Entering the third world
Here comes the long promised travel update covering Pakistan. As I write these sentences sitting in Manali, India, we've once again gone through the adaptation to yet another culture and it's been more than a month since we left Pakistan and more than two months since we entered the country from Iran. Looking back at the past three months it is almost impossible to comprehend that Europe is separated from India by a mere three countries (Turkey, Iran, Pakistan). Even more stunning is how incredibly different all those countries are from each other offering a 'culture shock' at each border crossing...
The horrible buses of Pakistan
Where exiting Iran was quick, efficient and friendly the Pakistan entry procedures were slow and inefficient but extremely friendly. No sooner had we passed through the iron gate that marked our entry to Pakistan than we saw a bunch of people sitting at what looked very much like a bus stand. Upon asking around there we soon got hold of a guy that seemed to be vaguely interested in our passports, handed them over to him and sat down to wait with the others. Sitting there we soon had a good number of guys armed with pocket calculators and plastic bags full of cash around us. Since there wasn't any sign of any legitimate money exchange around we changed just enough cash - at a shitty rate - to buy two bus tickets to Quetta and some food for the trip.
While waiting for our passports to be processed we acquainted ourselves with two other westerners heading in the same direction, Rachel & Philip. Rachel, on her way from Scotland to Australia, had just come from Iran and Philip was doubling back into Pakistan after a three week visit to Afghanistan. Philip confirmed the opinion of our two friends in Mashad that Afghanistan is a most hospitable country to visit but with extreme infrastructural and social problems. Interestingly, he also confirmed that the areas controlled by the Taliban were the safest ones to visit! But then again, he was travelling on his own, a woman or a couple going there would probably get a very different impression!
If Philip thought transportation in Afghanistan was horror compared to Pakistan I'm not sure if I want to go there. While waiting for the immigration officers to finish their siesta over our passports I went to check out the transportation options to Quetta. Either a small, cramped minibus with extra seats added or a huge, shabby looking bus on a chassi built for rough terrain... Choosing between the two wasn't that hard though; the price was the same and timewise it'd be about an hour longer on the big bus and I don't much fancy sitting in a minibus on a sixteen hour overnight journey on bad roads! Said and done, we got our tickets for the big bus and then went to see how our friends in the immigration office got on with our passports. No sooner had we sat down in the office before we were welcomed to Pakistan and offered something to drink while they started processing our passports. During the ensuing chat the guys in the office made very clear that in Pakistan, Bettina could get rid of her long overcoat and scarf. I guess they meant to show us how tolerant and progressive Pakistan is compared to Iran but to us, as we would soon experience, the difference was symbolic rather than of any real significance.
After a 'mere' three hours at the border we finally made our way to the bus to grab our seats... only to realise that the ticket guy had ripped us off by assigning us the four seats at the back. Those were not what we had been shown and Philip immediately started protesting loudly until the ticket guy finally succumbed and offered us four double seats instead. Unfortunately, that was too good to be true and it wasn't long before he retracted his promise and asked us to cramp up in the back where half the space was already taken by luggage. This not even I would take sitting down and it was a long 15-20 minutes of heated arguments (mainly between Philip and the lieing bus guy) before we finally got at least some space cleared and sat down in the back, steaming with anger. It was then a further 45 minutes before the bus started moving and it still kept filling up; people sitting three on a double seat, on boxes in the aisle and at the doorstep. Never in my whole life have I seen such an overcrowded and overloaded bus (save for shorter distances on local buses) and it was to be the norm for bus transportation throughout Pakistan...
As the bus started moving at around five o'clock that afternoon it was soon very clear that this would be a long, torturous night. Not only was the staggering heat (some 40 C or so outside) making us sweat floods but the extremely poor condition of the road made it feel as though we were being rolled around in the back of a cement truck! We were sorely missing the comfortable, spacious buses of Iran and the smooth roads on which they roll. The landscape outside offered little consolation as all we could see during the remaining two hours of light was dry stone desert with a few houses every half hour or so. How anyone can make a living in such an inhospitable area is beyond me but we soon got to know that most of the small villages we saw were in fact Afghani refugee camps... if living in such a village is better than life in Afghanistan things must be really bad over there! In fact, quite a few of the other passengers on the bus seemed to be of Afghani origin with the 'Talibans' being the easiest to spot with their long, black beards and huge turbans wrapped around their heads. Apart from Afghanis and us four westerners there didn't seem to be a single Iranian on the bus - a bit strange I thought for a bus leaving from the Iran/Pakistan border... guess the Iranians prefer to go to Turkey to satiate their shopping hunger!
After some four hours of shaking, rolling, sweating and gasping for air it was finally time for a dinner stop. Far away were the nice, clean, orderly and friendly bus stops of Iran and it now finally sunk in that the border we'd just crossed represented our step into the third world. The 'restaurant' consisted of a few pots of curry, rice & bread next to the roadside with the sitting area being a few dirty mats on the ground under an awning in front of an old farm house. We didn't feel like adding food poisoning to the list of hardships that was our busride to Quetta so we skipped dinner but at least got to restore our water balance after hours of heavy sweating inside the bus. Actually, thinking back on that night, the only thing that made the bus ride bearable was our fellow passengers. Not having met too many other travellers during our stay in Iran we now enjoyed long, intense discussions with Rachel and Philip about all things travelling, the world and home. We were so deep into our discussions that we continued well into the night after all the other passengers had fallen asleep, lying criss-cross across the aisle, upside down over a seat or simply on the shoulder of the guy in the next seat.
As the temperature finally started dropping around three o'clock at night and we'd managed to doze off a bit the bus stopped, the light came on in the back of the bus and a guy wearing a heavy grey woollen coat came crawling towards us across the luggage and people occupying the aisle. He didn't speak much English but the word 'passport' was clear enough. Seeing that we were all pretty tired and squeezed into the back he then disappeared again just to return a few minutes later with a nice smile and the ledger for us to sign in! We then rolled on through the night and the next thing I knew all bar us were getting off for morning prayers and freshening up at the 'Lak La' pass. For some reason the enormously fat guy who'd been squeezed into a half- size seat just in front of us during the entire trip started ventilating his anger over us as he returned from his prayers. Perhaps he thought we ought to wash off the travel dust & sweat as not to smell up the bus or something but he'd been behaving very strangely the evening before as well - one minute bursting with laughter, the next dark with anger - so we just shrugged it off, figuring it'd pass once he'd gotten his medication...
Quetta - the city in the middle of nowhere
Arriving in Quetta after a hellish fourteen hours the bus finally halted in an anonymous backyard some kilometer away from the city centre. Since Philip had already spent some three weeks in Quetta while the Taliban officials processed his visa application for Afghanistan we were more than happy to let him take command and lead the way downtown. Stepping past the usual crowd of rikshaw drivers, hotel touts and commission hunters he got us straight onto an intricately decorated local bus heading downtown. Five minutes and rupies later we got off just outside the Quetta train station and Philip showed us the way to the cheapest place in town: 'The Muslim Hotel'. At a mere 150 Rs (USD 2.5) a night for a double with attached toilet/bath it really was dirt cheap... or should I say 'cheap dirt'? Cramped, smelly and dirty rooms and bedsheets that still had 'wet spots' from the previous occupant was what we were offered in the deal. No wonder it was cheap! Thus we took farewell of our friend, Philip, and doubled back up the street to 'Hotel Deluxe' where, at just 50 Rs more, we checked in to a cleanish double (the sink was missing though!).
Our initial reconnoitring tour of the city pretty much solidified our first impressions of Pakistan - we'd finally entered the third world again and where our guidebook described Quetta as being one of the friendlier cities in Pakistan we had a hard time enjoying it. An ugly, haphazard collection of shoddily built housing along a few barely paved streets lined by open sewers was how we saw it. On top of that, it was ungodly hot, dusty, noisy and smelly - definitely a rather generic description of a midsize city in the third world. To ease the pains of the oncoming culture shock - and to fill our stomachs - we happily heeded the advice of Philip and made 'High Tea' at the Quetta Serena a daily routine. At a mere Rs 115 (US $2) per person we then spent the hottest hours of the day in their incredibly relaxing airconditioned restaurant while stuffing ourselves to the brim from the excellent buffet on offer (several desserts included!).
Apart from getting to know the doorman at the Serena Hotel (a huge bearded guy with a leather west full of collected pins who for some reason didn't want Rachels Saxon pin, go figure) we also got acquainted with some of Philipps friends going out for dinner at the Serena. Among them was a Syrian medical student (who didn't like his country of birth very much), a photographer, a guy working with a local NGO, and a man working with the Afghan refugees for the UN. On our second night in town we were lucky enough to get invited to join them for a visit up to a local temple on a mountainside at the edge of town. As we got into the car of our UN friend he did voice some concern about the area into which we were headed as he wasn't sure whether it was within the 'security zone' or not but regardless, we were soon parked in the middle of a suburb populated with mainly Mongolian looking people. Our UN friend did get a few funny looks as we made our way through the alleys of the neighbourhood but most people were very friendly and the atmosphere in this part of town was far more relaxed than downtown since the gender mix was a lot less male dominated here.
To make sure we'd find the temple our photographer friend got one of his local friends to lead the way up the mountainside and just as the sun started setting behind the hills at the opposite side of town we got to the steep path leading up. Most locals were by then already heading down so it seemed as if we'd missed the main celebration as well as the view in daylight. Not that it mattered much because once we'd made it to the temple, located roughly halfway up the mountainside, we found ourselves to have the place all to ourselves. We quickly toured the 'holy relic' which turned out to be the remains of an old handprint in the rockface behind the temple. Not much was left to be seen as a local farmer had defaced it many years ago for some reason or the other. Thus, the reward for climbing the mountain was to be the hour and a half that we spent sitting on the prayer mats in front of the temple, drinking tea, chatting and enjoying the view of Quetta at night as well as the silence at the outskirts of town (damn, those dogs are *everywhere*). Finding our way down again wasn't even as hard as we feared since the whole hillside was lit up by the village below, providing ample light for us to navigate by.
