Sep 23

Winter is coming and the night is full of terrors – Northern Areas of Pakistan

by in Asia, Pakistan

In a few minutes I leave on the 13 hour drive from Islamabad to Gilgit, the frontier town that serves as capital of the Northern Areas. It will be my jump-off point into the autonomous Northern Areas of Pakistan. Marco Polo, this website’s namesake, when travelling near here in the 13th century called the area “noisy with kingdoms”, the better situated of which grew rich from taxing traffic to and from China. Gilgit has had many owners over its thousands of years history. It has been a part of Tibet, China, Afghanistan, the British Empire, itself (The independent Republic of Gilgit existed for a brief time following partition) and of course now belongs to Pakistan (kind of). This has led to many religious, cultural and linguistic traditions being layered one upon the other. The animism of the early inhabitants gave way to fire worship brought from Persia, which gave way to Hinduism (~1,700 BC), which gave way to Buddhism (4th to 11th century AD).

When Mohammed bin Qasim’s Arab forces invaded India (including modern day Pakistan) from the South by sea in 632 AD, he succeeded in the South but his forces were repulsed in the North. It was not until after the 15th century that Islam became the dominant religion in Gilgit, brought by the Sunnis who spread up the Indus River from Swat and the Shias who spread into Baltistan from Kashmir.

The King of Hunza converted to the Ismaili faith (followers of the Aga Khan) in the early 19th century and so there are also many Ismailis present in the area today. If you hear anyone speak of “His Highness” in these parts, they are referring to the Aga Khan – a playboy Briton living on a lavish historical estate in France who is in the process of finalizing his divorce from a German aristocrat (my mother attended their wedding reception) for cheating on her with an air stewardess – I know, it’s weird, but he is their pope and his philanthropic foundations spend over $600 million/year worldwide.

From 1947 (when both Pakistan and India won their independence from the British) to 1972, the seven feudal kingdoms along the Gilgit and Hunza rivers remained essentially autonomous, but between 1972 and 1974, they were properly incorporated into greater Pakistan and the Pakistani government took over, establishing five administrative districts.

Despite 100% of the modern day inhabitants of the region being one kind of Muslim or another, pre-Islamic planting and harvesting ceremonies have survived and most people still believe in fairies, witches and Jinn (ghosts capable of magic, kind of like invisible wizards). The town marketplace is a babble of languages as exotic as they are indiscernible. Punjabis, Pathans, Chitralis, Tajiks and Chinese Uyghurs trade side by side.

Despite having all this wonderful diversity around, the Sunnis of the region somehow still feel the need to attack and kill the Shias. They occasionally ambush and board buses on the isolated mountain roads, shooting any Shias they find on them. This made me revise my driving plan up to Gilgit so that I’m now taking the long way just to avoid Sunni areas. While I’m a Sunni myself, I don’t know if I could emotionally deal with anyone on my bus being murdered for their faith. I’d either get killed myself for trying to intervene, or more likely live with nightmares and depression for the rest of my life for letting it happen. Among the Sunnis of Pakistan is a large cadre of assholes who never cease to amaze with their ignorant hatred. The Shias, Christians and other religious minorities of Pakistan won my respect a long time ago for never responding with reprisal attacks. May their patience and restraint be rewarded in the near future with peace and security.

At the last minute before my flight from Karachi to Islamabad my mother urged me not to go to the Northern Areas out of fear for my safety and is to this minute asking me to reconsider. The way I saw it, I was trying to be hardcore but she wasn’t letting me – I felt like Jorge below.

(taken from a Mexican Jerry Springer-type show)

(taken from a Mexican Jerry Springer-type show)

She wasn’t alone. My father, my wife and my in-laws also asked me not to go. I love and respect them all and ordinarily would go out of my way to keep them happy. In fact I came very close to capitulating, but in the end decided I had to do it (with extreme caution). In some bizarre way, it bothers me that I’ve seen so much of the world while seeing so little of my own country which is full of remarkable historical, cultural and natural beauty. The danger is there – there is no denying that. Even in peacetime, people die in car accidents (driving off the side of the mountain) or from rock falls or avalanches. The roads aren’t good and emergency response is often inaccessible. This treacherous terrain, often more vertical than it is horizontal, has many ways to kill. But in the end, this trip was decided in my heart, not my mind, so off I go. Wish me luck!

My original plan was to go to Concordia, the intersection of Baltoro and Godwin-Austen glaciers from which 4 of the world’s 14 “eight thousanders” (meters) can be seen, including K2, and then on to K2 basecamp. But since I missed the weather window for 2013, instead I’ll be hiking across the Batura Glacier (4 day trek), one of the world’s longest and largest, beneath the peaks of Batura (25,574 ft) and Passu (24,600 ft). I’ll also be doing consulting work with a local NGO, helping them with their reporting to donors and putting together a performance monitoring and evaluation plan.

P.S. – Won’t have laptop for next three weeks as I traverse Gilgit & Hunza valleys. Will post to blog upon return.


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