Pakistan: True North

Pakistan was such an interesting place that I decided to do it again but different.  Instead of burning deserts, steamy megacities, and teeming plains informed by ancient civilizations and inflamed by Islam, the northern areas are practically a world apart: cold, mountainous, isolated, and sparsely-populated.


But first a Dubai interlude.  We start by boarding an Airbus 380 (the double-decker megaplane) in Los Angeles (where we were anyway) for the fifteen-hour non-stop flight, currently the fourth longest route in the world.  I am as impressed by Emirates on this flight as I was by Etihad last year -- there is a reason that the Delta/American/United triopoly, unable to compete either on comfort or price, use their lobbying muscle to fight the mideast carriers.  Same as last year, the flight is filled with Indians heading home.


I have scheduled a two-day stopover.  I was last in Dubai in 2008, just before the big bust.  After a pause, the breakneck pace of construction resumed: in the past five years the world's tallest building, Burj Khalifa was finished; the world's largest mall, The Dubai Mall, opened; and a subway/metro system inaugurated (allowing one to avoid the horrendous road congestion),  The forest of construction cranes I saw has been replaced by highrises, and the cranes have moved further into the desert.  As a first-time visitor, Linda is impressed.


The onward flight to Islamabad is on one of Emirates "small" planes: a 777.

It is almost 2 AM when we get to the hotel.  The itinerary states the first day's program is an afternoon city tour but our guide, Esahn, informs us that we would need to begin our journey north at 7:30 that morning due to a threatened protest that would close the road.  He wants to be past the affected area before the trouble begins.

We are five: me, Linda, her friend Kerrie, my friend Agustine from Mexico (who was on the Iraq trip), and a guy, Joe, who is from Malta but lives in England.  We travel with Esahn and two drivers in Toyota Land Cruisers, comfortable but rugged vehicles that will prove their mettle in the two weeks to come.

West of Islamabad is Peshawar, gateway to the Khyber Pass and Afghanistan.  East is Kashmir, a closed military area where the ongoing conflict with India is approaching its 70th anniversary.  To the south is Punjab and Sindh, home to the vast majority of the 180 million population.  We are heading north.  We share the road with the ubiquitous and decorated trucks indigenous to Pakistan.


About forty miles north of the capital is Abbottabad, home of Pakistan's military establishment but more recently notorious as Osama Bin Laden's final hideout.  To prevent it from becoming a tourist attraction and/or pilgrimage site, Maison Bin Laden has been completely razed and is now but an empty field.  To my disappointment, one is not even allowed to stop for a photograph.

North of Abbottabad the road officially becomes the Karakorum Highway (abbreviated to KKH), built with (i.e. "by") the Chinese and opened in 1972.  Following a branch of the ancient Silk Road, it runs from Islamabad to Kashgar, the westernmost city in China (I was there in 2007).  The highway follows the course of the Indus River.  Further south, the river is wide and lazy; here, it is a stream of clear glacial meltwater rushing through a gorge.

Plans to dam this gorge are the source of the protest we are hoping to avoid.  Farmers and residents who will lose their land to the resulting lake are dissatisfied with the proposed compensation; to gain the government's ear they plan to block the KKH.

We don't make it.  Progress has been slower than desired or predicted.  The highway is largely unpaved and in less-than-tiptop condition.  Our vehicles are more than capable of handling the road and are comfortable, but the speed attainable is moderate to slow.  There are frequent police and military checkpoints plus photostops.  We reach the town of Besham, advertised as five hours from Islamabad, in nine.


On the other side of Besham we are halted at another police checkpoint.  Evening is approaching, and they deem it unsafe for us to travel after dark.  No choice but to return to Besham, where an otherwise vacant PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation) motel welcomes us.  (Under the original schedule, we were going to stay here anyway tomorrow night.)

The next morning we resume our journey.  The scenery continues to be excellent.  We follow the Indus River towards its source.  Along its banks the weed grows wild.

It's less than 150 miles from Besham to Chilas.  The advertised driving time is seven hours; it takes us a bit longer.  About forty minutes beyond Chilas we encounter a long line of trucks, buses and cars parked along the roadway.  The protesters have blocked the road.  Our guys talk to the police.  After lengthy discussion they tell us that, as foreigners, we will be allowed through.  We make out way to the front.  Apparently, no one told the protesters, because they are not allowing any exceptions.  More negotiations, fruitless.  Back we go to Chilas.  Luckily, the Shangri-la hotel has nice rooms available and a lovely location fronting the river.  (We are still on schedule and a day ahead: we are supposed to stay here on night 4.)

