In Besham, I was tempted to take an one- or two-day excursion to the nearby Dubair and Swat Valleys, known for their lush terrace fields and fresh mountain streams. However, I had to carry out my strategy - pushing myself to the end, then coming back to visit any points of interest depending upon the time available.
The NATCO bus left for Gilgit at 07h00. By the time I found the bus stand, the bus had already departed.
Besham in the morning was alive again. Cooking smoke spread out from every chimney, vendors and shopkeepers started their daily routines. In addition to NATCO, the private, Japanese-made HIACE mini bus also shuttled between Besham and Gilgit twice a day (340km, Rs170), without fixed schedule. A bus operator would drive and scout around the town for passengers in the morning, with non-stop horning. Since I just missed the NATCO bus, I naturally became the first customer. My belonging was uploaded to the bus roof, then I was left sitting in front of a shop while the bus went out of sight for more passengers. It was not my first time to visit an Islamic country, therefore I knew the backpack was safe. How could I gurantee, I thought while sitting in front of the shop waiting perennially, the unconstrained backpack would fall off and become the victim of the extremely bumpy road?
In front of me it was a typical rural Pakistani shop scene. There seemed to be more people who dropped by the shop, sit and chatted with the owner, then those who actually shopped (right). Three hours had passed and there was only a man came and bought a pair of battery of his son's toy gun. The owner patiently installed the batteries, then the gun was passed around for everybody to enjoy. The bus came back again, with my backpack rolling on the roof. This time it had enough passengers. At 10h30 everyone was on board and it appeared ready to roll. Unfortunately, my euphoria apparently came too early. Carrying 19 people, the bus continued driving slowly in the bazaar for half an hour, until a few more people jumped onto the top. Then a handsome young man took the driver seat - he was the driver.
It did not take long for the energetic driver used full throttle to bring HIACE to the cliff-hugging mountain passage that built on the steep gorge cut by the mighty Indus River. If yesterday's accident scene had not convinced me the danger of the highway, this road did. Early afternoon, the passengers were trooped into a restaurant in Komila. When using public transportation, lunch time was the only time one was actually able to take photos. With a little help from the single-eyed waiter, I climbed up to the top of the restaurant to admire the Indus that I had long been hearing but not seeing(left photo). And I didn't forget rewarding him with a photo (below, right).
The temperature continued to rise in the tightly packed HIACE. Sweat started to ooze out from each man's thin shalwar qamiz, and some started to penetrate through my shirt and jeans and mixed with that of my own. I sipped the water bottle occasionally, avoiding dehydration while preventing peeing too often. Gradually, people in the bus started closing their eyes and leaning their heads toward each other. But they seemed to have sixed sense. All of the sudden, when the bus passed a tea stalled by a mountain brook, everyone started to yell for a stop. It was such a cold relief by dipping my hands deep into the icy water. It would be nice to scoop a handful of water to give a relief to my face too. When I was just about to do so, I accidentally glanced a few gentlemen on upstream just standing up behind the rocks, apparently after some activities. Having seen this, I had no choice but to release the scoop. By the time everyone got back to the bus, I become the only one without food on hands. Most people had grapes. It was a Pakistani tradition of hospitality to share food with fellow travelers. As a result, I had more grasps than anyone one in the bus. The quandary was that I saw how the grapes were washed and what was used to washing. But it would be impolite or even offensive to put it anywhere other than my mouth. Fortunately I had enough time in the bus to peel off the skin of each grape.
As the bus heading east, the land had changed gradually from once more greenish mountains to treeless, dryer, more deserted, volcanic feature. The road had never deviate much from the Indus. The driver handled flawlessly, despite the windingness and the minors landslides. Occasionally, particularly near Chila, I had to get out of the bus, go into a tent, and register (and sometimes get passport checked) with name, address etc. I called these 'guest book' since they rarely had any significance. The authority appeared more like road builders than army. Some travelers even made fun of it by giving false names and addresses. The guest was also a good opportunity to see who from which country had taken the route recently.
Nearly 9 hours after departure, the bus finally left the Karakoram Highway and entered the Rajah Bazaar - the main street of Gilgit. At the disembarkment in front of the Skyway Hotel, a man came forward, asked if I like to stay in the Skyway. He didn't looked as unsavory as the one I met in the Karachi Airport. But I had chosen the Taj Hotel recommanded by the Lonely Planet, plus I didn't like the noise in Skyway due to its location. The man didn't insist. He let me to the Taj. It turned out that the noise there wasn't in anyway better, although the rooms (with Indian seats) seemed to be slightly better. The man patiently waited for my check-in. He learned that I needed a NATCO ticket for tomorrow's trip to Karimabad, he took me to the NATCO station. The problem was that the NATCO bus would leave 06h00. The meant I had little time to rest, and to visit PIA office to book a flight. Coming out from the bus station, he waved a jeep of his friend's, drove me to the stop of the private HIACE bus. Seats were plenty for next day, I only needed to come back ten o'clock in the morning. The man had never asked for money since we met. Now I felt that he had done enough help and it was about the time to go back to the hotel. I said goodbye and left Rs200 as gratitude.