Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Hunza Hang Out

Sloths apparently hang from trees for up to a week at a time before descending to empty their bowels. And whilst Haider's Inn in Karimabad could be described as our tree, the similarity ends there. We have returned to our favourite place where there is not much to do but read and enjoy the views. There are others here who find other recreational delights such as doing their laundry and smoking hashish (never the other way round). Here I celebrate my birthday with a walk up to a high view point, above a neighbouring village, where we dine on chicken jalfrezi. As always, as we wander around, there are groups of men sat around scratching their balls, whilst the women are kept busy in the fields or carrying stuff to and fro. We pass a school where the young teacher is describing something in English to a group sat out on the veranda. There are other children around, running errands, fetching water, helping with the harvest or just milling around. Nearly everyone says hello. On the way back down through the village we leave the jeep track and take an ancient and very steep staircase that winds down through a maze of terraced fields, water courses, fruit trees and kitchen gardens. The stairs must be as old as the village, worn smooth and shiny. The villagers are rewarded with fantastic views.
After a few days of this we return to Gilgit one more time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Wakhi stuff

Back to Gilgit, our home in the North, for a quick feed, launder and Olympics update. Gayle is amused to see the staff engrossed in the Women's Marathon - an event run by women in what looks like their underwear. Then we're off to Passu, further north along the Karakoram Highway. We spend a few days in the area doing day walks. The villages are small and pretty - each house surrounded by its fields. Higher up, or across the river, are more fields, like a village extension, where potatoes and hay is being grown. The people here are Wakhi - Tajik in origin - who arrived here from the Wakhan 'corridor', the finger of Afghanistan that separates Pakistan from Tajikistan. It's not uncommon to see fair-haired children or blue-eyed adults. Most of these communities are Ismaili, and signposts proclaim the Aga Khan Foundation's investment in local schools. It seems that everyone speaks some English, and no-one is shy to show it. The villages seem fairly prosperous for such a remote place.
Glaciers cut down from the high peaks pushing rubble and dirt and spewing ice cold grey water into the main valley. There are dramatic white spires, ice walls and rock faces all around. We attempt a small peak of just over 4000 metres, above a lake. As we climb we realise we are walking in sand. A giant sand hill. Two steps up and one step back. Eventually we reach a saddle and surrender to the view. It's still glorious.
Our favourite walk is to cross the Hunza river by two steel cable suspension bridges. They stretch across the main valley, connecting villagers to their fields. There are strips of wood to step onto to cross the bridges, but these seem to be strategically placed so far apart as to induce a sense of fear and thrill in equal parts. Or inequal parts, in my case. In the fields folk are harvesting the grass for winter feed for their animals. Two young women wave us over and invite us for a cup of tea. In the corner of their field is a pot sat on three stones. They quickly get a fire going and produce all the ingredients for milky chai. We laugh when we see the salt. They unfold a cloth with their lunch of bread and apples and invite us to share it - we have only biscuits to offer. Jamila is married with two children and her younger sister is now at college in Gilgit. What will she do when she finishes college? Get married and have lots of children, she says, laughing. Gayle asks "Wouldn't you like to study to be a teacher?" The harvesting is hard work done by hand with sickles in the hot sun. As we pass through other fields we are offered more tea. Everyone points us in the right direction - the second bridge that goes to their village, Husseini. It is another picturesque village full of inquisitive children, one of whom literally runs across the bridge that takes us ten minutes to navigate. We reach the main road and decide to wait for a ride back to Passu. Finally a minibus pulls up. It is full but there's space on the back. I always thought it'd be fun to ride on the back, and we hop on. But then a gallant gentleman invites Gayle to take his seat, and he climbs on the back instead. It's a 15 minute ride to Passu but it's the most exhausting thing I've done in ages - literally hanging on with all my might to stop from sliding off as the bus rounds the bends. There are five of us hanging on, but the others are just chatting away nonchalantly as if they were sat over cups of tea. So, what do you reckon to Musharraf resigning then? Did you see the Chinese workcamps up by Sost? How's the family?
The Karakoram Highway is proudly signposted as the 'Eighth Wonder of the World', and in some places it seems like a miracle it exists. It is frequently subjected to landslides and rockfall, and although the road is not in great nick, the road diggers keep it clear. And now the Chinese have offered to widen and improve it, all the way from the border to south of Gilgit. Our guesthouse is going to lose a metre of garden and five trees. It's for Gwadar, the owner explains. Gwadar is a port on the south-western coast of Pakistan. The Chinese have spent $250 million on developing it, and the KKH is the first part of a very long road all the way from the Chinese border down to the port. With a wider road they will be able to drive their huge trucks, instead of the smaller picturesque Pakistani trucks. This port is closer to west China than Shanghai is.

