Wednesday, October 31, 2018

On the Karakorum: Taxila & Islamabad

There once was a town called Taxila,
That had all of the charm of Manila.
The showers'll scald you to death,
And 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 of the Buddhas 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 with nature, the devastation wrought by man can be much more thorough.    

There was a little bit more remaining at nearby Dharmarajika, namely 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 relied 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 in the Lok Virsa Heritage Museum stopped me to take a photo together.  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, but there was peace to be found in its beauty.  I wandered off from my group, seeking 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 divans 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 spend 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, which I first saw in a handful of travel programs made in the 1990s, the last decade when travel used to be an adventure.  

Though the town where we stopped for lunch had some lingering 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 this 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 onto the back of a small SUV, its turret pointing 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 carved 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 on 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 raid that killed him, but the proximity to the military bases made this hard to believe, as the helicopters flying in and out would have certainly been detected.  As it is, the Pakistan government was wise to destroy his 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, a long line of lorries were parked 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 look smart 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 three of Asia's great mountain ranges, two 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 move 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 that 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 the 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 pass, 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 will 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 have 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 were currently experiencing, the cold only fended off by the very temperamental hot water, which appears for only minutes at a time, and then to be scooped from a bucket to offer a few seconds of relief.  Strangely, only LYL and I seem to have 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 written with "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 compromise by stopping 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 in thinking 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 ridge high above the Raikot glacier, then across 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 and I took advantage of being anointed with a brief window 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 supposedly 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 and I 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 acrophobia.      

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.  This grand Buddha though had somehow survived thirteen centuries in a 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 and headless in the higher passes above town in 1870 (and subject of the poem 'He Fell Among Thieves'), and Claye Ross, whose stone resonates with the non-PC subtext 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 about 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 the thought of a disgruntled local holding a razor to my white throat had a perverse appeal.  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 where 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 very 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.  There 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 our 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's 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 are 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 constant noise coming from the mosque down in the valley, the people are friendly and quick to offer a greeting.   Later though, after we're long asleep, the noise will build into a frenzy, with the mourners marching behind a truck laden with loudspeakers, that 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 was recognizable 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, the 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 continues 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 was 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 Irfan. His extended family has prepared a lavish meal 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 Irfan 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 insignificant as their ancestors amongst the passage of time, the passage of ice and stone.  A massive poplar makes a more valiant effort in a village we pass on the walk home, its canopy gradually spreading over 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 three 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, a stroll up an adjacent rock at sunset, and 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 later on social media.  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, an 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 serving as 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 by 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 clung 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-hour 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, spiritual leader for the Ismaili who inhabit the region. 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 recently 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 photo.

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 for the moment, 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, there was 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 shoot legally .  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 labyrinthian lane near the polo grounds, we sat atop an overlapping 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 it.  

The KKH led onward, through a desertified landscape high above the snaking Hunza River.  A 2010 landslide blocked the river, whose the waters backed up to completely engulf one village and create the broad Attabad Lake. We boarded an oversized rowboat here to get a closer look, jetting off in a big burst of black smoke, across a 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 blood sugar dated events to a time just before lunch.         

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

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

On the Karakorum: Over the Pass

The road into Pakistan can be demarcated into checkpoints.  Our papers were looked at by at least a dozen pairs of eyes over the next two days.  The most intimidating was the last, just before the pass into Pakistan, by a cop drawn to the Unibomber look, wrap-around hood, dark shades, face-mask. While he'd been gruff with the rest of us, he actually scolded LYL for not opening her passport to her exit visa.

