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Published: August 21st 2008
Always peering over shoulders...
A wildness about Pakistan is evident in the name of the regions over which the government has teetering control. Provinces such as Sindh and Balochistan may be one thing. But when added to the likes of the more lawless sounding Northwest Frontier Province, you’d expect scenes out of the Wild West. In many cases, that’s exactly what takes place! My favorite region of Pakistan by title alone is the Northern Areas, leaving the foreigner with the impression that its inhabitants are a part of the nation when it suits them, but do not wholly buy into Pakistani integration.
I met the connections needed to make it into the Northern Areas without a night’s layover in Islamabad. Daewoo runs a splendid coach service out of their own station in Lahore to the capital on the half hour. The four-and-a-half hour journey comes complete with fluffy yet firm pillow, reclining seats that haven’t broken yet, and plenty of legroom. About thirty minutes out of Lahore through the boring Punjab flatlands, a knockout stewardess distributes newspapers (not all of the m in Urdu), chilled drinks from an on-board refrigerator, and a box lunch of unhealthy snacks. The coach cruises along a motorway so newly-built,
Not the middle of nowhere, but a suburb...
the paint on the asphalt has yet to fade.
Pakistani engineers have managed to implement a technique lost on their Indian neighbors: the highway overpass. The highway from Lahore to Islamabad is as neat and clean as it is empty. Limited access and tolls mean common truck traffic chooses to use alternate routes. But for the paltry number of vehicles coming and going between the two major destinations, we could have been traversing Indiana instead of central Pakistan. Daewoo has its own rest areas. Though not the city refuges along I-80, they do supply the basic refreshments and even a roadside mosque for those who need divine guidance to manage moving vehicular obstacles.
The transfer from the Daewoo station to the main bus stand for a connection north was too easy. Without thinking that much into the future, I knew I was going to pay for it later. Then when I arrived at the terminal and had my bags transferred to a coach with its wheels in motion heading north, there would be no doubt. I didn’t even have to go to the ticket booth. When I screamed, “Gilgit!” a stranger lowered my pack and put it next to the
Abdul At Work
A chicken dinner to be remembered...
driver’s compartment of the moving vehicle. A pair of seats together were left open well down the aisle on the right side, affording me to snug up against the window. The fare collector even escorted me to where I needed to be. By the time I sat down, we were out of the station and the bus was laboring its way out of Islamabad. I considered an overnight stay in the capital, but opted in a hopeful way that the bus ride would be the right decision. This was way too easy. Somewhere down the road, somehow, the travel gods would get even.
It had to happen somewhere and then we finally got off the highway to Peshawar and headed straight north. I did not know the length of the journey in hours, but the kilometer marker read well over 420 to Gilgit. Given the uncooperative terrain we were soon to encounter, I would not see northern Pakistan until daylight.
Across from me sat a Westerner, though it was hard to tell at first. He was one of the few I have seen at all in Pakistan. For a few hours we did not converse; I was too focused on
Sunset in Gilgit
These are just the foothills, enjoyed with green tea...
how the bus climbed the hills through rustic towns of muddy shops and transport depots of minivans. Fathers and sons were exiting the mosque together hand in hand when we hit Abbottabad in the late afternoon. I had a peek at my culturally common companion and still there was no real inkling that we would speak. Fine, I thought…no problem. I didn’t come this far to pas s the time with someone from Switzerland anyway. I switched my attention back to the fathers and their children. Hordes of them were filing out not of one, but all the mosques in Abbottabad. For one of the few times on this journey I deduced that it was Friday, the day most men attend mosque, as Christians crowd into church on Sundays and Jews attend temple on Saturdays. If it weren’t for that scene through the window, I would only know that date. The days of the week have carried such miniscule importance to me. As I look back, and forward, they hardly matter at all.
I still wasn’t completely sure of the man’s origin aside the aisle from me. He, like a few other young men who I have seen or have
The view from someone's backyard...
studied online traveling through Pakistan, has grown a bird’s nest of a beard. My instincts tell me it is his way to try to blend in, to smooth out any unforeseen hostilities he might stumble upon as a Westerner. I rubbed my right hand against the same side of my face and could detect only fine stubble that had surfaced from my shave just this morning. I do not buy into the theory of blending in that way because all he has to do is open his mouth and all doubt is gone. At a fuel stop on one of the world’s most renown and dangerous thoroughfares for motor vehicles, I overheard the man’s flawless and well-educated English. I jumped in with him as he was introducing himself to three other passengers.
One Pakistani exclaimed to him in a tone of admiration, “You must be the only American going to the Northern Areas.” I kept relatively quiet and shook some hands so I could feel that I belonged. It was a wise move for Craig and me to break the ice with as many folks as possible. We were at the onset of a tough ride with no real clue
Barren and Fertile
Emblematic of Hunza...
what was between this gas station and Gilgit.
We reboarded and without too much prying we were content with the status of the two American on board. In little time, we ascertained that our sentiments towards Pakistan were right in line. Nowhere did we feel safer. No place had the people been so unfailingly kind to go out of their way on account of our country of origin. And without openly admitting to each other, there was no other place we wanted to be than at the back of a bus ready to defy and conquer the Karakoram Highway.
Even the locals refer to the route as the KKH. A project of unprecedented and daring design, it connects Islamabad with the ancient Silk Route town of Kashgar, in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China. The 1,200 kilometer thoroughfare of eroded and cracked pavement, sand, mud, solitary boulders, and rubble wrestles through a landscape belligerent to motor traffic, yet among the most eye-popping on earth. It cuts through not only extreme geographical and climatic conditions, but has opened up cultures and civilizations previously cut off from the modern world of which we are an everyday, functional part. (Or have we been
Up Close and Personal
Details of Rakaposhi...
cut off from them?) To understand the irreversible influence of the road is a mark of worldly knowledge. To have actually ridden it is a notch on one’s bedpost. If for no other reason, this is why I have come to Pakistan. I have wanted this prize ever since I read about it at nights in bed, envying the authors who preceded me. Now I am on the Karakoram bound for the world’s highest peaks and I can hardly contain my excitement.
