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Archive for the ‘Pakistan’ Category

I find it difficult to accept that it’s our penultimate day in Pakistan.  I am pondering the passage of time and lamenting on how three months can pass so quickly. I remember the cheer that erupted in our bus the night we crossed the border with China. Now there is just another 30km to travel before we reach the Indian frontier. Our taxi is old, yellow and rusting but all the windows are working much to my surprise.

Breaking out of Lahore’s choked streets requires scant regard for personal space and a total disregard for safety. Our driver Tahir, despite these prerequisites is an amiable chap. He apologises for his limited English but makes an effort to point out places of historical interest all the same. In order to look after his family he drives long hours, seven days a week. Even during the holidays he has to work. His children often ask him to come home, which saddens him a great deal. But in spite of this he appears a happy man, optimistic and cheerful.

Lahore to Wagha Border

On our way to the Wagha border with India

Our progress is slow and laborious. Tahir creeps forward only inches from the car in front of us. Any gap left is seen as a sign of weakness and filled immediately by another member of the gridlock. We turn onto the legendary Grand Trunk road that runs all the way from Kabul to the Bay of Bengal. Every intersection becomes a tangle of cars, motorbikes, pedestrians and carts all fighting their way forward.

I look out the back window to see a lovely donkey displaying impeccable traffic skills. Head resting on the back of our taxi, his beautiful face looking at me. He seems completely unperturbed by the crush of the traffic around him. He is also keeping a close distance to the rear of our taxi. A truck tries to squeeze in but the donkey is not allowing it and flicks his head. His master seems amused by my interest. If I had a bag of carrots I would gladly get out and give him some. Tahir tells us that donkeys are very strong animals, very good animals, very hard working. I can’t imagine this diligence to labour is proactive or voluntary.

Donkey in traffic

The Tailgating donkey

I roll down the window and try to gage how much longer we might be stuck for. It strikes me how everything looks so different here in the Punjab. The land around us is flat and fertile. It seems incredible to think that a few days ago we were surrounded by mountain vistas and now the only obstructions on the horizon are the chimneys on brick kilns. The women are dressed more liberally and I notice the slipping of the head scarf is not such a concern. They are highly decorated with gold bangles and nose studs, you can see the influence of India in their appearance. I marvel at their ability to sit aside motorbikes while clutching shopping and small babies and how nobody manages to lose a sandal is anybody’s guess! Greg is discussing with Tahir the difference between a mule and a donkey. Tahir keen to improve his English asks him to type mule into his mobile phone. He then spends the next few kilometres pointing out each animal to confirm his understanding.

Tahir our kind taxi man

Tahir our kind taxi man

The Wagha border is pumping with patriotic music when we arrive. Very few words other than Pakistan are in the chorus or indeed the verse. The crowd young and old are waving the national flag and dancing with passion and commitment. It’s all about ensuring that the Indians on the other side of the gate understand who is more loyal to their nation. Pakistanis from all over the country travel to the border to show their support and catch a glimpse of India.

Border ceremony India Pakistan

A drummer and two men of considerable girth dressed in green shirts and white pants whip the crowd into jingoistic jubilation. A young boy urged on by his mother joins them and dances much to the approval of the men in the stands. He looks to have been influenced by Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson.

High kick at the India Pakistan border

High kicking at the India Pakistan border

The music subsides, the drums stop. A single bugle heralds the start. The first of the ceremonial guards from the Pakistan Rangers Division emerges like a gladiator into the colosseum. The crowd is pleased by their champion. He pauses to receive their adulation before being followed by another ten. It’s clear they have all been selected for their ability to menace. Standing well over 6 and a half feet, every opportunity has been taken to accentuate their height, including a little extra heel on their boots. The rangers are dressed in dark green tunics with red and white flashes. Their vast chests are adorned with an impressive display of medals. The look exudes total macho. Their counterparts in India wear traditional Khaki uniforms and are much smaller in size. Even the red and gold fans atop their hats cannot compensate. They appear less sinister but ready to do combat.

Pakistan India border ceremony

The ceremony begins with goose stepping and leg kicking that would put a can-can dancer from the Moulin Rouge to shame. The Indians reply with evil stares and pointed thumbs. Each side takes its turn to display contempt for one another. The rangers shake their heads and puff their chests. They march back and forth like large green rosters, stamping the ground with tremendous force.

The crowd on both sides are cheering loudly urging their champions on. A lady sitting next me inquires, where are you from? I tell her Australia. And how you like Pakistan? She asks with a searching look. I tell her that I love Pakistan and this is why I am cheering for her country today. Delighted to hear this she responds… Why not, you are welcome.

India Pakistan Border

A death stare stand off

With every chant I close my eyes and think of all the people who have come into our life over the past three months. From our very first day when we spent 12 hours crossing the Kunjerab Pass to Tahir the taxi driver who took us to the border. Emotion wells up as I think of the great times we had with Habib, Nasir and Amin. The support and friendship of Rehan, Tahereh, Mr Yaqoob and Irfan. The young guy who paid for a taxi once and whose name I can’t recall. I cheer passionately for this country, for what it has given me. Lasting memories of people with nothing but open hearts and generosity. I retrace our journey in my mind. It has taken so much to get here, at this moment I don’t want to leave Pakistan. I’m excited about returning to India, but my heart feels heavy at the thought of crossing through that gate. I know I have to let what has been our life here become a memory. Tomorrow I must let that balloon go and watch it float away, but right now it feels impossible to do so.

I open my eyes to see the man in green waving the Pakistan Flag in front of me. The roar of the crowd lifts my spirits. A part of me shall always be here and I will take a part of Pakistan with me.

I will be back again… Insha Allah

Pakistan Ranger

Come on…smile

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The Machulu La

The days are getting noticeably shorter now in Pakistan. Most of the valleys only spend a short time in the sun. The high mountains cast a shadow by mid-afternoon. The officer who patrols the green suspension bridge halfway between Skardu and Khaplu seems somewhat surprised to see us again. I disembark in fading light and take a seat on one of the plastic chairs.

Unlike a few days ago, I am feeling confident and relaxed. We now have the security of our passports and extended visas. I present them both to the officer with pride. He flicks through the pages seemingly unimpressed and then enquires as to whether we have a guide. I feel like a student who has completed all his homework; an emotion I seldom experienced at school. Habib and Amin get off the bus and stride over like two body guards. I actually have two guides. The officer smiles, he is pleased.

autumn in muchulo

Its night when we reach Khaplu. Amin starts negotiations for a car to take us to his home village of Machulu. Habib tells us that the driver wants 15,000 PKR which is about $150.00. It’s dark and getting late but the price is totally unacceptable. Amin seems a little surprised that we consider the offer too high. We tell them that… if this is the case we can all go stay in the Khaplu palace and travel the next morning. I can’t be sure how (even to this day) but there has been a mix up. The driver actually wants 1500 PKR. Amin looks relieved and is now smiling. Before we head to Machulu we take dinner in a local restaurant. It turns out to be one of the tastiest meals we have had. A lamb stew with potatoes served with grilled chicken, yoghurt and fresh naan bread that is warm and crunchy. The total cost for the 4 of us is just under 700 PKR or around $7.00 USD including a bottle of coke.

autumn in pakistan

The drive to Machulu takes just over an hour from Khaplu. Our car is weighed down by all the supplies we are carrying for our next trek. The journey is slow and takes just over an hour to cover 10km. When we reach Machulu we are greeted in the dark by one of Amin’s friends. A local school teacher who has kindly allowed us to sleep in his house.

The next morning we are making preparations for our trek up the Machulu la. It will take 3-4 days to reach the top of the pass and return back to Machulu. If the weather is kind we will get good views of K2. The trek has been described as an easy way to see K2 but it’s an ill-founded description. There is no shade and no respite from the steep barren slopes that lead up to the pass. The gradient in places requires you to lean forward and not look ahead should your heart break. The first day is short only 3.5 hours until we reach a collection of shepherd’s huts. The second day starts with a cruel climb up a gulley before turning left and getting steeper. You can see all the way to the top. It stops you in your tracks and you begin to reconsider why you are here. There is no relief, no reference of hope ahead just a continuous grind.

