At the border of Afghanistan, in the valley of the infidels

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September 22nd 2006
Published: October 11th 2006
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Wednesday September 20th

Today I was leaving Gilgit and the Northern Area for Chitral in the North-West Frontier province, right next to Afghanistan. Chitral is a big valley blocked from the rest of Pakistan 6 months a year. It is in the extreme north-west of Pakistan, just south of the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan (the little handle that sticks out of Afghanistan, a little colonial fantasy) and east of Nuristan (the Land of Light, named so after the muslims killed every single one of the infidel local inhabitants in a jihad slightly more than a hundred years ago).

The ride to Chitral was no piece of cake: 11 hours to Mastuj in a normal bus and then 5 hours to Chitral itself in a jeep (the bridges after Mastuf are too small to accomodate the bus). I met the 3 chinese girls at breakfast and we shared a taxi to the bus station. We got there early enough for me to get a ticket, which was a good thing because the last thing I wanted was to spend another day in Gilgit.

I talked a bit with the girls while waiting for the bus. Well, no I talked with

Signing up our names at the checkpoint
one girl mostly, the one that was sort of cute except for the big hairy mole above one of her eye. The other 2 were more quiet. One didn't speak at all while the other mostly laughed nervously at everything (but at least I could talk with her a bit). They were all from Beijing, a bit surprising since most backpackers are from Guangzhou, something I mentioned to them. She said I was right that most backpackers were from Guangzhou but that there were more and more now. She explained to me a bit the early "backpackers' culture" in China and how it started in Guangzhou in the 90s. She told me how it was cantonese backpackers who made mainstream chinese discover certain destination in China, by writting about it, like Daocheng and Yading National Park (which I went to and absolutely loved). She was thinking of writting something similar for Pakistan. So if in a few years Pakistan is overrun by cap-wearing (matching color!) chinese following a flag, I'll know who to blame.

A few minutes late, we started packing the roof of the bus with our bags and, among other things, 3 afghan rope beds. Once in
Shandaur PassShandaur PassShandaur Pass

The last part up. The road was sooo rocky it was impossible to get a decent shot so the quality is fairly low.
the bus, we had separate seats so we couldn't continue our discussion. The road was fairly good for the first several hours and the landscape amazing. We were following Gilgit River accross small villages of farmers and herder in the Ghizar district. There are very few villages with more than a street and nothing that can be called a town. The beauty is rustic.

In Singhal we were stopped at a checkpoint and the foreigners had to get out and sign a registry since we were going in a sensitive area close to the afghan border. The policemen were really friendly as usual. It's one slightly surprising thing about Pakistan, the policemen are always extremely helpful. It's not like in Canada and the US where policemen have way too often (but not always) the self-confidence of a bulimic model turned fat and therefore like to bully people because they have a gun and some authority. Here they just want to help you out and discuss a little bit. They seems to like the fact that I'm from Canada, even though we don't have cricket teams. They often say: "Canada good!".

We get back on the bus for a
Chitral town 2Chitral town 2Chitral town 2

From the hotel again. I don't know why electrical poles are so overburdened in Asia.
few more hours, following the river which seems, wierdly to get more and more fierce as we go up. We stop in a small village to eat. We all have some chick peas in spicy sauces with naan, which is totally delicious, especially for the 50cents it costed us. I have some chais and locally made french fries to finish my meal. The fries are a bit different and not as good as in Gilgit but still quite decent while the chai is as good and sugary as usual. We play with some cute wandering puppies (but with an ugly mother) before heading back in the bus.

Some Pakistani men talk with me on the bus, the usual questions: "Which country are you from?", "Why you in Pakistan?", "You like Pakistan?", "What do you do back home?", "Are you married?" until an uneasy silence break our conversation. But I like the silence so it's no problem. I just look outside at the fields, the animals, the people, the mountains and the river and times pass fast.

At Phander we pick up a japanese couple (or fellow travellers). The girl at first sit next to a Pakistani man and
Around ShandaurAround ShandaurAround Shandaur

Mountains close to the pass
he seems to like it but after a few minutes the other men tell him to change his spot with the japanese guy. In Pakistan, men aren't supposed to sit next to an unrelated woman. The woman as to either sit next to a related man, or a woman. If a woman goes in a public transport that has no woman without an accompaying man, she has to pay double the amount, a ticket for her and one for the empty seat next to her which should've been occupied by a male relative.

