Monday, May 8th, 2023

Rawalpindi was dusty, gritty, crowded, chaotic. We took a detour in a neighborhood with narrow stone alleys and beautiful old crumbling architecture, three- or four-story houses with electrical wires crisscrossing everywhere.  We wondered out loud what they looked like inside.  In one second-story window, the heads of three goats hung over the windowsill, chewing on the wires. A woman came outside and asked us, in Urdu, if we wanted to see her home.  And then it hit me; this was the reason to do a women-only tour of Pakistan.  I hadn’t chosen the tour because it was women-only; I chose it because Alex Reynolds had a very funny travel blog I enjoyed and a reputation for deep knowledge of Pakistan. But in an Islamic country, we would never have been invited into a home if we had men in the group.

We followed the woman up a narrow, spiraling stone staircase to living quarters on the second floor.  There were bedrooms in each corner of the square and we took off our shoes and sat on a bed with the children, taking photos.  Alex and our Pakistani guide Mahnaz chatted in Urdu with several women I assumed to be sisters while children swarmed around us.  There were a few men, but they hung back in corners of the building, not talking to us.  In English, Alex said, “They only want photos with the very important white people and not with me and Mahnaz and Khadija.”  She was joking but it was true, a thing we saw more and more often during the trip.  Michelle from Texas and I were the only white women; Khadija was from London but of Pakistani descent; Juneisy from New York was Cuban-American; and Alex, though American by birth, had Filipino blood.  Referring to the different experience of the brown women in the group became a habit that was by turns funny, educational and sometimes uncomfortable.

The womens’ section of a shrine

Although touring cities was always the least favorite part of my travel it had been an interesting first day of this three-week trip.  We visited a market that reminded me of the famous bird market in Kabul; cage upon cage of birds, guinea pigs, rabbits, dogs that Alex told us were likely stolen.  We went to a mosque where a keeper made us call the imam for permission and then we were denied entry anyway; Alex said the rules were inconsistent for women.  At a shrine, we sat with two local women and their children in the women’s section with a little window looking into the shrine room we were not allowed in.  A young woman with two-toned hair, a wistful face and a bright purple shalwar kameez wanted photo after photo with us.  She held her phone at an angle and used Bollywood-style filters, snapping us shaking hands like we were diplomats.  She told us her husband got mad and left her with their four children, but she didn’t say why.  She was sad and had come to the shrine for solace, and we had cheered her up.

Our city tour had started that morning with a visit to a truck art yard where Alex once had her motorcycle painted and we visited the artists who had done the job for her.  Three of them sat in the bed of a truck with a tray of paints in the middle of their huddle, and another man on the ground greeted us.  Alex pointed out images of female gods and told us they were there because truckers spend more time with their trucks than with their wives. “In Pakistan, the tradition of colorful trucks is an expression of Pakistan history and personal culture,” she explained. “Truckers think more beauty will bring them more business.  And these are true artists; they don’t use templates, they create spontaneously as they go.” I thought about what a perfect illustration this was of the vast difference between Pakistan’s business culture and that of the western world.  Money comes from beauty and not from commercialization.

Tuesday, May 9th

We headed out of Islamabad and into the mountains, where we would spend most of the trip.  On the way we stopped at the airport to look for my lost luggage, which had not arrived with me after a flight delay and re-route. It was a crazy, futile run-around; I searched three baggage offices and talked to seven different people who scrutinized the illegible handwritten lost baggage report and shrugged.  Finally, Alex said we needed to go because we had two long days of driving ahead of us.

We drove through deep river valleys bordered by the Indus, Karakoram and Hindu-Kush mountain ranges, stopping to take photos of the confluence of all three ranges.  The road was often washed out by mud and landslides and our driver, Adil, slowed to a crawl to get the van through.  There were construction stoppages and frequent checkpoints.  We talked about the paradox of a lack of basic infrastructure in the face of all the money Pakistan put toward policing, and Mahnaz gave us a refresher on the history of the Pakistani-India conflict, Pakistan’s tenuous, unstable democracy, and why so much money is spent on the military.   We handed the MPs a paper at every checkpoint with our names, nationalities, contact info and visa numbers but there were always still questions.

We stopped for lunch at a hotel along the Indus River and had a delicious daal and biryani.  A hotel manager stared at Kadija throughout lunch from a corner of the empty dining room and Khadija said, under her breath, “Creepy man, go away.  Unless you’re rich or you have a rich brother?”  She was the stand-up comedian of the trip.

Alex and I ran down the street after lunch to buy me a cheap pair of knock-off Chaco trekking sandals in case I didn’t get my luggage before our first hike, and after lunch we set off for another long drive to the Shangri-La hotel in the conservative mountain town of Chilas.  Over a late dinner in the hotel’s veranda restaurant, Alex told us the hotel was along the Indus at a point where it was expected to flood in about 2035 when dam work was finished.  The government gave businesses money for long-term relocation planning but this hotel decided on a different strategy; they spent the money to expand the hotel and rake in revenues until 2035.  “It seems to be working,” she said, “because where foreigners can stay in this area is highly restricted and this is one of the few places.”

“Why is it restricted?” I asked.

“There are some fringe extremist groups in the area, Muslim fundamentalists who will kill their wives for taking a shower when they are not home,” Alex said.  “Tourists have not been targeted so far but the government does not want to take any chances.”

Wednesday, May 10th

The garden of the ShangriLa Hotel

As Alex had promised, we woke up to incredible views of the Indus river with mountains above, right outside the windows of our rooms.  At breakfast, I ran into the one American man from my delayed Dubai flight who had been transferred onto the same Pakistani Airlines flight with me, testament to the fact that there were few places for foreigners to stay.  He got his bag in Dubai and was not going through the same pains I was.  “You’d better give Anna some of your toiletries,” Khadija joked.

We talked about protests in Islamabad over the arrest of Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former prime minister, who was taken down by paramilitary forces last night and arrested for corruption.  Khan’s supporters were violently clashing with paramilitary forces and it appeared we got out of the city just in time.

By Alex Reynolds

We left for another 10- to 12-hour drive, just as beautiful as the day before, winding higher into mountain valleys.  We stopped in Ghizer to shop and to pick up Karima, a local guide who would come with us to Yasin Valley, where her family lived.  I terrorized an 18-year-old Muslim shopkeeper buying an old lady bra, trying to figure out the sizes.  It was as uncomfortable for me as it was for him until Alex came in and then it became hilarious.  The boy tried to keep it together as we held up the bra, laughing.  He pleaded with us to get out of the window and hide in the back.

We told travel stories and played twenty questions in the van to pass the time.  Mahnaz told us about her upbringing in the U.S., where she spent her elementary and high school years until returning to Pakistan for university.  “One day after we came back here my brothers and I asked our parents, ‘Why did you do this to us?  Now we don’t belong anywhere!’” Mahnaz told us.  “They said, ‘We did it so you would have options, so you could belong anywhere.’ That made us think differently and now I appreciate what they did.”  Mahnaz did seem equally comfortable with both western and Pakistani culture.