Down in the suburbs again we found the atmosphere even nicer with people being more curious about all the foreigners coming down the hillside than anything else. We headed straight into a small juice bar where our photographer friend had been before judging by the reception he got. As we stood up to leave half an hour later we weren't even allowed to pay our bill since our guide for the night took care of that - for all seven of us! Our friends told us that it wasn't the first time it happened to them - one has to fight hard to be able to pay anything as a guest in Pakistan, they said. Our UN friend then drove us back downtown while informing us about all the pirated VCDs available at US $1/disc around town. Definitely interesting as we hadn't seen more than one movie in the last six months of travel! As we got dropped off downtown for a short walk back home we once more bumped into our bicycling Spanish friends whom we last met in Yazd. They'd wisely taken the bus through the vast desert separating Yazd and Quetta and were now on their way to Rawalpindi, again by train.
...which was to be our chosen mode of transport through Pakistan as well. Luckily, for Bettina and me, Rachel had already gotten herself a ticket to Rawalpindi so she helpfully guided us through the maze of corridors that make up the Pakistani railway administration in Quetta. First, one has to go to the information desk to check out which trains are running, then one has to reserve a seat on the train by the ticket clerk before setting off for the 'discount office'. Yes, *discount*; as the only country I've ever been to Pakistan has a 25% foreigner *discount* on all train fares and a whopping 50% discount for holders of an international student card! Very nice to be entitled to a discount for once so I guess I can't complain too loudly about the 45 minutes it took the officer to fill out the forms and hunt around for as many as three superior officers to sign them (during lunch hour). It was great fun, being led through long corridors where the doors were all marked with handpainted, wooden signs boasting titles such as '3rd assistant engineer' and 'Office of the Superintendent, 2nd subdivision' etc. The room where our guy was sitting was full of people having a very relaxed interest in their work... which seemed, mainly, to consist of reading the newspaper and, infrequently, shuffle some files around. The furniture looked as if they'd been inherited from the British, long before the partition of India that resulted in the birth of Pakistan and Bangladesh took place, and so did the stacks of folders & files piled on them. It'd be great to go through all those piles of paper some day to see just how far back in time they stretch and if there're any famous names listed there such as Younghousband or so... Once the issue regarding our discount paper was sorted out we then took the paper over to the ticket counter again where another 30 minutes of paperwork ensued (three guys all copied down our details from the discount paper) before we could *finally* get our first class tickets to Rawalpindi. Phew!
The prospect of having yet another bout with Pakistani bureaucracy wasn't very inviting so I was happy to find an ATM that would actually work with my MasterCard - a godsend after crossing Iran where nothing but USD, cash, would do. Said and done, the first withdrawal of Rs 10'000 worked out just fine, so did the second but the third time I just got a message saying 'Please take your cash' but there was no cash to be had!!! Great, we were about to leave Quetta the next day and now this! Quickly into the bank, explain the problem and then off to an internet café to check the bank statement... which showed that the transaction indeed had gone through - only I didn't get any money out! *Sigh*. An email to my bank and then back to the bank the next day for another hour while the staff went through the transaction lists. The explanation for the error, according to the staff, was that the machine 'cut the notes' - very likely considering the condition of the notes they used in the machine... Anyway, after a total of three emails and at least two hours at the bank I was assured that the transaction would be deleted and my money be returned. Phew, so much for saving time and work by using an ATM!
A train ride through the fires of hell
Arriving at the train station in Quetta well in time before departure we had to hunt around for some time to find someone willing to take care of our seating assignments. In the end, we were very lucky that we'd opted on spending a few rupies extra on first class tickets as the compartment we ended up in were roughly of the same standard as a 2nd class sleeper in India. To our great relief our fellow passengers turned out to be a mother and her child escorted by her brother (an 'agricultural engineer' awaiting his visa for Canada). The 30+ hour train journey could've been a lot worse had we had to share the compartment with a gang of young boys...
Rolling out of the station at noon sharp we were happy to get some breaths of wind coming in through the window as the temperature was approaching 40 C or so. We soon left the small city of Quetta behind and the landscape shifted to large areas of dry stone desert intermingled with a few fields around the small villages and refugee camps. After about an hour of climbing up we passed through a narrow pass over the central Brahui mountain range and started our descent down to the Kachhi Desert. Our guidebook told us that this region is among the hottest in the world and that Alexander the Great and his armies had met their bane in this very area. Maybe it was the anticipation that made it feel worse than it was but the scenery outside got dryer by the minute, one dust devil lining up right after the other, dancing across the arid plains. The temperature soon started rising even more and as we stopped in Sibi I started feeling a slight panic rise inside as my hands and feet started swelling up in a desperate attempt to provide cooling to the body. It was as if though the body could no longer cool itself despite sweating profusely. Our guidebook even had a quotation from some old texts saying something like: "Why conceive of hell when there are places like Sibi". Yes, Sibi was truly the hottest place I'd ever been and it was the first time I ever felt it to be simply TOO HOT! How people can live in such a place is beyond me but I guess physical labour is out of the question during the summer months! As night fell and the evening wind blew up we were in for the next treat - sand storm! Despite quickly closing all the shutters we soon had a thin film of fine dust all over the compartment, just before bedtime...
Not that sleeping was very easy even in our nice first class compartment; most of the night the train was starting and stopping repeatedly and as I finally gave up sleeping at around eight in the morning I saw a sign stating 'Khanpur' which meant we'd hardly made any progress at all during the night. Aaarrrgh! The explanation for the standstill was that a 'tower' had blown down across the tracks in Rohri so we'd spent many an hour waiting there. At least the second day on the train wasn't as hot as the first day but the closer we got to Lahore, the slower the train seemed to be moving and as we finally pulled in to the station in Lahore we were six hours late. A tempting offer came from a railway employee on his way home to Lahore as he invited us to come and stay with them. Being dead set on reaching Rawalpindi no matter how long it'd take us, we politely turned down his offer for the time being but got his address and phone number for a possible rendezvous at another time.
The final stretch of rails between Lahore and Rawalpindi was, if possible, even slower than ever with the train stopping for long periods of time while waiting for other trains to pass, clearing the tracks or whatever they were waiting for. At least the last seven hours (yes, 7 hours for a distance of 270 km) was quite comfortable as we had the whole compartment to ourselves, sealed up the shutters and were lucky enough to be passing through a rather spectacular thunderstorm which finally provided some respite from the otherwise relentless heat. As we finally pulled into Rawalpindi at 04.00 (a full eight hours late) we then faced the not-so-great task of finding a budget hotel that was open and a taxi driver that would take us there at a *fair* price. However, leaving the station brought the taxi fares down from Rs 100 to a more reasonable Rs 40 to take the three of us to the 'Popular Inn' a kilometre down the road. Not being in any position to bargain we wearily accepted to pay the hotel a full night's fare (Rs 300) although we were only going to spend some six hours to get rested before the next major roadtrip - the 17 hour busride to Gilgit.
Heading up the Karakoram Highway
A short four hours' sleep or so later we headed out on the streets of Rawalpindi, the older twin city of Pakistan's capital Islamabad, to get our tickets for the bus. The initial feeling was that of an Indian city with its chaotic streets, noise, smells, dirt and innumerable 'hole-in-the-wall' shops but there was still something a little bit different about the whole scene - the almost complete lack of women on the streets. And who can blame them? Bettina had her first close encounter with the immature Pakistani men as she had her hand caressed by the taxi driver early in the morning and it continued throughout the Rawalpindi experience with men going out of their ways just to make sure they happened to pass by really near in the hope of being able to brush up against Bettina in an 'inconspicuous' way. So it was with not a small bit of despair that we found ourselves returning to the old habits of paranoia that we learned in Egypt, hoping things would be different in the mountains.
Rather than trying to find the main joint bus terminal (which our fellow train passengers reported as 'recently moved') of Rawalpindi & Islamabad, we decided to play it safe and book a seat in a minibus, aka 'coaster', from a travel agent mentioned in our guidebook. Pricewise there wasn't any difference and with our experiences from the Quetta bus fresh in our minds we didn't really fancy another fullsize Pakistani bus. The ride through the slums of Rawalpindi to the backyard that served as the coaster station for Gilgit could maybe have been considered an ominous sign for things to come but the bus looked really new and well kept and we soon befriended some of the other passengers. As we departed at four in the afternoon most seats were, naturally, occupied but there was none of the overcrowding we'd experienced on the Quetta bus. Finally we were on our way up the Karakoram Highway that connects Pakistan and China, passing through some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the world.
No more than an hours' drive up the Karakoram the landscape slowly started changing from rather flat countryside to rolling green hills and as the sun set we were already passing through wide, cultivated valleys carved out by the Indus river. As darkness fell, lights came on in the cottages dotting the hillsides, showing to us in a rather graphic way just how evenly populated the area is without any apparent cities. Subsistence farming and ever decreasing plots of land as it gets split up between the sons of the family probably explains a lot but we couldn't quite figure out what the huge multistorey carparks we saw here and there were all about... until we'd spotted our fifth chicken transport or so! We'd finally found out how the Pakistanis insatiable hunger for chicken meat was being satisfied. The 'chicken area' was a rather local phenomenon which was soon passed and we entered more sparsely populated valleys on ever deteriorating roads. Since we were passing through during the pre- monsoon season, sudden heavy rainfalls had caused some minor mudslides here and there making it rather difficult for our minibus to pass. At one occasion we all had to get out of the bus to help building a crude stone path across a major slide by filling out the mudholes with rocks. Suddenly, as we were all stumbling around in the rain and mud outside our minibus, we heard the roar of an engine and a loud compressor horn blaring just around the bend. In less than ten seconds the state bus had caught up, passed us and negotiated the mudslide which we'd been trying to pass for half an hour. Hmpf! Maybe we should've taken the big bus after all...
