Pakistan: the much maligned and misjudged home of hospitality.


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Asia » Pakistan
October 25th 2022
Published: October 29th 2022
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One hundred and fifty six countries are eligible for Indian eVisas, although - currently - along with 14 other rogue nations these do not include the UK. Actually, this is a tit-for-tat punishment as apparently we were similarly unwelcoming during the height of the pandemic.

Typically, India was to have been our next destination. We have a wedding to attend there in January and had planned on visiting the remote Aranachal Pradesh, undertaking a series of treks, as well as indulging with some Om beach time in the interim. Such a prolonged visit being thwarted we pondered where we might head instead. Purely by chance I discovered that Pakistan were now, supposedly, for the first time in many years, more likely to look favourably upon a British application. And they do have some rather fine mountains themselves...

However, I am ahead of myself.

After three and a half years on the road (with only one brief hiatus) it had been good to return home, to see our parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, and to meet a whole host - seven to be precise - of covid-lockdown-generated grand nieces and nephews.

We managed to see many sets of friends and yet, as always, there were many others against whom time conspired. I say time was limiting... We'd planned on being home for ten weeks and yet circumstances begged to differ.

As we've mentioned adnauseam our passports were full (Laos' authorities had, kindly, being overlaying visas for our last few months in residence) and we immediately - within two days of our arrival back in Blighty - sent off for replacements. HMPO stated that, due to lethargy during the pandemic, some five million Brits had neglected to renew their expired documents and, consequently, with everyone now wanting to go on holiday, there was an almighty backlog: indeed it might take up to ten weeks to receive your new Passport.

And yet it soon became apparent via the Facebook group "Passport chaos 2022" that thousands had been drumming their fingers for considerably longer than the purported maximum waiting time.

Incredibly, Ali received hers within five days. Personally, after five weeks with no news of progress, I joined the almost 18,000-strong group in order to monitor tactics and construct a battle plan should my application exceed the stated period. The group was full of tales of woe: some had been waiting for over four months; help lines were universally recognised as useless, expedition services similarly. Many with imminent flights had taken to visiting their most local HMPO office (typically hours away from where they live) to plead their cases. Infuriatingly - for those who had followed HMPO guidelines and not booked a flight prior to the receipt of their new passport - this tactic was working... if you were due to fly in the next 48 hours.

Meanwhile, out with the numerous social visits, we had been kept busy by our parents with a miscellany of painting, repair and gardening jobs, not to mention countless phone negotiations relating to renewing various services and contracts. My father must have been chuffed with us synching his cursed hearing aids to its phone App, his newly pristine gutters, and knocking a hundred pounds off his car insurance as he suddenly initiated the alchemy that he calls home brewing.

Then, sure enough, ten weeks passed without my new blue British passport (not the old-fangled maroon EU effort - Brexit was so worth it) tumbling through the letterbox.

Thus I employed my opening gambit and wrote directly to my MP and the Director General of HMPO stating my dissatisfaction with the service provided, the fact that HMPO was now guilty of a SLA (service level agreement) breech and indeed appeared to be behaving with a positive bias towards those who had ignored their own guidelines.

I had low expectations of a response from either and yet eight hours later my MP was in contact and promised to "have a word with the powers that be". The next morning there was a phone call from HMPO: my application had been approved, it was being printed as we spoke and would be with me before the end of the week. Whoa... So much for impotent local government. The only downside was that I felt compelled to write a thank you letter to my MP, a Conservative.

We promptly applied for our Pakistan visas and attempted to side-step the required Letter of Invitation (obtainable for a price from various tourism agencies in Pakistan) by including a most detailed (largely fictitious and avoiding any contentious destinations) itinerary. Remarkably, within the week, we were accepted and flights were duly booked.

Then came some shocking news: the Pakistani monsoon rains had been, and continued to be, extreme with large swathes of the country, particularly the southern districts of Sindh and Balochistan, under water. In many areas the floods even exceeded the catastrophic rains of 1994, the worst in living memory. Hundreds, maybe thousands had died and millions had lost their homes and livelihoods. My parents, hardly enthusiastic about our visit, pronounced it a sign.

Having said goodbye to "Passport chaos 2022" we joined "Pakistan backpackers" and began to chat with people on the ground. Was it safe to come? And, more to the point, was it responsible? These questions received a resounding affirmation. Many areas were relatively/completely unaffected, whilst all businesses still operating and indeed the country as a whole very much required the financial injection tourism brings.

The night before our departure from parched rural Sussex, that hadn't seen rain in over a month, there was a thunderstorm. The next morning, before the off down to London's Heathrow, I checked our email. There was a message from Anglian Railways: the storm had felled a tree between Beccles (us) and the direction of travel (Ipswich) on our little (ahum...) branch line. It might, or it might not, be cleared in time for our train. My father gave me a knowing, it's in the stars, look.

Somewhat closer to the train's scheduled arrival/departure time, having been assured that the obstacle had been removed, we were on the platform when there was an announcement: a new tree was on the line, this time up the track between Beccles and the train's initiating point, Lowestoft. Cue exaggerated raised eyebrows from my father.

Fortunately for us, unable to advance to Lowestoft, a train headed in that direction used Beccles' points to switch tracks and was commandeered to head back down to Ipswich. We were delayed and did miss our initial connection, but our flight wasn't due for hours and we still had plenty of time for a last hoppy London ale before catching the Tube. There was every possibility that this might be our last alcoholic beverage for months which was of far more concern to us than my father's bad omens.

Twenty six hours later, following a smooth transfer in Abu Dhabi's excellent airport and an incredibly efficient and painless passage through immigration in Islamabad, we drew up at the imposing Khudadad Heights, it's 7th floor home to Backpackers Hostel. The
hostel actually comprises three immaculately maintained, well furnished individual apartments, each consisting of four en-suite rooms with a communal soft-seated living area and kitchen; and very comfortable they are too.

Islamabad is a made for purpose, still in development city whose master plan was designed by Greek architects when it was decided to create a new capital in 1959: Karachi was too far south, too isolated, it was vulnerable to attack and distant from army strongholds. Nevertheless, it wasn't until 1966 that Islamabad was considered fit for service and in the interim abutting Rawalpindi (Pindi to the locals) held the mantle. It is, as many supremely planned - you might say over planned - cities are: a bit weird. Divided into five zones, one and two are residential and are organised into a grid system and yet the grid sectors lie within a loosely triangular perimeter. The grid rows are named A-I, although A and B don't fit into the triangle and don't - currently - exist. The columns are numbered 1-17 right to left (in accordance with the reading of Arabic script which Urdu utilises) and yet the eastern point of the triangle is truncated and there are
no sectors 1-4. Khudadad heights lies in G11, a row blessed with extending from 5 to 17. Phew... Anyway, I mention the 2x2km square (mostly... remember the triangle) sectors as these are each then further subdivided into four 1x1km squares that meet centrally at the markez: the market. Thus, each of the 67 sectors has its own market area with shops, facilities and eateries. It is a massive sprawl and public transport, the metro bus lines, are still - like much of the city - in their infancy. It is not an easy place to get around. And yet it is rather pleasant to wander as almost every road and thoroughfare is lined by greenery (some of it illegal to smoke), whilst there are an abundance of parks and recreational areas. The latter two are invariably occupied by people brandishing willow and throwing leather: the Pakistanis are cricket mad, possibly even more so than the Indians.

