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.
We got out of the Rakaposhi View Hotel as soon as we could and caught a Suzuki van up to Karimabad: our original destination.
At over 9,000 ft the air was colder and cleaner, the view beyond belief, and the mountains beyond description. A boy who spoke very good English led us down to the Hunza Inn, perched at the foot of the village overlooking the Hunza Valley
It was brilliantly fine but the wind blowing down from the snowfields had an edge like a whetted knife. We settled into the small, basic rooms then Linda and I set off for a walk up through the village, which is built on several levels up the hillside. Munching on Snickers bars that were leftover from foreign mountaineering expeditions, we wandered up to the Baltit Fort, overlooking the village. However, it was closed for renovations so we just wandered back down to the Hunza Inn and didn’t shift from there for the rest of the day.
THE LAND OF W.A.R. We packed our bags early and paid the bill then set off to walk up to the minibus station. Halfway there, a minibus pulled up beside us and the driver proffered us his card: P.T.D.C.¹
He offered to take us up to Karimabad for RS35 each, provided we stay the night at the PTDCmotel for RS60 rupees each. We agreed to this and piled our gear onto the roof, and half an hour later we entered the land of W.A.R: water rock and air.
The broad shingle valley of the Hunza River quickly narrowed and the peaks above shut out the sun, throwing the right-hand side of the valley into a cold gloomy shadow. Across all the opposite bank, the old Silk Road followed the contours of the mountains through precarious bluffs and across fans of running grey shingle.
The road rose sharply, in places cut into the solid rock, or taking sharp turns to cross deep, ragged ravines. Below the towering flanks of Mount Rakaposhi, 25,000 feet of solid ice and wind-blasted rock, the Silk Road crossed a sheer face of bare rock, clinging to cracks shored up with walls of neatly built rocks. Every inch of arable land was terraced and every patch of land had a cluster of flat-roof houses and stands of tall bare apricot trees.
We stopped a village called Aliabad, at 8,000 feet, and were surprised to be told by our PTDC man that this was where we would be staying and that Karimabad was “just up the road!” The hotel, which was called Rakaposhi View Hotel, was cold, with no heating, no running water, and the promised ibex stew was distinctly muttony.
We wandered around for a bit, but there was nothing to see or do so we sat in one of the rooms and played arsehole!
It was a full moon at night, and after we had eaten dinner I went up onto the roof of the hotel and took some time exposures of Rakaposhi: a stark, sterile giant of rock and ice seen in negative through the crackling air.
¹Another government organisation, the Pakistan Tourism Development Commission.
NOTE: This text is from the Wikipedia entry for Rakaposhi. The Karakoram Highway link also has some interesting information.
Rakaposhi is notable for its exceptional rise over local terrain. On the north, it rises 5,900 metres (19,357 ft) in only an 11.2 km (7 mi) horizontal distance from the Hunza-Nagar River. There are views of Rakaposhi from the Karakoram Highway on the route through Nagar.
Rakaposhi is the only mountain in the world which rises straight from beautifully cultivated fields to the height of 25,550 feet. From many places, this wonderful spectacle can be viewed right from the base to the top.
Linda and I skipped breakfast and headed off out on our own to do some exploring. We followed a backstreet into the Saddar Bazaar area of Gilgit and wandered through the narrow alleys of the market where merchants squatted amid bags of coloured spices, piles of vegetables, and sides of freshly-killed meat. We spent half an hour watching and photographing a baker and his staff baking fresh naan bread in a traditional oven consisting of a stone bench with a flask-shaped oven set into it. The dough is rolled out flat then spread over a piece of wood covered with cloth, then slapped onto the inner walls of the oven which has a hot fire burning at its base. After 5 minutes or so the naans, which have blistered and bubbled as they cooked, are flicked out with a metal hook and stacked ready to be whisked away to the nearby restaurants.
When we left the bazaar, we walked out of town through the acres of neatly terraced fields, bare of anything at this time of the year except the leafless stands of trees. We followed the dirt road up a long valley for about 7 km from Gilgit where a carved figure of the Buddha decorates a sheer cliff above a steep stream.
The figure is about 2 metres high and framed with a pentangle, and it is at least 9 m above the ground. It was a strange edifice to see so far from civilization, out here in the mountains. However, we didn’t linger too long as it was very cold there were a bunch of quite menacing dogs prowling around and children throwing stones at us. We caught a Suzuki back into town and made our way through the bazaar and back to the Hunza Inn. About 4PM, the five of us headed back up to the Serena Lodge to watch the nightly video followed by a slap-up meal of roast beef and mashed spuds.
We breakfasted on the porch of the hotel with the two poms, Jonathan and Tim, who had arrived on the morning flight from Rawalpindi, then set off to do some exploring in the nearby hills.
