– Say, Gerry, aren’t we going for once to a country where women aren’t veiled from head to toe? Our eyes deserve to be delighted!
Who else if not my old friend Oggi. A refined connoisseur of woman’s beauty and a regular fellow-traveller in my unpopular, difficult travels he grumbles over the fact that once again we are going to look for adventures in the lands under the sign of the Islamic crescent moon. But it is too late for corrections. We have just landed in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, and the taxi is driving us along deafening streets full of people. But how could it be otherwise? We are back to Asia, aren’t we? However, in contrast to the Asiatic gaudiness, the crowd here is somehow monochromatic and consists worryingly only of men. Later, after just a short walk in the market-place Radja Bazar in Ravalpindi, our fears are confirmed.
– Oggi, it seems that this country is really not for men…
– I’ve told you! In Sincan there were at least veiled women and here… it is as if all women have died.
Welcome to Pakistan! Or maybe not. The impressions created by the world media about this Islamic republic of almost 160 million are rather unattractive for the average tourist. Even before the events from 11.09.2001 the country had difficulty attracting visitors because of its religious fundamentalism, military coup d’états, political assassinations, heavy corruption and social disturbances. And after Pakistan occupied one of the first places in the geography of the global terrorism of the 21st century, the international tourism in this country was practically decapitated. This is a big loss for the international tour operators and their clients, too, because this part of the former British India covering an area of 804 thousand square kilometers comprises some of the most majestic and challenging mountain landscapes in the world. And not only this. Here you’ll meet unique ethnic groups and see archeological remains of the oldest civilizations on the planet, like Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa as well as countless benevolent people who have nothing to do with Al-Qaeda and who could astound you with friendliness and hospitality. On the other hand, irrespective of the warnings of the foreign ministries advising their citizens to avoid visiting Pakistan, the country’s glory as a compelling arena for mountain adventures increases despite the troubled times. So it is not a surprise that over 9 percent of the foreign visitors in 2007, whom you could count on your finger-tips, were mountaineers and trekkers who pass running through the big city—usually Islamabad or Karachi—in order to take shelter in the comparative calmness of the mountains of Karakorum and the Hindu Kush. Oggi and I aren’t keen either on sightseeing and going to museums after a bomb exploded in front of the Danish embassy in the capital city only several days ago… In the beginning, in order to avoid being in the wrong place at the right—for mishaps—time we follow the route of most foreigners who come to Pakistan for healing their travel fever. We hurriedly arrange documents and formalities needed for our sojourn in the northern regions of the country–and more precisely in Azad Jammu and Kashmir. On the Siachen glacier, in the disputed area between India and Pakistan, there are often skirmishes between the Indian and the Pakistan armies, both entrenched for years in the everlasting snow at the stratospheric height of 6,000 meters. The militarism is capable of any kind of absurdity…
In the end we do a purposive tour for last purchases and money exchange. We start with Pindi—as the Pakistani diminutively call Ravalpindi—the old Sikh fort at an important crossroad turned by the British into a populous supporting point for their domination in the 19th century. At the beginning of the 1960s Pindi even functioned as the administrative center of Pakistan while nearby the new capital, Islamabad, was being built. Designed by the Greek architect Constantinos Doxiadis, the young city features much greenery, wide avenues and rectangular forms. The colourless buildings invariably give off officialdom and stateliness. Above the low buildings rises the Shah Faisal mosque. This is the only architectural landmark of the city we dare visit. The dimensions of this religious building accommodating 10,000 worshippers are downright overwhelming. The cupola has the form of a desert tent and at the corners four aerodynamic, 88-meter high minarets rocket into the sky. There is a joke spreading in the capital that after the mosque was finished the American CIA wanted to inspect the minarets for wing-rockets hidden in them.
Devoid of the chaos and the tumult of Rivalpindi, Islamabad is a rather boring place judged by the urban standards habitual for the Indian subcontinent. Its bureaucratic appearance, though suggesting lawfulness and security, doesn’t save it from attacks. In the following days two more bombs exploded in the capital—however, we had already set out northwards to the mountains.