Our initial interactions with the Pakistanis of Islamabad were most cordial. Ostensibly everyone speaks a degree of English and they were keen to try it out on us, England consistently being considered a fine country. Like Bangladeshis the vast majority here have some relative who does, or has, lived in the UK. There was much talk of the devastation in other areas, although Islamabad itself, really quite dry and dusty, had escaped unscathed.

Actually it is not that peculiar that the Pakistanis we were meeting are so fluent in English as it is, along with Urdu, one of the two official national languages. That said, in Islamabad the most commonly spoken language is Punjabi, the second Pashto, with Urdu a lowly third.

Ali was dressed modestly with a long-sleeved, smock-like shirt over loose trousers and armed with a shawl should we deem a head covering necessary.

Whilst most wandering the streets, driving cars and riding motorbikes, playing cricket or generally hanging out are men robed in traditional (sensible attire given the heat) Shalwar Kameez, women (most unescorted) are far from absent and a good proportion of these (also in Shalwars) are bare headed.

Pausing to buy masala lemon sodas from a roadside stand (the soda caps are shot into the air with a retort not unlike a gun) we had to refuse two offers from passers by to pay for them.

We found an ATM booth (Allied Bank and Standard Chartered both take foreign cards) and on exiting the security guard noticed our empty water bottle that he rapidly commandeered and refilled from within the bank itself.

Eating at a little open air restaurant we got chatting to a young lad, Hussain, studying for a Masters in criminal law. We had soon exchanged WhatsApp numbers and upon hearing our plans for heading north he announced his intention to forego his studies for several days and drive us there himself. When, with grateful thanks, we declined his offer he felt compelled to provide his driving licence and a photo of his car as evidence of his suitability for the task. We have an open invitation to go visit his family who live several hours outside of Islamabad and have promised to do so when we return.

All of these kind, hospitable, interactions occurred on our first day, and they, delightfully, continue.

On the 8th of September, two days after enduring meetings with outgoing Boris and incoming Truss, Queen Elizabeth II died. Ali was sad, our parents bereft. Regardless of your opinions on the monarchy she did perform the role impeccably, with fortitude and grace, whilst "The
Crown" was a highly entertaining series. Nevertheless, I was a bit miffed that as a consequence, out of respect, the second day of the Test match would be cancelled, particularly so as day one had already been rained off and England needed a result to win the series.

I needn't have fretted as the South Africans were rolled-over inside the remaining 3 days.

With the mountains calling, two days in and Ileyas, also in temporary residence at Backpackers (impressively he's heading to the London School of Economics for his Masters), kindly rang Faisal Movers bus company (apparently the most reliable/responsible/safest) to book our tickets up to Gilgit for the following day. However, we did need to go to the nearest office in order to pay and pick them up. This being some nine kilometres away and the fact that the required bus stop is also a hefty walk prompted us to try out a Careem. One of only three current Pakistani unicorns it was recently bought by its more famous competitor, Uber.

The bus to Gilgit travels overnight leaving at either 6 or 8 p.m. As we reloaded the packs ready for check-out there was a ping
on Ali's phone: a weather alert. Apparently the whole of northern Pakistan was about to experience thunderstorms and heavy rain for the next few days. You should factor the conditions into your travel plans the bulletin cautioned. This was definitely not the news you wish to receive prior to a 14 hour journey up the Karakoram highway.

The most northly province of Pakistan, Gilgit-Baltistan, is bordered by Afghanistan, China, and India. It is also the meeting place of five great mountain ranges: the Pamirs, Hindu Kush, Kunlun mountains, Karakoram range and Western Himalayas. Here the second highest mountain range of them all, the Karakoram, boasts 50 peaks higher than 6,500m, 18 over 7,500m and 5 (of the 14 worldwide) over 8,000m. It has the highest concentration of lofty peaks on the planet and is the most glaciated region on earth outside of the poles. And through this most severe of rugged landscapes runs - etched into the very mountain sides of the plunging valleys created by the Indus, Gilgit and Hunza rivers - the Karakoram highway.

A Pakistan and Chinese collaboration (at the 4,714m Khunjerab pass it continues onwards into China through the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to Kashgar as China National Highway 314), construction of the 806km Karakoram highway (KKH) began in 1962 and yet given the technical difficulties involved it was not completed for some twenty years. More than 1,000 workers died in the undertaking, most due to landslides and falls.

Its completion didn't see the end to the KKH death toll as over 10,000 users have since died on (off) it. The three primary causes of death - now - are landslides, fatigue and impatience, although most result in a common plummeting resolution. Poorly maintained buses were a serious issue in years gone by as was the road's condition itself prior to it being sealed. Landslides may occur at any time, but are far more prevalent during/following rain when accidents due to skidding are also common. Tiredness is inevitable as distances between destinations are often great and the concentration required to cover them on the steep, precipitous, always narrow (very rarely more than two car widths), frequently hair-pinned ribbon of a road are taxing in the extreme, whilst bus journeys such as ours (14+ hours overnight remember) are performed with a single driver. A constant soundtrack (not insensible) and the frequent imbibing of hashish (really?) are the standard stimulants apparently employed to ward off drowsiness. Given the nature of the road you'd think people would travel it with prudent caution. Think again. Impatience is the standard mind set with overtaking any advanced transportation an apparent priority. Often these manoeuvers are undertaken on blind bends, the accompanying blaring horn considered sufficient to avoid tragedy. On the 16th of August one bus racing another overtook and smashed into an oncoming tanker. Incredibly all vehicles remained on the road but the resulting fireball left more than twenty dead.

So... The weather warning wasn't taken lightly. We had a conflab with Ileyas and discussed the potential of cancelling, before checking the Pakistan Meteorological Department's satellite images for the next 24 hours. These appeared most benign and so we ruminated further. Having made the journey dozens of times Ileyas's view was that it is all luck, his car had been hit by rocks on the calmest of sunny days and... he really didn't think it would rain... much. My input was that years ago, pre-internet, we wouldn't have had a scooby about inclement weather and would have travelled in ignorant bliss.

Thus under grey threatening skies we caught another Careem to the hectic, yet still orderly by Indian standards, bus station. The 6 p.m. bus, ours, had been cancelled. Errr, for any particular reason? Never fear sir, jump on this Delux Executive bus that will drop you at bus stand 26 near Pindi where you can wait in greater comfort for the 8 p.m. departure. A local lady passenger travelling elsewhere became involved in discussions and she concurred with the conductor that this was a fine plan. Saleem (who?) would be notified and waiting to aid us upon our arrival. Well, OK... and so off we tootled.

Bus stand 26 was undeniably far more decorous, there was even a lounge for passengers of Executive buses (obviously not us) that as foreigners we were free to use. Regardless, we opted to sit out front on our packs and chat with fellow passengers and staff alike, with just the odd glance up at the sky. I nipped out onto the road to procure some rather good looking barbequed chicken and rotis and, satiated, at a little before nine, with the weather still holding, in rolled our bus. Cue a relieved exhale from Ali as it appeared rather modern and certainly far more roadworthy than some of the ancient US ex-school buses we've had the misfortune of travelling on in India. Impressively the driver was wearing a proper peaked cap (and there was no spliff hanging from his mouth) that shouted professionalism, surely all would be well.

Indeed the black night (lack of terrifying visual stimuli), the sparsity of (audible) rain and the vehicles rolling motion soon saw us asleep, oblivious to our fates. And, having provided the bus's conductor - well, "SECURITY" was emblazoned across the back of his shirt along with two images of hand guns, but the frail old chap had struggled to load the baggage into the hold - with five photocopies each of our visas and passports for the multiple police check points on route, we were left to slumber on.

