Kevin Swains
Travel Website
This is Kev's Travel Blog
The Begining
Plenty of writing to come when I can find a internet cafe with a card reader to transfer my oodles of writing from my palmtop....
Sufi Music at the Regal Internet Inn, Lahore
Pir Whadi bus station-Rawalpindi/Islamabad

Pakistani Hospitality. A forever overwhealming part of travel here.
Being shouted dinner by passengers of the 19hr bus to Gilgit, Northern areas.
The Madina Hotel in Gilgit.
Without doubt the most welcoming guesthouse in Pakistan.
A complete travellers haven.
Yaqoob (left, owner) and Habib (commited staff member)
Yaqoob is the most unselfish person I have ever had the pleasure to meet.
Running a fine guesthouse but now on hard times due to tourism downturn,
 and unlikely to survive another year.
Both a father and a brother.
 Nanga Parbat expidition team 2008. Me, Rob (UK), Singapore Sam, Spanish Jordi
and Tim (Kiwi) behind the camera.

At last this day has come and I'm on the plane off to India and the usual list of countries for 6 hard months.

I have secret plans ahead. Plans that have consumed my every spare thought moment and more than occasionally sneaked into my own thought time memory since my arriving home from my last trip.

But these plans nearly didn't get off the ground as I'm  stopped at customs with five metal bars in my hand luggage.

`Whose is this bag' the customs asked? I stepped forward ready for the bad news.

I emptied the bag of it's contents of steel bars and watched jealously as normal travelers just got their peanut butter confiscated, how I wish mine was that easy.

A rather bemused customs chic listened to my long and drawn out explanation on the bags contents usage and had little sympathy to my needs but agreed to ask her supervisor....who in turn said there is absolutely no way that I can carry such items on a plane. I agreed without hesitation and said can see his point of view looking at things now I'm here but I'm only trying to save a Kg on my check in luggage which is a whopping 26kg and now the purpose of my trip is not achievable. Then surprisingly he took the bars and headed to his supervisor and came straight back and told me to smile, all systems go.

I'm back in action. Plan C is still a possibility but still not  tried and fully untested. For three months I'd been working mentally on it's fine detail without coming up with a workable solution and then 2 days before take off, a visit to the local fishing tackle shop and two hours with an angle grinder in the garage I end up with something that might somehow work....but I'm not entirely convinced. At least I have something and it's something I can work with.

It's a twelve hour flight to Bombay and goes as good as can be expected, but I'm worrying heavily about what lays ahead and often feel sick and I know I still have to get my bag through Indian customs when I change flights from Bombay to Delhi.

They arrive soon enough and again the metal bars show up in my luggage as if I'd got metal bars in my bag.

I give them the long version again wanting to give some distraction. She asks `are you an athlete' to which I reply `no, just a carpenter'. She asks if I've been to India before and I tell her I love traveling and was here last year by bicycle. She then looks at me and says down her nose `this is what you want to do with the rest of your life'? It's a valid point she is making and I give her an India head wiggle and a pair of raised eyebrows so she can perceive what she wants.

More supervisors arrive, jabber in Hindi, shake their heads and then turn t me and tell me it's OK to continue. I'm through and can now avert my attention to where I want it to be, and at the moment that’s a lovely cappuccino....

I touch down at Delhi domestic airport at around 1am. It's lovely and peaceful compared to the international airport and I don't have to fight the scrum to book a pre paid taxi. It all seems to easy and before I know it I'm in Paharganj main bazaar, the travelers hub of Delhi. There are still locals mulling around, talking, supping chai and touting tourists to hotels as most flights seem to arrive close to midnight. There are also an equal number of cows hanging around munching on the previous days scraps of banana skins, rotting veg, news papers and of course plastic bags. For any virgin traveler just arriving in India this Paharganj would seem seedy and dangerous, everything your mama told you to avoid. To me it's relaxed, Paharganj at it's best because in eight hours it's another day and madness will be let loose. Sounds bazaar?....believe me it is!

