Sunday, July 27, 2008

Savage country

Karimabad is a popular spot for backpackers - with great views everywhere you look, a quiet laidback village vibe and a clutch of guesthouses that do communal dinners. You can easily spend days doing nothing - it's called acclimatising. But there's two British guys here who don't have time to relax. They're climbers. They came here in a group of four to attempt a new route up a 7,000m peak, but the attempt failed. One of them flew home, and another went off on a solo attempt on another peak, against the advice of the others. The team leader, Bruce, has just returned from Nanga Parbat where he was helping a group of Iranian mountaineers caught in bad weather - one of them died. Meanwhile the remaining member, Pete, had returned to look for the young guy who went off on his own. Due to a miscommunication everyone thought he had come down, but he hasn't actually been seen for some days. Pete found avalanche debris at the foot of the mountain and thinks he has probably died.

He tells us this whilst Bruce is trying to contact insurance companies, the British Embassy and rescue services here in Pakistan that may provide helicopters for a search. Unfortunately the Iranians are chasing the same helicopters to recover the body of their team member. Two helicopters are required in these searches, in case one crashes - the air is too thin at altitude. Meanwhile on the other side of Nanga Parbat an Italian climber has died. It's a world far removed from the trekkers and backpackers lounging along the Karakoram Highway and a stark illustration of the dangers lurking in these big mountains.

It's hard to tell what Pete feels as he recounts what has happened. He seems emotionally detached from his colleague's accident. We think it is the climber's need to isolate himself from the dangers and the attrition. He and Bruce are to return to lead the search as there are no other mountaineers to do it, but Pete looks as though it's all a bit of a fag. He'd rather do a search by helicopter than have to climb back over the glacier to the mountain face. Later we meet him in a shop looking for equipment - he is holding a cheap toy plastic pair of binoculars - one of the lenses falls out. The pathos of it all.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Ain't no valley

The Hunza valley is the most populated part of the Northern Areas, and there are lush green shelves of land that stick out into the valley, fed by water channels from on high, giving a dash of colour to an otherwise harsh and barren landscape. Below them roars the frothy cappucino river. Here in Karimabad the tap water is a dirty grey colour, full of mica, which gives the green tea a bit of texture, and your hair a sheen after it's washed. After the market town of Gilgit, and the fields of Minapin, this village is a challenge on the legs - it sits on a narrow ridge high above the KKH with roads that only go up or down in large serpentine bends. The main street has a clutch of tourist shops and hotels, and high on the hill above is the Baltit Fort - the restored palace from where the local Mir once ruled. Hunza only became fully part of Pakistan in 1974. One local shopkeeper says he'd have preferred to join China, for the lack of development and investment in the area since then. The people here are mainly Ismaili Muslims, a more liberal strain, and women are more visible, literally, because they don't cover their faces with their scarves. And although some may feel they are neglected by their government, the Ismaili leader, the Aga Khan, has provided schools and health clinics through his foundation across the area.
The cloudy rainy weather continues for a couple of days, obscuring the views of the bigger mountains, and forcing us to take it easy. We take a walk through Altit, a 1,000 year-old settlement below Karimabad. A young woman invites us into her house for a cup of tea. The house is a single room with a TV, a two-ring gas stove, microwave, cupboard and a pile of bedding. There's a tap outside. We chat a little whilst she carries out the tea-making ritual - milk heated in a pan with tea and water and a little salt to taste. Salt? Yep, in these parts the locals add salt to their chai, not sugar. It's an interesting flavour, let's say. Not wishing to be rude, we polish off our mugfuls and try to turn the conversation to her children, but she's not distracted and gaily fills our mugs up again. It's truly an awful drink to our untrained tastebuds. We finally say our farewells - the salty taste lingers, but the memory of this woman's kindness to strangers remains longer.
There's a stunning walk up behind Karimabad which we do the following day with Johann and Maja from Switzerland. It leads up through the fields to a water channel that has been built in the cliff face of a gorge. The channel hangs over a mighty drop and takes an age to traverse. Finally we reach the glacier that feeds it and climb up alongside up to a meadow where animals graze. There is a circle of mountains around us, and a high pass which we aim for to get views over the valley. The climb seems endless, but the views are stunning. We eat our lunch on a rocky perch and watch a clutch of big birds spiral up towards us on currents. Before us lies the Hunza valley and a range of big snowy mountains. We gaze in awe.

