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The Dave Adair I Thought You Were Supposed to be Home By Now Newsletter
The High Road to China Edition
June 30, 1992
Is it too soon to be writing another letter? My mom probably thinks so since she has to do all the copying and mailing. Thanks, Mom. Iím in China now, having gone through Pakistan, and I thought a letter about that trip would be reasonable (not to be confused with enjoyable or interesting).
I last wrote from Amritsar, India, right on the Pakistan border. I had surprisingly little interest in Pakistan itself, I just liked the idea of going by road through the mountains into China. I was really in for a surprise, because Pakistan is a great place! Itís one of the favorite countries Iíve been to. (Or to which Iíve been, if anyone is grading this.) Let me introduce you to what is probably a new concept: Muslim hospitality. Before I came to Pakistan my idea of Muslim hospitality was offering the infidel a cigarette before they shoot you in the name of Allah. Not so! I couldnít get over how friendly people are, and how far out of their way theyíll go for you. The first day a man walked us for half an hour in the rain to show us where a hotel was. As a traveler you learn to be skeptical about anyone who is too friendly, but the rules are different there. I had a man buy my lunch only five minutes after meeting him. Itís actually a bit of a problem, because if you suspect someone is going to pay you have to not order very much. I went to a restaurant with some young Pakistanis and it was clear that they intended to pay but didnít have much money, so I just had tea. After we parted company I went and ate a big meal because I was starving.
As Iíve already hinted at, Pakistan is officially a Muslim country. How did that come to be? Iím glad you asked, though you may not be as glad. What is now Pakistan had a flourishing civilization as long as 4,000 years ago. It was part of the important trade route known as the Silk Road. In the 1st century AD Buddhism became widespread, and this was replaced by Islam in the 11th century. The British started trade in India in 1600 and over the next 300 years ended up in control of the entire region. I didnít know this before I came here, but prior to Indian independence from Britain in 1947, both Pakistan and Bangladesh were part of India.
As it became clear that India would gain independence, the Muslims in the country started demanding their own state, separate from Hindu-controlled India. The result was Pakistan. At the time of Indiaís partition into separate states, the impossible task of deciding the boundary between the two countries had to be taken on. This was done primarily based on where the most Muslims lived. The result was that the country of Pakistan was made up of two separate blocks of land Ė East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh, and West Pakistan, which is now Pakistan. It wasnít until 1971 that a bloody was involving India and the two Pakistans resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. The partitioning of India is a fascinating story, and if youíre interested thereís a poorly-written but entertaining book about it call Freedom at Midnight. Itís co-authored by the schmuck who wrote City of Joy, a book about Calcuttaís slums.
When the dividing line between the countries was announced, it led to the biggest migration in history. Between 10 and 15 million people took all their possessions and moved; Muslims went from India to Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs ( a separate religious group) moved from Pakistan to India. Incredible violence accompanied the migration. Groups of Muslims would ambush a train of fleeing Hindus, killing every person inside, and then Hindus would retaliate by doing the same to fleeing Muslims. About 200,000 people were killed during a few months of the migration.
The far north of India was a state called Kashmir. Although it is predominantly Muslim, the maharajah who ruled the state and had to choose which country to go with, opted for India. Today, India and Pakistan hate each other, and Kashmir is the main reason. I told a Pakistani Iíd been to India and he said "Indiaís nice place. Lousy f---ing people, but itís a nice place."
I should mention that enjoying travel is easier in Pakistan if youíre male. Itís a terribly sexist country, and orthodox Muslim women cover their bodies from head to toe in black material. Itís so bizarre to see. Some locals asked me, "what do you think of Pakistani woman? Are they more beautiful than Indian woman?" I said, "how the heck would I know, Iíve never seen one.!" In almost all restaurants there are curtained sections where the men can hide their women from the rest of the world. I donít think very many of the women have ever been inside a restaurant. Iíd say 90-95% of the people you see on the streets are men. The women seem to stay home.
The Karakoram Highway, which connects Pakistan and China, was a joint effort by the two countries. It was started in the 60ís, took 20 years to complete, and was officially opened to tourists in 1986. I canít imagine why they built it. For 1,500 years it was an important trade route, but when Vasco De Gama discovered the route to sail around Africa, the Silk Road was finished. These days there is so little traffic, and almost no trade, that I canít see why they keep it open. The mountains are so incredibly rugged and crumbling that rockslides constantly close the road.
Prior to the highwayís opening, the area was so remote and isolated that two nearby valleys will have completely different languages. The national language of Pakistani is Urdu, which is almost identical to Indiaís main language, Hindi. The other Karakoram Highway (KKH) languages are Pushto, Kohistani, Shina, Byrushaski, Wakhi, Uyghur, and Mandarin. Up the side valleys there are more languages still. There is even one Muslim tribe that speaks classical Tibetan.