Shortly after our little adventure at the mudslide it was time for the obligatory dinner stop. The restaurant didn't look very hygienic so we decided to take a short walk along the dark, muddy section of the Karakoram along which the village was situated to find some biscuits for a snack. Our guidebook had warned us that the area, Baltistan, could be unsafe to travel around and that it'd be safer just to pass through it rather than stop. Maybe that was why we hardly raised an eyebrow when we realised the shop next to the restaurant was a small, improvised arms shop selling sawed off shotguns, automatic weapons and grenades. We were immediately offered to take a closer look by the affable shop owner but politely declined the offer - I couldn't fit a semi automatic shotgun in my overloaded backpack anyway ;-)
Come departure time it had started raining again and someone had obviously decided that an allocation of 0.8 seats per person was a far too luxurious rate for a mere 15 hour overnight journey. Thus, as the bus departed, we were down to approximately 0.6 seats per person, half of which (the persons) were hashish chewing youngsters who were in a severe party mood. Neither Bettina nor me caught any sleep that night, constantly battling the party animals for space while clinging to the seat in front due to the ever larger potholes. It was with a great sigh of relief that we saw the first traces of light chasing away the night and as dawn broke we were excitedly eyeing the huge dry mountains outside - finally back in mountain territory again. At a short morning stop in Chisal we were once again made aware of just how bad our choice of bus'd been as we there met our bicycling Spanish friends just as they were about to start north on the KKH. They'd arrived with the state bus that roared past us last night and had now spent three hours preparing themselves for ten days of uphill biking.
Fortunately, even our dead slow bus didn't manage to stretch the time taken between Chilas and Gilgit to more than a few hours worth and by 08.30 we rolled into a bus station (there are many) in Gilgit. Exhausted from our long, sleepless night we decided - for once - to accept the offer of a tout at the station and joined him for a cup of tea in the Madina Guest House while listening to his sales pitch. It must be said that the guy was one of the nicest touts I've ever met and didn't at all seem to be in the commission game. Actually, he was working as a fishing guide to the area around Gilgit and did so in association with the Madina GH, a typical backpacker hangout. After our nice, refreshing cup of tea and several attempts to deter us from going to Passu (citing Gilgit and Karimabad as better places) he handed over his card and gave us a lift to the minibus station for Passu...
...where we once again found ourselves sharing a cup of tea with a friendly - 'Inshallah' - local on his way to work - 'Inshallah' - in Sust - 'Inshallah' - who cordially invited us to stay with him - 'Inshallah' - and his family - 'Inshallah' - upon our return - 'Inshallah' - to Gilgit, 'Inshallah'. The guys extreme overuse of the word 'Inshallah' (~ "God willing") made his offer sound even nicer as he seemed to be quite a personality. It felt really good to get such a good reception in the mountains after the hassle of Rawalpindi and the noisy youngsters on last night's bus. Like in Rawalpindi we were again packed off in a small, local taxi which took us to the actual starting point of the minibus for Sust. There we witnessed how the bus driver handled the top loading of our baggage with utmost care (*not* common) and later how he secured a small box containing two, tiny, black goat kids on the roof - the poor animals struggling to get free from their restraints and breathing quickly from shock in the oppressive heat!
Enter Hunza! At last, after nearly 72 hours of non-stop travelling since we left Quetta by train we were finally on our way up the Hunza valley. Crossing the river running through Gilgit the road twists its way up a narrow valley which soon broadens while the mountains grow ever bigger on both sides. It didn't take long before we were 'ooohing' and 'aaaahing' at the enormous, snowcapped peaks that line the road. Here and there we'd even catch a glimpse of glaciers in the distance and at the bottom of the valley the river snakes along a deep ravine, cut through old sedimentation layers deposited from the mountainsides in earlier days. Lining those high (up to 70-100 metres) river banks are countless villages, farms and orchards but very little unused land. The contrast to what little we'd seen of the rest of Pakistan couldn't have been sharper.
And just as we'd started to breathe normally again the minibus turned a corner and we caught sight of the mighty broad glaciated peak of Rakaposhi (7788 m) dead ahead! We were awestruck. The sheer size of the peak with its massive glacier glittering like silver in the sun forced us to recalibrate our sense of proportion (and possibly reality). We spent the next half hour staring mesmerised at the mountain as we slowly drove around it and then another hour trying to get to grips with it while waiting for the rest of the passengers having lunch in Aliabad. The only time I think we took our eyes off Rakaposhi was when the driver offloaded the poor little goat kids from the roof. They were by now half dead from shock and dehydration but started pulling at their restraints again after being given some food and water so I guess they survived the ordeal.
So did we. During the next three hours' drive to Passu we were continually confronted with one sight more impressive than the other but none so extremely visually striking as that first glimpse of Rakaposhi. The valley, here called Gojal (or Upper Hunza), narrowed slightly and the road had to cling to the side of the mountains at long stretches at a time. We were starting to think that maybe, just maybe, we should've heeded the advice of our fishing guide in Gilgit to stay in Karimabad. We were soon to know as we were finally dropped off on the Karakoram Highway at a small roadside shop at the edge of Passu Village. We had by now been on the road for almost exactly 76 hours straight but once again we found new reserves of energy - this time triggered by the walk into the beautiful little village of Passu. A small gravel road, lined by stone fences separating the rice paddies, led through a small village consisting of - mostly - stone houses and barns of the same type as seen in Nepal. People greeted us in a somewhat guarded way but as we greeted them back we'd get a welcoming smile and sometimes a few friendly words. In the mountains, that's the place to be!
Checking into the 'Village Guesthouse no.1' in the middle of the village we could hardly believe our eyes as the caretaker showed us the large, spotlessly clean rooms and the combined dorm/dining room built in traditional style - a far cry from the basic accommodation we'd been preparing ourselves for. The place also seemed to be the preferred Japanese hangout in the village so we spent the evening chatting with the dormitory people while waiting for the excellent dinner to arrive. One of the Japanese guys there had currently spent two weeks in the village and was going to spend another couple of months researching the area for a friend in the travel business at home. At the moment he was busy learning the local language so from him we got to know that the school in the village, courtesy of Agha Khan, was of quite high quality, teaching English to all its students and even being in the possession of four computers. The use of the computers was still completely 'disconnected' since the only phone in the entire village was owned by a small motel (phone no: '1') located at the KKH. New phonelines had been requested from the government so possibly within a couple of years' time Passu won't be 'offline' anymore.
Yak spotting in Passu
Away from heat, humidity, pollution and traffic noise we fell into a coma like sleep and awoke rested for the first time in ages. I take the chirping of birds over honking buses any time - especially in the morning - and plenty of that I got (chirping birds, that is). On our first day's exploration of the area we headed straight up to the Karakoram Highway again and followed it north, direction China, past some less inviting guesthouses than ours and then up the lower slopes of the huge 'rock' (approx. 3'400 m) that loom over Passu. Huffing and puffing up the clear path along the hillside we soon had great views of the Karakoram Highway as it narrowly escapes the Batura glacier, circles the Passu orchard and heads straight for Passu village in the distance. We continued a bit further, passing a low saddle and a junction in the path, and eventually got a clear view of the lower parts of the 58 km long Batura glacier (although we didn't realise it at the time since it's so dirty, looking more like 'just another hill').
Returning to Passu on the Karakoram Highway one of the very few cars that passed us actually was a camper with German licence plates! Don't know if they'd come through from China but according to information we got later on our trip it's more likely that they didn't as the cost and bureaucracy of getting a foreign vehicle through China is rather extreme. Hoping that the camper would make an overnight stop in Passu for us to interrogate them about their route we hurried back on home but no camper was to be found. Instead, we had some new neighbours - a Dutch couple, and three guys (French, Swiss and Australian) - who'd just arrived by jeep from China. Hence, the evening was spent recounting travel stories at the dinner table in the dorm.
As we got out [late] next morning my senses told me that there was something going on in the village and we didn't get further than 20 metres until we spotted a group of women staring at the mountainside across the river. Following their example we made out some 2-3 black dots moving along the riverbed which we - by the help of the women - recognised as yaks. At a distance of a kilometer or so they're not very impressive to look at so we continued a bit further until we met the next local hurrying past in the opposite direction, pointing excitedly across the river exclaiming: "Yak!". Gazing across the river once more we finally got it and saw a whole herd of yaks moving down the mountain like a large, black drop of water. Impressive but hardly worth getting excited over, we think. Not until we'd been briefed by the local shopkeeper do we get it. Today the villagers are moving their yaks down from the winter grazing grounds at Abdegar to cooler pastures up at the Batura glacier. To do that, the whole herd will have to cross the river and since there's no bridge anywhere near Passu, they'll have to swim the cold, fast flowing glacier water!
We figure the best seats in the house are to be found at the riverfront and indeed, that's where we find most of the villagers gathered; prepared with ropes, food and blankets to take care of their yak(s) as they get across. The atmosphere is festive and we're clearly witnessing a major yearly event in which the whole village partakes - from infants to village elders. Initially we feel a bit embarrassed about 'intruding' but as everyone mostly either ignores us or greets us we start relaxing and it doesn't take long until we have a local 'guide' explaining exactly what's going on. For some reason, the yaks don't want to cross the river this year and all attempts of getting them across so far have failed and two weak animals have already been lost to the river. We don't have to wait long until the next attempt of getting the herd across is made. The herd is driven down into the fast flowing water by some 10-15 men who then have to run downstream to keep the animals from returning to shore again. The first two attempts we witness both end with the animals swimming with the stream for some 50-75 metres before turning back up the same shore they started from. It's a great sight to behold the 100 - 150 jet black, hairy beasts make the plunge into the water and move with the fast flowing current and we can hardly wait to see them all at closer range once they've successfully negotiated the difficult part of the river.
