Part III: Into Pakistan
(following Part II: Dunhuang and Urumqi)
by Christopher Moore and Biko Tabor
Salaam alaikum to all. Maybe you missed us, maybe you didnít, anyway we have emerged unscathed and most of all enlightened from our journey along this fascinating part of the "Silk Road". We have taken away a new understanding and respect for this extreme culture that seems to have dodged windows 98, fast food and the womenís movement. Hospitable, rugged, strong, beautiful, bitter, warm, fierce, lovely, treacherous, these words describe both the inhabitants and terrain that exists in this Northern part of Pakistan. The following entries give only the slightest picture of a land's dignified struggle to hold onto its strong traditions as the world approaches the 21st century.
One picture is worth a thousand words ... so, weíre not writing any words here. Instead, check out the photos!
Anon. (but, mostly Chris and his Mom): For a second time: GOODBYE URUMQI. Islamabad here we come! We hope.
Our arrival at what appeared to be the international airport departure terminal in Urumqi did not go unnoticed by our fellow travelers, all Pakistanis, all men and all overweight (in baggage, that is). Alf helpfully pointed out, to our discomfort, that this could easily instead be a Bin Ladin look-alike contest staged in a mock airport; and that the airport we really wanted might be miles away. Or, Alf added, our journey could have taken an even more unfortunate turn: perhaps we have inadvertently stumbled upon a nest of Bin Ladin "wannabees" ... albeit, some of them taller, some of them shorter, some of them thinner, some of them fatter, some of them younger and some of them older. Whatever, all eyes were on our small group as we waited to board a flight to the land of Sunnis and Shiites (two of the seventy two Muslim sects found in Pakistan).
After confirming that we were in the real airport, and after nervously filling out our departure cards, we were approached by a couple of Pakistanis in need of a literate hand with respect to their own exit formalities. Having read the travel warnings put out by the State Department advising extreme caution for Americans traveling to Pakistan, we jumped at the opportunity to be of Good Samaritan service to anyone right, left or center. After being comforted with all-around thank you smiles for our factotum efforts we proceeded with only mild trepidation down the gateway to find our assigned seats on the plane. After lots of negotiating over who could store which Boom Box where, as every person on board seemed to be loaded with high tech and low tech stuff, we chucked our chop sticks and looked forward to landing in Islamabad two and a half hours later.
It is now two and a half hours later.
Ah, Yes! But, had the evil eye struck for the fourth time? Where could Annieís luggage be this time? As the careful reader of this tale should know, Annie has been luckless as of late with respect to her checked luggage. It just doesnít show up when it should. Anyway, everyoneís bags were accounted for but hers. This is an improvement over past bits of ill luck when those of us who flew with Annie also witnessed empty carousels when the rest of the passengers had left for home or hotel. I mean the rest of us were pretty sanguine this time about the luggage thing; after all, we had our stuff in hand and we were not fretting about living forever in what we wore on our China Xinjiang Airlines 757. However, Annie did not share our cavalier attitude toward what the "evil eye" might have done with her things.
Thankfully, just as Annie was about to check the jetís cargo hold with her own skeptical eyes, her overstuffed Samsonite tardily tumbled off a PIA luggage van and settled itself in for a lazy spin on the carousel. A relieved Annie hurled her case atop our growing mound; and after a tedious wait at the customs line for locals we were off in search of our new guide. Making our way through the same ocean of faces that usually mingle around the outside arrival area in any third world airport, we searched in vain for our family name held high by the hand of a welcoming face. And then he appeared, our WALJIS tour guide, Irfan, who guided us to our awaiting bus and expert driver, Mr. Shaw.
We had no idea at that point just how much we would come to rely on Mr. Shaw to bring us home alive. Irfan informed us that we were facing a 7 hour drive from Islamabad in Peshawar province to Besham in the Northwest frontier province. The first part of the drive was full of Buddha sites and lunch and then we settled into our seats for our drive along a brief stretch of highway until we hooked up with the serpentine Karakorum highway that winds its way through the great Himalayan range and is the only road that takes you over the Kunjerab pass into China.
