Ramadan in Pakistan
(from the field diary, October-November 2004)
Day 1. Karachi. Eight million people, hundreds of thousands of cars, buses, rickshaws, donkeys, horses, camels, a few street lights and no sidewalks. Since 1947, the country's population has quadrupled. You feel it instantly.
Arabian Sea is just a few kilometers away. The city is hot, humid, dusty, the air filled with diesel fumes. Traffic looks like a fire in a theater: everybody races to squeeze into narrow streets, honking and yelling. Very few women in the streets, all wearing hijabs. All men except policemen wear shalvar kameez - loose pants and knee-long shirts. Apparently, the design is different from European clothes: men have to pee in crouched position.
Sindh Province used to be less than 60% Muslim. Following the Partition, virtually all Hindus and Sikhs were forced to leave. But Karachi still has a small Zoroastrian community. The Towers of Silence, where Zoroastrians traditionally feed their dead to birds of prey, once attracted hundreds of vultures. But recently vultures went almost extinct throughout the region due to pesticide poisoning. Now the Towers are attended by thousands of black kites and house crows, plus a few eagles.
The airport is out of rental cars; they only have limousines and motorcycles. I haven't driven a motorbike for almost twenty years. At first I have to stop every few minutes to catch my breath. My goal today is to get to Khirthar National Park, 80 km from the city. Local environmental office is closed for the weekend; nobody else knows where it is. All road signs are in Urdu.
I discover that I have problems with my English. There was time when most people around the World could understand me. But now, after seven years in the US, my English is too good and too American. It takes a while to adapt. On the positive side, the American habit to smile to everybody works well here.
Not until sunset do I manage to get out of the endless sea of villages. The park office is on a hilltop surrounded by acacia desert and rocky mountains. There's nobody here. A switchbox on the wall shelters a colony of pygmy pipistrelles, bats the size of a teaspoon. At night, there's a lot of rustling sounds in the shrub: hares, jackals and huge black-and-white porcupines. It's so warm that I don't have to unpack my sleeping bag. An electric light at the office attracts a cloud of winged termites: it's been raining recently. The meal attracts lots of bats and nightjars.
Day 2. The desert is inhabited by little chinkara gazelles, blackbucks, and gray francolins. The mountains have almost no vegetation, but there are some bezoar goats and urial sheep in the rocks.
I have a bunch of live traps for rodents - seven Shermans and a small Tomahawk. This morning they are all empty, although there's a lot of jirds and palm squirrels around.
Despite recent rains, the desert is dry, gray, and almost flowerless. The only bright things are birds: bee-eaters, parakeets, sunbirds, wheatears, sparrow-larks. On the way back I pick up a local hitchhiker. He speaks some English, so he can help me with navigation and point out landmarks:
"This is our new hospital. The Americans built it. This is the college, also built by Americans. They help us a lot, give Pakistan a lot of money. They are bad people, we don't like them. Russians are good people."
It takes a few bus rides to get to Moenjodaro, the center of one of the oldest civilizations. There isn't much to see at the ruins: all interesting stuff is now in museums in Lahore and London. At the ticket office you are given an armed guard: Sindh is the only province where crimes targeting foreigners have occurred.
By late afternoon I get to Indus River Dolphin Reserve near Sukkur. Local boatmen are a special tribe (officially, there are no castes in Pakistan). It takes a few hours to find the little dolphins. They avoid boats, but you can swim up to them.
I'm going to Qwetta, the capital of Balochistan. During Ramadan, people have to fast from sunrise to sunset, and are supposed to eat little in general. To break the fast, each bus passenger is given a date, then the bus stops at a roadside restaurant. All long-distance buses also stop five times a day for prayer, each stop lasting about half an hour.
Nobody expects a non-Muslim to fast, but it's considered impolite to eat in presence of fasting people, so I decide to follow the custom. It's easy: time difference with New Mexico is twelve hours, so I feel hungry at night anyway. It is also customary to have an early (3 am) breakfast during Ramadan.
In the bus I am approached by a group of Pashto university students. The beginning of any conversation in Pakistan is almost always the same: "As-salam aleikum!" "Wa aleikum salam!" "Where are you from?" "Russia." "Are you a Muslim?" It is recommended to answer "Christian" to avoid an Islamic sales pitch, but I am bored a bit, so I say "no religion". Everybody is shocked. "How is that possible? God created all things!" "No, he didn't." I can see the intellect being turned off in their eyes as they rapidly recite a bunch of Islamic doctrines. I take a pencil and a piece of paper and spend a few minutes explaining to them why there is no God. They are deeply shaken, and fall silent for the rest of the trip.
I get off the bus before Quetta to explore juniper forests above the road, and manage to find an extremely rare dormouse.
Day 3. Qwetta is mostly a Pashto city; Balochis and Brahuis inhabit the countryside. Brahuis are the last descendants of the ancient Moenjodarans, their language is Dravidian. Almost everybody else in Pakistan is a descendant of Aryan invaders and speaks some Indo-European language (Urdu, Punjabi, Pashto, Wahi, Khovar, Sindhi, Balochi, Tajik etc.)
