Kyrgyz Beachtime

I'm not sure there is anything gloomier than rain while staying at a budget hotel in a small Kyrgyz town. The hotel in Kochkor: no running water, a bathroom consisting of a shack in the back of the hotel and a grumpy attendant who turned her radio on full blast at 6a.m. (I suspect to piss us off). We had a few sad encounters with heavily intoxicated men wandering the rainy streets, but we mainly rested in our hotel until the rain finally subsided 2 days later. For the next three days we stayed in Cholpon Ata, a town on the north shore of Issyk Kul Lake. Cholpon Ata isn't a backpacker destination, it's a everyone else in Kyrgyzstan destination. It's a beach resort, summer party town, packed to the brim with vacationing Kazakhs, Russians and city folk. When we arrived in town, the sun was shining and the beach blow up toys were out, we joined the crowds of people streaming towards the beach. The road to the beach is lined with shops selling, well, mostly alcohol, but also sea shells (there are no sea shells at Issyk Kul Lake), smoked fish, samosas, beach toys, bathing suits... The beach was totally packed but we were so happy to get some sun. On our second day in Cholpon Ata, we went to the beach again but spent the afternoon on an educational excursion to the local petroglyphs. The outdoor 'museum' consists of a giant pile of rocks scattered across a few kilometers. The first few petroglyphs are indicated by small signs, but I suppose funding ran out, and for the rest of them you're on your own. We didn't manage to find too many but had fun in our attempt "Yann, Yann here's one... oh no wait... it's just a another rock". In the evening we feasted on outstanding local smoked fish, cheese, bread and a bottle of Moldovian wine (not so outstanding). After two days, we had to move on, but Yann REALLY liked the beach, neither of us had seen that much skin in a long long time. There was possibly a little bit too much of it, although it was refreshing to see the GIANT bikini clad Russian babushkas being lathered with sun screen by their hairy speedo wearing husbands. Some of the more hilarious Kyrgyz beach activities included being photographed with a large boa, riding a camel or my favourite (and most common): getting really sunburned and drunk. We followed the north shore of the lake until we got to the old Russian outpost of Karakol. We arrived in the pouring rain, were rejected (in Russian) from the cheapest hotel in our book, so we settled for a more upscale backpacker hangout (second cheapest). It was a lovely old colonial home, run by little Babalina an old Russian matriarch. We had scheduled three days in Karakol, but we managed to visit its main sights in, hmm let's see, 45 minutes. This included the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the Dungan Mosque, the regional museum and a bunch of statues of guys we didn't recognize (except for Lenin of course). Despite an unrivalled collection of stuffed animals at the regional museum, the highlight of Karakol had to be Zarina's Cafe, the local cafe around the corner from our guesthouse, in particular its 'pelmeni in a pot'. Pelmenis are little raviolis stuffed with meat, 'pelmeni in a pot' is a pot full of pelmenis doused in garlic, sour cream and cheese then baked in an oven. Pelmenis pretty much kept us in Karakol longer than was necessary.

