Exciting news from Kyrgyzstan coming soon!
Karakoram literally translates as “black crumbling rock” in Turkic languages. The Karakoram Highway traverses three enormous mountain ranges, Himalaya, Hindukush and Karakoram and runs 1,280km from the railhead of Havelian in Pakistan to the ancient trading town of Kashgar in Western China. This dramatic road is home to many ethnic groups and many languages.
Despite the hostility of the natural environment the region has seen a huge amount of trade, not just of goods but also ideas. The mountains have witnessed the campaigns of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan and have been vital in the spread of both Buddhism and Islam. In ancient times the Han dynasty in China pushed their boundaries south and west, reinforcing trade routes that would later become known as the Silk Road. Caravans carrying porcelain, tea, spices, fruit seeds and silks traveled west through Turkestan (central Asia) to Persia (Iran) and Europe and south through the Karakoram to Kashmir and the Indian subcontinent. They returned with foreign luxuries like wool, gold and ivory. One tribe driven south by the Han Chinese were the Kushans who in the 1st century AD encouraged the artistic and intellectual flowering of Buddhism which spread up the Indus to central Asia, China and Tibet.
An Arab expedition reached Kashkar in the 8th century but it was not until the 11th century that Islam was established in the region. Turkic peoples from Afghanistan conquered the Indus valley and conversion was widespread. The 13th century saw the arrival of Genghis Khan and the Mongols who brought about a flourish in activity along the Silk Road. The trade slowly diminished along this great cultural artery as oasis streams dried up and Islam prevailed. When in 1947 a sea route was discovered from Europe to India, the Silk Road’s decline was made concrete.
In 1846 the imperial British annexed the territories of Kashmir, Baltistan, Ladakh and the Gilgit-Hunza basin. They declared the state Jammu and Kashmir, and sold it to a Hindu prince. Fear of invasion from Russians in the Pamir Mountains and Afghanistan motivated the British to increase their influence in the area. After a century, the maharaja tried to gain an independent state but after stalling for two months had to accede to India at the time of partition. This brought about the Gilgit uprising in which Muslims in the valleys around Gilgit revolted and demanded to be part of Pakistan, the new Islamic state. The two nations then went to war over Kashmir, a dispute that has never been truly resolved. Pakistan wants the Kashmiri people to vote in order to establish their allegiance and until this point Kashmir does not in their eyes belong to either nation. This means that the northern areas do not have the status of a province in Pakistan because this would mean conceding to a divided Kashmir. Northern Pakistanis do not pay taxes and cannot vote in national elections. Many northerners are resentful and feel excluded having fought to join Pakistan. However they can take consolation in their rich local cultures and beautiful languages of which they are justifiably proud.
Pashtuns who speak Pashto inhabit the southern areas of the highway, along with Hindko speakers, (a Punjabi dialect) while Kohistani is spoken further up the road. Shina is the main language in Gilgit. The Burusho peoples around the Gilgit and Ghizar rivers speak Burushashki a language whose roots are still unknown to linguistic scholars. Chitrali people also live here and speak Khowar an Indic language. To the east of Gilgit lies Baltistan where people speak a classical form of Tibetan. In the remote areas to the north the people of Gojal are ethnically Tajik and speak Wakhi, derived from Persian. On the Chinese side of the pass the indigenous tongue is Uyghur. There are also rural groups of Tajiks, Kyrgyz Kazakhs and of course in the developed towns, Han Chinese, and occasionally white Russians. People in the Northern areas are almost all Muslims, a mixture of Sunni, Shiite, Ismaili and Nurbakhshi denominations. The national language of Pakistan is Urdu but as little as 8% of Pakistanis consider it to be their first language. It is partly due to this kaleidoscopic diversity that Pakistan is such a rewarding, challenging and inspiring country in which to travel. In the modern world of commerce and international relations, this highway is a symbol of Pakistan’s friendship with China and increases their independence from neighboring India.
The first leg of our journey began in the dark of night at the chaotic Pirwadai bus station, just outside Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, whose planned, geometric streets are subdued and almost sterile. This is a stark contrast to the pollution and the crowds that typify big south Asian cities. The northern areas transport corporation provided an eighteen hour night service to Gilgit that departed at 10:00pm.
