Strap yourself in for this one as you’re in for quite a ride! This is the story of one man’s travels in northern Pakistan. The final challenge comes for the ascent to the base camp of K2, the world’s most deadly of mountains. A definite must read!
Islamabad arrival – Not so dead of night
The three hour flight from Dubai arrived in Islamabad at 1.20am and I was exhausted. The temperature even at this time of night, was still 29°C and whilst the monsoon was due, it had not yet arrived.
The flight was very pleasant as I had no one sitting in front of me or sitting beside me. Therefore I didn’t have every airline traveller’s nightmare of the person sitting in front of them who insists on reclining their seat into your lap. Also, having no one sitting next to me meant that I wasn’t constantly clashing elbows as we both tried to eat our unimaginative and dull in flight meal.
I had been concerned that the two small girls sitting behind me travelling as UMs (airline language for minors travelling without an adult, literally unaccompanied minors) might make the flight a bit of a chore. However, they settled down quickly enough and the airline hostess made sure that they were alright. They were happy to watch cartoons throughout the flight. Personally, I selected to watch Skyfall, a great film but with aircraft noise intruding through the headphones, it required some concentration on the storyline. Not to mention the PA announcements in both Arabic and English interrupted the film, so I saw the end but with only minutes to spare before the plane landed.
Immigration! What a hassle. There were several lines with large signs above detailing who should join which line, several for returning locals, lines for Pakistanis living abroad, lines for visitors with proof of Pakistani origin, a line for diplomats and UN passport holders and lastly, on the far left, a single line for foreigners who didn’t fit any of the other categories. This line was the longest. And it was also the slowest moving.
Whilst the other lines slimmed down steadily, ours was moving ever so slowly. Eventually, the other lines were duly processed and emptied. And when the immigration off icers had cleared their lines completely, they waved us over. So what was the point of separate lines?
I needn’t have worried about the delay, for once we were through the doors, towards the baggage reclaim area, everyone who had disappeared through those doors ahead of me, were standing about waiting for the baggage on the still empty carrousel. Then the carrousel started moving and there was anticipation in the crowd. The crowd was five deep and it was difficult to see the belt through the bobbing heads.
I have always been amazed at the volume of luggage that some people take with themselves. For this particular trip I had 12kg of luggage in one bag, and no hand luggage (I had packed my small day rucksack into my main bag). I take the view that if I have my passport, money and credit card on my person, everything else can be replaced if the worst case occurs and the airline loses my bag, or if I have left something behind that really is essential. It also means I don’t have to lug around heavy baggage around the airport, finding a trolley without any wonky wheels, what to do with it when you want to use the toilet etc. It is so much easier to move about without extra baggage.
I saw one gentleman with a trolley with some bags on it but it was obvious that he was still waiting for more items. He already had a trolley with three big bags on it and I was aware of him bobbing left and right behind me to get a better view through the throng of people in front of us to look at the bags on the carousel as they came past. He pushed past me and scooped up a bag. But it wasn’t until he had filled his trolley high with five big bags, all wrapped in plastic, plus a cardboard box with the top and corners covered in gaffer tape plus a small bag over his shoulder that he tried manoeuvring his load laboriously towards the exit. I am so glad that I travel light.
Finally, after more than 30 minutes of watching the carousel go round and round, I was delighted to see my black waterproof bag with the logo and words on the end prominently displaying ‘Mountain Equipment’, one of my favourite brands which I scooped off the belt and headed for doors, above which was a sign welcoming you to Pakistan.
I was being met by my guide Karim, a compact five foot six in his mid-forties who spends his time between his home town of Karimabad, in the Hunza valley in summer and Paris in winter. I had met him five months earlier, in London, and was confident I could pick him out but I was not prepared for the huge number of meeters and greeters, all waving their boards with the name of the person they were due to pick up. We saw each other at the same moment, shook hands and headed out to the car.
Leaving the bustle of the airport at the dead of night, I expected the roads to be quiet, so I was surprised at how busy the roads actually were. It was the middle of Ramadan, so for observant Muslims, night time is when they can eat and drink but that didn’t wholly explain the number of people, not just driving, but also gathered in small groups on the roadside and even walking along the edge of the busy motorway, heading towards Islamabad city centre.
