Prologue – Where in the world is Osama Bin Laden
Well, now we all know where he spent his last days, but who would have expected his hideout to be in one of most beautiful and populated areas of Pakistan – and actually so damn close to our traveling route 🙂 Even the many Pakistanis that we have spoken to were surprised to find out his whereabout to be in the midst of their country assuming Bin Laden somewhere in the tribal areas of the country close to Afghanistan. So how did he get to Abbottabad, unrecognized by anyone? Neither the two of us, Stefan and me, did have a clue that we were passing just a few kilometers away from his compound. We had literally been knocking at Osama’s door two days before US special forces started their operation in Abbottabad when we were on our track to the beautiful Hunza Valley at Karimabad. We got the news about Bin Laden’s killing two days later when we had arrived there, but still it was at least a strange and bizarre feeling having been so close to one of the world’s most famous and feared person.
But let us start right from the beginning…
Rehabilitation in Lahore
After our arrival in Lahore and one night in a hotel there, we had finally managed to get rid of the police escort. Again a police car had been waiting for us all morning in front of our accomodation. But we made clear to the dear officers that we appreciated but didn’t need their help anymore and after another discussion they finally understood…
So after six scheduled days of being driven through the most interesting areas of beautiful Pakistan by uncountable police escorts, we knew too well: freedom in this country doesn’t come for free – at least for foreigners and so we were blessed by our newly invented liberty! The days before, we had neither been able to stop by the road nor to get in touch with people. So the first thing we happened to do as free people, was to stop by the road and get in touch with people! We called Burhan, a Couchsurfer from Lahore, who eventually invited us to his wonderful home, where he is living with his wife and two of his children. It was more than relieving to have a place to stay after so many stressful and chaotic days, and there was even more truth in that when it turned out that I got a really bad diarrhea going back to some bad food that had been offered to us by a police officer during our nightly stay in a police station. I was too glad that I could cure my disease in a comfortable guest room of Burhans place, with his wife and house personal taking care of me. Stefan spent his time cleaning and tidying up our car (which had been a mess after the hell trip of 1500km through Pakistan). The next days, going out for dinner with Burhan’s great sons, Khitab and Arbab, we had most interesting discussions, about life and philosophy and cultural differences between Pakistan and Western countries.
After four days, when my stomach had recovered more or less, we decided to go up north all the way to Pakistans huge and giantic Karakorum and Himalaya mountains. After our trip to Pakistan we had been pretty tired of driving ourselves. So inspired by Burhan and his family we jumped on a comfortable public bus to Islamabad, and left our car Bernd in Lahore, for we felt that he, too, needed a break. In Islamabad Zafar and his son Younis were already awaiting us. Younis is doing his studies in Germany, but came back for a few weeks to Pakistan for vacation. Zafar had invited us to the his house at our previous meeting in Quetta, so we planned to spent some days and then to start our trip north from here.
Islamabad is a city of western shape where all the political, economic and military elites are having their residence. You can find McDonalds, Pizza Hut and all the other ‘accomplishments’ of Western civilization. Younis was showing us around and gave us an insight into all daily life in Pakistan’s capital knowing every single inch of it. He introduced us to the place where Pakistan’s presidents children are having their ice cream and took us to a car work shop in nearby Rawalpindi. During the days, while trying to finally get rid of that damn diarrhea, we also were introduced to Zafar’s house servant Jamil who, one evening, prepared a special surprise for us: a Hanflassi (see the green stuff below) 🙂 Marihuana plants are growing everywhere in Pakistan just next to the streets and of course they caught our special interest.
