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Cabins of the Smoky Mountains

Wacky Packi Northern Pakistan

Yazgel-Tent-KarakoramThe mere notion of coming to this country might send shudders up ones spine. But after my 2 months in Pakistan, the chills would be be because I’m so excited about the prospect of returning to one of the most beautiful countries one Earth.

The initial excitement of entering the country via the dramatic Karakoram Highway subsides eventually, but a contentedness of being amidst the cool climes, stunning geography & welcoming locals sets in. As to your burning questions about safety, I’ve rarely felt more relaxed than I did here. The mellow vibe was clear the moment I crossed from China to Pakistan over the Khunjerab (which means “River of Blood” from its days as a favorite spot for Silk Road bandits) Pass. The only physical danger I experienced was a sore face from smiling too much. I don’t buy the line about frowning using more muscles.

Hunza: Where worlds collide

This valley and its side valleys formed by countless glaciers and a tributary of the Indus caught my attention upon arrival and wouldn’t let go for 3 weeks. Stunning steep mountains formed where the Indo-Pak & Australasian plates meet are the youngest on Earth. Abundant freshwater springs may be the reason people here have been known to commonly live beyond 100 years. The best apricots I’ve ever tasted, likely another factor in the robust health of the populace, were being harvested during my visit. Lucky me!

The high elevation (2-3000 meters) provided relief from the crippling heat that engulfs most of Asia during the summer. Content to kick back& watch the elaborately decorated cargo trucks roll by, I resisted the allure of of trails in the mountains for nearly a week. But once while looking for spring water I stumbled upon a small lake and suddenly heard a loud crash. A huge chunk of earth plunged into the water as I realized I was looking at the snout (terminus) of a glacier. It’s no exaggeration to say that glaciers & 20,000-foot+ peaks are often visible in every direction.

What not to feed your goat

Although not the suggested way to learn about goat nutrition lifting and squeezing your goat is effective and may also produce hilarious results. At the Passu Peak Inn, my 1st stop in Pakistan, the friendly owner, Akbar, is nursing an injured goat back to health in a small pen out back. An Aussie traveler thought it would be cute to pick up “the loneliest goat in the world” like a house pet when we stopped by to visit. When he set it down looked down to see that he was COVERED in milky brown goat squirts. We later learned that Akbar had fed the goat some leftovers of the local spicy lentil dish called “dahl”.

Two black eyes and smiling

The local people of this region are said to be the friendliest in Pakistan and I believe it. Composed of several tribes long separated by imposing natural barriers, the area was made part of the country so recently that the people don’t even call themselves Pakistanis. The “Hunzakut” as they call themselves often protect their kids from evil spirits (which are thought to enter thru the eyes) by applying black eye make up. Whether it actually wards off evil spirits is unclear, but it sure makes the kids look cute.

“Smoke ‘em out…”

I’ve heard that infidels are sometimes stoned in militant Muslim areas, but this is not what I had in mind. Outside my window in Karimabad loom 2 massive snow-caps whose summits were beacons of majesty every morning when I awoke. Between my window and the view is a nice little deck for relaxing out of the sun. And for those who want to get reeealy relaxed, there’s a large indica marijuana plant providing extra shade. (I chose to go in the opposite direction enjoying a rare treat – real cappuccino at the luxurious Cafe de Hunza.) In addition to the opium poppies one often sees, numerous pot plants dot the landscape of this country in which alcohol is forbidden. Not sure if it’s what Prez’dint Dubya meant when he said we root out all al Qaeda operatives in the region (“we’ll smoke them outta their holes”), but from the amount of success he’s had thus far maybe it would be a better idea. You catch more flies with honey…

Riding High

No, this isn’t related to the previous section. Early in my time in Pakistan I’ve learned that the best way to travel along the KKH is on top of the minibuses. Instead of being shoehorned into the crowded van, I kick back, stretch out, and enjoy the views. The locals seem to enjoy the sight of me perched on high like Granny Clampett as well. But it’s not for the faint of heart. Sheer drops often flank the road. Worse still, skyscrapers of rock tower above ready to erode themselves onto the road at any time. I like the freedom I enjoy to abandon ship were I to sense danger on either front.

