Friday, October 15, 2010

Islamabad / Lahore / Peshawar

Truth to tell, I would have just as soon have this flight be the one back home. But the demise of the Chitral and Nanga Parbat options meant that I now had five empty days to fill. Nor could I have stayed in Skardu longer. The possibility of two days of canceled flights followed by that 24 hour bus ride precluded that.

On the plus side, I could always look at this as an Extra Added Bonus Feature. Why not check out Pakistan Today by visiting three of its major cities? So first off I would be touching down in Islamabad, its capital city.

Well, not quite, since the airport was in Rawalpindi, the older, crappier city that pre-existed Islamabad's creation in 1967. And I couldn't see that much descending, since although the cloud cover vanished once we got out of the mountains, it was replaced by an almost as severe smog cover.

But anyone familiar with the intense chaos that permeates India would be pleasantly surprised by the relatively orderly nature of Pakistan. There was only one taxi driver who hassled me as I exited, and the traffic police made sure that he wasn't bothering me and that he was charging the right price.

That turned out to be less than $4 for the 20 km plus drive to Islamabad. Like other 'planned' third world capitals, the city wasn't exactly a city at all. Rather it was more like a few several block square commercial centers surrounded by mostly emptiness. The first hotel I was taken to was charging three times what the LP said it would. So I found my way to another hotel in another of the centers a couple of miles away and made my deal.

By now it was around 4, I was feeling hot and sweaty and polluted, and also very hungry. So I took a cab to the Pizza Hut, several miles away at yet another commercial center, for some middle class munching.

Here at the capital, the country's most progressive enclave, 95% of the people walking around were still men. And of the few women visible, about 95% of them wore at least head coverings. No full burkas, but a fair number of face coverings, too. Which in sum total seemed pretty odd, because I'd been noticing that all of the women portrayed in TV shows and commercials wore stylish modern Pakistani clothes with uncovered heads. Maybe when they go home...

After I stuffed myself I went around the corner to a fully functioning ATM. Then a short cab ride to the Blue Area, Islamabad's fancy shop zone. Well, it wasn't that fancy at all, but it at least was bearable for my walk of about a mile and a half. Then as the sky got dark it was time to go back to the hotel.

And that was about all that Islamabad had that was worth seeing.

Friday morning I took a long taxi ride that went past Rawalpindi and to the Daewoo Bus station. This company is Pakistan's premier non-air travel option. They even have a website that functions. For $10 I bought a ticket on the half hourly deluxe VIP service to Lahore.

I usually get very annoyed by stupid security procedures, but Pakistan is one country where you appreciate such things. Everyone was frisked before getting on the bus; they would also be frisked after rest stops. A guy got on right before the bus took off and videotaped each passenger. I couldn't tell if this was done so that after the explosion they could identify who it was who set off the bomb, or so that they could more readily notify the next of kin.

In a few minutes we were on the open road. And do I mean open. It was a brand new six lane freeway, with no bullock carts, no bicycles, no trucks spewing massive amounts of diesel smoke at 10 mph. In fact, there wasn't that much traffic at all. Again, anyone familiar with India would be flabbergasted at such a smooth, comfortable state of affairs. Not only that, but the a/c worked, and the attendant kept bringing little snacks. After we snaked down a 1000 foot or so drop the rest of the journey was alongside flat, green fields. We could have easily been on an Interstate in Indiana.

After four hours or so we entered Lahore, once one of India's major cities, now (with 9 million people) Pakistan's second largest. I had expected to finally be seeing crazily intense roads such as in India, but again it was relatively orderly and subdued. And I was back in the land of the autorickshaw. I took one to an area of town where the LP had reviewed five different hotels.

They all sucked, especially with the electricity off and their elevators (when they had one) not working. So I took another autorickshaw a couple of miles to another of those LP 'favorite picks'. One that they just went on and on about. I couldn't believe what a piece of junk it was. All in all, this was proving to be by far the worst LP guide ever. I went back to the original grouping and settled on the National. At least they had a generator that would run the lights and fan, if not the lift and a/c.