“Actually,” Craig commented, “I am not from San Antonio. I come from a small town outside the city limits. A place called Boerne, Texas.” Well, this was going to be interesting.
“Boerne…let’s see.” I struggled to name the ranch where I took my son two years back. That, I figured, would get his attention. “Enchanted Springs, yes?” That brought the twenty-four-year-old college graduate’s seat into the upright position. I had his attention. I wasn’t going to inform him right away that I have been a dozen or so times and that I have family there. I wanted to twist his brain a little. As far as he saw it, I was a New Englander without too much of
an agenda also heading north. So, when you lived in San Antonio, were you inside the Anderson Loop?”
“Yes! Along Commerce!”
I took him for a ride in his mind, somewhere between bandera and Culebra, spokes that emanate from the more congested neighborhoods of the city and spoke outwards to the West. He knew the left to take to my brother’s house on Shaenridge. He could cite every gas station, H.E.B. supermarket, and retail establishment along the way. Best of all, we discussed food. Of all the times either my family or I descend upon San Antonio, our agendas inevitably revolve around where we will be enjoying lunch and dinner. Craig’s culinary preferences are right in line with the Incorvati’s, meaning when I told him that when I arrive into town from the airport after ten p.m., he felt my pain when I could not stop at Rudy’s barbecue for its moist brisket.
Craig threw his neck back and squinted his eyes at the thought of Rudy’s offering of turkey, beef, and sausage. He became instantly hungry and dinner, according to a fellow passenger, was not for a few hours. “You’re kidding me! You know Rudy’s?”
“Craig, if I could,
Thistle Birches of the Himalaya
from 10,000 feet, looking up....
I think I could live there.” Those words brought the Texas to home in ways only food can. “And if you go up 1604 to Blanco, there’s an awesome spot for burgers I never miss called the-”
The man knew exactly where I was and jumped in, “Longhorn Cafe!”
“Great, isn’t it?” In our minds Craig and I were seated at one of the inside wooden picnic tables with a jalapeño burger in one hand and a fingering through a basket of fries with the other. Nothing too terribly healthy, but that would ruin to the purpose of exploring the edible delights of San Antonio. “And you can get those long neck beers right out of the bins submerged in ice right next to the cashier.” We paused and independently pondered the reality that it would be a very long time until either one of us would be enjoying a beer.
I corrected him but upgrading the quality of his imaginary choice. “Shiner.”
“Ohhh, Shiner!” he said in ecstasy.
Later on, I took out my card and handed it to him. At that point, I think I still hadn’t properly introduced myself to the man. But that didn’t matter. “What’s this?” He examined the card and my personals details on it.
“A future bet you can cash in. Consider it a savings bond.”
Craig did not know where I was going with my comment. “Huh?”
Keep the card. Don’t lose it. When you go home, eventually you are going to tell someone: a friend, colleague, or family member that you met someone in Pakistan that knew about Rudy’s and the Longhorn. You won’t tell them any more than that. Of course, they think you’ll be shoveling it. Then you tell one of them to put down twenty bucks on the table and have them call me at that number. When I confirm that yes, we indeed did discuss Rudy’s sauce and the awful American bread that comes with all the orders, you collect. And I want half.”
Craig thought it a brilliant idea.
Following dinner at a late hour, NATCO personnel switched off. The driver who had taken us from Islamabad forfeited the wheel to the much more rested fare collector. About to take the wheel when I boarded, he made it a point to offer me the only open seat right behind him. I did not know what to make of his proposal; I was happy all the legroom in order to stretch out in the back. He went at me again. “Sir, you sit here” he insisted, but offered no explanation. And one would have helped. In retrospect, I would have taken the seat without any argument. But for whatever motivation, I held my ground and defended my territory in the back of the bus, pleading with the man that I was perfectly happy back there in the dark. The man threw up his arms and said OK, as if to wash his hands of the situation. His gesture was body language for don’t blame me from this point forward, an I told you so before the fact. He knew something I didn’t, and he conveyed it to me in a vernacular I was unwilling to take the time to decode.
Within fifteen minutes, content with no stress on my knees, we hit the first minefield, I mean bump. It sent my head halfway to the ceiling. My mind raced back to the cute hostess on the Daewoo bus out of Lahore and the smooth surface of the empty highway. Then the image of my transfer to this bus in Islamabad where I never had broke stride from the taxi to this very bus as it was pulling out of the station. I knew there would be a price to pay. And it was time to settle up. No sooner after the first series of minor earthquakes below my seat had I swallowed my pride and raced to the front of the bus. I grabbed the overhead bins so the rattling would not project me out a window. All the front seats were occupied. Even Craig had moved forward because he decided to use the four brain cells in his head unlike me. I went back to my seat in the rear, over the rear axle, and hunkered down for a very miserable night.
Some of the bumps over the KKH rang out like gunshots. Others made no sound but snapped my neck back. One clear threw me halfway out of my seat and into the aisle. I pulled out extra clothing and used it to brace parts of my body from the torment, but to no avail. Fatigue seeped in. However the constant motion and unrepentant explosions from the suspension prevented sleep. I pretended to be happy. I was on the KKH. Yippee!
It didn’t work.
I won’t go so far to say that when overtired an unable to attain sleep that hallucinations set in. For over an hour I concentrated at the limited vision I had die to the headlights of the bus through the windshield. The bus rarely slowed down as we swerved around insanely sharp turns. Out the side window was a void that the interior cabin lights of the bus could not penetrate. If the bus goes over, we won’t fall down a hillside for several hundred hellacious feet. It will be worse: We’ll fall into nothingness. The driver spent the night executing fierce turns without often reducing speed. From all the way in the back, I confused the windshield for a boy’s video game screen. Instead of a driver, a pre-teen is handling a joystick and ducking his shoulders to the trees and rockslides he must elude. But this wasn’t a video game. And if my driver errs like an overzealous boy, the words GAME OVER will not pop up across the windshield.