It did, a suppose, break up what was a series of long drives.  The road out of Kashgar was down straight roads lined with poplar trees planted to help break the wind.  Through them, we'd catch the odd glimpse of the snow-covered Pamirs.  At a toilet stop in Ghez, LYL and I bought some of that fry bread that tastes mysteriously and delightfully like pizza.  Another stop was beside the Kangxiwa River, its waters impossibly blue, reflecting each of every contour of the mountains of snow and sand in this high and rarified air.  We had a picnic lunch beside Kara Kul, sadly hemmed in with barbed wire, the net result of too many selfies.  It was pleasant to sit in the cool of 3700 meters, as waterfowl bobbed about, and dzo dozed beneath the high and jagged peaks. We wrapped around one of these, the 7500m Muztagh Ata, its face perfectly cleft by a glacier slowly and patiently working itself downward to the Subash Plateau from which the great mountain rose.   There was one final stop, above a large bend in the Tashiku'er River, whose wriggling bank we'd follow down into Tashikurgan.  Below us, Bactrian camels and goats grazed between rivulets of the Tagharma Basin, their Tajik shepherds walking slowly, biding a time untethered by the hands of any clock.  One of our party said, "Oh for the days when we would have travelled through this at the pace of a horse."  It was sentiment I believe we all shared.

Tashikurgan was a sleepy little town, populated by a large amount of soldiery.  We ended our day atop its eponymous stone fortress, which has made guest appearances in the works of many Silk Road travelers,  starting with Ptolemy in the first century, and most famously by Xuanzang at a time when this was the furthest outpost of the T'ang Dynasty.  The fortress has held steadfast against invaders over the centuries but today was crawling with modern tourists.  As attrition can often prove a successful strategy during a siege, I waited them out and they eventually descended, allowing me a little quiet perspective on my own connection with history, and the tales hinted at by the empty alcoves for the Buddhas that had once decorated these now crumbling walls. (Their mysteries were long ago plundered, nor could answers be found in the local relics museum, which is itself a relic)

And the patient waiting went on, as our bus driver was off refilling the bus with petrol, stuck in one of the long queues I'd noticed on the drive in.  Our group waited awhile with a pair of women selling traditional medicine, buying their teas with help of LYL's translation.  I wandered off along the decks that covered the marshland below, part of the Tashikurgan nature preserve, described with a quaint elegance in an English that was grammatically correct yet charmingly archaic.

Food in Tashikurgan took on a surprisingly large role in my memory: in our last dinner in China, where our host both spilled and slugged beer with us between delivering lamb on kababs the size of sabres; and in our Singaporean-owned guest house, which served kaya as one of its breakfast condiments.  Thus fueled, we squandered this energy during a long wait to clear immigration before heading south. A group of Pakistani men was waiting beside us, their colorful clothes, long beards, and old school bus as transport went a long way to remind me of Ken Kesey's Pranksters.

We finally moved out of town through high flat desert, the Pamirs still defining the edges of the horizon.  The road's climb was a constant, and at over 4000 meters, snow came down to touch the road, not in great blankets of white, but in the small patchwork of puddles where it had flowed down as refrozen glacial melt.  Clusters of yaks grazed here and there, and the peaks above drew nearer as we rose.  The Khunjerab Pass served as the border, and our stop here was not to check documents but to take photos.  The usual Chinese tourists mobbed their side, and young Pakistani men quietly wandered the other, asking many of our group to pose for photos.  The world curled away down toward Pakistan.

The Karakorum Highway paralleled a river, the paved surface washed away here and there.  Most things man-made here were in ruin, except for a lone police checkpoint with a few pieces of exercise equipment out back.  The cops waved up to us as we rolled by.  We were stopped at the bottom of the valley but merely for some park rangers to check that we weren't smuggling snow leopards or Marco Polo sheep.  Our documents finally were checked in the town of Sust.  As we waited, a lone Japanese man joined the queue, and inadvisably took photos of the process.  One of the books I read to prepare for this trip mentioned how if you meet a lone traveler in the most remote part of the world, they'll inevitably be Australian.  I'd include Japanese in this, as they pop up in the most unlikely of places.  Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to talk with him, but later, as we drove out of Sust, I saw him walking from bus to bus, trying to arrange a ride onward. 

Then we once again became part of the landscape...