In a psychedelically painted bus—tidy but dilapidated, and filled to capacity with people, luggage, hens and two goats—we started climbing up the well-known Karakorum road. This masterpiece of mountain road construction is 1,200 kilometers long and connects Islamabad with the Chinese province Xinjiang. It passes dizzying gorges and plateaus, hundreds of suspension bridges and countless dispiriting turns while crossing the watershed ridge of Karakorum by way of the Khunjerab pass at an altitude of 4,740 meters. The Pakistanis are very proud of their KKH as they briefly call the road, and maintain it noteworthy well for the harsh conditions. This doesn’t contribute particularly to the speed of movement though. Before we got on the bus to Skardu—the center of the ethnic region Baltistan where K2 and the other eight-thousanders are located—we were told that the journey takes between eighteen and twenty-four hours. It took us exactly thirty-six hours! Neither more nor less. On the first day we ran out of petrol, because the roadside petrol service stations had hidden the fuel waiting for the new higher prices to come into force the next day. After we survived the petrol crisis wasting a lot of time, the monsoon rain started pouring. The bus started leaking in spite of the tons of luggage on the roof, and a little bit later falling stones blocked the road. We waited for four hours until bulldozers cleared it out. Unscathed by the fallen stones a yellow sign was sticking out: YOU ARE IN THE REALM OF KKH. DRIVE SAFELY! If you can!
For Karakorum and the foreign mountaineers Skardu is what Namche Bazaar is for the region of Everest in Nepal. However in an uncomely version. And the local version of the Sherpas are the Balti—an ethnic group professing Islam and known by its arab-semitic features. Until the 16th century the prevailing religion in Baltistan was Tibetan Buddhism and the small principality was the suzerain of Ladakh. Later on the maharaja of Kashmir incorporated the region into his possessions, and after the creation of Pakistan in 1947 it came within the boundaries of the new Islamic state.
If you expect the mountain spirit that gives Namche its special atmosphere to be present also in Scardu you will be disappointed. In the market square you can only count three or four shabby small shops for alpine equipment; it will be difficult to distinguish in the crowd those Balti who earn their living in the mountains, and you won’t meet crowds of trekkers and mountaineers with fire in their eyes kindled by the anticipation of the love affair with the great mountain. Yet Skardu also has its holy place—the K2 motel. Located above the shores of the river Indus, this building has accommodated numerous expeditions to the peaks of Karakorum starting with the successful ascent of K2 in 1954. Our two-man expedition can’t afford the price of a night’s lodging in the motel K2 but it doesn’t prevent us from examining the gallery of historic photos with sacred autographs posted on the walls: Lacedelli, Bonatti, Messner, Bonington, Shamu and many more.
Like our finances, our goal in Karakorum is far more modest. We have decided to make a complete traverse of the Biafo and Hispar glaciers, thus crossing the main massif from east to west and reaching the region Hunsa. To reach this point we have to cover more than 400 kilometers—250 of which by jeep on impossible roads cut into the canyons of the turbulent rivers Braldu and Hunza. We need a whole day to cover the first stretch to Askole—a village at 3,000 meters where the real part of our trek begins. Besides the two of us and the driver on the seat of the small Land Rover Pickup, piled into the carriage are ten Balti plus our entire luggage consisting of more than two hundred kilograms of food and equipment for 15 days—as long as we expect our passage through the mountain will take. The driver hums a popular hit while the road gets so steep that you stop seeing it in front of the car. Then we continue above the abyss through sections of the road where it is impossible for two cars to pass each other and you have your heart in your mouth because of the feeling that the outer tyres are half in the air. Quite often the road vanishes without a trace and your eyes dart around wildly in search of an exit. The driver keeps on humming.
We set out from Askole with seven porters and our guide Musa. With his oblong resolute face the highlander radiates respect and self-confidence. He has passed the planned route many times, but this season we are his first group. That’s why there is no information about the conditions on the route, which makes things uncertain. It’s undeniable that glaciers are many-sided and unpredictable like human beings—they can easily change from harmless icy highways into a tempestuous ocean of impassable drift-ice.