I suppose it had to be about five in the morning when I could make the charcoal silhouettes of the mountains from the clouds. Prior to that I knew there only existed a canyon and the other side only came into view when the bus’ headlights shone in that direction. I could effortlessly determine that the Indus below was a narrow rushing torrent. We were several hundred feet above the historical body of water riding a flat segment of carved earth no more than twenty-five feet across, an unsteady lifeline eight yards wide. By five thirty, enough sunlight exposed the drama of the Karakoram fifty kilometers before Gilgit. The Indus assumes the same hue of the lifeless, barren high-desert cliffs. Lonesome blades of brownish grass and clumps of pathetic shrubs protruding through lunar-like rocks are the only signs of sustainable life anywhere. How anyone, including the British, could have come through here and establish order is beyond human understanding.
I gingerly walked to the front of the bus. Dawn was in full effect and the headlights had just been turned off. All but a few of the passengers were still dozing. I gained eye contact the bus driver and practically ordered him in the clearest of terms, “I need to stop.” He acknowledged me without further questioning me. It certainly could not have been the first time a foreigner was in dire need of a toilet where there was none. He pointed up the road and uttered something in Urdu meaning to say he would soon be stopping in a few minutes. I didn’t have a few minutes. The urges and pangs intensified. The bus rolled on and I saw no place on the horizon where we could pull over. The initial stages of panic set in. But still I held on and said nothing. I tapped on the dashboard to tell the driver that time was running out, at which time he shifted down gears and came to a planned stop on the side of the road along the Indus. With both gluteus constricted, I dove behind two boulders. All the men on board except for Craig went for a wash, faced Mecca on their shins, and said their morning prayers.
The bus came to its final stop at seven thirty in Gilgit, 17 ½ hours after Islamabad. I found a taxi and paid the fare the driver requested. I checked into the Park Hotel and did not react to the discount the concierge proposed. Only around three thirty that afternoon did I surface from my room to see how far I had really come.
“Excuse me, sir, do I know you from somewhere?” It was a new version of the same line. He followed out of his store three doors down from my hotel. I put my guard up and turned around to acknowledge his existence, but little more. The shopkeeper thought I was part of a group from a few weeks back. He repeated the question, but he was serious. He actually thought he knew me. Then came the question for which I no one can ever be one hundred percent prepared when in Northern Pakistan: ¿Hablas español? I should have said, but my instincts took over and I uttered a knee-jerk ¡Sí! He rambled on not just in better than adequate Spanish, but with a distinct Castilian accent. Even I took the time to comprehend that in the Northern Areas, this just doesn’t happen every day. I switched back into English and he complied but with much resistance. He desperately wanted to converse in Castilian. At times, I granted his wish. Upon telling him that I was alone, he dismissed all chances of any prior encounter we might have had. In spite of my nationality, he still wanted to stick around. Sensing no coercion or pressure to enter a shop, I asked him to join me for lunch at the hotel. He could not accept quickly enough.
It so happens that Abdul Qayum does own a shop selling carpets and other regional trinkets. Over chicken jalfreezi, he made mention several times of the guesthouse he runs in the higher elevations of Gilgit. Near fifty-five, he is a gentle father of six children, the three youngest all girls. As opposed to others in Gilgit, he married at a much older age, as evidenced by his oldest daughter’s age of fifteen. His sons assist him with the running of the guesthouse, man the shop, and conduct jeep tours for foreigners of the Karakoram region and Northwest Frontier Province. For as often as I directed to conversation elsewhere, he would steer me back to his businesses. I told him from the moment our drinks arrived that I was happy at the Park, do not trek much, and am not interested in buying anything. Strangely he gave up on his bid to secure any business from me (a wise move that would pay off for him later) and contented himself in sharing my company. The medium built man with a well trimmed white beard relished in the opportunity to take me on a journey of his own. The man is afflicted with the risky behavior of living and reliving the glorious and momentous events of his youth, hippie experiences in Europe.
For me, it took a while to let it go and accept the full-time American lifestyle over the long term. But Abdul has yet to completely come to terms with the social freedoms of Europe in the early ‘80’s, unimaginable for the average Pakistani, and the more regimented walled manner of his existence in Gilgit. For eight years, Abdul goofed around Spain’s Costa Brava and Balearic Islands. He subsisted day to day on the cheap jewelry and accessories he made by hand and sold to tourists. When he amassed enough cash, he would make his way through Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Germany. His budget permitted him to either camp or stay in the most rudimentary of hostels or dormitories for migrant workers. Abdul led a life so glorious and trouble free, that he still cannot file it away as a sweet memory; the past must continue to be a part of who he is in order for his personality to be complete.
He did not want to attract the attention of the men at the other tables with what he was about to say. It might not go over well in Gilgit, a town where secrets are very hard to keep. He switched over into Spanish. “Richard, you know what I loved? The beaches!”
“But doesn’t Pakistan have beaches?” I knew where he was going. Let’s just say the social scene outside of Karachi is not on the same scale as Palma de Mallorca.
“Bah! But I got to work on the nude beaches! Can you believe it? It was wonderful. And the women! Oh, the Swedish women! In Pakistan, please.” When recalling his stressless days, he became excited and beamed with joy. The man could hardly keep his body contained within his seat as we awaited our lunch.
“And I had many girlfriends!” He talked about how easy it was to casually stay with one woman and then go to the next. “Sometimes I wanted to marry one of them, but then we got tired of each other after a few months. For a few days I was sad, but then I went out and found another girlfriend.”
“Did you have girlfriends in Pakistan?”
He frowned. That cannot happen here. It is much more conservative.” Gee you think so?