In Yasin Valley we checked into the Yasin Fort hotel and met the owner, a friendly man named Nasir with excellent English. A few messages came in from the US asking if I was OK; the protest news was making international headlines.

Thursday, May 11th

I woke up with the 4:00 am call to prayer and went out to see the beauty of the mountains surrounding the hotel.  Juneisy was out flying her drone by 6:00 am, trying to capture the majesty of the valley at sunrise.

Yasin Valley Guest House

After breakfast we drove a short distance through the Yasin Valley, along a river that I now understood to be a tributary of the Indus, and Adil let us off at the foot of a rough road he could no longer navigate.  We walked slowly up the road toward Karima’s village, snapping photos of poplar trees and cows grazing in pastures along the way.  “The locals call them ‘popular’ trees,” Alex laughed.  We stopped at a potato field where several women wanted to shake our hands, and once again I marveled at the different experience of traveling in a women-only group.  One of the women introduced us to a man, probably her husband, plowing potatoes into a field.  We ducked through a fence and listened as Mahnaz translated the potato farming process – plow rows in the dirt, place small potatoes in a line, cover them up to sprout and grow more potatoes.  Alex walked into the dirt in her socks and sandals and took the hoe offered by the farmer.  “Who wants to try this?”  We hung back, timid, until Khadija finally accepted the hoe.  We heckled her.  “You’re missing the potatoes!” we shouted.  “You’re fired!”

We walked further up the road until we reached a group of women waiting for us at a bend in the road, in front of a metal gate.  We shook hands with each of them as Karima introduced us to her mother, grandmother, sister, and various aunts.  Some of them kissed our cheeks.  We went into the house and sat around the walls of an empty room lined with floor matts and Karima explained that this was the home she grew up in, but it had recently been rebuilt after the roof collapsed during heavy rains and mudslides.

We left our things and went for a trek in the hills above the village, promising to return for lunch. The views from the hillsides were stunning.   We visited Karima’s family’s gravesite, then climbed higher to plateaus where sheep, cows and goats grazed.  Mahnaz captured a cute baby sheep in her arms and passed him around for petting while its mother bleated pitifully.  Juneisy went back to the house early; a historian with a focus on food and culture, she was in her element hanging out with Karima’s family as they cooked lunch.  She was excited to tell us about it when we came back so we sat around the walls of the kitchen and watched them finishing up the process, cooking on pots in the middle of the floor perched on a small wood fire enclosed by metal.  There were stewed local greens, fresh dandelion greens, roti, and a bread, milk and ghee concoction called molita.  We all ate together, just the women, sitting on the floor.

By Alex Reynolds

Back at the hotel, we waited for polo players to ride by so we could follow them to an afternoon match.  It was a village scrimmage in preparation for a big tournament; Yasin was known for having the best polo teams around.  I had never seen a polo game before.  We walked down the road from the hotel with members of Nasir’s family, who led us into cement bleachers on the side of a long dirt field.  A small ensemble of drummers and pipe players played local music and some of the men danced, spinning their bodies and swirling their hands in a feminine way.  There were no women in the crowd besides us, and it seemed we were the guests of honor.  Everyone stared and made way for us, and the local village elder presiding over the game offered us the honor of throwing the first ball.  After shy demurrals from the rest of our group, Juneisy accepted.  The music stopped while the village elder recited what I understood to be the rules of the game in the local dialect, and then Juneisy was instructed to toss the ball into the waiting players below.

We’d been warned the game could get rough, even violent.  Players raced from one side of the field to the other and occasionally a horse went down and the spectators gasped.  One young player bled from the nose after being wacked in the face.  Khadija picked out the colors of the horses whose players she thought were cute and we laughed at her unabashed, flirtatious jokes.  After 30 minutes of play time, which amounted to about two hours total, the blue team was pronounced the winner and the players gathered across the field to dance.  Everyone stood in a circle and beckoned to us, wanting us to dance with them.  We walked shyly across the field, but no one dared dance, and finally we settled for having our photos taken with the winning team.

By Alex Reynolds

Friday, May 12th

I woke up with that feeling when you know you’re getting sick.  You can’t put your finger on any specific symptoms, you just feel the creeping weakness.  Damn.

At breakfast, Alex said we were changing our plan to take advantage of an offer from Abdullah, Nasir’s son, to take us on a walking tour of things she had not seen before.  I liked the way she stayed flexible and seized opportunities as they came.  We followed a path along a small canal through the residential area of the village, stopping at the house of the hotel’s waiter so we could see how the locals lived.  Tony, the hotel family’s mixed mini- Labrador, followed us gleefully, sloshing through the canal and running up to each of us to be petted.  In a Muslim country, especially in rural areas, a dog that is loved as a pet is a rare and lucky dog.  “He will be sad when you leave,” Abdullah told us.

We visited the ruins of the Yasin Fort, a crumbling 17th century mud and brick tower, and Alex explained some of the history of the area; a strategic location connecting the trade routes of China and India, it was heavily fought over and defended.  The Wakhan corridor was not far away and I understood for the first time that the finger of Afghanistan reaching between Pakistan and Tajikistan was a strategic drawing of national borders by the British meant to keep a buffer between the British and Russian empires.

We went to an agricultural research center where there were rows and rows of fruit trees, marked with signage.  Alex introduced us to the supervisor, who said they researched various growing conditions to see what grew best where, when and how.  We stopped in a very old cemetery with mounds marked by sharp slate sculptures unlike anything I’d ever seen, and Abdullah explained that some of the village’s early royalty were buried here.  We crossed a rushing river over a wobbly handmade wooden bridge, one at a time, nervously.

I felt weaker and weaker and realized that regardless of whether I got my luggage in the next couple days, the upcoming Rakaposhi base camp trek was now probably out of the question for me.  It was already going to be hard, a two-day trek without my trekking shoes and poles and a cold night camping without my sleeping bag, but now it would be just plain miserable.  When the group called for the van to take us back up to Karima’s family’s house for lunch, I made my excuses and went back to the hotel for a nap.  There was no reason to expose a houseful of locals to my germs.

That evening my travelmates showed me video of them dancing in the middle of a crowded room at Karima’s parents’ house, swaying and twirling in the local style.  I had missed a fun time, but all I could do now was try to get better quickly.  We had planned to walk down the road to a musician’s village but it was dark and windy, threatening clouds rolling over the surrounding peaks, and we were happy to stay inside.  Nosir’s wife invited us to her house behind the hotel where we sat cozily around a woodstove and talked to her about her life and our travels.  She came from Chilas, where her father was the first pediatric doctor and made housecalls throughout the village.  We talked about women things, C-sections and childbirth mortality, things that made me squirm.

Saturday, May 13th

Photo by Alex Reynolds

After photos with our host family in the yard of the guesthouse, we traveled back the same bumpy, rough, winding road to Gilgit, six hours dodging construction vehicles and mudholes with me sniffling and coughing miserably in the back of the van wearing a mask.  The weather was gray with occasional rain splatter and we were glad to have a driving day today.  We stopped along the way for tandoori chicken and biryani at a roadside stand where we fed our leftovers to a pack of sorry-looking stray dogs.  “They can choke on those chicken bones,” said Michelle, who told us she once worked as a vet tech.  “These dogs have survived Pakistan this long, they’ll be OK,” Alex said as one of the dogs crunched determinedly through a bone.  I nodded.  “I’d be worried about American dogs, but this is different,” I agreed.

