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Published: October 11th 2007
Live at the Baltit Fort
Our ticket collector was a smiling man who not only dispensed marital advice, but also proved to be a good photographer!
It feels like a lifetime since our last update. The quick version of our last month is that we've been in Pakistan since September 4th... we traveled in over the Kunjerab Pass and we’ve been making our way south and east. We spent time in 1) the Hunza Valley with Ismali Muslims, 2) the Gilgit area with military personnel and a bunch of bearded men, 3) in Baltistan, home of big mountains, the place to be for big-time climbing expeditions, and some of the most interesting experiences we’ve had since we got to Pakistan, and finally 4) in Islamabad as the 'landslide' elections took place.
We'll split our time into a few entries to make the blog easier to read, so be sure to look for additional journal entries (I will only send one email to save your inboxes the clutter).
rachel and philippe Getting to Pakistan
We caught a share-taxi ride from Kashgar south on the Karakoram Highway. The road had been closed the day earlier due to rockslide, so we weren’t too sure what to expect.
After a few hours of driving, it seemed pretty mellow. CDOT (not sure what
Hitchhiking on the KKH
We spent several hours of our drive with a Chinese man who spoke no English. For $2 he drove us to the border town and took us with him to deliver cement to a Tajik family.
they call their road crews, so we named them ourselves) is pretty good at clearing the roads, albeit only enough for a 4x4 to crawl over the previous day’s wreckage.
We got out of our share-taxi at Karakol Lake, which sits at the base between Mustag Ata and Konger (big mountains). Our plan was to spend a night there in the tent and maybe hike up the valley toward the mountains, but the Kyrgyz residents were aggressive - wanting to sell us everything (literally taking jewelry off of their children). I think perhaps our patience ran out when a woman proudly displayed a 2005 New York purse.
While the area isn’t really crowded, it’s completely set up for Chinese tourists wanting a Kyrgyz experience. Well, 1) as we were in China, the fact that the tourists were Chinese was a strange mental shift for us, 2) we’d already been to Kyrgyzstan, and weren’t really looking for a Kyrgyz yurt experience, and 3) we’d heard rumors of people getting hassled if they didn’t join in with the yurt experience. We gave it a couple of hours, but decided to move on.
I’ve never actually hitchhiked before, but somehow
Welcome to Pakistan
I think it was about 3 seconds after this picture was taken when we hit the huge welcome pothole.
the KKH seemed like a good enough place to start. Not much traffic, but the first truck coming by stopped for us, driven by a Han Chinese man who spoke no English, but was adept with charades. After convincing him we didn’t actually have the money he wanted (50 yuan,… about $5), he accepted the 15 yuan we offered (about $2) and we headed south toward Tashkurgan, the border town where we’d catch the bus to Pakistan the next morning.
After a few hours, he dropped us off and picked up a friend… we were in an unusual situation. We were doing our best to interpret his gestures, wondering if we were already in Tashkurgan (didn’t think so), if he just wasn’t willing to drive us further because now he found someone to converse with (didn’t seem likely, since we’d paid him), or if he was coming back for us. We decided to wait an hour and see. Sure enough, he came back!
Turns out, we were making a delivery…cement, which had been in the back of his truck all day. Although we were in China, we were delivering to a Tajik autonomous area, so the customers were
We hiked up to this glacier from Passu, one of the most amazing views of glacier recession Ive ever seen, huge empty walls of lateral moraine extending almost a kilometer below the toe of the glacier
speaking yet another new language. An hour of delivery, complete with tea with the family (which I spent in the kitchen with the women, where I felt like I was on the ‘inside’ of the guest experience for the first time... sadly, these women didn't play as much charades as our driver, but it was still a completely fascinating experience).
A word on cement... I don't think we have been on a single cargo jeep or truck in all of our traveling that hasn't included at least a bag or two of cement mix. It may only be beaten by potatoes here in Pakistan for popularity.
Tashkurgan was a border town, which was also a new experience (on the border into China, we’d been on a sleeper bus). We spent the night in a cheap hotel trying to make our arrangements for the next morning (lots of vague information, something I’d get used to in the coming weeks).
I was feeling pretty crappy after Kashgar (maybe smog, maybe too many dinners that cost less than $1US), I was wearing my new shalwar kameez and headscarf (which took a little getting used to). We’d heard the pass was
Passu Glacier Hike
This day-hike was a great way to get a glimpse of Pakistan, checking out their massive glaciers.
really cold, so I was completely overdressed, wearing long johns and capilene. Bad thing about the shalwar, you have to layer over the outfit, not underneath (boy, have I got a lot to learn!).
The best part of the bus ride was when we passed the border into Pakistan, the whole bus erupted and the guy across the aisle cried out ‘Welcome to Pakistan!’ Ten seconds later, we hit the biggest pothole of the whole bus trip and everyone laughed. You could feel the bus relaxing… cell phones played Indian music, cigarettes lit everywhere, a collective ‘ooh’ as we passed a heard of Ibex along the road... As the roads got narrower and steeper, you could feel positive energy flow out of these businessmen excited to get home to their families with their new Chinese wares to peddle.
I’d been nervous about our Pakistani visas - whiteout changing their validity dates (not something you expect in the states) and a vague understanding of what the validity date actually meant. Our visas would be good for 3 days or 3 months, assuming they didn’t have a problem with the whiteout.
