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Pakistan: A traveller's journal

Admin Kat
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Pakistan: A traveller's journal

Post by Kitkat on Sun 30 Sep 2012, 00:32

Never been there myself but I guess this is the next best thing ...
Passages from my brother's journal ... having just finished a contract of work in Kuwait, he decided to take some time out and travel around before returning home to Ireland - to prepare for his next job as a TEFL teacher. Where would that be? That's a whole new story ...

For now, we accompany him at the start of his travels.
Beginning with Pakistan Journal

KUWAIT CITY June 7th, 1982
A full moon in Fahaheel, and my last day in Kuwait raced at such a pace as to leave me almost incapable of thought: post office, bank, washing, rubbish chucking, bite to eat and many 7-Ups too. Finally, closing my apartment door on the ghosts of the past year, Redmond sees me off to the taxi rank and a Syrian box car to the airport. Goodbye. Speeding through the night, absolutely drained, playbacks of the day’s frenzy running like film ...
Amongst them most vivid a small pretty Sri Lankan at Al-Muzaini’s money changers. She stood in the queue, face patiently intent, while I tired my hand turning over a wad of $100 travellers’ cheques to sign. She stood with 27½ Kuwaiti Dinars in her hand, and as she reached the counter smiled privately, glowed, even. A maid, with her monthly remittance. Maybe she was counting the days?
I reach the airport shortly after nine to spend three hours standing in the queue for the luggage check-in. The crowd is entirely Pakistani. The flight is two hours late. At 12:15 am, I board a Jumbo.

KARACHI June 8th, 7am
Not as hot as Kuwait but humid, a New Orleans type heat. I spend 20 minutes in an immigration check and 11/2 hours retrieving my baggage, a bizarre game of musical baggage churning round and round hellishly. At the tourist information office in empty Terminal 2, a very helpful guide gave me a quick rundown on hotels, trains, sights and sundry. By now, both my head and legs have had enough, and a hotel is number 1 priority. It’s not the tourist season; the last signature in the visitor’s book is three weeks old.
I get on a No. 14 bus to Saddar give the conductor a 5 Rupee note, and when he gives me no change I tell him I know it’s a 1 Rupee fare. He reluctantly forks out and i scramble my stuff into the back seat near the door. Conductors on Karachi buses are something of the salesman, jumping off at stops and heavily thumping the side of the bus and repeatedly chanting their destinations. This one is “Saddar! Saddar! Saddar!” Drifting in and out of sleep as we jerk through the morning streets.
Grateful for the green, trees and shrubs, after the empty look of Kuwait. An old man shows me the place for a bus to Cant. Station and “must hurry to work”. A completely white garbed policeman with a deerstalker hat directs traffic and roars down his megaphone at my crowd waiting for buses big and small swinging round the street corner, with roaring conductors at the rate of ten a minute. I hear “Cant. Station!”, or something similar, and swing my stuff into two or three seats of a minibus, drawing stares in the process (just let me get this stuff off my back!). I offer 1 Rupee. The man beside me says in confidence “No! Must two and half more.” I dive frantically for a five and hand it to the boy, who’s been chanting “Agha Khan! Jeewa, Jeewa! Najaru!” Boy says no, tutting in annoyance. Man from front seat explains it’s 1Rupee 25 Paisa fare, but has no change. It’s OK. I pass.
Cant. Station. A bustle in the streets, donkeys and carts, horses and carts, and the earthy smell of beasts steaming, and shit welling up from overfull sewers under pavements. I approach a guy with an I-speak-English face (not many do, dammit). “Hotel Nishat?” he takes me in tow, and off we go asking shopkeepers. He’s secretary to a recording company manager, makes cassettes of traditional music, my guitar the bridge our conversation crosses. The Hotel Nishat was pretty, all brown stained wood, low ceilings and flowers, but full. I’m told the one next door will cost me $40 a night (wouldyagwey?!). I mumble that I’d better look around like. But he’s assumed responsibility for me by now and plants me and my baggage in a motor rickshaw (like a Honda 50 with 3 wheels, a back seat, and a roof). Mahmoud directs the driver where to drop me, and, leaving him to more important matters, we go swerving through back streets, back to sadder and the Hotel de Paris. I pay the driver 5 Rupees, receive 1 in change (the meter read Rp.3:60 – that helped), and I bundle into a lobby the size of a small Dublin chipper and find yes, there’s vacancies. I’m almost asleep at the desk.
A smiling 55 year-old lugs my army bag and guitar upstairs, while I follow with the rest, fumbling for a Rupee note to give him. Into the room at last, I thank him and extend the note. Horror! He smiles. I smile, play dumb, say: “No good? One Rupee?” Smile broadens, becomes a laugh. He beats his chest, holds out the crummy little 1 Rupee note to me and makes a gesture as if to say “are you off yer head or something?” defeated, I smile and mumble something about “very tired, first day (gesticulating an emphatic ONE with my finger), don’t know money”, reach in my pocket and pull out a 10 Rupee note. In response, derision condescends to appreciation, as evidenced by a precipitate transformation of facial expression in the direction of tranquillity, as if to say “now you’re talkin Rupees!” A further refinement on my rough valuation of the Pakistani Rupee, and my first reluctant baksheesh. I’m shown how to ring reception for lunch, tea or breakfast, and in case of want or whim there are two attendants on my floor. No more attention today, thank you. I’m bashful, disorientated, hot, and sleepy. I ring reception, who put me on to Mahmoud. I thank him and he says he’s always there. I feel good about that, shower and sleep for eight hours.
Nine in the evening I wake and head down to suss the street life. I’m feeling just a shade paranoid, and, in a protective shell. Stroll out into a faintly fresh breeze. The night’s alive and teeming. Everything is old, smells old. Crowds swarm across narrow streets, men dressed in the pyjama-like shalwar and shemees, a few in western clothes, the odd woman is sexy baggy trousers and pigtail. Roadside vendors cook meat cubes on spits over glowing coals that throw off sparks into the night. Figures and buildings are murky outlines. Little street light save that from the jam-packed little shops, mostly chemists. Advertising assails you from street signs: a Chinese dentist displays a giant set of dentures above his door; another – Tibet Snow Toothpaste – a cold fingertip amongst an orgy of hot bodies. Dim interiors throw out silhouettes onto the streets. Old men sleep on the shop front paths, one incredibly balanced head on hand, on a four foot bench. Youngsters raise hands for alms outside a brightly lit mosque. An old woman lying on the footpath screams “Baksheesh!” at me, her voice rising as I pass by hard faced. Noddy cars zoom by without lights. Street stalls display melons, mangoes, papayas, cold drinks from ice-filled metal boxes: High Spot, Bubble Up. The stalls are lit with mantle lamps, pinpointing islands of colour in the dark streets. I walk on, avoiding eyes, trying to soak in the surroundings, to assimilate some at least of this intoxicating variety, to look for landmarks: KMC market at the top of the street, its gateway large and imposing, its pointed town-hall-like roof on Saddar Street this (remember); a Catholic Cathedral, a warming sight that familiar church shape; the silhouettes of Gothic spires at the bottom of Sh’ara Iraq (the name of the street off which the Hotel de Paris sits “Something? Telpur Road”) After several sweet teas with milk (chai) in crowded streetside chai-houses, I find the Hotel de Paris again and climb back to my little sweat-box and the company of my fan. No cold drink. Water tastes very dodgy indeed. Get a good sleep. Finish the job you started this morning, and tomorrow, insh’Allah, a bright new day.
KARACHI June 8th
Completely recovered, I’m up at eight o’clock and ring for the bell-boy (what a set-up!). For breakfast I go for an omelette, toast, butter, jelly and tea, in my box-room – no way to eat. He lingers; I don’t tip him. Camera loaded, and off we go down to the street. I hear a busboy’s song that includes something like “Cant Station”. Get in. Seven or eight brilliant colours streak the body work of these buses; on top of this, flower and bird designs, and a big bright A5 or D3 or E6 to indicate destination. They seem to have been painted at least twenty times, and all have that obsolete look, like wrecks from a scrapyard magicked to life with magic paint.
But there’s nothing wrong with the engines, revving impatiently to nudge each other round the corner. Bang! Bang! Cant Station! Bang! Customer outside. No door. No windows. Speed is our only air conditioning. The conductor wields what looks like a leather cash register with display for money and tickets. A cage-like partition separates the front quarter of the bus from the rest; inside, women sit on side-facing seats, a pretty sight, a doorway providing access for the conductor. The women enter and exit by the women’s doorway at the front.
A man in his thirties boards a bus and stands at the head of it, staring straight, and seems to be praying. He can’t be begging; he’s not holding out his hand... then I see: his right hand holds the bar; his left... well, he hasn’t got one. Islamic justice? A passenger in front of me puts a few paisas in his now free hand, and he disappears.
I walk myself into exhaustion, through a park, and out. Decide to give the museum a miss, and duck into yet another cafe. Cafe Victoria. The menu on my table underneath a glass covering urges me to: PLEASE KEEP CLEAN AND SILENCE.
I thought it was a bit rough, considering. However, I have a chicken biryani (they had no mutton), iced soda water, and chai again. Karachi tea has been consistent even if not world-beating. I’m getting the hang of the Rupees: Rs50 for my hotel, Rs1 for a bus ride, Rs.75 for a cuppa, Rs2 for a coke, Rs5-8 for a cheap meal. I Rupee = approximately .06p Sterling. Continuing eastwards, I pass the Sind Province Anti-Corruption Directorate. At least they’re honest about it. Soldiers in evidence, not in force, patrolling, rifle in hand, tall and wiry looking. Traffic policemen stand at junctions, immaculately turned out all in white, with Errol Flynn moustaches. Sign on a major traffic thoroughfare:
On towards the docks area where loin-clad boys are coming still wet from swimming. Jesus, I’d love a splash! I stiffen my neck, and amble down past where I see some camels and carts, docks carriers and resting drivers. The shafts of the carts are longer than a horse cart’s, and diagonally directed to accommodate the camel’s height. Salaaming heartily, I give the Muslim greeting, while I retreat and focus for a full frame of driver and cart. Not fast enough, as a crowd of at least twenty carters gather, as absorbed with me as I am with the camel... Quick. Click. “You give me one copy”, he says, as bystanders suggest “backsheesh”. I play dumb, and tell him, truthfully, I’m heading north tomorrow, “Yar” (friend) “Rawalpindi”. He’s disgruntled. I feel it wouldn’t be the thing to reach in the pocket, turn on my heel and bid a cheery goodbye.
The Quaid-E-Azam monument on the west side of town, built to commemorate the Father of the State, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, is not as breathtaking as I’d expected. It’s a massive North African style dome of marble blocks, and a marble tomb within, silver railings and a gold chandelier (for night viewing, I suppose). Barefoot visitors stand gazing on the tomb in awed reverence. More awful and absorbing for me were the eight armed guards stationed at the corners inside and out, rifles at the ready and a certain hunting look in the eye. Well, the railings are worth a few bob. On the hour, they changed position; with slow, symmetrical rigidity in deliberate clockwise motion they paced the perimeter, pace a second. Impressive, and chilling.
While I’m taking a picture of the impressive sweep of feather-palmed terraces leading up to the monument, some kids and adults pose for me. A teenager and his mate stand dramatically, his cricket bat in a striking pose. One man, beaming smiles, directed his entire family into a charming group photograph. Fat daddy, three sons, and four cute daughters stand before the family car. I’m sheepish, but charmed nonetheless. Cameras aren’t too common. I’m still the only foreigner I’ve seen.
By bus to the Old Bazaar on the East side of town. Here, a large double-minaretted mosque, its tiled courtyard crowded by hundreds of worshippers. They perform their ablutions before prayer, seated at long rows of taps. Shops and streets are squeezed in tight here. I make relays from cafe to cafe, swallowing Bubble-Ups and Cokes. The sun is wearying, and I’m walking too much. The crowd’s a buzz. Narrow lanes now, and the street life is simpler. Donkeys, horses and camels pull carts laden with people, sugar-cane, hay, sand and steel rods. A vendor crushes the sugar-cane in a metal wheel press to produce a delicious roadside drink. Huge cauldrons on hot coals bubble with a boiling soup-like liquid. Kebabs and sesame are roasted over charcoal. Children run ragged, and stare. Beggars chant and tend tin plates. I put a Rupee note in one held by a small boy with a triangular back. A little girl who pulls at my arm, whining, outdoes her mother. I give, not knowing what to feel, walking on out of emotion.
Back to Saddar. I find my hotel (Hotel de Paris, I ask ye!) and shower – aahh...I’m sunburnt, decide it’s too hot for comfort in Karachi and ring up Cant Station through the auspices of hotel reception. A voice:
Sorry, City Station.
Awami Express? I want to reserve a place on the Awami Express tomorrow; it leaves from Cant Station.
Yes. But you must reserve through City Station.
I ring City Station. A female voice answers in annoyed Urdu. After three vain attempts: “No Urdu. English?” She twangs: “Piddlede Nee!” in my ear, and hangs up. My phone phobia prevents me from trying again and I make an expedition to the place itself. It’s only ten minutes by bus. There’s the place for shading donkeys, the brightly coloured mosque, its more human dimensions than its Arabian neighbours; its purples and pinks add an oomph! To Islam.
 Does the Awami Express leave here tomorrow at ten?
 Yes.
 I’d like to reserve a place for tomorrow.
 You’ll have to go to City Station.
 Pause.
 Do you think I could reserve a seat for tomorrow from there?
 No
 Which bus goes there?
 You’ll have to go to Saddar.
 Is there no direct bus?
 Look, this is a railway station! Get a train!
 Of course, stupid.
Only 30 Paisa. I go for a twopenny train ride, trial run, my first train journey in Pakistan. Second Class. Wooden slatted benches, not uncomfortable. Windows but no panes, breezy and cool. Stick your head out. The ultimate option. That way nobody can fuck things up by closing out the view. Three miles in an empty carriage past embankments cluttered with shanty huts and goats rummaging amongst the rubbish and we’re there. Window No. 27, Enquiries Second Class. Window No. 12, Second Class bookings for north bound trains. A severe young lady consults her books and can find no place on tomorrow’s train, then her partner finds a gap and she books me on the last seat. In my haste, I forgot about the stop-off at Lahore. Hope I can lie down for some of the journey. Never mind. ‘Pindi it is. 1400 kilometres, almost 1000 miles for 92 Rupees, that’s seven pounds. On the way across the tracks, a grinning youth greets me at the top of his voice: “Hello Mister Tomato!” Is my sunburn that bad?
I stop at Frere House, a fine red brick period building, a bequest to the State, housing a museum and library. It’s too late to see much inside, but outside in the park it’s quiet and soothing to the eye. I sit down under a bulbous feather palm, tall as a house, and I’m soon engaged in conversation by a French speaking Karachi youth who’s been to Paris, his mate from Lahore, and a former expatriate who has worked in Damascus and Baghdad. An effeminate, hawk-nosed Karachite drifts in beside me and grabs part of the action. He follows three out of every four of my statements with an “Exactly!” He works in Wisconsin and is home on holiday. He has headaches with the heat. The shops close too soon. There’s nothing to do. The party breaks up, and he accompanies me back through the night streets to Saddar, exacting my every thought exactly. I decline his invitation to a hotel for tea, stopping instead to ask him if he wants a Bubble Up? He doesn’t. By this time, he knows he’s on to a loser. And when I answer his claim to having picked up a Kuwaiti woman, no bother, by telling him he was lucky he didn’t get twenty years in jail, or stabbed... he withdraws. I drink a pure sugar-can juice, and walk back to my box-room.
On the way back it’s rush hour. Aren’t all hours of daylight rush hour in this city? Near the Holiday Inn, a motor bike passes carrying a man, his wife veiled and side-saddled, and three kids. On the other side of Mc Neill Road, there’s a small crowd spilling out of what looks like a church. I cross to read the sign board: St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
At the station I meet a policeman who works in Karachi, on the way to visit his mother in Lahore. We go out onto the platform, where the world and its belongings seem to be assembling, and find a shadow to sit in. He shows me a photo of his friend from Switzerland who’s coming to visit him. Porters in faded red cotton smocks lug incredible bundles around the platform: massive trunks, stuff tied in sheets, blankets, sacks. One porter carries a briefcase only, followed at three paces by a well-groomed type in western gear, walking fast.
I get to my carriage at 9:30 in plenty of time. As I’d feared, I’ve got a bum seat. There’s eating in each section for eight; of these, six have berths (the four overhead berths are swung down when it’s time to turn in). Numbers seven and eight have simply two wooden seats. I slide my luggage into racks and under seats and settle down to watch the bazaar on the platform. Entire families and in-laws have come to see off their relations. At 10.10 the train jolts and moves out of the station. We pass a sign on a roadside garage:
Most of Sind province is desert or semi-desert. Recently a group of dacoits robbed a bank in Karachi and disappeared into the interior. A squad of policemen were sent out to pursue them. I pity them, both. Dunes, rocks, gullies, gulches, straw shelters for signalmen, camels and donkeys pulling carts, brick kilns and quarries, a few bushes, cacti. Further north, the occasional canal with a scattering of what look like banana trees. Every now and then a mosque flashes by, its bright colours and small minarets more homely and pleasing to the eye than the stately edifices of their rich Arab cousins.
Nobody in my compartment speaks English; I have no Urdu.
Vendors lurch through at regular intervals, carrying toys, bangles, perfumes, magic ointments, samples offered and rubbed on foreheads, combs, newspapers, a bewildering variety of foods, cucumbers, bananas, dhal, sweets, curry and bread in terra-cotta bowls (when finished with these are thrown out the window, the evidence on the tracks of stations of thousands of such meals), chai (poured in small glasses by travelling teapotmen “bootli! Bootli!” bottles of Coke, Fanta, Bubble-Up and 7-Up distributed from buckets of iced water and paid for with the retrieval of the empties, iced lussi, the best for a thirst. Beggars, blind men, old women, poorly clad children, and a one-armed man with a teapot (who, in particular, won my admiration). All these, in their turn, passed through the compartment.
At the station, five minutes to stretch the legs or, if you prefer, join the rush for the water fountain. A three walled enclosure at the end of the platform is the toilet. You can sit back and watch the scene from your seat.. groups squat or sleep in the shade of walls, indifferent to the din of station vendors pushing their trolleys along the line of train windows. Cigarettes, chai and cakes, bootli, monkey nuts, melon slices. Each one clamouring for a few hurried sales before the train moves out. Each his own special chant competing against the others, no matter if the item be holy pictures or sweets; there’s a line for it, and an air to it. Persistence often works. The clank! of the bucket and the kfssss! Of the bottle opener and the frenzied passing of last minute paisa from hand to hand and the long whistle and the hiss of steam and the struggle for one cool gulp at the fountain... maybe... cmon... cMON!... the sudden shudder of wheels and the train is moving... the beggar at your window hand upstretched persisting mutely quickens his pace and the late ones leap for doors, push inside and settle into their places breathless and wriggling until the rhythm of the wheels takes over once more.
Station follows station, each an offer of relief and novelty from the bare, dusty landscape rolling by, a riotous interlude to the silent moving picture outside my window. At first, there are eight passengers in my section of the compartment. By the time we’ve reached Lahore, there are eighteen, my kitbag a floormat-matress, myself a filthy mess: face hair arms and hands alike smeared with congealed dust and sweat. My eyes are choked with the stuff, and my once white teeshirt now sadly streaked with brown. Someone speaks English now, and we exchange notes on the appearance of each other’s face with ironic wit: “like boots, just like boots, sir!”.
Not so funny is my arse, by now a doubly aching numbness from long confinement on the wooden seat, causing me to shift my position continuously. At one point I retreat in desperation to the only free space in the carriage, onto the back rest of my seat where I sleep for 45 minutes with my feet on the window ledge. Bodies upon bodies. Occasionally a violent struggle to relieve a cramped limb. At a red light halt between stations I force my way out into the darkness for a piss. Before I can finish the train lurches and begins moving. In the rush I almost lose a sandal.
June 10th
By first light we’re well into the Punjab sparkling with water and vegetation, and by late morning we’ve rattled across a couple of wide, muddy rivers. Irrigation canals interlace a flat plain now steaming under the sun’s heat. Gangs of water buffalo bask hippo-like in mudholes, their only refuge from the sun. Confining their activity to a rhythmic lateral jaw movement, the large faces radiate pleasure. Others lounge in the deep shadow of a tree. And nearby, the outrageous incongruity of a half dozen of these beasts (each one capable of stopping a car or crushing a man), their long necks straining like geese, being driven along a path by a small boy with a stick.
Squatting women, from early morning onwards, pat cow and buffalo dung into flat discs to be stuck like decals on the walls of houses, or placed in neat rows for drying in the sun, later to be stacked in triangular heaps as fuel for cooking fires.
Women squat by canals washing clothes or file from canal to house, water jar on head. Men herd goats and buffalo to dusty pasture. One man struggles with a pair of buffalo and a plough, in two feet of brown water. Most men lie in the shade under trees or infront of thatched mud houses, stretched out hand under ear on charpoys (cots of wooden frame and woven string.
Meanwhile, I have to marvel at the tough men and women who are my fellow passengers. The journey has been hard: to be confined for twenty eight hours, over thirty five stops, a distance of 1450 kilometres, men, women, and children in a space where one could hardly move a leg. Stifling heat and dust. Yet there are very few signs of frustration, irritation even, on the faces, preoccupations foreign to them and peculiar to my own race, perhaps?
At last the hills are in sight, and we’re climbing through rotted rocks, some of them clothed in stunted trees. We can see the head of the train now, winding over a bridge; the gorge beneath holds only a few puddles. The land is still arid and waiting for rain.
Rawalpindi, relief, and a taxi to an air-conditioned hotel. The man at reception, to his credit, never raised an eyebrow (I looked like – and felt like – I’d spent two days in solitary confinement immediately after having played a rugby match). Aahhh! Glorious! The tea... the shower... the sheets...

To be continued ...
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Pakistan: A traveller's journal - Part 2

Post by Kitkat on Fri 05 Oct 2012, 22:12

So I spend the morning wandering around and it’s damned hot, round the 40 mark. Rawalpindi – I always liked the sound of that name. A town on a hill with a gentle gradient. ‘Pindi has two sides: Saddar, the more modern business and shopping area containing most of the hotels, the GPO and the banks, and the bazaar and Saddar Street to the north. This part of town is very old, almost Dickensian, with men straining to push and pull carts laden with steel rods and lumber up the steep incline from the railway station. Dense activity, well stocked fruit markets, open drains and the smell of shite. Between the old town and the new, the railway bridge itself is a bazaar: hawkers and beggars, fortune tellers with parrot and cards, palmists with chart and certificate of authenticity, a snake charmer, two street barbers doing good business, and vendors offering an assortment of cold drinks, lussi (a preparation of cow or buffalo curd, sugar or salt and ice), sugar cane juice crushed on the spot (later to give me stomach problems), thick iced fresh mango juice prepared with automatic liquidizers, any amount of multicoloured sherbet and syrup/water drinks, and the old faithfuls Coke and 7-Up.
Saddar has three well stocked second hand bookshops. I find a biography of Lenny Bruce, and Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. I leave two shirts at a dry cleaners and check out the tourist people at (what a name!) Flashman’s Hotel. With the help of the tourist lady I finally work out Shah’s address. It was a mis-spelling! She directs me to Dhimiel Road, not Dhariel Road, which doesn’t exist. Quaid-E-Azam Colony is a newly inhabited area four miles outside of ‘Pindi. Few townspeople know it. I take a Suzuki, the generic term for light Japanese pickup trucks with covered seating for about ten passengers. The inevitable destination crier fare collector boy swings daredevil from the back as we pull away, to Bakramindi village three miles further up the hill, where I’m treated to a Coke by Mohammed while he shows me the road to Quaid-E-Azam Colony. One mile. So I walk, salaaming as I go. It’s village land now. Brick kilns smoke in the distance. Goats mass in roadside fields (bakra, Urdu for goat, hence Bakramindi, town of goats). ‘Mindi is a buzzing market village, yet people here seem quiet and gentle after the big town below. I get to QEA, salaam, ask for chai at the roadside chaihouse, and pass the time of day in Arabic with Mohammed Sadiq and his bicycle. He has spent some years in Saudi Arabia and Iraq as a carpenter. A couple of enquiries and we’re on our way up the hill to Hilltop Villa. The cafe man refuses my Rupee, ignoring my protests. We push up to a new, half-finished house. I wait while Mohammed disappears round the corner. An answering voice – yes, I know that voice: Shah! “Come in!” Absar is with him. Just arrived yesterday. Stopped over in Mecca. Great timing. The old man is there. Introductions. Pay your respects. Grave, noble, erect. A Persian nose and disciplinarian jaw. A man who would not take no.
Chai – a huge pot. Good ol’ Shah, he never forgot! I sit down to hear of the year in Algeria, and some good yarns too. Meksood, the seaman and youngest of the brothers, is home. I’m shown around the large new house, its structure only recently completed – Hotel Shahji.
Evening. A soft light paints the horizon. Quiet. Donkeys, hens and buffalo speak. The occasional motor passes. Women carry water, as we talk into the night. The wall of the Himalayan foothills blackens into solid under the skyline to the north, and we sleep with stars all around, each of us reading his own story there.

Down to ‘Pindi, to collect my baggage from the Pakland Hotel. On the television news we hear of Pakistan losing in hockey to India. Absar has business in Islamabad, so I tag along. A fifteen minute Suzuki ride. It’s the twin city to Rawalpindi and administrative centre of Pakistan. All new and modern, a model planned city with a grid pattern street system. Government offices, civil servants’ houses, embassies, consulates and shopping precincts. And trees. Thousands, hundreds of thousands of them, prettifying the concrete and insulating it from the bouncing sun. I didn’t like the place, not a bit.
It’s over forty degrees Centigrade, and I’m knocked out with the heat. We travel by tanga, a light, horse drawn buggy with a sunshade, the slowest, cheapest, and most pleasant form of transport. We rendezvous with a friend of Shah’s who has a car, and drive up the mountain wall, past Faisal mosque, second largest in the world, to hold 6,700 worshippers; the largest is in Lahore, built by the Moghuls. Guess who built Faisal Mosque! Seen from above, where we stand, the aspect and shape of the city put me in mind of Boulder, Colorado.
We return to town and go by taxi to the green belt which separates ‘Pindi from Islamabad, and in particular, Rawal dam and reservoir. The taxi is a black Morris Minor with a yellow roof. Absar is showing me the sights. It’s illegal to fish or swim without a permit. I go for a dip where an army major drowned last week, just to break the law, while Absar sits on the shore worrying. It’s luke warm, but it’s some escape from the solid heat. We go for a boat ride, Noddy-round-the-buoy, and Absar is pleased for me. Coming back, we meet a fishing officer who asks me to take his photo. He looks bore., invites us to his hut for a cool drink. He’s student of History at university, and he wants to join the army; it’s the best career opportunity in Pakistan. He’s going for an interview shortly, and asks Absar to pray for his success. With secondary school teachers’ wages at Rs.700 a month and wages in th army at Rs.2,000 for a cadetship, it’s no surprise people don’t want to teach. Nor not surprising that Pakistani teachers are so eager to “Gulf it” for several years, where they can earn ten times the salaries they would command at home. The Arabian Gulf looks greener from this side.

June 13th – 15th
The lost days. I go to relieve myself in a quiet gully some distance from the house (there’s no toilet yet in Hilltop Villa), and here it is at last – the Shits! For three days I hang around the house feeling 83 years old, weak, watery, tummy butterflies and a diabolical hammering in the back of the head. Hot and cold all over at night, and the damned mosquitoes home in. At night on the roof, I need to wake up Meksood to bring me past the dog (standard no-way-will-you-pass-me snapper) to get down the hill for a crap. Three times in the night. No food. Can’t eat. I feel bloody awful. Wish I was asleep, at home. I’m homesick, comfort myself with thoughts of Leah nursing me. Thoughts flit in the dark, of flying to London – oh glorious cold – and how easy it could be... but it would be never to return. Wait it out.
Next morning I go down to the doctor’s surgery. Sick people scare them. Oh blessed are the nurses and sick tenders, for it’s damned easy not to care, and sick and ignored is a lonely cell.

OK. Get that down you. A couple of cold baths from the well. JEEEzz! Some porridge from kindly Meksood, and a dawn comes lovely. I finish Lenny Bruce’s story, and we go down the hill to the next village and the buffalo racing. The what?! Yep. Buffalo racing, and pictures to prove it. Two lines of villagers, four deep, stretch a quarter of a mile uphill to a brightly festooned finishing line and a pipe band. The lines of people are a hundred yards apart. Between them the track is kept clear by a galloping, white bearded “Commander” in white shalwar and shemees and a flying green robe, who, wielding a heavy stick, makes sporadic runs, thundering along the lines with flashing hooves and raised stick, and the lines fall back like dominoes falling. And up that track every five minutes come a pair of buffalo bulls held by two men, a rope on each side. A third man on a trailing footboard holds on for dear life to a colourful harness. In his other hand a green flag which he would alternatively wave in the air for the benefit of the crowd or poke up the bull’s arse flailing madly by with a wake of dust, yahoo! Eyes wide and egged on by a cheering crowd at thirty miles an hour. It’s over in thirty seconds. Sometimes there are false starts. Bulls rear up, skit, and run off towards the crowd. The green commander, meanwhile, restores the line in a bloodcurdling sweep and we’re off again. The band leads out each team, walking slowly downhill to the starting point. Each bull wears its own special tiara-like headdress. The band consists of a man with a big bass drum and drumstick, two men carrying lighter drums, aman with a high pitched parping silver horn, and bringing up the rear a bagpiper. The result, a sound at once exotic and homely. A great combo. A pity we could hear only snatches. The real show, later tonight is to be graced by a famous male singer to celebrate the anniversary of a holy man of the village. It’s a special religious holiday, and all the locals are out, on rooftops, trucktops, even Morris Minor tops. We pass through a small children’s funfair. There’s khaash-khaash, a very cold, white, thin drink made form crushed poppy seeds, chai, and other refreshments. Politico-religious speeches are delivered through microphones, urging people to do something or other.
Shah, what are they saying?
Nothing, the bloody bastards; they have nothing to do!
Unfortunately, music, dancing and alcohol (the local variety, a little of which I am told will appear in the course of the evening) are all harram, sinful in the eyes of Shah’s father. Impossible for his sons (and, as their guest, for me) to remain in this place. Music, say the Shia Muslim, is idleness and distraction – ah! How wrong, how damned wrong!
Evening, the air is close. We’re still waiting for the monsoon to break. Later, a bath in a deep water hole, a favourite spot of Meksood’s, helps to sooth body and mind. We go home to our silent rooftop, to my untouched guitar and go to sleep seeing lights in the distance and hearing the faint parp.

