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Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

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 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

My new Wahki buddies

In contrast to the confusion on the Tajik side of the border, Afghanistan was pretty straightforward. Passport, vehicle permit, $100 and welcome to Afghanistan sir. Fabulous!! It’s great to be back again.

I’d been dreaming about this moment for 4 years. Now I was actually here and I was super excited. Ever since I was fortunate enough to be part of the first touring cricket team to play Afghanistan on Afghanistan soil back in 2009, I’d wanted to come back. The tour with Ditchling Cricket Club was a once in a lifetime opportunity (check out the links for more info BBC & BBC) that I’d been privileged to be invited on. We had been soundly beaten by Afghanistan so I’d always wanted to arrange a rematch.

I was also excited about visiting the Wahkan region, known also as the panhandle of Afghanistan, and major Great Game territory. It’s called this because Russia and Britain created a buffer zone between their own empires at the end of the 1800′s, This now gives Afghanistan the look of a pandhandle in its north eastern corner. The people of the Wahkan are called Wahki. They have lived in the valley for many generations. They are Ismaili and their religious leader is the Aga Khan, which makes them a little different to the rest of Afghanistan. The Kirghiz people used to share the mountain ranges with them but now there numbers are quite small. A large number relocated, first to Pakistan refugee camps, and finally to Eastern Turkey in early 1980′s as a result of the Soviet invasion.

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

Finally back in Afghanistan (at The Ishkashim Market)

At the border I’d met Farhad (my contact) and Azim (hoping to be my guide). They had guided me through customs and we then made the short drive to Ishkashim village 3-4 kms away on the Afghan side. Immediately on arrival I was inundated with offers of locals wanting to be my guide. Farhad suggested that I was best to select a guide from a few choices. Nothing had been arranged by my agent, so it was a bit of a surprise that I found myself conducting interviews at 4pm at Marco Polo Guest house.

It was a little unsettling as these guys desperately wanted the work as my guide. Somebody was going to be disappointed. All 3 candidates didn’t quite fit the bill for me. Their English was poor or they lacked experience. In the end I asked Farhad if he was available. After checking with his NGO boss and some further negotiations he agreed to be my guide. I felt bad for the other guys but I’m sure I made the right choice. Farhad had help me develop an itinerary, spoke good English and was good company.

Our plan was to drive up to Sarhad-e-Broghil over two days with a rest day on the 4th of June in Sarhad. It was on this day I’d hoped to arrange a cricket match with the locals. We would then return back down the valley to Ishakshim over two further days, exiting after a week in the Wahkan Valley.

That evening I had a massive dinner from my host Samad, at Marco Polo Guest house. I couldn’t eat it all and eventually retired around 9pm to bed. It had been a long day but nothing could wipe the smile from my face. I was back in Afghanistan and it was an exciting time.

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

My massive dinner at Marco Polo Guest House

I rose at 6am the next morning. The sun was up. The fresh cool mountain air felt great. I got to have a hot shower (the water was warmed by a wood fire that my host set before I got up). Breakfast was at 7am as my host Samad watched and waited, ready to respond to any request. You could feel that tourism is critical here, and the battle for the tourist dollar is fierce. There is an air of desperation as they do not know when or where the next dollar will come from. Things change so quickly that they make as much as possible whenever they can. Last year the internal tribal disputes in Khorog resulted in tourism to the Tajikistan region and of course the Wahkan coming to a halt. This loss of income is extremely hard on the local economy.

I was at the market by 8.30 to meet Farhad. We stopped at the government district office to see the tourism office. I was registered and then 3 documents for travelling to the Wahkan issued. 1 Wahkan permit, 1 for police authorisation and 1 for border police authorisation. Then we had to visit the police and border police to get their authorisation. This is required for check points along the Wahkan valley.

I need to provide 4 passport stamps and 5 photocopies each of passport and visa. They were able to make these copies for 160 Afghanis in the market and were used for the authorisation process. The whole process took 2-3 hours as we had to wait for the police and border police to approval my application.