Diran and Rakaposhi peaks

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Ain't no river

The minibus might leave at two o'clock, but everyone seems a bit vague. We bag a couple of seats and wait for it to fill up. And wait. And wait. Just after three there's a sudden rush. The roof rack is loaded up, the seats are taken, there's fellas hanging off the ladders on the back and we edge out of the parking lot and out of Gilgit. We are heading north, back on the KKH, which is now a badly-maintained almost single-track road gripping the edge of the valley. The hillsides around us are dry and brown but nearer to the river below there are green fields and tall plane trees, villagers eking out an existence in this inhospitable terrain thanks to infinite water channels feeding off the surrounding mountains. We seem to be rolling along okay until we stop by some roadside stalls. All the men get out and go shopping. Mangoes, ice creams, water melons, cups of milky tea. A man picks out a chicken and a boy weighs it, folds it's wings, holds it to the ground, and with what looks like a rather blunt knife, saws away at it's gullet until the blood comes. Mmmm, chicken tonight. Then we're off again.

By evening we reach the village of Minapin, the starting point for our trek. The people here are mainly Ismaili muslims, and the women (my goodness, there are women) do not cover their faces. A sign at the entrance to the village prohibits photographing them. Some graffiti proclaims 'Down with USA and Israel' which seems out of place in this backwater. You'd think they'd be more concerned about the electricity shortages or the literacy rate, which is so low in Pakistan that one third of the men and two thirds of the women will not be able to read the slogans. We camp in the garden of a guesthouse. The owner tells us that business is not so good since 9/11. This is not the first or last time we hear this. It seems that there is a real push to get more national tourists to visit the north nowadays.

In the morning we begin our climb up to Rakaposhi base camp. (A climber later tells us that no-one has ever climbed the mountain from this place, but it sounds good.) We quickly pass by houses covered in drying apricots, and through fields irrigated by endless channels, and start climbing a series of well-built switchbacks up a steep canyon. It's sunny and hot, but the river below us brings some welcome cold air. Very quickly we can see the end of the glacier feeding the river. Our walk takes us higher and along the valley beside the glacier, but we are kept apart by a ridge of morraine debris that has been deposited by the glacier over the years. We walk through pine woods and past a few stone houses with terraced fields of potatoes and then climb steeply again to reach the top of the morraine ridge. It takes us six hours but the view over the glacier is stunning. There's a morass of ice blocks either black or stark white and spreading back across a huge valley the glacier sprawls out in front of us, reaching right back to the mountains of Diran and Rakaposhi.
It is a mighty frozen river and it groans with its own weight and tardy progress. We edge along a cliff-hanging path to a small meadow that runs beside the glacier, and we climb onto an old morraine ridge with good views and pitch our tent. We're a bit breathless with the scenery and the altitude and a 1200 metre ascent, but very happy to be here. In the meadow are a herd of cows and three women who are sat by the butchered remains of one of their herd. The head sits on the ground next to them, eyes watching. Some local lads are picking their way across the glacier, one barefoot, and they come over to gawp at us gawping at the glacier, none of us appearing to tire of the sight. It's possible to cross the glacier but it takes about three hours and you should have a guide, and we are quite happy with the view thank you very much. At night time we watch the full moon rise over one of the peaks, its light reflected brightly off the packed ice below. This turns out to be our last sight of the tops because the clouds draw in and the drizzle begins. We descend halfway the next day and then head to Karimabad, the capital of Hunza, the following day.
local produce

