Thursday, 22 September 2011

An armchair in the sky

All year I have wanted to jump into the sky.  My desire to skydive in Namibia was sadly thwarted due to local bureaucracy.  One of the many advantages to travelling to Pokhara from Kathmandu was that Pokhara is THE place in Nepal for paragliding.  As soon as I arrived in Pokhara yesterday, I wanted to seize the moment and go and sort out a flight.  I visited several paragliding places for a chat before finally plumping for Sunrise Paragliding.  They seemed suitably professional and were offering a 15% discount for a one hour “Cross Country” flight.  I signed on the dotted line.

This morning, after a light breakfast, I had extra time to wind myself up as they were running behind schedule due to having had to fit in all the flights which hadn’t been possible yesterday (due to weather conditions).  We finally left the office an hour and a half late for the 20 minute drive up to the take off site at Sarangkot: three passengers and three pilots.  I was quiet on the way up.

Things happen pretty quickly once you get to the take-off spot.  My pilot, Herve “The Master”, has been paragliding for 22 years (4 here, 18 near Chamonix).  He is one of the elder statesmen of the Pokhara paragliding world and instantly put me at ease.  Within minutes, I was strapped into my “armchair” and ready to take off.  When Herve said “walk”, we walked and when Herve said “run”, we ran – up and away without any fuss.  I felt surprisingly calm about the whole thing and relaxed back into my armchair.  Beyond the undemanding “walk, now run”, as a tandem passenger, you have nothing to do other than enjoy the flight and take photographs.

Paragliding is of course all about the wind and taking advantage of the thermals.  We moved around watching the birds and then Herve took his guide from them.  Before long, we were moving higher and higher thanks to the thermals and ended up in the clouds.  I had asked Herve before we took off about how it would feel.  “Like being on a motorbike with the wind in your face”, he said.  I was amazed at how peaceful it was and that he could and I could converse normally.  This was important so that I could listen to his advice to “look forward, not down”.  It was very liberating to be floating in the sky looking down over the Pokhara valley.  Watching the other paragliders, they seemed to be whizzing around (like on a motorbike) but from where I was sitting, it felt that we moved around very gently.

We had excellent weather conditions in the end and were able to stay up for pretty much an hour.  It was too cloudy to see the Himalayas but I'll be seeing them up close in a few days time.  We climbed high up above Sarangkot, moved around over various villages and then hovered for a while above the forest trees looking for monkeys.  We then spent some time over the lake before coming into a very gentle landing – again, I was surprised at how easy it was.  Bizarrely, landing had been one of the main fears for the whole thing.

My stomach has now recovered sufficiently for me to be enjoying a Gorkha beer with some chips at Moondance.  New to-do list: where can I skydive in the following countries?  Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia.  Answers on a postcard please.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Monsoon rains in Nepal

It is the middle of the night and the monsoon rains are falling heavily.  Kathmandu was completely dry for the first 24 hours and so I naively believed one of the locals who told me that the rains were pretty much done for this year.  The UK isn’t the only country where a pocket umbrella is of the utmost convenience.  Alas, I packed mine away on the North Circular J

Having left Africa in mid-July and spent the rest of the summer in various parts of England, with a slight detour to Pakistan, it feels a little strange living out of a rucksack again and having to sort everything out for myself.  I arrived without much of a plan other than that I wanted to trek and do some yoga.  There are to be no “Eat, Pray, Love” comparisons, thank you very much.  Javier Bardem, however, is welcome to make an appearance...

Things started slowly in Kathmandu.  Maybe it was the long flight and losing a night but I seemed to wander somewhat aimlessly for the first couple of days, unaided by an erratic sleep pattern.  The sleep clearly still isn’t right but after three nights in a cheap (very clean) hotel room with little natural light, I have upped the budget to enjoy a hotel with a garden (and which does not reside above a nightclub).  Things are looking up and the puzzle of how to spend the next 45 days is starting to come together.

I shall be abandoning Kathmandu on Wednesday to head for Pokhara.  It has a reputation for being far more chilled out than the madness of Kathmandu and is also the start point for my Annapurna Base Camp trek on Sunday.  The trek will take 10 days, should involve regular showering, and is hopefully the perfect prelude to 10 days of yoga and meditation near Pokhara.

With a visa extension, it looks like I should be able to head back to Kathmandu and then join an eight day trip to Tibet.  I just need to get my head around paying the airfare from Lhasa to Kathmandu when it is in the opposite direction to my desired travel plans.  The fact is that the Chinese authorities force you to return to Kathmandu at the end of the trip and you can only travel into Tibet from Nepal on a group tourist visa.  But if not now, when?  And so I shall likely suck it up and hand over the cash.  It is apparently a spectacular flight.