Lunch arrived. I, too, have a library of stories of college days and youth travel in Europe. But Abdul needed this stage to release his own memories upon me. Abdul had much more to say. “And in Barcelona, at four in the morning, we could go out for wine and beer until noon! Nothing ever closed!!! We sang and danced all night.” It was a good thing he wasn’t speaking in English. Gilgit, Pakistan is about as far away from Barcelona as you can get. Though I do not reminisce as dangerously as Abdul (I have archived most of it away and look forward to future endeavors), I had to concur with him about Barcelona. For a European city, its social scene cannot be topped.
A clever and resourceful man, he has gone to great lengths to compensate for his more mundane setting. Just having arrived in Gligit, it is anything but mundane. Rocky promontories and foothills hover over the Northern Areas administrative center. Above where the muddy Gilgit and Hunza Rivers join in their way to the Indus rise snow capped peaks. Though shielded by summits lesser in stature, Rakaposhi makes its presence known as one of the world’s foremost, reaching heights over 25,500 feet. Abdul welcomes as many as he can to the gateway to the Hunza Valley. His family has been involved in the earthquake relief efforts that flattened much of Pakistani Kashmir and Mansehra. He has traveled the Karakoram from Islamabad all the way to Kashgar and collected his share of adventures and mishaps.
“Why don’t you come to my shop after lunch for tea?” I accepted and not once did he pressure me to buy anything. Either he is very sly, completely unassuming, or both. He sent one of his boys out for the hot drinks and we picked up. With the understanding that I was not interested in staying at his guesthouse, he wanted me to see it. It was a point of not only pride but courtesy. He had the time and I was a diversion that brought him the chance to digress back to sweeter days. He sent his second son off with a few hundred rupees to buy chicken and vegetables. “You will stay at my guesthouse for dinner. I will make Chicken Karai. OK.”
I can never recall having declined a dinner invitation, even in time of civil unrest. I replied in the only way I knew how. “What time? I’ll be there.”
“I’ll pick you up at your hotel room. We’ll go up in my jeep. My eldest son will be with me. In three hours, OK?”
Abdul has put much effort in adding onto his guesthouse over the past eighteen years. There is a pool, but it has not been used in a while; the water level is low and algae floats on the surface. The rooms and patio of coffee table, chair, and charpoy have a feel of a European hostel, which comes as no surprise to me. In the lower portion of the walled property he gows fruit trees and in has two grape arbors. He cuts one pink bunch off the vine and places it in the freezer; that will be dessert. Below the guesthouse proper is a kitchen with living quarters where he offers a room to a deaf mute. Rejected by others, Abdul has taken him in and given him chores to earn his keep. He is a harmless man of about thirty in soiled clothes. When focusing forward his eyes are askew and it is clear that Abdul has saved him from a tortuous existence outside his gates.
Abdul is preparing dinner below, and his son and are negotiating a four-day excursion to Chitral. After all, they just may get some business out of me. But by laying off and bypassing the aggressive approach, they may encounter more success. The price is higher than I expected, but fuel costs make it so. I come to a tentative agreement with Amin, who runs the details by his father who has the final word. Amin has experience in the area and I will not be his first client. I lay down my conditions very austerely, all to which he is agreement. One of them is that he cannot call me sir anymore. As I am older than him, he finds it a demand very difficult to meet.
After dessert, Abdul pulls out a one-liter plastic water bottle a quarter fill of a cloudy liquid. “How about a nip to finish off the evening?”
“Did you ferment that yourself?”
“No, it is from the tribal areas.”
I unscrewed the cap and the nauseating odor invaded my sinuses. I quickly replaced the cap. “Prune? Rice?” I guess.
Interesting. Nonetheless, I pass only my only chance for alcohol I might get in Pakistan.
The jeep’s battery was on the fritz. I asked Amin how to get down to the main road and from there it would be a flat five kilometers back to my room on foot. Even in the dark, hazards would be few. There are no strays, bovines or canines. Amin would have none of it and used the display from one of his two cell phones to light a path through a sandlot that has been washed away by springtime mountain streams. We reached a road that led down the hill. The power was cut and I told Amin I could take it from here. Still he would not let me go. “Sir, it is my job to get you home. I cannot and will not leave until you are back.” A small white hatchback pulled up to offer us a lift. Amin’s face is well known by his peers and their families. Someone familiar saved us an hour’s walk back and without requesting so much as conversation, dropped me at the front gate of the park Hotel. I shook his hand and said thanks.
“You do not need to thank us here, young man. We are supposed to help you. Our culture demands it.”
The following morning, afternoon, and evening, Amin and Abdul visited my room at the Park frequently to check in on me. Abdul was at the point where he showed me his phone and was on the verge of calling a doctor.
“No, I have already told you. It is not necessary, but thanks. I have the same symptoms as always. I have been through this many times.”
“Do you have medicine?”
“What did you have for breakfast?”
“I think it was an omelet.”
“Ah, that is it!” he exclaimed. “It is never good to have eggs in the summer.” That must be some Northern Areas myth. I had never heard of that one before.
“Abdul, you have come across many foreigners who have become ill, yes?”
The reality is that there is no way of telling what the source is. It is a bacteria, maybe from yoghurt, a kitchen counter, or bad cooking oil. Also, hygiene standards here-”
“Yes, yes, I know.”
“In the end, there is no way to determine how it happens. It just happens.” This was round three with traveler’s illness. I was safe, dry, and just had to wait it out. For all my pleading, Amin and Abdul switched off and knocked on my door every two hours in hopes that I had improved. That never came to be all day. But I did show a photo gallery of travel photos to Amin of the United States. It killed time and was of enormous interest to Amin. The reds, gold, and oranges of Vermont hillsides in October made him gasp. “Is it really like that in your country?”
“Yes. Of course.” I showed him images of our highways and he scanned it all.
“No, Amin. Very little trash.”