In Gilgit, an old university friend of Mahnaz’s helped us navigate the crowded streets for shopping stalls that might have trekking gear.  I had completely given up the idea of getting my bag back, and others felt they were lacking enough warm clothing.  In a side alley we found a store with used puffy jackets, fleeces and trekking pants.  For $2500 rupees, about $12, I bought a fleece pullover and a down jacket.

We were back on the Karakarom Highway and it was blissfully paved and smooth.  We followed it along a river valley into a much more touristed area.  Guesthouses and restaurants lined the road.  We turned up a narrow road climbing further into the mountains and arrived in Minapin, our stop for the next three days and for the Rakaposhi base camp trek.  Esrar, our host at the Osho Thang guesthouse, met us at the door and porters escorted us across a garden courtyard lit with twinkly white tree lights to our rooms bordering the courtyard.  “Dinner at 8:15,” he told us.

Osho Thang Guest House

We ate inside a room decorated with photos of climbers and trekkers, and Alex showed us a topo map with our route for tomorrow.  We could choose to hike or to rent a horse, and we would also have a pack horse to carry our things.  Juneisy chose a horse and Michelle and Khadija said they would hike.  There were two camps we could stay at, one 7k up and the other 9k up at the base camp.   I had already announced my decision to keep my room at the Osho Thang and not try to camp, but I said I would hike with them for as long as I felt up to it the next day, and then I would turn back by myself.

Sunday, May 14th

It was just after dawn when I ducked through an alley behind the guest house to see the views.  Mountains towered over the guest house on all sides, brown and green, then dwarfed by white peaks behind them.  Rakaposhi, to our north, dominated.  A table had been laid for breakfast on the open grass part of the courtyard in the sun and Esrar was already up, directing waiters to bring us plates of paratha, toast, local homemade apricot jam, and rolled tomato-filled omelets covered in fresh local herbs.  Alex told us the Osho Thang was known for their food, organic and locally sourced.

Our trekking guides met us in front of the guesthouse with two horses, both bony-hipped and tired looking but strong.  We walked through the streets of the village, zigzagging toward the mountains, and Alex pointed out a road switchbacking up in the distance above a water ductway and reservoir.  Juneisy rode behind us at first, eventually passing us, looking positively colonial in her shalwar kameez with her camera strung around her shoulders.  We hiked slowly, stopping for photos, sometimes resting on a rock.  The weather was perfect; there were clouds in the surrounding mountains but the sun shone on us and the temperature was cool.  After nearly two hours, we came to an open-air wooden hut with spring water pouring from a pipe in the stone wall, where local men served cold drinks and snacks.  Alex told us we were more than 3k in and I thought I might make it to the 7k camp.  The fresh air, exercise and scenery were exhilarating.

Another hour later, however, it began to rain.  Rain gear was not something I’d thought to buy in Gilgit the day before.  We were on a plateau, just below the grassy meadow where I could see the first tent camp, but as we huddled on the cement floor of herder camp hut my knees began to stiffen, my feet to ache in the knock-off trekking sandals, and I felt the chill.  Going any further would not be wise, not if I wanted to have another hike tomorrow.  I wished everyone well and headed back down.

It had been the right decision.  I moved slowly, painfully down the final switchbacks into the village, and the journey down took nearly as long as up.  Back at the guesthouse I laid on my bed for a while until the throbbing in my joints died down, and then I set myself up at a pleasant table in the courtyard.  Esrar came by to check on me and I asked him for dinner at 6:00.  A group of important men sat around a nearby table, seemingly in a meeting.  A smartly dressed local woman approached me and asked who I was and what I was doing.  “I am here with my husband,” she said, gesturing at the table of men.  “He is the chief of police for this district, so we have been stationed nearby from Islamabad.  He is meeting with the local politicians.”  We chatted.  I told her about my lost bag and she immediately wanted to help. “We are very connected, we can fix this for you if you give me the details,” she said.  I regretted having mentioned it.  Of course, she wanted to help, but what could be done when three airlines couldn’t fix it and couldn’t even agree on who had the bag or where it was?  The men’s meeting broke up and her husband came over.  They spoke rapidly in Urdu and I could tell she was asking him to help me with my bag and he was responding, sensibly, that it would not be possible given what I had told her.

The police chief signing a stone

Esrar brought a piece of sculpted stone to the table and the husband wrote on it with a black felt marker.  “What is he writing?” I asked the wife.

“It is a stone for memories,” she said proudly.  “It will go on the entranceway to the dining room with other stones from visitors.” I stood for the obligatory photo shoot and then the police chief and his wife left the courtyard, followed by a procession of waiters and porters from the guest house.

Monday, May 15th

I had a leisurely day by myself, reading a book over breakfast in the garden, then taking a couple hour walk down the road to the bridge crossing into Hunza.  I heard people running up behind me and I whirled around to face them in alarm.  When I realized it was just a few curious schoolgirls, we all laughed and walked together for a while, doing our best to communicate in broken English.

Back at guesthouse I sat in the courtyard again and my white skin, as usual, attracted anyone passing through to stop and ask me where I was from, what I was doing, and how I liked Pakistan so far.  I had lunch with two Pakistani-Americans, retired engineer college buddies who had started a non-profit based in DC to provide school lunches for rural Pakistani kids and were looking for fundraising ideas.

Juneisy came in around noon and went straight to bed for a nap, exhausted after a cold night at camp.  Everyone else returned in the evening and showed photos of camping in one big tent at the base camp, trekking across snowfields, dancing in a meadow, and seeing the viewpoint of Rakaposhi glacier.  I had missed a good time yet again, but it was also obvious it would have been very difficult for me, especially crossing the snowfields in my sandals.

I called United Airlines before bed and said I had given up on my bag being delivered and just wanted it found and sent home.  After several fruitless conversations with uncaring baggage agents who repeated policy to me as if I were a small child, I finally got a woman named Kathy, who said, “Let me see what I can do.”  She left a message later that she had two people working on it.

Tuesday, May 16th

We drove across the river into Hunza province, first stopping at Altit Fort, a UNESCO heritage site over 1000 years old.  It was surrounded by a charming, touristy village, clean and manicured compared to other places we’d been.  The fort was perched on cliffs above the river.  Alex and Mahnaz handed us off to a fort guide, a dynamic man who knew each of our phone cameras better than we did and used them to take tricky videos of us, one of them looking like drone footage.  “Bye mommies!” we said as the guide took us away.  “We’ll pick you up after school!” Mahnaz laughed.


Altit Fort by Khadija

The guide toured us through the fort all the way up to the roof, showing us the execution place where captured hostiles were thrown off the roof to be dashed on the cliffs below.  He explained that the fort was originally home to the hereditary rulers of the Hunza state who carried the title of ‘Mir,’ and who eventually moved to the nearby Baltit Fort, our next destination.

