Koromiko newsletter 2005 and some of 2006.... Home
Record highs in Pakistan - by Andy
In June, I travelled to Northern Pakistan as part of a group organised by Pam Henson (Chris's ex). This wasn't the first time I'd attempted to go there: three years earlier Pam organised a group, but it was cancelled weeks before we were due to travel due to hostilities between India and Pakistan (which cooled down shortly after we cancelled!).
This year, luck was with us: an unprecedented level of peace had broken out; though the New Zealand Foreign Office was still issuing warnings to travellers. In fact, one of our party, Grace, had been phoned up by officials trying to dissuade her from visiting Pakistan!
Our group consisted of Pam and I, Tama (Pam and Chris's son), Brenda (a vet from the West Coast), Steve from Taumaranui, Joe from Wellington, and Henry and Grace (Tama's friends- joining us on the final leg of their round-the-world honeymoon).
Flying separately from most of the group, I met them in Thailand, where I had a three day stopover- long enough to do some clothes shopping! Tama took us to a famous Sunday market- which was the size of a small city, a great place to shop. The pet fish section was amazing- luckily I couldn't take any with me, or I'd have bought lots of the amazingly coloured cichlids....
We left for Pakistan together, arriving late at night in Lahore. Leaving the airport was like stepping into a hot bath- the air temperature was still 42 degrees. We later learnt that the previous day had been a record high for Pakistan, with the thermometer topping out at 52 degrees! We were met at the airport by some of the staff of Karavan Leaders, the Lahore- based trekking company who would take us to Shimshal, and taken to our hotel (which was, thankfully, air conditioned!).
A couple of days Lahore was quite enough in the heat. For a large part of the time, scurrying between air conditioners was our principle activity. A trip to the Lahore Fort and Mosque was unmissable, but a trial in the heat. Visiting the mosque required removing footwear, and walking on sunlit stone was good practice for firewalking! An invitation by Tayyub (a director of Karavan Leaders) to dinner at his family house was likewise a trial by heat. The hot curries didn't help and we all dripped embarrassing amounts of sweat. I was horrified to learn in conversation with a young man that he and his brothers all wished to stay living at home with their mother. This was the biggest culture shock of the trip for me! (Sorry mum ).
Other highlights of Lahore included spotting a fast food place called the 'Vergina Cafe' (not a place I wanted to eat out...) and shopping for our shalwar kameez (the local pajama like cotton clothes which we all bought to blend in with the locals).
Our journey to Shimshal was to be broken at Fairy Meadows, the base camp of Nanga Parbat, which was still over two days by bus from Lahore. Our first night was in Islamabad, and on the second day we set off up the increasingly mountainous Karakorum Highway, through an area since devastated by the Pakistan earthquake. Seeing the Indus River, one of the world's great rivers, was amazing. The snowmelt had raised the river to its highest level for 50 years, a churning, boiling torrent of liquid mud constrained to a narrow channel by mountains which dived down thousands of metres at a steep angle. Somehow, the road clung to the steep, barren slopes above the river, not a place to meet oncoming traffic on blind corners (we did, and somehow lived to tell the tale).
On our third day from Lahore, we transferred to jeeps by the Indus at Raikot bridge, and took a steep, terrifying ride up a side valley, where the road was perched on a 70 degree rockface with drops of hundreds of metres. Gaining 2000m, we unloaded at the road end for the last hour or so walk (or mountainbike ride for me) to Fairy Meadows. The dusty dryness of the valley was gradually replaced by lush greenery and fir forest, and quite suddenly, I topped a rise and found myself on a beautiful lawn studded with tents and an awesome view of Nanga Parbat, one of Pakistan's five 8000m peaks.
