03 November, 2012

Chengdu - China's Big Small-town City

As we got off the Air China airliner, the damp July air reeking of paddy fields and strong manure reminded us of our arrival in Sichuan Province, the heart of agrarian China.  The grey monsoon clouds gave us a hint that our trip would be blighted by wet weather.  This was not altogether an unwelcome prospect, as I, along with my colleagues Jamshed Khan and Amir Liaqat could stay longer and discover more, while waiting for bluer skies needed for evaluating a new fighter, at the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group’s aircraft manufacturing plant in Chengdu.  The city is well-known to quite a few PAF personnel who got their initial training on the FT-5, F-7 and lately, the JF-17 aircraft.  To the rest of Pakistanis, Chengdu is a nondescript city much below Beijing, Guangzhou (Canton) and Shanghai in their business or tourism priorities.  They would do well to note that Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, now ranks as one of China’s largest cities.  Chengdu was recently voted as the fourth most liveable city from an environmental standpoint.  It is also listed amongst the gastronomy capitals of the world, though with menus featuring pigeon’s egg soup, sliced eels (raw) and pig’s trotters, one could see why we had to make do with sticky rice, soya bean curd and noodles for the better part of our month-long stay.

As we drove to the Jin Jiang Hotel in central Chengdu, the first thing that caught our eye were the hundreds of cyclists who would amass during the minute or so that the traffic light remained red, raring to pedal off again at the turn of green.  Men and women of all ages were on bicycles; the poorer families who could not afford more than one bike made use of tricycles, with the daily groceries, the biker’s wife and an odd pet, all huddled in a big wooden crib in good view of everyone, though nobody seemed to care except us!

After checking in the hotel, we decided to take an exploratory walk on the North Renmin Road which led to the colossal statue of a little-revered Mao Tse-tung, overlooking the Tianfu  Square in the city centre.  Nearby was the big complex of the Spring Department Store and People’s Market which had just about every daily use item at very cheap prices.  Some men idled away, their vests rolled up to their chests for better ‘air conditioning’ in the humid weather, while others chatted rather loudly often spitting in between the exchanges, these being habits common to the less urbane folk, as we found out.  While we were strolling by the roadside, we observed a noisy scuffle between a man and a woman.  On the way back to the hotel, we were surprised to see the man handcuffed inside a small traffic police kiosk, while the woman, apparently his wife, taking pot shots at the wretched creature as the police desperately tried to keep her off.  Our interesting walk came full circle minutes later, when, quite in contrast to the ugly scene, we saw a happy bride and groom being photographed on the studio steps, loudly cheered by a huge crowd of passers-by.  It was an exciting introduction to Chengdu, as much as China, which we were visiting for the first time.

Next day, we were formally welcomed to the aircraft factory by the general manager over a sumptuous lunch, but the 20-course formal dinner the following evening outdid any banquet that we had ever been feted with.  Our hosts were careful to ensure that no kind of animal appeared on the platter and, the qipao clad waitresses were under special instructions to serve the fiery Moutai liquor only to the Chinese.  We sipped green tea instead, much to the amusement of our hosts, for whom tea-drinking is a valued tradition in Chengdu.  During small talk, I ventured to ask one of the managers seated next to me about his children.  Over a hearty laugh, he told me that it was an irrelevant question in China as Chinese couples (except ethnic minorities) have only one child.  He also added that I needn’t ask about his relatives as the modern Chinese do not have a brother, a sister, an uncle, an aunt, a nephew, a niece or a cousin, all as a consequence of a one-child policy.  Of course, it dawned on me in a while! The cheerful roadside family planning posters hadn't conveyed the deeper implications.

As the days wore on, our flying became intermittent, subject to ever-changing weather.  On bad weather days we took tours of the hugely overstaffed aircraft factory, and discussed aerodynamics with accomplished aircraft designers led by the well-respected Professor Ma.  Our long lunch sessions at the factory always started with sweet dishes followed by sour ones, cold servings followed by hot ones, all punctuated by helpings of fried peanuts eaten with chopsticks, for good measure.  Sichuan cuisine had never tasted the same in Lahore, for sure. 

After-dinner walks along the Nanhe River, which traces a swath through the centre of the city, were occasionally alternated with live music shows at the hotel.  Our favourite part featured the erhu, a two-stringed bowed instrument that almost always forms part of any classical Chinese orchestra.  One particular erhu player, a maestro of sorts, could make his instrument whine like a baby, neigh like a horse, and play sounds of wind, rain and thunder, depicting the seasons.

Weekends were well spent exploring the suburbs of Chengdu.  One Sunday we visited the Thatched Cottage of Du Fu, on the western suburbs of the town.  Du Fu is one of China’s greatest poets (712-770 AD) who, in one of his wanderings, spent four years in Chengdu.  His reconstructed cottage adorns a beautiful park by the serene Huanhua Stream.

On another weekend, we drove to the lush green Mount Emei Scenic Area, near the town of Leshan, 140-km south of Chengdu.  The world’s largest statue of the seated Buddha, carved out of a cliff, faces the 10,000-ft high Mt Emei.  The 233-ft high statue was completed in 803 AD by the disciples of a monk named Haitong, who had started the project almost a century earlier.  Aptly named, the Scenic Area was soaked in monsoon mists, with exotic birds whistling and cooing, while friendly monkeys clambered about cheekily.  Du Fu, the poet, may well have captured our thoughts as we left the beautiful and mystifying Mount Emei: “Tomorrow the mountains will separate us; after tomorrow, who can say?”

