Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bhurban and the foothills of the Himalyas

Back from Islamabad this afternoon.  Another really amazing couple of days (and I have the pictures to prove it!).

The trip started off a little rocky.  I got to the Lahore airport in plenty of time and knew something was wrong when the marquee showed all the flights were delayed and no one was allowed inside the airport terminal.  A delay in itself is not so much of an issue here during monsoon season (they can't always fly).  However, not going in (the heat index was well over 110) and after a couple of hours and no flights going out I knew something was out of the ordinary.  I finally went into a restaurant where  I met a nice gal (Pakistani-American) from California named Ghizala. She and her husband (on their way to Karachi) took me under their wing and we finally found out that the head of the airline union had been killed in Karachi so the entire airline was on strike.  A nice airline employee told me I probably was not going to be flying anywhere so I called friends, asked for advice and they said to come back and they sent the driver to pick me up.

Right before the driver arrived there a news crew told us that the strike was over and the flights were set to go in 15 more minutes. They wanted to interview me about what a foreigner thought of the delays, but I said "No, thank you!" Cancelled the driver, called the people picking me up in Islamabad, waited two more hours (15 minutes my foot!)  and  after a nearly 5 hour delay, the plane went out.  Again, I was fortunate and met a nice young woman named Marium (traveling to Islamabad with her cutie pie little boy) and she helped me figure out buses, finding my ride, etc.  Thank goodness for the kindness of friends and strangers!  I would have never made it out!  I had just about decided this was going to be more trouble than I wanted to deal with, but what the heck-I needed a little challenge. 

My friends had already left home for Islamabad so poor things, they had to wait on me. I felt really bad, but was so glad to see Safir (the driver) and Mr. Aslam upon arriving! I didn't see much of Islamabad, but that can wait for another visit. The trip to the house should have been about 2 hours, but as luck would have it-part of the road had washed out a few days before and their was a traffic jam that was locked up for nearly an hour.  Finally made it to the house and was so very happy to see Maryam.

The Aslam's summer home is in a little town called Bhurban that is  part of the hill station on the foothills of the Indian Kush.  This is the lower level of the Himalayas and the view from their home is breathtaking. The day after I arrived they took me on the most glorious tour.

This is the house I stayed in (still a work in progress) They have to shutter it up in the winter because they get about 5-6 feet of snow. They are adding gardens to the front and a path.  We talked about all kinds of plans for this pretty house with a spectacular view.
Below is the view from the deck.  Absolutely lovely and it constantly changes with sunlight or clouds.

I only stayed two nights but the first morning we trudged all over to get a look at things. The young lady below moved her goat off the path for us and wanted us to have tea with her. Most of the local people have to go down to a spring and get water as it is scarce.  Some of the more wealthy families  bring in water or have wells.  This child was so sweet and her generosity touched my heart.  The locals keep goats, donkeys, cows and chickens. Very rural, peaceful and with a much slower pace of living.
This young girl offered us tea.

We walked all along this path and the view was lovely.  The two days I was there this path was never empty.  People were walking up and down to work, school, for water, herding animals-you name it.

We decided to take a trip up the mountain to Nathia Gali.  Gali means gully and wherever there was a slight flat place on the mountain you would see houses hanging there. Could not figure out how on earth they built some of these.  This was one of the little roadside stores-Again-a flat place on the side of the mountain. Where there was not a good flat place, little children would run up to the car as you slowed (which was frequent) and would try to sell you cherries or garlands of daisies.  Some beggars too, but the majority were entrepreneurs.  During the winter, income dries up when the tourists leave so everyone is hustling.
The road rose slowly but then we came around a corner and were suddenly in the clouds. Lahore had been so hot and the air here was crisp and cool.  The car windows were down and this cool air was a welcome change from yesterday's swelter!
The road to the hill area is full of vendors and it incredibly colorful. Vendors sell shawls hung  for hundreds of feet along the road as well as umbrellas to combat the sun.  They also sell every kind of local food available-coconuts, local fruits and vegetables in leaf lined baskets, toys, etc.

Roadside attraction.  These are every couple of hundred feet.

None of these pictures do this area justice.  You can vaguely make out the valley but that is actually the top of another small mountain.  Looking down was amazing.

