Archive for November, 2013

Houseboats in Kashmir

The photos and press clippings displayed in Gulam N Butt’s office are from another time; much like the houseboats for which Srinagar is famous. The beauty of Dal Lake captivates all that discover its charms; including those most selfish and Intrepid of all travellers…British Imperialists. Having been denied access to land, the ever enterprising and highly stylish oppressors went about resolving this issue by building splendid homes set afloat the waters of paradise.

Having seen pictures of Srinagar blanketed in winter snows, it was my assumption that it may be cold in early November. What I had not expected was pain in my fingers and vapour pouring from my mouth as I surveyed a cold and placid surface of Dal Lake early in the morning. To the east and across the far side of the lake is a chain of mountains that give rise to the highlands of Ladakh and beyond the great Tibetan plateau. They along with a profuse fog are preventing any chance of a visible sunrise. Yet despite the inclement conditions, Dal Lake is beautiful and beguiling.

Dal Lake Srinagar

Dal Lake Srinagar

Some distance away and breaking a seamless transition of water, mist and mountains is a small island with four Chinar trees. Fronting the shores and behind me is a Moghul garden named Naseem Bagh, or Garden of the morning breeze. The flowers that bloom are but a season old and will soon wither and die, unlike the vast Chinar trees that have seen over 400 summers pass into winter. Their leaves are burning red in the late autumn. High in the branches of an ancient and arthritic specimen are two golden kites. They scan the lake with eyes sharper and intent deadlier than mine. With shrill cries they take to the air and circle above, then glide to the surface before plucking unwitting fish from the lake.

Ramzan brings down a small bottle of kerosene and some wood to set a fire in a small stove inside our boat. It is the only source of heat we have. I watch with thermal anticipation as the flames lick at its rusted sides. Our sitting room is decorated with sofas, a writing desk and a small antique dining table. He pours out Kashmiri tea into fine English bone china. Mr Butt dressed smartly in a tweed suit and woollen beret erupts through the door with energy and charm. He is an attentive and sensitive host, always keen in making sure his guests are well looked after. His chief concerns this morning are ensuring that we are warm, had adequate sleep and enough to eat.

His style, dress and manners are from a more sophisticated time. A time of etiquette and protocol, mixed with Islamic grace and hospitality. He and the lovely setting make an indelible impression on all. He has 16 guest books, thick and ageing that date back to the early 1940’s. Our previous comments from 2009 are recorded in number 15. We spend the better part of our days asking him about some of his more famous guests. Of particular interest are Ravi Shankar and George Harrison from the Beatles. Apparently Harrison refined his sitar skills with Shankar in the garden of the morning breeze. Mr Butts face beams, his eyes are distant. He looks out to the garden, he can still hear that sitar playing; it must feel like only yesterday. We indulge him further to tell us about the partition in 1947. He was a young man, only 17 years of age, but already working in town selling textiles near Dal gate. He can recall the artillery fire during the siege to control Srinagar, and the uncertain future that faced Kashmir.

Butts Clermont Houseboats

Dal Lake Kashmir

For nearly 70 years Kashmir has been torn apart in a bitter feud between Pakistan and India. Several wars and more recently insurgent and terrorist activities have cast a gloomy cloud over what Kashmiris proudly call paradise on earth. The young people want independence… the old people just want peace. During the 1990’s tensions rose fiercely. He can recall terrorist blasts being almost a daily event. Tourism all but vanished but Butts Clermont Houseboats remained. After 911 new conflicts arose further to the west along the Afghan and Pakistan tribal areas. Incidents in Kashmir subsided and coupled with renewed efforts by senior Pakistan and India officials there is optimism for the future. But the situation remains somewhat tense. Only 8 weeks ago an Indian army base was attacked in Kashmir by insurgents keen to derail the upcoming talks. It would seem some will never settle for anything less than independence. Having spoken to Kashmiris on both sides of the border, all desire their own country and identity but those with enough years and family are simply looking for an end to the dispute. Mr Butt as a young 17 year old, could scarcely have imagined that the stalemate and line of control would still be in force, in this late autumn of 2013.