Sichuan is famous for its giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) and it was thoughtful of the factory management to organise a trip to the Wolong National Nature Reserve, about 130-km north-west of Chengdu.  The huge sociable creatures belied their lineage of the ferocious bear family, as they enjoyed being cuddled and patted and fed bamboo shoots from our hands.  Another attractive animal at the Reserve was the cat-sized red panda (Alurus fulgens) which is classified as a family unto itself, though having some relation to raccoons and weasels.  The only thing common with the giant pandas is a diet mainly of bamboo shoots, though it is also omnivorous.  We fed one of them with peanuts which it devoured with relish.

For the remaining days in Chengdu, we found shopping for antiques a good evening pastime, and collected some ornate ceramic teapots and enamelled treasure boxes from the numerous stalls along Renmin Road.  Jamshed was particularly adept at haggling and he would often scoop up wares at 10% of the asking price, much to the amazement of everyone around.  The antiques stalls have since been moved to the dedicated Songxianqiao Antiques Market which has made a name all over China.

Chengdu is claimed to have a 2,000-year history but unfortunately, has little to show for it in extant buildings of earlier eras. An ancient city wall was brought down thoughtlessly on orders of Mao, though the city fathers have been careful not to do the same to his statue in Tianfu Square.  The older traditional buildings are sadly being replaced by soulless steel and concrete ones.  Despite all the change that has made it big, Chengdu still retains a small-town character reflected in the easygoing, rustic lifestyle of its simple inhabitants.  Will Chengdu still be the same when the present older generation is no more? After tomorrow, who can say?

© KAISER TUFAIL.  This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

 This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International, on 25 Nov, 2012.

26 September, 2012

Charming Water World of Venice

At the end of some official business at Treviso, a small Italian city in north-eastern Italy, we were eagerly looking forward to a couple of days in Venice, unquestionably one of the most enchanting cities in the world.  From a major maritime power of the Middle Ages to the ‘elegantly decaying’ city of present times, Venice continues to harbour an enduring appeal all its own.
After a short drive from Treviso to Mestre at the mouth of the Gulf of Venice, we disembarked from our road bus and boarded a water-bus (vaporetto) No 1 to get to Venice proper, which was a couple of kilometres away.  Our conducting officer, a strapping young Lieutenant of the Italian Air Force saw us off, while excusing himself for not being around any longer as he had to be with his widowed mother.  We were quite moved by his concern which is a rare thing in the fast-paced life of the Westerners.  “Italians are different, still quite traditional,” the Lieutenant assured us. 

After checking into a small hotel, we did the usual fish-and-chips routine which was a safe fare, as ‘halal’ wasn’t an available option, it seemed.  A walk along the Grand Canal that meanders through the heart of Venice, gave us a feel of the enchanting island.  The first thing we noted was the complete absence of vehicular traffic, which is turning into more of a nightmare than a useful facility everywhere.  Here we were at the late hour, watching the famous gondolas slithering past the waterways, with their gondoliers on the lookout for well-heeled tourists who could cough up the hefty fare.  On board one of the gondolas, an accordion player was serenading a rather engrossed couple, whose senses had obviously been overtaken by the sloshing and shimmering waters.
Set in the midst of the murky Venetian Lagoon, Venice owes much of its grandeur to the radiant Adriatic Sea sparkling across the narrow strips of land that barricade the lagoon. We wondered what a delightful effect the full moon and the tides would have on one’s senses.
Populated by refugees from the mainland escaping successive waves of Teutonic and Hun invasions about one and a half millennia ago, Venice is now subjected to a more welcome invasion by tourists that shows no sign of abatement.  The locals are a mere 70,000 in number, mostly an elderly lot, as the younger ones have moved to the mainland due to the very high cost of living, especially accommodation, in Venice.  The non-resident work force commutes from the mainland to the island and back daily, and its work revolves largely around catering to tourists who number up to a staggering one million every month. 
Next morning, we were up rather early and went looking for some coffee and doughnuts for a breakfast.  We watched the start of the workaday routine of the island with some amusement as boats brought in fresh fruit and vegetables, school children boarded their school boat-buses and municipality workers got to work collecting garbage in big boat-trucks.  The waterways seemed central to every activity.

After breakfast, we strolled along the waterfront towards Piazza San Marco, the famous landmark where tourists congregate in hordes.  On the way, we saw painters who had displayed their paintings on easels; the scenes captured much of the canals and bridges and the omnipresent gondolas of Venice.  I bought a set of two miniatures in water colour and these have graced our home for a long time, ever reminiscent of the splendour of Venice.
At the Piazza, we were lucky to manage a sidewalk table for ourselves, as we could sit and watch well past the time it took to dissolve the delicious ice cream in our mouths.  St Mark’s Basilica, the most famous of the city’s churches, lies to one side of the Piazza which takes its name from it.  Pigeons, which seem to have an affinity for tourist spots everywhere, fluttered overhead in sudden waves.  Some street performers on stilts had a crowd thronged around them, with little children quite awe-struck by the ‘giants’ in their midst.  After spending a thoroughly enjoyable two hours at the Piazza, we decided to walk through a narrow backdoor street to the iconic, 16th century arched Rialto Bridge, over the Grand Canal.