Biko: Majestic mountains and friendly people, what more could one ask for? True, our road trip started off with a pounding headache for me, but after an hour or so of bumpy, undisturbed sleep it quickly evaporated into nothing but a bad memory. With my newly cleared mind, I enjoyed the rolling hills and lush valleys framed between the mighty Himalayas. We stopped for a walk through a small village. Immediately we picked up a entourage of tribal people that Annie had photographed. They followed us throughout the village numbering from 20-25 at times. Quite different from the Silk Road on the China side. Where were all of the women and girls? The whole time we were in the village we only came across 3 girls all under the age of 7. I asked Irfan where are the women? Irfan smiled and said "behind the walls". Not one woman the whole time did we see, but the boys and men were very entertaining.
Saying goodbye to our new found friends we continued on the KKH where we hooked up with the mighty Indus river. I know understand why it is called a High Way, winding its way along narrow cliffs with only inches to spare with nothing but jagged rocks and the mighty Indus below. This road took 20 years to build and was a joint effort of Pakistan and China. One ton of explosives were used daily and 800 lives lost constructing this amazing highway. After riding on this stretch of road I am amazed that only 800 lives were lost. We arrived at our government run hotel, located in Besham, just as the sun was going down. The sounds of the Indus river lulled us peacefully to sleep. What a great day!
Chris: This morning we were gently lulled from slumber by the sounds of the Indus river. We all agreed that this was one of the best night's sleep, bugs and all, we have had while on the road. After a quick breakfast of toast and tea we were once again putting our lives in Mr. Shaw's (our expert driver's) hands. Gilgit, our destination of the day, lies 10 hours' bus drive away, so with all people and our growing number of bags accounted for we boarded the bus and headed out of camp.
We thought yesterday's drive was spectacular but every day just gets better. Talk about culture shock! The territory we traveled through today was like taking a ride through the wild, wild west. The Northwest frontier territories is 95% Shiite and their traditions are strictly followed. Women are behind the walls and seldom seen. If they do go out they are covered from head to toe with a big scarf like thing called a Chador. There are absolutely no women to be seen anywhere, period. These tribal areas are mostly arid, hilly tracts whose economy is based on animal husbandry.
In some parts of NWFP the people live in wildly dispersed fortified hamlets, each inhabited by a distinct group of kinfolk. There are no sharp divisions of wealth, rank or status. The vast majority of the population is illiterate but there is a strong oral culture of poems and legends. One particularly well known group calling this frontier home are the Afridis of Darra Bazaar, who are famed for their arms factories, owned and operated by the local tribal people, producing some very sophisticated weaponry. I guess this explains the abundance of "arms" dealers lining the village streets.
Driving through these areas we came across many tower like structures all located in strategic positions just outside of town. When asked, Irfan explained that these buildings are killing towers and come in handy for those who may have to do away with their enemies. The rules of this game being first come first serve ... in other words, you must beat your rival into the tower (no killing in the tower allowed); spotting your enemy you are then free to take aim and shoot. Most killings occur over money, land or women; maybe we're not so different after all!
Driving along the KKH, all busses, cars, brightly decorated trucks and anything on wheels and foot came to a dead stop. We hopped out of the bus in hopes of finding out what was up. Turns out a bridge was being repaired and they had to block off the highway to do the job. We had so much fun watching everybody watch us. Mom with her finger on the shutter, as usual, snapped away while we made friends with the onlookers. About an hour passed and the bridge was temporarily opened to let the onslaught of vehicles go on their merry ways.
On the road again we came across various landslides, gushing waterfalls, bus loads of people (men), truckloads of stuff, and a few sheet covered (women), shepherds with herds of goats, donkeys and cows, and the occasional biker all vying for their position on this narrow strip of tarmac. We lunched on Nan and Chicken Curry at the Shangri-La Hotel in a town called Chillas, halfway to Gilgit ... and what a half day it was.
