The Potato Road

When entering a country where one is supposed to drive on the opposite side of the road, the inexperienced traveller usually expects a vast acreage of signs pleading the incoming wanderers to face the approaching traffic accordingly. This is not the case with Pakistan, entered from China by way of the Kunjerab Pass, where any kind of sign is notably absent. But one soon discovers the reason of this only apparent forgetfulness: Pakistanis haven’t decided yet which side of the road to keep. True, two very large trucks might pass each other keeping the left, but smaller vehicles do not seem bound to the same logic. The public minivan is no exception, but rather confirms the local habits: to keep the faster side. If it’s faster to overtake between the truck and the edge, with wheels on the earthen emergency strip where anything can be expected (i.e. babies, goats, goods for sale, school groups, check points, road crews, ox carts and heavy machinery), than so be it, even if a scooter is coming the other way, itself in theory going the wrong way. Point is, here simply there isn’t a wrong way. Period. I am convinced that the average life expectancy of a minivan driver is way lower than the one of a soldier in the Somme trenches in late 1916… This one of the reasons why my Silk Road ends here, in the stench and mayhem of the Indian sub continent. Like at the end of my previous trip in India many years ago, I felt in reaching Abbottabad the overpowering desire to invest in Icelandic real estate: boring, yes, prone to bankruptcy, maybe, but way, way less offensive to any of our senses.

The beauty of motorcycle travel lies also in the olfactory sensations that are free to reach the nose, so to speak, unplugged… And every single one of the 18 countries crossed has a precise olfactory pattern, 17 of which stimulate curiosity. The plains south of the Himalayas do not, they tell too much and leave nothing to fantasy. In a single second I distinctly remember a whiff of passion fruit instantly followed by dead goat leftovers rotting in rubbish even mice steer well clear of.. So here ends my personal Silk Road, following the trucks carrying the potatoes from the terraces of the Baltistani villages to the markets down the plain.

And what a road they use. The Karakoram Highway, or KKH, is with no doubt an amazing feat. Considering that its presence is more symbolical than practical, this engineering foolishness ranks high in the human efforts which should be considered essentially as demonstration of national pelvic pride – ‘We Chinese can do anything’. Believe me, the Great Wall is nothing compared to the KKH. True, the initial GW effort was huge, but there the thing stands. The KKH is like a boat, or a woman: it’s not the initial cost that counts, but the maintenance… As the climbers discovered before the engineers, the mountains around here are far from granitic: they keep falling down. This problem would be relative if the distance between the road and the peaks was short. It isn’t. Soon after the 4800 high Kunjerab Pass where you grunt goodbye to the distasteful Chinese militaries and you hug hallo to the smiling Pakistanis, the road plunges down to an average of 2200 metres, surrounded by peaks ranging between 5500 and 8000 metres. That means you have an average of 4 kilometres of rock over you. You definitely need a wide angle here, and certainly a certain flexibility of cervical vertebrae. And a very sensitive rock at that: drop a cup of tea and a landslide might occur. Think what can happen with a monsoon thunderstorm.

In shorts, the valleys are steep indeed. The sum of these two elements – steep valleys and crumbling rock – means a lot of landslides. These can vary in size from the ‘few’ stones covering the road (simple coolies with hammers can manage quickly), to serious falls destroying the highway (coolies might need the occasional help of dynamite and heavy machinery), to Attabad size things. In January 2010 a substantial mountainside fell on a village killing 20 and creating a dam, therefore a lake, that displaced 6000 villagers and blocked 15 km of KKH. The natives are not happy, except the few who quickly made a business out of boat transport because the KKH show must go on. And except the Americans, of course, who are exceedingly happy to see that subversive link between their ally and China severed. The crossing of this lake with 10 motorcycle wishfully balanced on top of a Pakistani boat with a steering wheel stolen from an old truck is an adventure apart, but certainly more stressful than a South Atlantic Ocean crossing.

Although plentiful, landslides are not the only feature of the Pak side of the KKH. This is Hunza country and the locals are among the friendliest and most welcoming people I ever met. The whole area comprising N Pakistan and Indian Kashmir has always been controlled by tribes, as the British learned at their expense. It took them a lot of effort to control the area and they finally did so leaving wide independence to the tribes. Before the KKH was completed 30 something years ago, the Hunza valley might as well been on the moon. The great explorer HW Tilman took 3 weeks from Abbottabad to Gilgit in 1947 when he tried to climb Rakaposhi, and his journey north to Kashgar was even more adventurous.