It was decided that after lunch at Rialto, we would visit the nearby island of Murano, famous the world over for its beautiful blown Murano Glass.  We were told to gather at the water-bus stop on Fondamente Nuove, which our tourist maps clearly showed at the northern edge and was not difficult to locate.  Boarding the jam-packed vaporetto we set course for Murano, which is just a ten-minute ride.  On the way, just off Venice, we passed by San Michele Island, which has served as a cemetery for the Venetians since the beginning of the 19th century.  Now packed to capacity, burials are only temporary till arrangements are made on the mainland, in due course.

As soon as we got off at Murano, a guide took over and walked us to a nearby glass factory for a demonstration by the master glass blower.  Three men were helping the master: one pulled the glass from the furnace and passed it on, the next one worked on forming a rough shape and again passed it on, while the third one did some cutting and finer shaping; finally, the master did the embellishment as the object cooled off into an exquisite flower vase.  All this demonstration was for free, but the price was extracted soon after we entered the shop for buying some of the wares.  A prominent notice cautioned visitors that any pieces broken by them would be theirs, much like the ones at our crockery shops.  Another notice that caught our eye in more than one shop was, that the glass ware was authentic Murano and not Made in China!  Bargaining is an accepted form of shopping in Murano and I tried my skills at buying a few pieces of delicate fruit and vegetables made from blown glass.  I was made to feel that it was the greatest bargain on the whole island, something which I am reminded of every day, as I look at the pieces in the dining room.

Glass production was moved out of Venice to Murano in the 13th century, as Venetian houses made of wood were considered at great risk of being consumed by glass furnace fires.  Today, Murano has come to be synonymous with some of the finest decorative glass ware in the world, and most visitors to Venice make it a point to visit the small island to collect some souvenirs.
After a hectic day, we returned to our hotel in the evening.  Next day, as we set off for Rome, everyone agreed that it was one of the most exotic holidays that we had undertaken. We had been to a city steeped in centuries of history and culture.  It was here in Venice of the 13th century that Marco Polo’s wanderlust took roots and, his travelogues brought knowledge about the exotic Orient to the Europeans.  It was here too, that the prolific 18th century writer, adventurer and ladies’ man, Giacomo Casanova, lived a colourful life that is painted in his extraordinary autobiography.  History, art, architecture, glassworks, gondolas, shopping and fashions, Venice had everything to offer and we had sampled a bit of all.  Most of us mused that even though a honeymoon trip to Venice had been missed out early in our lives, a post-retirement jaunt might be just the right therapy in these hectic times.  A full moon reflecting in the charming water world of Venice – seen from a gondola – is my idea of a golden jubilee!

© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International, on 28 Oct, 2012.

11 July, 2012

Kraków – Lahore’s Twin in Poland

Following a hectic tour of Warsaw and Deblin, which was mainly aimed at exploring areas of defence cooperation, we got a welcome break for a couple of days at Kraków, the cultural capital of Poland located in the far south.  ‘Krakuf,’ we were reminded about the knotty pronunciation by the well-informed Second Secretary in the Pak Embassy at Warsaw, who was accompanying us.  Soon after checking in at Garnizonowy Hotel, we took a walk along the Planty, a lush green belt that forms the perimeter of the inner town known as the Centrum.  There can be few places better than Planty to learn what happens in spring and here we were, in the middle of April, with flowers abloom and squirrels darting about in the oak trees that abound.  Lahore’s well-maintained Lawrence Gardens, along with several others, come to mind, though Planty is far more extensive in area.  Numerous monuments and statues dot the park, but one needs a good dose of Polish history and culture to make any sense of them.

Kraków rose to prominence in 1038 when it became the seat of the Polish government under Duke Casimir I of the first Piast Dynasty.  By the end of the century, it had become the leading city of trade and commerce.  The Mongols ravaged the city in 1241 and it was later rebuilt completely.  It survived two more Mongol onslaughts, thanks to defensive fortifications that had been built in the wake of earlier attacks.  The last King of the Piast Dynasty, Casimir III the Great, ordered the building of the Wawel Castle over the ruins of an earlier fortification.  Today the castle, much rebuilt, stands out as the most famous landmark of Kraków.

After a good night’s rest and a carefully selected kosher breakfast next morning – for pork closely follows God, Honour and Fatherland in Polish dogma – a few of us history buffs walked down to the nearby Wawel Castle.  A gypsy folk band playing on a violin, a double bass and an accordion, regaled us with a rather beat up melody as we headed towards the gateway.  The courtyard is surrounded on three sides by colonnaded galleries, reflecting the Renaissance Style that was in vogue at the time of the castle’s complete reconstruction by Sigismund I, in the first half of the 16th century.  Of similar vintage, our Lahore Fort pales in front of Wawel Castle in every way, especially with regard to restoration and maintenance.  The castle’s courtyard is where grand ceremonies take place, the last one being the internationally attended funeral reception for the late Polish President, heads of the armed forces and numerous other government officials who were killed in an air crash in 2010. 