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

Me and Aussie Shane. The first tourists of the year.

We decide to buy supplies while we waited. On the way we ran into our first tourist. An Aussie called Shane. He has just come back from the Wahkan. He was the first tourist of the season. Sounded like I would be the 2nd. After a quick chat we visited the market. There isn’t much you can get up the Wahkan valley so you have to buy in Ishkashim. Unfortunately there isn’t much at the market either as the Taliban are stopping supplies getting through. Prices are increasing and there is no room for negotiation. The young fella I dealt with didn’t budge one inch any of his products. Even the ones that were out of date. It is tough times. The prices are the same for tourist and local apparently. I brought some snacks, drinks and bread in the end.

We were finally on the road out of Ishkashim at 12.30. The weather turned bad as we headed towards Khandud and the road was non existent. It was more like a rough track. A very rough track.

Along the way we saw many locals travelling or maintaining their farms. Farhad had told me the day I arrived that everybody in the area were smiley people. I thought these are my kind of people. Thus I thought it was totally normal when everybody smiled and waved back at us when I smiled and waved at them. There were lots of different smiles. Big ones, bemused ones, toothless ones and gold plated ones. It wasn’t until we had been on the road for a couple of hours that I realised I had mis-understood Farhad. He wasn’t talking about smiley people, he was talking about Ismaili people, whose spiritual leader is the Aga Khan. This realisation caused great amusement and many smiles for the rest of the trip.

Eventually we made it to Qila-e-Panja around 5pm. I’d been told that the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) had an office there so we stopped by to say hello. Here we met Ann, Hafeez and Fatima from the organisiation. They welcomed us in for tea and a good old chat. I told them about my journey and eventually the conversation turned to Afghanistan, the WCS and their work in the area.

The WCS have had great success in reducing animal smuggling and skin sales of animals such as the snow leopard. They are currently trying to create a national park in the Little Pamir region. It will take a long time but they are making progress and the Afghan Government is very supportive of their work, which is great to hear. I wish them the best of luck!!

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

Aussie Norm & the rest of the guest house crew

During our chat I heard about an Aussie chap called Norm who was volunteering his services at the local school. Two Aussies on one day in the Wahkan. What are the chances of that!! The WCS team invited us for dinner which we kindly accepted. Beforehand though we headed off to try to find Norm at the local guest house. As it turns out Norm (78 yr old backpacker) is a former maths teacher who was teaching english at the school and staying at the guest house. Norm had lived in Afghanistan in the 1970′s and was enjoying being back. He was top chap. Later that evening we enjoyed a lovely local dinner with the WCS crew and they wished us luck with our planned cricket game at Sarhad. We promised to pop in on the way back to let them know how it went.

The following day as we made our way up the valley we ran into the only Englishman around near Kip Kut. As it turned out David was a mad keen cricketer. I told him about my plans for a cricket match at Sarhad and invited him along. The offer was too tempting so he went to grab his bag. While Farhad and I waited we had lunch with the locals. One little one had a NZ cricket shirt on. Classic!!

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

The locals that joined me for lunch.

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

Spot the NZ cricket supporter.

We were back on the road by 2.30 and I enjoyed interesting chat with David as we ventured up the Wahkan. The drive itself was full of spectacular scenery and views. It was a beautiful day. Not to hot. Just right. With big mountain ranges on either side as you make you way up the valley.

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

Meeting the locals on the way up the valley.

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

Our guesthouse in Sarhad

As part of my plans for trying to arrange a cricket match at Sarhad-e-Broghil, I was hoping to meet up with the former captain of the Afghanistan cricket teamRaees Ahmadzai. Unfortuantely, he couldn’t make it to the Wahkan he was helping to look for Mahummed Nabi’s father, who had been kidnapped in mid May. Mahummed Nabi is the current Afghan captain. It’s a great shame when politics and sport are mixed up.

The dream of having an annual cricket match in the Wahkan was still a possibility though. I was not really sure what would happen but I was going to give it a go. Even if it was just a game of backyard cricket.