Butts Houseboats

Mr Butt

We are finding it a little difficult to adjust to life in India after spending so many months in Pakistan. Considering the two countries were once one, there is today a definite divide in culture between the two. More personally and perhaps ungratefully, we are no longer faced with any issues regarding visas. I feel almost lost and without purpose or direction. We can go where want and do as we please but I miss the adventure, the unknown outcome and the relief of overcoming. Perhaps it feels like our hardest days are now behind us. No more will we travel along dark roads with men carrying machine guns or be stopped at checkpoints. I am consoled by the prospects of India, her deep history, glorious architecture and superb landscapes. The culture is vibrant and overpowering and there are plenty of adventures for those willing to use sleeper class carriages and public busses.

Each morning we are awoken by the cold cries of circling kites and morning chants that spring from the Hazaratbal Mosque. I can’t be certain but it feels like they may have upgraded their PA system since we last stayed in 2009. Ramzan has already lit a fire in the sitting room and poured tea. The planks of wood beneath the Persian carpets creak and wobble slightly under foot as we make our way to the table. Sunshine pours through the open windows. Just outside is a colourful kingfisher chirping and cleaning his feathers. The water is blue and carries the reflection of the mountains. Dal Lake is certainly a capricious body of water.

Kashmir Houseboats

Backwaters of Srinagar

The old city of Srinagar runs along both sides of the Jhelum River. An intricate net of alleys and twisted lanes lined with crumbling gothic style architecture. They are beautiful but dilapidated, decrepit and run down. Some are still ripped open by bomb blasts from the 90’s.

Srinagar House

Gothic style houses

By contrast the 300 year old Khanqah Shaw-I-Hamadan is perfectly preserved. It is similar in style to the mosques we saw in the Khaplu valleys in Pakistan but on a much grander scale. Inspired by ancient Buddhist stupas it stands four stories tall with an immense central spire. The front and interiors are decorated with colourful papier-mache reliefs. Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter but a small man bent and broken who guards the door beckons me to the entrance. He holds his fingers to his eyes and points inside. It’s a gesture of goodwill, a suggestion to see inside but not to enter. I take a seat on the carpets adjacent to the doorway studying the intricate patterns that decorate the ceiling and windows. It is a marvellous structure as striking as any I have encountered. But most of all it has a soul, a purpose, a gathering place of tranquillity and peace for the community that goes beyond religion. For even as a person not bound to any particular faith, I find myself captivated and watching with affection.

Khanqah Shah I Hamadan

Khanqah Shah I Hamadan

The back of the mosque is subdued but just as charismatic. Several ladies have gathered and are praying, perhaps searching for solace. We are so surrounded by people of which we know nothing, but each has their own story with celebrations and sadness. Each looking for support and comfort. The Khanqah is a place where they have come for generations to give thanks and seek help and look for guidance in troubled times. It’s difficult to walk away from these moments when you travel, but I think you always take a part of them with you.

A few kilometres away is a boulevard that runs along the southern shores of Dal Lake. Opposing the busy street is several hundred houseboats moored together perpendicular to the shore. Several of the their names appear appropriate at first; Heavenly Dreams, Tranquillity, Dal Paradise and even the curious claim of Good Time, but then I notice some others that seem to have succumbed to advertising and foreign nationals. Rolex, Nike, the ever present global brand that is Manchester United and a very much outdated Kodak Films.

Mosque in Kashmir

Mosque in Kashmir

We hire one of the Shakiras (small boat) for an hour. The cartel that operates at Dal Gate has fixed the price at 400 INR per hour, but without request the price is lowered to 300 to secure employment. Our boat is a super deluxe shikara, which our boatman is quick to point out. To our left is but a mere deluxe model with no apparent visible differences. From the Dal Gate we head north and into the narrow canals that feed off the main lake. It does not take long before the car horns fade and the only sound is the plunge of the paddle. It’s a prefect afternoon of sunshine, little wind and rickety wooden bridges.

Boat ride on dal lake

A boat ride on Dal lake

We glide through an area where the houseboats appear a little rundown but are moored apart in a less organised and pleasing manner. Backyards are partially consumed by the lake and children play on small islands. Old men repair nets and smoke pipes. A large white cat big enough to take down a small goat is watching a duck with murderous intentions. This is an enduring place like so many where past dangers have kept the outside world at bay, but that is now changing. Out on the main lake are speed boats and water skies, floating shops and even a hot air balloon. The new wave of tourism is no longer foreign but coming from within. Indians more than ever are travelling in their own country and why not as they say on the sub-continent. We pass a boat called New Zealand, across and a little further along we float past South Africa and Canada. We never find Australia but do come across… Canberra! Will tomorrow’s boats be called Punjab and Darjeeling?