I breakfasted on eggs and chapatees with Meksood only. The others had gone to their village and families. Down by Suzuki to Bakramindi, where I catch another to Saddar. I’m shown where to board an eight Rupee “wagon”, i.e. a Ford Transit van for Murree. A pretty comfortable alternative, considering the bus is six Rupees and they tend to turn over (we passed an o.t’d bus along the way). We start to climb. It’s exhilarating. The gradients are gradual at first, and the road straight, now steeper. The engine’s got to work harder, twisting and revving around switchbacks, overtaking ancient, snorting buses, at times running too close to the edge for my sense of ease. Valleys deepen below where little wasted streams flow along river beds too large for them. Rain hasn’t come yet. Higher again, I can smell pine, and we’re surrounded now by mountains, and occasionally in the far distance a peep of snow-flecked peaks. We stop to cool the engine and fill the radiator. Passengers drink from a spring. I go for a 7-Up, anxious not to be left behind. But the driver blows a long blast on the horn, and we pile in again. We climb steadily. At each succeeding bend the view from the window is more dimensioned, spinning. We pull in at Murree wagon stop, a confusion of vehicles arriving and departing. I get my baggage down from the roof and begin strolling up the hill. Before I can reach the road I’m hassled three times with offers of coolee (porter) services, twice for a taxi, and once for a hotel. I respond with a vague, misty regard and zap em with “Nay, shukria” (no thanks). No shortage of hotels it seems.
The houses have fairytale quality: jutting wooden facades and galvanized roofs, staggered at a hundred levels over a street that winds zigzag ever up and up. Some built of stone, of a Scottish solidity, circular based, to withstand any weather. Turrets, towers, archways and steps. But most of the buildings along the the Mall main street are concrete and wood, and geared for tourists. Schools out, and kids and their families are swarming into town. Those who have found accommodation stroll lazily up and down the Mall. Teenage girls display themselves in superior clothes, designer shalwar and shemees.
I check out a hotel. No. Too dingy. I’ll have no more windowless cells. And he wanted Rs.69 for that?! Up a flight of steps. A man shows me yet another room. This one’s a double, the size of a single, of course. Wants Rs.125. No. Down once more. Up another flight. Here’s a room off a noisy corridor. The man wants Rs.60, plus Rs.10 “commission”, being very anxious to impress that on me. Three kids gawk from the corridor through the mosquito screen and I shoot them all with a finger. When they return for the fourth time with reinforcements it’s time to quit. Have ye no parents to annoy? Buss! (enough). A middle-aged man in a check shirt puts his head in the door and knocks. “I’m the owner here.” He’s a hunchback. He comes straight to the point and tells me I can’t stay. I’m a foreigner. They have no government forms for foreigners. “I’m very sorry” he means it, and offers me tea. Mr. Sulaiman is his name. We chat. He gets down on The West because we lock our mothers and fathers away in homes and don’t love them. I’m not very good on arguments. This one progresses to world affairs and evaporates. “You Irish are very brave.” I promise to drop in and see him and sing a song on the guitar. We shake hands. He charges his two nephews to lead me to the Hotel Majestic, up endless flights of steps and steep sloping paths. The Hotel Majestic turns out to be something out of the wild west, only with less room. But the people seem OK, and I can’t haul my gear around all day. I have a cup of tea with my two escorts. It’s quiet. Until four coolers freeze the scene, flashing teeth and playing cards and 100 rupee notes. They’re from out of town, the boys tell me. I decline their invitation to a friendly game of cards. I don’t need this kind of people.
Suddenly, there’s thunder rolling over us and the sky darkens. All down the Mall people run for cover and slam windows as the rain falls in solid sheets. It becomes very cold. From our hotel “dining room” overlooking the Mall, everyone stares through windows, jabbering excitedly. I’m shivering in my teeshirt, smoking with shaky fingers over my cup of tea, watching stragglers struggle up the hill and disappear through doorways, dive through them. Large hailstones roar across the tin roofs, and children are excited. The Mall road is a river. It’s great! I shiver and tell them “it’s great!”
After the flood, we step out, the two young medical students from my hotel leading the way, to this Irish man, Kevin, whom they’d met staying in some hotel room. Going down to his hotel room... to dance?!
“Yes, he says he likes very much dancing! Do you like dancing also?”
“Eh... that depends...”
Then we shall dance together, Mister Jimmy!”
They say he’s going to Iran, coming from India. What is he, a Head? A Cooler?
I along with them, descend a long, cobbled back lane. We enter a dark building. A cautious greeting A tall figure emerges from the shadows of a tiny room. It’s a Kerryman! All smiles and easy talk. We chat for an hour. I suggest we postpone the dancing, and go for a beer in the Cecil Hotel. A chemist had told me it’s still possible for Europeans - with a special permit – to drink Murree Export Lager, only at The Cecil. The Cecil is situated in its own grounds in a high part of town jutting out over a valley, which, now all lit up, seemed to me like Cork City. The night is cool after the rain. The smells of pine and flowers and wood smoke and wet stone makes me feel as if there has to be a pub just around this corner, cheerfully lit, people playing darts and a barman waiting with a clean white teacloth; next best, when we find it, is The Cecil: wooden balconied and verandahed, large imposing reception hall, the Smoking Room with its massive fireplace and deep pile carpet. We wandered to the perimeter of the dining room where a charming waiter ushered us into an adjoining chamber. I sat back carefully on a delicate legged settee and watched the Koran on television while we waited for the bar to be opened – for us. If the portrait of the Qaid-E-Azam above the fireplace had been swapped for a George III, you’d have had it, entire. Another immaculately dressed servant (barman? No.) with the keys to the bar arrives and opens. We file in behind him feeling uncomfortably conspicuous. We sign all the necessary papers, pay the stipulated sum, and try to appear dignified in attempting to transport four large bottles of Murree Export Lager across town and up a crowded Mall to Kieran’s hotel room. We clink coolly popeyed up the hill past grinning weknowwhatyou’vegot Pakistanis to rendezvous with Aji and Mohammed at the hotel room. Well stocked with Woodbines, we stop on the way for some cream cakes, and I go to collect my guitar from the Majestic. Coming out, I am attempting to lock my room door, a fucking padlock with a key the size of a needle, when my friend Sulaiman, whom I am supposed to have visited twice, accosts me at the top of the stairs:
“You enjoy Murree?”
“Sure. Yeah. It’s great.”
Just let me lock this fucking room. Fucking great place... look, I’m out of my head, just let me GO, WILL YOU!!
Shake hands.
“Got to rush. See you later!”
Down the stairs and up the hill.
Kieran’s hotel room was a tiny stock room, at Rs.7 a day, the result of hard bargaining. The rub was that it remained a stock room, and the owner popped in every hour to fetch a blanket. We find a nail to open the bottles. The beer is excellent. Aji and Mohammed take their leave soon, nervous after all about the beer and the hotel owner who continues to pop in for blankets. We exchange songs and party on beer and cream cakes for as long as it’s decently proper. Unable to accurately interpret the reactions of Kieran’s fellow clientele in the adjoining dormitory (Were they horrified? Or shyly amused?), we curb the more violent noises at about midnight. Later still, after a long chat, I retire with the guitar, unsteadily, creep past the dormitory sleepers, ward off a request in the Mall for “just three songs” (I’m barely capable of holding the case) and meander intently down the hill. The Majestic is dark and silent, Owner and Helper asleep in the dining room. I unlock and lock my padlock. I read a Ray Bradbury story before sleep.

June 17th
The rain continues in short, violent showers. Here in Murree, seven thousand feet above sea level, the temperature is considerably lower than on the plains below. Murree, the largest and most popular in a string of hill stations called the Gallees was the summer retreat for the British in the days of the Raj, an escape from the stifling summer heat of Rawalpindi. They built a metalled road, and some fine stone buildings, the most impressive being the summer residence of the Governor of Punjab Province. It sits on the highest point of Murree, surrounded by high walls, looking out onto Kashmir. The Hotel Cecil must have been some fun on a Saturday night.
The British moved out, and the Pakistani ruling classes moved in. Nothing much has changed (except perhaps the bar in the Hotel Cecil); the Governor still lives on the hill. Residences once occupied by the families of military and civil administrators of the British Raj now house foreign consulates, high government officials, or the rich of Islamabad. But the people who fill the streets and the hotels and the pockets of Murree are the Pakistani middle class, the people with Ciaran and I as foreigners have most contact. My hotel seems to be (by accident or design, I don’t know) a gathering place for medical students who have just finished their exams. Some have come a long way, from Lahore, Multan, and even Hydrabad, for the luxury of a couple of days in Murree.
Sitting in the dining room, watching the Mall Road strollers, a Pakistani student asks me would I like chess? A game of chess? Yeah...Great! He disappears, and comes back with a lump of charas – different thing entirely, Jim (Charas = cannabis resin, Urdu).
So we breakfast in their room: omelettes, toast and chai. I bite into a lump of charas as big as a sweet, thinking it was exactly that – a charas sweet. It wasn’t. There are ten of us in a small room. It’s freezing outside but in here it’s warm as toast. One of the boys, about thirty years old, shaved head and grinning eyes, wants to dance (oh yeah? Here we go again). “No! Not at all! Ciaran’s a much better dancer than me!” To escape, I go for the guitar. Our friend with the grinning eyes takes the floor to enthusiastic encouragement all round. He becomes the performer and we the audience. He wants disco – we play the nearest we can – rock ‘n roll. Jerry Lewis, so Ciaran and I christened him, danced like disco king; we cleared as wide a space as we could for him in the centre of the floor. He spoke as much English as we spoke Urdu, but he would stop and deliver the odd sermon lecture for our benefit from the middle of the floor. Trays of chai came and went. Outside the rain continues. We play ourselves out.
For the first time in months, I’m cold. I’ve no coat or warm clothes up here. We spend the evening, Ciaran and I, huddled over cups of chai, playing “Battleships”.

June 18th
This day is magical. I’ve been out walking goat tracks down the hills below the town. Clay is soft and smelling rich after the rain, and the stately pines spearing heaven; the soiled clouds blow north like sheets on a line where they gather and murmur on the big mountain and mouth mumblings into a roar. A lazy flop of wings and I look up and a large shape flops from a pine tree and falls away down the valley. I look up and there’s twelve more vultures in the trees like big brown fruit. Crows tread air, ride waves, stand up straight in air, legs juggling. Stationary. Butterflies hover.
The hailstones come heavy roaring round us in the tiny boxroom with the guitar and battleships battling. The foundations of the house beneath us seem to crumble throwing us down into a cold gutter. Rain seeps and drips down one wall, trickles and advances to invade my room. We’re pushed back towards the door. My 50 Rupee room. Try to save the bedclothes.
Out into the evening and it’s Dickensian, Elizabethan even. There are three of us; we’re joined by Guy, a French Canadian from Quebec. Through the dark colour splashed streets, down the steps dreeping with shine, along alleyways. Textures fill out. Details delight the eye’s appetite. We gorge visually. Chai-houses with brown wood and yellow light and green walls and white crockery blink into the streets. We climb up and drink sweet tea from blue enamel teapots. A Rupee a time. A cardboard tray of cakes crucially chosen (four apiece, the cream and sponge ones) sits on the table. Munch. And to chase it a woodbine, and colours to swallow, in big gulps. A man in his thirties enters, silent, sits crouched at a table, slurping the warmth. Beside him, a bearded Murrean tells a long story. The man remains silent. Dressed in black, large black beard, hands dangling, long, long nails, silent. Staring down at the table. A Shakespearian hero, disguised. Listening, cloaking inner anguish, a poor cold Tom on the heath. With a grunt, he rises and flops out the door. Two bare light bulbs gleam yellow wash on the green walls and brown wood, daub black shadow.. the boy in the brown waistcoat begins to shutter up the front of his shop. It’s closing time.
Tomorrow we’ve got a place to see, where the strange man comes from. He’s a holy man, and his village, Garrigalli, a place of pilgrimage. Garrigalli. It sounds mysterious.
Outside, Ciaran finds the Plough. “That’s north.”
Everywhere tiny shops are closing. An old man in waistcoat and skull-cap sits like a garden gnome in the centre of his fruit stand, as if for sale. A young man wrapped in a brown woollen shawl crouches, knees up, motionless among his goods. In a fish shop, a twelve-year-old squats hunkered over a steaming pot. Another pot steams beside him. Aloo and pakora for sale (aloo = potato, pakora = firy, spiced vegetable pulp; both are , dipped in batter and fried in oil) Hell colours, brown and red, make him glow, his spoon at the ready.
The streets are empty, wet, blowing. Other worlds have reached up through the darkness and possessed us. Murree grows.

June 19th
Ciaran, Guy and I had decided the previous evening while we drank in our local chaihouse, after a conversation with an exile, we’d off to this place Garrigalli. So, at 11 am, the breakfast and toilet formalities of the morning over with, we question our way towards the better known Chigalli road. It’s a fine sunny morning; I’m floating up the road, impatient as a child to get out of town away from the crowds. I’m flying – I need room. Chigalli, and we hit a chaihouse, and the door opens onto a back porch, which opens straight onto the valley a thousand feet below us. The sun bakes the trees below, and we sit on the rim of this bowl, a table and three chairs and three full chai cups and a joint. Beneath the table, the wooden floorboards are supported by only three protruding wooden beams, only a fragile edifice to keep us so high up here. Next, a Suzuki, to continue our pilgrimage to Garrigalli. It is more beautiful by far than Murree. Vast spaces sweep to depths, tree masts plumbing black hollows. We lie on a grassy saddle straddling the valley below. Above, converging pine verticals point to the sun. Our bodies levitate between earth and sky. We hold conversations with the crows, the most articulate among the bird community. There’s a species of crow with a double caw. We intercept their dialogue. Guy makes a hollow bird sound with cupped hands; I make high pitched grass blade whistles cutting high into the valley air. We laugh. We hitch a big, bright coloured truck to Murree, and climb to the high foc’sle above the cab, holding on very tight, skidding excruciatingly round sharp corners, spraying gravel, riding high on ridges over treetops, to grind to a halt, only half way home.
We make it back to Murree, to the old chaihouse, and buy two boxes of cream cakes from the Star Bakery. Guy and Ciaran play Battleships, while I fill in sixteen postcards and stick all the stamps, telling people about pine trees and chai and Morris Minors black and yellow.
June 20th
We say goodbye to Ciaran and hang around the wagon terminal making enquiries. A smooth operator slides up and offers us Abbotabad by taxi for Rp 150 (!!?*). Evidently, there’s no transport direct to Abbotabad. “Ayubia Ayubiayy! Ayubia Ayubiayy!” Bang! Bang! Check the map. It’s in our direction and they’re about to leave. OK, let’s go. We pile in the bus (it’s the kind that turn over), and it’s a 4 Rupee trip down the hill and up another to Ayubia.
We sit in a chai shop on the Nathiagalli road. Cold clouds are coalescing. It’s about to rain and almost dark. We order two chais. The old chai-man gets the chai machinery into action, hovering and flitting around the wood fire, a business smile speeding up the metabolism. Two more travellers sit in on the bench under the wooden canopy. The fire’s crackling now and the kettle’s steaming. Here’s shelter and good cheer.
A Suzuki for Nathiagalli pulls up, and we squeeze in and settle, gripping the overhead bar, and we pull away to skim over ridges through silhouette pines. Raindrops plop, big and cold. We stop and pull over the tarpaulin. There are some holes in it. The rain falls heavily and the two small boys swinging from the back tunnel their heads and backs into the packed Suzuki to find some measure of shelter. The sploosh! and puddle swish! of wheels as we slosh around corners, climbing hills and roar along small straights.
There’s a group waving on the side of the road. They carry a sick man on a bed. They need a Suzuki. Out. Out in the rain. We jump out into the rain, desperately. I receive an icy volley across my shoulders. Still only dressed in a shirt, waiting for a Suzuki, shivering.
Shit!! It’s COLD!
Into another. This time the tarpaulin is well holed. Rain seeps in cold, down the back of the neck. We sit tight in silence all the way along the saturated valley sides to Nathiagalli.
It’s a village, one street only. We check the first hotel. Rs.50 for a double room. Try another. Again Rs.50. As we turn around (intending to return) he asks if it’s too expensive for us. We take it, for Rs.30. We deposit our belongings joyfully, descend for chai, and negotiate a meal.
A lon-bearded Australian with a rucksack passes by. We talk for five minutes on the street, and he moves on. He’s sleeping rough, penny pinching. I’m still spending relatively uninhibitedly after Kuwait, and the gulf between us is all the more evident.
We sit down to a solid meal of meat, potatoes, spinach and roti (thick discs of unleavened bread), chased by chai, and a joint kindly given us by the landlord.
There’s a power cut. It’s all over. The lights are out everywhere. A candle is produced, and we sit on in the dark, listening to the crackle of Urdu disco on the transistor, and the low, calm hum of conversation. Small boys sit outside the flickering ring of light, watching. Two tall men wrapped in heavy shawls enter and sit, order food. Their turbans are wrapped flamboyantly; their eyes are narrow. We eye each other occasionally. They are Afghani.
Communication is almost zero, but it doesn’t matter. Here is ease and calm. We stare content into the space of night lit up outside on the wet street. Stoned. The strange “zh” sounds of the Afghani language colour the night’s already exotic clothing. I lift my body to standing position, and chart a course bedward. The monotone drone of Urdu news on the transistor. Opening the lock in the dark baffles me, until I realize why... (!!) Of corse! There’s no light!
A luxurious sleep, like sinking into silken piles.

We wake in the morning to Pakistani music from downstairs on a faulty tape recorder. Breakfast on “Terrace”, an enclosed balcony outside our room with table and chairs, and a view over the entire length of Main Street. Fried eggs, toast and lashings of tea. It’s a cold morning. Nathiagalli is a thousand feet higher than Murree. Downtown. Town is seven or eight wooden slatted buildings leaning over a bend in the road, sheltered above by pines and sweeping down across the galvanized roofed mosque with its loud speakers is the breathtaking view of the Panauch valley with its laddered ridges of trees, interposing in deep 3D. We buy a kilo of apricots and head down the valley towards a small bazaar about two miles away. Guy wants to buy some charas. Down through the bazaar tumbling down the cobblestoned hill so steep it requires steps, Guy searching for the magic face he says he can find.
“The eyes,” he says.
“Charas?”. Response is a smiling shake of the head.
Up the little stepped street again. Onto it tiny shop fronts open out, selling fruit, chai, clothes, shoes – no charas. Up to a bend in the main road where there are two chai-shops. On this side of the road there is a kind of promontory jutting out over the valley, with a wooden table and a bright red letter box. What a place for a chai! And to make the morning perfect, after a discrete enquiry, along comes the grocer from across the road with 8 grams for us for 20 Rupees. Guy gets his charas. And smiles. A geriatric pullet makes ten attempts to cross the street – he can’t make it, fated, it seems, to remain on the valley side. He forages intently, trying to work it off, until the desire to cross comes on him again, and he’s thwarted once more. We look down at earth/straw roofs of the bazaar and the verandahed, wood-slatted cabins with galvanized roofs. Women labour in a line up the hill for water, veils trailing. Huge supplies of firewood stacked beside houses prompt thoughts of winter.
We find a grass slope pillared with pines off the road below us and descend. It’s a severe slope, 3-in-1. I move carefully; it’s a long drop and tumble once slipped. But Guy scampers down like a goat to where two trees bend out over an abyss. I make it nerve-jerkingly five minutes later, and we have a smoke, suspended in space, trees above, trees below. One leg each resting on the tree trunk to ensure we won’t begin sliding. To fly from here - to plunge outwards - would be so simple. Two locals are audible far above, crossing by some goat track. A vacancy of time passes munching apricots, looking at the grandeur of vertical overhead pines and hearing the busy world of the birds. Apart from our old friends the crows, there are the Mynah birds who can imitate repeated cries. Brightly coloured, scruffy and shock-haired, the Punks of the bird community, they love a good yap. A vulture sweeps and hovers.
It’s getting late, time to move. Up that 3-in-1 slope with no track. Guy has gone ahead. I freeze… the nerves in my arms and legs go crazy… hands grasp grass clumps – clumps tear free! Feet seek footholds – slip! Each movement a frenzy of grasp and pull, hugging close to the almost vertical. If I rest my weight for five seconds, the roots give way with a rrrip! They sit up there not appreciating the desperation of my attempts to reach the top. Knew I shouldn’t have come down… just a few feet more… and… there’s a zigzag goat track… I make it, and haul myself finally over the top, thoroughly shaken. Guy offers me an apricot.
On the way home, we stop to watch a man in dark glasses on his haunches over a fire frying pakora. I get a brown paper bagful. It goes great with hot, strong chai. Over our meal, we spy on the pakora man across the street with his long black beard and shades, and decide he’s got to be a secret agent.
This evening, we have great fun from silent conversations with Papoo I and Papoo II, the two youngest of seven sons of the charming landlord of the Galliat View Hotel. As for Papoo I (Papoo = affectionate term for baby boy. Urdu), his face and eyes are capable of expressing so much villainy that with him words are superfluous.

June 22nd
We climb the hill to the Plaza over the town, passing through a small , landscaped park and beyond onto the top of the ridge, in search of a quiet spot to do battleship battle. We come to the knife’s edge where we can see the expanse of the Panauch valley on one side behind us, and over the pine tops and plunging depths on the other side to the east lies Kashmir. Oh! Picture book magical! The long white wall like a wave of bright water mingling with the clouds. And above them all the 26,000 foot Nanga Parbat, the Naked Mountain. But that is in another country, very far away.
Again, we find a track, and zigzag down a hundred feet to a grassy knoll, under two benign trees inhabited by a fussy double-caw crow and one of the species who are convinced they are ducks. We shout our hellos to the valley. The double caw swiftly changes trees and complains loudly to us for invading his spot. We light up and I continue to provoke him with insults, knowing that deep down he appreciates it because we all know that crows, like many humans, love a good argument. We do battle, shouting our grid references from opposite sides of a giant tree. Guy sinks my fleet, again.
Evening falls, and the far, white mountains turn pink. Birds deliver wonderful medleyed melodies and duets across time.
Comes the climb. This time damn sure not too steep. Back to beef and spinach and roti and chasers of chai. The chai bill s unrememberable; Guy leaves it to me, and I leave it to the morning. Just before bedtime there is a commotion downstairs. A crowd of people in the street are pointing at the sky and staring. I go out. What is it? An aeroplane? A meteorite? No, it’s the new moon; it’s just been spotted. Tomorrow’s Ramazan, for sure.

June 23rd Ramazan 1
A lorryload of Afghanis roars up Main Street. What a picture! The pakora man across the street refuses to have his photo taken. Guy leaves early on the Murree bus. The eldest son cooks a fried egg, roti and chai specially for me, although it’s the first the first day of Ramazan and the fire was out. I take it on the terrace, making noises at Papoo and Papoo II. Rather than hang around for a Suzuki, I prefer to head off on foot on the Abbotabad road, to walk off the excess energy.
A mile outside of town, all across the road, there’s a working party of at least twenty five men with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. It’s the Afghanis!
“Asalaam Alaikum.”
“Wa alaikum salaam!”
They’re doing emergency repair work on a flood damaged bridge. We exchange greetings heartily. Shovels are thrown down, hands shaken. They fix eyes childlike on the guitar, make enquiring gestures. For the three men most spellbound I open the case for a quick look, and they sound the strings, smiling. A man standing to one side, apologetically almost, seems to be the foreman. Well, he’s got a boss too, I suppose, and it wouldn’t do to be seen presiding over an impromptu roadside concert when you’re supposed to be fixing a bridge. I say goodbye and walk on.
I stop a Suzuki, bargain from 8 Rupees down to 5, and we’re on our way. The driver stops after ten miles to go for a swim with his mate down in the gorge, telling us the Suzuki was gormi (hot). I feel the engine and the tires: nothing unusual, evident even to a mechanical gawm like me. Only the tailboard boy remains, and one other disgruntled passenger.At five minute intervals we shout down the valley. I wished they’d been honest about the swim; I would’ve gone too. After half an hour, I extort three of my five Rupees from the boy, which I expend on the remainder of the trip down to Abbotabad. Corners are cliffhangers, and the gorge is deep. But after a while I sstop worrying and concentrate on enjoying the rush and swing of the descent from clinging heights to valley floor. Looking up to see the road just travelled, I can just pick out the thin pencil mark rising diagonally up a vertical wall. In thirty miles of road we’d lost five thousand feet in altitude. On the last stage we overlook the river, wide and churning, on its way to join the Indus. Tents line parts of the dried up river bed. Afghani refugees. Trucks load gravel, their loud colours awkwardly out of place on the wide expanses of grey. Abbotabad is hot and crowded after the fresh, pine scented walks of the Gallies. I get a big bus to ‘Pindi.
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Pakistan: A traveller's journal - Part 3

Post by Kitkat on Wed 10 Oct 2012, 20:42

Nowhere can I find food. Restaurants are closed until 7:30. I go to Flashmans, the Pakistani Tourism Development Corporation hotel, the most expensive in town. I’m told I can buy a packed lunch, but I’ve got to take it away. Take it where?! Ah, that way madness lies.
In the Mall, I accost a Frenchman – they always know where to eat. No. He can’t find anything, and he’s trying to find a flight to Gilgit or somewhere, ANYWHERE!
Back at Shahji’s they’re two hours from finishing their first day of fasting. The results aren’t pleasant. Meksood and Taseer are lolling about, trying to forget that they’re thirsty and weak. Absar is pale and sickly. I feel awkward and uncomfortable. I decide to leave for Peshawar tomorrow.

June 24th Ramazan 2
I leave Shah in Saddar and hit the station. I pay Rs. 11.25 for a 2nd Class ticket to Peshawar. It’s twenty to eleven; I’ve ten minutes for a chai. One corner of the station is cordoned off by a thin, red curtain, behind which some mysterious activity is being hidden from the public, like an adult show at a fairground. Behind the curtain, I join a group of twenty fiercely eating people, grab a chai and tea-cake, and find a place to sit on the edge of a bench. I can watch the big clock on the wall telling me how many minutes to departure time as I scoff tea and cake with my fellow passengers, and I’m given the uncomfortable impression that we’re all engaged in some type of anti-social activity. Perhaps not everybody is waiting for a train?
Tch! Tch!
The only members of the faithful to be spared the rigours of fasting are the very young, the sick, or those who are committed to a journey. But their eating is to be done in private, away from the gaze of those enduring the 17½ hours between dawn and sunset without food, water or tobacco passing the lips. Yesterday, General Zia Ul-Haq urged the nation to respect the Sanctity of the holy month of Ramazan. He needn’t have bothered: there’s a six month jail sentence for eating in public; that’s urging enough for me.
“He confessed, m’Lud; we caught him red handed, eating a plum outside the railway station.”
“Outside the RAILway station? InDEED?! A disGUSTing crime, Sir. A vile deed against humanity! This type of thing has got to be stamped out. TAKE him away…”
Sin Corner.
Yesterday, at the Abbotabad bus stand, my mind went back to the 5,000 foot descent from Nathiagalli and the overturned bus on the road to Murree:
“Do drivers fast too?”
“All day?”
“Yes sir.”
“But they will become tired. It’s dangerous!”
“Ah, but they know their job very well.”
“But with no food the body becomes weak!”
“Allah gives them strength!”
Last night Shah told me with disdain that bus drivers don’t keep the fast, and taxi drivers go in houses to drink WATER!
There are six of us in the back seat of the train. I’ve got a corner by the window. There’s a large floor space in front of us, half filled with crouching people, half with their belongings: several bundles in knotted sheets, two mattresses, some steel cable and a pile of rusty metal fittings. Doors are opened, and windows too, to allow for the passage of cooling air. An old woman squats by the door, elbows on knees, hands outstretched. She wears a headscarf, and shalwar and shemees. Her sandals are on the floor beside her. Her face is as gnarled as her feet, but you could see she was once pretty. Women grow old fast here. The back seat is filled by men.
Now the train jerks and one hand moves to grip the side of the door, while the other cradles her head. She contracts into a ragged ball and slumbers. Nobody speaks. The back seat bucks like a stallion.
Outside, all is yellow, pale green, arid, scorched. We pass groups of goats, donkeys, water buffalo, men, standing motionless under trees. Men under tent cover lie on charpoys, head in hand. Tight little haystacks are indistinguishable from village huts. Gullies, heavily eroded, cut deep into the yellow earth, fling back the light. Dry beds of white sand fan from small bridges under the line where water flowed once. Dust, flying in a throbbing haze across a dry peneplain. Looking east, we see mountain silhouettes loom from far as if through dense fog. Nothing stirs. Hope I can get a Coke in Peshawar.
Attock city. We roll across a wide, deep chasm on a fortified bridge. Far below, the bright green waters of the Indus. At both ends, stone turrets. Very British looking. This was an important crossing.
Pirpai. A townland of sticks and straw and mud. Refugees? At least there’s water here, irrigation.
As we approach the Peshawar valley the air moistens with vegetation smells. Hundreds of people line the tracks in the shade of tents, lying on charpoys. Orchards behind them: apricots, plums, pears, sugar cane. Grey-green water wets the earth and children bathe naked.
At the next station I get out for a wash and a mouthful from the platform fountain. I jump back on, and as we pull out again there’s the station sign – PESHAWAR CITY – That’s what you get for sitting at the back of the train! I get off at Peshawar Cant., three miles further on.
I can get a motor rickshaw or tanga back toCity Station, or wait 40 minutes for the next train back. Anywhere a guy could get a chai? Upstairs, the ticket collector tells me.
It’s a fine station, with massive stone staircases ascending left and right of the main entrance to a wide upstairs corridor. I pass the VIP Lounge, Ladies’ Rest Room 1st Class, Ladies’ Rest Room 2nd Class, to the Restaurant.
Inside, there are curtains on the windows. It’s dark. There are seven round, chocolate-coloured tables, with matching easy chairs. There’s a high ceiling with sweeping fans and plastic flowers on each table (I bet they had real flowers in the old days). At the far end of the room is a stone fireplace. Over the mantelpiece and under the clock, arrival and departure times are posted in gold letters on a wooden plaque: - KHYBER MAIL – AWAMI EXPRESS – There’s history woven through these names. At this end, a small door leads to the kitchen.
There are three men in the room. The cook is a bent old man in white with a kind, beat-up face and lively eyes. His helper is a much younger man, and the third man is a passenger, it seems. Water and tea is served to me on a tray. The passenger, who’s also taking tea, offers me a cigarette. He’s rolling a joint slowly and carefully. He lights up and offers me a drag. I decline. “Must travel,” I say, making the appropriate signs. I mime again: “toilet”. Out in the corridor to the Gentlemen’s Waiting Room 1st Class Air Conditioned. If you don’t enjoy your piss in a place like this, you never will. As I pass back to the restaurant, an important looking man in an armchair glances up accusingly from his newspaper. He won’t get hot waiting for a train. I’m reluctant to leave my comfortable chair in the restaurant for the heat and glare and thirst outside. On my third chai, the old man, with some English, asks if I’ve been to Kabul. It was a good place, he tells me. Plenty to eat and drink. Now the Rooskies are bombing it. Not many years ago, this restaurant would be full, an important and busy stage on the line from Kabul to Lahore. GNR carved into the mahogany chair backs testifies to their distinguished history. Great Northern Railways. Italians, French, English would rest here on their way to Delhi, eat meals of many courses, drink brandy and beer, stay sometimes four and five hours before continuing their journey. Now, I was his only customer. To the west there is only the short line to Landhi Khotal and the closed Afghanistan frontier. Damn shame for the old man.
At the appropriate counter, I buy a 2nd Class ticket to Peshawar City. I give the man 1 Rupee, receive 60 Paisa change, and put it in the hand of a maneuvering beggar woman with a child.
On the way back to the city, we cross the low bridge over the canal, and I’m surprised again as the batheing boys throw cold water again at the open windows.