While touring the royal apartments, we noted the considerable distance between the king’s and the queen’s bedrooms with some amusement, though this was no hurdle for Sigismund I who sired eight children from two wives!  A rich collection of Flemish tapestries adorn the walls of the king’s bedroom, as well as the Audience Hall and the Senators’ Hall.  An armoury and a treasury house a rich collection of royal artefacts and, are reminiscent of the Sikh Collection at the Lahore Fort.

The tour was rounded off with a short visit to the Wawel Cathedral, which has been the traditional site of royal coronations and the resting place of Polish heroes.  Of the several chapels that are adjuncts to the cathedral, the Sigismund Chapel stands out for its glittering dome of pure gold.  One is reminded of Sunehri Masjid in Inner Lahore’s Kashmiri Bazaar, though its domes are of everyday copper.

In the afternoon, we walked down to the nearby Main Market Square, to which are rooted many of Kraków’s colourful traditions.  Large revelling crowds, horse-drawn carriages, fluttering pigeons, numerous flower and gift shops and the utterly clean streets provided enough justification for the title of the ‘World’s Best Square,’ conferred by the New York-based Project for Public Spaces.  The famous Cloth Market, the Town Hall Tower and St Mary’s Basilica are some of the famous landmarks of the Square.  Not far is the Jagellonian University, the oldest in Poland and one of the oldest in the world.  Its Collegium Maius counts Nicolaus Copernicus amongst its students; he was the famous astronomer of the late 15th century who revolutionised ideas about the solar system with the sun at its centre.

We were just in time at the Market Square to hear the trumpet which is blown at each hour from the tower of St Mary’s Basilica.  Legend has it that a guard on the church tower sounded the alarm by blowing the trumpet when the Mongols attacked Kraków in 1241; the city gates were promptly closed while backdoor evacuation of women and children took place.  The trumpeteer, however, was purportedly shot in the throat by a Tatar arrow and was unable to complete the tune, which is why it now ends abruptly before completion.  It was a theatrical re-enactment of a past event – no matter if it was part myth – and, had a subtle message of devotion to duty for everyone.  We all were quite fascinated with the little drama.
After a day of riotous sightseeing, the serene Vistula River meandering around Wawel Castle beckoned our tired eyes for a mellow glimpse.  My friend Asif, ever eager to appreciate Nature, joined me for an after-dinner walk along the base of the Wawel Hill which is supposed to house a dragon’s lair.  Suddenly, we caught sight of a tongue of flame lashing out of the mouth of a creature that did seem like a dragon from afar.  Much to our amusement, we saw the metal sculpture spewing fire every two minutes.  Steeped in myths and legends like all old cities are, we learnt the story of a rapacious dragon of Kraków, which was slain by a cobbler’s son Skuba, after everyone else had failed to stop it from gobbling the city’s fair maidens.  As a reward, Skuba got the hand of the last surviving maiden – the king’s daughter.  Of course, they lived happily ever after.  Tourists can be so gullible, we thought, but nonetheless Kraków was doing well at their expense!

While we were sitting on a bench watching the dragon in its fire-breathing act, we heard a strange noise that seemed to have threatening overtones.  Not far was a crowd of fifty-odd jeering punks approaching in our direction.  As they got closer, we picked out the beer bottles in their hands.  Asif was quick to sense that the situation was likely to get nasty, so without much ado we got up and scrammed, giving no chance for a missile to be launched at us. 
The short trip to Kraków was rounded off the next day with a trip to an extra-ordinary place: the Nazi’s infamous WW-II Concentration  Camp at Auschwitz. In less than an hour, we had driven right up to the gate displaying the famous sign, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes you free).  Following a group photo at the gate, we were assigned to a tour guide, one of the Israeli-sponsored college students who volunteer for such duties during vacations.  We were taken to various internment barracks and some grisly locations like the gas chambers, crematoriums and firing ranges for summary executions.  Roomfuls of exhibits included prisoners’ eyeglasses, shoes, headgear, etc. The camp was one large museum of human atrocities on an unprecedented scale.  To us, it did not matter if some sceptics questioned the extent of the holocaust; to the suffering family, one death of its dear one meant the same loss as did a million deaths to everyone else.  In an unusual gesture, our group laid a floral wreath at the Execution Wall, which was heartily approved by surprised on-lookers, this being a first of sorts by Pakistanis.

After the visit to Auschwitz, we drove off to Warsaw across the undulating plains which exude a rustic old-world charm all its own.  Horse-drawn ploughs, women in long skirts and scarves and, men in baggy trousers, were far removed from the chic urbanity of Kraków that we had seen. 

During our short stay, we had noted that Poland’s difficult history had a common chord with our tormented one.  In that backdrop, it was easy to see some commonalities, and the one that stood out most was the similarity of Lahore with Kraków.  No matter that our city is many times more populous and far less tidy, but the fort, the gardens, the leafy suburbs and a rich history are fair indices for staking a claim to being a twin city.  That, we learnt is quite true, for Kraków and Lahore are indeed officially declared twins! 

© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Picture credit: Planty Park (first picture) by Tadeusz Weise.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International,  on 22 July, 2012.