Clothing is more colorful here: men wear a variety of drapes and shawls, plus flat woolen "nuristani" hats. They are very handsome, in the way Biblical patriarchs are usually portrayed. I haven't seen any women except for a few old ones. Almost half of local people are Afghan refugees, but there is no animosity towards Russians.
Very few foreigners ever visit Qwetta, so people are surprised to see me. I can hear them whispering "ingrezi!" (Urdu for foreigner), or "farenhi!" (the same in Pashto, from a pre-Crusades Arabic word meaning Frank and later Westerner).
Every truck or local bus in Pakistan is a work of art, painted top to bottom and decorated with ironwork, brass, carvings, flags, mirror inlays, and so on. Another bus conversation: "Where are you from?" "Russia." "What is your name?" "Vladimir." (Sounds good, because mir means "king" in most local languages.) "I want to go to Russia, can you send me an invitation?" "Yes, but you won't get a visa." "Send me an invitation." He writes down his address. There are no street numbers in Qwetta, so it looks like this: "Grocery stand opposite to Kabul Restaurant, corner of Sukkur and Balochi streets".
The city has a very interesting Geology museum with a unique collection of Miocene fossils, including colossal balochitheriums and early whales.
The province away from Qwetta is sparsely populated. It is a dry desert with countless mountain ridges and rare oases in the foothills. Alexander the Great lost half his army trying to cross it on his way from India. But hunting pressure is high, so there are no large animals outside Nature reserves. Shepherds don't have dogs, which means even wolves are extinct here.
In Hazarganji-Chintal National Park not far from Qwetta, things look better: flocks of chukar and see-see partridges, eagles, sandgrouse, even houbara bustards. A narrow canyon leads deep into the mountains, where I find a small herd of beautiful ibex near a small spring. The sandy bottom of the canyon is dotted with tracks of foxes, wild cats, may be even a leopard, but they are difficult to read: everything is trampled over by countless jirds. Spotlighting at night, I find a very rare and little known creature called mouselike hamster, plus lots of jerboas. But there are only very common spiny mice in my traps.
Day 4. I have to walk out of the park before dawn to get to Qwetta at sunrise and get something to eat. Hitchhiking in Pakistan is usually almost 100% effective. Large restaurants are already closed by the time I get there, but there's plenty of food stalls with barbecued chicken, small sweet bananas and other nice stuff. It's so nice to taste real apples after seven years in the States!
Balochistan has another interesting Nature reserve, the huge Hingol National Park near the coast. But it would take a week to obtain a permit and get there.
700-km bus trip to Lahore takes 24 hours. Except for some arid patches and a divided highway near Lahore, the road is mostly a traffic-clogged village street. There are riots (called "mutiny" by the country's main English-language newspaper) in Balochistan, so buses travel in caravans under armed escort (two guys with shotguns riding a rickshaw tricycle).
Punjab ("five rivers") is Pakistan's most populous province (60% of total population). Mostly it's a flat sea of villages, towns, fields, and occasional eucalyptus plantations, the only source of wood. People look more "Indian" than elsewhere. Children are almost unnaturally beautiful. But their parents apparently think they are not cute enough, so even small kids often have dyed hair and painted eyes. Looks a bit scary.
Day 5. Lahore is by far the country's most interesting city, full of splendid Mogul and Anglo-Indian architecture, which includes Badshani (1674), one of the world's most beautiful mosques. It also has a labyrinthine Old City and Pakistan's best museum.
It so happens that my trip, with two stopovers in London and a visit to Westminster Abbey, is somewhat of a tribute to Rudyard Kipling. His father was the first curator of Lahore Museum, and his novel Kim starts in front of the building:
"He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher - the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that "fire-breathing dragon," hold the Punjab, for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror's loot."
The huge 16th-century cannon is still there, a popular tourist attraction.
Power shortages are common in cities here, so it's better to have a flashlight at all times, including museum visits. You feel a bit like Indiana Jones, walking through dark rooms, as the light beam falls on sleeping security guards, occasional visitors sitting patiently on the floor, carved walls, ancient swords, Aryan rock stelae, Kushian reliefs depicting demon armies, Bactrian mosaic portraits, giant musical instruments, Moenjodaran stone seals with zebu and rhinos, old costumes, pottery , jewelry, Greek and Chinese coins, and dystrophic Gandharan bronze statues of fasting Buddha.
Lahore is also the country's cultural capital, with everything from abstract art galleries to extremist madrassas. I am sure Osama bin Laden lives not in some cold, dump mountain cave, but in a safe and comfortable Lahore apartment or, more likely, private house in the suburbs.
Thursday is the best day to visit: there are qawwali (Islamic devotional singing) concerts, poets' gatherings, and later Sufi dances in shrines. I am watching Sufi dervishes spinning in trance in an overcrowded mosque when a solemn young man approaches me and whispers: "Where are you from?" "Russia". "What is your name?" "Vladimir". "Are you Christian?" "Yes" (there is no time for a discussion). "I am a Christian, too. I am married. It was a love marriage, not a prearranged one..." His voice is now too quiet to hear. Then he disappears in the crowd.
Day 6. The highway to Rawalpindi (commonly called "pindy") is one of the world's oldest roads. The British called it Great Trunk Road. It crosses the Salt Range, a chain of arid mountains where a few gazelles still survive.