By dawn the bus had left the plateau and crossed the first foothills of lesser Himalaya. We stopped for an oily breakfast – fried eggs and parathas, and watched the mid-morning sunshine reach the dry rocky mountains of Indus-Kohistan. The region is named after the mighty Indus river, which cuts a gorge through Kohistan (land of mountains) so deep in comparison to the high peaks, that some areas see only a few hours of sunlight in a day. This region was formally named Yaghistan (land of the ungoverned) where outlaws could roam the valleys without fear of capture. The population of Indus-Kohistan is predominantly Sunni-Muslim and quite conservative. At the town of Thakot the road dips off the cliffside to meet the Indus river and across a Chinese-built suspension bridge. The steep canyons are dotted with forts to protect this crucial trade route. We drove up into the higher reaches of Indus-Kohistan and further to the roadside settlements of Shatial and Chilas which boast petroglyphs (stone markings) inscriptions and names pecked into the rocks, some of which date back to the first century AD. Common images include depictions of the long horned ibex, an ancient symbol of fertility and abundance. Buddhist symbols, mythical animals, pictures of Buddha’ life and scenes of conquest adorn the rock faces along with prayers for sucessful hunting and safe passage. By the town of Chilas we had entered the Gilgit region and stopped for lunch. After another five hours on the bus we reached our destination.
In Gilgit, the major trading and administrative center of the northern areas, I invested in a gas cooker and prepared some lovely breakfasts, beans and egg with naan bread and dinners, spaghetti in a rich tomato and garlic sauce, a rare treat in the subcontinent. The city is at an altitude of 1500m and is inhabited by Sunni, Shiite and Ismaili. Ethnic tension has boiled over into battles as recently as 1994 but it is since 2001 that tourism has rapidly declined in Pakistan due to the world’s media’s perception of Islamic countries. This is particularly noticeable in the Gilgit region.
We headed out of town and down stream in search of a taste of village life. From the Riakot bridge we tried to arrange some transport (a lift in a jeep) up the valley, off the highway, but despite half an hour of haggling, the price remained confusingly inflated. So we set off on foot to the start of the trek towards Nanga Parbat. This translates as “naked mountain” in Urdu, because the south face is a sheer 4500m wall so steep that snow does not stick. Mountaineers however have dubbed it “killer mountain” because of the dangers involved in reaching its summit. We walked fifteen kilometers that day and climbed 1320m to the picturesque village of Jhel where the broken stone jeep road ends. We spent four days trekking around the valley and to the glacier, dwarfed by the monumental 8125 metre peak that is still rising by 7mm every year, faster than almost any other part of the Himalayan system. We spent a night in a tent and a few more in a rented wooden hut at “fairy meadow”, a beautiful grassy pasture at 3306m. This proved to be an excellent base for one day hikes and for high altitude circus training.
From Gilgit the Karakoram Highway rises up through Nagyr valley to Hunza, which like so many of these valleys was recently a tiny autonomous kingdom. The tracks of ancient roads are visible here, cut into the mountainside. We stayed in a pleasant guesthouse with a garden where we choreographed new routines for our show and developed new characters. The lush green valley is irrigated by incredible precision made water canals carved into the mountains way above the towns. Water flows down through these irrigation streams making it possible to farm the steep terraces of Karimabad and Ganish. The area is famous for its orchards and these water channels sustain the farming of apricots, peaches, apples, grapes and walnuts. We were fortunate to visit Pakistan in spring and caught the last of the white blossoms. Hunza valley is surrounded by stunning peaks whose snow covered slopes reflect the sunlight beautifully. In the evenings the azan (call to prayer) echoed around the mountains from the many mosques all over the valley. The people of Hunza are Ismaili muslims so prayer is a personal matter, practices are less regimented and women tend not to veil themselves in public.
Our journey continued up into the far north of Pakistan past the impressive Passu “cathedral” ridge of tall narrow peaks and the Batura glacier, 56km of solid ice which reaches almost down to the road. We arrived at Sost, the northernmost town of the state and delighted in a game of volleyclub (a jugglers version of volleyball). We ate a meal of daal, potato, rice and rotis. The next morning we passed through customs on the Pakistani side and entered the Kunjerab national park. The awful state of the road did not take away from the beauty of the landscape and we snaked through the narrow valley higher and higher into the rocks and up past the snowline. The region is famous for Marco Polo sheep and ibex which survive in these extreme high altitude conditions. Unfortunately both these elusive species are under threat from extinction due to their value as trophies. We reached the giddying heights of the Kunjerab pass and saw our first glimpse of China. This snow covered slope at 4200 m glistened in the mid day sunshine, as did the golden marmots that we glimpsed from the vehicle. The red flag and the unfamiliar military uniform of the customs officials marked the beginning of a new chapter in our journey. After a stringent baggage search we were free to carry on towards Kashkar, leaving behind the Islamic subcontinent, hairy broken roads and languages of Sanskrit origin.
From the Kunjerab Pass we rolled down the valley on the right side of the road, which had suddenly become a perfectly tarmaced highway complete with road markings in yellow and white. After a steep zig-zag descent we joined a river in a wide barren valley and followed the icy melt-water gradually down with high peaks still towering above us on either side. After a tiring day’s journey we reached the fist notable town, Tashkurgan in Xinjiang the far western province of China. We were very happy to sit down with some green tea and when we had plucked up the energy, to walk out in search of an evening meal.
