Stage 12 – Pakistan: The Karakoram And Hindukush [2/2]

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On the 27th October I return to a deeply autumnal Gilgit, with dark blue skies casting yellowed trees in golden sunlight, picking out details of the grey-brown mountains and the sentinel minarets which puncture the skyline. Wafts of Turkestan greet the nose in Gilgit; a hint of the powdery smoke of burning poplar wood drifts down, as if it were carried by a breeze off the Pamirs from Kokand or Kashgar, and mixes with the smell of the spices and squalor of the Subcontinent, into a town which is a fusion of both South- and Central Asia, and is one of my favourite. It’s a retreat in the mountains, respite from the searing, dusty banks of the Indus, green with water coursing down from the Hindukush. I spend almost two weeks relaxing in the Madina Guesthouse, enjoying the company of other travellers and cooking meals for myself after rather tiring of the greasy and bland fare of northern Pakistan. As the leaves begin to fall from the trees I finally make the push to return to Islamabad, not on the Karakoran Highway, but via Chitral, deep in the Hindukush of the Northwest Frontier.

Burusho Woman, Darkot, Yasin Valley, Northern Areas, Pakistan

Burusho Woman, Darkot, Yasin Valley, Northern Areas, Pakistan

I leave Gilgit with Knut, a Norweigan NGO worker who has lived in Afghanistan and Somalia, and head east up the Ghizer Valley, passing the 1900 year-old Buddha carving on the cliffs at Karga Nala. The deep, metallic blue waters of the Gilgit River are complemented by the autumnal poplar and walnut trees, whose leaves are being grazed by cows. We pass the village of Gakuch, where the Ishkoman Valley marks the boundary between the Karakoram and Hindukush ranges, to the town of Gupis where we head north into the former princely state of Yasin. The valley is heading into winter; the trees are bare, the fields barren, and smoke climbs slowly into the thick, cold air. At the end of the valley lies the rambling village of Darkot, set within an amphitheatre of dunn, red-grey mountains and bare potato fields. A glacier tumbles down to the village edge from the west, a reminder that the surrounding peaks are deceptively high. The people of Yasin are Burushashki speakers (as in Hunza, the only other place where the language is spoken), and are friendly and welcoming. Many of the children have distinctly European features, striking red hair and green eyes. Older women here wear either the standard topi, similar to that work by Tajiks in the Chapursan Valley, or an unusual tall, tapering skullcap which I’ve not seen anywhere else. We are accommodated in the house of the local schoolteacher, Murat, who produces a hearty meal of dal with bread and carrots, and salty, goaty tea, which we eat whilst his father sniffs our water bottles hopefully for alcohol. Murat bemoans the state of the tourism industry in Pakistan; fewer than forty tourists per year visit the valley by his reckoning.

Khalti Lake, Ghizer Valley, Northern Areas, Pakistan

Khalti Lake, Ghizer Valley, Northern Areas, Pakistan

We leave Darkot the following afternoon, overnighting in a hotel in Gupis which I had stayed in five years earlier, then continue west, past the mirror-like Khalti Lake. The Ghizer Valley then widens and becomes increasingly barren, opening up into dormant sepia landscapes at Phander, then winds up the broad but rough Shandur Pass, passing donkeys laden with wood to heat homes through the long winter; a sure sign of impending snows. The broad and open Shandur Pass, renowned as the world’s highest polo ground, is thankfully for the moment totally free from snow and yaks still graze on yellowing grass on the far shore of a lake, giving the scene a Central Asian, Pamiri feel.

Beyond the pass we descend into the wilds of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), where bushy beards and Chitrali caps mark our entrance into the Sunni Khowar-speaking area. Passing the enticing entrance to the Yarkhun Valley, which runs up to the Afghanistan border (somewhere I have to save for a future visit) we spend the night in the village of Mastuj, then descend the following morning through Bunji on rough roads to the town of Chitral, which is engulfed in low clouds bringing rain and causing the whole town to be covered in mud. A gap in the clouds one evening gives a glimpse of the distant snowcapped peaks of 7709 m Tirich Mir, but otherwise the weather precludes any great views of the Hindukush.

