Hi all - central asia is complete on schedule. We are heading to northern India to escape the heat. Kgram activity impeded by frequent moves and rough conditions.
Health good except for possible broken toe and rotten tooth. Perhaps the Dolly Lama can heal me. I will finish the Zaire Kgrams or bust!
Ee-ooh, ee-ooh, ee-ooh - I cannot string letters together to replicate the variable pitched, warbling sound created by the horn on our bus. It is very loud and demands attention although the gaily decorated petrol tanker ahead of us on the road seems oblivious. In fact the more our driver honks, the faster it goes. Its driver speeds around blind curves and hairpin turns, its headlights alternately highlighting canyon walls or stabbing out into the void. Our bus follows so closely we can count the petals in the flowers painted around the large Arabic characters in the Urdu word for INFLAMMABLE.
Our driver is obsessed with leading the way on the high, scary mountain road from Gilgit to Rawalpindi in northern Pakistan. He has overtaken every single vehicle going south. The Spousal Unit and myself plus another American, a biker from Colorado named Chris, bounce around the back seats, mesmerized by the demonstration of dangerous driving. We have passed several petrol tankers, even a wrecker carrying a wrecked tanker, in the dark. Each time we get ahead of the pack our driver finds an excuse like taking a roadside pee break or repairing the flaky transmission. While we are stopped all the tankers rumble past. Our man then leaps back inside with glee to challenge each of them again.
To enliven the process, large lorries traveling in the opposite direction often loom up suddenly from around curves so tight there is no advance warning from their headlights. More than once our bus has been caught in a breath-taking manage-a-trois. One cannot hide from the spectacle. If you sit by the left window, you get to see the vehicle being passed inches away. If you sit by the right window, you get to look at the edge of the road inches beyond the tires. If you sit in the middle, you are forced to watch oncoming vehicles - we all agree it is the worst position of all.
The road is unbelievable: a single lane blasted from vertical cliffs which fold in and out of the valley wall like an accordion. According to the Cadogan Guide for Central Asia: "vertigo suffers should sit on the left. The [Indus River] gorge is on the right... for the next three and a half hours there is hardly a patch of level ground visible from the road. The river, often more than 300 meters below, is cast in almost permanent shadow. Peaks rise to between 3000 and 5000 meters on either side, but their verdant upper flanks are seldom seen from the sheer sides of this terrible gash." The relative absence of gravel on the rough tarmac frees drivers from the fear of skidding for reasons other than excessive speed. Of course, rocks do occasionally come crashing down. Earlier we passed a massive boulder the side of a large garbage dumpster sitting in the middle of the road.
The moonlight bathes the valley walls in a faint sheen, outlining the ridges and peaks far above and reflecting off the silvery ribbon of water far below. It is a surreal scene quite stimulating to the imagination. To pass the time I analyze our height above the river in terms of the number of end over end cartwheels and 360 degree rolls the bus would make before it hit the water if we miss a turn.
Suddenly the road widens a bit on an outside curve and, with a great sustained burst of warbling, our bus surges alongside the tanker. The vehicles are so close I could reach out and scribble "JimBo died of fright here" on the side of the tanker. As we round the curve, turning inward toward the mountains, four headlights illuminate a narrow, steel girder bridge ahead over a side gully.
It is a duel! Inches apart with horns shrieking both vehicles roar forward. Chris stares ahead wide-eyed and open-mouthed - he got the middle seat. The Unit and I are more seasoned, conducting a shoelace examination while I recite my personal safety credo: cover your face, keep your spine loose, and don't forget to inflate the neck pillow in your daypack if we are swept down the river.
I am testing new seating tactics for Pakistani buses on this trip. Overcrowding is not so much a problem as trying to fit in a five foot world. The front row of seats have leg room but are reserved for the driver's cronies. Unless the Unit is relegated to the women's section (assuming there are other women on board), we usually get assigned to adjacent seats if we buy tickets in advance. If I sit by the window, my long legs snap in like the last piece in a jigsaw puzzle. If I sit on the aisle, I can skew my legs out in it - if the aisle is not occupied by cargo, livestock or squatters. If the man in f ront of me tries to tilt his seat back, either my legs break or Pakistani - American relations takes a big step backward.
