Saturday, August 2, 2008

The end of the Himalayas

We've just gone to bed when there's a knock at the door. Opening up I'm met by a face from America's Most Wanted. No, sorry, it's James, our English friend, in a very sharp shalwar kameez and a funky handlebar moustache. He has just completed a tough trek up to the K2 basecamp and over a very high pass - a 15 day adventure that has left him looking remarkably tanned and healthy. Maybe being on the run is good for you. We last met fleetingly in Uzbekistan so there is much to catch up on, and we talk for a long time. It's so nice to meet old friends on the road. Sadly the next day we are leaving for Fairy Meadow, but we may meet again. I hope so - he never did give me the address of his tailor in Lahore.
Fairy Meadow is one of northern Pakistan's most popular destinations, as it is the easiest walk to an 8,000m peak base camp. The peak is Nanga Parbat, and it marks the western end of the Himalayan range. The Indus cuts through the geological fault at the point where the Karakoram range meets it. This rather naff geographical description can be clarified by turning to Page 72 of the Times Concise Atlas of The World (2004 edition). Or Google Earth it. Anyway, here we are with Claudia (Germany) and Celine (France) and David (Italy), a European union of trekkers, jammed into a Japanese minibus heading towards the mountain. I'm wedged next to a long-bearded man who seems to suffer from a Pavlovian response to motion. He frequently deposits excess saliva onto the floor of the bus. Our two-hour ride turns into a five-hour ride when the driver runs out of diesel. He dumps everyone at a roadside tea stall and goes off in search of the precious stuff. After a cup of tea and a little banter with all the men hanging around (in Pakistan there are always men hanging around, no matter what time of day or where you are), we start to sweat. The heat in the valley is overbearing. Finally we depart again for the remaining 15km and get out at a Jeep stop. There we board a jeep as old as me, driven by a man with a very curly little toe and a squidgy blob of hashish, which he rolls in his hand as we negotiate the fare. He takes us up a dirt road, a very rough rocky road that winds up a side valley, a dry steep-sided gorge, climbing 1300 metres. We stop occasionally for the driver to refill his radiator and rest his arms. This is probably the most fantastic ride of my life. The narrow road has been built by locals, cut out of the sheer rock face, and built up with dry stone cantilevered support. In places it is eroding from water run off. In others there is landslide damage. A hundred metres below is a parallel road that suddenly disappears - a forerunner that has been wiped clean off the cliff by rockfall. At some points you can look down below to the river in the distance - a bowel-loosening drop of maybe 500 metres. The ride lasts an hour and a half. It's exhausting.
After this, the walking is a doddle, and as it is the end of the day it's cool. We arrive at Fairy Meadow, a grassy clearing in some woods high on the side of the valley, to watch the sunset over the north face of Nanga Parbat and the long tail of its glacier. We spend a couple of nights here taking a closer look of the mountain the next day. It's a classic view that has been reproduced in thousands of posters published by the Pakistan Tourist Board, pasted up in every hotel north of Islamabad.
Our return to Gilgit features another prolonged stop at our favourite tea stall. We are offered a ride by a group of young men from Peshawar. We accept. Unfortunately they have a flat tyre and it is being repaired. Would we like to wait? Well, okay. These men needed permission form their elders to visit the Northern Areas. The elders at first refused - too dangerous. Ironically, we think Peshawar might be too dangerous to visit. They invite us anyway. Everyone wants to talk and we ride back chatting endlessly. "Do you think September 11th really happened?" I am asked. They kindly deposit us back at our guesthouse where we spend a couple of days laundering, reading, eating and playing Chinese Poker with David and Celine. Not for money - David, who has a beautiful smile and dancing eyes, like a young Paul Newman, is a shark. From about 11 til 7 in the evening Gilgit melts in the summer heat. There is talk of 43 degrees Celsius. It's just too hot to think. Celine resolves one of Gayle's dilemmas - how to get a haircut in Pakistan? - by producing shears and doing the deed. The next day we go in different directions. We have spent perhaps five days with David and Celine, a wonderful couple, and it feels like we have known each other for years. When they leave we feel a bit adrift.

1 comment:

yellowlemonie said...

Lucky James then - there was an avalanche at K2 last week - claimed 11 lives (some say 13)...

Keep up the spirits! :)