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

Relaxing with David and friends outside our guesthouse in Sarhad.

We arrived around 17.00 to the guesthouse at Sarhad. It was great to finally arrive at the furthest point you can reach by vehicle in the Wahkan. The views back down the valley were awesome. We agreed $15 per night per person with all meals included. We all relaxed, enjoyed some chi and of course the views.

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

Snowcapped mountain views

We enjoyed another huge meal with the owner and his son. Here I raised the spectre of arranging a cricket match the next day. We then discussed the cricket match and how we would go about arranging it. The owners son turned out to be the man to know. He said he could arrange everything. So together we laid out the plans for the big match. The match would be between the Wahki Afghan XI vs The Ditchling All Stars. It looked like team uniforms, a scoreboard, an umpires jacket, wickets, a boundary, and of course afternoon tea would be arranged. We just need a name for the great event. It was decided that it would be called the Wahki Festival of Cricket and we would be playing for the Chocolate Bar Cup (as I had a couple of chocolate bars in the truck). Fantastic!!

In true English form it started to rain the night before and my belly started to feel dodge after dinner. Lights out at 9.45. Not feeling do sharp. However I went to bed feeling excited about the next day. It was shaping up as possibly the highest and definitely the most eastern part of Afghanistan for a game of cricket ever.

At 7am the next morning Farhad, David and I went to the school to invite the players, and everybody else along. There was great excitement at the school which boded well for the game. Then we went to check out the pitch options. Two options both in great spots, but we went for option 1 with its fantastic views of the village and the surrounding mountains.

David and I marked out the pitch. There were a few natural hazards, and it was water-logged in a couple of places, but the umpire gave his approval for play to proceed. David as the umpire / slash TV pundit provided his opinion on the match conditions. Sun overhead but with something in the pitch to offer the bowlers. A bit of a slant in the pitch reminiscent of Lords. Target score for the 11 over match should be 60-70 ,with the pitch predicted to flatten out for the team batting second. An ideal to win the toss and put the opposition in.

We even had a Press release that went out via Facebook and Twitter.

‘Great day for cricket here in Sarhad-e-Broghil, #Wahkan. Its a 2pm start for the big match btw the Wahki Afghan XI & The @Ditchlingcc All Stars #Afghanistan’

With the major preparations made we retired to our guest house for lunch, and to mentally prepare for the big match.

Now its common knowledge that many top sportsmen suffer from nerves and are sick before the big match. Unlike many great sportsmen I was on the toilet dealing with the effects of a dodgy belly before the game. I suspected the locals were trying some underhand tactics to win the Chocolate Bar Cup.

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

Setting up the wicket

We rocked up at 1.30 and set up the wicket. There was a large turn out of both players and fans. We selected the teams with myself and my opposition captain choosing one at a time. Once everybody was chosen we had 14 a-side match. Then with Farhad’s help I went about explaining the rules. I asked if anybody had played before and the answer unsurprisingly was no, no one had played before. Right. After 20 mins of instructions they wanted to see a demonstration. They were keen lads. David and I duly obliged. Then they wanted to practice which was a good idea. Smart lads. Another 15 mins of this and we were ready to go. The format was decided on by myself and David. One over each for batting and bowling. A 14 over match in total. All the normal scoring options but with minus 2 runs if you got out at any point in your allocated batting over.

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

Explaining the rules

The Wahki Afghan captain won the toss and decided to bat. I was happy to be chasing as it was difficult to tell what sort of score this pitch was. We got underway at 2pm with David calling play on the first ever Wahki Aghan XI v Ditchling All Stars cricket match. It was high octane entertainment and it didn’t stop for the next 2 hours. The bowling was pretty shoddy with many suspect actions. David was umpiring (in a splendid local coat), scoring and providing bowling coaching at at the same time. While I was working with the batters, the running between the wickets, the fielding postions and explaining the rules as we went. Immediately it was clear they were good at catching and throwing. Batting and bowling wasn’t so flash though. A combination of one handed and baseball techniques were all seen at the batting crease.

