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An early 90’s Toyota corolla arrives at the front gate of our guesthouse in Gilgit. It’s six in the morning.  A man opens the passenger door and slaps the front seat with a rag. The car is here to take us to Islamabad, 560km to the south. We are both in pensive but determined mood.Two days ago while doing preliminary investigations on getting an Indian visa in Pakistan we discover disturbing news. The consulate is advising that due to the current security situation the average time for a visa to be processed is 35 days! It is also made very clear that payment of visa fees does not ensure a visa will be granted.

Once establishing what prefixes to use, we try to call the embassy, but each time we speak English the phone hangs up. We scan the website looking for alternative numbers. Eventually a promising lead presents itself. We speak with Dr Acquino Vimal +92 51 282 8370. He confirms that the application will on average take 3-4 weeks! This is a disaster. Our plan had been to continue our tour of the north before heading down to Islamabad and onto Lahore and India. I should point out that the 560km normally takes 24 bone jarring hours in a bus each way. The thought of having to make a trip down and then back up again just to lodge a visa is sickening!

We consider other options. Rather than take the risk of applying in Pakistan and travelling over 48 unnecessary hours, we explore the possibility of returning our passports back to Australia by international courier and lodge them in Sydney. A visit to the DHL office kills the idea. They are not able to courier passports as Pakistan customs won’t allow it. Another blow.

A few weeks ago it seemed like all our visa issues were behind us and now they are back with vengeance. Could coming to Pakistan have painted us into a bureaucratic corner?

To further complicate matters all visa applications must be typed into a PDF and printed. Hand written applications will be rejected. We spend the next 5 hours trying to fill in an application that has over 60 questions, including fathers place of birth, your last visa number which we don’t have and mothers profession! Each time we go back to retrieve the PDF the code is invalid. Our laptop also keeps switching off for no apparent reason?!

Police Escort on Karakoram Highway

Our police escort on the way down from Chillas to Besham

We find a thread that reports applicants should not go to the actual embassy. The best way to lodge is to go to the TCS office in Islamabad. The visatronox section www.visatronix.com/index.aspx will handle applications. Our laptop flickers off. There seems no other way but to travel down to Islamabad, lodge the application and return to the mountains up north while our visa is considered and pondered over at the embassy.

The issue with the Karakoram Highway is complex. In the last couple of years several attacks on busses have meant that travel in convoys is required. The convoys have slowed what was an already long journey. The other options are to fly… which is out of the question, or to take a car. The car can travel faster and avoid the dangerous sections before nightfall. As such they are not required to travel by convoy so the total time to reach Islamabad is shaved down to a mere 16 hours! The only issue being that they are expensive. The bus is about 1500-2000 PKR, the car will cost 6000 PKR each or about $120.00 USD in total.

The thought of back to back journeys on a bus is too much. We weaken and take the car; at least for one leg. The first two hours are comfortable until you reach the Raikot Bridge. This is also where you turn off the KKH for Fairy Meadows, but I digress. This is as far as the Chinese road builders have reached. Smooth communist bitumen gives way to neglected and broken south Asian asphalt.

Karakoram Highway

Karakoram Highway

Our driver speaks English well and even manages a few expletives about the condition of the international highway.  The corolla sweeps around the multitude of bends. Swerving from side to side, we are rattled by the many bumps. The journey becomes both mentally and physically sickening. Despite the poor state of the road we clear the so called dangerous area (Chillas to Besham) by 2pm, but there is still a long way to go. The KKH departs the Indus river and heads south through Abbottabad; notorious now as the city where Osama Bin Laden was executed. In reality it is just another small city, but oddly it has an abundance of Eucalyptus trees. Upon seeing them I think of home. It’s a warm sunset as we descend to lower altitudes. The humidity has crept up, all that is missing are the cicadas.

By the time we reach Islamabad it’s just after 10pm. Our driver despite his tiredness takes us to the area where the visatronox office is located. An odd address I and T centre, block 11, G-6/1. We come across the Crown Palace Inn and not much else. Its horrendous value at 3500 PKR but weariness and a need for sleep help to cover up the mouldy walls and stained carpets.