I check into my usual hotel, the Hotel Star Palace and like most hotels in India with similar majestic names it isn't what it says it is. But at least it's safe and sufficiently clean and at Rp500 (U$12.50) is not too overly priced for a capitol city. It's 10am when I next awake and my room is still dark due to the fact that it's only window has an air conditioner unit mounted in it. It's actually just a noise box designed to make one feel at home in Delhi because it doesn't keep me cool and I rely on the fan instead.

I hit the train station and book an overnight train to Amritsar so I can be in Pakistan the next day. For the first time I book an air con carriage as I'm feeling vague from jet lag and can't trust my judgment. It's due to depart at 7:30pm.

I'm on the platform at 7Pm but there's no sign of a train. Some guy informs me that it's 6hrs late....great. I was just about to head back to Paharganj but then start chatting to some guy and he introduces me to his family. Two students join in the chat and one hour passes pleasurably. But now what to do? I spy a spare spot on a bench and firmly plop my bottom down. Time passes by miserably slowly. Time checks on the progress of the train are broadcast regularly but for every hour that passes the scheduled arrival time drops by another fifteen minutes. It's slow torture. I'm dazed from jet lag and the crowds are building on the platform. My bags are chained to the bench and I drop off to sleep for very brief amounts of time.

The platform is jam packed. People are sprawled in every spot, thin blankets laid on the hard concrete floors, full of women and sleeping children who are constantly being fanned by devoted mothers. A yellow line two meters from the platform edge defines a clearway for disembarking passengers and to allow the cart loads of mail to be moved ready for the train’s arrival. And the mail keeps coming, and coming and coming. Double handed four meter long carts with two central wheels, the load often shifting after only a few steps. It sounds like any market anywhere as the guys shout the get the goods through. They are doing a tremendous job considering what they have to work with but soon they are moving people around the platform to make space for their oversized and overloaded carts.

Then a fight breaks out on the seat next to me. The guy who has been sitting there for the last three hours stands up and steps two paces to see to his family who are sleeping on the platform at his feet. As soon as his back is turned a couple and their baby pounce on the still warm vacant space. The guy turns around, sees what’s happened and a slagging match begins. I watch, enjoying the special. Lets face it anything is better than train spotting. Soon blows are being exchanged and the whole platform rotates to see the free entertainment.

It's here I'm using my artistic license to it's maximum. The word `blows' isn't quite what I make it out to be. Slapping would be a far better description but I hesitate to use it because I have an audience to feed. So reality is, it's just a bitch fight by grown men. Now do you understand? It's a waste of time for everyone but also a great part of traveling India. It's amazing how many times I've seen this, often daily. Usually it's a rickshaw wallah on the receiving end and usually the perpetrator dish it out because the recipient is 'uneducated'. Don't look at be for confirmation on the senseless act. As far as I'm concerned it's just part of Indian society role play. It happens in every society.  It's just easier to pick on if it's someone elses culture.

So back to the story....the 'blows' rain down furiously from both sides! I glance sideways again....ah here we go again....I simply close my eyes, drop my head and try and catch more precious sleep.

It's a pleasant trip on the train and soon in Amritsar. A cycle rickshaw drops me somewhere on the road at a bus shelter and within fifteen minutes a bus arrives en-route to Atari and the border with Pakistan.

It's a breeze crossing the border and I don't even get asked to open any bags. Then I'm in Pakistan. Each time a cross this way there's a guy buying and selling books to the passing tourists. He operates from a cupboard no bigger than a wardrobe and when I saw him last year it smelt as if the wardrobe was sat in a puddle of piss!

Anyway....the young guy is always smiling and welcoming and helpful with any information and so I brought him a spare Lonely Planet Hindi guide to which he's most grateful.

There is a taxi waiting and I pay Rp200 (U$3) to share the taxi to the Regal Internet Inn where I always stay.

