[Travelogue] Gilgit-bound
By: Chris Cork

One-thirty in the morning and a few kilometres north of Komilla and we explored the Seven-nut Option. We had set off in fine style more or less on time from Pir Wadahi bus stand and purred up the motorway in the direction of Peshawar until we turned off onto the Karakoram Highway. The first time I travelled this road was by bicycle in October 1993, when the GTR was a simple double-lane (not a dual-carriageway) road, and there was none of the rush and bustle of today. My old blue rucksack, with some warm clothes and a few books, was on top of the bus and my laptop on my knees. The familiar landscape scrolled past — this was the 79th time I had travelled the Karakoram Highway by road — but the first time I had been “up north” for four years. Post-quake reconstruction continues everywhere along the stretch below Battagram, and the road itself is rutted and difficult, battered by years of wear far beyond what it was designed for, and now about to undergo a major upgrade.

Through Kohistan in the thick darkness, shops shuttered as we rolled north; an ever-present precipitous drop to the side, and then the sudden stop after we had crossed the river at Komilla. The clanking of metal soon afterwards signalled ‘puncture’ as the tools were unloaded and it was all pile out, fire-up the mobile-phone torches to give the driver a bit of light and, as the tyre-change neared completion, the Seven-nut Option came into view. The tyre which had gone on to replace that which was punctured was as bald as a baby’s bottom, as were all the others on the vehicle. The vehicle manufacturer had built eight studs into the wheel-hub to hold on the twin rear wheels. But we only had seven. I pointed this out to the driver. He agreed with my count and said that there were six on the other side and seven on one of the front hubs. One of the vehicle’s six wheels had the requisite number of nuts holding them on. Hardly confidence-inspiring. I suggested that this might be a teensy little lapse in the safety department. He politely disagreed, tightened what were left of the wheel nuts and we were on our way. (Travel advisory… Count the wheel-nuts on NATCO buses before departure.)

Dawn, and Chilas, and then the last 90-odd kilometers into Gilgit. There is still a mystique about this little town nestled in a bowl in the mountains. It was a rough and bustling place on my first visit, packed with tourists of every nationality and heaving with tour-jeeps and cheap backpacker hotels that catered to the ever-questing youthful tourist of 15 years ago. Today it is altogether more sophisticated as the huge signboards advertising mobile phone companies on the outskirts indicated. It was also more orderly, about 500-perecent cleaner and the roving packs of killer dogs had disappeared. There were fewer backpacker hotels and the tourism business in general has suffered post-9/11 and suffered further with the disturbances of 2005. But things are picking up this year and I took my breakfast coffee in one of those places that has a well-earned place in the mythology of Pakistan travel – the Madina Hotel, next to NLI bazaar.

Five-star it ain’t, but friendly and welcoming it is. This has been my unofficial “home” in Gilgit for as long as I have been in Pakistan. It has survived where others have not, and now stands almost alone at the budget end of the market. Basic accommodation and terrific food at budget prices; with quite possibly the best pancakes in the world. Yacoub, the Hon. Prop., welcomed me like a long-lost brother and we were deep in family gossip and chit-chat in moments. Gilgit is fine, notwithstanding a recent unpleasantness that saw the murder of a prominent local politician, but what started as sectarian has turned “family” and seems unlikely to grow beyond that. The government has started a little tentative tourist promotion, and local businesses are again advertising in international travel magazines again. Hopes are high that there will be a recovery this year. The trade that would have gone to Swat isn’t going, and Gilgit-Baltistan is very much open for business.

There is a sense of resolution in this remote place, a sense that the predations of the Taliban in other places is unlikely ever to take root here – and if they ever did try their tricks in this part of the world then woe betide them. There is already a sprinkling of foreigners – and a lone cyclist – and incoming phone-calls from far and wide indicate that that there are still those who would consider Pakistan as a destination. Tomorrow, I head up into the mountains. It’s good to be home.

The writer is a British social worker settled in Pakistan. Email: manticore73 @gmail.com

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