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  • Writer's pictureRogue Chemist

The long-ass road to Skardu

Entering the airport arrival hall in Lahore at 5 am, I was met with a sea of multicolored salwar kameez and not-so-discreet gazes from curious onlookers. Once Maida and her family appeared outside to whisk me away (and snap me out of my red-eyed trance), we headed directly to her home.

Despite having her hands full with two toddlers and the fact that we hadn't seen each other in years, she welcomed me as a guest without a moment's hesitation, showing me my rather luxurious room and filling my stomach with delicious, chocolatey banana bread.

I was delighted to meet my charismatic friend again after all this time, and it's funny how the right company (i.e., those we knew when we were younger) can transport us back in time, to earlier versions of ourselves. We interacted like we did in high school, as if no time had passed, and reflected on our very different lives in the present.

I woke up early the next morning to the sound of motorbikes whirring past my window and impatient drivers blaring their horns—all stimuli reminiscent of India. Oh, and to up the stimulation factor, the trucks here are psychedelic, blinged-out versions of their former selves. Case in point:

Pimp my big-ass ride – awesome truck art on the streets of Rawalpindi

I met Mawish at the Daewoo Express bus terminal to board the 11 am coach to Rawalpindi (just over four hours; a one-way ticket cost us 1,400 Rs each), where we would then catch a NATCO (Northern Areas Transport Corporation) minibus bound for Skardu (2,500 Rs/one way).

On the cab drive from the Rawalpindi bus terminal to the NATCO departure point (Pirwadhai), Mawish received a phone call informing us that we were the final missing minibus passengers (apparently everyone else had shown up early). They promised to wait for us before departing and were patient as we made extra photocopies of my visa and passport to hand over at police checkpoints (I had only six on hand—my advice is to go with at least ten if traveling to/from Skardu from Lahore). Sometimes officers keep the copies you give them and other times they return them after a quick scan, but there's no way to know beforehand.

When we finally boarded the minibus, we found ourselves among a group of Balti men mostly heading for Khaplu, a town beyond Skardu. Our mutual excitement for the trip ahead made the time pass easily, and despite not sleeping on the entire ride, this positivity resonance fueled our conversation for hours to come.

During those hours, I not only learned about Mawish, who is a handful of years younger than me, but from her—I was super impressed with her knowledge of Pakistani culture, history, geography, and Islam, and greatly appreciated the personal insights she shared with me.

It was also evident that we shared the same enthusiastic, independent spirit and both thrived on adventure, so I knew we were off to a good start.

Mawish told me stories about her own solo exploration of her country, and as an unaccompanied female traveling outside her home province of Punjab, she had always been met with kindness in the regions she visited. I had known beforehand that Pakistanis are renowned for their hospitality and generosity, but my knowledge came exclusively from Western travel bloggers, which is obviously biased. From what I gathered based on Mawish's travel experiences, this signature hospitality is extended to anyone perceived as a guest—Pakistani national or otherwise.

Once in a while, a soft cooing noise interrupted our thoughts and Mawish and I looked at each other, puzzled—we later discovered that these quiet calls for help belonged to two caged pigeons (which, rather disturbingly, ceased to coo when they were removed from the bus 30 hours later). The regular meal and chai stops also helped to break up the hours and preserve our sanity as we exited Punjab and drove through Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa (a.k.a. KPK, the province north of Punjab).

The Karakoram Highway technically starts from Islamabad (in northern Punjab) and runs all the way to China via the Khunjerab Pass, the world's highest border crossing at 4,693 meters. Known for its winding roads through mesmerizing landscapes (turquoise lakes, green forests—which become striking shades of gold, red, and orange in the fall, lucky for us—and of course, endless snow-capped mountains), northern Pakistan is incredible to behold.

As we ventured into Gilgit-Baltistan and passed the intersection of the three mountain ranges that traverse the north—the Himalayas, Karakoram, and Hindu Kush—the drive became more and more beautiful, and it was about to get even more interesting.

We veered off the highway and onto a rocky cliffside road that was under construction, causing intermittent traffic holdups. The road was really only wide enough for one vehicle at most points along the way, and we passed oncoming trucks with only an inch to spare. Mawish and I tried not to look over the cliff's edge when our bus was forced to the nonexistent "outer lane."

All jazzed up and nowhere to go – trucks stopped during a construction holdup en route to Skardu

The NATCO minibus, our home for 30 hours

As we drove along the narrow passage, something in particular caught my eye: the motorcyclist driving ahead of us had a German flag sticker on one of his storage cases. I wasn't too surprised by this sight, thinking to myself, Of course there's a German up here, referring to the fact that Germans tend to be avid world travelers. Driving in northern Pakistan is especially dreamy for bike riders (i.e., motorcyclists and cyclists) with a sense of adventure (which German travelers also tend to have).

As a foreigner, I've even been automatically assumed to be German from time to time on my travels. As an example, when I visited Mount Wenchi in Ethiopia earlier this year, I noticed at the tourist office an annual tally of foreign visitors for the previous year. Topping the chart were Germans (even surpassing the number of Chinese tourists).

