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Journal Entry:

Sunday, September 25, 2005 10:11:35

Himalayas & China 2005: 7 - Swat to Gilgit, Pakistan

Saturday, September 24, 2005

We were on the road a little earlier this morning (8:30), as Ali had cautioned us that today's route would be slow going. We did a walk through of the large, old bazaar of Mingora, the commercial city adjoining Saidu Saharif. The later is an administrative, hospital and college town.

We wondered about the old men in the bazaar with smoking tin cans attached to a stick. Ali explained they receive tips from merchants who believed this protects against the Evil Eye. Cloths tied onto the side and back of trucks and buses are believed to provide similar protection, and most vehicles have them.

We have found everywhere that people are generally very friendly. Comments such as "Welcome to Pakistan", "What Country?" and "Hello" were frequent. Again, the shopkeepers were not at all pushy, but were very helpful when approached. There were a lot of men in the bazaar with red beards. Apparently many men dye their beards, and sometimes their hair, with hennae. It looks very out of place, but the wearers must believe it is an enhancement!

I was in error when I said the population of Swat was 80,000. That is the population of Mingora alone. We chose not to go to the museum or drive the 30 km return trip to see the ex-king's palace, which is now a hotel. Ali said to us he did not think it worth the time and extra driving on top of the long drive we already had.

As we drove Ali explained that the military in Pakistan are well regarded by the people. They are a professional force of career people, not draftees. The military builds clinics, schools and other needed facilities in various areas, plus provide disaster assistance in addition to the traditional role of national defence. Apparently the first female general had just been created, a surgeon general in charge of all the medical aspects of the military.

When we started the roads were good but then we headed up the Shangla Pass and hit road construction. After the construction ended the road became narrow, deteriorated pavement with huge numbers of potholes. We stopped at the top of the 2,142-meter (7,028') pass to enjoy the rolling mountains with the terraced growing areas. We are once again crossing the Hindu Kush Mountains, the same ones we crossed twice in Afghanistan. We will not be in the Himalayas until we cross the Indus River.

After crossing the pass we descended on very narrow road through shady pine forests, then followed a river that joins the Indus through village after village. All were bustling with people, but obviously poor. In spite of lots of water in the area there is very little land, as the steep hills on either side descend right into the river. Terraces provide the little flat ground available for crops, yet the hillsides are speckled with houses where people are making a slim living from the land.

We stopped beside the river to have the box lunch the hotel prepared on one of the few spots where there was no settlement, yet a steady flow of people back and forth showed we were not far from habitation. Marilynn had another field day photographing them, bringing smiles to many faces. We shared our lunch with an elderly man tending his cows who was sitting near us, and a young boy who came by. Both were very grateful for the food.

Something we noticed yesterday, but that was even more in evidence today, was that suspension footbridges frequently span the rivers. They vary from professionally built to very basic, where boards are laid across two cables. Some were missing a lot of boards!

Electric cables from small generating plants along the river are draped from tree to tree, not attached in any way. In some cases a dozen wires would come together on the branches, all to be connected to the main power source.

We hadn't been going for a long before we came to a traffic tie up. The government are building a new power plant at the edge of the river. Water to turn the turbines will come from a lake beyond a ridge high above, and in front of us four massive tunnels exit the mountain at road level. The road was closed while they cleared blasted rock. Above we could see where the new road was being constructed, as the lower area will be blocked by the power plant. The engineers in charge of this project are from China.

We were stopped about half and hour, then moved forward a short distance and stopped again for another half hour. Once again we moved, only to spend about an hour where a cliff had been blasted and completely blocked the road. This time I though we had it made - but after driving a short while we rounded a bend to see traffic was tied up once again.

This time it was serious. A cliff had been blown ahead, causing a massive slide of huge rocks. Closer to us was a smaller slide, caused by workers clinging precariously to the cliff face hundreds of feet above, manually prying rocks free. A small loader was between the two slides nibbling away at the near side of the large slide, while a larger loader and an excavator worked alternately from the other side. It became obvious that we were here for a while!

There was no hope of any privacy to relieve oneself here. The cliff went up on one side, and down into the river on the other. The bit of open space between the road and river was alive with people waiting for the road to open. It had been a tough day for Marilynn in that department, as with a national population of 150 million there isn't a lot of uninhabited area where there is water - there were always dwellings or people walking. Now we had a long wait with no option but to grit the teeth and bear it!

Our hope of being under way before dark was soon dashed. The Pakistani travellers moved from where they were watching the slow progress to squat in a circle and tell stories. I took out my laptop and wrote down the days events, then started playing FreeCell. It was now pitch black out, but I was soon aware of a crowd gathered at the van window watching my games. This was the only entertainment going at this point, so my audience stayed with me until at last the loader retreated and engines started. It was now 8 PM -- we had arrived before 3 PM.