July in Kyrgyzstan's Summer Pastures

Along with Margo and Dave, we organized a taxi to Song Kol Lake. About 150km from Naryn, in Central Kyrgyzstan, it is a favourite spot for herders and shepherds. They transport their livestock along with their yurts and set up camp for the summer months while their herds enjoy the lush, green mountains. It also seems to be a favourite spot for travellers, who like the idea of spending time in a yurt surrounded by beautiful scenery. We avoided organizing anything in town (overpriced), assuming that we would easily find a place to stay once we arrived at the lake. This turned out to be a wise decision, with yurts scattered all over the hills. We were carrying our full packs, so the walk to the yurts that we had spotted in the distance seemed to take longer than we had hoped. A young horseman came to greet us and quietly walked along side us as we trekked along. We happened to have picked a yurt affiliated with tour groups, so they wanted to charge us some ridiculous amount for a place to sleep on the yurt floor. After some discussion we got the price down. Dave had his own tent, so Margo, Yann and I shared the floor of a big empty yurt. The rest of the day consisted of lying outside in the sun. We were offered a dinner of fried fish (fresh from the lake) and boiled potatoes for about 0.50$ which we obviously did not turn down. We coated the boiled potatoes with thick fresh cream, straight from the cows, or maybe from the goats. This was what we had come for, the quiet, solitary, outdoor summer life of the Kyrgyz shepherds. We spent two nights in the yurt, not really doing much during the day. We watched the daily activities: killing and gutting a sheep, drying yogurt balls, salting sheep hides, drinking tea (and vodka) and bringing in the sheep at sunset. Margo and I attempted to swim in the freezing lake, Margo made it in, I made it up to my waist (we now understood why the kids wouldn't come swimming with us). In the afternoon scary storm clouds started creeping over the mountains, and it rained all evening and all night. The yurt is coated with sheep fat for waterproofing and there were only a few leaks, so we managed to sleep despite the cold and rain. On the next morning we loaded up our bags and began our walk along the south shore of the lake. We were trying to get to the main road so that we could hitch a ride back to town (at a reasonable price). Unfortunately, there is not a lot of traffic to and from the lake, and if you are pressed for time it's easy to be held hostage by the locals who attempt to charge about 100$ for the ride into town. It had been quite a while since we had done any serious walking, and after about three hours I was getting pretty grumpy (because I am lazy). We made it to another yurt camp just as rain started pouring down. We were greeted by Toumcul, a sweet 14 year-old girl who spoke some English and seemed to be running the camp along with her two younger sisters (12 and 5 years old). In the afternoon we got a visit in our tent from Isbek, a big, drunk Kyrgyz man with an unopened bottle of vodka to share with us. Margo and I attempted to turn down the shot glasses, but Isbek would have nothing of it. Thus began the toasting to "Kyrgyzstan OY!", "Canada and Golandia" (note, Golandia is the Kyrgyz word for Holland, which we attempted to correct for about an hour before giving up and toasting to Golandia ourselves). Yann carried the weight for both Margo and I and drank Isbek under the table (in all fairness, Isbek was pretty hammered to begin with). After one bottle was finished, Isbek called for more to be brought in, I hid them under the sheets of my bed, Isbek fell asleep at the table and was escorted to bed. For dinner, fried fish was on the menu once again. I was sad to find the three sisters sitting on the floor of their trailer preparing our dinner. After serving us they also fed and brought in the animals. I watched the youngest girl, Meerim, struggle to the trailer with a heavy kettle of water. The only time we saw any adults was the next day when they came to collect the money from us. Once she was a little bit relaxed, Meerim was glued to us. She spent all evening in our yurt playing with Yann who granted her all the attention that she desired. The two older girls continued with chores (although we did get a singing concert from the three of them, complete with dance routines, beyond adorable). The next morning, cheerful Isbek, now sober, wasn't so cheerful when we started trying to negotiate prices for a drive into town (it was still pouring rain). We got him down to half his initial offer, which was still way to high. We raced down from the mountains to the sound of Isbek's cries of "Kyrgyzstan OY!" everytime he rammed too hard into pot holes.

Over the Torugart Pass

Central Asia was our initial inspiration for travel, it seemed like a place that no one really knew about, or travelled through. It took us almost nine months of travel before we arrived in in Kashgar and started making arrangements for the trip across the border to Kyrgyzstan. We had two options, one by public bus, across the Irkeshtam and the other by private vehicle across the Torugart Pass. Neither option was particularly appealing to us, the first pass would bring us to Southern Kyrgyzstan, not where we wanted to be, and the second option was too expensive. It's only expensive because the Chinese keep it that way, by classifying the border as 'Class 2' which means only locals can cross it. For foreigners to be allowed to cross they must first get a permit and have transportation arranged on both the Chinese and Kyrgyz side. Our guidebook had quoted the trip as costing 100-200 USD per person, which was way way too much for us. There is only one travel agency that organizes transportation and we managed to get a taxi all the way across the pass for 75 USD per person (provided we could find two others with whom to share the taxi). After hanging around Kashgar for about a week, we paired up again with Margo (who we travelled with in Pakistan), and an Australian guy named Dave and made arrangements to cross the pass.