The weather in the mountains is said to be unstable, and high passes can be closed any day. So I decide to go all the way up the Karakoram Highway (KKH) to the Chinese border, and then slowly travel back, visiting all interesting places along the way. Soon after Pindi I turn north, into the mountains.
Gujar nomads move along the highway in the opposite direction on their fall migration. The Gujars are the poorest caste (officially an ethnic minority). They move up and down roads with their sheep and goats, and live in army tents. Their children, dirty and lice-infected, are the cutest in Pakistan. Unfortunately, the Gujars don't like to be photographed.
Most other Pakistanis just love to have their pictures taken. I begin to appreciate the advantages of a digital camera: you can instantly show people their photos on a tiny screen. If you use a non-digital camera, people in many countries expect you to give them a photo as if it was a Polaroid.
The lowest part of KKH follows Hazara Valley. The word hazara is used in many parts of Asia for people who trace their origin to Mongol warriors of Babur the Conqueror. But there's nothing Mongolian in their looks or language today.
In Mansehra, Ashoka's famous edicts are carved on roadside rocks. Emperor Ashoka was a successful military commander, but he was so appalled by the horrors of war that he converted to Buddhism and in 250 BC issued a code of laws prohibiting violence and promoting justice. He was deeply revered, but as soon as he died, everything went back to normal.
Day 7. I get to Gilgit late at night, sleep in the bus, then take a minibus (suzuki in local languages) to Sost, the last settlement before the border. The KKH follows Indus, then Hunza Rivers. It is the world's most beautiful road. Deep dry valleys are surrounded by steep rock walls, with snow-covered peaks soaring above. In some places the elevation range is more than 6000 m, and glaciers almost reach the pavement. There are no forests left near the highway, but fall colors in villages and gardens are great: yellow Lombardy poplars and bright-orange walnuts.
This part of the country is called Northern Territories, The British were about to give it to India, but locals revolted and joined Pakistan. Most borders here are still disputed.
Above Gilgit people are mostly Ismaili Muslims. It is the most reasonable and relaxed branch of Islam: women don't cover their faces and walk the streets unescorted, men don't mind daytime snacks during Ramadan. Nobody asks you if you are Muslim - who cares?
The last few villages are tiny, and the traffic almost disappears. You can't help thinking that building the KKH wasn't worth it. The road took 20 years to build, it cost a lot of money and at least 1200 lives - one per kilometer. Maintaining it isn't cheap, either.
Khunjerab Pass (4730 m) opened in 1986. There are National parks on both sides of the border, but large animals can be seen only in better-protected Pakistani park. I rent a car, drive to the border, and hike into the snow-covered hills. Soon I find snow leopard tracks, and follow them.
After a few hours the tracks lead me to a rocky ridge with Himalayan griffon vultures and lammergeyers circling above. I run up there, expecting to see a leopard-killed ibex. Instead, the small valley behind the ridge is filled with a mega-herd of ibex. I count 800, but part of the herd is behind the next ridge, so there are probably more than a thousand. I've never heard of a herd of more than 50 before, and even that is rare nowadays. A few giant Marco Polo sheep are grazing on the far edge of the herd. (Marco Polo was the first Westerner to see them during his crossing of Pamir. But his description of rams with five-feet hornspan was considered a lie for a few centuries after his death.)
I am sure the leopard is nearby, but it is getting dark, and my clothing is totally insufficient for spending night at 5000 m. Besides, the tracks are all trampled over by ibex. I run back to the car and drive down to Sost.
Day 8. The traps set on the slope above the village caught only one mouse - similar to common house mice, but brown rather than gray.
I hitchhike down to Batura Glacier, Karakoram's third longest (36 km; the longest one is more than 100). There are lots of lakes on and near the terminal moraine; willow bushes around them are full of birds. After five months of summer melting, the ice is covered by thick layer of mud and gravel, so I follow a lateral moraine, overgrown with rose bushes and small junipers. The glacier is like a mile-wide highway leading deep into the mountains, but I don't have time to go far. Shepherd's huts in the valley are all empty: the herds have already moved to winter pastures, so I am alone in the huge labyrinth of moraine hills, glacier tributaries, icefalls and rock walls.
Eventually I find an area of old-growth juniper forest, and explore it until midnight.
Day 9. More brown mice in traps. At sunrise I return to the KKH, find my backpack in the willows, and walk to Passu, a village five kilometers down the road. In the village restaurant there are five more foreigners - the only tourists I see anywhere on KKH. The tourist season here is only June to July, but I think May and October are much more beautiful and interesting months.
The valleys are so deep and narrow here that rivers often get dammed by landslides. In 1841 a mountain fell into Indus near the mouth of Raikot River. A lake formed above the dam, then it broke through, drowning thousands of people up to 300 miles downstream. In 1974 a similar, but smaller flood occurred on Hunza River. It washed away most of Passu's arable land, so now upper parts of the village are abandoned. Streets are overgrown with thornshrubs, yaks graze inside roofless houses. People here mostly speak Wahi, one of Pamir Tajik dialects.
