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Published: October 5th 2008
Stretch of the Gilgit River
It starts off ratehr ordinarily...
Folks...This is a lost chapter. It is my final entry. For those of you who have followed along with me this summer, thank you. Thanks for the comments and feedback. It meant a lot to me. All the text has been cleaned up. I may post an epilogue before this goes out for professional review.
I will be writing again in December. I'll keep all subscribers posted. Please check in periodically.
Again, it has been quite a ride. Hope you have enjoyed. Rich.
The minivan retraces the route back to Gilgit I was on three days ago. Locked in the middle seat again, I choose not to fight my unwashed neighbors for a side-glance out the window. Instead I rest my chin on my folded hands on the bench in front of me and try to guess how far into August my days in Pakistan have taken me. It is a blissful sensation. As the minivan rocks and sways with the Karakoram, this journeys is like all others; I do not want it to end but must surrender to the inevitable. I cannot budge and the men around me reek of all three meals they ate
Ameen had to keep the radiator hydrated more often than the passengers did...
yesterday. A curious feeling of comfort and contentment comes over me; there is no other place I want to be. It’s all too good.
Ahead of me in the distance is the proverbial light at the end of a tunnel. Beforehand it was too far away to notice or acknowledge. It is not the signal of on oncoming train out of control, but worse. The brightness is not white, rather the tiny red flashing dots on the taillight of an American Airlines jet at the Indira Gandhi International bound for O’Hare. Suddenly an internal crunching pain smothers my abdomen; I cannot stop the inevitable. I have never gotten used to that punch in the stomach and I doubt I ever will.
It almost embarrasses me to admit that I was disappointed at first when Ameen put the jeep on course for Chitral along the Gilgit River. Just adjacent to Hunza, I expected the same drama and countless hours of ooh’s and aah’s from beginning to finish. Instead the Gilgit forges its path through a valley of average interest. With Ameen at the wheel, I have the front seat on a sunny morning. Simon, a thirty-two year old Glaswegian truck
For Our Safety?
Simon registers his details at a checkpoint...
driver has stretched out in the back among his trekking gear, Ameen’s bag, and my belongings. Not having fully recovered from his demanding trek in Shimshal, I’ve welcomed the Scot along. We interacted briefly before I went to Hunza. When Abdul approached and solicited him in the same slick manner he did me, Simon learned of my excursion to Chitral, though he was well short on details. (So was I.) Essentially, he needs to kick back and take it easy for the next few days and I have no deep hunger to go rock climbing or hugging cliffs.
Ameen reports to me first; this is my treat, my private arrangement void of the inconveniences and frustrations of Pakistani public transportation. When Simon asked to join up, he offered to contribute to the cost of the excursion, no small sum for a traveler who is away from job and home for over a year. Though I never told him, I would have let him tag along free if he was unable to produce a single rupee to the cause. Over the past twenty years I have benefitted from hundreds of acts of kindness and untold generosity when none was ever expected.
The hotels and restaurants along the shore have been closed for a long while now...
I now have the chance to reciprocate. So I told Simon over lunch at the Park Hotel in Gilgit to put in what he could, to do his best. This confused him at first; he wanted me to be more specific and I did not give in to him.
He caught me on the way out the door of the dining room during the early evening on the way to look for some hiking shoes to finally replace the two left ones I discovered in Kalpa. “Hey Rich.”
“About the money…”
“Don’t worry about it, I already told you.”
“I know, but I did a lot of thinking and I am in a bind over the next weeks and-”
“I don’t care. Do what you can.”
It was a cause of discomfort for him. “Look, I can meet you at one third” at which he was none too pleased. I could tell that he wanted to do more. I just didn’t care and that irked him in a strange sort of way.
“Is that the best you can do?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Fine.” As far as I saw it, there was nothing left to discuss.
“When should I
Do My Eyes Deceive Me?
The Pakistanis have an awkward sense of humor...
pay you? How? In dollars or rupees?” My continuing indifference did nothing to settle his unease.
I faced him and answered in a stern voice, “When you can manage. Simon, are you of decent character?” He did not answer I think because he had never been posed such a question so directly. “I trust you.” Sometimes you just have to. I left him by Abdul’s shop. We had agreed to pack Ameen’s jeep up in the morning after an eight thirty breakfast.
