Thursday, November 01, 2018

On the Karakorum: Lahore





Moving though the checkerboard farmland of the Punjab, counterbalanced by the near-desert of rutted arroyos and broad sandy riverbeds.  Above the sky was the palest blue, feathered with the lightest of clouds.  The latter was spotted by raptors with great tails.  

One of the greatest of tales begins at our eventually destination, opening with a line immediately familiar to an older generation of schoolboys: 

"He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher - the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that 'fire-breathing dragon', hold the Punjab, for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror's loot."

Much of this loot was behind the cannon in the museum itself, spread around the four stubby wings that created a cross-like shape, betrayed not at all by the proud Victorian facade, accented atop with steep Moghul domes.  Overall, the interior and its exhibits looked neglected, forlorn, and one almost expected to come across a scabies-ridden taxidermied tiger, snarling before the faded carpets, and a few token chipped Buddhas.  The second floor seemed almost a rebuttal to the first, merely photos and documents that betrayed a definitive anti-British tone.  These are always the best parts of these kinds of museums, the things that foreign guests are not meant to see, a nation's political medicine cabinet.

As the museum didn't take much time to get through, I lingered awhile in Kim's Book Shop, named of course for Kipling's novel quoted in the passage above.  Here too was a treasure trove of old titles, run by a man nearly of their generation.  I always enjoy meeting the owners of second hand book shop;  one feels that you already know their character after scanning their shelves.   

I eventually left to find a few of our group in conversation with three young men of college age. One of them was pontificating about the charms of his hometown of Quetta.  He did this with the enthusiasm of a politician (despite specializing in economics), entreating us repeatedly to come for a visit.  I didn't have the heart to tell him that Quetta had the reputation as the most dangerous place  for foreigners in Pakistan, as the majority of the killings and kidnappings during the last decade had taken place there.  

The past is always a troubling subject in Asia, as memories are long in this part of the world.  But the eye continues to gaze forward.  Pakistan's tourist industry completely collapse in the decades after the fall of the Twin Towers, and has yet to reassert itself.  Economic growth since has been slow, but there is some momentum with the emerging middle-class, a parallel found throughout the rest of Asia.   The newly moneyed are rarely sentimental, and the first to go are the monuments to history.  Our bus drove beneath the hulks of former Victorian glories, either abandoned or their marble facades impaled by gaudy signs, or bound by power lines that crawled across their faces like vines.  Progress, whatever that means, had been superimposed upon the past, as Lahore moved unapologetically toward its destiny.  

We finally escaped the clangoring bustle of traffic to the safety of our hotel.  We were originally supposed to go out again later to have dine in a local haveli but had been bumped to allow for a party of government ministers (in a neat parallel with the same occurrence back at the Chini Bagh in Kashgar, when we'd been forced to shift our dates).  We ate instead in the hotel dining room, the buffet again allowing for some variety, though the taste of cumin still impressed upon us its versatility.   Ours was the lone group until a large wedding party arrived, each and every member clad in the outer limits of exotic beauty.  Though we never engaged them, it was a wonderful end to our time in Pakistan, and the eye was drawn again and again to the dark-eyes of the bride, the slim and sequined dandy of the groom, the bejeweled nose of the grandmother, the geometrically perfect rising slope of the uncle's moustache.  

Often in travel you feel like the locals going on about their business around you are extras in the story that is your trip.  But here I felt the extra, that my presence here was mere background to the important business playing out throughout the room.  


In the morning we left the mothership of the main group, or should I say they left us.  They'd be crossing into India where after a couple of days in Amristar, they'd be enjoying an extended stay on the houseboats of Kashmir.  We'd of course had also intended to go, but during the visa process, Indian bureaucracy did what it does best. Despite having all my papers in order, the new Indian consul in Osaka decided he wanted to sit down with me and hear a bit more about the trip.  I was not given a specific time when this would occur, and after a few days passed, I worried that I wouldn't be able to get my visas for Pakistan and China, which were allegedly much more difficult.  So I returned to the Indians and told them I'd no longer be needed their services.  They were a bit surprised and I decided to twist the dagger by fibbing in saying that the one or two thousand dollars  I would have spent in country I'd now be spending in Pakistan.     

So we'd be spending this last day exploring the sights of Lahore.  We began on the outskirts of town at Jehangir's tomb, with a design now familiar after previous visits to similar Moghul monuments across the border.  But this one charmed in being far more run down and refreshingly unrestored.  Ironically there was more life, in the boys playing cricket on the stone lanes, in the adult men wrestling in the grass, in the families out enjoying a sunny morning.  A caretaker had to be roused to let us into the main tomb, as sweepers brush the nights leaves and debris from its porticos and walkways.  The other buildings were in greater disarray and as such were less visited, creating the perfect rendezvous point for covertly cuddling couples.  

The old fort was in better condition, a large rambling spot that had hosted the Moghuls, Sikhs, and British, as they made their own personal mark.  We wandered in and out of its rooms, across its courtyards, peered into hidden nooks.  Our progress was slow due to being asked to pose for photos with dozens of families, which seemed to annoy our guide.  From then on it was strictly, "No Paparazzi!"   