The next morning we were up bright and early to take another bus further north to the Kara Kol Lake. This wide, deep blue mass of water is situated between two 7000m peaks and is home to ethnically Kyrgyz people who live in two villages of yurts at the south side of the lake, at 3500m. We were escorted into one of the colourful and homely tents and given tea and dry bread. By this point some of us had acclimatized well to the high altitude and others were starting to feel worn down. A brisk stroll and a brief session of club passing left me completely breathless. The following morning we set off on the epic walk around the lake, which provided us with superb views of the seemingly never ending shores of Kara Kol which means black lake. After skimming stones across the water in fierce winds and a wet and emotional river crossing, an exhausted troupe of performers without borders gladly accepted a cup of tea back at the village. We huddled together and enjoyed a hearty lunch of rice, potatoes, carrots and eggs. We paid our bill for bed and board and packed ourselves into a vehicle to take the final stretch of this amazing Karakoram Highway to Kashkar.
Once safely accommodated in the Qiniwak hotel we settled into a rhythm of concentrated practice. These rehearsals culminated in an impromptu street performance that instantly drew a large and enthusiastic crowd. The showcase for our new routines was the open square adjacent to the Id Kah Mosque. In the evening, a huge T.V. screen blares out updates on the build up to the Olympics, just as the call to prayer emanates from the mosque. Indigenous Uyghur people feel that this is an example of the dilution of their culture and undermining of their religion. Street performance for ethnic minorities is one thing, but we are more focused on entertaining underprivileged and vulnerable children with a view to sharing our skills and empowering them through creative workshops in the future. So, with the high road to China now complete, our attention turns to the children of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and beyond.
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 21/5/08
Situated North of the Karakorum, East of the Pamir range, South of the Tian Shan range and West of the Taklamakan desert, is Kashgar the most Western City in China. Surrounded by such impenetrable natural barriers Kashgar was a major staging post on the ancient silk route. Caravans would stop here to trade goods and share news and ideas.
Part of this ancient trade still lives on in the Sunday market which sees the population of the city grow by as many as 50,000 people. Most of the traders are Uighur (the majority in Sinkiang province). The shoppers are a mix of locals buying everyday items such as natural remedies (such as live white scorpions which are crushed and used on the skin), and Chinese and foreign tourists hunting for souvenirs (Uighur knives and hats are a favourite).
From early morning the roads leading to the market are choked with donkey drawn carts and electric powered scooters (practical all the city dwellers own them) weaving their way through hustling pedestrians. Meaty smells drift across the crowds from fast food stalls serving a range of countless meat preparations.
PWB had great fun in the market trying on traditional hats (fur is big here) and buying amazing spices from apothecaries (including peppercorns that make your mouth tingle and numb). Also available (but not within our purchases) were a range of dried animal parts (including whole dried snakes) and bizarre fungus. Being PWB we couldn’t help but having a bit of a play with our circus toys and distracting shoppers with acrobalance.
Our time in the market was the best so far! Indeed we were all very sad to leave Kashgar so soon; but Kyrgyzstan and shows are on the cards. So with a 5am start we leave for the long and slow road to Osh.
Osh, Kyrgyzstan 17/5/08
I first visited Pakistan during the summer of 2001. I spent 10 weeks in the vibrant, chaotic cities and epic, rugged mountains. I loved the authentic mix of hospitality, culture, adventure and natural beauty. In the end the visit was curtailed by the momentum surrounding the events of September 11th(‘Is Osama bin Laden in Pakistan?’ was the question of the time).
Ever since Pakistan has been at the fault line of opposing powers fighting for their definition of ‘freedom’. In this environment of uncertainty ‘the people’ of Pakistan (recognising their own freedom) take the prosaic attitude of wait and see. Wait and see if the President will truly allow democracy to flourish. Wait and see if the new Prime Minister is honest and incorruptible. Wait and see if the current internal attacks on the government petter out or lead to concessions. Despite the strong military presence and continual suspicion normal life goes on regardless.
PWB aren’t working in Pakistan. Our contacts advised us that the situation was too sensitive to work with foreign nationals. This is a big shame as we had plenty of time (one month between end of out Indian visas and the Khunjerab pass to India opening to China). Inshallah we will work in Pakistan in the future. What we have done is explored some of this fascinating country and boosted numbers in a struggling tourist industry.
Its May, the pass is open to China. Time to move on into uncharted waters. Till next time Pakistan. Next stop Xinjang provience China and the ancient city of Kashgar.
Karimabad, Pakistan. 4/5/08