Team Iran climbs Diran with honkey donkeys

Minapin Glacier, wedged between two 7000-meter+ giants, Diran and Rakaposhi, has some nice alpine forests nearby to provide a pleasant break from the largely barren arid terrain that covers much of northern Pak. The plan was to do a 5-day trek which included crossing the glacier’s dangerous width. Dispelling my idea of what glaciers look like- a fairly smooth large slab of ice- sharp dramatic shards often protrude up and deep fissures drop down into a chilly dark abyss. Due to a couple large expeditions on the mountain at the same time, my friend and I wound up with the dregs of the local gene pool. We chose not to risk life and limb on the glacier with our 15-year-old porter/guide and instead enjoyed tossing my frisbee around with the Iranian climbers. The Iranian’s small army of porters brought with them around 15 donkeys who did their best to keep me from sleeping- HAAAW-HEEE- but I’d learned in China to always keep earplugs handy. Strange that the only time I’ve needed them in this country was while camping in the mountains 10K from the nearest road.

A brief treatise on trekking

Relaxation combined with concentration. Entertainment mixed with participation. Extreme exertion followed by languid stasis. Natural beauty interrupted only by remote tribal culture. No other activity comes close to providing the type of experience that comes with a trek.

Essentially a term invented to mean glamorized hiking, trekking has actually developed its own personality. Multi-day journeys often require the use of porters and guides, which in Pakistan are well within the budget. It’s especially nice that the porters speak enough English to translate when encountering local herders and other villagers en route. Mine were able to inform me that a herd of over 100 goats get milked twice a day and they all have names! Hence this region, with its abundant wildlife, countless towering peaks and sprawling glaciers is likely the ideal locale for those with a taste for long nature walks.

Glacier madness and rolling stones

The visit to Shimshal Valley was one that almost didn’t happen. In the past a 4-day trek was required to reach the village (although locals have been known to do it it ONE), but now all that’s required is a little luck surrounding a certain orange jeep. I’d already waited one full day once before for the jeep that never came & was a few hours into the waiting game when I decided to head to the big city (Gilgit) instead of watching a 2nd day pass by. After failing to hail several vehicles in the opposite direction, the jeep to Shimshal rolls up. I shrug, smile, & hop in.

It was the right decision. The next 6 days were some of the best in all of my numerous days of travel. The road into the valley, which had been completed just 8 months earlier, is an attraction itself. Clinging to sheer rock cliffs in spots and rumbling over the end of immense rock slides in others, I found it more impressive than the KKH which many hail as “the 8th wonder of the world.” I’d been fortunate to meet a couple students in Karimabad who were looking to make some extra cash while home on vacation from college in Islamabad. The 3-day trek included camping on the side of a glacier which we crossed the following morning. The other exhilarating activity was going down a steep rockslide around 2 kilometers in length. The 10-minute descent is most easily accomplished by pointing straight down and essentially running before the tiny avalanche catches you from behind. My food & lodging in the village were provided at the students’ family home as there was too little tourism to date to support the building of a guesthouse. One is in the works for next year’s tourist season but I’m grateful to have made it as early in the fledgling stages of tourism as I did.

They’ll have your cake and eat it too

A return to Passu before heading to Shimshal provided a chance to eat at the Glacier Breeze which hails itself as a 4-star restaurant yet one can gorge himself for under 2 bux. Their famous and carefully guarded recipe for apricot cake is one of the highlights of the dining experience. A friend and I ordered entrees and asked that our cakes be delivered after the meal. Some time later, a German family returned from an outing and ordered cakes for everyone. Shortly thereafter, the waiter informs us that there is only one piece of cake remaining for the 2 of us. I defer to my Aussie friend as he was less satisfied with his meal. Moments later we learn that all 6 pieces of cake were consumed by the 5 Germans after we had ordered ours. I only know the virtues of the cake because I stopped by at a later date. Poor Aussie. You really missed out, Mate!

Impromptu Sidetrip Fiasco

Once finally in a town big enough to have internet, I was fully prepared to lay low for 3-4 days. But when a (different) German family offered me a seat in their jeep to a region not serviced by public transport, I could find to good reason to refuse. Many hours on bad roads thru Pakistani-controlled Kashmir to an area where I spotted wild jackals was the highlight of the journey. The jeep didn’t agree. First the windshield wipers failed. A quick stop resolved that. Then the cooling system started leaking. Many stops to splash cold water in and around the radiator seemed to take care of that. Then the transmission fell apart. But it was merely the 4WD that was lost. As long as the rain didn’t become too heavy that shouldn’t be a major issue. Then a brief stop revealed that a hose clamp had fallen off. After that’s really when the wheels came off. Literally. We were lucky we didn’t careen off the road.