Our group had a total of 3 days at fairy meadows, acclimatising (with varying success) to the mountain air three kilometres above sea level. Not surprisingly, given the stunning beauty to be found, it is popular with tourists (a relative term in Pakistan, though). This had the unfortunate effect of making the locals camera shy, and unwilling to let tourists photograph their (very picturesque ) summer village. That aside, our time was relaxing and fun, with walks up to Nanga Parbat base camp (which only Grace and I completed), and on ridges around the camp, where I found wild rhubarb and a host of other familiar garden flowers growing wild. I cooked rhubarb for our guides, who chewed the raw stems but had no concept of eating it cooked. Hopefully the wild rhubarb will survive the resultant rash of local rhubarb crumble makers.
Leaving fairy meadows was a particular pleasure for me, as I had a 20km ride downhill, loosing over 2 vertical kilometres and a fair bit of brake rubber I dare say! We stopped at Gilgit, a squalid dump of a town at the entrance to the Karakorum ranges. Henry was ill, so a malaria check at the hospital was done (and was negative), but Henry continued to be ill for much of the trip. Our night stop at Passu was amazing- situated just before our turn off to Shimshal, the mountains were tall and impossibly steep and spiky- a real Mordor!
The 60km jeep track to Shimshal was even more scary than the one to Fairy Meadows, and involved a vehicle change half way as the river had washed out the road. I cycled the last 30km, with a stop at the tepid spings of Kuk, where clear bathing pools lie just across the river from a glacier snout, and a chance to clean off the day's grime. By the time I reached Shimshal, the others had arrived and were having tea in the house next to our campsite. We had all our meals in this house- the family who owned it were paid by Karavan Leaders for use of the house, apparently. Like all houses in Shimshal, it had no windows, just one skylight in the centre of the room to let light in. The perishingly cold winters and lack of glazing (until recently) encouraged this building style. The introduction of stoves with chimney pipes at least meant the smoke from the fire didn't have to find its way out of the skylight any more, which must have improved the health of the villagers!
Pam had been to Shimshal three times before, spending some months teaching in the village. She had also set up the Shimshal Trust to help education in the village, by buying schoolbooks and providing scholarships for promising students to go to collage, for example. She had also sponsored a local teacher, a woman called Hussn, to come to New Zealand for a year to learn teaching skills. The spin off from all this worthy work by Pam was a good deal of goodwill to us from the villagers, which gave us all a view of local life we would not have got as regular tourists. We were invited to dinner with several families, and made to feel very welcome. The Karavan Leaders staff were largely Shimshalis, and we were providing employment to a number of men in the village who were to act as our porters on a trek to the Shimshal Pass (more about that later).
We spent another three full days in Shimshal before the trek. Just as well, as our whole party suffered acute vomiting and diarrhoea overnight on the first night (except Tama and Henry who were already on antibiotics for various lurgies). I suspect the apricots we'd eaten (bought from kids at the roadside) two days earlier were the culprits. It took me a day to recover, then I was fine, unlike everybody else, who felt sick to one degree or other for the rest of the trip! We did manage a few walks around Shimshal though. The village was sat on a lateral moraine next to a braided river in a once glaciated valley. The area was totally arid, but the village was an emarald green oasis, watered by leets (water channels) bringing irrigation water from snowmelt streams. One stream had a hydroelectric turbine (installed by a Japanese aid project) to provide enough electricity for lights in the village. Unfortunately the creek froze in winter, when I guess the need for artificial lights is greatest!
On our forth day in Shimshal, we set off on a trek to the Shimshal Pass. Henry was feeling bad, and rode on a yak, but he and Grace turned back at lunchtime, feeling it was better to recover in Shimshal and Karimabad (Hunza) where medical treatment was more available. We didn't see them again until we reached Hunza again near the end of the trip.
The rest of us had a trek through the most spectacular scenery I've ever seen, bar none. Turning off the wide glacial valley where Shimshal is situated, we entered a deep chasm of a gorge. Bare, rocky walls rose hundreds if not thousands of metres above us. A steep climb brought us briefly onto easier terrain above the chasm, but as we headed up the valley, the chasm deepened, and soon we were negotiating a narrow path built into a 70 degree rock face, with drops of several hundred metres to the river. Extreme tramping- not for sufferers of vertigo! Stephen was particularly blown away by it- he'd never travelled abroad before.