Friday, July 18, 2008

Ain't no mountain

We know it's bad when the mechanic takes out his lump hammer and starts belting the wheel. Not much skill in that. Both balding back tyres have been removed and one of the drivers has driven off with one in a taxi. Meanwhile everyone has got off the bus and assumed different positions as befits our social status. A family of women has been shepherded to plastic seats outside the carwash ( a shack with a power jet), by the father, who sports a rather alarming hennaed beard. A mother with young children seek shade under a tree on the other side. A couple of older men sit on concrete bricks lying in the sun to dry and we join them. Most of the other men form a fascinated semi-circle around the mechanics as they hammer away at the wheel, which is being stripped bare. The back-up driver takes tea on a charpoy with two other guys who look like they have seen it all before. Welcome to the Karakoram Highway.
"VIP Express"
Our delay means we are travelling the stretch of the road known to be a bit dodgy, because of local bandits, at night time. This bothers me less than the fact that we no longer get the stupendous views that we had during the day of the huge frothy Indus River crashing along beneath us, and of green side valleys and perilously steep cliff faces dropping into the river. The road is impressive. Now all we can see in the bus headlights is either the rock wall on one side of the narrow road or the big black empty space which suggests a two hundred metre drop into the waters below. Our drivers are careful and always take care to blow the horn continuously when overtaking the creaking carnival floats that are Pakistani trucks. At dawn we pull over at a roadside mosque for the morning namaaz and toilet break (men only). We get out to stretch our legs and look back down the valley. Rising above all else is the gleaming white peak of Nanga Parbat, one of the largest mountains in the world and the one that marks the end of the Himalayan mountain range. We have now reached the Karakoram mountains and arrive in Gilgit at the civilised hour of 7am. Our journey from Islamabad has taken twenty four hours.
Looking at the map we seem to have come quite far north, and into the mountains, so it's a surprise to realise that Gilgit is only 1600 metres high. And although it's no longer humid, it is baking hot. The town is the capital of the Northern Areas, really nothing more than a market town, with an airstrip and a large army base, but it's a useful base for exploring the Karakoram. We can stock up with trekking food and John has a shalwar kameez run up by one of the tailors in the bazaar. He hesitates to purchase the natty waistcoat and wool hat. Gayle is already in mufti but still stands out as one of the few women who venture onto the streets. The town is a dusty gritty place wedged in a tight bone-dry valley just off the main highway. We have read that it is recommended to trek in the local garb, but it seems like doing a sponsored walk in fancy dress. Okay for hanging out in a hot town where bear arms and legs are not the norm, but surely not for flogging up into the mountains??
After the usual procrastination, colds and dodgy bowels and chatting to other travellers, we set off for a warm up trek from a nearby village.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

High Society or High Security?

We are happily using our friend Barnaby's house as a base to read up on Pakistan and think about which treks to do in the mountains in the north. He has a very comfortable house, with a guard, a gardener and Younis, who prepares the meals and keeps house. It is a very typical ex-pat's house here and seems a little strange at first, but we take no time adjusting and settling in. It is still hot and humid, with morning rains, and we don't feel inclined to dash about anywhere. I find I'm enjoying reading about doing things.
As we arrived in Islamabad a bomb went off - targetting policemen. It is the anniversary of the ending of the siege in the Red Mosque here when at least 100 people were killed. Barnaby is just coming to the end of a three and a half year posting in a senior position with the UN's Development Programme. He looks happy to be leaving, but saddened that the situation seems worse now than when he arrived. He looks a little frazzled to us. Just after he began there was the huge earthquake and the response to it more than tripled the UN input in the country. Now the security concerns mean that he cannot work at his office until it has been made bomb-proof - a wall of sandbags is under construction. He advises us not to walk anywhere and to avoid places that might be used by ex-pats at peak times. His wife and children returned to the UK earlier this year and he is obviously counting down the days to his departure. "Actually it's 20 days 16 hours 34 minutes and 18 seconds". We try not to feel too apprehensive and go to the bank and a bookshop. The city has grown since my last visit here 18 years ago. It feels more like a model provincial town than the modern village I remember - lots more cars on the roads. A few more roundabouts and it could still be the Milton Keynes of the East. It's certainly not got the buzz of most capital cities, but it is an incredibly green city and not overcrowded - rather dull, but easy at the same time, so a mixed blessing I guess. It could be a difficult place to live though - in a recent report Pakistan was listed as no. 9 in a list of the 10 most dysfunctional countries in the world. Afghanistan was listed at 7. Thankfully Barnaby has a generator - which keeps the fans going during the six scheduled hourly powercuts each day.
A few days of relaxing and reading is just what we need. It's amazing how easy we can adapt to this lifestyle. We meet Toby again - he is now heading back home through Central Asia and he gets his Chinese transit visa here without a hitch. We have decided to try and visit China and, with hope, Tibet too, later on our journey. Now we need to sort out a few more things and then we're off up the Karakoram Highway.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Time Travel

