PAKISTAN – Hunza to Islamabad
We wake up early to leave the Eagles Nest and start our 110km journey to Gilgit, leaving the Hunza valley behind us. We pass lots of Chinese workers on some very uneven roads.
As we drive down the road a man frantically jumps out to stop our car. It seems there is about to be a blast. The man hides behind a large rock and wonder if we should move back further. A minute later there is a loud blast, with dust and rock thrown everywhere. The local workers are currently blasting away the cliff face to repair the road.
The road we are on is being completely rebuilt by the Chinese. They have ripped up all the tarmac and left a gravel track, in most places it is bumpy and rocky and with each passing car, we are swamped in a cloud of dust.
We stop to view a suspension bridge in Gilgit, the bridge itself is not anchored to the road side and swings in all directions. It is narrow and weak so only one car is allowed over at a time. At the end there is a very small tunnel, too small for us to cross.
We arrive in Gilgit and notice on the main road into the town there is an army checkpoint. We find that at every main crossing, there are armed army officers. We are told this is because sectarian violence often erupts.
We visit our guide’s home where we are treated to tea, chips and samosas; the guide tells us that in the villages the people are happy with what they have as most are not too aware of the outside world. He also tells us that during the women’s “special” time of the month the women are sent to another house until they ‘recover’.
Friendly Polo Match
Our guide arranges for us to see the local polo match. It is a friendly between the police; we are given probably the best seats in the stadium, on soft chairs (the only ones there) in the middle of the main stand.
The style of polo played here is known as “Freestyle Polo”, there are no rules and no umpires, although there is a panel of judges. The players are allowed to hit the others player’s sticks and can even pull them off their horse if they catch the ball. This is the game Genghis Khan and Tamerlane played (allegedly with the heads of their enemies).
A game consists of two 30 minute chukkas(halves), with a 10 minute break. Players are not allowed to use remounts. If your horse is injured, you retire along with your opposite number. If your horse is judged unable to continue, you are expected to play on, on foot.
During half time I was given the honour of throwing the ball into the field.
After the Polo we head to a local garage to have the bushes and brakes checked, both front bushes had gone but it only cost 600rp (£4.50) to replace them.
We arrive at our hotel , to find that the power is out all over the city, and there is no hot water. However we do have a nice meal there, chow mein and Biriani.
In the morning we decide to change hotels; although the previous one was cheap, the generator was not powerful enough to keep the lights and heating on during the night. We go the local PTDC, which costs us 1500rp per night, the rooms are basic, but clean with heating and TV.
We go to visit a beautiful rock engraving of a Buddha from 7th century A.D. located on a rock near Kargah Nullah (ravine), 10 km from Gilgit. Local legend says that the carved Buddha is actually the image of an Ogress that used to come out to eat local villagers. One day a holy traveller came to the village and when the people told him about the monster he said, “As long as I am here, no one else will be eaten.” The villagers believed him, but they were worried that he would leave. So they killed him and buried his body at the base of the cliff. Islam only came to the region in the 13th century.
In the afternoon we head back to the Polo ground for the Semi finals in the tournament between the villages of Chilas and Skardu. We are again given good seats but this time there seems to be three or four times the number of people compared to yesterday.
This time the match is much faster; in the first half two horses are down leaving only 4 players per team. One team scores whilst a horse is down, and the judges decide not to allow the goal, which causes uproar in the crowds. The people flood on to the pitch opposite the judges, pleading with them to allow the goal. Many others from the stand also make their way towards the judges. The local police pull their sticks out and start to wildly swing them at the crowds who scatter, only to return and be scattered again. In the stands there are lots of armed police, fending back the people. Finally the goal is allowed and the game quickly continues.
At half time we are treated to free snacks, samosas, biscuits and tea! We are told that there will be some entertainment as the spectators pour from the stands leaving a 20 metre gap in the middle of field. The entertainment starts, a single old man starts to dance….. Erm we were expecting more, but are told this is the local tradition, which is quite similar to a slow bangra dance. A second older man then takes over and does his bit. Both the men are fully respected by the local people. We were expecting the entertainment to be a little more exciting, i.e. women in traditional dress, considering the crowds which poured on to the pitch to see it, but we forget that we are in a Muslim state.
As we leave the stadium, the winning team Chilas, pour on to the street. We make our way to our hotel to be told that there would be a party for them held this evening. Unfortunately we find out later on that it was the losing team who had planned a party, and having lost there would not be many celebrations this evening, so we give it a miss and get an early night’s sleep.
We head to Chitral near the Afghan border in the NWF Province. Chitral is about 350Km from Gilgilt and to get there we will have to make it over the Shandur pass. Our guide tells us that at this time of year the pass can close unexpectedly due to snow, and we would have to keep an eye on the weather throughout our journey. Given the road condition and distance we planned to stop for a night in Phander along the way.