02 June, 2012

Biking to the X-treme North

If you have heard people claiming to have travelled in Pakistan from ‘one end to the other,’ take it as no more than a figure of speech.  I thought such a sweeping contention should, for a start, entail a boat ride to the fabulous Astola Island in the Arabian Sea, thirty miles south-east of Pasni; and, no amount of travelling inside Pakistan’s heartland can be considered complete unless the sojourn is rounded off with the ultimate feat of reaching the northern-most latitude of the country.  That extreme geographical point was the goal of our two-man bicycle expedition last May, so we could proudly flaunt our ‘end-to-end’ travel credentials.

Most ordinary maps show a small kink jutting into China, a few miles north-east of the point where Pak, Afghan and Chinese borders meet, being aptly described by the British explorer Colonel Schomberg as the ‘solar plexus of the mountain system of Asia.’  Astride the kink is the 15,840-ft high Kilak Pass, which fans out northwards into a sprawling snow-clad pasture.  Here, herdsmen from Pakistan’s northern-most village of Misgar come to graze their sheep and goats, when the melting carpet of snow starts to uncover the rich herbage in May.  Up to the end of the 19th century, the pass was infrequently used by traders from Gilgit and Hunza to sell dried fruit and, of all items, wretched slaves – with the acquiescence of the heartless local rulers – to caravans plying between the fabled oasis towns of Western China and Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province, and beyond.  Much of the goods from China, however, came through the closer Mintaka Pass and, included silks, printed textiles, carpets and jade products, mostly destined for the ruling elite of the region.  Like most mountainous passes, Kilak and Mintaka were also notorious for being hideouts for brigands to waylay caravans laden with those exotic wares.  Some of the infamous outlaws of Gilgit and Hunza had spent their useful years prowling the crags and defiles of these passes, while living off the land in the company of wild animals and, lashed by bitterly cold winds.  I could almost hear the nervous whistles of marmots scampering about at the snarl of a hungry snow leopard in that mountain vastness, as I started to plan the expedition.

When I broached the subject with my friend Shahid Dad, last year, he seemed sufficiently enthused.  “Would you be willing to bike all the way from Gilgit to the extreme north of Pakistan?”  I inquired carefully, lest he take it as an indolent suggestion.  The strong fighter pilot bond we had shared in yesteryears came through when he emphatically replied in the affirmative.  When he added in his usual scholarly manner, “Age doesn’t matter, the heart is still young,” I knew I could take comfort, knee joints and all!  It was summarily decided that Shahid would be returning from Boston the following May, especially for this expedition.  I promptly purchased lightweight mountain bikes for the two of us from Nila Gumbad, Lahore’s crowded cycle mart.  Getting those ‘retired’ muscles back to vigorous work was a challenge, and the coming months saw me pedalling feverishly every morning on the outskirts of Lahore, while Shahid was mostly confined to a gym due to severe cold weather in Boston.  The expedition was to last a full fortnight, from Gilgit up to the northern limits of Upper Hunza Valley and back in 50-km daily stretches, so the demands on endurance and stamina had to be painstakingly catered for.

While physical conditioning was underway, the equally important planning aspects were looked into, critically.  Choice of route, basically dictated by suitable night stops, was followed by selection of nearby inns, motels or camping sites; geographical coordinates for GPS, climb gradients, astronomical and weather data were then gathered.  Most important, satellite pictures from Google® earth, which could be viewed in amazing 3-D ground-level panoramas, were downloaded, carefully analysed and then uploaded into our mobile phones for enroute correlation.  With a Mandarin vocabulary limited to nin hao and xiéxié, explaining a border violation to Chinese guards would have been a disaster; good navigation was, thus, the key to a successful mission.

The problem of Acute Mountain Sickness also had to be tackled.  The earliest mention of this sickness is known to have been made by a Chinese official by the name of To Kan in 32 BC, while he was touring in the vicinity of the Kilak Pass itself.  “A man’s face turns pale, his head aches, and he begins to vomit,” observed To Kan.  This malady afflicts even the very fit mountaineers if the rate of vertical traverse is more than 2,000-ft in 24 hours, above an elevation of 8,000-ft.  Such a situation was going to be encountered during our last leg, so we decided to break it up at the half way point.  With the vitals adequately taken care of, we were rearing to go.
On 26 April, I departed for Islamabad where I met up with Shahid who had arrived from Boston a few days before.  Next morning, we boarded PIA’s ATR-42 turbo-prop for Gilgit under command of a very helpful and friendly Captain.  The bikes had been transported to Gilgit by road earlier, as the baggage hold of the aircraft was found to be too small for bike cartons.  In Gilgit, we promptly assembled the bikes and went off for a familiarisation spin to the nearby town of Nomal, which we nostalgically remembered having passed by nearly four decades earlier, while on a tough route march during a survival course as cadets.

Riding the rather dazzling bikes – what, with Darth Vader helmets to complete the striking figures – we must have looked like some aliens, as we swished past the curious bystanders.  After returning from the test run, we rigged the bikes with pannier bags, tents and sleeping bags and, carefully calibrated the bike computers to help us keep track of speeds and distances during the expedition.

Finally, on 30th April, we set course for our first destination, Chalt.  The Karakoram Highway (KKH) was in good shape and pedalling seemed like a breeze.  The resplendent Common Magpies (Pica pica) in their black, white and iridescent green feathers were to become a common sight throughout our trip.  Said to be the most intelligent of all birds – being from the clever crow family – they cackled and quacked delightfully as if welcoming us to their garden localities.  A more hearty welcome came from the village children who would run alongside our bikes, chanting, “Hello, one penny please.”  We’d respond with salaams and good wishes in Urdu, but some of the kids would insist that we were angrez and, would keep on pestering for pennies!

