Beyond Pakistan’s tall mountains

Nazarul Islam | Published: 00:00, Feb 27,2020 | Updated: 23:19, Feb 26,2020


Trash from an informal dump in far northern Pakistan is frequently incinerated, sending up plumes of foul-smelling smoke right near a glacial lake frequented by tourists. — WXXI News/NPR/Diaa Hadid

I HAVE walked the Alps in winter, flown across the roof of the world, then had the closest glimpse of the Mount Everest peak. My journeys have taken me on a flight across the Grand Canyon in Nevada. I have faced the Sphinx in Egypt and tread the Arabian desert and slowly ambled on the Great Wall of China. There is something unique and overwhelmingly different about the Pakistan’s tall mountains of the north. I have always felt those mountains had breathed and lived.

As tradition would dictate, the residents of Murtazabad, a village in the highlands of Pakistan, love to welcome strangers. On a recent day, they like to proffer passing visitors a yak meat porridge they usually make for religious celebrations. Not many years ago, in my last visit, the welcoming dwellers indulgently smiled as a horde of Thai tourists raced into one of their orchards and posed with piles of red and yellow apples.

However, on certain days, their patience wears thin. And those days are happening more often after this once-remote province became a wildly popular destination not only for foreign tourists posing in their apple orchards, but also for Pakistanis who come from the vast plains and arid land in the south.

‘I observed most tourists to be wonderful, but some are just so ‘dirty’.

‘They come here to see Pakistan’s beautiful region and they leave their trash behind,’ says Benazir Jamal, a 25-year-old gym teacher, who pointed out that her village organised a committee to clean up after tourists. ‘Not all fingers of the hand are the same,’ Jamal said, referring to Pakistanis visiting the area.

Pointed opinions about Pakistani tourists can be heard far across the northern territory of Gilgit-Baltistan, an ‘otherworldly’ place of snow-capped peaks, glaciers, rivers and orchards. It spotlights the frictions between Pakistan’s multiple ethnic and religious groups and the challenges facing the country as it tries to lure more visitors. Signs are posted or glued on walls throughout residential areas forbidding photography and entrance to tourists. Other signs have urged them, in English and Urdu, to kindly ‘pick up their trash’.

‘Unfortunately, the problem is basically, and I am sorry to say this… essentially, our Pakistani tourists. They do not have right manners,’ says Aqueela Bano, who is heading the Ciqam Project, a network of organisations run by women, including a carpentry workshop and a café and hotel.

‘Tension has emerged after domestic tourists nearly outnumbered the territory’s 1.5 million locals over the past two summers’, according to Usman Ahmed, commissioner of the Gilgit division, one of the area’s highest-ranking officials. There were no official figures for this past summer, but it was even busier, officials said.

‘We were not ready for that,’Ahmed says. He noted that a decade ago, just over 50,000 domestic tourists visited.

Only one town in the territory has a sewage system. So, more visitors meant that more human waste would wash into the tributaries that feed the River Indus, Pakistan’s main source of water. The area does not have regular trash collection; so, the extra garbage generated by tourists is largely dumped into the river or incinerated at an informal dump, near a glacial lake, frequented by the same tourists. On a recent day, it was observed that crows picked through smouldering trash had emitted foul fumes.

To accommodate local tourists, there is a construction boom. Enormous hotels now loom over some villages. Concrete flophouses flash neon signs. Ahmed is worried, he says, because the construction industry is loosely regulated. ‘We don’t want to become a concrete jungle,’ he warns.

Domestic tourism gathered momentum when tourists started pouring in about six years ago, Ahmed says. The sudden surge is owed to a convergence of factors: long-raging, sectarian violence between the Sunnis and the Shias in far northern Pakistan was finally quelled by authorities, making the roads safe for visitors. The roads may be defined as highways of hairpin turns; these were was improved, making it easier for visitors to drive up. And tales of the area’s natural beauty spread through words of mouth and on the social media, according to both tourists and officials.

I met some tourists, including Mohammad Afzal and his wife Nazira from the southern city of Larkana, who said that they had brought their extended family of 22 people for a weeklong stay in the region. ‘We saw a video and were like, “Let’s go!”’ Nazira remarked as they passed around hot mugs of tea on that freezing day.