I'd hoped to walk from there to the Old City, but we instead began from the opposite side, closer to the baths and market.  Once inside I could understand why, with all the motorbikes zipping through the narrow lanes.  When quiet it was timeless, a bazaar going about yet another day, the ordinary piling up as it has for centuries.  In contrast to the labyrinthian passages of the Royal Baths was the open courtyard of the Wazir Khan Mosque, delightfully tree-shaded and devoid of people.  We sat awhile on a bench, the enjoyed the cool marble beneath our feet.  It felt a nice respite from all the movement of the previous weeks.

But as always, there is more.  We pushed across town for a brief stop at the Shalimar Gardens, whose named brought to mind a R&B group from the 1980s.  And like the group, the garden's heyday had been brief, though it appeared in the book The Golden Oriole that I'd read not long afterward.  The fountains were dry, as was most of the grass, though it did provide locals a nice spacious counterpoint to encroaching neighborhood pushing in from all sides.  


It seemed most fitting that we'd finish our time in Pakistan with a visit to the border closing ceremonies at Wagah.  I'd seen it on a travel show from the '90s, and it was even greater in person.  After the expected intense security checks (a bombing here had killed 60 in 2014), we were able to get good seats in the arena that had built to offer the locals a free show every evening. Across the way, we saw the friends we'd left that morning climbing the grandstand on the Indian side.  I tried to wave, but a man sitting beside me told me it was better I didn't.

It was early, but already the music was pumping, the crowd beginning to come alive, with all the adrenal build up of a rock show.  I was impressed with how the organizers created an air of tension, which rose and rose with appearance of the drummers, with the perpetually-spinning one-legged man, and peaked just as the soldiers came out to perform their silly walks.  It was impossible not to notice their height, each individual standing close to two meters tall, obviously cherry-picked from the ranks for intimidation purposes.  The biggest and burliest one Cleese-stepped his way to the border, and with a sideways glare twirled his moustache across at the Indians, who were probably doing the exact same thing.  Then, another soldier stepped up to the border, gave a quick salute and handshake to his Indian counterpart (I imagine under the breath a "Nice to see you Sanjay, how's the family?"), then after the flags were lowered in a sort of competition to see whose would be last to furl, the border gate was slammed shut, just as the sun left the sky.     

Our guide rushed us through the crowd in a parody of the quick walking soldiers earlier, where our car rushed us to the airport and our flight.  Having two hours until check-in we sat in the near empty lobby, which slowly began to fill with an array of fantastically clad figures from throughout the Middle East.  Most impressive were the Bedouin types in their flow of robes. One old man came and gestured to me to allow him my seat, which I gave up.  Having spent the day in the muggy heat, I walked off to the handicapped toilet to prepare for the red-eye flight, washing off in the sink, changing into clean clothes.  When I returned, LYL too had lost her seat, as a whole clan of nomads had pushed in to overtake our bench.  Thus, we too pushed onward, eyes looking across the horizon of check-in desks, moving on the wing to whatever place comes next.       


On the turntable: Grateful Dead,  "1977/05/09 Buffalo War Memorial"
On the nighttable:  Peter Hopkirk, "The Great Game"

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

On the Karakorum: Taxila & Islamabad



There once was a town called Taxila,
That had all of the charm of Manila.
If the showers don't scald you to death,
Try to avoid all deep breaths,
For the filth of the place is a killer.

Our hotel was an odd mix of clashing styles, as if the decor was bought at a rummage sale in the late '70s.  Still, it was a pleasure to have pizza for dinner after so many bowls of dal, and our room's placement reduced the ceaseless roar of the Grand Trunk Road to a dull throb. 

We joined its ranks in the morning.  Joining us in the long scurrying queues were bullocks and other livestock being transported to the morning market.  This culture of bringing meat to the table came piecemeal with the Muslim invasions that moved in on what had for centuries been a series of Buddhist kingdoms.  

The word "Gandhara" had always meant magic to me, signifying a conjoinder of Indic, Persian, and Greek civilizations. Years ago at the Tokyo National Museum I'd seen some of the beautiful standing Buddhas with their flowing Greek robes.  It was fitting to start once again from that perspective, to meander the broken bodies of the statuary in the small museum rising from a tidily manicured patch of shaded lawn.  Nearly every piece was damaged somehow, but at least they were here at all, saved somehow from destruction that accompanied the invading newcomers to the Valley.  As ever, it was the hands that most impressed me, a commonality seen throughout Asian.  

Many of these artworks had been saved by being forgotten for centuries underground. We walked these next, moving along the narrow passage that had been Sirkap's main street.  Little remained but for symmetrical squares of brick that had once been the foundation of Bactrian houses.  A couple of ruined stupas allowed for some variety in the geometry. It was easy to find a parallel with Pompeii, which I'd visited earlier this summer, but here the damage proved that even when compared wot nature, the devestation wrought by man can be much more thorough.    