Biko: Buddhists of yesteryears have certainly left their tales all over these mountains. Finishing lunch and on our path to Gilgit, we stopped to look at some Buddhist hieroglyphs left centuries ago along this "Silk Road" portion of the KKH. Hot springs, hot enough to boil an egg, so the local truck drivers say, was our next stop. We took the opportunity to have a rock throwing contest into the gushing Indus river below. Mr. Shaw won, no questions asked, if you get my meaning.
This part of our drive took us into some very impressive scenery with the meeting of the Himalayan, Karakorum, and Hindukush mountain ranges (containing some of the tallest peaks in the world) all converging and the Indus and Gilgit rivers flowing into each other to create one mighty Indus river flowing south to the Arabian sea. You couldnít help but feel really small. At this point Chris and I snuck off down towards the river and I took the liberty of relieving myself in the wild so to speak. You know what they say when in Rome.
Arriving at our hotel, The Serena Lodge, we were surprised to find such a peaceful setting in this bustling military town. With Gilgit being very close to Kashmir, the Pakistani army uses this town as a training and acclimatizing post for the soldiers going to fight (since 1989) on the border. Chris and I discovered a huge outdoor chess board and had a quick game before dinner with Irfan who kept us thoroughly entertained with hilarious stories from past groups gone by.
An early morning wake up was ordered by Irfan as tomorrow is the last day of a holiday celebrated by the Shiites to mourn the loss of an Imam (spiritual leader) named Hussain. As this holiday usually brings out the masses Irfan did not want to chance us being caught in the middle of a long procession that could last all day.
Biko: Picture this, seventy two Muslims standing up to four thousand non-Muslims. It didnít last long but what a noble sight it must have been. In that seventy two was the Muslim "Imam" (spiritual leader), Hussain. He was the son of Ali, who was the son in law of Muhammed. To this day the Shiite sect of Muslims remember that day with sadness. Every year they mourn the killing of Hussain, with the holiday lasting ten days. This being the last day, all of the men and boys from age five to one hundred parade in the streets wailing the tale of the death of their last prophet's grandson. Not only do they wail but they also beat themselves in rhythm. About every minute the growing group of men and boys would raise their fists to the sky and bring them down hard into their chests (this is one time it pays to be a woman). This lasts from morning til night with some mutilation in between. Following noonday prayers the knives and chains come out and the real tribute to Hussain begins.
With the early morning departure from our hotel we hoped to beat the masses into the streets as we wove our way through the final kilometers of the Northwest Frontier and on into the Hunza Valley. With one village to go, we came across a group of about one hundred Shiites, bullhorns and all, starting their march and creating a human road block with Black (death), Red (blood) and Green (peace) flags waving. It was clear nobody was going anywhere especially our little group of nonbelievers. It turns out Mr. Shaw is of the Shiite sect and turned his driverís cap in for that of a negotiator.
As time passed and the group of Hussain mourners grew at a rapid rate and Mr. Shaw having little luck in the diplomatic department, we happily resigned ourselves to witnessing this fascinating event. It was about this time we started to realize that Irfan is someone special. Not only is he a wonderful guide but he seems to know everyone that crosses his path. Hmmm, who could this man be? This event was quite a sight to see, just another great day on the silk road you might say.
Chris: Thanking the gods above we were not of Shiite descent, we tiptoed through the pre mutilating ceremony without any harm. From what we could tell all eyes were on those chosen or those brave volunteers who would soon be beaten with chains and slashed with knives in order to pay their respects to the deceased last prophet. Mom and Lisa, being the only females anywhere in the vicinity, received some rather interesting glances as we made our way through the crowds in search of other transport, as our bus would not be allowed through until after the knife and chain portion of the holiday came to a close.