It was getting dark now, but I decided to try and find a half decent restaurant. I had expected Pakistan to serve up some of my north Indian favorites, such as mutter paneer. But 99% of the menu listings invariably had meat in them, and I was getting tired of 'simple begetables'. Nor, Pizza Hut notwithstanding, were there any restaurants with any class or western dishes. So I walked about a mile to a couple of rave LP listings, which of course turned out to be dirty and shoddy. Then back through the dark on the sidewalkless street dodging cars, autorickshaws, and horse and burro carts. And lame vegetables and rice and naan at the National.

Saturday morning it was time to see the sights, so off I went to the Lahore Fort. Most every large city in northern India has a gigantic fort built by at least one of the Moghul emperors in the 1600s. Unfortunately for Lahore, Delhi's and Agra's are much more impressive. I was still standing out like a sore thumb in this, Pakistan's most cosmopolitan city. At one point of my tour a trio of obvious fundamentalists scowled at me. But then a minute later a large middle class family, including the decked out womenfolk, were so excited to see a foreigner visiting their country that they literally gushed at me.

Next to the fort (again typical) was a huge mosque dating back to the same era. I thought it one of the nicest, most understated, and most serene huge mosques I've ever seen.

Then I had to take a long walk around the outside of the fort to get to Lahore's old city. It certainly was an authentic old city, with narrow, congested, but certainly not scary, lanes and alleys. Since this was where most of the serious shopping got done, there were substantially more women visible. And it was a pleasant walk for a mile or so, but as usual for these places the tiny stores and cheap items for sale were always just more of the same. Generally speaking, you can't find any good tourist goods if there aren't any tourists.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, even without the bad press, outside of the mountains it didn't look like there was much that was of any genuine interest here in the flats. After returning to my hotel I then took a two mile stroll towards The Mall, Lahore's 'vibrant downtown'. But once again it was just dirty and boring. And no usable sidewalks, so I was constantly dodging traffic. Plus no usable restaurants. Oh well, back to the National. But just as I was leaving I saw out of the corner of my eye, rather incongruously, a Subway(!). The subsequent sandwich wasn't all that good, but at least it wasn't rice and vegetables.

I had been planning on two days in Lahore, but I had run out of anything halfway exciting halfway through the first day. On top of that the city was hot and polluted. Plus that night I was lying on the mattress in the hotel room when I noticed that my body was getting covered with all sorts of bites from some kind of invisible insect. So I sprayed down the bed and made plans to leave the next morning.

Thus on Sunday morning it was back to the Daewoo terminal for the 10:15 to Peshawar. For this I would be backtracking to Islamabad, and then going over two hours further, which would take up most of the day. The good news was that I could look forward to about seven hours of air conditioned hassle free travel. The bad news was that, since my flight left Wednesday, that would give me Monday and Tuesday in one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

I am not an adrenaline junkie. It's just that Air Arabia, the cheap airline that would fly me back to Dubai, only flies out of Karachi and Peshawar. And Karachi might be even more dangerous. Plus it was a 21 hour bus ride from Lahore. Plus the roads were ruined after the flooding. Plus I already had my ticket from Peshawar.

Anyway, I had been communicating with a couple of other people who had just been there, and they said that everything had been copasetic. Not to mention that the media are always over-hyping how scary terrorist centers are. Although I must admit to a little trepidation when we pulled into the Peshawar terminal and I was deposited out on the street.

My first impressions were of more crowds and more poverty. And awful, awful pollution. Some of the worst pollution I'd ever experienced. On a Sunday afternoon in a city with no industry. I got an autorickshaw easily enough and was soon at Green's Hotel, an LP 'midrange' pick. Prices were twice what LP said, but the armed guard and the iron gate outside, plus reliable wifi, cable, and a/c even when on generator all made it worth it. Especially since the power kept going on and off every hour or so.

That night I was lying in bed, thinking 'Geez, it would be such great terrorist PR to kill an American. And I sure look like one. And the longer I stay here the more people will know about me.' It was kind of unnerving to think that life could be so uncertain. Then I realized that this is exactly what we did to millions of innocent Iraqis with our invasion. I got up and took another sleeping pill.

Monday morning I went out on the street. Didn't feel that dangerous. Maybe I should walk all the way to my destination. But the pollution was so bad that I gave up on that idea and took an autorickshaw over to Khyber Bazaar. Then down that street for a while and a right turn into Peshawar's famous old city.

