January 29, 2012
I thought I’d share some of my memories of my travels in Pakistan in the spring of 1992. Although much time has passed, the places and the people I encountered have become all the more relevant since, due to 9/11 and the war against Al-Qaeda. Many of the places I visited — such as the Swat Valley, and the tribal areas around Peshawar — would now be completely off-limits to an American traveling alone.
The man was screaming at me.
We were standing in a shack at what could reasonably be called the roof of the world. At over 15,000 feet (4,600 meters), the Khunjerab Pass is the main crossing point between China and Pakistan. Outside, where the bus was revving its engines in the thin, icy air, the road traced a wide gravel path embraced by pristine mountains on either side, under a perfectly clear indigo sky.
The man who was screaming at me couldn’t care less about the view. He was a Chinese border official. Moments earlier he had stamped an exit stamp in my passport and – fatefully – proceeded to change my money. When I counted it, I thought – just maybe – he had accidentally given me a bit too much in return. But when I tried to ask about it, he must have assumed I was accusing him of shortchanging me. Before I could get a word out, he blew up. Stark raving, barking dog, spit-flying-in-your-face screaming, like a human grenade had just gone off. I beat a hasty retreat, with my extra money.
I couldn’t really blame him. I was passing through; he had to stay here. It was a two-day bus ride from Kashgar, a sleepy desert oasis that hosted the only city of any size that far west in China. I had looked forward to what I thought would be epic scenery. Instead, it was a journey of interminable boredom. We arrived at Tashkurgan, which Marco Polo passed through on his travels, after sunset and departed before dawn, staying the night in a concrete shell of a trucker’s hostel. In the twilight, I could barely a glimpse of the looming stone fortress that gives the town its name. After that, the only people I saw all day, as our bus wound its way up the grey hills leading to the pass, were two Kirghiz tribesmen leading a camel. They seemed to come out of nowhere, and dissolve back into nowhere.
Who do you have to piss off, I wondered, whose wife do you have to get caught fooling around with to get posted up here, about as far as you can possibly get from Beijing? And for how long? That customs official wasn’t screaming at me. He was screaming at fate.
I reloaded my backpack back on the top of our wobbly old bus, which cranked up its engine and began wobbling its way across the pass. The name “Khunjerab” supposedly means “blood valley” in the local Wakhi language, which suggests a certain level of drama. If there was any drama that day, I missed it. The pass is windy ice-cold, but there is no sense of dizzying height, no precipices to peer over. It looks, more than anything, like a wide, dried-out riverbed. The mountains on either side, which are among the highest on earth, seem more like gently sloping hills – although the bare rock suggest gently sloping hills on the moon.
My companions – I haven’t mentioned my companions – were mainly Pakistani traders with burlap bags full of silk, cotton, and other Chinese goods they had bought in Kashgar. When we arrived at the Pakistani checkpoint, at the other end of the pass, they were greeted as conquering heroes. They got off and traded cigarettes with the Pakistani border guards, in their Sandhurst-style khaki sweaters and light green berets. At the time – after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, before the rise of Al-Qaeda – they paid little attention to a lone American traveler, besides cheerfully stamping my entrance visa and offering me a steaming cup of chai. They chuckled when I told them about the screaming money-changer on the Chinese side.
By the time we climbed back on the bus, evening was approaching and the clouds were beginning to descend. As we drove onwards, we entered a river valley and the mountains on either side began to grow larger. The range we were crossing is called the Karakoram, which connects the Himalayas to the southeast with the Pamirs to the northwest. It is one of the earth’s newest mountain ranges, and contains many of the world’s tallest peaks, including K2, second only to Mt. Everest. Because there has been little time for erosion, these peaks – large and small – have a distinctively jagged, angular quality that makes them particularly treacherous, and beautiful.