Yann had predicted that our vehicle would be the smallest possible that could fit the four of us (plus guide and driver), when we arrived at the parking lot for pick up we were greeted by an actual bus, and two older Austrian travellers. They had paid premium price for a tour bus, and we were added in (much to our satisfaction). So our transportation on the Chinese side was alot better than Yann had guessed, 6 people in a bus that fit 18. Part of what is attractive about the Torugart Pass is its isolation, the bureaucracy involved in its crossing and the fact that not many people make the trip. For us, it was all just a little bit too easy, we expected our ride on the Kyrgyz side not to show up, or to attempt to charge us more than we had agreed to, or the Chinese border guards to deny us permission to cross. The only thing that made the trip difficult was the fact that our Kyrgyz driver had removed all the handles from his car doors, so that no one could roll down the windows (he didn't want the dust coming in), so we sat smooshed together, sweating and breathing in the exhaust fumes that I suspect were leaking into the car from somewhere. Our driver seemed to be 'in' with the border guards and we whizzed through the eerily deserted checkpoints, our bags never even leaving the trunk of the car. Other than the drive through vast seemingly uninhabited territory, our first taste of Kyrgyzstan was the town of Naryn. It's hard to describe how different Naryn felt from any of the other towns we had visited in the past months. We hadn't really prepared ourselves for the Russian influence in Central Asia, or maybe we weren't really aware of its extent. Our hotel was a decrepid Soviet dinosaur with our room door not locking (but cheap, 1.50$ per bed). For lunch we found a cafe and ate borscht while drinking beer on tap. The streets were lined with mature trees and old Russian cars ran slowly back and forth down Lenina street. Most store shelves were stocked with dozens of different kinds of vodka, all sadly selling for not too much more than bottled water. Men exited cafes mid-afternoon carrying the smell of alcohol along with them. While women and young red-cheeked children sat at street stalls selling produce or homemade bread out of baby carriages. The coordinator of the local tourist office proudly exclaimed that Naryn was 99% Kyrgyz, although to us, it didn't seem like the local customs were 99% Kyrgyz.

Best (and Worst) of Pakistan and the Karakoram Highway

Here we have some of our best and worst moments of our 28 days in Pakistan and the Karakorum Highway (to Kashgar China), we've also put together a gallery of our favourite photos which you can visit if you don't feel like ploughing through our other gazillion photos. The gallery is available here.

Our FAVOURITE Cities/Towns
According to Yann:
1- Karimabad (Hunza Valley)
2- Passu (Gojal Valley)
3- Gilgit
According to Emilie:
1- Karimabad
2- Lahore
3- Gilgit

Our FAVOURITE Activities
According to Yann:
1- Suf Night in Lahore
2- Shandur Polo Festival
3- Afternoon naps in Karimabad
4- Livestock market in Kashgar
According to Emilie:
1- Shandur Polo Festival
2- Sufi Night in Lahore
3- Livestock market in Kashgar
4- Visit to the Baltit Fort in Karimabad
Honourable Mention: Visiting with locals on Gilgit's main bazaar

WORST Experiences
According to Yann:
1- Wondering why the hell we were in Skardu
2- 20 hour bus ride from Rawalpindi to Gilgit
3- Late night hotel search in Rawalpindi
According to Emilie:
1- Wondering why the hell we were in Skardu
2- Late night hotel search in Rawalpindi
3- Being violently ill in Karimabad

According to Yann:
1- Burutz berikutz: chapatis stuffed with mint, spring onions and Hunza cheese (burutz)
2- Chicken shawarmas in Lahore
3- Chicken kebabs and fresh naans out of the tandoor
According to Emilie:
1- Burutz berikutz, cheesy goodness!
2- Chap shuros (Hunza meat pies, or "Hunza pizzas")
3- Walnut cake from the "Cafe de Hunza"
Note: You might have noticed we enjoyed Hunza cuisine. Here is an EXCELLENT free cookbook with traditional Hunzan dishes, try some, you will not be disappointed!

