April 21st: The Chronicles of Karakoram, Part 1, Rawalpindi, N.Pakistan
It's time now to venture into the Northern Pakistan, by way of the epic Karakoram Highway. It's a ride that holds a legendary status amongst cyclists, a ride that will take us within the folds of the most spectacular mountainscape in the world - 'The Throne Room of the Gods.'
Rosal, fresh from Australia, has arrived in Lahore. Keen to escape Islamabad's stifling 40c heat, we spend our first night in Abbottabad's house. He proudly points to a golden plaque commemorating his loyal years of service. We sip on Nestle orange juice, making polite conversation as the youngest child whirlwinds round the living room. Only when the Holy Quran flies off the mantelpiece does mum leap up, kiss the text lovingly and carefully put it back...
'Pakistan is a country of good people...but not to women,' says our host to Rosal as we wave goodbye. And with this thought hanging in the air, so begins the Karakoram Chronicles...
April 22nd: Abbottabad to Batgram, Karakoram Highway, 95 km
We arrive exhausted in Batgram. A day that has unveiled an increasingly peaceful road, an unending series of climbs and freewheeling descents and offered us our first glimpse of the snowy peaks that mark our eventual destination. Lunch is a delicious version of the staple diet - naan, dahl, curd and subji (bread, lentils, yoghurt and vegetables) - washed down with sweet Pakistani milk tea. Segregated to the back of the restaurant, the family section, a visitor brings us gifts of earrings and a ring. Rosal, her diminutive face peeping from under her pink shawl, is conspicuously ignored in all conversations. Any questions about her are directed through me. This is a male dominated society where women are stored at home while men roam the land.
April 23rd: Batgram to Besham, Karakoram Highway, 52 km
The road winds through lush green valleys; rivers gush from steep mountain sources. We rest in a clearing, washing away the sweat of the day and contemplating our peaceful surroundings. Many locals, clad in chadois camiz and topis - the Pakistani version of a flat cap - have blue eyes and pale skin. Legend has it that they are descendants of Alexander the Great's lost army. A Pathan teacher wanders over to greet us, his eyes a pale blue, his beard almost ginger. He hugs me warmly, calls us his brother and sister, and before we know it, we are invited to the local Pathan Khan - head of the area, for lunch.
This amicable teacher, Adel, is an example of a devout Muslim who has studied the Koran and embraced all that is good about it. It is the tradition of the religion to welcome visitors, and he's inviting without being pushy. When we explain our journey, he suggests leaving a visit to his family home in the hills for our return, and to forge on ahead to a meeting place further up the valley.
Lunch takes place a short hike away from the Indus, in an enormous home overlooking the ridge where apparently Alexander settled, his elephants barred from stomping any further by this mighty river. Surrounded by a small army of men, we lounge on 'charpois', the traditional rope strung beds, propped up by an array of cushions, as we sip on icy cordial. Slippers are provided as we rest under a fan tempering the heat of the afternoon.
Traditional Pathan people segregate men and women; Rosal is invited to visit the women and children of the house while lunch is prepared, tucked away as they are out of sight of prying eyes.
Adel tells me about himself in his excellent English. Once a police officer, his life as a teacher allows him more time with his family. He has a love for English Literature, having studied at Peshawar University, and is keen to discuss Milton, Shakespeare and Dickens. Here I am, I think to myself, talking about Keats in Northern Pakistan, to a tribal Pathan. Renowned for their hospitality as much as their bravery, it's said a Pathan will even lay down his life for his guest.
We discuss Islam and arranged marriages (criteria: She be beautiful, and if not beautiful then wealthy, and if not wealthy then religious!) which provide much of the makeup of Pakistani tradition. 'In Jane Austen, love comes before marriage, but in the Muslim tradition, marriage comes before love!' Adel comments with a smile. Unlike many such conversations in Pakistan, he's not preaching and it's a two way exchange of thoughts.
It makes me feel awkward, in situations that go beyond a greeting, to have to keep to my opening story: I'm a tactical Christian and Rosal is my wife! To most Muslims, the concept of noncommittal to a religion is as hard to grasp as that of non equality between men and women is to us. And as for the idea of a single woman travelling with a single man... Even as my 'wife' in traditional clothes, Rosal still gets unwanted lingering stares from men brought up in a society whose view of western women is compounded by a diet of Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan and Sharon Stone!
Rosal is summoned from 'above' and lunch is served. She returns with tales of immaculate and coveted gadgets - including a bleached white washing machine and a video recorder encased in its original box. We tuck into (freshly slaughtered) chicken, pilao rice, curd, naan and a concoction of cooling dips. Our hosts play down this lavish feast and promise that on our return 'we will pass a night here and eat fresh fish!'
With a departing photo shoot - an extended crowd of bearded men solemnly facing the camera - we take to the road once more. A request to photograph the women is politely but sternly turned down... We've sampled the renowned Pathan hospitality and now our bellies are heavy with food and our minds filled with the traditions of Northern Pakistan.
Back into the heat, the distant mountains are our destination.