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Essays and Travelogs

Trek on a Dry Track by Hasan Karrar

As far as treks went this one was hell, I told myself, as I trudged along the desolate and barren moraine of the Barpu Glacier. What is this place, I kept asking myself trudging along under the burning sun, and over the dusty, caked ground. It looked like it hadn”t rained for years. Could this really be the Karakoram? After years and years of reasonably extensive trekking I had yet to see a place that was as desolate as this. Not because of the lack of humans, but because of a complete lack of any sign of water. I took a sip of what I had left, which was only a litre or so. Standing there in the middle of the afternoon with sweat dripping into my eyes and onto my sunglasses, I was sorely tempted to swig all of it down.

But I resisted the temptation, popped a sweet in the mouth, and scanned the valley for some shade. I finally found a big boulder with about 12 inches of shade and discovered that it would accommodate most of me, leaving my feet to be cooked – but feet don”t matter anyway. I”m not sure how long I sat there looking at the burning barren mountains and lizards and insect of all sizes congregating around me. I fumbled in my pockets to look for a cigarette. I had quit smoking two months ago but started it as soon as I got back to the Karakoram. Old habits die-hard. I contemplated staying under the boulder till the sun was lower on the horizon, but then decided against it. I had yet to reach Barpu Giram, which was still at least an hour away according to my map. The sooner I got there, the sooner camp would be set up. I reluctantly heaved myself up and continued stumbling along the ablation valley, which was to lead to the elusive spot on the map where I was to camp for the night with my friend.

Barpu Giram was no different from what I had just left behind. I picked a random spot free from of rocks and proceeded to erect the tent there, destroying my hands in the process and realizing that driving tent pegs into the caked earth was in fact a lot more difficult than it seemed. Once that was done, I sat in the shade of the tent, waiting for the Russian to turn up and contemplating the bizarre few days that had brought us here.

The Russian wasn”t really a Russian, but Atif, a student at a Lahore university where I have been employed as a teacher. Recently, we had taken to calling him that as we figured it was an adequate description of this exotic creature. He had accompanied me on a brief trek to the south side of Nanga Parbat during a weeklong trip in May. Unlike the other 22 students who had been with me – unlike his colleagues who spent their summer holidays dressed in geeky suits and choking neck ties acting as glorified tea and photocopy boys and girls in big corporations – once the summer holidays rolled around in July, the Russian decided to do something which was actually useful and educational.

Another student and four more staff and faculty members from the same institution had joined us. The first five days were spent roaming on the Deosai plateau with its magnificent rivers, stunning views and enchanting star-filled nights. We then made a beeline for Karimabad, Hunza, where we spent a few relaxing days in the company of old friends and magnificent hosts Javaid, Ilyas Khan, Sher Ali and all the fine folks who escaped from the drudgery of Faisalabad and decided to return home to Hunza and take their chances there. After a few days of this indulgent lifestyle guilt eventually set in and, with the exception of the Russian, everyone else in our group was drawn by a sense of duty and love for their jobs and returned to Lahore.

The Russian and I were still feeling that itch in our feet – Deosai had been magic but it hadn”t satiated our thirst – so we decided to embark on one more trek before going back down. In any case, I never saw the wisdom in quitting while ahead. Through very twisted, roundabout circumstances which involved a huge argument at Borit Lake, a ride on the roof of the jeep of a local Prince (with the Prince, his wife and what seemed like two dozen children in the vehicle), and begging for cheap accommodation in Gulmit, we embarked on a trek to Rash Lake in Nagar. Previous trips to the Minapin glacier and the Rakaposhi base camps had revealed Nagar – situated on the other side of Hunza, across the river – to be a stunningly beautiful place.

So two days later there we were, standing on the Karakoram highway waiting for a vehicle to take us to Hopar, the start of this intended trek to Rash Lake. Having misbudgeted our finances, as I always do, we were dangerously close to running out of money. This precluded any possibility of hiring a jeep to take us there (of course, it didn”t stop us from making fun of all the Japanese tourists who jeep it up to Hopar, snap a few photographs, get suckered into buying useless rocks by local boys under the pretense that they are valuable gems, then jeep it back down in half an hour and wear white gloves so that their hands don”t get sun-burnt). After waiting for an entire day, we stopped a van going up to Hopar – the vehicle was exploding with locals. I was skeptical but when the driver suggested we climb up onto the roof, we accepted with glee.

This wasn’t such a great idea for two reasons. First, the vehicle started before we had a chance to make ourselves comfortable; consequently we were very precariously sprawled over piles and piles of luggage. Every time the vehicle made a 90-degree turn at 60 miles an hour on the road inclined at 30 degree I was certain I would go flying off (O-level physics and centrifugal force seemed strangely relevant all of a sudden). Secondly, the road to Hopar was lined with trees and after smashing my forehead against branches for two hours; all novelty of riding on top of a vehicle wore off. The next day, we actually began our trek. In all the summers I have spent in the Karakoram I had yet to spend a week that was so blisteringly hot – or so I thought as the Russian and I painstakingly made our way over the Hopar glacier.

