Acholga is an abandoned village of a few stone huts cleared out of the forest. According to my guide Ashraf we’re only about 10km from the border with Afghanistan, still inside friendly Pakistan. We arrive at sunset after a hot tramp. I don’t have a very conventional reason for being here. No curiosity about the place, or its geopolitical significance. I’m following a prescription of the kind of travel therapy that’s always worked for me. Whenever it gets to be too much I’ve always known what to do: leave. It doesn’t matter where, as long as it’s far away. Vaguely threatening is OK too, but beautiful is best. Northern Pakistan seemed to fit the bill. This time I’m hoping to shock myself out of an unhappy love affair, and the treatment must be working because I haven’t thought about her all day. I didn’t think about her yesterday on the jeep ride from Peshawar and only once or twice on the long flight to Lahore.
There’s no electricity in Acholga. No phones. No toilets. No signs of a money economy. The only connection to outside world is a couple of months a year when the river runs dry providing mule access up the river bed. The village is empty now, but the herdsmen will be back with their flocks in July. We occupy a windowless hut with a terrace, which is also the roof of a goat shed underneath. Ashraf pulls a roughly hewn twine bed or charpoy out of the dark hut. He says it is better to sleep out in the open.. Here Ashraf’s English fails him. From what I can gather there’s some kind of small animal inside which bites.
“But what if it rains?” I ask.
“Inshallah, it won’t rain.”
Ashraf says the village was built in the “old time”. Its “very, very old” he says. Over the pass an ice peak smoulders pink then mauve in the evening sun.
We boil water in a big, black cauldron over a fire inside the hut which fills with a pall of hanging smoke. Dinner is rice seasoned with butter and salt. Ashraf lays my sleeping bag over the twine bed. His own mattress is a pile of dry leaves which he has spread over the terrace. Our conversation winds down like a clock. Now there’s more silence between us than words. I’ve never felt so far away from things, so completely alone. But it’s a good feeling. I don’t want to go back. A crescent moon is up, hanging low over Nurestan, so we’ll have light for a few hours. I suddenly remember I have a favour to ask. I want Ashraf to write a postcard to her in Urdu. She doesn’t know I’m here, and it will be a quirky reminder of my existence. Ashraf must have a romantic streak in him, because he obliges with enthusiasm, keenly pondering the best choice of words.
“What does it say?” I ask scanning the neat Persian characters with my headlamp.
“Greetings to a beautiful woman from a country more beautiful than heaven”Add this article to your reading list