Saturday, August 21, 2004

Pakistan: Gilgit

The northern areas of Pakistan have some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Three of the highest mountain ranges – the Himalaya, the Hindukush, and the Karakoram – run through the area. K2, the second highest mountain in the world, is here.

There are 3 cities in the northern areas (Chitral, Skardu, and Gilgit) that are serviced by commercial flights. The flights run daily, but they are notorious for being cancelled due to weather. As such, tickets are only issued one afternoon in advance for these flights. Any time a flight is cancelled, all the people who are bumped have priority for getting tickets on the next day’s flight. Trying to get a seat after a day or two of cancellations can be a losing battle. Anyhow, it’s no cakewalk flying up north. In the past year, I had one unsuccessful attempt at Skardu and three at Gilgit.

In my case with Gilgit, the fourth time was the charm.

I was traveling with my good friends Rachael and Colin. As a group, our flight had been rejected once before.

For our second try, the flight time was 6:45 in the morning, and after a late Friday night all-around, it was a wonder that the three of us managed to wake up in time for our pick-ups at 5:30. On the way to the airport, things were not looking good. The sky was completely overcast, and Rachael and Colin were convinced we wouldn’t fly. I knew we would, just because they were writing it off.

Often times, passengers find out that the flight is cancelled at check-in. When we passed check-in, we breathed a sigh of relief.

Often times, the flight is cancelled while the passengers wait in the pre-boarding lounge. When we boarded the plane, we breathed another sigh of relief.

Often times, the flight is cancelled after everyone is boarded but before take-off. When we took-off, we breathed another sigh of relief.

After so many sighs of relief, we were practically hyper-ventilating.

The planes they use for the northern area routes are Fokker prop planes. Supposedly some seats are left empty so as to keep the weight down and help with the lift in the mountains. The flight to Gilgit threads through the mountains, and it is done mostly without instruments. It is said to be one of the most, if not the most, dangerous commercial flight segments in the world (terrorism aside). Anyway, conditions have to be practically perfect for the flight to go, which explains why it is cancelled so often.

On the plane, Colin, Rachael, and I all got window seats on the right side (the good side), and Colin and I had our rows to ourselves. Rachael had a Pakistani seatmate, and since she was the only one in our group who could speak Urdu, it worked out fine.

As the plane took off, I had the Indiana Jones song going in my head. I found out later that Colin did also.

The flight takes an hour, and the whole ride Colin and I were glued to the windows. The scenery was awesome. The further we got from Islamabad, the higher the mountains got and the deeper the valleys got. The landscape was such that if the plane crashed you’d probably be better off dying. If the Pakistani rescue crews could locate the wreckage in the first place, accessing it would be very difficult. A plane did crash a few years back, as a matter of fact, and the wreckage was never found.

Meanwhile, Rachael was busy building bridges with the Pakistani. His name was Mustafa, and he took the flight to Gilgit frequently. He was a Pakistani customs agent, and his family lived in the Gilgit area. He invited Rachael to have tea with him once we landed.

It is not uncommon for the flight to turn around midway and return to Islamabad. So, when we landed in Gilgit, we breathed a final sigh of relief.

Some of our colleagues had also been trying to get to Gilgit. On our earlier failed attempt, we didn’t get tickets. This other group did get tickets that weekend, but their flight was cancelled anyway. This weekend, the other group opted not to even try because the weather forecast didn’t look good to them and they were sure the flight wouldn’t go. As we set down in Gilgit, we couldn’t help but pity them and their foolish reliance on the forecast.

It was 70 degrees and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. It was most excellent.

We deplaned, got our bags, registered as foreigners, and left the airport. Outside, we looked for Mustafa, seeing as how he had offered tea. He had bolted. We think that when he was offering tea to Rachael he hadn’t realized that she was traveling with Colin and I, so when he saw us with her, he left.

There was a small cluster of tour guides and taxi drivers waiting around the airport parking lot for the people to come out, especially the tourists. After discussing where we wanted to go, and how much money they wanted, we decided to go with a team of two guides, Sultan and Ejaz. They drove us back to the travel company they worked for, which was owned by another Sultan. Sultan, the travel company owner, was an interesting guy. He was a Gilgiti man married to a Japanese woman, and he was fluent in Urdu, English, Korean, and Japanese, not to mention some of the local Pakistani languages and dialects. What’s more, his Japanese and Korean even had the correct accents, and his Japanese and Korean clients would often be shocked to meet him in person after having spoken with him on the phone. Colin had spent a lot of time in Asia and with Asian people, and he was impressed.

Sultan, the travel company owner, was also a businessman, and he seemed a little shifty and oily. To differentiate between him and Sultan the guide, we started calling the first one Sultan the Snake, and the latter, Sultan the Weasel. These nicknames came about later in the trip, but for the purposes of this story, it’s easier to just use them from the get-go.

At the travel office, we had tea while we made small talk and further discussed our itinerary and the price. Sultan the Snake brought out some photo albums of the areas we would be visiting and we viewed them with all the requisite oohing and aahing.

Before long, we went outside to our car. We were getting the “special Jeep”. It was actually a jeep that had been bought in the States, converted to right-hand drive and stretched. It was light blue, and it rocked.

We wanted the top down, so Colin told the travel guys. They balked at first, telling us how hot it was, and how the top would be more comfortable since it would block the sun. We were the customers, though, and we wouldn’t hear any of it. The top came down. Besides, Rachael had sunblock that she shared.

Our first excursion would be to Hunza, several hours north. Sultan the Weasel ended up as our guide on this trip, and a guy named Wali was our driver. We all loaded up, Rachael and Wali up front, the rest of us in the back. Colin and I took the outer seats and Sultan took the middle. The middle had the best padding and was like the seat of honor, so Sultan kept trying to get Colin and me to trade with him. We let him stay in the middle. The cool factor of sitting on the outside seats was more important than comfort.

As we were driving through town, we got plenty of looks. All of us were dressed like locals, and Colin and I had started growing beards, but we were still clearly foreigners. The beards were more for novelty than anything else, at least for me. Unfortunately, I had recently shaved due to some girlfriend nagging, so I only had a 1-week beard which looked paltry in comparison to Colin’s 3-weeker.

We made a quick stop in town for some Gilgiti hats. The prices were pretty steep (by Pakistani standards), so I opted to wait and get one later. Colin bought one here, a camel-hair model. Rachael bought some jewelry at a neighboring shop.

Just outside of town, we came to a bridge. It was a one lane wooden suspension-type deal that could only accommodate one car at a time. We stopped and stood up through the open jeep top to photograph – safari style. Then we drove down to the end of the bridge. Once there were no more cars coming our direction, we drove across. The water below in the river, like most of the rivers we would see, was roiling and completely brown from all the silt it was carrying down from the glaciers. Maybe someday, I can return and go rafting.

The other side of the bridge ended by going into a rock face. There was this cool tunnel that kind of cork-screwed up and out of the rock. It was like a Disney ride.

After the tunnel, we cruised on down the famous Karakoram Highway. The Gilgit area is surrounded by neat mountains, but the farther north we got, the neater the mountains got. We were so fascinated, we kept snapping away at mountains way in the distance. Sultan told us that we would be getting closer and the view would be much better, so we should wait to take pictures.

