Monday, October 04, 2010

Unto the Last Mountain

So I was standing on the little street/road outside of the Hill Top, waiting for a Suzuki to come by and take me back down to Aliabad. And waiting. But there was no traffic whatsoever.

Then Sherzad came by and said that this was because the area had run out of petrol. My only hope would be to hire a diesel powered jeep for 500 rupees (the Suzuki cost 20). As I was mulling that over a guy came by who had a diesel powered Suzuki for 300. So down the mountain I started.

It was a little too quiet being the only vehicle on the road, but as we approached wretched little Aliabad it perked up a bit. A full minibus was just taking off for Gilgit, which meant that I got the first seat on the next one. By paying for two seats (still less than $5) I wound up with the front all to myself. All I had to do was wait an hour while they sold the rest of the seats.

The sky had been clouding over again, and now was verging on ominous, That, combined with the totally torn up nature of the KKH, made for a less than inspiring start. On top of that, compared with where I had just been, the canyon here was kind of blah. Maybe I was just suffering from adventure fatigue.

I hoped that the driver was more alert than I. Because whenever there was more than 50 meters of actual blacktop he would speed up to the max. And the passenger side all too often looked down on 500 foot vertical falls. Then it started to rain.

But in about four and a half hours we were in Gilgit, the largest town in Pakistan's mountains. Almost a city. Actually I was left off about 3 km beyond downtown Gilgit, and had to flag down a Suzuki to get back in. Then, without being able to see outside, I had to guess where to get off. Luckily I picked the right spot, and was only half a block from my intended destination, the Medina Hotel.

But what was this all around me? After the relative peace and quiet of the last week, I was taken aback, almost shocked, by the ugliness and intensity of the Pakistani urban experience. Not that anyone was hassling me in particular, as would have been happening had this been India. Still I was grateful when I walked into the gate of the Medina, Gilgit's backpacker haven.

Kind of tatty and rundown, with basic rooms with bath going for $7. Youseb the owner was in the midst of preparing stew from a goat that a backpacker had slaughtered in celebration of his last night here. I declined an invitation to the free meal, and went back out to the street to see what else I could find.

Not much. The sun had gone down and shutters were being drawn quickly. I finally found a greasy spoon place where I had 'simple begetables', rice and naan. Actually quite tasty and very reminiscent of Yemen. Then the electricity went off and I fumbled my way back to Medina.

The next morning Ronald the gay Dutch guy had shown up. He was sitting at the table talking to a chain smoking hyper-thin Euroswish who was saying, 'This trip I've just got to be getting to Karachi. I hear it's just crazy.' Backpacking sure ain't what it used to be.

I had been having trouble deciding where I was to get going next. The original schedule had been supposed to end with a two day trip to Chitral, then staying a few days there before heading south to Peshawar. But the Chitral district had been really affected by the floods. And a Belgian NGO worker had been captured by the Taliban this summer. Which meant that if I went there I would immediately be assigned a soldier for 24 hour a day protection. Seemed kind of limiting. So Chitral was now out.

I had also been planning to take my Himalayan mini-trek up to the base camp for Nanga Parbat, a 26,000 foot high peak, and probably the biggest thrust of naked rock on the planet. But I had just realized that even though the hike was 'easy', it was also at 12,000 feet. And I was out of Diamox. PlusI had just experienced how cold 7500 feet could be when it rained. Plus I would have to hire a jeep and a porter while being the only tourist around, which would get complicated. Plus what would be the point of getting there if cloud cover obscured the view anyway? So Nanga Parbat was also out. Damn, I had really wanted to see it.

That left Skardu and Baltistan, a mountainous, arid region downriver from Ladakh. That took 7 hours to reach by minibus. Well, since there was nothing in Gilgit holding my interest or me, I'd better get going. I packed up, went out to the street, and hopped a Suzuki going the 5 km out to the general bus stand.

By now I had noticed something odd. 99% of the people walking around were men. The women in Hunza hadn't exactly been forthcoming, but at least they were visible. And it wasn't like Gilgit was Taliban country; everyone, even the guys with the ferocious beards, was polite and friendly to me. I mean, I'm totally in favor of keeping women in their place and all, but this was going a little too far even for me.

Anyway, I once again bought the two front seats, and at around 11 we took off. The morning had started out mostly sunny, but—guess what?--now it started to cloud over. For the first hour we continued south on the totally torn up and under construction KKH, but then we made a left turn, went down to river level, crossed a bridge, and started east up the Indus River canyon.

And do I mean canyon. For over four hours we snaked along the deep cleft, thankfully for my nerves on the inside lane. As usual the road was little more than one vehicle wide, which always made for a delicate maneuver whenever there was an oncoming truck. As usual the driver would floor it at the slightest sign of open blacktop. And as usual whenever there was a temporary widening of the canyon a little agricultural activity ensued.