It’s a bustling place. I pass through the Khyber bazaar hot and heavy with baggage looking for a hotel. Men sit at stalls elaborately turbaned with a certain cavalier style. A man passes with a large moustache, bandolier and pistol. Bananas, papayas, plums and apricots are selling at roadside stalls, and nobody eating. A curfew turned on its head.
“Where you going?”
“You buy hasheesh?”
“Like to drink tea?”
“You sell guitar? How much?”
No thanks. Finished, the “salam alaikum” and blanket smile (defence mechanism Number 1); I wear my grim, distant face and sweeping glance (defence mechanism Number 2).
“No thanks.”
Armed with hard guitar case, I stalk the bazaar, striding long strides. Sheish on shoulder, Pak style. Mercenary in town. Past boys who sit dwarfed under mountains of firewood, splitting more with small hatchets; past groups of men breaking stones with tiny hammers; past tanga stables and farrier’s huts. Alzar Hotel stands up straight and clean at the end of the bazaar – that’s for me. I’m too tired to look for Guy’s hotel; I’ll check him out later. Inside the restaurant sits snugly closed. Opening time isn’t until 7 pm. This feels like Sunday morning after a hard night waiting for the pub to open.
I check in, and get a room with a shower for 28 Rupees. I zap myself with cold water, turn the fan up to number 5, and sit under it. Later, a meal on my own in the restaurant and an evening stroll round the streets. Sign on a restaurant window:

June 26th Ramazan 4
I get up late. Today I want to track down the tourist people at Dean’s Hotel. On my way out, the empty restaurant leers at me. Out into the near noon streets at a slow pace, past buzzing rickshaws beneath the massive oblong walls and bastions of Fort Balahisar with its cannon far above pointing at some long passed threat. Behind it , the bazaar complex, its little streets sloping downhill, sometimes only twelve feet wide, where men hawk fruit, shaves, leather goods, concoctions of buffalo milk and countless sweet things. Tiny box-restaurants where men crouch on hunkers over steaming pots the contents of which will be stirred and stirred again until 7:30 tonight. Down Cinema Road to GT Road, the main drag to Saddar. I buy half a kilo of plums for 6 Rupees, “The Muslim” and “The Pakistan Times”. I’m having some trouble tracing Dean’s Hotel. Outside the museum I pass an Englishman, bag on back, plodding onwards dourly like Fate itself; he’s not enjoying the heat. Finally, my search brings me past Cant. Station where I tead so gratefully yesterday. The old man is there, reclining on a charpoy, fanning himself. We have a big hello for each other, and shake hands. I tell him I’m looking for Dean’s Hotel. It’s not far. Straight on. Any chance of a chai, I ask? Yes! Come! Why don’t I have breakfast, he adds. I won’t get it anywhere else. It’s after eleven, and I haven’t eaten yet.
“Accha!” (Urdu=OK!)
So, it’s toast, omelette and chai in a restaurant all to myself, followed by a Woodbine, and I sit down outside to listen to Mister Nadirkhan, for that’s the old man’s name. He continues on his theme of the lost glories of the Great North Western Railways, the efficiency of the old Indian Empire days, the old Afghanistan, and how cheap food was. He remembers Scottish soldiers he spent Christmas and New Year with. Drink, aye, he knew all the names: Johnny Walker, Bells, Black & White, Bass beer. This is no supporter of the State of Pakistan! He talks of war with India, and money for food and education going on tanks and guns. I tell him I’ll see him again on my way to Landi Khotal and the Khyber. A special train leaves once a week on Friday mornings. See that line I must!
At Dean’s Hotel, the PTDC (Pakistan Tourist Development Corporation) are helpful, as they have always been. I’m told I can get a bus to Dir from the bus stand on GT Road for 25 Rupees. From Dir, it will be 80 Rupees by Jeep to Chitral.
As I come away from the bus stand, my brown paper bag has had it, so I nurse my plums back to my hotel room, exhausted, where, after a cold shower, I dine on cold plums and water, and relax with a Woodbine over the newspapers.
5:30 pm
Exit. Out on the town. I check the cheap hotels on Cinema Road. Selateen Hotel. Yes, Guy was here, but he left this morning. So he must have got his money at the Embassy.
Cinema Road is overflowing with chai house tables and chairs. Hundreds of men sit there, waiting. Vacant eyes wander. Eating nothing. Drinking nothing.
6:00 pm
Restauranters are working over pots. Others line up red, yellow, green, blue black syrup drinks in glasses. Blue teapots stand in ordered ranks, lids up at the ready. The streets are full with shopkeepers, strollers, beggars, little girls in brightly patterned shalwar and shemees. Cream cakes sit in windows; lussi pored in tin bowls; mangoes piled high on carts; men carry ice on shoulders from cart to shop, in blocks as big as my bedside locker. The minutes tick slowly. The street fills, waiting.
6:45 pm
I’m losing myself in the labyrinth of tiny streets in the old city bazaar. Loose brick buildings set in wooden frames contort into bulging shapes (something to do with earthquakes, the tourist brochure informs me!???). On many of the houses there are finely carved doors and wooden balconies in intricate designs. Dark passageways lead off to dead ends where women look down from high windows. Children stare and skitter. Women appear in and out of doorways carrying cloth covered trays of food. Food everywhere covered in cloth carried under cloak. Children mass on roofs of small houses. Expectant.
I make my way back through the square of Chowk Yaadgar, where people swarm now and two soldiers patrol with rifles on their shoulders. Downhill again under canopies which span the entire street, shading the crowds from the sun. Under the walls of the fort, a small boy leaps froglike across the twilit street in front of traffic, and puts up his hands to beg. His legs are crippled. I give him some small change.
7:30 pm
On GT Street now, I pass in front of two roadside restaurants. The tables are out in the air. Men sit, expectantly. One man is staring at a full plate of salad in front of him. Another pours water back and forth from a tin cup to a pitcher, absently.
Suddenly, a siren sounds over the evening, and when I look again they’re eating – everyone! All down GT Street! Chai shops, restaurants, pakora stands, stalls, barrows are at this moment swamped with custom! It seems everyone is on the streets, eating! I move in celebration to the first thing that catches my eye – an old man and a child with a large basin of iced lussi. Around them are arranged tin bowls each holding one litre. I pay the old man my 2 Rupees and, still on my hunkers, lower it. Aaahh! Next, to a street restaurant. I ask for pakora. There’s none. So I look into the pots, simmering over an oven of baked earth, its fire fuelled by feeding sticks into a hole at its base. The cooking is done out front, where the salad window would be in a western restaurant. I settle for a meat and potato stew, “ghosht”, a big roti, and a tin beaker of iced water, chased by a creamy chai and a Woodbine. Rs. 9.50 the lot. Delightful, and less than half the price of my hotel meal.
A man seated opposite me attempts conversation., enjoying his meal like hell! Like everyone! At the next table, four men sit eating intently. In front of them on the table sits a bucket of water. Behind them, as the lights come on, the stacks of Coke and 7-Up crates appear real and tangible again. GT Street is all abuzz. We share a sense of camaraderie at having endured a foodless day together, and now comes the good part.
A young man moves seal-like up the street digging his hands in the dust holding two small blocks of wood and dragging his legs behind him. Beggars drift among the tables, claiming their share of the bonanza while restaurant owners whoosh them away.
I decide Peshawar is indeed the best city I’ve yet seen in Pakistan.
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Pakistan: A traveller's journal - Part 4

Post by Kitkat on Sun 14 Oct 2012, 20:18

June 26th

I get to the bus stand early, excited to be heading for the mountains at last. Ticket number 1 entitles me to a single seat at the front opposite the driver, and a windscreen view of affairs. The first leg of the journey takes us east along the main Peshawar-Islamabad road. It’s choked with both local and inter-city traffic: tangas, donkeys, buffalo carts, bicycles, big brightly coloured trucks, and two oil tankers with landscapes painted on their backs. There’s much weaving in and out and klaxon blowing on na straight road through flat fertile farmland.

At Nowshera, an eleven year old girl with a child in one arm comes up to my window and asks for “backsheesh” waving a big fan in my face. She was persistent, and pretty besides, and it was a good number. I gave her a Rupee. I watched her afterwards – it didn’t work anywhere else.

After Nowshera, we move north on a thin, straight road, leaving most of the traffic behind, except for one place near Mardan where twenty tractors and trailers stand in line loaded with beet, it seems, or some root crop.

Canals run alongside the road. The inevitable small boys in loincloths (and some not so small) run and dive into green water, wiry brown bodies glistening. Inside, it’s hot, hotter when we stop.

At Malakaland we begin to climb the first pass at four thousand feet. Old fortifications perch high on the tops of passes, commanding a view of the ascent. We come to the bridge on the Swat river. Police checkpoint. Or is it army? They’ve all got rifles anyhow. It’s the register for foreigners entering the Chitral District. Passport numbers and particulars. So I hold the bus up for 5 minutes. Then we cross the river into Chackdara where the branch in the road is: to the left, Chitral; to the right, Swat. After this,

We go left, over the shoulder of the valley and along the Panjkora river, looking down. Snow-specked mountains emerge far ahead. Below, the water swirls and churns. It must be cold. Women wash. Afghani tents line the grassy banks. Terraced slopes tier down to the water on both sides, some flooded for rice. Water buffalo stand in pools, necks stretched with pleasure. Goats clamber down slopes and out along the road. Cows and donkeys cross ahead of us – and start – scared by the bus. Small villages pass. Men under shadows sprawl on charpoys, while small girls in loud pyjamas stare.

We stop at a village near Warlai, and the bus empties for prayer. I follow some of the men, stepping along rice terraces past the mosque to the river. The bank is lined with batheing kids and dabbling adults. The current is swift racing over large round rocks. I’m glad I have my football shorts on! I wade out and lie down under the water for three seconds thrilling to the shock of cold. Again! The water is grey and gritty, but in the whole valley it’s the coldest place to be!

Back in the bus feeling good, and we twist and climb the remainder of the road to Dir.

The houses we’ve been passing from Peshawar to here have been built with loose brick or stone, like a Wicklow mountain wall. The stone is built in layers of two to three feet, between each layer a length of timber cushioning the rock.


Lying on my bed in a hotel room. Although we’re now at 6,000 ft, it’s still a hot, close afternoon. I was whooshed, almost, from the bus and in here by two characters of doubtful appearance (a team).





They give up easily.

It was 20 Rupees for a downstairs room, 30 upstairs. Dear, but I took a fancy to this room and offered them 25 Rupees. I’d no more strength for protracted bargaining, and I’m relieved to be able to haul my bags upstairs and lie down.

In a way, this is the best hotel room I’ve been in yet. It’s a stone and timber affair constructed in that same peculiar layered framework style I’d been seeing since Peshawar. A high ceiling of wooden slats. One window opens onto the upstairs passageway, and the courtyard and small garden below. But the best part is the double door on the other side opening onto a small wooden balcony which looks down on the valley of the Panjkora river, and beyond it the eastern wall of the valley, towering and vertical and very close, an arid yellow dotted with the green of small trees and scrub. I’m going to sit out there tonight after dinner and play some guitar. There’s an adjoining washroom with a shower and toilet. There’s a small fireplace and mantelpiece and a smell of soot (it’s been used not too long ago). I’ve a choice of two beds and two easy chairs (just the thing for the balcony!). No light bulb – we’ll see about that. It must have been a fine hotel a hundred years ago.

I lunch on the two mangoes and the bag of plums I’d bough down the bazaar, with pitcher of cold water, and a Woodbine. Sleep.

Evening. I wake to the sound of the wind and doors banging. I go out onto the balcony to look.

For a moment, light opens out, yellowing the green mountain. Then dark closes in, drawing heavy covers across the yellow.

Broiling thunderclouds bowl over the mountains and burst, stickling rain comes plick-plish all around and over the people below funnelling for the bridge; whoof winds whorl and shove, wisking staccato rain over the rooftop, placking the balcony dark brown with blots growing all over the woodwork. People run, turn, stand behind poles, beneath trees. Rain and wind rush across the room and burst the outer door open.

Now it’s over, and the smells seep out from all things: earth and charas plants and creosote-treated wood. I walk out into the cool steamed evening and sign the book in the kitchen where the cook boy sits beside the hob. He tries for 30 Rupees; I give 25.

Uptown, it’s almost Hit Hour again! Get ready for that big ZAP! It’s the 7:30 EAT IT time! Alright, get those melons ready, mangoes too, sweet slices, line them up.

Rotis roasted? Pakoras fried? Get them aloos on their plates, those blue teapots loaded and steaming...

Cook it! Cover it! Carry it! Fondle it! Look at it! Heat it!

Alright... Are you ready...?...



I love this hour. This one of the good things which Ramazan brings, the mounting tension and expectancy of the hour leading up to the big moment when that siren goes... I’m looking at pakora... I’m looking at kebabs... I’m looking for a chaihouse where I can sit and see it all happen. I continue up the hill. Up on a tree there’s a sign, and an arrow:

A dirt track leads up in the direction of the arrow to a flat open space of beaten earth where there are two jeeps parked, and a coloured truck. On this side, under a tree overlooking the road is a type of wooden kiosk housing an outdoor kitchen, where a man is busy preparing food over a pink clay oven. On the other side, a two storey building with a spacious upstairs verandah. In between, a scattering of charpoys; on and around them men sit in various stages of repose, waiting the signal for the end of the fast, and the evening meal. The hotel on the hill... what have they got the others don’t? As I walk by the kitchen, there comes a shout from over to my right:

“Hey! Come up here!”

Not again... but I’m in the mood now...

“Come! Eat with me!”

He’s on the verandah, an old man with a young face, seated, waving. I find the wooden steps round the side of the hotel that lead to the verandah. Meet Taj Mohammed, Proprietor of the establishment, looking down on things, and giving directions (down below there are many mouths to feed now). Shake.

“Sit down. Take tea. Eat. And after, we will smoke hasheesh,”

Meet Jamatullah, Afghani, of shy face and few clipped words of English. Four years ago, an Economics student in Kabul, now a moujahid, in and out of Pakistan. We talk of colonialism and revolution, how his people have suffered and been betrayed, and why the Russians will never win.

Meanwhile, Taj has been issuing further directions, and there are several plates on the table in front of us, prepared by his brother below in the kitchen and carried up to us by his brother’s son grinning and eager to please: a mixed salad of cauliflower, spinach, onion, peppers and potato, a delicious meat sauce with roti to scoop it up, a can of thick sour lussi and a chai chaser I enjoy so much I go down to taj junior at the chai-stand for a refill. Back on the verandah, Taj takes from his pocket a lump of charas as big as a block of Lifebuoy, and we share a packed Woodbine. He plugs in a beat-up cassette player, finds a tape and clicks it on. What is it? ... It’s R&B... blues harp... and... it’s the Rolling Stones!! – Jamming with Edward!!

And I’m just sitting there like...

I can’t believe this.

Later. The Pakistani news is on the radio. Although it’s in Urdu, I realize I’m listening to a cricket report, because the style of delivery is exactly like the BBC, complete with live “people” sounds in the background. I find this hilarious, and laugh. Inevitably, the joke remains a private one, but the pleasure of Taj’s company happily doesn’t depend on verbal communication; his genial good humour itself is infectious. The radio news ends. Jamatullah takes his leave.


Taj starts from his reverie.

“Yes. This holy month. I smoke only one.”

He tells me he drives a truck to Chitral, 20 Rupees only. He shows me his rooms, 10 Rupees only (Oh, I went to the wrong place...) He knows.

“Come here tomorrow! No money! You my guest! I like this. We will eat together, and after, smoke hasheesh. Stay. Not one day, one week! Chitral expensive – thirty, forty Rupees. Tourist place!” he gestures dismissively.

“After, you can go.”

The radio’s off. The cocker spaniel flops into a seat, and spreads out a hind leg.

“You come. I have many books. You look.”

“Achajee! (Urdu= Goodbye) see you tomorrow.”

And I bounce down the tarmac hill, screamed at by frogs from the dark, glancing up at the windowlit mountain black on the edges out of town and the electric stars behind cloud curtains halfdrawn. A tall figure passes, shotgun strapped to his back. Two trucks roar up the hill, jerking, lights headfirst. A second shotgun looms up the hill, carried by a white waif with a black beard, cloaked.

“Salaam alaikum!”

No response.

As I bounce down the tarmac hill, woodensided, posts and railings, and wooden shopfronts darkened for the night. Built for a gunslinger or a sheriff to walk downhill in the middle of the street, a Wild West town.

It still is. And the stars witness this.

Down at the crossroads in the centre of town, there’s an unexpected bath of light and a street-corner gathering. Shops are open – it must be one o’clock in the morning! It’s a Late Night Ramazan Eat-out and Walk-in! Fruit stands and chai and Coke and cakes and sweets; all’s abustle and achatter and ahangabout – the second session before the renewal of the Rozha (fasting).

Treasure the night; it will be empty tomorrow.

So, once the blue teapots wink, I must follow. Up to the chai-boy, burning bright behind a hot stand, haunched. Chai. I find a big wooden table to sit on, and tilt the hot, sweet liquid down my throat. Listen to the mosque crier in his high, tight monotone:

“Al – lah W – akbar

Al – lah W – akbar!”

There’s a party atmosphere and hubbub, a buying and selling and carrying of food across the street from corner to corner. I make faces at a 3-year-old boy and 6-year-old girl by the wall crouched and sleepy, sharing her headscarf. They’re curious, but bashful, just daring to smile, and we play catch with glances a secret game in a crowded scene.

Home through the shadows, looking out across the valley at the stars beyond the rim flickering through a blue night, and the black mountain walls stretching back towards the city far away to the south. Listen to that river! Not so small at all. Like a high wind through a forest.

June 27th

Hayat Hotel 11:30 pm

A big three-cotted room to myself, with warm new wooden beams across the ceiling, a small table holding a tin water-jug and beaker. The walls are white and decorated with graffiti - dates and names, mostly Urdu, and a lovingly drawn multicoloured peacock sitting on the branch of a tree growing up from the floor beside a built-in wall cupboard with glass windows. Another of these, beside my head, is filled with books: John Fowles, Ed Mc Bain, Sigmund Freud’s Introduction to Psychoanalysis in French, Mark Twain, Yves St. Exuperay, Leon Uris, William Golding – I might stick around here for a while! German books, French Books. One here written sideways which could be Japanese, and – would you believe it – Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth! I’ll ask Taj to open it for me tomorrow. The cupboards, doors and window frames are the colour of rich, brown wine. Behind me, in the corner farthest from the door, a sooty fireplace (no house is a house without one), and a hurricane lamp giving off a strong light from the triangled mantlepiece. I’ve just come in from dinner on the verandah out front. They will eat again at 2:30 am before the beginning of the rozha. It’s been a long day.

This morning I climbed up the valley-side behind the hotel, slithering and huffing up steps and slopes and tracks, stopping to rest only after I had left all the houses behind. Looking out over the valley to the east and north, I could see rising above us the bare rock of the Hindu Kush mountains. On the valley floor, Dir looked insignificantly tiny under all this immensity, although it is a village of several thousands of people. A clutter of houses clinging onto steep slopes above the river. Around this, the neat pattern of green terraces extends upslope as far as the thin green line of the irrigation channels which marks the upper limits of cultivation in the valley. These channels, sometimes hundreds of feet above the valley floor, extend in cases for several miles carrying the precious water from the river upstream. They are cut into the valley sides and banked with small rock walls and clay; where no clay exists, or where the severity of the slope provides no base for the continuation of the channel, aqueducts built of wood and sometimes hollowed out tree-trunks carry the flow. The volume of water carried by these channels ranges from a finger trickle to a flood of a depth and breadth of several feet. Although the total extent of cultivation represents little more than a few green smears on a grey wilderness of rock, without the slow, patient labour which must have gone into the building and maintenance of these channels, the rewards from the soil would surely be very small.

From there, the sound of the river below was a faint whisper, drowned by the sound of trickle behind me, a tiny channel. I follow it, using the outer earth bank as a path. It winds northward up and up towards a forested ridge. Down on my right, three hundred feet below, a stream twists through a gorge. Further up, I come to the stream, the mother of my channel. At the mouth of the channel a man is placing rocks to reduce the flow of water entering it, and shovelling mud from the channel bed to build up its bank at vulnerable points. Across the stream, where the path turns up a steep, rocky slope, three men sit resting: two young men with picks, and an old man holding a long staff with a metal point. He wears a bushy beard and thick opaque glasses. We greet each other and I expend my Urdu. They don’t speak it anyhow – Pushtu and Chitrali. We make signs. They’re a channel maintenance team. The old man is on his way home to his village, up there somewhere. We climb the rocky path to where a waterfall promises a natural shower, but it’s too full of grit. One of the men point to a spring in the rock, good for a cold splash on the face. Further on, we come to a copse of walnut trees in a grassy hollow. I leave the men here, and stay for an hour drowsing in the shade to the music of the water.

Further up the path again, houses emerge from hidden places. I’m now at least 1,000 ft above Dir, and, incredibly, on ridges higher to the north there are houses; from there, paths rise higher again. For a while, I sit watching the women coming up with water pitchers on their heads, stepping lightly.

But it’s time to head down again. I slither zigzag, rock to rock. Across the gorge in the distance, a flat earth-roofed house belches smoke, and from a wide fan of terraces beneath it, children wave, too far away to be heard. The sun has disappeared behind the mountains at my back. A long shadow moves down the valley. Mountain men go trudging upwards, home. Three boys with bundles of grass on their backs, fodder gathered from higher slopes. Everywhere, people are returning to their homes for the big event of the day – me too! Coming to the first houses, I find the lower canal and follow it to the path.

Downtown it’s Happy Hour. Main Street is preparing for the buzzer. Shop front fires glowing, pots being stirred, fruit sellers arranging their displays, three-wheeled street cartloads of dates and apricots being wheeled into optimum positions, children crossing from house to house carrying cloth-covered plates, men carrying chunks of glacier ice purchased from the ice seller standing at the centre of affairs with an ice-pick and a block of ice the size of a wardrobe.

Teapots moving now, an indication of the imminence of the moment...

There it is!! A distant whine from the mosque. Tannoys crackle. In the streets the move is on – everyone moving rapidly with a purpose. Boys bite into plums and grown men scramble into seats with birthday party zest. At the corner-shop I swallow a cold Coke, and go burping up the hill, passing pakora cookers with their big round pots of oil and trays of sizzling fries, to the hotel, and dinner.

Dinner is delicious! Of course, after a day’s fasting food pays double. Roti, onion & tomato salad, meat & spinach stew, glacier-ice water, a pot of chai and a Woodbine. Dammit! What could be better?!

After dinner we sit in our usual place on the verandah. In the yard below, about twenty moujahideen are gathered, some with bandoliers on their backs, their old, stocky rifles laid flat. Old and young men, tall, gentle in appearance, crowd around the charpoys bringing plates of food from the kitchen stall, a mass of figures and confusion of voices under the 150 Watt bulb suspended over the yard.

A jeep lumbers up the hill. Six men get on. After some exchanges, the jeep moves off into the night in the direction of Chitral. It seems a long time after that a second jeep appears, and eleven men pile onto seven or eight bulging sacks before they go the way of the first jeep.

All gone. Quiet. And a last chai on the verandah. The cocker spaniel, brown and white patched, noses for leftovers in the dirt. Crickets sing in swells, and fade.

Well, so, to bed. It’s been a long day.

Five minutes later, I’ve discovered a nest of bed-bugs, some of them IN me, the ferocious little BASTARDS! It suddenly dawns on me why I’ve been scratching incessantly. So, after a personal search and destroy operation, it’s back on with the clothes, and onto a cold charpoy in the farthest corner of the room.

Well, there’s a first time for everything, I suppose. Have another cigarette.

June 28th

I spendmost of the day reading William Golding’s Free Fall – eventually disappointing, but it certainly passes the time. Outside, the day is hot and still. Nothing happens during Ramazan – nothing can. No-one has energy. Men lie collapsed on cots, dreary and listless. I get my nose into the Fodor Guide de Pakistan, and it’s about as stimulating as a supermarket shopping list. Far more entertaining and informative is Taj’s visitor’s register, which dates back to 1972. The list of names is dominated by Australians, French and Japanese, and to a lesser extent by Germans, English and Dutch. An Iranian stayed here, and an Ian Stuart from Wicklow in 1977 and again in 1980. Invariably, the visitors had either come from or were headed to Afghanistan. Significantly, the number of entries from 1980 onwards had dwindled. Business had not been good. The Japanese and French travelled in groups, the English and Australians in pairs. Under the heading marked “Comments”, the French had a tendency to write smart remarks – in their own language, of course.

In the cool of the evening I go for a walk upriver, over the little suspension bridge and along a path by the water. In the air, the cloying sweet smell of the charas plants growing in tall clumps among the rocks. Above, goat tracks (surely?!) scale impossible slopes up the rock face. The river is far more powerful than I’d imagined. Though not deep, the water’s boiling cold, billowing and sucking and tearing around bends. On the way back, hopping on giant boulders, I need to cross – it’s nearly EATS time. Securing my camera on my shoulder, I try a six-foot jump over a bottleneck surge. Can’t back out now... GO! - with a RUSH, and Aagh!! - one foot slides off the rock - EYAAGH!! Up to my middle in a powerful freezing current! I heave out, all asloosh, but I get across, and hopping hotelwards along the rocks I feel a bouncing elation!

Tonight I sleep out on the verandah, out of harm’s way, and leave the room to the bed-bugs and my baggage – let them eat that if they will, they won’t get me again.

June 29th – July 1st

Guy taps me on the shoulder down the Bazaar while I’m looking for some Calamine lotion to patch my punctured skin. He has spent the past week in the Swat Valley. I tell him I’ve ordered breakfast to be ready in 20 minutes – Taj has become more and more helpful in the sphere of food. So we go back to the Hayat and an omelette, roti and chai. Guy decides to stay, and serious smoking begins: on the verandah, down by the river, on quiet switchblade channel banks, up winding valley sides, by waterfalls and walnut shade, the evenings smelling sickly sweet of charas plants. Thunder and rain come and go. Moon lights white valley walls.

Now we’re eating on the verandah during the day more than ever before: plums, apricots, biscuits and chai. Outside, Ramazan struggles on. From the BBC on Taj’s radio, we hear news of the outside world, while Taj shouts down directions, receives information in return without stirring from his seat on the verandah, his bridge, for he is the Captain. The radio is a good one. It comes from Saudi Arabia where his son works driving articulated trucks, earning 10,000 Rupees a month. What is it drivers earn here? 1,000 Rupees? Go to the Gulf, Youngman.

Christophe, the French, fishing, precious stone dealing, hash smoking, guitar playing theatre technician bound for Chitral, completes the party. Evenings spent jamming with Edward. Plates of stew and salad all wiped clean with rotis chewed and swallowed. Chai embalms the evening seething with frogs and crickets, and the stars in a blue painting sky peep over the high walls of the valley side. We smoke and sing and drink chai and look out at the Ramazan moon bulging by the night. A jeep roars past us up the hill towards the Loweri Pass.

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Pakistan: A traveller's journal - Part 5

Post by Kitkat on Tue 16 Oct 2012, 01:29

Chitral July 2nd

7 am. I go with Christophe to buy the tickets for the government bus to Chitral – 36 Rupees for a 72 mile journey which will take 7 hours. It will be the first bus to cross the Loweri Pass commercially. We leave at 10 o’clock.

Sitting on the verandah, having one last chai, I promise Taj I will send him the photo. Taj, the hotel proprietor had become like an Uncle Taj.

“I happy... you happy! You stay in Dir... one month... Christmas! Hnyeh! Hnyeh!”

A cartoon character laugh.

I give Taj 110 Rupees - for my five day stay with evening meals, a couple of breakfasts, and countless chais – less than seven pounds Sterling. The bus stops outside (Taj had arranged for it), and we’re torn from watching the rooster and the cow and the kid who throws sticks and stones at them – and jarred into movement.

It’s a powerful little bus. We’ve soon left Dir behind. Up, up, up, climbing above terraces and paddy fields, and the frothy brown river grown wide and full, and the U-shaped valley widening into vistas on all sides. Across the valley, four to five miles away on the east-facing slope, a road serpentines almost invisible, like a thread. We crawl for hours along the valley side gaining height gradually, stopping now and then to top up the radiator. On occasional corners we roll across concrete slabs slightly funnelled to allow for glacial meltwater to flow over the road into the valley below, and not carry the road with it in times of spate. Further on, at the foot of the final ascent, coloured trucks cluster off the road, and chains of men descend from curling valleys with blocks of dirty glacier-ice on their shoulders, to load the trucks that will provide relief for thirsty Ramazaners who roam the bazaar when evening lurks. From here up, the slope is extremely severe, the road a series of acute-angled switchbacks spiralling to the top of the Loweri Pass. We make slow, laboured progress, making sometimes two sometimes three attempts to mount a bend, revving and backing sickeningly. But the driver is in control, and the view back down the valley is magnificent.

Near the top now, and you can almost touch the ice that trails down high hanging valleys, to fleck away to nothing. To the sides, peaks rise, brown and crumbly. Arêtes curve on sheer walls cutting screaming paths to nowhere. A tree cowers in a cleft, unreachable. On top, we stop and take a breath of air. There’s a small hut with a telephone connection. In front of it, two men sit wrapped in shawls, shivering. Beside them, a bench mark – 10,500 ft.

After a short rest, the driver begins the descent, his face set in a grimace of irritation which never relaxes. It’s almost as if, by habit of his occupation, irritation has become an essential feature of his countenance. Abruptly, constantly, he exchanges words with the passengers who are taking a more alert interest than is usual in the relative whereabouts of the bus wheels and the edge of the road. My nervous system is racing – I can see the glint of water on green thousands of feet below. The poor driver’s mate, who can hardly be twenty years old, has to jump off at each switchback and stand on its edge with only air behind him, and wave directions as to whether we’ll make the bend at the first attempt to a driver who isn’t going to trust him anyhow as he backs up a few yards to get a good swing on the wheel to edge us through a tilting U-turn on a surface of crunching gravel. Goats, with pantaloons of shining hair, freeze wild-eyed, poised on vertical rock faces, and leap. The grinding switchback descent continues for over an hour. At last, we crawl round the final turn onto a relatively straight road running parallel to the river, a few hundred feet above the valley floor, and stop to top up the engine where numbing ice-water fans out over a concrete crossing point. I’m strung out with diarrhoea, and take advantage of the stop.

We pass through Drosh, where there is a large military barracks. Last year the Russians dropped a bomb here, “by accident”.

Finally, in relief after the ordeal, the bus breaks down. Nobody is too bothered. The driver gets out, his face showing no apparent increase in the level of irritation, opens the bonnet and puts his head under it, from where it emerges at intervals during the next hour, the face still registering no change, as if being involved with all this irritation was somehow an absorbing and rewarding experience.

We hit Chitral at 7 o’clock. An emissary from the Dreamland Hotel is duly at hand to accompany us to that distinguished hostelry where nobles dine and princes sleep, where flowing wine brings good cheer, and crisp linen sheets await to embrace the weary wayfarer – like Hell!

Ten Rupees a night. Cheapest in town. It’s beginning to rain. It’s almost Eats time. And having come down the hill this far already, little as we like the look of the place (the squalid hole that it is), it’s to be The Dreamland for tonight. We light up a joint in honour of the hotel, and march uphill to dinner.

Dinner is a disappointing affair after what we have become accustomed to in Dir. We dine in a dark restaurant; a single light bulb suspended from a wooden-beamed ceiling makes tiny efforts at throwing light into corners. Seated at a wooden table and bench, on a wooden floor, we eat chapatees with a curried mess of overcooked vegetables. Afterwards, a chai, and back to Dreamland.

July 3rd

Spent a greater part of the day writing letters, demands to the Deputy Commisioner of Chitral District for permits to visit the Khalash Valleys, a restricted area. But first we had to register with the police. We’re anxious not to be delayed too long in this town, which has little to recommend it, apart from a tantalizing view of Tirich Mir standing tall and white thirty miles to the north, the highest peak in the Hindu Kush range. The town, sprawled across a hill to the west side of the Mastuj river, a brown torrent, trapped in a bowl at an elevation of less than 4,000 ft between the high walls of the valley, is hot and inhospitable in this season.

Evening brings cool relief.

I decide on a treat – a tea cake and two cream cakes from the bakery we passed on the road to the DC’s office - this to be enjoyed with a quorum of chai of course in the garden of The Garden Hotel.

The Garden Hotel is small, homely and clean. It’s surrounded by a high wall, inside which there is a stream running through a real garden with grass and flowers. There are only three rooms to let. At 25 Rupees for a double room, we’re well pleased. Later, down the bazaar, we buy pakora, 5 rupees’ worth, and take it fish & chips style on newspaper and stroll up to the YZ Hotel where we sink a chai. Christophe leaves tomorrow for Garam Cheshmar to the north west of town where there is a sulphur spring and trout fishing. Both Guy and I have decided to make for Bumburet, the largest of the Khalash valleys, as soon as permits can be authorized. Of the Khalash people we know only what the PTDC people tell us on their brochure for the Northern Areas. They are:

“A primitive, pagan tribe.”

“A gay people who love music and dancing.”

“Their ancestry is enveloped in mystery and is the subject of controversy.”

Although nobody seems able or willing to give information, we’re told that there is accommodation of sorts available. Bumburet is 40 kilometres to the south west. The road is jeepable, but we’d like to take it at our own pace, walking. I can try and leave some of my gear at the Garden Hotel; it’s far too heavy to go trekking with. OK. It’s decided: we’ll go by jeep half way, to Ayun. From there it will be a stiff walk.

To bed very late tonight.

July 4th

We breakfast lazily in mid-afternoon on a large pot of chai, cakes and apricots. We’ll have to make an evening of it – it’s the 4th of July! Guy wears his shalwar and shemees, made to measure in a small tailor’s yesterday down the bazaar. It’s the Evening Walk, my favourite Pakistani institution! It’s six o’clock. One and a half hours to E-Hour, that’s Eats time after the boom! of the cannon echoes across town. Yes, here they fire off a cannon to signal the end of the Rozha, an old cannon of smooth, brown polished metal that sits outside the DC’s office on top of the hill.

This evening our walk takes us south down an evening which melts into mountainside on the edge of town. The two valley walls to the east and west frown from above more darkly by the moment. Between them, a vast armsweep of space. The dimensions of the Chitral Valley are dizzying: 200 miles in length, up to two miles wide, hemmed in by high mountains on all sides, except where the Mastuj river flows southwest into Afghanistan.