Climbing Machulu La

Day 1 Machulu la

We reach the high camp, again in just under four taxing hours. I feel completely spent and exhausted. The sudden rise in altitude and strong sun is giving me a terrible headache. I lie on the slope imagining just how hard this would be in the summer. Emma seems to be in better spirits than I and even considers continuing up to the top for sunset views. I wave my hand and then let is flop down beside me. It takes considerable effort to get up and erect the tent. I can’t help but to feel sad as it’s the last time we shall use it on our trip. I think about how we were so excited when we first used it back in Namibia. Amin comes over to help. I pull out the ground sheet that is still covered in dust from Kenya. He takes the opportunity to discuss relationships in western society. In particular I dispel the notion that men and women are free to date other people when married. I notice that his English is much better when we speak one on one.

Muchulu la

Em and Habib sunset day 2

That night we sit around a small fire, it is already bitterly cold. The stars are back out in the millions. I have begun calling Emma the Memsahib which amuses Habib and particularly Amin who laughs loudly and takes great delight in using the term himself. Memsahib is warm enough, Memsahib would like some more chai. It was a term used as a mark of respect for European ladies in colonial India, a little politically incorrect, but among friends it’s just our funny way of calling Emma the boss. After dinner Amin decides to pursue his task in convincing us to have children. His voice and manner in speaking are disarming. I attempt to deflect his soft reprimands with the notion that it will surely happen if it is God’s will. Habib is laughing, so I try to turn the tables on him by offering his non marital status up as an area of greater concern. Amin pauses for a moment unperturbed and then just continues to appraise the virtues of children in that slow croaky voice.

Dinner with the memsahib

Dinner with the memsahib

Its morning on day 3 and I wake feeling rejuvenated and ready. The top of the pass is only 500 meters away but the gradient above rises in parts to over 45 degrees. We zigzag our way up the cold slope in just under 1.5 hours. We can see Broad peak, Gasherbrum 1 and 2 and the mighty K2 all over 8000m in height. The sun is shining on the Abruzzi ridge. Even from over 40km away, K2 dominates all the other mountains around us. We have been very lucky with the weather, although I would say that early October is an excellent time to do this trek.

top of Machulu la

Habib at the top

Going up is hard on the lungs but descending such a steep slope is torture on your legs. The high camp is just a spec below us. The surface is lose and the small stones and pebbles make for a slow and slippery descent. Amin on the other hand is able to run down the hill with a long stick held behind him like a rudder. He leans back on it to stop himself from slipping. Its am impressive display of speed and balance. He covers in 30 seconds a distance that will take us closer to 5 minutes. It takes about 45 minutes to get down from the pass. We have some chai before packing up the tent.

K2 from Machulu la

K2

With us are two porters. A teenage boy who is 16 years and much older man in his mid to late 50’s. The older man has been carrying twice the weight of his young companion and is still putting him to shame. We continue down trying not to slip as best we can. By the time we reach camp 1 our legs are aching, but it’s only around 1pm so we continue onto Machulu. I know it’s going to drag out and take longer than we expect, but the lure of a cold bucket shower and a thin mattress with clean bedding is a prospect worth continuing for.

A long way down

A long way down

The young guy is beginning to suffer and falls behind. The dull ache in my thighs has been replaced with severe burn. I can feel nerve endings being plucked and pulled like guitar strings. The pain shoots up into my hips and my legs start to cramp. There is nowhere flat to stand, no rest ahead. As we approach the village I notice Emma going into the late stages of exhaustion. She has become very quiet and focused. We have now been resisting the relentless pull of gravity for over 6 hours. The gradient eases slightly as we enter the village a blessed relief.

Muchulu village

Muchulu village

Small children begin to encircle us chanting… Anglais mimo foto tek. I feel like I am in a scene from Lord of the flies. As it turns out they are singing… English mother photo take. We reach the schoolmasters house and waste no time is removing our boots, peeling off our sweaty socks and collapsing on the floor. The old porter who has carried 25kg looks by contrast remarkably fresh. I admire his constitution. The teen has fallen behind and is in a similar condition to ourselves just with an extra 15kg. Amin goes back to pick up the adolescent pieces.

I walk the village is search of a drink. It’s either cold water or warm Mountain Dew. I take the warm soft drink and guzzle down as much as I can. Twenty minutes later Amin arrives with the broken boy in tow. He look more relieved than I to be back in the village.

Home in Muchulu

Amin’s Home in Muchulu

Later that night Amin makes us all a tasty meal of Potatoes and rice. He humbly apologises for not being able to offer us any meat which we refute. He has done so much for us already. As a last course he brings out, much to our surprise a large crème caramel. It is outstandingly good and would be worthy of any restaurant in Sydney and perhaps even Paris. We handout some presents for his six children. Some red and gold bangles for his two eldest daughters, a talking battery operated parrot that is sure to drive him mad and a small tank with flashing lights for his son. Last but not least some plastic blocks for his baby twins. They all come in one by one to receive them and graciously take them away. Amin tells us we have brought many presents. That is because you have many children. I think Amin sees an opportunity to kindly lecture us again but gets distracted by Habib laughing.

The children in Machulu

The children in Machulu

It has been great to reunite for another trek. We just had to see K2 again, and being with Amin and Habib was an extra bonus we had not expected. Habib now has to travel back to Gilgit and leaves early.

Proud dad

Proud dad

We linger a little longer in Machulu with Amin before bidding him goodbye. His eyes are a little glassy when we leave. He is such a wonderful man, kind and loved in his village. We give him a hug, his body is as hard as steel but he has a soft heart. He looks at me and says exactly what he said four years ago

Don’t forget me…

We drive away with a lump in our throats. I can feel my eyes tingling a little. It’s impossible not to look back and all I can think about is stopping the car and turning around.

 

 

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Help is never far away in Pakistan and this morning is no exception. As it turns out the bus to Khaplu does not depart from the central stand, but a man with limited English points us down the road. He must sense our confusion and hails a taxi, helps load our bags and then gets in the front seat. A few minutes later we stop outside the entrance to an alley at the eastern end of the bazaar. It’s so non-descript I doubt we could have found it on our own. I give the man who has helped us 200 PKR, about 2 USD but he only accepts 100 for the taxi before placing his hand on his heart and bidding us farewell.

Pakistan truck

Leaving Skardu, best trucks in the world

Khaplu is a little under 30km from the infamous line of control. In 1947 when India gained independence and Pakistan separated, both fledging countries claimed Kashmir as their own. They have been locked together in a high altitude stand-off ever since, with neither nation prepared to concede and agree on a permanent international border. With escalating tension due to recent insurgent activities, parts of the valley have become restricted. I am feeling somewhat apprehensive about our chances of reaching Khaplu considering we only have photocopied passports, no guide, no permits  and a visa due to expire in three days.

 

Khaplu Bridge to Muchulu

Heading towards the line of control

 

We pass through two checkpoints without being noticed. Sitting in the back corner behind the others passengers we evade the scrutiny of the army, but after crossing a green suspension bridge we are stopped again. Emma pulls her scarf over her head and I pretend to be asleep with my face in my arms. For a few minutes we sit praying we won’t be spotted but then we hear a tap on the window. I am escorted from the bus and told to take a seat in a tent that acts as a makeshift office.

The interrogation is polite but laced with concern and doubt. Photocopied passports and soon to expire visas are not helping the situation. I explain that we have been waiting on our Indian visas for several weeks and our passports are still in Islamabad.  More confusion, more concern. I try to settle the situation by explaining our passports will be returned to Skardu in a few days and we will be extending our visa. We are just passing time in Khaplu while we wait. This is a complete fabrication. In reality we have yet to work out how we will get our passports back and if the office in Skardu will even grant us an extension. He picks up the radio and explains he will seek advice from his supervisor due to unusual circumstances.

What will happen if he says no?