BEST Scenery
According to Yann:
1- Karakorum and Pamir Ranges on the Karakorum Highway (Chinese Side)
2- Passu's jagged mountains
3- Karimabad snowcaps
According to Emilie:
1- Karakorum and Pamir Ranges on the Karakorum Highway (Chinese Side)
2- View of Baltit Fort and surrounding 7000m+ peaks
3- Passu
Honourable Mention: Around Shandur Pass

MOST Difficult things about Pakistan travel
According to Yann and Emilie:
1- Hospitality: having to turn down so frequently friendly offers of free tea, food, beds to sleep in...
2- Big city pollution (Lahore! and Rawalpindi)
3- Making sure not to make a social blunder (especially for the ladies)

Things that SURPRISED us about Pakistan
According to Yann and Emilie:
- Incredible hospitality
- Almost complete absence of women in the streets and public places
- So many languages (a different one in every valley), less than 10% of Pakistanis have Urdu (the national language) as their mother tongue
- People in Hunza don't like shaggy Taliban-esque beards
- Only men dance in Pakistan (but that doesn't stop them from trying to get foreign women to dance)
- It's the second place I got a can of ginger ale in 9 months (at the Lahore "imports" grocery store, I love you Lahore "imports" grocery store)
- Red hair and freckles

For those interested in our expenses, we have updated our homepage with our financial information for Pakistan and the Karakoram Highway, it is available here

Best (and Worst) of India

Here we have some of our best and worst moments of our 87 days in India, we've also put together a gallery of our favourite photos which you can visit if you don't feel like ploughing through our gazillion photos. The gallery is available here.

Our FAVOURITE Towns/Cities
According to Yann:
1- Darjeeling
2- Kolkata
3- Leh
According to Emilie:
1- Darjeeling
2- Leh
3- Kolkata

Our FAVOURITE "Tourist" Activities
According to Yann:
1- Being the day's first viewers of the Taj Mahal
2- Jama Masjid at Fatehpur Sikri
3- Jasailmer Fort
According to Emilie:
1- Taj Mahal
2- Sunrise boat trip on the Ganges at Varanasi
3- Merangarh Fort audio tour in Jodhpur
4- Golden Temple in Amritsar

Most DISAPPONTING Places/Activities
According to both Yann and Emilie:
1- Jasailmer camel "safari" (noting that it was too hot and Emilie was too sick to be doing it)
2- Bollywood movie in Jaipur, where's the choreographed dancing? (we weren't disappointed with the venue though, the Raj Mandir Theatre)
3- McLeod Ganj, as one blogger referred to it: Tibetan Disneyland

"CHEAP and BEST" Food
According to Yann and Emilie:
1- Varanasi thalis (rich, buttery, all-you-can-eat and dirt cheap)
2- Kolkatan street food
3- Agra "tourist breakfasts" (15 rupees for eggs, toast and jam, fruit and COFFEE)

According to Yann:
1- Paneer butter masala (chunks of cheese swimming in rich creamy curry sauce)
2- Palak paneer (more cheese this time with spinach)
3- Samosa chaat (pieces of samosa covered with tomato sauce, curd, herbs and other delicious things)
4- Masala dosas (large flat pancakey things wrapped up and filled with veggies or cheese or whatever)
According to Emilie:
1- Samosa chaat
2- Fresh warm chapatis dipped in curry gravy
3- Paneer butter masala
4- Fresh curd and local fruits

BEST People-watching
According to Yann and Emilie:
1- Varanasi ghats
2- Morning puja at Ladakhi monasteries
3- Golden Temple, Amritsar

BEST Scenery
According to Yann and Emilie:
1- Tso-Moriri Lake
2- Himalayas from Sikkim villages
3- Darjeeling: mountains and tea plantations

MOST Challenging Experiences
According to Yann:
1- Trying to keep Emilie from losing it
2- The heat in Rajasthan and Delhi
3- Uncomfortable long distance bus travel
According to Emilie:
1- The 50+ degree heat in Delhi
2- Recurring bouts of traveller's diarrhea
3- Local perception of Western females

Things that made us the MOST Uncomfortable/Annoyed
According to Yann and Emilie:
1- Non-stop approaches from touts/scammers
2- Annoying hippy types
3- Cows and stray dogs in the streets (but the cows make a way bigger mess)

HIGHEST Concentration of Annoying Hippy Types
According to Yann and Emilie:
1- Varanasi
2- Delhi (Pahar Ganj)
3- Pushkar

For those interested in our expenses, we have updated our homepage with our financial information for India (less than 2500$ CN in 3 months, not too shabby?), it is available here