The woman-owned restaurant

We drove to the village of Karimabad, also touristy and full of steep, shop-lined streets winding up the mountain that reminded me of Indian Himalayan villages I’d visited in the early 2000s.  We visited some of the shops and ate lunch at a women-owned cafe with a terrace perched on the edge of a cliff, where Alex ran into a group of European women she knew. It was the first group of western tourists we’d seen, and I was struck by just how much white skin and blond hair really did stand out. Then we walked up steep narrow streets to the 800-year-old Baltit Fort, where we were handed off to another guide.  He showed us regal photos of the current Mirs of Hunza, a mother, father and son who lived in Baltit fort until 1945, then moved to another palace down the hill.   Baltit was abandoned until they created a foundation to restore it in the 90s and opened it as a tourist attraction.

Baltit Fort

We drove to a place along the river to see ancient petroglyphs of ibex with oversized penises. On the way, the owner of the guesthouse we were headed to called Alex and said there had been a massive landslide and the road was closed.  Alex was calm. “Can they get a tractor?” she said.  “How long will it take to clear? Can you get vehicles to pick us up on the other side?”

At the site of the slide there were many cars and trucks, some turning around and others parking on the side of the road, people walking with bags toward the rocks.  Our guesthouse owner, Inayat, was there with a few other men who came to help him; they had parked on the other side and walked across.  The slide was massive.  I couldn’t imagine what it would take to clear.  No one had been caught; it would have been a deadly, 1000-foot drop to the river below.  We walked across, following others, and at one point I stopped to change my sandals because I was slipping too much.  I stepped on a pile of rocks that let loose just as two women were crossing below me.  We all froze, waiting for the rocks to stop moving.

On the other side we loaded into pick-up trucks.  Alex said our driver would go back to Karimabad with our van and stay there until the slide was cleared.  I sat next to Mubasir, a young relative of Inayat’s with long hair and excellent English, and asked him how long the slide would take to clear.  “Two or three working days,” he said.  “They will use explosives, then heavy equipment.”  We drove through five massive tunnels and Mubasir and Mahnaz explained that in 2010, a much bigger slide had created the bright blue glacial lake we could see in the river valley below us and it had been very quickly turned into a tourist trap. Between the tunnels we could see hotels and a marina with motorboats.

Enjoying the yard, by Alex Reynolds

We came into a small village and climbed a side road into a peaceful local neighborhood, then pulled through the gates of a house.  Our guesthouse was like an Airbnb.  We had the whole house to ourselves, with two private bedrooms, a big common room, a kitchen and a dining room.  I had a private room and bathroom nicer than anything we’d stayed in before. Mubasir was available to cook for us but it was getting late, so Mahnaz and Kadija went down to the village with him and picked up a take-out dinner while the rest of us sat outside on the lawn, watching the sun set over the surrounding mountains in the chill air.  When Mahnaz and Kadija came back we sat on matts on the floor in the dining area and shared plates of biryani, beans, and some kind of beef and pea dish.  We lit a low enclosed woodfire stove after dinner and had tea while the room warmed deliciously around us.  We laughed when none of us could figure out how to light the stove or make tea from tea leaves and Mubasir came in to do it for us.  “Helpless women in the kitchen,” someone said.  The house would become one of our favorite places on the trip.

I had a message from Kathy with United that evening; she said they had found my bag in Dubai and would hold it there until I came back through on my way home.  Now halfway through my trip, I thought about the lesson I’d learned; I didn’t need most of the things I had traveled with and could probably have done the whole trip with just a carry-on bag if I’d just packed more strategically.  Yet another lesson in the bloated, privileged mindset of a western traveler.

Wednesday, May 17th

We made our own breakfast of eggs, beans and toast cooked in a frying pan on the gas burners.  The weather was glorious and we sat lazily out on the grass in the house’s yard for hours, reading and hanging laundry to dry.  In the late morning, we walked down the village road to a 700-year-old home restored as a tourist site, where a local woman showed us around and explained how villagers lived at that time, how they cooked and stored food, how they stayed warm in the mountain climate. Next door was the promised women’s carpet weaving center, where I had been looking forward to buying a carpet.  We were introduced to the woman who founded the collective and she showed us the painstaking process of tying many tiny knots to make a carpet that was only about six by nine feet and took months to make.  I bought a carpet in red and maroon hues and intricate rectangular patterns for $320 US, a bargain.  “Carpet weaving is a good skill to teach women who want to become independent and make their own living,” Alex explained after Mahnaz translated for the founder.  “Most women in a village like this work only in the home or in the fields with their husbands, so they are dependent on men for their survival.”

The women’s carpet weaving collective, by Alex Reynolds

We had lunch in a tiny village restaurant with windows on all sides, then set out on a hike up a long stone stairway called Ondra Poygah Gulmit, which billed itself as Pakistan’s highest and longest stairs and led to the historical ruins of Ondra Fort.  Alex explained that the fort previously only had goat paths leading to it. “During Covid the villagers got together and said, ‘let’s make this a thing,’” she said. “They took several months to put in the stairs, signage and tourist facilities.”  Khadija screamed theatrically all the way up, “My god!  Why did I do this?  This sucks!” and I joked that we should make a promotional video for Alex’s website with Khadija hiking and screaming and complaining in the background while the screen scrolled, “Leading strong, empowered women in Pakistan.”  We shrieked with laughter.

At the top, we wandered the ruins, which were little more than stone piles that used to be walls.  Michelle said she was fascinated with historical sites and loved to wander through them and imagine what they looked like when inhabited.  “I picture what people did every day, how they lived,” she said.  Khadija and Alex posed dramatically on a rock against a background of whitecapped peaks and I took photos.

We took village roads back down, saving our knees from the stairs.  A man on a motorbike stopped us to ask where we were from.  He said he was the leader of the village and invited us to tea, but we politely declined because it was getting late.  He told us he had traveled widely and worked in hospitality in Dubai, the U.S. and Europe, but that he preferred to come back here finally because he loved this tiny village.  Alex talked about other instances in which she had run into people with incredible experiences and backgrounds who had come back here.  She said she had thought of renting a house for a summer and basing herself out of here to work and hike every day.  “I could picture doing the same,” I said, “if only the wi-fi were better.”  She nodded and said they were working on fiber optic cables elsewhere in the country, but not here yet.

Back at the house, Mubasir was making dinner for us, singlehandedly.  It was one of the most delicious I’d had, a channa (chickpea) daal with jasmine rice and chicken so tender it was falling off the bone.  He told us the road had just been cleared already.  Apparently, a Pakistani general had been trapped in the village and that expedited efforts.  It also explained why we’d had electricity more consistently than usual since we’d been here.  Mubasir and Mahnaz discovered they had parents from the same ethnicities, on opposite ends of the country, a very unusual lineage they marveled over sharing.

Mubasir in the kitchen, by Alex Reynolds

Thursday, May 18th

Our itinerary said we were to trek to a suspension bridge today, but the weather was predicted to be cloudy and perhaps even rainy so Alex modified the plan.  “We don’t need to be on a slippery bridge in the rain,” she said, and we agreed.  Over a breakfast of crispy fried potatoes and eggs, she asked us if we wanted to take a drive to the highest paved border crossing in the world, just a couple hours away, on Khunjerab Pass.  We would pass through Khunjerab National Park, known for wildlife viewing, ascend to over 15,000 feet in snowy mountains, and arrive at the border with China’s Xinjiang Province.