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

The pre-match practice session

The Wahki team started strong but the Ditchling bowling and fielding slowly came good and kept the scoring low. Their score after 14 overs was 40. The target was set at 41. We updated the scoreboard (brought from the school) and after a 5 minute tea break the players were back on the field. These guys were as eager as I’ve ever seen teams to get on with the game. Though this could have been because some on them had to walk for over an hour, to get home after the game.

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

Discussing tactics during the tea break. Not a bad view either.

At the start of the Ditchling innings the Wahki bowling was extremely suspect and the ditchling batters were having trouble reaching the balls 6 feet outside off stump. Many complaints were aimed at David (the umpire / bowling coach) for not controlling the firebrand Wahki bowlers. After 10 of the 14 overs the Ditchling team had 20 on the board. Needing another 21 off 4 overs was going to be a challenge. After 13 overs we had 26. It meant I needed to score 15 off the last over to win. After scoring 8 off the first 3 balls, the Afghan bowler switched to a succession of illegal chucking deliveries which were ruled out by the umpire. This was to prove highly controversial and made the last over drama fuelled. The next legal delivery was a dot ball which left me needing 7 off the last two. A six tied the scores with one ball remaining.

One run was all that was needed but if I got out it would mean victory for the locals. The tension was nowhere to be seen, as the last ball was delivered, and dispatched to the boundary. It meant victory for the Ditchling All Stars and sweet revenge for the loss to the Afghan national side in Kabul four years earlier. The Ditchling players celebrated (once I told them they had won) and we all gathered around together. The chant Ditchling cha cha cha, Ditchling cha cha cha rang out through the mountain ranges of the Wahkan. The Ditchling All Stars were presented with the Chocolate Bar Cup after their thrilling victory. A free for all broke out between the winning players for the chocolate. In recognition of the sportmanship of the Wahki team I gave them my other bar of chocolate. Sparking another free for all between their players but crucially avoiding a riot. While they didn’t all understand the rules fully, they all certainly wanted to win. Several of the Wahki players complained about the tough calls made by the umpire in the last over, and will no doubt they will still talking about the thrilling and controversial outcome for years to come.

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

The final scoreboard. Victory for the Ditchling All Stars in a thrilling match.

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

The players from the Wahki Afghan XI & the Ditchling All Stars

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

The scoresheet

We all pose for pictures and then headed off home around 4pm. A sensational day out and a great event. A big thanks to my local hosts, who were instrumental in organising the game. Well done to the 28 players from both sides, and the 20-30 supporters that came along to watch. The first ever Wahki Festival of Cricket had been a great success.

We headed back to the guesthouse to recover from a highly emotional afternoon on the sports field. I savoured the sweet taste of victory and celebrated with a can of lemonade. By 6pm dinner was available and by 8pm we were all in bed shattered. What a day!! Once again a fantastically memorable match in Afghanistan, but for completely different reasons to the game 4 years earlier. A day I shall not forget.

The spoils of victory had come at a cost though. I still had a dodgy belly the following day. Still in wasn’t going to stop us descending back down the valley towards Ishkashim.

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

The view from the guesthouse

We left Sarhad in time to see all the children go to school from 8-12. Afterwards they go home to help their families. Some walk 1-2hrs to get to school which is dedicated.. There are many new schools as a result of the Central Asia Institute founded by Greg Mortensen. The children under 6-7 years that aren’t at school yet, help watch the animals during the day. Everybody contributes to the work load. Though the very little ones tend to run around freely with snotty noses and dirty clothes playing.

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

Stuck in a bog. We weren’t going anyway without help.

All was going smoothly on the return trip until I drive into a bog. I was followed the tracks and missed the actually road. We were stuck, and stuck good. This gave me the chance to test my recovery skills. Started digging under the tyres to put my planks underneath. However that wasn’t making any progress. We were stuffed without help. Fortunately an Aga Khan truck turned up just as we were beginning to despair. I got out my winch cable and it just made it to firm land, where the truck was able to park. From here we were able to winch Boris to safety. Phew!! 30mins later we were back in the road again. It was good to test the recovery equipment, but we were lucky another vehicle came past. I only saw one more car for the rest of the day that could have helped us.