Who is this man Irfan? He knows everyone and everyone knows him. With Salaam alaikums at every corner you get the feeling that he has quite the family history in this region. Our next mode of transportation was in a government jeep, one that Irfan commandeered to take us to the next town in order for us to pick up two awaiting vehicles to get us to Karimabad in Hunza.
Arriving in Karimabad, "abad" meaning inhabited, we grabbed a quick lunch and then it was back into the jeeps and up to explore the Baltit fort. This fort, built about four hundred years ago, is a clear indication of Tibetan influence. With Irfan as our guide, he took us through the fort room by room, filling our heads with all sorts of detailed information about this strategically placed safe haven. Pictures of Irfanís ancestors donned the walls, the most recent being a photograph of his father with the Mir. The pieces to Irfanís puzzle are starting to come together. Having our fill of the fort, we walked and shopped leisurely through the bazaar on the way back to our hotel.
Biko: I have come to the conclusion that the jeep is Allahís gift to this area. After a breakfast of toast, toast and more toast we jumped into two jeeps, Chris, Irfan and I in one and Lisa, Alf and Annie in the other, and set off to see a glacier. Our ride took us through some very steep and rough terrain.
Our first stop of the morning was to view and get around a huge avalanche that occurred the week before, blocking all traffic from proceeding along this stretch of the KKH. With careful maneuvering our Jeep drivers, Haji and Mir Ahmed found another route, and we connected back up with this treacherous part of the highway. The drive at this point was spectacular. Views from every angle competed for our attention. Small settlements of Hunza people dotted the landscape.
I forgot to mention that we are now in a part of Pakistan known as the Northern Area, where the majority of inhabitants are of the Ismali sect who happened to be more liberal in their ways. Women and girls freely walk the streets, veil less and all, and are seen working in the fields alongside men.
Our next stop was ordered just for us, picture perfect! With breathtaking views in all directions we took this opportunity to have a few Kodak moments with our new found friends. Next it was off in search of the one and only lake in the area. With a quick stretch of the legs and just enough time for Alf to leave his mark at the lodge on the lake with a balloon sticker, we headed back into Karimabad for a quick bite of Pakistani cuisine.
Chris: This afternoon started with a bang, a boom and a bump! Yes you heard it boys and girls BUMP! We set out in hopes of reaching the "Roof of the World" also known as "Eagleís Nest". With those names one can only imagine the road conditions that lay ahead. Only this morning our driver, Haji informed us of an accident that he witnessed last week where a vehicle had careened off the highway. Haji, being at the scene rushed to help and found the driver in bad shape. He removed his shirt and wrapped it around the dying manís head to keep his brains from falling out.
The road that lay ahead was pretty much a nine kilometer straight shot up. Biko and I chatted with Irfan, in between peering cautiously over the edge in hopes we would live to see the corrupt streets of Bangkok. Reaching the top unscathed, we soaked up the view and questioned Irfan about life in Hunza.
What goes up must come down! Mastering the clutch is essential to one's survival in this area, as one slip of the foot could cause some very unpleasant repercussions. Haji and Mir Ahmen brilliantly guided our jeeps along the twisting narrow path that connected us back with some safer ground and onto Alltit fort (Altit meaning lower, and Baltit meaning higher). With a quick romp around, along with some brief "fort history" by Irfan, we made a dash for the jeeps as a storm was brewing in the Hills of Hunza. Reaching our hotel, we thanked Haji and Mir Ahmed for bringing us back alive and were off to find gifts for our friends at the local bazaar.
Chris: No sleep for Lisa, she is our little insomniac of late. Weird Larium induced dreams, along with some serious tossing and turning, kept her up most of the night. You would never know she hasnít had a good night sleep in days as she always has a smile and kind word for everybody.
Man, my insides do not agree with some of the funky dishes being served high up in the Hunza Hills. I decided to tread lightly over breakfast as we faced a long day in the vehicle retracing our tracks back to Islamabad (the KKH being the only narrow stretch of road going in and out of these territories).