Security, particularly for foreign visitors, is taken very seriously. Guesthouses must report to the authorities daily that you are staying with them, and, initially, where you arrived from and where you intend to go next, whilst on many routes you have to provide your documents at police check points. Unless totally off-grid your location is always known and the purpose of
this is not some paranoid monitoring akin to the Chinese back in the 80s, it really is for your safety. Not so many years ago armed escorts would accompany tourists - free of charge I might add - to more risque destinations. Quite why they tolerated such costly inconvenience and didn't simply state that these locations (like a number of others that are still taboo) were off-limits amazes me. Indeed there was a hierarchy of at risk nationals: a Japanese or Korean backpacker required only one AK-47 for their protection whilst an American might warrant five similarly armed guards.

In the early hours the bus pulled up for a rest break and a friendly family bid us come join them for tea and parathas in one of a string of private rooms attached to the tea house. Such facilities enable the women to relax and remove their head scarves if inclined to wear them in public as, isolated with only family members, there are no modesty issues. Of course it was a futile endeavour when I attempted to pay for our refreshments: we were their guests and it was an honour to be able to entertain us.

Five
hundred kilometres north of Islamabad the town of Gilgit hugs one side of its namesake grey river in a wide valley just to the west of the KKH at around 1500m above sea level. Belying the weather forecast, on arrival it was bathed in sunshine. Its main thoroughfare runs parallel to the broad turbulent water and is lined with low-rise, basic block constructions, predominantly in concrete. There's a bustling central bazaar around the grandest of its cream stone mosques that bears a single minaret and two wooden suspension bridges - one for vehicles and one for pedestrians - span the river whose banks are dotted with weeping willow. Meandering back away from the river, towards the looming vertigous tan rock of the valley sides, are small alleys and lanes of packed mud that lead to simple brick or adobe homes and dry-stone shelters for goats, sheep and cattle set amongst gnarled fruit trees and copses of poplar and pine.

Both the poplars and the willows were brought here by the British Raj and, as evidenced by the presence of live sheep, mutton on a menu does not - necessarily - equate to goat meat (as much as we love that also).

Our guesthouse, Medina 2, sits several kilometres out at the periphery of town near the airport that, weather allowing, sees just a couple of small internal flights a day. Here the rooms and associated wrap-around terrace all face onto a central, lovingly-cared-for garden with an apple-shaded lawn and beds of roses.

Also in attendance were a couple from Hungary, an old German guy and two burly men whom I presumed were also foreigners. Not so. Jim and Shakeel are in fact Pashtun Pakistanis, brothers from Peshawar (pronounced Puh-shar-wer) who were visiting to attend a wedding.

And that's the thing: the Pakistani populace are incredibly diverse in appearance and certainly many Pashtun, with their ethnic origins in Iran, would not stand out (stripped of their traditional clothing) in the American mid-west; many complexions are as pale as Scandinavians; and even (non-dyed) ginger hair is evident. Place me in a Shalwar Kameez with a Pakul (think Mujahideen cap, popular in northern Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) on my noggins and - visually - I could quite easily pass as Pashtun.

The brothers are jolly, amiable, bruisers with excellent English, delivered - particularly by the elder - with clarity and confidence. Thus it came as no surprise to discover that he was ex-army and indeed had performed his officer training at Sandhurst. Over several days we chatted at length during which we learnt that they own a steel mill near Peshawar in the north west frontier province, a scant few miles from the the Khyber pass and the Afghanistan border. In recent months they have seen a renewed infiltration into the region by the Taliban and numerous businesses are increasingly being extorted, giving them grave concerns for the future.

Sitting in the garden at Medina a large flag fluttering above the building next door caught my eye. It comprised a white field inscribed with black Arabic script. I might remind you that, amidst other trivia, I'd learned every country's flag during Covid down-time back in Laos. Surely not, I thought; that's the Taliban flag. Jim was later to point it out to me himself, although he was unsure quite what to make of the fact. On returning to Medina a month later, after our foray into the mountains, Wajahid (more of him later) who had ridden down with us, simply dismissed the flag as a religious
proclamation because what it translates to is “There is no god but God and Muhammad is God’s messenger.” This statement is a precis of The Shahadah, an Islamic oath and one of the Five Pillars of Islam. It is recited by muezzin as part of the Islamic call to prayer and in English reads: "I bear witness that none deserves worship except God, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God." So... maybe our neighbour here is merely devout and not Taliban?

Regardless, that does raise two nice pieces of trivia: one, since the Anglo-Afghan war of 1919, Afghanistan has used some 19 national flags, more than any other country during this period; and two, the most commonly adopted flag during this period that bears a black, red and green tricolour was inspired by the German flag when the then king of Afghanistan visited Europe in 1928.

During another chat with the Pashtun brothers "Hunza water" was mentioned, this being the term used for the clandestine fruit-derived moonshine that can be acquired by those in the know. A drinking party was proposed, but failed to materialise. Yet on the day of their departure Shakeel emerged
brandishing a water bottle containing a litre of pink-hued liquid. They had been given it by a reputable (secret) distiller but were reluctant to indulge as it was almost a year old and who knows quite how dubious alcohol reacts to sitting in plastic? However, if we wanted to run the risk, we were welcome to it. Thus for a day it sat in the room until I braved a single, tiny, much diluted, shot. It tasted fine and yet... The bottle's contents were flushed.

One afternoon our guesthouse owner announced that the polo team was holding a practice game in preparation for an upcoming tournament and that we should go view. Fifteen minutes later his nephew appeared in a car and away we were whisked. Our expectations of a polo ground were some form of stadium enclosing a large expanse of grass, that's what we'd experienced in Ladakh's Leh. Here it was markedly different: a 200x50m corridor of packed mud enclosed by a limiting wall that was directly abutted by houses - the pitch was simply inserted into the midst of residential housing. The leading dirt road bisects the playing surface and we paused to allow a number of charging mounted beasts to pass before parking the car. Ushered along the perimeter we perched on the boundary wall with a great gaggle of children, some of whom would hop down to play alternative games at less imminently life threatening moments. The form of polo played here, we were delightedly informed, is called "no rules" because... there are no real rules, nor referee: anything goes. And as the horses galloped past hastily raised feet and mallets flashed inches from heads with eyes ever alert to the cannonaded ball we became rapidly aware that this game imparts serious risk to the viewer themselves. Attempting to sound nonchalant I asked if accidents ever occurred. Oh yes, I was told: cracked heads and lost teeth are not uncommon for players and fans alike.

The upcoming tournament isn't the big one, that's the ultra competitive Shandur Polo Festival held in July between Gilgit and Chitral at the world's highest polo ground, the 3738m Shandur Pass. But, a 2005 article in The Guardian on that event captured the spirit of "no rules polo":

"Locals disdain the foreign version of polo as a corruption of the yellow-bellied and wealthy."

""The British brought
rules that destroyed the charm of polo," the Chitral captain, Sikander ul Mulk, said. "It's like one-day cricket versus Test. People want the excitement.""

""Some regulations were introduced about five years ago to cut down on fights. Now bashing an opponent in the face or hacking his horse's legs are illegal", said the touch judge, Yaqub Masroof. "But only if it is intentional.""

Anyway, after two 25 minute sessions - short chukkers are just girly - the practice match ended with an absence of blood spilt and we were ushered into an adjoining house for green tea.

