Sunday, 27 January 2008

The Forbidden Land (Chapter 7, To Pakistan, Afghanistan)

Our peace of mind, as we chugged along the solitary sand-rutted track once more, already unsettled by Ted's tale of mysterious disappearance, was shattered completely when, about a mile ahead in the early morning sunlight, there was a reflected flash. We soon came upon what appeared to be yet another all too common Afghanistan 'incident': a vehicle spattered with still-wet blood and torn from front to rear by ragged bullet holes. The driver-dead or alive-was missing, along with all the merchandise, whatever it might have been, and, strangely, the bench seat from the cabin. Nita and I stared incredulously at this mute scene of violence, and, for a moment, almost expected someone to appear from the surrounding hills and tell us laughingly that it was all a joke. But our refusal to accept the truth was fleeting. As realization grew, the hairs on the back of my neck prickled and my bowels suddenly weakened.

We glanced uneasily around us, but the rocky, deeply shadowed mountains were deserted and silent. They were now transformed from serene landmarks to sinister harbourers of danger. At that moment I was sorely tempted to turn back to Kabul, barely forty miles behind us.

Logic, however, prevailed. Perhaps there was a legitimate reason for a shot-up truck, smothered in blood and completely empty, being deserted right in the middle of the track forty miles from anywhere. I consoled myself by thinking that the murderers were probably miles from the scene of the crime anyway. I hoped they weren't making for the Pakistan border.

We made excellent time to the next village. There I tried to find some responsible person, on the low, thatched verandas where the men lounged, to tell what we had seen. There was no policeman, but an old chap with a biblical beard was pushed forward from the knot of onlookers who gazed steadily at the scooter and at us. I asked the old man if he spoke English and he said he did, but when I started to relate the truck incident only a few miles from his village, he suddenly found the English language all too difficult. He bowed politely and walked away while I was still talking. So it's like that, I thought. I took the hint, and we mounted the scooter once again and pushed on.

At the last house disappeared behind us, our day was really made: the wretched clicking noise started again from the back wheel.

Just before midday, with the memory of the morning thankfully misted a little, we approached another village. It was one of those indeterminate settlements, half skin tents and half partly completed huts. There was the usual conglomeration of humanity, all the men bearing the regal, faintly contemptuous air that is typical of almost every Afghan male. A partly nomadic clan, these were not so particular about hiding their women as the non-wanderers.

We arrived in the middle of a shooting contest. Some of the bloods were dashing about on camels shooting at empty petrol tins which were scattered about the plain. They were remarkably good shots. One of the older men proudly produced a petrol can with three holes neatly patterned in the centre, miming clearly enough for me to understand that he had achieved this from the back of a moving camel. I was at once impressed and sobered. We would not stand a dog's chance if some of these trigger-happy tribesmen decided to pick us off. No wonder these men-or at least their fathers-had given the British Indian Army such a headache a few years ago. We salaamed respectfully all round, filled our water bottle, and departed to a symphony of rifle fire.

The clicking was getting worse again and ahead, towering into the evening sky, was the last obstacle between us and Pakistan: the gigantic Lattaband Pass, a vast, rocky escarpment stretching, it seemed, up to the very clouds, with a rugged track that wound in an endless and frightening series of hairpins up and up, to the roof of the world. Our poor little scooter, protesting audibly, plodded on in first gear for anything up to half an hour at a time. It was nothing short of miraculous that the tiny engine should keep going under such appalling conditions.

But, for the second time, the expiring bearing could take only just so much punishment. By now the rear wheel was sloppy again and badly affecting the steering-a serious state of affairs, seeing that the narrow, boulder-strewn track was edged on one side with jagged walls and on the other by a sheer drop into nothingness. Already the light was tricky and it was difficult to distinguish between solid ground and crumbling edges.

After fifteen miles of climbing, the track levelled out, and for a brief respite we found ourselves in a remote mountain village. The inhabitants seemed friendlier than the plainsmen and were most hospitable. They gave us bowls of curried chicken, refusing to take payment but accepting cigarettes politely.

