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.

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