The weather takes a turn for the worse as we head north up to the Chapursan valley. This valley runs east-west in parallel to the Wakhan corridor. There are passes over the Hindu Kush into Afghanistan and China, but they have been closed this year by the Pakistani army. We settle for a rough jeep ride up to Zood Khun where there's a simple guesthouse. But our plan of a couple nights walking and camping are squished by rain and freezing winds. The surrounding mountains disappear in thick cloud and we are reminded of Scotland. This is another area of Wakhi people, who live here all year round in quite harsh conditions. At 3500 metres there are few trees, and the crops are fed by glacial water redirected to the villages. At dawn on a clear morning we take a jeep back to the KKH. It's an old 16-seater Toyota and we're all jammed tight as the driver carefully drives the rough track back down through the valley. At one point he has to change a tyre. A bit of the wheel falls off and he just brushes it to the side of the road. I take the opportunity to count up - there are 27 of us in total, inside and out. Back in Sost, the last town before the Chinese border, we catch a minibus southwards.

sunrise in Zood Khun

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Where are you going?

This is a common question in Pakistan, usually asked as we stand around in some dusty parking lot or a litter-strewn back alley looking rather bewildered and bemused. Sometimes the answer is nowhere. The irony of travellers who cannot get anywhere. We are in Skardu, capital of Baltistan, once part of a Tibetan kingdom, but now a sidearm of the Northern Areas. We're trying to get to Shigar, only 20 miles away, but it may as well be the moon. A helpful man takes us to a jeep parked outside a row of shuttered shops. There's no-one around but he indicates us to wait. So we do. Fortunately we have Monday's newspaper to share. Here we can read about the impeachment of the President, ongoing military action in FATA (the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan), the Olympics, and an article about child labour which states that according to official figures only 55% of children attend primary school, 18% middle and 10% secondary. After a while a man walks up, salaams, and asks us where we are going. We explain we want the public jeep to Shigar (everyone assumes we want to hire a jeep privately). He takes us to another shop where they invite us to take a seat - there'll be a jeep at 10 o'clock. The young men chat to us for a bit, ask us what we think of Musharraf. They speak English, their third language. Balti is the local language, and most will speak Urdu with Pakistanis from outside the region. There are about 15 distinct languages in the Northern Areas alone.

Our journey here from Gilgit was the best one we've had so far. A strangely half-full minibus ride along another requisite hair-raising road that follows the Indus through a narrow high gorge. The river is a churning boiling brew of muddy brown chai, cutting it's way through the mountains. The road was built by the army at the same time as the KKH, giving easier access to a rather remote and isolated part of the region. We emerged into an open wide flat valley where the river quietly meanders in large loops, from side to side. The landscape is typically dry and barren and monotone grey, but now and again there are orchards and woods and small oases of green when we pass through a village. Skardu itself is a charmless town, an endless strip of car workshops, grocers, tailors, tea stalls and a smattering of souvenir shops. It has an airstrip and is used as the jumping-off point for climbers and trekkers visiting the Big Mountains - K2 Broad Peak, the Gasherbrums and Masherbrum. Walking down the street you'd think that they had never seen a woman before - the men stare at Gayle incessantly. There are no local women visible.

