Monday, May 31, 2010

Flying the Karakoram Highway

There's only so much potato curry and chapati you can eat. Despite Saleem's relaxed hospitality, we know it's time to move on and try to get to Karimabad in Hunza. I ride over to the 'helipad' about 500 metres from the hotel. It's really just a scrap of broken flat ground. There are a couple of ruined brick buildings in which the army are camping. I meet Scott, an American, here chatting with the friendly soldiers. They offer me a cup of tea and Scott explains how they've been telling hime that they are Taliban. He looks highly amused and a little shocked. Apparently there are good Taliban and bad Taliban. Of course, these are the good guys. Masood, from the Punjab has been in the army 14 years. Ali, the NCO, has 17 years service. I can only guess that they might have seen some fighting in that time. Scott is calling the NCO Aliji, ji being a suffix to denote respect. We assume he's never heard of Ali G. After a while I'm surprised to realise Aliji is in charge. At some point a man runs in and everyone runs outside. Is there a helicopter coming? Better hurry, they advise. So I hurtle back to the inn, pay the bill and we load up and ride back to the helipad in about 3 and a half minutes. There's not a lot going on. Surprise, surprise. So we chat a while with Scott and arrange a bookswap with him. He's waiting for a ride to Shimshal, but the man with the jeep is stuck on the other side with a spare part. There are a few others hanging around, a tent with seats for the ladies, and a bunker covered with tarpaulin where chai is being brewed. There appears to be no organisation or reliable information. This is Pakistan.

Finally we give up waiting. It's cloudy and chilly, but the weather is not too bad for an army helicopter to fly, even a 30 year-old Russian helicopter. Saleem cooks us another potato curry and chapati. After our late lunch Gayle wanders outside and shortly afterwards rushes back inside. "Incoming!!" We wave goodbye again to Saleem, and dash over to the helipad just as the 'copter is landing and blowing dust and dirt everywhere. We join the back of the line and go forward to the door, the blades whirring above our heads, the noise of the machine making it impossible to hear anyone. And then all of a sudden we are pushed back, waved away by the crew. Passengers on board are told to get off. It's chaotic. We're left clutching our bikes as the helicopter flies off completely empty. Apparently the pilot got in a huff with the disorderly queue. We are flabbergasted. No-one queues in South Asia. What a wasted opportunity and a waste of money. Everyone regroups, and the local community scouts get us organised into a line. These guys are more authoritative than the soldiers who have all slunk off. After getting us all to agree to behave and not push in, we take our seat on a concrete bench and wait for the helicopter to return. It doesn't. Saleem seems completely unsurprised to see us back at the inn.

The morning looks brighter and it's with Saleem's confidence that we return to the helipad and find all the familiar faces waiting there, including Scott. Two more tourists arrive, one a Dutch tour guide who tells us without asking that he's been here 30 times and how wonderful it is here. We enter into a heated debate about whether the army treat the people like shit or not (we have yesterday's example) and whether the Pakistani government treat its people like shit or not (we have the example of the landslide). The authorities did nothing about the landslide for two months and refused the assisitance of the Chinese, who we feel could easily have dealt with the problem before the lake got too big. The Dutchman explains that his friends, local officials, had said the Chinese asked for too much money. Right. So now what is this disaster costing the Pakistani government in evacuation, IDP camps, helicopter flights, loss of trade and business etc? Let alone the cost to the people of Hunza directly affected. But think what face they have saved.
And then there comes a 'copter. Everyone is excited and tense. Will we get on. Aliji tells us that we must get on with our bicycles last. This seems reasonable, but it does the beg the question will we get on at all. Saleem is there and wants to help but the soldiers are trying to let only passengers through to the helicopter. A lady faints and is carried aboard. I'm wondering if I can pull off the same trick, but I'd probably just get trampled in the dirt. We are about to approach when everyone is waved back. They're full. There are camera crews aboard taking up space. It's possible another one will come later. But then someone shouts "Four more!" We turn and the chief scout sees Gayle and waves her forward. Saleem almost pushes me through the crowd. I start to feel bad about getting special treatment until I rememeber that were next in the queue. It's a drag unloading the bikes and getting the panniers inside, but we're prepared and board quickly. Gayle sts on the floor, the bikes in the aisle with me stood holding them as we take off. The cabin is crowded. I count thirty people and the helicopter seems to be struggling, but in fact its just going slowly. We're up and away. It's not long before we reach the lake and then the landslide dam. I can see hardly nothing stood up, but the flight is fairly steady. Within minutes we are landing in the cricket ground of Aliabad College and unloading before another group boards and the helicopter takes off again.
Slightly dazed and still with a little adrenaline in our blood, we load up and pedal along the back road to Karimabad, the lovely village that sits high above the Hunza river, with some of the best views in the world. We learn that the road onwards to Gilgit has closed. Now we're technically on the worng side of the lake - if a disaster happens it'll happen in this part of the valley - but at least in Karimabad we are safe. At our guesthouse there's a Russian who has come to paraglide. He can take off from nearby and fly beyond Gilgit on the thermals, a feat he achieves the next day. It's possible that the only way we too can reach Gilgit is by flying again....

probably the best view from an internet cafe in the world

1 comment:

Scott Weller said...

Gayle & John ~

Pleasure meeting you guys and shooting the bull at the helipad. I caught a glimpse of you being turned away, then the orange jacket (John) hopping aboard afterall, so was happy you guys made the flight. Meanwhile, I was turned away by the police en route to Shimshal (on a tractor), for allegedly not having "permission". So I headed back north to Chipursan Valley, and was again thwarted by the police - no "permission". (No surprise the locals are having trouble attracting tourists; perhaps they just don't care for us Yanks prowling around the border areas.) Finally, I ended up in a small village, teaching at their community school for a week, which was a terrific and redeeming experience...

Godspeed, I'll stay tuned with you guys.


SF, Ca, U.S.A.