In October 2000, I crossed the soaring and snow-swept Khunjerab Pass connecting China and Pakistan at a height of some 4,600 metres and descended, through numerous stomach-churning switchbacks and around the odd road-blocking rockfall, into the apricot groves of Pakistan’s Hunza Valley and some of the most beautiful landscape in the world.
What followed was a glorious month in Pakistan, mostly in the north and west of the country. The Taliban were entrenched in next-door Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s Tribal Areas were full of sympathizers, as well as some three million Afghans who had fled the Taliban’s cruelty and attendant chaos. But even so, my memories of that trip are almost uniformly pleasant.
One of my favourite places was Swat, a lush valley I first glimpsed from the roof of an overcrowded minivan on which my traveling companion and I had caught a lift. We spent several days there in a guesthouse beside a trout-filled stream and surrounded by trees that grew fruit of a kind I haven’t encountered since – bright orange, spongy and sweet. The owner hadn’t had customers in ages and treated us well. Now, when I read stories from Swat like this one, it breaks my goddamned heart.