‘We went to the China border and the kids saw snow for the first time. They were so excited,’ Nazira, one of the many Pakistani tourists I interviewed, said She was horrified to hear that locals found them to be unclean.

‘We throw our trash in the bin,’ she insisted. Ironically, at the next table, another group of Pakistani tourists left their pizza boxes and plastic cups of tea on a table, ignoring the large trash can nearby.

Regardless of how the majority of Pakistani tourists had behaved, there do remain some obvious issues. Some of the city’s bazaars are booming with signs pleading with tourists to use trash cans, and guess what, not to take pictures or make videos. Residents said that during the summer, visiting Pakistani men snapped photos of local women without their permission and shared them online.

‘We didn’t put (these warning signs) up when it was just foreign tourists,’ says Nazir Ali, who worked as a security guard at a mosque. ‘But when domestic tourists came, they misused the pictures. A lot of women weren’t comfortable. They were scared. They don’t know how the picture will be used.’

Ali has states that the issue really emerged when residents found images of local women on social media with commentary that suggested they were not honourable. Women in far northern Pakistan do not always cover their hair, they have a tradition of working in public as farmers, shopkeepers and shepherds and their girls play sports in public — a stark contrast to the far more conservative plains below and even to other communities in the mountains.

The patron of a tiny restaurant Lal Shehzadi, 38, shared and acknowledged cultural tension with domestic tourists. She states that some of them have asked if her husband was dead and if not, why she worked because it was so unusual in the plains.

As she served local delicacies like savoury apricot soup, yak curry, salty tea and mutton pies, Shehzadi says she often retorted: ‘Why do you cover your women?’

Other residents have seriously noted the upside to domestic tourism. Bano of the Ciqam project said that the influx had allowed the network to employ 25 female carpenters to supply window frames, doors and wooden designs for new buildings.

Musician Zia Ul Karim, 25, stated that the tourists helped revive interest in folkloric music by requesting it to be performed at local shows.

He talked passionately of ‘melodies which are almost dying’ for the reason of the ‘lack of a recognition provided to them by the people.’ Speaking after a performance, he said that sometimes it took a stranger to remind people of what they should hold dear.

In a territory once nearly entirely reliant on farming, Mubaraka, 13, listed the ways tourism has bettered the lives of residents in their poor, one-road village, where children ran around in flip-flops in heavy-jacket weather. Tourists bought their farm produces. Shops sold more goods. There was work in the industry.

‘But domestic tourists also upset her’, she had complained. She pointed out a meadow where goats graze, overlooking pointy, snowy peaks. A few weeks ago, she cleaned it up after tourists.

Officials said that they were also trying to lure high-dollar foreign visitors — with some success like the Thai tourists who tumbled into that apple orchard in Murtazabad. Piayooan Yuentiakul, 55, from Bangkok, said that Pakistan was at the ‘top of the bucket list’, among his friends because of the stunning red and yellow fall colours.

To attract more visitors from other Asian countries, authorities advertise the area’s ancient Buddhist heritage. To lure adventure tourists, they host activities like a desert car rally, yak polo and one of the world’s highest altitude bike races as well as offered the chance to climb some of the world’s tallest mountains.

Figures put forth by Ahmed, the commissioner, suggested a slow but steady climb of foreign tourists to Murtazabad, reaching just over 10,000 in the past year — a tiny proportion of the 1.2 million foreign tourists who arrived in Pakistan in total, according to the country’s 2018 Travel and Tourism Economic Impact report.

Foreign tourists say that they are delighted by Pakistan, like German visitor Carsten Korfmacher. He was hiking on glaciers and trekking through base camps of some of the world’s tallest mountains. The best part was ‘people are so friendly’, he says. Twice, he said, he had been invited to attend local weddings. ‘I wish people were so friendly in my country’, he says.

I looked towards the pristine green lake. Nothing could beat the enthusiasm of Daniel Porter, from Britain, who just finished a boat ride on a glacial lake. Smoothing back his dreadlocks, Porter said people kept inviting him to stay with them. ‘Everyone just smiles’, he says. ‘Everyone wants to help you.’

And the locals agree. As long as you pick up your own trash.


Nazarul Islam is a former educator based in Chicago.

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