This is in sharp contrast to Khaplu, a large village further down the valley. We visit with intentions of going on to another village, but a combination of bad weather and apathy put us off. Instead we find a hotel high above the village with great views and awful food. We won't be recommending the mutton curry leastways. It's a big place that looks deserted but for a clutch of listless staff and us. We go for a wander around Khaplu - it seems to be all uphill or downhill - and after an initial feeling that the people are a little unfriendly suddenly get accosted by an old man who wants to talk, followed by a young woman carrying a basket of apricots who starts chattering away to Gayle in Balti. There's an old wooden mosque, one of the first in the region, and the local royal residence, a crumbling old building being renovated by the Agha Khan Foundation. At one point we feel like the Pied Piper, with a gaggle of cheeky little boys following us, all parroting "What is your name?" Karim, a young student on a field trip from Canada, kindly shows us around the fort. He left Karachi when he was 17 to go to study in Montreal, and it's his first time in the Northern Areas. He is trying to decide whether to stay in Canada or return to Pakistan when his studies are finished. Back at the hotel we meet a woman who has returned - after studying in New York. She is also an architect, about to start work on the conservation of Old Lahore, and she invites us to get in touch when we get to her city. It's rare to meet Pakistanis from the south up here - it could be another country.

Back in the shop, waiting for our jeep, the subject turns to Kashmir. What do we think? Mmm. What do you think? we counter. One young man suggests that the Northern Areas joins up with Kashmir and forms an independent state. There are flags for sale in the main street - it is Independence Day tomorrow - but somehow we can't imagine the people here getting carried away with any celebration. It's 61 years since Pakistan was formed and still the country is dominated either by an over-resourced military, or by one rich family (the Bhuttos) or another (the Sharifs). It's 11 o'clock. We give up waiting for a ride. We can always find something else to do.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Pakora Pass

