Back to Pak

Uighur Card Players
Yarkan, Xinjiang
GILGIT, Pakistan
July 12, 2007

Once again I'm recognizing my birthday by making an international trip. 2007 will be the 21st consecutive year I've followed my ritual of "being out of the country" over my birthday.

I've been in northern Pakistan for two days. I came down from China, taking buses through the Khunjerab Pass. It's now a lot easier to make that trip than it was the previous times I've made the journey. Even during my most recent trip along this road--the Karakorum Highway--it was necessary to go by jeep through the mountain pass between Sost (the last city in Pakistan) and Tashkorgan (the last city in China.) Now there are direct Chinese bus lines running between Kashgar and Sost, as well as from Tashkorgan through to Gilgit.

The first time I made the trip between Pakistan and Kashgar I thought how good it would be to come back some day to do the trip again, but able to speak the languages on both sides of the border. At the time I had been studying Urdu, but knew nothing of the languages and cultures of Xinjiang. This trip found me speaking all three: Chinese, Uighur, and Urdu.

Even after a couple days back in Pakistan my Urdu is halting when I speak. However, I find that I can understand most of what I hear. It makes me wonder how the brain works, where it stores information. I haven't attempted to speak Urdu in several years. If I had tried before coming out here I'm sure I wouldn't be able to get much more than, "How are you?" out. Being here now, I find vocabulary coming to mind that I haven't thought of in years. Even before I've heard somebody say the word I'm looking for, it's in my head. Uighur and Urdu do share a fair amount of vocabulary derived from Arabic, but even other words, words which I haven't thought of in years--bed, key, cold--spill off of my tongue when I need them. How does the brain do that?

I'm stuck in Gilgit for awhile. The road down to Islamabad is presently closed. In the time that I've been here government troops ended a standoff at the Red Mosque in Islamabad: for weeks conservative protestors holed up inside the mosque called for an Islamic state, demanding that the present government resign. Ultimately troops stormed inside, killing around 70 people. Despite that it's about 18 hours from Gilgit to Islamabad there is no traffic: the road has been sealed.

I haven't spoken in depth with many people, but get the sense that supporters of this sort of fundamentalist stance are in the vast minority. I was buying a bottle of pop at a stall next to the bus station yesterday and started chatting with the proprietor. We talked about how the buses wouldn't be running for some days, he immediately launched into a tirade about how the fundamentalists who took over the Red Mosque were not true Muslims. I haven't spoken Urdu for a long while, but could understand almost everything he said: "Those guys are a bunch of second-rate Muslims: they're not the real thing. Now that they're dead they'll find out what God has in store for them..." His words trailed off, upon which he simultaneously made a cracking noise in his throat and a wrenching motion with his hands about his neck.

If the Karakorum Highway doesn't re-open soon, I may have to take a few days waiting in Gilgit. I went by the PIA (Pakistan International Airways) office to see about an air ticket to Islamabad but stepped out as soon as I entered. It was a madhouse of people, all trying to head south. It would have taken me at least an hour of pushing and shoving to get any attention. Despite--or perhaps, because--it is much hotter in Gilgit than it is in Xinjiang, I'd rather wait a couple extra days than push through crowds.

Despite the holdup, I am enjoying being back in Pakistan. This area isn't a bad place to spend time, by choice or not. High mountains surround one of the better-preserved traditional cultures in the world. The streets are full of men, a few in western clothes, the vast majority in their long shalwar-qamiz, occasionally topped off with a flat Chitrali cap. The Karakorum Highway is as beautiful as I remember it. The stretch from Kashgar to Gilgit alone has seen Karakol (Black Lake,) snow-capped peaks of the world's highest mountain ranges, golden-ruddy marmots scampering into burrows, and the apricot orchards of the Hunza Valley. I'm hoping the remaining stretch, down to Islamabad, will be open by tomorrow.

If all goes well I'll make it in a few days down to Lahore. I've made contact with Razaaq: the director of the Urdu language program I studied through when I lived in Lahore many years ago. We last saw each other when I made the trip coming out to Xinjiang to study back in 2003. I'm hoping that my old calligraphy teacher, Junaid Sahib, will still be around. If Junaid is still at the program center I'll ask if he's willing to instruct me again for some days. It would seem appropriate that he see where I've come with my calligraphy skills after studying in Xinjiang for the past few years.

I picked up a SIM card for my mobile phone. Over recent trips I've found it makes sense to get a local number--I still have old SIM cards from my last trips to the Philippines, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. I was travelling with others over each of those journeys, but figure a working phone will be good for connecting with people. I might couchsurf in Islamabad; it will be good to be able to call Razaaq as soon as I reach Lahore. The cost of the SIM activation activation was 100 rupees, about $1.65 USD. No reason not to have a phone number, I figure.

If anybody wants to say "hello" or send an SMS message my number is:

+92 (344) 524-5737