Tilman himself marveled at the order and prosperity of the Hunza valley when compared to the neighbouring kingdoms. Then, like now, the fields were well tended and irrigated, the mud houses welcoming and well built, the people smiling and enterprising, the villages well organized and with good literacy. Apparently, if one is born here is not stuck forever between goats and apricots. Mahrood, our Hunza friend born in Gulmit, is now a well travelled film and documentary maker.

Surprisingly enough, even local girls and women tend to be more open and they do not run away as if you were a killer if you take the camera… On the contrary, they do smile, and what a nice smile!

It’s probably worth remembering that the whole area is not only famous for highways, apricots and girls smiles, but mainly for mountains, which tend to be high-ish around here. Unfortunately the chinese engineers’s romantic sense is only equalled by their sense of humour – both are notably non existent, therefore the peaks you can see from the road are not many. But Rakaposhi towers right over the Hunza valley, and being nearly 6 kilometres higher than the valley floor, it makes for a decent sight.

I have never been a well studied agriculturalist but judging from the endless sacks of potatoes being piled up by the road ready for a hellish trip on a Pakistani truck, it appears that the local fields are a good starting point for french fries. Not, I am sorry to say, a product famous for great added value. The same can be said for apricots, which are here as abundant as thieves in the italian parliament, but differ mainly because here the fruits tend to become ripe, and all at the same time. It so happens that while in a Milan fruit shop the orange sweeties might reach 13 euros for a kilo, here 13 kilos might fetch 1 euro. Even the dumbest economist understand that something must be done in terms of adding value, and being liquor stupidly forbidden, the production of jam soars. Local ladies spend their time on the roof taking the stones out of the fruit. The resulting effort, ubiquitous on local tables, is superlative.

Not much seems to happen in these immense valleys apart from agriculture and tourism, the only industry being clearly the maintenance of the road, so indeed landslides might be welcome indeed. And war, of course, they fight a lot around here. Afghanistan is not far away and Pashtun are living in the west of the area. India is on the other side and they exchange pleasantries at the border every so often. The muslim extremists holed up in the valleys along the border are not very happy at the present Pakistani government, and they remind them their dislike by stopping busses along the KKH and slaughtering the passengers, especially if they are shia (or sunni, I haven’t got the difference very well yet). Then each tribe dislike the neighbours profoundly, and all in all the presence of police and army around is really massive. The level of efficiency of the troops it’s debatable though. True, these people has atomic bombs, but the troops deployed around here live in squalid tents and it’s funny to observe them moving the antenna by hand because the radio is not working (but the cellphone did). But military presence has been a constant of the trip since Italy… Not two neighbouring countries are on amicable terms, probably only Armenia and Iran, or China and Kyrgyzstan. The NorthWest frontier province has the enviable record of being basically at war on both sides, the west muddled in Afghanistan and the east against India. It’s still very difficult for a Pakistani to get an Indian Visa and they can get one only for a very limited amount of cities. But they say relations are greatly improving and hey, now it’s possible to visit 3 cities! It’s impossible to go into the detail of each quarrel, but my personal theory is basically that they badly need a drink around here, and some friends added that they might need some porn too… It might be a side effect of ascetic life: one is very virtuous but begins hating those who have all the fun. Their only pastime seems to be polo, and they are very proficient in kicking the shit out of each other. Death during the proceedings has never been a rare occurrence. Less dangerous and far more popular all over the country is cricket. Every boy owns a bat and my personal theory is that the game was invented in these valleys: the terrain is so full of rocks that one needs to be very precise in throwing the ball, and playing soccer would be unthinkable anyway, for the same reason. And rules must be hellishly complicated so that the game can go on and on forever…

Women are probably not proficient in either game. Cities and cricket fields are a solo male thing. Haven’t seen a single woman around Skardu.

Countryside and fields appear to be a feminine prerogative. Haven’t seen a man in the fields. The native population seem never to mix except on public transport. That’s why, maybe, they move around so much. Transport is abundant, recklessly fast and always crowded. But where do these people go to? Everyone seem to be going somewhere… But doing what? One wonders…

As soon as you move south from Hunza territory things start to change and become more indianized – read squalid. Take Skardu for example, capital of Baltistan. A better location for a town is yet to be imagined… The valley is wide, the Indus river floating through lake-like, fertile lands, amazing skies… the lot. Yet the town and the bazaar are the usual crowded, small, dirty and smelly lot, as if the town was constricted in a hole and not free to expand in any direction… Men only deal business and wander around in a various – but continuous – state of misery, and not being acceptable to walk hand in hands with women they do so among themselves, bowing to the local mullahs along the way. And how sad is that to sell fruit to men only!!! And the prayer time! Not since eastern Turkey had the minarets being so loud and the muezzin so dreadfully devoid of any singing talent. Even at 4 am, a real torture. No wonder these people are ready to fight, or willing to disappear in the sticks with a couple of hundred sheep… Or loading up with 30 kg to accompany some european group to the base camp of some very high peak.

