-i-Sharif to look for horses. There wasn’t much doing and we were told to go to the Friday market at Kunduz where there’d be good buzkashi horses up for sale. Meanwhile we familiarised ourselves and stocked up with camel leather riding boots, whips and other basic horse gear available everywhere. Kunduz was then a charming, dusty, old-world, rural market town half a day’s drive away across the steppe to the East from Mazar-i-Sharif, in the province of Baghlan.
We checked in at the solidly built but now somewhat decrepit old Soviet-style Kunduz Hotel there and let it be known that we were in the market for horses. We were soon introduced to a local tribal leader and landlord who fancied our car and offered us a deal: he’d take the little red Renault from us in return for the four horses of our choice at the Friday market. He would take care of any paperwork. To us it wasn’t much of a car and once we had our horses we’d have no further need of it anyway so we accepted and went early next morning to see our luck. He took us to the thronging, walled market on the outskirts of town where animals and farming implements of every kind were up for sale.
|A local rider in Kunduz.
Though there wasn’t a huge selection the horses for sale were good enough for us to choose four of the best. They were some fine-looking horses and after trying them out around and outside the market we eliminated the old, the mares, the sick and the weak and ended up with what we judged were the best four. There was a big, light dapple grey buzkashi horse whom Rafiullah took and named Sharoban, a young bay Badakshani pony with a beautiful long mane who was christened Argus by Kevin, and two other handsome looking bays, one of which I claimed and called Palawan.
The deal was struck, the landowner paid for the horses and took the car and we rode the horses back and tied them up in the hotel stables. I began to wonder what we’d let ourselves in for. Later that afternoon we saddled up rode out to see how it went. I took the tall, good-looking Palawan but when I galloped him in the open countryside he exhibited a severe limp. It was too late to go back to the seller, the market was closed. We went to see our dealer, who said we should have galloped him before buying; the deal was done. It was a case of ‘caveat emptor’, they said, ‘let the buyer beware’. We had bought a lemon.
Next morning, we were trotting around the suburbs of Kunduz to get accustomed to life on horseback when a party of turbaned, bearded, horse-dealing nomads walking down the road with women and animals in tow saw us and approached us. They were looking at Palawan, who was now in tow without a rider and they seemed to like him. They called us over.
“That brown stallion there, you don’t need him?” they asked us, pointing at Palawan trailing behind us on his rope.
“Yes, we need him” said Rafiullah, who spoke good Dari. He was on the ball. “He’s a very good horse. Just look at him!”
“Hmmm” they said, “maybe we could use a horse like that.”
“What? If you want to buy him, he’s not for sale” was Rafiullah’s reply.
“We need four horses.”
“No, in that case we will exchange him for this” they said indicating a handsome-looking young chestnut stallion with a blaze on the forehead that they had in tow.
“No way” said Rafiullah, “our horse is much better than that moth-eaten old thing.”
“Then we’ll pay you some cash on top” said the dealers insistently. They really must have liked this horse, or they wanted to get rid of the one they were offering in exchange.
“Depends how much” said Rafiullah dubiously, “anyway, try him out first!” We hoped they wouldn’t gallop him, and we were in the suburban streets so they just trotted him up and down and cantered a bit. They put a saddle and bridle on theirs for us to have a ride of him. Rafiullah leapt on his back, tried him out, galloped him up and down a bit, jumped off and pronounced him fine.
“Alright,” said their hoary leader with a cunning grin.
“One thousand Afghanis and this fine stallion in exchange for yours? Deal?” “No, no, no. It’s not anything like enough. Two thousand five hundred Afghanis. This horse is worth at least eight thousand.” They protested and grumbled but then came back.
“One thousand five hundred.” They must have really liked the look of Palawan. We conferred. We didn’t want to push too far and risk losing the deal.
“OK, last offer” said Rafiullah. “One thousand six hundred, and the horse is yours. Take it, or leave it. We are going for lunch.”
The bargain was struck and they made a great fuss of invoking Allah to seal the agreement. They handed over the chestnut, counted out the cash and took Palawan’s halter. We all shook hands firmly, then they stood in a circle with us in the middle of the street looking heavenwards with arms outstretched, palms upraised, calling on Allah as our witness to an irreversible deal.
“No problem” said Rafiullah; “same to you”. They all recited a prayer and gravely stroked their beards about it. We mimicked them with equal gravity. I took the new chestnut with the blaze into my personal care and called him Flamador on account of his golden main. Our fourth horse who had been nameless inherited the title of Palawan – the Mighty One.