Soon, we’re sitting on a rooftop restaurant. Behind us, and to the left, the kitchen glows and smokes. In front of us, seated at a long table, a party of moujahideen are dining, long-bearded, whirl-turbanned, garrulous. Below, rice-fields terrace a pattern of faded skylight across the valley to the mountain wall. Daylight cedes to nightlight. Blue on black forms a sharp divide along the skyline to the east. Then...! Up comes the moon and washes witchlight over slopes into hollows across weeping ricefields and houses of slatted timber. In black contrast, shadows plot.

The pale moon – oh! These catchphrases, yes, they have a root and a reason! – The pale moon, almost full, the pale month of Ramazan almost half passed now. Then back along a pale road, walled by vastness. A warm wind is up, whifting air full on the face. Bullom!Past the grass park with its bandstand standing sentry over the empty past, no band to play there now. The British have gone. Empty. Back through the narrow bazaar streets with their low wooden fronts, charpoys out front on wild west boardwalks, over their doors aluminium signboards painted in daubs of bright Urdu. The streets are empty, wildwest wounddown for the night as we come to the shadow of the Garden Hotel. Cream cakes assiduously purchased at the still open bakery are to be later relentlessly consumed.

We retire to the gorbling brook, and more chai.

July 5th

Not as early as is decently proper, we breakfast and spend a lazy, sheltered day within the walls of the Garden, making brief exits only for cigarettes.

Evening, and it’s out on the town with us in a power cut. Late night tailors crosslegged bent over sewing machines glance up from their work and back, glowing apricot orange their lighted cubicles in the black mass of the shopfronts.

It’s nine o’clock - we’re late for dinner. Down at the restaurant, old men sit talking around the chai counter.

On the way home, we stop to listen to a young man playing a two-stringed Chitrali sitar, sitting in his shop.

Later still, perhaps prompted by the encounter, I bring the guitar out into the garden, and play late into the night.

The brook babbles us into sleep.
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Pakistan: A traveller's journal - Part 6

Post by Kitkat on Sat 27 Oct 2012, 11:50

July 6th The Khalash Valleys

We’re off at last! Down that dirt road south, sunbright and spinnning. I leave my guitar and bag behind me, after a difficult decision – but we’re going to walk some of the way, and for once I’m burdenless. Here comes a jeep.
How much?
“Che rupea.”

It’s only half full, so we sit in for 6 Rupees. Then it’s off down the hill springs burping. Out of town the valley walls seem to rise higher. We hug the western shoulder, looking down over silver canals and rice-fields sparkling. Apricots wink excitingly from round trees. On one stretch, we climb high above the river along a crumbling cliff road, skidding along straight patches, slowing only for the bends, wheels sometimes inches from a vertical drop.

To Ayun – a cowboy town, a spaghetti western film set. On a 3 in 1 gradient, wooden sidings lean-to skywards. We buy Woodbines and plums. Before we move on up the hill out of town, there’s a wooden earth-roofed shack with a sign over the door:

Pity it’s not open!

There are two roads to Bumburet: a high road and a low road. We ask a boy; he points high. High it is.

After an hour, we breast the top, toe stepping now. We look back at Ayun’s canals sparkling. Below them, the slopes are lush green and the river roars on. Above the river, Colossal cliffs block the daylight. Beyond them to the east, clouds bulk, and brilliant white slivers the crests of the Hindu Kush.

Over the top, the road loops clockwise around a yawning wilderness of rock. An hour’s sidewinding descent and re-ascent brings us onto another high ridge. From here we can look down to our right at what must be the entrance to the Rambur valley. If it is, then Bumburet must be near, for the waters of the two valleys flow into each other. Guy has taken a short cut, scampering up scree to rejoin the road on the other side.

A fir tree, flat and warm, shelters my back while the rainstorm passes eastwards. It seems a long time since I’ve stood under a tree in the rain. The rain eases. Leaves drip onto the road ahead. Sunlight flashes. Coming down to a left hand bend, over the edge of the road I can see green as the clouds below clear - Bumburet!

Far off to the northwest I can make out the dim lines of Rambur. A thin roar is audible from the valley floor a thousand feet below. Across the valley on the far wall, the faint line of a track. Above and beyond, grey cloud shrouds a snowy peak.

Bearing right, I continue the steep descent, picking out the warm yellow of cornfields, the green of unripe maize, the curl and glimmer of rice-fields. The air is thick with vegetation smells after the rain. Colours glow. Luscious green water flows fast and heavy, channels siphoned from the river to feed valley slopes downstream. A series of hundred yard long switchbacks lead me down to the bridge, and Bumburet.

Bumburet - Hobbit sounding – Bilbo Baggins or Rupert the Bear would be equally at home here! I have reached the Happy Valley! At first sight, on rounding the bend in the road over the pass, and looking down on that storybook picture glowing green and speckled yellow through the mist, Bumburet emitted such delicate, gentle vibrations that are difficult to describe. Around the bend now this is no longer Pakistan – it’s Rupert the Bear’s hunting ground – it’s the land of Grimm’s tales.

I cross the wooden bridge, and toe-step up the steep dirt road, stare at the display of crops blazing colour from every direction, the river spitting cold behind me. At the shop, I have to show my authorization and sign a register. On up the hill. A young woman stands silent in black, perhaps twenty years old, holding down a tree branch to feed a goat. She meets my eyes unabashed, her face curved in a smile. I hesitate. Think of a photo assault, to capture this silent angel in black. She speaks:
Still smiling, repeats:
My nerve gives. What the hell’s paisa? I leave her inviolate, tall and black by the edge of the taller green maize. Have to do a course sometime on Camera Strategy: Lines of Approach.

Moving up the hill, I remember – of course! Paisa means money!

“Taking photographs of women is also strictly prohibited but the girls in the Khalash Valleys can be photographed provided they are agreeable: they usually pose on payment.”
PTDC Brochure – Northern Areas

I wonder who was responsible for establishing this particular custom?

The Dress

She stands in a robe from throat to ankle, black broadcloth, the kind worn by the Christian Brothers before the glossy new gear came in. Her robe is soiled and greasy from long wear. The neck, cuffs and hem are embroidered with pink and yellow thread. She wears necklaces of small beads, red, pink, yellow, blue. Around her neck also, hangs a silver tapering triangular breast-piece, a framework of pendants strung together. On her arms, tubes of red bangles. Her hair is long and thick, braided into one central plait, with two smaller plaits over the temples. The hair over her ears and the crown and back of her head is cropped short. She wears a cloth headband studded with white and red cowrie shells; from the back of this, a two foot tailpiece trails down her back, from the end of the tailpiece hangs a tiny silver bell. Her waist is bound many times round with a coarse woolen sash of off-white banded in a design of blue and red.

The dress of the Khalash women sets them apart strikingly from their Muslim neighbours. Khalash men, though, are not so easily distinguishable from Muslims: they wear the same shalwar, shemees and waistcoat, and also the same fat-rimmed, flat-topped woolen hat as the Chitrali men. Except for a general absence of beard, there is one only way to distinguish a Khalash from a Muslim: look to the head – the Khalash weras a feather in his cap!

Walnut trees canopy the winding dirt road up a steep slope. To the left, towards the river, the land is irrigated with crops and pasture. To the right, above the road, on steeper slopes the Khalash village is almost hidden by trees. Tightly interbuilt houses clamber over each other up the valleyside so that the children of one house play on the roof of the house below them.

The Khalash houses are built of granite blocks laid across lengths of timber six inches thick. The roofs are flat, surfaced with packed earth. There seem to be few windows, and doorways are low-set, door jambs and lintels large, carved in animal figures. Over some doorways, goat skulls. Smoky interiors scantily lit. These houses are not notably different from the houses of the Muslims, except for one peculiar characteristic – the carvings. Strange designs are carved around most of the doors. At the entrance to the village, a three foot tall figure carved from wood sits on a pedestal, gazing west up the valley. Its face is broken, and the front of the body torn away.

We stay with Bumbur Khan and his family: wife, three grinning daughters, and Papoo. Khalash View Hotel says the sign carved in wood. He explains: it is, of course, not a hotel but his home. He has one room to let downstairs; to get government sanction for this, he must call his house a hotel. Bumbur’s house lies at the end of a steep dirt path through big-fingered walnut trees, one of twenty houses in Brun village, half hidden from the jeep road by the trees. Bumbur had been out when I arrived, but his wife received me warmly, telling me in signs to wait. The children giggled. The old woman next door waved.

Upstairs, we eat a good meal with Bumbur Khan and his family. Tonight Guy and I will share the room downstairs with Jeff from Washington State, who has been staying here for some days.

Upstairs there are two sections: the two back rooms which are dark and windowless, the family’s sleeping quarters, and the front section where we sit, a wooden platform on stilts. Our platform shares a common roof with the back rooms, but here we can enjoy fresh air and a fine view from the open verandah front. At each end of the verandah there is a doorway. To enter from below, we climb a solid length of timber with notches cut for footholds – a Khalash ladder – sometimes also used as a kind of gangway for passing from one to another of the many staggered levels of the village. Bumbur’s house is built on a slope so steep that the entrance to the front of the house is eight feet above the ground.

Bumbur’s wife slaps out the rotees in her hands, and browns them over the fire on a large saucer-shaped iron pan, chatting all the while to the eldest daughter (about ten years old) who brings us our food. Meanwhile, over on the charpoy, totally absorbed, the youngest (about six) fingers excitedly The American Picture Dictionary of English, pointing out familiar animals:
Dond! (= cow. Khalash)
Ut! (= camel. Khalash)

Bumbur sits with us and speaks some English. His face radiates calm. The eldest daughter jokes with her father without fear. Bumbur’s wife sits by the fire breast-feeding the little one, not needing to hide herself. She speaks with Bumbur, without retiring or self-effacing gesture – noble in her Khalash head-dress.

Jeff asks Bumbur about the carved totem figures below Brun village. Who made them? What were they for? Bumbur tells us there were originally seven of these figures above the path. They were built by his ancestors, represented a force for good to protect the village from harm. Bumbur himself had carved the most recent figure in honour of his father. Bumbur is the Head man of Brun village.

And the damage? It seemed as if they had been vandalized? Yes. Some had been carefully sawn from their pedestals, to be taken to Chitral and Peshawar and sold to foreigners; others had been destroyed with hatchets. They had come at night.


The Muslims.

The moon comes up over the far side of the valley. For a long time we sit and look. The river roars somewhere in the dark.

We climb down the ladder to our room. The music begins, and throbs on into sleep.

July 7th Bumburet

Slept solid. And Bumbur calls from the ladder to us three below. We clamber up and lash into breakfast: a plate piled high with paratha (rotee fried in oil) and chai to lubricate the day’s activities. Zhpata! (= Hello! Khalash) graces the morning air.

The sun has already climbed high. The entire family are going down to work in their field; even Papoo has his share to do, repairing the mud walls of little water channels.

The valley stretches upwards and swims in sunlight. Down to the river, through the fields, stepping along the channels. Big boulders of glinting white granite provide a path of sorts alongside the tearing water foamy washing machine white that would whip the legs away from under you. Abridge of split tree trunks delicately straddles the deep rush at its narrowest point. We boulder hop intently downriver; barefoot boulder hopping is swift stuff – Guy, upstate Quebecer an expert!

We find a moist grass bank overlooking the water and choose our site for the morning. Behind us is a field of maize rustling, and sky-blue cornflowers.

The bath is short, and violent. We find a three foot eddy shielded by a large boulder, and commit ourselves to immersion – in stages. First, the legs… then, waist high, carefully to keep balanced against the current… swallowing huge slurps of air… then, the PLUNGE!! … EEYAAAAGH!! Hold on tight… the wave of cold numbs… 10 seconds… enough! HI’SSHHH!!

We squat on a warm granite boulder. The sun streams.

Lying on grass under a walnut tree, we listen to the river.

It seems a long time afterwards when we head back up the river, along the shady path to Bumburs, and dinner.

July 9th

Sitting in the porch in bright shadow. The stream streaming by at arm’s length. I’ve just finished my morning chai and omelette. A 3-D valley tumbles before me. Mountains tower on both sides and taper down a valley studded with walnut, wheat, maize, rice, potatoes, apricots and plums. Above, pines climb high, balancing. Below, all is green, electric with surface water in the morning sun. Over it all, blue sky, and in the far distance white snow caps tiptoeing to peep in over the valley wall. Behind us, more warm yellow corn and delicately moulded rice terraces stretch upwards to the top of the valley where the guardian mountain stands distant, white. A highway of white boulders riven by seething water winds upwards to those glaciers. From them, frosty waters rush fresh released onto a dirtier by the day trek to the sea to slide through filth and poison and be embalmed in an exile of salt. And polystyrene clouds pose.

Sun beats down, filtering through a canopy of mulberry leaves to where I lie. Around me, pasture for a small herd of milk cows, sparse but well watered by a stream which runs along the upper end of the field. The valley’s lower vistas are blocked by bustling walnut trees. Beyond these, only the fragments are visible of fields of yellow corn.

The Khalash girls have gone home now, or sit sculpted in shade under the tree by the river. The place of play is deserted now, the climbing tree left to rest, stretching taut, trembling in an occasional upcurrent of air. The white wings of a bi-plane seem transparent between me and the sun. It’s almost midday. My leisurely breakfast and subsequent smoke have brought me to this benevolent, smiling state.

A small, fair haired Khalash girl approaches, watches me writing. She takes up my free-flow pen, begins to make marks on her face.
Tu (= you. Khalash)
Ah? (= me. Khalash)
Delighted, she rushes off to exhibit herself to the knot of women sitting under the river tree. Some exchange of words over there; eyes are decorated, cheekbones too. Grandma smiles. Everything’s cool. Back she comes scampering with a small hand mirror. Is this used for arranging the elaborate headgear? Yesterday I watched one of the women do her coiffure seated on a rock by the river, a long, solemn ritual. Blondie makes herself up, carefully following in the mirror the movements of the pen across her skin.

There! Flowers on her cheeks, and a star between her eyes!

She grins in joy at herself. I steal a couple of hurried photos. Cameras… damned faceless inquisitors… pointing rudely… big glass noses… SNAPping at folks… to record pieces of humanity. Pieces only. Then why do I feel the need to do this? Only to collect fragments. Fragments to construct the mental scaffolding on which a whole experience can later be rebuilt? But to what purpose, to re-live these passing moments spangled, spiralling away? Is the present not enough? Evidently not. So I piece together jigsaw fashion shattered fragments of Eden. Happily, Blondie doesn’t seem at all put out by the intrusion. A fair exchange.

The Dance

We’re lying on our cots after dinner when we hear the drums begin. We get out and follow the sound up to the small dirt square above Bumbur’s house, in the centre of Brun village. Two drummers stand in the open space, silhouetted against a spangled gash of night sky. In ones and twos at irregular intervals, silent figures file from the shadows of houses out into the square to coalesce into the shape of a single line. Linking arm in arm, they begin to shuffle anti-clockwise, phantom-like in a co-ordinated one, moving in a wide circling line around the drummers who stand motionless, save for the rhythmic throbbing of their arms as they thump on goatskin with palm and baton beating out an interlocking pulse.

Small boys gather, Papoos of six to ten years, woolen caps pulled down over their ears, join arms and hurtle round the perimeter of the shuffling circle of women. A gnarled old man grinning ecstatically moves from foot to foot, knees out, right arm waving a long crooked stick at the sky.

The rhythm gels, is a solid living thing, master of all in the circle, inner and outer. We sit with a hurricane lamp glowing on the perimeter. Ghost profiles pass, sweep into the glow and around again into the moving shape of the circle.

New groups form within the orbit of the outer line. In each group, a threesome interlock arms facing one direction, and interlock with a threesome facing the other to form lines of six. The inner lines begin revolving anti-clockwise, while spinning in a slow circle around the drummers. Dust rises in the glow, and the shuffling revolving lines move ghost-like through the grey filter of dust.

Now the chant begins.

One voice first. The first and eldest in the line offers up a note. Then, in unison, the women take up the chant as they shuffle. A long, wailing note. It fades. Then a second, a half note down the scale, major to minor, in turn rises and fades:

“G-O-O-O-O-o-o… … … W-A-A-A-A-Y-y-y!”

it seems to say. Two notes only: the first surging to a high pitch of “Go”, to quaver at its highest point, linger on the air, and fade; then the second “Way” in the minor, falls away to sigh itself out. As the small inner lines of dancers revolve, one half of the line’s chant swells to closeness as they swing around to face us, the other half’s fading to a distance as they swing away. Then two, then three lines take up the rising, fading wail in staggered sequence until the night is a circle of shuffling phantoms and revolving sound, an otherworldly wail surfacing from and retreating to the bottom of time, a story without words so old that these two notes alone remain of it, the movement of the planets around the centre of the life force!

As if what is being conjured up before us is the cry of mankind through the years, the countless voices of humanity merging into one voice of regret or awe, penetrating the barrier of the years to turn and tumble through time to where we sit now.

A purging of the indefinable.

Now the moon comes, piercing peaks first. Shadows slide down the high rock wall of the valley behind us. Soon moonlight has graced the circle, giving approval in a sweep of silver. The circle whorls and gyrates. The small interlocked lines shuffle inwards and outwards at varying speeds, passing each other out, continuously forming and reforming groups. Three small girls, arms linked, flutter around the perimeter, novices lending butterfly wings to the solid body of the dance which increases in intensity towards the throbbing centre. Small boys rodeo roughly arm in arm in sweeping lines, an elbowing hubble in woolen caps punctuating the softly retreating and approaching wail in a cacophonous rush with each revolution. And the chinking of head-dress bells on the backs of the women of the outer circle as they shuffle sideways past us. The old man continues to dance solo, weaving in and out, exhorting us to join him. Two middle-aged men perform a mock battle with wooden swords five to six feet in length; this is incorporated into the movement of the dance, as are the roister-doister boys who bouleverse headlong among the shuffling black cohorts, without seeming to disrupt the deliberate inevitable movements of the lines.

The dance continues late into the night. At intervals, an exhausted drummer retires and is replaced without a break in the rhythm.

I feel a chill awe of the dancers. They have become one with the dance. We have been transported to another dimension.

The next night, we attend the dance again, this time in Krakaal village higher up the valley, under the nose of the guardian mountain. This dance includes a long choral sequence by the men. The only thing to approach this that I have ever heard or seen is a scene from Stanley Kubrik’s A Space Oddysey to the soundtrack of Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra. But even Stanley Kubrik couldn’t match this.

We get hopelessly lost coming back through the trees dazed after the dance, and a boy has to lead us to the hotel we moved to this morning.

July 10th The Khalash Hotel

About 2,000 of the 3,000 Khalash live in the valley of Bumburet. The Khalash are said to have lived in isolation from outside interference for centuries. But since the independence of the State of Pakistan and the coming of the jeep road over the pass from Chitral, the Muslim population in Bumburet has been increasing steadily. The Khalash, so long hidden away in their high valleys of Kaffiristan (Land of the Unbelievers) have become a target for the imams and foreign Christian evangelists.

Charles and Veronique arrived at the Khalash Hotel yesterday, after having – somehow! – negotiated the pass on their 1000cc motor bike. They had an interview with the District Commissioner in Chitral, who told them of efforts being made to help the Khalash protect their unique identity in the face of Muslim settlers moving up the valleys from Chitral, and Afghanis moving down from Nuristan. The Muslims, with their superior business sense, had long ago taken advantage of the Khalash people’s ignorance of the value of money and property; they had bought up the rights to timber in the valley for a small sum. Now they own the land along the roadside, and run two shops there. They have built two wooden mosques to crackle conversion, and five hotels to trap the tourist trade. They also operate the jeeps to Ayun and Chitral.

But the District Commissioner has forbidden by law any further sale of Khalash land to Muslims, and is looking for funds to encourage the Khalash to run their own hotels. Bumbur Khan’s house in Brun village was the first of these. And now the Khalash Hotel has just been established. We are only the second visitors to Abdulkhalek’s new hotel, and the first arrivals since two Germans stayed the night three weeks ago; we met them on their return to Chitral. The hotel is magnificently situated at the head of Bumburet valley. It’s built of timber, with an earth roof. The dining room is a large table and two benches in the front porch. The two bedrooms are dark and windowless, with three charpoys in each room on a beaten earth floor. The bedroom doors open onto the porch, which in turn opens onto a field of grass and mulberry and plum trees, where cows graze and children play. Beyond this field, the whole of Bumburet opens out before us. The kitchen is an open annex on the river side of the building and from there a door leads to the porch. On the gable side opposite the kitchen, facing the road, just over the front entrance to the porch Abdulkhalek has daubed proudly in blue paint, though not entirely legibly:

Unfortunately for Abdulkhakek, the jeeps bringing visitors to Bumburet don’t bring them this far up the valley. Unless specifically directed, the jeeps deposit their passengers outside the Muslim owned hotels over a mile down the hill. Although it’s near the road, Guy and I had trouble finding the place, and several people we asked along the road seemed reluctant to acknowledge its existence. We had only called in for a chai, but then Abdulkhalek pulled his master stroke – he showed us the charpoys in the bedroom:
“You like my beds. Look! Long beds special for long people!”
We tried them. Sure enough, the beds were over six feet long!
So we moved.
Already I’m beginning to feel at home here. The Khalash reaction to the stranger feels so informal and welcoming, especially after the inflexibile, aloof Chitralis. Theirs is not a formal, bookish greeting and mechanical response to be ground out and directed at faces:
“Assalam alaikum.”
“Wa alaikum salaam.”
More often than not, this sound like they are performing some tiresome social duty.
“Zhpata Baya!” (= Hello Brother! Khalash)
“Zhpata Baba!” (= Hello Sister! Khalash)
Delivered with an explosion of face muscles, a smile always at the ready, eyes calm, meeting eyes. Old women pass you on the road and smile.
Then there are the children.
We sit for long hours in the shade and watch the little girls shinning up the mulberry tree. They swing from branches, stand up straight robed in black high amongst the foliage, a surrealist picture.
And to watch their faces, the lovely plaited heads, eyes ice blue to brown, in love with paly. Eager dirt grey fingers draw pictures on my hand naming the parts of the body, teaching me the Khalash words.
Charles, Veronique and I spend the afternoon playing battleships. Imagine! Charles had never heard of the game – and he’s English! Guy has gone a-wandering. We take to wild speculation concerning the odd nature of many of the Cow community arrayed before us. There are refugees, lifers, real mean types, and delinquent bullocks, all inmates of the Khalash Open Cow Prison.

One brindled black & brown cow became a common favourite. She had crooked horns tied with string, a conspicuous limp of the right hind leg, and a neat way of crinkling the skin just above the nose as she swept in for the chomp. She preferred the moister grass just in front of the dining room, and, we concurred, the company of humans to cows. And she betrayed an attitude that verged on disdain for the restrictions imposed upon her as a member of the Cow community. Yes, she was stubborn. We adopted her, called her Fred, gave her moral support in her frequent brushes with the Law. Fred was a consistent offender, a breaker-out. At least twice a day, having maneuvered inconspicuously to a likely position near the edge of the field, she’d make the break, either up the road, or down the slope towards the river. And at least twice a day we’d see Fred arriving home with more speed than dignity at the hands of the Muslim girl whose charge it was to keep the cows where they belong. Fred had different ideas as to where she belonged. Poor Fred. We couldn’t decide whether she harboured a secret, shameful urge to become a goat and join her rightful kin roaming on the higher slopes, or whether she was simply dissident by persuasion. Charles suggested unkindly that she was sneaking off regularly to graze on charas plants. I wondered whether Fred was the one Abdulkhalek had chased with a tin dish for milk (unsuccessfully) on that first day when we had dropped in for tea?

An old man with a long beard and a staff, and a rifle strapped to his shoulder, wandered in to gaze at the 1000cc motor bike which was belching music in front of the kitchen. Dissimulating his alarm, he edged in daringly to study the machine from every angle. He went away, musing. I wonder what he thought?

An evening draws in soft and cool. I sit down in the porch to a spiced omelette, chapatees freshly baked goat’s cheese succulent and spongy, and lashings of chai.

Dusk. An opaque blue light bounces off white marshmallow clouds along the line of mountains just visible peering in over the bottom of the valley. Tonight I enjoy an intimate relationship with my supper, all alone by mantle lamp. The wooden table and porch glowing. The flicker and whish of the lamp. The warmth and smell of kerosene. Round by Abdulkhalek’s kitchen, Afghan music on the radio, turned down low.

Outside, the valley is a big black V.
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PAKISTAN: A traveller's journal - Part 7

Post by Kitkat on Fri 02 Nov 2012, 00:04

July 11th

Over breakfast we decide on an expedition to Rambur, accompanying Gille, a Frenchman who has been living there for a year. It’s already late in the day by the time we’ve assembled to shamble down the hill at a leisurely pace, and after stopping at both Peace Hotel and Albenizar Hotel to drink large pots of chai and sample the celebrated home-made apricot jam, it’s later still, and considerably hotter.

Over many teas, reluctant to leave the shade, Gille tells us more about the predicament of the Khalash. Although the rate at which they are converting to Islam is now down to ten a year, the mosques are firmly planted in the valleys. Not only this, but also the young men who go down to Chitral to look for work are under pressure to embrace Islam if they hope for educational or economic advancement. And if fewer Khalash men of marriageable age are available, the women must look elsewhere. Whatever motives a Khalash women may have for marrying a Muslim, the consequence change in lifestyle is enormous. The Khalash language too is under siege. No written form of the language survives, and the official medium of the State school is Urdu. The training of a Khalash schoolteacher is an urgent priority.

We come across a newcomer sitting in the porch of the Albenizar Hotel, about 6ft 6, blond and bearded, staring into space.
“Hello.” we say.
“Oh, hello.” he replies, and, after a short pause:
“You must be some kind of… tourists?” in distinctly Germanic, labored English.
Charles’ reply, again after a short pause, and in abrupt change of tone, is that he is an Englishman and a traveller, and where was he from?
“Oh, I suppose you could say I was some kind of Swede.”
He tells us he’s been on the road for six months, he’s been stoned for three days, and he’s found this guide who’s going to bring him to Afghanistan tomorrow. With this, he takes out a harmonica, begins to play tunelessly with gusto, stands up slowly, and drifts around the corner of the Albenizar Hotel, blowing intently.
“Some kind of Swede! ... Huh! ... Afghanistan! … Huh!" snorts Charles.
“It’s a miracle he ever got as far as Chitral!”

Guy and I agree that we’re not going to make it to Rambur today. We settle for a long bath and a wash of clothes down at the river, later to retire in clean, crisp clothes to the porch of the Khalash Hotel. I’m sunburned, but gain some measure of satisfaction from the day by destroying Guy’s fleet at battleships.
This evening I take a long walk across the river and up the path towards Birir. The long, steep path steepens further into an almost vertical climb straight up the South wall of the valley. I didn’t persevere.

July 12th (Ramazan 21)

Today, an expedition. Down to Chitral to fetch my guitar – five day’s absence is too long. The lower road is passable only on foot, a pleasant walk following the river all the way to Ayun. On the way I meet Saifullah with a work party blasting rock to build a jeep road to Rambur. Three hours later, I reach the big valley, high walled and arid except for the brown torrent, a lot of water doing little good. Arriving at Ayun, I’m reminded of the wide cultural gap between the Khalash valleys and the main valley. Men. Men only. Ramazan faces staring, strung out in a street with no food or drink. Unsmiling. Downright sour. Two boys asleep in a jeep. Here, let’s get down to Chitral as as quickly and painlessly as possible.

I walk straight out of town, and halfway to Chitral. On the way, five jeeps pass me, coming in the wrong direction. Not a drop of drinking water, not a jeep in 2½ hours. To revive, I take a shivery dip in the muddy Chitral river. Soon afterwards I get a lift in a private jeep with a doctor who’s not at all happy to be stationed up here.
Chitral. Ramadan hangs heavily in the air. In the bazaar I find a wooden flute and bargain down to 3 Rupees. I see to my errands before making for the Garden Hotel. The old chai man gives me a warm welcome and a cup tea, though he can’t take one himself. Within a few minutes he’s refused a request from two Chitralis sidling covertly in the gate in search of tea. I take the guitar and head off to look for a jeep.
Three quarters of an hour standing in the sun, and still no jeep. They seem to be going everywhere but Ayun.

Ayun. 5:45 pm:
“No jeep. Jeep finish. Tomorrow jeep.”
I’m not going to stay in this town. The river road is too dangerous by night. So, up the hill again. Up, up, up, for five miles with a guitar case in one hand and a bag on my shoulder – and a camera (why did I bring that bloody thing?!).
It’s getting late. Very quiet. No sound of a jeep. Nothing. I take a short cut to avoid trudging a wide loop of road, only to have to claw up a murderous 100 foot scree slope to reach the road again.

Now it’s dark. I just want to lie down and sleep. But this mountain is not a friendly one; there’s not a drop of water this side. Plums from the bag only leave me thirstier, and this bloody guitar case is bruising the backs of my knees with every step. Stumble… slip… trip… Rest… And push on… I’ve twisted that ankle three times now. Can’t see where I’m going; only a dim lighter-than-its-surroundings light is where the jeep track is.

At last, I come round the valley side and hear the roar of the river below. Now a scent of pine and a descending road, and in half an hour I’ve reached the first water channel – oh joy! – to gurgle that water down, and plant these poor feet in the ice cold current!

The moon is coming out as I cross the bridge, with an hour’s climb still to do before reaching my bed. I lie on a big boulder under a walnut tree and look out across the river. The moon filters through cloud, paints the valley wall magic colours. The few lights still burning are from Muslim houses, the last eating session before sleep and the morning fast. A group of men pass me on their way to the mosque, as I sit in a water channel slurping mouthfuls from cupped hands.

The Khalash Hotel stands dark and silent under moonlight. It’s 2 am. Up the hill the Khalash drums are pounding furiously, male voices swelling the chant – they’re still dancing up in Krakaal village – I can see the fire through the trees. It’s taken me eight hours to cross that mountain. I’m ready to collapse into bed. But I feel good: I’ve beaten the Bad Mountain, and Ayun; I’ve got my guitar up here, home, in Bumburet.

July 13th

A riotous morning passed in the porch of the Khalash Hotel, with Veronique and Charles, Guy, Abdulkhalek, Jeff, and Klaus, just arrived, on his way from Germany to Australia. Even our old friend The Swede dropped in to say hello; he had found his way to the village at the top of the valley – hadn’t quite made it to Afghanistan, but the Khalash Hotel was a good second best. Time passed with singing, battleships, chai, exchanging stories and a good few laughs to boot, Charles instigating as always.

A group of Punjabi tourists arrive to honour us with their uninvited presence for over an hour, during which we try to remain oblivious to the stares and the inane questions put to each of us in turn, their spokesman a well groomed, thoroughly insensitive fop in his late thirties. Eventually, Jeff sees them off with some straight talk. These are the kind of people who had strolled into Bumbur Khan’s house last week to begin blithely interviewing Jeff and I on the subject of the Khalash, while Bumbur sat regarding them calmly from his seat in the corner.
“But how do you communicate with them?”
“Why don’t you ask the man of the house?” Jeff replied, gesturing at Bumbur, who remained silent.
“He speaks five languages – English is one of them.”
They left.
It wasn’t timidity that had caused Bumbur to remain silent.
The day settles. We gravitate to the river, build up a rock pool, slide in shuddering, one by one.

A full table at Abdulkhalek’s tonight. We sit down to a whopping meal of ghosht, turnip, rice, and goat’s cheese, with roti and chai.
Another day shrinks inwards, to the hissing mantle lamp and the table.

July 14th
This morning we go to visit the graveyard on the far side of the river. The Khalash, rather than bury their dead, have always laid them to rest above ground in a box along with a few of the deceased’s dearest possessions. Until recent times, that is, when repeated desecrations by outsiders in search of valuable pickings such as jewelry forced the Khalash to abandon this custom. They now bury their dead underground. But the old graveyard is still there, a rock-strewn hill under walnut trees, between golden wheat fields and the river.

The coffins are simple roughly made boxes of walnut wood, sunbleached grey/white. Many of the lids have been prised off, in the coffins, bones aligned amongst decaying cloth and cowrie shells. Broken coffins lie littered amongst the boulders. Skulls sit displaced, peering up at us. Small bones crack underfoot. Here no carvings remain. We leave. As we’re returning through the fields still awed by the spectacle, we notice an old man shouting and gesturing at us. We brace for retaliatory measures. It’s a Khalash man (some of the old men do wear beards). We follow him to a small hill field shaded by apricot trees, where two old women are binding stooks of wheat. Their field is almost harvested, with one-handed sickles. Only the tying-up remains to be done.