Along the way, we passed by a rickety suspension bridge. It consisted of several thick cables stretched across the river (which was again vicious and brown) with wooden planks lashed across them. (Rachael took to calling it the Shrek bridge, but I haven’t seen that movie, so the connection was lost on me.) There were two cables set up as handrails on either side of the bridge. One side was tight and waist-high all the way across. The other side was sagging. It dropped almost all the way away at the center of the bridge.

We stopped the jeep on the road and looked down at the bridge. Sultan asked if we wanted to go, and, of course, we did. Three little boys were hanging out at this spot in the road, so they watched as we clambered down the rocks to the bridge.

I was the first one to reach the bridge, and I started out. I got about halfway across, and the rushing water, the sagging handrail, and the uneven boards were starting to freak me out a touch. I posed for a photo and came back. Like I told Colin and Rachael, I could have crossed all the way if I had to, but I wasn’t going to do it just for the sake of doing it. Call me a chicken if you must.

After I came back, Colin, Rachael, and Sultan walked out. After posing in the center, Rachael came back, and Colin and Sultan crossed. Sultan himself was looking pretty nervous, but he felt compelled to follow once Colin decided to go all the way.

They came back after a moment or two, and we were on the road again. The road was two lane for the most part, with a large rock face on one side and a drop on the other. Wali was flying.

After a bit, we came to the base of Rakaposhi. At 7,790 meters (25,551 feet), it’s the ninth highest mountain in Pakistan. There was a small rest area there – with a small restaurant and a few shops. The view was excellent. Wali and Sultan disappeared and had tea while the rest of us polished off some cokes and water and waited for them to finish. There was a nice river rushing by.

The rest of the ride to Hunza was spectacular. Unfortunately, the late night before, coupled with the warm sun and breeze on our faces, had us all nodding off on the way.

We stayed at the Hunza Baltit Inn, which was located in Karimabad. The rooms were basic, but nice, and cheap. The view was world-class. The town sits in a valley surrounded by jaggedy mountains, many snow-capped. One sharp mountain there was called Lady Finger. It had only been summitted once or twice ever, and many climbers had died trying. According to Sultan, Japanese climbers had fared especially bad on Lady Finger. There was a group of Italian climbers at the hotel, but we didn’t know what they were going to climb.

We dropped our gear at the hotel and went out for lunch. Karimabad is a small place, so we could easily walk to the main street where all the shops and restaurants were located. The first place Sultan took us had a typical Pakistani restaurant menu which included the usual food categories – Chinese, steak, Italian, Pakistani, and sandwiches. I don’t know why, but almost every restaurant here follows the same pattern.

Anyhow, we wanted to eat the food of the region, so we had Sultan take us to a different place.

His second choice was a winner. It only served Hunza specialties.

The waiter brought out a menu, and we decided on a multi-course fixed-price meal. After a lot of discussion with the waiter, Sultan told us that this particular meal required a minimum of ten diners, and we only had four. We understood, so we started ordering individual dishes. We would point out what we wanted to the waiter from the menu and he would write it down.

It was going fine. Then Sultan happened. He got into a huge discussion, sometimes hostile sounding, with the waiter. Colin, Rachael, and I were starving, and this nonsense was wearing on our nerves. After literally like 10 minutes of this, we were all pretty pissed off. We couldn’t tell what was going on because they were speaking a local language, not Urdu, and whenever we would ask Sultan what the problem was, he’d tell us some dumb problem that meant nothing to us, or he’d ignore us – seeing as how he was so engrossed with the waiter.

Assuming that Sultan was arguing over the price, Rachael piped up, and I quote, “Money is no object – just bring us some food!” Colin and I were rolling. Money is no object? It was clearly the starvation talking, but she couldn’t have sounded more like the rich, arrogant American if she tried. We gave her a healthy mocking.

The valley was very lush, full of apples, corn, grapes, nuts, and many other things. Apricots were the specialty of the region, and they were everywhere.

When our food finally appeared, it incorporated all the fresh local produce as well as cheeses and so forth. It was delicious, and we gorged.

After that, we walked around the main street.

All through the town, there were stone ditches flowing with glacial water. The water was so laden with minerals it was incredible. It was silvery-gray, and it had a strange, shiny optic quality to it like shampoo. People would dip cups straight into this water and drink it. I was curious to try it, but opted not to in the end.

As we were walking, we checked out the shops. In the Northern Areas, they know the value of tourist dollars. Everywhere we went, including Gilgit and Karimabad, the same handicrafts and things that were sold in Islamabad cost 2 to 3 times as much in the Northern Areas, and the merchants were stiff on the bargaining. Even knowing that the handicrafts were made in the north and not in Islamabad, I couldn’t bring myself to pay the higher prices. I figured I could buy whatever I wanted later, if I were so inclined. I did, however, find a Gilgiti hat at a cheaper price than in Gilgit, so I bought that.

Now’s probably as good a time as any to mention that all of us had forgotten important things on this trip. I brought a brand new digital camera. I basically took it straight out of the box and didn’t charge the battery. What’s worse, I didn’t bring the charger and it could not use normal batteries. So, I had very little battery time on my camera.

Rachael’s batteries weren’t rechargeable, but her camera needed a special type of disposable battery. She didn’t bring extras, and her camera actually croaked out before mine. So, Colin was the only one with a working camera for the duration of the trip.

Rachael and Colin also both forgot to bring money. Rachael had a few thousand rupees ($200 tops), and Colin had more like $20. I had $400 USD. Except for the larger hotels and shops, credit cards were useless. ATM cards were even more so.

Besides not bringing money, Colin also forgot some sensible shoes. He brought some leather sandals that were too small.

So, getting back to the story, we were shopping. Rachael bought some gifts for her friends, and started negotiating for a carpet. It wasn’t going well, so she decided to leave and let the sale simmer.

The date was August 14, and it was Pakistani Independence Day. As such, there was a dancing festival going on. Sultan led us over, and the show was already in progress. We told him we were fine to just watch from the back – especially since we were late.

Was that acceptable? Of course not. The show was being ushered by the Karimabad Scouts, and they insisted that we come inside to watch. There were two other foreigners there from what I could tell, but still, it was an honor for them for us to be there.

While the dancing was going on, they led us over to the bleacher-type seats, on the side facing the backs of the dancers, and had us sit front and center. Unfortunately, there were already people there, so they booted them out. We felt like heels, but after all that, we couldn’t refuse to sit. We had already caused a bit of a scene with our entrance, but we weren’t through yet. After a moment, a guy came and started having a whispered discussion with Sultan. Sultan relayed to us that the problem was Rachael. She had to leave and sit in the women’s area.

Things still weren’t settled.

The dancing was going on, and I lifted my camera to take a picture. It turned out that there was an official photographer for the event, so a man came over and told Sultan that I couldn’t take pictures. I was cool with that, so I put my camera away.

A few minutes later, the man reconsidered (perhaps realizing that the foreigners weren’t going to be around to order the official photos anyway) and told Sultan that I could take 2 photos of the dancing.