The japanese woman gets a lots of friendly attention and I can tell they're trying much harder to talk to her than to me, and it's not because they like Japan more than Canada. One is particularly outgoing. He had been at the front previously chatting it up with the chinese but now he's all over the japanese girl. She seems to like the constant barrage of questions.

We have another checkpoint before the Shandaur Pass where we all go sign the forms and show our passport. Again no hassle just friendly military people. The last village before the Pass is Teru and after that the road worsen pretty quickly. It is now a very rocky dirt road. The LP said the Pass can only be crossed by jeep so I assume it used to be worse but I'm not too sure how that could be. We just keep going up and up until we hit the pass at 3810m. The place is truly breathtaking. We didn't stop for pictures even though I asked. We were behind schedule so it wasn't an option.

The pass is quite big. It even has a polo field, which is used once a year for the Gilgit versus Chitral polo game, which is a big party for everyone in the mountains. I heard this year Chitral won, but the men from Gilgit tell me they'll lose next year which makes the chitralis smile. It gets cold at the Pass but all my warm clothes are in the backpack on the roof. The way down to Mastuj is steep and even though I've been to many rough mountain roads, it is a bit scary. We stop for 20 minutes in Sor Lapur for a chai stop and the man with the 3 beds leave with his furniture.

Fort entranceFort entranceFort entrance

At the end of the 19th century, a british army got sieged in that fort by local militias. They were saved from sure death by the timely arrival of an emergency expedition force.
after we leave Lapur, it becomes dark. The temperature remain cold and I'm now freezing. One of the scariest thing happened shortly before we arrived in Mastuj. The bus stops and the guy who liked to talk with the girls open the door and sticks his head out. Then he tell the driver to go closer to the wall. We're not about a centimeter from the wall and the guy still tell the driver to get away from the edge. The driver tell him he can't so the guy tells him to go ahead, with a look of anxiety in his face. Since it was dark we couldn't see how close we were but just by feeling the tension in the bus I knew it was extremely close. Local men don't like to show they're scared so when they are you should also be. This happened twice.

Finally we arrive in Mastuj, stopping in some Pakistan State Oil gas station. I go up the roof to get my bag as the men who do it are too slow and I really need my sweater. The local men are taking a jeep all the way to Chitral thaty night. We
Kalash kidsKalash kidsKalash kids

Only picture I managed to take before the camera went kaput
had initally planned to go tomorrow morning but we're finally convinced to go tonight. I was really tired but figured the road would get better from there.

We pack up the minivan, put our bags on the roof and get going. We soon get to the bridge that prevents the bus from going further. It is a shame we crossed it at night because that crossing just deserved a picture. The bridge is made of wood and is only about a step up compared to the suspension bridge I took in Passu. There is only enough space for one small car but it is so tight that men have to get out to guide the driver as there is only a few centimeters on either side. To get on the bridge, men have to change the width of 2 wooden plancks which serve as "rail" to get onto the wooden bridge. There is only one car that can be on the bridge at any one time I'm told, else it might fail.

As we very slowly enter the bridge, we hear a big noise from the baggage on the roof and two crashing sounds. The luggages were too
Chitral townChitral townChitral town

From the hotel
high and crashed on the wooden structure. We stop to get the baggages and put them in the car while we cross the bridge. I'm relieved to realize they're the japanese's! We cross the bridge without any major trouble aside from that but then spend 15 minutes reattaching the japanese's luggage.

The rest of the road is hazy. The first 2 hours the road is really bad. I'm really tired and my butt is on fire after a day of though riding. The Ass of Steel thingie doesn't seem to be working. I sortof drift to sleep for short period, then am awake for shorter period. At some point I realize we're on a good road and it stays paved until Chitral. We get there a bit past midnight. We tell them we want to be dropped at Al-Farooq which they do. They're all very friendly and helpful. And when we ask for the room rate (after we knocked on the door and awoke the guy at the reception), it's the same as in the LP so it means the driver didn't try to ask for a commission. Once we get there I just grab my bag, pay the
Chitral mountainsChitral mountainsChitral mountains

From the hotel again. The mountains surrounding the valley.
driver and head straight for the reception where I ask for a single room. They give me a triple room for the price of a single. I just crash in bed, fully clothed.