The three of us are on the same page. It should work out well.
As me move deeper and higher into the valley, I hide my moderate disappointment. I want to see instant snow and glaciers like in Hunza, on the other side of the northern range, but this is not Hunza. From what Ameen has indicated, I will get my fill in due time. Instead, I sit back and apply sunscreen I bought in Thailand to my arms, now a light crimson. More cream goes on the back of my neck.
Simon comments, “The smell of that reminds me of a beach in Thailand or Turkey.” We both have been to many of the same travel
The Gilgit River provides life at the base of barren mountains...
I lean back towards him, “I got this on Ko Chang.” I show him the squeezable plastic bottle with Thai script. “But right now we are about as far away from the beach as anyone could imagine.” Just then we entered a nasty turn to the left below a craggy wall of stone over 14,000 feet up. Though warm and itchy, my jeans shield my legs from the sun. I bought a baseball cap to replace the one I donated to a boy during dinner on the overnight trip up from Islamabad. As the jeep surges upward, we pull over to register our passport details at a police checkpoint, a common requirement for all foreigners traversing Northern Pakistan.
We get out of the jeep and walk to a shaded area along the river bank. Simon is the first to enter his details in the log book. He has a choice of using his British or Irish passport. “Ameen, why must we stop and do this every fifty kilometers or so?” I ask.
“It is for your protection.” He does not elaborate, one of his considerable misgivings as someone who wants to be a professional tour guide. This makes no
Does this girl look like she is typically from Pakistan?
sense. I am aware of where I am on the globe and the Northern Areas isn’t exactly South Dakota. Our protection? I have entered my name in more than a half dozen logbooks and not once has anyone ever checked to verify what I put in. Here is what I have in store for the next time to combat the boredom, since each logbook is the same wherever we stop:
Given Name: Mickey
Passport Number: 867-5309
Coming From: Disneyland
“Our protection? How in the world, Ameen, does this protect us?” He mumbled some convoluted answer.
“Sir, there have been attacks on foreigners sometimes. So the police want to know who is traveling through.”
“So shouldn’t you locals be tracked instead of us?” Moreover, the time of day is not part of the information entered in the book. What a waste of time.
Morning yields to the bright, powerful, and cloudless afternoon. Our pace is slow and deliberate, but I do not care. I relish the front seat in the jeep with the Gilgit River on our right. Simon makes a comment for Ameen every now and then or poses a question.
A Gathering at Tero
Soccer at 9,000 feet...
Ameen hesitates to form a reply, unable to understand about one third of what he says because his thick brogue. He stares at me silently begging for help while keeping one eye on the hazardous road. I commiserate with him. “Don’t worry, Ameen, I don’t know what he’s taking about half the time either.” I often have to ask Simon to repeat himself. Ameen thinks that when I request him to revisit his comments that I am not paying attention. I am, desperately hoping that what the man says or asks comes with subtitles across his chest.
“Really?” asks Ameen.
“Yes, I really lose what he says.”
“Aye, but in Scotland they can all understand me!” yells Simon from the back.
I turn around to face him and make sure Ameen can hear. “You don’t speak, Simon. You grunt and burp.” Simon is aware of the linguistic obstacle he creates, but it is also an advantage. He uses it to distinguish himself from other Anglophones. The Pakistanis find it quaint, even cute. The brogue endears them to Simon and he loves it.
“Ameen, he speaks English, but barely.”
As we gain more altitude, the Gilgit does not carry the
The highest polo ground in the world....(like I follow equestrian sports on a daily basis!)
same load of sediment as it did at lower elevations. Its current is just as swift but it is now a pale green with breaks of whitewater over large smooth boulders. We pass dodgy hotels alongside where the river’s flow slows into a glacial lake. Many of the lodgings are closed due to the shortage of visitors, both foreign and Pakistani. By two o’clock, Ameen suggests we make a stop. We are slicing through Phander, a thin valley of green and maize trimmed by ancient stone fences and birches shaped like paintbrushes. Where suspension bridges now span the Gilgit, a system of pulleys still exists right nearby. Ameen effectively and surprisingly explains how valley inhabitants once sent all their belongings, materials, and family members to the other side in baskets over the strong Gilgit currents. The switchbacks up to the government restaurant and hotel challenge Ameen to keep all the wheels on the asphalt where it has not already disintegrated into rubble. From my seat I look down and see a cliff or valley; there is no guardrail or road surface in sight. Hotels and restaurants advertise on the cliff face in view of motorists by painting their messages in
A very lonely and unforgiving road...
blue rectangles. My favorite enticement to rest my head at a hotel a few hours up the road is “We have clean sheets.” Other public service announcements call out for locals to “Help The Tourists” and “Educate Your Children”.