On our way, we passed several immense glaciers that had pushed all the way down to the roadside. Above us, grey glowering clouds swirled around rows of saw-toothed mountain peaks that looked like the monstrous teeth of a Great White Shark. It was dark by the time the bus dropped me at a small log cabin-style structure that served a roadside inn. With no electricity, there was little to do but to unroll my sleeping bag – the cot had no blankets – and go to sleep. I would check in the next morning.
I awoke to what I can only describe as an awe-inspiring sight, framed in the window. The clouds had lifted. The jagged, saw-toothed row of mountains was still there, unveiled in all their glory. They were right out of a picture book, the kind of zig-zag mountains a child might draw but you knew couldn’t be real. They were what I imagined the Misty Mountains (filled with goblins and giant eagles) might look like when I read The Hobbit as a boy – sharp black forms rearing up into the sky, casting even sharper shadows across the valley floor.
The first order of business was to sign in – literally. While I took a seat on the open porch, sipping a clay cup of chai, and nibbling a dry piece of bread, the innkeepers laid out a thick book where guests were expected to scrawl their name, country of origin, and passport number. As I did this, they casually offered me a warning, should I go hiking. Look at the glaciers, they said, but whatever you do, don’t attempt to walk on them. It may look safe, but all it takes is one slip and you can fall down a crevasse where no one will ever find you. You just disappear (perhaps to be unearthed thousands of years later like the “Ice Man” of the Alps, in a state of perfect preservation).
To drive home their point in a particularly alarming manner, they pointed a few entries up the page on which I was in the process of dutifully scratching my information. All of the guests before me had a line through the entries, indicating they had checked out — except one. That guest, I learned, had gone missing the week before. He hiked off one morning, and never returned to collect his things. The army had sent rescuers to look for him, but not a trace. They figured he had fallen into a glacier, and must be long dead by now; they were packing his belongings to send to his loved ones back home.
With this ominous fate in mind, I resolved not to step foot anywhere near a glacier. I would stick to the road, and simply admire the view. A village called Gulmit, topped by a tiny fortress, perched on the rocky slopes above the inn. Below it to the east, on the other side of the road, the gravelly bed of the Hunza River wandered like a grey wound along the bottom of the valley, from north to south. I began trudging back north along the road, towards Passu, another small village a couple kilometers distant. To my left, the massive Ghulkin Glacier crept nearly to the edge of the road. To my right, two long rope suspension bridges, planked with driftwood slats, stretched side by side across the river gorge. From time to time, tiny figures could be seen clinging precariously to the guide ropes as they crossed to do their daily chores.
I was on my way back, just rounding a bend in the road, when I heard a clear voice, in English, shout “Hey, you!” I looked around, but the only person I could see, standing a bit further along the roadside, was a local Wakhi woman covered in a shapeless, deep blue shawl. SHE couldn’t be the one calling to me – in fluent English, no less. After a perplexed moment, I started to walk on.
“Hey, you!” It WAS the woman. She waved slightly, but was otherwise motionless. I had been told, and had read, that it was not a wise idea – quite dangerous, in fact – for a stranger to talk to a woman in this strongly tribal and deeply conservative country. Was this some kind of trap? I resumed walking.
“Hey! Are you scared of me?” Okay, that was it – I’m not running away from some local herder’s wife. Cautiously, I approached and said hello. I explained that I wasn’t afraid, exactly, but I didn’t realize it was okay to speak to the local women. “Oh, we’re not like that here,” she broke in a broad grin, “not like the people down south – they’re crazy.”
Needless to say, I was flabbergasted. It turns out that the mountain tribes this far north are Isma’ilis, a branch of Shi’ite Muslims – outsiders in an overwhelmingly Sunni country, which helps accounts for their unconventional openness towards other outsiders. Their hereditary leader is the Aga Khan, who happens to be one of the richest men in the world. That’s why the woman who hailed me – and many other residents in the valley, including nearly all of the children – speak such excellent English. The Aga Khan has poured millions into these incredibly remote areas, building some of the best-funded schools and medical clinics in the country.