Every little roadside pull-off has vendors selling something as this area has a ton of people coming to the mountains to escape the heat.  We stopped at a roadside corn dealers.  They put the unhusked corn directly into fine, hot ashes, flip it around, hit it on the side of the clay burn pit, salt it and instant meal!  It was really good and we ate it as we drove.
The village we were on our way to-Nathia Gali is at about 9,000 feet in the Himalaya range. When you consider Memphis (where I live) is at around 330 feet and the highest peak in the mountains is at over  29,000 (Mt. Everest) it kind of gives you an idea. We were in the foothills of a super huge range but it reminded be of a combination of the Smoky Mountains and Hawaii rolled into one.
There were monkeys near just about every corn vendor. Of course, the first time I saw them I was yelling "MONKEY!" and my friends were cracking up.  After a couple of miles, I came to realize there were monkeys everywhere!

We made it to Nathia Gali just as the rain started. We ate at a restaurant called The Taj Mahal.  Parking anywhere here is a nightmare, but the waiters wait outside for you-direct you in to a parking place while everyone is honking at you for stopping traffic, and then they escort you upstairs to your table.  Wild!
The Taj Mahal is famous for its Chili Chicken (roasted over an open pit flame on a skewer-across the street from where we were sitting.  This stuff was soooooooo good. One of the very best chicken entrees I have ever had.  My hosts were so kind and their hospitality was outstanding.

After we left Nathia Gali, Maryam wanted me to see her former college professor's home in Ayubia. We knew she wasn't there but Maryam thought she would not mind if we visited, so off we went. Although no one has asked me to wear a head cover, in these smaller villages, I really feel more comfortable doing so. Some of my friends here do it as a matter of choice, but in the smaller towns, just about all of the women do so.

The professor was not there but her balcony had a collection of monkeys visiting. There were probably 20 of them and they were just as bold as they could be.  I was chasing after them trying to get pictures, but the guy below in the hat made sure I was careful because the monkeys can be aggressive if you aren't careful. 

When her neighbors saw us they came over and said hello. Turned out the fellow in the middle was a school mate of Maryam's son and they invited us to stay to tea and to see the renovations they were making to a small house next door.  Nice turn of events and they had the best view from their property. Really nice fellows. 
We had a great day and I took a ton of mountain pictures.  By this time we needed to head back for the 2 hour or so drive.  You always have to plan a lot of extra time when coming to the hill region because you never know what delays may be in store.  We had delays at 3 small landslides (one which was still coming down a bit, but the military were there with a bulldozer), a one way very rickety wooden bridge, cows in the road (lots of them), one errant goat that kept running into traffic, and congested small roads where only one lane of traffic was available through village areas as people parked  in places where they ought not, or there were springs of water where people stopped to get fresh water. Meanwhile our driver Safir is negotiating all of this.  I closed my eyes a couple of times and just hoped for the best but he is really good.

After a nice dinner at my hosts home, we all went to bed early.  The next day we had planned on driving to Islamabad and visiting a museum on our way to the airport, but the chance to go to another mountain village (Murree) sounded better (I can visit museums in the city next year and who knows when I will ever come back to this area?)
Roadside cows on the way to Murree.  We passed through a ton of small gali and these cows were everywhere.  Sometimes they get in the middle of the road and just refuse to move.

Once we arrived in Murree we went to the local bazaar to look around, see the sights and shop. This is like an outside salad bar.

This area is famous for dried nuts and fruits.  This was a vendor in the bazaar selling nuts.  He had us sample everything and was really friendly and helpful. 
The trucks here are decorated in the most amazing patterns.  I will probably blog on these later, but this kind of gives you an idea of how elaborate the decorations are.  This was a truck door.

Many of these little Gali have churches and convent schools.  These are highly respected  and a remnant of colonial rule.
We arrived at the airport earlier than planned but that was fine.  I bumbled around and as usual, someone directed me to where I would need to go.  The flight back was, thankfully, uneventful and one of my friends here, Maryam H. was waiting with her driver to pick me up.  Quite a memorable side trip! I dropped my phone and shattered the glass so unfortunately new iphone, here I come.   It is still working thank goodness but the glass will have to be taped over unless I can find a place to repair it, a driver to get me there and time to do it!

Tomorrow I want to grade papers, wash clothes and get ready for class on Thursday.


  1. Just fantastic pictures, Cathy!! Hawaii and the Smokies? I like it!!

  2. I know...what a crazy comparison. All I could think about looking out was how much it reminded me of a Georgia O'Keefe painting that Brooks Museum owns but the clouds were hanging so low over the hills it made me think of East Tennessee. Really pretty scenery!