What was Pakistan really like? The set off from Lahore felt like I'd never left the back of the horse; the nine months of worries in Pakistan evaporated as quickly as the city did and the long plain of the Punjab began. Everything seemed to happen in those first two weeks; gypsy schools, mudwrestlers in Gujanwala, Mazars but the 8.6 Richter scale Earthquake that shook three countries was the biggest. Nothing was the same afterwards. I spent 10 days helping in the relief area and resumed my journey onto Islamabad along old colonial waterways in the heart of the Pakistan Punjab. Ancient forts, a fantastic reception by the city of Jhelum, random British Nationals and all of the above during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan..
After a sorrowful Eid-ul-Fitr in Rawalpindi the road once again swept us North away from the comfort of civilisation and into the arms of the foothills of the Karakorum and Kashmir - the obliterated region of the Earthquake. It was like another world, "one run by the United Nations and the Pakistan Army." This was Pakistan at its raw extreme. Fighting NGOS, death, destruction but above all a very brave people.
The town of Balakot was near the Epi-centre of the Oct. 08 Quake blast and it looked like it to. "The river is a raging torrent washing through the collapsed remains of houses hotels and shops. The city mosque completely collapsed in on itself but people are still worshipping on the roof and washing underneath. The hill opposite looks like wild fires have decimated it. The city looks bombed. It is terrible."
Relief camps dominated the landscape all around for hundreds of kilometers after the quake had hit. Aftershocks were still rocking the region and almost everyone was living in tents. Indus Kohistan welcomed afterwards and the land became barren and harsh. No vegetation, no grass for the horses and very few people. Truckstops, horseshoes, PTDC and Superfast.
Gilgit was a final reststop; an oasis amongst the mountains and the trouble with selling two, otherwise heroic, female horses began. This is a tale unto itself. The people of Hunza finally welcomed me with open arms as I reached the high mountain valleys and finality loomed ahead. Horses still not sold, border was closing and it all made for a climatic result. Did it all have a happy ending?
When I reached Kashgar I was finally able to sit down and finish 'News from Tartary.' A book I'd carried since Lahore but never had the time to finish properly. Peter Fleming describes the journey from Hunza down to Srinagar as "more unmistakenly than ever, a picnic." He goes on., "it seemed a long time since I had saddled the horses and helped load the camels in a snowy dawn... braved the bullying winds to cook." My journey above had been one of enlightenment but only a trial for the trail through China. A journey filled with every real terror and romanticism that I've managed to avoid so far from Delhi.
To Fleming, Pakistan was the extremity of British India. Indeed it was just another extension of the road he travelled where political borders were only lines on maps. To my mind Pakistan seems a wild and barbarious place when blasted across our Televison screens in the West. Yet the places televised in Pakistan are truly the most wild remote places that no common Pakistani, (let alone tourist) would ever venture into. This pathetically distorts our perception of a fascinating country made all the more 'undiscovered' because travellers don't go there (Sufis, Nawabs, tent pegging and Polo). Though hell bent on the next section of my journey, Pakistan will always hold special memories for me and I encourage all to go, see and understand this amazing place.