This was my f irst visit to Pakistan and I was fascinated by the lorries. Each driver customises their vehicle with colourful paintings, mirrors, lights, carvings and ornaments. They looked more like fairground rides than lorries. Also, many of the lorries have an extension projection up and over the drivers cab, and extensions jutting out from the front and back bumpers. There are also chains dangling from the extended bumpers that jingle as they bump along the road surface.
We turned off the motorway and made our way through the dark streets. I sensed we were close, as we drove through an area of large detached houses with well-tended gardens behind high walls with large gates. There were a few people about but those I saw, all wore uniforms of private security companies, anti-terrorist squad or police and all were armed.
We turned off the road and the side road was barred with a three bar barrier with a big counterweight at one end plus coils of barbed wire either side blocking what would have been the pavement, between the barrier and high walls of the corner properties. A guard stood by the barrier, dressed in black with the words anti-terrorist squad on his back armed with an AK47.
His colleague sat behind some sandbags, under a canvas tarpaulin to give protection against both rain and sun. Even in the dim light under the canvas, I could make out the outline of a mounted machine gun jutting out above the top row of sand bags. We were asked for our IDs and a barrage of questions, who we were, where we were going, the number of the house, the name of our host, whether we were expected … in short, a thorough interrogation. My name was found on a list, cross checked with my passport and we were allowed through.
We drove 100 meters down the road and pulled up in front of a pair of solid metal gates and the driver hooted his horn several times until the night watchman opened the gate. We were welcomed in and I was given a cold bottle of water and shown to my room. It had been a long journey and it was after 3am and breakfast time was only a few hours away so I collapsed on the bed and went to sleep.
I was due to meet Karim later that morning at 11.30am. I hadn’t set the alarm as it refused to work but in the end I didn’t need it, as I didn’t sleep well and I was awake at 7.30am. On arrival I was too tired to take much note of my surroundings so I took the chance to look around. This was the Hunza Embassy Hotel, a grand name but in reality, it was just a large house. The furniture wasn’t new, or non-descript institutional but looked like a collection of items that any family might have collected over the years.
The bathroom had hot and cold running water, a basin, a western toilet and a shower above the bath although there were rusty marks where the taps had dripped over the years. The window was set high in the wall, overlooking a small light well and it was a bit dim in the room as there was vegetation growing thickly over the window.
Last night I had put the bottle of water in the fridge which curiously stood by itself in the middle of the room, beyond the end of the double bed as if it were a feature. In the light of the day, I now noticed that the fridge wasn’t making any noise and wasn’t cold … it didn’t work. Beyond the fridge there was a fireplace and a gas fire in the hearth which seemed incongruous, given the outside temperature. I opened the curtains to look out over a small concrete covered yard with high whitewashed walls which was home to some broken furniture.
On one of the walls of the room, set high almost touching the ceiling, there was an air conditioning unit and a control unit on the wall. It hummed quietly away, on a low setting, which I left unaltered. Underneath was a dressing table and on it there was a menu detailing breakfast menu options, sandwiches with various fillings, burgers (obviously geared towards western tastes) and a selection of curries and side dishes catering for local tastes.
There was also some details of this hotel and I discovered that it was part of a chain of hotels which were locally owned, one hotel in the capital and a selection throughout the northern Gilgit-Baltistan area, all with their pictures and a brief description. Many were located in places that were on my schedule and I realised, I would be staying at several of them over the next few weeks.
The hotel itself was similar to a large semidetached house, two storeys high and there were probably fewer than twenty rooms for guests, a small neat garden at the front, with a handkerchief sized lawn, a drive up the side of the house and walls all the way round the perimeter. One of the heavy double doors, through which we had come during the night was open. The road outside was straight, perhaps 200m long with security barriers and armed guards at each end. The opposite side of the road was a 3 metre high wall, stretching the length of the road behind which I discovered later was a school. All the houses on the road had large gates and a number had their own security guard together with a little hut for their protection against rain and sun.
The breakfast menu was a simple affair. There was a choice of continental breakfast, basically fruit juice, tea or coffee and toast; American, being continental plus cereal and eggs, any style or Pak Nashta. This caught my eye and needed a bit more investigation. Luckily all the staff spoke English as my Urdu is rudimentary. It consisted of lassi, best described as a yoghurt drink, Pak omelette, an omelette with vegetables in it, paratha, an unleavened flatbread and a choice of coffee or tea. On the basis of ‘when in Rome’ and travelling is an adventure and a chance to experience different cultures and cuisines, I opted for the Pak Nashta with green tea.
