The road to Abbottabad

Where did I hear that name before? Abbottabad… it sounded familiar… Probably I was too tired to remember where and when…

The fortunate traveller who makes his way from China to Pakistan along the Karakorum highway is not likely to get bored.  The road in China is smooth and nice but you have to follow a military escort of dubious politeness, then in Pakistan the track is highly entertaining with awfully rutted sections, rivers to ford, landslides to cross and in a long stretch disappear altogether under the water for miles and you need to hitch a ride on a vessel surely not classed Lloyds. But the main problem arrives in a town called Chilas. Here you can either follow the main highway into Kohistan or you climb the Babusar pass into the Khagan Valley.  Yes, all names in Pakistan are highly evocative. The first choice takes you into the so called Valley of the Outlawed and you need a police escort because the road is just about the only place the army controls. The rest depends much on the mood of the various tribes which are never friendly, rarely welcoming and seldom downright rude when they stop traffic and slaughter the travelers, like it happened a few months before.  A few miles west and you can see the US drones looking for talibans.  All my contacts in the previous days strongly suggested to go through the Babusar, which is just west of the Nanga Parbat where, curiously enough, a party of climbers had recently been slaughtered by local tribesmen.  Needless to say none of these contacts (a film director, an army officer and a local guide) had ever been along that route.  But does anyone need a police escort for days? Babusar-ho then, all the way to Abbottabad…

Where did I hear that name???

Chilas is probably the least friendly town I have ever slept in. Any male walking around without a beard is looked upon with contempt.  So I have an early start and fly post a police post to enter the Babusar Road. As usual I bet on the number of landslides I will find along the road, and I bet on 27 along the 80 km road. I was badly disappointed because I was counting 27 already and I was not even up the pass. The last village along the road had been recently hit and basically one had to ride up a somewhat flat landslide-cum-river half a mile long and 60 metros wide, where the average size of rocks was that of a basketball, only less smooth.  The valley and the view were gloomy and far from entertaining. It was 10 in the morning and my arms were wrecked already.

After the last flooded village the road appeared to be upgraded and one could ride fast along the track. As soon as I could see the 4100 metres pass up there, here comes the usual army control post. Three wrecked guys, an aerial and a tent. Politely checked my passport, wrote down my name, told me that the area after the pass was already a NWFP section with army operations against India and I was please told to go back to where I came from.  Have you ever see anyone begging in tears? That was me. And they tried to ask confirmation with the radio with one of the guys moving about with the aerial the same way we used to with the first cellphones. The answer was no. After a few minutes a huge SUV arrives and the important looking driver is told to go back too.  We both start to beg. Shamelessly. Soon after a small 4wd arrives and a curious old man with a long beard looks at me and starts talking quietly to the army guys. He looks like an Iranian imam. In two minutes the army men speak to the SUV guy, who speaks English, and he tells me ‘Get started, follow me, the mullah told us we can pass, but do it very, very, very quick before they change their mind’. Five minutes afterwards we were on top of the pass.

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Not a bad sight but not a place to linger. Funnily enough at the army outpost on the eastern side, supposedly the most dangerous, a mountain bike race was on the way. From the pass it’s all downhill to Abbottabad through  the Kagan Valley. As valleys go, this is indeed ‘lush’. There is a long series of villages along the valley where, supposedly, people from Islamabad come for holidays and weekends. Indeed there are many houses which can be considered nice, especially when you have seen dreadful shacks for days before… Still, the general tone of the places does not say much about the tastes of the Islamabad holiday makers.

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It was mid september and one should always keeping in mind what happens in the mountains at the end of the summer: transhumance. Considering the vertical steepness of the valley, one could scarcely believe the amount of quadrupeds slowly walking down the road. Sheep, donkeys, horses, camels, pigs, cows… tens and tens of lazy, bloody and smelly animals glued to the horizontal surface, probably the first one they see in months.  It was not before 3 pm that I arrived at the bottom of this endless, steep and green valley littered with quadrupeds and ‘villas’.  Now the plan was to drive straight to Islamabad through Murree, supposedly a green and quiet English town on the hills before falling down the plains. Thus avoiding Abbottabad that did ring me some worrying bell.

Needless to say the lack of road signs led me straight into Abbottabad. It’s hard to express in few words what hits you when you reach this town, basically the first down the indian plains. First of course the smell. If you know the flavors of India you might understand. Now guess how shocking can that be after weeks spent in the rarified and pure mountain air of the Pamirs. Second the traffic. Ghastly. Horrifying. Even worse than Rome. I distinctly saw a minivan passing a truck on the left (and here they drive on the left) squeezed between the load, the pedestrians, the trees and an oncoming motorcycle which was evidently immaterial. And highly polluting. There must be anything in their diesel, and that anything is burned badly.  Third the army: barracks and vehicles everywhere. All mixed up in the highly entertaining mix of shops, markets, bipeds of any age and rarely clean, but most of all thousands of minivans all loaded to defy the laws of physics. Then the offending air, the penetrating heat, the endless noise of everything. Real India, but with minarets. Basically hell.

Then I remembered! Abbottabad! Where Osama bin Laden was killed!

So I hit the road to Islamabad driving like a mad Pakistani, took ages to reach the safe heaven of an I-7, heavily guarded and air conditioned 100US per night hotel with clean sheets (haven’t seen those in ages), picked up the phone, called my agency in Italy and booked the first flight out of that hellhole.

Three days afterwards riots exploded in Islamabad and  my friends who arrived a bit later, who had to follow an army vehicle for 2 days through Kohistan. were blocked in their hotel while people were killing each other out of the windows.

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