The previous year’s somewhat bizarre route to India passing through Pakistan gave me ideas on Pakistan as a destination. Although teaching has the considerable benefit of long summer holidays, these fall right in the middle of the Indian continent’s monsoon season. Much of the western Himalayas are drenched during the summer months and I had already used up the option of crossing into the rain shadow in my trip to Ladhak. The Karakorum Mountains appealed.
It looked relatively straightforward to fly to the north of Pakistan right into the middle of the Karakorum Mountains. Scheduled flights operated from Islamabad to both Gilgit and Skardu. Returning again to Rawalpindi, I was soon in possession of a ticket to Skardu, the closest I could get to the giant of the Karakorum, K2. This, the second highest mountain in the word, is rated as a more challenging climb that Everest. (I should mention here that my aim was merely to walk in the area.) My hopes were dashed when I found my flight was cancelled. Cancellation due to poor weather conditions is not surprising for flights taking place amongst the highest mountains in the world, particularly on the edge of the monsoon.
There was no alternative but to take the bus to Gilgit via Besham. Despite the questionable state of the roads, the driver and the hours he was driving, there are advantages. The scenery over the entire stretch of the Karakorum Highway is quite magnificent.
In 1984 the road was unsealed and wound its way up the mountains, following the paths of foaming rivers. For much of the way the views were on one side sheer rock and the other deep gorges, often perilously close. The buses were built on a truck chassis rather than softly sprung modern coaches and while this may have improved the road holding, it meant a rough ride for the passengers, packed in with seats so densely packed that they made aircraft seating feel spacious. With a tight schedule to keep and no break over many hours, the drivers slammed through the gears and slew the buses round corners, often blind to the possibility of oncoming traffic. They were also mechanics, adept at changing one bald tyre for another that showed a little less canvass or swapping over a leaking brake cylinder. In all my journeys in both India and Pakistan not once did I see a new component fitted.
At one point we stopped and all the passengers disembarked. There was no tea shop and it wasn’t prayer time. All assembled on the side of the road in near silence, some pointing down into the ravine. The subject of interest became clear. Peering over the edge of the abyss I could see pieces of plywood scattered on the rocks, then a shoe, some clothing, and finally the back axle of a bus way down in the river below. It was clear that a bus had recently gone over the edge. To me this was a salutary reminder of the risks involved in the journey. At this stage there was no alternative but to press on, but at least the driver would have shared some of the shock of the sight and the warning of the risks. Surely he must now ease off, aware of his responsibilities to his valuable cargo. That was not to be. We set off at the same pace, slamming the gears and sliding round the corners. There was not a peep from the passengers who had obviously full faith in our driver’s competence, or just full faith. I quizzed my fellow passenger, a retired army officer. The answer came. ‘We will go over the edge if Allah wills it.’
We arrived safely
Karimabad is the capital of the Hunza Valley; a small town, little more than an extended village. Its setting is stunning, on the edge of the Hunza Valley, backed by the vast mountains of the Karakorum Range. The highest in the area is Rakaposhi , at 7788m. But it is not the height of the mountains which sets this area apart from other mountains, but the vast range encompassed in the vista. One’s eye settles on the rushing torrent in the valley below. Then it’s up to the golden barley fields through the rich green orchards of apricot. Above these are the bare rock and scree slopes of the mountain backdrop, finally capped with the glaring white of the ice fields.
After wandering what little there was of the town it was time to get into the mountains. The valleys are a maze of irrigation channels watering the barley fields and the orchards of apricots, apples and mulberries. The steeper mountainsides are not without value to farmers. In my UK home, such areas are associated with a harsh climate, offering little in the way of agricultural opportunities. By contrast, in hot, arid counties the impact of the altitude is to produce more rain and in these warm conditions pockets of intense growth of vegetation. This results in farmers shifting their sheep and goats around these patches during the summer months. They frequently stay with their flocks in the high pastures during these months, moving to the valleys only in the winter. As a result there is a good system of pathways all over the lower reaches of the mountains.
My first hike in the area took me up into the mountainous region behind Karimabad. On my way up the valley, I met a young boy who explained that he was going to visit his uncle staying in a cave minding his herd. Despite his youth, it seemed safe to continue walking with him as he knew the way to his uncle’s summer home. The walk took me to beautiful spot where I was able to pitch my tent. Nearby, the boy’s uncle had had his home in a shallow cave.
The boy explained that the next day, his uncle was going up to some higher pastures to collect a flock. As the uncle spoke no English the boy translated and explained that he was happy for us to accompany him. This seemed a great opportunity but I had one nagging worry. Could I keep up with a man who spent his life roaming the mountains? It was vital I went as light weight as possible. Water and camera was all I would require.
We set off early in the morning. Like a mountain goat the old man bound up the faint tracks, with the boy and me puffing behind. The scenery was overwhelming. Above, razor sharp peaks with the bulk of Rakaposhi beyond; below, the long line of a glacier with the green Hunza valley in the distance.
