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Posts Tagged ‘Ultar Meadows’

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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