I used the two shots on the dance in progress, which was two boys sword dancing, and put the camera away. We were no longer causing a scene and we sat back to enjoy the show. It was a hoot.

After the sword dancing, there was a dance of the old men of the village. The Hunza region is famous for the longevity of its people. It’s probably a combination of the mineraltastic glacial water, fresh air, low stress, and healthy diet. Whatever it was, there were maybe 15 of these geezers, and the oldest was 90-something, we were told. They were decked out in fancy embroidered robes with sleeves overhanging their hands. As they were dancing, a little boy, maybe 3 or 4 years old, ran out and got in the line of men. Then he started dancing up a storm. He was doing the same dance as the old men – same arm movements, same footwork – only more lively. It was hilarious. At first some guy, maybe a relative or an event organizer, chased him away. Once the guy saw how much cheering the crowd was doing, though, he let the kid stay. The kid continued to steal the show, and people would run out of the stands and give him rupees. The crowd was going wild.

So as not to have the main dancers upstaged, an elderly woman went out to give the 90-something-year-old some rupees of his own. Rachael was especially touched at this.

After the old men, there were some musical acts. One was a guy singing and playing an instrument. One was a group of schoolgirls singing. Both were too long.

Then there was a solo dance act. It was a boy who looked like he was maybe 13 years old. He was clearly well-known in the community because the people were chanting for him before he even started. He didn’t need much encouragement. He was out there jumping and shaking and jerking all around. It was excellent.

After he finished, he was presented some award. On his way out, people were giving him high-fives.

After the crazy dancing boy, there was an interesting hacky-sack competition. Several young men went out into the center and they were given 2 hacky-sacks with feathers on them. Then they would each take turns seeing how many kicks they could get without dropping. The technique involved jumping up and kicking behind the back. Most of the guys got 3 or 4 kicks. Then toward the end, someone got 10 or something high that was clearly the best. Guess he’d been practicing.

After the hacky-sacking, the marching band played. The drum major boy was so uptight, he practically required mocking.

All the while, the Karimabad Scouts were maintaining crowd control with an iron fist. Any time a kid, the smaller the better, would come out of the bleachers, there’d be a scout there to push him around – either back to his seat or toward the exit.

After the marching band, there were more singers. We decided to leave.

We walked up to the Baltit Fort, but it was closed at the time. With Sultan in the lead, we climbed the wall past the closed entrance gate, and took some photos outside the Fort. (We didn’t bust into the actual building.) The guard saw us, but he didn’t care. He opened the gate and came over to talk. Sultan borrowed his hat, which had feathers on it, for a photo.

All through the town there were baskets of apricots drying in the sun.

After the Fort, we went back to the hotel. Colin went with Sultan and Wali to try to find some better shoes (mission not accomplished), and Rachael and I sat on the porch near our rooms and looked at the mountains. It was several hours later, and we could still hear the dance festival going on in town.

We had dinner at the hotel, and later that night the manager showed us an open field where we could see the stars. The view was amazing. We could see the moon, tons of stars, the Milky Way, and even some shooting stars, the tail-end of a meteor shower. And this was all against the backdrop of the mountains.

We talked for a while about many things, including relationships. And there, under the sparkling heavens, I decided it was time to dump my girlfriend. I’ve already mentioned that she didn’t approve of my beard, and I can tell what you’re thinking. You are thinking, “Chris, that alone is enough justification.” And, of course, you’d be right cause my beard rocked. Still, there were other issues. She was a young German woman, whose beauty and charm were tragically eclipsed by her neediness, insecurity, and poor grasp of the English language. Rachael and Colin both knew her, and the decision to dump was unanimous. I just had to wait until I got back in Islamabad to wrap everything up.

After a few hours of talking, we left with the plan of coming back early in the morning to see the sunrise.

We went back to our rooms and I got ready for bed. It was interesting in the bathroom. All the water seemed to be a lightly filtered version of the dark gray water that was flowing all through town. The lighter gray water was in the toilet, the sink, and the shower, and the white towels were gray from having been washed in the water. The power came and went, so I showered by candlelight.

My alarm went off at 4:30, and I went to get the others up for sunrise. I didn’t bother getting dressed, and opted just to wrap a blanket around myself when I went to the other rooms. After a bit of knocking on the doors and calling names through windows, both Rachael and Colin woke up.

I went back to my room to get dressed. Rachael didn’t waste any time getting ready, and she got to the field first. When I showed up a few minutes later, she was beginning to think I had gone back to bed and left her hanging.

She left before the sun rose. Colin and I stayed longer. At this point, my camera battery gave up the ghost.

That morning we passed through town once more. My sunglasses, which happened to have been my favorite pair, had gotten broken the day before. I wanted a new pair to counter the blazing sun, so Sultan took us to a store. It was closed.

One thing about Sultan: he knew everyone in town and probably most of the people in the province. On the drive up, he was constantly identifying people we would pass on the road.

Anyhow, Sultan knew the shop keeper at the place with sunglasses, and he went off and rounded him up so he could open the store. It was a bit embarrassing since he was doing all this for a purchase of less than $2.

Meanwhile, Rachael went back to look at the carpet she had been haggling over the day before. She ended up getting it – spending the rest of her money and a chunk of mine. So, before 10 AM on our second day, I was the only one with any money left.

The itinerary for the second day included visiting nearby Altit Fort, visiting the Hoper Valley, and driving back to Gilgit.

Altit Fort was a smaller, older version of Baltit Fort, and it was closed for renovation when we went. Sultan had a discussion with some guy, and he agreed to take us through the surrounding village to the back side of the fort. On the way, we came upon the village watering hole. It was this large pool that was filled by the ditches carrying the gray water. There were tons of boys and young men swimming and playing around. It looked like fun, although, having a woman in our group, there was no chance of our joining in.

Sultan and the man led us through the village to a nice view of the Fort. It was built right on the edge of a huge cliff. Back in the good ole days, enemies were executed by the ever popular skydiving-without-a-parachute maneuver.

The Fort had an ibex statue on the top. Its horns were broken off, and it looked pretty funny.

After we had marveled for a moment, we started back to the jeep. Sultan and the guideman stopped us and asked if we wanted to see inside one of the village houses. We did.

The house, which had three levels, was pretty neat. The lower level was underground and insulated by the earth. The next layer was ground level. And lastly, there was the roof. It was a simple design of mud brick, dirt, and wood.

After the home tour, the owner invited us to have tea with his family. We gladly accepted, and we went up on the roof. It was a striking scene. Here we were in the middle of nowhere in northern Pakistan and there were satellite dishes on many of the roofs. All across the globe, people gotta watch their stories, I guess. Actually, they probably had satellites for cricket and football coverage.

While the tea was being prepared, we spoke with two of the homeowner’s sons. The younger one was middle-school aged or maybe younger. He wanted to be a soldier when he grew up. This sparked a side discussion on the military. Rachael had been in the Navy, and Colin’s father had served in Nam. I mentioned the several people in my family who were in the military. Then Sultan told us that his father was also in the military – with the rank of spy. I can still see the silly expression he had. He cracked me up.

The older son was home during a break from medical school in Karachi. He spoke better, naturally, but both sons had pretty good English.