There was a little more remaining at nearby Dharmarajika, a tall stupa rising from the grass.  Two pairs of feet stood shaded by ruined brick halls, but the towering figures they'd supported were long gone.  I relyed on my own feet to wander beyond, climbing up a small rampart to look over the dusty plains and lows hills beyond.  It was little wonder the Buddhists felt comfort here, in a landscape familiar from their homeland of Bihar over a thousand kilometers west.      

    
Islamabad was much closer than that, and our first stop was at an outdoor food market for lunch.  The women in our party were the only to be seen here, but there was more variety in the costume of the local men dining around us, here in the nation's capital.  Afterward we were given some free time, so I wandered in search of some books I'd been looking for:  Human Records on Karakorum Highway, John Marshall's classic Buddhist Art of Gandhara, and the 2006 edition of Lonely Planet's Pakistan, the last one dedicated to this country and one growing increasingly rare, secondhand copies now going for $200 in the States.  Saeed Book Bank proved to be a treasure trove, many of its titles concerned with recently history in the region.  But the real find was Mr. Old Books, a second hand bookshop I found a block over, with literal stacks of travel narratives dating back to the earliest days of British involvement in the region.       

On the walk back to the hotel we dropped into Junaid Jamshed to buy some traditional duds for the evening.  Our guide seemed stunned to see us dressed so, and later, each and every one of the local men  stopped me in the Lok Virsa Heritage Museum to take a photo.  The museum itself was incredible, dedicated not only to Pakistan but to all the 'Stans, and the dozens of peoples that had shaped them over the centuries.  Being a former anthropology Master's student, I relished the detail and the wealth of what was presented.  Most of all, I began to envision a future visit to meets the Tajiks and Kyrgyzs.  Out in front of museum, a quartet was playing through a series of qawwali songs, sung with an intense passion and beauty by a large man whose dexterous dance moves betrayed his size.  

The sun was setting as we climbed the steps to the Shah Faisal Mosque, named for the former Saudi king who'd donated the funding.  The four towering minarettes framed the massive courtyard and worship space, all bustling on this Friday eve.  Compared to most mosques in Central Asia, the look was very modern, as if Escher had constructed a university in California, and there was peace to be found in its beauty.  I wandered off from my group, seeking some anonymity in my shalwar kameez, and stood awhile watching some boys, similarly clad, played cricket on the lawn below.  

The peace of this night continued, as we dined on divan before the partially restored ruins of a Hindu temple.  This village on the outskirts of the city was attempting to reclaim its older heritage, and its most overt expression was in the amazing meal we had here, the light continuing to fade, the music wafting up.  It was most pleasant meal of the entire trip.  Islamabad is a planned city, and a very modern one, dating only to the 1960s.  It looked like Colombo, like Delhi, a South Asian capital city with broad tree lined avenues and spacious homes for the wealthy.  Yet some of this money had been earmarked for cultural preservation, and as such, I found it very attractive indeed.  I'd love to speand a longer period here, exploring the riches of such an intriguing part of the world.


On the turntable: Grateful Dead, "1974-03-23 Cow Palace"
On the nighttable:  George Orwell, "My Country Right or Left"

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

On the Karakorum: Huzara



The Indus continued to run rough and wild, with dodgy looking rope bridges and even a flying fox or two.  The KKH that ran alongside this stretch seemed thus inspired, rutted and crumbling far more than it had up until here.  It was closer to how I'd imagined the road to be, seen in a handful of travel programs made in the '90s, the last decade when travel used to be an adventure.  

Though the town where we stopped for lunch had some traces of it, mainly in the faces of the locals who didn't look too happy that we were here.  This town (whose name I can't seem to recall, nor find) and Gilgit were the only places in Pakistan where I didn't feel welcome.  Little wonder, for it was from here that the Taliban had launched their fatal attack on Nanga Purbat base camp in 2013.  I was projecting perhaps, but I was certain that some of these scowling men may have had a hand in the event and had gotten away clean.  I wouldn't say that I ever felt unsafe, finding comfort in the fact that there had been no kidnappings nor slaying of foreigners since that same year, 2013, though when I expressed this very point to one of the Englishmen in our group, he replied that it was because foreigners no longer come. 

It did feel pretty wild west out here.  A jeep rolled by, unsafely loaded high, with a rough looking character clinging to the back. We passed through an abandoned village (which might be a tourist site in five hundred years), then pulled into a military checkpoint.  We'd be leaving the KKH here, to follow a road up to the Babusar Pass.  This road had always been somewhat unsecure and prone to violence.  Rather than Taliban it was more village vs. village, as vendettas ran high here.  We were warned to be careful what we photographed.  Then an armed guard climbed into a literal shotgun seat, and off we went, curling through the turns that passed between farms and hamlets, their fields long bare since winter comes early up here.  The steady climb took its toll on the engine, and our driver stopped awhile to cool it down, spraying water into the bonnet.  This seems to be common practice here, as a number of other drivers followed suit.  We disembarked to stretch our legs in a small walled compound with a few food stalls, under the constant stare of some hard looking locals.  They in turn were under the gaze of an M60 mounted to the back of a small SUV, it turret between the shoulders of two soldiers, the gunman asleep in the back.