Around 8:00 PM Esahn informs us that he has gotten word that the roadblock will be lifted in an hour.  Do we want to pack up (skipping dinner) and try it?  The vote is unanimous: we would much rather chillax in Chilas.  We opt for Plan B: our vehicles and drivers will go through and we will meet them somehow.

In the morning we commandeer a local bus and try again.  The protest has resumed: men on the mountainside above the highway are rolling boulders downhill, starting a rockslide that blocks the road.  More negotiations.  This time our foreigners' privilege prevails: we will be allowed to walk past the blockade.  (Esahn later explained that they initially believed that the presence of foreigners would help bring the attention they seek; he persuaded them that it could have an undesired result should the army be called in.)


We alight from the bus.  There is no shortage of porters to carry our luggage.  (I think the porters and the protesters are one and the same, how convenient!)  We walk around the rocks in the road, over a bridge, past the main group of protesters to our waiting Land Cruisers.  (The drivers have spent the night in a rough camp just beyond.) I don't sense any hostility towards us at all, more curiosity than anything else.  That's why they call it adventure travel.

A bit further on is the viewpoint for Nanga Parbat, the second highest mountain in Pakistan.  (The highest is K-2, which is second only to Everest.)  You may remember this peak from Seven Years in Tibet ("Unser Berg"), from which Brad Pitt was descendng when taken prisoner by the British army.  There was a bit of unpleasantness last year when the Taliban attacked the base camp and killed ten foreign climbers; it was the army's harsh response about which Esahn reminded the protesters.

Nanga Parbat and K-2 are in the Karakorum range.  One of our stops is the graffiti-covered viewpoint at the junction of three mountain ranges: the last hill of the Himalayas ahead, the Karakorum to the right, and the Hindu Kush to the left.

As we get closer to China, the highway gradually improves in quality with increasing stretches of actual pavement.  Where construction is underway we see Chinese engineers and Chinese machinery.  At intervals equipment has been pre-positioned to deal with periodic rockslides.


On to Gilgit!  We don't tarry here except to change money and pick up some snacks.  We are tantalizingly close to our goal, the Hunza valley.  When James Hilton wrote Lost Horizon in 1933, his inspiration for Shangri-la -- a remote Himalayan valley where an isolated people live to great longevity -- may well have been the Hunza valley.  The first road did not reach it until the 1950's, and it became part of Pakistan only in 1974. 

We leave the course of the Indus to follow its tributary, the Gilgit River, and turn again to proceed along the Hunza River to Karimabad, capital of the district and our home base for the next four nights.  In the hills above the river we have a room with a view.

If this where anywhere else, the town would be jammed with tourists, but it is now bereft. Hotels, restaurants, and shops gamely wait for the comatose industry to revive.

Our first night we are treated to a banquet of local specialities.  Not bad, but don't expect a Hunza restaurant to open soon in the former IHOP near you.  For entertainment is a four-piece band -- drums and flute -- plus dancers.  Being good Muslims, the dancers are all male; being not-so-good Muslims, the locally-made mulberry wine flows freely.

The valley offers a pleasant climate and breathtaking scenery plus and unusual ethnography.  The people -- light-skinned with European features -- are descended from the "White Huns" from central Asia and look nothing like their southern countrymen.  Once Buddhist, they are now mostly Ismaili Muslims (a Shiite sect, but nice ones, not the crazy kind).  The Aga Khan, their spiritual leader, is responsible for much of the educational, charitable and development programme in the valley.

There are two old fortified castles guarding the town.  The lower, Altit Fort, dates to about 1000 A.D. It was the residence to the hereditary ruler, the Mir of Hunza, until the family decamped to Baltit Fort, overlooking the town and itself dating to 1200 A.D.  Both have been restored courtesy of the Aga Khan Foundation.  Our tour of the upper fort is punctuated by the sound of explosions in the surrounding hills; the local guide quickly assures us that the blasts are from mining activity, not suicide bombers.

Across the river is the Nagar Valley, home to a rival kingdom with its own Mir.  We drive over for a walk to and on Hopar glacier.  The road climbs up from the river through a couple of villages.  As we ascend, the slightly colder climate means that the fruit trees are still in bloom: apple, apricot, and almond trees are all around.

The place where we begin our walk is actually well above the glacier.  We hike downhill to it.  The glacier, literally a river of ice covered by dirt and boulders pushed up by its flow, is one of the fastest in the world (but still "glacial" in pace -- only a couple of inches a week).  In the middle of the glacier small areas of melting ice are exposed to the sun.