Hotel Crown Palace Islamabad

Hotel Crown Palace Islamabad

The next morning we (after a small struggle) locate the visatronox office. It is pouring with rain and any shelter provided is occupied with motorbikes forcing you to walk in the downpour. We are directed around the corner to a translation agency who can type the applications and print them. The cost is 750 PKR each. A kind and elderly man types the applications as I dictate. The progress is slow and the mistakes are many. I ask if it is at all possible for me to type as I can’t keep explaining the difference between a G and a J. This is not possible! We continue slowly. Upon finishing there is an error in the spelling of Emma Jane. She is now Emma Jan. We take no risks and ask for it to be corrected. I look in horror as he opens a new PDF. The old one can’t be edited??!! All 60 questions are again filled in with a new round of mistakes and corrections made.

We take our place at the visatronox office and wait to be called. Our papers are examined but there is a big error. Emma’s current nationality is British on the form but we are lodging with an Australian Passport. In the section for former nationality he has Australian. We go back and yes it must be typed all over again including more explanations regarding the difference between G and J…smiling inside I promise! He is far too nice to be angry at.

Finally the applications are lodged. It feels like they should be rolled into a bottle and thrown into the sea. Please find someone good.

We are weary and mentally drained. We are also starving and decide to go in search of authentic Italian cuisine…the Pizza Hut. Don’t judge us.

Jinnah Supermarket Islamabad

Jinnah Supermarket

After three taxi rides each one a few kilometres in distance and 200 PKR, we finally find the Holy Grail. The sign, the font, the familiarity, it’s all too much. Air conditioned bliss! We take a moment to lust over the choices and the glossy photos of food to come. Over by the salad bar locals are spooning food into their bowls and half way up their arms. We can only assume that return visits are not permitted.

In an attempt to sample some traditional food I order the Afghan Spicy Chicken Tikka Pizza. I’m feeling adventurous. Emma takes a tomato and chicken penne both of which are delicious. Not since leaving Cairo have we had the taste of home. It feels good to indulge. If you find yourself in Islamabad go to the Jinnah Supermarket.

colourful bus Pakistan

This was not our bus but I kind of wish it had been

We make plans for the return journey. Feeling rested we decide to save some money and take the bus back to Gilgit. It’s like the point of no return. The pain has not started yet, but you know what lies ahead.

All busses to the North depart from Rawalpindi a city located 20km to the south…a great start! Nasir has booked us a couple of seats near the front, an absolute must if you want to retain your lunch and dinner. The bus station is thriving with relics from the past, painted in psychedelic patterns. Some of the creations would have no doubt pleased the Beatles on their magical mystery tour. Our bus, Silk Route Ltd is by comparison sedate but comes with the dubious promise of Air Conditioning. It costs us 2000 PKR each almost $20.00 USD. We fight our way out of Rawalpindi through choked streets and choked air. The sun is a blood red disc above the dirty buildings. I feel a sense of satisfaction that at this moment there is no more I can do. The passports have been lodged we are back on a bus and travelling. After all… is this not an adventure.

Rawalpindi Bus Station

Rawalpindi Bus Station

My optimism and buoyancy start to wane after a few hours into the journey. The metal bar in the back of my seat has announced itself and my spine is not pleased. I shift so a new vertebrae can be acquainted. Outside cars and trucks flash past with musical horns and high beam lights. It reminds me of the night crossing from Kampala to Nairobi. Everything is the same, but the faces and clothes have changed. We reach Besham at 2am. It has taken us nine hours. A couple of guys sitting next to us translate that we will sit here for 3-4 hours until morning. The convoy is stopped. I am so tired I just curl up in a ball and wait as we make no progress, it’s heart breaking.

Rest stop in Abbottabad

Dinner stop in Abbottabad

I can hear a rooster somewhere. A shutter is opening and the sky is no longer black. My neck hurts and my mouth is dry. Then, like a pack of wild dogs the busses start howling musical tunes. I am convinced that Pakistan must have the world’s loudest horns and there have been some serious contenders. Silk Route Limited responds and roars into life. We are reversing back onto the KKH. The relief is overwhelming. One step at a time, I remind myself of where I am and what I am doing.

Karakoram Highway Northern Pakistan

Travelling along the Karakoram Highway ay high speed

Our driver is revitalised and demonstrates his skills on tight bends and sheer drops. Despite the need to travel in convoy he overtakes slower busses at any given opportunity. His definition of opportunity is questionable. I abandon western ideals of physics and necessity and embrace Inshallah or God willing.

Bus Ride Islamabad to Gilgit

Our fellow travelling partners Islamabad to Gilgit

He comes up the inside of his next victim. Ahead I can see the road narrows and a rock is jutting out. This will be interesting, good luck with that I say to myself. It’s like I am watching a movie, perhaps from latent fear my mind has detached me from my current situation. He threads the bus and rock with precision, never once breaking, but I wonder if its good luck or good management at work. Perhaps both and we certainly need it.