We headed north up the valley, the opposite of the way we’d come into Gulmit.  The road followed a narrow river canyon, the Karakorum Range towering on both sides.  We came to a village called Sost which Alex said was the last commercial center before the border and had always been booming with truckers and import trade until it closed for Covid in 2020.  It had been closed for nearly four years when it re-opened a month ago, trucks abandoned along the roads.  We stopped for gas and junk food, then continued up the pass.  I had a bag of terrible Mexican-spiced snacks that I couldn’t stop eating, even though they made me cough and tear up repeatedly, and we dubbed them the Mexicali-Pakistani Yucky Puffs, a name that sent us into spasms of laughter and eventually became the name of our shared photo album.

The weather went from spring to winter within an hour.  We stopped to photograph yaks grazing in spots of dry brown tundra between the snowfields; Michelle sang, “Yakity yak, don’t talk back!”  A marmot ran across the field, proving we were at high altitude.  We continued to the top of the pass, where serious-looking soldiers with very dark skin patrolled in front of an arch with Chinese characters on it.  There were several cars and Pakistani buses full of young tourists parked at the top, one of them blasting Bollywood dance music, and Alex explained that tour operators ran five-day mountain tours from Islamabad for Pakistanis who had never seen snow before.  It began to snow, and the young tourists ran out into the snowfields, screaming and laughing and throwing snowballs.  Mahnaz and Alex and Khadija followed, plunging up to their knees in snow and shouting, “Anna, we’re postholing, rescue us!”  I had told them some recent mountain rescue stories at the beginning of the trip.

On the way back down, we saw our first herd of ibex grazing in a field and on a rocky mountainside, jumping gracefully up and down steep ledges as if on flat ground.  We had lunch in Sost, perusing shops filled with Chinese imported junk, and ordering from a menu that had Pakistani food on one side and Chinese on the other, the first time we’d seen that.  We ordered both.  We stopped for photos again on a stretch of road in front of the Passu Cones, also known as the Passu Cathedral, a gorgeous collection of sharp peaks clustered above the small river valley village of Passu, where Juneisy flew her drone.

Passu Cones

Inayat joined us for another delicious dinner cooked by Mubasir that night.  Mubasir said cooking was his hobby and he loved it.  I told him his food was better than most of the restaurants we’d eaten in and I meant it, even though the restaurant food had been excellent also.  Inayat asked me what living in the mountains of Colorado was like, and I tried to compare it to here, but it was so diverse and hard to describe.  I asked him if he had travel aspirations and he said right now he was focused on building a new resort in the village, but someday he hoped to travel.

Friday, May 19th

Our young local guide Tabassum met us at the guesthouse for the suspension bridge trek.  She was a 20-year-old from nearby Passu in her second year of university, working on a degree in tourism and hospitality, and she was talkative and outgoing.  Alex’s conscientious travel practices and continuous pursuit of opportunities for local women to empower themselves were gradually impressing themselves upon me; she was a woman who walked her talk when it came to responsible and respectful travel.  We drove a short distance to a village with a trailhead full of signs for a zipline and suspension bridge, where we followed a path through souvenir stands and food offerings down to the river’s edge.  Only Mahnaz chose the zipline, whizzing over and back, saying she had never done it before and wanted to try it.  The rest of us walked the suspension bridge.  I was slow and cautious.  It hadn’t looked intimidating from above, but once on it I was dizzy and nervous.  The bridge swayed and dipped with the people walking behind me and it wasn’t narrow enough for me to hold both sides, so I clung to the cable on one side with both hands, taking the slats one step at a time.  It felt endless.

Khadija didn’t like it either.  “How is the second bridge compared to that?” she asked Alex.  “Worse,” Alex said.  I hoped she was kidding but prepared myself mentally.

We were lucky, Alex told us, that the bridge had just been repaired and re-opened recently.  Another recent tour group had been forced to take the zipline.  She also told us the bridge had been closed for a few months last year, after a tourist fell from it and died.  But the tourist had had a seizure that caused the fall, so it really didn’t count as a bridge accident.

We trekked for a couple hours after that, winding gently uphill on a maze of herding tracks through bright green foliage and stone huts made for winter animal shelter, the Passu Cone looming above us and the river snaking below.  I walked up ahead with Tabassum, who talked about her dreams of travel and independence and asked me many questions about my life.  I told her about being allowed into the mountain monasteries in Bhutan as a woman and a tourist, and she told me how frustrating it was that the boys in her village had so much more freedom than she did.  She was saving up for a motorbike so she could come and go to the university campus as she pleased.

Near the end of the trek, we came to the second bridge and Alex had not been joking.  It was narrow enough to hold the cables on both sides, which helped, but the slats were thin and weak and spaced very far apart.  I was terrified one would break under my feet.  I went first, wanting to get it over with.  In the middle of the bridge, to relieve tension and thinking it would be funny, I stopped and did my best Khadija impression, throwing my head back and screaming, “It will never end!  I hate this!”  But Tabassum thought something was wrong and began to move quickly toward me, shaking the bridge more.  I pleaded with her to stop, telling her I was only kidding, and kept moving.

After a short but steep hike up the river canyon wall on the other side, we reached our reward – a locally popular restaurant called the Yak Grill. It had a small round dining room with windows on all sides and a deck overlooking the river.  Ponderous techno music pumped from the kitchen where young boys from Tabbasum’s village churned out their famous yak burgers, and every table was full.  We waited nearly an hour but it was worth the wait.  The burgers came out of the kitchen on little wooden cutting boards with Yak Grill engraved on them and they were chewy and delicious and covered with cheese.  We shared plates of thick-cut steak fries in the middle of the table, dancing to the techno music in our seats.

Saturday, May 20th

We left early to begin the eight-hour drive to Tarashing, stopping at Rakaposhi Viewpoint restaurant for breakfast with an impressive view from directly below the peak.  A sign proclaimed Rakaposhi had the longest unbroken drop from peak to floor in the world.

After we passed through the outskirts of Gilgit, we branched off from the Karakorum Highway into a river valley on a narrow road that climbed high along one canyon wall.  Even though it was mostly paved it was frightening for some of us, especially Juneisy, who let out a little shriek whenever we got too close to the sheer drop to the river.  We talked about whether it would be better to be asleep when you plunged over the side and whether you would wake up in freefall for a moment and realize what was happening before impact.  We passed a massive herd of mules, driven by soldiers, some on foot and some riding, and Alex puzzled over what the military could be doing driving a herd of mules on this road.  Getting around them was tricky, and Adil pushed far over to the river’s edge side, causing screams throughout the van.  I tried to capture it all on my phone, screaming along with everyone else.