I asked Sultan what wildlife lived in the area, since we hadn’t seen any animals yet, save for some birds and lizards. He mentioned foxes, bear, wolves, yak, and ibex. In case you didn’t know, ibex are highly endangered mountain goats. Sultan added that ibex were good-eatin’. Colin was horrified.

During our talk, Rachael started adjusting her hair. She was twisting it in the back and putting a big clip on it. Sultan was watching her and remarked that she was fixing her hair in the style of the Yeti. That’s just what every woman wants to hear – that she’s fixing her hair like Big Foot. We laughed at that for days to come. Good times, folks, good times.

The tea had been served by this point, and Rachael threatened us with hot tea in the face. All in fun, though.

We drank up, thanked our hosts, and walked on back to the jeep.

The next stop was Hoper Valley, and Wali stepped on the gas. Before long, we started passing through villages. There would be an adult here or there lounging by the side of the road, but there were mostly children. The little kids would run out to see us, and unlike Islamabad or even Gilgit town, these kids all looked happy and well-cared for. They were cool.

We came to notice that all the kids were yelling something to us. Thinking it was Urdu or another foreign language, we asked Sultan what they were saying. Turns out they were yelling, “one pen,” in English.

Apparently most of the tourists who’d visit would come with treats – either ink pens, or candy, or some other trinkets. We were empty-handed, so they didn't get anything from us.

As we drove through, some of the little kids jumped on the jeep to hitch a ride. Sultan shooed them off.

We had to stop and register as foreigners at another checkpoint. Sultan explained that in the past visitors had disappeared from the region and that the government wasn’t taking any chances. It was nice to know they cared. Just kidding – the Pakistani Government knows that its tourism industry is in sad shape and takes pains to make sure things don’t happen to cause it to further nose-dive.

Sultan told us all the different nationalities he had served as guide for. Americans and Australians were his favorite clients (and not just because he was talking to us, I’m sure), followed by Italians. He knew how to speak German, so he led many groups of Germans. They weren’t his favorites, though. Neither were the Brits or Spaniards or Swiss or the Russians, and especially not the French.

The drive through the Hoper Valley was quite scenic.

It culminated in a stop at a glacier. I forget the name of it, but looking in my Lonely Planet, I see that there are two in Hoper. So, it was either the Bualtar or the Barpu. It doesn’t really matter.

The glacier was down in a valley, and there was a restaurant at the top. We ordered lunch, and while it was being prepared, we went to look down at the glacier.

Sultan asked if we wanted to walk down to the glacier, and I could tell he wanted us to say no. We said yes.

The path down to the glacier was a steep one. Some portions were gravel, some were sand, some were larger stones, and some were a combo. Sultan, like almost every other local we saw, had on hiking boots. Rachael, Colin, and I had on street sandals. They weren’t the best for trekking, and especially not in Colin’s case since his sandals were too small in the first place. My sandals were new, and, even though they could have probably made the walk, I didn’t want to risk ruining them. I decided I’d rather ruin my feet; skin heals after all. I went barefoot.

It was a long hot walk to the bottom of the valley. The sand was scorching my feet. At the bottom, we rested a bit in the glacial skree field. (We weren’t far enough up to get into the actual ice part, or else it was covered in gravel by the time it reached our place.) As we were sitting there, we saw a rescue party working its way up and out of the valley. A porter was carrying a European guy out on his back. Sultan told us that it would cost the guy 200 dollars for the med-evac. That’s a real bargain.

A short while later, we started back up the mountain ourselves. The sand was even hotter on the way up. I mentioned that the whole scenario reminded me of the song from the scene in the Hobbitt cartoon where they are climbing up the mountain. Colin started into a hilarious version.

At the top, my feet were nicely burned. Both soles had several blisters. The largest, which was on the right heel, was the size of a silver dollar. It would remain on my foot for six weeks before rupturing. My sandals were still in perfect condition, though.

Colin’s feet were worse. Since he was wearing small shoes, he had blisters everywhere the shoes had rubbed – on the soles, toes, and heels.

Sultan and some others were impressed by our ability to hike through the pain.

We walked over to lunch.

We had ordered a whole chicken, some daal (lentils), spinach, and chipati (bread). Rachael and Colin mostly ate the veggie dishes, while Sultan and I ate the chicken. I didn’t really care about the chicken, but as it was meat, it was the most expensive thing, and thereby the most inexcusable thing to waste. The chicken was prepared in the typical Pakistani style. It’s like the chef removes the good parts like the breasts, and then hacks the remaining bony parts up with a butcher knife, and then cooks the parts in a sauce. I was commenting to Rachael how I couldn’t recognize any part of the chicken I was eating. Then I did recognize a part, and when I showed Rachael, she almost hurled.

“Look, Rachael," I told her, "I got the rectum.”

She stopped eating and started doing the deal where you start swallowing, so as to stop yourself from vomiting. She told me that if I didn’t put it down and stop talking about it, things were going to get ugly, and quickly. (I think she was overreacting a little. It was on my plate and I was the one eating it after all.)

The meal finished without incident, and we headed back toward Gilgit.

The ride back was fun. Rachael was up front again and Colin and I were kickin’ it in the back with Sultan.

At one point, Colin asked Sultan if he looked like a local. By this point, he had acquired a vest in addition to his hat, not to mention his shalwar kameez and his beard.

Sultan’s response was a classic. “Oh, yes, you look like a professor. . . .uh. . . .a mathematics professor. . . . uh . . . . an assistant mathematics professor.” Sultan was trying to be positive I think. We were cracking up. You know you’ve arrived when you are mistaken for a local assistant mathematics professor.

Having failed at attaining authentic Pakistaniism, Colin was resigned at this point to passing as an Uzbeki freedom fighter.

The long ride and the warm sun had everyone, including Sultan, dozing off. The corner jeep seat was really making my butt sore. Colin opted to move into the center, comfortable seat, but I didn’t want to.

On the way back, Sultan asked several times if we wanted to stop for a break. We told him no every time. We realized later he was asking because he wanted to take a break himself.

When we reached our hotel, the Gilgit Serena, we all looked whipped. We were all tired looking and sun-burned. No one looked worse than Sultan, though. He looked like he’d been through the wringer.

We paid him and Wali their fees and tips, and then went to dinner.

The Serena restaurant was unimpressive, but we were in good spirits. It was our last night, and we had had a fine adventure.

At one point during dinner, Colin briefly laid his head on the white table cloth. When he lifted his head again, Rachael pointed out that he had left a dirt stain on the table. A strategically placed bread plate handled the problem.

That night, we got our first taste of yak in the form of yak roast. The meat was tasty, but the preparation was a bit tough.

The next day, we woke up, checked out of the hotel, and went to the airport to fly back to Islamabad.

After checking-in, we waited in the lounge. Rachael had to wait in the ladies’ lounge. (FYI – men and women are not separated nearly as much in Islamabad; Gilgit was much more conservative.)

After a while, we received word that the flight had been cancelled due to bad weather in Islamabad.

We collected our luggage, traded our boarding cards back in for our tickets, and left the airport. Our friends from the travel company were waiting outside, so we got a ride back to the office.

