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Posts Tagged ‘Pakistan visa extension’

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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