On the turntable:  "Bottle Rocket (sdtk)" 
On the nighttable:  William Dalrymple, " In Xanadu"

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

On the Karakorum: Kashgar

From the air, I couldn't quite tell what I was looking at.  The Longmenshan Mountains had been obvious, pressing themselves upward out of the clouds.  Obvious too were the northern Kunlun, their dark craggy shapes traced in the snow that fed rivers rushing toward villages below.  The desolate look of all these peaks helped explain how Tibet could so well isolate itself for all those centuries.   But what was below now I couldn't quite make out.  I thought maybe that it was grasslands, but the surface looked too smooth, not to mention that they would be much further north and east.  Finally my eyes clicked into the features:  sand.  I'd never seen anything like it, these hundreds of miles of dunes, extending in all directions.  It was the great Taklamakan, the "Place of No Return," the graveyard of merchants and explorers.  

Kashgar at first glance hardly seemed much more welcoming, with the mob scene at the airport and the scrum for baggage.  While I fought the Battle of Samsonite, LYL went out to jump the taxi queue.  It was only as she walked off that I realized that she had the baggage tags.  And naturally I was the only one asked to present them, standing out as the only Caucasian in the place.  The cop who stopped me was friendly enough, which is more than I can say for the taxi driver that LYL enlisted, who didn't make for the best ambassador of the place.  His surly, rough-speaking manner screamed of the rough China of days past.  But the language pushed through his cigarette-clenching lips wasn't the familiar Mandarin but an almost Arabic-sounding Uighur.   

Our Chini-bagh Hotel was a towering mass built above what had formerly been the spacious grounds of the old British consulate, also known as the Chini-bagh.  These grounds had been made an oasis in their day by Lady Catherine Macartney, who for 28 years had hosted the biggest (European) names historically linked with the Silk Road.  The old house remains, but that spacious green had been replaced by our hulk of a hotel, whose lobby and lounges were like a parody of Vegas glam and glitz.  

As we had a few hours before meeting with our tour group, I immediately headed off to get a massage.  Stepping from the elevators on the appropriate floor, I was startled by the sight of an guard there, cradling his machine gun. What followed was a parody of broken English and Mandarin, and as things grew sillier, I began to pick up some of his weapons (those of the non-firearm variety), going through a slapstick routine of how they might be used on somebody.  I was finally led away through a weird Turkish bath-like room whose only real similarity with the original was the tile and steam.  I met my masseuse in a private room, startled by her abbreviated skirt and the drop of her décolletage.  She crossed the room atop spiked heels to show me the massage menu, though I'm sure that a number of additional services may not have been written there.      

Much later, our group now properly assembled and introduced, we headed out to Kashgar's old town, a maze of streets lined with uniform two-story buildings of sandy beige walls and blue, many with corrugated-tin pigeon coops on their roofs.  There were more guards at the end of each lane, and over the subsequent days I'd come to the feel that I've never seen a place so armed and fortified. Like the Tibetans, the residents here too looked pretty benign, mainly older people manning their shops, or children playing safely in lanes closed to automobile traffic.

We'd return to this place repeatedly during the next few days, and in time it began to look like a film set, beautiful, but artificially perfect somehow.  From the heights of my hotel window, I could see that we were based in the center of town, and similarly old sections lay far below like scattered puzzle pieces.  The uniformity had been shattered by high rise flats that occupied a few blocks here, a few blocks there.  Off to the right was a collection of towers, neon lit and serving as the center of things that occupied the Han who'd moved here.  

 That first dinner was at the usual circular table, the lazy-Susan spinning dishes to and fro.  I was filled with nostalgia for these kababs, this pilaf, reminders of last year's Silk Road journey.  Some of the others in our group groaned at the sight of this fare, and over the next few days I understood why, as there was no real variety.  One exception were a couple of Chinese meals, and for these our guide would excuse himself to eat elsewhere.  It dawned on me eventually that halal meant not only the avoidance of pork, but the avoidance of places that even prepare it.  