He thought my photos of West Texas to be out of a movie set. “No, Amin, these are all real. Real people, real cars, real towns with football fields, schools, and universities. There you can study anything you want.”
“The cactus is really pink?”
“Absolutely. When I first saw it, I had to pull over and see for myself, too!”
The photos of the University of Connecticut for him may have as well been taken on another planet. He was in disbelief at enormity and complexity of the Storrs campus with all its academic and support buildings. “If anyone but you showed me this, I would truly think it us all fantasy. Your homes are very big and it is all wonderful.”
“Not always, but, yes, most of the time.”
“I once thought maybe I go one to the U.K. But now I think it must be America. You have a great country. Better than Europe.”
Amin, life in Europe is good, too. I lived there. It is a question of what suits you.
“America suits me. I want to study and work there. But it is impossible to get visa.” And there I could not help him. I wanted to give him the rundown and the process, like I had to countless others in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America who would do anything to come to the United States. Yet, it would take long-term dedication, persistence, and a stroke of luck for his dream to be realized.
While sequestered in my room (and on the toilet) watching Casino Royale with very poor sound on HBO, Amin set out to arrange my excursion to Chitral and booked a flight out of the Swat valley. In the meantime, I wanted a few days before departure to head up the Karakoram to see for myself if what everyone has extolled about Hunza is not pure fiction.
After a day’s worth of nursing and TLC from both Amin and Abdul, Amin took me to the bus depot first thing the next morning after breakfast. Already acting as my guide and personal assistant, he removed my large pack and daypack from the back of the jeep; there was no chance he’s send me off to the bus depot in a local minivan. I paid the paltry far to Karimabad shortly after one full van pulled away full of passengers and good on the roof.
“Sir, you must wait until this van goes.” He pointed to the white vehicle next to the shed where I had just bought my ticket. I checked with Amin to confirm what I already concluded. I wait here and go when this is full, yes?”
“Yes, whenever that is.” From the few stragglers, it was going to be a while. On the passengers list, I was number four. I could easily see my name against the three others in Arabic script. When fifteen sign the list and pay, the van goes, whether it is in ten minutes time or two hours.
I shook Amin’s hand to thank him for getting me to the right minivan. It was also my way of indicating to him that he could go. There was nothing left for him to do and no need to waste a good part of the morning ensuring that nothing horrible would happen to me.
“No, sir. I cannot go. I will stay here with you. It is my job.”
“Your job with me doesn’t start for another three or four days.” I had forgotten how many nights I planned in Karimabad.
“It is my duty. I have to stay here.” There was no point in my justifying to him my age or the number of times I have killed hours upon hours at bus station on other continents.
By eleven, the passenger roster was almost full and those bound for Karimabad were managing to cram into the van and stake out what little leg room they could call their own for the two-hour ride. Last to sign on line sixteen was the only other Westerner to go. I overheard him say “Karimabad” to the clerk in the shed. Relieved, I climbed in and crawled neck down to the back. The twenty-six-year-old New Zealander from Hamilton did the same. He could pass as Craig’s shorter, bearded cousin. Both men have the same approach to facial hair: let it grow and maybe we’ll fit in. Then again with this guy’s blue eyes and twangy accent, maybe not.
Matt had lodged himself in the back corner, an enviable spot as it permits him unimpeded views of the Hunza valley for the entire trip. I did my best to follow Amin’s advice and sit next to a window. But in all the commotion, I would up in the back row in the middle. The van’s benches go three deep and uncomfortably sit four across. Up front, children and women position themselves between duffle bags and sacks to fill out the quota. One of the passengers shut the sliding door sending the cabin temperature to stifling intolerance even with the windows open. Travel in the Northern Areas may be cheap, but convenience and comfort are not part of the arrangements.
Matt’s only purpose for coming to Giglit was financial. He attains local currencies strictly by debit card, and Gilgit has the only ATM’s for hours around. “I usually don’t even take a bus. But this time I had no choice. So I got the six-thirty from Karimabad, ran into town, and now I am finally headed back.” By his tone alone, matt has very little interest in Gilgit other than attaining the money he needed to continue his travels. I had little idea how much he required to sustain the same sort of wandering lust that also afflicts me.
He found my literary endeavor much more engrossing than his own story. Given his country of origin, it surprised me none that this particular jaunt of his started several months ago in Singapore. Ho hum. No big deal. The bus took to the road and crossed the sloppy and angry Gilgit River. With the left turn to Karimabad, I was back on the Karakoram Highway. Then I remembered the comment he made not that long ago about not taking a bus. With no rail system, it is the only logical motorized transport. Just by the looks of him and having run into so many others in the backpacker subculture, he is not the client of a private driver. His well worn t-shirt and scraggly beard tell a much more frugal traveler’s tale. Just how frugal?
“Yeah”, he went on, “I’ll do a few more days in Karimabad, go to Gilgit, and select another valet for some more trekking.”
“So, you’ll just get a bus tomorrow to Gilgit”, just like everyone else.
“No, I’ll use my bicycle.”
“Oh, so you pedal from time to time on this trip and fill in the gaps with flights and overnight rides?
“Nah!” he nonchalantly exclaimed. I’ve done the whole trip by bicycle since Singapore.”
I needed some time to process his last statement. And the trip to Karimabad was only two hours. “You mean to tell me you have cycled the entire distance? From Singapore? That means he trudged through Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, and China. But, wait: The Chinese have recently shut off Tibet to outsiders. How did he get into Pakistan? I had to ask.
“Man, that was a real bummer! So, I had to go up north through Sichuan and all the way around the borders of Tibet to Kashgar.” That’s where Matt picked up the Karakoram, at its northern terminus. “Oh”, he continued, “I got robbed along the way. So I had to go to Beijing to get my passport replaced. That took about a month from start to finish.” That also meant he lost all the visas he had obtained and paid for in advance. “I was so bored waiting for all the embassies to reissue the visas. I couldn’t do it all at once, but had to visit one embassy at a time. He told the story with accompanying details with much enthusiasm but almost as if this were commonplace for the average account executive. Well, of course you bicycled to Beijing to replace your passport and visas after entering through Laos and heading west. It’s just a hair out of the way, a minor distraction from your plans.
