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Essays and Travelogs

The Hills are Alive…

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What do you say when 88 people (about 80 students, some teachers and a few others) travel to the northern areas of Pakistan to “trek up some mountains”? Well, as one teacher quipped: “You don’t say they travel you say, invade”! That’s what happened last year when the LUMS Adventure Society (LAS), expecting 30 entries when they advertised the trip, ended up taking three times that many people up to the Northern Areas for treks to Fairy Meadows (North Face of Nanga Parbat, 44 people); the South Face of Nanga Parbat (22 people); and the Hunza and Nagar valleys (22 people). That was probably one of the largest “trekking” parties ever to go up to there, or so we were told by every single hotel, restaurant and dhabba walla along the way. This year (2000), expecting about 100 entries, LAS ended up taking 140 people, making it most definitely the largest trekking party, ever – Fairy Meadows: 76 people; Tagafari (one of the Rakaposhi base camps): 33 people; the Batura glacier: 12 people; and to the Hunza and Nagar valleys: 19 people.

Organizing a group this big is almost as memorable as the trip itself, and before I go on I must commend LAS for pulling it off (not without minor hitches, mind you) with so much patience, tolerance and for all the effort they put into it. LAS had to arrange for transport, hotel accommodation, tents, sleeping bags, medicines, stoves, food and drink for everyone and provide us all with a detailed list of what we need to purchase for the trek ourselves: backpacks; shoes; clothes; torches; ORS (very important, you cannot trek without ORS, its sort of like the American Express Travelers Cheques for hiking); and other small, but vital, things.

But for LAS it is not just about organizing the trek, rather it’s about the trek itself. For people to whom a few years ago “northern areas” meant Naran and Kaghan, and to some even just Ayubia and Nathia Gali, the trek is an eye-opener. For those who thought camping was something you saw only on television (granted it makes great movies and sitcom episodes) it was a shock. But for everyone who went there, LAS give them something they would ever forget. In fact, I’m quite sure I’ll bore my grandchildren with never ending stories about it! And just as importantly, this isn’t something that people who live there forget easily either. A lot of the people living there remembered our last year’s trip, too, especially the really wonderful people of Karimabad (Hunza), who still remembered some of our names.

The format of the trip is simple: buses are booked to take us to Gilgit (a 25 hour journey this year, with stops at Kallar Kahar on the motorway, the PTDC Rest house in Besham, and at a khokha in Dassu) where we spend the night. We stay at the Hunza Inn (because it’s the only one that can accommodate so many people) with the girls taking the rooms (3-4 per room) and the boys sleeping in sleeping bags on the verandas. The next morning we split up into groups and go our separate ways – dropped by our buses to our respective points on the highway (the KKH), and are picked up from there three days later. We then all meet up for a two night stay at Karimabad where most of us stay at the Hill Top Hotel (3 people to a room), while some stay wherever else we can cut them a good deal. Finally, we head back to Lahore directly from Hunza, another 26 hours on the road.

Last year I went to Fairy Meadows, a beginners trek (as far as trekking goes) and had a wonderful time with my friends. This year I was going for the relatively-tough-for-us yet easy-for-trekkers trek to the Rakaposhi base camp, Tagafari. This place was recommended to LAS by none other than Sher Khan, one of Pakistan’s premier mountaineers on one of our trips to Mallam Jabba, earlier this year. It was not to be missed, he said. So off we went.

Our trek started on the highway, at the turn to Minnapin Village (in Nagar), which is an hours walk away from there along a jeep track. The first stage was to take us through Minnapin Village, up a gorge next to a river, across a small forest called Bungidas and to Hapakund – a grazing meadow for the local shepherds – where we would spend our first night. Our bible, the Pakistan Trekking Guide (Isobel Shaw and Ben Shaw, Vanguard Books, Lahore; 1993) and our LAS patron, Hassan Karrar, told us that this stage would take us about four hours. It didn’t. It took us between seven to nine hours. We made, mostly by circumstance and not by choice, a couple of silly errors that day. Errors we should have avoided but weren’t able to. The first, foremost and the biggest one of all was simply that we started late. We left the highway at 11:30 AM, hoping to get to the gorge in about an hour, where we would stop, have lunch and then move on. The route to the gorge had changed since any of us had last been there (four years ago), so it took most of us about two and half hours in the afternoon sun – the consequence of the starting-late mistake – to get to the start of the gorge climb. We hadn’t anticipated such a large change in the route and we hadn’t anticipated the unique dynamics of this particular party very well either (mainly because it didn’t occur to us): about 10 to 15 of the group were walking slowly and got tired quickly because we’d all (myself included) just gotten off antibiotic courses less than a week before the trek. In fact, three people had even dropped out of the trek because they were still ill. So, at about 2:00 PM – a criminally late time to start – we finally assembled at the wooden bridge next to the river to climb the gorge.