Polo aside, our Pakistan exposure thus far could not have been more genteel and we had yet to enter the towns and villages of the Hunza or Gojal valleys whose hospitality and ultra safe nature are legend. However, although so much safer and secure than a decade ago today's Pakistan is still not without on-going problems and there is a fear of a new wave of terrorism in the Swat region - a beautiful touristic area also known as "the Switzerland of Pakistan" - that, totally within Pakistan, is almost as close to Islamabad as it is to the Afghan border and yet was under total Taliban control, and all that entails, from 2007-2009. On the 13th of September (a week ago) Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP, the Pakistan Taliban) claimed responsibility for an IED attack on a vehicle. A former member of the peace committee, Idrees Khan, and two policemen were among the eight victims. Whilst on the same day, seven international telecommunications staffers were abducted from Swat by militants demanding a 10 million Rps. (about 42,000 US dollars) ransom. Five were released the following day, two remain in captivity. The local populace are terrified of a return to those terrible days and have campaigned and protested that every possible measure must be employed to maintain their freedom and peace; they will not permit the militants to once again enforce their brutal extreme brand of Islamic law.

And that, predictably, prompts yet another distraction delaying me from progressing up the KKH because after the ubiquitous opening question upon meeting someone of "what country are you from?" the next is very often "what do you think of the way the media portrays Pakistan and its people?". Because Pakistanis are very aware of the way they and their country are perceived by much of the world and they feel that this is unjustified. A tiny vilified minority aside this isn't a lawless land of terrorists or terrorist sympathisers and their religious beliefs are not those of militant extremists. These sentiments were highlighted during the - we're not there yet - series of T20 cricket matches between Pakistan and England when it was a common sight on the television coverage to see Pakistani fans holding placards thanking the England team for visiting. Due to the perceived continuing strife and associated danger this was the first time England had toured here in 17 years, and very much appreciated it was.

Getting from Gilgit to Minapin necessitates flagging down and hopping on a Suzuki (converted minivan with canopied back) to the bus station. Here we met Israr who insisted we take tea and offered a discount rate at his hotel if we were to stay, later, in Aliabad. Then you catch a minibus to Pissan chok, the dropping off point on the KKH, from which you must walk. With full packs we strode purposefully up the turn off, prepared for a very sweaty 3km trudge to the village. Several hundred yards in and the first car to pass us stopped, unbidden, to offer a lift that we gratefully accepted.

Minapin was a much anticipated destination as it is the starting point for the trek to Mt. Rakoposhi base camp, whilst the guesthouse we'd stay in pre- and post-hike, Osho Thang, came highly recommended.

Delightedly we were not disappointed with either. The hot sunny days, tempered by the 2000m elevation, and Osho's beautiful lawned grounds with outdoor eating areas beneath walnut and apricot made for spectacular balmy lazing. Now, for the first time, as we relaxed we were able to gaze above the close rugged hills to the majestic white peaks beyond.

On arrival there was another guest present, a dapper little South Korean, who was constantly shadowed by a man in fatigues and his Kalashnikov which certainly appeared overkill in this dreamy bucolic village.

We had intended to stay overnight at basecamp for the reportedly sublime sunset and subsequent sunrise, but the weather forecast predicted heavy rain two days hence which would make that aesthetically pointless and entail a miserable slippery decent. Thus we decided on a one day round trip. If we left early we should make it down again before dark and, worst case scenario, if running out of light, we could always stay at the mid-point camp at Hapakun.

Accompanying us would be a potato pie and half a kilo of dried fruit/nuts. The "pie" is a variant of the local minced beef speciality, chapshoro, that comprises two whole wheat flatbreads that are crafted to envelop the mince, spices, chillies and onion filling before baking - think a large flat Cornish pasty. Potato was selected as a potentially less repetitive alternative for hiking. The fruit and nuts? Well, the perfect trail mix just happens to all be local produce: walnuts, almonds, pistachios, apricots, grapes (raisins) and figs are all grown within the Hunza and surrounding valleys. Sadly we were too late for cherry season, and they don't dry so well...

Up just before dawn at 5.00 a.m. we were even ahead of the local muezzins although, equally, chef had yet to rise and we had to kick our heels waiting for a pot of tea and the pie before the off.

Winding up the dusty lanes to the trail's start we noted a distinctive scent in the air. In Islamabad these weeds are spindly specimens, whilst up here the tracks are lined with pungent ladies bearing burgeoning buds. Obviously it would be unwise to pick some to smoke, but unable to resist I plucked a few morsels to nibble on as we tramped upwards.

Mount Rakoposhi is not quite one of Pakistan's 8000m giants, but it is still ranked 27th in the world. Basecamp lies at a far less dizzy 3500m, from Minapin a rise of 1500m over some 9km. Having been at 2000m for several days such an elevation was unlikely to initiate any altitude-related issues, but with neither of us being remotely near peak fitness (any fitness) the thinner air did, as expected, make us suffer. And yet after five hours, countless zig-zag scree trail ascents, a shrubby twisted-juniper- and wild flower-picked river basin reprise and then a final steep, thigh burning climb we reached a windswept crest.

Before and below us was a great amphitheatre: to the left and right green and autumnal daubed scree-spewing low mountains and in front the vast, brilliant white, concave wall of 7288m Diran, an apparent bridge of snow-clad lesser peaks and then 7788m Rakaposhi. Sweeping diagonally down before them their namesake glaciers, superficially two great rivers, one of charcoal and grey, the other iridescent white, that collide centrally as a tumult of ridges, jagged crests, spires and hidden cravasses to choke the descending valley beneath us. Periodically there is a groan and a crack as the glaciers morph and move imperceptibly. It is a stunning, intimate, view and all the more magical as we alone were there to behold it.

Ten minutes further around a series of ledges and you arrive at basecamp, a shallow flat-bottomed basin with trickling stream set behind its own grassy crest that provides an even more impressive view as here you additionally get to stare down Diran's flank where it abuts another pyramidal mountain streaked in snow.

As we set off to descend so the clouds began to roll in and several hours later, back once again among the boulders of the dry river bed, we felt the first rain. Good call on not camping thought we. Just then a figure bearing a monstrous pack appeared, heading up. We chatted briefly with the fellow Brit who we advised to bivvy-up at Hapakun before things became really grim. And sadly they did. Arriving back at Osho's
the low moody clouds had hastened dusk and the now heavy rain would, no doubt, be falling as snow higher up. Suddenly incredibly hungry we remembered the uneaten potato pie and rapidly ordered a pot of tea to wash it down. Admittedly a couple of pints would have been an even more welcome accompaniment.

Osho's is rather famous for its food and many not-so-locals arrive by car purely to eat. The primary lure is the mutton gosht that is slow cooked in individual ancient iron pots and appears at the table as a bubbling tempest. Almost as divine are the breakfast giyling: wheat flour crepes served with limitless amounts of homemade apricot and walnut jam. Our only gripe was the absence of a menu that, compounded by language barriers, meant we were unaware of some of the more obscure potential offerings.

The day before moving onto Aliabad and the Hunza valley proper we became aware of a cacophony of noise advancing up the hill towards the guesthouse. It was a procession - of sorts - with multiple cohorts of men walking ahead of flat-bedded trucks mounted with humongous speakers from which a looped chanting soundtrack thudded. Periodically the convoy would pause, the men would face towards each other and then proceed to beat their chests. Alternately an arm would be raised to the heavens and then brought down to slap its opposite breast. Many were in vest tops, their torsos a painful pink colouration. The reason for this self-flagellation was Arba'een, a Shia Muslim religious observance which is celebrated forty days after the Day of Ashura. It commemorates the martyrdom of Muhammad's grandson Husayn ibn Ali. Apparently years ago far more extreme forms of flagellation were practiced but, now, such acts are - mostly - considered haram (prohibited). Several weeks later whilst staying with Khan Bag at Rehmans Backpackers and seeking some incite into what we'd witnessed we mentioned the spectacle. He was not impressed; such activities were certainly not practiced in either the Hunza or Gojal valleys. Old Khan Bag himself, rather partial to a bevvy, a lover of dancing, a bit of a gentle flirt, and mosque non-attendee (he's flummoxed at his wife's fervid patronage) practices a purely people-centric Islam: he'll do anything for anyone and is duly adored by all.