While I refuelled from our two-gallon reserve can, an ancient lorry loaded with grapes for Pakistan groaned its way up the mountain and rested to cool off in the middle of the village. The driver, a turbaned, laughing character with a lantern jaw (whom we promptly tagged Tommy Trinder), sauntered over to inspect the scooter. We chatted, by signs, and when I eventually explained our bearing trouble, which I did with a practical demonstration, he was horrified. Certainly the crunching noises seemed, if anything, worse with the machine on its stand. He was so appalled, in fact, that he insisted on transporting the scooter and us over the rest of the Lattaband-apparently we had hardly entered the wretched mountains-through the Khyber Pass and down into Peshawar, where with any luck we should be able to get new parts. Well, I'd heard that one before, but Peshawar would certainly be a possibility. We were in no position, or indeed mood, to decline this generous offer. Nita, still unable to forget the morning incident, was overjoyed.

Within a short while about fifteen bearded warriors, heaving, shouting, and gesticulating, hoisted the Prima aloft again and settled it in comparative safety between the crates of grapes-those tiny, piplcss, delicious grapes that are one of the chief exports of Afghanistan.

As we sat, crammed once more into a driving cab, somewhat bewildered at our good fortune and lurching forward into the night, I wondered idly how we would get the scooter back to ground level. Nita had ceased to worry about anything and, despite the manner in which our Moslem Tommy Trinder flung the top-heavy truck round blind hairpin bends, was already sound asleep.

The grape lorry rumbled through the night, stopping only twice at isolated villages for chai and petrol. Through the windscreen we watched yet another dawn lighting up the narrow gullies and defiles through which we were travelling. By eight a.m. we had reached the village of Torkham and the Pakistan frontier. The Afghan interlude was over.

A little way up the road, beyond the movable barrier, was the almost unbelievable sight of tarmac. The Afghan frontier guards were courteous and pleasant. Formalities were (for Asia) quickly completed and, still in the grape lorry, we trundled through the barrier an hour and a half later, to be welcomed with tea and the English language. The Pakistanis were almost too kind to Nita and myself, but unnecessarily brusque with our Afghan friend. However, that is the way of nations. We got away before midday and started our assault on the Khyber.

The Khyber Pass, scene of so many turbulent skirmishes and one-time practical training ground for the British Army, was disappointing. A wonderfully engineered tarmac road, well graded, detracted from the rugged atmosphere one had expected. True, there were numerous forts standing sentinel on every strategic peak, but the pass was much wider than we had thought and did not seem ideal ambush country. It was hard to visualize wild Afridis and Pathans sniping from the craggy, heat-blistered peaks.

We stopped, almost on the very crest of the pass, to let the old truck cool down a little. From this vantage point we gazed back (something I rarely do) in the direction whence we had come. Afghanistan lay silent and brooding under a mauve haze. A land of mountain and deserts, of hardy, tough people and, even today, a land of adventure. It is still, for the traveller, an odds-on-chance-of-survival country. Worth challenging, we thought.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

The Forbidden Land (Chapter 7, Kabul and onward, Afghanistan)

The next day was Sunday, and in the morning Ted shepherded us around the grounds within the Embassy's high whitewashed walls. The greenery everywhere and the neat, meticulously laid-out flowerbeds contrasted strangely with the landscape outside, where yellow sandy hills glowered down on the little oasis.

During our stroll we were introduced to a part of the staff, who were disporting themselves in and around a small, pleasant swimming-pool. Most of them resided almost permanently within the walls. They found enough energy to say, 'Hullo', but there it ended. The only topic of conversation was the 'bores' at the last diplomatic cocktail party. I asked one of the younger men how he liked Afghanistan. 'Well, you know,' he replied, 'I've never really seen the place. We spend most of our time here, except for the odd social visit to some of the other consulates.' He had been in the country for two years and spoke not one word of the language. He had never once explored even the immediate country around Kabul, and had only spoken to three Afghans in twenty-four months, but was apparently quite pleased with life. . I could not help thinking it a great pity that there were not more men like Ted Gamble to serve as our ambassadors.

In the evening we scooted into the city again to meet Hyatulla, who had brought his younger brother along with him. We all set off through the narrow, crowded streets to the site of the International Exhibition. The big attraction for the predominantly male visitors were the female Chinese ballet dancers in their national dress. The sight of tight-fitting slit skirts to the Afghan male (whose only sight of women outside the house was in the form of walking black shrouds) was the high spot of this ostensibly cultural and educational fair. The next exhibit, in order of popularity, was a full-scale armoury. Every conceivable firearm was on show, from the latest small-calibre repeating-rifle to standard British Army small arms, Sten-guns, Tommy-guns, and full-sized mortars. This arsenal, I suppose, could hardly be called 'cultural' as described in the multi-lingual brochure, but it rated a good second best from an interest angle.