The PTDC government hotel in Phander is hollow and empty, and for good reason. Their fixed rates send the very few in the area onto the next town. Simon’s budget cannot absorb the cost of a room, which is highly overvalued. The PTDC’s network of snappy and stylish lodgings needs a second look. With so few tourists in transit in Pakistan and acceptable options, they must be losing money hand over fist. Moreover, staff are indifferent and exceptionally unhelpful. Simon dismisses Phander as an overnight option for financial reasons. I eschew the spiffy hotel because of the skimpy options for lunch, prices that render no value, and a concierge who hardly has taken the time to welcome us as we loiter in the lobby to make a decision. The three men who make up the “team” at Phander’s PTDC amount to employees comfortable with a government job they cannot lose no matter how insolent their attitude or empty the till is
Skirting the Chitral River in the direction of Chitral...
at the end of the night.
Ameen has the courtesy to check with us first. It is three o’clock. “Do you want to stay here tonight? We can make Chitral tomorrow morning, no problem.” Silently citing entirely different reasons, Simon and I ring out in concert, “No!” We finish a shared icy bottle of drinking water and dart back to the jeep. As he always does, Ameen opens the latch on the vinyl door for me so I can climb up. Simon manages on his own into the back seat. The lake in front of the parking lot, a luring point for the hotel, is an unattractive emerald green because of stagnant plant life. Its unbroken oval shore lends it an artificial appearance. The three of us agree: We’ll get a room in the next town that has a decent guesthouse. There has to be something right up the road, no?
Ameen pulls over at a mountain stream to fill up the jeep’s radiator with chilled water. It reminds me of the days when my father had to do the same in the garage with his seventies model Buick Century. But this diesel monster sports quite a thirst; it requires
Although they tower over 21,000 feet...
much water every hundred kilometers or it will overheat. Simon calls me over to a signpost for lodging twenty-two kilometers up the road. I show minimal interest but eventually give in to join him. “Rich! See, I told you!” Simon is right in front of the sign as I am walking in that direction. Still I am uninspired. “It’s a guesthouse for terrorists!” Huh? You’ve got to be kidding me. Advertised lodging for terrorists in Pakistan? No, it can’t be. At least I hope not. I face the blue sign with white lettering and let out quite a laugh with Simon. It reads:
Terror Rest House 22 KM
Nice to know people up here in the remote areas have a sense of humor.
Still there is no snow on any of the peaks and I hide my dissatisfaction. I want to see snow and now! We still climb in the direction of the Shandur Pass with no set place in mind to stop for the night. Ameen keeps his mind and eyes on driving. Not only are there no towns with accommodation as we move forward, the few settlements with restaurant signs are either closed or only serve dhal, a basic lentil dish. At each stop, Ameen asks if anyone can fix us a meal. Dhal, more dhal, or dhal with rice. Simon and I suppress our hunger in hopes that the next time Ameen pulls over there will be a drive-thru for Wendy’s or Burger King. At Tero, we stop to refill our supply of drinking water. Though there are no restaurants, I buy four packages of coconut biscuits and walk over to spectators taking in a high-altitude soccer match. Simon dives into his reserve supply of dried figs and apricots. For the five minutes we are in the rocky and dry hamlet, the children’s attention swings from the soccer match to the two extraterrestrials that have just landed. One of us is in an Indiana Jones hat and mirrored sunglasses while the other carries a black daypack around his shoulder and bends down to three or four children to distribute candy and lapel pins. The stares we receive are of natural curiosity and amazement.