It was Monday, and although we had expected to return to Islamabad, Rachael and I had already requested the day off. Colin had kind of unofficially done the same thing, so he was set also. So, the fact that we would be staying one extra day didn’t really faze us. In actuality, we were psyched that the plane didn’t go.

We called our supervisors in Islamabad and told them that the flights for the day had been cancelled.

At the travel office, we plotted out another trip over tea. Sultan the Weasel wasn’t at work that day, and Sultan the Snake confirmed that we had run him ragged. Evidently, Weasel was accustomed to having 20 or more cups of tea a day. With us, he had had maybe 3 or 4. Poor guy had been running on fumes.

Guide Ejaz was there, though. When we had gone the first day with Sultan instead of him, he looked pissed. Colin asserted that it was more than professional jealously – that they were in fact having a lover’s quarrel. And it was probably true. Sultan the Weasel seemed to be hitting on all of us at times.

I have discussed man-to-man behavior in Pakistan in other stories. Well, here it was more extreme. This is probably for 2 main reasons. First, the northern areas are mountainous and relatively isolated places. And isolation and seclusion often turn a blind eye to deviance – just call it the prison effect. The second factor would have to be the more strict separation of men and women. When we’d go into Gilgit, I could literally count the number of women I’d see out and about on one hand. Other than a few foreign women and the occasional veiled woman, all the people in town were male.

Anyhow, as I was saying, Ejaz was with us in the office.

This time we decided to go to the Fairy Meadows, near Nanga Parbat. Getting to Fairy Meadows involved a 3 ½ to 4 hour drive, each way, plus 4 hours of hiking (2 ½ hours up the mountain, 1 ½ coming down). Doing the math in the office, we could tell it was going to be a hell of a long day trip. Sultan the Snake assured us we would have plenty of time. We wanted to go anyway, so it didn’t take much convincing. Snake had us write down some emergency numbers in case something bad happened. No question – it was going to be a good trip.

Ejaz was supposedly a Fairy Meadows expert, so we hired him as guide.

Before was started, we walked down to a shoe store to find new shoes for Colin. He wore some mutant size like a 14 or something, so it was no easy job finding shoes that fit. Eventually, he settled for some sport flip-flops. He dumped his old shoes of torture in the shoe store trash can. He was singing the praises of his new shoes.

We walked back to the travel office and loaded into our vehicle. We got a new driver. I forget his name, but it may as well have been Muhammad Andretti.

Our first stop was back to the Serena, where we rechecked-in. They gave us our old rooms back, and the woman at the desk asked what we were doing for the day. When we told her Fairy Meadows, she started into a discussion in Urdu with another employee about how we didn’t have enough time to do Fairy Meadows. Rachael listened and translated for Colin and me. The woman at the desk wished us a good trip.

We took off, and Andretti had the pedal to the metal the whole way. A lot of the road was the old two lane deal with a huge drop on one side. Andretti kept doing stupid things like passing when oncoming cars were barreling down on us. It was a nice touch once when he almost ran a fuel truck off the road.

Along the way, we passed a view point where the three mountain ranges met. Some French ladies were there. They thought we were locals. Of course, a compliment like that from another foreigner isn’t as good as from a local, but it’s better than nothing.

The road passed by cliffs, through open stretches of field, and through villages. Andretti didn’t miss a beat. He’d just honk and flash the lights and people would dive for cover. The sun was brutal.

After about 3 hours, we got to the point where the truck could go no further because the road got too wild. We hired a jeep and another driver for this leg. Again we told them to take the top off, and again they gave us lip. The top came off.

We rode an hour in the jeep up to the trailhead leading to Fairy Meadows. The road was insane. It was one lane, except in occasional spots that were barely wide enough to allow passing, and it was just made of stacked stones. Most of the way, we were hugging the mountain on one side, and on the other side, it was a straight drop of thousands of feet. It was insane.

The road was steep and windy, and our driver was a real expert. A few times we had to stop so he could put water or something in the engine.

When we got to the base of the trail, there was a cabin and a little camping area. Ejaz walked toward an old man who greeted him by rubbing his chest. Ejaz pushed his hand away as if to say, “Not in front of the foreigners!”

Ejaz, Colin, Rachael, and I set off hiking. Colin and I had the blisters from the day before, so there was a measure of pain involved. Soon after we started hiking, Ejaz turned to Colin and asked, “Did you bring a torch (flashlight)?” At first, I didn’t understand what he was getting at, but that was his smug way of saying that we were going so slow that he thought we would still be hiking in the dark.

The rest of the way up, I repeated that to myself. It was something that struck me as funny, and I’m sure I derived a little too much enjoyment from it. It was probably the altitude.

Midway up, there was a one-room building called, oddly enough, the Midway Hotel. We stopped for a coke.

About half an hour later, we passed some rich Pakistani couple on their way down the mountain. They were doing the trek the wussy way – on horseback. Seeing we were Americans, they seemed to want to impress us. The wife was telling us how her brother was a cardiologist and a professor at Harvard. La-ti-da. The husband had a sister at Berkley. He liked to travel to Alabama to purchase guns.

They rode on, and the horse carrying their generator followed. We continued hiking.

When we reached the Fairy Meadows, it was afternoon. The meadow was full of green grass and there were children and goats and cows and sheep and horses everywhere. It was pastoral alright. Fairy Meadows is a few hours from the base camp of Nanga Parbat, and the view was awesome. Normally it is cloudy, but not for us.

Nanga Parbat is the second highest mountain in Pakistan at 8,125 meters or 26,650 feet. Its name means ‘naked mountain’ because its south face is so steep even the snow falls off. A lot of climbers die on Nanga Parbat.

At Fairy Meadows, we walked to a small lake. There were two local boys swimming there.

It was getting late, and we didn’t want to be driving the dangerous stretch of road in the dark, so we decided to leave. There was a restaurant at Fairy Meadows and I was starving. I told Rachael and Colin that I wanted to eat before leaving, and they agreed, although without much enthusiasm.

In any case, we wanted whatever the cook could make the quickest. The waiter said that omelets would be fast, and it made sense to us. We ordered some. He came back with the news that they were out of eggs. The next quickest thing would be fried rice. We ordered the rice, and like with Sultan at the restaurant the day before, Ejaz started into a long discussion in some unknown language, presumably about the food. We thought he was trying to upgrade the order with some extra veggies and so forth. He didn’t seem to understand the part about us being in a hurry. We sternly told him that all we wanted was the rice, and that there was no need for further discussion. Finally the waiter left, and we were assured the rice would be ready in 10 minutes.

Half an hour later, we still didn’t have any rice. Everyone was getting grouchy. By now, one of the people who had been waiting at the jeep had hiked up. They probably wondered what the hold-up was.

Finally the rice came, and we ate. Everyone was in a better mood.

When we got up from lunch and headed for the trail, Colin and I had identical limps. We looked slightly pathetic.

On the way down the mountain, Colin and I ran down. At first Ejaz tried keeping up, but soon enough, he went back and walked with Rachael. She was also going at a fast pace, but not at a run. Every now and then, Colin and I would wait for them to catch up, and when they would, Ejaz would invariably suggest that we should take a rest break. We all voted against it every time, and the race to the bottom continued. It was beginning to look like it was Ejaz who’d needed to pack a torch.

