The Longest Ride: Comin’ down the mountain when we come

There was so much more we could have done in the north: the three-day Rakiposhi Base Camp trek; the hike from the village of Gulmit to Passu; the safari to Khunjerab Pass where we could photograph yaks, ibex, and peer into China. . . But, alas, our journey points Eastward, so we descended from the mountains.

Our initial drive-thru of Gilgit two weeks ago was unnerving. There was a strong military presence because of recent Sunni-Shi’a violence, and the town is known to be more friendly to truckers than tourists anyway. In order to avoid getting trapped in Gilgit while waiting for another series of cancelled flights, we bit the bullet and boarded the bus.

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The Pakistani Government Natco Express Coaches depart daily from Aliabad; they are like chicken buses on steroids, with gigantic wheels, high clearance, and a cabin full of dust and dirty pleather. The bus was a beast, and we, unfortunately, were riding its rump, sitting in the next-to-last row, perched above the engine and the rear wheel, so that we enjoyed the full range of both the see-saw effect (as the bus bumped in and out of potholes and climbed up and down dried mudslides), and the side-to-side swinging, as the front of the beast made violent back-and-forth sweeps all the way down the mountain. A real rodeo.

This was, after all, the Karakorum Highway, a snaky, twisted path blasted from donkey trails out of the sheer side of the mountain, completed only in 1986; straight-down-to-the-void was what one saw out of the window for almost the entire 21-hour ride, with 1,000-foot drops only inches from the big tires. The trick was not to look. Especially when an oncoming trucks caused our driver to swerve left out of the center and skirt even closer to the void, all kinds of pre-death scenarios in my head (How much time would we have in freefall? Would we be able to say goodbye?). Just ride the beast, meditate, and wait for it all to be over, I told myself.

Allow me to repeat: The ride was 21 hours long.

The night passed in a horrible barely-waking-state of extreme discomfort; our raised, slightly-padded seats ensured burning, tush-gripping friction, and any attempt to sleep was foiled immediately by smashed noses, ears, and whip-lashed necks.

We crawled easily through most of the many police checkpoints, but at one, around midnight, I was asked off the bus, the only foreigner on board (they allowed me to represent my wife). It was dark and warm outside and I suddenly found myself in a black-yellow, lantern-lit army tent, surrounded on all sides by long-bearded, Kalashnikov-bearing soldiers who argued with each other above my head, rancid breath and spit flying as my nearly-trembling hands wrote down passport numbers, dates-of-birth, professions into their various log books (I wrote “teacher” instead of “writer,” thinking it safer). At one point, I dropped Tay’s passport on the ground, causing a slight commotion when I bent down to run my hand through the mud to find it. One soldier demanded that she come out to sign the log herself, but my bus-wallah/translator fended him off.

Dinner. This was a standard Natco stop, in the muddy darkness by the side of a raging creek, where men splashed clear mountain water over their hands, face, and feet, where the few women and children ate behind purdah screens (S. remained sleeping on the bus; except for one veiled, silent woman, she was the only female out of 60 passengers). A croaky-voiced neighbor with whom I’d exchanged glances in the back of the bus invited me to sit with him, which I gratefully did. We sat on rope benches, and Manzoor (not his real name, you’ll find out why), my new friend, had tin trays of dahl and a basket of fire-baked chapattis brought, which we washed down with 7-Ups and milky chai. Manzoor, it turned out, had been on the same trek as us, Rash Lake, vacationing with colleagues in the north. He’d lost his voice, he said, because of the cold air while crossing the Miar Glacier.

By this time, I’d discovered that Grandpa Stewart connections were everywhere, so I told him of our mission. He looked up suddenly and said, with pride, “I studied at Gordon College! I know four things about Dr. Stewart: that he was a great man, that he was principal for 21 years, that he was a botanist, and that his picture hangs in the reading room.”

Back on the bus, another stretch of time passed, still swerving to and fro, up and down. At first light, we stopped outside a mosque, where some of the men entered to pray. I, and a few others, went to the other side of the road and urinated. There was no more attempt at sleep, not for me; Manzoor’s seatmate moved to the front, so I could sit in his seat and let Tay lay down. The morning light and thoughts of arrival kept me awake, as well as fresh conversation, which went on through the dawn as we drove through Abbottabad.

We had been talking about his career; he studied English literature at Gordon, said he was now a “teacher,” but this was a cover, just like me. When I asked if he’d been to the U.S. he said, “My job does not permit me to travel to India or the United States.” He lowered his voice, “In fact, I am not supposed to talk to foreigners; but I am a free man, I do not care.”

“Show me your hand,” he said suddenly, taking my thick right paw in his grip. Both of our finger nails were filled with grime from our treks, and his hand was warm as he probed mine, folding my hand in various ways to see the lines.

“You have a sharp mind,” he began, “robust health, but you should take care of your liver; you’re silent, but outspoken, you try to do what you think is right.” He searched for a few minutes more, then said, “Still, you need a good guide – if this woman,” he gestured to Tay, asleep, “is a good guide and a good friend, you will go far.”

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was wailing qawalli notes on radio, a prelude to Lahore, only a few days away. I asked what he was singing and Manzoor replied: “He says, ‘To love is not easy, it is a river of fire, and we swim through it.’”

He then told me I had strong lines for sons, weak ones for daughters. “You have many inclinations,” he said. “But you should choose just one career and stick to it; God has given you a lot of energy for your work.”

Soon, we were passing the mud-walled slums outside Rawalpindi, pocked by massive puddles of brown water in which children splashed and played. “July 16,” said Manzoor. “The monsoon has arrived. When I grew up, we always looked forward to July 16 and celebrated the monsoon. It is here now.”

Amid the hot chaos of the bus station, Manzoor took our photo and promised to contact us with information regarding our quest, specifically the town where he was born, Jehlum. I didn’t think he was serious, but that night, as we ate Italian food and drank two forbidden bottles of chilled Chardonnay with our Islamabad friend and host, Rachel, her cell phone beeped twice from within her purse; our next clue — in the form of a text message — had arrived.

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