Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Lonely Streets of Paradise

The Lonely Streets of Paradise

In the haggling with the jeep driver at the lake, my being dropped off at Karimabad had been dropped, and now I found myself on the KKH in Aliabad, an ugly scraggle of dusty decrepitude that totally drowned out the rural beauty and quiet that I had just been going through. I slowly made my way through the chaos, asking 'Karimiabad?' of people and usually getting little response, except 'Suzuki' and a vague motion thataway.

After a few hundred meters there was a spot where a little Suzuki pickup waited, with two narrow wooden seats in back and an awning on top. I and my bags somehow got in, along with nine other people, and off we went. Back the way I had just come. For it seemed like thirty minutes.

What was going on? I knew that Karimabad, the Hunza tourist town, was only a few km uphill from Aliabad. But it turned out that we had to go all the way back to Ganish on the KKH before we backtracked up. I think the direct route would have been too steep for a tiny pickup with a heavy load.

It was hard to see outside. A kid next to me asked which hotel I was going to, and I said 'Hilltop'.. When he tapped me and I got out, I expected to be in the middle of a fairly developed area, much like backpacker type towns in India such as Menali or Dharmsala. Instead I was on a little more than one lane little straggly road with no other traffic. To my right was a small line of shuttered stall/stores. To my left was a moderately modest hotel saying 'Hilltop'. The LP map said that I was now supposed to be smack dab in the center of the action.

The friendly young manager, named Sherzad, showed me to a room. Nice beds, clean and modern bathroom. Then he took me out to its small balcony. To my left was what I would later find out is Rakaposhi, as majestic a 25,500 foot peak as you could imagine. 180 degrees to my right was Ultar, only 24,500 feet high, but with its stark, icy summit less than five miles away. In between, both slightly above me and mostly below me, were the verdant sloping mini-orchards and fields of the Hunza vale. Hey, Alps! You really suck!

He wanted $10 a night for the room, but I got him down to $9.

Then he kind of sheepishly added, 'There's no electricity'. Not just in the hotel, but in this entire side of town. Seems like the turbine burned out after the floods and it had been down in Islamabad for the last few weeks getting repaired. Never mind, however, since they'd be running the generator between 7 and 10.

It was kind of obvious from the totally dead nature of the Hill Top's lobby that I was their only guest. When I went out to walk up the only real street in town it quickly became clear that I was about the only tourist in town. In a town that totally depended on tourism. Those shuttered stall/stores across the street were the norm. Further up the hill a few craft/gift stores were open, but I was pretending that I was invisible as I walked by, so that I would not be providing them with pitiful false hope.

The sky was still basically blue, the weather was t-shirt warm, but a few small clouds were beginning to gather around Rakaposhi and Ultar. But I hadn't taken any pictures yet, since my camera's battery was just about dead. And now it wasn't going to be recharged until the generator ran this evening. Hmmm.

Not much to do once I reached the top of the town except to turn around and go down less than a km back past the hotel to the bottom. No freestanding restaurants or tea houses or coffee houses open, but I roused the manager at the nicest hotel restaurant in town, and soon I was sitting there—the only customer—at a fine wooden table and classy tablecloth, with a gold tunic liveried waiter hovering nearby, slurping my soup.

Not much to do except go back to my room and wait for nightfall and the generator. Clouds starting to get a little fuller, but still such a lovely, peaceful view from my room.

By Thursday morning the clouds had gathered a little more, now mostly obscuring the higher peaks. I sat in the Hill Top's empty restaurant with my porridge, Hunza bread and jam, and 'milk tea'. Then it was up a steep cobblestone hill at the top of the town to Baltit Fort. Overlooking the whole vale, it is not really a fort at all but rather the old residence of the Mir of Hunza.

The oldest part goes back 700 years, but most of it is relatively modern. And all of it was only recently restored by the Aga Khan Foundation. Turns out that the Hunzas, like the Pamiris, are also mostly Ismaili. As the guide showed me the various rooms, I was taken aback at how simple, small and poor the Mir's life had been. Imagine the poverty of his followers.

The guide confirmed that before the KKH came through in the '70s life had been pretty tough. In general, the Hunzans really liked the benefits of progress. But this year had been the pits. Tourism had already been down because of 9/11. Then in the past few years terrorism and Taliban was all that Pakistan was known for. And now the floods of the past summer had deterred even fellow Pakistanis from visiting. As I left the Fort he sat there patiently waiting to see if anyone else might show up today at Karimabad's main attraction.

Back down on the main street to try to find an internet place that was supposed to be somewhere in the part of town that still had electricity. But when I found it the electricity was off for the day. Back to the room for a rest. Maybe the day would clear up.

But when I looked out at around one pm threatening grey clouds were filling the sky just a thousand or so feet above me. I quickly had to put on all my layers of clothing and cover myself with a blanket. No more activities for today. Not that it mattered, but Sherzad confirmed that this weather wasn't supposed to be here for another month.

The next couple of days would be schizophrenic. Friday dawned still cold and gloomy, but then the clouds started to break up a bit, and it started to get warm. Oh boy. But then the clouds returned. In the afternoon it was sunny enough for me to take a walk along the irrigation ditch that circled the vale. Peace and beauty galore, including a family knocking the walnuts off its tree and gathering them. But as the walk ended so did the warmth and sunshine.

One thing I had been looking forward to was the chance to go 1500 feet higher, where a fancy hotel called the Eagle's Nest had an incredible view of the surrounding mountains. But it only made sense to go there if it was going to be a perfectly clear day. Saturday started out with that possibility; just a few clouds hanging on to the peaks. One of the Hill Top's owners was going up there and asked if I wanted a lift. I almost said yes, but in the end decided to wait an hour or two to make sure that it would be clear. Two hours later the valley had filled with storm clouds again and I was glad that I was down at lower elevation and out of the major storm above me.

But in the afternoon it had cleared up again. So Sharzad, who was way more bored than I, given his utter lack of business, electricity, and therefore internet, was only too glad to come along for a walk along the upper irrigation canal. He had been filling me in on the (for Pakistan) liberal Hunza lifestyle. For instance, this was the only place in the country where (Chinese) beer was openly sold. The women wore scarves, but otherwise were just as integrated into normal life as the Ismaili women in the Pamir. Except that they didn't want their pictures taken. Seems like repressed boys from other areas of Pakistan had come and delighted in taking pictures of them, so that now they were so creeped out that Westerners weren't allowed to photograph, either.

The sky was gradually clearing, and as the sun went down it was finally back to the bright, limitless blue it had been right when I had arrived. Rakaposhi and Ultar and the others all stood there in their splendor. Soon a just past full moon would be shining down upon them.

Sunday dawned just as bright and clear, and I sat there on the roof of the hotel taking in the greenery beneath and around me, the rugged, brown mountains rising behind that, and the snowcapped giant peaks behind them. The Eagle's Nest was still a possibility, but at around 8 am a few wispy clouds started appearing in the corner of the sky that was supposed to announce impending weather. I decided to blow it off. Anyway, Hunza time was over now..

...'Cause I feel like I gotta travel on.

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