We pulled up at the Royal Astore Guest House, where we were scheduled to have lunch and switch to a jeep for the final piece of the drive to Tarashing.  According to our itinerary we were also scheduled to stay there for one night on our way back down from Tarashing, a couple nights from now, but over lunch Alex explained she had made a sudden change of plan during our drive.  Heavy rains were predicted to start soon and last a week and she was concerned about being cut off.  She said there was one spot where flooding would likely close the road and there was no other way out except to fly, which wouldn’t likely be an option because of the weather.  We could be stuck for the entire week and miss our flights home the following week.  We would go to Tarashing for two nights and hike to Nanga Parbat base camp, as planned, but then we would skip our night at the Royal Astore Guest House and immediately begin the long drive back to Chilas, then to Islamabad for one night, before finishing the trip in Lahore.

Lunch was a rich, creamy spiced chicken in yogurt sauce and I savored it slowly.  We thanked our hosts and Mahnaz broke the news to them that we would not be coming back to stay with them; they said they understood.  We piled into a red jeep with an open top and rode up a rough dirt road for the final hour to Tarashing.  Alex and Michelle stood up for most of the ride, holding on to the metal frame.  Alex had warned us it would be dusty and suggested we cover our heads and wear masks, but I let my scarf fall and the wind blow through my hair, soaking up the sun.  Hindi dance music blared from the jeep’s speakers.

As we pulled into the famed village of Tarashing, I tried to remember all the Nanga Parbat climbing stories I had read in the past.  Nanga Parbat is the second highest peak in Pakistan, after K2, and the nineth highest in the world.  It is notorious for its difficulty and has been dubbed the “killer mountain;” 31 climbers died attempting it before the first successful ascent in 1953, and many more since, now totaling 85. The village was small, rural  and mostly residential, with just a couple of guesthouses, the first of which sported a banner welcoming an expedition with June dates listed.  The second guesthouse, named for Nanga Parbat, opened double wooden doors to its courtyard as we drove up and the jeep parked inside on the grass.  A tall, weathered, fit-looking man named Fida, who was to be our local guide, welcomed us.  The guesthouse was arranged in a square with rooms on all sides of another grass courtyard and we were shown to a block with four stacked rooms, two on top and two on the ground floor.  We’d been told to expect squat toilets and bucket showers, but to my delight my room had a full bathroom with a Western toilet and a shower, although no hot water.  Alex relayed from Fida that recent flooding had affected hydroelectric power operations in the area but the guesthouse would turn on its generator for a few hours each night so we could charge devices and have lights for dinner.

Walking with Fida, by Alex Reynolds

After we settled into our rooms, Fida walked up the hillside above the guest house with us, describing the history of the area.  We chased baby goats and listened to stories about famous climbing expeditions.

Can’t get enough of the goats, by Alex Reynolds

Tarashing was ringed with peaks, and on one side, Nanga Parbat loomed gigantically in the background, just beyond and above the range in front of it.  Fida’s most prominent story was about a young French climber and snowboarder who had visited in 2015 and been guided by Fida himself.  He planned to make a first snowboard descent of the Rupal Face but died in an avalanche instead.  His photo was in the dining room with hero language but Alex told us she had read his blog and he was an idiot with a death wish who had little previous experience and was looking for attention after breaking up with his girlfriend.

Fida walked back home to his village in Rupal, the next village over, and told us he would see us at his house for an early breakfast.  The call to prayer came just after 7:00 pm, the generator clacked on, and dinner was served in a cold, stone-walled dining hall across from our rooms.  Nameless waiters served us a noodle soup and French fries, which we broke apart and put in our soup.  It was chilly, and we huddled around the dinner table wearing our puffy jackets and scarves, excited for the hike tomorrow.

Sunday, May 22nd

I woke at first light, right at 4:00 am.  Three of us were leaving at 4:30 to hike to Fida’s house in Rupal, and the others would sleep in until 6:30 and take the jeep to Rupal.

Khadija at sunrise, by Alex Reynolds

Alex, Khadija and I began hiking right on time, through the village and up a ridge Alex said was an old glacier, although it was so dirt- and rock-covered you couldn’t tell.  We saw the sun rise over whitecapped mountains as we hiked.  Fida met us on the other side and walked the rest of the way to his house with us, through a village dotted with homes with different colored roofs and stone huts for farm animals.

At Fida’s home, we sat on matts and one of Fida’s eight children served us tea and warm, soft pockets of fried bread that were like mini-popovers.  Fida’s four-year-old daughter peered shyly at us from around a corner and finally was coaxed to sit with us.  Mahnaz, Michelle and Juneisy arrived at 7:00 and we had a sweet vermicelli soup, a refreshing change from eggs.

Breakfast at Fida’s house, by Michelle

Juneisy continued in the jeep after breakfast, which we’d been told could get to within an hour of the base camp, while the rest of us hiked with Fida and a couple local men we happened upon.  The road traveled through the village at a gentle pace, then ascended to grazing fields, circling a narrow ridge of neighboring mountains and finally beginning to climb more steeply toward Nanga Parbat.  The final stretch wasn’t navigable for the jeep and Juneisy joined us on foot.  We passed a small glacial lake and came out on a grassy plateau, where there were two small tents set up.  The gargantuan, glaciated Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat rose imperviously above us.  We could see the entire sheer drop of it, from the base camp plateau to its summit at 8126 meters, and Alex told us we were lucky, as it was usually obscured by clouds.

We spread out on a flat grass patch next to a trickling stream and picnicked on almonds, apricots and watermelon that Fida cut with a hunting knife.  Several Pakistani college boys joined us and explained that the tents were theirs; they’d been camping for the weekend.  There were no expeditions on this side right now, although Fida said there was one on the other side, attempting the Messner Route and currently at camp two.  I thought perhaps it was the one I’d seen the welcome banner for.  I asked Fida to explain the climbing routes we could see above us and he walked me through the three main approaches, pointing each of them out.  From where we sat, they all looked impossibly technical and dangerous.

By Alex Reynolds

I laid down and napped, woken half an hour later by a deep, faraway rumble.  I sat up in time to see an avalanche coming down the face above us, the first of several we would see that afternoon.  The avalanches were so frequent that I wondered how any climbers at all had managed to survive their summit attempts.

Wild horses and grazing cows rambled the plateau between our camping area and the base of the peak.  Two men came and caught one of the horses and led it away, and another small horse followed, neighing in distress.  Fida explained something confusing about the horse having been caught for visitors coming from Lahore. The small horse burst into upset circling runs to nowhere every few minutes after his mother was led away.  I tried to get close enough to feed him a cookie but he wouldn’t have it.

Monday, May 22nd

Breakfast was in the yard of the courtyard after the sun peered over the mountains above us.  We ate in our down jackets, basking in the sun inching over the table, taking our last look at the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat.

On the way back down in the jeep we blasted Pakistani music and Alex danced, standing up through the roll bars, her scarf flying behind her in the wind.  Mahnaz told us our driver, Atlaf, had been insistent we must come to his home for tea when we got back down to Astore. He had been very sweet to us, sitting with us for tea and showing photos of his children and his time in Pakistani military service.  Alex said we must accept or it would be rude.  But when we got to one of the villages mid-way between Tarashing and Astore, military police stopped us and had a long conversation in Urdu with Atlaf and Mahnaz.  We turned the jeep around, drove back through the village, then turned around and drove through again, seeming to look for something.  “What’s going on?” I asked.  “There is a family feud,” Mahnaz explained, “and we cannot go to Astore. We’ll take another route but that means we cannot have tea at Altaf’s house.  He is upset and wants to find a nice place to take us to tea here.”