After a few more twists, we reached the pass, as the wind kicked up into gusts that carried with them frozen rain.  We arrived just as it broke, and the peddlers selling from under tarps and upon blankets rushed for shelter.  Low-land tourists seemed to relish a weather unique to them, and as ever, called out to us to be photographed.  The road on the opposite side was broader, thankfully, with the harvested land in the valley below striated white.  We cruised along this high plateau, passing a number of high altitude lakes.  Finally, the Kaghan Valley appeared.  

Unlike the deep river cut V of the Hunza, the valley was cut broad and round, with the steady precision of ancient glaciers. It was lush and green in natural way, unlike the man-made irrigated paradise of the Hunza.  Life here too seemed less sedentary, with sheep and motorbikes and the tell-tale yurt.  Boys stood beside the road selling eggs, and one, in an act of poor business acumen, actually chucked one at us as we raced by.  At the other end of the scale, an entire town seemed to be sprouting up beside a bend in the river, as workmen built a series of hotels into existence, brick by brick.


Nowhere was more beautiful than at Naran, where we pulled up for the night.  The grounds of our hotel were open and spacious, tucked into the confluence where a glacial fed stream met the Kunhar river.  In the morning I watched an assemblage of people toting firewood, piled inconceivably high upon their heads.  We had a quick wander through Naran itself, which served as a staging area for trekkers heading further on.  Young men in jeeps called out with rides up to the glaciers, and and the town's far end, Kochi nomads were in the act of breaking their summer camps, prior to heading south.  
It was a bucolic ride, the scenery never short of breathtaking.  We felt the building up of heat at a lunch stop, and by the time we arrived in Abbottabad  it was in full roar.  During a petrol stop I got out to have a pee, and as such I may have been the first American boots ion the ground since Osama bin Laden's killing here in 2011. The town hosts a handful of military camps, which makes bin Laden's choice of hideout even more brazen, under the very eyes of those looking for him.  It was stated that no Pakistani officials knew beforehand of the riad that killed him, but the proximity to the military bases this heard to believe, as the helicopters flying in and out would have certainly been detected.  As it is, the Pakistan government was wise to destroy the compound soon afterward, to prevent it from becoming an Islamic shrine.

The land was flattening, and for the first time in weeks, no mountains could be seen on the horizon.  As the sun was settling in to the west long line of lorries in a river, waiting their turn to lose the day's dust.  Not much further on, we rounded a turn into a snarl of screaming machinery that was the Grand Trunk Road.  We had arrived in the Punjab and the KKH was no more.  


On the turntable:  "Rushmore (Sdtk)"

Monday, October 29, 2018

On the Karakorum: Fairy Meadows



The road out of Gilgit at dawn.  Passing the town's three military camps, housing soldiers who undergo high altitude training prior to being posted in what the maps call "Indian-occupied Kashmir." The soldiers are smart-looking with their tidy moustaches and feathered-berets.  They certainly have time to perfect the look: enlisted men serve for eighteen years, officers for twenty five.  

An hour or so south the Karakorum brings us alongside the Indus, which flows wild and fast, like a rebellious teen that betrays no hint that it will eventually calm down to give birth to some of mankind's earliest civilizations. The land around is devoid of such, all wild and dusty and empty, looking unfinished in a way.  A sign here tells us that this spot is also the junction of the three of Asia's great mountain ranges, two of which being the Karakorum and the Himalayas.  During the obligatory photo stop, I wander off into the third, and enjoy a short wee in the Hindu Kush.
 
We pull off the road at Raikot Bridge and climb aboard small jeeps, open but for the canvas snapped to the chassis.  We bump out over the desert floor, then moved along a long switchback that cuts diagonally across the face of a large earthen mount.  The KKH drops away quickly on the other side of the Indus.  We round a bend and weave slowly, ever climbing.  A narrow ribbon of river is far below, at the bottom of a drop of hundreds of meters the begins less than a meter from my left elbow.  The bottom, when I can see it, is littered with immense stones, brought down in hundreds of landslides.  I am not good with heights, and almost wish that I'd earlier taken advantage of the prayer rooms that were a feature of all the petrol stations we'd passed on the way here. We had been coached not to talk to driver, so as not to distract him, so I am not terribly happy to see him glance at his mobile a few times, and even less so when he sneezes.  I try to distract myself with the question:  "What do you say to a Muslim when he sneezes."  But I am pulled back to the terror of my situation with every sudden lurch to the abyss just to my left.  To make matters worse, this narrow jeep track allows for two-way traffic.  We stop for awhile to allow one to progress, and as it inches past us, its tires are mere centimeters away from open space.  There is another stop later on, as we wait for one of our jeeps to catch up.  Then the river gradually rises to meet the road, and we reach Tato. Each of our group looks grateful to have arrived alive, our joking at lunch betraying the knowledge that we have to do it all again in order to get down.