Next day, sure enough the dealers came back and sought us out complaining about Palawan’s limp. We shrugged and reminded them how they’d sealed the bargain with ‘no come back’.
“Too bad” we said. “Caveat emptor.” You checked the horse yourself first. Then Allah witnessed the deal was done and couldn’t be undone. How can we go back on that?”
They grumbled but knew they had no answer and left. It seemed as if though we were the tourists we’d outwitted the Afghan horse dealers; normally the other way round. We were on a learning curve.
The Company of the Horses now had four fine well-trained and fit stallions to ride, without the slightest limp. It was mounted and operational. So far, so good. Now all we needed was to get all the gear and learn how to take care of our charges. At the horse gear bazaar of Kunduz we compiled four complete sets of traditional, Afghan horse tackle. Decorative bridles, bits, reins, halters and ropes were chosen. Also four fancy saddle sets in eight pieces each comprising colourful cloths, supports, girths, the carved wooden saddle itself and a woven red carpet for the rider to sit on.
|Flamador, who was purchased from the Kunduz nomads.
Then there were stirrups, straps and nosebags. Kevin also bought some fine cured leather which he cut and stitched into three pairs of small saddlebags to hitch over the saddles. Finally, we picked up a pair of capacious woven wool saddlebags for a pack animal, to carry extra gear and feed. We decided to use the fourth horse as a pack-horse, since Alexandro the Great turned out to be not that great that he wanted to mount any horses and didn’t seem to want to join the Company. He ended up staying in the hotel while we got on with the trip, so we left him there and never heard from him again.
The three cavaliers decked ourselves out in silken, brightly-coloured, pirate-cut shalwar-kameez tailored, black silk turbans or fox-fur Chopendoz hats, knee-length camel-leather boots with thick woven woollen socks inside and long-armed, vertically-striped ‘chapan’ cloaks, also of silk.
|Afghan riding boot-maker photo courtesy of Roland Michaud. In his book, Caravans to Tartary, Michaud captured the last vestiges of the traditions, travels and customs of Afghanistan. Soon afterwards Afghanistan was destroyed by various invaders and warring factions. Yet Michaud’s iconic images inspired a young Frenchman named Matthieu Paley to become a travel photographer. A “Friend of the Guild,” Paley journeyed through Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor in 2011
As the insignia of our famous Horse Company we chose three broad leather belts with heavy worked-silver Bokhara belt buckles studded with turquoise. We got old bone-handled Afghan daggers to hang on these belts with our bayonets in their sheaths, bayonets that may have been taken from the British in the Afghan wars. Now, with black kohl applied around our eyes in local style we really began to look the part. All the locals enjoyed showing us the ropes and how to handle these horses. They showed us how to rub mutton fat into all the leather gear to keep it supple, how to feed and water the animals, how to fix the harness, handle them, exercise them, cool them down after riding them and generally how to treat them well to keep them happy and in good shape.
At last we were ready to saddle up, check out of the hotel and ride somewhat nervously out of Kunduz, off the tarmac road and towards the wide open spaces of the central Asian steppe. We picked up a nomadic trail heading southwest, in the general direction of Central Afghanistan and Bamiyan. Free, at last!
|The legendary Bamiyan Buddha was carved in a sandstone cliff in 507 A.D. Standing 53 meters (174 ft), it was originally painted to enhance its beauty. Lying along the Silk Road, travellers across the centuries came to admire the serenity of the magnificent statue. In an act of deliberate vandalism, it was utterly destroyed by the Taliban in 2001
Far from the noise of machines and engines the gentle plodding of the hooves put us in touch with the timeless rhythm of nature. We passed the ruins of ancient forts and walls of abandoned settlements melting back into the landscape. They stood like sentinels, silent witnesses to old wars against long-defunct empires; invaders that had always been defeated by the Afghans in the end. From the ancient Greeks and Persians to the Mongols. Plus three modern invasions by the British Raj. Observing our perspective of this primordial scenery gradually change we felt in harmony with nature, emerging from a lifetime of materialistic, consumer-oriented conditioning and free at last – at home on the Central Asian Steppe.
