Location: Khyber Pass, Pakistan
Here's a tale from the last week Pete and I had in Pakistan. I couldn't help but to type this one up. There's some photos also.
In the days when leaving Australia's shores was all but a dream I held the notion my geographical knowledge was OK, but time again travel demonstrates there's no better way to develop ones worldly knowledge than through experience. For many years I held the belief that a 'Khyber Pass' was the anatomically correct name for the human poo shoot. For this misunderstanding I blame my Dad's liberal use of the term, threatening to kick me 'fair up the Khyber Pass' or telling me to 'get off my Khyber Pass'. It was high school anatomy that set the record straight, and until this day I understood the term as some obscure Aussie rhyming slang. Now in Pakistan and a stones throw from the Afghan border I learn it's possible to be driven up the Khyber Pass without sacrificing one's heterosexuality, as this is the name given to the mountain pass and main artery between the two countries.
For no reason other than to say we've been there Pete and I take a guide, driver and standard issue police escort through this lawless route to the Afghan border. Wearing a shalwar and kameez Pete passes as a bona-fide Pakistani while I look like a white guy in pyjamas. Thankfully we have following us in another car 'the German decoy'; a young guy who's 6ft tall with pale skin, blonde hair and dressed in western clothes. Our very own wooden duck. I figure with no garb and no gun if shit hits the fan he's first. Pakistani law has no power between Peshawar and the border, tribal law governs the modus operandi therefore one would think this to be an exciting, daring adventure. In reality it turns out to be a leisurely Sunday drive across a barren landscape, littered with rundown fortressed dwellings, coloured like the earth, sentry towers with rifle slits rising from each corner.
Our guide, an over-excited idiot living in a world of delusion surrounding his self-proclaimed celebrity status as a musician, doctor, soldier and tourist ambassador with royal blood - Prince, as he calls himself asks "So who wants smoking hashish and shooting police gun?" Standing on the roadside holding the coppers AK47 I contemplate the offer; stoner paranoia is joyless at the best of times, with an automatic weapon in my hands things could go tits up, and at 200 rupees a bullet there'd be more holes in my wallet than a defenseless tree. Alas I decline and pray the German does the same; his knowledge of Russian and Pakistani guns is suspiciously thorough.
It's a full day return trip and we are bored out of our brains. I stare out of the window at the un-inspiring scene, an abandoned railway line destroyed by floods, people living under a crumbling cement bridge and sheets of corregated iron, a permanent dust-haze that hangs in the air. Mind wandering I recall that most Australian slang originated from the Diggers in times of war. Perhaps they passed through here, maybe the term is more than just rhyming slang and they too, like me believed the Khyber Pass really is a poo shoot; the arse-hole of the planet.
Location: from india, India
Between the last diary entry and today's many things took place that, for now will remain as scribblings in my notepad. The discipline of updating my diary has fallen by the wayside, replaced by the regimen of regular yoga practice, a good book and Australia's televised cricket tour of India. One day, maybe i'll fill the gaps.
At present I'm in India, reflecting on the good times in Pakistan and disheartened that the only media coverage this beautiful country gets is negative. It's a blessing and a curse; negative news discourages the hoards along with the risk of cultural/environmental contamination leaving a pure uninhibited land for an intrepid few to enjoy, but the countries image is left in tatters along with hopes of foreign investment. Sure Karachi has its fare share of problems and is often the focus of minority extremists, however the north of Pakistan is geographically and politically removed from many of these issues. The only shockwaves felt in the north from the latest bombing would be from the loss of foreign tour groups who cancelled their plans upon reading a newspaper. During a conversation with the DC of Police in Gilgit he said to me "This place is safer than New York", and I agree. I've personally encountred more hostility in a local aussie pub that anywhere in Pakistan. It's a shame that tragedy sells newspapers and people feed on the dramatics of the world. Contrary to popular predictions I didn't die on this journey. Perhaps it is easier to base one's opinions soley from the pages of a tabloid, or it's comforting to sit in the morning sunshine sipping a coffee, nibbling on toast and reading about how crazy the world is, glad for the safety of home. What a strange way to seek security and gratitude in life.
So don't take my word on it. Come to northern Pakistan and see for yourself, it's stunning, come before it changes, and it will. Or don't, then it can be preserved for a little while longer and I can go trekking without running into someone from Victoria.
I'll present you with one last story for now from Pakistan, more for the comedy value than anything else..... enter the Khyber Pass
Location: Passu to Gilgit, Pakistan
At 6am we stand road-side on the KKH, Toyota sardine tins passing us already fully loaded. I hail one vehicle, the driver apologetic that no space avails but enthusiastic when I suggest the roof rack. For the next few hours Pete and I cling to the Hi-ace roof invigorated by the cold, inspired by the view. The road is scribed into the side of rock-mountains, snowy peaks dominate the skyline, villages an oasis of green beside a torrent of mica waters traveling a time worn path.