Lowari Pass (3125 m), North West Frontier Povince, Pakistan

Lowari Pass (3125 m), North West Frontier Povince, Pakistan

All the rain means snow up in the mountains, which poses a problem as there is one final mountain pass to cross before descending to the lowlands. We wait in Chitral for two, and then three days, getting mixed information on the state of the pass. On the fourth morning it is rumoured that the pass has been cleared by bulldozer, which triggers a mass exodus of 4x4s. The pass has indeed been cleared, and the snow compacted into a few centimetres of ice so slippery it is difficult to walk on. We slowly creep up the pass in four-wheel-drive, passing numerous stranded vehicles and waiting for lorries to negotiate the switchbacks on their way down to Chitral. Finally, after more than twenty treacherous, icy switchbacks we reach the pass at 3100 m, where we are delayed until after sunset by broken down lorries and incompetent drivers.

It is dark by the time we reach the first town of Dir, which is considered unsafe due to a strong local Taliban element. Knut wanders out to speak to the police, who are holed-up in the police station with an impressive array of weaponry. We are directed to a nearby hotel, though the police are unwilling to leave the station after dark. I park the car and the two of us are taken to the top floor of the local hotel, where we are advised to stay away from the windows, and have our evening meal brought to our room. I spent an afternoon in Dir in 2003, and remember for no particular reason feeling rather uneasy, something which is now more easily explained.

Buddha Statue, Takht-i Bahi Monastery, North West Frontier Povince, Pakistan

Buddha Statue, Takht-i Bahi Monastery, North West Frontier Povince, Pakistan

We leave Dir the next morning through terraces fields, following the Panjkora Valley down through Malakand down towards Peshawar, making a detour at Mardan to visit the spectacular ruins of Takht-i Bahi, a 1st Century BC Parthian Buddhist monastery complex, which lies spread across a number of low hills amidst the sugar-cane fields north of the Indus. One doesn’t usually associate Pakistan with Buddhism, but it in fact has some of the world’s earliest Buddhist remains, dating to a period where Buddhism was spreading west from the north of the subcontinent, into the Hindukush and into Central Asia (and subsequently Tibet, Mongolia and as far as Japan as the Mahayana, or Tantric school of Buddhism). The area known as Gandhara, in the current day area of north-western Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, was where Buddhism met the Hellenic-influenced cultures which had emerged from the fragments of Alexander the Great’s Seleucid Empire. The result was the unique cultural syncretism now know as Greco-Buddhism, which produced some of the earliest surviving representations of the Buddha whose Asian features have a distinctly Mediterranean look about them. The well-preserved 1900 year-old remains of the monastery complex are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, yet we are the first foreign visitors since June – five months earlier.

In the nearby village of Shahbaz Gahri is a rock which bears one of the famous edicts of the Mauryan king Ashoka. Carved in the 3rd Century BCE, the Brahmi inscriptions preach the social and moral precepts of a king whom, appalled by his own violence early in his life, went on to foster the peaceful spread of Buddhism across the subcontinent.

Ashokan Rock Inscription, Shahbaz Gahri, North West Frontier Povince, Pakistan

Ashokan Rock Inscription, Shahbaz Gahri, North West Frontier Povince, Pakistan

Following a spate of deadly recent bombings, and the murder of a US aid worker just days earlier, Knut and I decide to avoid Peshawar (I will visit it next year) and head straight for the capital Islamabad. We join the M1 motorway, which after the rough mountain tracks of the north, is a paradise of smooth asphalt. With strict rules keeping out pedestrians, donkey carts and motorcycles, and keeping out encroaching traders, and with some semblance of orderly traffic rules, the motorways of Pakistan are a remarkable achievement; one of the few things in the country which really ‘work’. Only the Pashtuns pulled up at sunset prostrating themselves on prayer mats on the hard shoulder remind me that I’m in Pakistan and not the UK.