A chat with our Japanese friend from the first evening reveals that so far, there's been a total of five attempts to get the herd across and that the failure to do so is highly unusual. In fact, the locals around us make a point of stressing that never before have they had such trouble getting the animals across and that we're in fact witnessing history being made. Around one o'clock men are sent wading across the river with lunch for the men herding the animals - most of them have trekked up to Abdegar (ca. 1'500 m above Passu) at night to bring down the animals at dawn so they must be pretty tired! Apparently lunch was a good move since the teams emerge with fresh new tactics and new force from it. They now snare a large looking yak with ropes and pull it across the river by force in the hope that the other animals will follow to keep the flock together. Initially, the herd moves down into the water but once again, they return to shore before even beginning to swim. A second attempt is made, pulling yet another yak across by force but this time the herd is not even approaching the water and despite there now being a two head strong herd on the 'wrong side' of the river, no animals seem inclined to go out of their ways to reunite the flock. At three o'clock, after a night's herding of the animals and seven more hours of trying to get them across the river both animals and herders are exhausted so a decision is made to break it up for the day. The two animals that were forcibly pulled across the difficult part of the river easily wade across the two lesser streams and pass up through the village with the herders. Asking around for when the sequel to this drama will take place we gather that there most likely will be further attempts to cross tomorrow morning unless they decide to take the animals across a lesser mountain pass to try further upstream. We return home after an eventful day at the riverbank in Passu.
Asking around next morning we're told that the next attempt to cross the river will be made around noon giving us ample time for a short hike to the two hanging bridges across the river and back. The early morning view of the village from the small hill south along the Karakoram Highway is of that rare postcard variety where one simply can't help but firing off ones camera a few times. The vertical rock overhanging the village to the west, the neatly laid out village in front, the river passing east of the village and the 4'500 - 6'000 metre mountains towering east of the river all the way back to the impressive spires of the 'Passu Cathedral' which provides a backdrop of numerous peaks well over 6'000 metres. Breathtaking! Standing there, we're soon joined by a Japanese girl coming out of the Shisper Hotel just 50 metres down the road. As she's on her way to the bridges as well she joins us down the path to the river bed.
Just as we're about to turn the last bend which will put Passu out of sight we spot the herd of yaks coming down the mountainside towards the water again - and it's only around 09.30! Not wanting to miss the yak crossing we decide to cancel the hike to the hanging bridges for today and return to Passu via our hotel to introduce our Japanese friend to the Japanese community in our dorm. Reaching the waterfront there's a small crowd of people, rope in hand, waiting for their yaks to come across and discussing the events of yesterday. Our Japanese friend is there, of course, keeping count of the number of attempts in his notebook! Sitting down we're soon joined by a guy presenting himself as the former chef of the Gilgit Serena Hotel. According to him, one of the two yaks that were forcibly brought across the day before escaped last night and crossed the river to reunite with the herd! Score 1 - 149...
By lunchtime a few more yaks have been pulled across but the herd steadfastly refuses to be lured across by such tricks. A friendly local sitting next to us tells us that it's the first time ever that the herd can't cross the stream and after lunch a decision has been made to pull the entire herd across, two by two, by rope, starting with the strongest animals that will carry loads up to the Batura glacier a day ahead of the remaining animals. Another old herder sitting next to us tells me he's come down all the way from Ujhokpirt, six hours across the Batura glacier, today and will return later in the afternoon after the yaks come across. That's a full twelve hours of walking in a day starting at 04.00 and the guy must've been at least 60 years old if not more. [It's hard to tell age with mountain people sometimes though.] While I sat there talking to this old superman Bettina struck up a friendship with some schoolkids of the village who wanted to practise their English. They didn't know very many words yet but asking her name, telling theirs and which grade they were in were all favourite subjects... until some of them started singing and soon had Bettina singing with them. Some sight, Bettina sitting there on the hardened mud, surrounded by 7-8 kids, singing 'I love the flowers'. The kids, as well as Bettina, were positively shining from inside :-)
To pass time while the crews resolutely get on with their task at hand we had a long, rewarding talk with our local friends about the impacts of tourism and their opinions in the matter. Tourism is, according to our friends, a welcome addition to the traditional agricultural lifestyle as well as culturally enriching. However, they were extremely concerned and worried about keeping the tourism influence under control, often citing Karimabad as an example of what happens when tourism overtakes a small, local community. An example was made of how someone who had stayed with a local family had made a video recording from his visit that he later posted to them. Upon viewing the film for the first time together with friends there was apparently something on the film that was deemed highly inappropriate and which (if we understood the case correct) tainted the family, destroying their standing in the community. What that film contained we never got to know but sometimes it doesn't take much for an ignorant foreigner to make a mess of things. What might be a completely harmless, non-issue to a visitor from the West can be a full taboo in other parts of the world. Those were the issues our friends were mostly worried about when trying to embrace tourism while at the same time maintaining their own values and lifestyle. In fact, a small (?) schism had already sprung up in the village over the guesthouse in which we stayed. Many of the villagers felt that having a guesthouse in the heart of the village would be too close for comfort so a decision was made in the village council to move the guesthouse out to the Karakoram Highway with the others. However, after being closed down for a year, the guesthouse was reopened in the heart of the village with some modifications (such as full window covering curtains to save the local kids from seeing tourists running around naked in their rooms and doing other 'unspeakable things' in public view). As far as I understood it the reopening of the guesthouse was against the decision of the village council and thus, there's a fair amount of resentment against the family owning the place.
Despite the sad examples being put forth by our friends we were happy to hear how conscious the villagers are when it comes to the impact of tourism and that they're determined to embrace it but on their own terms. In all, we got the impression that Passu village was better off than most places in Pakistan with a good community spirit ensuring good education, food and continued development. Another man joining in the discussion (on a visit from Gilgit) confirmed this view by comparing to the overpopulated southern parts of Pakistan where neither water, food nor education could be taken for granted. In his words the mountain regions were lucky and in a far better position than the rest of the country.
As the day drew to a close the men at the riverside had pulled some 70 animals across, effectively splitting the 150 animals into two equal sized herds on both sides of the river. Unfortunately, not even such a large herd was big enough to lure the rest of the animals to cross on their own so the teams faced yet another tough day of pulling yaks across the river. As the day before, there was no problem whatsoever getting the animals across the two lesser streams and onto the riverbank at the edge of Passu village where the villagers quickly snared their animals and dragged them home for the night. One tiny little calf was too weak after the two days of stress crossing the river that it had to be carried across to the village by three men. The soaking wet, dizzy and fluffy little yak was of course the no. 1 photo target of us tourists. Going back to our hotel after two days of yak spotting was slightly more hazardous than usual due to the sudden outbursts of an unhappy yak deciding to thrash about wildly at its keeper, a tree or a stonewall!
Hiking & climbing around Passu
Having spent three days in Passu without hardly getting out of the village we felt we'd stashed away enough energy to tackle a small excursion up into the surrounding hills. Speaking to our neighbours at the guesthouse who'd spent the day before doing the Yunz valley hike we decided to follow in their footsteps, albeit without a guide. Setting out towards the Passu glacier (yes, Passu is at the end of two huge glaciers only 4-5 km apart!) a quarter past eight we'd soon crossed the bushy terrain arriving at the Passu glacier lake where the constant cracking and moaning of the melting glacier provided ambience as we started climbing up the gravel slope beside the glacier. At times the path was not exactly clearly visible but every so often there'd be a cairn or a footprint to give further clues as to where to go. Besides, the general direction (up) was pretty obvious. Once we got to the top of the rubble we got an unblocked view of the beautifully white Passu glacier as it carves through the mountains on its way to the sea. We'd read and heard that crossing the glacier was supposed to be possible (although *not* without a guide!) but we couldn't really see how that could be. The glacier looked as a carpet of tightly packed stalagmites of ice with no smooth, walkable surfaces visible from where we were standing.
Continuing up the rubble heap between the glacier and the 'rock' (the 3'400 m one) separating it from the Passu village we got ever better views of the glacier but it wasn't until we'd passed up a crude path cut out of the mud/stone hillside over a vertical 50-60 m drop that we could make out the entrance to the U-shaped Yunz valley. Entering was easy enough - only one path leading there and not too steep - but a break at a viewpoint overlooking the glacier was necessary to fully appreciate the beauty of the light hitting the blue-white ice. Continuing through the valley was less exciting with not much to look at. Sure, it was quiet and fairly remote but the dry hillsides didn't provide much inspiration apart from the incredible scents from the high altitude herbs.
As any trekker/hiker will now; if there's a higher hill within your reach, you climb it, so of course we set out to climb the 'rock' and after roughly an hour we'd made it to the top where a partly blocked view of the surrounding mountainscape and the Batura glacier valley was to be our reward. Enjoying some holes in the clouds to catch glimpses of the 7000+ m snowy peaks in the distance we soon identified our next hiking target - the hill known as 'Borit Sar' (4'100 m) - before heading down again. Finding our way out of the valley, along the Batura glacier, was as easy as getting up (just follow the path) and frankly, we found the last 2-3 hours of the hike to be rather boring without much more to look at than the occasional stray goat or sheep. Guess we're getting a bit spoilt!
