There was for me a moment of profound sadness in the last week.
It came with the news that 120 foreigners had been flown out of Gilgit-Baltistan in a C-130; their evacuation organized by the army and the civil administration. In all probability this is the last nail in the coffin of tourism in G-B, and certainly in the Gilgit/ Hunza/ Nagar area, for years to come. It is possible that Skardu will revive as a tourist destination, but it was always more a centre for mountaineers than the common-or-garden tourist.
My last visit was in June 2011, and I spent a delightful few days with friends old and new, luxuriated in the tranquility of the orchards in Minapin and gasped afresh at the sight of Rakaposhi limned against the sky – perhaps one of the most beautiful ‘stand alone’ mountains in the world.
I wandered the empty streets lined with the trappings of tourism, the knick-knack and souvenir shops that even then were devoid of life and had an air of desperation in their attempts to pull me inside. At what should have been the height of the tourist season there was a hush about the place that was unnatural, eerie. And now that hush has deepened into a profound silence.
The tourist industry was on its knees a year ago. I stayed at the Madina Inn, the last of the ‘backpacker’ hotels that was welcoming as ever and temporary home to a handful of travelers – some Buddhist nuns, a cyclist, myself and my six companions.
The breakfast pancakes with Hunza honey were as tasty as ever, the flowers in the garden no less bright than they always were, but there was a sense that this really was the last gasp and the proprietor, Yaqub, who has been a friend for almost 20 years, really was going to have to shut up shop as it was impossible to make a living.
I tried calling his cell phone after news of the evacuation – powered off, and then I learned that all cellular communications had been turned off anyway. I had been planning to go back for a short break this summer, but scratched out the dates I had set aside in the diary before I sat down to write this piece.
Spool back to October 1993 and riding my bike into a cold wet and rainy Gilgit to find rest in the Hunza Inn, complete with hot shower a plate of chips and the hustle-bustle of dozens of nationalities. It was a vibrant and happy place – or so we thought in our innocence and ignorance. We were mostly unaware of the tensions that lay beneath, the sectarian carnage of 1988, the fault-lines that bled at the edges.
By 1995, married and living in Chalt it was all a lot clearer. The nightly rat-tat-tat and the tracer arcing the sky, days of ease and days of tension and days when there were bodies to bury. The mad dash down the KKH into Gilgit through hot front lines and past army and police posts convinced we were all going to die to deliver messages of peace from Nagar…’They won’t shoot you Mr Chris, you’re a gora’…and they didn’t shoot me and I did deliver the messages and we all survived. Well, most of us.
Ten years on and 2005 and another year working in what is both the maddest and most awe-inspiring landscape in Pakistan and more blood and grief – and now 2012. Darkness falls.
The cancer of sectarianism killed tourism in Gilgit, and Gilgit is a microcosm of the rest of the country. How many more warnings do we need?
The writer (Chris Cork) is a British social worker settled in Pakistan. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org