More twisting little alleys and lanes. Like Lahore, lots of people but overall calm and easy. Again, though, no tourists and therefore nothing all that interesting to look at, let alone buy. Even without the threat of being blown up, one would think that Peshawar should be pretty exotic. And it had seemed that way the last time I was here, in 1970, on my way from Afghanistan to India. But maybe I've seen too much by now. Or maybe the world—especially the poor world—has just gotten too damn homogenized. Or maybe the pollution was just too unbreathable. Within a couple of hours I was through the maze and back out on the slightly wider commercial streets of slightly newer Peshawar.

Was I in danger? It was hard to say. Like the rest of Pakistan, there were any number of people who would stop me on the street, shake my hand, and warmly say, 'Welcome to Pakistan'. For the rest, I could imagine them thinking, 'Dead man walking'. Or maybe, 'That dude is one brave MF'. Probably both. With so many people passing by, and with me so clearly not one of them, all it would take would be one or two Taliban sympathizers...

Of course, I could just be imagining everything. Except for the fact that Peshawar has had several waves of deadly bombings over the past couple of years. So that even if my life wasn't specifically in danger, the fear and tension must just be below the surface of every mind walking past me.

Back to the clean air and a/c of my hotel room. The TV was even flat screen and with at least five English speaking channels. Free, courteous room service. Armed guard outside. Streets constantly patrolled by soldiers and police. Ahhh.

And, save for a couple more forays out to do some last minute shopping, that was about it for my stay in Peshawar. After around 50 days of intensity, it was kind of anticlimactic to be sitting around wasting time until my flight to Dubai.

Pakistan had turned out to be surprising, in that the people displayed a civility and a gentility that harkened back to an earlier time. It was easily a more pleasant environment to be in than India. Too bad everybody thinks of it as a failed state. And too bad it really is too poor and too overpopulated and the government is totally dysfunctional and it doesn't have anywhere (outside of the mountains) to visit that isn't totally lackluster.

Well, I made it safely to the airport. And I made it safely to Dubai. And 38 hours after I woke up on Wednesday morning I made it back home. And I was immediately caught up in the whirl of fixing old problems and making new money.

And as the kaleidoscope of the last couple of months settled down, I started thinking, 'Whoa, I was walking around Khiva'. And, 'Damn, the Pamir Highway really was out there'.

But here's the reason why I continually keep going to these strange and distant land:
As I was finishing up walking through the old city in Peshawar, I looked down and happened to see a small head. It had a small mustache and beard, and was attached to s small round torso. He would have been a midget, except that there were no legs. Clearly somebody brought him here every day, and he 'stood' there implicitly begging. He couldn't even theoretically escape if a new bomb went off. I gave him 50 rupees (What the hell is the proper amount to give in such a circumstance?). He looked at it and tucked it into the pocket of the kurta that draped over him.

And I went back to my comfortable life. Except that I'm well aware that he is still there.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Unto the Last Mountain

So I was standing on the little street/road outside of the Hill Top, waiting for a Suzuki to come by and take me back down to Aliabad. And waiting. But there was no traffic whatsoever.

Then Sherzad came by and said that this was because the area had run out of petrol. My only hope would be to hire a diesel powered jeep for 500 rupees (the Suzuki cost 20). As I was mulling that over a guy came by who had a diesel powered Suzuki for 300. So down the mountain I started.

It was a little too quiet being the only vehicle on the road, but as we approached wretched little Aliabad it perked up a bit. A full minibus was just taking off for Gilgit, which meant that I got the first seat on the next one. By paying for two seats (still less than $5) I wound up with the front all to myself. All I had to do was wait an hour while they sold the rest of the seats.

The sky had been clouding over again, and now was verging on ominous, That, combined with the totally torn up nature of the KKH, made for a less than inspiring start. On top of that, compared with where I had just been, the canyon here was kind of blah. Maybe I was just suffering from adventure fatigue.

I hoped that the driver was more alert than I. Because whenever there was more than 50 meters of actual blacktop he would speed up to the max. And the passenger side all too often looked down on 500 foot vertical falls. Then it started to rain.

