Back in Lahore, after a nerve-wracking bus ride down from Peshawar, we settled into the Salvation Army hospital and pretty much did nothing. Coincidentally, or London friend Anna’s boyfriend, Dermot, was there and we quickly made friends with him.
One night Dermot, Magnus, myself, and an Australian couple went to see Diehard to at the movies; another day, Magnus Linda and I spent an afternoon exploring the Lahore Mosque, the Lahore Fort, and the Old City. The mosque was a spectacular sight, it’s 580 square foot courtyard – large enough to hold 10,0000 worshipers – enclosed by high sandstone walls with a minaret at each corner. The mosque itself was capped by a huge white-tiled cupola. flanked by two smaller cupolas, one on each side. The floor of the mosque was paved with marble and the walls covered with ornate mosaics.
Although the Lahore Fort wasn’t much to see – just another crumbly old ruin – the old city was something else. Narrow, dark streets were jammed with a cacophony of sounds and sights. Abattoirs and bakeries sat side-by-side with tinsmiths and spice shops, and the streets themselves crammed with people, bikes motorcycles, and horse carts. We ate a small meal at a mussa kaffana [a small street restaurant] and it’s owner refused to take money for the food or the chai that we had with it.
Dermot and I went to a pool hall one night where we played 10 games of pool and tried to score some hash but didn’t have any luck. On our last night in Pakistan though, Dermot managed to buy some on the street and we all got stoned to pieces on it. Dermot’s catch-phrase as he rolled a joint was always “set phasers to stun” and his blunts certainly did the trick. In fact, we got too stoned and we all went from giggling wrecks to crash-burns in fairly short order!
DARA. It was pouring with rain as we dismounted from the rattly, leaking bus in the main and only street of Dara Adam Khel. It had taken about an hour to make the trip from Peshawar, and even though we were armed with permits obtained from the Home Secretary of Tribal Areas, we hadn’t been asked for them.
The street was awash with mud and rainwater, and we trudged along it looking for a chai shop. We asked the guy with eyes like strings for chai and he replied furtively “yes, hashish, hashish!” Shots were ringing out everywhere and every shop was full of a murderous array of armaments.
We went into one of the shops and asked if we could get some chai. The shopkeeper obliged by getting us some curry and naan, so we sat and ate there, surrounded by rows of pistols, shotguns, rifles, and knives. After we had eaten, we browsed about the shop and Magnus and I bought a pen gun¹ each. The shopkeeper test-fired both guns out the door of his shop: vicious little bastards of things with a report like a shotgun going off!
When we left that shop, we walked up the street looking at the amazing array of weaponry racked up in the stores: AK47s, RPGs, SLRs, hunting rifles, pistols, shotguns, knives and other instruments of death.
In another shop, a man who spoke reasonably good English asked if we would like to fire an AK-47. Magnus wasn’t interested but Linda and I were. The cost was 150 rupees for 30 rounds – one full magazine – and the man led us up the street and across a sodden graveyard to a muddy clearing at the foot of a hill. He showed us the mechanism of the rifle and pointed to a hole in some rocks up the hill about 80 m away. There were a few people around within easy range of a ricochet, but he didn’t seem too worried about it so I aimed and fired. Not much of a recoil and a medium report. I fired off another couple of rounds, raising dust on the edge of a hole in the cliff.
Then Linda had a go, firing off two rounds, but I think she found it a little bit scary. Then I fired off some short bursts of automatic. The stock of the gun was wet and slippery and hard to hold. It wanted to jump up and sideways. The spent cartridges flew out of the ejector port landing around Linda and Magnus’ feet, and the acrid smoke coiled up out of the muzzle and from the ejector opening.
After 3 bursts the cocking lever locked back in the rifle was empty. The rain was still pouring down, so after paying for the ammunition we caught the bus back to Peshawar and spent the rest of the day indoors.
¹Pen guns are a novelty firearm made in Darra. They fire a .21 calibre cartridge and would be lethal if used at close range. I sent my pen gun home in several pieces from different parts of Asia…and I still have it.
We bussed out to Peshawar in pouring rain and we had to book two extra seats for our luggage so we could keep it inside out of the weather. In Peshawar, we booked into the Tourist Inn Motel, run by an amiable guy with one eye and a penchant for hashish. On the wall of the patio area was an endearing sign saying:
TOURISTS INN MOTEL
ALL CUSTOMER AREAPPRE-
CIATED IF THEY KEEP THE
EXPANCIENCE THINKS TO
THE RECEPTION OTHER-
WISE WE ARE NOT RES-
PONSIBLE. MOTEL OWNER
[Translation: we appreciate it if all customers would hand their expensive things (expancience thinks) to the reception, otherwise we are not responsible for theft.]
Later on, up in the main street, we met a couple of Aussie guys and had a yarn with them then we got something to eat at a restaurant. At the motel, we drank coffee and talked until the power went off and we went to sleep.