The river, with dirty brown water fed by glacial flow off the mountains, runs ferociously downs the gorge and into the village below. The way up the gorge, a rocky, zigzagging path with an angle of inclination of about 40-60 degrees, was supposed to get us to Bungidas in about an hour. The walk from there to Hapakund was supposed to be another two hours. Simple mathematics told us that we’d get to the campsite at about 5 PM. However, when we asked some locals, they told us that we were three hours away from Hapakund, like we’d just calculated. That is a bad thing. When locals give you a time, and I have yet to see one wearing a watch, you redo your math – unless you’re a professional trekker. So we did – it would take us five hours and we’d get there by seven. Sunset was at 6:45 PM so some of us quickly made our second silly mistake – we skipped lunch, while some just ate a candy bar. Instead, we started the gorge climb straight away. Maybe it was the backpacks that weighed over 20kg, maybe it was the altitude, maybe it was the fact our total food intake for that day had been two slices of toast, one fried egg and one cup of tea. Whatever it was, it took us about two and half hours to get to the top of the gorge. Tired, I stopped at the only clean stream along the way – one minute before a short dust storm and drizzle. By the time I was ready to fill my bottles of water, the stream was brown with dirt, grass and rocks. Oh and did I mention that to celebrate my reaching the stream, I’d just finished all the water I’d been saving along the way!?

So, weak, tired, aching (especially my shoulders) and thirsty, I plodded on – walking, resting, walking, resting – over and over and over again. Trekking is a very personal experience for me. When I near physical and/or mental exhaustion I need to trek alone. And when I do, I talk to myself; I sing; I hum; I curse myself, the mountain, my feet and I curse in general; I throw myself at God’s mercy; I praise him for humbling me so easily with a trek like this; and I beg for a quick end to the trek and some respite from my suffering. He doesn’t give me any, of course. He knows I’m enjoying myself thoroughly. You might wonder why I go through all this, why I torture myself. I guess the only answer is that I’ve found trekking to be by far the most exhilarating and rewarding thing I have ever done. On each trek that I’ve been on, I get completely physically exhausted, I ask myself over and over again why I’m doing this and I ache; I pain; I suffer; I sweat; I freeze; I hurt everywhere – ALL the muscles in my legs, arms, fingers (especially fingertips); shoulder; feet; toes; head; everywhere. – I plod on and on and on like a zombie at times and sometimes my throat gets completely parched too. But then I would do it over and over again because doing all this is really worth it. The places I go to are worth it, the people I go with are worth it, the scenery is worth it, the process of self discovery is worth it, the mental test and torture that one goes through every time makes it worth it!

Two and a half hours later, we finally climbed out of the gorge, only to be faced with another steep incline that seemed to go on for hours and hours (although my watch says it was more like one hour). Finally at the end of the incline we reached Bungidas. Due to circumstance (I was dead tired!) I was at the tail end of the trekking party, so by the time we reached the forested area, it was beginning to get dark. Fortunately a local that we passed along the way happened to be a porter, so breaking a rule we had set for ourselves (‘we will not hire porters’) we handed him one backpack, two tents and a stove. Later, we found that others had broken the rule much before us, so we don’t feel as guilty any more! With about 5kgs (each) off our backs we moved on. The route from Bungidas to Hapakund is reasonably level, but it was still slow going. Twenty steps would get you out of breath (we were at about 11,000 feet) and we were still quite a long way away from the camp. This part of the trek I don’t remember too well, except that after quite some time, three of our fellow trekkers, namely Moby, Kawwa and Kami (who had reached the camp over an hour ago) walked back to us, took our backpacks and showed us the rest of the way to the camp. So at about 8:00 PM, after about eight and a half hours of trekking, we reached Hapakund.

The tents had already been set up and dinner was already being cooked. Sobia, Saqib and Sadia were hard at it – noodles with baked beans, corned beef and tea. It took the instant noodles about an hour to cook after which we ate, washed the pots (Sara and I washed sticky pans in freezing cold water, under torchlight, with Dettol soap – not something I’d recommend to anyone!) and put things away for the night. Almost immediately after that (well, after half a rubber of bridge) most of us found tents to sleep in and knocked out for as many hours of sleep as we could get before we started again the next morning.