Whilst waiting at Pissan chok (Israr Shah, Oshos indulgent owner, had insisted on providing a lift back to the junction) for a minivan heading to Aliabad a car pulled up and offered us a ride. This was to be our last attempt at using public transport for the next month: all subsequent rides be they in cars, lorries, trucks or privates buses, or on motorbikes, tractors or trailers were either actively hitched or simply offered unasked... for free. There can be nowhere on earth like the upper KKH and its surrounding environs for the ease, and safety in so doing, of hitch hiking. The difficulty lies in not stating too precisely where you'd like to go as the driver will often deviate from their own intended destination to drop you exactly there.

As we had said we would (and the price was very cheap, if it was a genuine offer) we checked out Israr's (the one from Gilgit bus station) hotel, the Arcadian Inn. He wasn't present but his man Friday had obviously been notified that we might appear and he readily acknowledged the agreed price and showed us to one of the grand balconied, peak-facing, upper rooms. When Israr did materialise he was a charming, if slightly overbearing, host. We headed over
to his nearby home to pick - and gorge on - countless bunches of grapes whilst he planned our itinerary. Almost everything we wanted to see or do could, he assured, be performed ("totally see") - with the aid of a car and driver - in a scant few days. His plans, bless him, didn't fit with ours and before moving on we also, coincidentally, met his visiting brother, the owner of a guesthouse in Skardu, who equally informed how we could "totally see" his valley in the blink of a flashing car's eye.

Interestingly, that first night we were joined on the huge communal balcony by a group of Pakistanis who were taking the other rooms on high. Introductions were not as expected when we were confronted with broad Yorkshire accents: most were from Bradford, over for a family wedding. In fact the bride (English Pakistani) and groom (Pakistani Pakistani) were among their number, this being their second (please the in-laws... traditional) nuptial celebrations. In fact tomorrow was actually the bride's birthday and there would be a party if we'd care to join them? There'd be "Hunza water". Sure, thank you, we replied. What we hadn't figured was that they intended to party that very night - as soon as it turned midnight - and as all was quiet by ten we'd long gone to bed by then. The polite knock on our door at twelve went unanswered. We were nought for two with the Hunza water and had now abstained for several weeks. Informed of our unlikely booze-free status by telephone my parents announced that Pakistan didn't sound that bad a place after all.

Few visitors actually stay in Aliabad because just up the road is Karimabad, the backpackers' hangout of choice. Yet, the former is a proper Pakistani mini town and the latter not, anymore. The must do excursion from Karimabad is to visit "Eagles nest" for its amazing panoramic mountain views; we hitched there from Aliabad and then walked the 7km up to the viewpoint. Apart from an old man asleep in the shade of an umbrella we were the only souls there.

Unknown to and unfelt by us, on the 17th of September there was an earthquake of significant multitude centred near Skardu, Baltistan, only several hundred kilometres away, that was powerful enough to initiate landslides that closed access roads for a number of days. Again you have to marvel at Pakistan's resilience in coping with unpredictable (though admittedly common) events such as blocked roads and flash-flood-erased bridges that are cleared/repaired/replaced with incredible speed and efficiency.

It came as a surprise to discover that chips (French fries) are equally as common a snack as samosas or pakora. That said they are, unappealingly, typically served cold, whilst most pakora are not onion-based but, in fact, battered chips...

The Hunza valley has been referred to as the lost "Shangri La", there again so have various other destinations, not least in China's Yunnan province and if neither are actually the reality they are both deserving of the accolade. Hardly immortal, but Khan Bag's mother did see three centuries; born in 1896 she lived to an amazing 110. There again, like in rural Laos, many in Pakistan's most remote areas merely guestimate their ages.

At points the KKH drops from its precarious perch and descends into broad, fertile, valley bottom oases that nestle alongside the Hunza river. Here there are woods of poplar, fir, pine, cedar, hemlock and juniper, masses of hugely productive apple, cherry, the sweetest peach, apricots, walnuts and almond, whilst
in tended gardens hollihocks and sunflowers nod in the breeze. In the gullies of the precipitous valley sides are delta-shaped concave lava flows of grey sandy scree, the product of countless landslides over millennia. And looming over all are an endless procession of stunning white peaks. In addition to Rakaposhi and Darin are Golden Peak (Spintic Peak), Lady Finger (whose profile is too steep for snow to ever adhere), Ulter Peaks I & II and a multitude of lesser summits that are each still over a 1000m higher than Mt. Blanc. At this time of year the wide, chalky blue-hued river's level is low and a mycelium of channels run between flat, barely prominent islets of silver grey shale. This wondrous beauty is the Hunza and Gojal valleys.

Rehman's backpackers, situated just beyond the little hamlet of Ghulkin, came so highly rated that we imagined there must be a flaw. As we thanked our latest lift so a spritely older gentleman in a navy Shalwah descended the stairs to welcome us. Khan Bag, 72 years young, is the father of Rehman after whom the hostel is named. Rehman and his family, plus Khan Bag's wife are based several kilometres away (there's a short cut through the hills) at the family home that doubles as a very popular homestay (the food is, reportedly, excellent; whilst Rehman's wife is a diamond). Khan Bag announced that he had been expecting us. How? We hadn't pre-booked and no one knew of our intended destination. OK, so we weren't the guests he was expecting, maybe they were on their way? Over a cuppa we enquired as to the price of his cheapest double room? "Whatever you think" came the reply. Now, you may think that an ideal position to be in, although it really isn't. We wanted a reasonably priced room and yet did not want to offend; we had no idea what he was expecting us to propose. Such an opening is a nightmare. "Well.. in Aliabad we paid 2,500" ventured I. "You'll not pay that here" stated Khan Bag, "you'll pay 2,000". "At that price we may well stay a long time" tempered I. "Yes..." he smiled.

That afternoon he led us up into the hills to view the black glacier. Only three years previously its tongue ran almost parallel to the hostel, now it has receded some 200m. Returning, we visited his rustic farm, one of several dotted across the foothills, linked by a maze of tiny tracks and criss-crossed with a network of primitive irrigation channels. After stuffing ourselves with peaches ("don't drink any water for an hour or you'll get the trots") and harvesting several different varieties of apples for later we ushered the goats into their dry-stone enclosures for the night. This is not just for their comfort (although it does get pretty chilly after dark, even now in early autumn), but, additionally, due to the predators. "Surely the snow leopards don't come this far down?" spluttered I. And indeed they don't, typically, but it's not unheard of. However, there are foxes, brown bears and wolves (we were never to hear any), plus a mysterious weasel-like creature. The latter beast apparently - and Khan Bag was deadly serious - has a predilection for cattle and a most novel method of attack. Supposedly it darts up the cow's bum and munches away from the inside. I've tried to research this and the creature may be the mountain weasel (also known as the Altai weasel or solongoi) but this chap is more inclined towards small rodents rather than large
ruminants and there's no mention of any anal infiltration, so who knows?

