Day 7: Last Day in Hunza

Our last day in Hunza was a fairly subdued one. We started off the morning by taking a walk along one of the water channels that funnel the glacial melt water from high up Ultar Glacier down countless channels, ditches and cascades to the lush green fields, meadows and orchards that cover every inch of fertile land in the valleys. It’s these channels which make Hunza what it is today. At first glance the water appears quite murky and unclear, but the brown color comes from fine silt and mica deep beneath the glacier which gives the water a silky, ethereal quality.

Our walk took us to another girls school to visit, this time a government degree college for girls between the ages of around 16 to 20 years old. While it was great to see what progress is being made in this front, visiting two schools hit my limit (and there was another third originally planned for tomorrow!) – there are only so many times I can stand awkwardly at the front of a classroom and address groups of bemused schoolgirls.

From there we went down to Altit, one of the original settlements in the valley. It dates from the time a group of Huns (think: Attila the Hun) came over the Khyber Pass and turned left into the mountains, eventually settling on this valley to set up shop. The highlight is the old Altit Fort, like its big brother up the hill painstakingly restored over the past decade or so. This one dates back over a millennia and is strategically positioned on the edge of a 300m high cliff above the river. The Tibetan influence is clear in the structure and design of the building, as well some of the Buddhist carvings in the pillars and door frames.

We had lunch at a lovely restaurant in the royal gardens adjacent to the fort under the orchard trees, itself an initiative to provide local women with the opportunity to operate their own business. Easily one of the best meals I’ve had here.

After Altit we drove half an hour uphill to the village of Duikar, the highest village in the Hunza. Our accommodation for the night was the Eagles Nest Hotel perched high above the valley with outstanding views to the west towards Rakaposhi. We were told this is THE place to come to for sunrises and sunsets, but unfortunately some unsettled weather blew in so we weren’t treated to any postcard-perfect views. Here’s hoping for better weather in the morning!

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Day 6: Nagyr Valley & Hoper Glacier

While “Hunza” is used to refer to the local region, in reality it is divided into two: Hunza on the north side of the river, and Nagyr on the south. Our plan for today was to head up the namesake Nagyr Valley to the village of Hoper next to the massive but accessible Hoper Glacier.

Given mild concerns about the security situation in Nagyr we drove in a convoy of five vehicles, with a couple of policeman armed with AK-47s riding in the lead vehicle. Nagyr is predominantly Shia (unlike Hunza which is Ismaili, and the rest of Pakistan which is mainly Sunni), and some young troublemakers have recently been trying to stir things up. It didn’t feel that unsafe on the drive up, all the locals were just as friendly as we’ve come across elsewhere in Pakistan. The only sign of any unrest were a few of the ubiquitous “Down with USA” signs graffitied onto the sides of buildings, as well as many signs imploring the locals to “Join ISO (International Shia Organization)”. My particular favorite was some graffiti that said “America Dog, Israil Pappi” – if you’re going to incite some hate, at least spell it right!

Our drive took us from Karimabad, back down to the KKH and over the river, and then onto some rough dirt and partially sealed roads into the Nagyr Valley. The road quickly gained altitude as we got out of the valley floor and up onto the greener terraces where the villages are. It took about an hour of driving through some pretty spectacular scenery to get to Hoper, where we pulled in to the entertainingly named “Hoper Hilton”.

It was a brief two minute walk from there to the edge of the cliffs which looked down onto the glacier 150m below. After rattling off some photos of the glacier pouring down from the shoulder of Diran, I was keen to be a bit more active so I took the opportunity to hike down to the edge of the glacier. A steep trail led down underneath the cliffs and terminated at the lateral moraine. I soaked up the views and the silence (no wind, just the clatter of small rockfalls every now and then) before turning around and hiking back up. After a gut-busting 20 minutes I was back with the group for lunch at the “Hilton”.

I took another quick stroll along the cliff top before we left, and came across some children picking apricots off their trees and drying them on flat baskets in the sun. I gave a boy one of the clip-on koalas I carry around for small gifts and I made an instant friend: in return he gave me a quartz crystal he had in his pocket, scooped up a handful of dried apricots off one of the baskets, and also offered to pick me some fresh fruit off the tree.