You will be sent back to Skardu and detained!

But we only came to see the Khaplu Palace…

He holds a finger in the air as he speaks into the two way radio. Among the foreign conversation I manage to catch incrementing words and phrases like, no passport, no guide, visa expire, India. Well that sounds promising. Even I begin to doubt my intentions here. I can’t be certain what is said in reply but he reaches for a book and starts entering our details.

Okay, my supervisor has said you can proceed to Khaplu, but you must return in three days and attend to your visa extension in Skardu. If you don’t, you will be detained.

Yes sir, thank you very much, we shall return in three days.

He seems so good natured that I am left wondering how serious his threats of detention actually are. I push my concerns momentarily aside, relieved to have acquired three more days of breathing space. The bus has been waiting for nearly 20 minutes when I return. If the other passengers are annoyed or frustrated they certainly don’t show it. In fact they smile and seem somewhat jubilant that we are allowed to proceed with them. I ponder how my countrymen would react if the situation were to be reversed.

Khaplu Village

Khaplu Village

The streets of Khaplu wind up a gentle slope shaded under green leaves and dappled light. It’s a delightful and enduring village of irregular shaped houses and walls that give way to tree trunks and branches. To the east and across the valley is a vast barrier of stone rising into the clouds. At the top of the village and free of the tree line is the magnificent Khaplu Palace.

Khaplu Palace

The Khaplu Palace

It’s an attractive building similar in design to the Baltit Fort in Hunza. Inside are six wonderfully restored suites. The Manager of the property Mr Abbas is as charming man, warm and welcoming. He insists we are shown all the rooms before checking in. We are directed in particular to the Raja’s suite with its own private terrace and harem room. The main terrace is breathtaking with Arabian arches, Persian carpets and cushions from Kashmir. The ceiling is painted with roses and lit with soft lamps.

 

The beautiful terrace

The beautiful terrace

 

The efforts in reaching here have been rewarded. I stare out across the wild and overgrown grounds that adjoin the palace. It’s like a secret garden with wild flowers and twisted old apple trees. Having been completely overwhelmed we decide to spoil ourselves and take the raja’s suite.

Khaplu Palace room

The Raja’s room

Later that day we receive a call from Irfan in Islamabad. The visatronix office will not give him our passports because our supporting letter has not been stamped. Stamped by whom, what stamp are they talking about?

Irfan passes his phone over and I explain that he has the original collection slips and a signed letter authorising him to collect on our behalf. You are also talking to me on the phone, plus I emailed Mr Zia who confirmed this was sufficient… can you please give him our passports.

The phone goes down, there is some background conversation. Irfan picks up again and lets us know he now has our passports in his possession. I will call you back when I get to Rawalpindi. An hour later Irfan calls from the bus station.

I have found a friend who lives in Gilgit and is taking the bus back tonight. Do you want me to give him your passports?

The future of our journey is now attached to a total stranger. I can hardly believe it has come to this. If they go missing now it’s all over but we have put ourselves into a position where options are limited.

How well do you know him, I feebly ask?

He is the bus driver, I have met him before. We know him

I begin to doubt the definition of friend in Pakistan

I can feel the rush of blood that comes with gambling and hesitate trying to consider choices I don’t have. We go all in, and tell Irfan to hand over the passports to the bus driver from Pakistan. It will take another 24 hours before they arrive in Gilgit and we can be finally sure they are in safe hands.

That night I lie in the Raja’s bed unable to sleep. Emma is of the belief that the Palace might be haunted, but there could be any number of explanations for the odd noises we hear. Certainly the Islamic hymn before sunrise is a beautiful and haunting experience. With perfect pause at the end of each line, it echoes gently off the surrounding mountains. I somehow feel comforted and reassured. Despite the early hour and warm bed, I am pulled to the window. Khaplu sleeps under a black sky filled with an audience of stars. I sit by the window listening to that melancholy call. The air is still. The trees are frozen, there is no movement, no other sound and only once the hymn ends do I feel the morning chill.

Khaplu garden

One of the many beautiful houses in Khaplu

Like any time of anxious wait, the day passes slowly. We go for a walk around the village attracting attention from stray children and goats. Already some of the trees are dressed in autumn colours but the town remains for now mostly green. Steam rises from the fresh earth that is being turned in the fields.

We pass a colourful Mosque that is tightly enclosed by the surrounding houses. It’s difficult to get a good view but we wonder around the tight streets optimistically. A young girl no more than 16 looks alarmed to see me, but then relaxes when she sees Emma. I politely keep my distance while Emma is welcomed with warm curiosity. Emma explains we are trying to see the Mosque. The young girl takes us inside her house and onto the roof where we get a splendid view. A woman in her mid to late 30’s nurses a small child. As it turns out she is the grandmother and our young tour guide is the child’s mother.

Khaplu village

Drying fruits on the roofs

We have travelled far in our journey but have yet to find another place so distant and timeless as these valleys in Kashmir. The scale of the mountains and isolation is captivating. It’s like being in a fairy tale, Sleepy Hollow and Brigadoon. I find myself drifting further away from the world outside, paralysed and unwilling to leave.

Later during my wonderings I come across a dozen or so children playing a game of cricket. They see me and come running. The sun is setting but the umpires seem reluctant to call bad light. I am handed the ball. The young batsman wearing a full Pakistan kit narrows his eyes. I rub the ball on my pants which brings raptures of laugher from the crowd. There is not much room for a run up but I shuffle my feet quickly before releasing a deadly yorker. The little buggar charges me and drives me for six. The crowd is now chanting Pakistan, Pakistan. Australia’s dignity is in grave danger.  The ball is returned and another delivery is despatched to the boundary. The crowd swells and now even little girls are joining in. I decide to come around the wicket and clean bowl him. In a disgraceful act I charge down the pitch shouting and showing him the way to the dressing rooms. The crowd is now chanting Australia. The young lad is clearly a good sport and pats me on the back. I feel a little sad walking away. For thirty minutes in my life I have played with these kids and I will probably never see them again. I can only hope the young boy with the killer drive will one day open for Pakistan in a real test against Australia.

Khaplu Palace Garden

The secret garden

That night we get good news. The passports have arrived in Gilgit and Habib has kindly offered to bring them to Skardu; a bus journey of just over six hours. We make our way back the following morning to meet him. The officer at the checkpoint reminds us that we only have 1 day left on our visa.

The PTDC hotel in Skardu is now deserted. The climbing and trekking season finished weeks ago and now just a handful of local tourists remain wondering its cold corridors. There is a knock on our door, its Habib. He welcomes us warmly, it’s good to see him again after so many weeks. He reaches into his money belt and hands over our passports. It’s the first time we have seen them in just over a month. I flick impatiently through the pages searching for validation and reassurance. The Indian visa is there, we can continue, but we still have the issue of our expiring Pakistan visa.

With just a day left, we go to the Passport office in Skardu which is only a 100 meters east of the PTDC hotel. A three page form is filled in with a letter from the hotel confirming that we are staying with them. The office also requires two passport photos. I ask the officer in charge for 30 days but he seems a little unwilling and offers 20. I politely explain that we want to stay longer and will need a week to make our way to border with India alone. He accepts our request and issues us a 30 day extension. Habib seems surprised as the officer in Gilgit strictly issues 15 day extensions.

It’s a great feeling to have prevailed. The hard work has paid off but we could not have done it without the help of our friends in Pakistan. We owe them greatly for their help and assistance.

Now that we have extra days at our disposal we make plans with Habib to travel further up the valley to even more remote villages. It would be such a shame to leave with the full beauty of autumn now only a few weeks away.

 

 

 

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There is a change coming to the Hunza valley as we ponder our next move. The mornings are crisp and by mid-afternoon the shadows are long and cold. The village is still green but there is just a hint of gold in the leaves. Each day I pass a pink rose. When we first arrived it was in full bloom but now only a few dry and stubborn petals remain. It’s the first change in season we have experienced in over a year. Having crossed the equator back in late May and travelling through the tropics, we missed the southern autumn and winter and went straight to summer again. Now in the north of Pakistan the seasons have finally caught up with us.