(Karakorum highway) – Knocking on Heavens..eh.. Osama’s Door
By that time, Zafar had to leave for a business trip to China and after several days at Islamabad, we decided to rent a car and to go all the way up to the most beautiful Hunza Valley to finally start our trip into the mountains. The planes going to Gilgit (100km before Hunza) had been booked out for weeks, so a car was the way to go. To our surprise, there was even a driver included in the really cheap renting fee for the car, which no doubt is only made possible by the minimal wages paid for lower segment occupations in Pakistan. So, very early in the morning, Aslam, our (underpaid) driver, picked us up from Zafar’s place in Islamabad and we started our two day (14 hours per day!!) trip going 600km north on the so called Karakorum Highway (KKH), which turned out to be the worst ‘road’ we have have ever been driving on. The track had been devastatingly destroyed by the flood and landslides as well as riverflows from the mountain tops had done the rest of the job to make our trip a torture and a test of patience. If we looked out at the left window, we usally saw hundreds of metres going down steeply, while on the right side we saw neverending stony high mountains, from which each rock looked like it could fall down every single moment right on the “street”. As if this would not be enough, our stomachs (especially Stefan’s) still gave us additional trouble and the adventurous pleasure of a few extra-stops next to the road :-).
To our luck, Aslam turned out to be a nearly perfect driver, combining appropriate speed with sufficient safety. He went as quickly through the difficult track as possible passing the town of Abbottabad (where Osama would be killed to days later), Dasu, Chilas (here we rested for the night), Gilgit and taking us finally to heaven, to the great Hunza Valley at Karimabad. For us more, less funny, Aslam as a Pakistani, was much more concerned about Taliban, the people in general, whom he deeply mistrusted and the roadconditions as we were. He ended up saying uncountable times: “It`s very dangerous!” in his unmistakable Pakistani accent. We definitely will keep this sentence in memory!
On our way we had already passed the more than 8100m high mountain top of Nanga Parbat (see above), but Karimabad offered to us a scenary that, even more, made us quickly forget the exertions of the days before. Just imagine a lovely and mostly untouched mountain village in a green valley with a big mountain river going through it and all surrounded by nearly 8000m high snow covered peaks – simply beautiful and breathtaking! The next three days the Hilltop Hotel should be our accomodation. Zafar had recommended this place to us. From here we soon discovered Karimabad, a village where live takes place in complete simplicity, mostly based on agriculture – you will find more cattle than vehicles in this peaceful place. Education is working nearly perfectly, the town has one of the highest literacy rates in Pakistan.
We soon decided to do a trek up to a glacier in an altitude of 3500m, but starting the trip with a guide, we soon realized that Stefan was hardly up to the task as he still had to deal with bad stomach problems and a generally weakened body. So instead of climbing the peaks around Hunza and following in the steps of Reinhold Messner, we finally took things easy and had a walk through the village, getting in touch with people ending up at the big river of the valley where some nomad people had opened their camp for a few days. As soon as they recognized us, they were full of amazement and curiosity about the different looking strangers. Especially our cameras, they had probably never seen any modern electronic equipment before, became objects of their great interest and we couldn’t help but taking pictures of them in front of Karimabad’s beautiful mountain panorama and showing each to them. They invited us for a tea into their simple but cosy tents. Although communication could only work by gestures, there was a relaxed atmosphere that enabled us to experience life as it is simplest. Tea was prepared and we could watch them prepare a dinner consisting of bread and some green leafes probably from the mountains. These people are living without any knowledge about world politics or without any modern information system at all. We mentioned names like Osma Bin Laden or Barack Obama, but there was no reaction at all, they just didn`t know. Life basically consists of walking around, putting up the tents, cooking, sleeping and moving on again. Human existence couldn’t be simplier (and probably happier) for these people are not bothered by luxury problems of modern civilization, but (have to) keep things simple. For both of us this will be an unforgettable and probably unique experience! To give a little memory of us to these nice people we made a big effort to print some of the digital pics we had made with the nomads. The next day we were really excited to give them the photos as a present, but – all the tents including the people were no longer there. Apparently the nomads had been moving on.