I spend half a day relaxing on a small nearby glacier, complete with terminal and lateral moraines, serak forests and a beautiful lake. It's so much fun to climb crevasse walls, jump over cracks, explore caves filled with blue light and scary sounds of moving ice!
Further down the KKH enters Hunza proper, a cluster of villages that have been independent kingdoms for centuries. The northern side of the river was Hunza Kingdom, the southern side - Nagir. People here speak Burushashki, a mysterious language with very complicated grammar and no known relatives, probably one of the oldest in Asia. In summer it is the most touristic place on the KKH, but now I'm the only visitor. Steep streets are lined with hotels, tour companies, souvenir shops and Internet cafes.
The valley has one of the most ingenious irrigation systems in the world, thousands of petroglyphs of all ages, and two ancient forts - smaller Altit and larger Baltit. The latter has been beautifully restored. It used to be mir's castle, but now the mir lives nearby, and the fort is a nice museum. The view from its roof is one of the best I've ever seen, with villages climbing steep slopes, and Rakaposhi Peak (7788 m) rising on the other side of the river.
Day 10. I spend the night in the forest on the southern side of the valley, then walk back to the KKH and hitchhike to Gilgit.
Below Gilgit, Hunza River joins Indus. This is the place where Indian Plate rammed Asia. Roadside geology of the area is really impressive: layers are violently twisted and often vertical; in one place Precambrian rock ended up on top of Quaternary sediments. A small chain of volcanic islands got caught between colliding plates and was squeezed upwards, forming the western part of the Himalaya. From a tiny village called Talechi, you can see both Rakaposhi up north and Nanga Parbat, the highest peak of Pakistan Himalayas, to the south. Unfortunately, the weather is beginning to change: for the first time since my arrival to Pakistan, I see clouds in the sky.
Talechi residents are Sunnis and speak Shina. There is a nice government resthouse here, but the keys have been lost. So I sleep on the porch. The night is warm: the elevation is only 1300 m.
Day 11. At dawn the peaks are still visible between the clouds, but soon it gets completely overcast. Cute mountain rats are happily munching bait in my traps. I hitch a ride to Raikot Bridge, from which the adventurous part of the trip is about to begin.
One of my goals is to look for woolly flying squirrel, the largest (up to 1 m and 2.5 kg) and rarest squirrel in the world. No naturalist has ever seen it in the wild; it is known from a handful of old skins, all from different parts of Asia - Nuristan, Sikkim, Yunnan and Hunza - and from one animal caught in the 1990-s in Sal Valley of Northern Pakistan. According to local hunters, it lives in caves in high rock walls near old-growth forests.
The problem is finding such a place. Very few oldgrowth forests still exist in the country. Usually (in Kashmir, Muree area, Chitral, Kohistan) they survive on ridgecrests, high above rocky slopes of river valleys. After studying maps, guidebooks and other sources, I decide to try searching the vicinity of Nanga Parbat base camp, at 3300-4000 m a.s.l.
The camp is 30 km from the KKH, and you have to climb three thousand meters. I manage to get a ride to Jhel, nine kilometers upstream. The road to Jhel is a bit scary. It is so narrow that the jeep often scratches the rocks. Some parts are built on ovrings - shelves of crushed rock laid on top of logs driven into the rock wall. If one of the logs gives, you can enjoy a kilometer of free fall before getting to Raikot River below. Since cars can't pass each other, all Jhel jeeps go up in the morning and back in early afternoon. On the way back they carry two-three huge logs each, but on the way up they usually have some space in the trunks.
Raikot Canyon is narrow; gray-and-scarlet rockcreepers fly between black rocks like huge butterflies. On the far side of the valley there is a large geyser, erupting every twenty minutes or so. The road ends in Jhel, a cute little village with haystacks on hut roofs.
The trail climbs through forest of Indian whitebark pine and Himalayan cypress. Giant dandelions are still blooming in meadows. Six kilometers up the path I get to Fairy Meadow, a popular summer resort on a long, narrow plateau (or rather a wide terrace) high above the valley bottom. The hotels are all closed, and there are no people around. By that time the snow starts to fall, and it is very cold.
The forest here is very old, with huge blue pines, tall spruces, lots of windfall and swampy clearings. I walk further up, to the last hotel, find an unlocked cabin, and decide to spend the night there. The snowfall is getting heavier by the minute, and I have a "tropical" sleeping bag, so it would be too risky to keep climbing.
I set traps, leave my backpack in the cabin, and go to explore the area. The snow isn't melting on the ground anymore, but it is still only an inch deep. The trail leads to the edge of the plateau. Five hundred meters below is Raikot Glacier, up the valley - Nanga Parbat, hidden in the clouds. I follow the path along the cliff for another kilometer. But it is getting dark, the fog is rolling up the glacier, and the snowfall becomes a blizzard. So I turn back.
Suddenly I hear a loud croaking scream from under the cliff. I can't see anything down there because of the fog. I remember the checklist of local fauna well: the only likely candidate is yeti. Three minutes later another spooky scream comes, this time from a tree growing near the cliff. I run there and hear new sounds: scratching, rustling, then rapid "qwok-qwok-qwok", obviously a squirrel call. I turn on my flashlight. In the tree above, a woolly flying squirrel is looking at me, its eyes shining yellow.
