Friday, September 12, 2008

Karakorum High

Crossed into Pakistan without any problems or rock slides or snow leopard attacks, I sighed for relief and finally cracked someone else's Lonely Planet to figure out what this country offered a man just travelling through. We all went to Passu, a nearby town surrounded by glaciers and peaks, and I slowly realized that Pakistan's Northern Areas were my paradise. I cursed myself for only getting a fifteen day visa but commended my purchase of two trekking poles back in Urumqi. I slept outside our first night, set up my poncho/tarp tent to try out the cold, drank tea with a kind fellow who offered me a job teaching English right there surrounded by mountains, and the next day headed off to see the famous foot bridges nearby. Scary enough under normal circumstances, these bridges were particularly frightening when crossed toting a 30 lbs bag, but I made it across the first one, got lost on the other side of the river, and eventually made it back across, one foot slipping off a plank to make me really feel like Indiana Jones.

Passu Bridge East, originally uploaded by wanders.
I trekked through town and then up to the Balthus Lake where I finally got some cookies for breakfast. As I came down the hill from the lake and its view of nearby glaciers, a bus pulled up. I ran down the hill, threw my bag up and hopped ontop of the bus, as instructed, to hold my pack down. I couldn't really ask for a better introduction to the mountains than a bus-roof-top ride along the windy Karakorum Highway, which was spotted with Chinese workers - rumor has it the highway will be expanded to four lanes in the next three years to further allow trade between the two countries.
I made it Karimabad, suggested by a German trekker, and I strolled through the town after dropping my bag at the Hunza Inn. The Hunza is another group of people in an area smattered with different folks with their various languages and traditions - they had an amazing pastry cake with walnuts that tasted almost like pecan pie. I met my German friend again and signed up for a day hike up to the Ultar Meadow and to the Hon Pass, at 4300 meters. We got up at 6:30, ate a delicious omelet each, and set off on our 1900 meter ascent for the day, with my bold self toting nearly everything I own, save my blue corduroy jacket from Beijing, in an attempt to "condition" myself for future treks. We made it, munched on some cookies and tuna fish, and I tried front handsprings on my trekking poles that a Canon point-and-shoot was too slow to capture. I stayed at the Meadow to acclimate to the altitude, and was invited to stay at the hut there, which had a bit warmer floor than my sleeping pad. The fellow who offered me tea said that a Japanese alpinist had died a few years earlier attempting to reach the Ultar Peak, and afterwards his wife established a school there for the locals, which partly explained the surprisingly high number of Japanese signs and tourists in Karimibad.

Karimibad arrival, originally uploaded by wanders.
The next day, after an early rise, I headed onwards, to Gilgit, base point for another number of treks, and again rode ontop of a bus, this time by a few monumental peaks, such as Rakaposhi an Diran, meanwhile a fellow rider got sick on top of the bus and my batteries ran out in the middle of Bob Dylan - "how many roads must a man walk down..." I made it to Gilgit and finally felt the full force of Ramadan - more than half the stores were closed and no restaurants served food until after 7:30, when the sun went down and the fasting ended. My British acquaintances from Karimabad had already showed up, and we went out and ate Pakistani food, munching almost as hungrily as the Muslims that filled the place. After a day of sitting around as it rained, cleaning clothes, and hearing the numerous stories of travellers in Madina, the paradise of a hotel, we headed out, joined by Cody, the Icelander, and two Polish girls, for Fairy Meadow, and area with views of six peaks over 7,000 meters. We crammed six passengers into a jeep, and rolled out despite the drizzle, stopping once to see the junction point of the Karakorum, Hindu Kush, and Himalaya mountain ranges. A smaller jeep carried us off the paved road, but it proved less prepared than we were for the road ahead. Around twenty minutes up the steepest, windiest, scariest road I've ever ridden, our wheels lost the battle against gravity and began sliding towards the edge. We all jumped out, pulled off our bags, and piled rocks behind the underdog wheels, prayed, and then yelped for joy as the jeep lurched forward.

Fairy Meadow Jeep Trouble, originally uploaded by wanders.
We got out a few more times in the hairier spots, but arrived, two hours later at the base of the hike, to set out amidst drizzle for our meadow goal. We found a campsite - the place is overridden with money-seeking hostels, guides, stores, restaurants, and whatnot - and relaxed until sundown, when a warm fire and some instant noodles put us all at ease. I finally learned the value of my fork-potholder invention when it dropped half of my dinner into the fire as I went for a reheat. I disassembled my device and shared the forks with my needy friends. The next day, Cody and I hiked to the Nanga Parbat base camp, got a cloudy view of the eighth highest peak in the world, and then descended. I had thus far drowned my left foot on every hike I had done in Pakistan, but at Fairy Meadow, it remained dry, that is, until I rolled my ankle returning from base camp, and had to voluntarily stick my foot into a glacial stream to ice my swelling joint. Luckily I had my trekking poles, and once we finally arrived at our campsite, the clouds had parted and we had an impressive view of Nanga Parbat with a sliver of moon on top.

Moonlit Nanga Parbat, originally uploaded by wanders.
The next day we trekked down, after our two night stay, hopped in our jeep, and returned to the paradise of the Madina Hotel, where the owners told us stories of wild foreigners and an American who travelled with three swords for wild animal attacks. I set off, a day later, well fed from an after sunset feast - much better than instant noodles and tuna - and took the 24-hour, gut wrenching bus ride to Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan, which involved a stop at 3:45 am to eat before morning prayer and sunrise, and another stop at 7:30 pm for dinner, mingled with numerous traffic stops and police checkpoints along the long Karakorum Highway which takes you all the way to Islamabad. Upon arrival in Lahore, everyone at the Regal Internet Inn, rushed off by rickshaw to see music played in the Sufi tradition, meanwhile hash was passed around like candy and sweat beaded like dew drops on everyone's brow. After returning late in the night, yours truly was happy to sleep on a bed and not a bus seat, before the adventure continues on through Delhi to Kathgodam by train and then a taxi ride to Berinag, my final destination where I hope to heal my ankle, volunteer my skills and assimilate some culture.
"We convince not by our arguments, similes rhymes.
We convince by our presence." -Whitman "Song for the Open Road"

1 comment:

Shawbee said...

You are an exceptionally cool cat. I don't know if you've been keeping track, but Hurricaine Ike was headed our way for a few days, then decided to wreck Houston instead. Keep it up.