From here, we'll need to walk.  It is an easy path, but one that climbs steadily.  LYL walks about a third of the way, but she is particularly susceptible to heat, so accepts a horse when one is offered.   This act allows me to lose my own hobbles, and I begin to stride out.  It feels good to walk after all that time in the bus, and somehow I'm not at all bothered by the altitude, which is rapidly approaching 3500 meters.  I keep good pace with the horses, and rest with them at a tea house that marks the halfway point.  Beyond this, the trail enters a forest that could be right out of northern New Mexico, but for the mules and the clothing of the men along the way.


 We reach Fairy Meadows, and LYL and I go clown around with a couple of soldiers who had come up during the night. (I can't imagine that drive in the dark, but maybe not seeing the drop is better for the spirit.)  Our little cabin has a narrow porch with great views of Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain on Earth.  I'll pass the next two days again alternating between a book and the view, watching the mood of the mountain change with the clouds.   Goats and donkeys ever graze the grass, and one of the former wanders up along the interconnected porches, leaving little piles of pellets before each of our doors. 

Most of the time though is spent trying to deal with the cold.  We awake the next morning to find the inside temp at minus 0.3 degrees C.  We all collectively huddle through meals, wearing everything we have.  Not nearly as hardy as the men in the photographs hanging around us, a who's who of those who challenged, and even died on, what has been nicknamed the "Killer Mountain."  I wonder at weeks spent in conditions we now experience, the cold only fended off my the very temperamental hot water, which appears for only minutes at a time, and then to be scooped from a bucket for a few seconds of relief.  Strangely, only LYL and I seem to get the timing right, and none of the other guests got even this.  And outside, it rains and squalls and blusters, bringing fresh snow to the ridgetops.  I try not to think of what's happening on the road out.  


In the morning, I triple wrap up and sit with the mountain.  Somehow it is warmer here on the porch than inside.  A wizened old guard passes below, with his AK-47 slung over his shoulder and his woolly cap reading police.  Camp staff walk around in the usual thin salwar kameez, bare feet in sandals, as if oblivious to the cold.  Morning brings the first true clear views of the mountain, a pure white behemoth of solid ice.  Snow has dusted the hills on either side. 

Warmth does return when the sun spreads against the meadow.  A number of us go for a walk up toward base camp, though we stop at the next camp higher up.  Besides our guide, a guard is with us, who instills some confidence with his strong build and casually slung Kashnikov, though I don't delude myself tho think he wouldn't toss it away and run off in the event of real trouble.  And real trouble has a history here.  In 2013, a group of eleven foreign climbers was killed by the Taliban in a kidnapping attempt gone awry.  The initial plan was to exchange the lone American in the group for a Taliban commander in Afghanistan, but after he was shot to death when trying to fight his way out, the others were lined up and executed.  The real tragedy lay in this last point, as the others were from countries that had no part in the background conflict, coming from the Ukraine, Slovakia, Lithuania, Nepal, and China.  


The hike was a lovely one, moving along the  high ridge above the Raikot glacier, then through high alpine meadows through which mule trains brought down supplies and the odd Thai tourist.  We sat happily in the waning sunshine, the view dominated by the peak.  But in time the cold began to overtake us, and the hour long wait for a simple meal began to fray nerves.  I at one point decided to walk back to Fairy Meadows on my own, but then the meal suddenly arrived.  We wolfed it down in mere minutes, then turned our backs on the mountain.  I again moved quickly, seeking a warmth that wouldn't appear again until descending to the jeep tracks the following day.  Still, LYL took advantage of being anointed with a small patch of sunlight, moving past a small nomadic village of cricket-playing boys and matted-haired girls to explore an adjacent meadow and its small pond that reflected the mountain, though not for us.      

Our hike out began with the first rays of sun, the layers peeled off slowly with each few hundred meters of descent.  Our group spread itself along the trail, so LYL had a pleasant morning hiking as if alone.  The jeeps were again a worry, with gravity-aided rates of speed, the additional and unknown variability of brakes, and a driver whose obvious short attention span had obviously spared him any deep thinking about the notion of mortality.  Not to mention the blare of bangra which does little to soothe agoraphobia.      


On the turntable:  "Crazy Rich Asians (Sdtk)"

Saturday, October 27, 2018

On the Karakorum: Gilgit




The face looking down at me had the hardest expression I'd yet seen in Pakistan.  The eyes were blank, featureless. One hand was held in front of him signifying, in my culture at least, stop, proceed no further.  

But in the east, the meaning of the Kargah Buddha's hand is "show no fear."  This little reassurance was most welcome, as the area was known to be a little rough.  The Buddha though had somehow survived thirteen centuries in land of harsh weather and even harsher ideas about stone idols.  But the quiet valley over which the Buddha presides was quiet and peaceful, but for a handful of small children yelling "Money, money" at us, probably the only English they knew. 

We'd left the KKH to detour briefly up the Gilgit River, broad and flat after its journey through the Hindu Kush.  The town that shares its name is one of heard often in tales of the Raj.  And it had always been a tough place, to judge from the stories inscribed on headstones in the English Cemetery, walled in and shaggy with uncut grass.  Here was the final resting place for a number of Great Gamers, namely George W. Hayward, found dead in the higher passes above town in 1870, and Claye Ross, whose stone resonates with the non-PC subcontext that was Victorian Britain, in mentioning the "45 brave Sikhs who were killed at the same time," though nary a name.  

