Monday, June 14, 2010

Stoned Again

On our way out of Besham we come to a checkpoint beside a police station. The men are wearing tee-shirts with 'Commando' emblazoned on the front, and 'Anti-Terrorist Squad' on the back. You can probably pick these up in the bazaar. An officer with very good English asks us where we are going. We tell him and he asks us to wait. He consults with someone inside and then explains that they'd prefer us to take a bus to Thakot bridge, about 30km down the road. "Is the road dangerous?" we ask. No, no, it's perfectly safe, but it's just a precaution, he explains. We resign ourselves to wait for a ride, but I get itchy sitting outside a police station at a checkpoint. Surely this is the most dangerous place to hang around in all of Pakistan? After half an hour, and much discussion amongst the 'Anti-Terrorist Squad' it was finally decided that we would be safe to continue alone after all. The road south is much more populated and we find ourselves waving and saying hello to everyone all the time. Everyone is very friendly. The truck drivers in their brightly decorated trucks all give us a thumbs up, as they pass us in a wave of tinkling bells - each truck bears tassled skirts of tiny bells. I love the hand gestures Pakistanis use - the Push is a repeated two-handed mime to mean 'Alright'. The more common is the questioning hand twisting upturned. It means what?where?why? I reply with an improvised all-encompassing wave pointing forwards. It'll do.

We meet some policemen in a truck who insist on 'escorting' us. All of a sudden the cycling feels quite different. People look at us but I feel quite self-conscious with the police right behind us. We don't feel threatened at all. Finally we ask the police to leave us be. They look puzzled and perhaps offended, but when we stop for pop one of the policemen shoos away three little boys just hanging around - we don't want this kind of protection. A local man smiles and says the local people are good people. We have no doubt of this. But, he adds, there are some people........

At Thakot bridge we have lunch and then begin a big climb out of the Indus valley. It's too hot and we're slow climbers. From up above a rock falls onto the road between us. And then I spot another little bastard lobbing stones at us. Where does this come from? The adults seem friendly enough. We crawl up hill for about 25km to a little market town which we instantly recognise as we turn a corner. We spent about five hours in one spot here when our bus had a puncture back in 2008. We stop for numerous teas and to recover from our climb. Unfortunately there's another 16 km to climb to the pass. We plod on, through pine woods, in the afternoon's fading sun.

"Where are you going?"
"From where are you coming?"

Finally after a lot of sweat and puffing, we get to the top. There's a fairly nice hotel at the pass and we take a room there. None of the staff speak English, but Akram, a Pakistani man who has lived and worked in Norway for most of his life, translates for us. He might be the owner, we can't tell. He spends most of his time smoking spliffs on the veranda, so he probably is. We take a day's rest here to recover from the ride and do a bit of laundry and Akram acts as our host. Down in the village of Sharkul where we go for lunch we are invited to take a tea by a friendly Kohistani who is waiting for a bus. After a while he observes to me "Your wife looks old". "And you look fat", Gayle replies. Despite their hospitality, some Pakistani men can be quite rude and seem to have a prurient interest in our relationship. For the sake of this part of the journey we are now married with two daughters at university. We have now taken to blanking anyone who, after enquiring about our nationality, suddenlys asks, usually to me, "And what is your relationship to her?" or "Is she your 'friend'?" Gayle is getting fed up with being stared at in the street by all the men and then, when we are approached by a friendly man, being completely ignored. The perils of travelling in such a conservative society.

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