Considering the remoteness of this mountain city and its inaccessibility, the exhibition was well staged and equally well patronized by foreigners. Some very fine Nghan work was exhibited, particularly in the art and handicrafts section. Tight though our budget was, we were unable to resist a beautifully hand-tooled, sheepskin waistcoat, the soft yellow skin covered in pleasing abstract designs with the reverse side a thick, downy wool of the long-haired mountain sheep. It cost the equivalent of ten shillings. Hyatulla was delighted that we had found something irresistible. He and his young brother were tremendously enthusiastic for us to see every part of the huge open-air exhibition and we must have walked at least ten miles and covered every corner.

It was past midnight when we finally broke up, our friends to return to their house in the city centre and we to catch a gaily painted tonga back to the Embassy. This was the moment of goodbye for us and our Afghan friend. We are both looking forward to 1960 when we shall welcome him on a visit to England.

Once away from the brilliantly lit area around the fair, our horse-drawn carriage made its way through narrow, unlit streets where the flickering light from the solitary candle-lantern on the tonga cast dancing shadows on the whitewashed walls. I felt quite uneasy during that eerie ride through the dark streets of Kabul, and was relieved to see again the stern outline of the British Embassy. I was more than ever convinced that night that one is far safer in the wilderness than in the city. We had heard of a stabbing incident which had resulted in the death of a German engineer in Kabul just before we arrived.

On the eighth day, before we were to leave to tackle the one-hundred-and-fifty-mile run to the border, Ted greeted us with the breakfast news that there had been another disappearance. A nephew of a former American ambassador to Great Britain and the Swedish girl with him had vanished without trace, in their Land Rover, north of the capital near the Russian border.

Hearing that did not make us eager to leave the haven of the Embassy. But the last lap had to be dealt with, which meant assailing the notorious Lattaband Pass, thrusting higher even than the Khyber, to a height of 11,000 feet. We should have to make ourselves as unobtrusive as possible, keep our sick engine running, and trust to luck.

So, tubbed and clean, we mounted the scooter, along with the remainder of our gear, and left a still-slumbering Embassy to face the wilderness once again. After all, one hundred and fifty miles was not so very far. . . .

Saturday, 12 January 2008

The Forbidden Land (Chapter 7, Kabul, Afghanistan)

Nita and I sat apart from the rest and tried to find a solution to this latest setback. There was only one answer: another truck, preferably in reasonable running order and piloted by someone a little less demoniacal. My wife felt it would be rather nice if only Hyatulla could appear at this stage, and I agreed, although it would have been hardly possible to load the scooter on to a virtually cylindrical petrol tanker. Nita's feminine mind did not regard that as an obstacle.

'If he does come he surely must have ropes and things,' she said, dismissing my glum reception of her idea. Even with ropes, the plan might just work for twenty miles along an English road, but to attempt carrying a motor-scooter on top of a slippery bowser across the rugged Afghan terrain seemed ludicrous and impossible.

Obstacles, however great they may appear, are made to be surmounted, and I would wager that our machine was the first Prima to arrive at Kabul sitting proudly and perfectly securely on top of a petrol tanker! For Hyatulla did, of course, arrive some sixteen hours later and promptly concurred with Nita's idea, thinking it to be most practicable. Enlisting the help of the disgruntled passengers from the other truck, once more we hoisted the scooter aloft and roped it down on top of the giant canister. I doubt if that alone would have worked, but Hyatulla had the brilliant idea of getting all the stranded passengers to make a human wall by cementing themselves around the machine. The truckless mechanic completed the stability by sitting astride our mount, so completing the tableau. The passengers grumbled about leaving all their luggage with the wreck, but the driver was left to guard it and reflect on the results of his folly until the mechanic could return from the capital with a new half-shaft. None of the party was particularly sympathetic. Indeed, the mechanic seemed delighted to forsake his career for a few days.

While the Mongol driver commenced his long and lonely guard, we were racing on towards the capital, secure and comfortable in the spacious cab of the tanker with the cluster of humanity clinging fiercely to the scooter behind us. It was miraculous that they and our machine stayed in place for we rolled and pitched with regular monotony over the uneven surface.

About three hours away from the scene of the breakdown, we saw for the first and only time in the whole of Afghanistan a tiny gem of fertility, a two-mile valley. It was at the end of a particularly strenuous climb through a precipitous mountain range, chocolate-coloured with bluish peaks, reflecting the last clear rays of the setting sun. We churned across the summit in low gear and suddenly, instead of the usual khaki vista, we beheld the vivid Irish-green of the valley. We would, said Hyatulla, stop at a chai house in the centre of the valley to drink some tea.