Our night stop was in a side valley flat enough to provide a few tent pitching stops, and reached after a superb scree run.
The next day, the path continued up the gorge, until a moderate grade rock climb took us down to a bridge , and the valley opened out a bit. Then a huge climb up the valley side, to a flat area, where the porters celebrated with a dance. We joined in- a sort of ritualised swaying and stepping. Very odd and eastern! From there, the track gradually climbed to 4000m, then dropped to our campsite in a side valley high above the main river. Wild rhubarb grew everywhere in dry screes. Why it needs deep moist soils in cultivation mystifies me, having seen its rocky, arid natural habitat!
The next day was a long one. The main river rose steeply to meet us, then we walked along the river valley floor. As we gained altitude, the wildflowers got better and better. Dozens of species of pea flower alpine plants carpeted the valley in purples, yellows, and whites. In wet spots, primulas held their flowers aloft in small drumstick inflorescences. We had lunch at the village of Shujurab, just before the climb to the Shimshal Pass. The village was empty, being used in Spring and Autumn only by the Shimshalis. As we left, a roar like thunder sounded behind us, and a mud slide released from the mountain opposite, eventually reaching and covering the footpath we'd just been on.
Our porters made camp on the wide, flat pasture of the pass at 4600m. The view of snow covered peaks on two sides, and distant snow covered ranges ahead was superb! It was also darned chilly.
Our next day was a rest day. A short walk on the other side of the pass was the summer village. There were many women in colourful traditional dress (the people are Ishmaeli muslims, and do not require women to cover their faces and stay hidden from view, as in much of Pakistan). Kids, often blond haired and blue eyed, played and ran around. The men were playing cricket in the fields beyond the village.
Hussn's mother greeted Pam emotionally, then we had a morning of invitations to houses for tea and yak-cheese pancakes (a local speciality). The houses were lined with yak dung for the fire, and yak milk boiled on the stoves in the first stage of cheese making. Luckily, stoves with chimneys had been recently introduced, and so the atmosphere wasn't too smoky. The women of Shimshal have a hard life herding and milking the yaks, and making cheese all summer in the cold, thin air. With all the smoke too, its no wonder that respiratory problems are common.
New Zealand Cricket had given us a load of 'Black Caps' baseball style hats, with the proviso that we take photos of Shimshalis playing cricket in them, so with our porters and the men of the village, we formed two cricket teams and played at 4500m on a sloping pitch. I played lethargically. None of the Pakistani men could understand my complete disinterest in the sport. It was a relief to finish for lunch. A short lived relief though- the day was a celebration of the Aga Khan's coronation, and we were invited to join the celebration lunch. Sitting in double lines- men separate from the women- we were served bowls of boiled goat offal. Quite the most unpleasant meal I've had since dried salted guppies in Zimbabwe. We managed to find a few vaguely edible bits (kidneys) for the sake of politeness.
After lunch, we had a final invite to Hussn's mother's house, where we ate a much more delicious yak cheese pancake, followed by tea. The tea was a shock- it tasted like seawater. This was how the locals drank it- another contributing factor to the high rate of heart disease in the area ( I tried to educate them about this! ).
Maedi woke me at one in the morning the next day, for an attempt on Mingling Sar, a 6000m peak flanking the pass. Tama was the only other member of our group to attempt the climb, though several porters came too, and Moin (a Pakistani tourist who was travelling with our group). Tama was still feeling ill with gastroenteritis, and made a brave effort to get to the top, suffering far more than I did. The first half of the climb was up rocky screes, and I felt fit and hardly affected by the altitude. When we reached the snow, we roped up and used poles to help prevent falls (only Maedi had an ice axe ). I found it progressively harder, and the last couple of hundred feet to the top were hard- a few steps and then a rest, puffing like a steam train. Bright flashes of light whizzed across my vision- symptoms of hypoxia- though I didn't feel sick, and only had a mild headache. Tama, on the other hand, christened the summit with a multihued oral emission. The exhilaration of summiting was magical, but equally I had a strong drive to descend to thicker air. We had a few minutes taking photos and admiring the view. We had great views of the route up from Shimshal, to the pass way below us, and of K2 and the big Karakorum mountains to the east. Clouds were building fast, so we had been lucky to get the views.
