Pakistan Revisited – Part 3. Gilgit
Part 3. Gilgit Caravanserai, 1973
I had descended 9000 feet in the middle of June, just before the monsoon broke – Pakistan's hottest time of year. My path took me from glacial mountains and trails knee-deep in snow, to the Indus Valley high desert, where the heat knocked you down and kept you from getting up.
Except for trekking around Lulusar Lake and over Babusar Pass, I rarely walked alone. There were always children with me – laughing, taunting, singing, practicing English, throwing stones at dogs, and generally showing off until they had to turn around and go home and another group of children from the next village would take their place.
It must have been well over 100 degrees Farenheit (40 Celcius) as I approached Chilas. Two men walked toward me wearing baggy gray clothes, brown Pakul caps, and crossed leather bandoliers with WWI Enfield rifles slung over their shoulders. One tall and thin with a large mustache; the other shorter but well muscled with a full black beard.
“Hum police hain. Passporeet. Viza!” demanded the short tough guy.
I showed him the Torkham entry stamp in my passport, holding onto it with both hands.
“Aap Kahan ja rahay hain? ” Asked the skinny guy.
“Passporeet, viza, Gilgit Agency acha nahi,” said the tough guy trying to grab my passport. He then told me to turn around and go back over Babusar Pass.
I argued and pleaded in broken Urdu, then sat down on the roadside and refused to move. We had had a silent standoff for about half-an-hour, until an old gray-bearded man came walking up the road. My captors spoke with him then told me to go on to Gilgit.
The evening before, at the chaikhana, or rest house, where I spent the night, the guests had gone to the mosque for prayers while I stayed behind with the cook boy as he made corn roti. Before everyone returned, I took a light blanket out of my pack, folded it into the size of a prayer rug, walked behind the building, faced Mecca, and went through the motions of the Muslim prayer ritual while chanting a Buddhist mantra to myself. I was well practiced from Afghan prison and it was similar to the yogic sun salutation, an asana I’d been practicing for years. Hands cupped to my ears, listening to the river, the birds, the wind, the voice of Allah, watching the dusk glow in blue and orange over the snow mountains: palms crossed on chest, hands on knees, straighten then kneel, forehead twice touching the rug. Repeat ten times: the motions of the Muslim sallat.
Finished, I turned and saw the owner of the chaikhana, his other guests, friends and servants watching me, their smiles reflecting a deep satisfaction. The old gray beard was among them.
Hitchhiking down the Indus Valley outside Chitral, a driver in a Bedford jingle truck stopped. In perfect English, he introduced himself as Se’me’d Khan from Swat and said he was going to Gilgit. After a while he pulled into a roadside food stall and bought me lunch: potatoes stewed in the tallow of a fat tailed lamb. Delicious! I desperately needed the fat and I guess Se’me’d could see that. My cheeks were sunken, my clothes hung from my knobby shoulders, and if I punched any more holes in my money belt I’d be perforating hundred dollar bills.
Se’me’d dropped me off in the Gilgit bazaar next to the polo field, in front of two large wooden double doors, painted Islamic green. The Haideri Hotel resembled an ancient caravanserai surrounded by high cut stone and mortar walls.
I knocked, waited, then banged on the doors until a grizzled old man missing several front teeth peered through a crack, then let me in.
“Two rupees for a room,” he explained in Urdu. “One if you share. Breakfast and dinner two rupees.” A rupee was worth 10 cents at the time. I handed him three rupees and wondered who my roommate might be.
Walking through the gate, we passed a kitchen with a large fireplace and tandoori oven. All the rooms, including the kitchen, were built into the perimeter wall on a raised concrete slab surrounding a sunken courtyard. The concrete slab extended from the interior walls about four feet into the courtyard and the roof overhung another couple of feet, creating a well-shaded veranda. As the old man led me across the courtyard in the open sun, the heat hit me like a heavy hand.
My roommate lay on a rope bed away from the window and sat up when I walked in. He wore a dirty white shalwar kameez and kufi cap, spoke a bit of English, and had a warm, friendly smile.
