Hotel Sarfaraz, Madyan, Swat, Pakistan. Well, after all the humming and haaring over where to go we’ve ended up in Swat – the accommodation in Gilgit, we found out, would be too expensive, coupled with the cost of getting there – and back, probably by plane, which is highly dependent on local weather and we might be stuck for many days, eventually put us off.
Also, although the mountain scenery would be spectacular, the valley floors would be very bare at this time of year, and very, very cold. The alternative we came up with was to take the bus to Swat, costing a mere 80 Rupees (about £4.50) for a pretty interesting journey of some five hours or so from Rawalpindi.
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We sat in the front, getting the best views, I guess, but, causing some consternation to me who does worry about such things, but also to Ceri who normally doesn’t, was the front nearside tyre of the Toyota Hi-ace minibus, it was completely bald and had a bulge or two in the side.
Hi ho. Well, we’re here in two pieces anyway so I needn’t have worried. We came, yesterday on Sunday, crossing over lots of little ups and downs, through Nowshera, where we crossed the Indus river. Here we stopped and had tea, samosas with some thick curd or cheesy stuff (Paneer), in a crisp batter, called Pakistani cheese. Quite original, but not overloaded on taste, except the fiery batter.
From Nowshera the road climbed slowly but steadily, becoming greener all the time, passing lots of sugar cane and even banana trees high up. As we climbed it became apparent that lots of geology was in the way, until we spied a pencil thin line of brightly painted trucks and buses threading their way diagonally across our line of sight, uppards.
The Malakand Pass, where Churchill in younger days (about 1897) came scrapping and parleying with the local rulers is a hell of a place to be battling, I can tell you, and even getting up in the bus was a bit of a wrestling match for the driver. He seemed more intent on impressing us with the speed he could drive at, on either side of the road, almost, but not completely, oblivious to blind bends and oncoming traffic. Still, as I say, we’re here. But we have to get the same road back out too, so we’ll see.
We arrived at Saidu Sharif which was the terminus, because it was the local office of the PTDC – (Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation), also the poshest hotel in Swat. Despite the manager offering us discounts, saying breakfast and heating free, it was still Rs 220 – three times the price we wanted to pay. We passed up the offer and started back the 1.5 miles to Mingora, the actual town and the bazaar. A rickshaw soon pulled in, the original two occupants moved to the front and we two plus rucksacks in the back although I still had a leg sticking out the side.
So about four-ish we arrived in Mingora and took only a short time to find a nice enough place to stay at only Rs40. However, it was becoming colder rapidly and the electricity went out from 5 until 8pm – load shedding its called – the power goes off regularly because of the overstretched capacity of the national grid, so most of it goes to the biggest cities. Most people away from there seem quite inured to it, and always have supplies of candles, Tilley lamps, gas lamps and whatnot to accommodate a minor inconvenience.
So, after a wee rest, darkness fell and we went out to eat only to find the bazaar virtually closed. Back to the hotel Zeshan for dhal and spinach curry by hurricane lamp. How romantic. It warmed us up a bit, though and we retired to room with tea and wrapping the bedcovers around ourselves as we sat and awaited the volts coldly.
Light seems to make things feel warmer for some reason, so we felt a little better about being able to read our current book – Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut. We then retired in sleeping bags and blankets to share a sleep punctuated by my snoring and Ceri’s snuffling from an abominable cold.
Morning brought more tea and a view over the Swat river to a fat white and yellow minaret and a bunch of children scuttling about in the mud trying to ambush a stray cockerel. We’d decided to call on the forestry division offices to get information on stopping at one of their rest houses further up the valley, but discovered that though they are glowingly advertised in PTDC brochures, they’re not actually available to the public. However the officer gave us a letter to one of his minions in Bahrain 45miles up the valley to let us stay at the rest house for Rs50, which I think he made up on the spur of the moment.
Thus we exited Mingora on a harum-scarum ride in a twelve seat transit minibus which had 28 passengers at one stage, including those clinging to roof rack or ladder. The 35 mile ride to Madyan cost us Rs6.5 a vast saving – the PTDC run a minibus service to Kalam, about as far again at the head of the valley for RS660 !
I looked in the overland BIT guide and found some hotels mentioned. We have tended to give most of the places a miss because they are so ridiculously cheap they would be bound to be fleapits – bugs are often mentioned, but also because we can’t be fagged lugging bags around looking for particular places. However the hotel “Sassafrass” (actually Sarfaraz) in the centre allegedly had “incredible rooms” at Rs 20 / double ! We thought the prices would be out of date, but it was off-season so no tourists around – except the few we saw clustered around expensive city hotels and carpet shops.
As we got off the bus a guy ran up crying “hotel hotel ! Only fifteen rupees !” we were so obviously flabbergasted (what !!?) at such a ridiculously low price that he thought we were put out and said “ok ok twelve rupees ! We couldn’t believe our luck. The top floor room hadn’t been used for months and the floor and curtains were thick with dead flies, which were soon swept out and sheets changed.
And, thank god, a fireplace ! We ordered firewood for Rs30 which the caretaker lugged up three storeys, even fetching a small axe and chopping some into useable bits. Incredibly helpful, he only has his right hand, the other lost to accident, leprosy or, crime ! He called up again tonight about 10 stomping around in his greatcoat and balaclava with his ancient rifle (real cartridges). We gave him a warm by our cosy fire and a handful of the walnuts we spend the evening cracking (Rs15 for a big bag).