Our own little party looked quite conspicuous as we passed before a large polo mural and into the town marketplace.  The streets were filled with men whose look would scare the pants off the average middle American.  The stares here were harder than even that of the Buddha outside town.  This trip to Pakistan had worried me somewhat, not sure what greeting I'd be given as an American.  But the Hunza had surprised with its welcome, and with its smiles.  I never saw a single one in Gilgit.  

It can't be helped I suppose.  The town is a crossroads of sorts for various Muslim sects, split nearly into thirds between Sunni, Shi'a, and Ismail, thus religious tensions are high, and sectarian violence does flare from time to time.  Politically too, the town is considered part of Pakistani Kashmir, torn from its eastern half when militants from the area invaded Kashmir proper in 1947 and forced its indecisive ruler Hari Singh to become part of India, rather than maintain its existence as an independent kingdom as it had throughout Partition. As such Gilgit remains an administrative territory rather than a proper province, in a sort of limbo, and I'd imagine then it gets less assistance from the central government, with the usual results of poor education, insufficient health services, and economic destitution.  I'd scowl too.   



We were given some free time, but not enough to get a haircut as I'd hoped. I've recently become taken with the idea of getting haircuts in exotic places, and I liked the thought of a disgruntled local holding a razor to my white throat.  As it was we only had time to walk out across the bridge and back.  Even here I felt a bit cheated, as I knew that there was a rich collection of ancient petroglyphs in the hills just above. 

The Serena Hotel was an oasis, with modern amenities that were most welcome after a week of somewhat rough digs.  The compound had a splendid garden, well watered by the glaciers that hung just above.  Yet another breathtaking place.  The walls around us were high, as was the level of security, and one of our group postulated that it was only natural that we'd stay here, well away from the tense and unwelcome vibe back in town.  

But the real fear and discomfort would come the following day.  


On the turntable:  Grateful Dead, "Fillmore West 1970-02-06
On the nighttable:  James Clavell, "Noble House"          

Friday, October 26, 2018

On the Karakorum: The Hunza



We'd been told the previous day that we'd unfortunately mistimed our arrival to coincide with Muharram, when Shi'a honor the anniversary of the murder of their third prophet, Imam Hussain Ali.  The main focus of the day is prayer, yet things gradually spiral to the point the mourning takes the form of self-flagellation.  In this part of the world, traffic on the Karakorum is generally cut off, and in many years, the Chinese border itself is closed.  The actual date of the memorial tends to shift with the phases of the moon, and Imams tend not to announce it until fairly last minute.  So we are lucky I suppose, for had it been a day earlier, we'd all still be sitting in Xinjiang, enjoying yet another steaming heap of pilaf.

As it is, we race past the mosque in the town of Ganish, and twist upward toward our hotel in Karimabad just above.  Their seems to be an issue with the power, so our lunch consists merely of large piles of french fries. The view here is the true feast, and I spend the rest of the afternoon on the veranda before the room, dipping in and out of Michener's tragically overlooked Caravans.  Light eventually begins to fill the valley at Nagar across the river, to a soundtrack of devotional music coming from the mosque below.  

Later in the day we'll walk up Karimabad's single street to have a more substantial dinner and a bit of time for shopping.  During my recent trips to India and Nepal, I had searched in vain for a waistcoat, which I hadn't then realized was traditionally worn by Muslims.  I find one made of thick wool, ideal here in the cool of high elevation.  The tailor is a friendly man,  whose modesty betrays the fact that he'd followed his father in being honored by the Pakistani government for his handiwork, ranked as among the best in the country.  Despite this, his prices as low, enough so that I buy one of those mushroom-shaped hats to complete the ensemble.

I leave LYL in a gem shop and continue up through the dark to pop in and out of bookshops in search of a couple titles I'm after.  Despite the noise coming constantly from the mosque down in the valley, the people are friendly and quick to offer a greeting.   Later though, after we're long asleep, will the noise build into a frenzy, with the mourners marching behind a truck laden with loudspeakers, which rolls up to the town itself.  LYL and I had earlier turned on our ceiling fan, whose white noise drowned it all out, so we were barely aware of it afterward.  Apparently it grew in fever, and I found myself enviously of the few of our party who had stood out on their balconies, watching it all go past.  By the morning, it was nothing but birdsong.


We start our day wandering the old Baltit fort, which minutes after entering can be recognized as a reconstituted Tibetan-style dzong from the days when Hunza was Buddhist.  The views here are outstanding, and it is pleasant to imagine being a British agent passing a few days here, coordinating with the local mir about the best methods to stave off the Russians. A number of photographs brought history up to the present, last few showing the local royalty to be jet-set chic. 

