A couple of recent random encounters touched off a cascade of memories. First, one of the correspondents on an email group known as Vietnam Old Hacks noted that the landlocked Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan (the longest country name with only one vowel) might be poised to be the next hot flyfishing destination. The Kyrgyz themselves don’t seem to be much into flyfishing, preferring sports such as ulak tartysh, in which teams of horsemen vie for possession of a goat carcass (the Afghans call it buzkashi). When the Kyrgyz fish at all, they probably use that tried and true lure called the hand grenade. But the Old Hack said that Kyrgyzstan, which was one of the USSR’s “stans” until the breakup of the Evil Empire, is full of mountain streams and many of those streams are full of fat trout. The imperial Brits brought the trout to Asia, basically for their own pleasure, and when the Brits left the trout stayed behind. The very idea of flyfishing in Kyrgyzstan brought to mind my foiled attempt to go flyfishing in the mountains of northern Afghanistan in the 1980s when the Soviet Union occupied the country and our then-friends, the mujaheddin, were trying to drive them out.
A day or so after reading the Old Hack’s posting I spotted a license plate in a parking lot of the University of Maine campus in Augusta: SMAILI. I interpreted that to mean Ismaili. The Ismailis occupy a Shia branch of Islam led by the Aga Khan, and they are scattered throughout Asia. My attempted assault on the trout streams of Afghanistan, armed with only a 4-weight Sage rod, ended in a remote Ismaili village in far northern Pakistan. In 1987 I was working in that wild and woolly Pakistani frontier town, Peshawar, in my own small way aiding and abetting the mujaheddin in their struggle against the Soviets. Peshawar in those days was thick with Afghan refugees and the Western do-gooders who flocked there to help them — aid missions of various stripe, plus journalists, soldiers of fortune, spies — people we lumped under the 3M heading: Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits.
Perhaps it was at my secondary duty station, the bar at the American Club in Peshawar, that I heard of the “crazy French doctor” who, it was said, annually traveled into the mountains of northern Afghanistan to fish for trout. When I heard that, I made a public vow that I would do the same. Mind you, I had probably been overserved (yet again) by Mo, the club’s redoubtable bartender, but there were witnesses and I was committed. (The crazy French doctor will reappear later in this series.) So in the spring, when the 10,230 foot high Lowari Pass opened, my friend and colleague Stephen and I set off in 4-wheel drive for Chitral, which would be our jumping-off point. In those days the road to Chitral was usually set in quotes, as in “road,” because any resemblance to a real road was purely coincidental. We had to ford raging streams of snowmelt to reach the top of the pass, and the trail down the other side featured 3-and-4-point turns on scarily steep slopes where mistakes are marked by burial flags. In the lovely mountain town of Chitral we regrouped and plotted the next leg of the journey.
Travel inside Afghanistan then was forbidden by the Soviets who were trying to run the country. If a Westerner wanted to “go inside,” as the term went, he or she traveled on foot with a band of mujaheddin whose purpose was to mount a guerrilla attack on a Soviet garrison or convoy. But the Soviet invaders never managed to subdue the far north of the country, which was controlled by the famous guerrilla commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. It was into Massoud’s stronghold that we were headed, through a border crossing reached via the outpost of Garam Chashma. More to come.