It was fun to exchange stories with them and hear what these places are like nowadays.
In a way, it seems that with time a few things have changed. From what I could gather, getting most things done still takes time. You don’t just run in and do what you need to do and leave. Personal relationships, the value of which has been lost in the West, are still treasured in these more remote places. Time is important to people, but relationships even more so.
Even though it has been years, I still vividly remember the markets in my travel along the Silk Road. I found the open markets on the streets fascinating. Along the Karakorum Highway you could bargain for all kinds of things: silk cloth, clothing, tools, lamb, pastries, vegetables and fruit, especially the delicious grapes, dried apricots, almonds and more.
We could also not help but notice rifle shops and many knife sharpeners, coppersmiths, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, craftsmen making local musical instruments and more. Each town along the way had low wooden buildings where it appeared that more merchandise was outside the building on display, hanging from the roof or along the road, than inside it.
Back in the 1980s when I traveled the Karakoram Highway I tried hard to stay calm, as the wheels of our bus often hugged the edge of the road when a vehicle coming in the opposite direction would pass us. While driving along the edge of the road if you dared look out of your side window all you saw was a sharp drop.
When we visited Hunza I was struck by the wooded, picturesque village nestled in the towering mountains. In every town we visited we found a tea house and had a simple dinner. Back then, wherever we went we came across Afghan mujahedeen and refugees who had fled their homes and villages because of the Soviet invasion. The Afghans looked rugged, with bushy beards and wild stares. They were usually heavily armed.
In Gilgit -- finally arriving after an 18-hour journey -- I remember the incredible view as I looked towards K-2 and admired the grand peak, which was heavily glaciated, just catching the rays of the sun. I thought to myself, “This is like heaven -- beautiful and magnificent!”
Along the Karakorum Highway you see many buses and jeeps. After Gilgit we took a jeep. The brakes seemed rather dodgy and the shock absorbers were gone. It was probably the bumpiest and bounciest ride I have ever had in my life. There were moments when I really thought we were about to go off the road and down the mountain.
On my last trip to Pakistan I took a round trip to Gilgit from Islamabad. Despite spending three extra days in Rawalpindi because of the monsoon, it was a much more comfortable trip than the bus up the Karakorum Highway. It is spectacular to see from a plane the peaks of Nanga Parbat, with K-2 in the distance.
A few months ago I flew back to Turkey from New York and sat next to a nice, well-dressed, clean-shaven Pakistani businessman. We had a nice conversation and talked about how things had changed in Central Asia. A comment that he made sticks in my mind to this day: “The difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist is which side you are on.”
Since my trip along the Karakorum Highway to Kashgar, a few modern hotels have been built, and the streets have filled with motor vehicles. Those who have been to Kashgar in recent times tell me that you can get a bird’s-eye view from a tall, modern hotel building, where you can see some Uighur houses with courtyards standing in stark contrast to the big, shiny, white-tiled, mirrored buildings that have sprung up as a sign of the times -- harbingers of modernity.
Our trip up the Karakoram Highway with its various stops along the old Silk Road was well worth the time and energy spent. The memories live on. The Silk Road is no longer for silk and spices -- however, it serves as a lifeline in a harsh environment.
A Turkish proverb says “Ak gün ağartır, kara gün karartır,” which literally means, “A white day sheds light, a black day sheds darkness.” May my old friends there know only white days.
Note: Charlotte McPherson is the author of “Culture Smart: Turkey” 2005. Please keep your questions and observations coming: I want to ensure this column is a help to you, Today’s Zaman’s readers. Email: email@example.com