After being surrounded for so long by the ever-lasting brownish hues, we found the emerald-green beauty of the valley was almost painful to look upon. Apparently this phenomenon was caused by a subterranean river which ran just beneath the surface through the whole length of the valley. This unending water supply revealed what these hardy mountain people could do, given the opportunity. The cultivation was superb. Indeed, except for the dusty track, instead of tarmac road, we could easily have been in a Swiss farming community. The cattle, grazing contentedly, had a lush, sleek look in strong contrast to most Afghan cattle. There were neat maize fields and golden corn waved in the sunlight, surrounded by pleasant copses of water-soaked trees.

The village itself was a model, as though nothing but the best would suffice to go with the surrounding natural beauty. The huts were modest, but carefully thatched and kept in good repair. We rubbed our eyes and looked again. Hyatulla turned from the wheel and said, sadly, 'It is a pity that all of our country is not thus.' We nodded silently. 'But we are a very poor nation; poor, though independent. Perhaps if we were to surrender our freedom we could have valleys like this all over the country, and good roads to reach them-perhaps even a railway. But I do not think we would be as happy as we are now.'
All of which, of course, was very true. The Afghan is probably one of the poorest men in Asia, but he is also extremely proud of his freedom and a life devoid of bureaucracy.

Very much later that same night we arrived at the capital. So late in fact that there was nothing else we could do but stay with Hyatulla at his house until morning, when we would present ourselves at the British Embassy.

There was not a great deal to be seen on our arrival, for the hour was very late and the night moonless. We did notice there were bitumen roads in the city centre but that there was little electric lighting. The smell, common to all eastern cities, floated in through the truck windows. We thrust deeper into the labyrinth of huddled, unlit houses and bazaars, coming to rest eventually in an overcrowded dirty street, populated at that hour by a few mangy dogs that skulked away at our approach. It was not an inviting neighbourhood.

But Hyatulla was proud of his home, and though the exterior of the wood-and-mud building looked both rickety and shabby, rectangular in shape with a postage-stamp courtyard, having once ascended the narrow, creaking stairs and entered his apartment, we might have been in the house of a very wealthy man; as indeed we were.

Richly carpeted on both floors and walls, the room had an air of opulence. There were no visible fireplaces or windows, but the electric lighting was restful and adequate. Some of the rugs were superb pieces of craftsmanship, as were the masses of colourful silk cushions. The only furniture, a long, low table in the centre of the floor, was laden with bowls of fruit and nuts. This comfortable room, with its cooking annexe, impressed us as an example of Afghan gracious living.

We ate royally of piles of rice and chicken, and ultra-sweet candy. After the meal, conversation died; we were all, including Hyatulla, practically asleep as we sat. We lay down as we were and slept fitfully until first light.

Early next morning our friend drove us the eight miles out of the city to where the British Embassy stood, forbidding and aloof. We bade Hyatulla a temporary farewell, promising to meet him on the following Sunday evening to visit the international Kabul Festival.

While we were unloading the Prima from the tanker, with the aid of some loungers and passers-by, an immaculate Embassy clerk in drill-shorts passed through the gates with a sheaf of files under his arm. He took in the scene without a change of expression and wished us good morning as he passed. He represented to us a glorious breath of home. The sight of an Anglo-Saxon made us feel quite homesick and, weary though we were, it was only the thought of the enthusiastic welcome we hoped to receive within the high walls that kept us from falling asleep on the spot.

Ted Gamble, then British Consul at Kabul, was a veritable Genie with a Magic Lamp. He gave a warm and friendly greeting to the gaunt, dust-smeared creatures who had suddenly appeared to clutter his office. We were, he assured us, despite our hollow cheeks, remarkably healthy-looking considering our journey. He told us that the majority of travellers who reached the capital after overlanding from Persia were sent to hospital for a few weeks; indeed, the last European woman-a Belgian-had had to be flown swiftly to Bombay where she almost died from fever. We felt that a week or two in hospital between the sheets would not be unwelcome in our present state.

Our host was as perceptive as he was generous. Healthy we might have been, but we were both finding it extremely difficult to stay awake. True, we had slept a few hours the previous night, but with a heavy weariness, the culmination of a long spell in the rough. The tremendous relief at having reached Kabul after our gruelling fight with this rugged land was beginning to have its effect. Being a much-travelled man who had seen consular service in remote parts of South America, Ted Gamble knew exactly how we felt. He led us from his serene office, kept cool by a swishing fan, across a burning compound under some green, artificially reared trees, to where his own bungalow nestled in shady seclusion.

