I am woken up at 6am again by Waheed. I close my eyes and a second later it is 7.12am, so I have delayed everyone by thirty minutes and I don’t have time to have a proper wash or carefully choose what I will wear. We are driving to Noon Bagla today so I wear my new hiking boots, brown combat trousers and a black t-shirt. I do not wear my Tilley Hat, Nadeem says it marks me out as a Westerner, but I think he’s actually embarrassed to be seen with me in it!
En route to Noon Bagla we will have to stop at or pass through Muzaffarabad (Kashmir’s capital city) and Murree which is a hill top town bordering Kashmir. I am told that many old British families live in Murree, though still a minority, they are descendants of the Empire. The journey to Muzaffarabad will take three and a half hours, and it can take a simlar time to Noon Bagla. We drive in convoy with two other people who we meet in Islamabad, they are: Zulfiqar Abbasi (whom I met day 1) and his wife Zakia. Zulfiqar is the President of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce, but much more importantly he is the President of the Kashmir Cricket Board!
The further we are from Islamabad, the higher the ground we ascend. Kashmir is the foothills of the Himalayas. The roads begin to snake and wind up green mountains peppered with fir trees. I have not been to Switzerland or Austria but I am told it is supposed to be similar to the alpine scenery there, but on a much larger scale.
We get into Murree, it is a town centre very much like the other 1970s council estate concretia I have seen. But the roads are narrow and dusty and the shops are a metre either side of you. People walk in front of the cars, cattle roam freely and when people see me through the window they often double take. Everyone here wears sharwal kameez. The view here is impressive, it is a town built on the summit of a small mountain and when you take in the view, you can see dozens of other mountains littered with villages which sit perilously next to sheer drops and cliff faces.
The roads we travel are still snaking against a mountain range, cliff face on one side, sheer drop on the other. The roads in Kashmir are noticeably worse than the ones on the way to the border; this was the epicentre of the 2005 earthquake and Waheed, who journeys with us, points out that their is flood damage too.
There are tell-tale scars and signs of disaster en route to Muzaffarabad. Football-sized rocks often litter parts of the road, having fallen from the cliff face. There are many pot holes and large cracks in the asphalt which has not been newly resurfaced. Occasionally roadside about half a metre wide and two metres long has disappeared into the chasm. There are various signs which report the work of a charity, e.g. “Islamic Relief Leicester UK Branch…” Waheed says the roads were totally destroyed after the main Earthquake, he had to walk from Muzaffarabad for days to find his family’s home which had collapsed and killed his father. Nadeem, says he was there too, only a couple of days after the earthquake: he helped a woman bury her own children; saw the earth open up and take people and houses into its mouth, only to be slammed shut again burying them alive; he said for days afterwards the mountains still shook.
We stop at the Pearl Continental hotel in Muzaffarbad, very tidy place and clean. Again shotgun and AK-47-weilding police check our cars before we park up. Nadeem, Zulfiqar, Zakia and I go for lunch, the driver and Waheed wait outside. The view from the restaurant is panoramic and magnificent. All of the main landmarks in this dirty and very damaged city can be seen. There are dozens of pink buildings, these were all built by the Turkish who contributed very significantly to the relief work. I can also see the Mazaffarabad cricket stadium. Its no Trent Bridge but its the perfect talking point for Zulfiqar and me: “I’m actually the founder of the Carlton Club Cricket Club Zulfiqar…” ten minutes later I have an invitation from the President of the Kashmir Cricket Board for the CCCC to visit, play two matches, meet several dignatories and tour Kashmir. All food and driving and security will be provided. We just need to pay for flights and accommodation. I’ll put it to our Secretary and see what he has to say!
Now we are travelling to Noon Bagla and this is the main reason I am in Pakistan; to work in the Basic Health Unit which the AHS Foundation have just built there. But I won’t be staying in Noon Bagla for long, today’s visit is so Nadeem can check the building and negotiate the sale of further land from the tribal eldersfor further developmental work. It is the first time I will see the village.
The road to Noon Bagla no longer warrants the accolade “road”, it is a collection of uneven rocks and dust. We have not stopped ascending since Murree, three hours ago. The views are the most spectacular and breathtaking I have ever seen. But the road is getting narrower and narrower and soon we are inches away from sheer drops of what I’d estimate to be 600 metres. I silently pray that no vehicle comes the other way, there are very few passing points.
Our arrival into Noon Bagla village receives attention. Village elders, by that I mean men over the age of fifty with beards, missing teeth, weathered faces and local clothing and hats, arrive and come to the medical centre to greet us. No sooner than I alight the car, I am saying my salams (Asalam-u-alaikum, or “God be with you” in English) to about ten of these men. These are the people I will be living with for the next several weeks; I could not look more different! At this point I realise, if I am going to fit in in Noon Bagla I have no choice but to pull my socks up and learn Urdu to a more proficient standard, and buy a few sets of my own sharwal kameez and ‘go native’.
The BHU is of very good standard, and easily the best building in the village. The facilities inside are of working order and are shiny and new. Many of the pre-earthquake houses are propped up with timber shafts, the outside walls badly damaged by the quake. Cracks are visible and several houses are abandoned. We eat outside on plastic chairs with the elders, no English is spoken but I am not concerened because I know most of them understand basic English. Villages are traditional and conservative places. I must dress and act appropriately here. Apart from three women who come to the dispensary to pick up medicine, I see only men. The old men sit down with us and eat, the middle aged men loiter in the background and look interested in what is happening, the young men and boys are ordered to serve us food and drinks.
The journey back is long, uncomfortable and dark. We stop at the Pearl Continental again in Muzaffarabad for tea. When I get home I realise we have travelled twenty hours in two days. We see Kabir, he is boyant that a loan he approved has been paid three years early and he tells me of the exciting schedule he has for me tomorrow. We are served a late supper in the dining room and I go to bed exhausted.