He’s inviting us to share his apricots, distracted with happy handshakes as he turns his face all broken out in smiles in turn on each of us four. And we thought he was mad at us for going near the graveyard.

Charles and Veronique depart on their 1000cc bike. A sending-off contingent of twenty folks wave them as far as the trees, where they disappear down the valley.
In Kashmir then, for sure:
“You’ll hear about the bike!”

July 15th Rambur

Swapped my books for Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush – it promises good reading. Now, of the foreigners, there are only Guy, Klaus and myself. We walk down the valley to where the rivers meet, and turn left into the narrow gorge which forms the entrance to the valley of Rambur, much smaller and more confined than Bumburet. We follow the twisting path between high rock faces to where the valley widens into a green floor. We strip and swim, and sit silent by the white river. We dry out in minutes. A little further up, the first houses, loaded apricot trees by the roadside, along the bushes grapevines twine, the fruit not yet ripe.

The day is extremely hot, so we’re delighted to come across the Rambur Hilton, where we retire for a chai and a smoke. The land use pattern here appears similar to that in Bumburet: Muslims occupying the lower end of the valley and the Khalash village at the upper end. At the village, in an open space shaded by walnut trees, we’re invited to take photographs. There are handshakes for the strangers. We’re about to settle down for a rest after the walk when there’s a loud crackle from loudspeakers. It’s coming from the mosque at the centre of the village. For the next twenty minutes, the speakers churn out – at what must be maximum volume - not only the call to prayer but many another call besides. One too many for us.

We retreat downhill to the balcony of the Rambur Hilton, and order tea and apricots, after negotiating a price agreeable to both parties. On the balcony, there’s a Khalash girl, perhaps sixteen years old. We talk as best we can with single words, using every word we know in common, and charades to fill in what’s missing. We talk of apricots, and Musulmen, and bong (=charas. Khalash), and food & drink (the Rambur wine is said to be good). She stands just a little awkwardly, but there’s nothing at all awkward about her smile and steady gaze.

We scoff a large tray of apricots. We descend the valley. On the road, we meet two veiled cyphers that could have been women.

It’s a three hour walk down to the meeting of the waters, and back up the hill home. We take it each at his own pace. I tail off last.
On my way up the Bumburet road, I greet two boys:
They don’t return my greeting, except to say:
“Zhpata no good. You must say Assalam Alaikum!”
God! I’m pissed off with these Muslims today…
“Look! You Musulman. Me no Musulman. For you, yes; for me, no. This Khalash valley; here, Khalash speaking. OK?!”
When I get back, the lamp is lit for dinner. Chicken tonight! We linger long over the meal. Here all is present. I can think nothing of outside, nothing of past time, nor future. For the first time in Pakistan this past week or two, I’m totally relaxed. I feel no need to move on, that vague dissatisfaction that tempts one into thoughts of a bus tomorrow. No. for the moment, everything I want is here among these walnut trees and yellow wheat stooks and the sounds of water and happy Khalash laughter.
In Rambur today I saw a bright yellow bird (Canary?), and in Bumburet an all-white bird (dove?).

July 16th

I’m writing this bothered by flies. Small bother! They’ve cut down some branches of the mulberry tree. The goat is busy stripping them. The rest is for tonight’s firewood. The women are sitting in the sha.” de of the riverbank tree. The kids are kittens sporting in the sun.

Last night I decided I’d try for Gilgit across the pass; even with the guitar, it must be tried. A visit to Landi Khotal and the Khyber will have to stand in the balance. Here time has taken on a new meaning.
“Ah parim ga.” (= I go to the river. Khalash)
“Proosht!” (= Good! Khalash)
In ten days I’ve learned more Khalash than I had of Urdu in a month. Lying on the grass beside the river. The valley careers wildly away, towering to the sky. Drying off with a Woodbine, my clothes beside me spread out on hot rocks, my jeans bleaching almost dry in the sun. We bake and slosh intermittently… kneeling breathless waist deep in the rush of cold… scooping handfuls of water under armpits across shoulders and back… shortly to emerge clean and crisp, to hot rock hop up the river bed to the hotel. The coins from my pocket burn my hand – I shouldn’t stay long.
Tonight perhaps, a letter?

July 17th

We spend the day sitting under the apricot trees, playing guitar, while the children and women shake down apricots and mulberries and collect them from the grass. Mmmm! I gave the wooden flute to the girl with the mischievous eyes who’s always laughing. She played it for me yesterday afternoon. Today Abdulkhalek’s friend has come down to join us and play some tunes. Klaus has been dishing out balloons to the children, and teaching handstands and cartwheels. Meanwhile, the less athletic amongst us play Name the Animal “RRAAAOR!” and draw on faces with pens. The children have an uncanny power of aural recall; after listening to a melody once or twice, they can hum it at the correct pitch.

We didn’t go to Birir today after all. Jeff’s friend arrived, and the two of them went off on their own to climb that god-awful peak overlooking the valley. Instead, it seems, we’re having a party!

Reading A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, I found an interesting aside of Eric Newby’s which brings to mind some of my own recent experiences:
“Perhaps one of the most disagreeable features of fanatic Islam is its ability to make people of other faiths feel impure in thought, word, and deed.”
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Re: Pakistan: A traveller's journal

Post by Jamboree on Sat 03 Nov 2012, 16:40

Really enjoying reading in these journals. I look forward with unfettered anticipation for the notification telling me the latest episode has arrived. Please keep them coming.
(Hope it's ok to post in between episodes. Please feel free to remove my comments if needed to keep clear here for this writer's brilliance.) :thumb:
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Re: Pakistan: A traveller's journal

Post by Kitkat on Sat 03 Nov 2012, 20:20

Jamboree wrote:Really enjoying reading in these journals. I look forward with unfettered anticipation for the notification telling me the latest episode has arrived. Please keep them coming.
(Hope it's ok to post in between episodes. Please feel free to remove my comments if needed to keep clear here for this writer's brilliance.) :thumb:

No problem at all, Jamboree. I'm glad you are enjoying them. Very Happy
This is the nature of the letters the family used to receive from my brother when he was off on his travels - 15-20 page packed letters where on reading you could really imagine you were right there with him everywhere he went. My mother, when she was alive, was forever trying to persuade him to have his writings published. She used to say he could make a simple leaf come to life and bring a story with it in his letters.
I have only just managed to persuade him to at least post them up on our family forum, and I am copying them and posting them up here as and when they come to us.

Here's the next one ... Part 8 .............
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PAKISTAN: A traveller's journal - Part 8

Post by Kitkat on Sat 03 Nov 2012, 20:26

The Garden Hotel, Chitral July 25th

I no longer remember what day it is. We’ve been here, let’s see, four days now. I’m sitting in the scent of a lilac tree beside a chuckling stream. Klaus and I came down from Bumburet four days ago, stood on the tailboard of a jeep using knee suspension as we scrunched across the Ayun mountain on the road I’d walked so painfully the week before, this time battling to hold on to a flying sheish to protect my head from a sunbeating and churning clouds of dust as we hurtled down to the Chitral valley. That morning in Bumburet we’d watched a parade with banners and triumphant chanting to mark the end of Ramazan. Perhaps there would be celebrations in Chitral for the Muslim feast of Eid Al Fitr? Music? Dancing?

But is seems the only thing we have to cheer us here is the Garden, some small consolation for having left Bumburet.

Halfway between the dirty brown river and the DC’s headquarters on the top of the hill you come to a plain stone wall. Open the door under the sign and step inside. A stream flows along the inside of the wall to disappear under Room No. 1 to your right. There are rooms, on street level. Outside, a verandah, at the far end of which is the kitchen. On entering from the street, you descend four stone steps to the garden below the verandah. This is the restaurant dining area, where we sit now. From here, a further three foot descent brings you to the bathroom on the ground floor, eight feet below street level. This is rough-plastered, 7 foot square with a hole in the concrete floor to drain water. A tin bucket is provided for YSSKHH-HAH! showers. Directly behind, adjoining, is the toilet, a simple keyhole shaped hole in the floor. Under the floor of the bathroom and toilet flows the second channel of the stream (our stream serves purposes both aesthetic and functional).
The Garden Hotel is cool, quiet and clean. Our horizons are bounded greenly by the garden. Roses red, white and pink, and other trailing flowers wind through the trees behind me. Shadows lattice across the grass and speckle the surface of my table.
The tea has arrived; now for a Woodbine.

We’re waiting for the Chitralis outside to stop doing nothing, which, apparently, is how they celebrate the end of a month of eating nothing. Today is the fourth day of empty streets, a boarded-up bazaar, closed banks (I have no money left), closed post office (I have letters a week old for posting). So, there is little encouragement for us to go anywhere. We couldn’t, anyway: we would need permission from the DC’s office, and that’s closed. So we sit it out here in the garden, and wait.

Away from our little stream, the nearest cool sight is Tirich Mir 40 km. away to the north, solid white 25,000 feet, Boss of Chitral Valley. Outside in arid Chitral, donkeys tied in the sun wail hopelessly for release. Chitral is a town of one long sloping street – the road into town is the road out. The food is poor, the inhabitants dour, dried up as the land.

This afternoon, Guy, Klaus, Washington Jeff, California Jeff and I sit in the garden battling through a series of viscious Ludo games (American rules). In two days, if all goes well, I’ll travel by jeep with the two Jeffs and Guy to Mastuj. From there, we’ll attempt to cross the 12,000 foot Shandur Pass into Gilgit, if possible by jeep, if necessary on foot.


With Jeff’s alarm clock I get up at 6 am and enjoy a chai with the early sun, my last at the Garden Hotel. Last night, Guy defected to a French party, who have hired a jeep to Gilgit for 4,000 Rupees! Klaus returned to Rawalpindi on the bus, which leaves our prospects even bleaker.

I join the two Jeffs downtown at the jeep stand. By eight thirty we’ve made a deal for 60 Rupees apiece as passengers on a jeep for Mastuj. Two Chitrali passengers will ride in the cab, while the three of us will ride high on the back, on a cargo of rock salt. A lucky break – there might have been at least ten people on the jeep. After an hour’s delay for fueling, watering and tying on of luggage, we’re on our way.

It’s already hot, so I wrap a wet sheish around my head. We head north up the valley, the river below us on our left, muddy and frothing. Ahead, Tirich Mir looms larger with each bend of the road. Leaving the town behind us is exhilarating, and already we’re marvelling at the mighty scale of our surroundings.
After an hour, we stop and throw water over ourselves from a channel on the side of the road. After consultation between the driver and the other passengers, we’re ushered down a sloping path to a house below the road. There are handshakes. There is conversation, one of our fellow passengers, the bank manager from Mastuj, acting as interpreter. We’re served hot, thick chapatees, spicy omelette, and chai: delicious, and an unexpected bonus! We say goodbye, and pile onto our jeep, fueled for bopping.

Riding a jeep is mentally and physically tiring, a different trip entirely from bussing it. In the first place, a jeep ride means the road is too soft, rocky, narrow or steep for a bus. It’s also expensive, so the owner of the jeep tries to make his journey worthwhile by getting as many paying passengers on board as he can. “On board” can mean a foothold on the tailboard and a handhold on the roof frame.

Sometimes as many as twelve passengers are jammed onto a jeep. Movement is labored, and invariably bumpy. Whether standing or sitting, you have to hold on because the next bump could throw you clean out of the jeep. It’s essential to shift position in order to relieve bruised body parts or cramped limbs, to rest tired muscles from the constant jerking and tension. Add to this the exposure to the sun, and the dust from the road which can envelop everything and everyone in the jeep, and the problem of trying to prevent other passengers from walking all over your luggage (a foothold’s a foothold!), and you have the essential elements of a jeep ride. Stops are frequent, to rest, shade, eat, and top up the radiator. Then, negotiating switchbacks often requires a driver to reverse uncomfortably close to the edge of a precipice, churning tyres spitting gravel as he revs the gears to manouevre the jeep up around an acute bend.

On the other hand, a jeep ride can exhilarate in ways no bus journey can. Apart from another occasional jeep, you are the only vehicle on the road, and the views from these roads – high passes, plunging gorges, quivering suspension bridges, frothing rivers, white peaks – are such as are seldom encountered on metalled roads.

The Chitral Valley winds onwards and upwards, its walls of red oven-like rock towering over us, views continuously shifting as we round bends and cross spurs. We leave Tirich Mir far behind us and plunge through glacial streams, through nameless villages with shady corridors of apricot trees, past staring children on flat earthen roofs bright with apricots spread to dry. It’s late in the afternoon when we stop to lie on grass under trees beside a footfreezing stream to rest.

A large tray of mulberries is produced and placed before us. Heads are splashed and bellies filled with glacial water. And we’re on the road again.

We wind high along a cliff road. Now and then, to the east, gaps appear through which we can snatch glimpses of the mountain peaks which separate our valley from the one we’re going to, and glaciers, high, aloof. Now the valley opens out a quarter of a mile wide. On both sides, moraines with teetering boulders rise to heights of hundreds of feet. Behind the moraines, scree fans down the valley walls from a thousand feet. Tamarisk blooms delicate pastel pink along the valley floor below us. Sunset is bouncing off the peak at the head of the valley as we pull up outside a roadside bothy with three cots standing in the porch. This is Sorghuz, a better place than Mastuj from which to find a jeep to cross the pass. According to our bank manager, that is, who leaves us in the hands of a reluctant hotelier and two curious boys.

We sink onto the cots. One of the boys disappears down the road to fetch chapatees from a nearby house. Our host, a vacant young man who looks as if he shouldn’t be left on his own, prepares the fire for chai and kills a hen for our supper. The water which flows past the door is drawn from the river, and, like the river, it is the colour of lead. Our host sets some in front of us; we won’t drink it. At first he’s baffled, then indifferent. I go off to search for drinking water.

The stars are out over the valley like a big Cinerama screen as we sit eating our rice, chicken and chapatees, confronted by a semicircle of staring boys. Before our host locks up to go home (it’s a lock-up bothy) I buy a lump of charas from him the size of a half crown. He settles for 4 Rupees.
For a long time we sit in silence feeling the enormity of this giant valley all around us. Before we go to sleep, three cots are placed in the road in front of us, as if to guard against our escape. Our reluctant host is to negotiate the first passing jeep in the morning.

July 28th

The sun floods in over us as the first jeep hums up the valley and disgorges its occupants. Tea is provided for them. 6:30. Time to get dressed. We get no tea, and still none by the time the next jeep arrives from the direction of Mastuj. Again our host ignores us as he provides cahwah (green tea) and chapatees for the driver and passengers. Among this party is a German dressed in riding knickers, heavy belt and knee length boots. Wilhelm Von Humbolt advises Mastuj for a jeep.

An hour later we set off for Mastuj. Before we’ve walked a mile we’re approached by a man who asks us if we want a jeep. A relative of his is leaving at 1 o’clock. He’s got three passengers and could do with three more. He’s asking 500 Rupees all the way to Gilgit. That’s half the amount we expected to pay, and he’ll be crossing the pass today to spend the night at Teru on the other side. Deal! This means no trekking over the top, which was a huffing puffing prospect for me.

We have four hours to wait. He invites us into his garden, where we sit in the shade of apricot trees. And soon we’re being served with mulberries, apples and chai – wonderful! Breakfast at last! The river water we leave sitting on the table untouched. It’s laden with silt and already beginning to precipitate darkly.

In high spirits at our good luck today, we hardly notice the hours passing. Our friend produces a tape recorder, and we listen to Chitrali music with an offbeat jazz-like rhythm I find appealing. Later I take out the guitar and sing some songs for him. He’s highly amused, and makes some recordings.
But inevitably we sink into a bored stupor. 2:30. I wander off through the fields, take a dip in the river to cool off. Coming back, I hear Jeff calling – the jeep’s arrived!

When we’re all in place, there are eleven in the jeep, squatting room only, and a bolt on the tarpaulin frame is digging into the small of my back. I endure this for five minutes, before trying alternative leg positions, eventually managing to squeeze both legs out the back. We turn right, enter a tributary valley and cross a small suspension bridge to jolt up a long hill under perfect fans of scree and bare purple and brown mountains. We rollercoast along the shoulders of massive moraines, twisting always upwards, craning our necks to stare at peaks around each new bend, at glaciers perched 2,000 feet above us. We approach what appears to be the end of the line, an amphitheatre of mountains on all sides, yet somehow there’s another twist in the trail up a narrow valley to our right bringing us to Solaspur, last village before the pass.

A cool wind is spilling off the glaciers, and on the lower arid brown slopes, dust clouds sweep along the bare rock to ambush us. On the opposite slopes, scratch lines along the bare scree are remnants of dead trails buried by landslides. The valley floor below is green crisscrossed with white streams. Tamarisk and poplar have given way to water meadow and wild roses, pink and white. We stop just beneath the final twisting ascent to water the engines and ourselves from a furious stream. Two herdsman and two hundred goats come down suddenly in front of us, and descend the trail towards Solaspur in a cloud of dust.

Over the top, the scene changes dramatically. Gently sloping alteplain carpeted in crew-cut meadow, strewn with boulders, stretches to a width of three to four miles to the feet of an encircling mountain wall. At its centre, to our right, a dark lake a mile wide and two miles long, its surface reflecting the encircling peaks. Around the edges of the lake, longhorn cattle graze. This is the Shandur Pass – and it’s breathtaking.
But we don’t stop.
Now I feel like a tank commander racing across the plateau, feet perched on tailboard, hands clenched on frame, both feet leaving the jeep with large bounds at each bump in the road. Exhilarated.
At the end of this stretch we plunge into a steep descent to enter a broad valley. Glaciers far to the south feed a clear, deep river flowing at a gentle gradient through scrub and velvety grass-banks. So good to swim in! But it’s sunset. I put on my coat for the first time (and perhaps the only time?) in Pakistan as we career on downhill across a track cleared through boulder littered grass. Large herds of longhorns graze.

Crossing a bridge further down the valley, we meet a group of about twenty herdsmen with their families on a drive to some pasture. The men are clothed in rough sheepskin cloaks and leggings, the women in shalwar and shemees and pillbox hats, brightly coloured. They are fair-skinned, dark-eyed. Some of the women wear veils. They avert their faces or step off the road completely as we approach.
We’re in the upper valley of the Gilgit river, that clear, gentle flow which earlier had seemed so inviting has become a brown torrent. As darkness falls at eight o’clock the driver drops us at the Rest House at Teru before going on to his own stopping place. The sign on the Rest House front tells us we’re still at an altitude of 10,200 feet and since sunset the temperature has dropped to shivering point. Unfortunately, we’re too late – the Chakdar (Guardian/Attendant) has gone home, leaving the Rest House locked.

We settle down on the porch for the night, the two Jeffs in their sleeping bags, me in my coat. Washington Jeff tells a grizzly story of a Japanese trekker who died of exposure on a mountain in Nepal; they’d found a hand the next day protruding from a snowdrift.

Too cold to sleep. A penetrating breeze has me shifting restlessly, until I’m forced to wake the others to ask for the use of their sleeping bag covers.

I dream of a comfortable bed in a familiar house – only to wake to a cold dawn in Teru.
It’s 6 o’clock when the jeep comes to pick us up, freezing and hungry to the pit of my stomach. I’ve eaten little these last three days, and not at all since yesterday morning. Last night the others chewed on dry chapatees – I couldn’t touch them without chai. This morning it takes an hour to get the passengers ready to go. But now there are only five on the back – that much more room to move. The first two hours of our descent through the mile wide valley flanked by enormous mountain walls is even more spectacular than the Chitral side. The Chitrali style of building with timber layers is gone at last.

The Gilgit river grows by the mile in volume and load.

We stop at Phander. Sitting in the shade of a wall, we’re served salt chai with two trays of excellent apricots. We devour the fruit, saving the stones to crack later with a rock. Sometimes the kernels are bitter, but these have a delicious flavor of sweet almonds.

An hour later we load up again, almost refreshed for the next leg. Roadside orchards are more and more frequent. Standing on the tailboard, I try my luck from overhanging branches. I get two apricots, just fail to grab a large bunch of grapes.

At one o’clock we stop in Gupis for chai. It’s a long main street with some shops and a restaurant. But there’s no time for lunch – we’re on the road within 15 minutes.

By this stage my guitar case has been ejected. It’s been a cause of curses in the crowded jeep, due to its tendency to abandon its upright position for a leaning posture, sometimes nudging people playfully. So I take it on my lap, legs astride the spare wheel under the tailboard. From this position I get a rear view, and a bruised arse. But it’s a constant position which I can hold for long periods. This guitar is fast becoming a veteran traveler: Saad has lost half his face, and Jaber’s smile is showing signs of strain. But what matter? Inside, Angelica is as sound as ever!

At 3 o’clock, between Gupis and Gakutch, there is a conspiracy to ditch us. The jeep pulls up, and the driver’s mate gets out to announce:
“Gilgit. Finish.”
waving his hand vaguely at the wilderness behind him. We’re dumbstruck. We’re still fifty to sixty miles from Gilgit; we remind him of the terms of our booking. But he’s adamant – he insists that we must get off, here. Incredulous, we repeat our first answer. He disappears into the police station (only thirty yards away!?) to return in a few minutes with a policeman in tow. The others get out of the cab. For what seems an age heated discussion simmers on the side of the road, with repeated pointings in our direction. The policeman approaches to tell us our journey is finished here. We try to tell him with gestures to supplement our words:
“Booking. Five hundred Rupees. Soghuzi – Gilgit. No Gilgit, no pay.”
(Now I remember, the driver had demanded on three occasions today that we pay in advance. Possession is nine-tenths of the law indeed.) We sit it out and refuse to move or become visibly upset. Meanwhile, the tete-a-tete away from the jeep boils over to open argument. The police withdraw. Jeff lights his pipe. I open the Prologue to Tolkien’s Silmarillion and begin to read. Like cats, we stare them out. Twenty minutes later, an hour after the first attempt to put us off the jeep, we’re thundering down the valley again. Elated. Inside the cab, the argument continues for quite a while. We’re still no wiser as to the motive behind all this, certainly thankful that the money for the trip was still in our pockets, and not theirs.

The sun is relentless, seeming to increase in intensity towards six o’clock as we round bend after bend after interminable bend over the big river, now switching back across moraines, now skirting the water. We pass above a large lake formed by a landslide which has buried a narrow section of the valley floor. Water stops have become shameless dash and splash. We’re all very tired and hot.

8 o’clock, and darkness. We discover our driver has no headlights. We’re getting increasingly exasperated and uncertain what’s going to happen. Mercifully, there’s a half moon and spectral light, but the road is hardly visible. We’re on a narrow ledge, a hundred feet above roaring rapids. Now the moon is covered by cloud and the road ahead is invisible. One of the men gets out to walk ahead of the jeep. That’s our pace. Oncoming lights a mile ahead oblige us to stop and wait for them to pass.
Jeff appeals to my sense of adventure, assuring me it will appear funny in years to come.

10:30. We see the lights of Gilgit town! Soon we’re passing houses and shops, and smelling that familiar piss smell of civilization.

We try for the Government Rest House. I go in to search for someone to ask. I’m rudely dismissed by a disturbed government official pacing up and down the corridor in front of his room. I had asked politely where Reception was. In response, he asked (without waiting for an answer) how I dared come up there (in front of his room). With shaking lip and finger he ordered me to leave immediately. Perhaps it was the pressures of Government work. Perhaps, in fairness to the man, it could have been on account of my appearance (I was covered from head to foot in dust). Should a man of his cadre really have to answer questions from dirty people at eleven o’clock at night – and in front of his own room?!
No Rest House for the wicked.

We tramp exhausted through a hot town in search of a hotel. The shops are closed or closing. We find a restaurant, eat a hurried meal, and sit on the side of the street with cold 7-Ups from the freezer. We find the Ghoom Hotel on Main Street, shower, clean bed, and sleep. We’d been on the road today for seventeen hours.
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PAKISTAN: A traveller's journal - PART 9

Post by Kitkat on Sun 04 Nov 2012, 21:46

Gilgit July 30th

We wake bruised and aching and stumble out to the Amber Café. From the street it looks like an old fashioned English café, with amber painted wooden front and OPEN sign hanging in the window.
Inside there is cubicle seating and floral design wallpaper. Speakers built into the walls beam Indian music in muted tones, and the menu is edged in multicoloured embroidery frills. It’s the kind of caf where you could expect a waitress in black dress, frilly apron and bonnet, notebook and pencil poised asking
“What’ll it be, luv?”
The owner is a talkative, white-haired Punjabi with handlebar moustache. He sits over the till, directing operations from his stool by the window.
We take the table by the big front window to get a good view of the passers-by. Among them, Pakistani tourists dandy and pat, Gilgit women (very few to be seen on the streets), fair-skinned, dark-eyed, wearing flowery clothes and pillbox hats, and the Mongolian featured Turkis in their skull caps.
We order a big breakfast from an exciting menu: chips, omelette, toast and tea. “Ten minutes” drags on for an agonizing half hour. Then, when our order is served, it’s fried eggs and fried bread – but who cares?! They’ve got tomato ketchup too!
Seated opposite, lounging Pakistani tourists (Punjabi always, it seems?) display their finery: freshly laundered shalwar & shemees, gorgeous stockings, finely trimmed moustache and hairstyle. Gleaming shoes tap nondescript Urdu disco rhythms ad nauseum to the one moronic thumping beat:
“DEE - EYE - ESS - SEE - OH!!”

After breakfast, we take a stroll around the streets. It’s Friday; the few shops open offer nothing exciting. There seems to be more than the usual array of Chinese goods: tea sets, framed prints, embroidered wall cloths in flower and bird designs, matches, aluminium hurricane lamps… even the toilet rolls are made in China.

Gilgit has long been a port of call for caravans on the Silk Road from China, and the recent completion of the Karakoram Highway project allows for trucks to pass between Gilgit and Singkiang. It may just as easily have become part of China, or the Soviet Union. That Gilgit is in Pakistan owes less to any culture it may share in common with other parts of Pakistan than to the accident that the British got their spies and guns here first. And although both India and Pakistan like to claim Gilgit as their own, it has stronger cultural and historical links with Central Asia than with the Sub-continent.

Yesterday, we saw evidence of this Central Asian influence: a dozen Bactrian camels grazing on an island in the Gilgit river.

It’s damned hot – hotter than Chitral. The valley cooks like an oven, its big bowl shape traps the sun’s heat and flings it around. The valley walls weigh heavy on this town – brown, shimmering, not a blade of grass. But from beyond these walls white peaks wink down at us.

Dinner is at seven at the Amber Café. Chips again, with mutton stew. My appetite’s gradually recovering from Chitral’s lousy food.

Back at the hotel – interrupted – first, by a flea – then, by repeated power cuts – I roll a joint, and we’re ready for an evening at the pictures…

California Jeff and I pay our 4 Rupees at the door, and find ourselves two seats near the front. We’re the only westerners in the cinema, and find ourselves serious rivals to the screen as the primary objects of viewers’ interest.

Out go the lights. On come the cigarette ads. The first product to be praised is the artisan’s cigarette. A succession of tradesmen (carpenter, motor mechanic, electrician) bend over their respective jobs all the time puffing away like Billy-o without taking the cigarettes from their mouths in between puffs, while a voice-over repeats the brand name in a pleasant tone – seven times. This one doesn’t grab us.
Far more entertaining is the ad for the up-market brand: the camera lingers lovingly on the length of white smoothness… our with-it youngman pulls up in his shiny Four Door Saloon, to a funky soundtrack… in green pastoral surroundings he gets out, looks around coolly… lights up… the fragrant cylinder fills the screen… voice over this time husky… sensuous… masculine - goddammit! ... beautiful woman dressed western passes by, demure… our with-it youngman follows her into house…imbecile expression on face… end.

Now this is thigh slapping stuff! We’re just getting warmed up when - !! - ??... a flag? … music… THUNDEROFSEATSPUSHEDBACK!!! People standing..?
“Stand up!”
(voice on my left)
It’s the National Anthem. We stand. On the screen, Zia and some fat army officers standing to attention. Applause breaks from the audience. We sit down. What’s next?
The film - Dacoits (bandits)! ... police in Tommy helmets clockwork running single file… kneel… volley rifles mercilessly, to wipe out dacoits. Beautiful woman sings, dances – applause from audience!! – CUT! - … impatient whistles from youngboys in front rows… fat officer, belt halfway up his belly (familiar moustached head?) tracks down our dacoit horseback hero… group of men… group of women (separate alternating shots) dance through cornfields…
We make the exit, buy shish-kebabs on skewers, 1 Rupee a skewer and 1 Rupee glasses of ice cream – mixture of ice and cream: when you suck it, the ice remains in your mouth. I ask Jeff what he thinks of the film. He doesn’t know what it’s about either. It’s in Urdu – we lost the plot after ten minutes. We go back in to see if there are any more good bits…
We leave early, to eat more ice cream. Main Street’s buzzing: street vendors selling peaches, grapes, syrup drinks.

We return to the hotel well pleased with our evening’s entertainment. Wait till we tell Jeff; he’ll be mad he didn’t come.


Karimabad: a hamlet fifty miles up the Karakoram Highway - Elevation 8,000 feet. The valley of Hunza is famous for its fruit, and the longevity of its people. The Hunza people are small, red-faced, tough. These days everyone is working in the fields. Fruit trees loaded with apples and apricots. Grapes too. It’s the height of the apricot season. All over the valley sides flat roofs are spread with bright fruit. Men and women are carrying heavy loads. A man walks, bent low with what must be two hundredweight of hay; from behind, he’s invisible – only a moving mass of yellow. Here the harvest is later than in the lower valleys. Wheat and barley, cut with small sickles, stubble fields along the valley as satisfying as finished meals.

We stop at Karimabad, and pile into the New Hunza Inn. All the rooms are taken. It’s popular with Pakistani tourists. But the menu looks good, so we take camp beds in a tent.

To the south, Rakaposhi, 25,000 feet, a gleaming pyramid. To the northwest behind the Inn, Baltit, an armchair shaped mass of rock and ice, which, when seen through the haze of moonlight, throws one’s sense of the vertical askew. Last night I had to look twice to assure myself that the pale light above us was not a cumulus cloud but a mountain. Sitting on the hill above us and below Baltit is the 600 year old palace of the Mirs of Hunza, like a matchbox on the steps of a cathedral. Below these peaks are the brown desert slopes of the valley, then the green line of the water channels, below which is rich with fruit, above which is rock. Look down on the valley long and you’ll make out the shelves of boulder clay – we’re on one – and the ribbon of river racing silently below the highway.

Who told me Hunza was cool?! It’s extremely hot, even into evening. It’s 6 pm. I take a stroll down the mica path lined with tall poplar trees. The path has been built as a terrace, rocks buttressing its downslope side. Along the path runs a small canal which seems polluted. A wispy blue-grey film, like oil, circulates in the water, forming strange patterns as it runs. This is the same mica dust which forms the fine sand of the path. It’s washed down off the glaciers and clogs the main river. It’s supposed to increase longevity, they say. But the Hunza people leave it to settle a long time before drinking; they don’t want to overdo it and live too long, perhaps? This is the water which (filtered) we drink in the dining hall of the Hunza Inn.

There’s a motley group at the Hunza Inn: the two Americans, Jeff & Jeff, the Frenchmen, Christophe and Marc, a small, dark Austrian couple, quiet, yet talkative when approached, a garrulous Japanese Brazilian who gets great mileage from asking people to guess where he’s from, two fortyish American trekker/climbers, travelled and younger than their years, a French group, who are leaving tomorrow, and the Pakistani tourists, who don’t mix (or is it we who don’t mix with them?).

We eat an excellent communal meal of potatoes, brazed meat stew, and rice, and a dessert of stewed apple and apricot, with pink custard.

We retire to the hotel room Jeff’s found down the hill, a triple room for 50 Rupees. After a powerful shower in a clean stone bathroom - equipped with hand basin, mirror, towel and toilet paper!!! – we roll a joint or two and try a session on my guitar and Christophe’s soprano sax. I can’t play jazz, and Christophe plays no blues. After an unsuccessful 12 bar blues, we try to find common ground in Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. This is more like it! And, to Jeff’s great entertainment and amusement, a long improvised version of Mingus’ Haitian Fight Song: I set up a solid rhythm, gouging in and around the E minor chord which eventually has Christophe careering up a crazy trail of high notes as if he’s never going to come down, the rest of us laughing with delight at the improbable intensity of the jam.
Afterwards, we sink back onto soft clean sheets and blankets and a good belly laugh at two copies of The Illustrated News from 1951 and 1952 that we found on a shelf. Photos of (caption) “a typical unsophisticated Sherpar with long hair”; Princess Elizabeth meeting a police dog in Blackburn; Princess Elizabeth walking studiously through a Lancashire cotton mill, seeing how it’s done; a cover picture of the Shah of Iran, (Pahlavi) and bride on wedding day, and many advertisements too - from cocoa to Rolls Royce cars – heaped page upon page of new laughs onto our hysteria.