Kashgar Markets

Even though Kashgar is mainly an Uyghur city and retains more of a Central Asian feel, the Han Chinese influence is inescapable. We were definetely back in China: neon lights, wide streets, big ugly concrete tile-covered buildings and the best of all NO English! Kashgar would be considered a conservative town by Chinese standards, but compared to Pakistan it felt like we were in Las Vegas. Yann nearly lost his head when a tourist in a short skirt and a tank top passed us in the hotel. Most of Kashgar's Uyghur women where a long skirt and a kerchief over their head, quite conservative, but unlike in Pakistan they ride motorbikes, yell at their husbands in public, work at restaurants and talk to men. Most Uyghur men wear the Han Chinese dress pants, shiny dress shoes and polo shirt but are distinguishable from the Han by the wearing of one of many different styles of Uyghur hats. For a glimpse into the Uyghur community we visited the Old City and the central mosque. We spent our lunch times in local restaurants, Yann devouring the sheep liver kebabs and me mostly sticking to the thick naan bread and nutmeg tea (neither of us sampled the non-alcoholic brew, cavas). For dinner we couldn't resist the cheap Chinese eateries complete with cheaper-than-water beer. Kashgar is famous as a Central Asian crossroads, on the ancient silk route, it sits on the road linking China to Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Tibet. It's Sunday Market is a major tourist draw, although we were a little bit disappointed by it. I'm not sure exactly what we expected but the hardware section was particularly uninspiring. There were a few quirkier stalls, like the Chinese medicine men (always good for a few minutes of entertainment), but the cheap Chinese made goods far outnumbered anything interesting being sold. The livestock market on the outskirts of town was considerably more exciting, with hundreds of sheep, horses, donkeys being sold and traded. Around the market, dozens of stalls cooked up mutton kebabs, noodles and other 'treats'. The livestock market is a man's world, with young boys proudly herding around goats on leashes, or guarding the family donkey cart. We watched the large scale sheep shearing and Yann spotted an old man inspecting a sheep's health (read: sticking his fingers up the sheep's butt). There are quite a few tourists around and Yann and I certainly didn't blend in with the scenery. Yann was almost run over by a speeding donkey cart and I perhaps got a little too much 'into' photographing the wild male donkey who ripped himself free from his chord and jumped onto his female neighbour (his handlers couldn't control him, they were actually pelting him in the head with large rocks and he didn't ever lose focus). The livestock market seemed like a trip back in time and we soaked up the Uyghur atmosphere, getting lost in a sea of white skull caps, dust and animals.

Leaving Pakistan

After the detour to the polo festival, we had to race back north and ended up with only one night in the beautiful village of Passu about an hour past the Hunza Valley. The village is squeezed between two giant glaciers and surrounded by jagged mountains which have over the years contributed to its stagnant size. Passu is an Ismaili community and we arrived on the eve of the Aga Khan Golden Jubilee. Villagers were decorating their storefronts with the green and red flags of the Ismailis, kids roared around the village and the local town hall was bursting with activity. With our day in Passu we planned on doing a small trek, taking in other local villages and crossing over two death-defying suspension bridges (well, they SEEM death defying). The trek is aptly named the "two bridges walk" and was supposed to take about 5-6 hours. We set off with Derek, an American, and turned the two bridges walk into the one bridge walk, covering about 6km in 5 hours, what a team! The bridge that we did manage to find is really an incredible sight, it's long, it's falling apart, and it's used by locals to move between their village and the pastures across the river where they keep their animals. All three of us felt that we should make the trip across the bridge and back, I was the only one who was unable to do so. With my short limbs I could barely stretch my arms out wide enough to grip on to the two cables that would keep me standing, so I turned back after a few feet. Yann, Mr. Vertigo, didn't heed my warnings and took a really really long time to make the trip. The bridge is made up of old broken wood planks that are joined together unevenly by wire cables. It's impossible to do the walk without watching where you step, but then you are faced with the swirling, raging river below you, which basically makes you want to puke. By the time we got back to Passu we were tired, thirsty and sunburned. I had worn a t-shirt for the first time in months and both my arms were bright red. We still had to eat, get back to our guest house, pack our things and flag down a bus heading to Sost. It was late by the time we got out to the highway and we weren't certain we would be able to move on. Sost is the Pakistani border post and if we were to get into China the next day, we had to be there that night. We were told that there were no more minibuses running, and we ended up being picked up by a private vehicle, a large jeep with just enough room left in it for two people and their huge bags. The driver dropped us off at a hotel in Sost, of course free of charge, and extended an invitation to a sheep roast dinner. It turns out the jeep full of men were on a search for a sheep, they had been driving around from village to village looking for someone who had a sheep that wasn't up in the mountain pastures. The hotel manager finally promised to get them one, but when we went to bed it still hadn't arrived.

