Asia, 1989. Part X: Pakistan

May 17: We take the bus up the snowy road to the Chinese border checkpoint.  With our last few yuan we buy Chinese crackers and juice, then wait to be paraded back on to the bus by the incarnation of all that is unpleasant in Chinese bureaucracy:  a scowling border guard with a silly, time-consuming method of reboarding the bus.

She takes up all the passports, then calls out everyone’s name individually to hand them back, ostensibly to double-check identities and make sure that no one is sneaking illegally over the border.  Her pronunciation is unfortunately virtually impossible to understand, and she takes an inordinate amount of time fussing over each passport.  Tired, impatient, and perhaps slightly giddy from the altitude, the passengers soon start shouting out “Me!” to whatever name the guard happens to call out next.

A young blonde woman answers to the name Mohammed Hamid; a Japanese man responds to Ute Peloschek.  None of the passengers, it seems, are particularly sad to be leaving China, and once we are back on the bus we all wave energetically and shout farewells at the guard, who looks confused and suspicious, then slowly, warily lifts her hand to a rousing cheer as we pull away.

The bus climbs ever further up the snow-covered road, stopping finally at the 15,500-foot border, the “highest paved border crossing in the world” according to our guidebook.  We jump out in excitement and start to run to the border marker for pictures.  The air is bitter cold and extremely thin, and I am panting furiously after about eight steps.  The border is marked by two large upright stones that say “China” on one side and “Pakistan” on the other.  We cheer, take photos, hop back in the bus, and speed off.  An hour or so later, we arrive at Sust, for the Pakistani border check and a change of transportation.

In Sust Glenn and I and several others hire a waiting Suzuki jeep to take us the hundred kilometers or so to Karimabad.  If we were lulled into a sense of security by the ease of the Khunjerab border crossing, this 2-hour trip had us on the edge of our seats.

This geologically active region is calculated to have an earth tremor on an average once every three minutes, resulting in heaps of fallen rocks strewn across the narrow, winding road.  Most of the piles of rocks can be driven over or around, as larger boulders are continually being moved and knocked farther down the mountains by Pakistani road crews.  But about an hour into our trip, we reach a section of the “highway” that has been partially washed out by a mudslide.  There is no hope of any vehicle crossing, as about a 2-meter wide strip of pavement is completely gone, replaced by knee-deep mud and a stream of muddy water flowing down the mountain.

We wait in the rain until a tractor full of Pakistanis with shovels arrives on the other side.  They hop across the chasm to where we wait, exclaiming “No problem!”  One by one the passengers hand their luggage across and begin the exodus across the mud and over the little stream, each of us stepping carefully on rocks to avoid sinking in mud.  All are successful except Glenn, who reaches the other side caked in mud from the knees down.

As the last two are crossing, an ominous rumbling starts way up the mountain.  Most of the other passengers have started hiking down the road in the rain, hoping to be first to hitch a ride with any vehicle, but Glenn and I stay to see what will come of the rumbling.  We can’t see anything unusual happening for a few minutes, then far up the mountain we see the beginnings of a new mud stream.

It’s too far up to be able to tell how big it is.  But the rain increases and the stream widens, careening quickly down the side.  A long, smooth slab of rock stretches about 20 meters up from the road and forms a small ditch.  The mud and water collects here for a few minutes until it starts to overflow and cascade toward the road – or, more accurately, what is left of the road.

The cascade grows in size and intensity until it’s a steady stream about 2 meters wide, carrying ever-larger boulders that bounce violently down the mountain and knock chunks of pavement off the highway as they bounce past.  Steel reinforcement rods in the highway are exposed and twisted, and the small but steady stream we crossed minutes before is now a torrent, sweeping everything in its way down toward the river.

Glenn and I stand and watch the whole thing with wide eyes and a sort of childlike wonder and excitement, pausing to turn to each other and exclaim, “Did you see the size of that boulder?!”  Even given the destructive nature of the slide, it still just seems like good fun to watch it.  The thought occurs, of course, that with more unfortunate timing, an event such as this could have serious consequences for tourbuses on this narrow road, but somehow we can’t imagine that possibility.  The worst part of the road is still ahead of us, between Gilgit and Islamabad.

After about 20 to 30 minutes, a jeep pulls up, and Glenn and I hop in the back to continue onward.  Along the way we pick up the other passengers, who have hiked various distances in the rain.  One of our fellow passengers is an American man, John, who we met in Kashgar.  For the past few days he has seen a scratchy throat grow into progressively worse health, and when we pick him up, he is pale and shivering.

We pick up more passengers along the way until the little jeep is packed.  About five kilometers down the road, the jeep stops just before a blind curve.  The driver tells us to round the bend and walk through the rocks on the road to catch another ride.  We walk around the curve to find the road completely blocked by tremendous boulders, some of them twice as tall as I am and easily eight feet across.  I am astonished and suddenly sobered at the sight.

We climb over and around the rocks, pausing for a few photographs, then pile into a minibus on the other side.  Unsteady silence gives way to a few lame jokes, which give way to lively conversation and a feeling of camraderie.  We ride the rest of the way through beautiful scenery without incident.

An hour later we reach Karimabad, which is essentially a collection of small tourist inns and shops on a hill.  We hike about halfway up the hill until John is virtually on the brink of collapse, then accept a lanky Pakistani’s invitation to “come to MY hotel!  I give you free jeep ride!” We pile into the jeep and he zooms backwards up the narrow, steep road, then zips around hairpin turns shouting “Is good U.S. jeep, yes?”  Glenn leans forward and says “Looks like you know this road pretty well,”  to which the driver responds “Ha ha ha!  I am champion of Hunza!”