On the advice of my doctor, for a healthier fat free diet, there are a number of foods that I should avoid or at least reduce such as red meat, cheese, salt, fat, sugar, fried food, etc … I can’t remember all the details but fish and vegetables are definitely okay. It’s a shame as some of my favourites used to be salted roasted peanuts, bacon sandwich and blue cheese. This you may think might make me a fussy eater and I do adhere to the dietary advice at home. But whilst on holiday the strict regime goes to pot and I will try anything that is on the menu, especially if it is a local dish. I am always interested in sampling different cuisines and if something is eaten locally that I have not had before I will always try it whatever it may be. Ultimately you may not like it, but it is not poisonous as the locals eat it and how would you know whether you like it or not if you don’t try it.
There is only one food item that I know I will refuse to eat … tripe. I had heard about this as a child and asked my mother to cook it for me. She duly cooked it and I hated it but since she liked it, I was allowed to leave it on my plate and she ended up eating it. When I was working in Madrid, as an adult, many years later,
I saw los callos, Spanish for tripe, on the menu. It had defeated me as a child, but as an adult, with different taste buds and experience of a range of cuisines, I tried it again. Same result. It was still horrible. I tried several mouthfuls but couldn’t believe that I still couldn’t eat it. I left most of it and ordered something else.
It appeared that I was the only guest having breakfast that morning as other than staff, I saw no one else. The result of the Pak Nashta that I had ordered was that I liked nearly all of it but lassi is not to my palate. I finished the whole glass but made a mental note for next time when I order a Pak Nashta for breakfast to change the lassi for a fruit juice.
After breakfast, I went for a walk up the junction with the main road. I smiled at the guard who was the same guard who had interrogated me just hours earlier but I was allowed out without any problem. Much easier to get out than it was to get in. On the main road in the morning light I noticed that many of the side roads also had barriers and guards. Several of the houses both down the side streets and on the main road, had guards with small huts for them to sit in or tents with canvas awnings and sandbags.
At the end of this road was a dual carriage way and on the opposite side, a large arch proudly declaring it to be the Zafar Gate of the Navy Head of Command and yet more security, this time armed military personnel in camouf lage fatigues. I looked around and saw no signs forbidding photography but remembered details of my security advice not to take photos of anything sensitive. This included a long list, detailing such things as security force personnel, military camps, police stations, bridges and women which were all considered sensitive. The arch was distinctive and I was tempted to take a photo but decided to have the rest of my holiday in freedom, rather than getting thrown in jail and waiting for the High Commissioner to get me out.
I was reading an English language local paper to catch up with local news, when Karim and a driver turned up early at 11am so we set off to Rawalpindi. We were heading for some shops to buy a couple of shalwaar chemise for me. This is the local dress that both men and women wear in the area. The shalwaar is a pair of baggy trousers, held up by a drawstring. The chemise is like a standard shirt with a few buttons at the neck and put on by pulling over the head. The difference compared with western shirts, is that the shirt tails are extended to the knees and worn outside the trousers.
Pockets are fitted into the seams of the shirt at hip level. There were two reasons why I was getting these. One, is that they are very practical in hot climates and I had been assured that they are remarkably cool, which having worn them for several weeks I can confirm that this is absolutely correct. The other, was security in an attempt to fit in to local crowds, thus drawing lessattention to myself but also to allow fewer barriers between me as a foreigner and the ability to interact with the locals.
I had a choice of only a few simple colours, such as white, black, khaki, olive, brown and tan and wasn’t offered any brighter colours or patterns. Indeed, in retrospect, I saw no bright colours and very few patterned materials used for men, throughout my time in Pakistan. On the basis that both white and black would show the dirt and that we would be camping at times, I opted for one olive and one brown.
Karim had two female clients to pick up from the airport the next day and there would not be time to shop before flying up to Gilgit so he had an idea to buy them shalwaar chemise on their behalf, so we headed off to a dress shop. Unlike shalwaar chemises for gentlemen, the ladies’ versions came in all sorts of colours and patterns, ranging from quite traditional colours and patterns to some very modern avante garde looking designs.
Had the two clients been men, I would have had more confidence in selecting a colour for two people that I didn’t know, as the choice for men was quite restricted. But in the dress shop there was far too much of a choice and I voiced concern that we were dicing with death as our choice could be very wrong. Therefore Karim agreed it might be better to take them to a shop in Gilgit on arrival there.