After a tough 50-km leg, we approached Chalt by a suspension bridge and, to get our legs in normal working order, walked some distance to an old PWD rest house that had been booked in advance.  The facility had seen better times during the Raj – “comfortable bungalow,” according to the 19th century explorer Sir Aurel Stein – but even now, it wasn’t too bad for a night’s stay.  A hot bath before sleep and, a hearty open air breakfast at the nearby River View Hotel put us in top gear for the next leg.

Hunza evokes thoughts of a fabled land where everyone lives long, and happiness seems to be a gentle breeze that blows the year round.  We had been to Hunza previously in hurried affairs, but never as merrily as this time, on bikes.  Leaving Chalt, which also marks the northern limit of Gilgit District, we had to negotiate a steep climb over a highway that suddenly was no more.  The KKH was under major repair from Chalt onwards, and we found ourselves huffing and puffing over gravel and shingle, an ordeal that was to last till our final destination, all of the remaining 200 kms. 

As we approached Hunza’s main commercial town of Aliabad after a very steep 50-km leg, which took us nine long hours to cover, courteous adults and cheerful children made us feel quite welcome.  Following the unfortunate spate of sectarian killings a few weeks earlier, tourism had come to a complete standstill in the region; now, we seemed harbingers of better times to the locals.
Having no energy left to climb yet another 2,000-ft to the Eagle’s Nest Hotel perched atop a sheer cliff beyond Duikar village, we hired a pick-up to haul our bikes. Just in time to catch the ginger and orange glow of the setting sun bouncing off the snow clad mountains, we enjoyed the dazzling spectacle from the hotel terrace.  Not too far in the sky, the crow-like Red-billed Choughs (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) in their glossy black plumage could be seen performing some spectacular aerobatics in the mountain updrafts.  While climbing up, we had noticed scores of youngsters returning to their homes in the nearby towns after a day-long picnic at Duikar.  Interestingly, there was no segregation, much like the rest of Hunza and, one wondered if this might be one of the possible reasons for bliss in the happy valley!  Later at the hotel, a short dinner for two turned out to be a huge serving for four.  Though not quite a master of Burushaski, I suspected that the order for alto (two) was conveyed as walto (four) by the waiters to the cooks!  Well fed and tired to the bones, we were almost sleep-walking back to our rooms. 

The third leg promised to be different as we had to negotiate the 18-km long Ata-abad Lake that, in one of the vagaries of Nature, came into being three years ago as a result of a massive landslide damming the Hunza River.  We arrived at a dirty little jetty, where disorder and confusion vied with dust and a merciless sun to rile the coolest of nerves.  It took some tough shouting to ensure that our bikes were not mishandled as they were hauled onto the boats.  Thereafter started a 90-minute ferry, what with a deafening putter of the diesel motors for a serenade, as we watched the reflection of the towering mountains in the turquoise waters of the lake.  Disembarking a little short of Hussaini, we found ourselves in Gojal Tehsil or the Upper Hunza Valley, where Hunza’s Burushaski language largely gives way to the Afghan-linked Wakhi.
 Already tired and profusely hungry, the stretch from Hussaini onwards to Pasu was torment for our lower limbs.  We had to get off the bikes when even the lowest gear refused to generate forward motion over the precipitous mountains.  After a good two hours of lugging our wobbly selves along with the bikes, we finally hit downhill.  In the fading light of the day, a ‘Welcome to Pasu’ road sign came as a godsend and we raced to get to Sarai Silk Route, a small but adequate hotel.  As everywhere else, our requirements centred on a hot bath and enough to eat, both of which were available promptly.  Over dinner, our waiter who preferred to speak only in English, explained that he was basically a tourist guide and in this lean season, was doing odd jobs.  Those with better means were offering the services of their vehicles to the locals to get to the ferry at Hussaini and back.  The Ata-abad Lake has hampered the movement of tourists as well the locals, who have to pay hefty amounts to get their goods across.  A permanent solution seems years away, though it is my considered opinion that two modern berths at either end, suitably equipped with cranes to service heavy duty barges, might be a functional interim solution. 
The hearty dinner we had at Pasu gave us reason to rest an extra day, for Shahid had taken ill not long after the meal.  In the meantime, I sauntered around the apricot and apple orchards and, took some striking pictures of the serrated Pasu peaks also known as the Cathedral Spires.  The day after, we set course for the fourth leg to Sost, which is the dry port for trade with China via the Khunjerab Pass, 80-km further east.  After another arduous day of cycling which saw us through the beautiful village of Khaibar  where everyone looked like a Bosnian or a Croat – we arrived in Sost.  A rather shabby town despite the natural beauty all around, we were hard-pressed to look for accommodation.  Due to an unusual influx of two busloads of Japanese tourists, the PTDC Motel was fully booked; however, we were permitted to set up our tents at the little camp site in the hotel premises.  Once again a hot bath and, some very appetising food served by a most eager-to-please waiter Shams-uddin, lulled us to an early sleep.