THE HANGING BRIDGES
Before tackling Borit Sar we felt it'd be a good idea to rest our bodies with a short day hike across the hanging bridges over the Hunza river. Once again we started out south along the KKH and past the point where we'd turned two days earlier. Less than half an hours walk from Passu we encountered the first 'bridge' across the river. A motley collection of steel wires and ropes provide a grip for the hands and a base for an assortment of unevenly spaced planks, twigs and branches to step on. Our Dutch friends from the guesthouse were just in the process of making their way across the 100 meter long bridge but clearly felt uncomfortable, taking some fifteen minutes to get across. Having crossed the bridge, taking some great photos in the process, we proceeded up the dry landscape on the other side in search of the other bridge. As we were now slightly south of the village the Borit Sar was no longer blocking our views of the Batura Muztagh massif with its ten 7000+ m peaks. Sitting down for an improvised lunch of eggs & chapatis while staring at the mountains around us we decided to skip the second bridge in favour of a resting afternoon at the guesthouse.
EXHAUSTING, AMAZING BORIT SAR
About the only time we really manage to get our asses out of bed early in the morning when we're travelling is when we have an early bus/train or when we're off trekking. So it was that we managed to get started as early as a quarter to six to conquer the Borit Sar. Not exactly a prestigious trophy among mountaineers, I'm sure, but for us mere mortals a 1'400 metre climb and descent is more than enough in a day. Passing through Passu in early morning light we started following the path up the ridge leading to the grazing grounds at Passu Gar. About an hour into our walk the sun made it above the mountains behind us instantly pushing the temperature from 'comfortable' to 'hot' - good thing we brought plenty of water! Another three quarters of an hour later we reached a large slab platform overlooking the Passu glacier. To the right of the platform the path continued along an old water channel to Passu Gar but we now took aim at the top and started up the sandy scree slope.
Initially, the gradient wasn't too steep but a couple of hours of climbing/walking later we'd passed at least one cliff that could be classified as a level 1-2 climb (easy climbing) and the slope kept getting steeper the closer we got to the top. Our hope of reaching the top by ten o'clock before the midday heat had indeed been optimistic and as the sun rose ever higher temperatures started rising as well but the cool winds blowing in from the Passu glacier helped keeping us from overheating. That, the frequent chocolate breaks and the incredibly invigorating smells of countless herbs covering the hillside kept us going despite our complaining bodies and at noon we pushed our way up the last steep passage to the top to collect our reward... and what a prize! Completely hidden until the last five steps up the hill the Batura Muztagh massif now occupied the entire field of vision with the Passu peak and the Gulmit & Gulkin glaciers in dead centre forming a massive wall of rock, ice and snow glittering in the midday sun. The immensity of the sight being impossible to describe in words I'd say "crazy" hits closest to home. Easily the most astounding, over the top mountain view I've ever seen containing ten peaks above 7'000 metres, two pretty vertical glaciers and one 40 km long glacier and a river respectively snaking by at each side at the bottom of the picture. This landscape architect I'd like to have for my garden! To our joy we also had the luck to see an avalanche thundering down the Gulmit glacier as we sat there at the top, devouring our lunch of eggs, chapatis and, eh, peanuts.
Not wanting to risk getting down too late we started the slipping & sliding down the hillside after spending a mere hour at the top. The route down took us as long as the way up and while walking we couldn't help but asking ourselves how we'd managed to make it to the top - the distance down felt far longer than when going up... Yes, we slept very well that night and needed a further two days of rest before we could face the task of getting ourselves a ride to Karimabad.
Karimabad, the tourist centre of Hunza Valley
Getting to Karimabad from Passu turned out to be quite a difficult task as we didn't want to get up for the local bus passing through at 06.00 in the morning. It took almost a full two hours of waiting by the roadside at the general store in Passu until a truck passing by offered us a lift at the back. Before that, only a few private cars and one minibus (crammed) had passed, not much considering that the road is the main route between China and Pakistan. Sitting on a couple of spare tyres and some obscure spare parts at the back of the truck we had the luxury of a full 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains as the truck rumbled on south - far better than the crowded minibus we'd been on coming here! Too bad the ride didn't last very long... a mere 20 minutes down the road, reaching Gulmit, the truck drew to a stop in front of this mornings' bus which had had a breakdown and was now awaiting the spare parts from Sust that we were carrying.
The locals indicated that fixing the bus would take a couple of hours so we again faced the prospect of catching a lift on a road with about 1-2 cars an hour. Phew! [Taking the early morning bus wouldn't have changed much, apparently.] This time we were lucky and after just fifteen minutes we caught a lift in a pickup truck together with an Australian woman and her 2½ year old son. Camping and trekking in the mountains with her husband and two kids (2½ and 5 years old) she was going to Gilgit for supplies while her husband waited at the campsite with their five year old daughter. She told us that they'd been to the area numerous times and last time they'd actually been bicycling from China down the Karakoram with their then two year old son! Who said you can't travel with kids?
Encountering no further difficulties on the way (not counting the one hour wait to arrange the towing of a minibus) we reached the small village of Ganesh, just about three hours after departing from Passu. Trudging along the steep serpentine road a few kilometres, direction *up*, we still found the energy to gasp at the imposing Rakaposhi which occupied most of the horizon at the other side of the valley. The actual arrival in Karimabad was a bit of an anticlimax though; coming from the rather untouched village of Passu to a typical tourist centre consisting of one long road lined by nothing but hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops was a minor culture shock. In hindsight, it must be said that compared to most major trekking hotspots and other popular tourist places, Karimabad was still more of a local village than a tourist trap with a very relaxed atmosphere and friendly people.
Going out for lunch, after finding ourselves a good hotel room with unobstructed views of Rakaposhi, we found ourselves a small local place (easily identifiable by the TV in the corner running 'Z-TV' at all times) where we happened to run into our Aussie friend from a few days earlier. He was just back from a couple of days at the Borit Lake which sounded like the perfect spot for a complete vacation from the outside world. Another one of those places we'll have to visit 'another time'. Later that evening, coming back from the communal dinner at the original 'Haider Inn' (another Japanese backpacker haunt), we ran into another friend from our stay in Passu; one of the Japanese guys staying in the dorm. He was on his way on a one day tour to the Rakaposhi base camp the next day. We started feeling as if there were too many things to do and see around Karimabad - and we'd only been there for a measly six hours!
ALTIT VILLAGE & FORT
The hillsides around Karimabad hold countless small villages, many of them no more than a few houses large, and walking along the paths and roads there it's quite hard to tell where one village start and the next end (forget road signs). Karimabad is laid out on a crescent shaped hill just in front of the crevasse formed by the Ultar glacier stream. At the front, below the main street at the ridge, the hillside is criss-crossed by paths and covered with the fields, houses and orchards that make up the main part of the village. A visit to the Altit village, located behind the ridge of Karimabad, displays in a rather stunning way just how wild the mountains of the Karakoram Range are. By following a small dirt track passing through a small dip in the ridge one instantly leaves the [relatively] noisy Karimabad main street behind and enters into a different world altogether. Gone are the souvenir shops, hotels and restaurants and instead there's nothing but farm houses surrounded by beautifully tended fields and gardens. A view back towards Karimabad reveals that the ridge on which it is situated ends in a sheer drop of some 100- 150 metres down to the Ultar glacier stream!
Zigzagging down the hillside on the dirt track, later crossing the glacier stream, and keeping due right one end up in Altit that indeed boasts a few small, quiet guesthouses where we'll most definitely base ourselves next time around. The main tourist attraction of Altit is the 'fort', perched at the edge of a sheer drop down to the river below (some 100 metres or more is my guess!). Finding the way to the fort through the maze of narrow alleys that make up Altit isn't easy since they mostly end up in someone's backyard or even (as we experienced) in a 100 metre drop down to the river! [Don't go at night...] Luckily, people are quite used to tourists wandering about and will mostly point out the direction to lost souls. My guess is the fort might be quite interesting to see for the views on offer from its roof; on one side the old mudbrick houses of Altit and on the other the sheer drop down to the river with the Karakoram visible far below on the other side. Unfortunately, the fort was closed for renovation at the time we were there so we only got to see it from outside as one of the blind alleys ended at the sheer drop right next to it.
THE EAGLE'S NEST IN DUIKAR
Backtracking slightly from Altit back to the crossroads in yet another small village some 5-600 metres away one reaches the start of the jeep track leading up to Duikar. The day we walked it we were, as usual, quite late in starting and the sun was already oppressingly hot. As with the road to Altit Fort, there're a few passages where one can go wrong but with all the friendly locals around it wasn't much of a problem getting directions - or even, at times, guides. Our first guide were two old men on their way home up the hillside; not much English spoken on their behalf but we managed the usual 'country' and a few other pleasantries. We were then relayed to an old woman on her way home from the cherry orchard with a whole bucket full of the sweetest cherries one can imagine. Slurp! Our next encounter was with two small kids going home from school. They can't have been more than some six to nine years old but still even the younger of them was eager to practice her English, proudly showing their exercise books to us. As we continued up the hill a shy, embarrassed "Sweet?" escaped the little girl - far from the aggressive shouting for pens and what not at more touristy places :-)
Resting and pondering whether to continue or not, roughly halfway up the hillside in the blazing heat, we admired the fabulous views over Altit and Karimabad set against a Rakaposhi that didn't quite manage to remain inconspicuously in the background. It didn't take long until we once again were on our way up the hillside with a guide, this time for the rest of the walk as the old man was himself on his way home to Duikar. It never ceases to amaze us just how agile and strong mountain people of all ages are - or maybe it's just our own weaknesses that become more evident; our guide, possibly in his early sixties, walked up the steep jeep track with such ease that I'd be hard-pressed equalling it on flat ground! [And yes, he was sporting flip-flops, another telltale sign of true mountain people these days.] Some three quarters of the way up to Duikar the gradient eventually lessened somewhat and the size of the stonefenced fields grew larger to maximise the use of valuable horizontal space. All of a sudden we'd reached the plateau housing Duikar and were led across a few fields by our guide before being pointed in the direction of the "Eagle's Nest" (a guest house) with a word to give his best to his brother running the place.
