Saturday, September 13, 2008

A steep and relentless walk in the Hindu Kush

We want to head north and cross a high pass into the next valley. Everyone seems surprised that we don't have a guide, but our route description seems very simple and clear, if not blunt about the 1300 metre ascent which is "steep and relentless". As we leave Guru a man accosts us. He wants us to register - it turns out he is the local 'Border Police'. He has no uniform, but is recruited locally to keep an eye on the border, we assume. He seemed surprised to see us, and back at his post we fill in the usual school book with our personal details and invented professions. A man lies huddled in a blanket on a charpoy trying to sleep. Another man appears and asks us if we want a guide. We say no, but then he explains that actually, the police want us to take a guide. And he is one. He is paid by the community so his services are free of charge. We say yes.

The walking is pleasant as we head up through tiny hamlets in the early morning light, but already it is warm. Our route turns sharply up a dry river bed and into a shady gorge where the path becomes "steep and relentless". Our guide is patient - we are lugging our backpacks with us and he carries nothing. We learn he is Muslim, and is fasting, but he tells us that he'll drink if it is necessary. The whole day we don't see him drink anything. Near the top our path peters out and the final hour is a slog almost straight uphill. I get a twinge of vertigo looking behind me. The pass is hidden slightly by forest but we get glimpses of the next valley 900 metres below. The path down turns out be as steep as the one up, and we are very glad to arrive at our guesthouse. We still have no idea why a guide needed to accompany us.The next day we walk up to the next village, which is a Nuristani village. A young man here explains that his people came about a hundred years ago, from Afghanistan. The Nuristanis were known as the Red Kafirs, unbelievers, and the king decided in the 1890's to forcibly convert them. It was Islam or the river. Some fled over the passes and settled next to the Kalash, who were known as the Black Kafirs. Ironically the Nuristanis are now Muslim. Lower down we visit the Kalash museum, part of a complex which includes a school, hospital, library and meeting space. It was built by a Greek NGO. We still see Kalash women, easy to spot in their traditional clothes, but this valley seems more mixed and more touristed, not as friendly. The Kalash hamlets are set away from the road.

We take the jeep track to walk to the next Kalash valley of Rumbur. On the way I'm hailed by a man on the other side of the valley. He waves me over but I don't move and he finally runs down to cross a bridge and up to the track. He wants to know if I know any Pakistanis in England. I tell him yes, my best friend's family are from Pakistan. "What's your friend's name?" "Imran Khan." He smiles then - he thinks I'm taking the mickey. "Do you know Saeed Abbas?" he asks. "Er, no" and I try to explain that there are lots of Pakistanis in England and I don't know them all. Finally, after handshaking, smiles and a touch of the hand over the heart, he lets me go.

British government aid, for a cause close to my heart
In Rumbur we stay at Engineer Khan's house. His wife makes good food and he makes good wine. A Frenchman showed him how to. Here we meet Jef and Els, a young Belgian couple we first met back in Passu. It's funny to meet up again so far from Hunza. Engineer Khan is a fan of Zardari, who has just been elected President, and dismisses the allegations of corruption and gangsterism. Someone else has a theory that Pakistan will always support its leader, provided they are strong. Once they appear weak, they will talk them down. At the moment it seems everyone is giving 'Mr. Ten Percent' the benefit of the doubt, in the hope that he can reverse the conflict and bombings.


yellowlemonie said...

harlow Gayle and John!!

gosh, i miss walking in the hills. the only walking i do nowadays is walking around my campus! hence why i'm looking forward to my december trip to india/sikkim, where i'll be able to see the rolling hills (mountains probably actually...) once more.

take care and hope to see you soon!


(PS: just in case you're wondering if my sole purpose in life is to post on blogs as soon as there're new posts, the answer is yes... ;p but yes, it's nice to have a day off from school and be chilling out at home!)

yellowlemonie said...

well, it seems that was a major bomb blast in islamabad just a couple of hours ago!