The taxi ride is a pleasure passing through familiar territory again. The first section is mayhem. Dual carriageway roads with a wide central reservation but we swap from one side of the road to another depending on the quality of the road surface. It's dry, dusty and very dirty and congested. The shops seem to do industry, cars spares and the like while in front of them there are fruit and veg cart sellers. The roads are shared with people walking, cyclists, donkeys and their carts and two stroke rickshaws spewing out clouds of fumes at a high ear splitting volume. Colourful ancient busses chug painfully slowly, curb crawling for more passengers, the conductor walking alongside the bus banging on the body panels while shouting out it's destination while the driver revs his engine and sounds his two tone horn, giving the impression that at any moment soon he will be hurtling down the highway at warp speed.

We turn off and follow a water channel where people are cooling off, adults throwing around a big beach ball.

The water channel leads to the city with it's wide three lane roads with high black and yellow painted curbs. Lane discipline is atrocious despite an extraordinary amount of traffic police on every junction. The police are said to be un-corruptible, a new breed of policeman, well educated and well paid receiving around Rp20,000 (U$293) per month.

Suddenly the taxi hangs a left at what seems to be a building under demolition. But I remember the photo from the BBC web page. It's a police building hit by a double suicide bombing around four months ago claiming forty or so lives. It's a staggering site. The destruction blows me away. Holes in the reinforced concrete floor five stories up and walls collapsed to the front of the building. The driver confirms my suspicions.

I'm assuming we have a while to go and that driver is driving through this scrap metel yard to avoid a set of traffic lights. Then we pass through a small alleyway and come to a halt. I was just going to ask whats happening when I looked up and saw that I was outside my hotel, having for the first time entered from this direction. I looked up and could see the shell of the building 100m away. Well I least they won't be blowing it up again!

I meet and greet Malik, the owner of the guesthouse. The last time I saw him he was out of it, suffering from a huuuge hangover after I fetched him a bottle of vodka. The locals cannot buy alcohol other then on the black market but us whities can just rock up and buy what we want.

Anyway....I'm suffering immensly from jet lag and with all the travel and late trains I can't get my body clock in tune. I check into the dorm but soon change to a room because everything is hazy and I'm not trusting myself at all with anyting. I'm likely to put my money belt on the bed and leave without it.

The room is basic. A poor double bed surrounded by thin plywood walls that finish two foot off the ceiling. In fact the whole guesthouse is in pretty poor condition, reliying on it's past reputation but still has a good flow of budget travellers through it's doors.

When I first came to Pakistan I would pass straight through Lahore because of its budget accomodation scams. These would involve being given your own room for around a dollar with evening meal and a free massage. You would have to take off your money belt for the massage and they would steal your cash and travellers cheques and replace them with pieces of newspaper. Or the rooms would have ingenious secret panels in the walls so they could search through your belongings when you're out the room.

Malik used to run an internet cafe with a few travellers passing through. They trusted Malik and he used to let them sleep on the floor and soon one thing led to another and that’s why I'm here now.

While the place might need some TLC it has rewards in other ways. On Thursdays Malik takes everyone to see Qawali music at one of the mosques. Some of the best groups in Pakistan appear weekly here and a special place for the westerners is given right at the front on a reserved carpet....and it's all for free. Then at night there's Sufi music at the Shah Mahal, a kind of cemetery. It's packed with ganjad out locals working themselves into a state of trance. Ten joint high weed trees  are passed around freely and again the tourists get prime position and all for free.

Lahore is suffering from severe power shortages after poor winter snows and load shedding is used during the day. In the afternoon it's almost one hour on and one hour off till around 8pm then power until 1am. It's easy sleeping with the fan on but as soon as the power is cut then the sweat arrives in force with no chance of sleep.

The papers are reporting that 500 air conditioning units are sold weekly and it's this that’s driving the power cuts. The middle classes are also installing banks of batteries to give them power through outages and these batteries need charging when there is power, of course making the outages far worse. Then....threes the good old petrol generator making a sizeable impact on fossil fuel usage in both India and Pakistan. The shops used to run promotions to win a cheap motor bike but now they are all offering petrol generators....a sign of the times.