Before bed we had watched Golden Jubilee celebrations, torches being lit all around the village. Volunteers spend days trekking into the surrounding mountains, in a coordinated effort, hundreds of torches lit up the valley. There were even a few burning tires hurled down the mountainside, a hilarious eco-friendly activity.

The next morning, after a full check of our baggage by Pakistani officials, we boarded a government minibus and began our journey towards China and the Khunjerab Pass. With only seven passengers in the bus, the ride was pretty uneventful until we got to the Chinese security check. Each of us had our bags checked, REALLY checked. Even the hardboiled eggs and boiled potatoes from one guy's lunchbox were cracked open and smelled. The whole process was so slow it was just silly. One guard inspected everyone's bags, he seemed more curious than anything else. Meanwhile the other guards boarded our minibus, put in their music tapes and goofed off. When a Chinese truck driver arrived at the post with gifts of hard liquor they rejoiced, waving the bottles in the air. The truck passed through the gate without a security check, in the meantime our hard boiled eggs were still being sniffed. When we crossed the border into China, the gravel road became a 'super highway'. It was actually quite pitiful how modern the Chinese road was compared to the Pakistani one. The trip from the Khunjerab Pass to Kashgar crosses through Tajik and Kyrgyz communities with close up views of both the Karakoram and Pamir mountain ranges. We were now in China, but this was definetely a different China from the one we had seen before.

Polo and Partying, Pakistani Style

We joined up in Karimabad with a Dutch girl named Margo who had also decided to leave the comfort of the Hunza Valley for the polo festival at the Shandur Pass. The pass is right on the border between two of Pakistan's territories, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) to the west and the Northern Areas to the east. Every year thousands of people assemble there for four days of polo and partying.

We had one afternoon and evening in Gilgit to make our plans for the trip. The local bus had no seats left, so we had to find another form of transportation. Our first offer was from the guest house tour operator, who had conveniently NOT reserved us seats on the government bus, claiming that a jeep was the same cost. Funny, the jeep costs 1500 rupees per person if we can manage to fill it, and the bus costs 220 rupees per person!?!

While buying drinks at a small shop we were approached by Sana, a young, aspiring tour guide, looking to fill empty spaces in his jeep. By some miracle, Margo and Yann managed to get him to agree to sell us the spaces for 400 rupees each. After he agreed to the price he seemed to really regret it, and until he showed up to pick us up the next morning, we weren't certain if we actually had a ride to Shandur. As we suspected, the jeep "with much much room" turned into a five person jeep with eight people in it and enough food and supplies for ten. Sana had been hired by another tourist to drive up to the pass with food and supplies for a whopping 120$US while he rode there on his motorbike. By sticking us in the jeep he was just making a litle bit extra (I felt kind of cheap, but not cheap enough to pay him anything more, he had already ripped off one tourist and that was enough). Margo and I rode in the front with the driver, because Sana "respects women". Yann was stuck in the back with the four others. Up until the last 50km the ride went smoothly, we spent 4-5 hours on the paved highway gaining altitude while following the Gilgit River.

