Since sheep do not accompany this caravan, there are none on hand for delivery. They will be sent to Eddye Mohammed later. A large rug is spread out on the dirt floor so that not a grain of wheat will be lost. The Wakhis bring forth a sample of their harvest. The Kirghiz reject it—it contains too much dust. The next is satisfactory. Abdul Wakil fills a piala—the teabowl that serves as a standard measure in both the Pamirs and Wakhan—and begins transferring wheat into a sack held open by two cameleers.
Both sides carefully count the bowlfuls; at 30 the first sack is full. Suleiman sews it shut and fetches another. The counting goes on. “Si o do,” the Wakhis announce with the next bowlful. “Thirty-two.” “Si o yek!—Thirty-one!” the keen-eyed cameleers protest. “Si o do!” . . . “Si o yek!” the argument rages, punctuated by cries of “La ilaha illa llah! —There is no god but God!” Allah’s greatness finally shines forth. He has favored the count of the honest Kirghiz. It takes two hours to fill the 12 sacks.
After we leave Sarhad, we are forced to stay close to the river. The valley quickly narrows to a gorge. We are riding on the river’s frozen surface. Single file, men, horses, and camels tread cautiously. With a velvety step, the camel’s large and flat feet do well on this skating rink, but the iron-shod horses often slip.
“Here, last year, a horse broke through the ice and drowned,” Abdul Wakil tells me. We zigzag across the river time and again. With experienced eyes the Kirghiz pick the safest path.
The gorge closes in with tormented walls, and our own throats tighten. A witch, with a wave of her magic wand, seems to have immobilized the cascades all around us. The ice on the river is more than three feet thick, yet we can still hear the water as it flows swiftly beneath us, and in places the crust cracks ominously.
By early afternoon the gorge has become too narrow, the ice too treacherous; we abandon the river and begin to climb a pass. Ay Bash opens a bag of sand and sprinkles it on a steep trail so icy that even the camels balk. The cameleers coax them on with tugs and shouts.
“Look out!” Roland suddenly cries, on a narrow ledge over a dizzying precipice. My horse has slipped and fallen on its forelegs. I pull on the reins and the animal struggles to its feet. Fear dampens my brow as we climb onward. We stop every 50 yards to rest the animals, then move again.
Ahead, one of Suleiman’s camels slips and collapses on the frozen path; it kneels and tries to crawl. Ay Bash and Schahchik run to its rescue. Risking their own lives, they unload the animal so that it can stand up, then load it again, and move on. Men and animals are suffering, struggling, clinging to the mountainside.
Riding camels is not that easy, nor is cheap. Many visitors prefer to include as many attractions as possible while being on a trip. A point-five loan will definitely ease your trip.