On the night bus to Rawalpindi we score a couple nice seats in the third row using our standard divide-and-conquer strategy. I wrestle the bags onto the roof while the Unit slips on to claim seats. She adopts a movie star demeanor with sunglasses and scarf. Referring to her as Madonna helps intimidate the locals who make do with sneaky glances, prolonged stares and everything in between.
Once we are underway, Chris and I move to the rear and stake a claim on the empty seats in the last row. It is my hope to lie across them and sleep if the bus does not fill up. For reasons I was soon to discover, the Pakistanis don't like to sit in the rear. Meanwhile up front the Unit basks in her double seat. No Pakistani male would dare sit deliberately next to her. They would rather ride on the front bumper - a fact I have personally verified.
Men come and go (there are no other women on the bus) as we stop for anyone on the roadside who flicks his wrist downward. Chris and I defend the back row, directing new passengers, who are grateful just to be picked up, elsewhere. Then, in a brilliant tactical maneuver, the Unit moves back to occupy the row in front of Chris and I, creating a buffer between all the Pakistani men and the long limbed Americans. Our strategy must not fail - the seats in the back row have even less leg room, forcing me to sit sideways. However, if the back row fills up, I have an ace in the hole - the empty seat next to the Unit. The only option for Chris is that front bumper.
Back to the alpine duel - the drivers spur their vehicles onward, ignoring irregularities in the road surface whose presence is magnified to the occupants of the rear seats. "Airborne!" I shout when my entire body is flung upward off the seat. The great drawback to sitting behind the rear axle is the bumpiness of the ride. Bags hop about like Mexican jumping beans, I cannot keep anything in my pockets for more than five minutes, and loose seat cushions pop up and down like a toaster gone mad. To even pick one's nose, one runs the risk of poking an eye out or severely gouging a nostril. Despite my grand scheme to hoard the seats in the back row, lying down to sleep is fraught with hazards. When your body relaxes, it gets tossed about even worse, getting battered against the bus chassis.
The two vehicles squeeze toward the skinny bridge using the drainage ditch on the cliff side of the road and the loose scree on the wild blue yonder side. The bus inches ahead, giving me a good look at the tanker's colorful artwork. The Pakistanis are immensly proud of their vehicles and decorate every square inch in the most outlandish manner using paint, molded chrome and scores of giant reflectors.
The driver of the petrol tanker decides he does not want to see Allah so soon and yields as we reach the bridge. Lucky for us it is not one of the 5 mph only suspension bridges - we cannot slow down. Darkness closes in as the moon is hidden by the steep valley walls. The three foreigners in the rear of the bus hope that our driver's ego is now satisfied and that further bits of drama will be limited to routine terror and standard discomfort.
Seventeen hours after leaving Gilgit we reached the long distance bus station in Rawalpindi at 4AM. I was lying across the seat cushions in the back row with both arms locked to the frame of the bus. The Unit alleges I fell asleep but I claim to have been knocked unconscious. "Airborne!"
A grueling overnight bus ride is not my idea of a romantic setting to celebrate a full moon. We had other plans but rock - throwing kids in the Skardu valley thwarted them. Plus we have endured quite a string of borderline hotel rooms in my quest to prove that decent double rooms for 150 rupees ($3.75) or less are becoming extinct in northern Pakistan.
Maybe the next full moon will be better - I am targeting a hundred-dollar-a-night maharajah's palace surrounded by a shimmering lake in Rajasthan. The Unit is balking because day time temperatures are still in the nineties (F) there and she can't believe that I will spend the money. What do you think ?
This kgram uploaded from Rawalpindi using the facilities of InfoLink, Pakistan's first Internet service provider, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City Jimbo. All rights reserved.