As the name implies, the hotel is located at one of the best viewpoints in the whole area. The views from the front gives a feeling of being at level with the glaciers capping the Rakaposhi while the "Lady Finger" rock tower can be glimpsed next to the Ultar peak just behind the mountain to the right. Up the small hill at the back of the hotel is an unblocked 240 degree view over the Hunza valley and into the Hoper valley on the other side; not to mention a birdseye view at many of the surrounding mountains - the most famous of which being the 'Golden Peak'. As far as trekking around the area goes, a one day trek up the mountain towards the Ultar glacier is possible giving yet another birdseye perspective of the grazing grounds in front of the capricious Ultar glacier. With such a location, we can't say we were surprised to hear that the asking price for a room was more than three times that we were paying down in Karimabad. According to the friendly owner, business was good as he catered mainly to package tourists which are not as price sensitive as backpackers. However, he explained, he hadn't forgotten that backpackers were the first tourists to visit the area so he still maintained a small 'backpacker discount' on most items (including food)!
We were rather happy that business was quite slow at the time we were there, allowing us to enjoy the views in peace and quiet and to chat with the owner and his only guest; Bjerke from Denmark. We weren't quite sure what to make of this guy, looking more like the archetypal Scandinavian camper - complete with rented car and a huge family tent - than anything else. He was now at the end of his vacation, going back to Islamabad the next day, and generously offered us a ride to Islamabad with him and to stay in his tent as he didn't use it anyway! Too bad we'd just arrived in Karimabad now that we were given such a chance to sidestep the horrific public transport system. Some two hours of chatting with this eccentric Dane later we headed up the hill to have a last look over the valley before heading back the same road we came. Just as on the way up we were frequently approached by locals who greeted us or just asked friendly questions about us and if they could be of assistance. At one point we were commanded to sit down for a chat outside the Agha Khan School where two old women were resting on their way up the hill carrying two large baskets. Some friendly questions (with translation help provided by a local girl) and joking to Bettina was all they wanted and in return Bettina got to try the local hat fashion. A bit further down the road we had another friendly encounter with two young boys, urging us to stop and then handing me two walnuts to open for them. Returning to the [once again, *relatively*], noisy and lively main street of Karimabad almost felt like too much for our by now completely unwinded souls.
THE TEMPERAMENTAL ULTAR GLACIER
A remaining impression from this our first visit to the northern mountain regions of Pakistan was how spectacularly rough and extreme, yet accessible, the area is. A flight into Islamabad plus a one hour connecting flight into Gilgit takes one into the heart of the region. From there, within four hours' driving distance along the Karakoram Highway, one passes over ten peaks above 7'000 metres and countless glaciers - among them some of the largest in the world! A point in case is the hike from Karimabad up to the Ultar glacier sitting on top of the Ultar Peak (7'388 m).
Since we'd seen that the Ultar peak usually got enveloped in clouds by early afternoon we decided to set out early for the three hour hike to the Ultar meadows. Getting up at seven - no mean feat for us - we were greeted by a crystal clear morning with hardly a hint of wind (important since we were going up a narrow gorge where strong winds can easily cause rockfalls). Passing the Baltit fort at the top of Karimabad we followed a wide irrigation channel up towards the mouth of the ravine cut out by the meltwater from the Ultar glacier. Walking along the mountainside we got yet another view, this time from above, of the precipice that is the "backside" of the Karimabad slope with the Baltit fort superimposed against a rather distant Rakaposhi. Entering the ravine we could hardly go very far wrong as the only possible directions to walk were up or down along the rushing glacier stream [which had swelled to cover parts of the path when we returned later that afternoon]. The sides of the river soon became steeper and at times the faint path we were following would disappear under a rockslide or onto hard rock. Pretty soon we were sweating and panting in the sun that was just starting to reach the bottom of the ravine only to be countered by the cool breezes coming off the glacier tongue that extended far, far down the ravine.
About halfway up the ravine we'd passed the steepest, rockiest part of the climb only to enter a broader, fairly level area where some meadows were being used for grazing cattle. Sitting down to rest and replenish our energy reserves a bit we couldn't help noticing how the bottom of the creek looked as though painted in metallic colours. Having seen the white/grey swirls of the mica-filled waters in Passu and down in Karimabad we put it down to mica-deposits which we'd also seen create some severe clogging of the water channels at places along the route. Keeping any kind of infrastructure up and running in a place as wild as these mountains require constant, endless upkeep or nature quickly takes it back again.
Three hours after we started we wearily climbed the last slope and entered the Ultar meadows situated at roughly 3'200 metres. All around are mountains reaching for the sky several thousand metres above the meadows forming a natural amphitheatre with the creaking, crashing & rumbling Ultar glacier quite literally in the spotlight, illuminated by the sun, at the far end. Passing the aptly named "Lady Finger Restaurant" tea hut we went straight across the meadows to the steep slope of gravel deposited by the melting glacier. There, just some hundred metres from the almost vertical glacier we awed at the forces of nature, listening to the sounds of the melting glacier and watching avalanches of ice come thundering down - the best things in life sure does come for free! Later, sitting at the little tea hut, a Dutchman sporting a GPS receiver pinpointed our altitude to 3'240 metres above sea level. [Although he couldn't vouch for how reliable that figure was since the receiver had once put him 100 m below sea level during a journey by ship.]
Having covered most of the easily accessible natural features around Karimabad we spent a couple of days relaxing in town. The Baltit Fort, the most obvious 'must see' sight in town, we only inspected from outside as we found the entry fee of Rs 300 per person to be rather over the top (we usually paid about a fifth of that for dinner for example). We didn't feel too sad about that though; hanging out under the mulberry trees [Did you know mulberries come sweet off the tree? I didn't.] with the village oldtimers was a far more interesting pastime. Not that the conversation was much to write home about (and yet I do!) as the toothless, smiling old men didn't speak much English but for some reason one of them seemed to find the fact that we'd come halfway across the globe to visit his hometown hilarious as he chuckled heartily when we told our nationalities.
Auf Wiedersehen, Hunza!
With some reluctance we decided that 2½ weeks in Hunza would have to do for this time - we'll definitely be coming back, equipped to the teeth with high tech gear, for weeks or even months of trekking - and got on the minibus to Gilgit at sunrise. A few hours later we got dropped off at some backyard in central Gilgit, trundling off to check out the 'Mountain Refuge Guest House' but before we even got started we bumped into our friend the fishing guide again who led us straight to the 'Madina' so we decided to give it a try. Still being early morning, there were no rooms available but we sat down for breakfast and a cup of tea to wait. Lo and behold, sitting at the breakfast table is our French friend from our stay in Passu. He greets us and immediately asks us if we'd heard about the slaying of the entire royal family of Nepal! How could we have? On comes the BBC and we later run out to download our newspapers from the net to get updated on the issue. To my ears the whole business sounds like a plan executed by the Maoists but planned and backed by China. Wonder how long it'll be until China rolls in to Nepal under the pretence of 'helping' the Nepalese with dire consequences for the whole region.
We eventually decided to stay at the Madina as the atmosphere of the place was really friendly, the rooms simple but clean and the garden(s) phenomenal - a great island of peace and tranquillity in rather ugly and unfriendly Gilgit. Staying in the main backpacker place also brings the benefit of information exchange with other travellers and so we spent most evenings at the outdoor restaurant talking about all things travelling. The most interesting travel stories were however not heard at the Madina but from an American/German guy we met on our way through town to the District Commissioner Office to sort out our visa extension. He was travelling through the region in a gigantic motorhome resembling an armoured truck that, as it turned out, was too big for most roads and jeep tracks up in the NortWest Frontier Province. He was currently trying to arrange for sea transport of his vehicle out of Karachi port through a shipping agent since the amount of paperwork needed for such an endeavour was prohibitive to say the least. Paperwork and exorbitant fees on foreign vehicles entering were also the reasons why he'd abstained from going across into China. To us, the attraction of crossing Asia in a motorhome quickly vanished and all of the sudden using public transportation didn't feel half as bad.
A chat with the friendly guys at the DC office revealed that our visa was indeed valid from ninety days from entry whether the validity period had run out or not. Furthermore, we learned that it was now possible for most nationalities to get a 30 day 'transit visa', upgradeable to a full 90 day visa, at the border. Seems that in some ways Pakistan is embracing tourism in a major way to cater not only to backpackers and mountaineers. Unfortunately [for Pakistan] relaxing the visa regulations is not enough to attract big spending tourists. There are far more to be done and according to some people in the tourism business we spoke to in the NWFP the lack of infrastructural improvements, government funding and last but not least promotion abroad is severely holding back the growth of the industry. During such discussions I find it hard not to be a bit selfish and silently cheer that the place is not swamped with tour groups!
As far as our own touring of Gilgit and the surrounding area went we had a few walks along the riverbank where the village road had just been broadened, literally passing *through* houses that were previously located at the side of it! Seemingly no attempts to clear the rubble or tidy up the mess made by the road construction had been made and we found the whole scene hilariously Asian in an Indian kind of way. Finding Gilgit a bit chaotic and unfriendly we spent a late afternoon by taking a minibus (always referred to as 'Suzuki' - no matter what make) to eye the Buddha carved into a cliff. As usual, the road conditions were abysmal but for the fifteen minute ride to Baseen Village that was kind of bearable. The Buddha was soon seen and photographed upon which we opted to walk back to town via backroads on the mountainside. Beautiful though it was, most of the pleasure of being out of the city again was nullified by hoards of kids throwing stones when their screams for pens, sweets or money were not heeded. A far cry from the welcoming kids in Hunza, a mere 50 km away.
