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American finds a passage to Pakistan after Sept. 11

Sunday, March 10, 2002

By Kelly Sobczak

GILGIT, Pakistan - On Sept. 10, I flew into Pakistan as part of my trip around the world.

On Sept. 11, I watched CNN in horror as terrorists ambushed America.

On Sept. 12, my frazzled mother phoned from Pittsburgh, begging me to leave Pakistan.

After Afghanistan, pro-Taliban Pakistan was probably the worst country for a lone American female to be during the uncertain days that followed. Much to my mother's dismay, I decided to remain there, though many worried Westerners were already fleeing this soon-to-be-chaotic country.

With each passing day, it became clear that Pakistan was going to play a pivotal role in America's war on terrorism. And so on Sept. 20, I reluctantly traveled overland from Pakistan to neighboring Iran, which pleased my family no more than my staying in Pakistan.

During my five weeks in Iran, the already-tense situation in Pakistan erupted with violent street demonstrations with extremist religious leaders, angry at their government's decision to join the U.S. alliance, calling on a jihad against Americans.

A seasoned American journalist who had spent half of his career traipsing through some of the world's hot spots reported that never before had he experienced such intense hatred for the United States. Embassies were closing one after another, including the U.S. embassy.

Yet, I still wanted to cross through Pakistan quickly on my way from Iran to India, the next destination on my trip. Call me suicidal. Call me crazy. Call me a terrible daughter.

I had obtained the name and phone number of an employee at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad before it closed, but I didn't expect anyone to answer the phone when I telephoned from Tehran. I assumed that the embassy had already been evacuated. But no, an official and his wife had chosen to stay on in Islamabad.

After hearing my idea to cross quickly through Pakistan, he hesitantly replied that the official line from Uncle Sam was for Americans to put off travel there at this time. However, his off-the-record opinion was that I probably wouldn't have any problems, as long as I kept a low profile and came through on a quiet day.

On Oct. 27, I recrossed the ramshackle Iranian-Pakistani border, much to the bewilderment of the amused Pakistani officials. Surely I was a journalist or an aid worker, they insisted, since tourists, especially Americans, had long since stopped passing through. When they finally accepted that I was a tourist, the chief officer bent over and whispered in my ear, "Better tell everyone that you are Russian," as he stamped my passport and waved me back into his country.

My heart skipped a beat when I stepped onto the rickety bus that was going to carry me from the border to the city of Quetta, a hotbed of pro-Taliban protests. I was the only female on a bus full of Osama bin Laden look-alikes.

As I hesitantly settled into my seat, the mass of burly men just sat and silently stared at me. For the first time during my eight months on the road, I felt fear.

Looking to occupy myself, I set about organizing the jumbled contents of my daypack. A few photos from home are always with me, and so I sat there, holding a picture of me with my family and wondering how I had gotten myself from Pittsburgh to this bus in Pakistan.

With a light tap on my shoulder, the two men behind me eagerly reached out for my photos. Using my hands and the few words in Urdu that I had picked up during my previous visit, I showed them the pictures and explained that I was from France, which I figured was a safer bet than saying I was from the United States. Within an instant, photos of my family were being passed from seat to seat.

Spotting my camera, the two men, who turned out to be from Afghanistan, gestured that they wanted their picture taken. And so for the next 10 minutes, photos were snapped as the bus broke out in laughter and my camera was handed around.

Arriving in Lahore, Pakistan, I realized that I had returned to a drastically different Pakistan from the one I had left a few weeks earlier. In Lahore, where I was planning to cross immediately into neighboring India, pictures of Osama bin Laden with the World Trade Center blowing up in the background decorated rickshaws. Pro-Osama posters, T-shirts and postcards were being hawked on city sidewalks, and armed security forces patrolled virtually every corner.

To my astonishment I wasn't the only tourist at the Regale Internet Inn in Lahore, where I bunked down in a dorm for $2 a night. One Canadian and four Europeans all reported experiencing no problems during their travels since Sept. 11. So I decided to stay on in Pakistan.

I quickly discovered that the Western tourists who had remained in Pakistan were an eccentric group of characters, either hippies or just plain oddballs. The little party at the Regale Internet Inn probably didn't have any problems because they barely budged from the hotel's rooftop, where they would languidly pass away the day smoking hashish.

Then there were the oddballs such as the Swiss gentleman, whom I had dubbed The Camel Man. Nine years ago he purchased a camel while in Mongolia, and since then he has been traveling throughout Asia in an army truck with the poor beast riding in the back.

Recent recruits to his so-called Camel Caravan were a British bloke who dropped out of college and an older Sri Lankan man. Their plan was to buy a female camel so that the two could mate, and they would then live in Turkey as nomads, giving camel rides on the beach to make money.

Fortunately, I was able to hook up with three other normal Western tourists. (I have taken the liberty of including myself in the "normal" category, rather than the "oddball" category.)

There was Elaine, a Brit with whom I traveled to the western city of Peshawar, just miles from the legendary Khyber Pass that links Pakistan with Afghanistan.

At Peshawar's normally full Tourists' Inn Motel, we hung out with the two other guests: Will, a New Yorker who was putting together a video about the tense times in Pakistan, and Charles, an Englishman who was driving from England to India in his Land Rover.

