So by now most of you know that I’m back home in Calgary. Having fractured my femur, coming back was my only option. I spent 10 days in the Mansehra and Islamabad visiting hospitals and trying to sort out a flight home. My accident happened to precede the Islamic festival of Eid Mubarak (Blessed Festival). This meant that nearly everything was closed for four days and Pakistan air wouldn’t be flying. I was starting to wonder if I was ever going to make it home. The details of my accident are in the last blog post.
I hadn’t the chance to post anything of my two months in Pakistan as the electricity and internet are intermittent. It was a busy two months so I will only recount my experiences of the first month.
It seems in Pakistan there is a specific list of sentences thrown at you as a tourist. Some Pakistani’s are being facetious, others are completely serious. They include:
“Pakistan, no Taliban!”
“You are muslim?”
“In Pakistan, anything possible except party!”
“You have nice hairs!”
“What village do you come from?”
How quaint! I love it! The beard made people inquire if I was a devout Muslim, while the long hair just confused them.
Arriving in Sost was majestic after all the hassle of getting over the border. There is a huge beautiful mountain range to the south. It’s special when you can walk out of your little $2.50 cement hole in the morning and drink 10 year old stale nescafe in front of the massive peaks of the Karakorum.
The first night in the hotel, Erwan disappeared into the night. We found him smoking with some local Pakistanis in the hotel room next door. One of these guys pulls out a block of hash and proceeds to roll and smoke it. Chatting with him, I ask him what he does for a living. “Oh, I’m a police officer.” Uh-huh. I’d also noticed that the hotel was next door to the border narcotics control office. This epitomizes the effectiveness of the Pakistani government in the northern areas. Pure comedy.
I was still traveling with two friends I had made in China. Nico and Erwan were not on bikes but the transit in Pakistan is so slow there was no problem catching up. As we’d arrived together, we decided to take a walk in the hills and went up the valley just south of Sost.
Nico and Erwan took the bus the following day in the pouring rain. I spent the next two days hanging out in the hotel waiting for the rain to stop. Matthias, the German I met in Kashgar, showed up and we decided to ride together. The first day of cycling in Pakistan was absolutely amazing. The peaks on the road to Passu live up to the scenery of the Karakoram you find in a postcard.
I also passed another milestone. 23,000km!
At this time, it doesn’t feel like I’ve worked for it. I’ve ridden only five days in the last month, with a lot of time sitting around waiting to get a move on.
Matthias and I managed to find a campsite of the KKH between Passu and Husseini, just before the new lake. I never in a million years thought that I would be able to wild camp in Pakistan. Anything possible in Pakistan!
South of Passu, there is a new lake covering the Karakoram highway. In 2009, a giant landslide dammed the Hunza river and formed what is now called Attabad lake. The lake is 25km long, and the only way to pass was on a boat. These are the boats that we had to load the bikes on to pass the lake.
The boats were custom made, with old car engines mounted on the propellers. One of the crew would run around with a pole, directing the boat as it stopped to pick up people.
The south end of the lake revealed the landslide that had created the lake.
Pakistani trucks cannot reach the end of the lake, so they have tractors unload everything and bring it over the landslide. On the far side of the landslide there was a massive truck stop. Ostentatiously decorated trucks lined the road. Some of the nicest ones I’d seen so far.
Cycling down to Karimabad, I had just no idea how beautiful the valley would be. Greenery clings to the mountainside like moss on a rock.
Karimabad sits across the valley from the imposing and impressive Mt Diran (7277m) and Mt. Rakaposhi (7788m). These mountains are some of the highest in the world sitting right on the continental fault line that creates the Himalaya. There is a lot of trekking in this area and a lot of very famous peaks to see. The largest tourist attraction in Karimabad is the ladyfinger (6000m) and the Ultar meadows.
Erwan and I decided not to waste any time, and head up the valley to see this for ourselves. We waited for the rain to stop and walked from the village up the valley to the hut. It was a fairly easy walk, with a clear well marked trail. A lot of Pakistani’s seemed to think we needed porters or guides to walk up there. Don’t bother, it’s easy. It’s 6km with a 700m gain. It seems no one else has posted gps traces of the hikes in Pakistan. At the bottom you will find links to all of the relevant hikes. The hike is worth it, with many spectacular views.
