Wednesday, August 27, 2008
After a few days of this we return to Gilgit one more time.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
sunrise in Zood Khun
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
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
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
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.