Close to the end, there was a man and his son sitting by the trail. When Colin and I passed, they gave us some sob story about how the boy was deathly ill. We thought they were grifters and besides, we didn’t have any medicine, so we blew them off and continued racing down the hill. When we got to the camp ground at the bottom of the hill, we plopped down at the picnic table and ordered some beverages while we waited for Ejaz and Rachael.

A few minutes later, the man came walking up with the sick boy. Everyone was concerned, and started asking us for medicine. We still didn’t have any, so we still didn’t give them any. We figured at this point that maybe the kid really was sick.

Shortly after, Rachael and Ejaz walked up.

We all went to the jeep – the 3 of us, Ejaz, the driver, the sick boy and his father, and three other guys. Everyone packed in and we started driving back down the crazy cliff road. The sun was setting.

About halfway down the road, we dropped the boy and his father at their village. They had been taking up half the seat in the back, and Colin and I were squished into the other half. When the father and son left, one of the Pakistanis who had been hanging on the back of the jeep jumped into the space. So, Colin and I – two largish Americans – were crammed on half the jeep seat, and the scrawny Pakistani was lounging out in style on the other half.

As we were driving along, making jokes about crashing over the edge and dying, Colin remarked that if we did crash they’d find our bodies crunched up on half of the seat. At this point, the Pakistani, who had given us the impression that he didn’t speak English, suddenly scooted over to occupy more of an equal share of the seat. We died laughing.

Meanwhile, Rachael had gotten into a conversation with the driver in Urdu about djinns. I may be spelling it wrong, but a djinn (sounds like gin) is a kind of spirit that some Pakistanis believe in. The driver asked Rachael if Americans believed in anything similar. At first she said no, and told him that the closest thing we had was angels, which many Americans did believe in. We had to help Rachael out since she was clearly out of touch with the American people. We told the Pakistanis (through Rachael and her Urdu) that Americans believed in numerous supernatural things. We started into ghosts. I relayed the story of the ghost in my family’s house. Sometimes when you are alone in the house downstairs, you can hear noisy footsteps upstairs. Rachael relayed the story of the ghost in her college apartment that would always mess with the thermostat settings.

The Pakistanis were riveted.

Colin and I further had Rachael explain about evil spirits, possession, and exorcism. When you discuss such topics in Urdu it is hilarious. For uncommon words, there is not a direct Urdu translation most times, so the English word is used. This whole supernatural discussion was half English and half Urdu.

From here, the Pakistanis wanted to know if we had witches in the U.S. But of course. Rachael ended up getting in the Salem witch trials. She started out by setting the stage, and again it was in Urdu/English. One English phrase that rang out was ‘religious extremists’ and this struck both Colin and I. Talking to Muslims about religious extremism could easily take a wrong turn. The story continued and we prompted Rachael with important details like how some of the women probably acted crazy due to ergot poisoning from contaminated bread. We explained about the ghosts that still haunt the Salem courthouse. It was truly a story of epic proportions – love, hate, life, death, ergot poisoning – and the Pakistanis were eating it up. When we got to the part where the women were killed, Colin was explaining how some were hanged, some were burned, some were drowned, and some were pressed by stones. (I probably got some of that messed up.) We had a joke that these guys were probably secretly taking notes on the torture and killing parts, saying to themselves, “Right on! Those b*****s deserved what they got.”

We arrived back to the parking lot before we had time to get into vampires and werewolves.

By now it was dark, and we still had a 3-hour drive back to Gilgit.

We loaded into the truck, and Andretti started hauling ass. It was pitch black, the air was full of grit, and we were approaching ludicrous speed. There was more insane passing. The seating was tough on the tailbone, and we were always on the look-out for upcoming spine-jarring bumps. Three hours later, we were safely back at the hotel. The staff were glad to see us.

We sat in the lobby and settled our bill with Ejaz. We had to pay the car and driver fee, the guide fee, the driver’s tip, and the guide’s tip. We calculated everything out, paid Ejaz, and went to our rooms.

About an hour later, Sultan the Snake came to the hotel. It was late by now, and Sultan was beating around the bush. He was having some tea and asking us about our trip. All of this was a needless, time-wasting lead-in to the real reason he had come. It turned out that we had forgetten Ejaz’s fee and had only given him a tip. And, instead of bringing up the problem (which was an honest mistake) himself, Ejaz went crying back to his boss. We paid Sultan the Snake and he left.

That night at dinner, we discovered the Serena’s outdoor barbeque, which was held 6 nights a week. We ate there – more yak – and it was way better than the restaurant inside. The food was good, the weather was perfect, and there was a two-member band to entertain the diners.

After dinner, we went to the business center to play on the internet. For the rest of our stay, this would be a primary time-occupier for us. Rachael looked up the forecast for the region, and her morale dropped down the toilet. For the next several days, there was bad weather affecting some point of the flight path.

We went back to the rooms and watched TV. The hotel was carrying the most boring Olympic coverage imaginable. Literally, we watched women’s badminton doubles, women’s weight-lifting, women’s trampoline, men’s triple jump, women’s volleyball, and men’s shot put. The only thing we seemed to have missed was rhythmic gymnastics.

The next day was Tuesday. We went to breakfast and ordered what would become our breakfast for the rest of the trip – omelets with onions and cheese. We checked out and drove to the airport.

There were not many people waiting that day. After the string of cancellations, virtually everyone else had opted to drive back to Islamabad. It was a 14-hour trip, and Embassy policy would not allow us to drive it. We had to explain this to tons of people – hotel staff, airport personnel, the tour company. At first, they couldn’t seem to grasp why we were hanging around.

That day at the airport, we weren’t even permitted to go inside. We had to wait in an outside waiting area for word that the flights had officially been cancelled for the day. Meanwhile, we talked about turning our adventure into a movie, spending the majority of the time deciding casting. It was decided that David Duchovny should play me. There were some really hilarious and on-the-nose casting choices for some people at the embassy who would be in the movie tangentially, but it’s probably best if I don’t put those to paper.

After several hours, the flights were officially cancelled.

We hired a car and went back to the hotel. The staff was glad to see us. At this point, we were practically family.

Sultan the Snake came by to see if he could interest us in more excursions. We couldn’t afford any since we were almost out of cash, so we declined. Sultan offered to loan us 5,000 rupees (about $90 US), but we didn’t accept. There was concern that if we borrowed the money, it would be difficult to pay him back once we got back to Islamabad due to the unreliable mail system and so forth.

Sultan left.

That day, we basically fell into patterns that lasted the rest of the trip. Immediately after hearing that the flights were cancelled for the day, we would congregate in one of our rooms (usually Rachael’s) and all call our supervisors. Then we would call our contacts in the embassy who could give us the inside scoop on events there. Then Rachael would fall into a funk for an hour or two, lameting the situation and how screwed we were, and how we would never get out of Gilgit. Colin and I would attempt to raise her spirits (in what might have been perceived as harassing her to the untrained eye) with mixed results.

