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.

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