After about three hours we have climbed back at the starting point and sit down for lunch.  The governor has come from Gilgit for a meeting, which is just ending.  After lunch we drive down the switchback road to the valley floor.  About halfway down a crowd has gathered and we are halted.  Esahn reports: on the way back from the meeting a vehicle slipped off the road and tumbled down the mountainside into the river, killing two people, the local doctor and her driver.  We continue.  We can see the car's torn-off roof on the slope and the wreck in the water.  It's a sobering reminder that the real risk of adventure travel is not bombs or kidnapping but road accidents.  Good thing our drivers are competent and cautious.

Isolated and easy to defend, Hunza remained a princely state until 1974, when it was absorbed into Pakistan.  Today, the KKH affords easy access.  We drive towards Kashgar on its most scenic portion.  The Chinese have done a superb job and the road is smooth and fast.

Once past the mountains it is only a matter of hours to the border.  But the journey these days requires a boat. In 2010 a major landslide blocked the KKH ten miles north of Karimabad, submerging the highway and creating Lake Attabad. 

Even if technically possible, blasting through the blockage is unfeasible because breaking the natural dam would flood and destroy the valley downstream.  The Chinese are hard at work tunneling through the adjacent mountain to reroute the KKH.  In the meantime, all traffic must move by ferry.  Small boats take passengers and perhaps one vehicle for the 13 miles to Gulmit, where the road resumes.  Trucks, buses, and other heavy vehicles must wait for a larger vessel.


There is no so much to see in Gulmit.  There is a small museum with an eclectic collection of artifacts ranging from weapons, to household implements, to a rug depicting "The Last Supper," to a portrait of Chairman Mao (a gift from a Chinese delegation).  We have lunch and take a boat back, then drive back to Karimabad.  The journey is the destination.

Karimabad also offers shopping.  Cashmere (from Kashmir, of course), and all sorts of cool stuff from who-knows-where.  I see two one-of-a-kind items, now part of the Bergwerk Collection.  My guess is that the helmet is a mid-twentienth century copy of something ancient and authentic.  (There was something similar in the Gulmit museum). The coat of silver bells is modern but way cool (actually, it is way too heavy/hot for Florida.)

The valley is surrounded by snow-capped peaks.  A trip to a viewpoint called Eagle's Nest affords a 360° view.

After four days in Hunza, we return to Gilgit.  It's the provincial capital, but there's not so much to see.  The hotel is not so great either.


The official driving distance from Gilgit to Chitral is 221 miles, which will take two days.  The route is the Gilgit-Chitral Highway, none of it paved and all rugged, but all scenic: stark granite mountains, snow-capped peaks, and emerald-green valleys.

The first day we get as far as the Phandur valley, also know as "Little Kashmir." 

Our route takes us over the Shandur Pass.  Most of the year it is closed by snow, but the road, not much more than a track, has been open for about a week now; it should stay open about five months.  After a long climb, the pass itself is flat.  There is a lake and next to it is the world's highest polo field.  Each year at the peak of summer a tent city springs up as thousands gather for the game played between teams from Gilgit and Chitral.  A travel poster in our motel shows scenes from the festival.  (A close look shows the same sword dancer who performed for us in Karimabad.)  Today the only occupants of the windswept pass are herds of yaks.

We do not reach Chitral until after dark.  In the morning we report to the police station to register.  The requirement has a dual purpose: this is the Northwest Frontier Province (or was, it has a new "non-colonial" name), always a dodgy place for foreigners; at the same time they take pride in attracting tourists from all over the world.  The stats are in carefully-maintained charts showing the numbers by country and year.  In 2013 there were 458 foreign visitors, with Chinese leading followed by Koreans then Japanese.  Agustine is the first Mexican since 2012 and Joe the first Maltese ever.

A map on the wall shows which roads in the district are paved, those that are otherwise driveable, and those that are"jeepable."  It also shows that we are very close to the Afghan border.  We are assigned policemen who will ride with us and provide security until we depart.

Chitral is another former princely state.  The Mir of Chitral still resides in a tumbledown palace/fort.  The mosque is in much better shape.


We are here for the Kalash Spring festival.  The Kalash are an ethnic minority who inhabit three remote valleys in which they maintain their pre-Muslim religion, language, and culture.  The area is also known as Kaffiristan ("land of the non-believers").  Remember Sean Connery and Michael Caine venturing to Kafiristan in The Man Who Would Be King?  Those living on the Afghan side of the border were forcibly converted in the 1890's; on the British/Indian (now Pakistani) side they were left in peace and isolation. There are only about four thousand Kalesh left, living an precarious existence under the pressure of modernism, tourism, and Islam.

The drive to the valleys present the worst roads yet -- narrow tracks scratched into steep mountainsides.  The physical isolation has enabled their survival as a unique people.