Srinagar backwaters

The beautiful backwaters in Srinagar

On the eastern shores of the lake and laying at the foot of the mountains is a series of Moghul Gardens. How can one resist such names like the Garden of Dreams, Paradise and the Garden of Plenty. Such claims need to be investigated. The Moghuls dominated Indian culture and public works for 330 years right up to when the British took control in 1857. Their gardens are characterised by geometric planning with tiers and fountains. The best and most eye catching of all in Srinagar is Nishat Bagh; the garden of Plenty. It runs from the shores of the lake to the base of the mountains over thirteen tiers, with water fountains and spillways connecting one to the other. Filled with wild roses, fragrant jasmine and dominated by colossal Chinars.

Chinar Trees Kashmir

Beautiful Chinar Trees in The Garden of Plenty

It’s our last night in Srinagar and for that I am sad. Tomorrow we shall have to depart early. Mr Butt has come to say goodbye and chat with us before we leave. I am excited about seeing more of India but I am reminded while listening to him speak that the greatest treasures are not found in temples or mountain tops, but in people. It’s the living treasures that are most important. Gulam N Butt is a living treasure. We have been fortunate to have heard stories from his life. Stories from a time that for us are confined to history books. The houseboats are wonderful, the vistas across Dal Lake are superb, but most beautiful of all is the time shared with someone like Gulam N Butt.  I can only hope that his story continues long into the future.

We leave a parting comment in Book number 16

One long Peel from Cape Town to Singapore via Butts Clermont Houseboats. Greg and Emma were here. Thank you for having us.

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An early morning fog obscures the gates that separate Pakistan from India. Across the road from the PTDC hotel is a small pen containing several peacocks, a turkey and few small deer. My intrigue is broken by a phone call. Our friend from Lahore has driven out this morning to see us off. Rehan is a Major in the Pakistan Army. We met him four years ago while trekking up to K2 base camp and have remained good friends since.

He opens a box containing a large walnut cake, which we cut into pieces and consume with some chai. He has followed our journey with great interest since leaving Cape Town and now we sit together for a couple of short hours discussing countries we have both visited face to face. We are grateful for the effort he has made to see us. He takes out a ten rupee note and signs it…To my great friends Greg and Emma keep peeling and best of luck Rehan… a final act of kindness before leaving Pakistan.

Saying hello and goodbye to Rehan

Saying hello and goodbye to Rehan

Of all the borders in the world few can claim to be as tense as that which separates India and Pakistan. The immigration hall is ironically empty given this is the only official crossing between the two countries whose combined population is well over a billion. We walk the last 50 yards to the now open gates and show our passports to one of the towering Punjabi Rangers. Standing on the other side of a white line a few feet away is an Indian solider ready to receive us. Considering the tension that exists I am somewhat surprised to discover that photography is encouraged when stepping over the line. The two guards smile but I resist asking them to be included in the photo. I think about all the other borders we have crossed so far. I lift my foot off Pakistan and step fully into India. A large arch 50 yards away has a single word written above it with a photo of Ghandi…India!

India Pakistan Border

Crossing the border of Pakistan and India

The bag search in Indian immigration is conducted thoroughly until I pull out as much clothing as I can and start to remove the batteries from my torch. It has the desired effect on the officer who seems to regard my willingness to be searched as a sign that I have nothing to hide. Emma is spared and only has to open the top of her pack. We are asked if we have any Indian Rupees, which I innocently confirm. The officer informs me that we are not allowed to bring Indian Rupees across from Pakistan. Next time I shall have to confiscate them. It seems such an easy let off, that I wonder why he even bothered.

Striding out of immigration always feels liberating. A sense of freedom to be allowed outside and explore a strange new world. The taxi drivers are there to greet us but ask if we are going to Delhi which is at least 24 hours away. No just Amritsar please, a shorter distance of just over an hour. Coming through immigration with us is a German NGO working In Lahore. Hans has come across just for the weekend to see the Diwali festival. We settle on 850 INR which I think is around $12.00 USD. Life was so simple in Pakistan with an exchange rate of a 100 to 1, now we have to contend with the diabolical figure of 62!