We were back in Karimabad by mid-afternoon, and I was keen to use the time until dinner to do some hiking. One of the locals suggested the Queen Victoria Monument on the hillside above the village so off I went. It took me an hour and a half to get up there, walking past the Baltit fort, through the old mud brick village and along narrow alleys, through the terraced fields and orchards following one of the water channels uphill, and eventually onto the steep hill slope to the top.

I had a lovely interaction with an elderly man on my way up. I had to ask a few locals for directions as the path was difficult to follow, and when I asked a farmer he offered to walk with me to show me the way. His English was quite good and he was curious to know where I was from, my family, my job, etc. He didn’t seem overly pleased with my answer to his “what religion are you” question (answer: “I have no religion”). We eventually parted ways after around 15 minutes in which he easily outpaced me up the path, and I offered him some money as thanks for going out of his way. At first he declined my offer, but then changed his mind. The smallest denomination bill I had in my wallet was US$5 and when I gave it to him he didn’t quite know what to make of it. When I explained that it was worth around 500 rupees (more than a day’s wages) his eyes opened wide and he was effusive with his thanks! He said goodbye telling me that he will “pray for me a long life”. Nice…

The Queen Victoria Monument was nothing special (nothing more than a pile of stones) but the views over the Hunza Valley and up the glacier towards Ultar made the hike worth it.

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Day 5: Exploring Hunza

After a few days of constant travel, having a couple of days in Hunza to unwind has been a nice change.

Today was a very “local” day, starting with a visit to a non-profit teaching girls computer skills like web design and online marketing – skills that they can then sell as a freelancer. After that we went to visit the Aga Khan school, a private school for girls which is very selective about taking in the best and brightest students. The school was set on a lovely campus, and it was a delightful opportunity to meet and talk with some of these ambitious young girls. Inspirational stuff!

We rounded off the morning with a visit to a local carpet factory, where natural-dyed traditional carpets wee being made by hand – it takes around four months to make a 5′ x 7′ rug! Lunch was taken at our local representative’s Didar Ali’s house surrounded by orchard trees on a steep hillside just out of town.

In the late afternoon we visited Baltit Fort which looms above Karimabad village. For around 800 years this was the seat of power for the local Mir (ruler) until he moved down the hill to more comfortable digs in the mid-20th century. The building then fell into neglect, but it was painstakingly repaired and renovated over several years in the 1990s and now looks as it did in its prime. It must have been quite a sight when the British army entered the valley in 1891!

It was a steep walk up cobbled streets through the old village to the base of the fort, where we were met by the curator who led us on a tour of it which included a painfully long video of old photos of the building and supposedly notable/historic people in the valley. Following tea on the rooftop as the sun dipped down behind the mountain ridge, we went into the old dining hall where we were treated to a dinner of local specialties accompanied by local artists playing traditional music and some dancing. In many ways – the layout of the room, the mood lighting, the music – it reminded me of Marrakech in Morocco. Interestingly, all the entertainment was performed by men and we didn’t see a single women while we were there – in the Hunza culture women would only dance at a private family event or gathering.

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Day 4: Passu to Hunza

Given the length of the journey and terrain we had to cover, we had broken up the bulk of the trip from China to Pakistan into two days. Our first night in Pakistan was spent in Passu, a small village by the KKH. The next morning we continued south down the road towards Hunza, our first real “destination” in Pakistan where we would spend a few days.

The drive from Passu took us past numerous villages and the occasional Indiana Jones-style cable suspension bridge over the river, rudimentary structures with some gaping gaps between the wooden boards. At one point we reached a section of the road in pretty bad shape because the snout of the Ghulkin Glacier has been inching downhill in recent years, bulldozing everything in its way. Quite eery peering up from the cars at the terminal moraine of boulders and dirty ice!