Thursday September 21st

It took a while to realize where I was when I woke up. I decide to go to the Police Station to register, as it's what foreigners are supposed to do. The town is very different in the day than at night. It has a very different feel than the Northern Area. Here there are no women. Not a few, not one or two, just none. Much more conservative. You can also spot the afghans in town which have a different kind of headgear and clothes. Everyone is really friendly though and an afghan man show me where the police station is. The signing is a formality, except that being a more bureaucratic place, the natural niceness of policemen is subdued and they barely look at me.

I walk around the city for a bit. I'm suprised to see many advertisement for advocates. I assume it's for afghan refugees trying to get Pakistani resident status or something along those lines. I go to the Mosque, which is amazingly beautiful, and the old Fort, where the british withstood a siege for several weeks in the late 19th century. They were only saved from certain death by the Pashtuns tribesmen by the timely arrival from an expeditory force from Gilgit, passing through the same route as I had. Another force was coming from Peshawar, passing through the Lowari Pass (which I'll cross in a few days) but got their late and hence didn't receive any of the honours.

At some point in town I meet the chinese who tell me they're planning to go to the Kalash valley today with a shared jeep. I told them I wasn't sure what were my plans. They were going to register first. I went to an internet cafe to email my parents but after 10 minutes I still hadn't been able to open my email. Other people were more lucky it seems as the computer was full of "sinful" pictures. I guess men here don't mind liberal women as long as it's not their daughter.

I went out in the street again and met the chinese and japanese. I told them I'd go to the Kalash valley so we went where we were told there were drivers and got one for 900Rs (after a little of bargaining). We were 7 in the cars including the driver. 3 in front and 4 in the back. Not the most comfy ride in the world.

Now maybe is a good time to introduce the Kalahsh. They're the only animist people left in Pakistan. They used to be much more numerous but over the years, through invasion and conversation their areas has dwindled to 3 valleys in the Chitral district: Bumboret, Rumber and Birir. They've got some unique customs and unique costumes and they've attracted missionaries and now tourists for a long time. But it's a culture in danger. In almost all the remaining valleys, muslims are the majority, mostlly but not only through conversion so it is likely that we're the last generation to see this culture. There's only a few hundreds left.

The first part of the ride is on paved road and was no problem. Then we took off from the main Chitral-Peshawar road to go in the valley, first passing through Ayun. It's a dirt road and not that bad until we hit a checkpoint where we have to register and show the paper we got when we registered in Chitral. There was a dutch motorcyclist whom I had met in Gilgit (another one who didn't want to do fairy meadow 😉 ) who was going to Rumbur. We were going to Bumboret. After the checkpoint, calling the road a jeep track would be overwhelmingly flattering. I'm wondering how the car did it. The bottom of the car would hit some rock every few minutes and I could see the worried look on the driver's face. When we had bargained for the price I thought it was a bit expansive but now I was feeling so bad for the driver I though we should pay him more. His car wasn't made for this road.

He dropped the japanese at Kalash Hotel in Anish but the italian girl I met in Gilgit had told me that Peace Hotel was good so I decided to go there. I got a single room for 200Rs (4$), including lunch, dinner and breakfast tomorrow. The chinese girl decided to go somewhere else because the laughing one was looking for a place with a garden. I wasn't too unhappy about it as they were getting on my nerve. We were talking about China in the car and at some point I said some word in chinese, kiao and didn't say it with the right tone. The quiet girl who never said anything started laughing at me and started repeating kiao the way I had said it. It seemed to be the funniest thing she had ever heard. God I'm happy to be out of China. I know I know, it's not rude in China to laugh in someone's face because he doesn't speak perfect Beijing dialect and I shouldn't make judgement because it's just a different culture but screw that. This girl was annoying.