Our days in Delhi are few - we want to get to Pakistan as quickly as possible - but we have enough time to eat some lovely food and, despite the draining heat and humidity, do a bit of shopping i.e. Gayle finds a shalwar kameez and we buy a couple of books from a real bookshop - a treat for us. The centre of New Delhi has been spruced up since we last visited 10 years ago. There is now a metro system, still growing, and it is quite clear there has been an attempt to clean up. Most noticeable is the lack of beggars and shoeshine boys. None of those "shit on the shoe" scams that made walking around here a hazard. There are now an alarming number of air-conditioned cafes for the Beautiful People. And the air seems not so dirty. There is no fug of blue smoke from clapped out autorickshaws and we read that many pollution-producing factories have been relocated outside of the capital. But walking around Pahar Ganj, the area where most backpackers are staying, there is the familiar noise and bustle, the usual struggle just to walk down the street without being flattened by a cycle rickshaw or motorcyclist, without stepping into anything undesirable and without catching the powerful whiff of incense or urine. After the fairly dull cities of Central Asia, the colour, the cows, the people make a refreshing change and we find ourselves just drifting along in a haze letting the whole river of sights and sounds just flow right over us.

We catch a night train to Amritsar - riding in a luxurious air-conditioned 4-berth compartment to guarantee a good night's sleep shared with a mother and son. We awake too early, at 6am, to the sound of the mother barking at her son to get up but we are feeling good. There's a local bus heading towards the border, a busy ride full of Sikh men in colourful turbans, impossibly vivid blues, hideous pinks and lemon yellows - like wild flowers dotted about the bus. We arrive early at the border, the only open land-crossing between the two countries, and spend an hour swatting flies and fanning ourselves in the growing heat, before passing through all the normal and tedious formalities of passport recording, form-filling and cursory bags inspections. "Is there anything to see?" asked one customs officer who couldn't be bothered getting out of his chair.

On the Pakistani side there is a small bookstall and friendly faces. While Gayle trades books I trade e-mail adresses with a friendly young man whose name I don't even know. "When you come back to Lahore, give me a ring". We take a bone-shaker bus through paddy fields into Lahore, Gayle opting to ride in the men-only section at the back. While she mutters about the stupid division a few more women get put on the back seat - overspill from the crowded front.

At the main bus stand another passenger asks us where we are going. "Islamabad? Me too. Come with me please." We find ourselves being drawn towards a crusty old bus that should be going to the Knackers Yard, but which is going to Islamabad instead. We balk. There follows an awkward moment as the bus men try to sell us a ticket, our new companion tries to get us on board and we try and find an excuse not to follow. "Does it have air-con?" "Yes, of course, come on!" Our seats are at the back, over a steaming engine (possibly a steam engine), and there are folding seats in the aisle for more bodies. It's a little claustrophobic. A speaker above us blares the soundtrack to a Bollywood film. Ah-ha! This is the way to travel..............