There were more pigs on display the following day at the animal market, which reminded much of the rodeo grounds of my native New Mexico.  But the only horses in view were pulling old men in carts along the dusty paths within.  Sheep made up the greatest number of beasts, tethered cheek to cheek to low posts.  While it was a sad sight, there was a certain comedy to watching the animals being led to the market, riding along in an incredible variety of transport.  

The animal market had once taken place in the town proper at the Sunday Market, considered to be one of the tourist wonders of the world.  Expecting chaos, the bazaar surprised me in being held indoors, with tidy, well defined lanes lined with proper shops rather than stalls.  I'm not much of a market person, but I enjoyed wandering freely throughout the morning, picking up a drum, some toothpaste, and dried fruit and nuts for the road trip ahead.  It was more fun to watch the other shoppers, two strains of a common ethnic stock but with great variety in facial features.  The Uighurs looked so European somehow, and I could now understand how a Kashmiri friend could look at my supposedly typical Irish face and see a fellow countryman.                  

On this final night we ate at the Chini Bagh itself, in the dining room where Lady Catherine Macartney had so famously entertained.  The house itself had been run down over the previous century, but the shapes of old fireplaces still defined the corners of all the rooms, and the fixtures above hinted at long plundered chandeliers.  The meal was Chinese, rotated upon the ubiquitous lazy Susan at the center of the table.  Conversation too went through its various turns, yet ever tinted with excitement, for tonight we were the explorers, about to set off into unknown landscapes, and uncertain whether they would present us with joys, or with terrors. 

On the turntable:  Jackie Mittoo, "The Jackie Mittoo Showcase"
On the nighttable:   George Orwell, "My Country Right or Left"

Monday, October 22, 2018

On the Karakorum: Chengdu Prelude

To me, it is a city of almosts.  I had intended to visit Chengdu twenty-one years ago, during a meandering bout of hard travel throughout southwest China.  I can't recall now exactly why I gave it a skip, but I do remember leaving behind the Big Buddhas in Leshan and taking a night bus to Chongqing, nowhere near the 30 million it hosts today, but even then shaped like a massive stadium, the houses and buildings rising up all four hillsides away from the Yangtze at the bottom.  The bus left me off beside those waters, and if memory serves, within 30 minutes of arriving, I was shuffled aboard a boat that pulled away toward the pre-flooded Three Gorges.  Chengdu, a mere hundred kilometers away, was left behind.  

And I nearly missed it this time too.  A week before my direct flight was to depart, Kansai Airport was left both flooded and isolated by a massive typhoon.  A reroute through Nagoya and Singapore did get me there finally, where my first action was to down a sumptuous and fiery meal in the Ritz, as the sommelier plied me with the fruits of China's burgeoning wine industry, most of it complimentary, as reward for my oenological enthusiasm.  I was a long way from my backpacker roots. 

When one thinks of Chengdu, one thinks of pandas, and that indeed was our first focus the following morning.  I'd intended to visit the Dujiangyan Breeding Center which was about an hour from town, partly because it sat at the foot of Qingcheng Shan, supposed birthplace of Taoism, and partly to avoid the Chengdu Panda Base which is swamped with 40,000 visitors a day.  But the guide we'd hired said that it would be an all day affair and we'd have no time to see any other sights in the city proper.  So we compromised with a early morning visit just as the local center was opening, which proved fairly quiet.  

Being China, I wasn't expecting much in the way of habitat, but each animal had lavish grounds, green and spacious.  It turns out that pandas are odd animals, with extremely finicky eating and mating habits, and as they are prone to cannibalizing their young, it is a wonder that they still survive at all.  These centers not only ensure this survival, but almost seem to train them for an eventual release into the wild.  Weird creatures, whose newborns are adorable, laying five to a crib and splayed out on their bellies like drunken kittens.  

Due to the early start we could navigate the city at a leisurely pace, under skies claustrophobically representative of a perpetually drizzly city.  The weather cut us off somehow, and as on the flights in and out, I got no look at the surroundings.  I knew there were mountains around, but I never saw them.  It was like being in a snowglobe, albeit one with murky glass.