In 1973 half the population of Afghanistan was still nomadic. Their trails were broad with interweaving pathways worn in the grassland by these nomads with their animals, moving from pasture to pasture with the seasons. Camel caravans also used them as feeder trails for the silk routes, distributing trade goods between the Far East and Europe. Beige on green, the paths snaked across the rolling steppe from horizon to horizon. At night we stayed in caravan-serais, traditional travellers’ inns in suitable locations a day’s ride apart. Small or large, they appeared just when needed, always near a water supply. Laid back, turbaned and bearded hosts welcomed us with a shake of their broad hands and a broad grin, showing us to a carpeted room facing onto the courtyard where we’d tether the animals. All horse supplies and feed were available down to horse shoes and horse shoe nails and a samovar bubbled for chai day and night in the kitchen where food was prepared to order.
|Camel caravans crossed Afghanistan for centuries. This photo depicts a 1920s bi-plane flying over a caravan following the trail leading south to Kabul that was later used by the Company of the Horse
We continued learning horse-care and horse-lore from nearly everyone we met. Cuts and grazes were treated with brake-oil, bruises with iodine ointment, for us as well as the horses. We had scrapes, bumps, kicks and falls as we learned how to groom, feed and maintain them and us and all the gear in good order. We settled into an energetic but relaxed routine to keep our small troop on the move, enjoying the timeless freedom of the steppe, laid-back Afghan hospitality and a real horseman’s life, on the move from day to day.
One morning as we rode along I severely tempted providence by kidding the others that I was the best rider, since I was the only one who hadn’t fallen off or been thrown.
“Don’t worry” said Rafiullah and Kevin together, who both had fallen several times. “You will.”
We came to a shack under a grove of poplars by a meandering stream and the welcome sight of a samovar and pans on a fire under a shelter of rushes. We were ready for a break so we rode up and dismounted. Hitching the reins and stirrups over Flamador’s pommel I looked round to see where to tether him down by the stream to graze on the short grass, unaware that up on the hillside were four mares, one of which was in heat, and he’d picked up their scent. My back turned for an instant, he moved off in that direction. I lunged after him trying to grab the reins but he was just out of reach and turned away. He threw out a rear hoof in warning and cantered off gently towards the mares on the hill. I stood there dumbfounded as he took off.
“It’s your horse, you idiot” shouted Rafiullah, “you better catch him!”
“Take Palawan” said Kevin helpfully, pointing at our packhorse beside him complete with saddle, bridle and halter. I whipped off his saddlebags, jumped on and spurred him after Flamador but by the time I caught up he’d reached the mares and was busy herding them further uphill. I rode alongside and grabbed his reins but he wasn’t having it, he pulled away, tearing the reins out of my grip and nearly pulling me off Palawan. Then he wheeled and turned. Rearing up on his hind legs with his neck curved he bore down on us, whinnying fiercely, teeth bared, auburn mane erect, eyes rolling, nostrils distended and forelegs flailing away dangerously.
Palawan reared up defensively but was forced backwards down the slope by Flamador’s momentum. My feet shot out of the stirrups, I completely lost my seat and was thrown backwards, sailing through the air in an arc and came down badly, plumb on the middle of my back on the hard ground with a sickening crunch with nothing to break my fall. Winded and in shock I lay there, paralysed, sure that my entire spine had just been shattered and having a vision of spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair. Mercifully the prancing, duelling horses avoided me with their stamping hooves.
Then it went from bad to worse. Palawan, finding himself free now decided he might as well gang up with Flamador and head off with the mares. Kevin and Rafiullah arrived on their horses but having seen what happened to me they couldn’t get near them as they ran further away, pushing the mares up the hill. The stand-off was only resolved when two grinning nomads who’d been watching these goings-on from a distance, and probably owned the mares, came up with a long rope and told Rafiullah and Kevin to get out of the way. Stretching the rope out between them on foot they manoeuvred it to touch the front of Flamador’s neck with the middle of the rope and then keeping it taut they quickly ran round behind him in opposite directions, crossed and moved in, hand over hand pulling on the rope. As soon as Flamador felt the rope around his neck his training came back, he forgot about the mares and stopped in his tracks, calm and subdued. Palawan followed and everything was under control again.
“What were you just saying about being best rider because you never fell off?” scoffed Kevin as he and Rafiullah came over to scrape me up from where I’d lain inert after slamming backwards into the ground. I could only laugh, making the pain shoot all over my body. Paralysed from the chest down, they lifted me up onto Sharoban’s saddle since he had the smoothest gait and we rode all afternoon to the nearest serai. When I dismounted, my unfeeling legs folded and I slithered into a jelly-like heap on the ground. It was several days before I could get off my bed, stand up and slowly learn to walk again, but luckily there were no broken bones or permanent damage.
|Despite the passage of centuries, the daily rhythm of life in Afghanistan remained unchanged, as seen in this kebob seller’s stand in Kabul. The destruction of the previously tolerant and beautiful country began in April, 1978 when a communist coup d'état seized power. Afghan President Mohammed Daoud and most of his family were murdered at the presidential palace. The once peaceful nation has subsequently suffered forty years of unrelenting warfare.
