Sunday, September 7, 2008

Places and Faces

The welcome back at the Madina Guesthouse in Gilgit is typically warm. It's one of the best run hostels we've stayed in, with a large staff of friendly helpful and attentive young men. The place is an oasis. We have come to collect our deposited baggage and head west to Chitral, but we're lured to stay by the presence of Celine and David, good friends we met here a while before. We also meet Marthein, whom we last saw on a bus leaving Kerman in Iran at the end of February. He's still as enthusiastic and talkative as ever. There's also Wasim, from London, whose parents are from Pakistan - this is his first visit - and Irene from Bradford, a larger than life character, who claims to have travelled around India in a Pink Panther suit. We are definitely on some kind of a Gringo Trail here - there are so few roads that we inevitably meet people again or meet others that we've heard about - and there's a strange community of travellers passing through Pakistan.

There's a man at the tailor's shop who helps to translate my request for a shalwar kameez. He asks us if we speak Urdu, and when we say no, he asks us why not? The tailor is measuring me up very briskly: chest, neck, arms, legs. We reply "Because so many Pakistanis speak such good English." The tailor asks something and the man translates "He wants to know - would you like one phucket or two phuckets?" "Two would be fine thanks......."

There's an early bus to Mastuj that takes us over the Shandur Pass. The journey is ten hours, not bad considering most of the road is a dirt track. The dust swirls through the bus, coating us in fine brown powder, which we shake off at the chai stops. On the way down off the pass the bus slows to pick up schoolchildren and shepherds to give them a free ride home. The ticket man is constanly chattering and joking with everyone, jumping off the bus to shoo a cow out of the road, calling out to villagers working in the fields. He is immaculate, and resembles George Clooney a la Errol Flynn in 'O Brother Where Art Thou?' At sunset we arrive in Mastuj, a small picturesque village at the confluence of two rivers. We stay at Jafar's place. He's not there but his father sorts us out, before sitting down with another old man to smoke a joint. Finally Jafar returns late from Chitral, inebriated and maudlin. He pays some drunken compliments to the Swiss woman who is also here and then tells us about his unhappy marriage, saying "Pakistani men are not bad but the trouble with Pakistani women is they always complain about us" before passing out in the spare room.
Gayle phones home

Ramazan is starting. Thankfully only the grandfather of the family is fasting, and we can get breakfast in the morning. Wandering round the old fort, used by the British, we are invited to sit with an old man in the shade of walnut trees who is dressed and talks like an old English gentleman. He's 95. We talk a little and a servant brings us apples. The man eats with us. I ask if he is a Sunni or Ismaili (the latter do not fast). He smiles and tells us he's 'an Internationalist', before going on to tell us the story of the women buried alive in Waziristan for refusing to comply with their arranged marriages. He shakes his head in dumb incomprehension. It's another world.

We are starting to think that Pakistan is more of an idea than a country. We are now in the North Western Frontier Province, and like the Northern Areas there is a sense of detachment from the government and the rest of the country. The main town here is Chitral, served by only two roads, both of which are closed for 5 months each winter. We arrive here at midday and are grateful for a hotel with a garden where we can sit out and cook our own food, seeing as no restaurant is open. Towards the end of the day the bustle in the streets rises a couple of notches as men complete their last minute shopping for iftar, the evening meal that breaks the daily fast. We meet Jamil, a true Pakistan People's Party supporter, who blames General Zia for the islamification of the country, and the creation of the mujahadeen to fight in Afghanistan and Kashmir - he sees how it has back-fired on the country. The unrest in the tribal areas has spilled into neighbouring regions. He is very positive that Zardari can negotiate a settlement rather than try and use force. His optimism seems remarkable in our eyes.

Ramazan date seller

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