Soon the valleys will erupt with autumn colours. Gold, yellow, red and orange. It feels so close that we have to stay but our passports are in Islamabad with only 7 days left on our Pakistan visa. The TCS office will not courier them to us and if we leave to pick them up there is no returning on that dreaded 24 hour bus ride. Irfan (who used to work at the Madina and is a cousin of Habib now lives in Rawalpindi) is happy to help and offers to collect them for us. If we can get them back to Gilgit or Skardu it’s possible we can extend our visas.

We take the risk and in the interim head to the Khaplu Valley via Astor the Deosai Plateau. The town of Astor is not particularly attractive and a little underwhelming when we arrive. In order to cross the Deosai you require a 4WD. The starting price for two days hire is 25,000 PKR or about 250 USD. It’s a ridiculous offer but the driver and his contact sit silently absorbing our feeble protests. We call Nasir on the phone to seek his advice. My mobile is passed to the driver. I can hear Nasir talking loudly, the driver remains very quiet. The phone is passed back and Nasir advises he will take us for 15,000 PKR. We shake hands and try to load our bags in the back but the driver insists on carrying them for us. Once a deal has been struck, its full service.

Astor Valley

The Astor Valley

Before we can leave the local police instruct that we must take a guard. Since the terrorist killings of tourists at Nanga Parbat base camp the local authorities in certain areas have been very strict. Our guard arrives armed with a moustache, machine gun and a nasty habit of hawking and spitting. By the time we leave Astor its late afternoon. Tarashing is only 40km away but the condition of the road reduces us to a crawl. The Jeep has open sides and bad suspension. The light fades and soon we are enveloped in total darkness. We bounce along a deserted black road with two men and a machine gun. Our headlights struggle in the obscure surroundings. I can hear a river somewhere to our left when the guard stops clearing his throat. There are no signs of life ahead not even the smallest flicker of light. The road climbs higher, the night grows colder and the hawking intensifies. This moment was never something I imagined when planning our trip, yet despite hunger and an uneasy feeling, I feel charged and excited.

An hour later and the feeling of excitement has passed. Where are we going? What are we doing? Can this man… just clear his throat… and shut up!

We pass a stone wall and pull into a dark compound. Several men emerge from a gloomy kitchen. I crawl out the side of the jeep, my eyes trying to adjust to the starlight. Surely this can’t be our accommodation. One of the men speaks a little English and takes us upstairs. We inspect the room with a torch which is probably best. We have arrived in Tarashing, a village yet to be connected with electricity. The bed is flat and the blankets smells clean… in the dark.  When I ask about the price the man insists we are his guest. We take a meal of potato curry and rice. They even have some flat mountain dew.

The guard who spits returns with the local commander of police. He insists we are safe and there is no need to worry. We are under his protection. Safe from whom I wonder. Being told not to worry is always a little a little worrying when sat with strange men and candlelight. My mind drifts. I amusingly consider that our driver has Nasir’s number and will know whom to contact for the ransom at least. In reality our hosts are charming and polite gentlemen. Making an effort to reassure us in a language foreign to them for our benefit.

After dinner we retire to our room and lock the door. I fumble through my bag for our iPod. Every time I turn it on, I can’t help but to think of its recovery in Uganda. We listen to a couple of episodes of the Ricky Gervais Show on the portable speaker before falling asleep.

Nanga Parbat Rupal Face

Nanga Parbat Rupal Face over 8000m 9th highest mountain in the world

Tarashing in the morning is less sinister than its cloaked appearance last night. It’s very early but already the towering summit of Nanga Parbat is bathed in sunlight. The Rupal Valley is heavily wooded with pine trees. Young children are already walking down the valley to school. As it turns out guests pay a 1400 PKR for lodgings and dinner?!

Rupal Valley Tarashing

Rupal Valley Tarashing

The distance to Skardu via the Deosai Plateau is only around 180km but it will take at least 8 hours. With this in mind we make an early start but our plans are soon foiled by a truck which is wedged under the cables of a suspension bridge. There is much shouting and arm waving. A metal bar is produced too little effect. In the end the driver dismantles the rear stays on the truck so we all can proceed.

Truck stuck under the Bridge held us up for a while

Truck stuck under the Bridge held us up for a while

At the town of Chilam the police officer who still can’t clear his throat is finally and somewhat gratefully replaced.  The army officer at the checkpoint though is very alarmed that we don’t have original passports and only 5 days left on a photocopied visa. To add to this we don’t have a guide. We assure him that our passports are already in Skardu and that we are travelling to collect them and renew our visa. He seems satisfied and allows us to continue after taking down our details.

Deosai Plateau Pakistan

Climbing up to the Deosai Plateau

The pine trees and livestock thin as we climb higher. The Deosai plains at over 4000m are already in the grip of early winter. The grass and shrubs have turned brown. There is no explosion of colour up here, just a vast and beautiful dead expanse.

The Deosai Plateau  Pakistan

The Deosai Plateau

Crawling over the rocks our jeep stalls and can’t be restarted. Our driver despite his prized leather jacket crawls under to arrest the problem. His attempts are fruitless. We all push so that he can clutch start it but the stones on the road stop us from generating enough speed. We reverse sides and push the jeep back down the hill. It gets wedged on a rock.

Our new guard who does not spit digs it out and we start again. The jeep bounces over the rough rocks, the steering wheel spinning violently in the driver’s hands. At one point I think he is losing control and will bounce over the side but the engine roars into life. I consider our bleak surroundings and the empty road. The sound of internal combustion is music to my ears.

broken down on Deosai Plateau

The breakdown

The weather on the Deosai is becoming grey and grim. The driver closes the side plastic flaps but the cold wind still penetrates our jeep. This is a lonely place that will soon be snowbound for five long winter months. We push on through rain until we finally start our descent. A long series of hairpin bends. A motorbike passes us carrying two pained passengers. They have little protection for where they are going, but they are no doubt much tougher than I.

Pakistan Police

Our protection

It’s miserable and late afternoon when we reach Skardu. The day that started in brilliant sunshine has faded to a gloomy and eerie end. Yet the despite the poor weather these landscapes remain captivating and beautiful. To the west the clouds are clearing a little. The sun’s rays are breaking through. The grey clouds start to glow, the peaks are turning pale rose.

Tomorrow we travel deeper into the valleys of the Karakoram to the village of Khaplu…

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The Hunza valley is approximately three hours north of Gilgit along the Karakoram Highway. Despite the short distance our minivan stops for lunch at a shabby little restaurant next to an alfresco butcher. The tables are dirty, flies are abundant and the smell of meat is overpowering. There is an assortment of legs on the ground with hooves still attached. Hanging from a table are the heads of three unfortunate goats. Next to the legs is a pile of parts that can’t be identified. I survey the macabre scene, my eyes flicking back and forth between the food on the table and its origins. I can’t say this is a typical road side restaurant in Pakistan, but it does seem to be typical of our luck recently. In the end I settle for a can of coke which is consumed some distance away.

Lunch stop Hunza

The Lunch Stop

By the time we reach the settlement of Karimabad the weather has turned nasty. Tall poplar trees bend in the cold wind, their leaves roaring with each gust. The sky is grey but yields only a few heavy drops. Above the village and perched proudly on a rocky outcrop is the Baltit Fort. For over 700 years it has guarded this valley. Its appearance is somewhat Tibetan with Moghul and Middle Eastern influences. Karimabad itself seems more influenced by tourism. The main street is dotted with craft shops and there is even a café, but the tourists are now gone and most of the shops are closed. Behind the fort and partially hidden in the storm is the imposing peak of Ultar 7388m. Its flanks form a circular canyon with a steep narrow entrance and high green pastures.