At the epicentre of Amritsar is a Golden Temple that appears to float on a pool of still water. Neither Islamic nor Hindu the temple and the surrounding pool is the most holy site of worship for Sikhs. The waters here are said to contain healing powers. From inside the temple itself, priests and musicians play continuous verses from the holy book of Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib. Every morning it is carried into the temple and every night it is taken back out and placed in a bed of red velvet before being woken again the next day. The music is hypnotic and relaxing, a serene experience and quintessentially Indian.

Golden Temple

Sunrise at the Golden temple Amritsar

The people here are very friendly, almost a little imposing at first. Their curiosity when combined with limited English can result in questions like…why are you here? And…what is your purpose? Some of their friends with better English laugh and elaborate. Most carry mobile phones and insist on having pictures taken with us and any other tourist they come across. I am not sure whether this is due to general culture or being in the presence of the temple. Certainly this desire to take photos is diminished once outside on Amritsar’s crowded streets. The pool is surrounded by cool white marble promenades. They are patrolled by blue and orange clad holy guards who carry long spears and curved swords. The sign instructing us to keep our legs crossed when sitting is obeyed diligently.

Sikh Man

A Sikh pilgrim

Like all new religions Sikhism met determined resistance at the time of its conception. This might explain why every male Sikh carries a small curved dagger by his side. I don’t know much about Sikhism, but it seems to be a very inclusive and fair religion. It preaches that all men are equal and all must help one another. All are welcome, rich and poor and all are expected to help in providing for one another. This includes helping in the kitchen to prepare food and the communal washing up of metals plates and cups provided to anyone who is need regardless of their beliefs or religious alignments.


Possibly the biggest turban I have ever seen

The museum inside displays paintings of Sikh martyrs who were disposed of in gruesome ways. One man sits in a cauldron of boiling oil, the other is being sawed in half starting at the top of his head and working vertically through his body. I can’t help but to notice how serene their faces look during the macabre executions. I cynically wonder if in reality this were the case. I imagine a more anguished expression was given at the time.

By poor management and sheer good luck we have arrived in time for Diwali, the festival of lights. An already striking scene, the Golden temple is now lit by what appears to be a bulb for every man woman and child in India. The holy pool is surrounded by thousands of candles melting wax of every colour onto the white marble. Two young girls approach us with confidence and take a seat next to Emma. Their accents and manor are adorable.

Diwali in Amritsar

Diwali in Amritsar

We just saw you and wanted to wish you a happy Diwali. How are you liking Amritsar? We are also tourists here, it is a very beautiful place yah, too beautiful don’t you think?

They can’t be more than 7 years but they act like young adults. It’s after 9 in the evening, this would never happen back home. A few man are making their way towards us. Armed with tin cups they are scraping all the wax off the marble floor. Little regard is given as to where the wax is flicked and Emma ends up with some in her hair. There is a fireworks display over the temple before the holy book is taken to bed. We walk back through the tight alleys to our hotel. People of all ages are letting off fireworks of dubious age and construction. I spot a fuse on the ground hissing and run back just in time as it goes off with a large bang. Some embers fall down from the buildings above. Getting home without ruptured ear drums or minor burns is proving difficult but everyone is having a good time of it, who cares about safety standards.

Diwali at Golden temple

Diwali at Golden temple

It’s hard to know what to do next in such a large and charismatic country like India. It would be easy to linger longer in Amritsar but winter is coming and we are keen to see Srinagar in Kashmir before snows close the roads. The bus to Jammu departs at an ungodly hour outside a collection of travel agencies just past Ghandi gate. In amongst a few Mercedes and Volvo busses is our automotive mongrel. I examine its sides for any indication of its manufacturer but it appears to be a collection of old body parts…Frankenstein’s version of public transport.

The seat in front of Emma is jammed in a position that presses on her knees. She stuffs the sleeve of her fleece in between for protection. The journey today to Jammu is only six hours, just a sprint really. We arrive before midday and are let off by an empty compound. There are no taxis or tuk-tuks around. Our conductor come baggage handler is an angry chap but points us down the road to some shops when questioned politely. A passing tuk-tuk spots us and stops. Some young Indian lads try to get in but he is clearly more interested in a couple of juicy tourists. The discarded locals assist in explaining where we want to go. We agree on 150 INR as I can’t be too sure how far away we are from the city centre. With every passing kilometre I feel more pleased and less compromised by our negotiation.

