Location: ActionAid Country Office, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Date: 26th September 2006
Due to the need to get to Tibet before the winter snows made the roads impassable, we didn’t have enough time to visit any project sites in Nepal. However, we did manage to spend a few hours getting the low down on ActionAid’s activities in Nepal from Fundraising and Communications Manager, Archana Sharma. Archana explained the Rights Based Approach that ActionAid is pioneering amoung the NGO sector and detailed many of the problems that ActionAid is endeavouring to address in Nepal.
ActionAid’s mission in Nepal is “to empower poor and excluded people to eradicate poverty and injustice”. The phrase “excluded people” is initially confusing. Excluded from who or from what? The answer lies in Nepal’s Hindu caste system which although not as strong as it is in India, is still a powerful social force. The Hindu caste system distinguishes groups of people by their descent and surname. There are five castes, each of which supposedly has a higher or lesser degree of ritual purity and social status. The uppers castes are the Brahmin (priest) and Kshatriya (warrior) castes. The lower castes are the Vaishya (merchant) and sudra (peasant) castes. Beneath these are the Dalits (or untouchables). In the cities, where there is better education, the caste system is recognised as being obsolete. However, in the countryside, low paid, menial jobs are inevitably filled by Dalits. Dalits are routinely discriminated against by the other castes and there are cases of intra-dalit discrimination.
ActionAid works with over 100 local partner organisations in Nepal to raise awareness amoung Dalits of their own rights. Discrimination due to caste has been illegal in Nepal since 1963. However, many Dalits are unaware of their rights under the law and accept the social system as it stands. By setting up social groups where Dalits can organise to demand their rights, ActionAid is empowering these excluded people to obtain a better life for themselves. These methods have proven successful and caste-based discrimination is gradually decreasing in ActionAid programme areas. In other areas, Dalit children are now attending schools which they were previously denied access to.
Another major area that ActionAid is involved in is Women’s Rights. 57 women’s groups, with membership of over 1,200 women were formed in 2005. These groups are engaged in educating local women about their rights and how they can claim them. In rural areas, it is common for women not to obtain birth and marriage certificates. This can lead to problems later. For example, husbands could remarry and deny that they were ever married to their spouse. Claiming free primary education for children could also be a problem if there was no birth certificate to identify the child. Initiatives carried out by ActionAid through its partner organisations have led to an increase in the number of registrations of vital events such as birth and marriage which enables people to claim their rights.
Recognising that the role of government is key in effecting change in many areas, one of ActionAid’s main objectives is to influence government and other key national and international agencies in the formulation of pro-poor policies. This is carried out through the organisation of demonstration marches and rallies and the direction lobbying of local and national government. Successes in this area include the abolition of dual-taxing of farmers growing herbs on private land, the effective rehabilitation of former bonded labourers, an increase in the budget for the prevention and treatment of AIDS and the enforcement of law guaranteeing equal wages for men and women.
During our brief visit, we got a good overview of the work that ActionAid is doing in Nepal. However, Nepal is one of the world’s poorest countries and the problems its people face are numerous.