THROUGH THE BARRICADES. The rain was still pelting down from a leaden sky when we boarded a minibus at 7.30am. The road was apparently blocked by a slip 25 km downstream, and we were told that minibuses were ferrying people from one side of the slip to the other where further transport down the Indus Valley was waiting.
The first landslide was 100 m wide and despite the occasional rock rolling down, one or two vehicles were crossing it. We unloaded our packs and began walking across the sea of mud, keeping an eye on the upper slopes above the road. Magnus panicked and began to run shouting “Hurry, for God sake hurry!”
I just continued to walk, taking some photos as I went. As far as slips go this is nothing to worry about. On the other side, we climbed into a waiting Suzuki van which took us about 10 km downstream to the next slip. This one, however, was quite severe. Rubble and mud covered the road for about 80 m, and more was coming down. As we watched, three huge rocks, probably weighing 8 tonnes each, rolled down the slope and crashed into the raging river below, sending up an enormous shockwave of water against the trees on the opposite bank.
I was game to walk across, despite the risk, but Magnus was scared shitless and Linda wasn’t all that keen, so we took the advice of a couple of locals who said that they “didn’t want to die” and went to find a way around. About 100 m before the slip, a steep path let up the hill into the mist so he began to climb. It was very steep – almost vertical – and Magnus sat down trembling and would only go on after one of our guides had taken his pack and Linda had taken his day bag.
Our other guide took Linda’s backpack saying “it is my duty as you are a visitor to our country” and we continued to climb up the steep slope with rain pouring down on us.
The river below us was raging down the gorge: a vicious, seething mass of filthy brown water. Above it, the terraced hillsides stretched up into the mist and small collections of mud houses crouched on the ridges, safe from landslides and the river.
We crossed above the slip then began to descend to the road, again passing a long line of Pakistanis, some carrying huge loads on the heads, trudging up the hill in the opposite direction. Few people, it seemed, were game to tempt Allah by crossing the slip.
Back on the road again, we piled into yet another minivan for the 60 km run down to Mansehra, a town of mud and rain, where we caught another bus to [Rawal]‘Pindi.
We got a taxi to the Saddar District and found a hotel with lots of hot water…lots and lots of hot water. We climbed out of our wet muddy gear and took turns in the shower which was utter bliss!
At night we made pigs of ourselves at a 95 rupee buffet at a restaurant called The Excellency Table, just down the street from the hotel.
HELL RIDE TO BESHAM We caught the 9 a.m. N.A.T.C.O bus from the Gilgit bus station and suffered through 10 hours of the most dangerous driving I’ve ever had to endure.
Rain, snow, rockslides, fog, and some bizarrely crazy driving combined to make the trip a prolonged adrenaline rush.
By the time we reached Besham, we were worn out by being constantly shocked by near-misses involving other vehicles and sheer drops to the sullen, serpentine Indus. We ate a meal of beef curry, dahl and naan bread, then retired to bed with the rain continuing to pour.
It was snowing lightly when we rose at 7 a.m. and a shroud of mist enclosed the whole valley, cutting visibility to a few hundred metres. By the time the minibus turned up, our packs were covered by a thin coating of snow and the ground was becoming white. The mini-bus ride down to Gilgit was quite exhilarating. The road was somewhat slippery in places and a few small avalanches of rock had come down from the steep hills above.
We stop for chai at Gulmit while the driver bled the brakes, then we carried on down to Gilgit and booked into the Hunza Inn once again. We had a hot wash from a bucket of water then caught a Suzuki up to the Serena Lodge where we pigged out on burgers and chips, read the latest copies of Newsweek and wrote up our diaries.
The others joined us later and we watched 2 videos: Not Without My Daughter starring Sally Field, and Sleeping With The Enemy starring Patrick Bergin and Julia Roberts.
REACHING NORTH We had made arrangements with one of the local mountain guides to hire a Jeep for the day, but he turned up jeep-less at 8:30 with a story about his grandfather dying.
True or not it was hard to say, so we arranged another Jeep and set off with a different driver to see how far north we could get.
Just out of Ganesh, at the edge of the river, we stopped for a few minutes to look at some ancient rock drawings of ibex that have been etched into the boulders beside the river, and then, a little further on, at an abandoned ruby mine in a cliff next to the road.
The path that the road took was winding and spectacular: cut into the sheer rock high above the river in some places; following the contours of alluvial terraces in others. There were several small landslides where rocks had crashed down onto the road, but all in all, the Karakoram Highway seemed to be in pretty good condition.
The views became more and more spectacular as we moved north towards the jagged Passu massive, rising sheer from the floor of the valley.
We stop for chai at Ghulmet – a small frozen hamlet at the centre of a wide area of river flats – then moved on deeper into the mountains. The road became progressively more snow-covered and slippery, although nothing to worry about really.