On the Deosai Plateau, perhaps the most remote part of Pakistan, setting out on foot in search of food was the only option. Many miles of walking with a heavy load and a hitchhike later I finally reached the campground, but they discontinued their food service as of this year. An awesome meteor shower served as dinner for the night. The next morning more walking amongst the marmots squeaking all around and a lucky hitch got me to a camp with food. Later that day more walking in the hot sun and a bumpy 3-hour ride in a tractor got me to civilization in time for the Independence Day celebration in the town of Skardu. Hundreds of men and boys and a small girl or two took to the streets chanting and waving Pakistani flags, many of which were emblazoned with Mickey Mouse. The next day a long, hot bus ride brought me back to Gilgit where I began. The 2-day sojourn had taken twice that long.

Coming down to earth

Reluctantly I finally left Pakistan’s visually stunning north which boasts the highest concentration of high peaks and glaciers in the world. Despite waiting as long as possible for the summer heat to subside before descending from the mountains, the lower reaches were still far too scorching for my liking. Temperatures regularly reach 50 degrees in this region (we’re talking CELSIUS, people; I don’t think Fahrenheit thermometers even go that high). The scary thing is that whilst I slimed my way through each melting day, people regularly said, “This is nothing compared to a week or 2 ago.”

NOlympics

An estimated 4 billion people worldwide saw the opening ceremony & other parts of his summer’s Athens Olympics. The people of the world’s 5th most populous country weren’t among them. Try as I might, I caught not one moment of Olympic coverage on TV -not even any highlights- as the interests of the locals dictate the programming. Their message is loud and clear: We don’t give a damn. Pakistan did send a few athletes to Greece, but failed to capture even a bronze in any of the events. That means this nation of 170 million+ had to look up the medal board at such powerhouses as Eritrea, Mongolia, Syria, and Trinidad & Tobago. (To their defense, Pakistan’s arch-rival India, with a population over 5 times its size, managed only one medal.)

No, Pakistanis are more concerned about games with names that sound like an insect (cricket), vegetable (squash), or designer brand (polo). Even sports that sound like sports aren’t what we think they are (they say simply “hockey” when referring to FIELD hockey). Not exactly your sports-lovers’ paradise, this, but I’ll admit that watching my 1st-ever live polo and field hockey matches here were more interesting than watching the Chinese incessantly playing badminton…without a net.

Writing home about nothing to write home about

The initial novelty of the cuisine of Pakistan has long since worn off and hence I’ve decided that the food is one of the lowlights of travel here. The tortilla-like chapati or “puffy tortilla” nan bread was nice the 1st few times but becomes tough to swallow when it’s almost all there is to eat. In some smaller towns I’ve come to not ask restaurants if they have an English menu or what they have to eat but more simply, “Do you have food?” Remote regions ask that dinner (which is served around 8PM) is ordered by 3:30 PM! So as you’re chewing those last few bites of lunch, it’s time to think about dinner.

When eating IS an option often only the most simple foods are available. Rice, chapati and “vegetable” (that is, POTATOES) counted as dinner on more than one occasion. Sometimes an actual vegetable like okra or spinach turns up, or maybe dahl or chickpeas for some much-needed protein. Meat kebabs can be plentiful in bigger towns & cities, but in small towns and villages, it feels a bit like prison food (i.e.:bread & water). But instead of water people drink a boiled milk tea loaded with sugar called “chai”. For someone like me who, back home, many of you know, generally avoids wheat & never consumes milk products, it’s rough going. Not sure which dislikes the fare more: my body or my palette. One night after not impolitely refusing a dish made from “curd”, goats’ milk cheese, I was kept awake by a steady procession of gutter balls in the bowling alley of my stomach. Another time I couldn’t help but laugh about the ferocity of my relentless turbo flatulence. And, yes, it gets worse, but I’ll spare you further details.

A diamond in the rough is a bottled mango juice drink called Shezan which may be my favorite beverage on the planet. On hot days (that is, EVERYday) I can drink 2 & think about a 3rd. Its availability has made more sufferable the fact that I arrived at the very end of the mango season when the price goes up as the quality goes down. A few trips to Chinese restaurants in the capital were welcome deviations from the norm, but the cost was 4 times that of local food and 6 times what comparable food would cost in China. Didn’t think I’d miss much about China but the food there was perhaps the best thing about the country.

