Osama's back yard
Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
37Trip End Jun 01, 2010
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This is hard mountain country, a never-ending horizon of agonisingly craggy peaks of rock, stone, ice and snow, and treacherous slopes of shale and scree.
The western corner of the Himalayas melds into the Karakoram range in turn unfolding into the fabled Hindukush.
Five of the world's 14 peaks over 8,000m live here, including the second highest mountain, K2, which claimed 11 lives last week.
The Karakoram (crumbling black rock) Highway links central Pakistan to China in the north.
The border is rated the highest on the planet, on the Khunjerab Pass, at close to 5,000m.
Up the highway and down its byways cities turn to towns, in turn villages, extended homesteads, then nomadic tents and goat and yak herds.
East of the road lies fractious Kashmir, north the tiny crack into Muslim China, and west is Afghanistan.
A long-disputed corner of the world. A Great Game chapter. England's fear of a Russian entry point. A pass for wondering buddhist monks before the Muslim invasions from the west.
Gilgit, a little town of roughly 20,000, two-third's the way from Islamabad along 'the highway' to the border, is the trading hub of old, the axis. A few dozen outsiders a month pop in to stroll up a mountain and have a peak at a serious glacier, cruise through to China or catch a crazy bus and jeep ride east.
There are hundreds of guns on display in town: high profile Karachi Rangers man roadblocks, and roam the streets and alleyways on 4x4 pickups mounted with heavy machine guns.
Gilgit was the scene a few years back of a running urban feud between some splinter Muslim group.
Local memory has it members of the police force had lost cousins and uncles to different sides and most of the lawmen decided justice of the blood was stronger than the vow of the badge.
Islamabad decreed only a neutral force would stop the rot, and fetched a hard-boiled brigade from Karachi, at the southern end of the country.
Since then, some high-calibre peace has prevailed.
A week to fill before heading further up the highway, and the lure of the Hindukush takes hold.
Follow the morning shadows: head west, my sun.
A patchy, sealed 'road' tracks the Gilgit River valley, a thin single lane that roams up and down the side of the mountain sides, seeking the easiest contour.
Too often there is no contour, and gradually the track becomes a blasted, chiselled gouge in the steep mountain cambers.
Paved becomes unpaved. Gravel becomes rock and stone, and the bus wobbles, bumps and burps through dust and hole, across chutes of water, through streams, weaving hairpin after hairpin slowly, slowly upwards, towards the highest polo ground on the planet; the Shandur Pass at 4,000m.
The Shandur Polo Challenge, between the Gilgit Scouts and Chitral Scouts. is an annual event played out on the Shandur plateau, drawing a few dozen foreigners and a few hundred residents of each town.
Everybody camps out. Water is drawn from the slow, snow-fed streams.
I miss the party by a few weeks, but am appraised of the site. There is nothing. Just a flat piece of land, snow-tipped mountains (it is the middle of summer) and the freshest air around.
The road becomes properly hazardous. A single track of stone, built on stone, balancing on stone. If one stone moves the track will move - disastrously. Switchbacks have the rear wheels churning at the cliff edge, crunching and grinding forward spitting stone chips out into deep chasms as all the passengers lean forward, willing the vehicle, pushing with mind and fore-arms against seat backs, adding a fraction of weight to the front wheels, as the tail of the bus floats over the deadly abyss.
There will be no mercy here if something slips. If a brake breaks, a gear disengages, if a front tyre goes - you're dead.
But the buses and jeeps and landcruisers drive each day. Some must die. I ask. And get a sage, head-nodding response: god's will, yes it happens, it used to be much worse.
Mountainsides, hundreds and thousands of feet of loose gravel, loose rock, large slate chips, larger rocks, all balance precariously against gravity, waiting for a strong wind, or the lubrication of rain or snow to release the massed energy in terrifying landslips. Roads can be closed for days or weeks.
Word filters through the bus that a flash flood has washed some of the road away, outside of Mastuj, the night's destination.
The ride is slow, people appear at the side of the road, with no building in site, waiting for a ride.
Where do they live?
Every two hours or so, a single, rough hewn pole crosses the road, next to a few tents and men.
Foreigners out, and fill in 'the book'. Name, nationality, passport number, visa number, name of father, destination .... sign. Old, tattered fullscap books, a quick index of who and when.
Flick, flick quick quick as other passengers watch with mild annoyance. No South Africans for years.
These names are never officially recorded, I believe. Though I am told they offer some kind of tracking system for those who go missing.
Nobody checks the real documents. Names like Mickey Mouse, Mr Nobody et al pop up here and there.
Mungal Panday now resides there as well.
Three hours late, 9pm, and the flooded road awaits.
"Get out and walk ... it's only 3km."