“As-Salaam-Alailum,” I greeted him, right hand over my heart.
“Wa-Alaikum-Salaam,” he replied, also with his hand over his heart.
“Where you from?” Tall, well built, my roommate looked about forty or fifty and spoke a bit of English, probably a teenager when the British still controlled this part of the world.
“Hawaii. USA. App kahan sai hain?”
“Peshawar. I am Aziz.”
“Meena naam John.”
“Very hot.” said Aziz.
“Acha. Bahut garme.” Yes, very warm.
After sundown, Aziz picked up his bed, tucked it under his arm, and invited me to join him in the courtyard. Every guest in the caravanserai was also hauling his bed out to the grassy courtyard, placing them in neat rows. I set my bed next to Aziz’s. Soon the irrigation ditch that ran along the frontage road just outside the gate was diverted through a culvert in the wall and flooded the yard, creating a shallow lagoon of clear snowmelt 5 or 6 inches deep below our cots. The courtyard cooled instantly. Dinner was served by two boys wading through the water with trays: goat stew, nan and green tea.
After dinner Aziz pulled out a beautiful hookah from a carpet bag, filled the pipe, set the pot in the water between our cots, took a metal dish out of his bag, then waded to the kitchen, returning with a dish of glowing coals. I gave him a big piece of my Naran hashish. He lined the bowl with well-washed tobacco, tobacco like mud, and cut the hashish into cubes. He then took an old bronze tweezers, dropped several coals onto the hash, topped the bowl with a vented metal cap and began toking. When the bowl started sparking and spitting flames out the vent holes, Aziz passed the hose to me.
After a few cool tokes, I pulled the paper diagram that I had found in the cave from my wallet and handed it to Aziz.
“Ta’wiz. Sufi magic,” he commented and continued studying the diagram. “Bahut acha, khush kismet.” Very good luck, he added.
Some men sitting on the surrounding beds overheard us, walked up and stood around looking at the diagram over Aziz’s shoulder, talking to themselves while getting upset and angry. “Bura! Haram!”
Aziz handed the paper back to me. One of the younger men tried to snatch it out of my fingers. I knocked his hand away. He became enraged.
Aziz held up his hand, said something, low and calm, and they all went back to their beds.
There were dozens of hookahs in the courtyard that night, sparking and billowing, hookah pots cooling in water that reflected the stars and, later, a two-thirds waning moon. After we finished smoking, Aziz repeated that it was very good luck, “bohot achhchha, khush kismet” that I had the diagram, the “ta’wiz” he called it. That I should always keep it sewn into the leather pouch tied around my neck. It was a Sufi charm, probably from a Kyrgyz faqir from the Pamirs. With it, I would have no trouble on my way. It was written to bestow good health and protection on its bearer.
“Bismillah. Don’t let anyone take it from you.”
I woke at first light. The courtyard was dry. After a breakfast of nan and green tea with Aziz, we said goodbye: “Khuda hafiz.” He was on his way to Peshawar.
I walked out the hotel’s green gates and began following the irrigation ditch uphill, looking for the water’s source. Gilgit was an oasis. Ditches supplied water to every walled residence, orchard and garden – all irrigated by flooded terrace or open furrow. With water, the land is green, shaded, and verdant—rich with fruit and nut orchards, wheat, maize, barley, millet, buckwheat, potatoes, garden vegetables, legumes and fodder crops for the goats and cattle. Without water, it is barren, brown, and dusty.
I followed the ditch to a complex stream diversion at the upper edge of the settled area. Glassy snowmelt ran slowly in the watercourses heading east and west along the mountain’s contour, while water tumbled, splashed and bubbled in the courses running straight downhill. I saw a trail leading up from the ditch heading west on the contour and followed the trail about a kilometer to a Buddhist Stupa. This area had a long history of Buddhism before the Muslim conquest.
I continued on the ditch trail west through fields, orchards, gardens and villages. The trail was lined with trees. After several kilometers I ran into a father and his teenage son cutting and bundling mulberry branches.
“As-Salaam-Alailum,” I greeted them–hand over heart.