Our own group proved equally well-traveled, most having already visited various 'Stans.  I stood looking out over the valley, reflecting on how difficult are some of those travelers that I myself guide, so fixed in their preconceived ideas. And through it all, sound continued to waft up from the mosque, on a day commemorating a killing rooted in religious intolerance.  We travelers wouldn't be here if we had that kind of judgement.  You needed to approach these types of places with a certain amount of awe and respect, .drawn at first by what you perceive to be differences, but then further attracted by the similarities.  This is what it means to be civilized I suppose.  To seek out alternative viewpoints, alternative ways of living, with an open mind, and without judgement.  Here, the word  civilized, is drawn into closer conjunction with its close counterpart, civilization.            

The landscape here most certainly implies the latter.  Driving into town the day before, our eyes had been directed toward the long horizontal lines of green that seemed to segment the steep mountainsides that they bisected.  This intricate irrigation is what had brought life to the Hunza, and had supported the cultures that have lived here for millennia.  Above these stone channels, all is stark, colored a sort of dull khaki, but below is a landscape of orchards, maize and barley fields, and life-sustaining forest.   We wander these for the rest of the day, strolling beneath the shade-giving poplars, and greeting the ever-cheerful residents of the villages fed by these water systems.  It is no surprise that many believe that the mythical Shangri-la is set here, author James Hilton having passed through prior to Lost Horizon's 1933 publication. 

I feel this is especially true upon arriving at the home of our guide Irfam. His extended family has prepared a lavish meals for us, which we take seated upon an array sofas that have been arranged out on the lawn.  The array of 7000 meter peaks act as proscenium, the lawn as stage, as the family members appear in time, many of them children, who entertain us in simply acting their age.  A sixteen year-old niece delights us as narrator, while Irfam himself seems spellbound by his youngest niece, a wonderful side-act of mutual love and delight.  We spend probably no more than an hour here, but I could easily live out the rest of my days here, the horizon of Shangri-la indeed found. 



 Night comes quickly in a valley as steep as this, and in the fading light, the peaks in the foreground all go black.  Rakaposhi and its accompanying snow-covered giants linger awhile, turn purple, then they too are gone.  Down below, upon the valley floor, one can still make out the thin grey stripe of the Hunza river.  On its adjacent banks, hundreds of lights begin to flick, like the linger of a smoldering fire.

That last paragraph was written from the greater heights of the Eagle Nest Hotel, a few hundred meters closer to the ‎7388-meter Ultar Sar, a dramatic peak thought unclimbable until scaled by the Japanese mountaineer Akito Yamazaki, who died during the descent.  We spent a quiet two days up here, mainly resting, though we did do a half day wander following a stone canal out through the hills to an old shrine that had once served as a hermitage for a Islamic holyman.  Climbing beyond this, the views opened up to reveal an even greater stretch of the Hunza.  From these heights the great river looked terribly diminished, as it crept soundlessly through the valley far far below.  Miniscule figures work to clear their fields of barley, the great peaks above making them look tiny and insignificant as they go through their labors, as insignicifant as their ancestors amongst the passage of time, the passage of ice and stone.  A massive poplar makes a greater  effort in a village we pass on the walk home, its canopy spreading gradually for the past 700 years.  

The remainder of the day is spent at rest.  We all take lunch in the central garden beneath another impressive tree.  As we do a car pulls up, expensive and with a private driver.  Out step a trio of VIPs (Very Important Pakistani), one a businessman, one a judge, one a minister of some sort.  Two of the tree now live in the States, and from the car, they'd pegged me as a fellow countryman.  I'm a little taken aback, as I've spent the better part of two decades attempting to lose that particular designation.  They join us for a short while, and after they go, the other two Americans in our group tease me for being a representative of the USA.  Lunch is taken slowly, the flow of conversation having more meanders than the river below.  At one point I joke that if I ever publish my write up on this trip, I'd title it "Mits, Gits, and Tits" A Journey down the Karakorum," A title taken of course from our destinations:  Gulmit, Baltit, Gilgit.       

There are meals, stroll up an adjacent rock at sunset, the purchase of a native sweater, in which I am unrecognizable to our English tour conductor as I greet her in the dim light of dusk.  It is idyllic here, despite the fickle electricity and hot water, and the nonexistent Wifi.  For the latter the hotel can hardly be blamed, as the authorities themselves have shut the system down, to prevent the rambunctious Shi'a from using it to call in greater numbers.

What's left is the view.  I sit reading Eric Newby's brilliant A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush until the light fades, then my eyes are drawn outward, and down.  Poplars gently sway in the breeze like metronomes. The mountain crows here have wings with the splayed fingers of hawks,swirling and swirling on the thermals.  At sunset there must be a hundred of them, little black dots silhouetted against the white and blue peaks beyond.  And at sleep's other end I sit with the quiet, until the generator kicks in with a low throb, and I try my best to ignore the fumes that waft by on the breeze. 