Karakoram Bus Convoy

The Convoy stops again

By the time we reach Gilgit its 5.30pm and we been travelling for just over 24 hours. We should be exhausted but the adrenaline from reaching the end is flowing strong. It’s been a crazy three days, but the pain is over, the job is done.

For now all we can do is wait and pray that someone in the Indian consulate finds a little bottle with two visa applications inside…

Rain along the KKH

Finally reaching Gilgit

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Paradise on Earth

The bus depot in Gilgit is a bare earth compound. Its perimeter is marked by a low stone wall. Its exit is sealed by a rusty chain. The multitude of vehicles within are of various size but universal in their condition. The yard is dominated by men dressed in lose flowing trousers, matching long shirts (that extend to the knees) and flat woollen hats.

It’s a busy scene. Summer holidays are coming to an end and people are returning to the southern cities of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi after taking refuge from the heat, high in the mountains.

The bus depot in Gilgit

The bus depot in Gilgit

For the last seven days our physical journey across the earth has come to an abrupt and much needed halt, but today we are travelling to Skardu, a small city 150km east of Gilgit. While the distance is short, the journey is long. Skardu is connected to the KKH (Karakoram Highway) by a perilous dirt track that clings to cliffs above the Indus River. It is often, when raining, cut off by landslides and falling rocks. It has been raining.

We are fortunate to have secured seats near the front. The road is forced to follow every bend and twist in the river. The van is forced to follow the road and your stomach is forced to follow the van. The driver is not governed by any force other than the will of God and rounds corners accordingly. Perhaps it is more his tight schedule and years of experience that have given him the confidence to do so.

The road to Skardu

The road to Skardu

As we turn off the KKH, we cross a suspension bridge held up by a web of decaying steel strands. The wooden span ripples and sways like the waves in the river beneath us. The fatigued planks rattle under our bald tyres. Ahead lies the entrance to foreboding stone canyons and lofty peaks. The road narrows in expectation.

The Indus River is in full flow and fed by the summer melt of snow and ice. I watch its turbulent progress with fascination. A vast artery of brown muddy water eroding the banks and boulders that contain it. Like a tortured animal it fights back in protest. One huge rock in mid steam is being pounded relentlessly. I wonder how long this battle has lasted. We pass a decorated truck that is particular to this part of the world. Its flanks are painted with colourful birds, and scenes depicting green valleys. Below its bumper hangs a skirt of fine mesh chains. They swing and dance over every bump and play a metallic tune. The driver waves to me. The truck soon becomes a speck in a land of giants.

Spot the truck

Spot the truck

Eventually after 6 hours the walls of the canyons retreat and soften. We emerge into a broad valley surrounded by snowy peaks. The river is wide and calm unaware of the battle that lies ahead. The sun has dipped below the clouds and now shines golden on the mountains to the east. The roads of Skardu are wet and muddy when we arrive. It’s getting dark and we still have another 35km to travel before we reach Shigar. Our driver (obliging like every Pakistani we meet) assists and calls for a taxi. It is too late to take a shared van. Within minutes a car arrives. The starting price is 2000 PKR or about $20.00 USD. We reduce this quickly to 1500 where the price stalls. Further polite appeals reduce the fee to 1400. I can see the driver is getting a little impatient and is reaching for the hand brake so the rate is fixed at 1400 PKR.

The Shigar Valley

The Shigar Valley

The moon is rising as we leave Skardu. My window is open and cool night air pours in. The mountains are now black silhouettes. There is just a trace of light in the west. The stars are shining and an Indian love song is playing on the radio. It is a special moment of beauty and independence. I want it to last forever. I feel so very fortunate.

Driving through dark villages

Driving through dark villages

The moon and our dim headlights shine the way over a dark mountain road. We enter a village of dry stone walls and tall poplar trees. The houses are lit with candles and kerosene lamps. Among its sprawl sits a 400 year old fort. A beautifully restored construction of rock and wood converted into a hotel. Inside the corridors are supported by original beams blackened with tar and soot. It smells of old woollen rugs, lacquer and smoke.  Our room has low ceilings and original features. Traditional Balti carpets and cushions complete the decorations. I open the small windows and settle into bed. Outside the river plays all night long.