All of the water here comes directly from the glacier and it is not only drinkable but delicious. It is less appreciated when the gas bottle for the showers' boiler is empty.

Initially the only other occupants at Rehman's were a rather unique Pakistani family. Amina and Noni (mum and dad) are both architects originally from Karachi who have quit the rat race and are now up here performing some work remotely whilst, primarily, renovating an old dilapidated traditional house in Gulmit, sticking strictly to old methodologies and materials. This they can only rent as no one born outside the valley is allowed to buy property or land. Huhh, kinda like what we hope to maybe develop, within similar restrictions, in Laos. With them are their fourteen-year-old twins, cricket-mad Naiel and sewing maestro Sasha. Both are super-bright engaging children with whom we competed at the daily triathlon of "Wordle, Worldle and Nerdle", Scrabble and a miscellany of card games (there can't be many Pakistanis who play Yaniv). And this does raise a point - not applicable to them as, up to this juncture (they're currently out of the school system), they've both attended excellent Baccalaureate-teaching schools down south - that up in the north, education, equally for both sexes, is hugely valued and pursued with a passion. Almost all children attend school and the level of literacy in the tiny rural villages and hamlets is among the highest in the country; we've hardly met a person without excellent English: the total inverse of what you experience in rural India.

Anyway, hanging around Rehman's common room are strings of world flags and Sasha was impressed at my ability to identify each. Two days later she challenged me to an on-line flag quiz. I scored a respectable 195/198, she got them all... Meanwhile, the T20 cricket series between Pakistan and England had started and for each match - unable to access live streaming services - Naiel and I would monitor the typed commentary of CricInfo whilst simultaneously listening to the audio commentary on the somewhat laddish Guerilla Cricket. He loved the jingles played to introduce each batter/bowler, to celebrate 4s and 6s, and particularly those for dismissals. I think Noni was less impressed with some of the latter, not least "Fuck off, just fuck off", the farewell
afforded to a batsman's particularly weak capitulation. At three wins each it was decided that we'd go watch the decider live at a fancy resort down the road and, prior to this, Noni and Amina, incredibly kindly, took us all out for Yak burgers at the famous Yak Grill in Passu. Sadly for Naiel England romped it.

Also in the common room was a poster board upon which Khan Bag's pride and joy photos from across the decades were pinned. I say pinned, the poor curled memories hung miserably lopsidedly from long defunct blue-tac. We undertook to remedy the situation and with duct tape and a covering of heavy duty polythene (Perspex was unavailable) his treasures were soon visually restored (and protected). At this point he sheepishly emerged with a mighty carrier bag full of further photos and three empty boards. All assembled and hung you'd regularly find him at quieter moments reminiscing his very active and interesting life, extending from young soldier to backpackers' legend. Over many years as a guide he led expeditions of foreign tourists all over the Karakoram range and beyond, whilst as a mountaineer he has summited most of Pakistan's notable peaks. He climbed
with Sir Edmund Hillary whom, with his inimitable warmth, he described as "a crazy man, he'd do two summits in a week" and "the man was a bloody machine".

Amidst the cricket there had been new arrivals and, at the fag-end of the season, it appeared that on our heels we were bringing Khan Bag some proprietorial good luck, even if his kind nature was not aiding raking in the rupees. An effervescent young Kiwi, Jack, appeared: "He's so jolly, I gave him a room for 1,000". Then came a Czech cyclist: "he looked a bit sad, so I asked for 800"...

And... that's another thing: almost every other foreigner you meet up here (admittedly they are thin on the ground) is a cyclist. In rolled a middle-aged, not svelte, Malaysian lady (who provided great real coffee beans), Basque Danny and - terrifyingly - Victor, a Polish mountaineer, who, having just narrowly failed in his solo attempt to conquer an unnamed virgin peak, sped past us on two wheels as we nervously edged round a precipitous ledge. Not satisfied with - hopefully - surviving the KKH in/on powered transport, many of these lunes cycle its length. Although quite why so many insist on completing its entirety is bewildering: there's a hefty cost to the privilege of traversing the unremarkable national park towards its termination, whilst you are currently unable to advance onwards into China's mystical Kashgar, and all that awaits you at the border is the world's highest ATM.

The universal opinion is that prolonged travel in Pakistan will inevitably result in a stomach upset or two. Not for us two. A month in and we were both - and had been since arrival - constipated as hell. I took to chasing my peaches with copious quantities of water... Nada.

Over several days we hiked out and caught some crazy hitches with Jack. Together we crossed the infamous Hussaini suspension bridge - now a less heart pounding experience since many of the missing planks were replaced following a recent fatality - before advancing onwards to the now deserted Zarabad. We climbed to Baskochi, high above the surreally blue Attabad lake and trekked out past Baltit lake to view the magnificent Passu glacier, its descent viewable in its entirety as it ploughs down from the distant 7478m Passu Sar.

Descending from the glacier we bumped into
a newly married couple, their status evident given their most impractical attire for mountain walks, the bride actually in a white wedding dress and heels. Yesterday we'd been invited to attend the third day (the communal day) of their wedding celebrations in Ghulkin. But, the groom had been delayed in his return from day two's festivities and as it would soon be too dark to safely cross the hills back to Rehman's so we'd missed the evening feast. Now, however, we did get to take some interestingly juxtaposed photos.

Upon rising, all Rehman's inhabitants would congregate in Nadir's shack for eggs and parathas, washed down with rounds of sweet milk tea. Those around in the afternoon would similarly assemble to munch on samosas straight from the wok.

Baulking somewhat at restaurant prices for a yak karahi, after one particular jaunt we clubbed together with Jack to buy several kilos of yak meat and then commandeered the ever accommodating joker Nadir to come cook, and obviously join us, in a hostel-wide communal meal.

Alone, we ambled around the litter-free, dusty lanes of gentle Gulmit and Ghulkin, constantly stopping to chat with their welcoming inhabitants and politely declining their
pleas for us to come join them in a meal. Indeed on one occasion we were escorted around Ghulkin's 3km periphery by a most friendly and persistent calf. If we stopped so would she, only then to rapidly come to a nuzzling heel as soon as we moved on.

Climbing the 1600 rough steps to the ruins of Ondra fort between Kamaris and Gulmit provides incredible views up the Gojal and down the Hunza valleys, whilst meandering the mountain trails between Gulmit and Ghulkin amidst the ever evolving autumn colours, bird song and burbling streams was tranquil, solitary, bliss.

The Passu cones, golden in the low, late afternoon sun are a wonder and its namesake suspension bridge a swaying terror at almost 300m in length.

Really, we have experienced few places anywhere that are simply so magically peaceful, visually stunning and heart-warmingly welcoming.

One night Khan Bag beckoned us to come: there had been a local election and the victors, en-route to a party 30km up the road in Sosht, had pulled up in their cars for some impromptu dancing. Of course with dancing afoot he was keen to join them. Sure enough a drummer and
several with unidentifiable wind instruments were sat playing outside the strip of restaurants, whilst a bunch of men twirled and gesticulated elaborately in the semi-dark dust. Khan Bag was soon amongst the evidently non-sober revellers and was having a merry old time. Not being lubricated ourselves - and there being no evidence of any fuel materialising - we declined to actively partake and after a couple of tunes they decamped back to their cars to push onwards. Khan Bag announced that he would go with them: there was plenty of dancing left in him yet.

The next morning we enquired how the previous night's partying had unfolded. It hadn't. Almost at their destination they'd passed a road accident. A boy on a scooter, actually resident in Gulmit and known to them all, had been hit head-on by a speeding lorry. It was a horrific sight and all thoughts of celebrations had been jettisoned.