The young lads who helped translate to our tuk-tuk driver

The young lads who helped translate to our tuk-tuk driver


The first few hotels are clean and comfortable but the price is a little over our budget at 2000 INR or around $30 USD. The next two are cheap at 400 INR but possibly the worst rooms I have ever inspected…actually that’s an exaggeration. The room we passed while looking for a toilet back in Ethiopia takes that prize. I am starting to feel a little like Goldilocks in pursuit of accommodation. Emma consults our dwindling list of possible places to stay. The Green view Hotel is described as difficult to find but good value once there. At the end of an alley I make a left turn. A young man sits behind a desk in an open courtyard. He is wearing a woollen hooded top. A fat Labrador lying on a pillow looks up at me. The stairs leading up to the room are not inspiring and I begin to wonder if the room in Ethiopia might be challenged after all. He opens the door to Room 41. I am amazed to discover a well sized room with clean tiles and white sheets. The bed is neither hard nor soft. The bathroom is also clean with a western toilet. There is even a small flat screen TV mounted on the wall with several English Channels. This is budget travel paradise. I try to conceal my joy with a false look of neutral appreciation and ask the all-important question. Its 600 INR a bargain for $10.00 USD. I nod my head looking unimpressed but secretly I am ecstatic. I try not to reveal too much to Emma as I want her to experience the same surprise upon entering room 41.

On a corner not far from Jewell Chowk and next to the public bus stand are the shared jeeps that taxi people to Srinagar. Raj operates a small travel agency close by. The advertised price for shared taxi is 600 INR per person but for reasons unknown Raj is prepared to take us in a small car for only 1800 total. It’s a confusing offer and much cheaper that I had expected to pay for a private hire. I consider that the extra $10.00 USD is worth paying so we can avoid being squeezed in with five other passengers.

The drive north to Srinagar takes anywhere between 8-10 hours depending on traffic. We are warned that today will be slow as many trucks are returning filled with Kashmiri apples. The road climbs out of Jammu through boulders and dense forests. We encounter our first monkeys on the road since leaving Africa. They stare at the oncoming traffic baring their teeth before yielding at the last moment. A dog is crossing the road and moving a little too slowly. I am still traumatised months later by our horrific experience back in Ethiopia and ask our driver not to hit the dog. No kill dog… do not worry he assures me.

Road from Jammu to Srinagar

Road from Jammu to Srinagar

The road climbs higher through pine forests before crossing the Pantitop pass. Raju surgically weaves between squealing trucks and cars with less daring drivers. He narrowly misses oncoming traffic with only inches to spare. I am no longer concerned by such manoeuvres and place another tango ketchup chip in my mouth. We cross a second pass by way of a long dark mountain tunnel. On the other side is the Kashmir Valley over 140km in length and surrounded by snowy mountains. It’s a relief to reach the bottom as the road finally straightens and motion sickness subsides.

Jammu road to Srinagar

Dangerous overtaking

By the time we reach Srinagar it’s almost dark. We explain to Raju that we need to go to Hazaratbal which is 7km north of the city centre. It’s a bad time to be travelling. Srinagar’s narrow streets are choked with traffic. It takes another 40 minutes before we reach the mosque by the lake.

Okay this Hazaratbal where you want to stop.

Keep going straight please.

It looks so different in the dark and a little further past the mosque than I recall. We pass a large grove of Chinar trees and spy a small familiar sign… Butts Clermont Houseboats. The owner Mr G.N. Butts emerges from his office to greet us with a warm hug. Ah you have made it… I was not sure if you were going to make it here tonight. Please, we have the stove ready and some diner prepared if you are hungry now…

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I find it difficult to accept that it’s our penultimate day in Pakistan.  I am pondering the passage of time and lamenting on how three months can pass so quickly. I remember the cheer that erupted in our bus the night we crossed the border with China. Now there is just another 30km to travel before we reach the Indian frontier. Our taxi is old, yellow and rusting but all the windows are working much to my surprise.

Breaking out of Lahore’s choked streets requires scant regard for personal space and a total disregard for safety. Our driver Tahir, despite these prerequisites is an amiable chap. He apologises for his limited English but makes an effort to point out places of historical interest all the same. In order to look after his family he drives long hours, seven days a week. Even during the holidays he has to work. His children often ask him to come home, which saddens him a great deal. But in spite of this he appears a happy man, optimistic and cheerful.