The italian girl had told me the owner of the guesthouse was funny but talk a bit much and this had been an overstatement. He just couldn't stop talking: "Open the Lonely Planet you'll see I have the best guesthouse in the valley, best quality for the price. These chinese girls you know them? Pfft a garden, we have gardens everywhere in the valey don't need one in the guesthouse. They must be very rich, they want big 5 stars hotel. Pfft they should read the Lonely Planet. Read it you'll see this is the best place.". To be honest it was good value, I had ton of good food (tomato soup, potato curry, dhal, chapati and chai) for lunch and dinner and it was good.

One thing I noticed after i checked in was that the owner was a muslim, not a kalash. In fact it was written in the LP but I hadn't even read the recommendation. I noticed he was muslim because I didn't see his wife. After lunch I went for a walk in the valley but after about 10 minutes it started raining. It rained for most of the afternoon so I stayed in the balcony (which had a rooftop) of the hotel and read my book "Foreign Devil on the Silk Road" by Peter Hopkirk which I had picked up at Al-Farooq. It was about the europeans explorer who went in Eastern Turkestan and western China and took the historical artefacts of the Silk Road, something which enrages chinese nationalists.

Weather was really cold, maybe 15C and I had to wear my sweater even in the sun. At around 5:30 rain stopped and I went in for a walk. The Kalash women are truly beautiful, they have very unique clothes which are very colored. Kids and some old men were using a slingshot to make walnut fall from the trees while the women and then men worked in the field, harvesting what I think was wheat. It is incredible to look at the kids. Even more than in Hunza you feel that these people are related to europeans. Light skins, colored eyes, fair hair and generally european facial features. A popular theory is that they're descendant from Alexander the Great troops. DNA evidence hasn't been conclusive but so far it would seem they have more greek genetic background than the population around, and no dravidian or south european DNA, again contrary to the people around. But these studies are far from conclusive. Kalash people have several interesting customs. For example, women in their period live in a special house with other "impure" women for the whole lenght of the period. They also have no problem of kissing in public and the women have much more power than in muslim tribes (except possible ismailis).

I got really angry when I tried to take picture as after my first (not so good) picture, my batteries failed. Of course I had forgotten to recharge them or buy spare and there was no way to buy any. I was extremely angry so if you want good Kalash picture look elsewhere sorry. I also bought a 500ml bottle of kalash wine (although it taste more like brandy) from a kalash man. It is made from grape, apple and apricot and is pretty good. I walked around until sunset and really enjoyed myself. Some kids asked me to take their picture but I couldn't. I walked around until sunset forced me back to the guesthouse.

I went back to the guesthouse and met the dutch guy who was there to eat dinner. He went all the way from the Netherlands to Pakistan in motorbike and was planning to cross into India in a few days. We talked for a while and at some point, after I had mentioned I was planning to go to Iran he said he could give me the guidebok. Sweet. We walked over to his hotel and he gave it to me.

The owner never stopped talking, interrupting us by whining about the chinese, asking if I wanted ot buy wine from him etc etc. He was getting a bit annoying. I decided not to stay in Kalash another day because I was running out of money and the only ATM was in Peshawar and also because I didn't feel like doing the 14 hours ride to Peshawar during Ramadan, which started in 3 days. The only way I could avoid it was by leaving to Chitral tomorrow.

I tried to read a bit in my room before sleep but the light I had was so bad that it was impossible to read with it. The owner was trying to save a fee penny by giving cheap light bulbs. It was so low that I had to open my camera for the light coming from the screen to do anything in my room. What a rat. I was pretty pissed but when I got out to complain he wasn't around anymore and I didn't know where to look in the darkness.

Friday September 22nd

I got up early to catch the early morning bus in the hope that I'd get to Chitral early enough to get the last bus to Peshawar but hope was thin and logic prevailed. After about an hour and a half of waiting I got in the back of a jeep. During the wait I had a pretty good walnut cake and chai for breakfast.

I put all my lugage in the back of the truck as the top was full. There were a few locals at first and a guy with fair hair and blue eyes which at first I mistook for a local. We weren't too packed at first but that soon changed as we passed through the village. The back of the truck would have accomodated 4 people in the West, 6 maybe but it would be tight and people would complain. By the end we were 17 plus lugage. 4 on each side, 3 in the middle on top of the luggage and the rest hanging off.