I was dying for more details, but I waited until we had finally found a place Atlaf was satisfied with.  We sat on a dusty stone terrace on the side of the road and waiters brought us chai.  “Mahnaz!” I said.  “We need the story, what happened?”  Khadija and Mahnaz pieced it together for us.  The teenage children of two local families were playing soccer the day before and broke out in a fight over the game.  The parents got involved and there was a knife fight.  Ten or twelve people had gone to the hospital, and the tourist police did not want us driving through the area for our own safety.  I was fascinated. I wanted to ask how badly people were hurt, and if this was common, but it seemed rude to ask more questions.

Tea with Atlaf, by Alex Reynolds

We said goodbye to Atlaf on the side of the road, where Adil picked us up in the van, and we continued down the river valley for a few more hours.  I read the archived blog entries of the French climber/snowboarder who had died on the Rupal Face in 2015, marveling over his bad decisions, which were indeed as stupid as Alex had said.  It was hard to understand how he’d lasted as many days on the Rupal Face as he did.  In the late afternoon we pulled into Chilas, where we stayed at the Shangrila Hotel again, the same hotel that was our first stop in the mountains on the way up.  We had lunch on the screened terrace overlooking the river and then we were shown to rooms in the new wing.  They were much nicer than our previous rooms and had built-in stone and ceramic furniture meant to evoke the traditional structures of the old forts and historic homes we had seen.

Some of the group was content to stay in the hotel for the rest of the day, but Alex and Michelle and I drove a short way through Chilas to a bridge where Adil let us out to walk across river to sandy cliffs with ancient petroglyphs.  Alex said they were likely as old as 2000 years, and yet no one seemed to know or care about them.  She had found them by asking people at the hotel about them repeatedly.  There were Buddhist stupas, more stick ibexes with exaggerated penises, and one Gautama Buddha under the Bodhi tree.

Walking to see the petrogylphs

Back at the hotel, before dinner, I tried to walk out the gate onto the main road to feed a hungry dog I had seen.  A policeman sitting at the entrance to the hotel stopped me.  “No,” he said firmly, wagging his finger at me.  “Guide.”  As a woman, especially a foreign one, I was not allowed to walk around alone.

Tuesday, May 23rd

We got up at 3:45 am, quietly, no one complaining as we filed out to the van for a 12-hour drive to Islamabad.  I had asked to sit in the front seat for a while today, knowing it was my last chance to really experience the full view of driving through the mountains.  The trip was full of entertainments, from the scenic mountain and river views to the constant chaos of the road – blingy trucks passing, motorcycles with four people on them, cows/donkeys/goats/sheep in the middle of the road, children playing in the road.  In villages we sped past people in the road who seemed to have no concern for their safety; sometimes, it seemed, we barely missed hitting them.

There were waterfalls, landslides, water crossings and massive potholes.  Adil drove skillfully.  I thought about how there seemed to be so few traffic accidents compared to the US, despite the chaos.  No one drove distracted, no one relied on traffic rules (there didn’t seem to be any) and no one got mad at each other.  Everyone just stayed fully focused and made it work.  If you needed to pass, you honked and someone moved over, and you did the same.  If there were potholes, you drove the middle of the road and everyone else adjusted.

We came to the water crossing we had been worried about reaching in time and it was already much higher than on the way up, even though the rains had barely begun.  We drove through slowly, behind a line of trucks, the water rushing up beneath us, sounding hollow against the undercarriage of the van.  I couldn’t imagine crossing if it were any higher.

With the river crossing behind us we were free to take our time and we stopped at a restaurant a few hours outside Islamabad for lunch.  A rabab player sat in the middle of the room, playing for a group of men who lounged in a back corner, and when they left he moved nearer to our table. We ate a whole roasted spiced chicken with dahl and rice, nodding our heads to the music, which sounded like a sitar to me.

We checked back into the Islamabad Grand Hotel and it was amazing how what seemed like slow wi-fi and a rustic setting now seemed the height of modernity and connectivity. My room was an enormous one-room suite with living room couches and slider doors and two balconies.  A storm had whipped up and the windows howled and rattled.  I went out on the balcony for just a moment to watch the trees bent over backwards through thick blowing dust below.  Alex and Mahnaz messaged that the weather was too bad to go out, plus Adil was sick and had gone to the hospital for medication – something to do with his kidneys? – and they had ordered take-out stuffed parathas and KFC for Khadija, who had a craving for fast food.  We ate in my room, couches pulled up around a coffee table.

Wednesday, May 24th

On the way to Lahore, we stopped at a huge fort called Rohtas.  It was built in a record seven years, beginning in 1541 AD, by Sher Sha Suri, founder of the Suri dynasty.  Our guide explained it was an example of early Muslim military architecture but was never actually used for defense. With 12 gates, it was immense and was now partially settled by villages and partly conserved as a historic site.  We toured with a local guide and saw the dungeons and a site for executions by hanging, a hole in the floor of a raised platform at the top of a turret with 360-degree views.  There was a dank room below for the body to fall into and we joked about the scenic view you would have before you died.

The hanging hole, by Michelle

It was terribly hot and some of us cut out before the end of the tour and sat back in our air-conditioned van, waiting for Michelle, who was in her element with both the history and the heat.

Lunch was a stop at a local restaurant chain famous for its daal, and it was indeed the richest, creamiest daal we’d had yet.  On the final leg of the drive, Mahnaz talked to us about Lahore, her home city.  “As you see things over the next few days,” she said, “think about the deep history of this city.  You go to an Indian reservation in the U.S. and they say, ‘this place is really old, it’s 300 years,’ but Lahore is 3000 years old.  It’s the place where India, Pakistan and Bangledesh all split into their own, separate countries, and the reasons were far more complicated than just religion; it was about culture and politics and language also.  When you have a city built over the course of 3000 years and home to so many different peoples, it’s reflected in the infrastructure.  When you see chaos and instability and wonder why there are wires everywhere and layers upon layers of buildings, this is why.”

I pondered Mahnaz’s words as we drove into the outskirts of Lahore.  It was incredibly chaotic, almost defying description, reminding me of my visit to Dehli more than 20 years ago.  Thick dust in the air and impending dusk made everything more dramatic.  The road was full of tuk tuks, motorbikes, cars, buses, goats, sheep, cows, water buffalo, all weaving in and out and somehow, miraculously, never hitting each other.  Three or four people rode to one scooter, sometimes carrying crazy things on their heads like a mattress or a tire.  The roads were lined with layers and layers of shops and garages, some of them ancient, crumbling and filthy, others modern and lit up with neon signage.  We were glued to our windows.

We finally came to the Rose Palace Hotel, our stay for the last three nights of the trip.  The internet was down and I realized I should not have made promises that I’d be back online at this point in the trip.  I had work to do and couldn’t do it.  We went out for dinner nearby in a café that served us all sorts of nameless and interesting Pakistani tapas-like dishes and Khadija and Mahnaz explained that eating out was the primary pastime of the middle and upper middle class in Lahore.  Khadija had family in Lahore and visited regularly; she would be staying for another week after our tour ended.

