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

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