The next day on the 23rd I take the AC bus the Rawalpindi, five hours away on the three lane European style motorway. On arrival a taxi takes me to the Popular Inn. The Popular Inn used to be a travellers hangout enroute from the south to the northern areas but I think it now only exists from recommendations from out of date handbooks. Like many multi-story hotels it's built around an atrium or light well through the centre of the building. Basically a hole through the concrete floor covered by steel mesh so you can walk over it and allow air to circulate. Maybe a comparison to a prison is a more apt description.

The hotel is very basic being of a pure reinforced concrete construction and I doubt if it has ever been in the running for any design awards. The structure holds onto the daytime heat and it's grim inside the room. There are two rickety old beds full of gaps and cracks, perfect hiding places for bed bugs and I check them thoroughly before deciding on which bed to sleep. The bed base is solid plywood with a 5cm cut foam mattress guaranteed to aid restless sleep and just to finish the bedroom ensemble off there is a lumpy pillow full of home brand cottage cheese.

The only ventilation is a small 2 by 1foot meshed and barred window above the door which is of little use. Sleeping is barely possible but as soon as the electricity is cut the room, is quickly turned into an Abu Graib cell and buckets of sweat are absorbed into the mattress.

The ensuite bathroom is small containing a squat toilet and an area just large enough to stand while taking a cold shower. The walls are filthy with scum splatters everywhere. It's a common theme in many hotels and simply boils down to pure laziness. I spit on one of the bathroom walls and rub my finger in it doing a circular motion. As if by magic a clean patch appears. The moral of this story....there is no excuse for filth.

One of my main missions on this trip is to trek to K2 basecamp. It's in restricted areas and, meaning a U$50 permit is required, a guide, cook, porters and so forth and a thick wad of Euros to pay for it all.

I've been sending out requests to Pakistani trekking agencies but have had little joy. Today I'm meeting up with a guy called Malik in Islamabad regarding the possibility of a trek and he's going to treat me to MacDonald’s.

We meet outside Mr Books in an area known as supermarket. A popular place with expats and full of carpet and high quality handicraft shops. A small bomb recently exploded here outside a popular Italian restaurant. It was reported worldwide as an attack on the expat community but the restaurant was also known for openly selling alcohol and this is more likely to be the reason for the attack as there are far more easier targets to attack if one would want to hit the diplomatic and NGO community.

Anyway....I meet up with Malik and can see why he wants to eat a beef burger having a fair amount of food storage capacity projecting in front of him. He’s a sizeable fellow with a deep voice and lived in England until he was 19 years old. He's been running a trekking agency since 1987 but since 2001 has seen his client base diminish to near extinction. It's the same story with tourism throughout Pakistan and my heart goes out to the few who struggle through often losing money, hoping that the next year will see an upturn in the tourism industry.

Of course it never happens and things continue to decline.

We have a chat and he gives me the low down on the costs. It's huge, ranging from U$2000 to $2200 depending on how many people book onto the trip, and at the minute there are hopefully two more people coming.

I'm surprised to see that MacDonald’s is packed with good ques at the drive through. All cars entering the car park are checked with a mirror underneath for any explosives, but quite amazingly not inside the boot....go figure!

Also upon entry you walk through a metal detector and bags are checked. That is unless you are white and I walk straight through. Remember....white people don't explode. I'm sure the day will come when a white Muslim will explode and world paranoia will be thrown off kilter.

I pay Malik U$50 for the trekking permit. He refuses to take any payment as the trek has only a 50-50 chance of getting off the ground.

On the 24th I take the bus to Gilgit in the Northern areas, a 600Km, 20hr journey away. The bus is at least air conditioned with super reclining seats, almost propping themselves on the persons lap behind.

Air conditioned busses are fine but the curtains are always drawn to keep the occupants cool and of course this stops one seeing the beauty of the nature.

At midday the bus departs and just before I climb on the bus I have my first beggar in Pakistan approach me. She's a young girl around 11 years old but has little commitment to her job and leaves me alone after a very short time. She really is royal disgrace to her kind and needs to be sent to Calcutta train station for a month to learn to become a persistent beggar.