One of the things I was forced to discover in the trip is that once you choose a type of journey, it’s difficult to switch to another one. It looks simple enough: stop the bike and hike up some valley. Nope. Everything changes, probably the frame of mind too. A motorcycle trip has to remain such, and the mountains a sight and not a tromping ground.

 While in Skardu I had a very pleasant dinner with a Pakistani bloke from Karachi, up here on holiday. Now an IT expert, he spent some six years in the Navy and could travel the world a bit. Like almost everyone speaking English, they do so exactly like Peter Sellers in ‘The Party’.

‘You have a Navy in Pakistan?’

‘Yes we do, but small! Mainly deployed in anti-piracy operation. American managed operations, that is’

‘Well, and you have success?’

‘Not really. But it looks like a joke. How come these guys have drones able to pick up terrorist in caves but are utterly unable to see a boat with pirates in an open area like the sea?’

‘Do you like americans?’

‘I do like americans a lot, but I do not like America’

‘Fair enough… and what don’t you like of Pakistan?’

‘That education and health care are so expensive and just for the rich’

‘That sounds like America, by the way, you know?… Do you like Musharraf?’

‘Absolutely yes, our best president. We do not need a parliament, all thieves. Military we need. Trained in a school to learn something. They can manage a country. What is the meaning of electing people who are just able to get some votes through corruption?’

‘That’s democracy, baby’

‘I suppose. Everything would be much easier if people could not lie…’

‘You really think so?’

‘Absolutely’

That was so naïve, so innocent and so unexpected. We grow up simply convinced that everybody lies and that is human. Here it looks that virtue is something important. That virtue is a worthy goal in life. It must be, isn’t it?

There are only two roads connecting the NWFP with the rest of the country, one is the old one, the Babusar Pass, the other the KKH following the Indus river. As so often happens, ancient wisdom easily overcome modern arrogance and the good old road up the pass was more easy to maintain then a route following the Indus. Well, at least for the three summer months… Only, it fell into disuse and was only recently upgraded from ‘hellish jeep track’ to ‘hellish all vehicle track’, the difference lying mainly in the size of the rocks you have to ride on. Both roads pass through Kohistan territory. Being the natives far more ‘virtuous’ than the Hunzas, they correspondingly hate foreigners more. Travellers along the KKH are advised to group in convoy or are given an armed ‘anti terrorist’ escort. Travellers through the Babusar pass are instead sent back to the KKH. The friendly guys at the check post indeed need not to speak university English to convey the message that I had to go back. ‘Security reasons sir’. I insisted and while doing so a local Jeep arrived and a white-beard elder (that does not identify him in the least because all elders have a white beard) started to chat amicably with the soldiers and quite evidently made gestures meaning that I could be whisked through. All I could think was that he was telling them ‘oh do not worry, we won’t slaughter him today’. After 30 minutes the bar was lifted and I climbed the pass, arriving on the other check post an hour later. Funnily enough, a cycling race was ready to start, and I wondered what mysterious security reasons could be valid for me and not for the 15 or so crazy cyclists ready to climb a 4100 metres pass…

When the road started to improve, I began to see myself finally in Islamabad, but I was only considering the usual obstacles of slides and roadworks. This road had one new and unforeseeable impediment to swift travelling, new, that is, if you are not into pastoral life. It so happens that at the end of summer herds must be transferred from high to low pastures. This has been done for times immemorial without the help of asphalt and tar, but hey, why not use it now that it’s there? Goats, sheep, donkeys, cows, bulls, dogs, horses and their happy owners were caravanning down the pass like European vacationers on the first summer friday evening, with the same average speed and friendliness, only smellier. Foolishly enough, I could not wait to be back on the KKH, thence I crossed the low hills to reach this strategic artery where animals are not so abundant.

I was soon to regret this choice badly. From Abbottabad to Islamabad it’s real indian style traffic and one has to switch from riding technique to prayers to stay alive.

Would I ever go back to Pakistan? To see the mountains and the Hunza valley, yes. But what’s the sense of travelling to a country and hike away to be as far as possible to their population? It’s almost a compulsory choice: at least 20 people were killed four days after I left in a widespread riot of ‘virtuous’ islamics against a mock movie about islam made in the west. They badly lack any sense of humour, and would live much better with a glass of wine every now and then. To kill people and burn flags is bad marketing for any culture and I am not terribly eager to read the koran these days… Probably some good atheistic quantum mechanics is a better choice.

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