For more information on these issues see:
Driving into Delhi was a bit of an anticlimax. After being told hundreds of horror stories of the chaos and squalor of the capital of India, I was a bit surprised to see that the roads were disciplined (by comparison) and that they were relatively clean. We headed into the Tibetan area of town to find a decent hotel. With the huge immigration of Tibetans from their native land, they have set up large communities in Nepal and India. The area we stayed in was called, somewhat unimaginatively, New Tibetan Colony. Having checked into a hotel, we headed out onto the main street to get a taxi to the famous Red Fort. This was our first encounter with the Indian commission system. On the way to the fort, the taxi driver informed us it was closed on Mondays. In that case, take us to an internet café, we said. Several minutes later he was ushering us into a typical emporium full of tourist souvenirs. We left immediately having heard about this scam before. There then ensued a five minute argument with the taxi driver during which he implored us to stay in the shop for 10 minutes so he could get his commission – which was 3 times more than the taxi fare. Apparently we didn’t even have to buy anything. We tired of this argument fairly quickly, gave him his fare and left with a few swear words. This unfortunately was not to be our first encounter with the dreaded commission system. Later on, as we wandered around the modern New Delhi area – similar to the modern centres of many cities – we were to be continually spun lines by people obviously on commission. The first question they ask you after the initial pleasantries is whether this is your first time in India. This is to see how big a sucker you are. Then they ask you where you are going. If you say a restaurant or a hotel or a shop – they know one better or cheaper or nearer. They even went so far as to tell us the restaurant we were looking for had burnt down despite it being clearly visible across the street! One guy spent considerable time telling us how we should wear Indian clothes to protect ourselves from people on commission, before admitting that if we went to a particular shop and bought said Indian clothes then he would get a free T-shirt. Having just travelled from Turkey, Iran and Pakistan where people speak to you just for a conversation, it was a big disappointment to be spoken to only by people who want money. This was to be a constant theme in India and didn’t endear me to the country at all.
After a full days wandering, we got a rickshaw back to the hotel after dark. Well, tried to get a rickshaw back to the hotel. After much haggling – they always try to triple the price for a foreigner – we jumped in and got stuck in a traffic jam for about 20 mins. Then the guy brought us to the wrong area. Admitting he didn’t know where he was going, he found us another rickshaw. Within 5 minutes it had run out of gas. This guy then found us another one who did actually manage to get us back to the hotel. The whole trip took about 1 ½ hours. After a solid nights sleep we awoke on Tuesday morning to be informed that someone had broken into the Landy. Sure enough, one of the back windows was broken and Richard’s rucksack was gone. There wasn’t anything of huge importance in it but things like contact lenses can be tricky to replace. Later, I discovered that one of my bags had gone too but since it contained mostly dirty underwear I was pretty unconcerned. Discussions with the locals revealed that there was one prime suspect in the case – a junkie that had been hanging around the area recently. After a fairly intense interrogation involving several punches and kicks, he owned up but had unfortunately already hawked all the stuff. Police involvement was pointless except to get a report form so that insurance could be claimed. The hotel staff took us to an industrial area closeby where we got the window fixed for 300 Rupees (£4). When we got back we were informed that the locals had dispensed some community justice on the thief. Still, that night we figured it wise if someone slept in the Landy. Unluckily, I lost the coin toss and spent a remarkably sweaty and unpleasant night sleeping fitfully in the back.
Wednesday morning we were up early to go to Agra – the home of the legendary Taj Mahal. Leaving Dehli at 7am proved to be a good idea traffic wise but didn’t help us with navigation – most of the signs being in Hindi. We used the compass to get the right direction and thought we were on to a winner when stopping to ask for directions confirmed we could get to Agra this way. What we realised later on though was that we had taken the smaller road to Agra which passes through Aligarh rather than the main motorway. The road was in terrible condition and was of course full of the usual array of horses and carts, donkeys, bicycles, rickshaws, cows, trucks, tractors, people pushing carts and the occasional other car. All of which proceed in the most random and erratic manner possible. Keeping to one side of the road is a bizarre notion to Indians. There is one road which can be used to its full potential by constantly weaving into any inch of free space there may be. Regardless if that puts you into the path of a large truck or Land Rover. In short the journey was torturous, made more so by getting lost in Aligarh. This is a typical Indian city – chaotic and squalid. Piles of pungent, decaying rubbish fill the streets, left for the ever present goats and cows to sift through. The aforementioned traffic is crammed into every available millimetre of the streets. The sweltering heat squeezes sweat out of every pore in your body and your desire to leave is tempered by the knowledge that there is no road signs and that most peoples directions are unreliable. Eventually, we managed to get out after stopping every 100m to ensure we were going the right way. We arrived in Agra at 4.30pm to be met with a very similar scene to Aligarh except that here you have the added attraction of large numbers of beggars and touts. The crazy road system forced us into the narrow streets of the old part of the city where we caused much amusement trying to proceed down these streets with an inch gap on either side. However, it didn’t prove too bad in the end and we reached the Taj Mahal area fairly quickly. Running the gauntlet of touts and tat sellers, we made our way to the entrance and joined the huge queue. The king of Malaysia was in town apparently and was enjoying a tour of the Taj while we waited outside – the fecker. After a bit we were in but the delay meant we had to fend off more tour guides. One claimed that he could get us in without queuing via a secret tunnel!
