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Published: November 6th 2006
Most of our dreams of Pakistan had involved finally getting up north to the giants of the Karakorum Range. Here the mighty Indus rushes out of the Himalaya and Pakistan has 3 different huge mountain ranges meeting; the Karakorum, Hindu Kush and Himalaya. It really is one of the highest places on earth and many of the world’s largest glaciers adorn the peaks.
Jolt, crash shudder…this was how I awoke to see my first glimpse of Pakistan’s Northern Areas, this was not really part of my dream. We were on a coach and the fact that I had been asleep at all was a miracle, Robin was not so fortunate and had been conscious of the entire 26 hour journey from Lahore to Gilgit. The coach was old and not the VIP service, this meant we had no leg room. Our discomfort was made worse by the fact that we were on the back of the coach and so every jolt caused us to lift from our seats and then crash back into them. Oh where was my comfy bike saddle? Oh yes we had left it in Lahore, I was still too weak to cycle after my stint in
In the Pamir.
hospital and we just had to get somewhere nicer and cleaner than Punjab.
I looked out of the window to see steep barren grey rocky hillsides plunging down to the grey silt laden Indus rushing below us. Eventually we arrived in Gilgit, the main town in the Northern Areas. We had passed the giant of Nanga Parbat, our first view of an 8000 metre mountain was by craning our necks to see it out of the coach windows. The Indus had turned right towards Ladakh and the Tibetan plateau, and we were now on the Gilgit River. This too was a rushing grey giant with big carved cliffs for banks that showed just how strongly the water carved its route out round here. We thankfully found Madina Guesthouse and were shown into a peaceful garden where we had a hut for a room. We stayed in Gilgit for 3 nights trying to recover from the bus journey, who said cycling was hard? We enjoyed walking around the market looking at the Pathan hat makers and buying Chinese dumplings and egg pakoras. Well we could not resist it, a deep fried boiled egg in batter, they have not though of
The nearly 7,000m peak above Hunza, taken from our balcony at Haider Inn.
that one in Scotland yet... We had some nice days gently walking through the terraced fields, enjoying the peace and quiet and clean air and feeling stronger and stronger after our illnesses in Lahore. Robin had picked up a chest infection while in the polluted city and this recuperation in the north was what we both sorely needed. We visited the carved stone Buddha near the town and spent a day walking near the river looking at new birds and lovely horses. Unfortunately there was no polo being played, for which the town is famous, since it was Ramadan.
We took a minibus up into the Hunza Valley leaving behind the Gilgit River to go further north to bigger mountains. I was not particularly looking forward to another bus journey, but happily was given the ‘ladies’ seat’ and soon realised that it was an advantage to be female on these small Toyota minibuses. It was also really nice to be sitting beside local women and during the journey I got chatting a little to some of them. I was surprised by the level of English, but we were soon to find out that in Hunza everyone goes to school
Hunzans dry everything on their rooves to preserve it for the long winter ahead. Rakaposhi is hidden by cloud in the background.
and most people speak English well. The locals on the bus were happy to point out the different mountains as we passed them and tell us the names. I wished that the bus had a glass roof, or that I was on a bike again, so that I could view them properly! We were very happy to be there at all, able to view these fantastic vistas in warm sunny weather with blue skies and white snowy mountain ridges.
We were welcomed in Karimabad by Mr Haider Jee. We had thought that we would check out a few different hotels before deciding which to stay in, but when we were shown his lovely top floor double room we were not moving anywhere. The price was cheap but the view was a ‘million dollars’. From our balcony we sat in warm sun and gazed at the ridge of Rakaposhi (7000+m) and across to Diran and The Golden Peak to the east. The Hunza River was far below us and we had fantastic views across the terraced fields of Nagyr; the ‘kingdom’ on the other side of the river. It was now autumn and the villagers we busy drying fruits ready
Near Gilgit. A remnant of the pre-Islamic Central Asian culture.
for winter and getting the last of the apples harvested. The many fruit trees were a riot of rich warm colours and the grins on our faces were very wide, especially when Haider Jee insisted on a nice welcome cup of milk chai.