Returning to Gilgit we stay again at the Mountain Refuge guest house, laying out maps we piece together our grand plan; a 14 day trek from Gilgit heading west to Chitral, crossing 3 mountain passes and literally half the country. I'm craving a longer trek as they afford a greater connection, allowing one to fully embrace the routine, find a rhythm and the awareness of its innate harmony with the elements.
Location: Passu, Pakistan
Weve camped at the back of the best restaurant in town money saved on accommodation can be spent on food! Times are quiet; the restaurant built for tour groups sees little traffic these days. It sits solemnly atop a hill overlooking the village which is nestled riverside in an immense valley of wild frontier like mountains. Rain fell overnight, the weather patchy and the restaurant cozy. Staring out the window at Avdegar peak we contemplate climbing it today, deliberating until 12pm, at which time motivation strikes.
We cross the valley, then the river via a mad bridge, bush bashing through scrub until at the mountains base. From here its literally straight up. Finding our way on goat track switchbacks we work intensely and seemingly arrive nowhere, the mountain unrelenting. Formidable clouds brew and the sun is sinking. For 7 hours weve walked, an hour longer than anticipated yet our planned campsite is elusive, along with any sign of a water supply. At a moderately level ledge with enough space for 2 tents we set camp, only moments before the clouds open and a stunning display of light penetrates the weather. Waterless, a cooked dinner is a non-event substituted by a handful of cashews and Snickers. I love camping., the only time when one can justify a Snickers for dinner.
Overnight I collected 3.5 litres of water running off our tents into a cook pot. We delight in a cooked breakfast and spectacular views from Passu up-valley to Batura glacier. Alas we must return to Passu and save the summit for another occasion.
Location: Rush Phari, Pakistan
Further up the KKH, high up on the valleys side is Karimabad, a peaceful village and travelers hub home to the Shia Ismaili community, a not so conservative branch of Islam. As the white rice weve been eating on treks is about as sustaining as fairy floss for the next 3 days we sit in K.bad and eat, attempting to regain some normality to our insatiable appetites, filling up on cornbread and potatoes, disappearing Snickers bars and Bounties between every meal. Once recovered we leave town clinging to the back of a Suzuki, one which stops every kilometre while a volunteer passenger retightens the nuts on a dangerously loose and wobbling wheel. At the KKH we jump ship and enter a Toyota sardine tin bound for Passu, 4 hours north.
Location: Rush Phari, Pakistan
One of nature's finest creations - water locked in time for thousands of years gradually edging its way down a mountainside, glaciers are a life force all of their own. Nature's art is ever present as we cross Sumayar glacier. Limpid streams are given life by the morning sun, sculpted by the elements ice forms a new world of discovery and appreciation.
Across the glacier, today we make the gradual descent from its opposite side, following a high trail with fantastic views. The last hour present one final assault on our endurance. The climb from Hoper glacier to Hoper Village in mid afternoon heat, uphill relief from fatigued thighs, hardly.
Location: Rush Phari, Pakistan
4.30am: Condensation during the night has formed a thin layer of ice inside my tent. Each exhalation I give turns to mist and the water in my drinking bottle is a slush of ice. For a while longer I delay the inevitable call from a full bladder, marveling in the warmth of goose down and recalling the nights vivid, whacked out dreams - a consequence of altitude. How bizarre and creative the mind can be, such fantastic things lie hidden in the depths of consciousness. The bladder can wait no longer and so I drag myself out from the warmth. It's still dark and a full sky of stars is within arms reach, soon to be replaced with the vibrant blue of a new day. Camera in hand I head for the lakes opposite side, climbing to the top of a rise and welcoming the new day. Glorious Pakistan! The mountains impressive beyond words. For the next hour or so I wander, taking photos, absorbing warmth from the sun and filling my lungs with the purity of alpine air. By 6.30am theres movement at camp and I return to find 2 haggard faces. I must look no better.
The literal crescendo of our journey, Rush Peak reaches 5100m, while the sky remains clear we'll make the return trip before breakfast and witness one of the most beautiful panoramas in this country. The last 100m ascent is tough. With oxygen starved lungs and altitude fatigue its a punishing climb over boulders and loose rock. Like a geriatric in a nursing home trying to make his way to the T.V. room I set a pace of 20 steps forward then 5 breaths rest. Hamids well ahead and when I finally reach him at the summit I see hes tired and cold, ill-equipped for such altitude but still tough enough to be first at the top. The morning is cloudless, clear beyond all our hopes. The view extends all the way to K2 at the Chinese border, by all estimates about 80kms away.
Descending is considerably more taxing than ascending. It always feels like the same amount of work is required, but over a shorter period in time and done predominately by the thigh muscles. From Rush Peak we descend 1700m over 5km, returning to the ablation valley and make camp about 1km above Bericho Kor. My thighs are a quivering mess and consequently I dread what could be a slow and painful ascent down valley tomorrow.