“So you have racked up how many kilometers?”
“Oh, about fourteen thousand.”
Matt camps along the way; rarely does he stay in any guesthouse or hotel. His only major expense is meals and other ancillaries. He will have been on the cheap for over a year and has loved every minute of it. I asked him about any difficult times he’d had.
“Lots! Dust storms in China. Ridiculous heat and very cold nights. The local in China are odd, but as soon as they knew I would be leaving the next morning, they accepted my tent; I could put it anywhere I wanted as long as it was out of the way.
“I have been sick about a half-dozen times. And I already told you about the robbery.”
Astounding. “How did that go down? Did you get hurt?”
“Nah! Bloke just came up from behind me in a bog city and dthe strap of my shoulder. There was nothing I could do.”
Not once did he offer a negative comment about the topography he had conquered. “You mentioned you went through Laos, right?”
“Yeah, from Thailand.”
“And then into China?”
There was one road he had to take that would make Lance Armstrong ill-tempered. I remember it well. I took it, by bus, last year. The gradients were so severe that it ripped the transmission of the coach to shreds. “So, you cycled to road from Vientiane to Luang Prabang?” Its turn and hazards are on the same scale as the Karakoram, deadly and unpredictable.
“Absolutely.” He did not elaborate.
“And you never grabbed a ride from a passing bus or pickup truck? Not once?”
“No, never. But it was really hard stretch.”
No kidding. I became winded on that highway looking out the window from my reclining seat while sipping on mango juice.
I had a fairly good idea where I wanted to spend my next three days although Matt and a few others had laid out an aggressive trekking itinerary for me through mountain ravines and lookout points over 14,000 feet. I do not trek much. My concept of trekking is the nightly trip to the toilet at three thirty or to the refrigerator during a commercial between innings. The persistent type of traveler who makes it to Pakistan during these turbulent times always has hiking on the agenda. This country furnishes endless options of all degrees with the most scenic terrain in the world. Hardcore trekkers come to Pakistan no matter how explosive the conditions. That’s why Matt had come. The casual interloper like me is more of a rarity. Matt had already seen much of the Northern Areas, having come down from the Chinese border.
“What’s your take on Karimabad”, I asked him.
“Probably the most beautiful spot I have seen.” he answered without hesitation.
“Here in Pakistan?”
“Since Singapore.” Whoa.
The minivan swerves and dodges past goats, shepherds, and other obstacles on the Karakoram. Glacial streams race below bridges and hurry to join the Hunza. The opening of the valley is like that of Gilgit, dry, rocky, and barren. However within twenty-five kilometers, images of the Hunza of storybook tales start to take shape. The valley widens to about three miles of fertile, arable, and productive land. Every last patch of it is used to cultivate crops or is a field for grazing. The valley floor, anywhere from thirty to fifty feet above the eroded cliffs of the hurried Hunza, is a green carpet of life. Nothing goes to waste. Matt’s face has been stuck out the window like a golden retriever’s when riding shotgun on a farmer’s truck. I rudely force my head out in front of his chest to bask in the glory. My eyes drop from Rakaposhi’s blanched and stern summit to a glacier. I follow the frozen river two thousand feet to sharp moraines through which the glacial runoff trickles into a canyon. At the tree line bushy conifers appear, but sparingly. The stream snakes downward and picks up pace as a full-fledged river to crash by small dwellings at great heights until it enters a quiet village and passes underneath the bridge over which we cross. Another three hundred feet and what was once atop the highest peak in all of Hunza now flows into the silt-packed and turbulent Hunza.
As soon as I heard that there was more than an adequate hotel 1,500 feet above my goal of Karimabad, I immediately dismissed the one-street center of tacky gift shops and earthen-floor restaurants. I place both daypack and my larger piece of luggage inside the eagles nest welcome center and search out the representative who arranges the shuttle up to Duikar, where I plan to be blissfully wasting away the next three days. Much to my delight, there reads a sign on the window, “Free Shuttle to Hotel”. But there door to the office is locked. Still no one from Eagle’s Nest is around. A few shopkeepers hover around me once they see I am without a particular agenda.
“Don’t worry. Sit. He come now.” One of the merchants pulls out on his cell phone and summons the rep who arrives within six or seven minutes. The representative is pleased with my choice; the ones in Karimabad are mundane; as I look skyward I can only imagine what the view must be like from heights within the clouds.
The representative sits next to me and offers me good news in a very mixed package. “Sir, I can shuttle you up to the hotel, no problem. But I must wait here for three more hours if more guests want to go, too.”
“Has anyone else made a booking?”
Like me, “No.” But under instructions, he has to wait. The 1,500 foot climb is of grueling switchbacks, a 3-hour walk under the most ideal of circumstances. With a forty-pound pack and hand piece, that does not apply to me. I fake an expression of exasperation to see if that would motivate him to seek out some other option. As wherever I have gone in Pakistan, he takes much care in seeing that I am happy, it would be a travesty if I weren’t. Without discussion, he puts down his teacup and takes for the upper reaches of Karimabad. Ten minutes later, he doubles back and then seeks out people on my behalf in the lower parts of town. I finish my tea, stare at the baskets of apricots being loaded into trucks on the way to market, and lean carelessly lean back against a light pole. I’ll get up there eventually.
The rep comes walking back with much on his mind. He has information to deliver. I am already content to keep this chair occupied until the end of the afternoon. No trucks are making the left upward turn to Duikar.
“Sir! I know of a jeep that is going to Eagles Nest!”