We do not reach Mastuj until dusk. Simon takes charge of searching out a guesthouse among the three choices, of which a PTDC is one. Like its partner in Phander, it is overpriced and accordingly empty. We settle on a triple room at the ordinarily named Tourist Guesthouse. He informs the manager that we have not eaten since the morning. Not only does Simon’s excessive and persistent charm get us a low price, he also coerces the staff to make us a full dinner. It is a good thing: there are no other eateries in the valley hamlet. After settling in and taking a shower in a dank, grimy, and musty bathroom, we sit in the grassy courtyard on a charpoy. It has been a long day and we do not talk about our hunger during the extended time it takes the cooks to get everything ready. In true Pakistani style, aware of our predicament, the owner sends a boy to us with a plate of freshly picked and washed plums. We devour them and leave only the pits as evidence the fruit was ever there.
Simon is still not at one hundred percent, but complains little. He comments on his rumbling nether regions. It is easy to dismiss as it as a common condition for all foreigners. The battery of medication he carries with him in his overstuffed duffle bag does him little good. The discomfort lingers and sends him to the squalid toilet frequently. I feel for him because I have been there, several times already on this trip. And there have been even more downturns in Simon’s health beyond this episode.
One other traveler is staying at the guesthouse, an introverted and docile Belgian from Brussels. He makes it just as much a point to avoid us as Simon does to hound him for information. Since the sheepish European has come from where Simon is headed, the Scot sucks every last morsel of travel data out of him. Within ten minutes Simon knows about every bus, train, cheap hotel, safety concern, and supply store from here to Lahore. When finished with his interrogation, Simon offers a simple thank you and files away his newly acquired knowledge. Out here in the Himalaya, information is as valuable, if not more so, than money.
I take my turn at him, figuring it would be a neat to talk to someone in whose country I have lived. I prematurely conclude he will be very impressed with me. After all, how often does an American come strolling into a high valley hamlet in the Himalaya to chat with a Belgian about his country and in his language of choice? It would be a fine way to end the evening.
“I do not like Belgium very much. It is why I am here. I am only in Belgium because I can do money-making there” says the francophone. He asks nothing of my time in his country, my impressions, where I lived, or any of my experiences. I had them all lined up for an evening of invigorating storytelling in Dutch and French. But he doesn’t want anything to do with me and inserts his nose back into a guidebook. Fine, have it your way. I secretly hope his jeep goes headlights first into a ravine.
After a full day of over one hundred fifty grueling miles, we retire to silence and the creaking of the bathroom door which sways with the drafts on either side. During the night I cannot solve the mystery of how to stabilize it. In the dark, Ameen gets up and within twenty seconds shoves a towel in the gap between the top of the door and the paneled frame. I stave off my plans to blow up the door, keep my lack of common sense to myself, and manage a few hours of poor sleep.
In the jeep the next morning, I observe how the road from Matsuj to Shandur has been obliterated by the elements. I made some reference to this aloud, to which Simon commented he had seen worse in Shimshal. In fact, according to Simon, everything is tougher in Shimshal. It makes me glad I have kept to a more conventional agenda. After three requests to repeat his comment, I finally grasp it. “See that cliff over there? That is what the trekking trail looks like in Shimshal.” I peer over across the riverbed to a sheer vertical drop with a few ledges. Ameen desperately wants to be part of the conversation, but I am tired of interpreting from Scottish brogue into proper English all the time. It’s way too much work.
“What did he say?”
I take the easy way out, “He says you’re driving is excellent this morning.”
Ameen turns his head fully around while maintaining our lives in the balance on through a narrow stretch of cliff, “Thank you!”
Simon is confused but lets it go.
The diesel engine revs down a few gears until a stop at a bridge over a mountain stream. Ameen shuts of the ignition and points to a canvas tent. “Police checkpoint, there.” A man in a filthy top and trousers appears from behind a flap with the customary logbook. We know the routine and mindlessly fill in the details without referring to our passports. In the meantime, Ameen and the officer are in the midst of a disagreement, dare I say an argument. From the handful of English words introduced into their exchange it is not difficult to comprehend the source of the conflict. The officer is demanding Ameen produce his driver’s license. All Ameen can do is hand over his Pakistani ID card, much to the officer’s dissatisfaction. Ameen knows it will not be sufficient. I walk over to Simon.
“What the bloody hell is going on?” he asks me.