Our porch outside looks over the dark valley. Under the moon, Rakaposhi gleams white, inaccessible. The six foot tall sunflower shivers in front of the window. It’s far cooler than Gilgit at night.

Aug 2nd

We spend days lazing shamelessly. It’s so hard to leave these lovely beds! We made our own personalized Ludo game, with symbols to replace the colours, mine a shamrock. Someone bought a 40 Rupee bottle of Hunza Mulberry Wine – it tastes like vodka shot with petrol. Someone else suggested we put it in a bowl with apricots and leave it for a day to make a punch. We did. Washington Jeff was skeptical. At the end of the day someone had to try it.
“Think it tastes any better, Jeff?”
“Sure… it tastes better alright… … but the apricots taste a whole lot worse.”
We threw it out.

I’ve never seen so many apricots, nor tasted any as luscious. We sit under the trees and they plop all around us onto the grass. The trees are so full they can’t all be picked in time. We sit under the trees where the sunlight comes green through the leaves, and eat ourselves rigid with sunbaked apricots. After lying on the grass in the sun, the fruit inside the skin assumes the texture of custard. And the taste… Mmmmmmmmm!

Between 9 in the morning and 7 in the evening I prefer, as do most of the others, not to venture out under the sun.
A trek up to the Ultar glacier, up Baltit, is postponed twice. Tomorrow it’s on. Brace yourself.

August 3rd

California Jeff wakes me at 5; I get my clothes on and stumble into the kitchen. It’s still dark. They’re eating bread and apricot jam. I order chai, then cancel it. My stomach feels bloated like a dead sheep’s. Farting and belching horribly, I follow the other three stepping out towards the mountain trail behind the palace. Washington Jeff has stayed behind with an ulcerated heel.

Mercifully, the air is cool this morning. We make the trail, which hugs the left wall of the valley above an oily river, and march up the steep incline towards Ultar. Water channels line the slopes overhead. We look back to see Rakaposhi sparkling white in a blue sky. No clouds yet. We pass small rock pools fed by the river, black silt settled on the beds. The trail over the rocks is well trodden, but a fine coating of mica dust makes the going slippery and unsafe. I stay behind to vacate violently before I can continue.

For two hours the valley snakes right to left. By eight o’clock we’re under a large moraine shelf of unconsolidated boulder clay. Below us to our right, the river emerges from a twelve foot thick covering of ice with a thin overlay of rock debris. We scramble up and over the moraine, and after half an hour of difficult going we come in sight of the shepherd’s hut. This is the factory for the summer pastures. We’re given a warm welcome, and the old man gestures for us to sit down. We’re offered thick, strong lussi, brown Hunza bread and salt chai. In return, I pass around cigarettes, a valuable item up here.
After a short rest and general dispersing behind rocks (we’ve all got the shits!), we push on. A little further up, the valley flattens and widens into a grassy bowl scattered with boulders. This is pasture for goats, sheep and mountain cattle. The mountain proper begins here, its great armchair shape towering over us: to left and right, rock pinnacles; in the centre, cliffs and snowfields; from there, pouring down a steep rounded rock valley to pass below where we stand and on down the valley, is a huge black clogging tongue of ice and rubble. From the top of one of the two rock pillars that form the gateway through which the ice-fall flows, a thin, vaporous chute of water tumbles 100 feet.

Christophe stays behind to watch red-legged choughs through field glasses. Jeff moves steadily, climbing the steep rock face beside the waterfall. Marc and I take another rest, content to watch the water falling, and the cracked black ice lump extrude like lava, and above all that, snow cliffs and pinnacles leading up to the unseen peak. I find it impossible to judge how far it could be to the top; calculating this combination of altitude and distance on a mountain always defeats me. Only later we’ll find out that Baltit peak is 24,000 feet, at least four day’s climb from where we stand.
A cooling wind blows over us, but the sunlight’s moving fast down the left wall of the valley. It’s heating up.

We move slowly around to our left, ascending slopes of rubble, attempting to reach a point where we can cross another stream, and scale a diagonal cliff path to the rounded rocks above the waterfall where Jeff is standing. A steep scramble up loose rocks and over smooth roches moutonees brings us to a stepping stone jump and a diagonal path which is no more than a series of hand and foot-holds up the rock face over the stream. Up close now, I notice mountaineer’s eye-bolts hammered into the rock above the “path”. On top now - my shoes skid on the fine mica dust and I land on my backside, and I manage to check my slide down the slithery surface of smooth rock before I reach the edge of an 80 foot drop. From here on, I pick each step. The treads on these jogging shoes are worn; they weren’t made for these surfaces.

Marc joins me. Now we’re above the waterfall. We can look down onto the eerie black wrinkles on the surface of the ice-fall. Following the stream’s course upwards, we come to a place where its valley narrows to a gorge, its walls blocking the sun’s rays. Here black ice and rubble overlay the stream to form a shell over the flowing water. Jeff is already halfway up this corridor, treading carefully in his climbing boots, keeping above the line of the ice.
Here’s where we draw the line.
We’re not going to walk up that.

After a long rest in the cool shade, we arse carefully back the way we came, stopping every few yards to look at the wall of peaks to the south – the Karakorams – a line of white, 18,000 feet high stretching eastwards into Baltistan. K2 is over there somewhere – 28,000 feet! Funny how mountain ranges seem to tilt at an angle, seen from this height… you don’t realize it from down there…assume they’re horizontal.

Getting down the diagonal “path” above the stream is a nightmare… even to approach it across the rounded rock is nerve-racking arse work… … haven’t felt this terror since I was 10… stuck in the top of a beech tree… … always easier going up… remember that… fool!

At the bottom of the “path” at last –another unpleasant surprise: the stream of a couple of hours ago has risen towards afternoon with the day’s melt-water, the stepping stones now partly submerged; the flow has swollen to twice its earlier volume, the earlier far bank now a foot wide ledge at the base of the rock face, onto which we have to leap, without losing balance. OK! Now… over the smooth rock… across the rubble slopes… careful not to send any big rocks tumbling… to safety on a small patch of soft turf in the shade of a boulder the size of my bedroom.
Here is a marvellous platform from which to look out onto the mountains. The Karakorams are beginning to mist over.

We’re just lighting up our second joint, eyed by humanoid faced sheep with ears and noses working frantically to examine the nature of the invaders of their sleeping place - ! - when a sound like thunder seems to come from all directions at once!! I dive for the big rock, expecting half the mountain to come crashing down…
But it’s from the waterfall! From the waterfall the debris comes vomiting, black, loathsome. It comes booming, crashing, as a giant would roll a giant gobstopper against his teeth. We look up, to see boulders choking the falls, then leaping out of the black torrent to crash onto the rocks below. It happened suddenly, with little warning, just that first thunderous rumbling; somewhere up the mountain, the glacier had cracked, and disgorged part of its load over the waterfall to remind us that the glacier flows too – but in its own time. We crossed that place earlier, and, luckily, decided not to continue up the ice. Which reminds me, Jeff and Christophe are still up there somewhere – safe, we hope.
I’ve seen my first rock-fall, and felt it too.

On the way down, we stop for a while under a block of ice as big as a double-decker bus to drink and splash in the melt-water. A friendly goat kid follows us, suckling at my fingers. We climb down the trail, sweating in the sun, to reach the shepherd’s hut half an hour later. We look back to see the waterfall, still black, and strain our eyes for a sight of Jeff or Christophe.

But before long both have joined us. Soon we’re all munching chapatees and drinking strong lussi. They had watched the big boulders pass beneath them from a safe height. Jeff had been up as far as the Base Camp of the Japanese expedition. Only one man was there, guarding the equipment, bored stiff.
We descend the trail by the oily river, viscous with silt. Coming down is faster, and more fun.
I fall once on the trail. My feet go clean from underneath me - first the left – then the right – to make a sort of sidespin cartwheel, my left hip bone then both elbows as the spokes in the wheel… to land with a bump ten feet downslope. I’m a little disappointed no-one has witnessed this – when I look up, Jeff is forging on down the trail below me as if he was just going down the street to get the evening paper. So I bathe my wounds in silence.

It’s 6:30 when we get to Karimabad. I’m sure I walked with a slight swagger: the returned Alpinist, in joggers, descending among Lowlanders.

August 5th

Silhouettes drift across the mosquito screen. Soft footsteps. A door opening. My room is next to the dining room entrance. In ten minutes I’m breakfasting with a Pakistani and an Italian on chai, bread and apricot jam. We talk low. 4:30 am. It’s a fine time to be up; the air is cool and flat.

5 am. We assemble quietly, take our seats in the transit van. The two Englishmen arrive up the hill, and we descend the Hunza Valley shimmering under early morning mists, delicate sunlight flooding the slopes. The sun on our backs, we guard our thoughts. I daydream a myriad interconnecting images, a delicate not-to-be-disturbed fabric like the light hovering over the valley, take a last look at the lovely cornflowers, the apricot trees, much of their former load gone now. The Hunza people are out in the fields. There is no urgency. A man stands with a hoe, scraping a patch of ground. An unveiled woman hovers by the entrance to her house. Some are already ascending slopes to the road, bent almost comfortably under loads bigger than themselves. You can never catch them going to work, stretching the first stretch of the day; they’re always out there before you, at work: in a permanent state of labour, never intense, measured.

We cross a strong stone bridge. The Chinese built this too. A fine road – an achievement.
This trip’s been a contrast to our labored ascent of last week. Before we know it, the little transit van has expedited us from Hunza’s misty heights back to the big valley and delivered us to Gilgit town by 8 o’clock.

We pile into the Amber Café to wait for breakfast. As usual, there are half a dozen sitters. Our moustachioed patron performs his customary party pieces in the way of entertainment for idle minds. A Punjabi Groucho: now joking, now shouting aggressively at his staff, switching masks on a whim. We place our order of egg and chips, ketchup and chai.
“Eggs finish.” (I’d have put ten Rupees on that.)
We pile our gear into the corner, sit and wait.
We’re all curious as to what’s happening in the kitchen, behind the NO ADMITTANCE soundproofed door?
The questions are flying now:
“What country?”
“Hm… America. Yes? What country?”
“Hm… yes, England.”
“Not England – Ireland.”
“Ah! Holland. Good.”
“No. IRE – LAND!”
“Ah! Landon?”
“ - ! – “
“What is this?” (pointing to what is quite obviously a stringed instrument)
One of the Englishmen answers:
“A machine gun.”
“Hm… How many kilos?”
“Forty kilos.”
“Hmmm… Forty?”
Our intrepid investigator crosses the floor, bends to lift my guitar case with both hands.
“Forty? No.”
The Englishman’s wit is lost to the skies. But the interview is over. We breakfast, and bundle out.
Up at the National Bank, along with some flustered, finger-tapping Americans and Swedes, I spend an hour and a half waiting to change some traveller’s cheques. On my way back, I spy something I want to buy: a small, embroidered woolen bag from Hunza in black, yellow and red designs. Thirty Rupees, he says. Well… I’ll come back, maybe.

Down the street, I bang into the Jeffs, also hot and flustered, shopping for trekking food without much to show for their efforts. I suggest an ice-cream from the smiling kiosk man on the corner.
Now we’re cool inside at least.

Shops are beginning to close for midday. We take a Suzuki to the Tourist Cottage a mile out of town, where the Jeffs have a room. We take turns in the breathtaking “shower” – on our knees under a tap flowing into a bucket of COLD water. We head back to town refreshed.

We adjourn to the Amber for a Coke – or a 7-Up – or anything that Major Moustache hasn’t managed to scratch off the menu. We have to settle for lemon squash all round. This turns into a distended meal while we wait for the cool of the evening.

Two familiar faces at the door - ! – It’s Charles and Frog! That’s brightened my day! We share stories. Afterwards, we take a short cut across steaming millet fields to retire to the gardens of the Hunza Inn near the river, where they’ve parked their incredible motor bike, and even more incredible trailer. They hadn’t risked bringing the trailer over the pass into Chitral; instead they’d left it in Dir. But here it is in Gilgit – a trailer cum mobile home! As I look at the amazing trailer, now opened out into a sitting room, kitchenette and bedroom, it seems impossible that a motor bike of any description could haul this thing five miles – but hauled it they have, across three continents.

Charles designed and built the trailer himself, in South Africa. They have sponsorship from a number of big brand manufacturing companies, in return for displaying the brand names on the trailer through as many countries as they can. Charles also writes occasional articles to supplement their income. They’ve been on the road seven years! It didn’t happen overnight, took a lot of hard work and preparation (and neck?!), but Charles and Frog are being paid to travel!

We have afternoon tea, peaches, and a smoke in the garden of the Hunza Inn; at the moment I’d find it hard to imagine a better place to be.

I take the path again through dreamfields of millet, the heat of late afternoon coming at me in solid waves from the baked earth path along the irrigation ditch. Down the alleyway between the mud brick houses, children are playing in the water. I smile as I pass. A small voice cheeps:
It’s the only word of English they know.
Then a strange thought strikes me…
I am inapproachable. Totally inapproachable. There they sit, feeling the unbridgeable alien-ness of this Foreigner walking through their territory, his links with it unknown, unexplained. It’s only when I try to imagine how strange I am in their eyes that their world assumes substance. No longer chisellers squatting in the mud, they appear instead as each the thinking, feeling centre of his world. Now a memory comes from a long time ago, a memory of strangers who once passed through my world, unexplained. It may have been from the back lane in London where I used to play at their age, perhaps a delivery man making a delivery, unaware of what worlds revolved at his feet; it may have been from a later time, rich, foreign tourists passing through an Irish village, exotic clothes and cameras, not seeing the small boy, crashing through his invisible world - causing him to stare, not understanding…
For a moment I am five or six years old.

But only for a moment – before the walls close in again. Just for that moment, walking through those hot millet fields past the poor houses, another child’s invisible domain, I remembered.
Then, unexpectedly, something stranger still: I overhear an excited whisper from a high garden wall:
…see the backward glance from the girl drawing water from the channel, the wondering gaze of the infants interrupted in their game, and for a moment again – the walls are down, and this time – I am those children.
“Bye-bye! Bye-bye! Bye-bye!”
Oh, the walls we carry around with us…
I walk, head down, sweating, into a horizontal sun. Shops are shuttering fast. In my urgency I even pass the ice-cream man. A mission, it seems. The craft shop I wanted to be open – is! I assume a casual air, ask to see the postcards, comment casually on one of Nanga Parbat… I find myself spinning yarns, talking authoritatively on the relative coolness of Hunza and its glaciers, dwelling on the dangers of avalanche and crevasse. The shop owner’s a Hunza man. We talk for ten minutes. I inform him of my intention to go up the Baltoro Glacier, tell him no thanks I won’t be needing porters, and I’m not climbing Nanga Parbat, not that one, no. His assistant, who had taken down my little bag yesterday and replaced it (30 Rupees lowest price) stands outside the conversation, sullen. I pick up the bag, casually, remark - in a disappointed sort of expression – on the poor quality of the stitching. Although the colours are pretty, what a pity. I offer 20 Rupees for it – TAKEN: him and the bag! My best ever negotiated bargain. Stick around, I might be getting good at this.

I skip back to the Hunza Inn, whistling. Frog has just made tea. I’ve been gone exactly an hour.
And tonight we dine - forty tourists, a table without precedent in the garden of the Tourist Cottage – on rice, meat ghosht with aloo, a salad of lettuce, chopped cabbage, slivers of radish, tomato, cucumber, a fragrant thick pasta/meat soup with a touch of vinegar, clear cold water poured from carafes, and a delicate pink custard, washed down with hot, green tea from china cups. And the moon looks up, and smiles down on “the best meal in Pakistan, for 12 Rupees.”
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PAKISTAN: A Traveller's journal - Part 10

Post by Kitkat on Wed 07 Nov 2012, 18:18

August 6th
This morning, a wonderful two hour breakfast, with extra chai, 7-9 in the garden of the Tourist Cottage: 2 pancakes, apple jam, toast and black tea with hot, creamy milk (Separate Chai, as opposed to the standard Mik-est Chai, a boiled mixture of water, tea, sugar and milk). Reminds me of those long Thursday breakfasts at home in Kuwait. Last night over dinner we talked of Kuwait, and the expatriate’s life; I had to say I didn’t regret having left the Gold Rush. I must send that postcard: “Hi John! How’s the weather? Just been up a glacier.” For 3 Rupees I’ve just bought a kilo of black Hunza grapes, and 2 packets of Wills cigarettes at 3 Rupees each; I daren’t think what they’d cost in Kuwait. What I paid for that superb dinner last night would be the least you would leave as a service tip in a Kuwaiti restaurant.

Gilgit Tourist Cottage August 10th
“Skardu is linked to the national Capital of Islamabad by PIA which operates regular flights. The air journey is full of thrills and would itself be regarded as the highlight of the visit. After following the same route which connects Gilgit to Islamabad/Rawalpindi, the plane turns right and flies over the gorge of the Indus River. Enormous rock faces rise on either side and at times it seems as if the wingtips of the plane would almost scrape against them. They never do.”
PTDC Brochure – Northern Areas

Breakfast this morning had lost its lustre.
“Pancakes pinish.”
“Separate Chai pinish.”
We were sadly reduced to Mik-est Chai and toast. And the toast… well, as Ozzy said in despair:
“That ain’t toast! Look! They just rubbed the bread on the oven!”
Some of us waited over an hour for our Mik-est Chai and toast. Some of us were fed up.
But the cook’s boy wasn’t worried. He’d just smile and shrug, and disappear back to the kitchen. Mr. Karim, the excellent, organized Manager, was ill in hospital. That’s when the food at the peerless Tourist Cottage had begun to lose its lustre.
Half of the foreigners at the Tourist Cottage have been down with stomach problems. It must be the water. If it’s dysentery, I’ll need to do something about it when I get to Pindi.
At dinner, the leader of the Spanish expedition to climb one of the Karakoram peaks explained the cause of yesterday’s bad feeling and frustration. The porters he had negotiated with for a certain rate per day had demanded an increase – en route. He had refused. A go-slow ensued. The expedition was on limited time; they had to return to Gilgit. On top of this, the cook they had hired hadn’t managed to produce chapatees in two hours, yet he still felt aggrieved at not having been offered baksheesh of the sleeping bag he’d had his eye on. Today, both parties felt hurt and hard done by: Western Work Ethic meets Eastern Baksheesh Principle. And it’s precious little respect either one has for the other; they make for an unstable partnership.
The Spaniard had harsh words to say about the Japanese. Previous expeditions had been setting a precedent by giving baksheesh of expensive items of climbing equipment on completion of the expedition. They could afford to, but others mightn’t.
Charles and Frog left three days ago with a special permit for the Khunjerab Pass on the Chinese border. The Jeffs left the next day for Skardu, from where they hope to do a trek up the Baltoro Glacier to the Base Camp of K2. I was hoping to take that flight from Skardu back to Pindi – a dramatic way to return: flying low over the shoulder of Nanga Parbat! But the road to Skardu has been blocked these past two days by landslides, and word is it’ll still be closed tomorrow.
And this afternoon we found that even the Rawalpindi road is now closed to traffic. So I’m stuck in this cauldron, without even the strength to read. The monsoon has already hit Lahore, 20 mm of rain there according to yesterday’s paper, so it should be cooler in the cities than it was.
Klaus was the man with the idea. And I jumped at it. So did Eggy, the Dutchman with the shaved head who I’d had some good late night guitar duets with, before the torpor set in. Klaus’s friend, Tomas, made four, and – to everyone’s surprise and delight – Wilfried threw in his lot. Wilfried, 43 year old Bavarian archivist and scholar of Hebrew, Latin and Renaissance Music, had been on a lecture visit to the Goethe Institute in Delhi, and had a flight to catch in a week.
The idea was simple – to go by bus down the Indus valley as far as Chilas, from there to cross the Babusar Pass in the Kaghan valley and descend it to Rawalpindi.
The facts, however, weren’t so simple. The pass is 13,600 ft, 1,000ft higher than Shandur. Also, in between jeeping, we would have to trek two to three days, eating food which would hardly ease my intestinal woes… but… what the hell – this offered a chance of a last mountain fling for me in Pakistan, and for the others too. So, we had an expedition on our hands! Three Germans, a Dutchman, and an Irishman – “Babusar Top, ‘82”

To Babusar Top August 11th
There was electric in the air this morning in Gilgit town as we waited for the Chilas bus at the NATCO bus stand opposite the Amber Café. We drank Cokes at “The Dude’s” cold drinks shop and stocked up with peaches for the bus journey. To pass the time, Eggy and I gave an impromptu open air concert on Main Street. Klaus passed his white hat around under the noses of the ranks of townspeople, a gallery 3 deep, who were converging with the lazy curiosity of traffic accident onlookers.
“Paisa, Paisa”
– his joke went west, of course. And then, as usual, the enthusiastic shopkeeper who had pressed us to play now pressed us to stop; no-one could get into his shop.
Time to hit the bus stand: there followed twenty minutes of argument with the manager. Two hours earlier, he had assured Wilfried of five places on the bus:
“No problem – just come at 1 pm.”
We did, and were told in a matter of fact tone that we’d have to wait until 8 pm – as if seven hours sitting in one corner or another of this furnace were something to PSHAWW away.
“Seats finish.”
I got mad, and argued too. Wilfried stood his ground stolidly. We even offered to sit on the roof. No. Finally, we all got on the bus and stood with our gear down the back. Within five minutes we were ushered into the very seats which we had occupied earlier - ! – I had poured water over my head and soaked my sheish. It was hot, but we didn’t mind. We were leaving Gilgit! By tonight we wanted to get as high as we could.
A 20 Rupee bus ride takes us along the valley of the Gilgit River to where it is joined by the Indus flowing westwards from Baltistan, Ladakh and the high plateau of Tibet. We pass under Nanga Parbat half hidden in clouds, every few miles another landslide of boulder clay or scree bulldozed out into a crossable mound. After three and a half hours, we get out at the designated place, a petrol pump and eating house on an arid pile of stones. We have chai, and attempt jeep negotiations. Things don’t look promising. We’re not sure whether to strike on up the hill, or hang on in the hope of securing a reasonable jeep deal from here.
I take a walk to check out the river below frothing thick with silt. Waves roll in onto a beach. A pity the water’s too muddy for a dip. I arrive back at the petrol pump to find we’ve been offered a lift (grudgingly, it appears) by three German cartographers as far as Chilas village, an hour’s walk up the hill, but only 10 minutes by minibus.
Thank you, Cartographers.
In Chilas now. It’s late afternoon. No jeeps are leaving until the morning. We dine on dhal and chapatees (I can’t eat at all), and have a good look at Chilas Fort, built by the British in 1894 as a garrison stronghold, now occupied by the police. It’s built of large rocks. Inside, it’s spacious enough to billet 100 men. It has terraced open spaces, a parade ground, stepped battlements with massive wooden gun towers. One battlement commands a view onto Main Street; the other stands watch over the road to Gilgit far down the valley. There is a covered water tank to provide against siege, an orchard of apricot trees, shady officer’s quarters. The British did things in comfort. We have chai, and chat with the officers as the sun sets under a skyline of the palest, most delicate pink I’ve seen in Pakistan
Bedtime. We meet up with Jean-Pierre, 36 year old Parisian banker, experienced trekker and mountaineer, also waiting for a jeep to Babusar village.
Our hotel is built around a great walnut tree, which spans the three storeys of the building. We climb the iron rungs on the big walnut tree to the roof, and bed. This is Tribal Territory and we’ve been warned of thefts. At least fifteen other sleepers are sharing our dormitory roof, paying 5 Rupees for a charpoy for the night, among them some dodgy looking characters. I shove my guitar up through the string bedding of my cot, and loop the hand grips of my hold-all bag around the cot leg nearest my head. Like this, I sleep, my five companions in a tight line of cots beside me, through the yelling of dogs and muezzins, and an intense wind from up the valley bringing sprays of dust. I wrap my sheish once around my face and sleep.
Up extra early with the sun, I take a trot down by a millet field for a compulsory duty call, before too many people are about. Then it’s chai and paratha, and we sit in the bazaar in narrow strips of shade to begin the long wait for a jeep. The passenger rate to Babusar is 25 Rupees, but it seems as if we’ll have to hire a jeep, which will cost at least 300 Rupees. Jean-Pierre takes it upon himself to negotiate. Meanwhile, we hang around trying to gather a couple of local passengers to defray the cost.
Morning drags on. We make at least two “bookings”. The drivers drive off and don’t return. Nobody is keen to drive to Babusar. We’re getting restless, hot. We eat grapes. The thin shadows thin further. Eggy and I sit in one outside the Post Office and begin playing guitar. We draw a crowd of thirty or so. The gallery packs in close; if we were accident casualties, we’d suffocate. However, it livens us – and the crowd – for the time being. Klaus receives no paisa enthusiastically thrown by the crowd to his proffered white hat, only the standard blank stare. Then the Post Office man breaks it up – “Pinish!” - We’ve all pretty much reached a state of Pinish now. It’s already afternoon; we’re waiting for another jeepman to return with his jeep, when the Police step in.
We’re beckoned silently into an office where we fill the usual details into the Visitor’s Register. Then, outside again, we’re approached by another policeman. He’s signalling us to follow him. We follow, confused and frustrated now, on and on, half a mile across unshaded ground up a burning slope and into what looks like another government building. From the flagpole a green crescent flag hangs limp. We’re ushered into an office. We file inside wondering what’s next. It’s the local Chief of Police. We’re received cordially, with handshakes and chai. We fill in his Register. It’s a different jurisdiction, he explains; the district line divides Babusar village. For our own safety, he says. It is very dangerous. These people are lawless. Here everyone carries a gun. A Swiss girl on a bicycle was raped here last month (the hint of a smile). But there are six of us, we say, sipping tea. Not much you can do faced with a gun, he replies. He telephones instructions to arrange for a jeep. We sit and wait… we discuss the Kashmir Problem… time stands still…outside the bare slopes burn. Another telephone call:
“A man has been murdered in the bazaar…
(-!- where we had just been waiting for our jeep – )
…Yes. Shot.”
We leave to vague promises of a jeep. Downtown again, the bazaar hasn’t changed in the slightest. I felt as if it should.
An hour later, we’ve almost done it. A jeep booked for 300 Rupees, less 50 Rupees which the two local passengers will pay us as bookers of the jeep. There’s a twenty minute delay as the driver drives off again to fill his tank. But he returns, and we load up. Half an hour later, we’re ready to go. Now there’s a dispute over who should get the Pak passenger’s fares… as jeeps whizz back and forth ferrying rifle wielding police and civilians… the murder chase, we suppose… the dispute at last settled, the driver drives home for lunch, his mate riding shotgun, leaving us in the sun, waiting, a mile outside of town…
I walk down to a canal and pour water over myself for half an hour to cool off.
Then, unbelievably almost, we’re moving, swashing across icy streams on a rocky trail – on the road to Babusar. In high spirits!
We have twenty miles and four thousand feet of altitude to make. It’s a good two days’ trek, but we’re going to make it before sunset. We’re as happy as so many kids on a soap box cart, as we switchback through heavy scented fir trees and wild roses at 8,000 feet. The air is fresh and damp as we come to a halt in the thronged little village of Babusar among clinging mists, all stone and dark interiors and quiet mountain herdsmen.
We sit around the kitchen fire at the restaurant warming our hands and knock back a couple of chais. After making arrangements for supper later, we walk down to the Rest House overlooking the river, where the Chakdar is waiting for the first arrivals of the year. Apparently, nobody stops at Babusar.
The jeep driver succeeds in spoiling part of the evening. He follows us to the Rest House, repeatedly demanding 50 Rupees, although he had received his 300 Rupees, and spills out his litany of wrongs onto the Old Chakdar, hoping to convince him of our heinous parsimony. Finally, for the sake of peace, Jean-Pierre offers him 30 Rupees more and they are friends again. Meanwhile, I had already retired to the river for a peaceful – if icy –bath.
By six o’clock, we’re all wearing coats and jumpers, sitting on the west facing veranda to watch the sun set. The Rest House is a fine, high-gabled stone building with two large rooms and a central chimney with a spacious fireplace for each room. It also has a washroom and a tin bath. Coming upon our building at this late hour of the day, a stranger could be forgiven for imagining himself at the gate lodge of a big house in Scotland or Ireland.
We eat ghosht (a gruel of mostly goat bones and ghee) at the restaurant, huddled in the dim glow of a paraffin lamp. Back at the Rest House, after lighting the fire, Eggy and I are too tired to play a game of chess (my big find, for 25 Rupees, at the Gilgit bazaar).
Sleep is welcome tonight.

