Pasu and the political problems of Pakistan

Pakistan, November 2016

The small village of Pasu blew us away and might very well be the most beautiful place we have ever seen, hugging the fast flowing Hunza river that cuts through the valley, with some of the most terrifying suspension bridges to carry you across, on the backdrop of the Batura glacier and the surrounding +6000 meter snow covered mountain peaks. Walking through the village, comprised of small squared houses, built with the many surrounding grey-colored rocks, passing orchards with apple and apricot trees with deep yellow, orange and red autumn colored leaves, while misty clouds of dust were being blown up over the Hunza river beds, we felt as if we had entered a real life high resolution picture book. Everywhere we looked, we saw another beautiful scene we could stare at for minutes in amazement.

We found a nice little guesthouse from where we could explore the surrounding area. Venturing out on the suspension bridges with the strong winds gusting around our heads was more terrifying than we had anticipated. The distance between the wooden planks we were walking on was big enough to force us to continuously watch our step, looking down into the fast flowing river about 20 meters below us. While we were holding on tight for our dear lives, half cramped, with our palms sweaty and our heart beats racing, a little old grandmother came strolling past, holding a bucket in one hand, while lightly following one of the cables in the other. We couldn’t help but laugh, though we kept to our steady slow space to make sure we would make it safely across.

It’s hard to describe the beauty of the surroundings, but we captured some of it in a small video you’ll find in our film section. When we made it back across the river to the other side, we met a few young local guys in the village Hussaini. They were curious to learn where we were from. Where Jeroen’s answer “Holland” barely raised an eyebrow, their eyes lit up when they heard Linda say “Germany”. “We love German people”, they cried, “they are very strong and courageous”. We joked that if they had seen us out on the suspension bridges, they would think otherwise.

As it turned out, the Uyghur weren’t the only ones to share a deep love for Hitler (see our previous blog entries), these fellows were rather fond of the genocidal guy as well. For the record, we came across Hitler affections in Kazakhstan and Mongolia too, but the Hussaini guys were almost religious about it. They seemed unhappy about the direction Pakistan is heading in and cherished ideas about violent revolution, to which we tried to convince them that non-violent resistance would help them and their country a hell of a lot more.

It left us with a sour taste in our mouths, wondering how three young men could get such destructive thoughts in their heads. It does show that Pakistan is not in the best of shapes. There are continuous attacks in Baluchistan in the southwest on the border with Iran, it’s not much better in the tribal belt on the western border with Afghanistan and in the east the country has fought several wars with India since independence, with a continuing fight over the Kashmir region in the north and far too frequent bomb blasts in various cities across the country as a result. Pakistan really only has good relations with China, which is investing heavily in Pakistan’s infrastructure, to create a direct seaport for western China to connect with the Indian Ocean. It remains to be seen how much the Pakistani will benefit from these investments, but with the blatant omnipresent corruption in the country, it’s likely that most of the gains will flow into the pockets of the wealthy few.

Pondering these thoughts, we continued our trek up the mountain to Borit Lake and on towards the Batura glacier. After 5 or 6 hours of walking, our tired and sweaty bodies probably didn’t agree so much with the cold wind piercing through our jackets and as the temperature and our energy levels started to drop we were happy to finally be able to make our way back down to Pasu. Though not before a group of journalist stopped us in our tracks (they were making specials on climate change and tourism in the Hunza region): whether we wanted to do a quick interview. Linda made the cut and appeared with her interview on Al Jazeera, but Jeroen lost out to the exuberant enthusiasm of an over-the-top American tourist… 😉 You can find the clip in our Pasu video!

By now, Jeroen’s energy had completely run out and as he started to feel pains in his chest, we decided to hitch a ride for the last kilometer back to our guesthouse where Jeroen experienced a rather rough night. First thing the following morning, we took a taxi to the nearest hospital in Aliabad where Jeroen was diagnosed with pleuritis. The hospital was in a much better condition than the hospital we had been to in Novosibirsk in Russia, which really tells you more about Russia than Pakistan.

We were in luck, the manager of a hotel in the neighboring town Karimabad happened to be in the hospital as well. He told us that (under light pressure from the doctor) he would make us a good deal and drove us to the hotel in his little minivan. We took it easy for a few days, enjoying the wonderful dal (lentils) and mixed vegetable curries with chapati (flat bread), looking out on the spectacular Hunza valley. As Jeroen’s energy came back, we started exploring more of the surroundings and visited the Baltit and Altit forts (dating back 700 to 1100 years), though we spent most of our time in a tiny little wooden shack, where Lal Shezadi managed her own mini-restaurant with the most amazing local dishes. Apart from the excellent food, the place got most of its traction from the brutally honest owner, who loved to speak her mind about her customers, especially in their immediate presence. We were in luck, she seemed to like people from Europe, but many of the Pakistani had to endure her thorn. They all took it in good fun though and we had many great conversations with them while waiting for our food, making it the highlight of our stay in Karimabad. Lal Shezadi even invited us into her cozy little home for the celebration of her childrens’ birthdays.

