What has stood out when I’ve thought of
traveling to (or dreamed of living in) Northern Pakistan is the
blossoming and harvesting of fruit trees, the peaceable valley
of Hunza, the great mountains of the western Himalayas and,
running through them, the current version of the ancient Silk
Road, the Karakoram Highway.
Right away, departing on the KKH from Islamabad, you feel the
intimacy of the mountains: you’ve been to the Himalayas before
but you’ve never been to these Himalayas. From valley to
foothills to the snow line to 8000 meters seems like just a
stone’s throw. The camera tells the same story - except that the
highest peaks, instead of being seen covered in snow and ice,
are indistinguishable from clouds. It is, after all, springtime.
The blossoms of apricot and apple and almond appear in all their
glory and fragrance while the peaks are mostly obscured.
The Hunza Valley is awash in white, pink, and crimson with a
perfume that you anticipate even when the brain hasn't yet
recorded it. Orchards aren't formal the way you might expect but
seem to have grown in ones and fews. There are fields of trees
and trees around fields; on hillsides and around hills; at the
edge of homes and along the roads. A lot of the apricots are
dried - traditionally on the tree - and often you're offered the
fruit along with small but tasty almonds: "we have apricots for
you, from OUR orchards" - people are so proud of their trees and
what their trees bear. And always, in the Hunza Valley, the
trees and the towns and the ancient sites come with a backdrop
It’s still cold at the end of April - more so in the hotel room
than outside. I wake up, go through my ablutions, lock up my
camera equipment, and start for the door. Then I remember the
photo op that awaits me, rescue my camera, and move on to
breakfast and whatever opportunity intervenes. Eventually we
reach the end of the Pakistan stage of the KKH, at the wintry
Chinese border, and return to Gilgit on the highway and then, by
air, to the plains.
Here we find Lahore, a different kind of photo opportunity and a
welcome warmth. It’s crowded and chaotic, resembling cities in
its neighbor, India, in that regard. The food is, delightfully,
curries - along with the Himalayan fare which is predominantly
roast meats. We push through the old town on our way to the
fort, several mosques, and an ancient hammam. We now have four
guides and assistants for eight of us, in recognition of the
need to retain some contact and for security. The natives are
wary or friendly, curious or care-less, depending on where their
own attention is at that moment. There’s much to visit in
Pakistan’s second largest city and, for us, not enough time even
for the highlights.
On the afternoon of our second day in Lahore we leave for the
short trip to Waggah, the primary border crossing in the
northern areas between India and Pakistan. At the gateway, at
the apex of a stadium, the flags of each country go up in the
morning and are lowered, to great fanfare from crowds on both
sides of the border, each evening.
In 2008, on a visit to Amritsar, in northwest India, I attended
the Indian version of the performance. You can see three photos,
of the actors and of the spectators, in thepunjab gallery.
My seating was the main determinant of what kinds of photographs
I was able to get. At the Indian staging, I sat in the
bleachers, relatively far from - and at an inaccessible angle to
- the zone of contact, but across from the “royal boxes”. The
best photos I took that day were right down from where I sat.
For the Pakistani display, I sat closer to the gate, where I and
my camera (with telephoto lens) could see the interchange of the
two parties. The performance is a mock conflict - and there is
clearly mutual respect - but you know that this game, like any
sport, is for all the marbles. We each had our role: the
contending participants strutted and saluted, the dual audiences
roared and clapped, the tourists raised their cameras and
pressed the trigger; everyone was happy.