I spend two exciting hours running from tree to tree, desperately trying to get a photo or a video of the squirrels (there are two of them). They don't scream any more, but make enough noise every 3-5 minutes to follow them through the forest. They would spend up to half an hour in one tree, then fly to another one, never getting far from the cliff edge where I first heard them. They are afraid of light, the batteries in the cameras and in the flashlight don't work well because of the frost, and the snowstorm doesn't help, either, so I never get a good picture.
I give up, hide under a spruce and try to observe them without disturbing the animals. Soon one of them returns to the pine where I first saw it. Suddenly it leaps towards the cliff, glides a hundred feet into the fog, makes a steep turn and disappears under the cliff rocks. The other one is also gone. I go to the cabin and try to get some sleep.
Day 12. At midnight I look out. The fog is almost gone. By the time I put my sneakers on, the sky is clear. The full moon is so bright that I can count toes of mouse tracks on the snow. The tracks are mostly around juniper bushes, so I move the traps accordingly.
It is very quiet, except for the whisper of the creek, occasional cracking of the glacier, and distant avalanches. Above the snow-covered forest, the colossal icy mass of Nanga Parbat (8125 m) is shining in the moonlight. This mountain is called Diamir (king of danger) by locals, and "killer mountain" by mountaineers.
The flying squirrels never returned from the cliff: only two barely visible evening tracks are going from there to the trees. I walk up the plateau, jumping over freezing creeks. The trail is difficult to follow in the snow, so it takes me two hours to hike five kilometers to a place called View Point at the tree line. Giant Himalayan birches are scattered among the rocks, so starting a fire is easy. I find two juniper logs, lay one on top of the other, stick some birch bark in between, and light them up. Siberian hunters call this type of fire nodya - it can burn for hours with very little maintenance, very good for winter camping without a tent. I put some spruce branches on the snow, and sleep until dawn.
By sunrise, the wind picks up a bit. Pink "flags" of blown snow appear around the peaks. I walk the remaining seven kilometers across the glacier to the base camp, but there's nothing there, except knee-deep snow. So I go back to my cabin, counting tracks on the snow along the way. There are some pikas and snowcocks above the tree line, musk deer, yellow-throated martens and red foxes in the forest. Huge flocks of nutcrackers are combing the pines in search of cones. To my surprise, I don't find any more woolly squirrel tracks, only much smaller footprints of arrowtail flying squirrels. In the traps are red forest mice and fluffy, silver-furred, very tame mountain voles.
I spend the rest of the day enjoying the views, mapping the area and collecting pine cones chewed up by squirrels. I try to find their dens under the cliff, but it is too slippery, and I don't have a rope.
Next night the pair shows up later, is very quiet and doesn't allow me to get close. Apparently, bright moonlight is making them nervous. Now I can use my binoculars, and appreciate how beautiful these animals are. All covered with snow dust, huge smoky-gray rectangles glide silently from tree to tree, shaking off small clouds of snow, steering with their long thick tails, with Nanga Parbat in the background.
Day 13. The woollies leave in only two hours. I spend some time watching small, agile, shy Kashmir flying squirrels, then pick up the traps and walk down, down, down, through the forest, by the sleeping villages, through the dark canyon, all the way to Indus River. By lunchtime I am in Pattan, a hundred kilometers down the KKH.
There is no chance of an actual lunch, of course. I am now in Indus Kohistan, the most religion-obsessed part of the country. Women here walk the streets only five steps behind their husbands; in minibuses men and women can't sit in the same row. If you encounter village women on a trail, they walk off the path, turn away and wait for you to pass. All rules are even more strict for foreigners, who are considered immoral perverts by definition. Guidebooks and many Pakistanis recommend passing through the area without stopping.
From Pattan I make a side trip to Palas Valley, known for rare birds. But there the remaining forest is all on ridgecrests, and it takes a long time to get there. By the time I set up my tent, the sun is already setting.
Day 14. Back in Pattan, I take a suzuki to Swat Kohistan, in the next river valley to the west. By nightfall I make it to Kalam, probably the last place in Pakistan with good deodar forest. Unfortunately, the forest there is being rapidly destroyed by booming hotel industry.
A usual routine follows: have dinner - find a man wearing eyeglasses (such people usually speak English) - ask which hotel is open - check in - walk out of the village - set traps - spotlight for a while in the moonlit forest - return to the hotel - survive the icy-cold shower (mountain hotels usually have hot water in summer only) - sleep for a few hours - get up before dawn to collect traps before locals show up and to look for forest birds in the morning.
Day 15. There are at least fifty hotels in Kalam, but they work only in summer, when people try to avoid the heat of the plains. Now I'm the only guest in the only one which is open. During Ramadan, hotel owners knock on all room doors at 3 am to make sure guests don't miss the breakfast. Life here is almost as ritualized as in medieval Europe: religion and custom tell people what to eat, what to wear, when to have a meal, and so on.