After two and a half hours we arrive at Rumbur village, where we will be staying at a guesthouse smack in the center.  Our elevated location gives us a view of village activity all round almost as if we are in a duck blind.  The three-day festival is just getting underway and the people are decked out in their distinctive dress and headgear.

Their lore is that they are descendants of one of Alexander the Great's generals.  They look sort of Greek and they certainly look related to one another.  (Methinks the Hunza are a far better-looking people.)

With these colorful costumes you might think that this is a photographer's dream.  To the contrary, the women are extremely camera-shy: as soon as they see the lens they turn away.  (Good thing that the back side of their headdresses is more photogenic.)  Plus, they have a habit of covering their mouths with their hands.  Getting a good shot requires both patience and luck.

A small hydropower generator, procured via the efforts of a Japanese woman who married into the tribe, provides limited electricity to the village. Historically, they have been completely self-sufficient but now participate in the modern cash economy.  Still, life is no idyll, especially considering the long and harsh winters.


The women and girls are colorfully costumed, but the men and boys wear regular clothes.  The old men are the only ones who show any style.

The festival takes place in a pavilion designated as the "dancing place."  The action is a bit hard for an outsider to fathom.  The shamans tell tales and women dance in small and large groups, all to a constant drumbeat.  Besides the five of us there are perhaps eight other foreigners in attendance plus a couple of dozen of Pakistani visitors.  There is a heavy but discreet police presence.




In the mornings we take walks in and around the village,  guided by the son of the village chief.  He speaks excellent English and is quite candid about the problems they face.  He recently won a seventeen-year court battle to vindicate their tribal land rights.  The border being just twenty miles or so away, they are under constant threat from the Taliban, who consider the Kalash infidels ("kafirs") and want them dead.  The problem is not so much organized assault against the villages as random killings of herders tending the flocks on high pastures.

In the afternoon we are free to hang around the dancing place.  The festival culminates on the third day with the sacrifice of a goat.

A cleared area in front of the guesthouse is where we take our meals and where people gather in the evenings to partake of mulberry wine.  It's pretty horrid stuff, but to the Pakistanis, including several officials from Chitral, ordinarily abstemious, it is quite literally forbidden fruit.  Meanwhile, our guards remain on post until the last of us has retired.

On the fourth day the main scene shifts to Bumburet, the largest of the three Kalesh valleys.  It is far more easily accessible than Rumbur, and hosts a number of hotels.  Almost all visitors stay in this valley, but their experience is a roadside motel vs. being smack dab in the center of the action.

The dancing here is held in an amphitheater.  The best viewing positions are reserved for government officials, who presence means heavy and intrusive security.  There are quite a few other visitors -- every tourist in the province is here today.  Spoiled by our experience in Rumbur, we slag it off as inauthentic and drive back to Chitral.

The next day is the big push: driving all the way back to Islamabad.  Snow-blocked mountain passes isolate Chitral from the rest of the country for half the year; traditionally the easiest access has been via Jalalabad in Afghanistan. The situation has been ameliorated by a five-mile long tunnel, not quite complete but partially open in the winter months.  It being Spring, construction has resumed so we need to climb the switchback road to the pass. At the summit we bid farewell to our bodyguards, who step out into the bitter cold in only their shirtsleeves.

Going over the top is quite scenic, but the unavailability of the tunnel adds another three to four hours to the journey.  Although Summer is only weeks away, the route carves through deep snowdrifts. 

On the other side is Dir, a deeply conservative area where the few women out in public are hidden by full burkas.  We continue to the Grand Trunk (G.T.) Road, the colonial highway from Kabul and to Calcutta. 

The last stretch is on a modern motorway; we cover as much distance in the final hour as we did in the first eight.  By the time we reach Islamabad, our drivers have been behind the wheel fifteen hours.


After a morning rest we visit Taxila, the closest but least interesting of the Indus Valley archeological sites.  A repeat for me.


The next day is the Islamabad City Tour, on the original itinerary as the low-effort activity for arrival day but deferred because we started north early.  Two places are new to me: the Pakistan Monument and a workshop where trucks are ornamented.




Due to airline schedules, we have one more day after the official end of the tour.  A trip south is rejected due to the brutal heat.  (It's much hotter than in Islamabad, which itself is around 99°.)  We are enthused at the prospect of a visit to Peshawar, gateway to the Khyber Pass, but Esahn inquires into the security situation and finds it unsafe for even a day trip.  So the trip ends with a whimper.  At midnight we head for the airport to begin the longest day: we fly to Dubai, on to New York and arrive in Jacksonville before the turn of the calendar page.


Trip date: May, 2014


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