And so, after a few weeks of relying on comfortable English trains, it is nearly time to get back on a bus for 7-8 hours. A “tourist bus” runs between Kathmandu and Pokhara each day, and if reports are to be believed, it will not be too cramped.  Hurrah!  I’m not ready for local buses again yet…

Friday, 9 September 2011

Hindu Kush Adventure

I took a taxi yesterday to my storage unit on Hanger Lane with the more valuable contents of my shed.  I sat in the front next to the driver and it turned out that he was of Pakistani origin.  This swiftly led us into a conversation about my recent trip to Pakistan.  At the traffic lights near BBC TV Centre, he insisted on shaking my hand – “respect” for the fact that I had been to the Chitrali mountain range.  He himself had been some ten years ago but on his recent trip to Lahore this summer, he hadn’t made it past Murree.  Too dangerous, man!

At the beginning of the summer, I needed a plan for August that would amuse me post-Widcombe Grange and before spending a week at Lakeside Road between tenants.  Everywhere seemed too far, too hot or frankly, likely to be full of families away during the school hols. I needed to escape to somewhere a bit random… which is how I ended up choosing a Wild Frontiers trip to Pakistan.  It was all very last minute and in fact, I only picked up my visa at 5pm on the evening before my 8.40am flight to Islamabad.

Some people definitely questioned my sanity ahead of the trip and many more after the fact.  A few others simply rolled their eyes.  I had to acquire some super-duper “non-FCO recommended country” travel insurance and added on some extra terrorist cover for good measure.  It is important to note that the FCO only advise against all travel to four countries currently: Libya, Somalia, Syria (darn shame) & Yemen.  Anyway, my trip was in the North West provinces of Pakistan, bordered mainly by Afghanistan so surely all would be fine J.  On a more serious note, when a well respected travel company has their “signature trip” to Pakistan, I presume that they have the clients’ safety under control.

The trip started well, arriving into Islamabad on time and the weather was hot, but not too hot.  Our guide, Zafer, kept mentioning that he was monitoring our flight for the next morning.  Today’s flight to Chitral had left and the weather for tomorrow looked good.  The daily 1 hour flight from Islamabad to Chitral is on a very small plane and gets cancelled not infrequently.  All looked good on Saturday morning when we got up at 4am and after a light breakfast, headed to the airport for our 7am flight.  We checked in our luggage and made our way to the departure gate.  There were two planes on the tarmac and only one of them matched the description of our small plane for Chitral.  It was a little upsetting when it took off for Gilgit…

It took until 7.30am before the departures board suddenly changed to show “cancelled” for our flight.  Fortunately our minibus had stayed until the car park to wait until we had taken off and so by 7.50am we had collected our luggage and were setting off on the 12-ish hour journey to Ayun, near Chitral.  As we were travelling during Ramadan and food can be hard to come by during daylight hours, Zafer stopped to pick up some snacks and fortuitously to make a set of photocopies of the list of our passport and visa details (4 Brits, 1 Canadian, 2 Aussies & 2 Americans).

We passed uneventfully through the Swat valley but then progress slowed when we had to stop at an army check point in the Dir province.  Sitting opposite a Chitrali Scouts barracks, we waited for an hour whilst Zafer negotiated with the army to allow our passage.  The army had decided that we lacked a “No Objection Certificate” (a relatively new invention). A few times, it seemed that Zafer had collected his document folder and was on his way back to the minibus when suddenly the army chief would suddenly call him back and he would sit down for some further discussions.  A lot of phone calls were made.

Finally, it was agreed that we could continue and the army chief would call ahead to all the check points that we would pass over the coming week and inform them that we should be allowed swift passage.  Unfortunately this message did not reach the next check point up the road.  We enjoyed the questioning of an enthusiastic army officer who was concerned that we had been kidnapped by our guide and driver.  I wonder if it was almost a disappointment that we hadn’t and that boringly, we were exactly who we said we were – tourists.

The subsequent few hours passed in a blur, nibbling on almonds and biscuits and occasionally having to close the curtains on the minibus to avoid the attention of unwelcoming locals.  Late afternoon, we arrived at the PTDC Hotel in Dir and were thrilled to be served tea and meet our jeep drivers (Mufti, Nasir and Daman) who had come from Chitral to collect us (a slightly longer journey than if we had arrived into Chitral airport).  By 5pm, Liz, Ken and I were settling into our jeep with driver Nasir, looking forward to arriving at Old Masoud Fort in 3-4 hours time.  The journey would take us up the Lowari pass and somewhere near the top, we would leave the Dir region and enter the Chitral area.  As Nasir repeatedly said “Dir – bad people, Chitral – good people”.

As we approached the Lowari pass, we requested permission to use the Lowari tunnel but we were refused on the grounds that it was too dangerous for foreigners.  It is debatable whether this related to the potential of what could happen within the tunnel or simply due to the state of the road on the other side.  We had no choice but to head up the pass itself at the onset of dusk.  The problem was that since our drivers had driven over the pass at 1pm, there had been heavy rain causing many landslides… Our skilled jeep drivers handled these landslides with aplomb despite being bemused at how the road could have changed so much during such a short time.  “No problem”, Nasir would tell us with a grin.

