Archive for the ‘Pakistan’ Category

The Road to Kashmir

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

I’m sitting on my houseboat veranda enjoying the sun and the birdsong. The lake is small but clean, and there are kingfishers and hawks and ducks and herons all around me. I’m also surrounded by four souvenir boats. I don’t speak Kashmiri, but I believe they are discussing the order in which they will climb aboard our boat to push their goods. A jeweler is already inside with Ross. It’s a scene, man.

Ross and I left Leh after a breakfast of half-decent cappuccinos, eggs and homefries. Steve had ripped back south to his farmhouse south of Manali through sleet and snow, and Matt had just gotten over a bout of the flu so was spending a few more days in town. I had done some research on the road conditions and the book gave some ominous warnings: the road to Kashmir passes alongside the UN mandated Line of Control (LOC), which separates Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) from India Occupied Kashmir (IOK). (Off to the northeast, there’s also Chinese Occupied Kashmir [COK] which I mention only for the acronym). All three governments dispute the others’ claims to the area, and so skirmishes along the borders are actually quite common. Every so often the road is shelled to disrupt military operations, trade, and tourists riding motorbikes. Great.

About an hour out of Leh, driving through a rocky desert with snowy peaks in the distance, a local stood in the road flagging us down. A few vans and jeeps were already pulled over, so I wondered if there was a breakdown – any self-respecting Enfield driver carries tools, so maybe they needed a wrench. The local apologized for stopping us.

“Sorry, please stop, they shooting.” My heart bounced into my throat. What?! SHOOTING!? Images of mortars and rockets and automatic gunfire swirled.

“WHO IS SHOOTING?! AT WHO? WHAT!?” Not properly registering my concern, he continued.

“Yes please, they are shooting. Only ten minutes they finish. It is for new auto.” Oh sweet lord. They are shooting a fucking commercial. Ross pulled up to see me squatting roadside laughing in relief. He had no idea what had just happened. We waited until the OK came over the local’s two-way radio, and then continued past camera trucks and a pretty mint looking Honda.

We drove through the epic scenery to Kashmir over three days. We passed through moonscape and marsscape. At one point we were climbing a long but gentle hill. Our bikes, however, were slowing to a crawl. We popped off and made adjustments to the air intake on the carb. Still no power. In first gear with barely contained panic, we inched toward the crest of the hill. When we arrived, a sign greeted us: You have just climbed Magnet Mountain! Wonderful. Not only am I dealing with ridiculous altitudes in a ridiculous desert with the Pakistani army within mortar range, I’m now dealing with magnetic mountains that want to suck my poor bike into the ground.

We struggled on. We stopped and ate lunch in a village built up a cliff face. After another frigid pass, we began seeing mosques instead of Buddhist monasteries. We spent a night in Kargil, a trading town only a few miles from the LOC. An hour out of Kargil, it started to rain. I was completely unprepared. I had brought more than enough cold weather gear – face masks and spare gloves and thick socks – but I thought this was a desert, for chrissakes.

We tried to continue on, but with soaked feet and legs and jackets we were getting cold. At a town affectionately named Drass, which proudly claims to be the second coldest inhabited place on earth (after some town in Siberia), we stopped and found a Tibetan dhaba. There we ordered noodle soups and chai and stripped out of our soaking outerwear. A lady out front sold us Nepalese wool socks for a hundred roops and I bought a counterfeit Nike touque that had NICE written above the swoosh. Love it.

After eating, we sweet talked our way back into the kitchen. There we stacked our gloves and shoes around the kerosene cooking stove, and stood huddled over it drying our jeans. For two hours we sat and watched the family prepare noodles and momos and waited for the rain to stop. We became part of the family. I overpaid the bill to recoup some of the cooking fuel we’d wasted on warming ourselves, and we were off as soon as the sky cleared.

After Drass, the landscape was still rocky and snowy, but now with a subtle dusting of green. Ross agreed it reminded him of the Scottish highlands. We stopped at a military checkpoint to write out our passport, visa and motorcycle details. It was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by freshly snowed mountains and a serene river. Soon we were slipping along some incredibly muddy road precipitously edged along a steep cliff. We crossed the pass leading into the head of the Kashmir valley. Suddenly we were in interior BC, with towering pines and cedars and spruce. Even a few token birch for good measure. It smelled of Canada. The greenery was startling after weeks spent with reds, browns, greys and whites.

We descended into the ever widening Kashmir valley. Unbelievably, the military presence became even more heavy. Every ten or twenty minutes we’d pass another patrol of camouflaged men touting AK47s and M16s. Every bridge had gun-mounted bunkers on both ends. We must have passed hundreds of transport trucks brimming with troops. They waved and hollered. We waved back and shouted Hindustan! in support. Little kids came running out along the road sticking out their hands for painfully stinging drive-by high fives. I’m not sure they understand the concept of danger, because we were doing fifty clicks an hour.

Now we are living on a quaint old English houseboat on a small lake in Srinigar, Kashmir’s capital. We have a dining room, a sitting room, a bedroom and a bathroom with an old bathtub. The furniture is an eclectic mix of 1920’s to 1940’s Britain. It all reminds me of my grandmother’s house. We even have a daybed. I like lying on it after dinner, to defy its namesake.

The boat originally belonged to an English family. They gave the boat to their servants as a gift back in 1975. Now the owners of the boat, they rent it out to foreigners then wait on them much the same way they would have back in the forties. The old man looked perturbed I poured my own water with dinner.

More on the houseboat soon, and on the road to Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama.

The Taliban advances further into Pakistan

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

This isn’t good. Here I am a year or so before I plan on walking across the Indian border into Pakistan, and I read this in the news:

Pakistani paramilitary troops rushing to protect government buildings and bridges from encroaching Taliban militants just 100 kilometres from the capital quickly came under fire today by gunmen who killed a police officer, authorities said.

To the uninitiated, this may seem like old news. Pakistan, after all, has been battling Taliban-eque militants for years. Even before the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Pakistani government had relented de facto control of vast regions along the border to local leaders.

But this is different. This isn’t one of those chaotic “tribal regions” governed by warlords and radical clerics.  This is a province only a hundred kilometers away from the capital. It’s as if Cornwall, Ontario was taken over by a French seperatist army. Or if Richmond, Virginia fell to the marching Confederates. Or Northampton had fallen to invading Scots. 

All of this comes, in classic fashion, a few days after the U.S. announced that it would continue sending $1.5 billion in military aid to Pakistan to help combat the militants. Clearly not all of that money is reaching the front lines. Raise your hand if this surprises you. Bueller?

All I can hope is that somehow the tables turn. But as America beefs up its presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban only have one place to go.

Who knows, perhaps when I arrive Afghanistan will be the safer option.

(The map below illustrates what I’m talking about. The purple areas are those “Federally Administered Tribal Areas” whereas the green are administered normally by the Federal government in Islamabad [the capital, highlighted in red]. Some of the areas I was quite excited to visit include Peshawar, Dir, and Chitral [highlighted in yellow]. The red province is Buner, the recently invaded region. You can see my predicament.)

Northwestern Pakistan