“Wa-Alaikum-Salaam,” they answered.
“Where you go?” asked the son.
“I’m following the water. Where does it begin?” By then, the flow in the watercourse had changed direction and I realized that there had to be another source feeding it from the next valley.
The father spoke to his son and the boy asked if I wanted to come to their house for tea.
“My name Firdoza and my father, Ali Husain.”
They each strapped their bundles of mulberry branches to their backs, bundles bigger than their bodies, and led me down to the village of Napura. They unloaded their bundles in the goat barn, the goats pushing and plucking at the leaves. We washed at the ditch running by their back door, removed our shoes, and entered a cool carpeted room with walls lined with pillows. Shaded windows ran the length of two walls.
“You like sugar in tea? asked Firdoza, placing a tray of tea, milk and sugar in front of me.
“Thori si cheeni.” A little sugar, I replied. He poured a generous amount of milk into my tea and added a spoon of sugar.
Then Firdoza’s’s mother came into the room with a large platter of dried fruit, nuts, bread and butter. A beautiful woman, she wore a red scarf but no veil. There were two kinds of bread on the platter: unleavened nan and a delicious leavened shupati, the consistency of cornbread and served with a large lump of butter.
I hadn’t had butter since I was with the Wakhi people in Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor and was starving for fat. Almost orange, rich, homemade, I could feel this butter seep into my cells and give me strength.
Firdoza guided me to the source of the ditch deep in the next valley. From the trail he pointed out a huge Buddha carved into the cliff face across the Kargah river and the ruins of a monastery next to it. More evidence of the ancient Buddhist civilization that once governed this part of the world.
That night I had the room to myself at the Haideri but was only charged one rupee. I paid another rupee for a breakfast of nan and tea and started hitchhiking to Hunza – Pakistan’s fabled cool green Shangri-La of health and rejuvenation.
I got as far as Nagar, just outside of Karimabad, the capital of Hunza. All the women were unveiled here. It had been months since I’d seen women in public who didn’t look like draped furniture – with the exception of a few fierce Kuchi nomads in the deserts of Afghanistan, the Wahkis, and a few Kyrgyz as I approached the Pamirs. I will never forget the proud Kuchi women riding camels in their red dresses and heavy jewelry, glaring down at me from tattooed faces, three spots on the forehead and on each cheek.
Now in Nagar, the only people who would talk to me were a few idle young men wearing western clothes, alcoholics on wretched, stinking, rotgut arak. They offered me a drink: terrible, nauseating stuff!
Respectable folks wouldn’t have anything to do with me. The women would give me a quick hard glance and turn away. Was it because I looked poor and shady, with a shark tooth necklace, a gold hoop in my left ear, wearing dirty rags and probably not smelling very good? I hadn’t had a bath or hot water since Peshawar several weeks earlier. Then one of the young drunks explained that all of Nagar and Hunza were restricted areas and the police would soon arrive to check my permit.
Dejected, disappointed, and realizing that I was not going to make it back to the Wakhan borderlands with my beloved Wakhi people, I turned around and decided to retreat down the Karakoram Highway to India. I had a job waiting for me in Mcleod Ganj, Dharamsala, teaching refugee children and working for the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.
I was now a semester late.
Haideri Hotel and Gilgit, 2023
When I returned to Gilgit 50 years later, I found the Haideri Hotel shuttered and almost empty. Luckily, Ghulam Hassan, the hotel's last caretaker, invited me in to retrace my memories of the colorful caravanserai that flooded its evening courtyard with snowmelt. Hassan showed me around and let me make some photographs, including Room 8 where he slept.
In 2008, sectarian violence, riots and murders over a textbook controversy, between the Sunnis and Shias of Gilgit-Baltistan, shut down schools and damaged businesses – some never to reopen. The Haidari Hotel was one of those businesses driven to bankruptcy.
The rest of these photographs are of local Gilgit businesses – a haberdasher, a fruit and vegetable seller, a butcher and his clients, a toy store, and a hardware store guarded by Officer Jamal, who embodied the traditional Pashto proverb: “A gun is like jewelry to a man.”