Suddenly at 8pm, we met our match.  “Problem”, said Nasir, “Go back”.  Liz gave him all her snacks so that he could break Ramadan. We set off back down the mountain, my front seat affording me a great view of mountain pass, even in the pitch black.  At the bottom of the pass, the army again refused us permission to travel through the tunnel but promised that they would allow us to travel through the following morning.  Back to the PTDC at Dir then…  As there was no mobile signal, they were not expecting us and the chef had gone home for the night.  Rooms were found for us and our jeep drivers headed off to find us a “takeaway” which we devoured at 11.30pm.

We were granted a late start the next morning (and boy did we sleep well) and headed back to the pass.  I don’t think very many foreigners have travelled through the Lowari pass tunnel and definitely we were the first Wild Frontiers group to do so.  It took a bit more negotiating but eventually we set off in convoy followed by a variety of Bedford trucks carrying live chickens.  My jeep led the 30 minute drive through the dark wet tunnel.  No Taliban jumped out along the way.

When we arrived at the other side, it was clear that we wouldn’t be going anywhere any time soon.  The heavy rains had washed the road into the dry river bed.  Zafer was convinced that there was a route through for the jeeps but Mufti just laughed.  In the end we left our main luggage with the jeeps and scrambled over to the other side.  The jeeps would follow us later in the day once the army had restored some form of "road" over the river bed.  The plan was to walk until some taxis could be found to take us the rest of the way.  In the end, an enterprising minibus driver was found and he drove us to Ayun.  With the state of the roads, this took another four hours: ouch.  Old Masoud Fort could hardly have scored more highly as a picturesque destination.  A cup of tea, late lunch and a hot shower later and all was well with the world again.

The journey may have been long but everyone remained pretty relaxed and in good humour throughout.  Zafer remained calm at all times but as days at the office go, these were two fairly stressful ones!  Those photocopies proved invaluable - every check point seemed to want one.  You could even go so far as to say that this itinerary was an improvement on the original as it took us much deeper into Pakistan and gave us a better insight to the troubled regions.

That evening, a controversial announcement was made to Zafer.  For the next five days, we would be supplied with a police escort to ensure that we were safe.  This meant that wherever we went, we were accompanied by five police officers, including a local chief.  All the Pakistanis we met were furious and convinced that this was officiousness.  However, a little googling since I returned suggests that this has become standard since October 2010.  The police joined us for the drive to the Kalash Valley and as we were in the front jeep, we were able to laugh at their inability to take the corners properly.  Relations relaxed a lot once the chief of police discovered that he & Zafer were both Ismaili and from the Hunza Valley.  Suddenly the police were all smiles and we could be trusted!

Whilst it was a little annoying have a continual police presence, they were generally charming and keen that we were enjoying out stay in Pakistan.  When we trekked up to 3,800m (much of which was scrambling), they carried our rucksacks and waters and were always ready with a helping hand.  Following our schedule did mean that they ended up doing a lot more exercise than normal!  The negatives obviously are that when you visit a village, the locals associate the arrival of foreigners with police and also, you are never free to just wander.  Our guesthouse owners were also obliged to provide lodgings and food for the policemen.  Clearly if a police escort is to become standard practice, then it should be the tourists or the police covering the costs and not the local guesthouse owners.  The times when the police put their flashing lights on to get us through traffic was mortifying and wholly unnecessary.  

Where we ever in any danger?  Probably not, but then I'm no foreign policy expert.  In the Kalash Valley, we were a day and a half walk from the Afghan border but the locals didn't feel there was any issue.  For the Pakistani authorities however, we were a potential PR disaster and so ultimately it is their decision.

The rest of the trip was fairly straightforward!  We loved our three days in the Kalash Valley and the walks to the various villages & hardcore trek up to 3,800m.  In our simple guesthouse, we chatted with the owner Saifullah and enjoyed mulberry gin instead of Kalash fruity wine (last year's grape harvest failed).  I stayed in Michael Palin's "room" and if you'd like to know more about the Kalash then "Palin's Travels" provides a far more succinct description than I could achieve.

From the Kalash Valley, we travelled to Chitral, Mastuj, the Shandur Pass, Phander, Gilgit, the Hunza Valley (where we saw Rakaposhi and Ladyfinger), ending up at Shigar Fort after 14 hours of being bumped along jeep track.  The people of the Kalash & Hunza Valleys shone out as the most welcoming.  Elsewhere we were largely ignored.  It was a long way from the continual waving in Africa earlier in the year.  Our return flight to Islamabad from Skardu did leave on time which saved us a two day drive back to Islamabad.  I'm not sure we'd have all managed the same sang-froid as we had at the beginning of the trip!  Pakistan is a beautiful country with a lot to offer the tourist but I fear that it will be a while yet before it becomes a main stream destination again.

·         We advise against all travel to Swat, Buner, and Lower Dir, including travel on the Peshawar to Chitral road via the Lowari Pass. In these areas there are ongoing reports of military or militant activity.  Localised curfews may be imposed at short notice.
·         We advise against all but essential travel to the Kalesh Valley, the Bamoboret Valley and Arandu District to the south and west of Chitral in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. These areas have seen an increase in militant activity recently which has included abductions, violent armed robbery and murder.