I knew from the time I rolled out of bed that today wasnít going to be easy on my already fragile body. With the absence of marching Shiites wielding knives and chains, we made pretty good time to our first stop of the mourning. Ditching our bus for some really cool open aired jeeps we headed off in them to have a look at the famous Gilgit Buddha. On any other day I would have welcomed this detour to view a 10 meter high Buddha carved into a rock face during the 8th century up in the hills of Gilgit but, the thought of winding, bumping and bouncing wasnít sounding like a good move on my part. However, being the Buddha lover that I am, I joined my healthy companions for the sighting. Irfan, with his historical knowledge of this area, brought vivid pictures to our minds of the days when Tibetan monks traveled along this very road bringing the teachings of Buddha with them. All in all I was glad I went, but happier to hear we were heading to lunch.
By the time we reached our restaurant I had taken a turn for the worst; fearing passing out in the curry of the day, I asked Irfan if I could lie down in the bus for a while. With a quick nod of the head and exchanges of words very foreign to me I was whisked away to a room with a fan, CNN and a welcome bed for a little R&R in hopes of curbing the urge to barf every second. So for me it was a two hour power nap, for the rest, a trip to the Gilgit bazaar and then we were all back in Mr. Shawís hands as we continued backtracking the Silk Road.
Biko: Walking through the Bazaar in Gilgit, with Annie snapping away and Lisa and I ducking into every shop, peddling hats and silver was just about all the excitement this town could take for one day. Being the only westerners in the vicinity, not to mention two blonde women walking through the streets with faces exposed for all to see and little old me, who actually could have blended into the crowed quite easily had I so chosen, gave all the natives something to talk about let alone stare at. Interesting shops lined the streets with merchandise ranging from Chinese made goods to old American television sets.
We spent an hour browsing through various shops, picking up curious strangers along the way. One in particular stands out in my mind. He appeared to be around 15 years old, wearing a bright orange jumpsuit. He was very careful not to be noticed and kept to the shadows as he followed our every move through the bazaar. No friendly smiles, no welcoming gestures, no warm hellos only fierce staring eyes accompanied this stalker boyís glare. Men driving tractors, men herding sheep, men pulling wagons, men selling things, men cooking lunch, men smoking, men repairing shoes, men cutting hair, men sewing, men selling guns, men carrying guns, Oh where, oh where could the women be!
Making a quick pit stop to pick up a much improved feeling Chris we were back on the road again. We pulled into the Shangri-La in Chillas and immediately fueled the fire between hotel staff and the local village children as a friendly photo op turned sour and the babes with arms hurled rocks and other missiles at the hotel militia for trying to shoo them away.
Chris: Wake up itís 5:00 am we need to hit the road as we have a 12 hour drive to Islamabad today. So wiping the sleepy dust from our eyes and jumping into some pretty smelly clothes we groggily dragged our dreary limbs onto the bus and said goodbye to our Shangri-La.
About an hour into our drive Mr. Shaw stopped the bus while Irfan pointed, with raised eyebrows, to a suspension foot bridge stretching HIGH across the Indus river. It took a second for it to register with all of us that he actually wanted us to walk across this flimsy, falling apart, floating footpath. In the mood for an adrenaline rush, we all jumped out of the bus and quickly accepted this challenge. With missing planks and falling debris we all managed to fumble across the bridge and back without taking an unwanted dip in the rushing Indus below.
How many of you out there look forward to a 12 hour day in a bus? Well, we did! With the understanding that we were departing this captivating country tomorrow night we were bent on capturing every picture that unfolded before our eyes.
Blazing a trail southward we stopped in the small town of Besham for lunch and one last walk through the wild, wild west. Strolling through this one street town we couldnít help but notice the abundance of gun shops that lined the road. Seeing our interest, Irfan took this opportunity to give us a tour of the armaments that were on display. Every firearm was a knock off of western, Russian or Chinese sophisticated weapons. For the dainty of hand a 25 caliber gun disguised as a pen was capable of turning the dainty hand fatal and it could be yours for the low price of 100 rupees (about 2 US dollars).