The Baltit Fort Hunza Valley

The Baltit Fort with Ultar in the background

The Serena Baltit Inn has three tented rooms that are separated from the rest of the hotel. They are very spacious and the bed is by far the best we have slept in since leaving the Old Cataract in Egypt. The views across to the other side of the valley are equally impressive. Rakaposhi dominates, its summit reaching 7788m. Outside is a lovely terrace and beyond a garden of roses and the Hunza Valley. It is a joy to open your door every morning to such a splendour.

Tent Rooms Serena Baltit Inn Hunza

The view from our tent

We have no idea how long it will take before the Indian Consulate will advise us on our visa application. What we do know is that our Pakistan visa will expire in three weeks. Having travelled so far and overcome so many obstacles we are in danger of being stopped. We discuss options but logistically they are almost impossible to conceive. For now the Hunza valley is the perfect place to sit and wait.

The Baltit Fort is a now a museum lovingly restored by the Agha Khan trust. The fort used to belong to the Mir of Hunza but in a state of disrepair it was donated and given back to the local community. The restoration work is of a high standard. Each room is linked via small decorative wooden doorways. The walls display weapons from another time. The rugs on the floor are patterns of brown and cream made from natural wool and not dyed.

Baltit Fort Hunza Valley

Baltit Fort

We pass through dungeons, kitchens, court rooms and finally the gallery, where the Mir’s of the past would sit and behold their kingdom. If they were alive today the scene before us would still be recognisable to them. Fruits drying on the roofs, children playing with livestock. The mountains that are growing so slowly, unchanged in our short existence.

Baltit Fort

View from the top of the Baltit Fort

We spend most of our mornings watching a movie on our laptop. By midday the sun starts to shine on the side of the tent making it uncomfortable inside. During the afternoons we walk along the irrigation channels to the next village of Altit. A return trip that takes a couple of hours if you don’t stop to chat with the locals.

Altit Fort

The Altit Fort in the next Valley

At the centre of the village is the Altit Fort. A medieval stone keep that predates the Baltit Fort by over 150 years. The restoration here also includes repair and repatriation of the surrounding old village and two acres of gardens adjacent to the forts entrance. The gardens are terraced and shaded by apple, apricot and mulberry trees. At the centre is a small lake with a willow tree. Its long weeping branches hang down to the surface. Water from an irrigation channel empties into the lake. It gurgles in the background. Sunlight bounces off the ripples onto the bright green maple leaves above. The wind blows a little and shards of light filter through the canopy. To our left is a small flock of sheep grazing. A short distance away one has become separated and is being tormented by a well organised squadron of black birds. It bleats and runs in confusion. We spend a few lazy hours here, an excellent place for a picnic.

Gardens Altit Fort

Royal Gardens Altit Fort

The interior of the Altit Fort is very similar in style to the Baltit Fort, just on a reduced scale. The doorways if possible are slightly tighter and there is less light inside owing to the small windows. The Altit Fort was designed less for residence and more for military purposes. Its southern wall blends smoothly into the stone cliffs upon which is sits. The fall to the Hunza River below is over a thousand feet. Tales tell of prisoners who were cast from its ramparts into the turbulent waters far below. I peer over the edge wondering about the unfortunates who met their demise here in the past. The height is dizzying so I step back less someone in modern times join them.

Inside the Altit Fort

Inside the Altit Fort

It’s been nearly two weeks since we left our passports in Islamabad and still there is no news regarding our visa application. Each day we check our email with disappointment. Our other concern is the diminishing number of days left on our Pakistan visa. We are locked in a race of which we have no control. It is a worry, but if necessary we shall have to overstay our visa and deal with the consequences. I wonder what those consequences might be. Research on the internet range from fines to imprisonment! I find it difficult to conceive that given the good nature of Pakistanis that the later if indeed the former would be enforced, but I start to formulate yet another sob story in my mind nonetheless.

Altit Fort

Altit Fort

Behind the Baltit Fort is a narrow canyon that leads steeply up to some high pastures known as Ultar Meadows. Finding the path from the village is an adventure on its own, but once located the real fun begins. It tracks around the steep cliff three feet wide but with a long drop to the glacier below. The stones are to be navigated carefully. A trip here would be fatal. The path is eventually swallowed up by the side moraine of the Ultar Glacier. From here to the pastures above is two hours of climbing over rocks. We leave cairns or small piles of stones in order to navigate our way back. Almost three hours after setting off we reach the shepherds hut in Ultar Meadows. During the summer the farmers bring their livestock up here to feed on the lush grass, but now in early autumn most of the animals are gone and the pastures are turning dry.

Path Ultar Medows

This path looks safe enough but the drop to the left is a sheer 200m to the glacier below

Towering above us is the north face of Ultar. The Ultar glacier above looks more like a waterfall of ice cascading down. Next to Ultar is the unmistakable shape of Lady Finger Peak. A 6000m high finger of rock perfectly shaped like a thin cone. Its walls are so steep that snow is not able to take hold. Having seen many mountain vistas, I can attest that few can compare with the beauty and severity of Ultar Meadows.

We bask in the sun for a couple of hours before making our way back down to Karimabad. Despite travelling downhill the slope and lose surface make for a difficult return. Our cairns are hard to spot among the sea of rocks but we manage to find our way back to the path without too much difficulty.

Lady finger peak ultar meadows

Descending down from Ultar Meadows Lady Finger Peak is in the background

Upon our return we receive an email from the TCS visatronox office. Simply saying that our passports have been returned. There is no other information. What does this mean, it sounds promising but there is no mention regarding our visas. It’s late in the day but we send an email anyway asking for more details. After waiting for three weeks we now have to wait another day before we can be truly sure. Its maddening frustrating but most of all exciting.

The next morning and the internet is not working! The tension grows. We go for another walk along the irrigation channels. Not far from the Altit Fort is a lovely farm with wonderful views of the mountains. Neat rows of corn are browning. Large orange pumpkins hang along the dry stone walls. There is a feel of harvest time and Halloween in the air. We have been admiring the farms beauty for several days.  A young girl comes bounding up the stairs and asks us to come and sit in their garden. Her English is excellent and we take a seat under a grape vine. Her younger sister has fair hair and blue eyes but is too shy to talk.

Hunza Vallley

Walking along the irrigation channels

Sania is 16 but carries the confidence of an adult. Her mother washes some peaches and grapes in a stream.  A short distance away is a small stable made from rocks and twisted dry branches. Inside is a cow, two goats and four sheep, two of which are young lambs. It is an enchanting scene. The peaches are juicy and messy to eat. You can never imagine that such encounters await you when you set off on a journey like this but they happen every day. We are constantly blessed by the people of the world. Passed along from one to the next.

By the time we reach Karimabad the sun is setting. Oddly we feel no sense of urgency to check our emails. We wait a while and enjoy the last light.

Hunza valley storm

Afternoon storms were mostly wind with little rain

The internet is back up and we log on. Sitting in our inbox is an email from the TCS office. We open it with fatalistic calm. This is the moment when we find out if our overland journey ends or continues. The message is brief and to the point.

Dr Mr Reynolds confirming with you that your Indian visa has been issued. Please advise when you will collect.

I can feel the adrenaline that comes with anticipation and relief. It has been a long wait but our overland journey can continue. Singapore feels just that little bit closer. There is only one problem. Our Passports are in Islamabad and our Pakistani visas expire in 7 days. We have time to go down and collect them if we leave right away, but the beauty of Kashmir is strong and we want to stay just a little longer to see the change of season and the autumn colours bloom in the valleys.

The TCS office can’t courier them to us, they must be collected in person. The thought of travelling down and returning again is unimaginable.

There must be another way…

 

 

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An early 90’s Toyota corolla arrives at the front gate of our guesthouse in Gilgit. It’s six in the morning.  A man opens the passenger door and slaps the front seat with a rag. The car is here to take us to Islamabad, 560km to the south. We are both in pensive but determined mood.Two days ago while doing preliminary investigations on getting an Indian visa in Pakistan we discover disturbing news. The consulate is advising that due to the current security situation the average time for a visa to be processed is 35 days! It is also made very clear that payment of visa fees does not ensure a visa will be granted.