You get my point.

I was definitely curious about this stranger's story, and a prolonged traffic disruption, when most of the drivers and passengers got out of their vehicles to stretch their legs and watch (from a safe distance) the rock blasting taking place down the road, presented the perfect opportunity to satisfy my curiosity.

Patiently waiting for yet another roadblock to clear

And so I walked over and struck up a conversation with the German, who was parked a few vehicles ahead of our bus and who also turned out to be a tall, handsome pilot (just sayin'). We quickly discovered that not only did we live on the same side of Germany (in different cities), but the next-door neighbors of his parents just so happened to be my co-workers—no joke.

It's serendipitous encounters like this that, on one hand, make me realize that the world is indeed a small place (verifying the old cliché), but on the other hand, leave me wondering if these are really only sheer coincidences, the result of pure chance/randomness. The timing (unanticipated construction holdup) and place (the side of a cliff in northern Pakistan) are just so obscure. Either way, the surprise scenario made me smile (as I've said before, I love plot twists).

Nic had been traveling solo for the past four months on a road trip from Germany, which had taken him throughout the Middle East to Pakistan. He would then cross India to eventually wind up in Nepal. Quite the impressive journey, to say the least (not to mention the fact that he received his motorcycle license only a few days before starting his trip).

I was excited for him (and also a bit envious). Navigating the open road at your own pace, taking spontaneous detours on a whim, and exposing yourself to the potential risks that come with driving on two wheels significantly enhances the elements of freedom, danger, and adventure, and had me daydreaming about traveling by motorcycle in the future.

When I turned around, I noticed that a small crowd of Pakistanis had enveloped us, intently taking in this exchange between two tall foreigners. This type of scene would become common throughout the trip (the "staredown" and "flash mobs" of intrigued onlookers).

As Tim Blight of the travel blog Urban Duniya writes in Pakistan Traveller (the guidebook I brought with me), the obvious staring you experience as a foreigner (male or female) should generally be interpreted as a "naive curiosity" rather than rudeness, and I had the same impression—I never felt as though there was a hostility or crudeness to it, even as a woman being stared at mostly by men.

But this is just my own take on the phenomenon. Mawish also received her fair share of stares from men, and her response was sometimes to boldly stare back until the man averted his eyes out of discomfort, whereas I just didn't acknowledge the attention.

But back to Nic.

Since we were on the same route to Skardu city, we agreed to touch base again later. The construction cleared and everyone returned to their vehicles just as the sun was setting.

After finally stepping off the bus at close to 11 pm, I started to shiver—Skardu's frigid temperatures at this time of year (and especially this time of night) are in sharp contrast to the heat of Lahore. Mawish's friend Ashraf, who is also the owner of Baltistan Continental (where we'd be staying overnight), soon arrived to pick us up from the station and deliver us to the much-anticipated comfort of our room.

It turned out that the hotel didn't offer much relief from the cold because the electricity was out when we arrived, but at least we could indulge in hot food, milky chai, and a bucket of boiled water for a shower. As soon as I pried myself away from the empty bucket, I didn't waste any time bundling up and pulling the blankets over my head.

After breakfast the next morning, Mawish and I prepared to leave the hotel for Hushe, a village nestled in the mountains at 3,000 meters that would be the starting point for our trek. A few minutes before we were about to set off on the five-hour drive (by private car, which we hired in favor of another bus ride), Ashraf knocked on our room door, announcing, "The German is here!"

We had told Ashraf earlier about our encounter with Nic on the road, but we didn't expect Nic to show up on our doorstep. Pleasantly surprised by his spontaneous re-appearance (we didn't receive his text the night before due to poor signal, but had given him our hotel name before he rode off into the sunset), we learned that he was also heading towards Hushe, offering yet another opportunity to cross paths on our respective adventures.

The air was crisp, but the sun was shining and warmed us up as soon we stepped outside the hotel. We happened to pass Nic on the road once along the way and then again during a pit stop in Khaplu for some trekking snacks and supplies for our porters and guide.

The mighty Karakoram

I will never get sick of mountain porn.

We drove along the Indus River (set before a perfect blue sky and the imposing Karakoram) and on narrow roads through several small villages, dodging multiple goats, sheep, cows, and children playing; crossed several rickety wooden bridges while holding our breaths; and were welcomed in Hushe by a group of excited villagers—many of them cute, rosy-cheeked little kids—who crowded around the car, eager to catch a glimpse of the visitors.

Mawish, excited to return to Hushe

Shy schoolgirls in Hushe

Two men hoisted our backpacks onto their shoulders and led us to the small guesthouse owned by the jovial Hassan, whom Mawish knew from a previous visit to Hushe, and who would be our guide for the trek. After settling into our room, Hassan informed us of the arrival of another gora (a non-derogatory term for a white person) at his guesthouse.

Hmm... who could it possibly be?

None other than Nic joined Mawish and me for supper and chai in our room, the three of us chatting about life and faith before saying goodnight. Mawish and I continued the conversation for a little longer, and then I nodded off, happy to have made two new friends.


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