You start off in the village of Karimabad, and go west up the valley. At the back of the village, the fields the locals kept we’re absolutely magnificent.
The route winds through the fields, and up onto a path cut into the side of the rock. The glacial river traces it’s way 400m below the path.
Once past the valley, you ascend the moraine to a grassy plane where you will find the hut. We arrived at the hut just before dark. It was nothing more than floor to sleep on and a stove to cook with. Unfortunately, the hut is sitting at 3100m and there’s no wood around at all. Nonetheless, it’s a lovely place.
From the hut, here is the famous lady finger…
There was some cloud cover when we arrived in the evening. The clouds moved quickly, but they never did clear completely. The place is very magical.
The clouds cleared in the evening, and we had a mystically starry night. Across the valley, we had a perfect view of star covered Mt. Diran towering on the other side of the valley. Photo credits to Erwan for this photo..
We spent the night in the hut, as there was space for mats and sleeping bags. We cooked a meal for champions out of instant noodles and some very strange rice soup I’ve been carrying around since Iran.
It was clear when we awoke at 5.30am as well. This was the view over my morning cup of crappy nescafe.
We’d planned a scramble up the side of the valley to a place called Gol Pass. Having no map and only a succinct description of the pass, we got it wrong and ascended up the incorrect route up the valley. By the time we realized this, we’d climbed another 1100m up from the hut. We had a satisfying view from 4200m.
The day after Erwan and I came down from Ultar meadows, we were walking around town like penguins. A year of only cycling left my legs strangely out of shape. It was at this time of slow walking around, I noticed all of the pot plants around town. They put them in their crops to repel insects??. They are everywhere in the Hunza valley. I had a little penguin trot through the pot plants. It was a good time! Strangely, nobody in Karimabad smokes hash. This was one of my preconceptions of Pakistan. Instead, the mostly Ismaili population seems to like a little homebrew called Hunza water. It’s made out of the local mulberries and has the strength of rubbing alcohol. A tea cup of the stuff sets you up for the evening, and you’re nearly guaranteed a ratcheting headache the next morning.
Taking a day to recover, we schemed of the next place we would visit. With Rakaposhi towering in front of us every morning, it seemed like the obvious place to go.
We took a bus to Minapin, a small village 15km south of Karimabad. The local busses in Pakistan don’t leave until they are full. Our bus driver stopped everywhere around town so his patrons could run their errands. He was kind enough to stop and let us get petrol for our stove on the way out of town 🙂 From Minapin, we followed the road up the valley to the Minapin Glacier. We were blown away with all of the herbal medicine growing in the village. This merits closer inspection.
It didn’t take us long to climb well above the village.
As we’d left so late, we spent the night at the lower camp. There was some flat pasture that made a perfect campsite. We brought two litres of Hunza water to ensure proper star viewing.
The following morning, it only took us two hours to reach the second base camp and the foot of the glacier. The sun was out, and the view was simply astounding.
We hung out at the moraine for a couple hours. A group of Pakistani mountaineers were descending from the high camp after a week of paragliding and climbing. Sounds ideal, doesn’t it? The grassy plane on the right is where they camped. We made lunch and took in the view.
Nico did some yoga…
Coming back down was just as delightful. Autumn is here, the Junipers are golden yellow.
The rest of the day was clear, and we came back down the valley with a majestic view of the Rakaposhi south face. The green vegetation against the white of the peaks makes this a very magical place.
I spent another two days in Karimabad, and left on the bike again to join up with Erwan & Nico in Gilgit. Only 105km south, I thought I could make it. That was a bit of a pipe dream given the quality of the roads. Most of the time I wasn’t really moving faster than 10km/hr where the road was unpaved. These rough roads gave me 4 flat tires within an hour of leaving Karimabad. Yet, it’s still worth the ride. There were amazing viewpoints along the road up the glacier to Rakaposhi…
The ride along the Hunza river was nice too..
They’d just recently begun paving this section of the Karakorum. A fresh 30 kilometers of tarmac was laid down just south of Karimabad. This surely had to be the smoothest piece of road I’ve seen in a month. I stopped near a small collection of shops on the side of the road seeking a place to spend the night. I ended up in this building where all of the local shop owners slept.
