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Thoughts from Northern Pakistan...

Written by Alex Towns. Uploaded 17 December 2005.

Extreme fast forward… Northern Pakistan 11th to 17th December 2005

The rubble hill used to be a residential area! This used to be a 3 storey building The pain staking task of clearing debris by hand

Those following our stories so far will know that we are still writing about our journey through Egypt, however a quick glance at the ‘Last Known Position’ will show that we have so far reached Pakistan. More significantly we have just ventured into the northern mountainous areas of Pakistan, which you will all be aware was the scene of a devastating earthquake just over two months ago. Having now seen the after effects for ourselves we felt compelled to write a few words whilst the images are still fresh in our minds.

The Indus valley

Hill side devastation

Not knowing what to expect we set off up the Karakoram Highway (KKH) which in itself is the eighth wonder of the world and is the back bone of communications in this region. Having been built between 1966-1978 it is a vital link for all the towns and villages. Highway may conjure up visions of some sleek dual carriage way snaking through the mountains when of course in reality it is at best a single road. Clinging desperately to the mountain side with pot holed tarmac from the frequent rock falls peppering the road and landslides as much a part of the highway’s daily maintenance as the mountains continuously try to reclaim the KKH.

The drive is precarious but the scenery is simply breath taking with colossal mountains such as Nanga Parbat (8126m), Haramosh (7398m) and Rakaposhi (7788m) to name but a few, lining the roadside. Here three of the mightiest mountain ranges of the world, the Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Himalayas collide. Deep in the valley below with near vertical drops from the KKH, the River Indus fed from joining rivers further up the KKH rages, twisting , turning and cutting it’s way deeper into the valley as it heads south on the long journey to the Arabian Sea.

Helicopters offer relief to remote locations Women gather at the entrance of a tent village Landslides are a common occurence

As we headed north from Islamabad we decided not to drive via the epicentre where the towns of Muzaffarabad and Balakot bore the full force of the earthquake, but to drive up the parallel valley along the KKH. As early as Abbottabad the evidence of the effects were starting to appear with the Red Crescent (Islamic Red Cross) trucks and aid stations appearing. The odd building we noticed had cracks running down the walls and the occasional tent sprang up to accommodate those left homeless. Aid helicopters were also busying themselves carrying supplies to those less fortunate that lived high up in the mountains far away from any main road or track, many of which still remain blocked.

A tent community on the banks of the Indus - spot the tent halfway up the mountain!

Red Cresent 4x4's allow aid workers to travel on the worst tracks

As we continued along the KKH we became more and more shocked by the far reaching effects of the earthquake. For a stretch some 200km along the KKH, there were always tents to be seen, some in organised relief centres with agency headquarters and first aid stations, others dotted about the valley and mountains. We were amazed to see the extremes where people had decided to set up home. Along the valley stretches where there was a bit of flat land to farm we could understand, but literally halfway up a cliff side clung to the mountain with absolutely no obvious sign of how to get there and sadly only really visible by the tent now tucked in next to the house!

The further we drove the more signs of destruction and aid relief we saw and bear in mind these were just those settlements close to a main highway. There are many others that live deep into the mountains! Talking with one lady from the Red Cross who had flown in from New Zealand to do a six month stay, she had an hours jeep ride followed by a two hour hike ahead of her for the next day, before being able to provide medical aid for a more remote village.

In the hotel at Besham where we camped outside for the night, whilst we were eating dinner a door kept blowing open letting in a draft. Even when closed there still remained a breeze and only after peering around a tarpaulin hung in the joining room we realised that the back wall to the hotel was actually missing! During our stay in the mountains we experienced temperatures during the night of -12C which according to the locals is uncommon for the time of year. We suffered it for a couple of nights and with it just being the start of winter you can only imagine what the poor souls have to look forward to over the coming months.

The missing bit of the hotel This was minimal damage compared to some School continues in the fresh air

You can still feel occasional tremors and we half slept/dreamt through a big tremor during the night. The following night however we experienced a quake that registered 6.7 on the Richter scale. Even with a quake of that size, before you’ve had a chance to wake up and get your head around what is going on, it’s all over. If in those few seconds the house you’re in collapses you’d have little chance of reacting at all. You can understand how the sad statistics were so high (79,000 dead and an estimated 100,000 amputees), especially when you see houses literally levelled to the floor… a pile of rubble with a roof over the top, a sombre testament to the destructive power of the quake.

A Pakistani Army relief center The colourful trucks bring relief supplies to the region Everywhere we go the locals are cheerful and pleased to see us

To contrast the melancholy scenes, as if to bring a dash of brightness to the picture the local trucks heavily decorated and gleaming in lavish colours, adorned with tassels and bells had come to the help of the region. Loaded with supplies they drive up and down the KKH bringing relief up into the mountains.

People wait patiently to visit the medical center

Life obviously goes on and the people put a brave face on the events. They must be one of the hardiest of populations to survive up here in the mountains. Talk seemed to always turn to the cricket (of which Pakistan is cricket mad – who’d know the tarmac of the KKH makes such a good wicket!) as they boast about their test victory over England with a broad smile… Supplies are unloaded at a relief camp but with a win in the first one day international at least we have a retort. In these areas reciting cricket player’s names seems to be quite a conversational piece - of which we know about as many as we did football players..!