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

The winch and the Aga Khan truck save the day

After the unplanned rescue I was pretty tired so we stopped at Kip Kut and said farewell to David. Then headed for the local hot pool to wash and relax. Then we parked up at a guesthouse and agreed to camp outside for $5. I cooked dinner for Farhad and myself (pasta, beans, onions, tomato paste and bread). Farhad and I chatted for a while, before bed at 19.45. I was slowly getting conditioned to Afghan time.

As a result of going to bed when the light goes, you find yourself getting up earlier and earlier when the light starts. So I was up at 5.30am to get the kettle on, to make coffee and tea for Farhad, old geezer and myself. We had good reason to get away early this morning, as we hoped to catch the village migration to the Big Pamir for summer grazing.

1st week of June (spring migration) is called Kuch. It is the beginning of the movement of stock and people to the summer pastures. We were fortunate enough to see many groups of farmers and their cattle moving along the road as we drove.

Eventually we stopped for lunch. Boiled eggs, tomatoes, bread, meat sausage. Very nice. We even had a local with us as he need a lift back down the valley. I’ve been only to happy to help in most cases, as I’ve needed a lot of help as well. There are times when you need the help of strangers to keep going. Everybody helps each other, because they don’t know when it will be them that needs assistance. Case and point was when we ran into a local with a flat tyre on his motorbike, so we stopped to lend a hand. It was a good deed done after I was saved the day before, and the local was very appreciative.

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

Helping a local in need

We arrived back in Ishkashim at 5.30pm. Farhad’s promise of free accommodation didn’t happen as he misjudged his family members generosity. I ended up paying $23 but reduce $10 from Farhad’s tip. It was quite amusing as Samad didn’t see why he should give me a deal. I wasn’t surprised.

Down in Ishkashim they aren’t really prepared to negotiate. Economic times with Taliban affected supply lines means that it’s tough on prices. Further up the valley they are prepared to negotiate, and often ask you to suggest a price. $30 for accommodation in Ishkashim vs $15 in Sarhad. I’m sure I benefited from being the first tourist up to the end of the valley this year.

It was another early night. All the driving on rough tracks, along with the emotion of the cricket game, and the visit in general had left me knackered. Sleep came easily on my last night in Afghanistan.

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

Farhad and me.

I was up at 5.30 for a shower (wishing I could sleep longer) and breakfast at 6.30 as I preparing to exit back to Tajikistan. Farhad joined me and we made out way to the border to depart. Farhad was a top guide and very friendly chap. He certainly helped make my stay memorable, even when I came up with some more unusual ideas for my Afghan adventure.

 Afghanistan – Troubling Times, Smiley People and the Wahki Festival of Cricket

Ishkashim MArket about to depart Afghanistan. Saying Yes More gets you places.

Exiting from Afghanistan was simple enough. However, it was Tajikistan that was the concern, so figured I’d keep Farhad with me a little longer just in case…

Summary

To be in Afghanistan in 2013 as the foreign troops are starting to leave, yet again, provided a fascinating backdrop to the journey. The locals give you the sense they are used to this and will continue on as they always have. What is install for Afghanistan going forward is hard to tell. Corruption, the Taliban, and drug trade make for an uncertain future, when the average Afghan just wants to work, provide for their families, improve their standard of living and enjoy life. The Ismaili people of the Wahkan are extremely hospitable and generous. They are hoping that in the future, they will continue to be left to their own devices, much like the Taliban and the Soviets treated them before the US lead invasion. However like any country you are the sum of all its parts, and they are effected by the troubles in the other parts of the country. Until peace returns it will be difficult for anyone to prosper.

About Big Os Adventures

Hi, my name is Jon and I'm an (part time / escaping project manager) adventurer who is planning a big overland expedition to Central Asia in 2013. Follow my adventures.

Trip Start: 2013-04-13 Trip End: 2014-01-10 .

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