Lahore to Wagha Border

On our way to the Wagha border with India

Our progress is slow and laborious. Tahir creeps forward only inches from the car in front of us. Any gap left is seen as a sign of weakness and filled immediately by another member of the gridlock. We turn onto the legendary Grand Trunk road that runs all the way from Kabul to the Bay of Bengal. Every intersection becomes a tangle of cars, motorbikes, pedestrians and carts all fighting their way forward.

I look out the back window to see a lovely donkey displaying impeccable traffic skills. Head resting on the back of our taxi, his beautiful face looking at me. He seems completely unperturbed by the crush of the traffic around him. He is also keeping a close distance to the rear of our taxi. A truck tries to squeeze in but the donkey is not allowing it and flicks his head. His master seems amused by my interest. If I had a bag of carrots I would gladly get out and give him some. Tahir tells us that donkeys are very strong animals, very good animals, very hard working. I can’t imagine this diligence to labour is proactive or voluntary.

Donkey in traffic

The Tailgating donkey

I roll down the window and try to gage how much longer we might be stuck for. It strikes me how everything looks so different here in the Punjab. The land around us is flat and fertile. It seems incredible to think that a few days ago we were surrounded by mountain vistas and now the only obstructions on the horizon are the chimneys on brick kilns. The women are dressed more liberally and I notice the slipping of the head scarf is not such a concern. They are highly decorated with gold bangles and nose studs, you can see the influence of India in their appearance. I marvel at their ability to sit aside motorbikes while clutching shopping and small babies and how nobody manages to lose a sandal is anybody’s guess! Greg is discussing with Tahir the difference between a mule and a donkey. Tahir keen to improve his English asks him to type mule into his mobile phone. He then spends the next few kilometres pointing out each animal to confirm his understanding.

Tahir our kind taxi man

Tahir our kind taxi man

The Wagha border is pumping with patriotic music when we arrive. Very few words other than Pakistan are in the chorus or indeed the verse. The crowd young and old are waving the national flag and dancing with passion and commitment. It’s all about ensuring that the Indians on the other side of the gate understand who is more loyal to their nation. Pakistanis from all over the country travel to the border to show their support and catch a glimpse of India.

Border ceremony India Pakistan

A drummer and two men of considerable girth dressed in green shirts and white pants whip the crowd into jingoistic jubilation. A young boy urged on by his mother joins them and dances much to the approval of the men in the stands. He looks to have been influenced by Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson.

High kick at the India Pakistan border

High kicking at the India Pakistan border

The music subsides, the drums stop. A single bugle heralds the start. The first of the ceremonial guards from the Pakistan Rangers Division emerges like a gladiator into the colosseum. The crowd is pleased by their champion. He pauses to receive their adulation before being followed by another ten. It’s clear they have all been selected for their ability to menace. Standing well over 6 and a half feet, every opportunity has been taken to accentuate their height, including a little extra heel on their boots. The rangers are dressed in dark green tunics with red and white flashes. Their vast chests are adorned with an impressive display of medals. The look exudes total macho. Their counterparts in India wear traditional Khaki uniforms and are much smaller in size. Even the red and gold fans atop their hats cannot compensate. They appear less sinister but ready to do combat.

Pakistan India border ceremony

The ceremony begins with goose stepping and leg kicking that would put a can-can dancer from the Moulin Rouge to shame. The Indians reply with evil stares and pointed thumbs. Each side takes its turn to display contempt for one another. The rangers shake their heads and puff their chests. They march back and forth like large green rosters, stamping the ground with tremendous force.

The crowd on both sides are cheering loudly urging their champions on. A lady sitting next me inquires, where are you from? I tell her Australia. And how you like Pakistan? She asks with a searching look. I tell her that I love Pakistan and this is why I am cheering for her country today. Delighted to hear this she responds… Why not, you are welcome.

India Pakistan Border

A death stare stand off

With every chant I close my eyes and think of all the people who have come into our life over the past three months. From our very first day when we spent 12 hours crossing the Kunjerab Pass to Tahir the taxi driver who took us to the border. Emotion wells up as I think of the great times we had with Habib, Nasir and Amin. The support and friendship of Rehan, Tahereh, Mr Yaqoob and Irfan. The young guy who paid for a taxi once and whose name I can’t recall. I cheer passionately for this country, for what it has given me. Lasting memories of people with nothing but open hearts and generosity. I retrace our journey in my mind. It has taken so much to get here, at this moment I don’t want to leave Pakistan. I’m excited about returning to India, but my heart feels heavy at the thought of crossing through that gate. I know I have to let what has been our life here become a memory. Tomorrow I must let that balloon go and watch it float away, but right now it feels impossible to do so.