As we entered, a Pakistani manservant stepped quietly into the entrance hall and relieved us of our luggage. Ted showed us into a delightful room, complete with dazzling white sheets on a real bed, plus a glorious, fully equipped bathroom. He told us to use the place as we would our own and excused himself to get back to some more work, and to see if the resident mechanics could do anything about our battered scooter. We needed no further invitation. Dinner would be at eight, we were told, and in the meantime we would probably like to catch up on some sleep.

It has been said that luxury is comparative, and my wife and I will remember that first day in the Consul's modest little bungalow as one of the finest in our lives. To be able to have a really hot bath in an English bath-tub, followed by a snack to tide us over until dinner-time, then to slip between cool white sheets, with full stomachs, was unutterable bliss. In fact, we could scarcely acclimatize ourselves to the swift transition. From a world of snatched cat-naps in rocky river-beds; days and nights of driving across burning, desolate plains and hostile mountains; existing on water-melon and handfuls of rice or those rare, scrawny fowls, with the ever-present anxiety over the scooter, the terrain, the uncertain water supply, and the possibility of running into murderous hillmen; from all that, to every comfort that we needed, was almost too much for our minds to accept. As we stretched beneath the sheets, Nita said drowsily, 'I'm sure we'll wake up in a wadi; but the dream is perfect while it lasts.' We slept solidly for twenty-two hours.

On the third day we were able to sit up and take stock of our situation. The long sleep had worked wonders, and the understanding, long-suffering Ted dismissed our apologies for having monopolized his guest room for so long. He assured us again that we were less trouble than most.

The major problem was, of course, the scooter. The back-wheel bearing was completely smashed and the oil-seal useless. The prospect of renewing the latter was out of the question, but there was a faint chance that something might be modified to make a rough replica of the broken bearing; although, of course, one was not really much good without the other. As we could hardly take up permanent residence in Kabul, however, we had to become mobile again somehow.

The Embassy mechanics were our saviours. They were nearly all Pakistanis, mostly ex-members of the old British Indian Army, and masters of ingenuity. They ground down an old bearing from somewhere, replaced the tattered remnants of the oil-seal, packed the hub with high-melting-point grease, and pronounced our machine to be ready to tackle anything. On a short test run into the city the repair seemed effective, save for a prominent whine from the rear end. In the circumstances I could only ignore it. Our transport seemed to be roadworthy once more.

Not so our equipment. Everything in the pannier-bags was in a filthy state. A can of lubricating oil had burst and smothered our clothing, the tent, and various other items which did not take kindly to oil. The aluminium dixies had been battered to an almost unrecognizable mass of metal and our already diminutive pile of luggage was reduced still further; this time to the limit. We threw away the tattered pannier-bags and the steel frames with them. Everything now fitted into the one valise and we were consoled in that the rear wheel now had a considerably lighter burden.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

The Forbidden Land (Chapter 7, "The Middle", Afghanistan)

...We had broken down in the middle of Afghanistan....

There was only one antidote to such a situation. Occupational therapy; the first move was to set up camp. I glanced around at the hostile landscape. About fifty yards to the left of the track was a skeletal, heat-twisted tree in the centre of a miniature rock amphitheatre, and, as all men instinctively search for some sort of enclosure at nightfall, we made a bee-line for it. With the sleeping-bags laid out on the still-warm scree, and a cheery blaze which was achieved by decimating the stunted tree, our position appeared a little better.

But, for all that, the outlook was exceedingly black: the scooter wheel had now seized completely and was locked solid. The whole unit was in a pitiful mess, accentuated by the escaped grease and thick dust which coated the entire rear of the machine. Only a new bearing would effect a complete repair. One hundred miles from the Afghan capital, our scooter had finally succumbed. It was understandable.

We had water, a small piece of the meat given by our tribesman that morning, and one water-melon. We reinforced the meat morsel with innumerable cups of tea, and sat by the dying embers of the fire to watch the moonlit track for any signs of something that might conceivably carry us and our broken-down vehicle into the capital. There must be a truck of some kind sooner or later. With some foreboding I hoped fervently it would be soon.
Most Afghan drivers prefer to cover their mileage at night but, of course, when we most needed it there was an uncanny dearth of transport. It is unusual, even in Afghanistan, for a whole night to pass on the main track between two major cities without some vehicle groaning past, with straining engine and turbaned driver bouncing fatalistically from rock to rock. But by eight o'clock the following morning what remained of our confidence had almost evaporated along with our water supply.

