Jan 15, 2010

A day on the Karakorum Highway

It was late May and I was irked by the scorching heat of Lahore, especially I would hate the beads of stinky sweats soaking the whole body like an itinerant labor is working in a pounding sunny day.  The sizzling nights spanned over hours-long power breakdown with minimal air circulation were way worse than the searing heat of the day.
For few days I had been drawing few planes to flee Lahore, among them, was the one to drift up north and spend a month in a friend’s company pretending to be at the university. But I realized it would be turned up in a grave situation if the parents discovered. I acceded to the situation and intended to stay in Lahore until the end of the term. The next day I booked an airline ticket dated 24th June, for my home city. I was very excited that I would be at home the very next day last paper end. But it wasn’t the case.



There was a whole month for term’s end and I started counting days to flee Lahore. Meanwhile, papers started adding more malaise to the timeline. By June 10, whole three senior sessions were gone and it was only our session in the university. The road which would be so overcrowded to find the way to any department was so wide and open that I made a zigzag trail to the department on a straight road. There were few students at CafĂ© and few at Library chowk.
On 20th June the university turned out to be more desolated as students of the 21 departments were fled to homes leaving only three departments, my friend’s, mine and the other one. What I observed on the night of 22nd was more disgusting. When at 8:00 PM I stepped out the hostel there was no one except the guard at the gate. I roamed through the road bisecting the hostels and the departments and didn’t saw a single person. The shops, cafes, canteens all were closed. Even the street lights were not lit and I was, like, scared. It felt like a hell.

We had bought the tickets for Rawalpindi and were about to set out at 1:00 AM to beat the searing heat. We set out and reached Rawalpindi by morning. Spent the day in shopping and caught up with few friends. The next day reached the airport early dawn but returned to the residence in despair. This continued for three consecutive days. People were so hapless, even those having a ticket bought in early May were queued up to catch the flight. Those having experience of flying for Skardu know the value of catching a flight bound there, and in those days getting boarded the plane for Skardu was an achievement.
 It is a very competitive job to take a flight bound to Skardu on ordinary days, but at the time the situation was more aggravated by a recent incident in which three buses were torched to ashes and all the passengers on board was gunned down while keeping them in line in the Kohistan-Chilas area, all belonged to Shia sect. Keeping these critical situations in mind no one was daring to make the journey by road.  We made a trip to the airport for five consecutive days and fortunately boarded the plane on the fifth day. I was so overjoyed. Called home and informed that I would be there in Skardu by 9:00 AM. But the joy didn’t last long. About twenty minutes or so was elapsed the flight attendant announced, “The weather in Skardu has nixed the chance of flight and we are bound to Rawalpindi again.” The hope of landing safe in Skardu drained in the sea and the plane again buzzed in Rawalpindi.

Parents insisted on staying in Rawalpindi and warned of travel by road. Two more days went by the same round trip between residence and the airport. On the third day, we decided to catch a ride by road since there were no chances of the flight. Parents told that the Skardu city was densely clouded and they hadn’t sighted the sky for days.
We bought tickets and about half an hour before the departure bought some cookies, fruits, chewing gums, in case we found difficulty in finding the provision stores. Minutes before the departure I was combing the hair laying the backpack on the couch of a barber shop, when done I looked down and it was gone. I inquired but it was of no avail. We thought this journey as expected wasn’t going to be well and it was just the start.
The bus took the route. I called home and parents insisted, “Be in contact and give us a call or be ready to answer our call, after every half an hour, and keep us aware of the situation consistently.”  I told them that there was no need of worry till I would be in Besham, the second last district of KPK before the Kohistan district. But I confessed that once I would enter the territory of Kohistan and Chilas area it would be hard to foretell anything. I could reach home safe or it could be my last journey if this was in favor by God’s plan. As usual, the bus followed the KKH and reached Besham city, but there was no hustle and bustle, soundtracks, movies or even talks in the bus due to fear and panic in the mind of people and no one was concerned with these things, on normal days passengers complain of such buses which lack such services. The minutes we departed Besham, I sent a text to my father reading: “I have departed from Besham and now the mobile signal is getting weaker. I think there would be no signal after few kilometers. If this message proves to be my last message and the journey proves to be fatal, I want to know you that you are a great father. Give my regards to the whole family especially, Mom”. Within minutes signal died and I noticed that the bus was passing through a half-wood-clad ravine and with every few turns bus took I could see the twinkling lights in the distant wood. It was the late night and drowsiness was consistently overcoming me but I was trying to keep myself awake with my best to mitigate any unprecedented misadventure.