Funny you mention it, because it TASTES like ass

The cuisine in Madyan, Swat Valley was particularly poor. I jumped at a chance to eat kebabs instead of a ladle of mystery meat stew. “Gimme FIVE!” Not until a few bites in did I inquire about the kind of meat it was. “Chicken,” someone says. “I believe you call it the buttocks.” I didn’t want to know any more as the taste alone had already brought me close to gagging. I try to never waste food, but this time I quietly paid and walked away without finishing my barbecued chicken anus.

Kalash: Inland island cultural refuge

One highlight of any trip to NW Pakistan is a visit to the Kalash Valleys. A small pocket of 3000 people remain from what was once a much larger culture. Near the middle of a Muslim part of the world around the size of Australia, these people have managed to preserve their unique pagan lifestyle against the odds. Their name translated as “black infidels” due to the color of their traditional clothing and “heretical” beliefs in the eyes of Islam. Although the men dress like Muslim Pakistanis, the women embellish their black robes with colorful spangles and often have tattooed faces. I was fortunate to have talked with the tribe’s chief to have arrived in time for the Utchal festival celebrating the wheat and barley harvests. Mirth and merriment abound while drumming, chanting and a circular dance procession go on late into the night and resume the following day.

The landscape is also special with 1000-year-old cedar trees littering the surrounding hills. Not far upstream one finds the border with Afghanistan on the other side of which many Kalash were -mostly forcibly- converted to Islam by the Muslims of Nuristan. I couldn’t resist a walk in the area despite warning from other Muslims that the Nuristani Afghanis were “no good”. This was the only time in my years of travel that I’ve ever masked my nationality. The cloak of ancestry made it feel like I wasn’t even lying. Instead of risking a dangerous confrontation, when some asked me, “German?”, I simply said, “Yes, my family comes from Germany.”

Top 5 Pakistani Greetings

On a related note, local people invariably want to know the origin of tourists in Pakistan. They may beat around the bush by saying 1 or 2 other things 1st, but the query is always forthcoming. Below I list the lines I find most amusing, not listed in order of frequency.

5) Your good name?
4) Your country? (the direct approach)
3) Hello, my dear! (Used by men speaking to me, other men)
2) How are you fine?
1) You from Japan? (asked of even the most Caucasian-looking people)

Alcotourism

The highlight of many Pakistanis’ visit to the Kalash Valleys is the chance to leer at women exposing themselves. Well, their heads and necks anyway. They still wear long dresses with long sleeves, but Kalasha women don’t don headscarves like 99% of Pakistani women. But an even bigger draw for many is the opportunity to get drunk. Muslim countries of course enforce a total ban of all alcoholic beverage, so the availability of liquor in this non-Muslim region in a big deal. Sure, their Islamic beliefs still forbid them to drink, but that doesn’t stop them or even slow them down. Sloshed Muslims aren’t hard to spot throughout the day and night. Although it may sound funny the reality is that it’s rather sad. Full-grown men behaving like stupid, obnoxious teenagers is not a pretty sight. Some Muslims who live in the area have the telltale swollen red proboscis of full-blown alcoholics whose only relief will be an early death.

If only converting to the metric system was that easy

I often get asked if I’m Muslim due largely to the rather robust beard I sport of late. So in case I failed to mention it earlier, I should report that, yes, I’m Muslim now. Yeah, one day in Madyan I was sitting around in the shade awaiting the inevitable crowd to gather around me chatting with the brave pioneers who approached 1st. (As in other remote parts of Asia the trick is to keep moving -no matter how slowly- if you’re not in the mood to be surrounded.) The region is largely Pashtun, an ethnic group from the Afghan border areas known for its more fundamentalist views on Islam. An older man sits down & we chat as best we can without knowing each other’s language. Soon the guy wants me to repeat some phrases in Arabic or whatever which I did solely to amuse and appease. Only later when we found an English speaker did I learn that it was the oath of Islam. The good news is that one can’t be tricked into converting, so my oath isn’t binding. It might make St. Peter scratch his head though.

