I Love Pakistan

This morning I’m sitting outside our room at the Concordia Motel in Skardu.  It’s an idyllic setting and I’m feeling really lucky to be here.  From my perch on this grassy terrace I see goats scavenging the sandy terraces which lead to the mighty Indus River 200 feet below. The river bends around a small butte and then crosses the 10 mile wide floodplain before getting sent back to the southwest by the biggest mountain I’ve ever seen.  My mind wanders from ridgeline to snowy coulouir as I draw imaginary lines of ascent up these intimidating peaks.   I’m eagerly anticipating our departure for the Charakusa Valley but as I reflect on the past week I realize that this experience has already validated the months of planning that went into making this trip possible.

Yesterday Jake and I traveled by motorcycle to Shigar.   I had heard from 2 local guys that the Shigar Valley was the most beautiful valley in Pakistan.  We rented motorcycles from a shop just a short walk from our hotel. I had asked our hotel manager earlier in the day what a reasonable price is. He suggested that 1200-1500 rupees would be fair(80 Pak rupees= 1US$).

Haggling for the bikes

We started our offer at 1000 and the bike peddler Zyeed came back with 2000.  We went through the rounds and reached a stalemate when we refused to go above 1600 and Zyeed below 1800.  “Impossible! Nobody in Skardu can give you that price!”  “Shukriya (Thank You)”  we said as we walked away, to go see for ourselves at another bike peddler.  After ten steps we heard “Come back sir! Ok, 1600 per bike, we make deal!”

It took about an hour to get the fuel and finish some last minute tune-ups.  The mechanic had to go past the adjacent gas station to the far side of town to a station that actually had a bit of gas.  Of course he only got 10 liters of fuel to split between the 2 bikes and rather than filling each with 5 liters he filled one completely and then siphoned off the gas by mouth to the 2nd bike.  But alas, after a quick refresher( read 1stlesson) in where the clutch, brake, shifter and starter were, we were off. Zyeed and the other shopkeepers who had gathered to watch the spectacle laughed and waved as we stalled and jerked our way onto the Karakoram Highway.

Jake, ready to go!

We wove through the crowded streets, passing cows, goats and men while the other vehicles beeped and left us in their black exhaust clouds.  Crossing through the police check point on the edge of Skardu was slightly unnerving. They met us with stern gazes and big guns and our lack of a common language didn’t ease things.   It turned out that they just wanted our passport and visa numbers, which we wrote ourselves into their paper entry book. Beyond the checkpoint we moved into the country side.

Entering the Shigar Valley

Entering the Shigar Valley

Settled areas with vibrant green wheat fields, tall rows of poplar trees and low maples were separated by areas of dark, shattered rock and white sand dunes that abut the Indus and it’s many small tributaries. These elements contrast one another so harshly, it’s hard to believe that they exist in the same space. And above it all, even more unbelievable, are the snowcapped peaks. As we moved up the Shigar Valley we looked toward Askole, the end of the Baltoro Glacier, where climbers start the walk to K2, Broad Peak and the Trango Towers.  Traveling through this exotic land of fabled mountains had me smiling and laughing as Jake and I passed each other, yelling and screaming as we opened the throttles on our little Honda 125’s and sped along the open road.

As we pulled into Shigar we noticed Jake’s rear tire was flat and lucky for us we had stopped in front of a tire repair shop.  We parked our bikes and were quickly invited to take tea by a number of people.  We declined and hiked up to the Shigar Fort, a 400 year old fort that was home to one of the regions warring Rajas in the 17thcentury.

Inside Shigar Fort

It has been beautifully restored by the Aga Khan Network and is now a posh resort that charges 300 rupees just to take a tour.  We got the speed tour and returned to get the bike in the center of the Village.  Jake paid 100 rupees (just over a dollar) for the repair and the mechanic apologetically explained that it was so expensive because there were 2 holes in the tube.

Halfway back to Skardu, at the top of a barren pass my clutch cable broke.  Jake found a piece of wire on the ground but without tools we couldn’t quite get the tension right to engage the clutch. A car and a motor-bike with 2 people on it pulled over to help us.  “ Assalam Alaikum” they all warmly greeted us and shook hands.  They pulled out their tools and had the bike fixed in less than 5 minutes.  “Bot Shukriya” (Many Thanks) We expressed our gratitude and shook hands with all again who reconfirmed that we “are very welcome in Baltistan!”

I had an opportunity to repay my good karma just minutes later as another pair on a bike coming up the pass waved me over.  They had run out of gas and asked to borrow one half liter of fuel.  Having seen the siphoning shenanigans from earlier I eagerly agreed and asked if they had a tube.  This man was very resourceful and used an old grocery bag to catch the fuel directly from the fuel line.  I was quite impressed.  They thanked us and offered to pay.  We declined and kicked off down the hill, coasting with the engines off, the way the locals do to conserve fuel.