It seems every journey out of Gilgit is difficult. We are sat on sacks of flour, in the open back of a jeep, along with 16 other people. Admittedly, this includes children, but still, as Betty Everett says, it's getting mighty crowded. We are going to Upper Naltar in late afternoon, and at least we get some breeze as the jeep trundles along. We stop for water for the leaky radiator and for the sweating passengers, and at one point for a small boy to climb a tree and pick grapes off a vine, to share with everyone. Halfway up a hill a tyre blows out. The driver changes it without fuss in fifteen minutes. We arrive in the village and spend a night there before beginning our trek up the valley and over the Pakora Pass. There are five days walking - the first three are short, allowing us to climb slowly and acclimatise and enjoy the fresh alpine scenery. There are summer settlements up the valley, where shepherds and their families squat in simple dry-stone houses with turf roofs. Their goats, sheep and cows roam the higher slopes each day. It is a strange but common phenomenon to climb up a dry barren rocky valley to emerge into wide verdant forrested scenery higher up - the reverse of what we are accustomed to. On our second day we are caught by a group of three trekkers and their guide and porter. We know two of the tourists, Jules and Jason and the guide, Saeef, from our Gilgit guesthouse. This helps a bit because it turns out we are walking the same stages each day and we are unsure of the etiquette in such situations. We are in theory trekking independently with a route description and a large scale map, but in practice we can just follow their group and guide. We camp at the same places, but try to keep a respectful distance. John is suffering from diahorrea, so a respectful distance is vital. The walk takes us to a high camp at 4200 metres and then we cross the pass at 4700m the next day in what we call "Scottish" weather. There's no snow on the pass, and the glacier that begins on the other side is icy and slippery in the wet. Saeef and the porter get us across to the rocky morraine to one side and then we descend down a very different landscape. Glaciers falling from surrounding peaks stretch across the landscape and merge in the valley. We have to cross lower down, but this is not difficult - it is fairly flat, the ice ridged by hundreds of channels of meltwater. No crevasses. It's still a thrill but we now realise why our guidebook says you don't need a guide - it is fairly straight forward. The day ends dry and with us camped on a patch of grass close by more shepherds, above the river which emerges from the glacier. The valley is narrower and more hostile as we descend the next day - the path is another unbelievable construction on a rocky barren cliff face. We prefer to walk more slowly than the others and eventually arrive in Pakora, a green oasis of a village, hot and tired.
As we walk through the village we are accosted by a group of women picking apricots from their trees. They invite us into their garden and we take a rest in the shade. They are sisters and Nahida speaks good English. They ask if we'd like tea and they take us through a gate and into a walled garden. We sit down in a shady outbuilding which has two bedrooms and a dining area. Nahida's husband, Ghalib, a teacher, joins us and invites us to stay the night. We accept. Saeef turns up - the group are camping in a field next door - and we chat a while. After a shower and more tea, Ghalib takes us for a walk around the village. It's very pretty, with each house set amongst its own fields, with maize growing high, and walnut, fig, mulberry and apricot trees in full leaf. We meet Mumtaz, another teacher, who also sings and runs a small shop. We drink pop and move on, bumping into one of Ghalib's students, who invites us in for tea. Once again we enter another traditional house and get to meet more women. This is another Ismaili community and the women are not covered. They are extracting the edible kernel from apricot seeds.
After calling in on the campers we return to the family house. Most of the women are out and it is quiet. We go back to our room to take a rest before dinner and discover that someone has rifled through our rucksacks. It's a shock to us. We soon realise a couple of small things are missing - earphones and alarm clock - and suspect one of the children, and we tell Ghalib what has happened. His reaction is a bit odd, possibly unsurprised, and we ask if he can recover our things. While he is gone, a good while, we decide we can't stay, and pack ready to camp. The women return and we explain the problem to Nahida. She looks horrified. We explain that we don't want to know who did it, but we really want our things back. Otherwise we will have to report the theft to the police. This is over the top, but it produces a response. We soon hear screaming from the house and raised voices. It is dark now. The earphones are found by Nahida hidden in the room next to us, but no clock. We shoulder our packs, and despite all their apologies and ministrations to stay, leave. We can smell the dinner cooking as we walk away.
We join the others camping. Everyone is asleep but Saeef, to whom we explain our predicament. We pitch our tent and Nahida reappears with our clock. Her husband is too embarrassed to come. She is so apologetic and begs us to return. We know that by leaving we are not forgiving this petty crime, and therefore bringing shame on the family. Worse, Saeef, a guide from Gilgit, is witness to it all. We thank her but say that we are sleeping in our tent. We can't go back. We suspect her younger brother, but the family are blaming a smaller boy "who is a little bit crazy" - perhaps a way to salvage their izzat, their family pride. Just as we are going to sleep three of the women return with dinner. Saeef tells us that if we refuse to eat it they will get upset. I've had enough, but Gayle goes out and tucks in with Saeef, to help assuage the women. It is 11 o'clock.
On the early morning journey back to Gilgit we talk about the whole crazy situation. Some things didn't feel right. They were a very hospitable and typically friendly family. Ghalib was very liberal and wanted to talk and ask our opinions of Pakistan, to explain some of the culture. But when we went out for a walk he did ask if we had anything valuable in our rucksacks, like a camera, to bring it along. At the time, this didn't flick any switch, but afterwards it seemed very peculiar. And although we upset the family by leaving, we felt this was the only way to put pressure on the little bugger who had stolen our things. It might have worked, but it felt like the women in the house were doing their utmost to protect him, or the family as a whole. Who knows? Ah well - we intend to still send them the photos we took in their garden and to thank them for their hospitality. We don't know what else to do.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The end of the Himalayas