It was a wonder that, having biked for more than 200-kms over a rubble of a highway, our cycles held out, with not even a puncture to stop our progress.  We were glad that much of our cycling was over, but in all earnest, we knew that the remaining trek wouldn’t be Boy Scout stuff.  Physical rigours had expended the last of our calories and will power had been sapped to the last grimace.  Kilak Pass was still 7,000 feet above and, a perilous 55-kms beyond.  Our trainer in boot camp of yesteryears, the late Sqn Ldr Sabir, had always reminded us that when all else is spent, determination surely lends a helping hand.  We had loads of it and it was time to tap into this resource.

As we set out from Sost for Misgar about 15-km away, we were excited about seeing this last outpost of the British Empire.  During the ‘Great Game’ of the late 19th century, Misgar served as an important station for keeping an eye on Czarist Russia’s involvement, gauging the extent of Chinese influence and, trying to manipulate the double-dealing Mir of Hunza to side with the British. 

Much earlier in 1844, Mir Ghanzanfar Khan of Hunza had driven out some Kyrgyz settlers in the area in an effort to assert his authority and, to secure exclusive trade relations with China.  After evicting the intruders, the Mir ordered his small expeditionary force to settle there permanently, which is how the Burushaski-speaking Misgar village emerged in the predominantly Wakhi-speaking Upper Hunza Valley. 
About an hour out of Sost, we diverted off the Karakoram Highway, onto a very steep jeepable track that led to Misgar.  During the climb, one had to keep the eyes off the deep gorges and plunging ravines, lest a flash of dizziness caused a fatal wobble.  After some of the toughest cycling so far, we reached the outskirts of the village, welcomed as usual by little children asking for their share of pennies.  Pakistan's northern-most village, Misgar is set in a valley of verdant fields and rushing streams surrounded by towering snow-clad mountains.  Terraced gardens, awash with pink apricot blossoms, were tended by colourfully clad womenfolk.
We had planned to hand over our bikes to the village numberdar (headman) and, on making an inquiry about his residence, were held back for a cup of tea by a stranger.  Our host Irshad-ullah would not let us go without taking a little rest and he brought in his excited children who met us most courteously.  After some invigorating tea and biscuits, we took leave and headed for the numberdar’s residence at the far end of the village.  A surprised Ata-ullah welcomed us at his home and insisted that we stay over for a night as we were tired.  When we told him that we were hard-pressed due to our schedule and wanted to start our trek immediately, he got busy with arranging porters for us.  In the meantime we readied the backpacks, tents, sleeping bags and our food supplies which were to be carried along, while the bikes were safely kept by Ata-ullah.  In an hour, we were hiking off to Runghil, about 13-km away.  On our way out of Misgar, we passed by the old post and telegraph office that was an important message despatch facility for the British and, continues to be fully functional nearly a century after it was established in 1916. 

Five kilometres out of Misgar, we came across the Qalandarchi Fort, another relic of the ‘Great Game’ where the British maintained a small garrison to keep an eye on Russian and Chinese activities across the frontier.  We decided to survey the fort on our way back, so more about it later.

From Misgar to Kilak, there are several shepherds’ way stations having a single stone hut each, where a team of four shepherds lives during the summer grazing season.  The shepherds take short monthly breaks to Misgar in rotation for visiting their families, and for restocking their food supplies.  A single team tends a flock of as many as five hundred sheep and goats, most of which are later sold off in the markets of Gilgit and Hunza.  Runghil was the first of these staging posts where we camped for the night, reaching there just before night fall.  Our porters being educated up to high school had kept up a good conversation, filling us up on the terrain, flora and fauna, as well as local lore and history.  Out of mobile phone coverage, we started using the handy satellite phone to call our families daily about our progress and well-being.

Next morning, a nourishing breakfast of oatmeal and coffee cooked by Shahid over firewood got us going to our next destination of Morkushi.  Being a mere seven kilometres from Runghil, we reached Morkushi by midday and decided to give ourselves a rest as some tough trekking was expected the following day.  Morkushi is another shepherds’ way station and large herds of goats could be seen grazing in the alpine meadows at an elevation of 12,000-ft.  Juniper, birch and willow are the common trees of the valley.  Wild rose grows plentifully, and some delightful White-winged Redstarts (Phoenicurus erythrogaster) could be seen perching on the bushes, seemingly filling in for the roses that had not yet blossomed.
“Down in the little wood of stunted birch trees by the river,” wrote the explorer Sir Aurel Stein about the site where he had camped in 1900, on his way to Kashgar via Kilak Pass.  We too, found a place to camp in the woods by the river and Shahid soon got to work building a fire for a meal of rice and vegetable soup, while I collected some ice-cold water from the nearby river.  The Kilak and Mintaka Rivers meet at Morkushi, flowing in from the north-west and north-east respectively.  Interestingly, while the sandy bed of Mintaka River is sparkling white, that of Kilak River is jet black seemingly laden with antimony compounds, though a proper soil analysis might suggest a more complex composition.   

Setting out from Morkushi to Sad Buldi – which was to be our base camp for the final trek to Kilak Pass – we passed by a number of crude stone tombs said to be those of Kyrgyz nomads who had been settlers here, once upon a time.  Nearby, a neat helipad with a floor of well laid out stones testified to visits by senior military commanders who keep the area under their watchful eyes.
During the trek to Sad Buldi, we came across numerous marmots whose warning calls to their mates sounded to me like, Heeeeere they come … run, run, run!”  If during the day we were there to startle them, they had a tougher time at night when they had to stay clear of prowling snow leopards, whose pug marks we spotted a dozen times across our track.