At some point during the trip I recognized that there was another tourist because he didn't seem happy, or neutral about the situtation. It turns out he was a french-swiss so we talked in french. He didn't seem to be enjoying himself: "On est comme des animaux dans ce putain de transport, la seul difference c'est que nous ils faut payer" (We're like animals in this bloody truck, the only difference is that we have to pay). And he was right, that ride was freaking hell. It just lasted about 3 hours but it had to pay the most painful I've had. The bench was too short and the men next to me were trying to take all the place which resulted in me always falling. We were perpendicular to the road so it was harder to absorb the shcoks. At the end I was total dead. Sylvain (the swiss) was funny though. His comment: "Le Pakistan c'est vraiment pas le royaume de la baise" (Pakistan is really not shagging kingdom (sounds better in french 😉 )) will remain a classic.

In Chitral we went back to Al-Farooq and I asked for a dorm this time. They gave me a single room for the price of a dorm. Trick for this hotel, always ask for a class lower than what you want, they'll end up giving you what you want for less money. I ask for a shower and was given a bucket of hot water which was the next best thing.

I spent the early afternoon recovering from the ride, doing laundry and walking around town eating street food. I'm sad to says that the delicious french fries are a thing of the past, the fried potatoes were totally disgusting. They were orange radioactive and tasted worse than they looked. I also bought a ticket to Peshawar with Sylvain but didn't manage to book a front seat with more leg space.

At some point in the afternoon I was chatting with Sylvain at the hotel when the american man who told everyone that japanese was the easiest language in the world I had met in Gilgit joined in. He, of course, told us that japanese was the easiest language in the world followed by an almost uninterrupted stream of anectodes: "When I was in Bangkok", "That reminds me when I was in Laos" (that was after I had managed to interrupt him long enough to mention something), "When I was in Korea" etc etc. He was interesting but after a while the monologue got boring. We were saved by the timely arrival of Nico, an argentinian cyclist and Samuel, a swiss german guy. Nico took the brunt of the american man stories for a while, leaving us free.

I eventually left to go buy a shawar kameez, the traditional clothing in Pakistan. I was planning on something dark but then decided for something pale because I knew it'd be less hot and Pakistan in the south was still burning in the plains, where I was heading. I got one which fitted pretty good for 350Rs. I went to an internet cafe for about an hour and this one was faster (and less full of porn) than the other cafe.

I went back to the hotel and decided to go eat in some afghan restaurant with Sylvain. It is the type where you sit on cushion and eat with your hand, which Sylvain, after 7 years in the subcontinent (on and off) had no problem with. I decided to stick with the spoon. It was rice with chicken, afghan style. No one was talking in the restaurant as they were alll watching some Indian MTV channel with women that didn't wear burqa (that's an understatement).

On the way back we stopped at a milkshake place and had some banana shake. We talked with the owner, a tajik afghan refuge who had come in Chitral in 1985, fleeing the russians at the age of 5. He had been living all his life here and when I asked if he wanted to go back to Afghanistan he said Inshallah (if god's willing). That clearly meant he had no intention of doing so. He had a good business (he was selling lots of stuff) and didn't seem a poor man. Why risk all and go back to such an unstable country. I learned that Sylvain had been to Afghanistan in 2004. Even with blonde hair and blue eyes people thought he was a local people he dressed like a local. They thought he was a Tajik and left him alone. They only found out if they tried talking to him (and even then he could just say Tajik and get away with it, unless there was another Tajik nearby). He also said that japanese (there are many in Afghanistan) passed as Hazaras, a mongolian people leave in the center of the country, and were therefore not hassled either.

Back at the hotel I ended up talking for hours with Samuel and Nico about the US, China, politics and travel. I said goodbye to Nico as he was cycling to the Kalash valley tomorrow and then down to Peshawar so I was fairly certain I wouldn't see him in this journey and said cya tomorrow to Samuel since he had decided to join us tomorrow to Peshawar.


12th October 2006

Vik, fais bien attention la-bas, ca peut etre bien dangereux! Bisoux!

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