Once establishing what prefixes to use, we try to call the embassy, but each time we speak English the phone hangs up. We scan the website looking for alternative numbers. Eventually a promising lead presents itself. We speak with Dr Acquino Vimal +92 51 282 8370. He confirms that the application will on average take 3-4 weeks! This is a disaster. Our plan had been to continue our tour of the north before heading down to Islamabad and onto Lahore and India. I should point out that the 560km normally takes 24 bone jarring hours in a bus each way. The thought of having to make a trip down and then back up again just to lodge a visa is sickening!

We consider other options. Rather than take the risk of applying in Pakistan and travelling over 48 unnecessary hours, we explore the possibility of returning our passports back to Australia by international courier and lodge them in Sydney. A visit to the DHL office kills the idea. They are not able to courier passports as Pakistan customs won’t allow it. Another blow.

A few weeks ago it seemed like all our visa issues were behind us and now they are back with vengeance. Could coming to Pakistan have painted us into a bureaucratic corner?

To further complicate matters all visa applications must be typed into a PDF and printed. Hand written applications will be rejected. We spend the next 5 hours trying to fill in an application that has over 60 questions, including fathers place of birth, your last visa number which we don’t have and mothers profession! Each time we go back to retrieve the PDF the code is invalid. Our laptop also keeps switching off for no apparent reason?!

Police Escort on Karakoram Highway

Our police escort on the way down from Chillas to Besham

We find a thread that reports applicants should not go to the actual embassy. The best way to lodge is to go to the TCS office in Islamabad. The visatronox section www.visatronix.com/index.aspx will handle applications. Our laptop flickers off. There seems no other way but to travel down to Islamabad, lodge the application and return to the mountains up north while our visa is considered and pondered over at the embassy.

The issue with the Karakoram Highway is complex. In the last couple of years several attacks on busses have meant that travel in convoys is required. The convoys have slowed what was an already long journey. The other options are to fly… which is out of the question, or to take a car. The car can travel faster and avoid the dangerous sections before nightfall. As such they are not required to travel by convoy so the total time to reach Islamabad is shaved down to a mere 16 hours! The only issue being that they are expensive. The bus is about 1500-2000 PKR, the car will cost 6000 PKR each or about $120.00 USD in total.

The thought of back to back journeys on a bus is too much. We weaken and take the car; at least for one leg. The first two hours are comfortable until you reach the Raikot Bridge. This is also where you turn off the KKH for Fairy Meadows, but I digress. This is as far as the Chinese road builders have reached. Smooth communist bitumen gives way to neglected and broken south Asian asphalt.

Karakoram Highway

Karakoram Highway

Our driver speaks English well and even manages a few expletives about the condition of the international highway.  The corolla sweeps around the multitude of bends. Swerving from side to side, we are rattled by the many bumps. The journey becomes both mentally and physically sickening. Despite the poor state of the road we clear the so called dangerous area (Chillas to Besham) by 2pm, but there is still a long way to go. The KKH departs the Indus river and heads south through Abbottabad; notorious now as the city where Osama Bin Laden was executed. In reality it is just another small city, but oddly it has an abundance of Eucalyptus trees. Upon seeing them I think of home. It’s a warm sunset as we descend to lower altitudes. The humidity has crept up, all that is missing are the cicadas.

By the time we reach Islamabad it’s just after 10pm. Our driver despite his tiredness takes us to the area where the visatronox office is located. An odd address I and T centre, block 11, G-6/1. We come across the Crown Palace Inn and not much else. Its horrendous value at 3500 PKR but weariness and a need for sleep help to cover up the mouldy walls and stained carpets.

Hotel Crown Palace Islamabad

Hotel Crown Palace Islamabad

The next morning we (after a small struggle) locate the visatronox office. It is pouring with rain and any shelter provided is occupied with motorbikes forcing you to walk in the downpour. We are directed around the corner to a translation agency who can type the applications and print them. The cost is 750 PKR each. A kind and elderly man types the applications as I dictate. The progress is slow and the mistakes are many. I ask if it is at all possible for me to type as I can’t keep explaining the difference between a G and a J. This is not possible! We continue slowly. Upon finishing there is an error in the spelling of Emma Jane. She is now Emma Jan. We take no risks and ask for it to be corrected. I look in horror as he opens a new PDF. The old one can’t be edited??!! All 60 questions are again filled in with a new round of mistakes and corrections made.

We take our place at the visatronox office and wait to be called. Our papers are examined but there is a big error. Emma’s current nationality is British on the form but we are lodging with an Australian Passport. In the section for former nationality he has Australian. We go back and yes it must be typed all over again including more explanations regarding the difference between G and J…smiling inside I promise! He is far too nice to be angry at.

Finally the applications are lodged. It feels like they should be rolled into a bottle and thrown into the sea. Please find someone good.

We are weary and mentally drained. We are also starving and decide to go in search of authentic Italian cuisine…the Pizza Hut. Don’t judge us.

Jinnah Supermarket Islamabad

Jinnah Supermarket

After three taxi rides each one a few kilometres in distance and 200 PKR, we finally find the Holy Grail. The sign, the font, the familiarity, it’s all too much. Air conditioned bliss! We take a moment to lust over the choices and the glossy photos of food to come. Over by the salad bar locals are spooning food into their bowls and half way up their arms. We can only assume that return visits are not permitted.

In an attempt to sample some traditional food I order the Afghan Spicy Chicken Tikka Pizza. I’m feeling adventurous. Emma takes a tomato and chicken penne both of which are delicious. Not since leaving Cairo have we had the taste of home. It feels good to indulge. If you find yourself in Islamabad go to the Jinnah Supermarket.

colourful bus Pakistan

This was not our bus but I kind of wish it had been

We make plans for the return journey. Feeling rested we decide to save some money and take the bus back to Gilgit. It’s like the point of no return. The pain has not started yet, but you know what lies ahead.

All busses to the North depart from Rawalpindi a city located 20km to the south…a great start! Nasir has booked us a couple of seats near the front, an absolute must if you want to retain your lunch and dinner. The bus station is thriving with relics from the past, painted in psychedelic patterns. Some of the creations would have no doubt pleased the Beatles on their magical mystery tour. Our bus, Silk Route Ltd is by comparison sedate but comes with the dubious promise of Air Conditioning. It costs us 2000 PKR each almost $20.00 USD. We fight our way out of Rawalpindi through choked streets and choked air. The sun is a blood red disc above the dirty buildings. I feel a sense of satisfaction that at this moment there is no more I can do. The passports have been lodged we are back on a bus and travelling. After all… is this not an adventure.

Rawalpindi Bus Station

Rawalpindi Bus Station

My optimism and buoyancy start to wane after a few hours into the journey. The metal bar in the back of my seat has announced itself and my spine is not pleased. I shift so a new vertebrae can be acquainted. Outside cars and trucks flash past with musical horns and high beam lights. It reminds me of the night crossing from Kampala to Nairobi. Everything is the same, but the faces and clothes have changed. We reach Besham at 2am. It has taken us nine hours. A couple of guys sitting next to us translate that we will sit here for 3-4 hours until morning. The convoy is stopped. I am so tired I just curl up in a ball and wait as we make no progress, it’s heart breaking.

Rest stop in Abbottabad

Dinner stop in Abbottabad

I can hear a rooster somewhere. A shutter is opening and the sky is no longer black. My neck hurts and my mouth is dry. Then, like a pack of wild dogs the busses start howling musical tunes. I am convinced that Pakistan must have the world’s loudest horns and there have been some serious contenders. Silk Route Limited responds and roars into life. We are reversing back onto the KKH. The relief is overwhelming. One step at a time, I remind myself of where I am and what I am doing.

Karakoram Highway Northern Pakistan

Travelling along the Karakoram Highway ay high speed

Our driver is revitalised and demonstrates his skills on tight bends and sheer drops. Despite the need to travel in convoy he overtakes slower busses at any given opportunity. His definition of opportunity is questionable. I abandon western ideals of physics and necessity and embrace Inshallah or God willing.

