The embers from last night's fiery barricades have died down, but tension is still high following Saturdays gun battles between police and Sunni muslims. Three mullahs have been arrested and four days of general strikes have ensued. Gilgit: definitely the place to come for a rest. Stories vary, but it seems a Shii schoolboy tore out a page from his Sunni religious textbook. This escalated quickly. Now there are burning tyres on each street corner and every man carries a firearm.
There is a lot of tension between the two sects; the majority (a version of Shii) here has subordinate status to the Sunni who run Pakistan. I would imagine that there is a constant negotiation over the relationship. At present it is being conducted with guns. Reports are of two dead, but I canít be sure. Intervention from Islamabad settles things down by the time I am on my feet again. No one will tell me the truth, just that everything is alright, nothing to worry about.
Go east to Kahpulu, past Skardu towards India. Take a wrong turn on the way and end up dangerously near Kargil. Didnít see any of the shells the two countries regularly share with each other, but the secret police were very keen for us to turn around once they had got all our details.
The idea was to escape the heat to what the guidebook called a tranquil area of orchards and trees. The place is fiercely hot and dusty. Canít buy any fruit anywhere.
My front sprocket chooses a perfect time to brake, in the idle of nowhere ten-to-fifteen miles from town at midday on a shadeless piece of road on a dangerous corner. I can fix it with my new 8mm spanner bought specially for the purpose. I go at it for an hour and find, being made in India, it is something around 8.5 and is specially designed to burr nuts, not take them off. In my hands itís doing its job perfectly. Two locals walk by and look for a while at my sweaty red angry face.
They are unmoved. I stare at the small recessed nut. So simple. So taxing. The guys and I talk with gestures. They are set off to get me a 8mm that is truer to its name. I follow the shade around the single tree. They are gone three hours, but return true to their word. What generosity. To a stranger. Amazing. The guy wonít shake my hand after weíve done the job. Not sure whether this is because of my infidel status or dirty handed status.
Go a while. Then have a puncture. As the Skardu-Gilgit road is truly in the middle of nowhere this could have been a problem. A passing tractor driver directs me round the corner to the puncture repair shop. Sometimes it is alright really. But I really should have learnt how to fix a puncture before leaving.
The storms have blown the bridges down. Stuck in Gilgit. A day turns into a week, turns into a month. It is 45 degrees in the day. The shade of the trees helps, but the tent never gets cool. I can hardly move after eight in the morning. I hate the heat. Money running out. No ATM up here. Just lots of greasy meat and bread. Thankfully weíre not the only ones, and strike up a fraternity of Shithead players. We even make a passable pizza out of tomatoes and unleavened bread. I escape with ten dollars to my name. The army put up some temporary metal bridge to replace the washed away one, which will doubtless still be being used in twenty years.
Wind is so hot I canít breath. Have to pull over. In the middle of the most incredible storm. As we are on a plateau, the weather just seems to settle on the roof: lightening strobing for hours right on top of our position, while the rain is determined to find ingress through the tin roof. Next morning the hotelier tells us a village in the adjoining valley was washed away. He notes my puzzled expression. ďYes, the whole village. Very sadĒ. Three hundred dead. I know this wonít even make the World Service news, and it doesnít.
Ride in the monsoon rain all day pondering on the wisdom of sending back my water-proofs. Jeans are still wet two days later and all my underwear is kinda crusty (enough detail yeah?). Islamabad is similarly flooded. The infrastructure just canít take the level of precipitation, which is a shame cos this happens every year. The tree tops poke out of the water, bloated cows float past hoof-up and the police move on the spectators.
Posted by at September 11, 2001 11:30 PM GMT