Almost the whole time I travel I hook up with other people, but I was alone for a few days in Pakistan. Youíll hear travelers says, "there are too many tourists here. I want to go where there are no tourists." Having done that a few times, Iíd have to say itís an overrated experience. I spent the night in a little town and slept in a truck-stop hotel. There were no tourists for miles and the locals didnít speak English. Time can pass pretty slowly in that situation. It actually turned our really well, because I met some locals who spoke some English and invited me over for dinner. They were so friendly and generous. I commented on the hat one was wearing and he tried to give it to me. Then they tried to give me one of their traditional outfits, baggy pants and matching long shirt. That kind of an event is a combination of being really interesting and fun and really exhausting.
The next day these same guys helped me hitch a ride on a big truck heading north. The trucks are wildly decorated in Pakistan, with hundreds of chrome knobs and reflectors, and elaborate painted scene covering most of the truck. The tops of the trucks are open with a place to sit above the cat. I rode on top of this truck all day and it was a great spot for views of the mountains and the valley far below. The road is sometimes blasted out of solid rock and clings precariously to the side of the mountain. From my vantage point I could look up and see crumbling rock right overhead and look down to see cliffs of up to 200 feet, nearly straight down into the river. I actually gave some thought to how I would jump is the truck went over the edge.
The truck driver spoke almost no English, and Iíd hardly even seen him since I was on the roof, but when we stopped for food or a drink he insisted on paying for me! I still canít believe that. The ride was really slow, and we didnít make it to Gilgit by that night, so I ended up spending the night on top of the truck. Because the driver paid for everything I spent 36 cents that day.
There are three sects of Muslims in Pakistan: Sunnite (or Sunni), Shiite (or Shia), and Ismaili. About 90% of the worldís Muslims are Sunnite. Shiiteís are a majority in only one country, Iran. They are both fundamentalist, and Ismailiís are much more low-key and relaxed. Most villages are predominantly one sect or another, but the town of Gilgit has a mix of all of them, and tension can run pretty high. In 1988 one of the groups ended the month-long fast of Ramadan a day earlier than the other, and a gun battle broke out that left thousands dead. Just when you were starting to think Muslims werenít that bad.
I spent four or five days in Gilgit, and two days after I left, one of the religious leaders was killed. Retaliations on either side ( the Ismailiís werenít involved) led to 12 people being killed before a 24 hour curfew was imposed. Eventually about 30 killed before a 24 hour curfew was imposed. Eventually about 30 were killed. I was lucky to leave when I did, because some travelers got stuck in this curfew and couldnít leave for days. I spent a weak north of Gilgit before deciding to go to Skardu, which meant backtracking and going through Gilgit again. The government was taking no chances. The army had moved in en masse, sand-bag bunkers were set up all over, with machine-gunners inside. There were non-stop patrols of men with machine guns in the back of trucks and army snipers were on the roofs of buildings.
The bus ride to Skardu was through an even wilder valley than the KKH. Three of us sat on the roof through a rugged and narrow valley. The driver didnít want us up there, and motioned that we could get hit in the head. I thought he meant by branches or wires, but he meant by rock overhangs! That would hurt. There were locals up there with us, and when the rock overhangs got low, we all got flat in a hurry.
Skardu is the starting point for treks up the second highest mountain in the world. The romantically named K2. Who would name a mountain K2? There are only eight mountains in the world over 8,000 meters (26,000 ft) and five are in Pakistan.
The people of Skardu seemed pretty backwards until we went to the town of Shigar in a nearby valley and saw really backwards. There is a lot of in-breeding in the mountains of northern Pakistan, and you could see it here. People were quite short and unattractive, and there appeared to be a lot of physical and mental handicaps. Itís mostly a Shiite village, and I donít know if itís time, but we were told that if you said anything bad about Iranís Ayatollah Khomeini, first theyíd shoot you and then theyíd shoot themself (although I wouldnít be surprised if they got the order of events wrong.) I saw pictures of Khomeini along with some "Down with the U.S." graffiti. The people were very curious about us, but also afraid. One little girl burst into tears when she saw me, but then followed me down the road for 15 minutes. When we went to a little shop to buy food, a crowd of curious men and boys gathered to stare and see what we were doing.
I took a 40 minute, $16 flight back to Gilgit that the guide book says is one of the most spectacular anywhere. It was a 40-seat prop plane and it never went higher than the surrounding mountains. It was a beautiful clear day, and we flew so close to the mountains the scenery didnít look real. I could see these incredibly isolated villages that made me wonder what their life is like.
The valleys north of Gilgit are beautiful and lush. Without man-made irrigation, the valleys appear sterile and desolate, but irrigated they explode with color and appear very fertile. In the Hunza Valley, channels carry water from high up the side valleys along sheer rock faces. I went on some beautiful day hikes in this valley. There are quite a few glaciers here, some of which reach right down to the highway. One of these is over 30 miles long.
The people here are mostly Ishmaili Muslims and are very friendly. We were invited in for tea several times, and we had children offering as fruit and singing us songs. We met a really nice man who was principal of a school and spoke excellent English (it was a lot better than good). He told us that his parents were married when they were 7 and 8 years old! His friend was married at 10 and widowed at 12. All the marriages are arranged, they have no "love marriages," as he put it. They arenít marrying so young anymore, and he said he may let his 16 year old daughter select her husband. He also said that people think the "best blood" is found by marrying a cousin.