Of course everyone you meet asks what you do for a living. Saying I am (was... but better to not complicate matters) a scientist has few repercussions, but Ali's nursing history regularly has implications. Khan Bag needed a deeply-imbedded thorn removing from his foot, simply
sorted; but then we received a request from Rehman: could we come look at his mum's hands and knee (she has two, but only one was an issue). Thus, over tea, and with additional text consults from our infalible doctor in Australia, we discussed her arthritis, both rheumatoid and osteo. Her meds looked pretty good, but her lifestyle of hard physical labour on the farm, currently kneeling for hours hand-scything grass for winter fodder, certainly wasn't helping matters. Khan Bag himself is out at dawn doing the same and there is zero chance of her relaxing with her bad oedematous knee raised and some warm/cold packs on her knuckles. Khan Bag adds, mid eye-roll, that when not working at the farm or the homestay she'll invariably be helping out down at the mosque...

In these valleys head scarves are scarce, unless employed as sun protection whilst working the fields. Far more likely head apparel - especially with women of certain years - are small round, brightly coloured, embroidered or sequined, pill-box type hats; Khan Bag's wife sports a vivid scarlet example.

Meanwhile, although always in long trousers, when hiking Ali typically switched from her long baggy tops to
far more suitable t-shirts. Up here that doesn't even merit a second glance.

Jack needed to push on, he had an Iranian visa to (hopefully) collect from Islamabad. The locals, notably Khan Bag, were worried that such a venture might be unsafe, particularly with the escalating protests occurring there. We were merely extremely jealous, in fact to such an extent that Jack contacted his Iranian fixer, who had helped grease the wheels for him, on our behalf. No, as we had strongly suspected, it is impossible for Brits to obtain a visa for independent travel in Iran.

A week later Jack informed that the embassy still hadn't issued his documents and that, as a back-up (a back-up?), he had acquired an Afghanistani visa. His current guesthouse owner, who we were also later to stay with, was beyond concerned. Fortunately his bravado was never put to the test and finally, heavily escorted through tribal lands, he made it across the border to Iran from where he reported the peoples' hospitality to rival that of the Pakistanis.

On the 23rd of September England lost to Italy in the UEFA Nations League and were duly relegated. A subsequent draw with Germany meant they had not won a competitive match in six: hardly great preparation for the football world cup.

Finally, without performing an extended, guide-led and portered, multi-day trek (Rehman organises one to the Patundas pass, but it is costly and we'd covered half the ground solo; whilst the Shimshal valley to the far north east is even more expensive and involves an extremely squittish 4WD approach - a crumbling ledge so narrow that the jeep's inner doors cannot be opened whilst an exit through the outer doors leads only to oblivion) we had little excuse to hang any longer. We'd leave the far north and head to...? Back to Gilgit and down and across to the Skardu valley for another mountain fest was an option, but equally maybe it was time for some city life and more varied food?

Ahhh, remember Peshawar? Just beyond its western fringe begins the Kyber Tribal District, essentially a buffer zone before the border with Afghanistan and here Pakistani law ceases to exist. It is at this junction that the Karkhano market ("smugglers bazaar") is located. Wajahid, a documentary maker whom we met in Ghulkin, waxed lyrical about how as students in
late 1980s Peshawar they'd nip into this underbelly to procure hashish and vodka that, alongside all manner of weaponry and other unimaginables, could (and still can) be bought with impunity. He described Peshawar back then as inhabited by spies, bandits, warlords, terrorists, kidnappers, CIA agents training Mujahideen and a miscellany of other undesirables; explosions were common: it was one hell of a place. For now at least it hasn't quite regressed back to those levels, but... Foreigners now - sensibly - only approach this area with a tribal "guide" and even then you cannot enter into its seediest depths. Peshawar itself is still accessible and backpakers currently there report that it retains an old world charm, has great food, welcoming people and is accessible without an escort, although the whole city is heavily policed and attentive care is advised.

A couple of contemporary commentaries on the web say thus:

iwpr.net>global-voices:

"If Peshawar is Pakistan's Wild West, then the Karkhano and Barra markets are outlaw country where police know better than to interfere. This is the domain of Pashtun traders who wander back and forth across the border with Afghanistan, just a few kilometres away, at will."

arrivalguides.com:

"The Karkhano Market has gained notoriety for the weapons and opiates sold in its closed-off-to-foreigners far end; venturing here without a trusted guide is an endeavour we do not endorse. The sprawling shopping area leading up to here, however, can be visited freely, although remaining vigilant at all times is essential."

Ali announced that she rather liked the sound of the place.

On leaving Khan Bag there were tears, not unexpected on Ali's part, but highly so from the old trooper.

Thus we headed back to Gilgit. Fortunately Rehman was driving there himself and in the beat-up little car (the purpose of Rehman's trip was to get the permanently open windows fixed) we were joined by Wajahid. From here we pushed on in (yikes...) paid transport (hitching is still totally possible, just more problematic for two with monstrous packs) to Islamabad where we stayed in a different apartment in a different quadrant (with a fantastic local's eatery). We wanted to catch the train to Peshawar as it is both cheaper and we love train journeys, but... it was fully booked for days; much of the rail system, even mid-country, is still recovering from the destruction
of the floods and those few trains running were booking-out quickly.

Peshawar did not feel threatening, although our guesthouse proprietor at Al Ibadat (not the cleanest, but great old town location) was keen that we inform him of our intended movements. Equally, here was a Pakistani city - and it is an ancient traditional city - that definitely required Als to cover her head which - for the first time - she did. Many local women were in full burkas, and not those slitted eye-revealing variants, but ones with only tiny visual perforations that totally obscure any hint of the inhabitant. Nevertheless, unescorted women were common on the streets and indeed almost exclusive in the bazaars specializing in womanly things.

If we thought that we'd been of interest to the locals in other destinations then here there was a seismic escalation that was wholly reminiscent of the celebrity-like furore you create, and the generosity you receive, in Bangladesh. Almost without exception everyone you pass will exchange greetings and our proffered "Ashallam alekum" or response to the former of "Wah alekum shallam" were delightedly received. Here there is no (total) avoidance to the incessant invitations to come take tea
- such shops, that spill out onto the street, are everywhere - and we would happily do so at least half a dozen times daily. Then, as your time spent together chatting and drinking the wondrous, cardamom-infused, Afghani-originating green tea (always presented in a dinky enamelled green pot and best drunk from small Japanese-like bowls), culminates you will invariably be asked "how can I help you? You are a guest in my country and it is my duty to help you". These humbling offers, particularly prolific here, occur country-wide and may arrive completely out-of-the-blue, often with no previous interaction whatsoever (a car may simply pull over as you are walking). They are truly heart felt and extend to all manner of excessiveness. You may be sat at an open air restaurant and yet to have even ordered when a passer by will request that they pay for your meal. The briefest of exchanges with people in wealthier suburbs of Islamabad have, on several occasions, been met with "is it comfortable where you are staying? Please, my family would be so happy if you would come stay in our home". Most people are placated when you stipulate the obvious: that they have already shown you kindness in sharing tea, or their time, and that their concern/company/friendship has been greatly appreciated; they have already performed their kind service. Failing that, another diversionary tact is to ask for information, for directions, or advice, anything that doesn't have financial cost that is still of some perceived practical aid.