The beginning is problem-free and in several days we get into a rhythm consisting of foreseeable, almost ritual actions. Getting up at six, tea and coffee. Packing the luggage. Getting down from the side moraine–usually the most convenient place for bivouacking–and going into the stone-covered glacier Biafo. We meander for hours through a labyrinth of hills of black ice covered with perfidious rubble, through milky lakes, glacial streams and crevasses until we get to a long strip of clean bluish ice where we advance quickly and pleasantly. Then lunch break: soup and tea. We continue. Late in the afternoon we again start climbing the rough rocks of a moraine—threatening to collapse on us–to the next bivouac. It’s choking, crumbling, unsure. Oggi usually comes back to meet me half an hour away from the bivouac to help me with my rucksack. Relieved, I stump along the last meters all in one breath and throw down the sticks. Enough for today.
On the fifth day we reach the snow line at 4,500 meters. Two of the porters go back because the luggage has dwindled. We enter a huge ice basin situated at the upper end of Biafo, at the foot of the Hispar La ridge. This is Lukpe Lawo or the Snow Lake as the first European explorers called it. The dimensions of this plateau—polar in appearance and feeling—are dozens of square kilometers fenced with gothic rock formations encrusted with ice. They are like borrowed from the scenic design of “The Lord of the Rings” or another mystic-phantasmagorical décor of a Hollywood production. The famous English mountaineer Tilman, who passed this way in 1938 says that this is the most beautiful mountain view on earth, conquering you with its grandeur but also repelling with its unbearable inconsolableness.
Inconsolable, frightful and awfully beautiful—this is maybe the most accurate characterization of Karakorum Mountains. So, the next day–as we feel this withering threat at every step—we decide to shorten the planned tour of the enchanting boundlessness of the Snow Lake and hurriedly leave for Hispar La.
At the highest point of 5,200 meters our eyes light up at the blissful thought of the anticipated return—down there, away from the falling stones and the crevasses, in the villages with invisible women, curious children and everything else connected to simple sensuous pleasures.
I was descending from Hispar La among crevasses thinking of how different the relation between the Balti and Karakorum is. Like us, the Balti are obviously aware of the hostility of the mountain but there is no fear, rather respect and a strange intimacy in their attitude. Their coexistence is straight-forward and well-focused. Compared to it, the life in the lowland looks more compressed and has a foggy resolution. Maybe the Argentine writer Borges is right when he says that in the mountain no hill resembles another one while in the plain everything is the same and blends.
To go down on snow is a hundred percent fun especially for my ailing legs. Each pleasure is short-lived though and soon I start stumbling again on the scaly trunk of the glacier. Unlike Biafo, Hispar doesn’t offer particularly spectacular views and is utterly unpredictable. The main danger are the numerous side-glaciers that often flow into the main glacial stream like surf waves. In the beginning it was easy, then we had to strain ourselves and in the end it started snowing.
The next day we met the first living creatures on our route. No, they weren’t trekkers or mountaineers but a herd of wild yaks. Suddenly I realised that since the airport in Islamabad we had seen a total of only three foreigners, Norwegians, in Askole. Is Pakistan so dreaded? As real as the terrorist threat might be, it is not enough in itself to outweigh the desolate grandeur of Karakorum. It seems a friend of mine is right when he says that the present-day tourist is chicken-hearted. Indeed, where are the hippy times of the 20th century when the foreigners rushed fearlessly to look for light in the darkest corners of Asia? Today security is in demand—the tour-operator is a guardian angel who leads us comfortably on a beaten track.
Our caravan advanced on a track that wasn’t that beaten in search of a passage through the last side-glacier. Gradually it became clear that we had to go back down to the Hispar glacier and then make a wide loop to the south, going around the swooping icefall. Once more we take out the ropes and slide down the steep crumbly moraine on rappel. However, nothing good awaits us down there on the glacier. We climb the next ice hill with great difficulty, expecting an easier terrain to please our eyes on the other side but only see new waves of rugged stone ridges and deep hollows. We creep forward. Luckily the guide—following a side-moraine—finally makes his way out, and although my legs hardly obey because of the steep slope my heart sings with 130 beat per minute. At the top, I embrace Musa with gratitude for piloting me through this voluntary hell of mine.