The rest of the day, we would watch TV – news, bad movies, bad Olympics, bad Larry King, ugh – and raid the mini-bars. We were out of control. Being a Muslim country, the mini-bars didn’t have any hooch – just sodas, candy bars, nuts, and dried fruits. We would practically clean them out every day. In the mornings, we would be waiting for the mini-bar guy to come and refill us, like animals at the zoo at feeding time. That’s what extreme boredom can do to people.

Watching TV was not without complications because the electricity would constantly go off. When the power would go off, the A/C would also go. It was not unusual to come into the darkened room to find one of us (usually me) aiming the A/C remote at the A/C repeatedly pushing the button, waiting for the power to come back on, while someone else (usually Rachael) would be doing the same thing with the TV remote.

We would spend tons of time in the business center. Colin and I were nosing around and one of the employees at the hotel was looking up some pretty lewd subject matter on the computers. We all caught up on our e-mailing. Rachael checked the weather forecasts constantly.

The hotel had badminton and ping pong, so we spent hours playing each of those. For the record, I dominated both.

The hotel had a list of board games it supposedly had, including Scrabble, Monopoly, chess, and others. When we inquired, it turned out that Monopoly was all they really had. We took it back to the room.

It was an ancient British version that had seen much better days. It had only one game piece. There were like 5 houses and no apartments. Most of the ‘Chance’, ‘Community Chest’, and property cards were just little scraps of paper with the information written on by hand. That game belonged in a museum. We returned it to the front desk.

We had each brought two sets of clothes – the one we were wearing and one in reserve – for the 2 days we were supposed to be there. Sending the laundry out in the morning and receiving it in the evenings became an exciting event for us. It was pathetic. Of course, we only did laundry twice, I think, in 9 days. We were wearing our clothes 4 and 5 days straight. Motivation to change more frequently just wasn’t very high.

We had several guide books, and Colin brought a real book with him. It was the only real piece of literature between the three of us.

Colin read his book and Rachael got it next.

Colin even read my camera manual. We were bored.

To kill a little time one day, we went to the few shops in the hotel. There was a carpet store, a jewelry store, a book store, and a general handicrafts store. Rachael had the carpet guy pull out several rugs. They were all overpriced and we didn’t have money anyway, so she didn’t buy.

A few days later, Colin went to the book store and found a book he wanted. He mentioned to the store keeper that he didn’t have any money, so he couldn’t buy the book. The guy responded, “I know”. Word travels fast in a small hotel with no guests.

And of course, we looked forward to meals everyday. The faster the meals would pass, the faster the day would end, and the sooner we could try to fly back home.

So, that was our basic routine – calling Islamabad, TV, mini-bar, meals, ping-pong, badminton, and internet. It was grueling.

Each day, there were other small diversions, but nothing to kill the boredom for more than an hour or so.

On Wednesday, we received word that the flights had been cancelled before we even left the hotel for the airport. We had breakfast and made our calls. We tried to get permission to drive, to no avail. Rachael fell into her morning depression, and the day was in motion.

That afternoon, we had a small excursion. We took a car into town and walked around looking at shops.

We walked and walked and looked at shops here and there. Like before, there were practically no women on the streets. Rachael was not comfortable, so we found a phone and called the hotel car to come and get us. In the meantime, we looked around the old British cemetery.

Then it was back to the hotel.

Night came, and it was Thursday.

Again, we received word while still at the hotel that the flights for the day were cancelled.

Groundhog Day started over.

That afternoon, Sultan the Snake came back into the picture.

He offered us the use of his pick-up if we wanted to use it. The only catch was that we had to fill it up with gas. Rachael didn’t want to go back to town, so Colin and I went without her.

Sultan’s guy picked us up at the hotel. It was the same guy who was hogging the seat on the way back from Fairy Meadows.

The first thing we noticed was that the gas tank was empty. When we went to fill it up, it cost us a pretty penny. We wasted like 40 dollars on filling up a car for a few hours of touring around town. Complimentary use of the car – yeah right! Advantage: Sultan.

We went to see the Buddha carving just outside town. There, we met two Aussies (or maybe Kiwis – I forget) named Janet and John. They were in their 60s, were retired, and were touring south and west Asia for 6 months. They were cool.

Some little kids led the 4 of us to the Buddha carved on the side of a mountain, and after a few photos, we headed back to the car.

Janet and John had hiked the whole way to the Buddha, so they were more than happy to accept a ride with us back to town.

Once in town, we did a little shopping, and then Janet and John showed us a restaurant they had enjoyed earlier. It was the kind of place with dead chickens and goats strung up in the front. The waiter ushered us inside and seated us all the way in the back, in a booth separated from the main dining area (since we had a woman in our group). We had a good and cheap lunch.

After that, Colin and I released Sultan’s car and driver and explored town on foot some more. We found a neat bridge on the edge of town that was causing a bit of tension for motorists. It was a suspension bridge that was maybe a hundred yards long. It was only wide enough for a single car, so cars were supposed to wait at the ends until the bridge was clear. This was clearly not working. Repeatedly, there would be two cars nose to nose, honking at each other in the middle of the bridge. One would eventually back out and traffic would flow again, until the next yahoo happened to go out at the wrong time. Pedestrians used the same space to cross the bridge, so the cars would nudge through people as well.

By the time we finished walking around, the hotel car service had already ended for the day. When we passed Sultan’s store, his cars were gone. We weren’t supposed to take taxis (Embassy rules) so Colin and I set off on foot for the hotel. From town, it was a 5 kilometer walk, gradually uphill, until the last bit, which was a steep uphill.

We were maybe two-thirds of the way back when a car came up behind us, honking. It turned out to be Mustafa, the guy from the plane who had sat next to Rachael. He offered us a ride and we accepted. What luck!

That night, we had dinner at the outdoor barbeque, like always. As we were waiting for our food, a conversation developed whereby Rachael was bemoaning the fact that such a great majority of world leaders, both currently and historically, were men, and as such their solutions for any conflict involved war and violence. The way she saw it, there were too many men leaders, with too much testosterone, and they were ruining the world. Colin bit. He was personally offended by her generalizations, and, like magic, there was a heated debate at the table. I was sitting there like a statue. Not only was I not interested in the discussion, but I do not like discussions where people are so riled up and emotional. I also was not in the mood for high-minded debate. The discussions at the previous two dinners had been about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and U.S. politics – Bush, Kerry, and others, past and present – and neither topic had interested me either.

After a long spell of the men-are-war-crazed-idiots discussion, both Rachael and Colin turned to me: “You’ve been very quiet tonight. What do you think?”

And then I made an unfortunate move; I told the truth. I said something along these lines: “I find this whole discussion to be very boring. Maybe I’m not cut out to be an officer because debates like this don’t interest me at all.”

They asked me what I did want to talk about and I told them nothing. And with that, the table was uncomfortably silent for the rest of the meal.

I looked like a Grade-A Jackass, I’m sure, but a small meltdown now and then in the midst of our constant contact wasn’t so far-fetched.

Night came, and Friday followed.

Oddly enough, after my comments the night before, Colin and Rachael went to breakfast without me. They said they didn’t want to wake me.