The inevitable jockeying for position began, and our driver did a good job of getting us into about 4th position. Traffic from our side started forward, however traffic from the other side was bumper to bumper behind the loader. I'd estimate there was a line of over a hundred vehicles. Still our line inched forward, gradually narrowing the gap the oncoming traffic had to pass. For lengthy periods the oncoming line would stop, likely waiting for a vehicle to move out of their way. Ali went and talked to the driver of the lead car, urging him not to go any further forward, as backing up would be impossible for either line once vehicles met head to head, and it was difficult for trucks to get by even now. The driver agreed and stopped his advance. Soldiers were present, but were doing nothing to control the traffic.

Finally, all the traffic had passed and we were inching forward on the narrow cleared track. Once we had passed the landslide area, where boulders still hung precariously on the cliff face above, the traffic in front pulled ahead of us. From that point onwards it was a cacophony of horns and flashing headlights as one vehicle after another forced its way around of us. We were passed on either the right or the left, dependant upon which way our driver swerved to avoid bad road. It was a relief when the last of the cars, trucks and buses passed us and we could move at our slow pace unmolested.

It took about another hour to reach the PTDC Motel at Besham. PTDC is the Pakistan Tourist Development Corporation, which has built inexpensive, functional accommodation in key areas for travellers throughout the country. The room was clean; soap and towels were provided and there were ceiling fans. Not having hot water was not a major inconvenience, and we didn't use the shower that ran onto the bathroom floor.

It is 80 km from Swat to Besham. We were 5 hours at the dam site (or "damn site" at this point), 1 hour for photo and lunch stops and the remaining 8 hours to cover the 80 km distance - average speed, 10 km per hour. That gives an idea of the road conditions.

We didn't do much justice to dinner; just two bowls each corn and chicken soup. All the other dishes were taken back, as we were headed directly to bed after 14 hours on the road.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

After a good breakfast and a look at the Indus River running in front of our room, we headed off on the Karakoram Highway for Gilgit. The highway starts in Besham, a small town at the junction of three roads, and continues 1,260 km to the Chinese border. It took 12 years to build, from 1966 to 1978, and cost the lives of 400 men. My information that it was good road was not correct.

It is a difficult and expensive road to keep open, a job undertaken by the army. It is full of potholes in many areas and in other sections there are patches on top of patches, resulting in a rough ride. Frequent landslides have been cleared, or washouts caused by floods down narrow canyons filled in, resulting in temporary dirt tracks across the damaged areas. There is little precipitation here, but it is a seismic zone, and earthquakes cause many landslides.

The road is notched into the mountains high above the Indus River. Marilynn refused to sit on the river side of the vehicle, as more often than not there were no guardrails, leaving only air between the shoulder of the road and the river hundreds of feet below. In carving the road into the mountain the cliff above often hung over the road, giving an open tunnel effect.

At first, terrain permitting, there were terraced fields and pine forests across the river, but the countryside became drier and drier until there was no vegetation at all. At first there were lots of sand beaches along the river, then these gradually climbed the banks until there were mountainous sand dunes. The only patches of green were where there was good spring water.

As we passed through this harsh, rugged countryside we stopped at the barrier marking the entrance into the Northern Areas. This is not a province of Pakistan, and the people here cannot vote for the president of the country. There is a population of about 2 million in this zone of high mountains. We left the Frontier Constabulary of Frontier Province, and now had either army or the Northern Area police.

The Karakoram Highway is the main access to many of the back areas of this part of the country, and many suspension bridges, one vehicle wide, cross the Indus River allowing access to the dirt tracks which disappear up side valleys.

A short while after crossing into the Northern Areas we came to the oasis city of Chilas, where we stopped at the Shangrila Resort for lunch. It was a beautiful place, but as with other hotels they were suffering from the lack of tourists. The majority of tourists are Japanese, but few others are coming. We were the only people in the 80-seat restaurant, which was out of many menu items.

In the Northern Areas checkpoints became more frequent, operated by both military and police. There were army camps where the Pakistan Army's mountain troops are based. Not too far from here is the area of Kashmir where the Indian and Pakistani armies battled it out for years.

As we continued our journey northward we began to see higher and higher peaks. We were very close to Nanga Parbat, and as the road circled around it we had various views. This 8,125-meter (26,666') mountain was referred to in road signs as the "killer mountain", referring to over 40 people killed trying to climb it. Ali told us it is the 9th highest mountain in the world.

There are 9 peaks in Pakistan that are over 7,000 meters in height. As we neared Gilgit we could see Haramosh at 7,409 meters (12,350'), Malubiting at 7,458 meters (12,430') and Rakaposhi at 7,788 meters (12,980'). They were stunning with the setting sun shining brightly on them.

We arrived at Gilgit, the administrative capital of the Northern Areas, at 5:30 having covered the 323 km from Besham in 10 hours, including stops. The city has a population of 70,000 people. We will explore it tomorrow.

The Serena Gilgit Hotel is home for tonight. The hotel is done in beautifully carved wood. It is on a hill overlooking the Gilgit Valley, and right in front of us was the sunset on three of the peaks mentioned above. We are sorry we are here for only a one-night stay! After getting emails written and sent, then eating an excellent dinner we turned in for the night.