The first sight of the Taj makes it all worth it though. It truly is a beautiful building. The Taj was finished in 1653 and stands as a mausoleum to the second wife of Emperor Shah Jahan – Mumtaz Mahal (hence the name). The white marble exterior is stunning and we spent a long time just marvelling at it. The inside however, is very dark with just one low wattage bulb illuminating the cenotaphs of Jahan and Mumtaz. We left the Taj after dark and headed out of the city towards Kanpur. We didn’t make it very far though because it is just too dangerous to drive at night in India. We thought we were hardened drivers by now but nothing can prepare you for the trauma of driving after dark in this country. After five close shaves in as many minutes we stopped at a truck stop for the night. We had stayed at truck stops in almost every country we’d been to so far and they prove to be pretty cool. The places are usually grubby but the truckies are always friendly.
Thursday was a non-stop drive towards Gorakphur, passing through Kanpur (not much different from Aligarh). Again we stopped at a truck stop. We only ever ate dhal at these places as one look told you it wouldn’t be wise to try any meat and we were getting pretty tired of it by now. The next day we reached Gorakphur then headed north to the border of Nepal. The Indian border town is called Sunauli and is a bit of a hell-hole. It took hours to get through the Indian side and several more hours on the Nepali side. The Nepali town was equally hellish and we had to fend off the usual gamut of money-changing touts.
Eventually we were through and looking forward to putting some miles on the clock to get to some cooler weather. Unfortunately, a road accident about 5km outside the border meant we had to wait for ages before following a bus through some muddy village tracks to go around it. We reached the town of Butwal at 8pm and went to a restaurant for some quality food. And quality it was. After the monotony of Indian dhal we were overwhelmed by how tasty and nourishing Nepali food is by comparison. The Nepali people were very friendly as well. It looked like we were going to enjoy our time here.
Saturday morning we were up at the crack of dawn to make our way to Sauraha in the Royal Chitwan National Park – home of tigers, rhinos and elephants. It took us a while to find it due to lack of road signs but we got there by 9am and booked ourselves on a nature walk in the morning and an elephant ride in the afternoon – all for 30 USD. The nature walk began with a boat ride down the river where we rowed perilously close to two Magur crocodiles. Alighting from the boat, we hiked through some woodland which was crawling with (thankfully harmless) cotton bugs. We startled a deer and got jeered at by several groups of monkeys after visiting the elephant breeding ground. The elephant ride was cool though pretty painful – its not comfortable sitting in a large basket on top of one of these beasties. We were lucky enough to find a rhino while on the elephant safari after a half hour of crashing through trees in the forest. We were also lucky enough to share the elephant basket with a charming Swiss couple (Phil & Cristine) who let us use their hotel shower later on and introduced us to some Australians who were doing a similar trip to us. We spent the night in the Landy and left for Kathmandu in the morning. We were still in a rush to get our visas for Tibet and China.
The road to Kathmandu was packed full of stunning scenery. And trucks. It was slow going but we got there in about 5 hours and I had the joyful task of driving through the jammed streets while Richard navigated. Within about half an hour he had navigated me into the smallest, narrowest streets of the old town which were crammed full of people looking at me disapprovingly as I tried to get out. At one point loads of people started hammering on the sides of the Landy which was a bit worrying. It wasn’t until a day or so later that we realised that this is what Nepalis do when directing a vehicle and telling it is safe to go forward. An hour later and with a profound sense of relief, we got onto wider streets and made our way to a hotel. The hotel car park already contained a Defender 110 decked out for overland travel which we thought was a good omen. Unfortunately, to get into said car park we had to take the roof rack off which proved to be fun given the huge weight of the fecker. This done, we headed out to explore the area and get some decent food in the form of a monstrously good steak.