The tranquillity was shattered by a sudden and enormous bang followed by a series of crashes. In several directions snow, ice and rock cascaded from the tops. The boy screamed ‘The mountain is coming down’. Although we were in a bowl surrounded by peaks, we were fortunately on a small promontory which remained safe from the onslaught around. The roaring and echoing round the valley quite quickly died down and all returned to its original peaceful state.
It was by now late afternoon. The shepherd had gathered up his flock and we were about to return. But we didn’t. After some discussion, the boy explained that his uncle had indicated that we would have to stay there for the night. As far as I was concerned, this was totally out of the question; a prospect not even worth thinking about. I passed the message back via my interpreter. It was met with a grunt. I explained to the boy that we would of course freeze to death. The old man with his coat may survive, but what about us? He wouldn’t budge. The route up was quite complicated and by the time this had all been negotiated the sun was setting. The Boy Scout motto ‘be prepared’ flashed through my brain. The mountain craft early lessons in equipping for all eventualities rolled over and over in my mind. But that’s different. This was a simple jaunt, a stroll in the mountains, a wander up a hill. Who was I kidding; sheer incompetence.
The sun set and the temperature started to fall. The old man bustled around and picked up odd bits of detritus left behind by a climbing group who had used this area as a base camp. He burnt the rubbish then settled down to sleep on the rock he had warmed up. What then followed was a piece of sheer genius. He gathered sheep around him and snuggled up to them to sleep. Before doing so however he took a drink from one of the ewes. She seems perfectly happy and clearly familiar this approach to human nutrition. Neither I nor the boy had these skills. The sheep scattered as soon as either of us came near them in an attempt to gain a little warmth let alone quenching thirst.
It was a long night, hour after hour, willing the sky to turn orange, and resenting the old man sound asleep in his fleece abode. Needless to say, neither I nor the boy had perished and dawn came as a beautiful unfolding of the white caps of the mountains.
The old man awoke from his dreams, gathered his flock and we set off, still none the wiser about the overnight stay. Coming over a ridge, all became clear. As small stream we had crossed on the way up had been turned into a deep v-shaped valley. Scattered around were boulders the size of the average living room. I subsequently learned what had happened.
Water often flows under a glacier. The outflow of this water can become blocked and as a result a substantial reservoir builds up. Eventually with the melting at the snout of the glacier, the damn bursts and the reservoir disgorges its contents, water, boulders and ice into the valley creating avalanches and rock falls. This is clearly what had happened the previous day. The old man in his wisdom realised that it would be quite impossible to cross the raging torrent of water, ice and rock. During the night, the flow would have diminished with the reservoir emptying and much of the water freezing. It would then be possible to cross and return to the cave or in my case to my tent.
The area between Karimabad and Passu a little way to the north offers plenty of day walks. Many of the paths are well maintained with origins dating back to a time when the area was a passageway between the Takla Makan deserts in what is now Xinjiang Province to the riches of the Indus Valley. My maps were hand drawn by the guest house owner of Passu. One of the greatest challenges is carrying sufficient water as all too often the paths lead tantalisingly close to rivers which are completely inaccessible and carry water that is thick with rock debris. Much of the water in villages looks more like aluminium paint with the abundance of mica from the surrounding rocks and melt water. Although many of the villagers believed the mica accounted for the famed longevity of the local population, it seemed to me more of an irritant to the digestive system.
Some of the routes suggested by locals were a little too challenging as one which led me to attempt a crossing of the Passu glacier; an enormous glacier, the surface of which is covered with rubble from the surrounding peaks. During the day it feels alive, with intermittent rumbles as rocks tumble into the open crevasses and a constant roar of water as it flowers beneath the ices and gushes from the snout.
It was on my attempted return flight that I became acutely aware of the daily what I would call ‘soft’ corruption that was taking place in Pakistan. Having suffered a cancellation due to weather conditions on my way to the Northern Territories, I was determined to fly out, so I went to book a ticket at the local office. It was explained that as a result of the unpredictable weather conditions tickets would not be sold in advance but on a first come basis on the morning of the flight. I duly arrived, first in the queue the next morning. I was told to wait. Others joined me and a small queue formed. Shortly before the time of the plane’s departure a smartly dressed woman arrived in a chauffeur driven car. She swept past those waiting and into the departure area. One after another other, men and women, couples and individuals, similarly passed unimpeded. When I asked how these people had obtained tickets I was assured there would be room. There was not. Not one of the passengers who had waited to obtained tickets as was requested got a seat on the plane. What was particularly disconcerting was the lack of complaints from other passengers. This seemed to be the normal state of affairs. I question whether this is still the situation.
To add to the problem, the severe weather had brought down a vital bridge on the road out. Given the strategic importance of the road, the army had replaced it within a couple of days. A few days in Gilgit were well rewarded.