Our visas were expiring soon so we returned to Kabul where Hajji Yusuf stabled our horses. He had two new ones to offer: Savoy, a tall, well-conformed Russian light bay in beautiful, shiny condition with a leader’s character, and Wazir, a lithe, dappled flea-bitten grey gelding of a Waziristan breed with funny, comma-shaped ears that curved around so the tips touched in the middle. We took them both, after giving them a good galloping on the maidan, and Savoy became my main mount for the next five years. Smooth and fast, Wazir was also a sensational ride, totally responsive when ridden bareback without a bridle. He’d accelerate to full gallop from standing in two great leaps then streak away straight and smooth as an arrow at top speed; perfect for tent-pegging competitions. Savoy was like the London Grill he was named after, deluxe, sophisticated, luxurious, cool, with great power and heart, a Rolls Royce of a horse. Nothing alarmed him. In the city he’d move serenely between noisy trucks, with drivers blaring their klaxons; he wouldn’t turn a hair, and being so calm other horses followed behind him serenely.
|Rafiullah riding Savoy wins a tent pegging contest.
We couldn’t decide whether to renew our visas or leave for Pakistan. Rafiullah and I asked Kevin to invoke the oracle, the I Ching. It advised us to ‘return’ to avoid political turmoil, even though King Zahir Shah had ruled Afghanistan serenely for several decades and all seemed calm. Rafiullah, who’d been in Afghanistan all winter, agreed, so Pakistan it was. Two Italian friends who shared the house decided to accompany us, the tall and dark Archimedes who had his own horse to export and the short Renato from Naples who sported a large beard and shoulder length fair hair.
“But where can we stay in Pakistan” asked Kevin, “with seven horses? These horses are used to being kept well in a comfortable stable anyway, and we won’t find any serais in Pakistan. We need a base.” It was a good point.
“We can go to Swat,” I suggested, “I once met the Wali’s son at the Palace Hotel and he promised to give me land there to build a house. I always wanted to live in Swat.”
|Sean Jones, known to his Muslim friends as Sin Jan, became deeply immersed in tribal life on both sides of the Afghan border. He is seen here at the home he built in Swat Valley, where he lived for many years.
“We can go to Zarki, too” said Rafiullah referring to his ‘village’ Zarki Nasrati, in the tehsil of Karak, way south of Peshawar, near Bannu and Waziristan, where he had built a simple one-roomed ‘house’ in 1970, after his Sufi master passed away. This Zarki was the village of his ‘pir-bhai’ (co-student) Billawar Khan, who also joined the Horse Company. “Except the hot season is beginning and it’s really hot” continued Rafiullah thoughtfully. “But we can stay in Swat in summer, it’s fresh, and ride up to Gilgit for polo, and then ride south to Zarki for the winter. They do a lot of tent-pegging there, competitions every week at the village fairs and markets.”
This sounded like a good solution and all were agreed. The Company of the Horses would migrate with the seasons between the hills in the north and the desert in the south in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. It sounded perfect. We just needed to get there from Kabul, across the Durand Line.
|The Durand Line is the 2,430-kilometre (1,510 mile) international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was established in 1896 between Sir Mortimer Durand, a British diplomat and civil servant of the British Raj, and Abdur Rahman Khan, the Afghan Amir, to fix the limit of their respective spheres of influence and improve diplomatic relations and trade. Afghanistan was considered by the British as an independent state at the time, although the British controlled its foreign affairs and diplomatic relations. The Durand Line cuts through the Pathan tribal areas and further south through the Balochistan region, politically dividing ethnic Pashtuns, as well as the Baloch and other ethnic groups, who live on both sides of the border. Although the Durand Line is recognized as the western border of Pakistan, it remains largely unrecognized by Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Balouchistan Voices,
At the stables one day to exercise the horses we bumped into a tall Australian girl with long red hair called Jill who was on her way to Ulaanbaatar, in Mongolia. She could ride so we invited her to join us on a ride around Kabul. Rafiullah chatted her up but she was leaving that evening so he gave her the Palace Hotel address in Swat if she wanted to catch up with the Company of the Horses on her return to the subcontinent.
“Maybe see you in Swat, then, in a month or two.” said Jill. It was a fateful tryst.
Continued in the sequel, “Captured by Bandits on the Afghan Border.”
Editor’s note: unless otherwise noted all photos appear courtesy of Sean Jones, Rafiullah Khan, Jill Favero, Noor Khan and CuChullaine O’Reilly.