Waking up in the Hunza valley was a remarkable experience. It is impossible to do justice to the scenery here. The massive snow-capped peaks of Rakaposhi which rise to 7800m are just one of the impressive sights that greet you as you progress through the valley. Taking a leisurely drive and about a zillion photos, we took a side road which was pointing to Hoper glacier. This was to prove a bad idea though we didn’t know it at the time. The road was a dirt track that was very steep and rugged and about 20 Km long. We came across a Swiss cyclist who was struggling along and gave him a lift. After a while, the engine problem occurred again so we decided to try the wet towel idea. We soaked two towels and put one on the solenoid and one on the radiator pipe. After a while, a tractor came so we had to move. I moved the towel and put down the bonnet. We headed off again for the last few Km to the glacier.
We spent a few hours walking on the glacier and enjoying the views before leaving to go back down the dirt track. After a few Km we noticed smoke coming from the engine. The fire extinguisher in the front proved to be worth its weight in gold because when we opened the bonnet we were greeted by the sight of large flames consuming the spark leads on the right of the engine! The towel that had been on the coil had slipped down onto the manifolds out of sight so I hadn’t noticed it when closing the bonnet before and assumed Richard must have moved it. The heat from the manifolds had ignited it and it had burned the spark leads and the fuel return lines from the carbs before we put it out. We recovered fairly quickly from the situation though, as we had spares leads and spare pipe sections we used to fix the return lines. There were some singed electrical wires too which were easily replaced. Feeling fairly pleased that we had managed to recover from this near disaster we drove back down the KKH to return to Islamabad and then cross to India. Time was becoming very short for getting to Tibet. However, our troubles weren’t over yet.
On Tuesday we were nearing Abbotabad (what is it about this place?) again when the ignition problem occurred with a vengeance. The problem would not resolve itself and was occurring even though the engine was cold which put pay to the over-heating coil theory. For about 90 Km we had to drive at 25 miles an hour as the engine was performing too badly to go faster. We limped back to Richards mates in Abbotabad and hatched a plot for getting the problem fixed. Due to the time constraint we decided that Richard would take the Landy to the garage Islamabad and I would go to visit the ActionAid project in Muzaffarabad.
Unbeknownst to me, while I was in Muzaffarabad (see separate post), the Land Rover was driving fine and again had no visible problems when taken to the garage. This was becoming infuriating. We had hoped that the problem had finally become permanent so it could be resolved but its intermittent nature meant that it was impossible for the mechanics to diagnose. We have no alternative but to continue on until it finally manifests itself completely.
Saturday we made our way to the border at Wagah. I did get stopped by the motorway police for speeding (they have a 50 Km/h zone – ridiculous) but I managed to convince them I was foreign and knew nothing. Wagah is the only place where vehicles can cross to India but it was surprisingly deserted and surprisingly hard to find – being located down a poor road with no signposts. After the usual few hours of beurocracy and the usual drugs related questions we were through and in India. On the very line of the border we were offered cold beer but as we had no currency yet we couldn’t take them up on this offer.
We drove the 35Km to the city of Amritsar – the home of the legendary golden temple –Sikhism’s holiest site. Under the Sikh code, anyone can stay at the temple for 3 days free food and board. Sweet. We made our way there after getting some cash at an ATM. It was a relief to be able to use these wondrous devices again after not being able to use them in Iran and only being able to us two banks in Pakistan.
The Golden Temple was magnificent and we spent hours wandering around it, claiming our beds and getting fed in the canteen. 30,000 people eat here every day and the food is prepared by Sikh volunteers. In the evening, we caught a rickshaw to the one bar in town which was a grubby dive and we had our first cold beer in weeks. We got into conversation with some locals who were keen to discuss politics. This is common everywhere we go. Stick to the down with Bush line and you are on to a winner. Then it was back to the temple. The temple changes at night and comes home to a lot of people who are keen to espouse how great Sikhism is. I learned a lot about the religion from these people but I don’t think I’ll be donning a silver bracelet just yet.
