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Help is never far away in Pakistan and this morning is no exception. As it turns out the bus to Khaplu does not depart from the central stand, but a man with limited English points us down the road. He must sense our confusion and hails a taxi, helps load our bags and then gets in the front seat. A few minutes later we stop outside the entrance to an alley at the eastern end of the bazaar. It’s so non-descript I doubt we could have found it on our own. I give the man who has helped us 200 PKR, about 2 USD but he only accepts 100 for the taxi before placing his hand on his heart and bidding us farewell.

Pakistan truck

Leaving Skardu, best trucks in the world

Khaplu is a little under 30km from the infamous line of control. In 1947 when India gained independence and Pakistan separated, both fledging countries claimed Kashmir as their own. They have been locked together in a high altitude stand-off ever since, with neither nation prepared to concede and agree on a permanent international border. With escalating tension due to recent insurgent activities, parts of the valley have become restricted. I am feeling somewhat apprehensive about our chances of reaching Khaplu considering we only have photocopied passports, no guide, no permits  and a visa due to expire in three days.

 

Khaplu Bridge to Muchulu

Heading towards the line of control

 

We pass through two checkpoints without being noticed. Sitting in the back corner behind the others passengers we evade the scrutiny of the army, but after crossing a green suspension bridge we are stopped again. Emma pulls her scarf over her head and I pretend to be asleep with my face in my arms. For a few minutes we sit praying we won’t be spotted but then we hear a tap on the window. I am escorted from the bus and told to take a seat in a tent that acts as a makeshift office.

The interrogation is polite but laced with concern and doubt. Photocopied passports and soon to expire visas are not helping the situation. I explain that we have been waiting on our Indian visas for several weeks and our passports are still in Islamabad.  More confusion, more concern. I try to settle the situation by explaining our passports will be returned to Skardu in a few days and we will be extending our visa. We are just passing time in Khaplu while we wait. This is a complete fabrication. In reality we have yet to work out how we will get our passports back and if the office in Skardu will even grant us an extension. He picks up the radio and explains he will seek advice from his supervisor due to unusual circumstances.

What will happen if he says no?

You will be sent back to Skardu and detained!

But we only came to see the Khaplu Palace…

He holds a finger in the air as he speaks into the two way radio. Among the foreign conversation I manage to catch incrementing words and phrases like, no passport, no guide, visa expire, India. Well that sounds promising. Even I begin to doubt my intentions here. I can’t be certain what is said in reply but he reaches for a book and starts entering our details.

Okay, my supervisor has said you can proceed to Khaplu, but you must return in three days and attend to your visa extension in Skardu. If you don’t, you will be detained.

Yes sir, thank you very much, we shall return in three days.

He seems so good natured that I am left wondering how serious his threats of detention actually are. I push my concerns momentarily aside, relieved to have acquired three more days of breathing space. The bus has been waiting for nearly 20 minutes when I return. If the other passengers are annoyed or frustrated they certainly don’t show it. In fact they smile and seem somewhat jubilant that we are allowed to proceed with them. I ponder how my countrymen would react if the situation were to be reversed.

Khaplu Village

Khaplu Village

The streets of Khaplu wind up a gentle slope shaded under green leaves and dappled light. It’s a delightful and enduring village of irregular shaped houses and walls that give way to tree trunks and branches. To the east and across the valley is a vast barrier of stone rising into the clouds. At the top of the village and free of the tree line is the magnificent Khaplu Palace.

Khaplu Palace

The Khaplu Palace

It’s an attractive building similar in design to the Baltit Fort in Hunza. Inside are six wonderfully restored suites. The Manager of the property Mr Abbas is as charming man, warm and welcoming. He insists we are shown all the rooms before checking in. We are directed in particular to the Raja’s suite with its own private terrace and harem room. The main terrace is breathtaking with Arabian arches, Persian carpets and cushions from Kashmir. The ceiling is painted with roses and lit with soft lamps.

 

The beautiful terrace

The beautiful terrace

 

The efforts in reaching here have been rewarded. I stare out across the wild and overgrown grounds that adjoin the palace. It’s like a secret garden with wild flowers and twisted old apple trees. Having been completely overwhelmed we decide to spoil ourselves and take the raja’s suite.

Khaplu Palace room

The Raja’s room

Later that day we receive a call from Irfan in Islamabad. The visatronix office will not give him our passports because our supporting letter has not been stamped. Stamped by whom, what stamp are they talking about?

Irfan passes his phone over and I explain that he has the original collection slips and a signed letter authorising him to collect on our behalf. You are also talking to me on the phone, plus I emailed Mr Zia who confirmed this was sufficient… can you please give him our passports.

The phone goes down, there is some background conversation. Irfan picks up again and lets us know he now has our passports in his possession. I will call you back when I get to Rawalpindi. An hour later Irfan calls from the bus station.

I have found a friend who lives in Gilgit and is taking the bus back tonight. Do you want me to give him your passports?