We make more friends on the journey - including a family from a mountain village near Skardu who buy us pop at a service station. The road is good - a toll motorway that arcs across the country from Lahore to Peshawar - nothing like anything I remember from my last visit here. The bus grinds through fields of orange trees and climbs onto a higher plain, and finally we arrive in the urban congestion of Rawalpindi, the old city next to the capital. I've been chatting to the man who we got the bus with. He is carrying a tennis racket and he's from Waziristan. He offers us a lift from his cousin, who is meeting him off the bus. I ask him what he does for a living, but he coyly replies that he'll tell us when we get off the bus. I wonder a moment if we should be putting our trust in such a man, except he looks very presentable and speaks very good English and probably plays tennis - all the things that really matter when you're trying to judge character! Anyway, it turns out he's in the army. Pakistani soldiers are now going around discreetly in civvies now that they have become a target for bomb attacks.

We arrive at the house of our friend, Barnaby, about 24 hours after leaving Delhi - not bad going overland - and we are happy to receive his hospitality after the long journey. Even though we have gone westwards we have to put our watches forward half an hour - which just shows how ridiculous time is I suppose.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The benefits of positive thinking, meditation, yogic exercise and healthy food

The plane lands at about 10.30 to a round of applause from the passengers. Would they boo if we crashed, I wonder? There is the familiar feel of the wet warm blanket of air as we get off the plane, it's like stepping into a sauna. This is Delhi in monsoon season, hot and humid. It's ten years since we last arrived here and the airport has had a make-over. Our bags are already off the carousel when we get through to collect them, and we're off into the night inside a crusty old Ambassador taxi before you can say 'paneer tikka masala'. Fortunately we've had a good recommendation for a hotel from Toby, who we last saw in Iran. He's been in India a while and is now backtracking homewards through Pakistan. At the hotel we're offered air-con or a cheaper room with just a fan. We opt for the latter - we're used to the heat. At three a.m. as I roll around on my bed trying to find a dry patch, sweat oozing out of me like I'm full of holes, I begin to rue this decision. Happily we need to change rooms the next day and get the air-con.
It's Thursday, and we're to start our Pakistan visa application process today. First we need a cold shower, and a light stretch to loosen muscles still stiff from our trek in Almaty. For breakfast we have a vegetable pastie and a milkshake. The city is alarmingly quiet, the shops all shuttered, the traffic negligible. It's not how we remember it. A young boogaloo waiting for his girlfriend outside McDonalds (lucky girl), explains about the bandh, a protest against a decision in Kashmir to stop a landsale for the benefit of Hindu pilgrims. It's the Hindu nationalist BJP party that have organised the bandh, and the shops are staying shut. We get in an autorickshaw to get to the Pakistan embassy. The rickshaw does not belch blue smoke. It must be faulty. The new part of Delhi is leafy and spacious - a real contrast to the old part of the city.
There's a crowd outside the embassy but there's a separate queue for foreigners. We speak to the official almost immediately through a small window. He's very friendly and positive - tells us to get our forms typed up, the money paid, and a letter of recommendation from our embassy and to come back at 4pm - we should get the visa next day. It feels strange, almost unbelievable after all the flannel we had in Bishkek, and we head off still not quite believing. We pay 150 pounds in at the bank. We get into the British Embassy compound close by and purchase our letter for another 60 pounds. The consular official asks us if we have read the government's travel advice for Pakistan and then asks us to fill out a form each and give her a copy of our visa application. We have never needed to do this before, but we are in India, Hindustan, Land of Bureacracy. By the time we have jumped through all the hoops, the four-line letter is ready. (I think it costs about 78 pence per letter to produce). Then we need to get our application form typed up. The Pakistan embassy is now closed, and the typewriter wallahs who set up under a nearby tree have all gone home. A helpful man suggests we go to the courthouse. He gives us directions and we climb aboard another farty rickshaw. By now our blood is pumping, we are drenched in sweat, the excitement of being in India momentarily surpassed by the
the thrill of the car chase (it always feels like we're in a car chase the way everyone drives) and the tension of getting our application done and dusted. It is - by a man sat under an umbrella with an ancient typewriter. The court complex teems with characters, lawyers, petitioners, hawkers, families, officials and Gayle is minded of Bleak House.
We return to the Pakistan embassy at 4 where a large crowd is gathered, most sat on the pavement, all looking quite relaxed. It is very hot now, and my shirt is covered in huge wet patches. We have to wait about 40 minutes, and then our little window opens and the friendly visa official appears. He asks if we can wait another 15 minutes and after that he directs us inside the embassy. We are ushered into an air-conditioned waiting room with a handful of others, all Indians. We are expecting an interview, but both look like we've just emerged from a jungle trek. The Indians all look impeccable. And then the most amazing remarkable thing happened: the visa official arrives and hands us our passports with our Pakistan visas. Praise be to Allah. In six hours we have our visas. We are stunned.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Father of Apples