After a night in the temple we left Amritsar for Delhi on Sunday morning. We didn’t reach it by Sunday night as the road is jammed full of bicycles, motorbikes, lorries and pedestrians which makes it almost impossible to get above 40 mph. We stopped in a truck stop and prepared to hit Delhi early the next morning.
Location: Shala Bagh village and Khilla Chattgran Village near Muzaffarabad city. Azed Jammu & Kashmir region. Pakistan.
Date: 12th & 13th September 2006.
Pakistan is a country of great contrasts – from the dessert of Balochistan, the verdant greenery of Punjab and the vast snowy mountain ranges of Hunza in the Northern Areas, this is a land of many different races and languages. Pashtuns, Punjabis, Sindhis and Afghans to name but a few can be found intermingling in the cities. All these people share two things in common – an inability to drive and a great sense of hospitality.
There is, however, a major gap between classes. The well educated upper classes have huge houses and employ servants. The majority of the population is under-educated, live in poor housing conditions and have local income.
Having broken our transport yet again and being inflicted with a rapidly decreasing amount of time, myself and Richard split up in Abbotabad. He would get the Land Rover fixed while I would make my way to the city of Muzaffarabad to see first hand the work ActionAid is doing in the Azed Jammu & Kashmir area. This area was worst affected by the October 8th 2005 earthquake in which 400,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and 73,000 people were killed. 70% of the schools and colleges in the area were destroyed resulting in the death of 18,000 students. The streets of the city are still full of the remains of collapsed buildings which clearly demonstrate the destructive power of the quake which measured 7.6 on the moment magnitude scale.
Arriving by minibus in the city centre, I headed to a taxi stand to find the location of the ActionAid office. The taxi driver didn’t have a clue but luckily a young student who was passing did. Hoping on the back of his motorbike we careered through the busy streets up to a hill above the city where we found the address within a few minutes. His asking price – a handshake and a nod.
I received a warm welcome from the staff at the ActionAid office led by the field coordinator Ms Alia Farooq and soon after explaining what I was doing there I was being ushered out the door to see one of the project villages. Ms Farooq had been a victim of the earthquake just as much as the people she is working to help now. Her own home in the city collapsed, killing 3 of her family members.
The village of Shala Bagh was devastated by the earthquake on 8th October 2005. All the buildings were destroyed or irrecoverably damaged and large numbers of people were crushed to death beneath the debris. This was a village which previously had no problems. People had houses and jobs and lived normal lives. After the quake they had nothing. The government response to the quake was poor – people were offered a paltry monetary compensation which was subject to huge bureaucratic wrangle i.e. corruption.
ActionAid held extensive negotiations with the surviving residents to find out what they needed in the aftermath of the quake. In the early days it was basic emergency shelter and food. ActionAid provided tents followed by a model (quake proof) shelter and trained the local people in how to build their own. They also provided chickens and goats which could be bred for food. As time progressed, the needs of the villagers changed. ActionAid held regular discussions to find out what these needs were. At the time of my visit, almost one year after the quake, there was now a community centre where men and women from the whole area come to discuss problems and issues. There was also a medical unit providing health care with a doctor, 2 nurses and a dispensist. A local shop had been set up with a grant of 5000 PKR (?50) which was now self-running and making regular profit. Local women were being trained in sewing and needle-craft and some women were making income by making and repairing clothes for people from other villages. The chickens and goats were multiplying and the crops for which ActionAid had provided the seeds were in full bloom. New buildings were being constructed to replace the emergency shelters.
All this demonstrates ActionAids methods of working. People are not given handouts then left to fend for themselves. A comprehensive survey is undertaken to allow the community to express its needs. Afterall, they are more likely to know than anyone else. The needs are then prioritized and action is taken to train and skill the community to progress these issues themselves. In this way, the skills stay within the community. If ActionAid arrived, built shelters and left, who would maintain them? Who would build new ones? By training the community to build themselves, they are arming people with the ability to help themselves.
