This was our second Christmas ‘on the road’ with Toyotoro. Last year (2018) we spent it slaughtering a pig for Chinese New Year on the outskirts of Chongqing. This year we celebrated it with our newly acquired CRC family in Lahore, Pakistan. The Cross Route CRC is allegedly the largest motorcycle club in Pakistan, spearheaded by a man with the exterior of Hulk Hogan and an interior of a rainbow, the most loveable and zealous Mr. Mukaram. We were discovered within five minutes of crossing over the border from India by Faheem, a truly devoted CRC member. We thank you Faheem who bravely chased us down the highway and brought us into this club full of warm-hearted people. Lahore would not have been half as interesting nor welcoming if it was not for Mr. Mukaram and his Hamsaya Food Bank. Shukriyah!
Pakistan is a young country and like India it was ruled under the Mughal Empire until they were colonised by the British. For two countries that only sixty-three years ago were united as one, we surely felt their differences. At the border a Pakistani man introduced himself and his wife to us because she wanted to give Henning a kiss claiming his stark resemblance to her own son. The way she looked up on his face was full of motherly love and tenderness. That was the start of a series of events that made us feel people were becoming friendlier and less intrusive. In Pakistan, when someone wanted to take a photo of us, they asked permission, as opposed to snapping a selfie even at times of refusal; we could stop next to a street again and take a nap without anyone knocking; and everyone welcomed travellers in a way that made us feel like we were always surrounded by friends. For example, Malik in Lahore helped us with our visa payment and treated us to delicious fruit smoothies while we waited in the comfort of his car.
We might be biased in our love for Pakistan because what we saw of this country was through the eyes of our charismatic “guide” and dear friend Sana Marwat of Coyote Trail. They were the eyes of someone who knew the ins and outs of his country, who could clearly explain his culture to newcomers, and they were the eyes of the son of a Pashtun tribe leader. What was supposed to be a night’s stopover in Islamabad turned into the start of a blossoming friendship with Sana.
After giving us a tour of the rich and modern city of Islamabad we travelled north to an organic farm in the Swat Valley. There we met Niaz and Shujaat, brothers who showed us the true power of Pakistani hospitality. They dined us with delicious food and entertained us with musicians. It was a night that we will remember for the rest of our lives. Bohat Shukriyah!
For many people Pakistan is synonymous with the Taliban, terrorism, unrest and danger. It is most likely not on everyone’s list of holiday destinations. For the most part, they would be right. It was only a little over ten years ago that the TTP (Pakistani Taliban) was still active along the Afghan-Pakistan border. As we winded our way up north, taken in by the lovely surroundings, it was surreal to hear Sana point out spots where the TTP once hung the heads of locals who defied them. The Pakistan of now is very different to what it was and the beauty we saw in the north took our breath away.
Where do I even begin. The Kalash people of Chitral are a good start. This unique group of people claims to be descendants of Alexander the Great and their appearance alone hold proof of such claims. They have skin as fair as the snow that dusts the Hindu Kush mountain range surrounding their village and eyes as blue and icy as their bitter cold winters. Kalash women walked around in their custom long black robes embroidered with cowrie shells going about their daily life. Unlike the rest of Pakistan, the Kalash people have not converted to Islam and they developed their own distinctive customs such as ghōna dastūr (marriage by elopement). The interaction of men and women in general is premised, while for the rest of the country it is frowned upon.
Following the Chitral River southwards we reached Nagar Fort, where we had the honour to be hosted by its princes, Ghazi and Jamal. The view and the sound of rushing water from the fort was so serene that we made no complaints when an avalanche blocked the Lowari Tunnel (our way out) which held us hostage there for a whole week. Within the walls of the fort we listened to the fall of snowflakes and watched our surroundings turn into a winter wonderland. Meanwhile, Ghazi gave us a tour of the historical grounds and gardens of the fort where his family has lived for generations.
During the day we took a hair-raising trip to the Qaqlasht Meadows. We climbed up icy mountain roads and calf-deep snow terrain to reach a meadow where in springtime sports events and festivals were held. I would like to see it again when it has donned on its lush green coat. Having only three snow chains between two cars we almost got stuck on our way down. But thanks to diff. locks, one chain on the front wheel and our skilled driver, Henning, we made it back safely.
During my travels in the past, I was seldom received with such zest and comradery based on my ethnicity as I had in Pakistan. The bromance between China and Pakistan was pretty evident the further north we travelled and suddenly I gained a few more cousins. The KKH (Karakoram Highway or the China-Pakistan Friendship Highway), like a pulsating artery connecting the bodies of both countries, stretches 1,300km from Hasan Abdul through Khunjerab Pass in Gilgit-Baltistan and straight into China’s Xinjiang province. As one of the highest paved roads in the world, passing through the Karakoram mountain range is a sight to be reckoned with.
Hunza Valley in Gilgit-Baltistan is one of the most stunning places we have been fortunate to set our eyes on. I will forever remember the calm and friendly atmosphere of the Karimabad village and breathing the fresh and crisp air on top of Baltit Fort. The cobalt blue sky provided the perfect canvas to the rising stone giants stretched before us. Travelling north of the KKH, we passed Attabad Lake, once only reachable by boat, still hibernating in its frozen mid-January splendour. Some kilometres further the magnificent Tupopdan or Passu Cones presented itself to us, dwarfing everything in its vicinity with its over 6,000m height.
Here lies a town called Khyber, famous for ibex spotting and hunting, where we spent a night with a lovely Wakhi family whose ancestors migrated from Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor. At 2,800 above sea level and in minus 20 Celsius, it was hard to realise we were merely 20km to the Khunjerab Pass bordering China in the northeast and 20km to the Afghan border in the northwest.
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