Biko: Not once did I ever tire of seeing the majestic mountain peeks of Ultar, Rakaposti, or K2 towering above us. Speaking of which, K2 stands for Karakoram (the mountain range itís in) and 2 (for the second tallest mountain in the world).
Two hours into our afternoon portion of the drive we came to a rickety old cable car that dangled once again high above the Indus river. Mr. Shaw stopped the bus and bid us farewell as we all piled out. Does he know something we donít know? Mr. Shaw, we have come to realize, is quite a jokester and is well liked by everybody.
Getting back to the cable car; it somewhat resembled that of a bumper car hanging from a hook. We all filed into the car ahead of Irfan and waited for him to follow. To our ultimate horror the thing started to move. Irfan smiled and yelled to us that of course he wasnít fool enough to join us for our daring dangling adventure. Being too late to make a mad dash off this swaying death machine we had no choice but to sit back and enjoy the ride. Over and back we went.
After our short adventure aloft we returned to the cliff from where we started. Our fascination with the brightly colored trucks that we have seen all over Pakistan reached a climax when we pulled into the paint shop from which many of there colorful vehicles had their birth. Up until then we did not know that many of these machines were built from the frame up: wheels, engines, transmissions, cabs and other assorted bits and pieces were brought together in this one spot and within days a finished vehicle was delivered to the new owner. The custom artwork usually increases the finish cost of the truck by another seventy five percent to a whopping 600,000 rupees.
Chris: Islamabad is 102 degrees! HOT with no chance of rain. It does not pay to be a woman in this heat as poor mom and Lisa both had to wear long pants and long sleeves out of respect to the Muslim faith.
Visiting the largest mosque in the whole Muslim world was the plan for this morning. And what a mosque it was. With Faisal Masjid Mosque having room for 15,000 people bowing towards Mecca this place was built in 1976 as gift from the people of Jordan to the Sunnis of Pakistan. As if Mom and Lisa werenít sweaty enough, they each had to put long scarves over there heads and use the separate womanís entrance for viewing this holy place. Momís scarf was quite amusing as she somewhat resembled a Grateful Dead roadee.
Later, with Mr. Shaw expertly guiding the bus through the streets of Islamabad we found ourselves in the center of the bustling business district. Strolling through the streets we were again bombarded by eager salesmen peddling everything from watches to birds. I hung back with mom for awhile as she photographed everything in her path. With 50 plus exposed rolls in her bag she will have to take out a loan for the processing costs.
Biko: We decided to spend the rest of the day packing and resting up for our evening departure to Bangkok. With our baggage strapped to the top of the bus we jumped on board for one last ride with Mr. Shaw and Irfan. At the airport we said a tearful farewell to our wonderful duo and headed to the PIA check in counter and then on to the comfort of the first class lounge (thanks to Alf).
Our first flight took us as far as Karachi where we had to collect our bags and transfer to Thai Airways. Alf had arranged for a big surprise. We were all presented with business class seats and we were shown to the front of the plane instead of to the cattle car. We flew in the lap of luxury and landed in Bangkok at 6:00 am well rested and ready to start the day.
Chris: As we were staying at the Peninsula Hotel in Bangkok, the drivers and those beautiful Rolls Royces were there to greet us at the airport along with the local A&K guide named Lee. Being Sunday, traffic was almost nil and we arrived at the hotel in record time. Big beautiful suites awaited us, all loaded with remote controlled everything. The bathrooms were huge and contained three phones, TV, radio and mood lighting. Speaking of mood, we were all in the mood for a dip in the pool so with a quick change we were off to take a plunge.
Sitting by the pool planning out our day, we decided to take a trip to the world famous local weekend market and we talked of an evening visit to the infamous Patpong Road. With visions of Patpong Road dancing in my head I could hardly wait for night to fall.
More to come ...