At around the 100 km mark the canyon finally opened up to around half a mile wide for good. Then at around 135 km it opened up a whole lot and we were in Baltistan. The distinguishing geographic feature was that the river bed broadened out to a five mile wide plain, consisting mostly of gravel and yellowish grey sand. Really quite eerie and awesome. Of course with rugged dead mountains rising straight up from that.

It was dark as we entered Skardu, which seemed to consist of a two mile long main street of poor, bedraggled shops and chaos. When we were finally discharged in a back alley I was happy to know that I was very close to my new intended destination, the Dewan-e-khas Hotel. Given a rave review by the LP, I was a little let down to find it pretty drab. But it would do

Tuesday morning I was having a hard time figuring out what I was going to do next. For one thing, I was still a little freaked out by the almost African level of poverty. More important, even though all the signs were in English, almost nobody spoke more than three words of it. Which made it difficult to find out anything from anyone.

There was also the matter of getting out of here. The bus ride to Islamabad took 24 hours, the first 6 of which were along the route I had just come. And my body was now at the bus ride saturation point. So I would need to take the flight. Which the hotel guy had said might take a week of waiting.

After several vain attempts, I finally found the PIA building and walked in. There was a scrum at the ticket window. I sat for several minutes watching it, then walked over to an empty window. The clerk came over to help the foreigner. He said that if I came back tomorrow morning at 8 he could sell me a ticket for Thursday.

Thus assured I now set out to take care of my final assault on the mountains. There were two little valleys that were upriver from Skardu, Shigar and Khaplu. The hotel guy had a taxi that would take me there for 4000 rupees. I thought that I could do better. But how could I find someone when I didn't speak any Urdu? Hmm. Then a bright idea.. I would walk into the couple of tourist oriented businesses I had seen and ask them.

The first one was a little climbing equipment shop run by a kid from Hunza named Abdul. One thing led to another, and within a half hour not only did I have a trusted driver with a Toyota jeep, but Abdul and another shopkeeper were coming along with me. After all, both of them were bored out of their wits by the total lack of tourist customers.

So now my future had a plan. First thing Wednesday morning the PIA office sold me an overpriced ticket. Then I met up with Abdul, who pointed out that just because I had bought a ticket didn't mean I had a confirmed seat. Because if there were any hint of bad weather they canceled the flight, which meant that everyone from today's flight went on tomorrow's flight, and everyone from tomorrow's flight... And as you may recall, the weather for the past while hadn't been all that great. He called the PIA operator, gave her my info, and then gave her his number so she could call if and when I finally got confirmed.

The jeep driver was here now, and we took off. As soon as we were out of town I was at another end of the world. It was 105 very slow, twisty kilometers to Khaplu, and I was like a little kid in the front seat craning my neck. For the last half the valley was wide enough to support fields and villages. Khaplu itself was in the center of a big swash of green amidst the grey mountains.

Up the valley to the left and around a corner was K2, the second highest mountain in the world. The only way I would ever see that would be to take an extensive trek to its base camp. But the peaks between it and me were some of the steepest undifferentiated slabs yet. The driver took us up to the top of Khaplu, where its 700 year fort was being modernized into a fancy boutique hotel. (Now all they would need are tourists.)

After tea it was back the way we had come. 10 km short of Skardu we made a right turn, climbed over a spur, and looked down on a spectacular view of the wide, flat river plain filled with those yellowish grey sand dunes and wasteland. And, as always, with huge dead mountains all around. We then worked our way up this new valley a little until we got to Shigar and a 700 year old fort that had already been made into a fancy boutique hotel. Very impressive. As the sun was sinking I made a mental note to come back here sometime with the missus.

At around the same time PIA had called Abdul and confirmed my seat. (The locals were really surprised that it had been so easy for me, but I suspect that foreigners get precedence.) Even better, Thursday morning dawned with perfectly clear blue sky. Oh boy, I might get out of here. At 10:30 I took a taxi the 15 km out to the airport. It seemed like slow going for the long line of hopefuls to be processed, but it was only 40 minutes before I was in the departure lounge. Then at 12:15 we all got on buses that drove a half a km to where the plane was waiting in the midst of towering sand dunes. Strange.

With a window seat on the right you got to see K2; on the left would be Nanga Parbat. I was assigned the right, but it ended up not mattering, since by takeoff the sky was completely clouded over. As we rose through the narrow canyon, with rugged cliffs just a few thousand feet away, I could understand why an overcast morning would have canceled the incoming flight.

Seeing K2 would have been a great ending to my high mountain orgy. But, as so often happens when traveling, the weather just wouldn't co-operate. On the other hand, as we made our turn and headed south, through a tiny window on the other side of the plane, there was about a two second space where I could just glimpse the tippy top of giant Nanga Parbat sticking up through the clouds.


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