Thursday, June 15, 2006

Destination: Gilgit Duration: 27 Hours

After spending three weeks of my one month vacation working on my visa and failing to accomplish much, I finally got on a bus and headed for the hills. Or hills wouldn't actually be the correct word here, more like towering giants of 7000m and above!

Getting There and Away: I hopped on a bus, the luxurious Daewoo complete with bus hostess and sandwiches, heading to Rawalpindi. Departure Time: 8am. I arrived in Pindi around 1pm after a noneventful ride, now the adventure begins. I took a taxi to the Pir Wadahi general bus stand to catch the NATCO (Northern Areas Transport Company) bus to Gilgit. I had made a reservation, but there was some problem because there were not many other ladies travelling on the bus. Seating in gender segregated, and for good reason. They tried to give me the VIP seat, which I have renamed as the "xatarna" seat (danger seat). It is the seat next to the bus driver which has no place to put your feet, no safety bar, and while you get a nice view you will also go straight through the windshield (seatbelts are non existant) if the bus stops quickly. Besides that it is right above the stairs and the 40 men on the bus are jumping on and off for the 20 hour ride and all through the night hours. Yeah no thanks.
I got on the bus and it was just like old times, all you Akhawayn folks know what I'm talking about. Preachers and beggars riding the bus til the last minute trying to collect donations, luggage strapped to the roof, broken seats, blaring indian music through bad speakers. Since I insisted on sitting with a lady I ended up with this one young woman Shugufta and her 10 month old baby Mahnoor. I was thinking, well there's no way I would sleep on this bus anyway, so I might as well be social. Shugufta spoke Urdu well so we talked a lot, and whenever the bus stopped I would hang out with her and her grandfather. The weird thing is, when the bus stopped every four or five hours, we would eat at hotels with "special" rooms for women. Ie this area is really conservative and they keep their women in seclusion. The VIP women's rooms were dingy dirty rooms with cement walls and bare metal beds. Interesting. The women also seemed to like being in these rooms. At least they have some privacy. I was thinking why do the men get to sit outside and enjoy the scenery while we are confined to these nasty little rooms. Oh well, when in Rome....

The other thing that made the 20 hour bus ride exciting was that Shugufta was sick. Puking all over the bus sick. This meant I got to feed the baby and hold it while she was vomiting in the aisle. Unlike in Morocco, the other passengers were concerned with the cleanliness of bus and the bus driver would always clean up the mess whenever we stopped. I didnt' sleep a minute due to the constant turning on rocky dirt roads all through the night.

When the sun came up, I was rewarded with a view of the Indus river surrounded by rocky mountains. The Karakoram Highway truly is one of the most beautiful drives in the world, and I agree with the builders when they call it the "8th Wonder." I would never have thought a road could be built in such a way! It was amazing. After a few minutes of admiring the mountains I realized the bus was driving dangerously close the side of the road which was a sheer drop to the raging Indus river below. I started thinking, oh my, what if the bus goes off the road into the river. I looked up. No emergency hammer to break the glass. My imagination started running away with me. I thought, ok if the bus goes down, the bus doors will close and trap us inside. Nobody in Pakistan knows how to swim and they will all panic. There's no hammer to break the glass. If the bus goes in the water I should at least have my passport on me for identification if I survive the accident. I reach down and grab my passport. Check. Passport in my pocket. I could probably break the glass with my leatherman. Should I reach down and hold that too? Or am I being a bit too crazy about all this? No I will leave my knife in my bag. I can grab it quickly if we are going down. Now if I can break the glass I can probably grab the baby and swim to safety. Then I will be left in the middle of the mountains with a baby and no mobile phone reception....ok ok I need to stop.

These bus drivers go on these roads every day. They are used to it. To make a long story short, after several checkpoints for Northern Areas, a flat tire at 2am, and continued blaring on Indian music at random hours, we rolled into Gilgit at time 27 hours.

To be continued.....

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