Anyway....I hate bus journeys like this and count the seconds down to my arrival. Fortunately there is a crowd of ten local 20-something youths on board, three of who have a good command of English. We have a good chat and the next three to four hours pass easily.

It can be a very fine line with the locals between fun and horror. If their command of English is poor then things become painful. Or if all they want to know is how much I get paid or how many girls I have sex with every day, then again it's all too much work. But these guys are great and we talk openly and when we stop for a break they buy me dinner. All to easy.

At 8pm I take my best friend, Valium and join the fairies for 9 hours, reaching Gilgit refreshed.

Gilgit is strange place. It's 15minutes off the Karukuram highway and has no decent mountain views to speak of. It's just a small, often troubled town giving the first taste of mountain life if heading north or the first taste of Pakistan if traveling south from China. The one thing it does have going for it is the Medina Hotel, an incredible oasis hideaway, surrounded by high walls, allowing a relaxation of the hard Pakistani dress code.

Yaqoob, the owner is a remarkable guy and I feel privileged to have become friends with him. He works hard keeping a clean hotel and welcoming all that pass through it's doors, but since 2001 has been struggling to make ends meet and in 2003 sold his families land to pay the hotels debts. Each time I come here I see the financial stress taking it's toll on him. He is a rare breed and totally unselfish, a rare trait in today’s society.

He keeps a book for tourists to write their comments in and it's constantly full of complaints about the food prices. It’s unbelievable that anyone has the nerve to complain when you look around the hotel. It truly is a one off on the travel scene. A place to relax and fully unwind surrounded by sunflowers and plants lining the perimeter in red painted tin pots.

The prices may be a little high but he has rising rents to pay, staff wages and only a very small tourist season to rake in any profit and the food he produces is both hygienic and healthy. In fact until now he has found it hard to keep a chef for any decent length of time because they aren't used to having to keep a clean kitchen.

I simply hang around the place, meeting the other tourists, finding out their travel itinery so I can get a group together to share the cost of a trek to Nanga Parbat base camp, around 4hrs away.

Soon we are 5 people and ready for the off the next day. There is me, Rob, 40 from the Uk but married to a German and living in The French alps, Tim, a 33yr old lawyer from New Zealand and now living in England, Jordi, a 34yr old not quite sure what he wants to do from Catalonia (Espanioli) and lastly little 24yr old Singapore Sam who is great because he is Chinese and doesn't take up much room in the busses!



27th June.


I say my farewells to Yaqoob and Habib and the rest of the crew at the Medina and hope that the hotel will be around the next time I'm in Gilgit. I turn around after the long farewells and see the rest of the crew (my friends?) have pissed off without me and I have no idea where the bus station is.

I head off down the main street with a hotel name in my head that I think is where the bus is starting, but as it turns out I'm totally way off with the name so no matter how many people I ask I just end up with blank looks upon their faces.

The clocks ticking so I ask a group of police if they know where the bus to Askole is leaving and before I know it I'm on the back of a police motor bike once again being whisked off to my destination.

The rest of the crew actually walked the whole way to bus stand without even noticing I was missing and when they realised sent Tim back to find me and as he approached to junction I appeared on the back of a police bike being driven by a Pakistani policeman with a porn star moustache, which bought Tim to hysterics.

Two hours in a minibus, roaring along the KKH, often quite scarily considering the considerable drop to our left and the more than considerably roaring river below that, bought us to the town of Astor, our halfway point on the way to Terashing.

We have one and a half hours to kill before the public jeep left so we walked through the village and found ourselves a restaurant and had some of the best dal ever washed down by the old faithful Pepsi. We all had good feelings in the town and in the restaurant. A friendly place with a good mix of Muslim faces, dirt streets, wooden shuttered shops and local folk mixing and chatting.