“I think it’s pretty simple. That guy is busting Ameen’s chops to get some baksheesh out of him.”
“A bribe.” We watch from a distance, our details now logged in the book.
The officer, not in uniform and I find this important to point out, strolls over to point to some irregularity on the front license plate. When I take a look for myself, I notice, as has he, that there is no front license plate. I softly remark to Simon that we have a driver without the proper pieces in place to conduct a tour. But out here? In the Northern Areas? Does anyone really care? This guy did, at least enough to siphon a few rupees away from Ameen.
The argument ends strangely enough with handshakes and almost a hug as Ameen puts away his cell phone. He had been ready to make a call. We hop in the jeep and move ahead with our ascent to lonely Shandur Pass. I ask for a summary of recent events. “What was that all about?”
“He wanted a driver’s license.” Yeah, OK, we know that.
“And you don’t have one?”
Shamelessly, Ameen responded, “No one does.”
“You mean no tour guides have licenses to drive?”
“No. Nobody out here. In the Northern Areas. Everyone drives without one. And no one even thinks about that. It is not important.”
“And what about the plate? Is the jeep up to date and registered?”
Ameen did not pause at all. “I do not know.” Again, not important. He put a different light on the situation. “Do you know how to get a new car or jeep in Gilgit or Chitral?”
I have a pretty good idea. It is probably the same method Brazilians use on their Paraguayan neighbors. “No, no clue.”
“We just go over to Afghanistan, steal a car, and register it here.” Pretty straightforward.
“Did you wind up paying him off?”
“No because he was out of uniform and had no idea to prove who he was anyway. It goes like that all the time out here.”
“It was possible he wasn’t an officer.”
“Very possible. So I just drive away when that happens.”
Simon is unconcerned when we make it to the highest point in our journey at Shandur Pass. Though at another place and time, he has been here before. But not me. I ask Ameen to stop and I hop out of the jeep at 12,600 feet, still well below the mountains surrounding the road. They are snowcapped much to my delight. A small placid lake of minimal importance is the only body of water on this plateau. It is considerably cooler, but the sun stings unforgivingly. The wind whistles. “I wonder what the view would be like from way up there. It seems like it is walkable. There’s a trail.”
Simon has the perfect volley back at me. “It’s about three thousand feet up. You’d need much water, better shoes. Anyway at this height, you’d start getting headaches immediately if you push it too hard.” I am not acclimatized to the altitude. Simon catches a peek of and then retracts his eyes from my rotund waistline. “You’d never make it.” I say nothing because he’s right.
“I think this is one of the most remote places I have ever been.” The high table-top grassy plain is the summer home to herders of sheep, goats, and yaks. Livestock graze here and some stone dwellings shelter the few humans who stay here overnight. From each end of the lake a tiny stream trickles in opposite directions. This shallow body of pure water is the source of the Gilgit and Chitral Rivers. Here their runoff is perfectly potable. As I have seen downstream, the Gilgit picks up much baggage along the way on its course to the Indus. There is little life up here. The land is harsh and barren. It gives nothing. There is no harmony between rock and water. The two stay separate, making survival on the Shandur Pass a formidable task and only for the most rugged. Even they leave Shandur during the bitter winter months when the road is impassable. Simon and I hop back in the jeep and Ameen drives on. For the first time since leaving Gilgit, his right foot will be on the brake pedal most of the way to Chitral.
The rubble path two hours south of Chitral splits off in two seemingly impenetrable directions: one for Bamboret and the other for Rambur. The coarse flanks along the clear Rambur River validate that in this part of the world there is a fine line between a valley and a canyon. Since Simon and I are unaware of the Kalash Valley and its people, we defer to Ameen. He has been through here before, even if it was two years ago. This is where Ameen shines. He is able to judge our preferences through the feedback we furnish him. Both Simon and I like Ameen as much as we are miffed with his lapses as a tour guide. At the turnoff for Rambur, the officer at the checkpoint hands me a slip and orders me to pay four hundred rupees to enter the valley, an amount that will cover Simon and me but does not apply to Ameen. He has not given us any warning about these small annoyances that relieve us of our cash in small increments. In order to succeed in a cut-throat business where customers are few and jeeps are many, he needs to get his act together.
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