As they might say in Yorkshire, it’s nothing but Karakoram flat rount ‘ere. Uppy-bits mixed in with a few spiky bits. Even the downhill bits, and that includes the 100km or so from Karimabad to Gilgit. Is there anywhere else in the world where can you descend a net 2km and still climb 3km in a day?
Bombing down the Hunza gorge (at least in my own mind, which was concentrated by the occasional several thousand feet drop at the road’s edge), I draw the attention of the Gilgit-Baltistan Scouts’ LMG (that’s anything but a ‘Light’ Machine Gun mounted on a pick-up truck, to you and me). Despite Driver Ramzan’s exhortations to ignore them and carry on, I feel the prudent thing is to pull in as requested. Quite how Ramzan thinks he is going to win this scrap is beyond me: after a tense few minutes of shouty finger-wagging and gun-cocking respectively, Ramzan and I are allowed to make our retreat from the Scouts. I didn’t make much use of the brakes over the next few clicks …
This is not the forum in which to preach, but please concede to one plea: don’t believe all the propaganda around brand ‘Pakistan’. The region and its institutions have been a battleground for the world’s tensions (East v West; imperial dismemberment and separatism; fundamentalism and sectarianism; the rise of China) since Partition and before. The most dangerous thing now would be for The West to turn its back on Pakistan. It is a wonderful country with a warm and strong people who want to face out to the world. The British abandoned them with a pretty poor hand in 1947 and they’ve subsequently been struggling with this legacy. We owe it to them to remain an advocate for them in world affairs.
So what of the future? A region at a strategic and geographic cross-roads, Hunza seems a microcosm of the challenges of the sub-continent as it tries to wrestle free of superpower manipulation. If The West doesn’t fill the vacuum, others will. CPEC is a core plank of the Chinese OBOR project and may lead Pakistan into a new dependency, if unchecked and unbalanced by other interests. When the militarism of Pakistani society meets the expansionism of China, the freedoms of the mountain peoples are likely to be compromised further. To paraphrase a local newspaper, several Uighur insurgents apparently crossed the Khunjerab from China in recent weeks to transit to training camps in Afghanistan. They were intercepted by the Gilgit-Baltistan Scouts. The lucky ones were shot in the gunfight with the Pakistani paramilitaries. The unlucky ones were sent home to Xinjiang – tortured for information, then tortured, then shot.
Throw in the tinder of Islamic fundamentalism, tensions with India in Kashmir in particular, Afghanistan on the western border exporting anarchy and angst, and nuclear weaponry, and you have a flashpoint of global proportions. So it will go if the rest of the world turns its back on Pakistan. Yes – it is too militarised. Yes – it is too militaristic. Yes – it’s democratic institutions aren’t fully-formed. But it’s only been trying for 70 years since August 14th, was orphaned at birth and has been fighting its immediate neighbours and internal urges since it was a toddler. Give it a chance.
Everybody I met, from Dr Mahmood the Karachi Mullah, who flagged me down to have his photo taken with me; to dirt-poor mountain folk like Sal-uh-Din the security guard, who waved his kukri and proudly told me his grandfather had killed many ‘Britishers’; to senior people in the Aga Khan’s Development Network, who do a splendid job catalysing investment and employment in the valley (it is a long way physically and metaphorically from Shimshal village to Oxford University, but Dr Mansour has now also returned to do his bit …); everybody was warm and hospitable; proud to be able to show off the grandeur of their country; and eager to hear about goings-on in the wider world. They are anything but closed, so nor should we be. Most of them probably thought I was there with ulterior motives and a half-Pashtun disguised in garish Lycra was at least a novelty, but I thank them all for the welcome and insights they provided. Incidentally, each of my three generous companions represented the Shia, Sunni and Ismaili traditions – if the region took its sectarian lead from them, the world would be a better place.
And so we roll down to the journey’s end, 400km-ish after we started. It’s the GB Brigade rather than the Scouts who call a final halt. Thankfully it’s time to head onto the bridge past the final checkpoint to cast the sPrick to the river gods. We definitely didn’t beat them or their mountain counterparts, but we gave it a shot and survived. All we can do now is retreat to Islamabad, get a somewhat overdue wash and lick our wounds. Except VisionAli is no way flexible enough to do that to his, even with the help of some ‘haram’ chamois cream …
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