After a freezing night, we got up at about 7 AM, ate a quick breakfast of biscuits (Wheat Slices, Candi, Gala, Tuc, etc.) with cheese, jam and peanut butter, washed up by the stream nearby, broke camp and moved on – all of which took about three hours for all 33 of us! The biggest delay was caused by the fact that there weren’t too many spots (large boulders and bushes) that one could use as a bathroom. So, we went turn-by-turn, instead of spreading out onto the mountain! Fortunately, after yesterday’s fiasco of doubled time estimates and aching shoulders, we decided to hire porters. Unusually, we got porters reasonably cheaply – mainly because they had donkeys. All but four peoples’ backpacks were sent off with the porters which, as expected, reached there well before any of us did.

The second stage’s trek was fantastic! Without backpacks, we felt light and full of energy although we still couldn’t climb for more than five minutes at normal walking speed without having to stop and catch our breaths. Acclimatization is not something that comes easily! Today’s stage was to take us out of the valley (which the meadow was in), across the face of two mountains and over a ridge on one of them. We would climb to over 13,000 feet and then down a short way into a banana-shaped field that was the base camp. The trek was supposed to be (and, in fact, was) four hours long. It was simple, but steep and the going was slow. We walked through some meadows, crossed plenty of goats and cows, and generally had a very good time. It was getting chilly up at this altitude, so the sun had no affect on us (thanks to the sun-block that is a must for all treks in the north) and the walk was invigorating for the mind and soul. I like to sing and stupidly, I’d keep bursting into song and then getting out of breath three steps later. You can’t blame me, though – I’ve seen The Sound of Music at least two dozen times, probably more. We reached the final ridge at about 3 PM. The tail, under Khurram Hussain, our group leader, reached there about an hour later.

One of the salient features of this trek, as Hassan Karrar had told us before we left, was that the trek is pretty much useless unless you go right to the end – until you reach the final ridge. And here we were. While walking up the valley, all you see are brown mountains, meadows and distant peaks. There are no snow-covered peaks nearby to be seen. In fact, you can’t see Rakaposhi, Diran (also called Minnapin) or the glacier on the first day at all. So, on reaching the ridge we were presented with the most panoramic view I have ever, ever seen in my life. It’s simply breathtaking (and not just because you’re out of breath all the time!). At the ridge you’re standing at one corner of a triangular mountain configuration. In front of you, in the left corner, you have Diran, an almost perfectly pyramidal, snow-capped peak. This is connected to Rakaposhi at 7788 m., the 11th highest peak in Pakistan, in the right hand side corner of the triangle by a series of smaller peaks, all of which are snow covered. Along the left side you have the Kacheli Peaks and along the right you a line of have a smaller, unnamed mountains. Between these flow the glaciers that come off the mountains, collectively called the Minnapin Glacier, which then continues down to your corner of the triangle. The base camp is along the right hand side from where you stand. To get to the camp, however, you have to cross IT.

IT is the ridge, the most dangerous part of the trek. To quote the guidebook: “The next section of the walk is difficult for those carrying a heavy pack and impossible for donkeys. You follow a narrow path across the side of the lateral moraine for about 200 metres, with a steep slope dropping about 30 metres down into the glacier.” However, when Hassan Karrar came here four years ago, a large portion of the path had fallen in, and he had to clamber across the rock face of the mountain for about ten feet to get to the path again. This year the path had fallen in three places. Crossing this ridge is the closest, I hope, that my trekking will ever come to mountaineering.

Now, I have a problem with heights. It’s not exactly vertigo, but close enough. Over the years, from not being able to stand at the first floor balcony, I’ve managed to overcome and control most of my fears and can now even stand near the edges of taller buildings. The only method I’ve found to battle something like this is the ‘Hitchhiker”s Guide To The Galaxy’ Motto: “Don’t Panic” and fortunately, that is what I did. The path, from what you can see in the pictures, is about 4-6 inches across and is full of loose dirt and small stones. At some parts it is as steep as 50 degrees and at others it disappears completely! When the path disappears, you have to find firm foot- and hand-holds on the rock face of the mountain and clamber across the side for about 10-20 feet till the path starts again. The tough part is knowing where to put your foothold so that it doesn’t move, knowing which rock to hold so that you can pull yourself to the next step and knowing how to cross one leg across the other after you’ve found your first foothold. Of course you don’t know if you know any of that until you really try. All that and more you have to think of as you cross this section. I don’t know about the others, but at times I had to put my foot on holds about four inches wide so that only my toes and the balls of my feet were on rock while the rest of my foot was in mid-aid; or put my foot on the rock face at a 75 degree angle, hoping the sole would hold me up. Then at other times I had to hold onto rocks about as thick as cucumbers, with only one joint of my fingers doing the holding part. It was scary. Not impossible and not (ultimately) all that difficult, but scary. The path is short, but with adrenaline choking you, your heart either too quiet to notice, or too loud to ignore it takes about 20 minutes to cross it. The drop beside you is a good 200-300 feet, with no handholds, so falling means certain death. Of course, it doesn’t help when your guide chats to you about the Australian woman who fell off that ridge 10 days ago and whose body was flown out a week back – in Saqib’s case, this discussion took place at the point in the path from where she fell!

