30 March 2002
The Times of India
Inside Northern Areas IV
CHINESE OPERATORS, MISSING WOMEN AND TOURISTS
Times of India News Service
GILGIT: During and after the Kargil war, the Pakistani government clung to the myth that the men who intruded into India were 'mujahideen' and not soldiers. The deaths of Northern Light Infantry (NLI) soldiers from the Skardu region were not acknowledged at the time and led to much bitterness here. Three years on, however, the Pakistani army appears to have owned the sacrifices of its men. "Three hundred of our boys died at Kargil", said one shopkeeper, "but they have all since been honoured for their bravery". A monument to the Pakistani dead has been built in the middle of town. Rather than anger, the feeling of ordinary people in Skardu is one of pride and even hubris. "Nawaz Sharif should never have agreed to withdraw our forces", said one young man. "We would certainly have liberated the whole of Kashmir".
The current military stand-off between India and Pakistan is taking its toll on tourism in the entire Gilgit-Baltistan region. Home to several 8,000-metre high peaks such as K-2, Nanga Parbat and Gasherbrum I and II, the area is second only to Nepal in popularity with international mountaineering expeditions. This year, however, according to hoteliers in Skardu, thanks to the border build-up and the Afghanistan situation, the numbers are down dramatically. "We have been informed by the authorities in Islamabad that only 30 mountaineering expeditions have expressed interest and 16 have bought their licenses."
Last year, some 86 expeditions passed through. The tourism ministry has reduced its 'peak royalty' by 50 per cent but despite that, mountaineers aren't biting.
Although China is just a five hour drive up the Karakoram Highway, Gilgit is surprisingly devoid of things Chinese. The one exception is the town's telephone exchange. Made in China, the exchange comes complete with telephone manners that reflect, shall we say, the authoritarian streak of its country of origin.
In India, dialling a wrong number prompts the operator to say, 'This telephone number does not exist'. In Pakistan, the operator says, 'The number you desire is not correct'.
But in Gilgit, the same indiscretion leads to an automated operator barking out in Chinese-accented English, "The callee has no right to receive this call".
Not even in Kabul at the height of Taliban rule were women so invisible as they are in Skardu. Though they were not allowed to work, women could at least go shopping provided they were burqa clad. In Skardu, however, local women simply do not venture out on the streets. The men here are so fiercely conservative, said a local official, "that they would rather do the women's work of buying vegetables than let their wives be seen shopping". "But what about clothes?" I asked a salesman sitting in front of huge bales of feminine-looking fabric. "What is the problem? The husbands buy whatever cloth they like and give it to their wives," he said. But he added that some men have started taking a few samples home first so that their wife can choose.