Usually I ignore the knocking and have breakfast in my room later, but this time I decide to see what those nighttime breakfasts look like. The owner invites me to his room, where his brothers and friends watch Indian porn on TV. The channel is scrambled: you can only watch it for a second before the image falls apart. Then the owner switches to another channel and back again, so that everybody can get another second of naked blondes. After about half an hour, he gets tired of switching and moves on to other channels, but it doesn't make much difference. Almost any Indian TV program, with girls in jeans and kissing couples, looks like porn here.
(I suspect that sexual starvation of local population is the main reason for the proliferation of Internet cafes. Every time I go there to check my email, I find myself surrounded by middle-age Pashtuns and Kohistanis with dyed beards, who spend hours in trance, surfing porn sites and salivating.)
A typical exchange follows: "Where are you from?" "Russia". "Very good! What is your name?" "Vladimir". "Are you Muslim?" "No". "Is it true that all Russian women are prostitutes?" "No." A look of disappointment. "But they are all immoral, right?" "No". And so on.
All such talks invariably turn to politics and then to sex. The so-called "Islamic terrorists" probably hate the West so much because they envy the relative freedom of personal relations. Many locals told me something like "We don't have sex here. Our religion is against sex". People here are not too nosy, but after a long conversation they would often ask how many women have I had sex with. Normally I don't like bragging, but in Pakistan I can't resist a chance to do some damage to a totalitarian religion. So I tell them a number multiplied by ten, and add "Half were virgins." It's a cruel joke: I'm under impression that after talking to me some of them go straight home and hang themselves.
The meal itself is simple: rice, chapati bread, and a few tiny pieces of meat, but it's a very good feast by local standards. Tea is served Tibetan style, with milk and spices. Two valleys east from hear, in Baltistan, people already speak a Tibetan dialect, although they are still Muslims.
The village is made up of a few dilapidated wooden shacks with signs like "Five Stars Hotel" or "Prezident Deluks Inn". More expensive hotels are all in the outskirts, among fresh deodar stumps. Across the river is the non-touristic part of town, with an old wooden mosque. It's been 2300 years since Alexander; during this time, the area has been invaded by Mauris, Skiffs, Parthians, Kushanis, White Huns, Arabs, Turks, Punjabis, Sikhs, and the British, to name a few. But Greek influence is still obvious in carved ornaments of wooden beams.
Deodar is a very beautiful tree, closely related to cedar-of-Lebanon, but larger. It looks a bit like a larch, so the forest has a "northern" look. There are some angry rats in my traps. The forest is full of birds, including some stunningly colorful titmice and nuthatches.
Birds of Himalayan rivers are always fun to watch. They have very loud calls, but it's not enough to mark the territory: mountain streams are too noisy. So many species have very bright plumages, and continuously perform little territorial displays: water redstart flush their red rumps; black-and-white little forktails wag tails and spin, dark-blue whistling thrushes bow. Only brown dippers are dull-colored.
The way to Chitral is long, with many bus changes and snow-covered high passes across Hinduraj Mountains. Some minibuses are infected with quarrels: people argue angrily about something for hours, and nobody remembers what the whole thing was about in the beginning. It makes me a little bit uncomfortable: Kohistan is known for bloody vendettas, inter-clan feuds and general lawlessness. Everybody has a concealed handgun; AK-74s are openly sold in gun shops.
In one suzuki all is quiet at first, then an old man squeezed into the back seat says something, and everybody starts shouting at each other. A guy sitting next to me can speak some English. Suddenly, he looks very embarrassed."What's the matter?" I ask. "This old man is a mullah," he answers reluctantly, "he says that it's not allowed to Muslims to be in a bus with an infidel."
Apparently, the discussion is not about throwing me out of the suzuki, but about everybody else leaving. I don't want twenty people to be left in the snow for hours because of me. Besides, I am 100% sure that I know the Quran better than the old idiot, and that there's absolutely nothing about buses there or in the Shariat. But my interpreter doesn't speak enough English to translate long conversations. We are only an hour's drive from the next village, so there are no prayer stops ahead. I say "I am Muslim", and everybody shuts up. But when we get to the town and I am getting out of the bus, the old mullah asks suspiciously: "Sunni or Shia?", to which I reply mysteriously: "Ashkenazi".
One more bus ride, and I move from Swat Kohistan to Chitral. People are a bit more relaxed here, and mostly speak Khovari and Pashto rather than Kohistani. I never have any other unpleasant situations during the rest of the trip.
Nuristan and Chitral were once known as Kafiristan, "land of infidels". Local people were Pagans until the early 20th century. Then Afghans invaded Nuristan and forcibly converted it to Islam. In Chitral there are still some Kalasha polytheists; they live in three remote valleys, but are outnumbered by Sunnis. I'd really like to visit the area, but can't risk being snowed in. The weather is getting really bad.
Day 16. I spend most of the night spotlighting in the forest around a rangers' cabin in Chitral Gol National Park. By sunrise the snow is so deep that it's difficult to walk. I only set two traps, and got one vole. The place is said to be very scenic, but I can't see much because of low clouds. Only once at dawn, the clouds move apart for a few seconds, and I get a nice photo of Tirichmir (7690 m), the highest peak in Hindukush. I've seen it from the opposite side fifteen years earlier, from Ishkashim in Tajikistan Pamir. The only animals I see are a few markhor ibexes.
