Here was indeed exactly what I had secretly sought all along. This was the ice cave – open navel for the mountain, the way to its secrets. We were intruders in its private place, which had remained largely undisturbed for centuries.
Official source or not, this is how a river should be born; not at a little spring in Lechlade, like the Thames, or a quiet pool in the Rockies. This was a river born fully formed, belching and bellowing from the very heart of the Roof of the World. Its water was almost certainly coming from ice formed beyond even the end of the Wakhan and in the Karakoram, where three countries and five great mountain chains meet in the very apex of the Pamir Knot.
There had clearly been a recent roof collapse, which had filled the base with icefall, but there could be no doubt that this was the cave found by Curzon. In every way, the caves and surroundings met the description in Curzon’s report to the RGS.
Nadir and Mohammed Mirza hadn’t come down into the amphitheatre of the ice caves. It was a pity because they were also now enthused with their own interest in the river. But by the time we had scrambled and crawled back up the moraine towers to where they were watching from above, they had, following the tradition of the mountains, built a little memorial cairn out of stones to celebrate the journey.
A mysterious v i s i tor When we got down again, it quickly became clear that the horses were gone, and certainly had not been brought down into the valley, where we were to exit. When we found them, it was getting dark, and progress became much more dependent on the skill of the animals in the fading light.
I had made the mistake of giving my warm clothing to Sheffi, who rode off far ahead, forgetting that he had it. During the long ride back to camp, I gradually froze in semi-summer wear, while I could see Sheffi, oblivious, in the distance. When we finally reached camp, I must have had six successive cups of the ubiquitous tea before I was even ready to talk. We were up early the next day to re-cross the rushing Diwanasu River before it became too strong. We marched on, retracing our steps back down the Wakhan Valley, but stopped early, around 3.30pm, and set up camp.
It was a very hot day, perhaps our hottest. But late in the afternoon, a strong wind blew in, and it became cold again.
Ahead of us was the cornflower sky that sheltered us most days; but behind us, it was a very different colour. It looked as if the devil had risen over the Pamir Knot and punched it in the eye. It was purple, chestnut and maroon, backlit with orange fire from the setting sun; the mountains it seemed, were boiling a storm to chase us back from their secrets.
Shortly before dinner, a young Kyrgyz boy, the only traveller we were to see in the Wakhan-i-Pamir, arrived in camp looking for a moment’s respite. We gave him tea. He was only about 15 years old, with an androgynous face, so that for a while I thought he was a girl, but no female would be out travelling alone and stopping to talk to a camp full of strangers. We tried to persuade him to stay the night with us, as it was now cold and getting dark. But after drinking the tea, he mounted his donkey and departed. He was small, but the donkey was so tiny that the boy’s feet were touching the ground as he rode off into the semi-darkness.
th i ck , white duvet As night fell, the weather changed, and the rain started. We hadn’t seen rain in Wakhan since a few drops in Ishkashim, but this made up for two dry weeks. It was a storm with all the fireworks; the horses had sensed its coming long before we had, setting up a whinnying chorus across the Pamir. There was little we could do but get into the shelter of our tents as the rain and wind increased in strength. I lay for a long time, guiltily warm and dry, wondering how our team were faring with no shelter other than their Russian blankets and a few rudimentary tarpaulins, more often used as table cloths.
As the noise of the rain decreased, I relaxed and slept for several hours. When some light began to show, I unzipped my inner tent and then pulled at the outer zip. It came back and the canvas fell away, but it was strangely quiet, and I could see nothing. The rain in the night had turned to snow. The whole camp was covered in a thick, white duvet.
The men were already awake; maybe they hadn’t slept. I hardly dared ask how they had fared in the night. But they astonished me with their equanimity. ‘Just one of those things God sends us. We have seen worse. It is over and needs no further comment.’ I had been impressed with the Afghans all through the journey, but never more so than that morning.
The reward for all of us was the astounding beauty of the newly white Pamir. I wondered all day, how the travelling boy had survived, and also from where he had come, since there were no more camps to the east. The Kirghiz camp where we had been given cooking lessons was now deserted, with just one, solitary yurt left standing.
AFTERWORD AND READER OFFER After leaving the Wakhan-i-Pamir, the author and his companions travelled west again up the Wakhan, where they discovered a new claimant for the title of true source of the Oxus that unified two of the 19th-century claimants, and in doing so, superseded the Curzon solution. The rest of this story is told in Halfway House to Heaven (Bene Factum, £14.99), which is available to readers at the special price of £12 (including free postage and packing). Please call 01235 465 577 or email email@example.com and quote reference JWGEOJAN. Offer ends 30 April 2011. Also available from Bene Factum Publishing: www.bene-factum.co.uk
‘A really great read by a brave and honest man searching for a fascinating grail but fighting powerful personal demons’. Sir Ranulph Fiennes
48 www.geographical.co.uk january 2011