“flood aid slows to a trickle” is the (small) headline in The Australian this morning. “The situation in Pakistan is rapidly getting worse” says today’s email from oxfam. The flooding has been going for a month now and it hardly even makes the news anymore. I am still staggered by the scale of this disaster, it’s not the number of people who have died, it’s the 18 million who have been badly affected, 8 million of whom currently cannot survive without extensive aid, who currently have no drinking water, no shelter, no food, are succumbing to disease outbreaks. And the flooding is still occurring. These are people who may live if the right aid gets to them, and will die if it doesn’t.
I understand that Pakistan doesn’t exactly have a positive media profile these days. But I was fortunate enough to travel through Pakistan twenty years ago, and had an amazing trip through many of the areas that are now suffering so much. To me it does feel as personal as Bali or Thailand or any other destination I have enjoyed. I know Pakistan has changed in the last twenty years, and there is no doubt that it is a more dangerous place today, but I also remember that I travelled there during the first Gulf War. Our governments were warning us not to travel there then too, again because it was “too dangerous”. Yet our experience was of incredibly friendly, hospitable locals and stunning scenery.
It was also here where I belatedly discovered that all my favourite “Indian” meals in London were of Pakistani origin – the fact they were meat rather than vegetarian dishes probably should’ve been a giveaway sooner for me!
So I’ve pulled out the old photo albums and included scans of some of my old photos in this blog – a couple have marks on them where the negatives have deteriorated over the years.
I travelled through Pakistan as part of a classic London to Kathmandu overland truck trip. We entered western Pakistan from Iran, travelling through the scorched earth of the Baluchistan desert to Quetta, the border with Afghanistan always just off to our left. As a dusty desert town, Quetta was quite an oasis for us – a sleepy spot where we could sit for hours and drink tea with curious locals, or watch the bread be made in the fire pit under the floor. Here we also got outfitted in our own salwar kameez, so that our dress standards respected the local conditions.
Then we moved on, following the Indus Valley all the way up to Peshawar. Even back then it felt dodgy, a classic border town, although twenty years ago it was reflecting its role as the drug running capital between Afghanistan and Pakistan, rather than its current infamy as a porous border for Taliban, terrorists and till drug lords as well. We couldn’t leave Peshawar without driving up the Khyber Pass to the Afghanistan border post, but as that route was rightly considered dangerous even then, we had to hire an uzi-toting guard to sit in the front passenger seat to supposedly protect us – although he seemed so nervous I am not sure he would’ve been much help if anything had gone wrong. We couldn’t cross into Afghanistan, so we literally stood on the border, took photographs in both directions, and then headed back into town, without any incident.
View of Afghanistan from border:
View back to Pakistan from border:
We continued right up into the Northeastern corner of the country, following the Karakoram Highway far into the western edge of the Himalayan ranges, following the Indus river towards China. It was a spectacular multi-day drive through the Swat Valley to Karimabad in the Hunza Valley, the reputed Shangri-La, the cradle of longevity.
It was an oasis of greenery along a highway of unrelenting grey and gravel and dirt. Many of the houses had that year’s apricot crop drying on their rooftops, and we happily consumed a few kilos of dried apricots each that week.
Tourism was fairly common back then, albeit in small numbers, but we found that the kids were very curious about us, and were also very shy. Some of the younger ones looked as scared of us as if they had just seen aliens for the first time.
I remember these young girls we met on the Karakoram, and I have to wonder how they and their children or even grandchildren are affected by the current disaster. All I can do is keep donating to charities I hope can help, and if we can all do that then maybe we can help them survive.