The air was cold and frosty, but healthy and full of the smells of winter – cold earth, smoke and animals – and we decided to cross to the foot of the hills on the south side of the valley and climb up to the water channel running around the bluffs about 200 ft above the valley floor. Linda and Magnus chose a diagonal route, which Magnus soon abandoned, leaving Linda, who stuck to her route, for an easy, safer option, while Tim Jonathan and I took a direct route straight up through the bluffs.
It was a good climb and we all arrived sweating and breathless at the top then set off east along the water channel, then south up a steep, narrow gorge leading up into the hills. We followed the steep, boulder-strewn stream for about half a mile into the hills then stopped intending to have a brew of tea, but I couldn’t get our little petrol stove to burn – probably due to the altitude – so we retreated from the biting wind blowing down from the snowy peaks above the river, which blocked out the sun and threw the gorge into an icy shadow.
At the mouth of a gorge, I climbed up one of the scree slopes to photograph the towering Haramosh Peak across on the northern side of the Gilgit Valley.
Once we were clear the gorge, we walk down to the Gilgit Serena Lodge lodge – owned by the same hotel chain that operates the Mara Serena Lodge that we had stayed at in Kenya. At the Gilgit lodge, we ate delicious cheese and tomato toasties, with chips and coleslaw, and drink several cups of hot chocolate while we watched a hilarious video, Shrimps on the Barbie, an Aussie film starring Cheech Marin. Terence Cooper Emma Samms, and a selection of New Zealand and Australian faces including Garry McDonald. By the time it finished, it was cold and dark so we caught a Suzuki van back to the Hunza Inn.
At 5 a.m. we caught a N.A.T.C.O.¹ bus bound for Gilgit. The first few hours of the trip were in darkness, but even in the dark we were aware of the dizzying and drop from the road down to the cold water of the Indus River. Daylight revealed a landscape of jagged peaks, running shingles and steeply-falling rivers as we sped north, gritting our teeth at the bizarre and highly dangerous antics of the driver.
We stopped for chai at Chilas (a lonely, windswept village on a barren terrace sandwiched between the river and the sheer mountainside), then carried on northwards as the narrow valley gradually opened out into the wide and barren Gilgit Valley.
We arrived and Gilgit about 2 p.m. and caught a Suzuki mini-wagon out to the Tourist Cottages, which has been recommended to us by several people but now we’re cold, empty and unkempt. Nevertheless, we booked in and left our gear there, but later on, in town, we discovered the Hunza Inn which had clean rooms, hot water provided, and meals for the same price. So we shifted camp to there with the blessing of the Tourist Cottages’ owner: apparently, he wasn’t fussed about having guests anyway!
It was a cold night, but we stayed reasonably comfortable at the inn.
¹The government-run Northern Areas Transport Company.
It was a fine day so Magnus and I took a walk up the road leading over to Swat¹. We crossed the river by a swing bridge and wandered up through the terraced farmland above the river, and sat and talked for a while to an old man who is probably telling us to get the fuck off his land!
On the way back to the bridge a young man who spoke reasonably good English invited us up to his house for chai, so we followed him up to a group of mud-brick buildings. We sat in his tiny dark guest room with him and some of his relatives, who all lived in the same collection of houses, while bright-eyed and grubby children cavorted and giggled outside the door. We answered the translated questions of his uncle’s and try to find out a bit about their lives, but most of it was lost in translation. After chai we took some photos of the young man and his family, promising to send him copies² then we descended through the neat, winter-bare terraces to the bridge and walked back to the hotel.
¹The isolated Swat Valley.
² In 1994, when we returned to the north of Pakistan, I took them a copy of the photograph we took that day.
Tuesday. It was cold and raining in Besham, the clouds hugging the tops of the mountains towering above the village. We stayed in our rooms during the morning because Linda was suffering from a bad headache.
About 1 p.m. Magnus and I went out for a short walk. It was still threatening rain, but only a few spots blew in on the cold wind coming down the valley. We walked down to the Indus River and stood at the edge of the swiftly-flowing green water, then we climbed up to the village again.
On the terrace behind the village, a small water race ran through the wheatfields and fell down a wooden sluice to a mill where two boys were milling grain. They got quite a fright to see us, but once they were over their initial shock they let us take some photographs of the interior of the mill. Two giant circular millstones, side-by-side and driven from below by the water, were turning the grain, which trickled from hoppers down through holes in the centre of the millstones, into flour. The flour coated everything inside the mill house, and it turned the mill boy’s hair white.
Back down in Besham, we had chai and one of the restaurants then retired back to the International Hotel.¹
¹The International Hotel was run by an affable Pakistani we nicknamed Mr No Problem. Whenever we needed something – hot water, chai, a tasty meat curry (we still talk about Mr No Problem’s curries 30 years later) – he would waggle his head in that typically Indian/Pakistani way, and say “no problem.”