As we drive along we see sight of devastation from the flooding; houses half encased in mud and rock and in several places the road has been completely washed away. In addition to this, in one village the main bridge had been washed away. This bridge led to the main school/college in the area which has prevented many people from attending school. In its place is a small pulley that can take one person at a time over the river.
The road is smooth but very narrow, winding along the valley; we drive nonstop for a few hours until we find a fishing spot. We fish for an hour at a beautiful spot on the river- Ayub catches two fish and I catch just one.
We arrive at the bungalows to find no one there. After a 20 minute wait an elderly man arrives, to let us in.
The hotel has little food so we venture into a small village about 5km away, and find a small restaurant to cook our fish, accompanied with a curry and rice.
We return to the hotel to find that there is no hot or even running water in our room. The elderly man offers us some hot water. He points to a large red barrel, with live wires wrapped around some metal to heat the water. It seems they don’t have any health and safety rules here! As we get to our room the electricity goes off in the hotel; it looks as though the main fuse has gone. We have no fuse wire so make one out of a power cable but with each attempt the fuse wire breaks, with sparks going everywhere. Finally we double it up and it seems to work.
We watch TV in the main lounge for a while before heading to bed.
We continue our journey and are told it will take about 8 hours of driving to make it to Chitral. Although it is a Saturday, we see lots of children going to school as it is common in the villages for the kids to go at the weekends also. Along the route we are stopped at many checkpoints where we have to register. Our guide had previously made copies of our details, and so we simply pass these on to the police and move on.
We head up towards the pass and as we leave the last town the road becomes a rough rocky dirt track. As we reach the top we see the polo ground where in the 1930’s, Major Cobb, the British Political Agent of the Northern Areas started playing polo at night when there was a full moon. Because of this the Shandur polo ground came to be referred to as the “Moony Polo Ground”.
We pass the new Polo stadium where every July tens of thousands come for the Polo tournament. People come here during the summer, which must be absolutely beautiful between two peaks and with the mountain lake.
We make it down the pass to a small town; the roads for the past two hours have deteriorated so badly we can hardly drive any faster than 20kmh. There are too many large rocks, narrow roads, road falling away etc. We cross a bridge to drive up a powdery road right on the edge of the cliff. We reach the top and at this point decide that we cannot face another 4 hours of this gruelling journey, just to repeat it in two days time! It would have been ok had there just been a couple of hours left or that we would not have to come back the same way.
We head back but as we reach the powdery road, we drop into to a hole, and powder covers the entire car; we cannot see anything and have to stop and wait for it to settle.
We decide to head back as far as we can. We make it after about 5 hours to Gupis where we find a hotel for the evening.
In the morning we head up to Ishkoman. On route we pass various places where the flooding has left many displaced people. On many occasions small streams have turned into torrents and completely swamped houses with mud and rocks. The people are now are living in tents with little necessities. We do however pass an aid truck preparing piles of wheat, rice and cooking oil for the people.
We reach Ayubs cousins and meet the family before heading off to go fishing, 5 of us in total. We plan to fish on the other side of the river, however due to the recent flooding the bridge was washed away; there in its place is a simple pulley system! We decide to give it a go and cross the river one by one.
We walk along the river bank until we reach a couple of small tents with displaced people in. A small old lady takes my hand and walks us over to her home, consisting of a tent with a few blankets in for their sleeping area. A young woman with two young children is sitting in the other section, with a few cooking pots in front of her. It is hard to imagine how she will cope, after losing her home and left with hardly anything.
We fish for a while but with no luck decide to head back down river whilst fishing all the way. Suddenly I catch a large trout! Ayub also catches one at the same time and a minute later I have another. In total we catch five which will be plenty for dinner!
After fishing we cross the river again by pulley. As we arrive at Ayub cousin’s house we are told they have prepared some snacks and tea for us which goes down well.
To get to Ayub’s village of Dian, we must cross another damaged suspension bridge. It will take the weight of people, but we are unable to drive over it, not only because it’s damaged but the road on the other side has also been washed away. We leave our car at another of our guide’s cousins houses and cross over in the dark. Once at the house we are shown in to a large room which is well decorated. It’s normally used for gatherings but it will be our bedroom for this evening.
We enjoy dinner of trout, curry, and paratha with his brothers and a friend; the friend later on in the night plays a sitre and sings us some traditional songs. The women all eat separately.
In the morning we wake to a nice breakfast and head back to get the car. On route we meet up with a wedding party; the groom is decorated from head to toe, a local tradition.
Our guide has been helping out the flood victims in his area. If you would like to know more please visit his website: http://floods-ishkoman.blogspot.com/
We head back to Gilgit, being Eid in the next couple of days we decide to stay for a few days for some rest and relaxation.
We spend the next few days relaxing in the hotel……
We start our journey from Gilgit to Skardu, around 245km (a 5 hour drive). The road leaving Gilgit is very rough.