We were all in high spirits climbing into the long wheel based Land cruiser, 15 people inside and one or two on the back, it's obviously incredibly cramped. We whities begin to suffer half hour into the two hour journey with only around 20cm knee room, it's even less spacious than the rear of a Mini Cooper! I don't know what the local people think as we stand up groaning every fifteen minutes stretching our legs while at the same time showing our backsides to their face in the seat behind. We're a soft sort of folk.

We arrive with stiff legs in Terashing and check into the New Rupal Hotel. I met the young manager of the hotel in Rawalpindi several days earlier when I was booking my bus ticket to Gilgit. He quickly latched onto me and was quite irritating, so when his back was turned I kind-a did a runner thinking I would never see him again. hour later I'm trying to find the bus into Islamabad with little success and spot my now on again friend and apologise for losing him and we jump on the bus together. Now four days later I'm staying at his hotel, which is actually quite nice. Strangely though his business card has a photo of a grand house that must be in America and looks diddly like the place I'm staying in.

Later we hit the dining hall for unlimited channa dal and chapattis. We all make for good traveling companions and conversation is free and easy. But for all of us this is the second plate of dal today and I'm banking up inside and being a polite guy in situations like this keep it to myself. Then suddenly Robert lets rip with a tort one and we begin to giggle. Then in his Spanish accent Jordi says `oh no, I think you have started something'. Too damn right he has and I release a small amount of my stored gas. The place erupts with tears all round. Next it's Tims turn and we all crease with laughter. Then I look at Singapore Sam. He has a perplexed look upon his face. The kind of look that only Asians can have when suddenly the world around them falls away into madness. I mean you'll probably get imprisoned in Singapore for boffing in public, never mind at the dinner table.

We retire to our rooms and the childish behavior continues through the wooden walls. It's been a good day!

We wake early at 6.30 for breakfast ready for an early start in preparation for our trek to Nanga Parbat basecamp but it's been pissing it down during the night and intermittent showers continue. We sit around until 11.30 and decide to head off upwards as the weather has improved slightly.

We have a porter and a donkey to show us the way. Not that the way is hard to find but you are not allowed to trek out of the village without a guide or porter and filling in the police book.

We climb the moraine above the village and cross the rubble covered glacier and carry on up the fertile valley to the village of Rupal and stop for a drink and biscuits. Everyone is friendly and only a couple of children have asked for a rupee. It's a Shia area and therefore quite conservative and whenever we approach any females they instinctively pull their headscarves over just that little bit more too cover their fringe, but they stare at us and giggle like anywhere else in the world.

We carry on refreshed but increasingly weak. For most of us it's our first taste of trekking for a while and at a starting altitude of 2911m and rising we struggle a little in the thinning oxygen. Robert and Jordi speed off ahead. Robert has all his gear on the donkey and Jordi is a natural mountain goat. We head around another glacier. It's a mighty sight as it powers down right at us. It's dirty and heavily crevassed and has a steep vertical face giving us some idea of it's massive volume. We pass it by as we struggle more and more uphill. Soon the clouds lower and the rain starts to fall. We quickly set up our tents in the rain and climb in or shelter.

It's the first time I've used my new GoLite sub 1kg single skin tent and I make a pretty poor job of erecting it. The inside is quickly showing signs of condensation but I'm freezing cold and don't want to go outside in the rain to re-peg the perimeter of the tent to allow for through ventilation. Condensation is a problem with single skin tents and when it's wet on the outside they simply cannot breath and now each time the wind blows, my tent fabric whips quickly sprinkling me with water, but even worse if it keeps up all night my down sleeping bag will get wet and lose all it's insulation....not good.

Fortunately the rain stops after a few hours and we all get some sleep and wake to see Nanga Parbats Rupal face right in our face. It's an impressive near vertical wall of rock and ice that unbelievably has been climbed. I stare at it. It looks inviting and peaceful but I think how miserable I was in a simple storm at 3500m and cannot comprehend conditions further up the mountain. As much as I would love to climb a mountain like this there is something in me that likes the security of firm ground and I admire anyone who tackles such a mountain.