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Over two decades later

By Chris Cork

Riding a bicycle into a rainy and chilly Gilgit in late September 1993 about the first thing that struck me was a complete absence of a sense of the romantic. Dirty, down at heel, feral dogs everywhere and a distinct feeling of edginess. Twenty-three years down the line the feral dogs are gone and the place no longer feels like the Gunfight at the OK Corral is about to break out, but apart from that it remains, dirty, down at heel — and very considerably richer than the first time I clapped eyes on it.

Despite the uptick in the local economy the administration has chosen not to prettify a town that is admittedly something of a challenge when prettification is on the agenda. Gilgit is what it has always been — a way-station. There is little or nothing to see or do there, a fact commented on by the thousands of ‘new’ tourists from down-country so I was informed by hoteliers and tour operators wherever I went.

No shopping malls, no cafes — at least not cafes you would want to be seen in with your family, no verdant parks and the only cinema closed in 1997. There is no fine dining to be had apart from at the lone five-star hotel and from experience I can tell you that haute-cuisine it is not. It is the place you stop over for a night before going up to the main attraction — Hunza.

Quietly dying in the years after 9/11 international tourism had all but ceased, driven away by fear of terrorism and unfriendly travel advice from embassies in Islamabad. But there was a change-agent in the making and the opening of the Babusar Pass to vehicles other than 4WD has been both the saviour and, behind the scenes, something of a curse for the Gilgitis trying to scratch a living.

The press and the media generally in the last eighteen months have been dotted with positive stories — come to the beautiful north they say, see the mountains, breathe the clean air. And they duly came in their droves, filling the cheap and mid-price hotels. Travel advisories got a little more friendly and the foreigners came back as well. On the surface a win-win for all concerned. Below the surface another story.

What the domestic tourists ran into on day one of the stay, which was usually brief, was a complete absence of anything to do once you had paid a visit to the Kargah buddah. (Which I did, the only visitor to a splendid sight at the end of a path that was only just this side of dangerous so badly maintained was it.) The New Tourists came in their own cars, and had zero interest in the trips offered by local guides; they also created traffic problems like nothing else the town had ever seen at the height of the season.

They wanted everything at cost price as well, unlike the foreigners who for the most part accepted whatever the going rate was, paid up and moved along. They brought their own culture with them also — which not infrequently involved noisy family parties into the small hours much to the annoyance of the international visitors who were mostly quiet as mice and early to bed and early to rise.

When I somewhat querulously raised this point with one of the down-country folks I was told that ‘We are not tourists we are visitors, this is our country not theirs, and we can do what we like here.’ I could practically hear the teeth of the hotelier grinding in the background.

Moving swiftly along it is far from all bad news. All agreed that at least for the time being the lid was on the sectarian issue. Tensions were way down, and even the firing into the air that was the bane of local life had been cured by the innovative expedient of carting the bride off to the local jail should any zealous guest decide to pop off a few rounds. (I triple checked that story — true.)

Coming up — Nagar, Hunza and the education revolution as well as the accident in the making that is unemployment and a disaffected youth. Tootle-pip!

Published in The Express Tribune, September 18th, 2016.

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