Will and I would roam the dusty streets of this frontier town, where war raged just across the border, stopping at pro-Taliban fund-raiser and blood-drive booths and buying up Osama bin Laden T-shirts to show our future grandkids. He would shoot away with his hand-held video camera and I would click away with my Canon. Sure, most would say it was stupid of us, but we didn't experience the slightest problem.

While the covering of the head is not required in this Muslim country, I opted to respect the local female fashion code and always wore a large shawl wrapped around my head and upper body while in public. Of course that didn't stop the locals from gawking at us, particularly at me, but I suspect it resulted in a warmer welcome.

To my astonishment, some Afghan women shrouded in burqas, the head-to-toe covering with only a mesh opening at the eyes, would stop at the sight of me and silently nod their head hello. Some even hesitantly reached out to shake my hand.

Disappointed at the relatively relaxed scene in Peshawar, our little foursome rode off in Charles' Land Rover for Islamabad, where there was to be what was dubbed a wheel-jam, a strike of local transporters and shopkeepers. After Friday prayers, pro-Taliban protesters were being called on to hit the city streets, and we were hoping to check it out.

During our three-hour journey to the capital, toll-booth employees, shocked to see tourists, eagerly waved us on and refused payment. Many even offered us a cup of hot tea but, we had a demonstration to attend, and there was no time for chitchat.

To our surprise, only several hundred Pakistanis halfheartedly took to Islamabad's silent streets. It seemed there were more journalists than protesters. In other corners of the country that October afternoon, however, tensions exploded, resulting in multiple deaths.

It was sad to break up our happy bunch of backpackers when Elaine and Charles headed off to India and Will and I journeyed up to the mountains of the north, but such is life on the road.

Even before Sept. 11, caution was key in many parts of the mountainous north, where in certain lawless regions tribesmen appear to rule rather than the local government. In fact, three Western tourists were murdered in the mountains last spring. Though the killings took place far from where Will and I were planning to go and well before Sept. 11, our hearts still fluttered faintly with fear.

Just up the Karakoram Highway (KKH), which links Pakistan to China and cuts through some of the most majestic mountains in the world, lies the Hunza Valley, long favored by tourists for its spectacular scenery and friendly folk.

In the heart of the Hunza Valley, the normally tourist-packed village of Karimabad had only one other tourist in town when we arrived: a Japanese man who had been there for the past two months. When I inquired about his daily activities, he replied in broken English that he spent a lot of time in bed. Yet another oddball, I mused.

Since Sept. 11, Karimabad, heavily dependent on the tourism industry, has seemingly reverted to the days of yore before the KKH cut through this region in the 1970s, bringing a wave of Gortex-covered tourists on its heel. This, however, suited Will and me just fine as we chatted with the locals and roamed the nearby hills.

When Will had to return to Islamabad unexpectedly, I returned to Gilgit, the administrative and commercial hub of the north, where I did bureaucratic back-flips as I ran the gauntlet from one government office to another fervently trying to wrangle my way into China.

Cautious Chinese officials had sealed off this economically strategic border soon after Sept. 11. With the days of the Taliban seemingly numbered, frustrated businessmen on both sides of the border anxiously awaited its reopening so that the vital trade that runs up and down the length of the KKH could resume.

Karim, who I assumed was the only other guest at the eerily quiet Medina Hotel, expressed uninvited interest in my struggle to cross the sealed-off border and introduced me to Akbar, who worked at the regional chamber of commerce and who, for some inexplicable reason, offered his assistance in getting me into China. (Later I would learn that Karim was actually a member of the Northern Area's secret police, and that he resided at the hotel in order to keep close tabs on the tourists. I never did learn why he took an interest in my predicament.)

Hearing that I had once worked in tourism and had recently published an article in an American newspaper (The Post-Gazette), Akbar expansively embellished my resume by informing officials that a travel writer wished to make the crossing. Within 48 hours, permission was granted for me to make the journey as a passenger in one of the rare cargo trucks that was permitted to traverse the border.

The journey via the Khunjerab Pass, the highest paved international border in the world at 15,528 feet, is challenging even in the best of circumstances; but, as it was now the end of November when the pass normally closes because of snow, it would have been particularly arduous. I was ready for the adventure - unfortunately, my gastrointestinal tract wasn't.

For five days my intestines howled in agony. There were times when I could barely manage to make it out of my unheated hotel room.

I was so sick that I had to pass on the cargo truck into China. I could barely make it out of bed, much less across the snow-capped peaks of the Karakoram Range and into the People's Republic.

As soon as I had the strength, I headed south to the city of Lahore. Teeming with some of the best examples of Mughal architecture, vibrant street markets and must-see mosques, museums and a sprawling fort, Lahore is worthy of a lengthy visit. However, I was weary and ready to move on after only two days, and so I bid farewell to Pakistan and anxiously boarded a bus for my next destination - India.

Kelly Sobczak, 32, of Bethel Park embarked upon a trip around the world last March. The only problem she encountered in Pakistan was having her brand-new, $129 trekking pants stolen off a hotel clothesline. She can be reached at kellysobczak@yahoo.com.

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