The area is rich in apricot and apple trees, the latter of which were hanging full with fresh fruits. So when we were wandering around Karimabad, we were often given apples from the peoples’ own gardens as we were passing by. It’s also a relatively liberal and progressive town, where women are allowed to work and able to walk around without a headscarf, with a literacy rate higher than 95% (compared to 55-60% in the rest of Pakistan). Tourism probably played its part, though a lot is also influenced by their religion. There was a sharp contrast in development and education between Karimabad (with a majority of Ismaili Muslims) on one side of the river and Nagar (with a majority of Sunni Muslims) on the other side. The Ismaili follow the Aga Khan, who advocates educating girls before boys, as the women typically stay at home with the kids and are therefore the ones educating their own children, and is a lot more progressive in general than the more conservative spiritual Sunni leaders.
Besides all these political predicaments, there was also plenty of opportunity for socializing. Even though foreign tourism plummeted after 9/11, the Hunza Valley still hosts the occasional over landers, backpackers ánd an increasing amount of domestic tourists. And so we would end up standing on a rooftop at night, sharing stories and a bottle of wine with a mixed group of foreigners and Pakistani, thinking why the hell we can’t all simply get along…

Hike from Pasu to Hussaini
Autumn colors in between Pasu and Hussaini
More autumn between Pasu and Hussaini
Batura glacier near Pasu
Pasu street
Autumn colors in Pasu
Hunza river near Pasu
Suspension bridge near Pasu
Hotel Karimabad
Goat in Karimabad
Way to Altit
Mountain view in Karimabad
Cat in Altit
Linda and cat in Altit
Lal and Linda

Lal and her children

“This man is very old”

China, October 2016

The Karakorum Highway (KKH for short) is said to be one of the highest and most beautiful roads in the world. It connects Kashgar in the far west of Xinjiang China, with Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan, boasting one of the highest border crossings in the world over the Kunjerab Pass at a whopping 4700 meter altitude. We decided to try and hitchhike it.

We had a good start in Kashgar, walking off in the wrong direction, but at least it gave us a last glimpse of the cities’ >20-meter high Mao statue. We didn’t check, but it must be one of the tallest still standing statues of a former dictator to ever be erected. We couldn’t help but think the Uyghur might rather see a statue of Hitler in its place (see our previous blog entry), but they wouldn’t have any possibility to tear Mao down to begin with, as there was a small army of heavily armored police stationed right across.

We had our own mission on our minds though and turned around to head back into the right direction to the KKH. We didn’t have to wait long to catch our first rides, but there was a strong wind coming up and as we got further out into the countryside, it turned into a full-blown sand storm. At one point it was so extreme, that we couldn’t see more than 20 meters in front of us. We figured it would be impossible to get a ride in the midst of this storm, but when the first car doomed up, we were happily surprised to see it stop. We must have looked like bandits, with our faces covered up in our hoodies, scarves and sunglasses. It hadn’t scared the driver through, who had already picked up a couple before us: the first hitchhikers we had seen in China! With the four of us squeezed together in the back, we were relieved to escape the horizontally flying sand blasting across our face. Andrea and Aaron (their English names) were two friends on a trip through Xinjiang and were planning to go to Tashkurgan.

When we told them about our goal to visit Karakul Lake, Andrea and Aaron got excited to join us. We had fun ánd a surprising amount of success, hitchhiking in our group of four. First in the back of a water melon truck and then with the friendliest guy, who happened to have some friends who lived in the small village of Subaxcun next to the Karakul Lake: Tusunjan (Uyghur) and Kaule (Kyrgyz). They were working on a nearby project as electricians, but they had to work only one day per week. So most of the time the both of them were either sleeping or watching tv, which left them with little time to clean their house. They acted seemingly unimpressed by our surprise group visit and indifferently agreed to host us for the night. Tusunjan did seem rather impressed with Jeroen’s height though and when Jeroen answered he is almost 2 meters tall, Tusunjan turned to Linda with a big smile, raising his thumb, with Kaule nodding to Linda in approval.

We decided to check out the local shop to buy some food and while Andrea and Aaron were eying the instant noodle selection, we carefully put forward the suggestion to make a little stir-fry. When we grabbed some garlic, Andrea asked at us with big eyes: “you know how to prepare that?”, which we took as our cue to propose to do the cooking. We found Tusunjan and Kaule the way we left them, lying in their beds, snacking on some peanuts, with the tv blasting in the background. We took the loud slurping and smacking sounds that Andrea and Aaron were producing as a compliment for our Chinese style food (check out our film section for an impression).

With the coal oven burning hot and no real proper air ventilation, it felt a bit cramped with the six of us squeezed into the small single room. Half dazed by the warmth and the low oxygen, we tiredly positioned ourselves on the floor in the corner, next to the coal oven, half underneath the side table with the tv set. Unfortunately, Tusunjan and Kaule had a friend stop by who initiated a late night drinking session. With the tv ringing above our heads, the drunken cries from the vodka pounding men at our feet and our throats aching from the coal fumes on our left, we briefly considered to break out our tent and sleep in the cold, but with the temperature outside below zero we decided to grab some earplugs and stick it out.