August 13th
After a great big sleep under heavy covers, the Chakdar brings us pot after pot of chai in the early morning, with the paratha we’d ordered. I’m still unable to stomach most kinds of food. I know I’ll be running behind rocks all day. I feel almost too weak to make the trek today. It’s eight miles to Babusar Top, and another four to the first village on the other side. Now comes the part I’d feared: carrying that guitar, a dead weight swinging from the left hand, with the hold-all swinging from the right shoulder. A more awkward combination of items to have to lug up a mountain pass I can hardly imagine, unless it be the carpets and chamber pot that Italian Count So-and-So once had his servant carry up a mountain in Nepal (even those things would be useful on this trip!).
The day is sunny. We set out, Eggy and I forcing a pace, while Tomas and Klaus follow. Jean-Pierre, wiry and quick, soon passes out of sight ahead. Poor Wilfried, loaded with a heavy pack, brings up the rear. Later, we’ll discover – to our bewilderment and delight - some of its more exotic contents. The trail is steep and hard-going; after an hour or so, I sit with Eggy for a long rest under a grove of pine trees, swapping stories. After a mid-day water stop down at the river, I’m struggling back up the slope to the trail when I’m amazed to see an Afghani striding up the hill - with my gear on his shoulders! He ignores my protests, beckons me to follow him to a spot three hundred yards further up the trail where he deposits my stuff beside Jean-Pierre, Klaus, Tomas and Eggy, where they’ve stopped to eat.
We lunch on dried apricots and water, with sandwiches of chapatees and corned beef from Jean-Pierre’s pack - a treat, though it feels acid to the stomach. Our Afghan friend seems of the same mind – he spits and leaves (though good naturedly), refusing to believe it isn’t pork he’s been offered.
From here the trail eases onto a more gently sloping moor. We’re met by two shepherds, two polo players walking their horses from the other side of the pass, on their way to the Independence Day match in Babusar, and a beardless youth with a bandolier and Lee Enfield rifle strapped to his shoulder. I take rests at short intervals…feeling strangely drained of energy… little will to push on. Wilfried and I drop further and further behind the others.
But the valley is beautiful, especially towards the top, above the tree line. Here it’s good to be alone.
As the evening clouds close over, we emerge into a vast amphitheatre of short grass, a dead end bowl rimmed by ridges on three sides. The jeep track ahead traces a crazy zigzag pattern of khaki across the expanse of green, scribbles switchbacks up the right hand rim and curves up over Babusar Top beside a cairn of rocks.
The air is thin. It takes me two hours to pant up this last stage. Ice remnants line the roadside.
When I reach the top, the four are waiting huddled in a circle, breathing clouds of tired breath. We wait, each trying to roll his body into a ball - 13,600 feet. 5 o’clock in the evening. My mind feels numb, my body aching, but the view down the young Khagan valley is of evening sunlight pouring down over a broad V of delicate green and a white flecked skyline. Look back: the view of the Indus valley we are leaving behind, and the mountains towards Gilgit, seems tilted sideways like an aerial photograph.
We sit and wait for Wilfried to join us. At this altitude, our thoughts wander, our talk is distracted. We fantasize about beer and steaks and favourite foods
Wilfried and I photograph each other standing by the cairn. I must look like Death, for I feel close enough to it now.
But now we have a descent of four miles to make Kittidas where we hope to find food and shelter. Only Wilfried stays behind. We trudge fast down the hill as the sun sinks behind the mountains to our right. My fantasies don’t relieve, rather leave me all the more forlorn, as I trudge on, each step a loss of altitude, though not enough.
I arrive first, passing through flocks of goats descending and whistling shepherd boys. I spot what looks like the village, a cluster of stone huts. Women are bringing cows to be milked, carrying on their heads jars of milk or curds from a gathering centre near the village. I salaam, and I’m beckoned over to a small stone enclosure two feet high where some old bearded men and boys are squatting. I pay my respects all round and I’m well received and asked to sit with them. Five more to come, I gesture. Four of them soon appear and join us. No sign yet of Wilfried. Girls gather behind us, stare sheepishly, turn away giggling. Women pass back and forward in the distance at their work. The men sit in silence. The boys fidget slightly, wrapped in light shawls. It seems a grave, formal occasion.
An hour passes before Wilfried comes. By now, I’m feeling unnaturally cold and weak. No fire has been lit or shelter offered.
Food is brought: sour lussi and chapatees. I force myself to swallow some, then – thrill! - to feel a radiant bowl in my hands – milk chai! Sugar too – not salt. Eggy wraps a sheet around me.
After a long, shuddering interval, Eggy, Wilfried and I are led to a thick-walled stone hut. We follow the old man through an entrance 3½ feet high by 2 feet wide, through a blinding curtain of smoke from a wood fire just inside, to the left of the entrance, onto a dirt floor strewn with a thin covering of hay. When we sit, the smoke is bearable. Before leaving us, the old man shows us how to fill the doorway with two planks.
I wake in the dark to the howling of dogs and grunting of some other beast. And sharp pains. The fire is out. I can just make out the entrance from the shafts of dim light between the planks, and the darker masses of my hut-mates’ sleeping bags. I lie for as long as I can bear my bowels’ urgings, plotting my route to a spot a respectable distance from the hut. Head for the river. Careful not to wake the others. Pause - hold breath - ride the periodic spasms… one by one…remove the planks between me and my release… out in the night air now… hold on… small steps…
Oh, no. What’s this?
I’m faced with a four foot dry stone wall, a semicircular outer barrier over which we must have had to climb to gain access to the entrance of the hut. Now I can recall dimly climbing over something, though I was probably helped. It’s an enclosure - I’m enclosed. A sinking feeling in my stomach, a desperate scramble…
Sure enough, in the effort to cross the wall I’m unable to contain myself fully and shit myself. Have to keep going, though… as I feel my way across the rocks, vast mists slide down the valley sides and hang low, curtaining the valley to a narrow strip. But I’m in no condition to appreciate these wonders – I find the river, shit, and find my way back to the hut, where I sleep, until morning demands a repeat.
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PAKISTAN: A Traveller's Journal - Part 11

Post by Kitkat on Thu 15 Nov 2012, 19:50

August 14th

In the morning we find Klaus, Tomas and Jean-Pierre had camped by the river. I eat none of the chapatees or lussi offered us. The old man has been very hospitable, and refuses my offer of payment. Jean Pierre gives an old woolen jumper as baksheesh, Eggy, a penknife.
I lift my things with an effort, and walk on downhill towards the trail. It’s eight miles to Basei, the next village, where we’ll find food. I lost my watch last night. Too sick to enquire about it. Hope our old man finds it.
Klaus tells me yesterday was Friday the Thirteenth.
After two hours, the trail passes a lake fringed with lush, green meadow where water buffalo are grazing. On the far side of the valley from a tunnel in the ice a glacier roars its melt-water into the lake.
Rounding a bend in the trail above the left bank of the lake, I salaam a beautifully dressed Afghani woman gathering sticks. Further on, I pass beneath a small group of Afghanis sitting in the sun in front of their tent. One of them levels his rifle at me from thirty feet (Jesus… don’t do that…) … he pulls the trigger to a CLIK! … and laughs. I climb the slope to greet them. Salaams all round. I’m offered the old rifle for examination and approval. He seems extremely proud of it. It’s a British make, Lee Enfield I think, looks like it’s seen service in more than one war. More of his party arrive on the trail, and we’re served sweet green chai – very welcome, thank you. In return, I offer my last two cigarettes. He asks if I have any ghooli (= medicine. Urdu); I answer him no, I have none, but that thom (= garlic. Arabic) is good for the stomach (I didn’t tell him I’d vomited the last two Lomotil pills half an hour up the trail; I think I’ll stick to garlic from now on.).
We say goodbye. I continue around the lake. The day is a splash of pastels – pinks, purples, greens, blues, the lake a lovely turquoise. As my companions pass out of sight down a gorge, I take my clothes off to bathe in the lake - a cool thrill!! - does my body and spirits a world of good.
I tramp down the gorge, meeting a curious camel on the way, to find the others seated on the floor of the restaurant in Basei waiting for their chapatees and chai.
There are more camels here, Afghanis moving down the valley. There’s a shop with cigarettes and biscuits, and a kind of jeep service. The shop man is the jeep man. We ask about jeeps. Too expensive. Booking only. Tomorrow there’s a passenger jeep, 25 Rupees to Bulawei.
We stop here at Basei, even though it’s not yet mid-day. Nobody’s in the mood for walking further in the heat of the afternoon.
I beat Eggy in a five hour game of chess. We sleep under covers on an earthen floor for 4 Rupees.

August 15th
Dawn comes cold and crisp. I splash numbing river water on my eyes. Mist envelops the village. The tinkling of tiny bells are goat herds moving up the slopes, even before the clean yellow sunlight begins to pour down the high hanging valleys opposite the village. From the road out front a couple of jeeps roar as we pack our things.
A cup of sweet chai warms hands and belly, fuel to burn the twelve miles down the valley to Bulawei, where we should find a Rest House to welcome us.
I move on down the trail with a new arrangement for carrying my bag, handholds under armpits, bag balanced high on both shoulders knapsack fashion, taking the strain and swing off neck and shoulders. I’m in the mood for walking!
I’m in behind a troupe of camels, donkeys, mules, horses and goats. I pass them fording a stream. Two men accompany the train, expansive turban trailing over the left shoulder, rifle strapped on right shoulder, shaven faces, boyish in contrast to the tailored Pakistani moustache and beard.
The women stride proudly, heads held high, their many layers of rich purple, green and black clothing tied with a waistband that accentuates the sway of the hips as they step. Face uncovered, sensuous mouth, lively eyes meeting eyes as I pass, not cowering like whipped dogs.
Children ride high, unassisted. A baby girl with a sky blue medallion on her forehead smiles down from her nest high on the camel’s back. On one camel, a worried hen roosts; on another, a dog pup watches the world from his perch; other camels are piled with wrappings and bundles.
Two men, fifteen women and children, livestock and belongings, move to the slow, graceful swing of the camels, marking time with the fluid rise and fall of the hooves, as unhurried and inevitable as the march of time. A proud people, an Afghan caravan on the move, carrying everything they possess. I take no photo, not only out of deference but also because a photo could not capture the grace of movement of these animals and people, a perfect unit of motion.
Further down the valley, the trail climbs to a thousand feet or so above the river, a narrow ledge cut into the shoulder of boulder clay, crossed at twenty minute intervals by splashing streams. After three hours we reach the tree line again: firs, stunted at first, then taller, straighter, that tangy aroma of resin. A pungent, minty heather clothes the steep slopes. Now and then we pass under a hanging valley, its private glacier dwindled to a white slash.
Wilfried has been hogging the yellow jersey – uncharacteristic? I catch up with him at one of the melt-water torrents, where he has stopped to rest. He’s in good spirits. Meanwhile, a gloomy character, leaving his wife cowering like a cur twenty yards up the trail, approaches us to ask for ghooli. I ask him to indicate where his problem is; he points to his head and stomach. I give him a clove of garlic for his stomach. He’s not impressed. Wilfried produces an aspirin for his head – Oh magic thing! When the rest of our party arrives, our friend is still sitting there as gloomy as death, concentrating like hell on his headache. Eggy suggests his lifestyle is to blame; I agree he’s a hopeless case, but I feel sorrier for his wife. They move on down the trail. Later, after more encounters with clinging handshakes, and folks demonstrating the serious nature of their medical needs, I click that my good man has been spreading the word on the road ahead that Ingrizzi are dishing out ghooli. I tell them to go and see a doctor or eat thom, neither of which seems to please.
We’ve been walking long, hard and constantly today, still we’re surprised to hear from a local man that we’ve arrived at Bulawei. Eggy and I wait for the others (Wilfried has streaked ahead again, and is already out of sight). Two minutes down the trail, we cross a suspension bridge to the far bank, and there’s the Rest House smiling up at us from the roadside.
We find the Chakdar. The charge for the Rest House is 80 Rupees, all in. We take a look around. It’s in a sorry state. Any furniture inside is broken, except for three charpoys and the promise of one more. There’s no water. This is a shame. The evidence from the remnants suggests that, like other Rest Houses we’ve seen, it was once well equipped for a comfortable stopover. Built by the British to keep life and soul together in their visiting officials during the hard winters, they built these Rest Houses as solid as the empire. Now they’re used by Government civil servants, though rarely, and otherwise offered to foreigners as expensive accommodation. But sadly run down. Maintenance does not appear to be valued.
This afternoon Wilfried did his washing; hung out on the wall were six pairs of snow white underpants, four pairs of socks, and three cotton shirts. And among the many other delights drawn from that bulky pack was a tin of boot polish. We laughed. There was, after all, only one Wilfried.
We eat at the open-fronted Bulawei “Hotel”, one of the half dozen earth–roofed stone houses of Bulawei, where our main jeep trail bridges a side valley. On the menu is goat ghosht, little more than bone soup (where do all the good parts of the goat get to?). Still, it’s the first meat we’ve met in three days. Wilfried nods and beams his customary exclamation of satisfaction and approval:
“Dass – iss – kHooOOTT!”
I’m sick as a pig, weak and listless, but still manage to enjoy a supper of boiled eggs! He’s cooked them specially for me. We sit in the cool of the hotel front watching our cook squat in the impossible space behind his fire preparing the chapatees, everything within arm’s reach and under control. This evening there’s a good measure of harmony; we talk and laugh and sing and stare out into the dark over the valley.

August 16th
This morning, boiled eggs – a rare treat! – chapatees, and chai. We’re just finishing breakfast as the first Afghan camel sways around the corner of the hotel to pass in front of the porch where we sit. The caravan is arriving, at the same elegant and unhurried pace. But now – to our amazement – the numbers have grown. Over a hundred camels, assorted pack animals, marching men and women, rocking children and flanking wolf dogs trail a long unbroken line past our porch, down to the bridge, up the ridge on the far bank, and over the shoulder into the main valley again. We sit and watch until they have all passed. Bringing up the rear, a lone old woman walks slowly and untroubled with the aid of a stick, pausing now and then to survey her surroundings.
In no time at all, we’re striding down a slope of loose boulder clay into the village of Batakundi with its bazaar and broken bridge, and there’s Wilfried waving to us from the chai house across the river. Here, there is cultivation, earth moving machines, biscuits – we eat orange crème ones with our chai. There is also a regular jeep service to Naran, and here too, the others decide, is the end of the trek, and pile everything on a jeep for Naran - much to the hysterical amazement of some of the locals. I enjoy the rare prospect of a long walk unburdened by guitar and bag. Although the valley here is disappointingly bare and arid compared with the upper stages, I enjoy also the luxury of being alone with my thoughts: of home, of Catherine and Hass, Mammy and Dad, Leah, Kevin, of firesides at night and Christmas, and how I should be home by then, and how good it will be –
A jeep stops. In the passenger seat a young Pakistani couple and baby. Smartly dressed… early twenties…
“If you please?”
He extends brand new Yashika camera… and Fujicolour Film.
I load it, pointing out the steps (which he ignores).
“Now, if you please?... Oh – and… this is my wife.”
“Pleased to meet you.”
I stick my head in the cab.
I snap them sitting in the cab, he grinning, driver and wife expressionless. I hand back the camera.
“Thank you.”
“My pleasure.”
They drive off.
Further down the valley, many watering places later (the water here is undrinkable, but good for a splash), I come to a large encampment of Afghanis, perhaps twenty tents, marked in large black letters with the initials of the United Nations, clustered along the river bank and roadside. Women are returning with armfuls of fodder for the animals. Children are collecting firewood.
A twelve year old boy gestures for me to come and take shade. I do. In the tent, his mother greets me openly with a smile. Three kids play Looky-Looky, bashful. A young woman nursing a child turns her back, steals occasional coy looks. Chai is offered. Yes, I’d love one. I speak a patchwork of Urdu, English, Arabic, explain where I’m coming from, ask him the same. Kabul. With talk without understanding much, but it doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot. The boy half fills a cup with sugar, tops it up with black tea. I drink. He fills again. I’m lowering my third chai as two men enter the tent, salaam and sit. My camera is studied from all angles. The red-eyed one asks if I have ghooli. He looks in a bad way. No, I say, no doctor. He takes out a pink pill, shows it for approval, and swallows. After we’ve exchanged some more (mostly unintelligible) words, I take my leave. I like these people the more I see of them. If the war was over, I would like to visit Afghanistan.
Fishermen and jeeps are thick on the ground now. This part of the valley is pretty, an exaggerated Wicklow glen, though much drier. I make the Naran bazaar by 5 o’clock amid crunching brakes and the beep of traffic. Well-heeled Pak tourists stroll the bazaar, watching each other. I find The Five seated on a bench outside a shop packed with twenty kinds of biscuits.
This is Naran, the tourist town. It’s mainly a transit stop for trips to quieter beauty spots, such as Lake Saiful Muluk:
“Lake Saiful Muluk has a touch of the unreal about it, nestling 10,500 ft. in the shadow of the Malika Parbat (Queen of the Mountains). You can go boating on the lake and hear the local legend about Prince Saiful Muluk who fell in love with a fairy.”
PTDC Brochure – Northern Areas
I don’t know about Lake Saiful Muluk, but I’m not staying longer than necessary in this town – fairies or no fairies. Naran is noisy, crowded and nothing special. I feel a sense of regret at coming down to this, so much so that I ask Klaus to photograph me Pakistani style, i.e. in Victorian grimace, filthy and disheveled, my just come down look. It’s the end of our expedition. From here we’ll travel by bus to Rawalpindi.
One good thing about this town – it’s got middling good eating places. We take 4 Rupee porch beds at a hotel on Main Street, and go out on the town to a meal of rice, ghosht, roast corn-on-the-cob, grapes and chai.
A few songs are called for, and given – until the hotel man calls the stop time:
“Music Pinish.”

August 17th
The 6 o’clock bus to Balakot: the worst bus journey of my life. Klaus, Tomas, Eggy and I have bought tickets. A pig-like man rushes us through an attempted chai -
“No time! Bus leave NOW!”
Hello? A Pakistani bus in a hurry?
It’s one of those quaint bubble buses. My first mistake was to bring my bag with me into the bus, instead of tying it onto the roof. Inside there are no luggage racks - in no time my bag has acquired a coating of greasy filth from a floor which hasn’t been cleaned since 19-? My second mistake was to take the back corner seat (by the window is best, thought I – bad move, Jim.): head room for window seat passengers is restricted by the overhead curve of the bubble shaped chassis – so you tilt your neck sideways. And I hadn’t considered the inadequate leg room; it’s not normally a problem, as long as the bus isn’t full. When all the back seats are full, ones’ knees must ride up the seat back in front, constricting the hips and lower back in a cramping vice. But my biggest mistake was down to ignorance - not knowing that the back seat is also the seat in which the “tent women” camp.

A word about the Burkha
Of the restrictive modes of dress imposed upon females of Islamic societies, surely the most repulsive and degrading must be the Burkha. The unfortunate wearer is covered from crown to ankle in a hooded garment of drab gabardine, leaving the hands, if at all, as the only body parts exposed to daylight. From beneath this covering, her window on the world is often restricted to two circular gauze covered eye-holes cut into the hood.
The man who chooses to inflict on his wife this inhuman impediment can claim no justification for this practice from Islamic law: the Islamic texts go no farther than to prescribe that a woman be modestly covered, so as not to present an appearance which might be interpreted as liable to arouse desire or lustful thoughts in a watching male.
In imposing the wearing of the Burkha on his wife, a man has no excuse other than an unthinking and selfish adherence to a tradition which regards the female as private property, to be guarded jealously from any other contact with the world than that which he offers, even at the cost of diminishing her identity in public to the status of a moving tent with eyes. Each time I meet one of these horrors on the street I feel as if I’m confronted by the walking dead.
Between me and the back door there is now half a ton of flour, some hens, and accompanying tent men, anxious to squeeze themselves fast between the would be molester in the corner and the marqueed females, thus squashing any hopes of escape.
The road beneath us is unmetalled and potholed, necessitating a tight hold on the seat in front to avoid being bounced off the roof, which is precariously close to my crown. This constant grip, however, doesn’t prevent me from enjoying a couple of round whacks on the temple off the window frame to my right when the rear right wheel finds a pothole. And that window, though it slides open, is not quite big enough to get my head through to get a decent view of the passing scenery. Meanwhile, the buzzing speaker strategically positioned in the corner just behind my head provides a compelling soundtrack to these back-seat frolics, a single cassette tape of bash and skreel music with the accompaniment of a whining male voice. Since the sound is badly fuzzed I reckon it’s the driver’s favourite (or only) cassette – either the tape is worn or the tape head has never been cleaned.
Two seats up sits a woman (all the way to Balakot *!++) smelling like she has allowed the excreta of the years to cake her body; flies are swarming round her screaming child (poor creature) – I’m sticking my mouth out the window at every stop…
Oh yes – there are chai stops: 2, altogether – each long enough for us to jump out, rush to the chai house, and force scalding chai down our throats as the driver revs his engine threatening to pull out. Eggy is seated near the front. Boarding the bus after the first chai stop, he cut his hand badly on the jagged metal of the driver’s door. He wrapped a handkerchief round it to keep the flies off. And it only added to poor Eggy’s misery whenthe man sitting next to him vomited on the floor, got out, ate four apples, and did it again!
The crowning glory of our bus trip comes just two miles outside of Balakot. In the heat of mid-day we rattle round a bend to find a steamroller – its left rear wheel in the ditch – aimed diagonally across the road, blocking the passage of anything larger than a Suzuki. Twenty men are piling rocks behind the wheel which is off the ground, and spinning it in inspired efforts to move the vehicle. Along the roadside, a gallery of onlookers squat, shout directions and get up to give an occasional spin to the wheel.
We take our luggage from the roof, and I my bag from the floor, and board an overloaded, creaking Suzuki for Balakot, where we need a good meal of kebabs, bananas and Coke before we’re ready to face the world again.
The Government bus trip to Abbotabad is uneventful, and tiring.
Abbotabad - hot and steamy and bigger and more bustling than I remember it. We search in vain for a bus. Then for a Suzuki. All Pinish. Until the morning. But we’re determined to leave. We board an out of town bound Suzuki on the Gallies road, cram our baggage onto the floor and ourselves along a bench facing four purdahed skittering schoolgirls. After some haggling, we do a deal with the driver: 50 Rupees all in – to Nathiagalli.
To Nathiagalli, then! Oh, the smell of pine and wet earth again! Evening clouds filling the vaults of space below… the AWRK! Of crows… the SEETHE of tree beetles… and there’s a CUT in the wind as we wind higher. Eggy wants to know if this road’s going to the moon – we seem to have left most of the Earth behind us!
Here we are – Galliat View Hotel. Nathiagalli revisited! This time more lovely than before. The eldest son recognizes me, and I take my old room, sharing with Eggy. Tomas and Klaus are installed next door. Roll them up, Eggy! All set for a night of songs!
We’ve come a long way since this morning in Naran.
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Re: Pakistan: A traveller's journal

Post by watchman on Thu 15 Nov 2012, 20:30

just got to say....these are great....keep them coming please.
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Re: Pakistan: A traveller's journal

Post by Kitkat on Wed 21 Nov 2012, 18:26

watchman wrote:just got to say....these are great....keep them coming please.

Next episode coming up. cat .............
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Pakistan: A Traveller's Journal - Part 12

Post by Kitkat on Wed 21 Nov 2012, 18:30

Rawalpindi August 21st

Eggy and I stayed four nights in Nathiagalli. It rained nights, flashing thunderstorms and long, dreeping clouds. On the second day, Tomas and Klaus left for Pindi, and the night bus for Lahore. I was reluctant to leave the relaxation and the lovely surroundings, wanting to recover before coming down to Pindi to meet the Shahjis.
To starve the bug or bacillus or whatever it might be, I took only toast and boiled eggs and cahwah, and medicine for bacillery dysentery. But by the end of the fourth night my stomach was clogged up like one of those inflated goatskins they use in the mountains for making lussi.
Rawawalpindi - vibrant, smelling of mangoes. After trying several hotels, we take a hot box room at a late hour, and make a spirited skip down the Mall Road to the Tourist Wallah’s Inn to indulge in our long awaited slap-up meal, our special treat, after the weeks of dhal, ghosht and chapatees. A Chinese!
I have Beef Chow Chow, Hot & Sour Soup, Barfi (very sweet Indian fudge), topped with two cups of rich, aromatic Tanzanian Café Crème- Ohh! All this in the splendour of air conditioning.
We top up on the way back to the hotel with a Pindi Special mango juice from a roadside stall. Shloooop!

August 22nd

At the bookshop I find Jack London’s Martin Eden and Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit. Then, in Grindley’s Bank, while cashing Traveller’s Cheques – ! – (Uh! Oh!) – I saw Absar standing at the counter beside me:
The whole family had been worried sick. I’d never written. There had been an article in the paper… unidentified British man found dead in Peshawar hotel room… no names released… Absar and Taseer on point of contacting next of kin to enquire. I’d told Taseer I’d be gone two to three weeks – here I am two months later, calmly cashing cheques in Absar’s bank.
We go to find Taseer and Meksood, who are also in town on business. After my deserved scolding, we take a walk as far as Taseer’s favourite drinks vendor. Squatting in his shop-front, in two minutes flat, he juggles fresh lemons, bottles of soda water, ice, salt, pepper to produce four large glasses of freezing fizzing flavor – WHOOoo! Good for thirst. The brothers return to Qaid-E-Azam. Tomorrow I’ll call to the house.

The Silver Grill

Fillets of steak served sizzling to the table. We can barely contain our excitement: we watch the door from the kitchen burst open at 5 minute intervals to issue loud SIZZLES as waiters scurry bearing covered silver dishes across the floor, each burst a thrill of apprehension… is this the burst that signals OUR SIZZLE? Corn & Chicken soup, chips, ice cream and fruit cocktail, and the complete apparatus for café crème – seven pieces, presented for my manipulation and delight! - Rs.80 ++ - worth every Pai. The irritating things so frequently wrong, missing, - too sweet, too oily, too slow – all smoothed out and synchronized. Silver service.
We sit on the kerb outside our hotel until midnight, watching, just watching the myriad activities on the street around us. A second feast.

Islamabad August 23rd

At the polyclinic for a stool test. I wander the shopping precinct for three hours in search of guitar strings - nowhere to be found. Lahore maybe?
I’m given a slip of paper with the results of my test. Nothing (-!?-). Walking back to the bus stop, I take a path off the road through the trees. The undergrowth sparkles twenty shades of green; the grass is lush, shimmering. The difference the rains make to this place!

Qaid-E-Azam Colony

Work on the house has progressed faster than I’d imagined. Shah has invited me to stay for the wedding of a cousin at the old house, a day’s journey west of here. Wouldn’t I love to? It would be fun. But how would this stomach manage? I’m anxious to hit Landi Khotal this Friday before leaving for India in three to four days.

Up twice tonight. I tip-toe away from the sleepers on the roof, clutching my Pakistan Times, to creep downstairs and climb the seven foot wall at the back of the house, this, to avoid the dog who doesn’t ask questions. Back to the roof, mentally and physically drained. On my second excursion, I’m accompanied by an impressive aerial display, the sound and light show of a morning Monsoon storm. A series of little flashes tic tac across the top of the sky; a dark wall of cloud gathers like a tide. On the roof again, soon the pit pat of the first raindrops gives us fair warning; we abandon the roof for the two bedrooms. Violent gusts next, slamming windows. Then it comes, just before the dawn, a prolonged downpour. Tonight I’m awake through it all. The rain’s roar is soon swelled by the myriad howling from minarets and back doors:
“Allah –Ooh-w-Akbar, etc.”
while all the dogs in the village give vent to their feelings in co-ordinated cacophony from here to Makkah it seems…
What a f*cking night.

August 24th

The 11 am train to Peshawar. Sitting with a cricket team returning from a match in Rawalpindi. They’ve drawn their match, and they’re in giddy spirits. I decline their offer to join them for a smoke, preferring to take refuge in a book. I’m not a bundle of joy today, having eaten plain porridge since yesterday, no sugar, no milk. The book provides no solace either: Marquez’ A Hundred Years of Solitude. I skip one gloomy generation, or two – what does it matter? – and feel justified in closing the last page on that lot, the last of the line dead and eaten by ants. I turn to Martin Chuzzlewit for some cheerful diversion at last, especially with this gloomy bunch who are seated around me - the jolly cricketers having retired to the back of the train where they’re clapping hands and cheering in unison, swinging upside down from the handrails; their former seats have been filled by derelict charsees (= those inclined toward charas smoking. Urdu) who were dimly impressed by the number of pages in the Marquez book, now dumbfounded by the Dickens tome.

The Khyber Hotel Peshawar

Very hard to find. The entrance is on a narrow alleyway off Pehvli Street, under a small, broken sign:

Enter. Climb two flights of stone steps, well worn, to an inner courtyard. This is the central well of the building, open to the sky. Opening onto the courtyard, seven or eight rooms with shuttered windows. Upstairs again, more rooms open onto an encircling balcony above the courtyard, cluttered with large potted plants and clothes-lines. I wait for a long time in the courtyard for a sign of life. This place is cool, high-ceilinged, hidden, mysterious, puts me in mind of something from the film Midnight Express. It’s also a good deal: 12 Rupees a night for a clean bed, shower and fan. I find Eggy, who arrived yesterday, before going out to look for food.

Later, two young Englishmen arrive, from Chitral. They bring news of heavy rains and landslides, houses buried, villagers killed.

This evening we make a sortie to explore the wonderful bazaar. We search for takeaways. I find fish fried in batter, and aloo – fish & chips! We try a fruit ice-cream on Sh’ara Pehvli: an ice-cream sandwich of banana and mango slices topped with twirls of whipped cream and a dollop of jelly! Irresistable. But when I return to the hotel I’m confined to bed – I can’t move, I’m so full.

August 25th

Up at dawn. Not much movement yet in the streets. I take a stroll through the bazaar to watch the shops opening. I find a vendor selling fresh milk in pint measures from a huge metal dish.
Off down the road to the museum. Sign outside: Closed Wednesday – today’s Wednesday. With this, I’m so fed up I get a rickshaw back to the hotel. And here I am, .scribbling. Eggy hasn’t moved all morning. Great company. And I’ve got the shits again. Outside, it’s getting even hotter – one of those awful days of inactivity…
But wait a minute… I can do something:
1. Get a haircut and shave
2. Write a couple of letters
Make yourself useful. Go.

Nakamundi Bazaar – The Old City - 4 pm

Medicines (at discount rate)
Fee for Stool Test
Guitar strings
Loan (to be repaid by post)
Total Rs. 340
Rs. 20
Rs. 40
Rs. 200
Rs. 600

Today has seen either the most fortunate or most unfortunate meeting of my time in Pakistan. Between 10:30 and 4:30, one Arif has either done me a great service, or ripped me off for 600 Rupees. The fascinating part is I won’t know which until four days from now, in Lahore, the reason, a trial of trust. On August 29th, at the GPO Post Restante in Lahore, I expect to receive in my name 340 Rupees worth of medical supplies, and a set of guitar strings; the following week, at the GPO Poste Restante in Srinagar, a money order for the equivalent in Indian currency of 200 Pakistan Rupees.
I’ve put my faith and 600 Rupees in the hands of a stranger.

Now I’m sitting on the side of the road in an effort to piece together the events of this extraordinary day which started so normally…
10:30 am: just shaved and barbered… neat and clean… strolling through the bazaar, Pakistan Times in hand… checking out the strange new face in shop window reflections… having fun…
Some geezer pops the question:
“Which country?”
Well dressed… reflective type… glasses… not pushy. I could have said Mexico. I could have said nothing. I didn’t. I said Ireland.
“Ireland? Which part?”
Ahaa… a man who knows something about my country? Rare fish…
“Republic. Just south of Dublin.”
“Take a tea?”
indicating chai house on corner of Pehvli Chowk…
“No thanks. I’m not drinking tea. Stomach’s not too good.”
“A cold drink, then?”
“Well, I’m just going to my hote-“ aah… why not?
“OK then.”
We sit and order… waiter brings… we talk. Arif’s a stranger here too, from Karachi, meeting a friend off a flight in Rawalpindi tomorrow. In Peshawar, meanwhile. to buy a wedding present for a neice down south, some dress cloth from the Peshawar bazaar. Prices are 30% cheaper here due to the smuggling trade.
Conversation is polite… the westerner’s impressions of Pakistan… the Karachite’s of the Northwest Frontier… East and West… I take a pen from my bag, instead of the cigarettes I’d been reaching for, absently. Arif offers to write his name and address… if I’m ever again in Karachi… although he’s not often there… writes:
Dr. Arif Mahmood
Faisal Hospital
Saudi Arabia
“Medical doctor?”
“Yes. I’ve been working there for four years now.”
Conversation starts to flow again. For several minutes, I’d been studying the sunlight on the tables, at a loss for a change of topic. We order another drink, talk some more: about hospitals, Arabs, wages, expatriates, job satisfaction… I offer in turn my name and address, as we get up to leave. A thought… (-!-) might as well…:
“Arif… your advice…” I tell him about the diarrhea which has plagued me on and off for two months, the medicines that didn’t work, ask what foods to avoid…
“What about a test?”
“No. Clean sheet from the Islamabad Polyclinic.”
“It might not be reliable. Get another, is my advice, a second opinion from a private clinic here in Peshawar. I don’t know this town, but I am a doctor and I can help you find the best place.”
We walk into a surgery: eight stricken faces hovering round a big bare belly, eyes ricochet between belly and Heaven; whitecoat doctor frantic pushing –
I step back out on the street (give him air). Arif follows:
“He’s dead. Heart attack. The doctor is only pushing on his chest to placate the family.”
We check two more surgeries. We’re given the name of the Number 1 pathologist in Peshawar: Lt. Col. Latif. He undertakes to do the test. The results will be available in three hours. I suggest dinner. The streets are heating up, uncomfortable, and it’s the least I can do to thank Arif for his trouble. We find an air-conditioned restaurant with a TV. After dinner we watch the hockey match broadcast from a tournament in Kuala Lumpur.

The test result is positive: amoeba, and some form of worms. Well, that comes almost as a relief. Arif asks what I’ve decided to do. What would he recommend? An immediate course of medicine, and a special diet. He writes out the prescription list. It’s pretty long.

I ask how much that would cost, approximately. A lot. I can buy it here in Peshawar from the chemist; or, if I wish, Arif could obtain it at cost price in Karachi, and send it by air delivery to Lahore, where I can collect it. At cost price, the consignment would be Rs. 340. Arif also offers to send those guitar strings from Karachi. He asks - as a friend, not a doctor - for no payment in advance, suggests, rather, that I can send him the money after I receive the parcel.

I’m embarrassed and confused by his offer: if I accept, I can’t allow him to go to this trouble without insisting on paying in advance, if only as acknowledgment of my appreciation of his kindness to a stranger. Yet, it would be in blind faith of his good intentions: after we’ve parted, there’s nothing obliging him to send that parcel, but his own integrity.
It’s a challenge to human nature – if I’m sceptical now, I will have said no to much more than a parcel.

In the bazaar, Arif is 200 Rupees short for the length of cloth he’d been looking at. He’s prepared to leave it until tomorrow, to buy in Rawalpindi instead. Again, a short struggle between Prudence and Trust: I offer to loan him the 200 Rupees which will enable him to make the purchase here. At first, he objects, then accepts.

I give Arif my Lahore address and thank him. We shake hands in the street, and go our separate ways.
Well, in Lahore, then, in four days’ time.