On the way, we stopped at an odd run-down monument known as Bozai Gumbaz (dome of the elders), which had a couple of ibex horns strung up, apparently votive in nature.  Similarly named structures stand not too far in Afghanistan’s Wakhan strip and are actually tombs in the vicinity of Kyrgyz settlements.  During the short break at the monument, our porters built a quick fire and we had some hot coffee to pep us up for the remaining trek.
Reaching Sad Buldi in the afternoon, we were caught by a snow flurry followed by icy cold winds.  During the night, the temperature fell to minus 10ºC and a 40-knot wind kept lashing our tents.  Shahid, who is prone to freezing earlier than most, got up in the middle of the night and jogged around while I wondered what the hullabaloo was all about!

The Big Day dawned with a surprisingly clear sky and we set course at six in the morning before the snow started to melt under the sharp rays of the sun.  The 6-km trek to Kilak Pass turned out to be a tough one as we had to climb a good 2,000-ft, what with the atmospheric oxygen at Sad Buldi’s 14,000-ft elevation already 45% less than at sea level.  Shahid led the way with a surprisingly brisk gait and by 9:00 am we were at our objective, Border Pillar No 2, that denotes the Pak-China border at Kilak Pass.

The amount of snow for the first week of May was far more than what we had expected.  All around, the vista had Arctic overtones and, only the blue sky added colour to what was otherwise a most enchanting composition in various shades of white.  So pristine was the scenery that our footsteps in the snow seemed to mar eons of stillness, much like Armstrong’s did on the moon, I liked to imagine.
The Kilak Pass opens into a sprawling plain about two kilometres wide, enclosed by towering mountains on the eastern and western sides.  A border fence about 50 metres inside the Chinese territory ensures that shepherds and their animals do not create a diplomatic fuss every now and then.  We stayed around the border pillar and took numerous pictures, though in the excitement we missed an important screen snap of the GPS, that could have recorded the latitude of 37º 05’ N and an elevation of 16,000’ above sea level.

Having to rush before the snow turned into slush, we headed back carefully but to little avail.  I plunged several times in to waist deep snow and, in a few instances, scraped my shins against hidden rocks.  Luckily, the injuries were Band-Aid curable.  Anything more serious would have been disastrous and, in retrospect, I feel that donkeys or other pack animals might be the next best thing to helicopters for evacuation in a hiking eventuality, especially in a remote area.

Back at our camp by midday, both Shahid and I started to feel a bit of queasiness which we put down to altitude sickness.  Feeling better by the evening, we called our anxious families to tell them that the mission had been accomplished.  Eight days of hard work had paid off and we were eager to get back.
The trek back to Misgar was on familiar route and included a night halt at Morkushi.  Before we got to Misgar the following afternoon, we made a short detour to Qalandarchi Fort.  Built by the British in the 1930s to show a military presence in a sensitive area, the fort found new use half a century later, when the Pakistan Army posted a small section of soldiers in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  In the late eighties, when India occupied the Siachen glacier, Pakistan Army decided to establish a High Altitude Combat School for its Northern Areas troops that were earmarked for duties in Siachen.  A decade later, when training began in situ at Siachen, Qalandarchi was finally abandoned.  Today a mosque and some barracks in the vicinity of the decrepit fort await new residents.  Maybe the infrastructure could be leased out to some enterprising tour operator if the Army doesn’t find the area as ‘sensitive’.  I am told, however, that cross-border sensitivities may be a bigger issue.

Reaching Misgar at midday, we were welcomed by Ata-ullah over sumptuous snacks and tea.  We paid off the porters, rigged our bikes with the camping gear, and took leave from our genial host.  As we cycled through the village, we were cheerfully waved at by all and sundry, as word had gotten out about our successful expedition.

Arriving in Sost by evening, we checked in the PTDC Motel, which this time, was mostly vacant.  A bath never felt so good, as we had to do without this facility during our camping.  A good load of laundry was also done in quick time.  With the household chores out of the way, we had a sumptuous dinner, much starved as we were on our limited rations in the camp.

Next morning, we decided to leap-frog to Hussaini in a vehicle, cross the Ata-abad Lake by boat and then ride our bicycles to Aliabad in Hunza.  After a luxury stay at another of PTDC’s excellent motel in Aliabad, we moved on to Gilgit, where the friendly and caring ways of the Army made us feel absolutely at home. 

Unfortunately, the way out of Gilgit by air was closed due to bad weather and, the prospects were not favourable for the coming days, so we decided to take a 20-hour ride by bus to Rawalpindi. 

We had been on the road or the trail for a fortnight and, most of the daylight hours had been taken up by a gruelling regimen.  The sense of accomplishment was immense indeed, particularly because our mode of transport was unique as not too many Pakistanis are given to cycling for leisure.  We hope that the younger lot is inspired enough to take up similar challenges; that is not to say that the senior lot should be considered past the age of pluck and resolve.  Here is a little secret that should get you going: we are both 58 and, there is no stopping yet! 

© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International, in two parts, on 3 June and 10 Jun, 2012. It was also published in Pamir Times, in four parts, between 11 June and 21 June, 2012.