But in about four and a half hours we were in Gilgit, the largest town in Pakistan's mountains. Almost a city. Actually I was left off about 3 km beyond downtown Gilgit, and had to flag down a Suzuki to get back in. Then, without being able to see outside, I had to guess where to get off. Luckily I picked the right spot, and was only half a block from my intended destination, the Medina Hotel.

But what was this all around me? After the relative peace and quiet of the last week, I was taken aback, almost shocked, by the ugliness and intensity of the Pakistani urban experience. Not that anyone was hassling me in particular, as would have been happening had this been India. Still I was grateful when I walked into the gate of the Medina, Gilgit's backpacker haven.

Kind of tatty and rundown, with basic rooms with bath going for $7. Youseb the owner was in the midst of preparing stew from a goat that a backpacker had slaughtered in celebration of his last night here. I declined an invitation to the free meal, and went back out to the street to see what else I could find.

Not much. The sun had gone down and shutters were being drawn quickly. I finally found a greasy spoon place where I had 'simple begetables', rice and naan. Actually quite tasty and very reminiscent of Yemen. Then the electricity went off and I fumbled my way back to Medina.

The next morning Ronald the gay Dutch guy had shown up. He was sitting at the table talking to a chain smoking hyper-thin Euroswish who was saying, 'This trip I've just got to be getting to Karachi. I hear it's just crazy.' Backpacking sure ain't what it used to be.

I had been having trouble deciding where I was to get going next. The original schedule had been supposed to end with a two day trip to Chitral, then staying a few days there before heading south to Peshawar. But the Chitral district had been really affected by the floods. And a Belgian NGO worker had been captured by the Taliban this summer. Which meant that if I went there I would immediately be assigned a soldier for 24 hour a day protection. Seemed kind of limiting. So Chitral was now out.

I had also been planning to take my Himalayan mini-trek up to the base camp for Nanga Parbat, a 26,000 foot high peak, and probably the biggest thrust of naked rock on the planet. But I had just realized that even though the hike was 'easy', it was also at 12,000 feet. And I was out of Diamox. PlusI had just experienced how cold 7500 feet could be when it rained. Plus I would have to hire a jeep and a porter while being the only tourist around, which would get complicated. Plus what would be the point of getting there if cloud cover obscured the view anyway? So Nanga Parbat was also out. Damn, I had really wanted to see it.

That left Skardu and Baltistan, a mountainous, arid region downriver from Ladakh. That took 7 hours to reach by minibus. Well, since there was nothing in Gilgit holding my interest or me, I'd better get going. I packed up, went out to the street, and hopped a Suzuki going the 5 km out to the general bus stand.

By now I had noticed something odd. 99% of the people walking around were men. The women in Hunza hadn't exactly been forthcoming, but at least they were visible. And it wasn't like Gilgit was Taliban country; everyone, even the guys with the ferocious beards, was polite and friendly to me. I mean, I'm totally in favor of keeping women in their place and all, but this was going a little too far even for me.

Anyway, I once again bought the two front seats, and at around 11 we took off. The morning had started out mostly sunny, but—guess what?--now it started to cloud over. For the first hour we continued south on the totally torn up and under construction KKH, but then we made a left turn, went down to river level, crossed a bridge, and started east up the Indus River canyon.

And do I mean canyon. For over four hours we snaked along the deep cleft, thankfully for my nerves on the inside lane. As usual the road was little more than one vehicle wide, which always made for a delicate maneuver whenever there was an oncoming truck. As usual the driver would floor it at the slightest sign of open blacktop. And as usual whenever there was a temporary widening of the canyon a little agricultural activity ensued.

At around the 100 km mark the canyon finally opened up to around half a mile wide for good. Then at around 135 km it opened up a whole lot and we were in Baltistan. The distinguishing geographic feature was that the river bed broadened out to a five mile wide plain, consisting mostly of gravel and yellowish grey sand. Really quite eerie and awesome. Of course with rugged dead mountains rising straight up from that.