Hopar is the fastest moving glacier in Pakistan, but what we didn’t know was that by qualifying for this dubious honour it ends up being a contorted mass of rock, ice and unstable borders the size of a small apartment building – and the scariest crevasses I’ve seen. I’m reasonably confident on difficult Karakoram glaciers, but on Hopar I was hopelessly lost. After endless scrambling for hours (which included a nasty fall in which I was convinced I had smashed my arm) we made it to the other side where we gleefully filled our water bottles from a pool of muddy water on the edge of the glacier. “Hm,” I mused looking at the glacier with respect, “that was one challenging crossing.” Of course, we still chose to disregard the warnings of the people in Hopar, cautioning us against this venture. In particular we paid no heed to their warning that from the end of June onwards there was no water to be found anywhere, except glacier pools. The heat can apparently fry your brains – making thinking into a chore and the lack of water, in the middle of a desert during the height of summer, seem like a trivial matter.

Sipping on rocket fuel (a combination of water, ORS, Energile and sugar), choking on dust, and dripping with sweat, we labored up a steep, barren, blazing gully on towards the Barpu glacier. Now Barpu glacier had been described to us as having plenty of quicksand. Being the intrepid mountain traveler that I am, I rejected this out of hand as being complete nonsense. I’m not sure what transpired next, but I have vivid memories of galloping over the glacier with the sun beating down relentlessly – galloping until I’m waist deep in mud and calling out to the Russian for help. I’m not sure how, but I manage to haul myself out just as the Russian leans forward to help me. To celebrate the great escape, we took a break, sat in the sun and smoked cigarettes. Just then we heard voices behind us. The Russian turned around and announced that it was Ilyas.

Ilyas Khan, a mountain guide from Karimabad, has been a friend for many years now. Much as I was pleased to see him I was also very surprised, for he was supposed to be approaching Rash Lake this day, not be on his way out. He, along with his Japanese client was turning back because of no water up ahead on the route. Though we watched Ilyas head back, we were still confident to make it to Rash Lake by the next evening. The situation changed soon after. I think the heat finally got to us. The Russian announced he wasn’t well and that he was going to go to sleep on the glacier. I decide to walk on the Barpu Giram, set camp and wait for him. So I hauled my knapsack on to my back, the Russian lay down in the sun on the glacier and went to sleep and I made my way into to this desolate, barren, deserted valley. And here I was, dirty, sweaty, tired, thirsty, waiting for the Russian to show up.

Altitude does strange things to me. I can throw a thousand dollar camera and lens combination 200 feet down a mountain and not feel any pain. I knew it was going to happen at any moment. I was perched on the moraine above the Barpu glacier, my tripod balancing very precariously on the tiny ledge, and all the while I was snapping and switching between two cameras and three lenses. I put one camera down, thought it was going to fall and didn’t move it because I wanted to see if it would. It did. I was done taking pictures for the evening so it didn’t matter too much to me anyway (much to my surprise, the machine did survive the fall). I stumbled back down to camp and began the processes of coaxing my stove to work. I wasn’t really sure what good that would do, as we had almost no water.

We made half a cup of coffee each which tasted finer than any cup of coffee I’ve ever had. Dusk slowly fell on this desolate and godforsaken valley. Since water was short we voted against making noodles, the staple trekking food, and instead opened a can of corned beef and another of baked beans, which we proceeded to eat raw. The beans were acceptable, but the corned beef tasted awful, and worst of all, it was salty. I spent the entire night awake, hallucinating about the gushing rivers of Deosai. I was up and out of my tent at dawn, gathered all the empty water bottles and began the hour-long walk back to the glacier. The sun was still behind the mountains and relatively bearable. Just as I was approaching the glacier the sun crept up from behind a ridge and the entire valley exploded in to a fireball of heat. I made my way to the nearest pool on the glacier, and greedily drank from it. Slightly rotten, but I didn’t care – it was still water.

It was only once my initial thirst had been satiated that I saw insects floating in the water I had just consumed. Instead of being disgusted, I sat there pondering how I could photograph them. Eventually, I got up and looked towards the head of the valley. Though it was only eight in the morning, the Golden Peak was already disappearing behind a shimmering haze. I made my way back to the camp, to find that the Russian had everything packed up. We hoisted our loads and silently continued along the valley. We weren’t going to go very far. Water eventually started running out and we trudged along searching for more. We came to a rose forest – hundreds of wild rose bushes each covered in hundreds of flowers. But no water. By chance we came across a local shepherd boy who filled our water bottles from a mysterious source. It had the consistency of mud, but the noodles we cooked in it that night didn’t taste half bad.

We didn’t get anywhere close to Rash Lake. Common sense set in finally or our will broke but we knew we wanted to go back. We backtracked, returning to Hopar with the same merciless sun beating down on us. The climb up from Hopar glacier to Hopar village was hell as we laboured up a 90-degree shade-less mud-cliff in the middle of the afternoon with no water. I thought of nothing but drinking water on reaching the village. Which was not to be.

On reaching the village we found out that a Suzuki was heading back to Hunza. Since finding public transport is next to impossible, we quickly clambered in. The occupants of the vehicle, students from Gilgit, eyed us suspiciously, as they hung off the vehicle. There was something very comical about the whole scene: the Russian and myself being inside, with plenty of space and everyone outside. The tape deck blasted akiyon say gooli maray, as I sat there silently smoking. As the Suzuki hurled through the lush green terrain of Nagar, the sound of gushing mountain streams fell in my ears. I smiled feebly, reflecting that this would be the perfect moment to have a nervous breakdown and cry.

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