On a walk up an adjoining valley we’d just finished a toot (spliff) when a lad appeared and led us to several others sunning themselves by the river – it was as hot as a good U.K. summers day at 2pm. These lads worked at a government run trout farm, work consisting of chucking food into large baths of fish now and again, and cleaning out once a month. Rs850 is what they are paid a month for this, which is exactly what I got for 50 quid in Rawalpindi and they say they’re well off.
Otherwise with no alternative work, they would spend days sitting around and helping here and there with the veg crop. They seem glad of the opportunity to buy some odds and ends for their work, clothes, café meals – the high life in Madyan.
Our walk was a joy, up a stony valley bottom where generations of work had converted the lower slopes into terraces for vegetables and grazing. We really liked the snowy topped mountains overlooking us, some with thick conifer forest reaching almost to the top. The river itself had been diverted by sluices carrying streams to flour mills or to irrigation channels.
We spent the greater part of this evening, and subsequent ones warming up hordes of flies in the ceiling with our fires, causing them to stagger torpidly out of cracks by the chimney breast, attracted by the light which comes on around 8pm and start walking down the wall to the source of heat. This caused some discomfort; therefore a campaign of wholesale carnage was embarked upon, scrunching the varmints with bits of firewood.
Really, there were hundreds and hundreds, but we finally have them under control. We’ve lasted until 1030 tonight thanks to the fire which looks like costing around Rs15 a night, but we would otherwise have had to retire by 9pm because of the cold, and in addition, it gives us the warm water to have an evening wash by heating the rainwater from the gutter in a galvanized bucket by the fire !
Mohammed was a diligent host and kept us going with wood and walnuts and anything else he could get a bit of commission on, or at least add a little credit to his families account at the grocers. He had a tough life himself, so we could hardly begrudge a few rupees, as he spent his daylight hours as chowkidar of the hotel, fetching and carrying and cleaning for such guests as there were. We of course benefited from his labours.
But he had another job, overnight, which was that of village watchman, involving walking the main street and byways on the lookout for miscreants, of which there were thankfully few in evidence. However, it did involve him carrying a loaded Lee Enfield rifle, as almost anyone in the valley at night might be up to no good, and would require a spirited challenge.
One evening, though, he surpassed all expectations in quite an alarming manner, Having satisfied himself that we needed to be aware of his deep responsibilities, out of the blue, around 9pm, we heard his steps pattering up the concrete stairs and the room door was flung open without ceremony and Mohammed walked in, turned to face the door and fired off a round back through our door and into the door and wall of the room opposite.
We were wide eyed, open mouthed, alarmed and absolutely deafened by this intrusion, but Mohammed had a manic grin of proud delight on his face, having fully demonstrated his devotion to duty. He thrust the rifle into my hands and gestured to follow him onto the balcony overlooking the street, now in darkness, with our ears still ringing and a nervous shiver, both of us went to give each other moral support, and frankly, to humour our diligent guardian.
He wanted me to take a shot – at what ? – the hillsides across the valley were of the densest black so I looked at him questioningly. Thinking I needed a further demonstration, he took the rifle and drew it up to his shoulder, loosing a shot into the dark. If anything, this caused me and Ceri even greater consternation, not least because, as I mentioned earlier we were reading Deadeye Dick.
The core of that story is a kid who has made himself the town’s greatest expert on guns, could assemble and disassemble any piece of hardware and was an extraordinarily good shot. When one day he took a pot shot from the cupola of the house, when he took a shot at “nothing”, anyone who knew him and his prowess would fully have expected him to hit “nothing”. But accidents happen, and inadvertently his shot travelled farther than he could see and ended up hitting a heavily pregnant mother of five between the eyes.
At the time, the woman was upstairs, running the vacuum cleaner, and at this point the author Kurt Vonnegut has his narrator exclaim, “Well, she was practically asking for trouble”. The story is an acid allegory about the safety of nuclear power in the hands of experts, but at that moment all we could think of was a person across the valley sitting eating a meal by the scant light of a Tilley lamp, whose evening was about to be disturbed not by the usual village dogs, but by a .303 shell buzzing through the window. Thankfully, the imagination was wrong.
We had a couple of days of mostly rain which created havoc in the village, as many of the main street buildings have packed earth flat roofs, on top of logs and branches. A stall directly across the street held our attention as it was an open fronted tea-house where we had partaken of their shami kebabs (basically deep fried burgers with nan bread) which were flipped into a yard wide cauldron of oil over a roaring petrol stove.
We watched in jaw dropping amusement at a row of sodden young men as they tramped up and down on the roof to compact the gooey earth into a more water-resistant surface, but the rain was relentless and the guys were splashing watery mud all over each other, with questionable success.
During those couple of days we had things to mull over, as there were few things we could do, and as a third day dawned with leaden skies we boarded the bus back down to Mingora – more rain, so we continued over the pass to Attock, and then across country to the urban delights of Rawalpindi.
P.S. Swat is the province in Pakistan where a young girl, Malala Yousaafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012 because she insisted on her right to go to school. For more information, follow this link to Wikipedia