Brame – fierce longing, passion.
After a few days spent exploring Karimabad, Baltit and Gulmit, I took the nice bus back to Gilgit. Through some grapevine process, Muhammad had known I’d made it safely to Karimabad. He was still a bit mad at me.
‘Crazy! You crazy, Rosita!’ He scolded me, while getting my rucksack out of the cupboard where it had been stored in my absence. My former room was still empty. He carried my rucksack across the garden. ‘Where you go next?’ He looked back at me warily, wondering what new unsuitable plan I was scheming.
‘Skardu,’ I said. ‘Don’t worry, Muhammad, I’m going to take the bus there.’
Skardu, the capital of Baltistan, is 170 kilometres south-east of Gilgit. I was still enthralled by the vertical landscape of the Karakoram, and wanted to spend more time among the mountains. Expeditions started out to K2 from Skardu. I had a vague idea in my head of absorbing some sense of the possibilities of adventure just by being there.
My guidebook told of incredible scenery, and villages untouched by modernity. An air route to Islamabad had only been established in the 1960s. The road I was about to travel, the Indus Highway, was completed in 1985. The knowledge that it was only a decade since Baltistan had had a road to connect it with the wider world was somehow intoxicating. This was not a world I knew anything about.
Two days later, I was aboard the local bus from Gilgit to Skardu. I had said goodbye to Muhammad a second time, telling him I’d be back in a week or ten days. This time, though, I took my rucksack.
The guidebook instructed, ‘For the best views, sit on the right side of the bus heading to Skardu.’ I had duly found a window seat on the right-hand side. Women in Pakistani buses that are not minibuses are seated together, but I was the only woman on the entire bus, which was, of course, full. The driver formally asked if I would share my double seat with a man in a cream shalwar kameez, who hovered apologetically in the aisle.
‘Madame, you maybe permit me to sit?’ he said, bowing.
He sat in beside me and at once fell asleep. About an hour after we had left Gilgit behind, the landscape began to change dramatically. We had crossed a suspension bridge over the Indus River, and were now on the Indus Highway proper. The road takes its name from the river, which it shadows almost the entire way to Skardu. The Indus, which is 2,880 kilometres long, starts in Tibet, carves its way through Ladakh in northern India, along the valleys and gorges that divide the Himalayas and the Karakoram range that we were now travelling through, south to the Punjab and Sind, until it enters the Arabian Sea just east of Karachi.
One thing I had learned in northern Pakistan was that the word ‘Highway’ bore no relation to what I knew as high-ways. The further we travelled along the grandly named Indus Highway, the less it even resembled a road, far less a broad and surfaced piece of infrastructure. We were on an unsurfaced track, which had no protective barriers, and the track was now following the Indus River. Not alongside it, but far, far above: hundreds of metres above the gorge.
Slowly the road began to take on the sensation of fiction. It was literally carved out of the side of a mountain gorge. From where I sat, in my unluckily scenic right-hand seat, the bus appeared to be levitating in thin air, so narrow was the road, and so close were the wheels to its bare edge. Far above us on the left, the gorge walls extended upwards hundreds of metres to a strip of sky as defined and narrow as a runway. Far, far down below, the Indus glittered like polished steel. It took its colour from the glacier waters that fed it; a shade of grey-green I had never seen before. The Indus was half a mile wide, but from where our bus crawled along, it looked no wider than a goat track.
We started to hit the hairpin bends, the bus labouring and the brakes screeching as we rounded each dreadful turn. I stared transfixed out the window. I did not want to believe my eyes. The landscape was almost savage in its nightmarish beauty. I was barely able to comprehend its vast, surreal scale. Outlandish, I thought. Not of this world.
Before this journey, my fears of travelling on a local bus in Asia had been of ending up under a rockfall, or of the over-loaded bus toppling over, or of our bus crashing in the dark because the headlights weren’t on and some truck had run into us. On this particular bus journey, I realized I had wasted so much energy in the past worrying about the bad things that might happen. They were just possibilities. Whereas this – this ghastly, unprotected vertical drop to the Indus far below – was a reality, just mere inches from the edges of tyres I knew would be bald.
The man beside me snored gently. I envied him with every cell of my body. I don’t know how long I sat like that, rigid by the window. Suddenly I became aware that the road was widening, the arid landscape opening out into green, like a concertina being pulled slightly, and we were stopping. Had we arrived in Skardu?
We had not arrived in Skardu. We were in the tiny village of Thowar. The land had levelled out into a kind of shelf under the mountain, where a few hundred souls had chosen to perch themselves, like birds on the highest swaying branch of a tree. The village, no bigger than a small field, was irrigated, and the green glow was a shock after hours of grey rock and stone. Snug, stone-built houses and apricot trees were planted right up to that vertical drop. We had stopped to offload various sacks of produce from the roof. The driver handed a bundle of letters out through the window. The children clustered around the bus. They caught sight of me, and jumped up and down, windmilling their arms in wide-eyed amazement.