Hoist the 27kg on to my back, about 8kg in the satchel bag, ford the gusher and head down the rocky, bumpy road into the blackest of nights. Visibility zero. Fisherman's headlamp to the rescue.
Lesser laden passengers roar off into the night. I amble very slowly, and two kind tourist travellers settle for my pace.
Midnight approaches, in the Hindukush, some 5 or 8 or 7km later, without a clue how much further the 3km really is.
African time, African distance, Pakistani time, Pakistani distance? I should have guessed.
I eventually do, through the huffs and puffs.
Sit, suck on a cig, spot a light in the distance, raise hope and stumble on.
Another check point. It's 3km from here.A very basic room is offered for us to share. Inshallah.
Hitch to town at sunrise, squabble with jeep drivers, and slowly make a way to Chitral over roads which only get worse. Into the hills.
Now just behind the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan, a stone's throw over the mountain to the mystical valley.
Into Chitral, recorded along with Gilgit by Ptolemy, and invaded by Alexander the Great.
Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Pakistanis. Greek beauties under scarves. Ancient fig and olive trees, results of dried supplies from Athens, they say.
Apricots, peaches, apples and mangos burden street barrows.
The Kalash Valleys lie between Chitral and Afghanistan. The last living descendants of those European invaders, they claim. Still animist, the three valleys are the final survivors of a 'clan' that covered the whole of the Chitral district.
Persecuted by subsequent Muslim invaders over centuries, until today they live in the old way, in the old garb, and brew wine the old way, in sunken, stone vats.
This was the back door for the mujahadeen who fought the Russians in Afghanistan. Tales are told of the days of thousands of Afghani refugees in Chitral, wine, women, hashish, opium and song.
An evening of illicit drinking of Kalash apricot brandy (almost got me homesick) brings together an oddball Ozzie who's "been coming here for years", with his totally blottoed mate, "Prince Nazir of Nuristan" (in Afghanistan over the Hindukush) who's father "was an original member of the uprising against the Russians".
I offer an acquaintance, a 22-year-old German for sale as his wife, jokingly asking for US$1m, and am told quietly to hold my tongue, as the prince could easily buy a dozen, each for that price. Bad joke.
The brandy is rough, and there are odd bottles of citrus-flavoured medicinal alcohol, all interspersed with a taste or two of "majong". No, not the Chinese game, but rather a "40-hour boiled down" hashish mixed with honey.
"Just a drop on the tongue for after dinner," odd Ozzie says.
"So where is OBL," I ask.
"...why do they always ask the same question," mumbles the prince.
Sorry to be so boring, but it is his back yard.
Hints are offered about the prince's peculiar, nocturnal dealings with certain members of the current US military forces. Warehouses of this and that, barrels and bags that move across mountains and through valleys on lightless vehicles. "Nobody moves without me knowing."
Mum's the word, me old chum. Talk about princes of darkness.
Prince and Oz are heading off to Afghanistan next week on an adventure. No questions, no answers, no lies.
Whacky corner of the world. Tremendous backdrops. The ruins of the grand, old imperial fort down along the riverside, the terrace overlooking the valley. Listen carefully and hear the tinkle of ice in the gin glasses.
The British were constantly besieged, and often driven out. Eventually they realised the Russians did not have a natural pass to India, and so slowly withdrew.
Gunshops abound. Shotguns, machine guns, no-name brands, lots of file marks, but the AK47s can't be disguised.
Everything is new. Everything is old.
U-turn and begin the long trek back to Gilgit, from which to launch the next leg.
Along that road. That road. There must be death odds on that road. How many journeys to die?
A night in a gentle valley town. Mountain spring water, snowy peaks, all the stars in the world. And never-ending kindness.
All towns are in the valleys, small oases in rare forgiving meadows alongside gushing snow and glacier streams.
One discovers that 'visitors' are regarded "as a blessing from Allah". People go out of their way to offer kindness. A cup of tea, a bag of walnuts, a chappati, a kind word, a touch of the hand. In thanks people gently place their right hand on their heart. An acknowledgement of peace, thanks, good will.
But all the world is men. The women are hidden, behind screens, doors, walls, cloth, in another world. One I cannot enter.
So back to Gilgit, organise the ticket to Kashgar, in China.
Leave in the morning, up the highway, and hear today that 16 Chinese police died in a 'militant' attack on a police barracks in Kashgar yesterday.
It's kind of like an Olympic party for the frustrated: the world is watching, let's have a bash, throw a bomb, have a riot ... blah, blah. Sure does get in the way of some good, old-fashioned travelling.
Let's see what kind of tension the border brings ... what kind of flag waving or flag burning ceremonies take place in Kashgar on the 8th, when the Olympics begin.
If I even get through the waiting paranoia, that is.