Stuck in Skardu
FIRST the good news. Baltistan is still as stunningly beautiful as it was when I last visited it over 15 years ago. Its people are just as friendly, and the light retains its luminous clarity.
In fact, the whole valley is a microcosm of the Pakistan I grew up in: a country that accepted diverse beliefs, where girls could go to school without getting shot, and a people who gladly welcomed visitors. Across Baltistan, our party of six Brits and three Pakistanis received nothing but kindness and friendly waves and smiles.
In Shigar, the old fort has been restored with great sensitivity and skill by the Agha Khan’s cultural organisation, and turned into a boutique hotel. Staying there, and in the newer establishment at Khaplu Palace, was an unforgettable experience. The bulk of the profits from both operations go to the local community in the form of development projects.
The downside of staying true to the original structures was that I kept bumping my head on the low doorframes. I later learned that doors were kept deliberately low to force people calling on the raja to bow their heads.
The views were staggering, with snow-capped peaks surrounding the old palace at Khaplu, and mountains, old gardens and streams visible from Shigar Fort.
Baltistan must be the only place in Pakistan where foreigners — women especially — can walk freely in the bazaars and the countryside without being followed, ogled at and drawing rude comments by locals.
As all of us have spent a lot of time in the subcontinent, we were specially impressed by the complete absence of beggars. When one of our group offered Rs100 to a couple of schoolboys who had been helpful, the offer was turned down with quiet dignity:
“You are our guest,” one of the boys said.
Flying from Islamabad to Skardu must be one of the most spectacular flights anywhere. The approach to the runway involves a turn and descent between snowy mountain heights. The plane seems so close to them that you feel you can reach out and scoop up a handful of snow.
But these flights are also the most annoyingly erratic in the world. Travellers are aware that when the weather is cloudy, flights are cancelled at short notice, and they run the risk of getting stranded for days at a stretch.
However, PIA has taken to cancelling its flights at no notice for ‘operational’ or ‘technical’ reasons, forcing hundreds to either extend their stay, or venture the 22-hour drive to Islamabad. Both involve costs: either pay the hotel, or the Rs75,000 vans charge for the trip.
Staying on means missed flight connections and cancelled business meetings, but proceeding down the Karakorum Highway or KKH means an exhausting, bone-rattling drive over long stretches of terrible roads. And since the vicious killings of Shias near Chilas a few months ago, security is at an understandably high level.
So when our party arrived at the first checkpoint after dark, we were firmly told we could go no further that night. Desperately, I called my old friend Masud Shah who had been IG police in the old NWFP a few years ago. He suggested we turn back to Gilgit for the night, and he would organise an escort the next day.
Sure enough, we were met by a police mobile as soon as we entered the badlands of Kohistan, and escorted through several more check-posts where the passport numbers of the foreigners were duly noted each time. The flat, hard stares we got from the locals were a far cry from the smiles and waves we received in Baltistan. I wonder if their conservative religious belief has anything to do with the hostility we encountered.
But tiring as the drive was, it was worth every bump in the road. The soaring, snow-capped peaks and the tumbling waters of the river far below will stay with me for a long time. Luckily, we had two excellent drivers who made sure the wheels stayed inches away from the precipice.
While even PIA’s worst efforts cannot take away the impressions of a truly memorable trip, I wonder what’s going on: after all, the weather was glorious throughout our week there, so the airline can hardly use it as an excuse to cancel five flights in a row.
Our hotel managers and the shopkeepers we spoke to complained bitterly of Skardu being a low PIA priority. They were unanimous in blaming the airline for diverting aircraft meant for Skardu flights to other destinations.
What made things worse was the attitude of the PIA staff on their helpline: instead of apologising to passengers who were missing their connections, and promising to help them, they all said that customers would have to pay cancellation charges for missed onward flights. The local staff were helpless in coping with the chaos. “Speak to the management”, was their reply.
It is this culture of callous disregard for their customers that has brought PIA to its knees. Each time I have yet another bad experience, I swear “never again”. But often, there is no option, given the virtual monopoly PIA has domestically.
I suppose we could accept the organisation’s chronic inefficiency as a reflection of the whole country’s slide into mediocrity, but PIA pretends to be a commercial operation.
In their wisdom, successive governments have appointed a string of retired air force officers and PIA captains as chief executives. While these worthies may have been excellent pilots, running an airline is a whole different ball game. Thus, each one has done his bit to drive the company deeper into the red.
But this column was not supposed to be just a rant about PIA. Our friends had a wonderful time, and had it not been for PIA’s incompetence, they would have gladly recommended a similar holiday to their friends.
However, despite its idyllic setting and sense of peace, things are changing in Baltistan. We saw an anti-US slogan on a wall, and more bizarrely, there was a huge poster of the MQM’s Altaf Hussain on a village wall on our way to Hoshe.
At the end of the trip, our English friends had learned a lot about the country, including what PIA stands for: Pakistan Inshallah Airlines.
The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.