I went to breakfast alone. The flights were cancelled again that day, so we paced in our cages.

That afternoon, we needed a break from the hotel, so we decided to go out to lunch. We didn’t think about it until we were already on the road, but it was Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, and probably not the best day for us to cruise around town. We decided to go ahead, though.

We found a place in our guidebooks that we wanted to try, but when we got there, the place hadn’t been open in a while.

We asked the driver for a recommendation, and he said he knew a good place. He ended up taking us to the same place Colin and I had eaten at the day before with Janet and John. We were happy to eat there a second time.

This time, they seated us on the second floor and since Rachael was with us, we had to sit in the “Family Cabin”. It was a table and benches, enclosed by curtains. We had a good meal, and then walked around town.

By now, the tensions I had stirred up the night before were gone, at least superficially.

We went to a store, and I bought a wool jacket, wasting our last 15 bucks. After that we were down to change.

The rest of the day dragged on by, and Saturday came.

It was on Saturday, I think, that we had one of the mornings where we actually had to go wait at the airport. We checked out of the hotel, and zipped down. All the airport people were smiley. We were allowed inside this time and we had pretty high hopes. Inside, there was a group of people filming the airport and, at one point, us as we waited. I don’t know if they were filming a news story or making a documentary or what.

After a bit of waiting, Rachael broke protocol and came to sit with us in the men’s lounge. There were hardly any other people there and no one seemed to care.

Before long, one of the airport guards walked up with a huge smile. “Sir, the flight turned around and went back to Islamabad. It is cancelled.”

Hanging onto hope, we asked him what would become of the second flight. He couldn’t say for sure whether it had been cancelled also, so he went to check. In less than a minute, he was back. Both were officially cancelled for the day. We filed out.

Rachael was in particularly low spirits. The fact that our plane had gotten halfway and then turned back was really salt in the wound.

That day we made our calls, watched the tube, surfed the net, and cleaned out the mini-bars.

Since it was the weekend, we took the opportunity to see a polo match that afternoon.

Sultan was arranging our ride, and the same guy from Fairy Meadows and Colin’s and my trip to the Buddha showed up.

The polo ground was basically a wide dirt street. There was a band playing. Spectators were on both sides of the street, but one side had stone steps for sitting. We got seats. I had specifically asked at the hotel front desk before coming to the match if women usually attended. The lady assured me that women did attend the matches.

But for a few other women tourists, Rachael was the only woman there.

Before long, the players galloped in and the match started. It was a test match between two Gilgit polo clubs.

Play was fast and furious. Both the men and the horses were impressive.

Spectators had to keep on their toes. Sometimes the ball would come over toward the wall where people were sitting. Faced with the oncoming mass of men and horses, people would be scurrying away from the front. Those who didn’t move away at least had to lift their legs so they didn’t get squashed. It was funny.

Several times, the ball got hit into the crowd. Usually, someone would just get it and throw it back into play. Once, a player hit the ball quite hard, and it flew over a guy who was sitting on the stone wall (on the side of the road without seating). He had to hit the deck and barely missed getting hit. Sultan’s guy and I laughed hard over that one.

As we sat in the crowd, we attracted our share of attention. Little kids would come look at us, and Rachael in particular.

One young man sat next to me and started talking. He asked me the usuals – what was my name, where was I from – and then we started talking polo. He told me how Gilgit always loses the big match against Chitral because Chitral has better training facilities. He told me how someone had died 2 months back during polo when his horse ran into one of the lampposts along the street while going full speed. He told me the different skill levels of each of the players. He asked me which ones I liked the best. I told him that they were all very good. Then he told me he didn’t really care that much about polo. His sport was cricket, but he watched polo because it was his heritage.

At halftime, the riders dismounted and little kids ran out to take the reins. They walked the horses around, gave them water, and brushed them. Some of the little kids led the horses around while other little kids rode.

After halftime, Rachael was given the honor of throwing the ball into play. She almost hit someone.

The second half was more of the same. The whole experience was excellent. As we drove out of the polo area, 3 or 4 little kids grabbed on the back of our truck and hitched a ride.

Sunday was unremarkable. We went to the airport, and got sent home with little waiting.

On Monday, we had breakfast, checked out, and went to the airport. As we waited, we got news that the flight had taken off from Islamabad. We knew it could still turn around.

It didn’t.

When that plane touched down, it was a beautiful thing. After 30 minutes of prep for the return flight, we were boarded and ready to go.

There were two injured people onboard. One guy was all bandaged and we assumed he had had a bad trekking incident. In the back there was a woman who was strapped over 3 rows of folded down seats. I don’t know what her problem might have been.

I had a good window seat again, and the flight landed in Rawalpindi (just outside Islamabad) without incident. As soon as we landed, Colin sent a text message to our friend Traci. It turned out that she had been in Rawalpindi that morning on business and she was about to head back to Islamabad right when we landed. She had her driver pick us up. And it was a good thing since motor pool had not dispatched a car to get us anyway.

The ordeal was over. Our two day visit had stretched into nine. We were Gilligan, minus the coconut radio.

The car dropped us at our houses and we all went immediately to the embassy. The Marine Guard at Post One acted like he didn’t recognize me – what with the local garb and the beard. Then he gave me the old ‘welcome back’. Another Marine saw me and also told me, “Welcome back, Grizzly” (some of them had taken to calling me Grizzly Adams when I started growing my beard). Colin got some ribbing of his own.

In the office, I found out that if the flight hadn’t arrived that morning, a rescue party was going to come get us. It would have involved 2 armored cars, 2 drivers, and a security officer with a machine gun traveling 14 hours each way to get us. I was glad that didn’t happen. It seemed like a bit of overkill.

Of course, there was always the option of us hiring a car and driver in Gilgit to drive back, but that was deemed too risky. Another option that a friend and colleague of ours had suggested would have been much cooler. He’s a chopper pilot and he wanted to fly up and get us. He had to do a certain amount of flying each month, so it wouldn’t have even been an inconvenience. The only reason it didn’t happen was that he wasn’t informed that we were stranded until the very end. He was pissed.

Anyhow, the rest of the day, I was a minor celebrity. Everyone was quite interested and concerned and glad to have us back. Evidently, our stranding had been discussed quite widely around the embassy. I repeated the highlights of our adventure to everyone, from the Ambassador to the janitors.

There was a little bit of blow-back though. We all had work waiting for us, and some people resented us getting a “free vacation”. That was nonsense, though. I explained to these people that, one, we didn’t plan for it to happen like it did, two, we had to use leave time so it wasn’t free, and, three, for most of the trip we were stuck in the hotel not having all that much fun. The other negative thing to come from this was that a few people who had wanted to go to Gilgit got their requests denied by their supervisors. They were afraid that they would get stuck like we did, even though our situation was not totally normal.

And what became of me and Rachael and Colin?

There’s an episode of the Simpson’s where Homer and Mr. Burns get trapped in a cabin together by an avalanche. Once they are free, they joke that once you’ve been through an experience like that with someone, you never want to see that person again.

And that’s how the three of us felt about each other.

No, not really. We hung out even more once we were back.

And I had the time to hang out, since I was now short one girlfriend.

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