Still, it was with heavy hearts that we boarded the NATCO bus that was going to take us away from the mountains to the crowded, noisy and polluted city of Rawalpindi. The pain was slightly eased by the fact that the NATCO bus, as opposed to any other bus we'd been on in Pakistan so far, didn't carry twice as many passengers as seats. We actually had a rather comfortable overnight journey (and WAY faster than the coaster we'd had up) back to Rawalpindi.
Sweating it out in Islamabad
Since our only reason for going back to Rawalpindi actually was to apply for an Indian visa we thought it pretty pointless, most embassies being located in Islamabad, to base ourselves in Rawalpindi. So it was that as soon as we got off the bus at the joint bus station for Rawalpindi & Islamabad at six in the morning we jumped a local bus headed for Islamabad. We were then dropped in what we figured was 'sector I-9' of Islamabad (it's a planned city) and ushered into a small van sporting the number '105' prominently in the front window. [That type of van turned out to be the main form of transportation around town, pretty convenient but the staff of 'em were prone to take any chance they could get brushing up against Bettina - perverts!] When we reached our destination, Sitara Market in sector G-7, we were a bit confused as we still hadn't seen any signs of a big city. All around were endless oceans of green and wide, spacious streets - hardly any buildings or people at all!
As we checked in to a nice room at one of the small hotels around Sitara Market we noted that it was starting to get a bit warmer than we'd been accustomed to up in the mountains but didn't think much of it - if we'd survived the trainride from Quetta we'd certainly be able to take whatever Islamabad could throw at us! A few hours and a visit to the Indian embassy later (closed for two days) we weren't so sure anymore; it was approaching noontime and with the sun pretty much at zenith above our heads as we explored downtown Islamabad (called the 'blue' area) I once again experienced the swelling of hands and feet as my body desperately tried to rid itself of excess heat! What to do? Absolutely nothing is about the best answer. During our one week long stay in Islamabad we did a whole lot of that as the mercury was constantly hovering around the mid 40's (Celsius). Staying indoors under the fan all day long or, at times, daringly peep out for a couple of hours at the airconditioned internet café. Obviously, we weren't the only ones to adopt those manoeuvres to evade the sweltering heat; the city was more or less dead between 11.30 and 16.30 only to come alive again under cover of darkness.
ISLAMABAD VISA WOES
Come Monday morning and we were once again on our way through the weed [as in Marijuana - the plants were as common as grass and up to two metres high!] infested embassy area of Islamabad to the Indian embassy. What had been a peaceful, quiet oasis on Saturday morning was now a hellish illustration of South Asian queuing techniques and crowd control. Line upon line... eh, sorry, throng upon throng of people all trying to get to the front of the line or simply figuring out how to go about obtaining the forms to fill out. The only written instruction board we'd seen was, according to the guard who ushered me inside, severely outdated by some 5-6 years, adding nicely to the chaos. Inside things were better (aircon, thank God!) and once I'd obtained the visa form I had to return outside so that Bettina (guarding our bags) could fill her application out as well. Another round inside to drop the applications off revealed that we'd have to wait for five days (Saturday - closed) while awaiting a fax to Sweden for clearing my passport. Bettinas passport was not a problem since she had an old visa in there but I was advised to keep the application for now so that both could be processed at the same time. By asking nicely I was promised that the faxing business could be done by Friday...
While waiting for the dreaded fax from Sweden I guess we were supposed to see the sights of Islamabad but the sizzling heat during the day meant we could only comfortably move around during early morning or late afternoon to evening. Thus, as stated earlier, we spent copious amounts of time drinking rehydration liquids under the fan in our room only going out for eating, internet or shopping. In fact, Islamabad turned out to be a real treasure-trove for cheap [mostly pirated] books, CDs, CD-ROMs and VCDs. For example, I bought all four books in the much hyped Harry Potter series for a mere US $5 for the whole set! Printing quality did leave a lot to be desired but they were all readable and I had no intention buying them at full price in the first place. For music CDs prices were slightly higher at ca. US $2-3 per CD while VCDs & CD-ROMs were stupendously cheap at just below a dollar each! Hence, a piece of software like Corel Draw, occupying three CDs, could be had for a mere US $2.5 and there was no end to what was to be had. Every conceivable piece of software ever written was available in the numerous CD shops. If shopping was fabulous, food was quite a sad affair and we failed to find any interesting places to eat during our week usually settling for the local staple of rice & dal and finishing off with a few fresh, ripe mangoes as the mango season'd just started.
THE SEVEN MONTH INDIAN VISA
...so we returned early Friday morning were there was chaos as usual but a slightly different procedure to get inside (all taken care of for us by the helpful guards). Talking to the same visa officer as four days earlier he eventually produced the awaited fax from Sweden, enabling me to apply for an Indian visa. However, as I am now presenting *two* applications he gets confused and can't really figure out why Bettinas application hasn't already been processed earlier! Trying to explain to him that it was *he* who suggested that I drop them both at the same time didn't fall on good ground but eventually he accepted both applications with a slight groan, proclaiming that since we'd only listed three states to visit he could only give us a visa of maximum three months! Biting down hard as to not irritate the guy further I kindly asked him if he could *please* do his best to get us a six month visa as we planned to ride out the monsoon in the mountains for a few months before continuing through the country. A half hearted promise of "I'll try" had to make do but things weren't exactly looking up as we left to visit the Faisal mosque.
According to our guidebook the Faisal mosque had been designed by a Turkish architect and even I would probably have guessed it upon first sight by the rocket shaped minarets. Not feeling much like seeing yet another mosque (albeit a quite unique looking one) I remained outside while Bettina did the rounds. Sitting outside the entrance of Pakistan's largest mosque where hundreds of people pass by every hour meant I soon had a few admirers to chat with and my photo taken by no less than three persons within ten minutes! When Bettina returned I was quite happy to quickly remove myself from the mosque as to get some peace and quiet again while walking back to the hotel for resting through the hot hours of the day... Returning to the Indian embassy later that evening we were surprised by the absence of chaos - the throngs of people lining up in the morning would logically also have to come back to pick up their passports in the evening, or? Being handed our passports by the same guy I'd been talking to inside the embassy we immediately flipped up the page containing the visa and... found that we'd been given SEVEN month visas!? A double check later to make sure we didn't get it wrong we cordially thanked the visa officer [who undoubtedly had meant to give us a six month visa but made a counting error] and returned down the road to pick up a van back home.
The slums of Lahore
The very next day, eager to get a move on, we caught a cab to the Karachi Co. at G-9 Markaz for the bus to Lahore. As soon as we saw the buses lining up at the platform we knew we weren't exactly at the 'local bus stand' but rather at the luxury coach section. Feeling pretty tired and drained from the heat we couldn't even be bothered trying to ask around for the cheaper alternatives but decided that it'd be worth having working A/C all the way to Lahore and paid up. The bus ride from Islamabad to Lahore sure was in sharp contrast to previous transportation experiences in Pakistan; the bus was spotless, the A/C flawless and the road comparable to those at home (complete with a halfway stop at a roadside "Burger King").
Good thing that the trip was so thoroughly relaxing as it ended in a really 'off' location somewhere in the slums at the outskirts of Lahore! As no-one could tell us where the heck we'd landed we settled for second best and got some advice on how to get to Lahore centre by public transportation. The saying "you get what you ask for" couldn't be more fitting and we soon squeezed ourselves and our oversized backpacks into an already overcrowded van headed in roughly the right direction. Some fifteen minutes later we were told to get off the van and jumped onto the local bus no. 3 instead, dropping us at Charing Cross in the centre of the city. A cursory survey of the downtown area didn't turn up any hotels within our budget range so we took off into an alley leading towards the budget hotels in the railway station area [of which our guidebook had severe warnings about scams & robberies]. Crowded, noisy and extremely dirty streets between houses that looked as if they'd been used for target practice by the army made us wish we were back in Islamabad. Maybe that was why we decided, against our better judgement, to stay at the first place we checked out - the 'United Hotel'. Being too hot and tired we hardly even noticed the plywood board half covering the hole in the wall were the A/C had once been. Nor did we think much of the half fallen down wall in the bathroom that left a huge gaping hole into the ventilation shaft behind with good views of our neighbours' bathroom and the dark sky above... We *did*, however, notice those minor details as we were rained upon during the night, water blowing in through the ventilation shaft straight down into our bed. Not that it changed much as we were already soaking wet from sweating in our tiny, stuffy & fiery hot room.
Not exactly having gotten off to a good start in Lahore we set out the next day with the aim to see the most important sights of the city in one, single day so that we could leave as quick as possible. Hence, we started off on foot in the direction of the Red Fort but very quickly got fed up with the doomsday like scenery and jumped into one of the ubiquitous little vans that served as shared taxis. Again, a friendly local told us where to get off and from there we swiftly passed the cricket playing kids outside the gates for the relative peace and quiet of the Red Fort. First stop was the spacious, but rather uninspiring, mosque with its huge open space in front. We hadn't more than stepped inside until we were caught by a strangely calm and monotone guy who walked us around the place while telling how he (being from Faisalabad) always had to come to this mosque to calm himself whenever he felt 'depressed'. He then, predictably, went on explaining to us poor heathens how the Quoran really is the true word of God and how the bible had been tainted by the interference of men through the years. The Quoran, he explained, being the true word of God was faultless and had thus remained and would remain unchanged for time eternal. We could see where this discussion was leading about half a mile away and as we weren't in the mood to discuss why we think the exact writings from a society fifteen hundred years ago might need some modification to fit the world of today we bid him farewell and crossed over to the actual Red Fort.
