The Adventure of a Lifetime: Part Four
“I have felt fear at various times in my life but almost never as palpably and deeply as I did that morning. It sat round and heavy, a lead ball, in my stomach.”
FROM GULMIT we drove east to explore the villages and lakes around Skardu, then began to head south toward Islamabad. The relentless rains continued and the days streamed away, leading to our dramatic dawn decision-making meeting in Chilas. Tom Cole said he thought we should stay. Asad Esker said he thought it would be all right to go.
Rain pattered on the roof, and the grimy light of a cloud-covered dawn smudged the windows. If we didn’t risk the road and the rains continued, we faced the distinct possibility of missing our plane in Islamabad and being stuck there for three days until the next scheduled flight – if we could get seats on that flight.
We thought of appointments and commitments, dangers and delusions, imponderables and percentages – and, most of all, loved ones anxiously awaiting our return. We looked at each other long moments and then, as if with one voice, said, “Let’s go.”
I have felt fear at various times in my life but almost never as palpably and deeply as I did that morning. It sat round and heavy, a lead ball, in my stomach.
The van was silent as we drove slowly down the rain-slick road out of Chilas. A coppery dryness parched my mouth, and for a while I had to grip the van seat to keep my hands from trembling. I wondered if there would be even a second of realization before the avalanche came, or if it would arrive in a cloud of instantaneous obliteration. I wondered if a search party would be able to identify our remains. I wondered why I had ever put myself in this stupid situation in the first place.
For two hours we bumped along through thick mist without seeing another car or truck. Then the mist began to lift, and our spirits with them. A kind of exhilaration began to take hold, a feeling of exploring a world no one had seen before us. We were trailblazing, opening up the Karakoram Highway. Adventuring!
Once again we began to exclaim at the vistas and peaks, the trim stone houses and rock-bordered emerald terraces. The crescendo came at 8:07 am when a red bus with “Rawalpindi” written on the front passed going in the opposite direction. Cheers broke out in the van – the road was open!
From that point on it was all downhill, so to speak. The sun shone, the peaks glistened, the clouds puffed, the road dried – occasionally waterfalls coursed across the pavement or we bumped over great gaping stretches where the road had been washed away, but these were trifles, good photo ops, footnotes to the epic of the Karakoram Highway.
Morning slid giddily into afternoon, and at some point I took out my notebook and wrote: "Three weeks ago Pakistan meant nothing to you. And now it is all around you. Pakistan is burros burdened with fodder and wood; it is lush green fields dotted with big blossoms of color that, as you get closer, turn out to be women in red, green, purple, or blue robes. It is children with dark hair and big shining eyes who smile and wave and cry out, “Bye-bye, bye-bye,” and weathered men in white caps and dun-colored blankets, their stares like skewers until you smile and wave – and their wrinkles crease into smiles and they raise their hands in stately salute.
“Pakistan is a string of camels plodding down the highway; young men in spattered shalwar kameez playing cricket in the rain. It is women washing their clothes in a river, and naked children playing jacks in the mud nearby. It is tiny, musty shops crammed with old artifacts and new handicrafts; open-air stalls selling oranges and dates, carpets and cloth, jewelry, spices, guns. It is painted trucks, horse-drawn carriages, battered bicycles; mountain palaces and muddy refugee camps. It is white clouds and gray clouds; green fields and snowy meadows; dusty plains and snow-capped peaks; pearly mist and blue sky. It is all Pakistan. Pakistan!”
In Part Five: Reflections on adventure, change and the things that abide#####
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