A couple of miles down the road we arrive at a historical ambush site where Dard tribes annihilated a contingent of the Kashmir army in 1852 during the rule of Mahraja Ghulab Singh. They pelted their enemy with stones and boulders from above and crushed the trapped soldiers. All attempts to break the siege were foiled, and more than 1000 soldiers were killed; the majority by stones, along with General Bhoop Singh. 200 were taken prisoners and only two escaped to Bunji Garrison by jumping into the Gilgit River to tell the tale of carnage.
We leave the KKH for Skardu, the road is tarmac but quite narrow. Driving at 1600m, the steep rock face meets the Indus River below us. The road hugs the cliff face as we drive along with small waterfalls and streams crossing the road. We find one large waterfall falling right over the road and take the opportunity for a free car wash!
On the other side of the valley we can see large veins of crystal in the rocks, where local people mine for gem stones. Some of the mines are on the sheer rock face and can only be accessed by climbing down the valley.
We arrive in Skardu around 4pm and find a hotel to stay for the evening. The hotel also has the towns newest restaurant which is relatively cheap.
We wake and head to the fort; parking at the bottom of the cliff we follow the steep narrow path upwards. The path is rocky, and on a sheer edge although the views of the town and surroundings are spectacular. We reach the top where we have to climb through a tiny door way to enter the fort. The fort is in a state of disrepair but with lots of large rooms which could hold hundreds of people in times of attack.
After the fort we head to Kachura Lake, a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains. The lake has risen 60m due to the floods-the very top of some trees on a sunken island in the middle of the lake is now all that can be seen. We stop for chai in a local hotel before moving on to the Buddha carvings.
We have difficulty finding the carving and end up driving down a very steep track to cross the valley to where they are. The carvings date back to 8th century AD, and are of a huge Buddha figure surrounded by small Buddhisatvas.
On our way back we decide to take a lower road in the hope it will be easier to traverse. It is a small rough track and our first obstacle is a pile of rocks we manage to get the car over, second is a low power line. About 500m further up we reach men digging up the path… we could get past them but looking up the road we see more problems, the road actually ends and turns into a narrow footpath on the edge of a steep slope. In addition to there being a very large rock pile in the road, we have no choice but to head back. Unfortunately there is no room to turn round and have to navigate all the way back in reverse!
In the morning we head to Chilas, a 350km drive. We stop to take a photo of the suspension bridge but don’t see the ‘photography not permitted’ sign and the guard runs over shouting in Urdu oops! We carry on but lots of speeding coaches cause us to reverse on the narrow roads. The road suddenly gets very windy with lots of sharp turns.
A couple of crazy dogs with a shepherd run towards the car then dart out of the way.
Our guide tells us the people of Chilas are a ‘bit wild’. Or at least they were 20 years ago, but have calmed down now. His grandfather was the ruler/king of Chilas and the surrounding areas, and very successful and brave.
It is rare to see women out in public but when we do, they are dressed in beautiful outfits and colours, sometimes just their eyes showing.
On the KKH we pass the point where the three world famous mountain ranges meet; The Himalayas (means the “Home of Snow”), The Karakoram and The Hindu Kush (means the “Killer of Hindus’’).
As we drive we have views of Nanga Parbat (8125m) also known as Killer Mountain due to the amount of people that have died trying to climb it.
6 and a half hours later, we arrive at the Shangri-La hotel. The room is nice but there is no hot water so have to go to another part of the hotel for a shower. Dinner is good though-chicken with vegetable rice and fries!
Wake up and drive the 350kmto Abbottabad . This part of the KKH was built by 5000 Chinese, 500 of whom died as a result of rockfalls and landslides etc. and 10000 Pakistani frontier work organization. They are building a dam to provide more electricity for the city. In ten years time, the hotel we will be staying at tonight will be under water.
We pass the village of Pattan, where in 1985, a devastating earthquake took 10,000 lives.
The police again want to give us an escort but our guide say no need, as they will just slow us down and it is safe during the day time. As we drive along the road a pickup truck pulls in front of us. It’s a group of police. We drive past and they start to follow. We continue to drive normally, about 40-50mph, which is too fast for them over the bumps. We stop at a petrol station where they catch us up, and explain they are our escort and had been waiting for us. They continue with us through the next town. As we pull in to the town, another police pickup pulls in front of us; we now have an escort in front and behind. As we leave the town the escort behind drops back and we are left with just one escort again. The escort stays with us for a while and disappears from my rear view mirror.
As we approach the next town I see two persons on a bike with guns. In my wing mirror, I see them turn around to follow us. They have problems keeping up, but when they do, I realise it is another couple of police who are meant to be our escorts. Having driven quite fast over bumps, on bumpy roads and through quite large puddles on the road, the policemen look a bit ravaged after the ordeal they have just been through!
We reach Abbottabad as the sun is setting, now driving through pine forests, and find a cheap hotel to stay in. We go out for a nice dinner in the Kabul restaurant.
Drive to Islamabad.
Martin & Nicole