We've just gone to bed when there's a knock at the door. Opening up I'm met by a face from America's Most Wanted. No, sorry, it's James, our English friend, in a very sharp shalwar kameez and a funky handlebar moustache. He has just completed a tough trek up to the K2 basecamp and over a very high pass - a 15 day adventure that has left him looking remarkably tanned and healthy. Maybe being on the run is good for you. We last met fleetingly in Uzbekistan so there is much to catch up on, and we talk for a long time. It's so nice to meet old friends on the road. Sadly the next day we are leaving for Fairy Meadow, but we may meet again. I hope so - he never did give me the address of his tailor in Lahore.
Fairy Meadow is one of northern Pakistan's most popular destinations, as it is the easiest walk to an 8,000m peak base camp. The peak is Nanga Parbat, and it marks the western end of the Himalayan range. The Indus cuts through the geological fault at the point where the Karakoram range meets it. This rather naff geographical description can be clarified by turning to Page 72 of the Times Concise Atlas of The World (2004 edition). Or Google Earth it. Anyway, here we are with Claudia (Germany) and Celine (France) and David (Italy), a European union of trekkers, jammed into a Japanese minibus heading towards the mountain. I'm wedged next to a long-bearded man who seems to suffer from a Pavlovian response to motion. He frequently deposits excess saliva onto the floor of the bus. Our two-hour ride turns into a five-hour ride when the driver runs out of diesel. He dumps everyone at a roadside tea stall and goes off in search of the precious stuff. After a cup of tea and a little banter with all the men hanging around (in Pakistan there are always men hanging around, no matter what time of day or where you are), we start to sweat. The heat in the valley is overbearing. Finally we depart again for the remaining 15km and get out at a Jeep stop. There we board a jeep as old as me, driven by a man with a very curly little toe and a squidgy blob of hashish, which he rolls in his hand as we negotiate the fare. He takes us up a dirt road, a very rough rocky road that winds up a side valley, a dry steep-sided gorge, climbing 1300 metres. We stop occasionally for the driver to refill his radiator and rest his arms. This is probably the most fantastic ride of my life. The narrow road has been built by locals, cut out of the sheer rock face, and built up with dry stone cantilevered support. In places it is eroding from water run off. In others there is landslide damage. A hundred metres below is a parallel road that suddenly disappears - a forerunner that has been wiped clean off the cliff by rockfall. At some points you can look down below to the river in the distance - a bowel-loosening drop of maybe 500 metres. The ride lasts an hour and a half. It's exhausting.
After this, the walking is a doddle, and as it is the end of the day it's cool. We arrive at Fairy Meadow, a grassy clearing in some woods high on the side of the valley, to watch the sunset over the north face of Nanga Parbat and the long tail of its glacier. We spend a couple of nights here taking a closer look of the mountain the next day. It's a classic view that has been reproduced in thousands of posters published by the Pakistan Tourist Board, pasted up in every hotel north of Islamabad.
Our return to Gilgit features another prolonged stop at our favourite tea stall. We are offered a ride by a group of young men from Peshawar. We accept. Unfortunately they have a flat tyre and it is being repaired. Would we like to wait? Well, okay. These men needed permission form their elders to visit the Northern Areas. The elders at first refused - too dangerous. Ironically, we think Peshawar might be too dangerous to visit. They invite us anyway. Everyone wants to talk and we ride back chatting endlessly. "Do you think September 11th really happened?" I am asked. They kindly deposit us back at our guesthouse where we spend a couple of days laundering, reading, eating and playing Chinese Poker with David and Celine. Not for money - David, who has a beautiful smile and dancing eyes, like a young Paul Newman, is a shark. From about 11 til 7 in the evening Gilgit melts in the summer heat. There is talk of 43 degrees Celsius. It's just too hot to think. Celine resolves one of Gayle's dilemmas - how to get a haircut in Pakistan? - by producing shears and doing the deed. The next day we go in different directions. We have spent perhaps five days with David and Celine, a wonderful couple, and it feels like we have known each other for years. When they leave we feel a bit adrift.