“Yes. It will come by right through here. You wait here.” I am pleased, of course. Hiring a jeep taxi separately would set me back a fair chunk. I was willing to wait, but if there is a group already on the way, why not tag along? There would have to be enough space for me to squeeze on and secure my stuff to the roof. But I have seen this done before. You know, I thought, there has to be a catch. This is too easy. Then he spoke up. “Sir, there is one thing.”
“The jeep is full. There is no room.”
So why are you telling me about this in the first place, Ali? I offered him an expression of disapproval. “Is there a solution then?”
The jeep pulls up, choc full of a family, about half of Karachi. There is no space to jam in a toolbox anywhere. “Perhaps sir. Here.” He pulls off my large pack and ties in to the roof, all the meanwhile none of the Karachi folks choose to acknowledge me. With the last know fastened, the representative walks me to the rear of the jeep and points to the bumper with is middle finger. “There, sir.”
I know what I’ll need to do and seriously doubt I have the strength to pull it off. I grab hold of the vehicle’s frame through the synthetic cover. My grip is decent, but I cannot manage a hold that will last over the twenty-minute climb. With very little warning other than, “Be careful”, the jeep starts its climb. Within three minutes, I have made a few conclusions and entertain other haphazard thoughts in no sensible order. First of all, this is stupid. Secondly, it is dangerous. How is the orthopedic wing at Gilgit hospital? Are the nurses pretty?
As the jeep pounds over the unpaved and stone road, I also realize that in spite of the burning pain in my biceps, this is a whole lot of fun, the kind of fun outlawed on the entire North American continent. With great effort, I maintain hold when the jeep climbs. I lean against it at each turn to reduce the force I need not to fall. During smooth patches and flat stretches passing stone homes and trays of drying apricots, I struggle to look at the views of Hunza’s hills and villages at river level. But I must concentrate on not falling. It will only be a matter of time until my arms give out. I look ahead on above the roof. The jeep whizzes by a stone walled topped with thorny twigs that rip away at my right thigh.
I give myself no more than three switchbacks until I will have to bail at a sharp turn; it will be there that the jeep will have slowed to a point that I can jump off and keep running or roll into a safe fall. Even if the driver does not notice my disappearance, at least my belongings will have made the trip and I will only have to be concerned with my rotund belly as extra baggage to get to the top. The inevitable moment arrives as the acid in my muscles have reached my threshold for pain. The jeep makes a jerky turn and thrusts forward and up on a seriously steep incline. My sprint landing is perfect and I go from there to a jog, a brisk walk, and then a complete stop. The jeep pushes on without me through a stream that has flooded the road and out of sight. I can still hear detect the growl of the diesel engine minutes later. As I look down into the valley and to Karimabad from whence I have come, I am about 40% of the way there. It will be a hard walk, but I will manage.
No more than five minutes in, I spot the same jeep I had abandoned parked in the road. I wave at it, and pick up my pace to rejoin it; my breathing is heavy but I am still not sucking in vast quantities of air. The driver calls over to his side. “Sir, perhaps an idea: You sit there and hold on to there. He points to the top of the hood and an ornamental staff in the center. Two thoughts occur to me. One, that is again a stupid and dangerous idea, however more practical than the first. Two, why didn’t he suggest that in the first place? Figuring I have made it this far without injury, I try my luck with the hood and sit atop of it. The driver instantly honks his horn and waves me to the left side of the hood; I am blocking his view. How many times have I forgotten that they drive and have their steering wheel son the wrong side? I scoot across and attempt to lock my feet into something indented; there is nowhere to put them. I grab hold of the solid staff, which does not have any give like the BMW and Mercedes type on cars in the States. The jeep pushes gently forward and the driver waits my OK so he can attain more speed. I see the gravel roll below me and now realize that if I fall forward for any reason, an orthopedic surgeon will be the least of my worries.
At any rate, the rest of the ride up is steady and I never near a fall or a mishap. However the diesel engine under the hood produces a great deal of heat, raising the temperature of the hood surface to searing levels. I wiggle my bottom from left cheek to right five or six times a minute to prevent my skin from burning. At one stage, I consider stopping and climbing off. But with the Eagle’s Nest in sight, I stick it out, fried butt cheeks and all. When the jeep comes to a stop in the parking lot, I am in full view of the setting sun over Rakaposhi and the winding Hunza River below. I slide off the hood and take a bow in front of the applauding family from Karachi.
Duikar is the Pakistani version of Kalpa, but more welcoming. Since it is not a year round community, it will keep its character longer than its Himachal counterpart. A bumper crop of apricots flourish, evidenced by the dash of color the drying fruit adds to the grey and dun roofs of the bucolic homes. Women sit together in meadows and sort the best pieces for immediate consumption at market, those suited to be dried, and others to be processed into soup, jam, or some baked treat. If coming to Hunza in the summer months, be prepared to like apricots be left out. Thistle-shaped birches stand tall and proud in front of a stage of barren walls of the Himalaya. At the base of the trunks tethered goats pointlessly try to escape from the trap roped around their necks. The deep green foliage creates a clear demarcation between the lifeless upper regions of the hilltops and the terraced fields of cucumbers, grape vines, tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes. The split between the abundance of the valley and the mountains calls for an appreciation of Hunza’s power to sustain its people in the mold times and during the most hostile months of winter.
A viewpoint about one hundred fifty feet above the upscale hotel (for this part of the world) attracts dozens of visitors and locals alike at sunset. Golden rays of sun highlight part of the valley like a spotlight of intense green. From the highest point the three sixty panorama is an unforgettable composite of Rakaposhi, other nameless peaks over 20,000 feet, the cubed roofs of Altit village on the valley floor, and Ladyfinger, a spiked summit of snow, wind, and glaciers. Twenty-five or thirty miles to the north more mountains rise above glacial moraines and sparse conifers. Though two thousand feet above the riverbed, it is so silent that I can overhear conversations and make out the sound of honking horn on the Karakoram Highway. Circular trays of drying apricots dot almost every dwelling, barn, and shed. As the sun dips below the western range, the focus of light rises to meet the treeline and eventually covers Rakaposhi before darkness claims a hold for the next several hours. While Karimabad is far more convenient and services more plentiful, Duikar outclasses it completely with a peace and serenity that embodies a type of village lifestyle that had changed none in the past sixty years.
