pakistan chronicles

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Pakistan -- Kohistan checkpointHitting the Road

We were under the impression that it would take us 3 overnights to get to Kashgar from Rawalpindi, even though the entire distance is probably less than a thousand miles. Mr. Sayad, our driver (if he spoke 10 words of English, I never heard them), was told to drop us off at PTDC (remember, Pakistan Tourist Development Center?) hotels in Besham, in Gilgit, then in Sust on the Pakistani side of the 16,000-foot Khunjerab Pass (the highest bus-navigable mountain pass in the world), after which we'd be put on a bus into China. I think the plan was that he'd wait for us in Sust till we came back. No problem.

No problem. We had our backpacks and our guidebooks. The Karakoram Highway began in Rawalpindi and ended in Kashgar — a straight run — we couldn't even get lost.

What could go wrong?

We spent our first day on the road agape at the mountainous beauty around us. Once out of the city, civilization is a postscript, an afterthought. The shabby little villages squat uncomfortably wherever the rock will let them. The buildings are rebuildings -- always in a state of reconstruction. Curious. It was only later that I realized just how uncomfortably those villages perch on the shoulders of rock and just how often the rock shrugs them off.

Just north of Rawalpindi and Islamabad is the western tip of the Himalayas, which arc across India to end here with the killer mountain Nanga Parbat, the 8th highest mountain in the world. Mr. Sayad pointed out glimpses of the snowy peak as we skirted it. The mountain was the Big Sight of the day and the extent of his tour guiding.

But more impressive than craning my neck to see Nanga Parbat was my first vision of the Indus River. The highway joined the river at Thanot and crossed it repeatedly through most of our journey north.

Now anybody who managed not to sleep through grade school geography has heard of the Indus River. Like any of the great rivers around which civilizations arose, I imagined it to be broad and old-man-riverish, with lots of agriculture on its fertile plains and women bathing and washing clothes along its banks. Maybe that's how it is down south near Karachi, where the wide delta meets the sea. But in Thanot and points north there are no fertile plains, no agriculture, no human being within yards of its banks. The Indus is a monster -- a boiling cement-gray monster, scouring its way through rock, thick with pulverized minerals. It's fed by thousands of high altitude glaciers in summer spate. I couldn't take my eyes off it.

We followed the river to Besham. By that time we understood why the short mileage to Gilgit couldn't be made in a day. The highway was a crowded, winding two-lane ribbon through the mountains. And even by that humble definition, it still qualified as a grand feat of Chinese engineering.

The PTDC hotel in Besham was full. Poor Mr. Sayad had to go searching for us in an area that served the local business travelers. We wound up at the Abassin, which, like everything else was undergoing reconstruction, but did boast of "flesh toilets." These "flesh toilets" were also "flesh" to the floor -- the kind you have to squat over. I wasn't real thrilled about it. But Jim always makes the best of these situations. He found some glasses and made cocktails for us from a packet of Sugar-Free Koolaid (don't leave home without it) and Pakistani gin.

I didn't tell you about Pakistani liquor. Drinking is strictly forbidden in Pakistan, but they do make concessions for foreign travelers. We were able to buy a bottle of Murree gin in Rawalpindi only after a furtive conversation with the hotel restaurant manager, who made us fill out what amounted to affidavits that neither we nor our parents or grandparents were Moslems. A bottle was then discreetly delivered to the room.

So Jim made our Koolaid cocktails and we enjoyed the twilight view of the town and river from the flat roof outside our room.

What also happened to me about this time in our trip is that I became a vegetarian. It's not that every meal isn't a scrumptious concoction, if you don't mind your vegetables cooked to a paste. It pretty much doesn't matter what you order, the flavors are all lip-tingling delicious. However, the meat is inedible. You get your choice of mutton or chicken. They are equally unchewable to the underexercised U.S. jaw.

So in Besham, I put my foot down. No meat. It took nearly all the non-English-speaking men in the restaurant to figure out the one vegetarian dish for me: okra. I'd never had okra and knew it only by its bad reputation, but that night it was slimy wonderful.

The roof outside our room was littered with charpoys, cots made of woven leather on wooden frames. They were piled with dirty, rain-soaked blankets. By morning there were dozens of sleepers wound up in these blankets. Our rooms were immaculate by comparison, but I was still itchy, so I took a Halcyon and stretched out fully clothed over the sheets.

Bright and early, back on the road. The world is increasingly vertical. A town might look pretty normal as you drive through — small shops lining both sides of the road, but when you look back you find that the rest of the village, behind Main Street, tumbles vertically down the side of the mountain — a cliff-dwelling community. Green growing areas are tightly terraced into the hills. Except for the ribbon of road, there are few horizontal surfaces. The landscape flows and swirls. The women we see reinforce this image: they are veiled from head to toe in fluttering purple or black, carrying big silver pots on their heads as they work their way across the steep diagonals.

The scenery changes dramatically at Chilas, as we enter Indus Kohistan. We are past the Himalayas and into the Karakoram mountain range. (K2 is part of this range.) Except for the odd, distant burst of green where someone has tamed the glacial run-off, the landscape is barren, the mountains so immense that I lose all sense of proportion. I look at the banks of a dried river bed, then suddenly discern teeny little telephone poles and trees along the edge and realize I'm looking into a canyon.

Here's where you have to confront your fear of height and lose your need for control. We are traveling at about 4000 feet up on a winding 2-lane highway. Buses and trucks pass on curves. The lips of the canyon I see are maybe a mile away, straight down. A wrong move by Mr. Sayad or any number of the surrounding drivers means a launch into eternity. But what are you going to do about it? There's no point in being a back seat driver or getting that little twitch in your right foot as your reflexes long to be in control. Relax. Look over the edge. It's fascinating.

Please stayBut I guess there's another problem in Kohistan: bandits. Five times between Besham and Gilgit we were stopped to register at government checkpoints (see photo above). No one could speak enough English to explain this to us, but we figured that, should we disappear — victims of the road or the bandits — the government would know which checkpoints we disappeared between. Somehow this didn't give us much comfort. continued>>

 

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