The Northern Areas feel like a different country from the rest of Pakistan. In fact it was only in the 1970’s that the Mir’s (kings) ceded their sovereignty to Pakistan central government, and the whole area is also claimed by India as part of ‘Kashmir’. Anyway enough politics, for us the culture of the people and the faces of the people are different. Mostly the population of Hunza is Ismaeli, which is a sect of Shia Islam. The women are unveiled and educated. The people are fairer than the ‘Indian’ faces in the south, there are many high cheek bones and a definite either European or Central Asian look to some people. There seems to be much investment in the area from foreign NGO’s anyway and literacy is definitely higher. The older Ismaeli women wear brightly coloured and embroidered ‘pillbox’ hats under a white shawl, with dark braided hair flowing over their shoulders. The people’s faces
In the north people take obvious pride and care of their horses - Polo is a big deal in these parts. Its a nice change after all the horses in Punjab which looked about a day from death.
are deeply wrinkled by the harsh sun and lifestyle, but perhaps also by the fact they always seem to be smiling so much. Hunzans are also famous for their longevity so some of these deeply wrinkled faces may actually be well over a hundred, and still nimbly moving about on the steepest slopes imaginable. (NB-Hunzans are nice people and not in any way to be confused with the followers of a certain Glasgow football team.)
We spent 4 days in Karimabad chatting to other travellers and enjoying the huge and wonderful feast of the Haider communal ‘eat all you can’ dinners. The place is dreamlike, so quiet and beautiful and the food is simple and healthy. This was just what we needed. We did a strenuous trek up to Ultar meadows. The 2 Ultar peaks dominate the town and the glacier out of sight above us was our aim. We set off up the gorge following the river up and up. The path was fairly good and we noticed people above us on the cliff working on the water channels that snake their way around carrying water all over to irrigate the many terraces and keep the fertile farms
alive. These channels really are amazing; they are carved out of the cliffs and like all terracing around must have taken massive effort to build and maintain, but the people here are not afraid of hard work evidently.
An old landslide stopped our progress and we realised that the path had been destroyed. We looked up and saw a water channel above us on the left side of the gorge and so set off up a gully to reach it. This was a bit scary and I slowed down progress a lot by being afraid, but I was determined and with Robin’s help, despite the loose stones, eventually scrambled up to the water channel. We made it up to the meadow for lunch time seeing many little birds on the way. The peaks were now clouded over and the temperature had dropped considerably. The Ultar Glacier looked rugged and imposing as we looked across to its cold, jagged crevassed black surface. The cliffs all around bore the scars of past glaciers and we realised the scale of ice that was once here and that must still be here in front of us. It was hard to imagine the depths of
Giants in the Clouds
Ultar Peak and "Lady Finger" - the sharp pinnacle on the left, above Hunza.
ice involved in carving out these gorges and mountains.
After a few more days in Karimabad we felt ready to head north to find some more treks to do. We went to Passu, further up the Karakorum Highway (KKH). The scenery at Passu is even more magnificent. The famous Passu Cones grab your attention, but then the bus rounds a corner and the first of the many glaciers comes into view, causing you to gasp again. We stayed at Passu Inn, reluctantly, as the owner took an hour to turn up to let us in. It was getting to the end of the season and places were closing, however there is not much in Passu, so we did not have much choice. We did at least have a room with hot water. We ate at Batura Inn though since his meals were much better value and even I was full up afterwards! However we later discovered that the Shisper Hotel was a much better deal, so kicked ourselves a bit at staying at Passu Inn with its decidedly lazy and unwelcoming owner, who seemed to prefer not working to making money.