Once the immediate needs of food and shelter have been addressed, the community is encouraged to invest in its long-term future. People are trained in the areas that they feel they need skills in. In this community, the women wanted to be able to mend their families clothing – hence the sewing classes which then becomes a source of income as well.
During my visit there it was plainly obvious how much respect people had for Ms Farooq. Her ability to communicate with the villagers and her strong personality and sense of duty make her the perfect person for this role. ActionAid always endeavor to recruit staff from the actual areas they are working in. There are great benefits in this as in a lot of areas, an in-depth understanding of cultural and societal issues is essential. It would be foolish to attempt to parachute someone in to this area and expect them to be able to perform this role. The other ActionAid staff members that I met were all from the local area and passionate about their work. By training local people in the methods that ActionAid has developed through years of experience in similar situations, the organization is making the best use of resources and ensuring a level of commitment that may not be achievable otherwise.
In just under one year, the village of Shala Bagh had recovered from a scene of total devastation to a bustling community which has the necessary structures in place to help it progress and thrive. The support ActionAid needs to give this village is steadily declining and soon the community will be entirely self-sufficient.
The next day, I visited another village in the area. Located in the hills surrounding Muzaffarabad, the village of Khilla Chattgran was also badly affected by the earthquake. The local private school is populated by children from the local area, many of whom are now being sponsored under the ActionAid Child Sponsorship Scheme. Eight year old Samya Zaib is one such child. His monthly fee for school is 180 PKR (?1.50). Previously, ActionAid had undertaken a food and water programme in his village to address the immediate needs of the community. Now they are further developing the village by having helped villagers set up a community centre and by the Child Sponsorship Scheme. This demonstrates ActionAid’s commitment to the long-term development of communities – giving people the opportunity to build the structures they require to thrive in the future.
For Further Information:
On Monday 4th September we blasted our way out of Lahore without incident - aside from the dent caused by me hitting a rickshaw (I maintain he reversed into me). Heading up the motorway to Islamabad we again suffered from an intermittent ignition problem which had been plaguing us since arriving in Pakistan. The problem manifests itself in suddenly having misfiring and sometimes stalling and usually rectifies itself after turning the engine off for a few minutes. Soldering on we made our way into the city on a quest for the Islamabad Tourist Camping Ground. After getting lost several times we stopped at a posh looking hotel to ask the way. We were quickly accosted by a frightfully cheery old Pakistani man who rambled on in a most tangential manner and ended up introducing us to the winner of the Karakorum mountain bike race that had just taken place (http://www.kmt.org.pk/tok.asp). The poor lad was as confused as we were and we were luckily saved from having to make any further explanation by him being dragged off to a celebratory dinner. We made a hasty departure and found the campsite by sheer determination and endurance – it was around the corner. Checking in for 100 PKR (less than a quid) a night we thought things were alright. How wrong we were.
The next day we visited the ActionAid office to introduce ourselves and see what projects we could go and see. This done we went to the address of the Land Rover garage. Unfortunately, it was difficult to find because A) it wasn’t a garage, it was a house and B) it wasn’t actually at the address it said on the Land Rover website. Eventually we got there and were directed to the actual workshop which was 6 miles away. When we got there we explained the engine issue and the strange banging noise that occasionally came from the front axles when the steering was on full lock. However, it was getting late and we agreed to bring it back in the morning for a thorough check.
Wednesday we were back bright and early, determined to find out what these problems were. After some testing it was revealed that the differential lock was permanently on and couldn’t be released by the lever. This is what was causing the banging noise. The transfer gearbox was removed and opened up revealing several broken cogs. This was going to be expensive! Leaving the Landy there, we took the tent back to the campsite which had a few other overlanders staying there – mostly Swiss and Germans in VW campers.