I’m pretty sure the cooks, the owner, and the majority of the residents of this makeshift hotel were stoned. “Hey Boss, this rooms for you!” “Hey Boss, what you want to eat?” The high chef fed me, and the food was fantastic.
The door of the room had no lock at all, so I dared not wander far. After I’d eaten, I was reading in my room when an old Pakistani man burst in to the room. He stopped for a good stare at me, made his way to the toilet and shut the door. Leaving the toilet he stopped again for a good stare and left. He didn’t say a word. Neither did I. Whatever, strange shit like this goes down here all the time. I kept reading. Not 30 minutes later, he returns and the same scene repeats itself. Ok, I’ve got to go to sleep soon. I’ll barricade the door so he can’t come in. As I was organizing my baggage to do so, he snuck in and did it again. It was like a Pakistani Mr. Bean.
I surprised myself to find that I wasn’t at all paranoid about sleeping in a room literally next to the Karakorum highway, with a door that cannot be locked, and a regular Pakistani intruder. I slept surprisingly well in these circumstances. I got out of town fairly early the following morning and made it to Gilgit. My entertainment for the day was a bridge crossing on the way into the city. Following a truck on this bridge, it oscillated a lot more than I’d anticipated. I found myself bouncing up and down as I rode across it.
I met Nico and Erwan again at the Madina Hostel in Gilgit. Sometime in the last couple weeks, I’ve managed to break the hangers on my panniers. I ordered some from Wayne at thetouringstore.com in Colorado. If you’re in North America, I highly suggest buying gear from Wayne. He’s a fantastic human being, and a very well traveled cyclist. I had anticipated shipping costs to Pakistan to be horribly expensive, but it wasn’t too bad. To have parts shipped from Europe was about 60 dollars, and about 40 dollars from the US. The difficulty arises in where and when that package should arrive. Given the state of the road here, and the speed at which Pakistan moves, I expected to wait. The three of us decided to go on our biggest hike yet. We endeavored to do a five day self guided hike in the Pokara valley with no guides or no porters. It’s a 55km hike from the Naltar Valley just north of Gilgit to the Ishkoman valley NW of Gilgit. We took a day to get organized and catch a jeep out there. The jeep ride there was more interesting then we’d imagined. We waited three hours for him to show up, and got in the back with the other locals.
Of course, there was a chai stop halfway up the valley. By the time we got back on the road, it was dusk. The road begin to wind up the Naltar Valley on a dark dirt road, narrowly cut into the side of the valley. We stopped on the side of the road and the driver seemed compelled to take the distributor off the jeep. Everybody was in there with their lighters, trying to fix it.
Not another couple minutes later, we stopped on the road again to gather water for the radiator. Every time we stopped, someone would jump out of the back of the jeep and place a stone behind the rear wheel. This happened even if we were just waiting for other traffic to pass. The road with busy with tractors transporting potatoes back to Gilgit. It occurred to me that this jeep is probably a breath away from being at the bottom of the river valley. The scary little dirt road was not confidence inspiring.
We spent the night in front of a hostel in Naltar Bala. I was surprised to wake up in the morning to such a beautiful site.
We began our hike up the pass rather late, having waited it Naltar Bala for some locals to bring us something to make our trek more colorful. We followed the road to the lake, passing potato fields that had just been harvested.
We passed a couple locals on the way up too. This man had likely walked 10km and it’s also likely to be a very regular occurrence for him.
The children were sooooo cute too…
We found a nice place to camp near the river. There was no one around, and we had the place to ourselves. Another notably beautiful campsite.
This valley was absolutely stunning. Junipers turning their golden fall yellow, with the vital green of the pine trees and the vague reminder of Canada on the peaks.
We came across this little pond just below the moraine of Naltar lake. Mesmerized, we sat there for over an hour and just stared.
Continuing past the lake, we follow the river to the moraine of the Shani glacier. We were soon at the end of civilization up the valley, and found a young man hanging out by the river trying to spot sheep with his binoculars. He invited us to his house for a chai. Was sat on the grass in front of his stone hut drinking chai and lassie. He even brought us Chipati (bread) and Lassi (salted milk). It never ceases to amaze me how people who have absolutely nothing can offer so much. The people here are very poor, scratching out an existence with a couple goats, sheep, and a garden.
The walk up the moraine was glorious all of the way up. It just doesn’t stop.