Peshawar: Modern-day wild west

The frontier town in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan is the real deal. Lawlessness pervades the air despite a large number of machine guns in public view, most of which are in the hands of uniformed government agents. The Khyber Pass, for which one needs an armed escort, and the Dara gun market are big draws for many foreign tourists, but I gave these comparatively pricey options a miss. The way I see it Americans get enough exposure to weaponry as it is. The bustling streets of the Old City & the smuggler’s bazaar provided enough adventure for me. The latter is stocked with goods trucked duty-free from Kabul. For a fraction of the normal cost one can pick up a wide array of basic housewares or bigger-ticket items like laptop computers. If you’re so disposed, there are several vendors pushing other “specialty items” like Viagra, hashish, and counterfeit bills. For the record all I bought was a few knives and a beard trimmer for around 5 bucks. When I was allowed past the sign reading “No foreigners allowed past this point”, things got a bit scary. Guns everywhere held by crazy Taliban looking dudes staring at me and smiling and no emergency exit in sight. Some uniformed dudes quickly grabbed me and tried to escort me out in their truck, but I instinctively refused the kind offer (anyone seen “Mystic River”?) as I sauntered out the way I came. Many of you might be surprised to learn that I easily procured my (genuine/non-counterfeit) absentee ballot for the upcoming US election from the US consulate at the heart of this seemingly anarchic environment.

No, you haven’t seen a ghost, part 2

As one approaches Peshawar a phenomenon occurs with increasing regularity. Phantasmagorical bodies float by in the bazaars yet no one seems to notice. It turns out these figures aren’t apparitions, but actual living creatures rarely glimpsed in this part of the world. The scientific name for these animals? Female humans. The colorful exoskeleton these woman don is known as a “burka”. Despite the fall of the Taliban and its laws requiring them, sales of this garb continue unabated in this region. Why someone would choose to restrict their vision and trap their body heat under a mobile tent is beyond my imagination. Religious fundamentalism continues to make headway in this country whose government figures put the literacy rate under 40%. But the true figure is likely under 20%. Of course women are almost always less educated so perhaps only 5% of them can read. I guess that might explain it.

Wacky Paki’s Islam

You may have been waiting for a no-holds-barred take on the story behind the scenes in a Muslim country. Religious customs discourage people wearing shorts despite that this is the hottest country in Asia. There’s more to it than women in burkas, men sporting pajama-like shalwar kameez (the unofficial uniform of Pakistan worn by roughly 97% of the men), & some of the zaniest beards one can imagine. Of course, instead of a Gideon’s bible in hotel rooms, one finds a straw mats for the requisite prayer 5 times/day. But wait! Here’s my

Top 5 hard-to-believe Pakistani Muslim behaviors

5) Bus roulette: The gymnastics performed on city busses (more like mini vans, really)whenever a woman wants to board can be quite elaborate. She is only allowed to sit next to her husband, other women, or alone. The front sections of larger busses actually have a fence cordoning off the women’s seats from the hands of sleazy men.

4) Halal meat: To label meat “halal”, the only meat Muslims are allowed to eat, involves a complex series of chores. One must slaughter the animal while facing Mecca, chanting things like “God (Allah) is great.” And of course pigs can’t ever have been killed in that location. Oh, but wild pigs (boar) doesn’t count as a pig for some reason.

3) Cleanliness: Word has it that if during toilet visits even one drop of urine gets on one’s clothing it must be washed. This also applies if one touches (or is touched by) a dog. Cats are cool though.

2) Arranged marriage: Still de rigueur in Pakistan for the sat majority of the population (95%?). One family even forced a woman to marry a man with Downs syndrome. And of course the youth are expected to keep their virginity until the momentous day which for many doesn’t happen until their THIRTIES.

1) Wake up calls: One of the first things one notices in Muslim countries are the loud megaphones blasting every few hours from atop mosques. This is of course the call to prayer which most Muslims do 5 times/day. One of those 5 times is the “pre-dawn” prayer where the chanting states (in Arabic) “prayer is better than sleep.” I’ve been jolted awake by this as early as 3:43 AM. The chanting is sometimes done by men or boys who are tone-deaf resulting in something resembling drunken a Capella karaoke.

Moving Onward

An ostentatious flag-lowering ceremony at the only border crossing between India and Pakistan might have been more charged than usual due to the fact that the 2 countries’ teams were currently playing against one another in the world championship of cricket. It was a fitting way to exit one and enter the other. (For the record, Pakistan won in a tight match).

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