We arrive at the small inn, put our bags in the room and rest; it’s been a long day.  In the evening, to our great surprise we encounter Tim and Carol, who arrived in Pakistan yesterday and just happen to have picked the same hotel.  We drink sweet tea and talk until we’re tired and go to sleep.

May 18: The weather and scenery in northern Pakistan are beautiful.  The hill that is Karimabad sits surrounded by snow-capped mountains, but the valley is green.  The sky is bright blue, and the sun is beaming.  I sit, soaking up sun for the first time since having chicken pox last summer.

It’s a lazy day.  We drink tea and talk.  Glenn goes for a walk with Ute, a German woman, and Tomas, a Swede, but I just sit until my arms are pink and my eyelids heavy.  Karimabad is about 2500 meters up, and before I realize it, I’m well on my way to being sunburned.  I spend the hottest part of the day sleeping inside, and by early evening am ready for a typical Pakistani dinner of flat bread (chappatis) and lentil stew (dhal).  Dishes of spicy spinach and potatoes round out the meal, and little bottles of Coke for 5 rupees (25 cents –the exchange rate is 20 rupees per US$1) each.

Pakistan is actually cheaper than China so far; our room is costing us each Rs. 25 (U.S.$1.25) per night, and meals are generally the same.  The food, although not terribly varied, is filling. Little shops scattered among the tourist inns are filled with colorful traditional hats, bags, bracelets – and an incredible wealth of crackers and biscuits.  Never have I seen such a vast array of every type of cracker imaginable.  Pakistan is cracker heaven.

In the evening Tim, Carol, Glenn, Ute and I have a brutal game of Hearts.  I lose miserably and pout like a child, but it’s good fun and good practice for the endless Hearts matches at the annual July family gathering.  Anybody can spend their money and time catching trains all over the globe; but you’ve got to at least play a decent game of Hearts to gain any respect in my family.

May 19: Tim turns 24.  We celebrate by doing the exact same thing as yesterday – lounging in the sun.  Our hotel manager, a little expressionless Pakistani man, brings us pots of tea and scurries away.  We relax all morning, then pack up to move on to Gilgit.  It would be nice to spend a few more days here, but Glenn and I only have 15-day visas, and we’d like to see Peshawar, Islamabad and Lahore before we go.  Before leaving, I give the manager the jacket I have carried halfway around the world to wear for one day in Xi’an and two in the Khunjerab Pass. He looks at me soberly and says, “Okay.”  I decide to take a photo of him and at last he smiles.

We hike down to the bottom of the hill and try to make arrangements with one of the numerous pickup truck owners to take us to Gilgit.  The best deal is a flat fee of Rs.250 to be divided among however many people we can cram into the vehicle.  It’s quite a tight fit with all our backpacks, but we fit 10 people in, 2 in the front with the driver, 6 in the back, 2 hanging off the back.

The ride is bumpy but beautiful, except that I sit in the front with a Belgian woman who complains about everything.  We arrive in Gilgit, and the driver takes us to the “Golden Peak Inn,” an inexpensive place with a small garden and a large porch.  The TV in the reception room is showing Sesame Street and a group of Pakistani men are drinking milk tea and watching.

John’s health is growing progressively worse.  He got some medicine from a doctor in Karimabad, but is afraid now that he has hepatitis.  He sets out as soon as we arrive to find a hospital, and is nowhere to be found when we return from dinner several hours later.  Concerned, Tim and Glenn go to the hospital to see if he’s still there.  They find him with a smile on his face and an IV needle in his arm.  A bad case of dehydration, he says.  He finishes his treatment and comes back to the hotel.

At a small grocery store near the Golden Peak, we encounter two Swiss travelers who ask us if we’ve heard about the bus accident on the Karakoram three days ago.  It seems a bus from Kashgar got caught in a landslide and flipped a couple of times, killing one Chinese passenger and injuring 3 others.  Even though it was just the day after we left, it still seems like one of those things that you read about in the newspaper, that happened very far away.

5 responses to “Asia, 1989. Part X: Pakistan”

  1. g.a. says:

    I love how literary your journal voice is. I know you were writing these for your parents, but clearly you were also keeping the saw sharp. Do you still write a journal? When you travel? Do others? And if so, how much do you censor?

  2. Tim says:

    Parrish, you done had some adventures in your time!

  3. LP says:

    I never have kept a journal, except when I’ve been traveling. I don’t have the patience for it. And in fact, this one ends soon – the final post from it is next week – because I got tired of writing in it well before the trip actually ended. There was one day in Pakistan when I woke up and thought, “Well, I could do [whatever activity], but then I’d have to spend an hour writing about it.” That’s when I knew I had to stop.

    Unfortunately, the fact that I stopped means I have no journal writings about going to a wacky gun bazaar in Pakistan’s Northwest Province, meeting with Afghan refugees (and not telling them I spoke Russian!), and going to India (Taj Mahal, Varanasi, etc.). Bummer. But I do have photos.

  4. J-Man says:

    Oh nooo! I need my fix! Where else will I gather such hilarity as “I am champion of Hunza!”?

  5. So to make up for your lack of journal for the rest of the trip, you should post the photos you took. We’ve had a taste of what you wrote about; now give us a taste of what images you chose to capture.