Before leaving the valley there is one last stop, Altit fort.  It's approach is through a small village, writ with numerous signs asking us to refrain from taking photos.  I'd been warned of this earlier, how people don't necessarily mind have their photo taken, but have issue with them being posted on social media later.  The modern world has indeed reached this,  Hunza's innermost sanctum.  Old women sit in the shade of the central square, and children run around them, occasionally singly breaking off to sit in one of their laps.  From the fort above, the village is even more picturesque, and almost stereotypical medieval village of squat squares segmented by the chaos of little lanes.  The fort too is beautiful, more rugged than Baltit had been, though that one was restored, while Altit was deliberately left as it is today, both important time-capsules serving different purposes.  The upper rooms have photos of the final days of the Raj, and the ramparts out back drop sheerly down to the bottom of the valley.   It was marvelous view, though appreciated a bit less no doubt than those political prisoners thrown from these majestic heights.  Certainly none of these had been buried in an old cemetery out across the river,  Looking much like a ruin, it honored the ancient dead in a manner more localized than the adjacent Sacred Rock, which stood in honor of the transient.

And we too moved on...



On the turntable:  Grateful Dead:  The Spectrum 09/21/1972"  
On the nighttable:  James Clavell, "Noble House"

Thursday, October 25, 2018

On the Karakorum: Below the Karakorums



 Though well-known for its apples, we gave the town of Khyber a pass. We still had a couple hours to go before our stop for the night, extenuated by multiple stops to view the trio of glaciers. Apparently Northern Pakistan has the largest glaciers outside of the Polar regions.  Batura was the most massive, and the most impressive, like a swoop of oil paint dried thickly on the canvas of the high Pamirs, the range sending a strong farewell with this magnificent display.  We climbed above the road for a better view, as a couple of smaller glaciers clinging to the cliffs high above the road.  The bend of the Hunza River below was broad enough to host neat rows of orderly ruins, which looked ancient, but were actually the housing for the workers who built the Karakorum Highway (KKH) about thirty years before.  We'd pass a good number of these during the journey, which never failed to instill in the romantic mind thoughts of antiquity, of long-vanished peoples carving a life out of a rough landscape, ever threatened by the next group of invaders who'd eventually supplant them.   

The light was leaving us, the clock having returned to familiar regularity after Xinjiang's schizophrenic approach to time zones. (One always had to confirm whether a quoted time was local or Beijing time, a three hours difference.)  The low rays of the sun lit up the messages scriven in stone high up the hillsides, commemorating the 1987 visit of the Aga Khan. Our final stop was above Passu, where villagers collected hay and potatoes to dry atop their low houses.  Of late, younger villagers have taken on the role of porters, as trekkers have discovered the wonders of the Cathedral peaks, like shards of broken glass that help frame this picturesque village. With the added feature of the microcosmic figures of people crossing the suspension bridge up the valley, it is near impossible to get a bad shot.
 

Some of us were lucky to have these same views from the balcony of our Silk Route Lodge.  The lobby was showing the India-Pakistan cricket match, and it was safe to assume that the country would be at a standstill. I was tempted to join the distracted staff in viewing until the end, but I don't really understand the rules, and besides, back in my room I had paint that I needed to watch dry. 

Dinner was taken beneath a trio of animal heads, including one with the amazing twists of the Marco Polo sheep, which being protected, now costs one hundred thousand dollars to legally shoot.  The curry served was a refreshing change from four days of pilaf and kababs, though little did I know then that I'd be seeing dal and chapatti three times a day for the next two weeks.  Our guide Irfan had met us at immigration, but it was at this meal that he began to reveal himself as an amazing source of knowledge, as he discussed issues in contemporary Pakistan.  Historically caught between the intrigues of Russia and the British, it now found itself squeezed by China and the US.  The Great Game carries on.



In the morning, we strolled the narrow lanes of Gulmit, dwarfed by a half dozen 7000 meter peaks.  People seemed relaxed and humored us as we took photos of a look and clothing that was new to us all.  Around one laberynthian lane around from the polo grounds, we sat atop an overlaping pile of carpets to watch the inevitable display of weaving.  I'd half expected this, but I give the tour company Wild Frontiers a lot of credit for not pushing this upon us, or to fill the itinerary with too much of this.  

The KKH led onward, through a desertified landscape high above the snaking Hunza River.  The waters had engulfed one village after a 2010 landslide blocked the river to create the broad Attabad Lake. We boarded an oversized rowboat here to get a closer look, off in a big burst of black smoke, the lake cradled in the palm of a hand whose fingers rose upward into jagged spires.  An immense meadow cut into the sloping side of one of these mounts would be the world's ultimate campsite.  As we puttered across we were encircled by a small flotilla of jet skis, whose daredevil guides would stand behind the riders to keep things under control.  I believe I made a joke about them being the Pakistani navy.  

The last stop of the day was more sublime.  The Sacred Rocks of Hunza have served as the Karakorum's guest register since the 1st Century, recording in dozens of languages the passage of dozens of cultures. Besides the hundreds of carvings of ibexes, there are also Chinese kings, Buddhist temples, and the names of the lesser important who are now indefinitely linked with time.  There is a timelessness to these types of places, where the centuries overlap.  Yet the internal human clock too does keep moving forward, and the gradual decline in bloodsugar dated events to a time just before lunch.         


On the turntable:  Grateful Dead, "Birth of the Dead"