Due to fatigue drowsiness was overcoming me. I would go in short somnolence and suddenly awake. The moment I awoke from somnolence I would feel like something was going to happen suddenly. This continued for about three hours. Suddenly I awoke from drowsiness and noticed that it was the break of the day and the bus was still following the twisty KKH through the Kohistan district.  I could see the icy summits of the Himalayas gleaming on both sides of Indus River. This was something inspiring and breathtaking scenery to have at early dawn and with cold breeze of Indus River, but suddenly I noticed a bus following us which shocked me.  

The bus would overtake us and suddenly drag behind and let us go ahead and would overtake us again. This continued for a while. During this huff, I observed all the passengers were wearing white hats, an indication of religious fanaticism, which made me more frightened. After half an hour we reached Dasu, the capital of the Kohistan District. The bus made a stop but there was dead silence and no one was going to step out due to fear that something might go wrong. Passengers from the other bus stepped out, all were wearing white hats and trousers were above ankles, the fear grew more. The bus conductor declared, “The bus is making the stop for just twenty minutes. Be fresh and return to the bus in stipulated time, the bus will not make any stop until Jaglot.” Jaglot was about eight hours away. But due to fear, no one was getting off the bus. Everyone was obsessed with the other bus i.e. what they were going to do the very next moment. But we learned that the bus belonged to the Tableeghi Jamaat (A group of religious preachers).
The bus again took the route. Next eight hours were matter of life and death for us. I hadn’t been able to make contact at home since the last message. There was no signal coverage till the Chilas city. With every step up towards Gilgit, our fear grew bigger and bigger because the area passing through was the red zone where the previous incident had occurred.  While passing through barren un-wooded part of Kohistan’s last and Chilas’s begging areas we reached a barren plain filled with gravel and huge rocks at the interval. The conductor announced in slightly high-pitch tone, “Guys this is the place where buses were set on fire and passengers were sprayed with bullets while keeping them in line". Everyone was just calm and frightened; it was like, there was no one in the bus.

We had crossed the half of the red zone still there was half ahead. Everyone was so scared because any ambush could be disastrous. The area was barren without any sign of life, even no security check posts. With a scary face, everyone was praying for the safe journey and there was no fun, even ordinary talks because everyone was so confused about the matter of life. With every kilometer towards Chilas, our fear was growing and I wouldn’t lean against back rest or head rest of seat, instead keep myself erect and observe the road off distant, behind and ahead of the bus. Till Chilas city it had been very scary but fortunately, we were safe. The moment mobile singles restored, cell phones’ rings banged and there was a phrase on everyone’s lips, “We are safe and sound yet, but we haven’t crossed the red zone up to now, so it is early to say anything, pray for a safe journey.” I too talked home and revised the words on everyone’s lips with parents.  They had been awakening throughout the night. There was three to four hours long drive to cross the red zone. The bus didn’t stop for breakfast nor did lunch; instead gained acceleration with every mile towards Gilgit. The bus crossed the last settlement and transecting the Gilgit River entered on the route of Skardu. The moment bus crossed the Alam Bridge on the Gilgit River everyone shouted with joy, “Ham Bach Gaye (We escaped the death)”. There was hell fun in the bus onward, because there was no existence of Sunni settlement ahead till the Skardu city and everyone was free of fear.

From there onward it was fun. The bus made a stop for dinner at Stak Valley and we ate dinner with Desi Shorba (A kind of gravy which has its own taste and doesn’t resemble with the gravy in other parts of Pakistan), the famous cuisine of the Stak Valley. When reached home midnight, parents even little brother and sister was waiting to welcome. From that day onward every time I remember the incident sometimes I laugh and sometimes I get emotional and thank God for revitalizing us. 


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