Our camp is in a clearing where herders graze their cattle, an area Hamid says was Long time ago small forest but many years cutting trees go. He makes a fire to cook his dinner, fueled by fallen branches from the remaining vegetation. Now no cutting allowed, firewood no. must buy in the bazaar. With his dinner left to cook in its own heat he stands up, requesting to borrow my knife then heads for a group of trees 10 minutes up-valley. Returning sometime later he wields a rough-cut walking stick and hands me my knife. China, no good he says with a shake of the head. I examine the knife, its blade bent and edges broken, blunt beyond salvation. No shit its no good, not any more Hamid I say, this is a kitchen knife, you know
. vegetable cutting. I think to myself theres one paradoxical vegetable I would like to cut right now, we know the way back, drop his body in a crevice, no one will ever know. All things in perspective my knife was only 25 rupees and what Hamid lacks in intellect he makes up for in kindness. For now he lives, unless of course we run out of food.
To find a campsite without cattle would be too much to ask. Every patch of grass in this country appears to be precious grazing ground. A curious cow wanders from the herd and comes by our camp, discovering Hamids bar of soap left on a rock by the creek. After a brief inspection its in his mouth, followed by chewing and foaming; my belief authenticated - cows are more stomach than brains. Now if it were the same cow that ate Petes sock then I would understand.
Location: Rush Phari, Pakistan
With every step my calves burn. No more than the last but enough to induce mind games of endurance. Key is to find a rhythm in breath and step, a sustainable pace which to focus the mind. From Bericho Kor we climb up, an insane 1000m ascent of goat track switchbacks, a test of dedication. Our reward is the arrival into another realm; an alpine pasture of sprawling green grass and wildflowers, a 360deg mountain panorama. Glaciers snake down from ice-encrusted peaks, countless mountains reach over 7000m shrinking to the horizon. At over 4000m we sit amongst the clouds, still with another 700m to ascend today. Mid afternoon heralds our arrival at Rush Lake (4700m) a circle of blue cupped in a mountain of rock reflecting a great alpine splendor. Fatigued, we make camp by the shore then retreat to our tents for a siesta. Sleep is hindered by restlessness, shortness of breath, anxiety. My altitude limited for today has been reached, possibly breached. I fight lethargy and drag myself to the lake, consuming water, a good 2 litres and give praise to the great rejuvenator. Vitality has returned. We sit around camp drinking ginger tea, I attempt to explain to Hamid the benefits over black tea when one is nauseous with a pounding head. Perhaps he gets it, or just nods out of politeness.
Location: Rush Phari, Pakistan
Inexperienced at glacier crossing we're hesitant to tackle the next hike without a guide. The longest piece of rope in my kit is a shoelace, so we enlist the services of a local to avoid the possibility of disappearing into a crevice. It can be an awkward, tiresome task trekking with a stranger, one from another culture with broken English, different diet and camp routine so we negotiate a deal ensuring he is totally self sufficient and need only show us the path.
The first day is relatively easy, descending from Hoper village we cross Hoper glacier, a scramble of unstable rock and dirty ice. From the glaciers other side we make a steady ascent up the ablation valley arriving mid afternoon at Bericho Kor, our campsite for tonight. Along the trail we met a Hoper Villager collecting firewood, a scarce commodity in Pakistan hence his full day return trek for one load of wood. While taking a rest the man sat with us and by means of hand signs hinted he needs painkillers for a sore back. I handed over some Ibuprofen which he slipped in his back pocket, then bided us farewell. I made a mental note that pharmaceuticals are probably rarer than firewood in the Paki mountains and trekkers first aid kits a goldmine. With camp set we boil water for tea, I offer Hamid (the guide) a cup warning him there's no sugar. Dashing to his tent he returns with a supermarket bag. "f--k me Hamid" I say, "That's a 1kg bag of sugar you're carrying. It weighs more than my tent". A lecture on diabetes and/or priorities in supplies would only fall on deaf ears. However I will be impressed if he can consume the entire bag during our 5 day journey, that's nearly one cup of sugar per day.
Sitting silently I sip my cup of tea, reflecting on the day and scribbling notes in a pad. Trekking is the perfect opportunity to bring things back to centre. Without distractions the tap of superfluous thoughts can run freely until the supply is dry, at which point there remains clarity and comes awareness, and gratitude. For this reason I carry no book or music and with reluctance a notepad and pen. Presently there's no sign of depletion, the past regularly surfaces and high school seems to be the theme of the day. Damn high school. Pete sits by his tent immersed in the escapism of The Grish. I wonder, is he already fully present to afford such luxury? Or is this avoidance of what bubbles to the surface from an undistracted mind? Perhaps I think too much, he simply enjoys reading such is Pete, uncomplicated. Hamid's passed out in his tent, emerging only to cook dinner then disappearing again until morning. He seeks not peace, nor escapist literature, by the look on his face only to be free of this tiresome guiding chore. Perhaps it's the sugar comedown.
Pete and I climb up the glacial moraine that separates our camp from the mammoth dragon of ice. We watch as the earth rotates and the sun disappears from view behind distant peaks - moments of changing light are stilled with a camera.