Bus Ride Islamabad to Gilgit

Our fellow travelling partners Islamabad to Gilgit

He comes up the inside of his next victim. Ahead I can see the road narrows and a rock is jutting out. This will be interesting, good luck with that I say to myself. It’s like I am watching a movie, perhaps from latent fear my mind has detached me from my current situation. He threads the bus and rock with precision, never once breaking, but I wonder if its good luck or good management at work. Perhaps both and we certainly need it.

Karakoram Bus Convoy

The Convoy stops again

By the time we reach Gilgit its 5.30pm and we been travelling for just over 24 hours. We should be exhausted but the adrenaline from reaching the end is flowing strong. It’s been a crazy three days, but the pain is over, the job is done.

For now all we can do is wait and pray that someone in the Indian consulate finds a little bottle with two visa applications inside…

Rain along the KKH

Finally reaching Gilgit

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It’s a busy morning in Skardu. The last of our provisions are being packed into blue barrels and loaded onto a jeep. Ropes and crampons are checked by our two guides Nasir and Habib. We met them both four years ago on our K2 Base camp trek and have remained good friends ever since.

Also making a return is our head cook Amin, but he is more than just a cook. Amin is at first a quiet and unassuming man but take him up into the mountains and his stature grows. In his own words jokingly…I am a Karakoram Tiger. He used to be a high altitude porter and survived a blizzard above 8000 meters on K2 for four days. In other words, he is harder than Vinnie Jones in a Guy Ritchie film. But along with this toughness, is a very caring and highly entertaining soul. He has an uncanny ability to sense when you are struggling and a helping hand or uplifting joke is always perfectly timed.

Nasir is the head guide and leader of the expedition. This morning he is in concentrative mood and ensuring that nothing has been forgotten. Once in Askole it’s a long and bumpy 8 hour drive back to Skardu. Everyone (save us) sits in the back tray of the jeep. I am placed in the front next to the driver. It is a cramped position and sitting slightly to one side after a few hours becomes painful. Habib explains during lunch that I must place my right leg over the gear stick and sit straight. The position becomes uncomfortable for a different reason and every time the driver needs to change gear, he reaches between….well, you know the rest. Safe to say my hip stops hurting which is the main thing.

Habib Emma Amin and Nasir

Habib Emma Amin and Nasir

We arrive late afternoon in Askole. The drive alone from Skardu has been captivating but the real drama of the Karakoram Mountains lies ahead. That night the clouds darken and it rains. Next to our camp are three British trekkers who have returned from K2 base camp and Snow Lake. They look a little deflated. The weather has been very unkind for the last 2 weeks and they were unable to cross the pass at Snow Lake and forced to return. Its ominous news. We too have been watching the weather for the last few days and now on the eve of the trek it shows no sign of improving.

Askole Snow Lake Trek

Leaving Askole

The next morning and the Brits are staring at a blue sky in disgust. I feel their pain. There can be nothing worse than seeing clear weather on your last day when for two weeks you have trekked in rain and low cloud. We on the other hand are feeling very fortunate and can only hope the good weather will hold. The first few kilometres of the trek amble along an easy trail. We round a bend after an hour and are confronted by a dramatic scene. A row of stone knives. Red and curved they tear at the white clouds that drift over them. I can feel a smile creeping across my face as I stand and marvel at natures work. I feel already very fortunate. T

The easy pace, and kind terrain changes abruptly as we make a left turn and start to scramble up the terminal moraine of the Biafo glacier. Moraine being a pile of dirt and rocks that accumulates at the front and sides of a glacier. The bigger the glacier the larger the moraine and the Biafo is one of the largest glaciers in the world, outside the Polar Regions.

As we climb higher the air thins and the heat rises to a midday peak. Picking our way over the rocks is not easy and there is little breeze and no shade. Emma by sheer bad luck has been struck down with a stomach bug on our first day and begins to suffer. We reach the top of the moraine but the jumble of rocks does not end. This is just the beginning as we must walk along the lateral or side moraine for the next two days. It can be a heart breaking scene if you are in bad condition or not feeling well and Emma right now is both. By early afternoon our water is running out and I too begin to suffer among the boulders. I curse myself not carrying another bottle. Eight hours after leaving Skardu we arrive at our camp. A small island of grass on the side of the cliffs. It is a welcome sight. I know our health and fitness will improve, as will the conditions. It’s been a hard first day but better days are ahead.

Climbing Biafo moraine

Climbing up the Biafo moraine

By four in the afternoon the sun disappears behind the towering cliffs. On the far side of the glacier we are treated to an amazing light display on the stony towers. They bask in golden rays, the light showing off their rough texture. Of all the mountains in the world none can compare to the brutal formations that are the Karakoram.

High Cliffs in pakistan

The High cliffs in Pakistan

I notice a sign near our camp indicating this to be a place where snow leopards have been sighted. Our chances of seeing one are close to non-existent, but I scan the high valleys and peaks anyway. They must be one of the loneliest animals on earth but what a domain they live in.The next day and Emma’s condition has not improved. An hour out of camp and she is plagued with stomach cramps and unplanned visits behind boulders. Despite the discomfort and inconvenience she soldiers on. Nasir and Habib are attentive and take turns to lead, ensuring that we never stray too far off course. Without them we would become lost in a maze of rocks within minutes. Ahead of them is Baqir the fourth member of the lead team. Baqir is with us as his knowledge of both the Biafo and Hispar glaciers is unsurpassed. He too has been a high altitude porter and now scouts ahead.

Last and certainly not least is Amin. He catches up as we take a break. Habib and Nasir always up for a joke ask him why he is following us. Amin quick as a fox feigns altitude sickness and wobbles on his legs.

I have lost my guide he says in a croaky voice.

Habib laughs. This Japanese climber is lost and wants to follow us, what should we do? Where are you going Amin san?

I am going to climb K2

Well you are going the wrong way, K2 is in the other direction.

I am making new route to K2 he says with a twinkle in his eye.

We all laugh, it is just the tonic when you are feeling a little tired. After 6 hours of rock hoping and scrambling we reach camp on the far side of the Biafo. It’s a lovely patch of green with a good stream fed by the melting glacier. Amin prepares a special meal for Emma to ensure her stomach is not tested too badly.

Snow Lake Trek Pakistan

Snow Lake Trek

On the morning of day three we scramble over some more moraine and finally reach the white ice of the Biafo. It is flecked with small stones providing traction to walk upon. We shift from 1st to 5th gear and make good progress. After 2 days of tedium on the moraine we now surge ahead on the white runway. It feels good to stride out. Our progress is so good that we make our next camp after only 4 hours where we come across another group. They had arrived yesterday but are staying here for an extra day to acclimatise. The team are comprised of Pakistanis from the Punjab region. They welcome us into camp. We are now at an altitude of 3800 meters. Nasir and Habib are careful not to take us too high too soon and stick to the general rule of not exceeding 500-600 meters in elevation per day.

Biafo Glacier

Small lakes on the

I should mention at this point we are also supported by 10 porters. These guys are the engine room of the trek. Without them it would not be possible. Each morning they pack up and pass us with ease carrying 25kgs. When they get to camp there is no immediate rest, they set up our tents and the kitchen tent. Carry water from the streams and bring it back so it can be boiled. Nasir and Amin go ahead in the last hour to ensure it all goes smoothly. Habib normally remains with us to make sure we find our way into camp. When we arrive, Amin is already slicing potatoes and has chai and more jokes waiting. We sit on mats in the Kitchen tent and play cards each afternoon with Nasir and Habib. Amin stirs both a physical and metaphoric pot; watches over Nasir’s shoulder and occasionally snickers at his decisions.  Dinner each night comprises of soup, a main course of rice pasta and vegetable curry followed by a dessert of jelly, custard and even some mangoes. I am amazed by the meals produced in such a cramped place.

cooking meals on snow lake Amin head cook

Amin the Karakoram Tiger

It is early evening on day five and we have arrived at our camp before crossing the pass. The last five days have been clear with light cloud but now as the sun goes down dark clouds gather and it starts to sleet. If the bad weather holds we will not be able to cross the pass. Amin, Nasir, Baqir and Habib all take turns in predicting the weather. Nasir is confident it will pass during the night as the wind is strong. We have a couple of days up our sleeve to see if the weather breaks. Later that night the clouds break up and the stars come out. To my left the moon is rising and the Biafo is bathed in silver.

crevasse crossing in Biafo Glacier

Crossing the many crevasses

We are woken at 4am by the sound of a gas burner and cups being washed. Nasir comes to our tent. The weather is good, we are going over the pass. We pack up our gear and put extra layers on for the cold morning outside. We take a simple breakfast of chai and biscuits. It’s far too early for a stodgy meal. We cross the side moraine of the Biafo for the last time and step onto the crunchy ice. The moon is still high in the early morning sky. The land around us is a monochrome of blue.

