Monday, June 7, 2010


Today is gonna be the day that I get myself a new shalwar kameez. (I abandoned my previous one in India after crossing the border. The Indian immigration officer had looked me up and down and said "That's a very nice Pakistani costume you are wearing sir." Not such a subtle hint.) In the bazaar there are lots of small tailor shops. I walk into one and to ask the price. There are three men at work. Jonas is cutting, and the other two are stitching at small sewing machines. There is a rack of finished shalwar kameez waiting for collection. Pakistan is one of those few countries where the majority of men are still wearing traditional dress as opposed to 'western style'. The shalwar kameez is simply a pair of baggy tousers and a matching shirt that goes all the way down to the knees. It takes a bit of getting used to wearing but it suits the hot weather. And I regret not keeping my last one. The tailor sends me with a young boy to buy the material, measures me, buys me a mango juice and then tells me to come back tomorrow. Neither of us speaks the other's language.

The Madina Guesthouse is an oasis in Gilgit and feels like a home away from home. The owner, Mr. Yuqub, and Habib, his young manager, greet us like old family friends. Not for us the usual limp handshake that Pakistani men often greet each other with. Here we qualify for the more affectionate half hug half handshake. It's two years almost since we were last here, but it feels like no time at all. The guesthouse is noticeably quieter though. The tourism business is a tough business in Pakistan. Mr. Yuqub has had to cut back on the staff. A few days later a man in the corner shop asks me if I've been here before - he recognises me from working at the Madina. The Northern Areas of Pakistan can easily compete with Nepal for stunning and beautiful scenery and hospitable people but receives just a percentage of the tourists. But everyone here knows that the media reports of regular bombings and shootings, of the army fighting in Swat and in the border regions are hardly going to draw the crowds. And Mr Yuqub points out that the Tourism Ministry thinks that tourists want discos and bars and luxury hotels - which is inconceivable in such a conservative country and incomprehensible in one famous for its mountaineering and trekking. "The donkeys are running this country", he laments.

There is one other side to Pakistan that might put tourists off. In Gilgit, a large provincial capital, it's rare to see a woman. Gayle is happy to enjoy the garden at the Madina and I, like the local men, go out to do the shopping. If Gayle does come out she is stared at by most of the men. This might be because she has decided not to wear a headscarf, but this segregated society seems quite abnormal in contrast to China and even to Hunza where women and girls are seen out and about. We later meet Sue, an Englishwoman who has married Monty, a local man. They are now applying for his visa to live in Britain. We wonder what it must be like to come from the west and live here in this town. She seems very happy but they are both frustrated by the lengthy and expensive process to obtain permission for Monty to come to the UK. Habib has invited us to tea to meet Sue and Monty and refuses to allow us to contribute to the cost of the meal. Instead he regales us with stories of other travellers, of other guides, of the polticians both local and national.

We're also thrilled to meet up with Saif, a local guide, who we met here at the Madina. Although we didn't use his services, we spent some time talking with him and then met him again when he was guiding a group with our friend Jules on a trek over Pakora Pass. (And a tasty trek it was too.) He immediately takes us for lunch. The seaon has been slow so far, but he is still generously treating us. The kindness and hospitality of Pakistanis can be quite a humbling experience. Saif is about thirty and troubled to find silver whiskers on his chin. I tell him that I have them too but he quickly points out that I'm older and with Gayle. He is yet to find a wife. How can he find a wife when he's looking old? And in this segregated society as well. Our hearts go out to him.

I return to the tailor's to collect my shalwar kameez. Jonas smiles broadly when I enter. But his smile is not as broad as the trousers, which are big enough for me, him and his two assistants to fit in together. A pyjama cord gathers it all in, and I remember the trouble I have had in trying to use a squat toilet and deal with so much material all at the same time. Men here squat when they pee, so as not to splash their shalwar, a technique that continues to mystify me even now. I will stick to tried and tested methods.

Our last evening in Gilgit is slightly bizarre as we find ourselves as extras in a film being shot by a French/Turkish film crew. It's a low-budget movie about a young truck driver who travels in search of some magical waters. At some point he turns up at the Madina where Habib is regaling us with a story about another traveller. Poor Habib has agreed to stand in front of the cameras to do his part, whilst we can sit in the shadows, along with the Koreans who are now here, and laugh at his stories. The director enthusiastically explains that he has wanted to make a film about Pakistan showing it's 'normal' side and it's beauty. They are using only untrained actors. The film will either be absolutely wonderful or absolutely awful.

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