As another silent, blazing day began, I looked around at the wilderness and the bare hills and punctuated my chain-smoking with worried oaths at our misfortune. Nita seemed quite calm, spending hours trying to pin-point our exact position on the map. The day dragged on with infinite slowness and we felt ourselves to be the only living creatures in the world.

Late in the afternoon I climbed a nearby bluff to gaze at the deserted ribbon of track, willing something to disturb the empty, shimmering horizon. The situation was rapidly deteriorating. We could not sit beside the track indefinitely and remain alive.

At dusk, our anxious vigil was suddenly and mercifully brought to a close. A faint hum grew gradually louder and presently a vehicle, enveloped in its own dust cloud, drew slowly nearer. The smiles of delight on our faces froze, however, when the thing was close enough to be seen in detail. An ancient, crumbling relic, well-nigh impossible to describe, it wheezed along-miraculously under its own power-a truck which had to be seen to be believed.

Despite the disappointing appearance of this contraption, the thing was still mobile and our excitement at the thought of rescue was not dimmed. We blessed the Samaritan who slowed up and stopped at my frantic waving, and marvelled that this travelling junk-heap could traverse the savage country between Kandahar and Kabul.

The driver was a cheerful little Mongol, with a yellow, smiling face beneath a woolly astrakhan hat. His mechanic was a more villainous-looking individual, possibly having acquired his ferocious expression through dealing with a very sick piece of machinery. But, once again, appearance was deceptive. He took command of the situation in a trice; after he had shouted orders to half a dozen tribesmen who magically appeared from odd comers of the top-heavy shapeless mass, the whole lot disembarked to see the queer little machine which had to be hoisted on to the already groaning roof.

Somehow, with only a couple of crushed fingers here and there, the scooter was lifted on to the mountain of assorted luggage and lashed securely into position. Then, after the whole assembly had taken the opportunity to say prayers, Nita and I were jammed in beside the driver, the mechanic spat deliberately on his gnarled hands and swung the crank handle ferociously.

After several minutes' cranking, during which time we all watched with fascinated gaze as the mechanic's face turned various hues and his eyes began to bulge with the exertion, the engine lazily and teasingly caught on one cylinder, which was the signal for the driver to become galvanized into action. He hammered the accelerator pedal at a furious rate until all cylinders were more or less firing, engaged first gear with a herculean effort, and we were off.

The mechanic whipped out the starting-handle and flung himself frantically at the side of the truck, the driver being quite unperturbed at the man's plight, and about half a minute after we were under way the dust-smeared, monkey-like face with its shock of black hair appeared fleetingly, upside down, at the driver's window. All was well, and we settled down as best we could in the very cramped space.

As the incongruous home-made wreck trundled along I wondered whether we should not have waved our rescuers on and waited for something a little more roadworthy; but we were mobile at least and in spite of the awful pitching motion, which increased alarmingly as we hit consecutive pot-holes, we were now moving forward. With this much comfort I fell into a deep sleep, drugged with the combination of petrol fumes and vibrations.

For Nita, however, the luxury of sleep was denied. I awoke some three hours and sixty miles later, to find my wide-awake wife staring intently at the track ahead, throwing an occasional terrified glance at the swinging roof above. The impish Mongol driver was enjoying the situation enormously. On some of the more treacherous ravines and crevasses (which he bull-dozed with a display of nonchalance), he could not resist taking his eyes from the track to watch the reaction on Nita's face as we swooped down the acute gradients at a speed more suited to a Grand Prix racer than an archaic rattletrap. Aware of the driver's amusement, she endeavoured to maintain a bored gaze at the far horizon, but her worried expression reappeared with every hazard and was emphasized when we made our own road round washed-out bridges. Some of the river banks were horribly steep. The more Nita registered concern, the more the grinning driver was amused, until, on one frightful chasm, when he pulled out all the stops for a maximum effect, we hit the rocks at the bottom of the pit and promptly shattered the back-axle.

Then it was our turn to laugh-or would have been had the surroundings been more amenable. As it was we could only look daggers at the crestfallen driver and at the rear wheel, which now lay parallel with the rusty chassis. The rest of the passengers, dust-coated and muttering, disembarked again and wandered off to do a spot of praying.