Without exception Ali, always the solitary female partaking in tea, was treated with respect. Most patrons would initially address their questions and comments my way, but these formalities were soon dropped. Of course our childless state was - as it always is in Asia - greeted with great sorrow. The typical response to this news "In Shallah, soon" never ceases to tickle Ali's dried-out old ovaries.

Imran Khan's ousting as PM had absolutely nothing to do with public sentiment; we've yet to meet a single person anywhere in Pakistan who didn't think his governance fair, balanced and sensibly progressive. He is sorely missed and the universal recognition of "the generals" control over all is much reviled. That said, they don't consider us particularly blessed with our latest incumbent.

The old town of Peshawar really does have an earthy and raw appeal, lying somewhere
between Kolkata and Marakesh. Progressing through successive twisting conduits, many too narrow or canopied to ever see the sun, packed with shoppers, loiterers, hand drawn delivery carts and - irritatingly - weaving scooters, you wander between sectors devoted to specialised services. Vendors who sell all manner of shoes morph into dedicated sandal makers, dealers of just heels, those who make only inner soles, to purveyors of shoe templates. And from shoes you may find yourself amidst enclaves of carpet stores, stationers, jewellers, charpai bed makers, those carving headboards and others merely bed legs. We never wandered into a burka section, but there were many elaborately decorated dress sections whose primary pursuers were enshrouded. Similarly clustered are butchers (amazingly many with glass frontages), fishmongers, dairy sellers for curd, lassis and custard, and tandoor chefs with gaddi pads and hooks inserting and removing their only product, nans. Even open-fronted restaurants frying up aromatic delights in great sizzling karahis or kebab and tikka vendors behind great troughs of charcoal tend to cluster with their own. Bucking the trend, juice stands employing hand-pulled presses or belt-driven mauls (for sugar cane) randomly occupy street corners and less congested spaces, whilst constantly busy tea shops and mosques, big and small, nestle within all. It is wonderfully vibrant, with just a hint of uncertain intrigue.

I've not actually mentioned prices or, more to the point, price differentials for tourists, which speaks volumes already. In India (and we adore her) you always ask for a price, even before buying a street chai or samosa; attempted elevations for visitors are commonplace, if not the norm, as are short-changing practices (although this does depend majorly on the particular State or city: such acts are standard in the city of Jaipur, but unheard of in the whole State of Gujarat). Here such concerns are meritless and chatting to one particular old head he explained why: "largely tourist deprived we are naive, we haven't yet learned that duplict pricing is even a thing; incredibly, even to the struggling, such a concept is - currently - beyond the pale". How true his words are. And... it is difficult not to form correlations between the non-tourist savvy and totally honest, welcoming locals; immediately Sumatra, Bangladesh, the little visited afore mentioned Indian State of Gujarat and Pakistan all spring to mind (whilst I'm sure I can hear Jack screaming "and Iran"). Of course these
ready examples share another commonality: they are predominantly Muslim...

Wonderfully, women aside, you rarely have to enquire if you might take a photo as the merest interest in workers or vendors is typically met with a request for you to please do so, and as often as not they'll whip out their mobile to nab a selfie with you as well.

We'd set aside five days for cultural Lahore, before our last - hurahhh, finally a train journey - leg down to Karachi. In all honesty we wished we hadn't. Lahore is a vast smog-enveloped dirty city, very reminiscent of the worst comparables in India. At least we were expecting some excellent spicy food, although we were largely disappointed on that front also; Peshawar, no less smog blighted, was leagues ahead in terms of quality food. Indeed, as much as we've loved our visit to Pakistan, the sobering disappointment has been culinary: it is just so bowel-blockingly bread-centric and, compared to India, really rather bland and unexciting.

Proficiency in English is markedly lower here than further north, although that bothers us not and the people are still incredibly friendly. There again here we met several individuals whom we found to be unsavoury god-bothering bores: they were both... Christians.

The massive red sandstone and marble Badshahi mosque, able to accommodate 70,000 and for 316 years the world's largest, is stunning and serene; the nearby Lahore fort, most of it closed to closer inspection and extortionate for foreigners to enter, we ignored. Considered one of the Mughal eras most ornate constructions, the 17th century Masjid Wajir Khan mosque, with its intricate faience tile work and elaborate frescoes is very tired and has long been in the process of renovation, its potential Unesco listing currently on hold.

Waiting for our train, the Pak Business Express, all still hauled by hulking great, monstrously loud and incredibly dirty diesel locomotives, we viewed a rarity, a dog. In India they are extremely common and, at night, en mass, the feral ones, truly scary. Here they are rarely seen, skittish creatures. However, below us now, along the tracks, ran a very contented dog with a rat in its jaws.

On the platform we chatted with a family who were also Karachi bound and, wouldn't you know it, they just happened to be in berths adjacent to ours. Mum and her two
young children were travelling, whilst most of the other assembled were merely the farewell party. And so we, along with our extremely pleasant neighbours (coincidentally Christian, at least bucking that trend), relaxed into the rolling, twenty hour, remarkably dusty (all windows open wide in the intense heat) ride down to Karachi.

Entering into flat-as-a-pancake Sindh province evidence of the floods' devastation, even with six weeks recovery, was still only too obvious; fields remained awash and damaged, partially submerged, villages commonplace. There were huge swathes of stagnant, effluent-smelling, wetland spread out on either side of the tracks; and these were tracks, evidently, given the thousands upon thousands of discarded concrete rail sleepers, that had only recently been relaid. Although, plainly, it was not a time of hardship for all as huge numbers of red kites and eagles hung in the air or perched, eyes down, at the retreating waters.

And thus, with a slightly pre-Karachi disembark at Dirgh Road (closer to the airport) and a haggled taxi for the last few kilometres there we found ourselves with sixteen hours to kill before our flight to... Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka themselves have not been having the best of times
with their nepotistic corrupt (now ousted) government having left them right royally in the shit. Consequently their currency has lost even more value than our own and so, maybe, we could help each other out with a few weeks visit. The weather forecast - they're experiencing a seemingly endless monsoon - was crap, but they do have alcohol and it had been 42 days since we'd last partaken.

We'd not traversed a glacier and neither had we undertaken a major multiday trek, but we had walked way more than 300 miles in our initial month in Pakistan that, along with the abstinence, had seen our accumulated UK pounds drop off. Prior to arrival we did have preconceived ideas of Pakistan; apart from the beauty of the northern mountains, none of them particularly positive. Like all those who make an effort to come see for themselves we now feel very differently about this proud, welcoming, and (almost exclusively - certainly as experienced by our still limited jaunt) gentle nation. Will we come again? A most definite yes, although it is the north - Chitral and its leading villages (some of which make wine) and Skardu (not least its alpine desert)
- to which we'll head. Of course we will have to go seek out Khan Bag, but this time we'll make sure that we have a bottle of something suitable to share with him.

Thank you Pakistan, truly you are the home of hospitality.


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30th October 2022

Pakistani highlands are stunning
I visited Pakistan 25 years ago. I then travelled mostly in the lowlands. But I see in your pictures that the highlands are absolutely stunning. For safety reasons I don't see me going there in the near future though. But it is great to see your photos and get to dream myself away for a while. Possibly I will one day get around to publish my own Pakistani photos. But I fear that it will not happen in the near future. I've got too much things going on in my life at the moment. /Ake
5th November 2022

Beautiful photos
Love your photos and the detailed explanations Andy :) I have to admit Pakistan hasn't been on my radar for many years, and probably won't be for a while longer, so I appreciated this insight into the country all the more. You and Ali have such a gift of really getting to know the people (and animals) you meet. Thanks for sharing. Hope your guts are doing better in SL ;)

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