International fliers are expected at the Islamabad airport three hours early. In 2007, a botched suicide bombing attempt was foiled by security guards; in 2001, a ticking time bomb was discovered and taken to an airport parking lot to explode impotently. Security is tight, and we were three hours away. In the end, I’d arrive at the first pat-down only 75 minutes before the flight, but plop down in the massage chair of the business class lounge (entry: $8) with an hour to spare. See, thirty kilometers from Abbottabad in the wrong direction, there was something even more beautiful than two extra hours with airport security.
The famous Karakoram Highway (the KKH) connects Pakistan and China at the 15,397-foot-high Khunjerab Pass, earning its title as “the highest paved road in the world”. It begins in Abbottabad and ends 800 miles later in Kashgar, a Uyghur city in China’s Xianjang region. The road wound up into the ridge and looked down on Abbottabad in the valley, where less than six week earlier, a couple American helicopters had dropped by to kill the world’s most wanted terrorist.
We branched off just outside of town and climbed up into the foothills towards Thandiani, the first hill station — a rest stop and camping site for vacationing locals to eat and hang out. It was June, and Lahore was 110 degrees with hardly any trees for protection. Over the Salt Range and up onto the Potohar Plateau, Islamabad was no better. At 4,000-feet, Abbottabad was already a glorious 92, but the best was yet to come. Thandiani, in the local Hindko, means “cold wind.”
Almost 9,000 feet up into the Himalayas, visitors now come from Lahore or further, sometimes all the way from Karachi. On its western border is the notorious Swat Valley, once dubbed by Queen Elizabeth the “Switzerland” of the former empire, but now primarily in the hands of the Taliban. (Just like the scenic drive from Kabul to Bamiyan, this sustains my theory that the Taliban, more than anything else, want to hold on to the pretty bits.) There aren’t many foreign tourists now.
Still, a mosaic of license plates were parked in a jumble at the top of the mountain, and we drove down a steep, crumbling dirt and rock road towards signs for “Far Pavilions.” The locals started to doubt whether it still existed, or if this was some sort of sick joke in the form of misleading posters on trees. But finally, the road opened into a clearing: a few children ran around in a grassy glade surrounded on all sides by evergreen trees. In the middle, a shack and some cabins peeked out through the branches. A man came around from behind the shack holding a white chicken by its feet. Aunt S. smiled. “That one’s for us.”
An hour later, he came back with a metal pot of spiced cubes of chicken on the bone and four Sprites in green glass bottles.
The 300 meters from Far Pavilions back to the road took twenty agonizing minutes. If we hadn’t just had piquant chicken and soothing black tea, it might’ve been terrifying. Hugging the bluffs on our right side, the car slipped as rocks spit out from under the tires. The others got out and ran ahead. I stayed in the back to weight the car towards not falling to our deaths, and the driver (on the left) punched us back up the hill.
Thandiani is at the end of a road lined with apiaries (bee coops) rigged to gather honey — to go further along the KKH, you must follow a different road. An international polo festival takes place high up in Gilgit every year, but these roads have grown more and more dangerous in the last decade. For now, families looking for a peaceful getaway will turn off for Thandiani, following the apian way up into the cold wind.
Or “cold place” depending on who you ask.
More pictures from Pakistan here!
Something new coming up —