“No problem.” My new favorite phrase, one that
Dayhiking in Northern Pakistan
The scenery here is big.... Lord of the Rings, big.
you hear often in Pakistan. It is somehow the phrase that people use when they don’t quite understand each other (not sure why specifics are so difficult), but they expect it to work itself out. “3 months… no problem.” This is a good omen and a great start to our time here. Northern Area - Hunza Valley
We caught a ride easily beyond the Pakistani border town of Sost (not much there, plenty of traveling businessmen) to Passu. Turns out that Passu doesn’t have much either, in fact it probably has a lot less. One store-ish place, run by a 16 year-old boy and a few guest houses. We decide to reside at the Passu Inn, where we pay $5 / night for a huge room with two beds and a big bathroom (with a hot water shower).
The town is very simple, but it’s just right for my introduction to Pakistan. The people are friendly and the food is good - simple, but I discover milk tea, my new favorite drink. I don’t even miss coffee (and that’s saying a lot!).
We fill our days with a couple of day hikes as I recuperate from my
This was the first bridge crossing on one of our day hikes..... a good lesson in 'look down, but don't look all-the-way down'
cold and Philippe catches it… the 'two bridges' hike, which crosses - can you guess? Yep… two bridges. These bridges are sort of, well… we met several people who got to the bridge and decided it was more than they signed up for. Philippe and I thought that they weren’t bad at all, especially after our midnight descent of the Cables Route in Yosemite. No waivers here either, and I take a moment to think about liability - wondering if the lawyers rioting throughout the country might be better served
Our other day-hike was a trip up the Passu Glacier. I realized that the ‘glacier’ I’d seen in Kyrgyzstan was, as Philippe told me, more of a permanent snow field than a glacier. This thing was huge… and it was really obvious the effect it’s recession was having on the village below. On to Karimabad, lots of new friends
After a few days and all of the apricot cake we could handle (yum), we jumped on the next bus heading south on the KKH toward Karimabad. Set high up on a hillside, the Hunza Valley rulers set up shop and built their forts here 800 years ago.
Want to ski a 7000m peak....
A guy on our Suzuki up the hill to Karimabad hooked us up with his buddy’s hotel (Suzukis are the ‘local buses’ within the bigger villages. When I first heard ‘just take the Suzuki up the hill' for our directions, I wasn’t sure what was meant by suzuki, but soon realized that suzuki is, in fact, a Suzuki… like a miniature pickup with a cloth cover on the back… they drive around and people hop on and off, paying almost nothing for the ride.)
We spent a few days here, taking in the refurbished Baltit Fort, spending a night at Ultar Meadows (Ultar has some impressive glaciers, avalanches that run on a predictable schedule, and Lady Finger - an impressive rock spire that caught my attention), and meeting locals. The Great Game
, by Peter Hopkirk, is some good reading about the history of this area. The Baltit Fort is like a walking tour of the book - you see for yourself the influences of other cultures… in the fort itself, you see a lot of Tibetan and British influence. We met a super-friendly ticket salesman who took our picture and patiently explained to Philippe that in fact very
These guys were great for being local drunks...super friendly dudes
easy to make babies (this was in response to Philippe answering a very common question here about children... he tells people that we don’t have kids because they are expensive and a lot of work). This was the best response I've heard to Philippe's reply all trip... a 70 year-old religious man coaching Philippe about sex.
We also met a friendly carpet salesman named Khush. After showing us his pretty impressive carpet collection, Philippe and I were actually considering buying one. Khush kept asking what the dimensions of our room were… when I heard Philippe replying with the dimensions of his truck I realized that we have no business buying household objects like this that will only be added to our storage space.
Khush didn’t seem to mind our window shopping… serving us juice and telling us stories about growing up as an Ismali Muslim in Kandahar - being ordered to pray at gunpoint by the Taliban (Ismalis don’t actually pray in mosques like other muslims and they are much lower key about the whole religion in general). We had dinner that evening with Khush and his cousin, seeing one of the nicest hotels in town (3000R a
Considerably more sober but just as happy, these women were probably the last we had direct contact with for several weeks as the next day we entered Pakistan
night, more than 10x what we were paying, but still only $50 a night!).
Last story about interesting people…. At breakfast one morning, a man at another table overheard us and called us over to sit with them (our breakfast spot each morning was this entertaining Pakistani equivalent to a diner - fly-infested, full of locals, Pakistani television going when the electricity was working). The Pakistani man was living in Toronto, having been largely raised in the west. He had come to Punjab to have his arranged marriage. He and his cousins were on a road trip now, waiting for his new bride’s Canadian visa to come through before heading back home. It reminded us of Road To Guantanamo
, a movie we’d recommend for your Netflix queues.
This guy was as Western as you or I, but fully embraced the whole idea of arranged marriage. While it was interesting to consider and reconcile these differing world-views, we started picking up on the question Philippe and I are frequently asked, if our marriage is a love marriage. It is pretty rare here in Pakistan when people marry for love, going against whatever deals their families have struck with other family or villages. While the families may be disappointed, I think it may do a lot for the inbreeding problem they have here (cleft palates, who knew!?!)
OK, I lied,... one more story. We bought food for our next trek and asked the store owner about Aga Khan (Imam for the Ismalis - revered for not only being their religious leader but also for all of the development work there - roads, schools, even the reconstruction of the fort). We brought it up because there was a picture of him on the wall. Turns out that was the least interesting wall decoration, as this guy declared himself a full-on communist. I thought maybe there was a translation problem, but nope... this guy had a Trotsky pin, Che Guevera poster, and he'd been to the World Social Forum in 2006. Pretty interesting place to meet an atheist - he and Philippe chatted and exchanged book titles and information as I shopped for Happy Cow cheese.
With our colds and some new GI distress, we decided to head to Gilgit and base our next treks from there.
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