Alicia Mollaun, a PhD candidate at the Crawford School at ANU, is based in Islamabad. In this three-part series she writes about a journey to a remote corner of Pakistan. Part 1. Part 2.
Beautifully decorated trucks, or 'jingle trucks' as many like to call them, are everywhere in Pakistan. The popular name comes from the sound produced by the bells that line the bumper bars as the trucks bump along the roads. The trucks, which are used to transport everything from livestock to petroleum, are painted by professional truck artists and are a source of enormous pride to their owners.
On our drive to Gilgat on the Karakorum Highway we saw work crews digging and cementing patches. On closer inspection, we noticed 90 per cent of them were Chinese.
The Chinese have significant economic and strategic interests in Pakistan, although it is difficult to pin down exactly which projects they are working due to the lack of publically-available information. According to a New York Times report in 2010, China wants to secure unfettered road and rail access to the Gulf through Pakistan.
At present it takes 16 to 25 days for Chinese oil tankers to reach the Gulf but when high-speed rail and road links through Gilgit Baltistan are completed, China will be able to transport cargo from its eastern provinces to the new Chinese-built Pakistani naval bases at Gwadar, Pasni and Ormara, just east of the Gulf, within 48 hours.
Business as usual
There wasn't much going on at this roadside shop I came across while driving through Gilgit-Baltistan. Outside of Gilgit town, shops are few and far between with most locals relying on subsistence farming.
The Silk Road, the traditional trade route for thousands of years, travels along the Karakorum Highway and is the main road through Baltistan to China. In 1966, Pakistan and China commenced building the KKH as it is known, a task which took almost 20 years. Winding through the villages, it was remarkable to traverse this phenomenal piece of engineering which runs across some of the highest mountains in the world.
Taste of honey
While roadside stalls were scarce, honey producers were everywhere. Beekeepers set up their hives dotted along the sides of the highway and stay in tents nearby, which also serve as makeshift honey shops.
We all clambered off the bus to have a look and buy honey, while avoiding the swarms of bees. It was amazing to taste the different kinds of raw, unpasteurised honeys that were quite different from anything I had eaten in Australia.
As we left, the beekeeper was beaming; it was his lucky day. In 10 minutes with us he had made the equivalent of a month's wage.
After the flood
As we wound up our journey in Gilgit-Baltistan, I was absolutely stunned to see people still living in tents following the 2010 floods which wiped out villages across a vast area and caused massive damage to farmland and state infrastructure. People have had to fetch water by hand, build fires for heat, light, and cooking, and travel on foot because of petrol and diesel shortages.
During my visit, in the middle of summer, temperatures were cool and many locals wore sweaters and hats. I can only imagine how miserable it must be in winter, when snow isolates much of the area for months at a time.
I couldn't help but compare the response to the Queensland floods in 2011 to the situation in Gilgit-Baltistan (and undoubtedly other rural and remote areas of Pakistan), where minimal assistance, mostly by NGOs, was all that had been provided.
Photos Alicia Mollaun.