The greatest reward of crossing the path (other than getting to the other side) is the view when you get there. If the ridge view was stunning, this is about a hundred times better! You get to see the whole of the right side of the triangle, the entire glacial basin in front of you and how all that contrasts with the base camp – a banana-shaped lake-bed flatland. Separating the base camp from the glacier is an S-shaped moraine, about 100 feet high, so the contrast is very obvious. On the left there is probably the most menacing glacier I have ever seen, while on the right there is a dry lakebed, with grass and a single, melted-snow-fed stream running through it. An unassuming, serene, sedate, untouched meadow at 13,000 feet, sitting between massive mountains and an evil-looking glacier. It was heaven! Of course, what appealed to us city folks at that time, maybe more than just the getting there, was the fact that last year, some of the Minnapin locals had opened a hotel there, called Happy Day Hotel, which was serving freezing cold Pepsi and Teem stored in the snow (for Rs. 30) and a hot plate of Daal and Chaawal (Rice and Lentils) for Rs. 50. We ate, drank and made merry (i.e. took our shoes off) till the porters had brought all our backpacks across the ridge – two at a time, no less – when we set up camp and relaxed, happy knowing that we’d finally made it.

The story doesn’t end here, of course. You don’t write a good article by ending right at the most important part! So, to continue – We lazed around for the rest of the day, ate dinner from the hotel (same menu as lunch) and froze in our tents for another night with temperatures dropping below zero. There is no snow on the ground, but there is snow piled up along the sides (coming off the mountains), and the banks of the stream froze every night. Fortunately, the camp is sheltered very well from the wind. Nothing is worse than freezing cold wind – well, there is rain and there is snow and there is a blizzard, but you know what I mean! The next morning was a relaxed one. We woke up late, Ali Pasha and I (with instructions from Asim Butt) made porridge, which was greatly appreciated all round. We soaked up the sun and then at about 10 AM, split up into the party that wanted to go onto the glacier and the one that didn’t. I was somewhere in the middle of these two – I just wanted to see and maybe step in the glacier for a little while, naive that I am about the ways of glaciers. Getting to the glacier wasn’t simple. We walked on top of the moraine for about 20 minutes till we reached a climb (the moraine goes a significant way up towards the peak next to Rakaposhi, by the way). From there, there’s a 75-degree descent into the glacier on the left of the S-shape. Out of a party of 33, about 15 went onto the glacier. They wanted to go as far as they could towards Kacheli, a grazing meadow on the other side. Knowing my problem with heights, I didn’t even try to go down. The guide took the party down onto the glacier, while we watched and took pictures. They would walk for two and a half hours before turning back (they were less than half way across by then) because it was getting late. You do not walk on a glacier in the dark unless you’re supposed to. We chose, instead to get off the moraine on the other side, play in the snow, which was about 3 feet deep at places, and relax. Some people made snow people (snow man and woman – I’m not trying to be politically correct!) while others had snowball fights. Yasir and I climbed up the moraine above the snow line for about 20 minutes till we reached a landslide and didn’t risk going further for some great photography.

A few hours later we ambled back into camp, soaked in some more UV-filtered sun and Sobia and I made the best lunch we had on the entire trek (if I do say so myself). It was noodles, cheese, baked beans and cheese. Then we sprinkled some more cheese on it for good measure. After that we had desert (biscuits, jam and peanut butter), tea and then we sat around doing – more or less – nothing. The glacier party arrived soon after that. They attempted a repeat performance of our lunch and did a decent job too, except that they burnt my T-shirt, singed Laila’s sleeping mattress, blackened the pots and almost toppled the stoves over three times in doing it. Later, they made really good soup (with cheese).