Sharing some petrol

I stalled the bike a number of times along the journey and each time someone would stop immediately to offer assistance.  I’ve been continually impressed by the good nature of the people of Baltistan and by the incredible hospitality.  Everywhere we go people go out of their way to greet us, introduce themselves and express that we are very welcome in Baltistan.  Even the Police at the checkpoint proved to be un-intimidating.  As we returned to town and signed back in they smiled and greeted us warmly.  I think they were also impressed with our motorcycle skills!

“You are American!? We love Americans! You fight terrorists and we hate terrorists too!”  That hasn’t been the sentiment we’ve seen everywhere but it certainly isn’t uncommon.  People speak very rationally about the US role in Pakistan and are very willing to hear both sides of the coin.  I’ve experienced much, much more anti-American sentiment while traveling in Patagonia and Europe.

The motorcycle journey ended without incident and has only bolstered my feeling of security in this region.  I’m feel obliged to say for my mom and dad’s sake that I recognize that it seems like an incredibly risky thing to be riding around the mountains and towns in Pakistan on a motorcycle but I feel safer doing it here than I would in the US.  The roads appear chaotic but the drivers are hyper aware of other travelers and they announce their presence with almost incessant beeping.  There are very few traffic signs and I haven’t seen a speed limit sign yet but with all of the traffic in the road vehicles rarely exceed 30 mph.  People here are considerate, concerned and helpful in a way that I have rarely experienced in America.

Balti girls

To quickly summarize the previous days in Skardu, we arrived safely. We explored the town and met Willy’s contacts at 2 local Schools.  At the Pine Hills School in Neoranga, just outside of Skardu, we were welcomed by principal Faisal Ali and  3 girls in traditional Balti dress.  We were then escorted inside where the entire school of ~150 students had gathered to welcome us and gave us 3 seats of honor in the front of their meeting hall. We were asked to be the judges for a sort of end of the year athletic competition amongst the students.  The young students conducted an impressively organized ceremony with welcoming speeches, chants, flowers which we received and medals and trophies which we awarded to the winners of the competitions.

We enjoyed a traditional Balti lunch with Faisal Ali and some of the other faculty of the school and Faisal’s 2 daughters.   Pine Hills school is the only Co-Ed school in the region and Faisal Ali has gone against the norm to make this school exist.  We discussed the changing trend in women’s education in Pakistan as well as some of the greater misconceptions of Islam and of America.  Faisal repeated a message which I have heard from so many other Pakistani’s.  “We are a peaceful people and Islam is a peaceful religion”.  Assalam Alaikum literally means peace be upon you and it is not just a saying.  Everyone I have met here genuinely seems respectful and peaceful.  Even an aggressive haggling session in the bazaar ends with “assalam alaikum”, smiles and warm, 2 handed handshakes.

Faisal Ali and Jake enjoying typical hospitality

It saddens me that Pakistan has such a negative image in the mind of most American people.  It would be naïve to ignore the real danger that exists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan, and in other parts of Pakistan but it is equally naïve to say that America is “safe”.  Unaware travelers could easily find themselves in the wrong corner of any city in America or in a bad spot along the US-Mexico border.  Is it really so different?

It is easy to let a bit of bad press spoil our image of a foreign place but it is unfair to let that dominate our understanding.   I think it is important to look for the common ground, to stop and ask, “is that all there is to the story? Is that really the case?”  Neither place is perfect .  There are many things I am missing here, mostly creature comforts and people, but already I have found many things that I wish I could bring home.  I love Pakistan!

3 Responses to “I Love Pakistan”

  1. Niki Venter Says:

    my heart is filled with love and excitement as I read this commentary . I wish I was there with you, to also experience the beauty and primitiveness of this seemingly miss understood country. thank you so much Ben for this post I hope I will never be to old to learn from my children. be safe all my love Niki (ben’s mom)

  2. Michelle Schibonski Says:

    I love this blog!!! Thanks a bunch to all three of you (Ben, Willy, & Jake) for posting your thoughts and observations about your travels. It is fun to read about your experiences as they happen in each of your unique voices. PLEASE keep the posts coming as long as you have access to the internet…we are loving it back here at home! Wishing you safe travels & wild adventures! XOXO, Schibonbon

  3. Ben & Co,
    Loving the entries! Great to see photos also! It seems like you are already having the adventure of a lifetime. Great to hear how kind the people are. Funny how most people in most countries are tremendously kind. Seeing also this makes me second guess not quitting my summer job to go have misadventures on the other end of the globe. Not that Boulder isn’t demanding: alpine is an hour drive and an hour hike away; splitters are belayed leaning against the car and yoga is a five minute bike ride from my house. Yes, I am currently soft compared to you dusty bearded fellows- and you just touched down!

    I hope things go smoothly getting into the mountains.


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