About another kilometer down the road, I had another unexpected encounter. A fellow hiker, wearing a bright polyester track suit, was sitting beside the road. He had a thatch-colored beard, clear white skin, and piercing blue eyes. He greeted me with a slight accent to his English that I couldn’t quite place, but assumed was from somewhere in Europe. I asked him where he was from.
“Oh … I’m from here!” he replied. Once we got over our mutual shock, I told him I had assumed, given his foreign-looking garb, that he was a tourist like me. I didn’t mention his strikingly Caucasian features — but then, given the history I knew, I really shouldn’t have been too surprised. Although most people in Pakistan’s high mountains have the olive complexions typical of rest of the country, the occasional blue eyes and blond hair stand out as genetic echoes of a long-forgotten past.
The people here claim to be descended from the soldiers of Alexander the Great, who passed through these mountains on the way to India in the 4th Century BC. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Alexander did come through here, and some of his men stayed behind to establish the Greco-Indo kingdom of Bactria. Their legacy lived on in the great Kushan Empire, which clothed their statues of Buddha in Greek-looking tunics. But in truth, the blue eyes and blond hair probably trace their roots back ever farther than that, to the ancient invasions of the horse-riding Aryans, who crossed these mountains into India from the steppes of Central Asia, and their Indo-European cousins, the Tocharians, who were the earliest known inhabitants along China’s Silk Road. By the time Alexander showed up in this corner of the world, he would already have seen plenty of faces that looked familiar to a Greek.
By the time I returned to Gulmit, it was still light, so I decided to climb up the hillside and check out the village. I soon attracted a pack of local children who were enthused to see a foreigner. One little boy who – as usual – spoke excellent English offered to guide me up to the little fort above the settlement. It was a lot longer hike than it looked, but the boy chased his small plastic ball up and down the path so many times he must have run four times the distance I walked.
When we arrived at the ruins, there was not much to see, so we sat down and talked. He asked me about the place where I came from, and told him that where I grew up (outside Chicago) the land was so flat you could see all the way to the horizon in every direction. He was non-plussed. Try explaining what the “horizon” is to someone who has never seen a flat piece of land larger than the village square – and even that wasn’t very flat. I described the ocean, and he was even more confused. Finally, he sang me some local songs (about mountains and hills, what else?) and invited me to come back to the village that evening for a festival they were throwing.
When I returned after dusk, the boy brought me to the local mir’s “palace,” which looked like a dusty old stone house with wooden terraces. Inside it was surprisingly cozy, and one of the village elders (the boy’s father? uncle? grandfather? I never figured out which) proudly showed me various trapdoors, game antlers, and an ancient-looking blunderbuss once used to fend off a 19th Century British military expedition. Then it was time to join the rest of the villagers, who had gathered to form a circle in the darkness around the edge of village square. All of the men and women, young and old, who had spent the day hoeing rocky fields or tending scraggly goats were chattering excitedly with one another. The scent of roasted meat and tobacco smoke wafted through the crisp evening air. One flickering shadow among many, I drew hardly any notice.
Above this scene spread an awesome, magnificent sight: hundreds, thousands, millions of bright stars gleaming like diamonds in a pitch-black night sky. The entire Milky Way could be seen, not as a faint smudge, but as billions of infinitesimal points of light. The black shapes of the mountains on either side gave one the thrilling, unnerving sense of being hurtled through outer space; that if you didn’t hold on tight to the ground below, you might just fall off the earth.
Drums began playing: light tapping of fingers on taut animal skin, heavier thumping of tom-toms. Some of the villagers began dancing inside the circle, not the rational, choreographed motions of a folk dance, but the easy, spontaneous spinning and whirling of dervishes. When several broke away and asked me to join them, I could hardly say no. The fire-lit faces began spinning, the drummers were spinning, the stars were spinning, the universe was spinning. And we all fell off the earth, together.