Sunday, 17 January 2010

A Pakistani Mountain Adventure

Travelling in Gilgit-Baltistan, Northern Pakistan,

Originally published in the Jakarta Globe, 22/12/09

Another gust of turbulent wind rushed up the valley and the suspension bridge – a rickety, meter-wide tangle of frayed wires and weathered planks – swayed wildly. Far below the Hunza River churned its cold course. I clung on desperately, and for the first time since arriving in Pakistan I felt like I was in danger...

Violence and unrest in the region has seen Pakistan – once a hot-spot for adventure travel – drop off the world tourism map in recent years. But as I would discover the mountainous region of Gilgit-Baltistan has remained unaffected by the troubles plaguing the rest of the country, and the welcome to travelers there remains one of the warmest in Asia.

My journey had begun in Gilgit, eponymous capital of the region. The international news pages had been full of tales of violence in Pakistan for weeks, and after stepping down late at night from a long-distance bus from China I slept fitfully, wondering what exactly I was doing here. A stroll in the bazaar in the bright sunlight of the morning saw all my apprehensions evaporate. The delightfully chaotic streets hummed with Central Asian smells – fruit, spice and grilling meat – and an endless succession of piratical-looking men offered hearty handshakes and cups of chai (Pakistani tea). Going anywhere in Gilgit in a hurry was impossible – chai and chat at every turn were an obligation.
Until recently Gilgit-Baltistan was known as the Northern Areas; the new name was chosen specifically to distinguish the region from more turbulent spots like Swat and Peshawar. Everyone I met in Gilgit was eager to stress that this place was somehow different – there were no Taliban here!
Gilgit lies at the point where the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush, the three behemoths of the greater Asian mountain system, come together. The region has the world’s highest concentration of peaks over 7000 meters. This wild geography creates a wild atmosphere, and nothing is as wild as a local polo match. The Game of Kings as it is played here is a world away from the gentile sport of British royalty. On my first afternoon in Gilgit I watched the Army’s Northern Light Infantry team beat the Police in a thunderous hour of dust and horse sweat. There are no rules in Gilgiti polo – the five-man teams simply gallop back and forth to a soundtrack of skirling pipes and drums. The horsemanship was incredible, the pace was blistering, and when the army won the crowd went wild.

Safely reassured that I was not crazy to be travelling in Pakistan I headed west to the remote valley of Yasin. The road cleaved to sheer, snow-streaked mountainsides above the cobalt-blue waters of the Gilgit River. In the villages the leaves of the willows and poplar trees were a blaze of red and gold in the autumn sunlight.
Despite being culturally and geographically separate, when India and Pakistan gained their independence from Britain, Gilgit-Baltistan was technically part of Kashmir. India still claims the region, and as a disputed territory the Pakistani government has never accorded it full provincial status. Locals complain of years of neglect by Islamabad, and it was only during the presidency of General Musharaf that there was investment in infrastructure in hidden valleys. Ten years ago only a dirt track led to Yasin.
It was a beautiful place beneath a high, clear sky. For three days I travelled north on foot, and in every village I was welcomed into homes, given a place of honor and fed to bursting on coarse bread, yoghurt and pomegranates. The idea that Pakistan was a hostile country began to seem absurd. The people of Yasin are Ismaeli Muslims, followers of the Aga Khan. Many locals like to ascribe Gilgit-Baltistan’s tranquility to the fact that it is the only part of Pakistan where Shias and Ismaelis dominate. In truth geography probably has more to do with it: Yasin is just 150 kilometers from the former Taliban fiefdom of Swat, but with ridges of sky-scraping mountains in between it might as well be on another planet.

From Yasin I returned to Gilgit and headed north on the Karakoram Highway. This fabled strip of tenuous tarmac snakes 1300 kilometers from Islamabad all the way to China, crossing the 4733 meter Khunjerab Pass en route. The road led me to Hunza, a fairytale kingdom in the high Karakorams. The Hunza Valley is flanked by truly enormous mountains – Ultar, Shishpar, Diran, Golden Peak and Rakaposhi. The light was sharper than glass. In the villages apricots were drying on rooftops and local Ismaeli women smiled and greeted me in English – a startling experience for a foreign man travelling in Pakistan.
Hunza was once the centerpiece of northern Pakistan’s tourist industry, and in the main village of Karimabad I realized just how badly people have suffered here. Suicide bombs and Talibanization belong to another world, but they have stemmed the flow of tourists along the Karakoram Highway. The handful of hardy adventurers who make it to Karimabad these days are outnumbered by empty guesthouses, bankrupt gift-shops and one-time tour-guides gone back to their fields. Over an incongruous cup of cappuccino in a cafe owned by his family a local businessman called Javeed told me how bad it has been. “People will not starve, because they have land so they can go back to farming. But it has been tough. Tourism was basically the lifeblood here and people got used to it,” he said.

From Hunza I would continue north on the Karakoram Highway, back into China, but I had one final stop to make in Pakistan. The little village of Passu lies beneath the snout of a huge glacier and a wall of glowing granite spires. Gilgit-Baltistan is famous trekking country and Passu is the starting point for one of the best day hikes in the region, a route that crosses and re-crosses the Hunza River – on a pair of hair-raising suspension bridges...
The first bridge – built to connect summer fields on the far bank with the villages around Passu – was some 500 meters long, and the construction did not inspire confidence. Lengths of rusty cable were loosely lashed together and splintered strips of planking slotted between them. There were gaps of more than a meter between some of the footholds.
With my heart in my mouth I crossed to the far shore, but when I arrived at the head of the second bridge, a few kilometers downstream, things seemed much worse. The wind was howling and I could see the bridge swaying wildly back and forth. Beside it – like a grim warning – hung the remnants of an earlier crossing, all snapped wires and dangling planks. The prospect was terrifying. I took the first tentative step. Beneath me the cold, gray water rushed past. Flurries of dusty wind rushed up the valley. The bridge lurched. Panic rose and I clung on for dear life until the wind eased.
When I finally reached solid ground I slumped onto a rock to settle my nerves. As calm returned I watched two locals trotting merrily across the bridge in opposite directions, pausing to chat midstream. As I watched them I began to feel a bit silly. The bridge had certainly looked an alarming prospect, but in truth it had carried me high above troubled waters. It was, I realized, much like Gilgit-Baltistan itself, floating serenely hundreds of meters above the troubles of the rest of Pakistan...

© Tim Hannigan 2009


Anonymous said...

gilgit is not baltistan.skardu is in baltistan and the people are shi ite not sunni or ishmaeli

Tim Hannigan said...

The are previously known as "the Northern Areas" had its name officially changed to "Gilgit-Baltistan" about two years ago.

Gilgit, Chillas, Hunza, and all the valleys running up to the Shandur Pass are now part of "Gilgit-Baltistan".

Baltistan itself is indeed the name for the area around Skardu, but "Gilgit-Baltistan" is the entire region.

The majority in Skardu and surrounds are indeed Shia (with Nurbakshis around Khaplu. Gilgit itself has a narrow Sunni majority (though there are large numbers of Shias and Ismaelis there too). The area to the south including Chillas and Bunji, has a large Sunni majority. Going north, Hunza is overwhelmingly Ismaeli (though Nagar, on the east bank of the river, is Shia), as are Yasin and Ishkoman, west of Gilgit (though there are Sunni villages, largely descendants of Chitralis, scattered throughout this area).