We set off the next day armed
From Ultar Meadow
with cake and apples that I had bought in Karimabad. I was disheartened to find that the shops in Passu pretty much only sell biscuits and rice. We should have stocked up more with lunch time food before coming up the valley. We chose to go to the Yunz valley, first though we had to climb up to Passu Glacier. It is so beautiful. We really enjoyed this wonderful walk that gives great views of this white glacier and some of its big crevasses. We walked up the deceptive Yunz valley; a high pasture which looked flat when we first saw it! Looking back we realised it was actually quite a steep little hanging valley. At the pass we were rewarded with great views of the colossal Batura Glacier; this is black ice and over 50 km long. Our senses of scale were totally warped now and we really were dwarves among these giants. We enjoyed our cake lunch looking down the Hunza valley again, up the Batura glacier and at the many impossibly high peaks surrounding us. The Passu Cones finally cleared of clouds to reward our effort in climbing up for a good view.
We wanted to
The path down from Ultar Glacier
Showing the amazing water channels cut into the cliff which keep Hunza alive and habitable, and also provide an exciting route off the mountain!
do a longer trek and decided to head to China! Well we were so close we could not resist it. We had to get to a village northwest of Sost called Misgar. We hitched a lift in the back of an empty truck up to Sost, where the official border offices and customs are, although it is another 80+ km to the actual border along the KKH. As border towns go Sost is OK, loads of trucks all go off to their tuck depot and the shops are full of Chinese produce. It was time to stock up on more cake! I was developing an addiction. Robin guarded the bags as I went round town buying supplies for our trek. Luckily we already had some tins of tuna on us, but I did find porridge and powered milk and of course the obligatory Chinese super noodles. Eventually a minibus arrived going to Misgar and we jumped in. We had been befriended by a teacher from Misgar and we soon found out that he was the guy who put up tourists in Misgar, great because there was nowhere else to stay. The road to Misgar was itself quite an adventure. It
was just wide enough for our bus and the drops down to the Kilik River below were truly scary, still the locals seemed not to bat an eyelid. Everyone around here lives perched on the edge of huge river cliffs or on terraces cut into very steep mountains. Flat ground? Well there is not much of it around.
That night was really very special. We were guests inside a home again, this had not happened for so long and it was really nice to see inside an Ismaeli village. We felt like travellers again, far away from the tourist trail we had inhabited for weeks. Our host had perfect English and we had a good discussion about differences in cultures and got some tips about our planned route ahead the next day. We also learned some Burushashki, the language of Hunza, although the nearby villages here speak Wakhi, a Tajik dialect. The village of Misgar was founded by Hunzans bringing their prized horses up to the superior summer pastures of the Pamir. It seems that the language changes abruptly every few km you travel along the KKH, thanks to centuries of near isolation by the giant peaks surrounding each
A small part of the mighty Batura Glacier, over 50km long and one of the world's largest.
community. We were treated to a meat stew and found out that the meat was actually Ibex. It was delicious, but we were keen to point out that in Europe we have hunted our Ibex almost to extinction. Our host asked his wife to prepare for us some Hunza bread (thick crusty brown bread) and we gladly accepted this for our trek up to the Chinese border. We set off the next day well prepared after a good feed of Hunza bread dipped in sweet milky chai.
Our trek was on an old silk road to the Chinese border. We were close to the Wakhan corridor in Afghanistan. The path was well made and the main route for the Misgar villagers to access their high pasture lands at the start of the Pamir Mountains. The Pamir are a more open and rounded landscape than the Karakorum and it was this change of scenery that made us choose this trek, also the chance for a sneaky no-visa step into China and back. The weather was good as we set off up the valley with the huge Karakorum towering over us and high valley ends far above us with their hidden
One of the +7000m peaks along the Bature Glacier.