I get back to Chitral Town. All mountain passes are closed, and the airport is closed. In such times, the bus to Peshawar goes through Afghan territory. Foreigners are not allowed on those trips, but I have a self-made letter from a nonexistent organization:
"The Society for Better Understanding of Islam is sending the well-known biologist, photographer and writer Vladimir Dinets to Pakistan to gather material for his book about Pakistan for the series called World's Most Beautiful Countries. We ask all people of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, including local authorities and business owners, to help Vladimir in his difficult work. He is traveling on a very limited budget, and has to visit many remote places in a short time. Any assistance would be greatly appreciated."
The letter, complete with handwritten Urdu translation, three signatures, Clipart letterhead and fake stamps, makes enough impression on the bus company clerk to get me in. I don't have Afghan visa, and my Pakistani visa is single-entry, but the bus isn't supposed to make any stops in Afghanistan, so there are no customs or border control.
In Asmar just across the border, we stop for prayer. In a nearby dukhan (restaurant), I see foreigners: a Japanese TV crew. They are really happy to meet me: their driver Mirza is an Uzbek from Herat who can speak Dari, Farsi, Pashto and some Russian, but no English or Japanese. I offer to serve as an interpreter in exchange for a ride to Band-i-Amir lakes near Bamian, the only really interesting place in Afghanistan I haven't seen in previous visits to the country.
Mirza helps me convince my driver to pick me up at a certain junction near Khyber Pass during his next trip to Peshawar. Taking turns at the wheel, we drive the rest of the day and all night, finding our way west along endless dirt roads.
Day 17. Snow-covered Nuristan looks gloomy. Villages seem almost abandoned, people are poor and depressed, and cattle invariably thin. Asking for directions is mostly useless. The once-famous forests are almost completely gone; we only found one small grove, and it had more stumps than trees. There is no wildlife except crows, magpies, and once a small owl pecking on a dead rat on the roadside. In some places, water from broken irrigation channels froze all over the road, making driving even more difficult than usual.
Day 18. Finally we cross the mountains and make it to Band-i-Amir, a cascade of dark-blue lakes surrounded by golden cliffs. The water in the lakes is mineralized, so they are separated by neat travertine dams.
The road back east is long and boring. We have to spend three extra hours driving around Kabul: there are too many checkpoints in the city, so I don't want to risk being arrested, and Mirza doesn't want to pay baksheesh to the police. From Jalalabad, we make a side trip to the infamous Tora Bora mountains, probably the last place in the country with some old-growth forest left, to have a look at the caves where Osama bin laden used to hide.
We make it to the meeting point half an hour before Peshawar bus. The Japanese decide to go south, to Kandahar, in an attempt to avoid bad weather. I am also tired of bad roads, cold and snow. But for me, the difficult part of the trip is almost over.
Day 19. I cross the Khyber Pass late at night and don't see anything. Smog is so bad in Peshawar that you can't see across the street. I fid a cheap hotel, where the only TV channel is QTV (Islamic television): half an hour of Mecca views, then half an hour of reading the Quran karaoke-style with videoclips. But it's warm, the restaurants stay open until 4 am, and there is hot water in the hotel (for one hour early in the morning).
In the morning the city looks much better. Peshawar is the capital of Northwestern Frontier Province; it has a massive old fort, some beautiful mosques, and the old part where every street is a bazaar. You can buy anything from RPGs to Soviet-made children sledges (I wonder what they are used for, since it never snows in Peshawar).
On my way to Pindi, I stop in Mindora and Taxila, two ancient centers of Gandharan civilization. They are surrounded by stupas, giant Buddha. statues (invariably defaced by idolatry-opposed locals), ruins of cities and forts.
English here is a status symbol. The number of people speaking it increases
as you approach the capital. Some examples of local English signs:
"Leave to serve" (on a police station)
"Butt cigarettes - more than just smoke" (roadside billboard)
"Shahid transportation service" (on a bus)
"Perfekt English Language Akademy" (on a building).
People mostly talk about the upcoming elections in the USA. Most of them are well-informed about World politics, but sometimes I hear surprising statements: "Bush is going to win because all Jews vote for him, and all Christians - for Kerry. Jews are a majority in America"; "Bush invaded Iraq and Afghanistan to force out all Muslims and to resettle the land with Christians"; "Kerry promised to make India return Kashmir to Pakistan"; and so on.
Day 20. Pakistani part of Kashmir is officially called Azad ("free") Jammu and Kashmir Province. It is a narrow strip of land, entangled into numerous of political and legal problems I'm not going to discuss. Until recently, India and Pakistan used to engage into artillery exchanges across the border. Now a ceasefire is in effect, but shell craters and blown-up houses are still visible in local towns.
Muzaffarabad is the only city open to foreigners. The only vehicle available for rent is a rickshaw tricycle. Driving it into the mountains is a lot of fun: the wheels are tiny, the engine has very little power and constantly overheats.
I get to Machiara National Park. The stuff is very happy to see me: I am the first visitor in two years since the creation of the park. "Just don't tell anybody around here that you came to the park," they say, "local people hate it because they are not allowed to cut the trees anymore."