We stopped for a photo session high above the valley, where the road took a sharp turn around a shoulder of running shingle. The valley before us was hemmed in by sheer peaks of rock and everything around was frozen. The waterfalls were solid ice and the peaks and even the sky seem frozen solid and immobile until spring.
A light haze covered the sun, throwing the whole scene into a kind of grey cast, merging the colours to an almost single shade as if we were looking at a lithograph or a black and white negative.
We reached Passu – locked in perpetual shadow until the days lengthen – and then a little further on, we stopped at the Batura River, flowing down from the mighty Batura Glacier. We left the jeep and walked up the riverbed towards the glacier. The valley was in shadow and as we neared the glacier the river began to freeze over until we could walk along upon it
The landscape was stupendous! Jagged spires of rock, impossibly steep, lanced into a sky of such cobalt blue and it almost hurt to look at it. The land was devoid of any vegetation – a landscape of tortured rock, freezing water, and pure air.
At the foot of the glacier, an ice cave had been formed by the combined action of melting and wind. The ice inside the cave, which was in fact a tunnel running beneath the ice to an amphitheatre of black ice and rubble, was transparent and had the colour and texture of obsidian. The wind had sculpted delicate flutes and ridges across its surface, and the lumps of ice resting on the floor of the cave had the appearance of raw glass.
The cave was absolutely dry, to the point of being dusty, and the appearance of the ice didn’t seem to be due to melting as much as erosion by wind-driven dust.
Back down at the jeep, we set off again and followed the black ribbon of the Karakoram Highway north along the edge of the river, which was flowing rapidly southwards, as if fleeing the cold mountains and thin air of the Khunjerab Pass.
John and Magnus began to make noises about turning back, so we stopped at the mouth of a gorge and turned around. We were at an altitude of about 11,000 feet and at a latitude of approximately 37 degrees north: the zenith of our Pakistan trip.
We spent a few minutes there throwing rocks into the copper-green water of the river and breathing in lungfuls of air so clean and cold that it was intoxicating, then turned and headed south.
At Ghulmet, we stopped again for some soup and chapatis then continued on back down to Karimabad.
THE ULTAR GLACIER. Magnus, Tim, Jonathan and I set off at 10:30 to climb up to the Ultar Glacier at the head of the steep gorge, which cut the hillside behind the village. The morning was cold and clear, and the mountains seemed so close that they could be touched. To the left, Golden Peak was a sheer wall of orange rock crowned with ice, and directly across the valley, the ice dome of Diran Peak rose for over 7,000 metres into the clear skies. Down to the south, the giant among giants, Rakaposhi stood aloof cold and deadly.
We stopped at one of the shops in the bazaar and bought some chocolate bars to sustain us on the climb, then walked up to the top of the hill to a point just beneath the Baltit Fort, where a track leading to the gorge began. The path was well-trodden. Its surface was a fine powder and led across the neat terraces then into the boulder-choked mouth of the gorge and upwards along the left-hand side of a stream.
We climbed hard for an hour and a half up the steep track, in places hopping from boulder to boulder or crunching across frozen pools of water. Our first sight of the glacier was some black and filthy ice protruding from the jumbled wasteland of moraine, then further up, rubble-choked cracks in the ice began showing through.
Magnus and John lost heart as the moraine became steeper and unstable, and they turned back leaving Tim and I to carry on: rock-hopping up the steep gully, then climbing up the lateral moraine to a vantage point above the glacier.
We sat and had a snack and enjoyed the view of the glacier whose lower slope led up to an icefall coming down from the foreboding, unclimbed flanks of Ultar Peak¹. As we watched, a huge avalanche thundered out from the valley above the icefall and crashed down upon the shattered seracs [ice pinnacles], sending a billowing cloud of snow and debris flying out across the glacier and carrying the roar of the avalanche’s passage down to us.
Although the sun was shining, it was cold sitting out on the exposed slab where we were, so we headed back down the side of the moraine and began to descend to the jumble of boulders and rubble.
As we climbed downwards, another avalanche rattled down off the wall of the valley just 100 m or so away from where we were standing. The noise filled the air with jagged sound and the swirling cloud of air and powdered ice billowed out towards us.
We rested at the base of the terminal moraine, leaning against the flat side of a huge boulder enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun and being out of reach of the sharp breeze which still blew down from the snowfields above.
Halfway back down, we stopped at the beginning of a water channel that ran from the stream across the sheer rock wall of the valley. I was keen to follow it around to see where it went but Tim wasn’t keen so we continued our descent to the valley floor and back to the village. When we got back to the Hunza Inn, the cook had some hot soup ready for us so we all ate that then rested up until darkness once again enveloped the valley and the harsh light of the sun was replaced by the cold silver light of the moon.
¹Ultar’s two summits were finally climbed in 1996.
FOOTNOTE: The stream we climbed that day (and would revisit in 1994) is called the Ultar Nala. In the early 2000s, we named our chocolate Labrador Nala after this stream.