We stopped for lunch on the last of the grass before the moraine. Two elderly shepherds came to visit us as we were cooking. He loved my sunglasses.
Sometime after lunch, a herd of Yaks approached over the hill. We asked the three young shephards where they were going with the Yaks. They were to bring them up to Pokara pass. Excellent we said, we’ll bring them for you. They gave us their herding canes and we were off with the Yaks. At first I kind of thought this was just a joke. The shepherds never followed us, instead, they returned down the same valley. So what the hell, we herded these yaks. We chased them up the valley for three hours with a loss of only four yaks! Not bad. I’d never previously considered how fast these animals walk either. We had trouble keeping up with them. They seemed locked into some predetermined path up the moraine of the glacier. Stepping over large stones and scree, some of them went places we couldn’t be bothered to. I didn’t feel like expending energy running up the hillside to gather yaks while we still had another 40km to walk.
We made it up to the foot of the glacier and camped alongside the moraine. There were a bunch of stone huts and pens nearby, but it was currently vacant. We were able to find some wood and have a fire under the stars.
The following morning we continued up the pass. We had another 1000 vertical meters to climb to the pass. Mt Shani (5887m) towered above us in the south while we ascended the moraine on the north side of the glacier.
Following the moraine next to the glacier, we descended to a small stream (to the right of the moraine) following it up until it ceased to exist.
Most of the route up to the pass was easy to read. We followed the river as high as it went and then a series of cairns marked the route. As we climbed beyond 4000m, the snow began to rapidly accumulate. By the time we’d reached the pass, we were ankle deep in it. At the top of the pass, we discovered cairns that marked the summit on a ridge. This appeared to be the best view point to see it all. Pokara Pass (4700m), Naltar Valley, Pakistan.
Finally, the much anticipated pass itself (4700m)…
Immediately on the other side of this pass, we found the glacier. We knew we had one glacier crossing to make from our brief description, but not really an accurate idea of where that glacier crossing might be. Immediately below the pass there is a large rock outcrop in the glacier. Left? Right? I had a look down the right side, and it looked fine. So we ran down the glacier, which seemed free of crevasses. Sketch!
Thinking we’d just done the glacier crossing the guide mentioned, we were elated that it was so simple. Continuing down the moraine we found more cairns, a reassuring sign that we were on the right side of the glacier. The moraine ended abruptly with a 3 meter drop on to a heavily crevassed piece of glacier. We backtracked up the moraine, and spotted a set of footprint heading across the glacier. It seemed like whoever had made those tracks had made it across. We carefully followed the trail, and within 20 minutes were on the other side of the glacier. It was getting dark at this point, so we made the next flat spot our campsite. We ended up near to the glacier on the moraine at 4200m. It was a very clear night, and one of the coldest I’ve experienced on this trip. Erwan managed to slip out of the tent and snap this with his camera.
We awoke in the morning to find that all of our water and our boots had frozen solid.
As we left, we were able to follow the glacial moraine back down. It’s unbelievable how large this glacier used to be.
It was a straight forward descent, as all that was required was to follow the moraine down. Once we got down into the valley, the path got a lot less distinct. There are goats and sheep in these valleys, and they make trails everywhere. We followed the river for a time until we discovered we had to keep making very large river crossings. The river was in a very steep valley that became harder and harder to leave. At one point we had to heave stones into the river to make a bridge to jump across.
When we scrambled back up to the rolling meadows above the river and were rewarded with an epic walk through the juniper and pine forests.
The remaining 12km hike out of the valley was straight forward. We followed the river to a small village and from there we followed a small footpath back to civilization.
Along the path we met some locals who were laying pipe (the only pipe laying I was going to see in Pakistan), and they invited us up for Chai. Again, these people that have next to nothing will share everything they have with you. Incredible.
The last 10km of the walk to Pokara itself followed the path and was uneventful. I believe this hike was one of the nicest I’ve ever been on. Eventually I’ll post the gps traces I’ve made for all of the routes.
As many people seem to be asking where I was when I broke myself, I was 300 kilometers north of the capital city of Islamabad.
Apologies for the lengthy post, I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I will post one more entry of the last couple weeks of my trip. I’ll tell you all about my ridiculous adventure on the second highest plateau on the planet (4100m)…… in 15cm of snow 😉