Stupa, Mohra Moradu, Punjab, Pakistan

Stupa, Mohra Moradu, Punjab, Pakistan

I spend a number of days in the Tourist Campsite in Islamabad, meeting other overland drivers and travellers and obtaining an Iranian visa for the onward journey to the Persian Gulf, from where I plan either to cross to the UAE on a ferry, heading west through Oman and Yemen to Africa, or to cross southern Iraq to Kuwait and on through Saudi Arabia.

A few kilometres west of Islamabad lies another World Heritage Site, the archaeological complex of Taxila, which encompasses numerous stupa mounds, temples and monastery complexes from the early centuries of Buddhism, excavated by the British in the early 20th Century. Various sites are scattered around the surrounding villages, over a considerable area which speaks of once being a great meeting place of west and east more than 2000 years ago.  In the village of Mohra Moradu, in a vast, paved mound lies a distinctive multi-tiered stupa surrounded by delicately carved figures of the Buddha in meditation, while at the temple of Jandial lie the bases of a number of Ionic Greek columns, a poignant reminder of the exploits and influence of a single young man, more than 2300 years ago. Though like so many of the country’s attraction, Taxila today is a backwater little known to the outside world, it must have been around here that Alexander’s war-weary troops finally set eyes on the bountiful plains of India eight years after crossing the Hellespont.

Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital since 1962 can sometimes seem a little bland and characterless, with regular, planned streets of modern architecture. But in amongst the city’s order lie mess and chaos, aromas of food and filth, and a kaleidoscope of people from swarthy Pashtuns to strolling Chinese expatriates, which give the city some charm, especially in the frenetic marketplaces at the centre of each city block. Islamabad is never an unpleasant place to stroll; one moment I’m in suburban America on streets of large, comfortable houses behind well-tended hedges (and with a shotgun-toting guard sat on a plastic chair), the next I’m walking down a leafy tree-lined Tashkent boulevard with huge, slab-sided buildings and uneven pavements.

Shah Faisal Mosque, Islamabad, Islamabad Capital Territory, Pakistan

Shah Faisal Mosque, Islamabad, Islamabad Capital Territory, Pakistan

The city indeed has whiffs of gigantism, from Soviet-style federal offices to the neo-Mughal Supreme Court and presidential residence, to the pure 1970’s Gulf oil-boom architecture of the vast and imposing Shah Faisal Mosque. For all the squalor, noise and filth of most Pakistani cities, Islamabad, with the tumbling greenery of the Margalla Hills as a backdrop, is a surprisingly likeable place to spend some time. Once I have my Iranian visa however, I move south, stopping first in Lahore and then driving the 1100 km overnight down to Hyderabad.

Leaving Lahore around midnight, dawn breaks somewhere in rural Punjab. Dawn in the Punjab is quite spectacular. From the darkness, the first light brings silhouettes of the timeless agricultural landscape; mango trees in grassy fields of corn, rice and sugar cane. Shapes appear out of the thick morning mist, which mixes with the dust in the air. Brick-kiln chimneys issue a steady stream of black smoke, which sits in a flat stratum and hangs immobile until gently streaming off in the early air currents. The landscape burgeons – every square metre is devoted to a carpet of crops – this is truly the agricultural heartland of Pakistan. Near Bahawalpur, I cross the Sutlej, a small, stagnant slick of murky water, a reminder of the pressure which such vast agriculture puts on water resources, and a depressing sight when compared to the raging torrent which cuts a near-vertical gorge through the lower Himalaya, forming the Kinnaur Valley.

Once across the provincial boundary into Sindh, the atmosphere changes immediately; gone are the noxious industrial cities of Punjab, replaced with endless towns and villages set amidst vast farmlands. The edgy atmosphere of religious posturing in Punjab is replaced by the more spiritual and easy-going Sindhis. Exquisitely tiled shrines appear amongst the palm trees, giving an exotic, mystical atmosphere, and there is a pervading, almost African sloth. I’m reminded of how taken I was with the gentle, unhurried people of this charming backwater, and look forward to arriving at Aly and Shahana’s place in Hyderabad.

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