There is something irrepressably romantic about the fusion of Eastern and
Western cultures. Asia is full of monuments to its encounters with Europe.
Every capital has its Portuguese, Dutch, French, German or British
buildings. Macau is exceptional in that it still has a large population of
Eurasians which maintains a separate identity. For the most part Europe's
legacy is found in old stones, not the people themselves. Eurasians in Hong
Kong, for instance, have been largely assimilated into the Chinese
community. Little remains of the European splendors of Malacca or Goa but
the edifices, but what atmosphere! It is a joy to be charmed by France's
legacies in Indochina or great hotels such as the Raffles in Singapore.
But there are real blood legacies, too, in Asia. There are places with ties
to Europe that are far more ancient and in a way much more intimate than
the neglected palaces of imperial Calcutta. Such a place was recently
visited by several SAISkateers, in the wild mountains of Pakistan's
northwest frontier--the last place I would have ever looked. The secret
valleys nestled near the border with China were barely touched by the
colonials. The territories we visited had been nominally British but
self-administered. Not a single British building did we find. Rather we
found a European race, or actually hints of one, which had survived
copper-haired and blue-eyed in the Hunza Valley since the age of Alexander
the Great. Here dwelt European antiquity's descendents, like a puddle on
the shore left by a receding wave, their ancestry kept intact by the
Valley's isolation from everything around it.
Let me backtrack from the grand sweep of history to the mundane: I took a
vacation. Here my account is lacking, because Tom, Tricia, Glenn and Maggie
started this trip before me in Kyrgyzstan and ended it after me in
Pakistan. I hope they contribute something, if they wish, because they have
some good stories I can't tell. Also, we followed in the footsteps of
Stefan, who made this trip several years ago.
We met in Rawalpindi, the bazaar-and-slum adjoining Islamabad, with a guide
named Karim and a sturdy van-driver, Nawaz. I had been hanging out already
in 'Pindi and Islamabad. My first impression was driving to a run-down
'Pindi hotel at night from the airport. Virtually every male in Pakistan
wears a shalwar qamiz, which consists of matching baggy trousers and a long
shirt. Pakistan is an Islamic state and everyone must cover themselves,
although some people wear conservative Western dress in Islamabad. Anyway,
most of these outfits are white, and racing through 'Pindi late at night,
when all the men hang around outside, it appeared the inmates were loose
and running the asylum. In Pakistan this is sometimes more than just an
It's just as well there's no booze allowed because driving along the
Karakoram Highway was dangerous enough with sober drivers. The highway
leading to China is full of lorries and other vehicles, at least for the
first third. These guys speed like mad along very curvy paths. The road
hugs the mountainside, there are no guard rails, and you can look out the
window and see the ground fall sharply away from you. Tricia sat up front
where it looked like every approaching truck was going to smash into her,
or send her careening over the edge. She missed half the scenery because
she kept her eyes shut.
The road, the road. It was finished by the Pakistani army in 1978 and
opened to tourists in 1986. Its purpose was ostensibly to foster trade with
China, but this is a nonsense. Little trade occurs over the road; it's
probably cheaper to airlift it. The road is actually a military perogative.
Pakistan's northwest territory consists of numbingly big mountain ranges
interspersed with oasis towns and valleys with their own languages,
cultures and ethnic groups. These areas are fiercely independent; the road
has made them easier to occupy. There was no sign of seccessionism but the
further north you go, particularly in the Hunza Valley, the people don't
relate to their rulers down in Punjab. The road is bringing modernity to
these isolated, quasi-medieval settlements. But only slowly.
Americans love road trips so let me share with you what ours was like. It
was hot. Hot and dry. Leaving Islamabad we drove through Hazara, green and
hilly, and then Kohistan, following the Indus River, green and mountainous.
But then the next day we hit the desert, a long expanse of a blasted land.
It is here that the Chinese, Russian and British empires touched--a buffer
zone no army could breach. Everything was brown or grey, lifeless, silent
mountains, hard rock, expanses of sand, a dead river. Not a single grass
grew. The land was impressive in its desolation and hatred of life. It was
as if the Creator had never existed--or as if the hand of a vengeful
Almighty had destroyed the land. How any human survived this crossing
before the age of the automobile is a mystery.
If I'm sounding Biblical, that's on purpose. You can't help but remember
stories from the Torah or the New Testament when you travel through this
desert and find improbable oasis towns. Small or large patches of
cultivated green appeared around the bend, a hardscrabble existence off
hidden glacier springs, a dollop of green that abruptly returned to rock
and dust and vanished behind you. Until you reach Gilgit, a town out of the
Dark Ages, a stop along the long-gone Silk Road where they now sell Chinese
imports, and all around you it is green. You rest on a plateau, surrounded
by mammoth peaks, in the arms of Mother Nature who has granted green
pastures to this tiny spot.
Then, finally, into the Hunza Valley itself. "It's like the land of milk
and honey," Glenn said. For after passing through the desert we came to
this land of precarious prosperity. The steep terraced mountainsides were
covered with green, winding through a long valley which would take several
days to cross without a car. Here we found green and blue eyes, blond and
red hair. "They look like they're from Israel," Tricia noted. Or Turkey, or
Southeast Europe, or Ohio. Culturally these people were easier to grasp as
well. This was the one place in Pakistan I encountered where men and women
are equal in society, where the work was shared, where women would say
hello to you (shyly) and even let you take their picture. It was in this
garden, reputed to be the Shangri-La of old, that we found distant cousins
of the West. I don't know where they come from; I don't know where we were.
But it wasn't Pakistan.
I'll let someone else write about our excursions, about a bridge and about
ice, about Hunza water and about the stars, about food and about a fort.
They're good stories. I was taken by this puddle left behind by the wave of
conquering Greeks. Whether these are really the descendents of Alexander is
unknown, it's likely just a myth. But the Greeks did come through here and
they did leave more than just children. I learned this later. Flight
schedules forced me to leave Hunza early. I returned to the mess of 'Pindi
and spent an afternoon kicking around Taxila, a neighboring town. Here
Alexander had camped, centuries before the birth of Christ. Afterward
Bactrian Greeks made Taxila a local capital--only mounds and a few stone
ruins remain. That, and their art...in the museum exist a number of
fantastic sculptures of Buddha but done by Greeks, with classic Greek faces
and curly hair and clothes....
In dusty, screaming Rawalpindi, the quiet green of Hunza seemed mystical, a
dream, unreal. Staring at these Greek Buddhas made me think how unique, how
special that place is. It is a true fusion of civilizations. And here, down
in Punjab, was what Hunza had lacked: the stone monuments. Hunza had no
European towers or fortress walls or columns or quays, nothing like Penang
or Shanghai. It had the blood and some residue of culture. Below, outside
of modern Pakistan's capital, existed the stones, separated from their
human siblings by the mountains and the desert. The Greek Buddhas are true
fusions of art, of East meets West. They mark an intermarriage of
civilizations that would never be attained in modern colonial Asia; of a
romance never captured by Western expatriates wandering through last
century's echoing halls, legacies of recent empires which expired after no
more than two hundred years--the blink of an eye.