After only four days in Hunza we already had to head back on the same road. We had run out of money and the fact that there were no ATMs in Karimabad forced us to leave this heavenly place, the roof of the world as one might say. We had literally been knocking on heaven’s door and really would have liked to stay much longer, to check out the higher mountain areas. But there was no choice but heading back to Islamabad. And again we went into hell, this time even knowing what is expecting us…
On our way back, we became direct victims of the Pakistani corrupt societal system. Once again, at a check post, police had recognized us as strangers and consequently insisted on escorting us. At a construction site, Aslam parked the car in a narrow parking bay waiting for the cars in the opposite direction to pass us. When a big Army truck passed, it completely cut off our right side mirror for the road was too narrow. Aslam, who was driving, could not have done a thing about it, and to Stefan and me it was clear that the driver of the Army truck would have to compensate us for the damage he did to our car. The police escort going ahead of us had observed the whole incident live. But surprisingly, a big argument came up between Aslam and the raging truck driver who did not feel accountable or committed to the accident. It soon turned out that the truck would simply drive on and police wasn’t intervening but just trying to calm down the two parties. Before Stefan an me realized the situation, the truck had been gone und we had to take care of the damage ourselves. The incident made clear enough for us, how corrupt the Pakistani societal and political system is and how badly underpriviledged people are affected by unrightousness in this country. Imagine a public vehicle (like a truck of the German army or a police car) crashing your vehicle and it is you, who has to take care to the damage, although even a policeofficer had witnesssed the whole situation. In Germany or other developed countries something like that would be nothing but unimaginable. It makes clear that a rightous and just systems cannot be appreciated enough! We were really afraid, that the reparation of the complete electronic mirror would be very expensive, but we were lucky. In the car workshop two diligent youngsters were taking the whole door of the car apart within minutes and then exchanged a small part – matter of expense for Pakistan’s corrupt military: 8€! In Germany we would have probably paid for a complete new door 😉
After the unforgettable trip into the world’s biggest mountains we went back to Lahore, again by bus. Burhan was picking us up late from the bus terminal. We spent some more days with his family and let Burhan’s grand daughter discover the pleasures of the table soccer game.
Recovered from our stomach problems we wanted to discover more of Lahore the next days. We met Cindy, a Chinese girl doing her studies in Lahore, in the Forman Christian College University. She was showing us around the campus and introduced us to her lecturers, on of them was Dr. Bashir Ahmad Khan, a really impressive personality, well informed not only about business financing but knowing even more about German history and Franz Beckenbauer’s achievements as a soccer player than we did 🙂 Bashir was listening carefully to our project idea and invited us over to his place for dinner the next day. The same evening, Cindy was taking us out with some of her friends to see some nice spots of Lahore and to have dinner. We met her again the day after when she joined us with her brother for dinner at Bashir’s place. It was a great evening with Bashir and his wife telling us their life stories and some anecdotes about the habits in their relationship. But the evening had to be over too soon for Stefan and me – we were planning to go to the nearby Indian border the next morning and still had quite some things to settle before we could start.
The next day we went into Burhan’s office at Lahore to say goodbye after so many days together. We had a last pizza together, and then started in the direction of Wagah, the border station between Pakistan and India, known for its highly frequented border closing ceremony. We had started far later than planned and only showed up at the border at 15.30 in the afternoon. The gates on the Indian side were closing at 16.00 already. So we had to hurry through Pakistani customs and security check within 30 minutes and it turned out that we were the last people crossing the border this day. To our surprise the Pakistanis made our borderlife pretty easy. They helped us to get through the processes as quickly as possible and so we finally made it to the Indian side where we could already see hundreds of people rushing to the grandstands especially built for spectators of the border closing ceremony. But the ceremony was only starting in two hours…! And still, people were going crazy about it hurrying up like teenagers trying to get in the first row at their favourite bands concert. For us two Germans it was all weird and we couldn’t understand what all the drama was about. But still we didn’t want to miss the ‘spectacle’ that makes people come from all over India. Seeing all the enthusiasm of the people in preparation of the ceremony, we were even more disappointed and disillusionised when we finally saw the actual event. It was a ridiculous nationalistic show-off which soldiers on both sides performing meaningless and absurd routines. They were running around and sounding like chickens, but people did not really care about what is happening. They just came to celebrate their country and supporting the feeling of being different from the other side of the gate. Stefan and me, we were soon to annoyed by this procedure that is good for nothing but to built up even bigger wall between two countries that once used to be one. So we couldn’t wait to start our trip into India, going the the city of Amritswar…
At this occasion we would like to thank all the people that sent us E-mail requests because of the Osama killing and the security situation in the country. Thank you for being worried, we appreciate your empathy!