Not long ago at a Sydney Writer’s Festival, I attended a discussion with Michelle de Kretser whose book Questions of Travel explores the travel phenomenon in a world where today millions of people are criss-crossing the planet like ants.
Asked by the moderator to define the difference between a ‘tourist and a traveler’, the award-winning author offered all sorts of theses ranging from people taking genuine holidays to those forced to uproot themselves, as in the case of refugees.
In between these extremes she said, are people traveling to seek work, to visit relatives and for medical reasons but she omitted — what is to me the essential difference between a tourist and traveler — which is time.
Having no rigid itinerary or set destination, the traveler meanders rather like old man river, engaging with local citizens and absorbing local culture.
Slow travel while not necessarily the nine months Robyn Davidson took to cross Australia by camel and clearly not the thirty-five years taken by the 14th century Berber Ibn Batutta to travel between his native Tangiers and Quanzhou in China — is the only way to savor foreign lands.
People hurtling through a dozen and one countries taking selfies on their smart phones are tourists. Having booked a holiday, they know exactly when and from where they will return home, often having had no contact with locals except in hotels where the staff as likely as not are migrants from a different country.
For me slow travel has always had priority over the must-see attractions rated on Trip Advisor or the recommendations by made by travel writers in articles answerable to advertising.
I think Elizabeth Bishop nails it in a line from her poem Questions of Travel (published in 1956) whose title Ms de Krester chose for her novel.
“But surely it would have been a pity/ not to have seen the trees along this road …”
Hunza, the ‘Apricot Capital of Pakistan,’ lies in an amphitheatre of snow-capped peaks, 90 kilometres (62 miles) north of Gilgit in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. My interest in visiting the valley was to investigate its reputation as a sort of Shangri-La where people are said to have discovered the elixir of life.
‘The people are Ismaili Muslims. Their capital, Karimabad, is named after the Ismaili spiritual leader Prince Karim, the Aga Khan,’ said my guide, Riaz Khan, whose uncle was the last thum (ruler) of Hunza.
Karimabad’s grey-rock houses seemed to be stuck on the mountainside with super-glue and unlike the A-frame architecture of alpine resorts, their roofs were flat for drying millet, corn and apricots. More recently it has become a popular base for trekking with many hotels, but at this time there was a single guest-house with no heating and the taps were frozen.
‘I must wash.’ I mimed the action to the bearer-wallah who went outside and returned with a bucket filled from the dripping glacier. Dinner was equally spartan: potato curry and parathawashed down with “Hunza Water”, a mildly alcoholic beverage that locals brew from fermented mulberries.
I awoke to mists drifting up from the valley and people wrapped in blankets pattering along to their fields. A shepherd playing a flute walked past and stumbling up the rocky path I spied a tiny old woman carrying tins of sloshing water. Taking them, I nodded for her to lead the way and while puzzled by this unexpected gesture, she continued climbing up to her stone house facing the icy tooth of Mount Rakaposhi 5,800 metre (19,029 feet) across the valley.
Invited in, I noted her possessions: a bed-roll, a white china cup, an enamel plate of apricots, and pinned on a wall a picture of Tower Bridge from a 1967 London transport calendar. Squatting on her heels in ill-fitting shoes, she cheerfully responded to my questions, via a bright-eyed boy who’d popped in on his way to school.
‘She live up in summer and down in winter. All Karimabad move up-down, or down-up, on same day,’ he said, skipping off.
Suddenly he was back. ‘Where is your husband?’ he asked bossily.
A toothless 104 years old, the lady was a member of the Hunza Centenarians Club. Having no contact with the outside world, she was unaware that eleven years before, man had walked on the moon. Or that Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto the prime minister of Pakistan, had been recently hanged by General Zia al-Haq in Rawalpindi.
By 10 am Riaz had located a dozen people, each one more than one hundred years old including one woman who said she was 310. She directed us to a house where rosy-cheeked elders were seated on a carpet drinking tea from a rose-patterned thermos flask. One wrinkled faced man, his blue eyes twinkling, wanted to know how old I thought he was.
‘That’s Wazir Ali Murad, aged 108, the oldest man in Karimabad,’ Riaz whispered.
‘I’ve heard their longevity is linked to a diet that includes lots of apricots. Another theory suggests it might be particles of gold in the water. Can you ask?’ I whispered back.
After a brief exchange in Burushaski, the isolated language of the northern agencies, Wazir Murad fired back a response.
‘Our great age is because we are cut off from urban life. But the new highway is changing things. It’s our custom to offer apricots to visitors, but now the tourists want to pay us. And our young men are returning from this place called Dubai with new ideas. Why do I need a radio? I’ve lived one hundred years without hearing the news.’
More old people entered the room. Seven of us were now seated on the carpet drinking salted tea. A girl carried in chunks of corn bread spread with yak butter and apricot jam and Begum Mehrab, the only woman, passed around a plate of walnuts.
‘Wazir Murad is the oldest man and the others are 92, 100, 101 and 102,’ said Riaz of each man in turn.
I’d suddenly felt uncomfortable at discussing age, and suggested that Riaz might invite them to guess my own. ‘Very young, about twenty-five’, smiled the Wazir, putting an arm around my shoulder.
The 101 year old gentleman who was wearing a fine cream cloak, guessed I might be thirty, but peering into my face, Begum Mehrab declared I was thirty-five. Announcing that I’d turned thirty-nine the previous week brought mutterings of disbelief, but learning I was single caused murmurs of consternation, followed by a respectful silence at such misfortune. More walnuts were passed around and several women, wearing the embroidered Hunza cap, popped their heads around the door to stare at me.
‘Women in Hunza work much harder than the men,’ explained Riaz as we walked down to our jeep. ‘They must carry water, fetch wood, cook and help with the harvest. I don’t think you’d like the life.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘Because the Wazir has requested I tell you he’s looking for another wife.’
‘I’m a plains person,’ I said and picking up a stone, I hurled it into the Hunza River …