Following the walking tour of our guidebook for once, we'd soon covered most of the old Red Fort which Bettina said reminded her a lot of the palaces in Rajastan, India, though they were in a far better condition than this one. What must once have been a quite stunning set of gardens, courtyards and buildings all moulded together to form the fort was now just a shadow of its former glory. About the only upkeep that seemed to be taking place was that of moving the lawns and tending to the flowerbeds. Not too inspiring, we thought, though the views over the surrounding areas from the top of the walls made it well worth the nominal entrance fee. Having 'ticked off' the Red Fort we caught a motorikshaw and headed downtown for some shopping, hoping to get hold of the Footprint India Handbook, only we'd forgotten it was Sunday and all shops were closed. A short visit to the distinctively shaped Anglican church (locked) concluded the day before we went back to our not-so-cozy hotel room.
India - we made it!
Getting up to an early start wasn't very hard - we'd been awake for most of the night anyway due to the heat - and at eight in the morning we caught a rikshaw to the train station from which buses run to the Indian border. As with most things Pakistani, the area in front of the railway station was a complete mess and once we'd spotted "bus no 4" which supposedly was the one we wanted we were told to look elsewhere. A mere five minutes later we got hold of an identical looking "bus no 4" - but starting from a bus stop 75 metres away from the other one - where the conductor actually confirmed that we were at the right bus stand. However, most buses apparently only run halfway to the border so we patiently waited for another 45 minutes until the ticket guy motioned us onto a bus going all the way. A very helpful people, the Pakistanis, but I can't help but feeling that they could try organising things a bit better... [We were later told that the 'other', identical looking, 'bus no. 4' was part of the *local* bus system in Lahore - not the intercity one.]
Once on the bus heading out of town to the border I got a few friendly locals to chat to so the one hour long bus ride was over before it almost started as we arrived at the border at noon. The similarities to the Iran/Pakistan border were striking; nothing but quiet, empty space and a small shop outside the actual border area. The only difference was that here the surroundings were green and flooded instead of the dusty brown desert of the Taftan crossing. We had a brief chat with the legendary [we'd heard of him from several people already] shop owner while checking through his selection of Indian guidebooks (no Footprint guide available, guess people hang on to 'em) and changing our last Pakistani rupies to Indian dito. The similarities continued as the passport officers had obviously attended the same charm class as their colleagues at the Taftan border crossing. With a minimum of fuss we were guided through to the huge customs hall (a *difference*) and were made to open our bags for the first time on this trip. It was soon pretty clear that the customs guy was more curious than serious and after a cursory dig through our luggage he started talking about everything but work. We ended up spending close to half an hour in the customs hall and concluded the visit with a glass of tea offered to us by the friendly officer! A nice goodbye indeed!
At a quarter to one, accompanied by loud music from competing P.A.s at both sides of the border, I shot the photo of a wildly smiling Bettina that proves that we actually made it overland to India. Entering India from Pakistan is not a matter to be taken lightly, that's the impression the Indian authorities seemed to want to impress upon us by forcing us through no less than three stations of paper filling and formalities. First in line was the incredibly efficient health check that would truly revolutionize the Swedish health system were it ever implemented there - a stamp in the passport signed by the 'health officer' proclaimed us fit! I urge the Swedish authorities to look into this efficient system to swiftly take care of the long queues for some minor operations...
Next up was the standard passport check & registration where I was questioned at length about career opportunities for computer professionals in Sweden by the officer who had a niece planning to take evening classes in 'computer engineering'. What to say? The third, and last, station was yet another baggage check and just as on the Pakistani side we were made to open our packs to satisfy the curiosity of the officers on duty. Some notes were duly made concerning the amount of foreign cash we carried into the country but they didn't even spot my laptop... some luggage check!
Having passed five stations in all we at last exited the Indian customs hall and started down the road to Attira two kilometres away. Maybe it was just our imagination and generally positive attitude towards all things Indian but as we were walking down the peaceful, empty road lined by rice fields and some palm groves we felt incredibly free and, above all, *welcome*. Most people we met would throw us a glance, acknowledge us with a smile, await our smile in return and then carry on with their business. It felt enormously freeing not to be the centre of endless gawping as so often had been the case in Pakistan outside of the mountain regions. The further we walked, the lighter we felt and as we downed our first bottle of "Limca" at the bus stop in Attira we felt as though we could've skipped the bus and flown to Amritsar instead! Back in India, at last!
A nation in search of an identity?
During our five weeks in Pakistan we were struck by the feeling of hopelessness, futility and despair that permeated almost every place we visited. Not since Egypt had we met so many people who looked so totally lost, unhappy and - yes, almost - crushed. Don't read me wrong, people were generally friendly and helpful but behind the eyes of almost everyone we spoke to we saw a great sadness and in some cases, bottomless despair. I can only theorize on the causes of this but by talking & listening to people and reading the local newspapers I too could feel how the same sense of futility was gripping me.
First, the history of Pakistan as an Islamic nation born out of the partition of India a mere fifty years ago got off to a rocky start as its chief architect died within just a year after the nation was born. Ever since the country has been subject to regular military coups and regimes with only a few, brief intermissions of alleged 'democracy'. In an Indian newspaper (hardly an objective source of information considering the tension between the nations) I saw a listing of all the former presidents of Pakistan and how their rule ended. It was a sad tale of military coups, sudden deaths and corruption and it's still going on as general Musharraf proclaimed himself president just a week prior to the much hyped Agra summit. Pakistan clearly has a severe problem finding good, honest rulers that can keep on top of things and upon reading about the history of the country as well as current newspapers one image prevails; that of how countless leaders have grabbed power, held on to it for a short while and then escaped with as much money as they can. The much hyped former head of state Benazir Bhutto might be regarded with some respect in the West but in Pakistani newspapers (possibly run by the opposition) her rule is associated with some of the worst cases of corruption in the history of the country. Her husband was, according to the same newspaper, referred to by the people as 'Mr. Ten Percent' during her first rule (which ended with her being sacked). During her second rule (who votes for a previously sacked politician!?) he apparently upped his bets and was instead called 'Mr. Twenty-five Percent'! No wonder the newspapers were full of stories of corrupt government officials, private entrepreneurs and others who'd taken bribes, run scams or, plainly put, stolen as much cash as they could before skipping the country. The sums mentioned were staggering, even by western standards, and that in a country that is already balancing on the verge of bankruptcy.
Second, to make governance even harder in this Islamic state we heard from more than one source how as many as seventy-two (don't ask me how they got to that number), partly incompatible, factions were fighting for power. The way we understood it was that each Mullah (~priest) of course has to follow the Quoran by the letter but when it comes to other scriptures such as those about the life of Mohammed, he's free to interpret them as he wants. Thus, each Mullah can create his own view of how people should go about practising their religion. Why all these different interpretations can't just happily co-exist is far, far beyond me [Christianity has more or less the same problem afaik] but then I'm a rather naïve heathen. The many different factions of Islam make it close to impossible to get the country moving in any clear direction and thus, they're stuck in an ever deeper mudhole as they trample around in the same spot.
Third, the only pervading base for a 'Pakistani' identity seemed to be an expressed dislike of India. We never heard anyone tell us how much they love their country or saying "Pakistan is great" but we frequently heard people badmouthing India and expressing their dislike of all things Indian. At the same time, all we ever heard on the radio was Indian pop, daytime TV is full of Indian soap operas and Bollywood movies are being screened next to lowrate Hollywood action flicks at most cinemas. If the fight over Kashmir [no, I won't even get started on that one] would end tomorrow Pakistan would probably come to an end within a year since no-one would be able to figure out why they ever bothered splitting India anyway. Actually, as far as I've understood it there is currently an ongoing powerfight in Pakistan as to whether the country should fully embrace the Islamic foundation or to favour a more secular approach.
Fourth, whatever the outcome of any future elections/coups, it's hard to see how Pakistan will be able to turn its economy and downward trend around. An ever increasing population, vast areas of infertile land and strained relations with several of its neighbours doesn't bode well for the future. In Egypt (which, as I said, also had that 'hopeless' air about it) they at least have a huge tourism industry to fall back on. The number of tourists visiting Pakistan is infinitesimal in comparison to that of Egypt (a fact the current regime seems to try to rectify). After all, it's no wonder so many people we met in Pakistan talked about emigrating. The following clip, out of an Indian newspaper, really hits the nail on the head:
In closing, I sincerely hope they get their act together and manage to get their country going in the right direction soon. The enormous diversity in population, geography and lifestyles that exist in Pakistan is truly mindboggling and only matched so far by what I've seen in India. Using that as a base they could be onto a good thing!
This travel update has been loooooong in the making and since I started writing it in Manali, almost two months ago, we've managed to tour Himachal Pradesh, guide my family through an identical tour, visit Varanasi & Bodh Gaya and to return once again to our favourite part of India; Darjeeling & Sikkim. Currently staying in Pelling, Sikkim, we're soon off for a quick roundtrip of Yuksom, Tashiding and Gangtok before we leave India for this time. We'd hoped to do some trekking here in Sikkim but the monsoon refuses to die and we're aiming to enter Tibet by early October. Thus, we have to get to Nepal to arrange for transportation, visas and some high altitude trekking to get acclimatized before that. Hopefully a visit to the holy Mt. Kailash will not be too expensive to organize from Kathmandu or we'll just have to go straight to Lhasa and spend more time seeing the rest of the country.
In my next travel update I'll be telling you how we coped with the monsoon, guided four culture shocked Swedes around Himachal Pradesh and at last got a grip in Darjeeling. I'll be trying to get that travel update out the door (through the server, nag, nag) before we enter Tibet in three weeks but don't hold your breath!Til next time,
PS! Our travel homepage has now moved to a new address at <http://wegototrip.to/> so please update your bookmarks. DS.