Three hours later we pass the suspension bridge over the river and are met by the children from Hispar village. It’s obvious that they haven’t seen foreigners for a long time—their interest is endless. We put up at an empty house, the rapture calms down and the pulse gets back to normal. It’s time for the final part of the expedition—the customary last supper, which in Karakorum always includes the beheading of an animal. In our case this is a moulting cock. As for the drinks, Mussa treats us to a bottle of Pepsi. Something harder is out of question—the prohibition in Pakistan doesn’t succumb to corruption.
Already in the sleeping bag, before falling asleep, I wonder how it actually happened that all the highest mountains on the planet—Karakorum, the Hindu Kush, Pamir, Tian Shan and part of the Himalayas—are gathered in countries where Islam predominates. Is it possible that the famous parable ends with Muhammad refusing to be so haughty as to call the mountain to himself as the legend has it? Or something else happened: the mountain bowed to the lack of haughtiness and vanity in the prophet and went to him giving shelter and livelihood to millions of his followers.
When we reach Karimabad, the main town of the Hunza region, life acquires new dimensions. For two days we slept and ate as if it were our last time. On the third day the fatigue lessened and we started conceiving new plans. We decided to go westwards to the foot of the Hindu Kush and the Afghan border. The political situation there is a lot more heated, but we think that it is worth risking. We know in advance that in three valleys of Chitral district—forgotten even by themselves—a non-Islamic ethnic group with interesting traditions lives on the very border. In order to be independent we hire a jeep for a five-day journey and say good bye to Karimabad.
Not long after, we leave the asphalt of the Karakorum road and start moving on broken dirt roads. It’s the end of June—the season of apricots. The roadside rocks are laden with well-arranged dried fruits that gleam like glowing embers in the midday heat. We continue further through dusty villages and bizarre encounters. Everywhere we are met in a friendly manner without a trace of mistrust or resentment, without “what the hell are you doing in our country”. The sort of thing that could happen in many other countries that have an excellent touristic image. Obviously Pakistan is just predestined by its geopolitical fate which aggravates the tragedy of this beautiful country and its people.
At a height of 3,800 meters above sea level we go over the Shandur pass, famous for the highest located polo field in the world, and enter Chitral and the area of the Hindu Kush. We overnight in the main town of the district that has a typical border town atmosphere—many dealers and many weapons. It’s difficult to guess who’s who. However all of them are, if not friendly, at least apparently indifferent to our presence.
The following morning we register at the police, obtain special permits and set out for the land of the Kalasha—this is the name of this strange people numbering more or less 3,000. Their way of life is best preserved in a valley called Rumbur. Along a wooden bridge we enter the largest village in the area and are met by a group of women with neat colourful clothes without veils. Unbelievable, we are by the Kalasha people. Their dresses are gay, their hair-dos beautiful, different. They invite us to the courtyard. We take a seat beneath a dingy shed with a fire-place. Next we are treated to dried apricots, nuts and rice. They pour a kind of clear liquid in metal cups. We guess immediately—this is arak, the finest mulberry distillate. Are we still in Pakistan? The Kalasha people are not pagans; they have a unique religion with a pantheon filled with deities closely resembling the Brahman and Hindu gods. As for their origin, the anthropologists with more extravagant ideas declare them descendants of Alexander the Great. Others consider them Indo-Aryans.
However, even if you are not a scientist it suffices to pass through Balanguru—the most interesting of the villages—to be convinced that the gene pool here can’t be so simple. Fair men, children with blue eyes, swarthy women—the palette is full. Greeks or Aryans, the Kalasha people turn out to be very hearty and frank despite their ethnic isolation. Although obviously nobody hinders them from following their non-Muslim traditions, they are in the position of being a handful of survivors of a shipwreck who cling to a lonely rock amidst the waves of the Islamic ocean. They are already a minority in all of the three valleys they inhabit and this predetermines their fate. I leave the land of the Kalasha people feeling somehow sad. I know that I’ll never come back here. I also know that in several decades the future tourists won’t have a reason to come to these places. On the other hand I am glad that I managed to come to the Kalasha people in time. And when I arrive home, I tell myself once again that it is more and more difficult for me to find a reason to be sorry that I wasn’t born later.