One guy invits me to stay at his place, and shows me around. This area gets more rain than other parts of the country. Mountains below 2500 m are all covered with villages. The slopes are very steep: a trip to a grocery store involves forty minutes of climbing, but the vew from my host's front door is really scenic. Fields are narrow terraces built of stones by generations of peasants. Wherever possible, trails go over house roofs to avoid using arable land.
The forest only remains on the highest mountain. It is still logged illegally, but shelter a few Western tragopans, very rare and beautiful pheasants. The only trees further down are a few pines on steep rocks, and a small sacred grove on a hilltop.
Local intellectuals gather to talk with me: schoolteachers, park rangers, village elders. Women of the house remain invisible, but my friend's younger brother periodically shows up with tea and snacks. Many people can speak English. Some can speak Russian, too: a man who used to fight for the Taliban in Afghanistan, and another one who once worked in Turkmenistan."All Russians called me Ali Baba," he says, "do I really look like Ali Baba to you?"
Day 21. I left the most pleasant part of the trip until the end. There is a town called Muree in the mountains above Islamabad. It used to be a British hill station. and is still surrounded by forest. A narrow, densely forested ridge with a few villages goes north for almost fifty kilometers. It is by far the largest forest in the country, now protected as Ayubia National Park.
The British have built a network of hiking trails between villages. They are broad, level, and often equipped with handrails. The forest is mostly oldgrowth Indian white pine, but on northern slopes there are groves of very tall, slender West Himalayan firs, with some huge Sumatran yews and deodars. On southern slopes, there's a lot of oaks, plum trees, and giant horse chestnuts. The fall colors are still at their best.
The moon now rises late, but starlight combined with Zodiac light is bright enough to walk through the forest without a flashlight. As I set traps, loud screams come from a clump of dry trees. It is a large wood-owl. I also find a few giant flying squirrels, but these are common ones - black with thin tails.
Day 22. In addition to common mice and a rat, I catch gorgeous golden voles. Then I walk a trail from Dungagali to Ayubia. It's only four kilometers long, but so interesting that it takes me half a day. Flocks of black titmice, red rosefinches, blue magpies, orange bullfinches, and green parakeets are moving through the forest. But nine birds out of ten here are jungle crows. In one place they seem to be particularly noisy. I follow their calls and find a pair of yellow-throated martens sunbathing on a boulder. These beautiful predators are common in forested mountains from Ussuriland to Tora Bora, but Kashmir race is particularly large (more than a meter long) and bright-colored. They are also very tame, so I watch them for more than an hour. During that time they catch a golden vole and try to stalk a koklass pheasant, but it gets away.
I hitch a ride to Islamabad. The driver speaks perfect English. "I am an Afghan socialist," he says, "and used to work for Najibulla government in the 1980-s." I'm a bit surprised: I thought that the entire government had been killed by either the mojaheddin or the Taliban after the Soviet army had left.
Islamabad looks totally different from other cities in Pakistan: broad streets, large parks, relatively few people, some in European clothes. I get there just in time to visit Lok Virsa, the country's second most interesting museum. It has an impressive collection of handicrafts from all over the country, complete with patriotic labels. Quote: "Because Islamic thinkers base their ideas on the wisdom of the Quran, they were always superior to others. The Muslims have laid the foundation for modern science, philosophy and economy..."
Day 23. My last morning in Pakistan. There is a nice forest called Margalla Hills National Park on the outskirts of the city. It is real jungle (since Kipling, this word is used in the West for any tropical forest, but in India it means low, dense, dry secondary woodland). Trails lead upslope to an overlook, with views of Islamabad, Pindi, and huge Shah Feisal Mosque built to resemble a Bedouin tent - a gift from the Saudis.
Walking along forest roads towards the mosque, I meet some gray gorals, kalij pheasants, then a strange bird I can't identify. After chasing it through the thornscrub for a while, I realize it's a budgerigar. Five minutes before getting to the first city houses, I find a small clearing with a herd of wild boars and rhesus macaques. Wild boar is the most common large mammal in many parts of Asia, because Muslims don't hunt it.
Three weeks earlier, I changed $400 into rupees in Karachi Airport. Despite indulging myself to car rentals and other luxuries, I still have almost twenty bucks' worth by the end of the trip. Instead of changing rupees back into dollars, I decide to give them to homeless children. But finding such children proves difficult. Unlike in India, there are relatively few homeless people in Pakistan, probably thanks to zakat (Islamic system of obligatory charity). Finally, I find some Gujar kids digging up scraps from a garbage pile, and give them the money. I hope they'd have a good meal at least once in their lives.
Gulf Air is now my favorite airline. Chinese stewardesses wear funny adaptations of traditional Arab garb; Westerners are usually assigned chairs near emergency exits with plenty of leg space; food is great even in Ramadan; each passenger has a personal screen and can choose between five movie channels, or see the map of the plane's location, or the view from the cockpit, or an arrow pointing towards Mekka. In addition, I'm given a window seat. So I can get a last view of the endless mountain ridges and kevir basins of Balochistan, with a large meteor crater in Iranian part. Then we cross the Persian Gulf, and my trip to Pakistan is over.