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.

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