Trapped by Flooding Disaster in Valley Pakistan Forgot: Travel
Three friends and I went on vacation to Pakistan on the spur of the moment and walked into a disaster zone.
We weren’t being reckless; we had no idea what was to come as we made the easy journey along China’s famed Karakoram Highway and across the border into Pakistan’s remote Hunza Valley.
Isolated by flooding on arrival, we had no idea that the rest of Pakistan was drowning under the worst monsoons in memory. In the next valley over, and all the way down the Indus River, millions of acres were flooded, destroying the homes and livelihoods of 17.2 million people and killing more than 1,700, the government said.
True, we expected to face flooding in our own valley after a January landslide buried the town of Attabad, slicing the lifeline to China and pinching off the Hunza River. Twenty-five people perished under that massive pile of stone and earth. Nor is that the only obstacle facing southbound food, fuel, people and the occasional cow.
Travelers must endure two hours on a rickety ferry over the newly christened Attabad Lake, which has been rising behind the natural dam from the landslide. To prevent a catastrophic breach that would drown downriver towns, government engineers fashioned a spillway over the landslide, and the Hunza River flows again from its new slender, turquoise lake.
We had been visiting the far-western Chinese city of Kashgar when we noticed it was a short hop to Hunza. Pakistani visas were issued on arrival, and the route once saw thousands of backpackers -- especially Japanese.
Several days of hiking and breathtaking mountain views passed. Letting our families know where we were started to seem a good idea. Electricity had been cut for weeks. Hotel generators functioned rarely, if at all. Dozens of backpacker cafes that once offered Internet access were shuttered. Restaurants opened just to serve us.
We walked the road with our wiry, pious guide, Mahboob, who stroked his beard and fiddled with prayer beads when worried. At least he had a good civil service job nine months a year: His livelihood would not be drowned like cattle and crops.
We were given a lift by a man who identified himself just as Haider, who had a mystery supply of gas for his pickup truck -- fuel has been scarce in the valley since the landslide, and the road to Islamabad is frequently washed out as well. He said he was an executive at the Pakistani subsidiary of a Chinese oil company and was stuck in the valley while he waited to move heavy equipment from China.
It wasn’t a bad place to be marooned -- stark mountainsides, stunning snowcapped peaks, picturesque villages, terraced farms and waterfalls. We savored the simple, satisfying local cuisine of chapatti, daal, lentils and cheeses. There was consolation in the golden sunrises or pink sunsets strafing the glaciers and the peaceful isolation.
Just enough supplies trickled in to keep a semblance of normality, without the noise and traffic.
Our time running short, we somehow managed to make it back to the Chinese border through a patchwork of vans, hiking, and the inevitable ferry ride. The boat’s captain quoted us an outrageously high fare compared to the other passengers.
“Why are the others only paying 100 rupees ($1.17)?” demanded one of my companions.
“We’re displaced people,” murmured someone in the crowd.
Fair enough. We bargained down and still paid a premium.
Besides the spillway work and some Chinese work crews and earthmovers, the government was nearly invisible between Attabad and the border. Schools, public-assistance foundations, vans, and even lifejackets on the boats bore the logo of the Aga Khan Foundation, named for the billionaire religious leader of Ismaili sect.
At an improvised cable-car over a washed-away bridge, one of the operators asked: “How do you like it here?”
“It’s very beautiful,” I replied. “Pakistan is a lovely country.”
“This isn’t Pakistan. This is north Pakistan,” came the reply.
Back in Kashgar, we got online for the first time in a week and learned of the horror overtaking huge swathes of Pakistan. Hunger and disease were spreading. While we enjoyed the solitude and sunshine of Hunza, American senator John Kerry and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon were visiting disaster areas several valleys over. Such was our isolation.
When the reporters and aid workers fly home, much of Pakistan may resemble Hunza: still reeling from floods, but struggling to reassert the patterns of normal life. Tourists may not return, but they should. The Karakoram Highway is an ideal way in and your trip will be smoothed by Pakistanis’ excellent English and warm hospitality, your senses heightened by delicious cuisine and stunning scenery.
And there are few better places to spend your money.
(Nick Fischer writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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