On Thursday we explored the city while waiting for the Land Rover to have the transfer box replaced. Islamabad is different from all the other cities in Pakistan in that it’s a modern, planned city in a grid formation. Because of this, it is refreshingly calm compared to Lahore or Rawalpindi. However, it is also pretty boring being home mostly to government buildings. A German couple who had been travelling for a year were having a BBQ at the campsite in celebration so we set off to find some booze. Luckily, up market hotels in Pakistan know they have to stock some to keep the non-believer foreigners happy so we managed to pick up two bottles of vodka to drown our sorrows. We weren’t to know then that our troubles were far from over.
On Friday morning, the gearbox was ready though there was still no explanation for the ignition problem. The theory was that it was related to the ignition coil heating up too much and we were advised to put a cold towel on it the next time it happened.
The plan was to travel up the legendary Karakorum highway to the Northern Areas which contain some of the worlds highest peaks (including K2) and to see some of the ActionAid projects on the way. The initial journey was plain sailing and having driven for 4 hours to get to Abbotabad, I let Richard take over. This proved foolish. An ill-judged piece of overtaking resulted in us coming face-to-face with a large bus. Having no other option, we pulled to the right and off the road. The bus however, slammed on the brakes and went into a long slide that resulted in it crashing into the truck we had been overtaking. Luckily no one was hurt as it was a low speed collision and the damage was minor – truck door bent and front section of bus crumpled. Unfortunately, some opportunists smelled a great chance to milk some foreigners so we spent the next four hours arguing and refusing to pay the 1.5 lakh (£1300) that they were claiming was needed to fix the damage. The police proved to be less than useless, saying we had to come to an agreement ourselves. The hours were ticking by though and it was plainly going nowhere so we went to the station to make a statement. In the end, when they realised we weren’t going to be browbeaten into a ridiculous payment we came to the agreement of 8000 PKR (£75). It was late now and we needed to get ourselves back together. Luckily, one of Rich’s mates in London had family in the area so a call to them resulted in us being put up for the night in a lovely house in Abbotabad.
A good nights sleep was not going to be possible for me though as I was coming down with some illness and spent most of the night alternating between shivering and sweating.
The next morning we went into town to get some money as the previous night had wiped out most of our cash. This done, we set off again up the Karakorum and drove for long hours to reach a truck stop near Dasu. The Karakorum is an amazing road which winds and climbs through the steep mountains and valleys of the Northern Areas of Pakistan. The going is rough in places due to regular rockfalls and mudslides which are continually being cleared. The locals at the truck stop were friendly and we managed to have a conversation in broken English – well, Richard did. My illness had developed into a throat infection so I couldn’t speak very much and was pretty unintelligible when I did.
Sunday we were up early and determined to break the back of the KKH. All day driving (in between sections of engine trouble) got us to the Hunza valley after dark and we camped by the roadside. The Hunza valley is the highlight of the Northern Areas and we were looking forward to seeing it in the morning.
We had planned to get to sleep early and arrive at the border by 7am, but after chatting until 2am, waking at 5.30am and being delayed by four armed escorts, we got to the border incredibly tired at 11am. Amusingly, Richard also managed to drive for about 10 miles with the handbrake on which resulted in an amazingly pungent burning smell and a non-working handbrake.
As soon as we got to the Pakistan side of the border 3 hours later we were pointed in the direction of a local hotel as the hazardous and hot journey across 580km of desert to the veritable safe haven of Quetta had become even more hazardous. Only two days before, the Pakistan Army assassinated Akbar Bugti, the tribal leader of the largely lawless Baluchistan province and there had been gunfire and unrest in the area the last two days. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,1859623,00.html)
Fortunately for us, we met a few other like-minded European overlanders – A French couple, a Spanish father and daughter and a Dutchman on a motorbike. One of them had been assured a police escort through the province. Strangely this came about purely because they had not purchased the necessary carnet to travel to Pakistan – so if it weren’t for them we would have been out on our ear fending for ourselves amongst the Balochis! As we soon found out however, the border town of Taftan was given a bit of a bad rap. This desolate town in the most remote part of the country is a melting-pot of different peoples and cultures. Afghans, Pashtuns, Punjabi and Balochis amoungst others are represented here and after they got over the initial shock of seeing a group of clearly naive Europeans wandering around they proved very hospitable and friendly. Not the gun-toting maniacs reports would have us believe.