On the way down, the snow softened snow couldn't support our weight, and we post-holed down the hill (that's why we needed the early start - to get up to the top while the snow was firm). We were greeted at the camp with garlands of primulas and congratulations from the locals, who seemed genuinely happy for us. It was the high point of our trip for me in more than one way!
It was all downhill from there. The next day we headed back towards Shimshal in wet weather. The locals said they'd never seen it rain so hard! It did improve as the day went on, though. More rain in the night the next night too! After that, our party split, with Pam (limping from an undiagnosed ankle fracture) and Tama and Brenda (suffering from gastroenteritis) and Joe heading back to Shimshal the way we came, whereas Steve and I chose to go via the 5300m Shipadeen Pass (which means 'place where rhubarb grows').
The weather didn't improve much as we headed for the pass, though a profusion of wildflowers made up for the indifferent weather. Beautiful yellow alpine Clematis, Potentilla, and Edelweiss shared the slopes with hundreds of other wildflowers. Each hillside would be dominated by flowers of one colour - purple, yellow, or white. After an overnight stop, we climbed above the flower meadows onto snow, and I tried to keep up with Wahab to the top of the pass (and failed, but still set a good pace).
There was a very steep and fun descent to the next valley, with a huge scree run (once the slope eased enough to allow it!) to a rhubarb- covered valley side. This was the most beautiful valley we encountered, with lateral moraines glowing yellow with flowers, glaciers at the valley head, and a braided river . Lower down the valley, flat pastures were flanked by tall rocky peaks and spires.
We spent another night at the lower end of the valley, before the river spilled out of the hanging valley into a steep gorge. A four hour walk and a thousand metre drop brought us back to Shimshal the next day, where Pam, Tama, Brenda and Joe were waiting for us.
After resting in Shimshal, we were due to leave for Karimabad (Hunza) the next day. I took the opportunity to cycle down the jeep track down the Shimshal valley and gorge, a gentle 500m drop over 60km. I met the others at the bottom, totally buggered and ready for lunch.
We had a two night stop in Karimabad, where we met up with a recovered Henry and Grace. Karimabad (formerly known as Hunza) was a separate country till the '70s, when it relinquished sovereignty to Pakistan. The seat of power was the Baltit Fort, now open to the public, which was a fascinating place to visit.
Hunza is only 500m lower in altitude than Shimshal, but the range of crops and fruit trees grown there makes it a much more hospitable looking place- an irrigated garden of Eden, with 7000m peaks rising straight up from each side of the valley. A great place to relax before our journey back, enjoy real coffee and internet access for the first time in weeks!
The main excitement on the journey back was hearing that a bus on the Karakorum Highway had been attacked by bandits, and seven people were killed. (The driver accelerated when the bandits tried to hold it up- not a good idea, as they sprayed it with bullets). This caused some anxiety in our party, but I wasn't too worried- just after an incident like that is probably the best time to travel. We passed the bus, on its side, half blocking the road, with windscreen peppered with bullet holes. However, with the London tube bombings having occurred only a few days earlier, I would hesitate to suggest that Pakistan is any more dangerous than London to travel in.
It was with much sadness that we left Pakistan- most of our party returning to New Zealand, Tama to Thailand for a beach holiday, and me to England. For me, it was a tramping trip of unsurpassed scenery, but also a chance to learn about life in a different culture and make new friends as well getting to know old friends better!