I was initially a bit apprehensive about going to the Northern Areas of Pakistan. Iin my hotel in Lahore, I had met many people returning from the north, and they all had nothing but good things to say. There were two guys from the hotel heading up to Gilgit, so I decided to join them for a few days. I wish I had more time, but must meet my friend Rajib in Darjeeling for some trekking on October 16th. Still, I thought it would be better to see just a bit of Northern Pakistan than none at all, especially after reading “Three Cups of Tea,” which describes the area and its people in great detail.
We took a bus for five hours from Lahore to Rawalpindi (near Islamabad), and then walked for twenty minutes to the long distance bus terminal, and climbed onto a surprisingly luxurious bus for the 18 hour ovenight trip to Gilgit. Lonely Planet advises travellers to avoid taking overnight buses along the Karakoram Highway because there have been some incidents of banditry, as the highway passes through some pretty lawless regions of Pakistan. So, whenever the bus stopped during the night, I peered worriedly out the window at the sinister looking figures lurking in the darkness. But, they were inevitably Indian army patrols, who marched us off the bus and into their station house in order to record our passport information. It all seemed very organized, but I couldn’t figure out if this excess of security made me feel more or less safe.
Once the sun rose, we could really enjoy the scenery as we drove along the highway, following the Indus River valley. All around us were 7000-8000 m (24,000+ ft) peaks, which dwarfed anything I’ve seen before. Once in Gilgit, we tried to walk around and explore, but couldn’t manage to get very far away. The locals would stop us and invite us for chai about every twenty minutes, which made for inefficient walking, but good conversation. An off duty police officer took us into his home for dried apricots, walnuts, apples, and chai. He was a very intelligent and friendly man, but also a bit melancholy. He, like so many other Pakistanis, wanted to come to the US or Europe, but had been denied a visa. He didn’t like his job, and thought there was no future for him in Pakistan. The next day, I had chai with another police officer in Gilgit who had a similar outlook. I wonder how Pakistan will overcome its problems when all its young people are dissillusioned and despondent. If the most talented young minds leave, who will be left to run the country?
I really enjoyed my time in Gilgit, not just because of the natural beauty of the mountains and the valley, but because the people were so candid and generous. I was surprised how excited everyone was to hear I was from the US, especially with the recent political tensions between our respective governments. This is definitely a place to which I will return someday.
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