Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Badlands

Sad to leave, but we must say goodbye to our friends in Gilgit and continue southwards. We have a lovely sunny day to ride down the valley. There's no tarmac on the road but we're getting used to this now. Late morning we meet the confluence with the mighty Indus river which is coming from the east, cutting through the mountains from Skardu. We last saw this river in Ladakh. There's a crumbling monument indicating that at this juncture is the meeting of the Himalaya to the south-east, the Karakoram to the north and the Hindu Kush to the west. South of us stands Nanga Parbat. At 8125m it is marking the end of the Himalaya in style.

At our lunch stop we recognise a shopkeeper who looks like a Mexican bandit. Gayle took his photo when we stopped here in 2008. We eat our curry and nan and drink our tea with an audience of about twenty men and boys. Minibuses come and go, and so do the men, but the audience figure remains constant. Life must be quite dull here. Any women passengers are herded into a backroom and then herded back out to the bus when it's ready to leave. This must be fun for them.

There's a police checkpoint at Talechi. "Where are you from?" the policeman asks. "The UK". "Is that the UK-US?" he asks. He's either very stupid or he's got it sussed. "Where are you staying tonight?" He looks a bit confused when we say "here". There's a basic truckstop guesthouse and we cook our own noodles for tea. In the morning a truck pulls up overloaded with kids and women. It's a charabanc. They look like they're out on a picnic. The women are wearing bright colourful clothes and are noticeably showing their faces. We guess they are Gujars, nomadic herders, who move up into the mountains during the summer. They remind us of Roma. They look poor but happy together.

Back on the road it's a dusty ride. The road is often just sand. We stop for tea in one place, Mountain Dew in another. While we drink our pop we are stared out by a large group of uncommunicative boys and the shop suddenly acquires a big clientele of men, some of whom try to shoo away the boys. (Presumably so that they could have a better look.) Gayle is wearying rapidly of these gawpers. Further along we wave to some little boys up above the road. They throw stones in reply. Charming. In another village, as we pedal slowly uphill, we are swarmed by little boys. "One pen, one pen" A man roars at them to leave us alone and throws a rock at them. A little later two of them catch up with us on another hill. We ignore them and they too throw stones as a parting. We're conscious of heading to Chilas, which doesn't have a great reputation for hospitality. However, once we get there, and find a room and something to eat, we do relax a little. The young guys at the hotel all seem a bit dazed and confused but want to chat, and one of their friends speaks English. They tell us about their big families - one has 5 brothers and 2 sisters. Another has 9 brothers and 3 sisters. "Always more brothers than sisters" Gayle notes. Some of them are MQM supporters. This Karachi-based political party has been active in the Northern Areas. In the 80's and 90's it was engaged in a war in Karachi and the party boss, wanted for criminal charges, now lives in London. He speaks to political rallies by telephone.

In the morning we decide that we'll take a minibus to Besham. Otherwise it's a three-day ride through the badlands of Kohistan, a notorious district famous for banditry and hostility to outsiders. It's probably not too bad, but we're kind of wary of riding through these hicksville settlements. After a steep ride up to the bazaar we find a minibus heading that way. A man is found who can speak English. We ask the price. We are told 2,000 rupees. This is a phenomenal amount. In disgust I tell the man that they are worse than Indians. It's the best insult I can think of. We ride off in a huff and decide to continue to the next town, where we may or may not find a room. The Indus valley is fairly wide here and the river is rather flat. There aren't many settlements and we have a good ride in the hot sun until about midday, when we take a break in the shade. A minibus pulls up. It's the same one from this morning. Do we want to go to Besham? We do, how much? Two thousand, comes the reply. How about one thousand? We agree and the bikes are quickly tied onto the roof rack and we're away. It's still too much money to pay, but we feel kind of jolly anyway.

The road south gets more dramatic as the valley narrows, the walls steepen to cliffs, and the road climbs higher. It's landslide-prone for huge stretches and the road narrows where rockfall has been barely pushed aside. The driver is in a hurry - as they all are. The letters VIP adorn the minibus windows. "As long as it's not RIP" mutters Gayle. At a truckstop there's a good meal, and then we continue, passing through some grotty little places that we would have had to stay in if we'd cycled. Late afternoon we arrive in Besham, and push our bikes to the evocatively-named Hotel Paris. The rooms have dirty carpets and dirty bedding. Funnily enough, it reminds me of a hotel I once stayed in, in Paris. It's cheap, we take it. We're happy to have passed through Kohistan without mishap, even if it's by bus.

No comments: