Have a fabulous 2012


Gaga: Rest in Peace (b.2002 - d.2010)

Monday, April 16, 2012

Gilgit: Down the Memory Lane...

I have lived in Gilgit for a little over 2 years (this city is at an elevation of about 5000 feet above sea level and it's old name was Sargin. It is in the north part of Pakistan - where the Himalayas, Karakorum and the Hindukush meet) and returned to Islamabad in the spring of early 1990s – about two decades have passed, but looking back, it seems like yesterday.

Every memory of the each day spent there is astonishingly fresh. Living there gave me the first hand knowledge of what life actually was? Honestly, it was a very tough life – walking a very thin line, however it was mostly peaceful and stressless. Gilgit taught me many things and some experiences are still standing tall and alone amongst many.

Coming out of the (so-called) comfort zone of living in Islamabad I had no idea what I was heading for, nevertheless, it is one of the most cherished moments in my life. The city in itself was welcoming – its people, culture and landscape.
As soon as I moved to Gilgit, I started my school year and from day one became friends with many girls, majority of whom were from Gilgit city, Hunza and its suburbs. A good number among these girls had come from as far away as Skardu, Sher-Qila, Jaglot, Naltar, Nagar, Astore, Gulmit, Bagrote, Oshkandas, Puniyal etc and even places much farther. At the time, Hunza already had a well-developed Agha Khan school in Karimabad but had no high school. A lot of Hunzajoes (also called Hunzakuts)  as they were called by Gilgities were studying with us. Students were really passionate about studies but the infrastructure and standard of education was not up to the mark. Being in such a remote place – no proper checks and balances were put in place – hence, whosoever could do whatsoever. Very few teachers were available and some of them did not deserve the jobs that they had.

I was living in an area located somewhere in the middle of Yadgar Chowk and the army cantonment of Jutial (also spelled as Jutyal). Close to the airport too. A 10 minutes walk down the “only” road (in Gilgit at the time) from my place used to take me to the main bazar or 10 minutes walk in the opposite direction, up the hill, would take me to Sarena Lodge (now: Sarena Hotel) – and from there it used to take a shape of a loop – encircling the entire cantonment. Right behind my place were open fields bordered with cherry, plum, almond and apricot tress and in one corner was this little cluster of mud and stone houses of Kachraut a predominantly Shia neighborhood. Across a few more fields on its west was another cluster of mud and stone houses of Sunni neighborhood. I visited both the villages, had friends in both the places and used to be invited for lunch, dinner or to chit chat with other girls in both the neighborhoods. I was really NOT aware of the seriousness of the sectarian divide under the surface.  Over the years, to belong to one sect or the other is considered worst than being an atheist in this whole country not just Gilgit-Baltistan. This had to happen since a lot of money, time and energy was spent on such a useless but very deadly game that Pakistani state played with its people. Now, we are sitting on a time bomb - ready to explode.

Anyhow, it was not just the pristine and breathtaking landscape of the region that set it apart but there was another aspect to it – the main asset of this region: its people who were very friendly, helpful and accommodating. Even though I was far from my home and was new to the place I found a special place in the close-knit families of my friends, I was considered as a part of their family. For me it is hard to believe that there is so much violence and war-like situation among various factions today and I will blame the out-side factors and non-locals not the insiders of Gilgit-Baltistan as the real culprits.

Local people there used to mind their own business  -  they were involved in their lives but were always very concerned about one thing: education of their children. Everyone was desperate about sending their children to a schools in their budget, no matter how meagre. Many households sent family members for higher education or for getting jobs to cities like Karachi - which was considered very prestigious. Respect for the teachers in Gilgit was an outstanding feature unlike what it was in Islamabad – their status was next to God - same as in Japan or Korea.

Very modest and simple lives were lived there by more than 95% of the people but like every other place on earth, Gilgit also had its fair share of elites which comprised of people working in foreign NGOs or working for the government including the military. There were families with royal bloodlines of rajas and maharajas and they were mostly very modest and down to earth. Over all, it was a big, happy family and not an estranged and a divided community though there were differences. Having have differences is a healthy feature of any normal society.

The valley was like a cup of tea – surrounded by “extremely high” mountains and the sun light used to fade at 2p.m and it used to get dark since the sun used to hide behind the monstrous, high altitude mountains. When I first arrived in Gilgit it was fall – and the tress were changing colors mostly to yellow due to tall poplar trees lined-up in rows but splashes of orange, red and maroons were a nice combination. Nights were very chilly and days were very short.  Soon after, winters arrived and they were very harsh. There was hardly any system to keep oneself warm, traditional houses had wooden roofs.

People had makeshift old-style fire places and sometimes a bucket of burning embers was put under a table which was then covered with a coarse/thick blanket and everybody used to sit around this low – Japanese style table with legs crossed underneath and that was a great way to escape cold nights while eating or studying late at night. Due to cold weather water pipelines either froze or burst and power shortage was frequent. The city only had a few hours of electricity on daily basis but everyone was hopeful about future...and expected it to be better, brighter and promising. After an unbearable winter came spring, my favorite time of the year, entire city used to bloom in the shades of pink color due to cheery, apricot and almond flowers alongside bright green sprouting leaves and grass all over the place in an otherwise grey shades of barren mountains and it was soon followed by summer when trees used to be loaded with fruits such as cherries, apricots, peaches, malburries and plums.

I still remember and miss the air that used to be so clean and fresh that breathing in was like having have a nice, cooling effect in the lungs, the sunshine was sharp and bright, at night the skies were full of stars on a clearer day to an extent that there was not an inch left empty of stars – I have never seen this many stars except in animations or children's drawings. In the backdrop snow clad mountains used to give a silver glow because of moonlight's reflection, there were numerous streams of icy melted water all over the place and one could hear them flowing – it was so beautiful. Over the years, I have heard that overall temperature has risen to about 7 degrees centigrade and unlike old days – now one needs a fan in summers. It is hard to believe but environmental changes are inevitable and are taking their toll. 

 Almost everyone had a cow or a goat or both, a small garden and fruit trees – so basic needs were met at bare minimum but what was hard to get was fuel, firewood, kerosine and gas cylinders. Life was carved out of what the region could provide. I still remember that the only snack sold at our canteen was boiled potatoes sprinkled with salt and pepper. What we call Kimchi in South Korea, we had something similar to it in Gilgit where vegetables were pickled /fermented in the same way as is Kimchi and was used in winters. Among many dishes, I still remember the fresh hand-made noodle soup call laghman. Mandu or dumplings were also common – funny isn’t it. This food came here via families that had extended links in Kashgar in Xinjiang hence, the Chinese – style food influence seeped in.

There was this broken wooden hut on Jutial road - barely enough for 3 people to stand together - where an old man used to sell samosas and tea and was one of my favourite spots to stopby on my way up or down the road. We also had a very modest Governemt Boys Middle School on this road. The boys school uniform was dark grey shalwar/qameez and green caps with a red monogram whereas girls was the blue and white shalwar qameez with white scarf (green in case of Agha Khan schools).

Gilgit’s downtown and bazaar, the hub of activity, had everything from its own Raja Bazar to a Jamia mosque, to sabzi mandi, motels, restaurants, bookstores, stationaries, pharmacies and so on. One could hear languages as varied as Shina, Brushiski, Balti, Pushto, Uyger, Mandarin, Punjabi, English and Urdu to name a few. The bazaar was not the prettiest or most exciting of places however; it had almost everything that one would seek. A small makeshift shop would be selling eggs, onions and apples put together in the same basket alongside a hiking gear or a kerosene oil lamp. Almost every shop had dried apricots, walnuts and almonds and some local souvenirs such as Pattu - local, handwoven cloth for jackes as well as chitrali caps and embroided long sleeved coats in beige color. Our favourite produce was dry apricots with almonds inside as well as pure almond oil pressed in front you. I hardly saw local women doing shopping or if they did – things were brought inside the jeep/ car etc. I still remember that my friend shopped for shoes and the man brought shoes to us in the jeep but nothing was forbidden, it was just a cultural thing.

A little hhike  , at Kargah was this beautiful Buddah Statue carved on a mountain

Local public transport was Suzuki pickups with bright flower decorations and caligraphies and sparkling laces hanging with them and they used to shuttle between Jutial and the Polo ground and also to Gilgit suburbs of Konudas, Danyore etc. where the “only” Boys Degree College was located. It was across the Gilgit river and could be accessed by passing through a hanging bridge whereas another bridge was under construction. Only 8 or 9 buildings had two floors and among them were the Girls Inter College and a shabby DHQ hospital on the same road. The tallest building was the ugly Park Hotel in main bazaar – probably 5 or 6 stories high with NATCO bus stand on one of its sides….who had thought that years later passengers on these NATCO buses will be lined up in the middle of their journeys and shot at point blank just because of their sect. Who had thought that a road trip on KKH/ Silk Road would turn into an occassional genocide of the people of Northern Areas. Who had thought that linking of many of the unknown valleys and town on the Silk Road will face violence of this sort.

Even in 1990 I personally witnessed a curfew, it was my first time, with sounds of sirens go off alongwith the warnings on  loud speakers. That day, I was in Konudas area and was returning home and had just crossed the bridge over Gilgit River. Curfew in itself was not scarey because I could not see soldiers everywhere or firing or fighting but overall it brought the city to a standstill and a very strage feeling of uneasiness prevailed for days. People had big families back then like 8 or 10 children on an average so I wonder how they coup with such a situation? Population of Gilgit was a couple of thousands and now it is reaching a 200,000 mark - almost a quarter of a million. I can't believe it...for the size of Gilgit city - it is a huge number.

Gilgit  and the entire Northern Pakistan is in news for all the wrong reasons. All of the people who have travelled there, lived there, locals or visitors - are in the state of awe.
It has been years that I want to visit Gilgit but honestly, on every trip to Pakistan - I really do NOT have the courage to put myself together and witness the bloodshed, hatred and degradation of all sort in my favourite city where I lived as a young student trying to fit in that culture.

The images of Gilgit that I have may not be valid anymore but much is still the same - poverty, economic divide, poor infrastructure, scarcity of food and basic utilities, crumbling tourism but the worst of them all is the religious divide and I can NOT take that. I still hope that things get back to normal – less crazier than they are now.

My fondest memories of Gilgit include:
- Getting a day-old newspaper and a day old television (PTV) broadcast that used to reach the city by air depending on weather's clearity and flights.
- View of Rakaposhi from your room or lawn.
- Salted tea and the traditional bread.
- My first time seeing apples growing on trees.
- My classmates, neighbors and their warmness and endless hospitality.
- In winters getting a gas cylinders was like winning a jackpot.
- Crossing the hanging bridges was always a hard part.
- Occasional moment of screaming out loud while standing at the banks of gushing River Gilgit and this habit is still going strong - Han River is a witness.
- Crying over postponed flights and road blockade of Karakorum Highway (KKH) also called the Silk Road - it was a feeling of being cut off from the rest of the world - literally.
- Sobbing on the return of the Fokker flight en route Islamabad - Gilgit from Bisham or Chilas was a heart breaking experience and I always dreamed of a tiny, little air strip in Chilas or Bisham to land there and continue the remaining journey by road (used to be about 8 hours).
- Once in the valley, scenes like planes flying out of the city left us quite desperate.
- Cherry blossoms of Gilgit and Hunza were as good as those in Japan and South Korea combined but the taste of cherries: best in the world.
- The mighty mountains - and the greetings /decorations on these mountain tops on special festivities was something I have never seen anywhere.
- Walk ways littered with apples, apricots and other local fruits.
- I always felt closer to Heaven - being on such a high altitude. I was in heaven.
- Starry night, sparking mountains, gushing winds and the sound of poplar tress at night - always wowed me.
- Peace and serenity of the area was its main asset.

Dig Further:
Website of Gilgit-Baltistan Tourism
Shamans or Bitan of Hunza
Education: Status of Colleges in Gilgit- Baltistan 2009-2010
Cherry Blossoms (파키스탄의벚꽃축제/Baut - Kaut in Northern Pakistan, Sakura in Hunza