Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
149Trip End Ongoing
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It's been a while, and memories shift and fade, but I shall try to begin at the beginning and work from there.
Once back on the KKH, I had to face the dreaded Indus Kohistan. This region, basically everything between Islamabad and Gilgit, has a reputation among travelers in general and cyclists in particular, for hostile locals. Children throwing rocks and other projectiles is an inconvenience not limited to any particular country, but to particular children. My luck has been fairly good, and only three previous occasions spring to mind: in England, Egypt and India. But in Indus Kohistan, according to conventional wisdom, the parents join in. And stand above the road so rocks too big to throw can be utilised. A scene from Lord Of The Flies springs to mind...
The ride itself was no joke either. The road climbed inconsistently, undulating so that for every 100m altitude gain I had to climb 200m. The sun blazed. From about an hour after sunrise until sunset the heat was unrelenting. And there was no shade. For the first couple of days villages were fairly regular; streams waterfalled in cool showers onto the roadside, providing the only relief (and wash) available until Gilgit. The upper section of IK was bare, baked rock. Absorbing and re-emitting the scorching heat of the sun, reflecting it's blinding light and offering no relief. The streams dried up. The greenery disappeared.
The Indus though! Another of the worlds great rivers! Another romantic idea of a place, like the Nile and even the Danube were. It's brown, which I didn't expect, laden with silt from the karakoram mountains. Being constricted by the rocky terrain it flows fast and foamy until it reaches the plains of northern Punjab. All along the first section of KKH I was accompanied by the muted thunder of the descending torrent.
With all this to look forward too, it was naturally with some trepidation (and three 1.5 liter bottles of water) that I set off from Manserah. As it transpired, and not in stark contrast with previous nuggets of received wisdom, Indus Kohistan was not populated exclusively by would-be murderers. There were a couple of stone lobbing kids, and since they use the same skill to drive their cattle, and play cricket every spare second, they were capable of surprisingly long and accurate throws. But for every stone thrown there was a kid who would run behind the bike, put his shoulder to a pannier and push me up the hill for 100m, just for fun. The biggest irritant for me was the incessant refrain of "One pen! One pen!" from every child who saw me. Do I look like a mobile stationers? I should be sponsored by WHSmith.
On the second day out of Manserah, I stopped for a drink at a petrol station 5km from my intended destination. The kiosk was manned by a couple of kids in blue shalwars who took typically keen interest in me and the bike. Their English was limited, and my Urdu non-existant, but it quickly became clear that I was being invited to stay the night.
I was dubious about their authority to make this offer, but was eventually persuaded at least to loiter until the offer could be reiterated by the kids' father, Mohammed (it may seem like everyone I met in Pakistan was called Mohammed. This is because everyone in Pakistan is called Mohammed). I was taken to what I was assured were the families guest quarters; two rooms on one side of a small courtyard. I sat on a charpoy reading until the father appeared. He confirmed my invitation, and seemed sincere, so I relaxed and abandonned my backup plan. However, it quickly became clear that my stay was not entirely convenient.
Three traders had arranged to meet in the room that I was assigned to discuss the purchase of some pipes, if I understood correctly. I lay on a bed and tried to be inconspicuous. Before long dinner was brought, having been prepared, presumably, by a woman somewhere in another building. Delicious local rice, chicken karahi, palak and salad provided the best meal I ate in Pakistan. After dinner, Mohammed explained that his brother was coming home that evening, after three months in South Africa, making me feel even more of a burden. This is why I very rarely accept random offers of hospitality.
"What was your brother doing in S. Africa?"
"He was having meetings with our Islamic brothers."
I wasn't sure how keen I should be to meet this man, clearly at least devout. Devotion has a reputation, in Indus Kohistan. This concern was irrelevant. He was coming, I was there. We would meet.