When we’d woken up that morning we’d found that we had neighbors. Jason and France were two hikers who’d hiked up for two nights as well. Jason, from New Zealand, was in his seventh month of a 15-month trekking plan, while France, from Zimbabwe, was visiting Pakistan. All of us ended that evening up on the moraine to watch the sunset. God’s famous light show at 13,000 feet, no ticket required. And what a sunset it was. On cue, the sun dipped below the mountains behind us and the moon sprung up in front of us. The icing on the cake, of course, was that we had a full moon that night. Our trip hadn’t been timed like that, but it was a great coincidence. That night we bought wood from the hotel and had a campfire. We told jokes (that soon descended into not-so-clean-joke territory) for about two hours and as the fire died out we knocked off to sleep one by one.

The trip back was brief, but sufficiently memorable. We woke up in the morning, made breakfast, and as a final day treat I took out my can of aalu qeema (minced meat and potatoes) and ate that as well – not alone, of course, never alone; being a hostel resident for four years teaches you that! We broke camp quickly, cleaned up and packed up and got ready to go. We always take great pains to follow the hikers code, if it can be called that: “take only pictures, leave only footprints.”

To be on the safe side we were hoping to get the porters to take as many backpacks as they could across the ridge. About 4-5 of us were sufficiently injured (leg injury, knee injury, lots of blisters, various sprains) to need it and one of us had a low fever, as well. From the number of porters there that day we determined that just under half the party would have to carry their backpacks across the ridge themselves. Being able, experienced from one trek and the (junior) co-group leader of the trek, I fell into the former category. I made it across sweating, trembling and reasonably shook up, but without any real fear of dying – that only happens in the movies, right? Oh how I wish! My clearest memory from the trip is hanging on the rock face, trying to put my left foot where my right foot is, swapping handholds while my backpack scrapes along the rock next to me and thinking to myself how silly I’d probably be looking right now. Anyway, we all made it across without incident, mainly since we were helped by the porters who hopped across the ridge without thinking. Porters impress me and make me jealous at the same time. I wish so much that I could be like them – but then I imagine a porter trying to drive down Mall Road in Lahore at 2:00 PM on a Monday and I realize that he’d feel as inadequate as I was feeling then. I get some reassurance from that!

The trek down to the highway took a total of about four and a half hours. We all but destroyed our knees, ankles, toes, heels and tendons on the way down. We’d strained everything else on the way up already. You could tell a Rakaposhi person for two days after that – every single one of us limped all around Karimabad. All of us walked down slopes (stairs, streets, anything) sideways and all of us wore nothing but slippers and sandals for the next three days! Fortunately, the bus driver had found out that the bus could drive up into the village, so he’d brought the bus an hour’s walk before the highway. It was the best thing to happen to us all week. We piled in and from there on it was an hours drive to Karimabad, during which I settled my accounts (I was the accountant on this trip) and others relaxed. We were to spend two nights there, at the Hill Top Hotel, with the rest of our entourage. This was the “holiday” part of the trek.

If there is one place and one place only that you have a choice to visit in the Northern Areas – make it the Hunza valley. Aside from being one of the most beautiful places in the country, with its 100% literacy rate, near 0% crime rate (from what I’ve heard), it’s the people that make it what it is. These people are the most honest, genuine, helpful people I’ve met in Pakistan. With sincere hospitality, they’ll go out of their way to get you what you want, help you in any way that they can, and be great hosts at the same time. Their tolerance level is amazing too, 140 people in a place as small as Karimabad is not easy, but they tolerated us beautifully. That doesn’t mean that they won’t overcharge you in the shops, though. If you can’t bargain properly, you deserve to pay more! Anyway, We had a wonderful time. Hassan Karrar and other frequent LAS trekkers know quite a few people there, so arrangements to do lots of things were made easily. However, a local guide had fallen in a landslide and had passed away the day we arrived, so whatever we did was somewhat sedated. Still, the people of Hunza welcomed us. People took tours of the Baltit and Altit Forts, went to the Hopar Glacier, climbed up Ultar Peak, saw the sunrise from Duiker, and did a great deal of shopping for themselves and their families. Buying a shawl for ones mother was a standard thing, for example.

Finally, after an exhausting, rewarding and a truly memorable trek, we got back into our buses and zipped back to Lahore the way we came (26 hours on the road) bang into the middle of the hottest day of the summer so far. I, for one, slept 12 straight hours that night. Unfortunately, like we are now used to in LUMS, we got straight back to the campus the next day to continue life as if the trip never happened. I hate the Information Age sometimes; I wish I could live without a watch or a computer, up in some village in the mountains, herding sheep and carrying backpacks for a living – okay, maybe not the backpacks bit! Oh well, life goes on. All’s well that ends well. Until next time…

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