Itís a strange feeling sometimes traveling and talking to people who are so dramatically different than you are. These communities have been isolated since the beginning, then all of a sudden thereís a road and travelers and Western influences and even, yes, MTV. It that sad or what? I was in a restaurant in Gilgit with a bunch of rough-looking, traditionally-dressed Pakistani men watching a half-naked woman gyrate in a Michael Jackson video. I was looking around at these men (when I managed to pry my eyes from the screen) and wondering, what must they think of this? On the one hand itís a funny scene and on the other itís not funny at all. I met a kid in Nepal from a 500 year old stone village who said he hated their traditional music and only liked Western music. The musical preference is only a start. In Hunza the local languages have no written form, so how long can they last? Iím just afraid that the indigenous cultures and languages canít survive the impact of Western mass communication. It also introduces a concept that is new to them, non-conformity. I donít think it occurs to many Pakistanis to do something different than what everyone else is doing. They wear identical clothes and hairstyles. After all Iíve said, I donít know whatís right. We canít have the paternalistic approach that MTV and microwaves are OK for us, but they canít handle it, and we canít freeze their development just because itís interesting for us to look at. Whatís the effect of my being here" I donít want to just be a voyeur and not all anything to the places I travel, but beyond my whopping $10-$15 a day I donít know what my contribution is. All I know is that I donít know. For good or bad I think that the changes in indigenous cultures in the last 100 years will be infinitesimal compared to the next 100.
On one of the day hikes I came to a suspension bridge that looked like something out of a movie. Itís a walking bridge, about 3 feet wide and maybe 300 long. The boards you walk on are pieces of driftwood spaced 2-3 feet apart. Some were spaced so far apart you had to play ballerina and step on the bare cable running the length of the bridge. If that wasnít bad enough, it has a severe tilt to one side and the wind was howling. It was a horrifying and exhilarating experience to walk across it, and it was a slow process. The funny thing is that I didnít want to cross the river, but I was forced by my maleness to do so. Crossing back again was as bad as the first time.
After spending one month in Pakistan, a group of us all went over the pass into China. The change in terrain was dramatic. The mountains went from being very steep and rugged with narrow valleys to being very broad and sloping with great flat valleys. The pass itself is at 15,500 feet. There were lots of yaks and camels grazing in the valleys. The camels here are much bigger than the one in India and have two humps instead of one. Coming over the mountains the road passes within about 30 miles of Afghanistan and 10 miles of Russia.
Iíd heard so much about how rude the Chinese are that I was a little disappointed to find them friendly at the border. The biggest problem about travel in China seems to be language. Very few people outside your hotel speak English, and Chinese is pretty difficult. Like Thai, itís a tonal language, and they make sounds that arenít reproduced in English.
The official end of the KKH is Kashgar (it may say Kashi on a map). Kashgar is deservedly famous for its Sunday market, where something like 100,000 people gather to buy and sell everything from horses to clothes. The people are great to watch. Men charge up and down one section test-driving the horses. The whole scene was pretty amazing.
Most of the people in Kashgar are Muslim, but itís obvious theyíre a different brand than in Pakistan. Itís common to see a woman in a dress, stockings and high heels, but with a veil over her head. It appears to be older women that wear the veil. Younger women walked around in these party dresses, brightly sequined and with poofy sleeves. (Is poofy a word?) Short skirts are all the rage in China, but sitting with your legs together isnít, and thatís an interesting combination. The girls also ride bikes in their skirts. I took a bus where the driverís assistant was a pretty girl, about five feet tall, wearing a black lacy dress with shiny blue sequins. She was pretty vicious, actually, and after terrorizing a few people on the bus, she went to take her seat at the front. She grabbed the bottom of here dress and lifted it up to her stomach, exposing her slip, and sat down. I just about choked on my chow mien. Over the course of the ride she assumed a myriad of poses, none even remotely "lady-like." The funny thing is that when our bus got a flat tire, she did most of the work changing it, party dress and all.
The Chinese have different ideas about privacy than we do. Maids are likely to burst into your room whenever it occurs to them, and even though youíre trying to sleep two of them will have a conversation in your room. Public toilets here are maybe more foul than Iíve seen any where. The wall between stalls is three feet high, so itís easy to make eye contact during a conversation. I was in a toilet (with walls) and the door opened; it was the janitor. Instead of something like "sorry," he motioned me to hand him the waste basket so he could empty it. Somehow I think the experience brought us closer together.
After a 3-day, 1,000 mile bus trip, Iím now in Turfan, near Urumqi. Iím headed for Tibet still, though Iím not terribly optimistic about my chances of sneaking in. After that, the choices are to go to Hong Kong and fly home, or to go to Beijing and take the Trans-Siberian train through Moscow to London, and then home. Notice that I said home twice in that sentence. Iím definitely coming home in the next few months, end of the year at the very latest. Maybe only one more newsletter!
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