Shahzad and Iftikar, brothers who reside in Duikar direct me into their home for tea the same way I used to nudge my mother away from fabric stores at the mall when I was a child. As with so many others, they enjoy all the images, especially the video, of their home village through the display of my camera. Now twenty-seven, Shahzad is very proud to offer me an album of bound and laminated labor contracts that have employed him for anywhere from two weeks to several months. The one under which he first worked last year contracted him as a Site Supervisor for the construction of the road between Karimabad and Duikar. Portions of the route are still not paved. So the construction company hires villagers to maintain and improve the surface. I scan to see his starting salary of 2,500 rupees a month, not too much more than a dollar a day. The road keeps dozens of men employed and it makes me hypothesize that it is not in anyone’s best interest to work at a maximum pace to finish the project ahead of schedule. $1.20 a day may not be much, but there are no other options. Shahzad does hesitate to inform me that his salary has now quadrupled and he has younger men and older teens working for him. I still fear what he will do when the road is finished, if it is ever done. He is bound to his firm without the choice to take any work outside the company. Moreover, he can be dismissed for any reason and without warning. If injured, his company disavows any liability to him or his family. Shahzad considers his status rather decent relative to other men in Duikar.
In their two-room farm house, Iftikar, the elder of the two, arrives with tea and lights a propane lantern. The wick is of light, silk netting, not any different from a Coleman stove we used to use frequently when camping years ago in the Berkshires. Pakistan’s demand for electricity, as in Lahore and Islamabad, cannot be met in tiny Duikar either. But for the strong glow of the lantern, we sip the milk tea in shimmering shadows. They may have nothing for money, but they are without any real problems either, as easily seen from the absence of tension with which they conduct themselves.
Without much context or warning, he chimes up in simple English, “We like French people.”
“I like them too. They are getting much better nowadays.” The French traveler to reach this part of the world is a more down-to-earth, unpretentious type. In fact, this new breed of French is rather appealing as a whole. They do wonders for the rest of their population, especially the way I viewed them fifteen years ago.
“U.S.A.” The two men’s eyebrows shoot up to form four broad semicircles above their lashes.
“You are first American in our home. You stay for dinner?” Iftikar rolled out a bound mattress and smacked a chunky pillow. “You sleep here and be our guest?”
I decline to retire to the creature comforts of the lodge at Eagle’s Nest. In copping out, there is no way to do so and not look like a complete jerk. I promise to pop in tomorrow and they are pleased. I have them gaze at a map of the U.S. and Connecticut, places I am confident they will never see or would have learned almost nothing about if not for this chance encounter.
My second cup of tea now finished, I push the button to my fluorescent flashlight on in order to make the eight hundred yard climb back to the lodge. Iftikar must see to it that I get there accompanied. “It is my duty, sir”, a line I have come accustomed to hearing time and again in Pakistan.
My days in Duikar are among the most spectacular of the year. I open my balcony door to an image so stunning, I have to go back into my room, close my eyes, and do it all again just to be what I see is not a trick. Mornings are cool like a morning in early October before the sun can still muster the power to heat up Hunza well into the eighties. Nights are still and so awash in stars of varying magnitudes that Craig, the very same who accompanied me from Islamabad, argued that there is no real darkness in Hunza when it is clear. The band of the Milky Way winds through the heavens and kisses the top of Rakaposhi. On my final night a crescent moon settled above Hunza’s highest mountain and lit up the snow until it glistened. At three in the morning, I sat out on my balcony and stared incessantly; I could not go back to sleep for an hour. At the darkest stages of the night, the wind carries the aroma of apricots in the air.
By seven-thirty on the fourth day, Ali, the owner of the Eagle’s Nest, enthusiastically proclaimed to me, “Rakaposhi is smiling!” It is yet another day that will arguably flirt with perfection. The morning rays of sun lights up every corner, edge, and contour of the peak. “Sir, are you checking out?”
“Yes. When does the shuttle leave?”
“Actually, we will wait for you to have breakfast before it goes down. I will go with you. Where are you going today?”
“Back to Gilgit.”
“Why. You don’t want to stay here more time? Why do you want to leave?”
I didn’t. I had plans, but I had no reason to leave. They had taken care of me from the moment I arrived on the hood of the jeep. When a family with rambunctious children invaded the room next to me, they upgraded me to a fine double room at the same rate, but with the best view from any room I have ever known. Of the four dozen or so Koreans to make Duikar a photographic pit stop, a dazzlingly pretty twenty-one year old college student from Taegu shared her afternoon with me. All efforts to fit her in my pack so I could take her with me failed. Yet, I really made the effort. On another night a Welsh woman whom I fancied and I enjoyed a long dinner of roasted yak and boiled potatoes. My tea was always ready at six in the afternoon. A Spanish woman accused me of being blunt and capricious, the result of which sent her and her annoyingly chatty friends away from me for good. Having cornered me in Duikar among gouged prices, I never descended below to Karimabad, meaning I never spent any extra money. By overpaying in Duikar, the Eagle’s nest saved me money.
“Ali, I can’t tell you why. I just have to.”
The owner in a white-collared shirt and black vest paused and replied, “Yes, that is what many people say when they go.”
I hopped into the minivan at Aliabad after having tea with another passenger with whom I shared the NATCO bus ride from Islamabad. He spotted me on the strip of shopping stalls. On the way back to Gilgit, Rakaposhi’s face radiated the sun’s beams all over the Hunza Valley. As I looked back to savor the mountain one more time, I detected the most modest of grins from its heights and a secretive wink.
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