The Shigar Fort

The Shigar Fort

The next morning reveals a splendour. The fort is surrounded by green gardens and high mountains. Our room looks onto an orchard filled with apples, plumbs, mulberries and apricots. Next to the fort and shading the garden is an ancient gnarled maple tree. We take breakfast under a pagoda covered with grapes.

Our Room

Our Room

Despite the scenic distractions our minds turn to our upcoming trek into the mountains. In the next few days we will drive further up the Shigar valley to the remote outpost of Askole. From here we will commence a trek across two of the longest glaciers in the world and a high pass for a total distance of just over 130km. Neither of us have been doing any exercise for months so the prospect is a little overwhelming. With this in mind we decide to take and extended exploration of the village and the surrounding farmlands.

Sitting in the orchard

Sitting in the orchard

We are fortunate to meet Tahereh who originates from Karachi but has been living in the United States for many years. She too has fallen in love with the Shigar Valley and has been returning for many months each year working on a school project. The aim being to establish a Teaching Garden to stimulate learning.

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She takes us on a tour and introduces us to many of the local people and former students. The village is a maze of dirt roads and stone aqua-ducts used for irrigation. We pass over a bridge and into open fields. Men and women gather in the last of the summer crops. Wheat and corn are turning gold. Its hard work but necessary for the long winter that is coming. Children discover our intrusion and follow us from door to door. The boys are bold and the girls are shy but curious. We end up at the baker where Tahereh places an order for some buck wheat bread.

Gathering in the crops

Gathering in the crops

Shigar has a collection of world heritage mosques, but these are not the domed and minaret versions we are so used to seeing. Before Islam came, this part of the world was Buddhist. The mosques here are wooden and closely resemble ancient stupas.  Even the local Balti language is related to Tibetan.

The old Mosque

The old Mosque

We pass a fine example faded and slightly tilted to one side. Its windows are decorated by overlapping layers of intricate carvings. Its roof is pointed like a pyramid and topped with a spire that pierces a crescent moon. It is guarded by four goats who rest against a shaded wall. We walk around its perimeter in search of an entrance. I get the distinct impression we are being followed. One of the guards has risen and stands behind us. It bares its teeth and stamps its hoof. Of all the animals on earth none is more curious than the goat.

The four guardians of Shigar

The four guardians of Shigar

The handle on the door is large and worn smooth by the generations that have turned it. The door creaks open like the lid on a vampire’s coffin. It is dark inside. The windows are small and perfectly crooked. The walls are a patchwork of wood and plaster flecked with straw. Small alcoves contain tea pots and kerosene lamps. In the far corner are some matches and candles which we light. A centre poll is wrapped with different coloured cloths. The floor is covered with traditional prayer mats all facing the direction of Mecca.

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We close the door to prevent the guard from following us in. He bleats in protest. I sit and absorb the magic of this sanctuary. I stare out the window into a sapphire sky scattered with clouds. The leaves on a maple catch the sun. They are bright green and translucent in the light. Their shadows dance on the walls of the mosque. I lean forward, behind us a dark grey wave is consuming everything in its path. The bough on the maple starts to sway, the leaves rustle in anticipation and then roar as the wind strengthens. The mosque creaks a little but remains steadfast. I think about our journey and how it has taken us to this place, this moment in time. I wonder if our presence here is an intrusion but feel sure its builders intended it for such feelings of reflection.

Inside the Mosque

Inside the Mosque

The next day we pay a visit to the Abruzzi school to see the progress that has been made with the garden. The students seem very surprised to see us. We are taken to a classroom of 5th graders and introduced. The current lessons are centred on North America and its indigenous history. We are asked to give a talk on North American Indians. The idea being that we will speak and the class will draw their impressions based on what we have said. Feeling a little awkward and surprised we address the eager young minds of Shigar. Trying hard not to think about John Wayne movies we give a brief account and description of their lives. The clothes they wore, and the villages they lived in. One young lad draws a series of incredibly accurate pictures. We are both taken by surprise and wonder if it was more his imagination as opposed to our teaching that produced such wonderful drawings.

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We bid farewell to the students. It has been a wonderful hour and indeed a wonderful few days here in Shigar. It really is paradise on earth. We have been very fortunate to have seen and absorbed this community, but I am sure it’s real beauty will be remembered in years to come during pensive mood.

The Fort

The Fort

Tomorrow we leave for Askole and the start of our big trek up in the mountains. We are both nervous and excited.

More to come…

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