Pakistan Zindabad- The Chitral Diaries

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December 30th 2010
Published: August 3rd 2015
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Korean Skills Come in Handy

Riding in a shared car along the Himalaya Mountains of northern Pakistan I would never in my wildest dreams have imagined I would have the opportunity to put my Korean language skills to the test. Think again! After traveling for about eight hours that day our vehicle was haulted by security officers due to tunnel construction along the new roadway. We were then told that the tunnel was closed for the day as it was now past 4:30PM and they had to follow orders from the engineers working for Daewoo- a Korean construction company. As a result, we would have to go back to where we started from as we were in the middle of nowhere with no place to go. However, after much debate in Pashto one of the men riding with us decided it would be a good idea for me to talk to the Korean engineers in the back. After waiting for about an hour and meeting some other construction workers and talking over tea I was finally shown to the building where the Korean guy was working. I introduced myself and explained our situation in his mother tongue as he listened absolutely unphased by a white guy in front of him in the middle of the Pakistani Himalaya Mountains with a decent grasp of Korean. Finally, as I offered him a chocolate from Jeju Island as he wrote a permit for us to pass through the tunnel after daily closing time. As I came back to the car with the permit everyone was all smiles and we made it to the mountain town of Chitral just after sunset.

Filming of a Gangster Movie or Reality?

I was dropped off in front of the Al Farooq Hotel and after checking into my room three guys dressed in fatigues armed with AK-47's introduced themselves and sat down at my table. "We have some things to discuss with you. But go ahead and finish your dinner first. We will wait for you at your hotel," he explained. At this point I was enthralled with curiousity about what they had to say to me and wolfed down my rice and bread quickly. As I approached my hotel, the glowing outline of five AK-47 armed men in the candlelit lobby peaked my curiousity. "This is like a real life gangster movie" I thought to myself. They said they were here to provide me with a security service and it was necessary for me to have two armed guards escort me everywhere while in town. "They will be like your shadow. Anytime you leave your room you have to let them know and they will go with you. We can assure you that Chitral is a safe place but they are here for your safety," they further explained. How wild- now they were sleeping in the room next door!

Into Taliban Territory

The next morning I went to the police station in order to find out about the intricacies of visiting the nearby Kalash villages. I was told I would need five guards to escort me around if I intended to visit that region and it would be a completely free service. However, they continued to explain how it was "one-hundred percent safe." Later on I found out that the number of guards required to follow you around depends on your country of origin- one guard for Japanese and Koreans, four guards for Canadians, five guards for Americans. Perhaps in increasing order of Taliban hatred? Anyway I had to share a room with these guys and I felt like they were cramping my style- trying to rush me along everywhere. I also lost the opportunity to interact with the local Kalash people as these large men with guns were a bit intimidating to be around. I could sense a bit of tension between the Kalash and the guards I was with as one of the beautifully dressed woman shreaked and said "muslims" in a voice that did not sound so welcoming. Anyway, I didn't like having these guys around me and was ready to leave this area as Afghanistan was just over the mountains in front of the path we continued to walk along. Anyway the walk back to town was absolutely beautiful as Afghanistan was on the other side of the mountains to the west. Along the way back I saw some graves of Pakistani military whose lives were taken by the Taliban. Facisnating indeed.

The journey back to Lahore was long and draining. I took the earliest morning bus back to Peshawar and we arrived at the tunnel at around 9:30AM. At first, the bus driver was very worried that he would have to wait at the tunnel entrance until 12:30PM, but I told him the story about the Korean engineer bending the rules for us last time and letting us through. The driver was so excited and yelled "Korean man" while pointing his index finger in my direction and trying to pick up new customers. When we eventually arrived at the tunnel there were no "Korean men" to be found and we would have to wait. The driver looked a bit disappointed but this situation was out of my hands. After accepting the fact that we would have to wait for three hours my Pashto friend came to me as I was sipping tea with the locals- "come here, lets talk with the Korean men." I followed him up the mountain and he explained to the guards what we were doing in Pashto and one of them offered to take us to see the Koreans in his truck. "Lets go drink some tea first before talking to the Korean guys," he said. I am not one to turn down a cup of delicious Pakistani chai so we met some of the engineers working on the project- a Chitrali geologist and a Philipino engineer. We ended up chatting for about forty minutes over tea and biscuit refills. They shared many interesting stories about their work on the project including one about a Korean engineer that died on a stroke of bad luck by mother nature. The guy was going back to his sleeping quarters because he forgot something and some floods waded him away- all this on the Philipino guy's first day on the job in the region. Anyway, I eventually got a chance to talk to another Korean engineer who seemed only half interested in what I had to say. He wrote a permit for our vehicle to pass through the tunnel early. By the time I made it back down to the bus it was around twelve o'clock, which meant the tunnel would be opening in about thirty minutes. It didn't matter though, everyone was absolutely thrilled that we were the only vehicle that could pass through the tunnel a few minutes early.

A Social Blunder

The scenery along the Pakistani Himalaya on the way back to Peshawar was nothing short of spectacular. At one point we stopped at a rest area so everyone could pray and I decided to shed a layer of clothing outside a restaurant as the altitude had sharply declined along the last stretch of roadway and now I was covered in sweat. Upon shedding my shalwar kameez which naturally exposed my inner long sleeve shirt a man ran up to me in panic and said "there are women and children. Go to the bathroom and change." Before taking off a layer of clothing I debated doing what he suggested as people everywhere in Pakistan are extremely covered up all the time. I thought it would be okay since I wouldn't be exposing any more skin than I already was but I guess he thought I was going to take it a step further. "No problem. I am finished" I said pointing to my long sleeves. Looks like I caused an accidental uproar.

I ended up making it back to Lahore at about 6AM and decided to crash for a few hours at the Regale Internet Inn and chat it up with my friends a bit. I would have liked to relax for a few days and hang out in Lahore some more as I met some very interesting people along the way. However, it was time to say goodbye- so is life. I was off to the Wagha border again to make my way into India. Once I arrived at the calm, quiet border crossing there was only one other man working there. Apparently there was a power outage on the Pakistani side so immigration could not clear me using their computers. I waited patiently while reading a book and chatting up the immigration officer. He liked my shalwar kameez and the fact that I was trying to speak some Urdu and Pashto. I raved about Pakistan, its great people and beautiful places. After chatting with him for a bit he turned on the backup generator "just for me" he said "because you are an honest man and I like your character." Next I exchanged the rest of my Pakistani currency for Indian rupees with the some coyote whom I met on my way into Pakistan. I told him I remembered him and how I gave him some Korean currency for his money collection on my way into Pakistan a few weeks ago. He lit up when I told him I remembered him and said "you are a good man, please come back to Pakistan soon." I have a feeling I will have to take him up on his offer soon!

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