August 26th

This afternoon we take a Suzuki to the museum. There’s a large collection of Gandhara sculpture from 100 BC to 500 AD: preaching Buddhas, Buddhas meditating, faces carved from stone in Greek features. Most of the exhibits seem to be from sites in the Swat Valley. But the statue I find myself returning to in awe is “The Fasting Buddha”, found from the ruins in Taxila. The Buddha sits cross-legged in meditation, hollow-eyed, emaciated. The skeletal framework stands out clearly through the skin, even the network of veins on the arms, chest and forehead – and this carved from stone. And transcending the emaciation is the beatific expression of the Buddha’s face.

The exhibition of folk costumes includes traditional men’s and women’s dress, some of which seems likely to disappear. There are costumes from the Pathans of Peshawar, from Dir, Swat, Chitral, Gilgit, and (pang) the Khalash of Bumburet. Such variety is a reminder of the diversity of cultures and languages within the State of Pakistan. Let’s hope they can be allowed to breathe fresh air and flourish where they have grown, not just be committed to dust in a museum.

This evening on the big table on the balcony of the Khyber Hotel I enjoy a couple of chess games with the Englishman. He’s a strong player, and throttles me twice.

We sortie at dusk, stalk the night streets four abreast, nerve ends tingling, senses stripped bare, navigating the complex turns through the labyrinth of Peshawar’s bazaar. The Pathans are fine craftsmen as well as traders. We pass through streets of coppersmiths, leatherworkers, shoemakers. One street specializes in the manufacture of buckets and other household and farm equipment from recycled car tyres.

Past the ice-cream parlour and the gleaming bakeries. Past food stalls with melon, papaya, sliced coconut, roast corn-on-the-cob, aloo and pakora, the savoury fragrance of kebabs and patties broasted over coals, lemon squash and lussi – each stall aglow in the gleam of its own identical mantle lamp, soft yellow islands of delight aligned along the traffic packed street. Tangas, rickshaws, trucks, hand and animal carts, bicycles (with no lights) – all must be negotiated to cross the street towards some new delight glowing from beyond.
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Pakistan Journeys, Last

Post by Kitkat on Fri 23 Nov 2012, 15:41

CANT. STATION 9:30 am August 27th

The train for Landi Khotal - We light up in the first class carriage. The white clad inpector enters; I pay the extra 3 Rupees on my second class ticket (inspectors always unnerve me – it’s the uniform, I think). The train is already an hour late. The carriage sweats, sun flooding one half. We pull out, steaming slowly out of the city westwards across a desolate, sunbaked plain, on the horizon ahead, a ridge of bare hills. There is no shade from the sun. the surrounding country here appears all the more inhospitable – uninhabitable- to the eye which has become accustomed to the trees and gardens and shade of Peshawar. The sight of Peshawar must have seemed like Paradise to the caravans coming this way. I’m glad I brought my water bottle.

As we approach the hills, we look out to our left at the pink battlements of an imposing fort. This is Jamrud Fort. It guards the gap in the hills behind it, the eastern entrance to the Khyber Pass.
After a stop for water, we climb into the hills. Progress is slow and tortuous. There are two locomotives attached to the train, the one at the rear of the train pushing, while the one in front pulls. We pass through extremely long tunnels, where steam and smoke from the locomotive chokes and nauseates, total darkness completing the claustrophobia. We’re soon opening windows after every tunnel and rushing to close them again at the approach to the next. I count ten of these tunnels. In between, the sudden RUSH of light, and the train continues slow switchback climbs over arid burning rock without shade, past occasional fortified houses, each house/fort with its slit turret, beyond that – desert slopes of rock.

We’re relieved to get off the train, determined to catch the earliest bus back. The Englishman, the Scot and Eggy are offered a lift in a Toyota to the bazaar, the best part of a mile. I continue walking.

I walk out of a barber shop where a mindless lounger is playing with a loud, crummy radio. I’m approached in the street by a smooth, middle-aged man while I’m waiting irritably for change at a Coke stall, the boy having been gone over ten minutes. I play the tired, disinterested traveller (I don’t have to try hard). But he persists. I follow him down the steep bazaar bristling with food stalls, knick-knacks, bolts of cloth, guns, charas in display cases, tin pot music, canopies almost covering the narrow streets (for the sun is merciless). I follow through a doorway, up a flight of steps into a high-raftered room cooled by a central ceiling fan – and there is Eggy, the Englishman, and Ian the Scot – seated cross-legged on cushions, drinking cahwah from dainty Chinese cups in quietly sociable fashion. I sit down, much reassured. I’m served cahwah.
“No thanks.”
We take our tea as various wares are proffered. The smooth, white palmed one is accompanied by three others. The fat one beside me asks in earnest:
“You want gold? Precious stones? I have.”
“No, thank you. I’m not interested.”
Precious stones. Cheap!”
“Camera selling? I make you good business.”
A man enters carrying a black slab, 12 inches by 8, encased in cellophane wrapping and stamped with a gold seal. It looks like an enormous bar of chocolate. It’s a kilo of charas. Afghani black, marked in quarters, so perfectly manufactured it looks eatable.
“This number one quality. Afghanistan. In Peshawar, they mix with ghee – no good! Here no cheating – this quality press. You smell”
The cutter - after long delay and wrangle over the puny slice we required: 250 grams is his minimum cut, no small time stuff for Mr. Soft Hands – the cutter then measures the slab for cutting.

I’m still amused by the professionalism of Soft Hands’ approach, drawing all four of us like King Spider into his web. It was he who had met and picked up the other three from the station, before going back to the street to fetch the fourth.

Slices are sliced and scales finely balanced in the old grocery way. I pocket my cellophaned 50 gram chocolate chunk for 100 Rupees; the other three have agreed to pool for a 100 gram purchase. We shake hands as businessmen (I presume) do, each receiving the best wishes and the card of the gentleman who is our host and guide:
Gold Money Change
Post Office Landi Khotal
On the road back to Peshawar, our bus is boarded twice, the passengers subjected to (less than thorough) personal and baggage searches before being allowed to continue.
A mention of our friend the MD from New Hampshire, with whom we had been encarriaged on the train; he’d come as observer to Landi Khotal. He accompanied us back to the Khyber Hotel, proceeding to deliver lectures on miscellaneous topics (smuggling, water purification, America) throughout the courses of our Chinese dinner. Confident, assertive, textbook sure, 98% non-receptive, he bored the shit out of all of us – we lost him later in the bazaar!
On that subject – I’m shitting so frequently it has become mentally rather than physically exhausting. After a month or so, the physical motions – the rumble the rush the rip-off the squat and the splash have become a single unconscious action, streamlined, co-ordinated. It’s the other, the foreknowledge that within a couple of hours everything you eat will be reduced to liquid slop forcing you to rush at yet another inopportune moment to secure some private corner. It’s the mental strain as much as the haemorrhaging of physical energy. The joy is snatched from eating. The feeling is as if you are freewheeling down a long hill on a pushbike – but you know that for every hill you descend, there will be pushing to pay in return.

I got myself weighed on a Peshawar street for 25 Paisa. I’m 70 kilos with bag in hand, 65 kilos without it – that’s 10 stone. I don’t think I’ve been 10 stone since I was about seventeen years old! If those machines are accurate, I’ve lost 35 lb. in 3 months!

Lahore August 28th

It’s late when I arrive to glimpses of the illuminated facades of the magnificent pink Moghul buildings: the Lahore Fort and the mammoth Badshahi Mosque, with its courtyard that can hold 100,000 worshippers. I retrieve my baggage from the roof after a terrible bus journey (the bus was alright, but I wasn’t). As I’d feared, there are no rest rooms available at the railway station, so I’m carrying all my gear across an open space towards Australia Chowk looking for the Clifton Hotel, recommended by a man in Peshawar as not too expensive, clean and safe. Large pools of water are lying along the roadsides after the rain.

“Hello.” Which country?”
A man in his twenties sidles up, smiling.
“Hello? You wan cheap hotel? Hello?”
“Hello? I bring you cheap hotel. Ten Rupees only. You want?”
“No I don’t want. Now please go away.”
“Where you go? All hotels full now. I show you good hotel. People from many countries. Germany… English… Australian… Fronz…
“What is the name of this hotel?”
“I show you. Just-“
“What is the name?”
He says some name or other.
“What hotel you go? Clifton Hotel very expensive. You-“
I quicken my pace.
“Which hotel you go? I-“
“Fuck – Off!”
Pause. Still following…
“Why you speak bad words? You are stranger. I speak very polite. I help you. You just come with me. Not far, just-“
I take the bags off my shoulders, put them on the ground, and show him my fist.
“Look. Mister. You see this? If you don’t stop bothering me, I’m going to hit you with this.”
“OK. You don’t want,” backing off at last…
“Just you take this card.” Handing me a card inscribed “SANTANA HOTEL”.
It’s not the name he had just given me. And it is the name I’d suspected.
“Very good name. You ask. In the Lonely Planet Guide. You know the Lonely Planet Guide?”
“Yes I know the Lonely Planet Guide. And I know all about you bastards. And I’m telling everyone I meet about you, and you’ll be in the Lonely Planet Guide again next year, but you won’t be happy what it will say. Now, if you do not go away NOW, I’m going to hit you, I swear.”
He finally stops following.

The Santana is the most notorious of a number of cheap hotels in Lahore catering mainly to the foreign trade passing through Wagah, presently the only overland crossing point open to travelers between Pakistan and India. Agents of these hotels on commission hang around the railway station and bus stand waiting to conduct new arrivals in town to a “cheap hotel”. But the “cheap hotel” often costs them more dearly than they had expected. The unsuspecting foreigner passing the night at one of these hotels is liable to wake up in the morning missing his money or his traveller’s cheques, or any other item of value from his baggage exchangeable for cash.
Particularly in demand are American Dollars, and these people don’t stop at petty theft to get what they want. They have other means.
In the Santana Hotel recently, a quantity of heroin was discovered in a police raid on a traveller’s room. There had been no preambles, no search made of clothing or baggage. They had made straight for the bed to turn up the mattress and “find” the heroin. Planted. The door was closed, and negotiations begun, with a view to a gentleman’s agreement. Baksheesh. They could help him. How much would he give? The alternative for him was prison.
Protests to the police meet with no satisfaction. The rich foreigner is fair game for them. In Lahore it seems certain hoteliers and police share a partnership of mutual interest.
Unfortunately, Jose, the Filipino author of the Lonely Planet Guide to Pakistan, whom I’d met at the Gilgit Tourist Cottage had (justifiably) praised and recommended the Santana Hotel in the First Edition of his Guide. But that was last year. Apparently, Santana management, seeing their name praised in the pages of a guide with worldwide circulation, decided they would exploit this good name to their advantage by cashing in on the continuous flow of Lonely Planet followers. And why not? The printed word is more prestigious, and more influential by far than word of mouth, and while their name is good they can pick up the suckers for another year. Like flies to fly paper. And there is little Jose can do about this until the publication of a second edition, which he had been working on at the Gilgit Tourist Cottage – except, perhaps, to spread the warning as far as possible by word of mouth.

This town of Lahore is the only one to detract from my appreciation and fondness for Pakistani hotels, whose owners in their dealings with foreigners have more often than not upheld the fine Islamic tradition of hospitality.

No rooms at the Clifton Hotel – a pity. I like the look of it. On the other side of the block, the receptionist is cold, the room shabby and expensive, but for an easy sleep it beats the Santana out of sight!

August 29th

I bail out of last night’s room to a hotel just off the Chowk in its own grounds where a friendly owner lives with his family. Cheap too. 15 Rupees. Then straight down to Saddar to try for the parcel at the Post Office.
No luck. Nothing either at the PIA Parcels Office.

Evening - An Australian and a Finn arrive to take the room next door. They spent two weeks in Afghanistan after crossing the border from Baluchistan. They were taken into protective custody to spend a week being interrogated by a humourless Russian, who wasn’t quite sure they mightn’t be CIA agents. They were escorted to the Pakistan border, travelling as passengers in an armoured column. And as if that wasn’t excitement enough for them, the first thing they do on arrival in Lahore is to get their traveller's cheques stolen, at – sure enough – the Santana Hotel! - taken from their packs in their room during the night. But these two weren’t good losers. They were sure they knew the culprit. They contacted a lawyer through a friend and threatened proceedings if the cheques weren’t returned. After great efforts on their behalf, the manager “found” the cheques.
This is the fourth first-hand account I’ve heard of goings-on at the Santana Hotel.

August 30th

Visited Lahore Museum this morning. Some fine Buddhist sculpture. I also liked the miniature paintings of court, hunting and love scenes of the Moghul period. I’d like to see more of this.
Coming up to the Poste Restante desk at the Post Office, I’m almost afraid to let the air out of my hopes for today. No. No parcel from Karachi. Coming out of the PIA Office, I feel like a punter leaving a bookie’s, having failed to find his horse in the placings.

Walking back down the Mall Road I’m vaguely impressed by the colonial elegance of this side of town, absently picture Rudyard Kipling and a tanga load of cronies trotting home to afternoon tea.
At the chemist shop, I buy two packets of Vermox worm tablets, and go back to my hotel room to begin reading Martin Eden.

August 31st

Just finished breakfast in the air-conditioned restaurant of the Clifton Hotel. Pretty soon I’ll go and check for the parcel – once more. If he’s sent it, the parcel should be here by today. Even if Arif didn’t arrive in Karachi until the 25th, that would have given him ample time to forward the stuff – barring an unforeseen delay: I suppose that, and that only is what I’m hoping for today, a small hope.
No parcel.
OK. I was ripped off. I was wrong though; this hasn’t radically altered my approach to people. I’ll be taken again sometime, I’m sure. But it’s to be expected. Keeps you on your toes. Your own fault as much as his. Just noticeably more irritable and dismissive with people these days. Reaction, I suppose. I’m quite sick, and that’s the major cause of my loss of cheer. It’ll end… Jesus… sometime.


I walk straight down the middle of the elaborate path of brick fingers, patterned in alternating octagons and squares. Cool. That path, and the marvellous scolding hooded crows are most impressive. Otherwise, it’s twice the size of Stephen’s Green and nowhere near as attractive. I didn’t get to see the fountains or lights in action, mind you; they only do that twice a week. But it’s all straight lines and open space, so formal, and empty.

The crows were fun, though. And the stripe-backed chipmunks. Sit back quiet, and you can see a lot happening! The crows are having fun teasing an ungainly vulture. They’ve got the drop on him; he can only blunder around in the air grumpily, unable to defend all fronts at once. Too slow. He’s forced to retreat and find anonymity among the high branches. No match for the quick teamwork of the crows. And you could just hear how they enjoyed it.
Evening feeding time. Chipmunks claw down tree-trunks - quick bursts - headfirst – to stop dead – directing sniffs – come so close to grab at bread – before shooting off in a quicksilver scuttle to safety up a trunk.
Families stroll up and down the path.
On my way up the steps to the exit, a girl in black cloak and veil:
“Hi!” (she says, brightly)
“Hello.” (I say, shocked)
“Hello.” (she says, uncertainly)
And then I’d passed her.
I looked back – she was looking back. We waved. A strange experience. The first greeting in any form from a female Pakistani, since Bumburet. Suddenly, 50% of the people around me briefly flash into flesh and blood, feelings, desire!
And then the flash fades. I’m left only with the knowledge of the terrible weight of the Purdah.

AMRITSAR September 1st

Sitting in the railway station Refreshment Room, which is a misnomer, because they’ve got the nattiest menu I’ve seen for many’s the day! And the only item I can sample is a soda! Never mind, it’s pretty good stuff.

I BURST into the station’s Booking Office and startled the poor Booking Clerk by asking him where was the nearest toilet – then bBURST through the ticket barrier and BURST into the (fortunately empty) toilet. There, in two short minutes, went my slap-up meal from Lahore of seven hours earlier. I took a Ford Transit to Wagah. Then, there were the stampings and form fillings, and the startling change from dreary, heavy-lidded Pakistani side to alert, cheerful Indian side, Sikhs.
Also, the knowledge that my 50 grams survived…:
“Don’t touch my bags if you please…”
…helped lift spirits on the other side.
Then, the relative fun of running the gauntlet from the money changers through the “Taxi Wallahs” to a place in the shade. Whoever said the real hasslers abound in India appears to be correct. But damn it’s HOT!

I get the bus to Amritsar, and - wow! - as I attempt to leave the bus stand on foot, the Rickshaw Wallahs really lay on the pressure; seems they’re short of passengers.
This bruises the nervous system. But these are only details. It’s a good feeling – I’m in India!
On the road from Wagah, three sightings from the bus gave cheer:
1. A great filthy pig snuffling through rubbish along the roadside;
2. Several “WINE & BEER” shops flashing by;
3. Two women riding bicycles.
These are enough to lift this day above the mire of the past week!
In my pocket, a 1st Class ticket with berth booking for Jammu, arriving at 4 am. I’ll be in Srinagar by tomorrow evening. Of course I’m happy – why wouldn’t I be!
8:10 pm. Time to write a letter. 1½ hours before traintime.
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Re: Pakistan: A traveller's journal

Post by Kitkat on Fri 30 Nov 2012, 19:21

Sadly, that is the last of the Pakistan journals. I had thought that we might've been travelling further with Jimmy into India but, unfortunately, on enquiring of him when we might expect more of these delights, this was his reply:

Fraid not. There is a second notebook, in Jakarta, I think. I tried to keep a journal in India, but I was sick. So the writing petered out. Spent a month convalescing on a houseboat in Srinagar, eating oatmeal and curds. Got the Indian photos though. Could scan and caption. Could even expand captions to paragraphs. It could be viable. Will be in Jakarta Christmas. Will look to dig up scribbles that may have survived the termites.

But I do have two very old notebooks here: the first has got very mixed scribblings from 1979, mostly America, and the other from 1980-1, Algeria. There may be some bits of them worth copying.


So ... watch this space ... Whatever comes along, I will share with you here. :thumb:
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Re: Pakistan: A traveller's journal

Post by Kitkat on Fri 30 Nov 2012, 19:43

Meanwhile, here's a recent photo of the author - to put a face to the pen ...

and here's one taken just a few years ago (ahem) cheesy myself and himself together

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Re: Pakistan: A traveller's journal

Post by Jamboree on Sun 02 Dec 2012, 16:05

Sad news that the journals are finished now but good news that there might be more of the same to come. :thumb: I will watch out for that!

The photographs add a whole new dimension to these diaries. Smile May we have some more, please?
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Re: Pakistan: A traveller's journal

Post by lar-lar on Tue 04 Dec 2012, 22:34

Absolutely facinating, what a terrific read. I loved it and thanks for sharing.
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Re: Pakistan: A traveller's journal

Post by Whiskers on Wed 12 Dec 2012, 22:45

Can't believe I missed this! Excellent! :thumb: I hope there's more where this came from. Will really look forward to it.
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From Pakistan ... into India

Post by Kitkat on Sun 17 Mar 2013, 01:59

Pakistan Journeys – Epilogue

Kashmir & Ladakh

Leh, Ladakh

Sept 30th

It’s hard to start again after such a long absence. But sick
men tell no tales, and how can you manage to write the events of the day in
between running to the toilet? Who’d have the will? Not me. I still don’t.
Writing about the digestive system gets old soon, as well as painful to dwell
on. So you stop doing it. You quit, which is why this journal is missing the
month of September. Dates, times, sequence of events, detail - all go down the
toilet. So, instead of a complete account, it’s been reduced to what you can
remember rather than what has happened, a patchwork of events and images.


September 1st, 1982

Got a berth in a 1st Class carriage from Amritsar to Jammu. Shared with two other passengers.
Lay down to sleep to the quiet rhythmic clatter of train wheels bud-de-dim bud-de-dum, the gentle sway, the distant whistle from the engine. 64 Rupees.
Coming back, I’ll try the 2nd Class sleeper on the night train to Delhi.

September 2nd

I’m woken by the fat man in the berth below me at 6 AM. We’re in Jammu station under a pink dawn.


September 3rd We arrive in Srinagar weak and empty, not having eaten for 24 hours. We walk through a cool evening past brick and wood houses that look 17th Century English, and find a Chinese restaurant. We find the Rajbagh Tourist Hostel, book in, sleep.

September 4th

Next morning. In the breakfast room of the Tourist Hostel, waiting for breakfast (what else?), the sun smiling in the window, the birds enjoying themselves out front. Today I’m happy. I’m beginning to feel healthy. After over two months of strain and discomfort, and last week’s agony, I’d become a ghost figure. The purchase of
those 3 boxes of Vermox after my disappointment in Lahore – that did it. Two days of treatment, and – hurray – I wake up this morning feeling like some of last night’s food is still in my body.

The din of bus horns, foul choking exhaust fumes. Hectic Dal Gate at, the entrance to Lake Dal, is crammed with boats. Helloyouwannabuy? wallahs hover within pouncing distance of their shop doors. No thanks. Transport is a rip-off. The buses are unboardably full, except at the edge of town or at the terminus. There are bicycles for hire at 6 Rupees a day. The Tourist Reception Office is useless, with a useless map.

There’s a bank.
I’ll be spending in this town. There are handicrafts, carpets, papier-mache boxes (my favourite!), books, good food everywhere. The German run Glocken Bakery offer cheese cakes, walnut honey cakes, apple pie. The India Coffee House, dark and crowded, has white-coated, white-plumed waiters.

The Srinagar Post Office is a quaint, old fashioned building: big, bright red front, with seats out front on the pleasant Jhelum River Walk. I find one letter, from Hiromi. A poor return; I’d expected four or five.

Mohammed grabs Bruce and me to show us houseboats on Nageen Lake. We stop the rickshaw taxi at the bottom of Nageen Lake. Taking a narrow back street, we arrive at the stone steps of a shikara dock. From here, we push off up a reedy canal to the opening of Nageen Lake and the first of the houseboats, our introduction to waterside Srinagar. We pass noiselessly under tall poplar and chinar trees, by giant lotus leaves in pink flower. To left and right, countless branch canals bend away through dense undergrowth.
Sun sparkles off the lake surface and lotus leaves. The water here is crystal clear, in contrast to dirty Dal Lake.
Under the surface, thick weed carpets the lake bed which is never more than six feet deep, and sometimes scrapes the flat underside of the shikara, making paddling difficult.

We board our first houseboat to discuss terms with the owner over a cup of Kashmiri tea, sesame sprinkled rolls and honey. This is lengthy business. 35 Rupees a day apiece with breakfast and evening meal. We cross to the east shore of the lake to check out a second boat. It’s near the road – too noisy, though the owner tells us he can move the boat. We take a shikara tour, plashing rhythmically through quiet backwaters in search of a site. After nearly two hours, we find one. The owner insists on a week’s agreement. We insist if food is satisfactory, we stay, but will make no promises (No pig in a poke, Mr. Pork, thank you!). Here the deal falls through. A pity: comfortable boat, but no promises. It had taken him an hour to agree to two eggs for breakfast. No pygmy soul is mine. Pygmy buses are painfully unavoidable, but pygmy breakfasts in this well stocked town? No thanks. We’re no Frenchmen!

Evening meal at the Rajbagh Guesthouse is excellent: boiled spuds, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower & onion. But the milk is watered. After a struggle to have it served cold, we reject it.

"It’s half water!"

“You can’t get milk in India without water in it.”

More lies. These folks have an astounding capacity for telling you black is white in an attempt to save face, rather than admit to being wrong. Result: bad feeling and mistrust. Two days later, I buy a litre of delicious full cream milk at Nageen Lake for Rs.3.50.

September 5th

Next morning, we walk to Nageen Lake. We inspect ten houseboats, systematically. We only need to stroll by to be ushered in. Hello!! You wan Houseboat? We assume the ultra-critical (yet detached) air essential for the Bargaining process. We pass on, waiting for the best offer. Prices range from 20 to 150 Rupees. At last, we hit on one: Ghulam’s Queen Silvia.
Bathroom/toilet, double bedroom, dining room complete with laden dresser, and (the deciding factor) a sitting room crammed with cushions, carpets and easy chairs, and our own little front porch seats to watch the sun set over Nageen Lake. Throw in breakfast of two poached eggs on toast, rolls and chai, and full dinner. At 40 Rupees a head per day, it’s a deal. The only hitch is it’s booked until next week.

The Following Week

In the morning, Mohammed arranges a taxi rickshaw from the guesthouse. The loveably insane driver rattles and parps us through the town and up the east shore of the lake to Nageen. He bursts into laughter at intervals, and looks around at every woman we pass in the street, old or young.
9 Rupees sees us laughingly to our houseboat.

The Queen Silvia

I stay on board six days, most of the time on my back. Still haven’t shaken the bug. And to add to my diarrhea: bronchitis. Weak, high temperature, I’m laboring carefully to breathe slow, painful, rattling breaths through constricted lungs. I hardly venture ashore, except to try for a letter at the post office downtown, or go for yet another test.

Reading Martin Chuzzlewit, and thoroughly enjoying every page.

Sheikh Abdullah – some important head of state – has died.
Worse luck. A week of mourning, marching, looting, and closed shops. Then Indira Ghandi arrives with a tank and helicopters, to a racket of cars and chanting: Allahu Akbar! etc. What a thin veneer is this Indian “democracy”!
Women block the roads shouting slogans, repeating parrot fashion the crazed roars of cheerleaders lifted high on the shoulders of the crowds. The first time I’ve seen women raise their voices here, and it’s to mouth this meaningless nonsense. Black flags on all houses and vehicles. Ghulam ties one to my bike “just in case”. I get stuck hopelessly behind a crowd. Can’t even turn back. Everywhere I turn, I’m zeroed. Much later I find the doctor’s closed. Clinic’s closed. Now I must wait three days for medicine.

Meanwhile, I find out from the father of Razhu in Andhra Pradesh that the Algerian mail I’ve been waiting for in Srinagar is on its way to the Sahara. The letter I sent from Gilgit took 23 days to reach Razhu, by which time he had left home for Algeria bringing my mail with him. Why? God knows. So I won’t get that mail for at least another month: Redmond’s letter, the Piccadilly House reply, and who knows what else. A right fuck-up.

To starve the diahrrea, kindly Ghulam, houseboat owner, advises a fat and sugar free diet: curds, porridge and papaya.

Soon, some real medicine (I hope) from the Srinagar clinic.

End of September

We’re clattering north-eastwards again in an old bus, uncluttered, with leg room. Accompanied by Australian, Bruce, and Martin Chuzzlewit (who grows larger by the day). An 11-hour journey brings us through piney mountain country towards the Himalaya passes. The road is punctuated with witty traffic signs offering life-saving advice in verse:

Me: [ I think these saying should be accompanying some sort of pictures - but nothing comes up here ]

Don’t be rash and end in a crash!

Playing with the traffic is not funny!

Be careful with my curves!

Our journey is broken in Kargil, 200 kms from Srinagar. We learn from a local passenger we must stop here overnight, the road is too dangerous to drive after dark. Told we will resume in the morning. I’m back to the banks of my old friend, the Indus - this time on the southern side of the line of control, the Indian side.
Elevation 8700 ft., Kargil is damp; the cold penetrates. I wasn’t ready for this. I find a room, no food. A bed with spring mattress and worsted woolen cover, both smelly and damp. Too cold to sleep. To generate some warmth, I pace the floor until daybreak.

Ladakh in October

Sitting in the second storey Hilltop Restaurant overlooking the hub of Leh town, L-shaped Main Street. The women vendors in high hats, robes and jewelry have set out their fruit and veg in tempting rows along the streetside: apples, new potatoes, cauliflower, carrots, onions, parsnips. Ladhaki women don’t just display their produce; they set it out in style to tempt the buyer - and the cows. The women raise sticks in threatening gestures toward a well-fed looking cow who’s lurking doglike near the vegetables; he’s already grabbed an apple from a pile lovingly polished and stacked, 4 for a Rupee. He scampers away to loiter in the middle of Main Street. In Pakistan, that cow would be stoned and driven off, but this (ahem) is India.

At the Chopsticks Restaurant, in Leh town, Kamal, the laughing Nepali waiter, serves us Mutton Shapaklap, Tsampa (roasted barley flour) porridge, and Chow Mein with thick hot buttered Tibetan bread. The Coffee House chess stand on Main Street. The chang (barley beer) shop in the alleyway. The Old Ladakh Guesthouse, cold, cold nights wrapped up on the roof. The rooftop guitar duets, Eggy and I. The peanut munchy shop. Looking down on mysterious, decrepit Leh Palace, in the early morning and the roof-walking lamas, the nasally mumbling monks.

The power cuts in the cinema, coffee and boiled eggs served by robed usherettes.

Morning ice, crisp underfoot. The jerry-can queue at the morning water tap.

The thin splash of Poplar trees along the valley, delicate pink/orange precious things. The crunch of leaves underfoot.

The bared circles in the winnowing fields, the distant rhythmic fieldwork singing, whistling, communal joy at work. The barley winnowers who offer us chang. The rooftops neatly stacked with fodder/insulation for the coming winter.

The mumbling money checker at Shey Gompa, counting his (ohm) money.

Tikse Gompa, a smoke on the rock above the village, spread below like a story. The muted bellow of the Ladakhi horn.The magnificent Golden Buddha. The scary mural mandala featuring Shingji, the Yamraj (God of Death), clutching the worlds with both hands.

A Visit to a Monastary

Early morning at Chemde bus station, with a ticket for Hemis. So cold, I’m wearing all my clothes. Time only for a quick roti, fresh from the oven, and a gulped chai. The bus is about 5ft 2” high and it’s already packed when we arrive, definitely the worst specimen of pygmy bus so far. We rattle out of town down the long hill, standing with neck twisted at 90o angle, able to see only ten yard strip of ground alongside the road. TakTak Monastary is closed.

So we walk back the 7 kilometres to Chemde Gompa across the river. High on an outcrop, looking down on the village strung out among red and yellow splashes of poplar. 4pm. We stop for a smoke among the big chortens
(pyramids for the dead lamas) before making the ascent. Breathless, we climb the winding path.

Precipitous entry and introduction of Maliwan. Maliwan from Darjeeling, Harvard architect and Buddhist researching Gompa design. Courtyards, split levels, terraces, the Defender of the Temple, the Fire God, trampling Man beneath his steed. Murals. Exit of burgundy robed monks, from eight years old to eighty, holy text in hand. It’s the end of Puja for the evening, 5 pm. Descent with Maliwan. Knock on door, rquest for bed for the night. Cold extreme. Luck.

Into house of Mohammed. His troop of smiling children. To each of us a meal and a sheepskin. They retire, leaving us to a smoke and intense discussion on Man/Woman, The Women’s Room, and the story of Maliwan’s (Ruth’s) life.

Next morning, up the hill again. We take some pictures. We wait in the porch of the temple, practicing our prostrations before the entry of the Buddha and the Rinpochet (Head Lama). Today is a special Puja. 40 Lamas. We enter to sit cross-legged on cold stone, coats on. A thousand Buddhas peer down through the gloom, the only light from the butter lamps around the altar laden with tsampa mouldings and barley offerings,
and the sunbeam from a skylight striking the floor in front of the altar. The lamas, eyes down, old and young, chant a nasal mumble, tones rise and fall. The Rinpochet presides from the throne. Musicians sit ready. At ten minute intervals, the two deep-toned six foot horns, two clarinet-type horns, the big yak-skin drum, bells, cymbals and conch burst into sound. The music is transporting, timeless, hypnotic. Incense is burned. Ladakhi chai, buttered and salted in the Tibetan way, is ladled from a huge brass urn into cups. Tsampa is doled out, warms the hands and the belly. I steal a photo or two, risk divine wrath.


Outside in the glare of the forecourt, the youngest lamas distribute meals of hot cauliflower mush and tsampa, and offer chai to their visitors. The youngsters seem Spartan, innocent, indifferent to national differences. Two swans watch from a high parapet. The signal sounds for the re-commencement of the Puja. My head not assimilating, though wanting to… I must leave.

I leave Chemde Gompa after only half of the day’s Puja. My mind was trying to register, classify, record, whereas the Puja experience should be primarily an emotional, spiritual affair. I walk down alone to the bus, a meditative return trip, a profound peace.

Do not judge (Maliwan).


Oct 20th

This day has been drawn together with fine threads and tied up in a bow. Sitting in the Candlelit Lhasa Restaurant. A quiet, ordered, comfortable close to a day I’d thought would be hassle. I’ve moved from houseboat to Srinagar town, in striking distance from tomorrow’s 8 am bus for Jammu. All that bloody luggage, but I’ve surprised myself. Painless. Good karma from Ladakh?

    Current date/time is Fri 18 Jan 2019, 21:39