Tuesday morning we left Taftan at 6am. In between the checkpoints, the unremarkable desert helped us to catch up on some well-needed sleep whilst the other drove. Further armed guards were added to the convoy throughout the day as we approached Quetta, which was of some consolation as we discovered half way through the day that our escort didn’t actually have a gun! Despite travelling fairly slowly, we were bloody glad he was with us, as some of the mountains en route didn’t look too inviting! Although in complete contradiction, we were welcomed at every local village en route and we didn’t see any trouble at all. In fact, we’d go so far as to say it was mundane. The sparse sightings of local, or not as is their habit, dromedaries have kept us amused along the highway but really offered scant relief from the baking hot sun.
11 hours of driving left us exhausted and finally at 7pm we pulled into the troubled town of Nushki, a stones-throw from the Afghan border and a slightly larger 120km throw from Quetta. We were immediately ushered to the local police encampment and an hour later we were introduced to the Major of the Pakistan Army – they had taken control of the area. The Major informed us that following the killing of a civilian earlier that day, we were to be carted off to their army barracks and the Officers Mess. Despite some of our fellow overlanders being a little skittish at this mass armed control, we really had little choice. Not that it mattered to us anyway – as soon as the offer of a safe haven was made we were backing our Landy into their drive asking “where can we put this thing and what’s for dinner?”
We were treated excellently by the army and after spending Wednesday chilling out and relaxing we departed Thursday to make our slow way to Quetta (for some reason our escorts consistently refused to drive faster than 40 mph). We arrived at 2pm and were treated to some tea by a local Pashtun family only to be told the city wasn’t safe and we were to be escorted by another policeman to Sukkur starting immediately. This was 6pm. At 4am, yup, that’s a ‘4’ and an ‘AM’, we pulled into the impoverished town of Jacobabad for a refreshing 5hrs sleep in a dingy hotel before getting back in the sweat wagon to Sukkur.
Unfortunately for us some goons on the other side of the Indus River we’d just crossed had let off a few gun-shots, so we were to be escorted to Lahore. The chances of a rest were slimmer than a wafer thin biscuit, and we were making our way up to the half-way house of Multan – a mere 750km away from Lahore.
The monotony of driving to Multan on Friday was relieved only by Dwyer hitting a stray dog which had made a maniacal dash across the dual carriageway. We didn’t stop to witness the carnage but Marco who was behind us on his motorbike painted a fairly grisly picture. We arrived in Multan at 12:30am and enjoyed another short stay in a another grubby hotel.
Saturday and we are up again at 6am for the drive to Lahore where we can finally ditch the security escort. We eventually made it and, absolutely knackered, tried to check into the nearest hotel we could only to be told it was members only and they were full anyway. Wicked! We made our way across town to the cheap hotels to be confronted with 2 foot of water everywhere, and it was still raining. Oh yes, it was raining. Rain, rain, glorious rain!! We hadn’t seen any since that brief storm in Bulgaria. Lahore had had two days of it!
We got our paddles out and made it to the hotel despite having to tread on a few hapless rickshaws that broke down in our way, and we took a well-earned rest and some time to see the city.The great brass cannon Zamzama made famous in Kipling’s great novel Kim proved a bit disappointing - its not very big. The Lahore museum was good though - especially the stunning Fasting Buddha statue. The old fort of the city was as decayed as the old town which surrounds it. However, the mad crush of people which cram the rabbit warren streets give a vibrant buzz to the city and the intoxicating smells of cooking curry and compressed natural gas from the vast numbers of rickshaws combine to give an unnatural (and unhealthy) high. Proving that not all mechanics are crooks, we managed to get the handbrake fixed for free at the only Land Rover garage in town. We won’t say where they get the parts but it rhymes with snuggle.
On Monday we are leaving for Islamabad where we will visit the ActionAid offices and visit some of the project sites in the Northern Areas.
Richard and Dwyer