There was a second tiny village, further along the track: Basho. It too was a small irrigated space, the village bordered on one side by the drop to the gorge, and on the other, by the mountain face. They were so small, we left each of them behind in less than half a minute. I turned round in my seat as we left Basho and saw the green created by the irrigation line vanish almost immediately. Among the dark shadows cast by the mountain walls, and the black of the stone, the villages of Thowar and Basho glowed with the luminosity of tiny chips of emeralds.
From their location in the gorge, I realized, the people in those villages would never see either sunrise or sunset. The sky was a strip between the walls of the gorge high above. The only time sunlight would hit the villages was when the sun was directly overhead. I thought of the children who had gestured to me. What was it like to live in a landscape that was vertical, and where there were no horizons? I imagined them growing up fearless of vertigo, playing their games on those tightropes of land, dreaming of some day seeing the sky in its entirety. It kept my mind off the road for at least five minutes.
The only other signs of human settlement along the way were occasional roofless cottages and pitiful makeshift tents, clinging like stoic barnacles to the mountain side of the track. They provided shelter for the men whose Sisyphean task it was to attempt to keep the Indus Highway clear of the debris from landslides and rockfalls. We passed small groups of men labouring with shovels and pickaxes, a wheelbarrow by their side. The rocks in the wheelbarrow were tipped into the maw of the gorge, far, far below. I could not imagine a worse job than this Russian roulette joust with nature.
The man beside me had finally woken up. We had just come upon a fresh rockfall that had spread right across the track, making it impossible to pass. A party of men was working on it. The bus stopped. We sat there for a long time, waiting.
The driver sounded his horn. I could not think why. It was obvious we were waiting for the track to be cleared.
‘Not good,’ the man beside me said, twisting into the aisle to look.
‘Why?’ I said immediately, my heart beginning to beat faster.
‘We cannot wait here long,’ he explained. ‘We are still four hours from Skardu. The driver has to get to Skardu before dark. He cannot drive this road in the dark.’
The thought of continuing this horrific journey in dark-ness made my hands go clammy. ‘Perhaps we could all get out and help move the rocks?’ I managed, but realized as I did that the bus was moving again. The driver drove the bus almost up to the rockfall. Then he got out and conferred with the men, indicating a small gap they had opened up between the rock-fall and the very edge of the track. In rising terror, I saw that he intended to try and get the bus through this space, which looked no wider than a wheelbarrow.
The driver got on again, and revved up. Everyone fell silent. I had never been on an Asian bus before where everyone suddenly stopped talking; in itself, a deeply unsettling sign. It was not just my palms that were clammy, but my spine, all the way up to my neck. The bus jerked forward. The driver drove on to the pile of rocks on the left side of the cleared space; the gorge lay below on the right. The bus was now tilted at an angle of about 35 degrees towards the gorge, and, apart from the supplies that had been offloaded at Thowar and Basho, many sacks of cargo remained tied to the roof. We edged forward. The bus groaned, struggling with gravity.
In those moments, I truly believed death was imminent. I was paralysed with terror; fearing the wheels’ loss of purchase, and the freefall of the bus into the gorge below. I was utterly overtaken by a sensation of horror and impending disaster. I thought I was going to black out. I closed my eyes. I couldn’t look out the window any longer. In those moments, when I believed we were all at risk of dying, scenes from my life did not flash before me. I did not see Jake’s face, or anyone’s face: the image that came into my head was the wholly banal one of the unfinished cup of coffee I had left behind at the Madina earlier that day, because I was running late; an image that seemed to me now had come from another, different world that had existed before I had got on the bus.
Then all four wheels of the bus thumped down together. There followed another four hours of this terrible journey. Near Kachura, the landscape finally opened up and the road drifted ever downwards to the bottom of the river valley. We were past the gorges. I lay against the window, stunned at simply still being alive. I had spent the last four hours with only one thought in my head: how was I going to get out of Baltistan again? The Indus Highway was the only road in and thus the only road out. I had no idea how I would do it, but I vowed to myself over and over that it would not be by way of the local bus on the Indus Highway.
A couple of kilometres out of Skardu there was an army checkpoint. The bus stopped, and two soldiers with guns got on, walking up and down, asking random passengers questions. I stared out the window. Alongside the checkpoint was a large square building. Painted on the gable wall in large faded white letters, five words in English spelt a surreal, arcane greeting to Baltistan. They read: Welcome To The World Without.