From Vancouver To Pir Wadhai (پیر ودھائی)

Gilgit- Hunza, Pakistan (photo Pintrest, by EK-Hunzai)

I did not expect Pir Wadhai (پیر ودھائی) to be mentioned in an international tourist book. But it is, in a book called Lonely Planet, produced by a publisher in Australia.

Those living in Rawalpindi and Islamabad would be familiar with the name. It’s a low-income neighborhood situated between the two cities and is known for a busy, and noisy bus station where van conductors, competing with each other, would almost physically pick up a prospective passenger from the roadside and pull him into their moving van before a competing van snatches him.

Buses also leave from Pir Wadhai for different destinations in the Northern Areas. It is for this reason that put this dusty, noisy neighborhood in the tourist book. And, it is here that my colleague, Mike Ferris, and his wife, Maureen, landed last August at 4 o'clock in the morning, on their way to Gilgit.

Ferris and Maureen are from Vancouver, Canada, and are living in Abu Dhabi for the past many years where Mike, a professional accountant, works for a national oil company. Although people in his profession are not known for taking risks, Mike is the adventurous type and loves mountains. He had read about and seen pictures of the mountains in the Northern Areas of Pakistan and was so attracted by what he read and saw that he decided to visit Gilgit and Hunza. He also drafted Maureen for the trip who didn’t seem to be too enthusiastic when I met them a day before they left for Pakistan.

As a first step, Mike procured the Lonely Planet book on Pakistan. He read it, taking notes, and underlining the important information. A good accountant that he is, he also took note of the prices of the hotel rooms and other services, converted them into Dirhams, and then to Canadian dollars to get a feel of the costs. Everything looked reasonably priced, even cheap, well within the budget.

Armed with all the information he collected from the book and friends, including me, Mike and Maureen packed their bags, drove from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, and took a flight to Islamabad.

Two weeks later, both returned to the comfort of their centrally airconditioned apartment in Abu Dhabi — safe but weary and a bit dehydrated — with tons of pictures of the mountains and a story to tell.

In Islamabad, when they came out of the airport, after running the gauntlet of porters, taxi touts, and onlookers, they were whisked away by an enterprising taxi driver to a hotel on Adamjee Road. The hotel was listed in Mike’s guidebook, which described it as “excellent in the middle price range”. Excellent, perhaps, was too generous a description, Mike said, but it was not bad.

Early next morning, the same taxi driver, as arranged, picked them up and drove to the Pir Wadhai bus station to catch the 4 o’clock bus to Gilgit. The bus was run by the government-owned Northern Areas Transport Corporation (NATCO). PIA flights were uncertain because of the bad weather around Gilgit.

Just before the take-off time of the bus (the way they drive these buses, it’s more like a take-off than a start), the driver noticed that there was a Western couple among the passengers and Maureen was the only woman passenger. He asked them — rather ordered them — to take the “prestigious” front seat, Mike on the driver’s side and Maureen on the door side. It was more out of courtesy for the woman passenger than anything else.

The problem with this seating arrangement was that the seat was designed only for one person. Therefore, Mike had to squeeze himself as close to the driver as possible, straddling over the engine, the gear stick hitting his right leg each time the driver shifted gears. Maureen had slightly more space but the sliding door on her side would not shut completely and remain partly open. Therefore, she hung on to Mike’s left leg throughout the journey.

And the journey lasted 18 hours! Almost the same time as it would take from Vancouver to Pir Wadhai by a direct flight.

According to Maureen, the bus driver didn’t seem to like any vehicle being ahead of him. Whenever he spotted one, he would press down on the accelerator, lean forward on the steering wheel as if to push the bus gain more speed, and, after a hair raising chase (hair raising for the passengers), would squeeze past the “offending” vehicle, sharply cut into his own lane, and slump back into his seat as if exhausted by the exertion. For the next 15–20 minutes, the bus would run as if on autopilot until another vehicle was spotted ahead, and the driver would take over and a chariot race would begin all over again (remember the movie, Ben Hur?)

With your legs spread on either side of the engine, the driver hitting your one leg with the gear stick, your wife hanging on to your other leg for her life, and the driver continually engaged in a car race on a single-lane, winding road with a drop of hundreds of feet on one side, it is physiologically impossible for anyone to fall asleep, no matter how little one slept the previous night.

But Mike dozed off a couple of times during the first leg of the journey (only accountants can do that, I suppose). But the driver promptly woke him up pointing to a sign in Urdu on the dashboard. A passenger sitting behind Mike translated it for Mike in broken English: “it was prohibited for the passenger in the front seat to go to sleep”.

Why? Mike asked. “Because”, the translator explained, “it was the passenger’s responsibility to wake up the driver if he happened to doze off.” After this explanation, Mike sat alert all the way to Gilgit.

The bus stopped every two or three hours for a much-needed break for tea and snacks on the roadside tea shops, and to allow the passengers to stretch their legs and, if needed, take a short trip to the nearby fields. But poor Maureen had nowhere to go.

Soon after reaching Gilgit, Mike and Maureen’s immune system gave up either because of something they ate or drank at the “excellent” hotel on Adamjee Road in Rawalpindi or somewhere in Gilgit. It took them a week to recover from their misery and be able to notice the mountains and scenery they had come to see.

Mike said he enjoyed the remaining one week and took tons of pictures, but his enjoyment was tinged with the constant thought of the return journey. Another 18 hours on the same bus, possibly, again tied to the “prestigious” seat, was not something to look forward to. He had just regained the normal movement of his legs.

The full name of the tourist book that Mike had purchased for the trip was “Lonely Planet — Travel Survival Kit”. Both Mike and Maureen did survive the trip!

Note: I wrote this for The News in September 1995 when I was based in Abu Dhabi. I believe things are much better now, and travel to the Northern Areas is more doable.



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