glaciers. We somehow managed to talk ourselves out of crossing the small wooden bridge we should have taken and it was only when the snow clouds descended that we realised we were on the wrong side of the river and it was a long way back to the bridge. We pressed on across boulder and scree fields all the time tormented by the well made path on the other side of the river. We kept looking at the stones for a way across, but there was no way, the current was strong and we knew that the water was extremely cold. We kept upbeat though, but we had in the back of our minds that our route could come to an impassable cliff or that we may eventually have to ford the freezing waters! Eventually 8 hours after setting out with our full packs we tiredly arrived at our destination for that day; the lovely birch grove where the valley splits. We dumped our packs relieved to see lots of good camping opportunities and found a makeshift bridge over the river. We decided to stay on the ‘wrong’ side that night, as there were more trees and plenty of wood
A happy one though, gazing along the Batura with the Passu cones in the background.
for a fire. Robin happily got the fire started and it was a real lifesaver since the temperature soon plummeted. We were a bit cold that night in our tent and the ground and fly sheet were frozen in the morning. When we got onto the other side of the valley and into the sun the next day we had to rest and warm up, happily we perched on a big rock surveying our route back down the valley on the correct side for the return.
That day we climbed up to 4250m along a track well used by shepherds. We saw the Karakorum getting smaller and then the start of the Pamir and when the clouds came in the place looked like Scotland. We were lucky; we had pretty good weather with only one snow shower each day. The shepherds had long departed from these high meadows, since winter was definitely much more advanced here than further down and their huts were thus free for us to use. We had carried firewood with us for this night and we were warm inside our tent, inside a shepherds hut with a fire. It was a good job that we had
Clear at last.
the fire since our expensive MSR stove packed it in for the 2nd time on this trip.
On the way up to the pass the next day we got our first view of yaks and I was quite apprehensive, giving the beasts a wide berth, they were huge. Finally we got up to the plateau and Pamir of the Kilik Pass. “Yes I can see China,” I shouted, and “Oh I can see a fence too!” We could not believe it, even at almost 5000m there was a massive barbed wire fence preventing our illegal photo opportunity of ‘one foot in China’. We were quite disappointed, however there were beautiful glaciers up there and Robin was very distracted by footprints in the snow. He was hopeful that they might be wolf or even snow leopard. On the way back to the hut where we had left the majority of our kit we saw a herd of Ibex leaping and playing on the skyline and a Golden Eagle soaring over the valley. All the marmots however were fast asleep in the many burrows that line the meadows. We had another night back down in the same location as our first camp,
Passu Cones - again.
Well, can you ever get tired of this?
but this time we used a shepherd hut and had a warm, if smoky night. We happily stomped out very tired on the fourth day back to Misgar, having done 77km and climbed almost 2000m. Again we were looked after by the teacher’s family and they set about heating up huge pans of water for us to have a much needed wash.
We went back to Karimabad to rest and recover and enjoy the fantastic feasts at Haider Jee’s hotel. We ended up staying a week there; it’s a hard place to leave. There is much in the Northern Areas for us to return to. We did not feel we had enough time to go into Baltistan and also Robin had got a really sore foot that did not recover, as he thought it would, from a couple of days of rest. We contented our selves to small walks around Karimabad and slowly the swelling in Robin’s ankle improved. We visited viewpoints and the next village around the valley called Altit with its impressive fort perched on the lip of an enormous crag above the Hunza River. The fort was closed for renovation but the village of Altit was
impressive by itself; narrow lanes of stone and wood buildings that seemed more like something from medieval Europe than Pakistan. We also walked down to the river and upstream to the ‘Sacred Rocks’, lumps of hard rock protruding from the glacial sediment lining the river onto which have been carved ancient scenes of hunting Ibex on horses and various historical graffiti. The writing is in four different languages, including Tibetan, and was mostly left by Buddhist traders and pilgrims centuries ago. The most recent additions were left by Chinese labourers working on the KKH in the 1960’s.
Reluctantly we booked our bus ticket to return to Punjab and Islamabad. Our Pakistan visa was coming to an end and we needed to apply for an Indian Visa. This time at least we had the VIP bus for the journey to Islamabad, which meant a bit more leg room, but it was going to be18 hours before we arrived there.
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