We went back to the Rose Palace, a decent hotel, but my windowless interior room was depressing after the glory of the mountains and the noise in the corridor kept me up all night.  I resolved to move hotels the next day and declare a gradual transition back to my real world.  There was a Ramada across the street that looked luxurious and yet was a mere $90 a night.

Thursday, May 25th

After checking into the Ramada the next day, I decided to call it a “mental health day.”  I let Alex know that I’d be skipping the planned outing to Lahore’s old walled city; I had Delhi belly and work emergencies and thought it would be best to stay in my room and catch up.  The wi-fi was great and I had a suite on the top floor with a large living room, bedroom, mini-bar and a thoroughly Western bathroom.  The hotel assaulted me with service, calling me constantly to ask how I was, how was room service, did I need anything, could they bring me some fruit. It was hard to distinguish between what they thought was expected levels of western-style service and what might be my white privilege rearing its head again. I worked all morning and pampered myself in the afternoon, downloading photos and washing all my clothes.  When the group came back from their outing in the evening, we went out to dinner in a popular street food area of Lahore, where we watched the chaos from an outdoor table in an alley with stray cats underfoot and ate all sorts of rich local dishes cooked on grills right on the street.  Michelle showed me photos of the things I’d missed – the local bazaar, a mosque, a traditional breakfast in the old walled city.

Chaotic streets, by Michelle

Friday, May 26th

We booked two women to come from Cheryl’s Spa Services to the Rose Palace Hotel.  I had chosen a facial and a foot massage, which turned out to be equal parts useful, terrible and hilarious.  Hera spoke little English but enough to counsel me repeatedly on the need to give her a good review while she karate-chopped my head, roughly massaged my neck until I nearly choked, slathered my face with various creams, and ordered me to time my own foot massage, constantly asking me if the time was up yet until I finally told her it was, five minutes early.  Despite what I would call fairly awful service my face was glowing and my feet felt well-massaged afterwards, all at a price just a fraction of US and European spa costs.

As we left the hotel in the van that afternoon, Alex’s phone buzzed and it was Pakistani International Airlines, announcing that my luggage, which was supposed to be being held in Dubai for my return flight the next day, had arrived in Islamabad after three weeks.  Everyone laughed, but I was so annoyed I couldn’t contain myself.  The agent said the bag had to be picked up in Islamabad and couldn’t be sent to Lahore.  “Tell them to send it back to the States!” I shouted in exasperation.  Alex tried, in her usual patient tone, to explain to the agent that the bag being in Islamabad was of no use to us whatsoever.

We drove to the Wagha border of Pakistan and India to see the daily border closing ceremony, which we’d heard much about.  The Wahga border is the only border crossing between India and Pakistan, linking Lahore and Amritsar, and is known as the Berlin Wall of Asia.  A sign told us the flag-lowering ceremony between the Pakistan Rangers and the Border Security Force India had started in 1959 and had continued every day since, suspended only for a few days during the 1965/1971 Indo – Pak wars.

There was an air of excitement as we walked down a wide road toward the stadiums, one on each side of the border fences, loud music emanating from both.  The stadium on the Indian side was much larger, several stories higher than the Pakistan side, and had many more spectators.  We entered through an arch and were seated along the side of the border road, near the fence, where we could see the action on both sides.  On the Pakistani side, Rangers posed for photos with various spectators, standing incredibly tall in black ceremonial dress uniforms with comb-feathered bristles standing straight up from their helmets.  Alex told us the male Rangers were chosen for their height and the female Rangers, of which I only saw two, for their light skin.  Two drummers played large, barrel-shaped drums strapped to their chests and three flag-bearers, one of them hopping on one leg, twirled and paraded up and down the road in front of the fence.  All this was just prelude.  After twenty minutes, the Rangers went up on the balcony of the arch and stood while announcements were made in Urdu over a loudspeaker, then horns announced the beginning of the ceremony.  There was a loud, low humming and the Rangers began to high-step down the road, kicking their legs up over their heads and stomping them back on the ground.  The BSFI soldiers on the Indian side did the same.   They advanced and retreated on the fence many times, the crowd shouting and shaking their fists in the area, the flag bearers egging us on with hands raised in the air.  An announcer shouted, “Pakistan Paindabad!” (long live Pakistan) over the loudspeaker and the crowd repeated it.  The fence finally opened and the lead soldiers on each side mirrored each other’s movements in a synchronized dance to the deep drumming.  They took hold of the rope on their respective flagpoles and began to lower the flags slowly, in tandem, the crowd cheering.  Then the border gates closed again and the ceremonial retreat began back down the road toward the arch, with more high-stepping and tapping and twirling.  Alex had called it a dick-swinging contest and it surely was, although a magnificent one.  I was so worked up I left the stadium high-stepping and stomping and trying to imitate the drumming sounds.  I wondered how the Rangers kept up that level of energy every single day.

We drove to an area near the old walled city that had been renovated as a tourist area for our final farewell dinner.  The streets were pristine compared to the surrounding dirty, chaotic neighborhood and there were many vendors and touts trying to sell us things.  There was a man parading a trained dancing monkey on a leash that made me sad and reminded me of Marrakech.  The monkey did flips in mid-air and brought a bucket to us on his head to ask for tips.  The man also had something that looked like a goat but had a huge horn in the middle of his head like a mini-unicorn, and it was trained to stand, all four hooves, on the point of a staff.  I turned away, fascinated and repulsed at the same time.  We went into an atmospheric restaurant called Havana, restored to look like a cleaner and more modern version of the old family homes of the area.  An elevator took us to the roof where dining tables overlooked a view of the mosque and city below.  Two singers roamed with handheld mics, taking requests from diners, and Khadija requested a song from the female singer, who had a terrible voice when she got out of range.  We ordered chicken handi, veal kabob, French fries, daal, Chinese fried rice and a fancy paratha.  We took turns saying what our favorite part of the trip was, and it was hard for me to decide; there were so many highlights.  I loved the mountains most, but many things would stay with me – my first polo game, the terrifying suspension bridges, the landslide we walked over, the local homes we visited, the hipster Yak Grill, the magnificent Nanga Parbat…the list was long.

Our final dinner, by Khadija

What perhaps would most stick with me was the dedication of a young woman with strong principles and the discipline to live her values when it came to how westerners should travel in faraway lands – with respect for the local culture, ethnical and sustainable travel practices, and most importantly, finding opportunities to empower local women.

We westerners wander the world in our own bubbles, cluelessly, with a tone-deaf habit of using our own cultures as measuring sticks for what we experience in other countries.  We take our privilege for granted, we carry bags full of things we don’t need, we comment thoughtlessly on the parts of foreign cultures we think inferior to our own.  We make demands for our own conveniences without considering the impact on the locals, the environment or the sustainability of tourist infrastructure.  Alex is a woman with a vision both inspiring and challenging, and I resolved to try to find more travel operators like her and support their businesses.

Comments are closed.