This is how Almaty translates. We haven't seen a single apple yet, but there are plenty of SUVs roaming the main streets of this city in packs, black and silver monsters zooming up and down, menacing pedestrians. It looks and smells much wealthier than all the other Central Asian cities, but no surprise as Kazakhstan has oodles of oil and a tadge of gas too. It also has had the same president since independence from the USSR. As a Kyrgyz man pointed out to us in Bishkek, this is no bad thing, because the first thing a new president does is to take care of himself, his family and friends and only when he's milked the pot does he get round to doing anything worthwhile for his country. There are still plenty of Russians in Almaty, and everything and everyone looks a bit smarter and cleaner than Bishkek or Tashkent. Our first evening, in search of a kebab, we pass plenty of designer clothes shops, perfume stores, jewellery shops. We are really just passing through here, on our way to Delhi, but we have a few days and we want to go walking in the nearby mountains just south of the city.
These mountains form the border with Kyrgyzstan, and they tower over the city. Our trekking is delayed by a case of simultaneous bowel trouble, probably brought on by our first night's kebab. It is rare for us both to feel peaky, but we have our mobile library with us and have no difficulty lying in bed and reading and going for a short meander around the town. Each evening the hot weather is punctuated by a thunderstorm which brings the momentary relief of cooler air. The mountains look dark and daunting at these times, but we are not to be deterred. We finally put on our walking boots, and after a few cross-town bus rides trying to find a connection, we eventually head up one of the valleys above the city. The start of the walk is not so impressive. It's a Monday and the dirt road and riverside is littered with rubbish bags and leftovers from weekend picnics and barbecues. Our route also takes us past two hydro-electric stations and a huge feeder pipe that all look crumbly and abandoned. We emerge at the dam at the head of a lake that looks a little shallow - like someone's pulled the plug out by mistake. The water is milky blue. We climb a more beautiful side valley and follow a stream that feeds the lake. We're tired and looking for a flat pitch for our tent, but have to ascend a further 500 metres before we finally find it. We've got great views though, and ice cold fresh water nearby. We nod off to sleep during a late thunderstorm that rumbles and roars amongst the surrounding peaks.
Our second day is one of our best walking days - over a pass of 3500 metres where there is a strange collection of buildings and huts (marked as Kosmos stancia - space station - on our map) and down into an empty steep-sided valley brimming with wild flowers. As we start to descend through woods we come across deer, sniffing around camping spots for food. The walk is long and tough on the legs but the narrow path is fantastic, clinging to the side of the valley, high above a frothing river, through fields of flowers and nettles almost head-high in places. We emerge by the river where the road meets it and hurry down to catch a bus back to the city.
In bed this evening neither of us can quite believe that we'll be in Delhi the following night. We go to sleep dreaming of curry.