The future of our journey is now attached to a total stranger. I can hardly believe it has come to this. If they go missing now it’s all over but we have put ourselves into a position where options are limited.

How well do you know him, I feebly ask?

He is the bus driver, I have met him before. We know him

I begin to doubt the definition of friend in Pakistan

I can feel the rush of blood that comes with gambling and hesitate trying to consider choices I don’t have. We go all in, and tell Irfan to hand over the passports to the bus driver from Pakistan. It will take another 24 hours before they arrive in Gilgit and we can be finally sure they are in safe hands.

That night I lie in the Raja’s bed unable to sleep. Emma is of the belief that the Palace might be haunted, but there could be any number of explanations for the odd noises we hear. Certainly the Islamic hymn before sunrise is a beautiful and haunting experience. With perfect pause at the end of each line, it echoes gently off the surrounding mountains. I somehow feel comforted and reassured. Despite the early hour and warm bed, I am pulled to the window. Khaplu sleeps under a black sky filled with an audience of stars. I sit by the window listening to that melancholy call. The air is still. The trees are frozen, there is no movement, no other sound and only once the hymn ends do I feel the morning chill.

Khaplu garden

One of the many beautiful houses in Khaplu

Like any time of anxious wait, the day passes slowly. We go for a walk around the village attracting attention from stray children and goats. Already some of the trees are dressed in autumn colours but the town remains for now mostly green. Steam rises from the fresh earth that is being turned in the fields.

We pass a colourful Mosque that is tightly enclosed by the surrounding houses. It’s difficult to get a good view but we wonder around the tight streets optimistically. A young girl no more than 16 looks alarmed to see me, but then relaxes when she sees Emma. I politely keep my distance while Emma is welcomed with warm curiosity. Emma explains we are trying to see the Mosque. The young girl takes us inside her house and onto the roof where we get a splendid view. A woman in her mid to late 30’s nurses a small child. As it turns out she is the grandmother and our young tour guide is the child’s mother.

Khaplu village

Drying fruits on the roofs

We have travelled far in our journey but have yet to find another place so distant and timeless as these valleys in Kashmir. The scale of the mountains and isolation is captivating. It’s like being in a fairy tale, Sleepy Hollow and Brigadoon. I find myself drifting further away from the world outside, paralysed and unwilling to leave.

Later during my wonderings I come across a dozen or so children playing a game of cricket. They see me and come running. The sun is setting but the umpires seem reluctant to call bad light. I am handed the ball. The young batsman wearing a full Pakistan kit narrows his eyes. I rub the ball on my pants which brings raptures of laugher from the crowd. There is not much room for a run up but I shuffle my feet quickly before releasing a deadly yorker. The little buggar charges me and drives me for six. The crowd is now chanting Pakistan, Pakistan. Australia’s dignity is in grave danger.  The ball is returned and another delivery is despatched to the boundary. The crowd swells and now even little girls are joining in. I decide to come around the wicket and clean bowl him. In a disgraceful act I charge down the pitch shouting and showing him the way to the dressing rooms. The crowd is now chanting Australia. The young lad is clearly a good sport and pats me on the back. I feel a little sad walking away. For thirty minutes in my life I have played with these kids and I will probably never see them again. I can only hope the young boy with the killer drive will one day open for Pakistan in a real test against Australia.

Khaplu Palace Garden

The secret garden

That night we get good news. The passports have arrived in Gilgit and Habib has kindly offered to bring them to Skardu; a bus journey of just over six hours. We make our way back the following morning to meet him. The officer at the checkpoint reminds us that we only have 1 day left on our visa.

The PTDC hotel in Skardu is now deserted. The climbing and trekking season finished weeks ago and now just a handful of local tourists remain wondering its cold corridors. There is a knock on our door, its Habib. He welcomes us warmly, it’s good to see him again after so many weeks. He reaches into his money belt and hands over our passports. It’s the first time we have seen them in just over a month. I flick impatiently through the pages searching for validation and reassurance. The Indian visa is there, we can continue, but we still have the issue of our expiring Pakistan visa.

With just a day left, we go to the Passport office in Skardu which is only a 100 meters east of the PTDC hotel. A three page form is filled in with a letter from the hotel confirming that we are staying with them. The office also requires two passport photos. I ask the officer in charge for 30 days but he seems a little unwilling and offers 20. I politely explain that we want to stay longer and will need a week to make our way to border with India alone. He accepts our request and issues us a 30 day extension. Habib seems surprised as the officer in Gilgit strictly issues 15 day extensions.

It’s a great feeling to have prevailed. The hard work has paid off but we could not have done it without the help of our friends in Pakistan. We owe them greatly for their help and assistance.

Now that we have extra days at our disposal we make plans with Habib to travel further up the valley to even more remote villages. It would be such a shame to leave with the full beauty of autumn now only a few weeks away.

 

 

 

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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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