Things then got more complicated, the road turned into loose rock and Sana decided it was meal time. By this time it was late in the afternoon, all the cooking gear was strapped and packed away in the jeep. Even though we were almost at Shandur, the plan was to cook chicken biryani from scratch. Our five jeep mates didn't understand our objections (we had no tent and no organised accomodation at the pass), but agreed to only make tea and bread (a process that still involved completely dismantling the carefully packed jeep). We breaked for at least an hour, were visited by most of the local boys interested in the strange arrivals, then we finished the trip with two more hours of travel to the top of the pass. The pass is a spectacular sight, surrounded by mountains, covered in green grass, a "natural polo ground". We arrived the eve of the festival, but many tents had already sprung up all over the pass. It was getting dark, Sana had invited us for chicken biryani, but before dinner we had to find somewhere to sleep. While Yann and Margo sought out tents, I stayed back to help poor Sana. He had no idea how to set up his tent, he had forgotten a flash light, a sharp knife for food preparation and worst of all his masala biryani. Margo and Yann returned, we set up the tent and consoled frazzled Sana, telling him that his biryani would surely be good without the spices. Margo and Yann had selected a small tent inside a larger covered tent village. It was set up with a small shop, a generator providing some light and even a Chitrali musical group. After waiting over three hours for the chicken biryani, which was delicious, we walked back to our tent across the pass in the pitch black and quiet. Only one tent seemed to be generating any noise (or light), as we approached it we were overjoyed to find that it was ours. Crowds of men had gathered to listen to music and dance the night away. Helped by alcoholic 'Hunza water' and loads of hash, men volunteered themselves onto the dance floor and spun around, usually until they had crashed into the crowd. We watched in absolute awe as they partied to the beat of the Chitrali music. The lovely man next to me tried to teach me the subtle differences between Gilgiti, Pashto and Chitrali dancing. Meanwhile, Sana, a proud Gilgiti, complained the whole time that the Chitrali show wasn't as good as the Gilgiti non-existent one. The show finally collapsed when one of the heavily intoxicated musicians refused to play, feeling like the crowd wasn't throwing enough donations his way, Sana felt vindicated "this would never happen at the Gilgit show!". We were kind of grateful for the hissy-fit because we were exhausted, it was late, and there didn't seem to be an end in sight.

Margo, Yann and I squeezed into our two person tent, happy that we had rented sleeping bags, it was very cold. We awoke to the first official day of the festival, with two polo matches scheduled. After a breakfast of hot bread dunked in local honey we headed down to the polo field and joined the crowd of supporters. Watching the game start was exciting, with the players racing their horses down the field. The players ride beautifully and ruthlessly, the game here in Northern Pakistan is played with no referee. We cheered for every goal and everytime a player made contact with the ball. Half way through the game a horse made a sharp turn and his leg snapped, his rider was flung off and the poor horse shook with pain and fear. The game was stopped and the horse carried away in a small truck, we found out later that he would be euthanised. It was a wake up call to how dangerous the game actually was. In the afternoon game a horse crashed into the side barriers and threw his rider about 10 feet through the air into the crowd, this time the rider was carried away on a stretcher. During most of the game a band plays music from the stands, and at halftime they head down to the field with dancers. Spectators throw themselves onto the field to join in on the dancing, even the soldiers showed off their moves. In between the two games people pack into tents for drinking, eating, music and dancing. The atmosphere is joyful and friendly and foreigners are given a tremendous welcome. At the halfway mark of the second game, winds started to pick up and clouds of dust rose up through the valley. When the rain began we raced back to our tent only to find its staff holding onto it desperately in an attempt to keep it from blowing away. As more of the tents inhabitants appeared, we all began to grab onto random tent poles and hold on with all our strength as the wind whipped through the tent. After about an hour, the wind died down and the tent was safe. The weather never really got better though, it rained for the rest of the day, soaking the walls of our tent and keeping the cultural shows from being held. We had a cold night, with little to no sleep. We were leaving just as the festival was getting exciting and more and more people were arriving, but we had experienced a full day of polo and we didn't really have the time to stay longer. We waited all morning for the bus coming from Chitral to show up, and finally accepted a ride in a small car from two men. The driver didn't speak any English and his friend spoke almost none, but they had driven over 40 hours up to the pass with no warm clothes, had frozen through the night and then decided they were going home, without even having seen a polo match. Our driver was calm and cautious which was not the case with his friend, who smoked hash and sang at the top of his lungs for most of the 10 hour ride. He also jokingly made Yann swear not to cut off his beard, because it made Allah happy, and we wouldn't want to make Allah unhappy would we? We had two flat tires and multiple tea breaks but we made it to Gilgit before dark, which was quite a feat. We seemed to have made our two carmates extremely happy, we had somehow justified their long journey to Shandur, they hadn't seen any polo, but they had spent an entire day with three foreigners, including two women if that's not worth 80 hours of driving on shitty roads, I don't know what it.