We had fun exploring the lake the next morning, observing the peculiarities of the many yaks that populated the area (you can find a short clip in our film section). The lake provides a stunning view of the glaciated Muztagh Alta summit (7509 meters). Apparently, a Swedish explorer was the first to try and climb the mountain at the end of the 19th century on the back of a yak! Unfortunately, the yak died and with it the expedition. Those yaks can climb though, so we couldn’t help but wonder whether the yak would have made it without the fat Swede on his back…

Either way, we had to get a move on if we wanted to make it to Tashkurgan in time. So after a local breakfast of yak milk tea and bread at a neighboring family’s house we made our way back to the KKH. This time around, the four of us had to split as the first car that stopped had only space for two. After a quick round of “you first”, “no you first”, we hopped into the car and could once again gaze in amazement at the beautiful scenery unfold as we continued our journey further south. We shared our ride with two girls who had taken a private taxi from Kashgar to explore the area at the Tajik border. They were incredibly helpful to us, stopping cars along the way to find us a ride to Tashkurgan. Unfortunately with no success, but we managed to find a new ride quick enough. We even picked up yet another couple of Chinese hitchhikers along the way, apparently this part of the ancient Silk Route is a favored tourist destination for the Chinese.

When we rolled up in Tashkurgan, we were a little disappointed to see the only hostel in town closed. Luckily, we were quick enough to find a hotel that accepted non-Chinese citizens (not many do) and managed to negotiate a good price. Andrea and Aaron would join us there about two hours later. Tashkurgan functions as a border city with Pakistan, where you have to be cleared through customs before you can continue your journey. The city is mostly populated by Tajiks who are an Iranian people and don’t resemble the Uyghur or Han in their appearance. Their traditional clothing differs as well, with (some of) the women wearing beautifully long colored dresses and embroidered round hats with a scarf across and (some of) the men wearing traditional round black sheep skin hats. The men also greet each other in the most peculiar way: they kiss each other on the inside of the palms of the hand.

From Tashkurgan, it’s still more than 100km to the actual border, but hitchhiking is not allowed, so we had to take a bus to Sost, the next nearest town in Pakistan. When we left our hotel in the morning, we asked the manager for directions to the bus station. Outside, he spotted two Pakistani men, who immediately offered to escort us there. First, they wanted to have some breakfast though, assuring us that we would have plenty of time to get to the bus station. We were a little on edge, because we were leaving on a Friday, the border is closed during the weekend and our visa would expire on Sunday. So if we would miss the bus or if the bus would be fully booked, we wouldn’t be able to leave until Monday, at which point our visa would be expired. The younger of the two men reassured us though. While pointing at his friend, he told us in a very self-explanatory way: “this man is very old”. We waited for him to finish the rest of his sentence, but he already had. We guess “old” means wise in Pakistan, although his friend didn’t look any older than mid fifty, so we weren’t thát reassured. It turned out we had nothing to worry about though. The “old man” had clearly done this many times before, as he managed to always lead us to exactly the right spot in exactly the right moment. We moved completely stress-free through customs, with our guide securing us the best possible seats in the bus in the midst of stressed out Pakistani businessmen dragging and tossing around the Chinese merchandise they were transporting back to their home country.

From there, we could sit back and relax, while watching the undulating meadows and white mountain peaks glide past, as we climbed higher and higher to an ever more rugged and snow covered terrain. When we finally made it to the top of the Kunjerab Pass, the bus erupted in loud jubilations, with the businessmen scanting “Pakistan, Pakistan!”. The joyfulness didn’t last long though, as right in front of us, a minibus had slipped off the snow-covered tracks and had tumbled onto its side on a small plateau about two meters below. The businessmen quickly ran towards the vehicle. Some to assist the obviously shaken but unharmed women in getting out of their predicament, most to take a selfie with the flipped bus in the background. When everybody had calmed down from this sudden excitement, we resumed our trip down the same snowy road, which made our heart beat a little faster. Fortunately, the roads cleared up soon enough, so that we could enjoy the spectacular views of the Karakorum Range once more, boasting some of the highest mountains in the world.

In Sost, we were not able to get cash from any of the ATMs, but a local shopkeeper was willing to exchange our last Chinese Yuan for Pakistan Rupees. From here, we went further down the KKH to the nearby village Pasu, looking out through the window with a peaceful bliss from the warm afternoon sunlight caressing the long dry gently waving grass in the running hills, turning it into glistering sterns of fluid gold. The area carried a mystic beauty that instantly took away any worries we might have about our trip through Pakistan…

Hitchhiking in a sandstorm on the KKH
Bulungkol lake
Andrea (right) and Aaron (left) in Subaxcun
Baby Yak at Karakul Lake
Hitching from Subaxcun to Tashkurgan
In the bus from Tashkurgan to Sost
KKH towards the Kunjerab Pass
Autumn in Pasu in Pakistan