Travels April 2004

The Valley Of The King

Beyond a crack in the Afghan mountains lies a lost world, the hunting grounds of King Mohammed Zahir Shah
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If you drive three days north and west out of Kabul, into the western range of the Hindu Kush, and pass beyond the district of Kahmard, you come upon a forgotten cut called the Ajar Valley. The peaks around Ajar are lower than those of the eastern Hindu Kush, but they appear to fall deeper. And they are redder and less visited, bespeaking Zoroaster more than Kipling. Soviet soldiers passed into Ajar for two or three days during their occupation. A score of them were killed, and others lost eyes or teeth to stones flicked from catapults by locals at night. Few foreigners have entered the valley since. No aid organization works there. I decided to make the trip while serving as a foreign correspondent in Kabul. A few of us went: a driver, Shahgar; one of my translators, Bahram; Roger, a friend from university days in Scotland, along for an adventure; and Doud, a sinewy former militia commander who served us as a kind of bodyguard-guide.

Ajar was the hunting reserve of King Mohammed Zahir Shah from 1952 until 1973, when he was deposed and went into exile in Italy. The valley was gaudy in its plenty in those days. Local memory holds it to have been the sort of Technicolor paradise depicted in some Renaissance paintings, or in the leaflets of more-determined Christian groups. There were abundant crops and windfall fruit for all. There were vines, flowers, songbirds of many colors, and fat-tailed sheep such as you find in the petting corners of European zoos. Ponies ran free, falcons fell, trout hovered in the river. Sloping down from a royal hunting lodge was a field where children played. Up above, on the star-swept mesa, was one of the largest populations of Siberian ibex in the Hindu Kush, and also good numbers of urial sheep, musk deer, wild boar, jackals, wolves, lynxes, common leopards, and snow leopards. To those the King had added, lower down, a number of yaks and a small herd of endangered Bactrian deer.

No one really knew what had happened to these animals in twenty-three years of war. The United Nations Environmental Programme, mandated to assess the wildlife situation in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, in 2001, had not visited Ajar. Too dangerous, it said (hardly, although a few villages along the way had Taliban sympathies). Reports by occasional Afghan visitors suggested that the land and the trees were in poor shape, and that some of the animals had fled across the mountaintops, even as far as China. The Bactrian deer had certainly been gunned down, and it was also known that Communist Party officials had butchered the yaks and distributed the meat among the people. More than that no one could say for sure.

THE ENTERING IN

When the valley finally came into view, and we hammered toward it in our crowded jeep across the rutted flats, Ajar seemed like a play on words. It looked as though Allah had left the valley ajar. There were two walls of soft red rock, each a half mile high, and they almost met and closed on each other; the entrance appeared wide enough for a river and a donkey to pass through, and no more.

The entering in was cast in shadow. This part of the valley was desert. Large lizards scuttled through talcum dust from boulder to boulder. We came upon an old man walking with the help of a stick. His wife sat on a donkey beside him. She covered herself as we pulled up. This is a reflex women have in rural Afghanistan. They pass into burkas and turn their backs on men (but also the world) the way hedgehogs roll into balls. They are impelled to do this. "Hey, grandfather!" we called. "Can you tell us how far it is to the home of Mir Abdul Shakari?" The old man thought for a moment. "Mir Abdul?" he said. "Five hours up the valley as I walk." Mir Abdul had been the King's hunter (shakari means "great hunter"), and we'd heard he might still live in the valley.

We moved on. Ajar opened out into a garden of sunlit meadows, fields, and orchards, fenced off on either side by billion-ton rock faces that changed color as they rose, according to the strata and the play of light; the whole effect was of bright slices of something like mineralized Dundee marmalade.

THE KING'S HUNTER

We continued up the valley past two hundred or so houses, some standing alone, others clustered into an impoverished village. The population of the valley amounted to perhaps 2,500. We stopped under a stand of pine trees. The few ruined houses beyond appeared on our Soviet military map as Deqan Qala, a settlement built by the King for his servants. We asked for Mir Abdul Shakari, and at length he appeared: a short man of about sixty-five with a snow-white beard and watery gray eyes like oysters, but also powerfully built and visibly hard, like a veteran legionnaire, so my first impression of him was unresolved. He was surprised and delighted to see us, and we him. We had not been certain he was still alive. I presented a letter of introduction from the King, who had returned to Kabul after the Taliban's defeat.

"I have served the King all my life," Mir Abdul said quietly. "I continue to serve him to the best of my ability and with dignity." He led us up the valley to an orchard, and rolled out a food mat on which we sat cross-legged, drinking green tea and eating dried apricots. He looked at Roger and me wonderingly. "You two are the first foreigners to be sitting here in the King's garden since 1979," he said.

Mir Abdul had passed his childhood in Ajar. He had first climbed above the valley at age twelve. He went to work for the King at seventeen, and shot his first deer at eighteen. Hunting came easily to him. "Like pulling a plant from the ground," he said.

He was a prince of sorts, but he had no title, no claim to the land, and could not read or write. He lived in a tent at the head of the orchard. But all that he could see came under his sway. The apricot trees had been planted by his grandfather. The stone walls, and the roses growing from the walls, were the results of his father's labor. Hardly a person in the upper part of Ajar was not related to him. He had three living wives; another two had died from "pains in their chest and belly." Together they had borne him thirty children, twenty-four of whom were still living. The youngest, whom we could sometimes hear wailing in a nearby tent, was a teething baby girl.

It was a measure of the disaster visited on Afghanistan that a man like Mir Abdul was so close to defeat. It was not just that his eyesight was going and his hip scraped in its socket. He felt vulnerable. His family arsenal—seventy machine guns, five grenade launchers—had been taken, along with his hunting rifle, in 1999, when the Taliban drove him and his family from the valley. He had returned in glory two years later, brandishing a letter from the King. But the buildings in the upper valley had all been torched or broken, which was why his family had taken to living in tents.

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