Snow Lake Pakistan

The snow lake

An hour later and the tops of the mountains are turning yellow. The ice beneath us is replaced with fresh snow and Baqir stops the group. The snow hides the crevasses we have so far been able to see, but from now on they will be invisible; so we must all be roped together for safety. Baqir takes the lead and sets a steady pace. He keeps us on course and heading towards the base of the pass. The Punjabis are about 500m off to our right. I look across. They appear like dust on a table cloth in this vast white expanse. We have reached the head of the Biafo Glacier better known as Snow Lake. Here the glacier is over 16km in width. We have travelled just over 70km in 6 days since we first climbed up the terminal moraine.

Biafo Glacier roped together

Roped together on the Biafo glacier Baqir leads the way

The wind on the glacier is cold but as we reach the bottom of the pass it abates and we take a break. Ahead I can see two huge crevasses with a wide bridge in between. We cross the bridge and start the climb. The gradient is at first gentle by mountain standards. We approach a steep section but the snow is soft and Baqir and the porters create deep treads that are easy to follow. No crampons are needed. Following the porters on a rope is not easy as we are forced to keep up, but heading uphill is not too bad as they are handicapped with their loads while we carry by comparison very little.

Approach to the Hispar La

Approach to the Hispar La

We take a long break around 9am, we are now about half way up the pass. The Punjabis are a long way behind and no longer in sight. There is no trace of wind and we start to peel away layers of clothing. Pushing on we make the top of the pass around midday. Behind us Snow Lake shimmers white under a noon sun. In front of us we catch our first sight of the Hispar valley and Glacier. The mountains on this side of the pass are immense but not as jagged as those along the Biafo.

The porters celebrate with a Balti war cry before picking up their loads. Challow…Challow is called out, the Balti word for lets go. It is a word I am going to curse very soon. Up until now the porters have been held back by gravity and heavy loads. Now as we cross the pass the terrain is flat and their true power is unleashed; it soon becomes difficult to keep up on the rope. The deep snow is not making life any easier. There is not a trace of wind and the sun shines hot on the white snow baking us in all directions. I can see grey clouds ahead and start to crave their presence but the lack of wind keeps them away.

Crossing the Hispar La

Crossing the Hispar La

Each rest is a relief we have now been going for 9 hours and I am getting very tired. Emma is having a good day but is now also feeling a little fatigued. Challow… Challow….not already. The snow is softening and Baqir is getting concerned. If we don’t get down soon it will be too soft and the crevasses are waiting for the weak and unfortunate.

An hour later and we are now heading downhill but this has just increased the pace. We come across a section of ripples and a couple of porters drop down to their shoulders. We have hit crevasses. He is stuck and can’t get out. Nasir comes forward and with the aid of another porter and pulls him out. Baqir prods at the snow with a long stick. Despite his best attempts a couple of more porters sink down to their waists. We sit and wait while they get pulled out. It’s so hot I rub snow on my arms and the back of my neck.

Descending the Hispar La

Descending the Hispar La

We round a bend and walk across a snow bridge avoiding a deep crevasse just to our right. The bridge is on a slope and a little slippery. As I cross the bridge the rope pulls tight and pulls me over. I fall over the slope and dangle above the crevasse. The weight of the group ensures I only fall a few feet but it is still an unsettling experience. It’s now my turn to be pulled out.

We cross the crevasses, it’s now just an easy 30 minutes downhill to the base of the pass. The porters increase the pace again. The group senses the end. We are now skiing behind the porters and concentrating on not falling over in the soft snow. That night we make camp on the glacier. It’s taken just over 10 hours but we have crossed the pass, there is no going back now.

Camping on the glacier is a romantic notion but it comes with some compromises. The sun goes down and the wind builds in strength. The cold ice reaches up from the ground and chills your bones. Even with foam matts, it’s hard to escape. That night I crawl outside my tent. I have been fighting a losing battle with my bladder for the last hour and finally surrender. I unzip my tent and stand on the glacier. The moon is not out yet and the sky is littered with thousands of stars. The night is black and frigid; I shiver in the breeze. It is the coldest Milky Way I have ever seen.

Camping on the Hispar

Camping on the Hispar

The next morning I wake feeling a little groggy. My legs are stiff. I feel like I have been in a fight and lost. Amin has prepared delicious porridge with apricots and raisons. My mood lifts. Habib tells us we have an easy day only about 4 hours and we will stop. It’s now day seven and we make our way off the white ice of the Hispar. Unlike the Biafo the Hispar has in past years been difficult to cross. The left side of the glacier is too dangerous and the right side has several smaller glaciers that flow into it. Each of these must be crossed. There is no more white ice, no highway left.

We have to cross this

We have to cross this

On the 8th day we come across the confluence of two glaciers. The morning has been difficult already crawling across a series of land slips. Now in front of us rocks and crevasses stretch for over 2km. It takes your breath away as well as some of your resolve.

The Hispar glacier is the graveyard of rocks. From tiny pebbles to massive boulders, they all come here to die. Among the multitude, 16 people pick their way over the corpses.

The glacier groans and creaks. It bleeds running water, the rocks are like stony scabs on its skin. Habib and Baqir go ahead to ensure we are not blocked and forced to backtrack. Nasir and Amin stay with us to provide moral and physical support. As we near the far side of the junction we reach a small section that requires us to fix a rope. Baqir has chopped some steps into the polished surface. On both sides of the slippery bridge a deep crevasse lays in wait. The security of the rope makes a huge difference. Without that it would be a perilous little descent.

Dangerous section in the Hispar Glacier

Dangerous section in the Hispar Glacier

Wild Flowers in Hispar

Wild Flowers in Hispar

It’s now the morning of day ten and the village of Hispar is only four hours away. It hangs across the valley surrounded by golden fields of wheat. It is calling us, but before we can reach it we encounter one last adventure.  The bridge has been washed out by summer floods and we have to cross the river in a make shift basket suspended by a cable and pulled across by a rope. I have seen these put to use before but have never ridden in one. It’s a bumpy and exhilarating ride. Below us the power of the river roars.  The waves reach up snapping at the basket. We all cross safely and hike up a steep hill into the village of Hispar. We have reached the road. I feel a sense of relief and sadness. This has been special trek made with special people. At this point in time I study the porter’s faces and thank them all. The thought of never seeing them again is difficult and painful to consider.

Basket river crossing in Pakistan

Crossing the river in a basket

From Hispar we hire a tractor and descend a further 30km down the valley to Hopper where we transfer to a jeep and make the 4 hour drive back to Gilgit. That night we sleep in a warm bed but my thoughts are back in the tent playing cards and listening to Amin singing.

I miss them already.

Fast Facts

Nasir and Habib can help you with all your tours to Pakistan. They have both worked in this industry for many years and are true professionals

They can accompany you on short hikes or tours of northern Pakistan if trekking is not your go.

They can be contacted at

nasir_guides@yahoo.com and habibsaqib2002@yahoo.com

Or contact them on Facebook

“Trekking Pakistan” for Nasir and “Habib Saqib” for Habib.

But make sure you take Amin as your cook if possible you won’t regret it

We would be happy to answer any questions you have regarding travel in this wonderful country.

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