Being ethnically Chinese herself, LYL has little interest in the religion, so I limited our stops to one Buddhist and Taoist temple each.  And both Wenshu Temple and Wuhouci proved to be what they usually are, all jagged angles in black and red, with ornate trellis work, spiraling incense cones hanging from the rafters, and circular doorways through earthen walls towered over by bamboo.  I was surprised by the large number of worshipers, far more than I saw in 1997, when the scars of the Cultural Revolution still gaped wide.  

Wuhouci had nice grounds for strolling, which fed eventually onto the picturesque Zhangwu street, lined with shops preparing food or traditional crafts.  I enjoyed it for it fulfilled by fantasies of Qing Dynasty familiar to me from old kung fu films.  (But in hindsight I feel a bit hypocritical, for it was as much a museum piece as Kyoto, a point of contention I have with the latter city.  And both places were equally overrun with the burgeoning Chinese middle-class.)  We wandered the maze of streets, eyeing the steaming stalls, and though I am usually pretty adventurous when it comes to food, I couldn't bring myself to try skewered centipede or scorpion, or gnaw upon a grilled rabbit head. (Little wonder that after my 1997 visit, I turned vegetarian for the next seven years.)  I deferred to LYL to choose our lunch, which we enjoyed upon benches in front of Chengdu's first craft beer joint.  

Besides the food, another facet of Chinese culture that my wife is interested in is literature.  The grounds of T'ang poet Tu Fu were lush and green, his old cottage completely surrounded by jungle and ponds.  Wandering the paths, it was easy to understand the role of nature in his poems, a trait he shares with Basho, with whom he is often compared.  At one corner of the gardens is a hall of literature, with life-size figures representing a literary tradition that in itself is larger than life.  

Our final stop, the paired Kuan and Zhai Alleys were a bit too far gone along the tourist track, with little of the fake "authenticity" of the earlier Zhangwu.  Too many flashy shops, too many western cafes, the money here spent in larger quantities.  It was then that I thought it was a shame I hadn't seen this place twenty years before, when it probably had been authentic.  I had also lost out on visiting a restaurant that I'd long wanted to visit since hearing about it in 1997.  Upon entering, a doctor would take your pulse then tell the waiter what it was you'd dine upon, as a means of remedying out-of-whack qi.  I was coached that it was best not to know what you'd be eating until after you finished, as it was literally parts unknown. Sadly, such places don't appear to exist anymore in the modern China.   

But what I did get this visit was time in an attractive city, along wide boulevards not overly crowded and lined with copious green. The residents were dressed more brightly than they had been in 1997, and adorned with the usual ubiquitous accessories and gadgets. They were walking much more  quickly too, beneath billboards and signs for the usual suspects of international logos.   This no-nonsense approach to rapid growth was best represented by the pen and notepad sitting beside the toilet of our hotel room.  One never knew where next the money-making idea might come from, so best be prepared for when it did.  

The heights of our room also revealed a skyline of art-deco high-rises straight out of Manhattan, standing alongside the brownstones of Brooklyn. This condensed tribute to New York was betrayed only by the white marble statue of Mao towering above the city's central square.  Beyond the chairman was the University, its complicated geometry of traditional Chinese buildings uniquely built of brick, though topped with the usual octagonal tiled roofs.  I found Chengdu to be the most attractive of China's cities.  

The Chinese government has designated Chengdu to be a Beijing of the west, and as such it is growing apace.  But unlike an earlier Shanghai, this wasn't accompanied by a forest of cranes, and it was only after dark that you'd notice the hulking shells of as-yet unfinished towers.  Such a far cry from twenty years ago, with the bustle, and the filth, and the noise, and every man over a certain age still in a Mao suit.  Today's Chengdu hardly felt like China at all.

On the turntable:  Jefferson Airplane, "Live at the Fillmore East"
On the nighttable:  W. Somerset Maugham, "In Human Bondage"