..It was the first of many remarks that Sid made yesterday on the phone in relation to the situation in Pakistan. The general tenor of the comment was not particularly surprising. You don’t need to be a genius to know that things in Pakistan aren’t good. What I was looking for from Sid were specific details about the part of the country I would be going to. He confirmed what has been told to me all along: that it is not the region around K2 itself that is the problem. It is getting there. I wanted to know how much of a risk it was – I wanted to know about the Karakoram Highway (KKH) and the flights to Skardu. In short, this is what he told me:
There are daily ambushes of military convoys and commercial vehicles along the KKH. Basically the Taliban is taking pot shots at these vehicles and while there are vehicles that pass through without problems, you definitely don’t want to get caught up with the ones who are. Sid’s family, who is in SWAT valley, has a trucking business whose vehicles navigate the highway everyday. On average, he says they lose one truck per day – not necessarily drivers – and that if you are anywhere near an army convoy an attack is about 40% more guaranteed. Basically they are doing anything and everything to make commercial life miserable along the route. The region is rapidly destabilizing. He said it has not deteriorated to the point where they are stopping vehicles, checking passports and taking hostages, but if we did happen to be stopped I would be a target. He said somewhat apologetically that it would be a different story if I weren’t so white.
Now to the planes: our plan is to fly from Islamabad to Skardu in the Gilgit-Baltistan province – if the weather was bad, the flight would most likely be grounded and we would be forced to take the overland route along the highway. Sid said that by taking the plane, issues of safety and security would improve by about 80%. The problem with that scenario is the weather. Since we changed our dates, we are now arriving towards the beginning of the rainy season when there is a greater chance of big storms. Big storms + high mountains + airplanes = trouble. So the chance is fairly high that we would be taking the highway. Ahsan said as much in our conversation the other day. I have also since learned that internal flights within Pakistan are not very safe or reliable in and of themselves.
So the alternatives: Sid said that the best alternative would be to enter from the India side over the line of control (where tensions are also high) and thought that security on that route would be about 60% better than the KKH. There was also the discussion of the benefits in knowing people in the military and consulates and how influential those connections would be in case of trouble. The response was that connections are always good to have, but the situations are so unpredictable that it might not matter. His very clear message was that now is most definitely not the time to be taking discretionary trips to Pakistan.