I open my eyes to see the man in green waving the Pakistan Flag in front of me. The roar of the crowd lifts my spirits. A part of me shall always be here and I will take a part of Pakistan with me.

I will be back again… Insha Allah

Pakistan Ranger

Come on…smile

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The Machulu La

The days are getting noticeably shorter now in Pakistan. Most of the valleys only spend a short time in the sun. The high mountains cast a shadow by mid-afternoon. The officer who patrols the green suspension bridge halfway between Skardu and Khaplu seems somewhat surprised to see us again. I disembark in fading light and take a seat on one of the plastic chairs.

Unlike a few days ago, I am feeling confident and relaxed. We now have the security of our passports and extended visas. I present them both to the officer with pride. He flicks through the pages seemingly unimpressed and then enquires as to whether we have a guide. I feel like a student who has completed all his homework; an emotion I seldom experienced at school. Habib and Amin get off the bus and stride over like two body guards. I actually have two guides. The officer smiles, he is pleased.

autumn in muchulo

Its night when we reach Khaplu. Amin starts negotiations for a car to take us to his home village of Machulu. Habib tells us that the driver wants 15,000 PKR which is about $150.00. It’s dark and getting late but the price is totally unacceptable. Amin seems a little surprised that we consider the offer too high. We tell them that… if this is the case we can all go stay in the Khaplu palace and travel the next morning. I can’t be sure how (even to this day) but there has been a mix up. The driver actually wants 1500 PKR. Amin looks relieved and is now smiling. Before we head to Machulu we take dinner in a local restaurant. It turns out to be one of the tastiest meals we have had. A lamb stew with potatoes served with grilled chicken, yoghurt and fresh naan bread that is warm and crunchy. The total cost for the 4 of us is just under 700 PKR or around $7.00 USD including a bottle of coke.

autumn in pakistan

The drive to Machulu takes just over an hour from Khaplu. Our car is weighed down by all the supplies we are carrying for our next trek. The journey is slow and takes just over an hour to cover 10km. When we reach Machulu we are greeted in the dark by one of Amin’s friends. A local school teacher who has kindly allowed us to sleep in his house.

The next morning we are making preparations for our trek up the Machulu la. It will take 3-4 days to reach the top of the pass and return back to Machulu. If the weather is kind we will get good views of K2. The trek has been described as an easy way to see K2 but it’s an ill-founded description. There is no shade and no respite from the steep barren slopes that lead up to the pass. The gradient in places requires you to lean forward and not look ahead should your heart break. The first day is short only 3.5 hours until we reach a collection of shepherd’s huts. The second day starts with a cruel climb up a gulley before turning left and getting steeper. You can see all the way to the top. It stops you in your tracks and you begin to reconsider why you are here. There is no relief, no reference of hope ahead just a continuous grind.

Climbing Machulu La

Day 1 Machulu la

We reach the high camp, again in just under four taxing hours. I feel completely spent and exhausted. The sudden rise in altitude and strong sun is giving me a terrible headache. I lie on the slope imagining just how hard this would be in the summer. Emma seems to be in better spirits than I and even considers continuing up to the top for sunset views. I wave my hand and then let is flop down beside me. It takes considerable effort to get up and erect the tent. I can’t help but to feel sad as it’s the last time we shall use it on our trip. I think about how we were so excited when we first used it back in Namibia. Amin comes over to help. I pull out the ground sheet that is still covered in dust from Kenya. He takes the opportunity to discuss relationships in western society. In particular I dispel the notion that men and women are free to date other people when married. I notice that his English is much better when we speak one on one.

Muchulu la

Em and Habib sunset day 2

That night we sit around a small fire, it is already bitterly cold. The stars are back out in the millions. I have begun calling Emma the Memsahib which amuses Habib and particularly Amin who laughs loudly and takes great delight in using the term himself. Memsahib is warm enough, Memsahib would like some more chai. It was a term used as a mark of respect for European ladies in colonial India, a little politically incorrect, but among friends it’s just our funny way of calling Emma the boss. After dinner Amin decides to pursue his task in convincing us to have children. His voice and manner in speaking are disarming. I attempt to deflect his soft reprimands with the notion that it will surely happen if it is God’s will. Habib is laughing, so I try to turn the tables on him by offering his non marital status up as an area of greater concern. Amin pauses for a moment unperturbed and then just continues to appraise the virtues of children in that slow croaky voice.