When he eventually appeared, the first thing I noticed about him was his smart, well trimmed, brilliant white beard. A beard is more than mere ornament, in Pakistan. Having a network of spies and informants consisting of two fourteen-year olds reading backpacker blogs, British intelligence assesses the level of Islamic extremism in the Pakistani armed services by watching their passing-out ceremonies and counting how many new recruits have beards. Ahmed was a tall, imposing man who looked young to have a white beard.
We were introduced in due course, and Mohammed, Ahmed, and four friends took seats in the courtyard for the post-trip debrief. Eventually I was brought into the conversation.
"I'm Tim. I was riding past and your brother kindly invited me to stay the night."
"Pleased to meet you."
"I hear you were in South Africa?"
"Yes, I was there to discuss Islamic principles with our Islamic brothers. I've also spent three months in Ghana. Do you know Ghana?"
"Well... as it happens-"
"We were travelling around, people were coming from the villages wanting to become Muslims... we hadn't even gone there to convert people. But we couldn't find any food, we had to make our own chapatis!"
If I could have got a word in edgeways, I would have sympathised. Fufu is an acquired taste...
"You are Christian?"
"No- no religion. Sorry. Can I still stay here?
"Of course! There is a story in the Qur'an, a traveller came to Abraham and Abraham offered him food and drink; then he asked 'are you Muslim?'. The stranger said not, and Abraham took his food and drink away. 'I'm sorry, I can't share food with a non-muslim.'
The traveller left. After this Allah was angry with Abraham and said 'I've fed and watered this man for 50years, and you refuse to feed him for one night!' So Abraham chased the man down and begged his forgiveness and asked him to come and eat with him."
I was delighted that the first reference to the Qur'an was to quote a passage about tolerance.
"There was another English man here once. He was making a documentary, but he was also a runner. I raced him up to one of the villages on the hill, I nearly beat him, and he was in running shorts and I in clothes like these!" He indicated his pristine white shalwar. "When we reached the village and they saw him in his shorts, I had to tell them he was helping get fresh water to the area!" This provided me with an opportunity I'd been hoping for; "Are these trousers acceptable in this area?" My three-quarter length trousers were supposed to be the perfect demure compromise between the requirements of conservative countries and of not getting caught in my chainrings. "Yes yes, they're fine- anything below the knee is ok. What does your father do?"
"He's in shipping. And my mother is a vicar"
"A vicar. Like an Immam, for Christians."
I thought this bombshell might prove provocative, but neither the idea of a woman working nor a female immam seemed to phase him. Instead his only reaction was
"So you're mother is Christian?"
"And your father?"
"But you are free!"
Interesting choice of word that. I was reminded of a note in my copy of the Qur'an, which explains that 'muslim' literally translates as 'slave' (of Allah).
"Right. We have to go now. We have a meeting of our Islamic brothers. To discuss our Islamic principles."
"Right-oh. Nice to meet you"
When they returned, a couple of hours later, the friends whose names I hadn't caught invited me to stay with them. Unfortunately, I only realised that this was what was going on after they'd given up and gone away. I slept in the same room as the kids who'd invited me, as the traders were in the other. I slept poorly, it was a hot night and there was no fan, and I was woken up with the kids in time for the morning prayer. Looking at their faces, I saw little evidence that prayer is indeed better than sleep. Even after waiting for breakfast (on the insistance of my host), I managed to leave shortly before dawn. There was a brief parting conversation;
"Thanks again for having me, you've been so generous!"
"You're welcome. Where are you going now?"
"I'm heading for Dassu"
"Be careful. Here, everyone is good, but in Dassu, maybe 50% of the people are good. You shouldn't stay with people there. Stay in a hotel..."
The first hour of riding was bliss. In the cool morning air I was soon wide awake, enjoying the quiet roads and waking wildlife. But like most really pleasant sensations, it was fleeting. Soon the sun was in the sky, the road was melting and the trucks were blaring their horns as they cut past. None of this, however, could detract from the stunning mountain scenery above me and the surging Indus river below.