Returning to Islamabad, we decided to take a detour towards Balakot and Muzaffarabad. Complete shock is all I can say! It looks like a war zone. The buildings left standing all show scars from the quake and must be structurally unstable. Looking at piles of rubble it really hits home when a local tells you what you are looking at used to be a 3 story building! Seeing the destruction along the KKH was one thing, but seeing such concentrated annihilation of an entire city is simply too much to comprehend. We were told that bodies are still being found as they slowly progress with the pain staking task of clearing up the debris. Very emotional.

They still enjoy a spot of cricket

When we started talking about how soon the aid was able to reach them, we were told that it was 2 weeks before anything could get through to Balakot. Driving along the now cleared roads you can see why, they are treacherous with the work still underway to repair them after the numerous land slides which either covered the road or removed it all together.

Having driven through Bam in Iran on our way to Pakistan, we were surprised that over two years on after they too suffered a devastating earthquake, how many ruined buildings and gradual rebuilding was still on going. Bam is in the middle of a flat desert with good access all year round. The enormity of the task faced in Northern Pakistan and the Kashmir region is hard to get your head around, least to say it will be many many years before normality returns.

Ruins and tents A completely flattened house One of the many tent villages

We are really glad that we made the effort to head into the mountains, even though everyone told us it was the wrong time of year, to be able to see and photograph for ourselves the scenes has made a lasting impression. Obviously the relief to the region is a truly international effort and amongst the Pakistani Army and Red Crescent are many NGO’s such as CARE International. We saw countries represented as far ranging as Malaysia, Italy, Dubai, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Iceland and Turkmenistan to name but a few.

A real international relief effort A moment to reflect A thanks to the International Community

We understand that CARE International has donated some 11 million US dollars to assist the relief effort. We are proud to be supporting them in the work that they do and in some little way we and all those reading our website who have generously donated, already are helping make a difference to the lives of people that need a helping hand in their hour of need. Thank you for helping us help them and please don’t be shy to keep the donations coming… anything and everything helps.

For a write up of how CARE International responded to the earthquake, please click here.

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Comment from Aamir Bilal Sheikh
Care International is much appreciate for the donation extended to earth quake regions of Pakistan & hope for better future of said organization.
18 Dec 2005 @ 07:47:09

Comment from Imad Ali
-12* C? Wow, that IS chilly. I can't even begin to imagine how those poor souls in those tents out there put up with that sort of cold night after night. Last year they had record snowfall and this year the earthquake. No wonder they feel like the world's coming to an end! Many thanks to you guys for going all that way to witness firsthand the destruction and to write about it. While the media talked about the quake for a while and then pulled the pictures off the airwaves, it is constant exposure such as this from ordinary folks who have seen it for themselves that reminds people that the suffering in the affected areas is far from over

On a more cheerful note, it was wonderful having you all over. Hope to meet again sometime for more adventure.

Wishing you guys the best of luck and a safe and prosperous onward journey. Watch out New Zealand!!

18 Dec 2005 @ 20:30:50

Comment from Paul Wilkns
I am very disappointed that you are not keping your readers more up to date. As you are obviously finding it difficult I would suggest that your change your writing style to one of a log which gets expanded as and when you have time to do it. This would not only keep the information flow more current but also give you a note pad so as not to forget detail.

Having to wait weeks for new information is I am afraid causing me to lose interest as the period covered is so long ago.

Having travelled in most of the countires you have visited as well as those you are going to, can I suggest you are more circumspect on your comments about local authorities and police as some zealous official individual may read your web pages and decide that you need to be delayed, observed very closely or interrogated to make sure that you are not a subversive group. Unfortunately been there and done that, but only once, and it was not me that invited the riposte from a custome officer, just some ignorant and insensitive shipping clerk!
19 Dec 2005 @ 10:10:44

Comment from Alex Towns
Don't normally reply to comments, but Paul, come on - don't know what travelling you've done, but we didn't find many internet cafes in the middle of the Balochistan desert!

We really appreciate all our regular readers that have shown an interest in our expedition and we aim to write good and hopefully occasionally humourous stories for the site as often as we're able. However in order to write our stories we have to experience them first and unfortunately you don't get many opportunities when sat in front of a laptop, so please bear with us.

Regarding authorities, all that we've met so far have been very accommodating, however were we to be 'delayed' then that would make a good story for the next diary entry ;o) I'm sure those following from the office don't just want to hear about how easy we're having it sunning ourselves on a beach..!

Stay with us...
19 Dec 2005 @ 15:07:59

Comment from Lara
Hi Guys,

Well done going to this area and giving us a reality check on what's going on there now. It's really easy to sit here in the warm of our homes and have no concept of what is happening out there. The media loses interest quite quickly, but hearing updates from friends makes it much more real again.

Take care and keep up the news. love Lara
20 Dec 2005 @ 11:59:29

Comment from Tabs
Hi guys, thank you for your diary enteries. I wish I was able to see what you have seen with my own eyes, so to read your words are nearly as real as being there. I'm sorry I haven't been in touch for some time. Everything is good our end. I'm doing more teaching and off to Palm Beach for 3 1/2 weeks soon. Can't wait to read the next diary entry...

Love you loads. Keep safe & keep smiling.


P.S. It's 2 degrees, wet & miserable so you're not missing anything here. X
05 Jan 2006 @ 23:18:39

Comment from Martin Featherstone
Best Blog on the Net ! Hope to follow in your footsteps (well,tyre-tracks) next year in my Landcruiser with rooftent and I'm getting more sensible info from you than all the guide books put together.Keep going guys !
05 Apr 2006 @ 20:02:11