Dinner with the memsahib

Dinner with the memsahib

Its morning on day 3 and I wake feeling rejuvenated and ready. The top of the pass is only 500 meters away but the gradient above rises in parts to over 45 degrees. We zigzag our way up the cold slope in just under 1.5 hours. We can see Broad peak, Gasherbrum 1 and 2 and the mighty K2 all over 8000m in height. The sun is shining on the Abruzzi ridge. Even from over 40km away, K2 dominates all the other mountains around us. We have been very lucky with the weather, although I would say that early October is an excellent time to do this trek.

top of Machulu la

Habib at the top

Going up is hard on the lungs but descending such a steep slope is torture on your legs. The high camp is just a spec below us. The surface is lose and the small stones and pebbles make for a slow and slippery descent. Amin on the other hand is able to run down the hill with a long stick held behind him like a rudder. He leans back on it to stop himself from slipping. Its am impressive display of speed and balance. He covers in 30 seconds a distance that will take us closer to 5 minutes. It takes about 45 minutes to get down from the pass. We have some chai before packing up the tent.

K2 from Machulu la


With us are two porters. A teenage boy who is 16 years and much older man in his mid to late 50’s. The older man has been carrying twice the weight of his young companion and is still putting him to shame. We continue down trying not to slip as best we can. By the time we reach camp 1 our legs are aching, but it’s only around 1pm so we continue onto Machulu. I know it’s going to drag out and take longer than we expect, but the lure of a cold bucket shower and a thin mattress with clean bedding is a prospect worth continuing for.

A long way down

A long way down

The young guy is beginning to suffer and falls behind. The dull ache in my thighs has been replaced with severe burn. I can feel nerve endings being plucked and pulled like guitar strings. The pain shoots up into my hips and my legs start to cramp. There is nowhere flat to stand, no rest ahead. As we approach the village I notice Emma going into the late stages of exhaustion. She has become very quiet and focused. We have now been resisting the relentless pull of gravity for over 6 hours. The gradient eases slightly as we enter the village a blessed relief.

Muchulu village

Muchulu village

Small children begin to encircle us chanting… Anglais mimo foto tek. I feel like I am in a scene from Lord of the flies. As it turns out they are singing… English mother photo take. We reach the schoolmasters house and waste no time is removing our boots, peeling off our sweaty socks and collapsing on the floor. The old porter who has carried 25kg looks by contrast remarkably fresh. I admire his constitution. The teen has fallen behind and is in a similar condition to ourselves just with an extra 15kg. Amin goes back to pick up the adolescent pieces.

I walk the village is search of a drink. It’s either cold water or warm Mountain Dew. I take the warm soft drink and guzzle down as much as I can. Twenty minutes later Amin arrives with the broken boy in tow. He look more relieved than I to be back in the village.

Home in Muchulu

Amin’s Home in Muchulu

Later that night Amin makes us all a tasty meal of Potatoes and rice. He humbly apologises for not being able to offer us any meat which we refute. He has done so much for us already. As a last course he brings out, much to our surprise a large crème caramel. It is outstandingly good and would be worthy of any restaurant in Sydney and perhaps even Paris. We handout some presents for his six children. Some red and gold bangles for his two eldest daughters, a talking battery operated parrot that is sure to drive him mad and a small tank with flashing lights for his son. Last but not least some plastic blocks for his baby twins. They all come in one by one to receive them and graciously take them away. Amin tells us we have brought many presents. That is because you have many children. I think Amin sees an opportunity to kindly lecture us again but gets distracted by Habib laughing.

The children in Machulu

The children in Machulu

It has been great to reunite for another trek. We just had to see K2 again, and being with Amin and Habib was an extra bonus we had not expected. Habib now has to travel back to Gilgit and leaves early.

Proud dad

Proud dad

We linger a little longer in Machulu with Amin before bidding him goodbye. His eyes are a little glassy when we leave. He is such a wonderful man, kind and loved in his village. We give him a hug, his body is as hard as steel but he has a soft heart. He looks at me and says exactly what he said four years ago

Don’t forget me…

We drive away with a lump in our throats. I can feel my eyes tingling a little. It’s impossible not to look back and all I can think about is stopping the car and turning around.



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