It was dark as we entered Skardu, which seemed to consist of a two mile long main street of poor, bedraggled shops and chaos. When we were finally discharged in a back alley I was happy to know that I was very close to my new intended destination, the Dewan-e-khas Hotel. Given a rave review by the LP, I was a little let down to find it pretty drab. But it would do

Tuesday morning I was having a hard time figuring out what I was going to do next. For one thing, I was still a little freaked out by the almost African level of poverty. More important, even though all the signs were in English, almost nobody spoke more than three words of it. Which made it difficult to find out anything from anyone.

There was also the matter of getting out of here. The bus ride to Islamabad took 24 hours, the first 6 of which were along the route I had just come. And my body was now at the bus ride saturation point. So I would need to take the flight. Which the hotel guy had said might take a week of waiting.

After several vain attempts, I finally found the PIA building and walked in. There was a scrum at the ticket window. I sat for several minutes watching it, then walked over to an empty window. The clerk came over to help the foreigner. He said that if I came back tomorrow morning at 8 he could sell me a ticket for Thursday.

Thus assured I now set out to take care of my final assault on the mountains. There were two little valleys that were upriver from Skardu, Shigar and Khaplu. The hotel guy had a taxi that would take me there for 4000 rupees. I thought that I could do better. But how could I find someone when I didn't speak any Urdu? Hmm. Then a bright idea.. I would walk into the couple of tourist oriented businesses I had seen and ask them.

The first one was a little climbing equipment shop run by a kid from Hunza named Abdul. One thing led to another, and within a half hour not only did I have a trusted driver with a Toyota jeep, but Abdul and another shopkeeper were coming along with me. After all, both of them were bored out of their wits by the total lack of tourist customers.

So now my future had a plan. First thing Wednesday morning the PIA office sold me an overpriced ticket. Then I met up with Abdul, who pointed out that just because I had bought a ticket didn't mean I had a confirmed seat. Because if there were any hint of bad weather they canceled the flight, which meant that everyone from today's flight went on tomorrow's flight, and everyone from tomorrow's flight... And as you may recall, the weather for the past while hadn't been all that great. He called the PIA operator, gave her my info, and then gave her his number so she could call if and when I finally got confirmed.

The jeep driver was here now, and we took off. As soon as we were out of town I was at another end of the world. It was 105 very slow, twisty kilometers to Khaplu, and I was like a little kid in the front seat craning my neck. For the last half the valley was wide enough to support fields and villages. Khaplu itself was in the center of a big swash of green amidst the grey mountains.

Up the valley to the left and around a corner was K2, the second highest mountain in the world. The only way I would ever see that would be to take an extensive trek to its base camp. But the peaks between it and me were some of the steepest undifferentiated slabs yet. The driver took us up to the top of Khaplu, where its 700 year fort was being modernized into a fancy boutique hotel. (Now all they would need are tourists.)

After tea it was back the way we had come. 10 km short of Skardu we made a right turn, climbed over a spur, and looked down on a spectacular view of the wide, flat river plain filled with those yellowish grey sand dunes and wasteland. And, as always, with huge dead mountains all around. We then worked our way up this new valley a little until we got to Shigar and a 700 year old fort that had already been made into a fancy boutique hotel. Very impressive. As the sun was sinking I made a mental note to come back here sometime with the missus.

At around the same time PIA had called Abdul and confirmed my seat. (The locals were really surprised that it had been so easy for me, but I suspect that foreigners get precedence.) Even better, Thursday morning dawned with perfectly clear blue sky. Oh boy, I might get out of here. At 10:30 I took a taxi the 15 km out to the airport. It seemed like slow going for the long line of hopefuls to be processed, but it was only 40 minutes before I was in the departure lounge. Then at 12:15 we all got on buses that drove a half a km to where the plane was waiting in the midst of towering sand dunes. Strange.

With a window seat on the right you got to see K2; on the left would be Nanga Parbat. I was assigned the right, but it ended up not mattering, since by takeoff the sky was completely clouded over. As we rose through the narrow canyon, with rugged cliffs just a few thousand feet away, I could understand why an overcast morning would have canceled the incoming flight.

Seeing K2 would have been a great ending to my high mountain orgy. But, as so often happens when traveling, the weather just wouldn't co-operate. On the other hand, as we made our turn and headed south, through a tiny window on the other side of the plane, there was about a two second space where I could just glimpse the tippy top of giant Nanga Parbat sticking up through the clouds.