I needed to exchange some money so we went not to a bank but to the money changers. This was a row of several shops in a three storey building, most of whom seem to be money changers. In front and up the side of the building were rows upon rows of armoured security vans, with different logos belonging to the different shops in front of us. Around the vehicles were numerous uniformed armed guards and as we went up the steps there was another guard waving his shotgun around and smiling at us as we passed. There were thick bars tightly spaced on the doors and windows and we went through the open door.
Once inside though, there were none of the armed guards to see, nor very much in the way of security. There was a table with a teller and next to him, another teller, but with bars reaching up to head height. On the table were stacks and stacks of notes, mostly well-worn and grubby and not being familiar with the currency, I had no idea how much was neatly stacked up on the tables.
I handed my sterling to Karim who counted it and handed it to the first teller, who counted it twice and calculated its value in rupees. He handed it to the second teller who counted it twice and re-calculated the rupee amount. Then, he counted out the rupee amount twice and I saw my bundle of rupee notes make the return journey through different hands being counted several times, until Karim had finished counting it and handed it me. I didn’t bother to count it.
Walking around the streets was an eye opener, as there didn’t seem much differentiation between pavement and road. It was chaos, with people pushing or pulling barrows with cars, motorbikes, lorries and pedestrians, all using the road at the same time. Traffic was thick and slow but there didn’t seem to be any road rage between the different road users, as they inched their way past each other.
The streets were also full of rubbish of all sorts and I regretted wearing sandals as I followed Karim, whilst at the same time as trying to walk around or stepping over rubbish and foul looking puddles of muddy water, which covered who knows what beneath their surface. Looking up above the chaos, there was a mass of power cables and telephone wires criss crossing the sky above the street. It looked like chaos up there as well.
One feature of the traffic that surprised me was how few bicycles there were as I had expected great crowds of them on the streets. This was countered by the throngs of mopeds wherever you went. The road rules were obviously different or perhaps not adhered to in the least. Very few of the drivers or passengers had helmets, as if this was an optional extra that people didn’t appreciate was for safety. Lady passengers sat sideways on the back of the mopeds which I have never tried, but I imagine that the co-ordination and balance must be an art.
And when referring to passengers, I mean one moped and several passengers. Why stop at one passenger when there is room for more? It was a common sight to see two passengers plus the driver and I started to count and look out for more. My best sights were a driver, two adult passengers and a child and a driver with four children. I never saw a woman driver.
We stopped at a local restaurant for lunch. There were the usual beef, mutton, chicken and vegetable curry dishes, dahls, different rice dishes and side dishes that you would expect in any Pakistani restaurant back home. I chose chicken tikka masala, since it is one of my favourites and I was curious how it might compare with what I am familiar with in either my local Pakistani restaurant or shop bought ready meals. Karim was happy to eat his meal with his fingers carefully scooping up the food with a piece of pitta bread. This was a skill that I had yet to acquire and I was hungry, I wanted to eat it rather than play with it and push it around my plate so I went for the knife and fork option.
The first difference that I noticed was that I am used to large chunks of filleted meat whereas the dish in front of me had clearly been made from a small and scrawny chicken. There were a few scraps of meat, clinging to small bones which had to be prised apart and having found some broken bones, I was cautious about what lurked in the sauce as I didn’t want to break a tooth or lose a filling on a piece of bone. So it looked like I was going to play with my food after all. Taste wise I was surprised, as the f lavours were not as strong as had been adapted for western palates at home. It was neither highly spicy nor burning hot. As I like spicy hot food, I was both surprised and rather disappointed at the real thing.
That afternoon we headed for the Margalla Hills National Park just north of suburban Islamabad and the Daman-e-Koh viewpoint that overlooks the city. The road twisted and turned up a steep hillside to a large car park which has a short walk to the viewpoint. There was a slight breeze which was a relief, after the hot sticky city. On a clear day, the view would be great but there was a haze from the heat and pollution.
At independence in 1947, the capital was Karachi but this was felt to have too much association with the colonial past, as control was wielded from that city. Other factors supporting a relocation, was that it was at one end of the country on the coast and subject to enemy naval attack, rather than a central location. Also its location so far south made it subject to a tropical climate, monsoons and cyclones.