After an hour or so from Passu we reached the end of the road at Attabad Lake. In 2010 a monstrous landslide dragged down a sizable chunk of mountain and blocked the river, killing 19 people in a village which was buried/wiped out. There were two major consequences from this event. Firstly, the landslide took out the KKH and no traffic was able to get up or down the highway – this explained the lack of traffic and belching trucks on the highway, and our guide told us that since then the volume of traffic has been only around 5% of normal.

The other major consequence from the landslide is that it blocked the river, forming Attabad Lake in the months that followed. The Chinese are presently building a new road and extensive set of tunnels to bypass the lake and reopen the KKH, but for the time being (next year or two) the only way to continue down the valley is to use one of the boats now on the lake to ferry from one end to the other.

The boats plying the lake turned out to be some surprisingly large home-made timber structures, with two tractor engines mounted on planks out to the side and long propellers affixed to the shafts and a driver in the cockpit above the stern. We loaded on to one of the boats with our gear, and once the two engines were hand-cranked to start we were on our way.

The first part of the boat trip was down a fairly rapid section of the river, and we were told the old KKH was about 100 feet below the waterline beneath us (extending to around 400 feet at its deepest point). The grey silty water if the river was soon replaced with quite brilliant turquoise water that took me back to some alpine lakes in Switzerland. The scenery for the next hour was spectacular, with the water color contrasted by the soaring cliffs and snow-capped peaks visible above the side valleys. For me, this was one of the highlights of the entire journey!

At the other end of the lake a makeshift harbor was in full swing, with boats being loaded and unloaded and bright, colorful Pakistani trucks waiting on the steep dirt tracks for their turn. I was able to rattle off a few quick photos but we were in a hurry to find the Toyota Land Cruisers we would be using for the remainder of our time in Pakistan. In a convoy of four vehicles we drove up over the enormous mound of rocks from the landslide blocking the valley and rejoined the old KKH just a few kilometers away from the upper end of the Hunza Valley and our hotel in Karimabad.

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Day 3: Over the Khunjerab Pass into Pakistan

What a day! Today I achieved a long-time ambition of traveling over the Karakoram Highway from China to Pakistan, a dream I had since a guy called Christian (whose apartment I took over in Baden) first told me about it as he departed Switzerland to bicycle to Delhi via Central Asia and through the Karakoram.

The day started with the old army adage “hurry up and wait”. We headed over to the Chinese immigration and customs post in Tashkurgan straight after breakfast, but the Chinese officials were a little lazy coming in for work (blame it on the Mid-Autumn Festival festivities the night before – too much moon cake) and we were forced to wait out in the sun for a good hour and a half past opening time. The following hour and a half were a shining example of Chinese inefficiency and ineptitude, but by 1pm (Beijing time, 10am Pakistan time) we were back on the bus and awaiting our military escort to the border/pass. Due to the instability in nearby Afghanistan (accessible via the famous Wakhan corridor) and recent troubles with the Uighur in Xinjiang, it’s now impossible to travel independently over the Khunjerab Pass – to the disappointment of a French cyclist, who was forced to put his bike on the bus and travel that way rather than under his own power. We therefore had to wait for the other buses to be processed, and then traveled in convoy south towards the pass.

It’s a good 100+km from Tashkurgan to the Khunjerab Pass, through a wide valley flanked by the Karakoram and Pamir mountain ranges and dotted with rather bleak-looking Tajik villages and the odd yurt. The altitude rose gradually, and it was only just a couple of kilometers short of the pass that we hit a set of switchbacks. After a final security checkpoint at 4600m we were left on our own to drive the remaining distance to the Khunjerab Pass at 4730m! The thin air left us breathless but the views of snow-capped mountains and glaciers coming almost to the road more than made up for it. We spent a few minutes at the pass for the ubiquitous photos, and our Pakistani representatives were there to meet us.

The less-than-convincing Khunjerab Security Force (KSF) failed to meet us at the pass, so we began the descent down the Khunjerab by ourselves. It’s along this section of the KKH that the Chinese builders really earned their keep over the 20 years it took to construct this engineering marvel, as the road plunges down a frightful set of switchbacks and cuts into the cliff side high above the river below and with near vertical mountains above. We had to weave between minor rockfalls on the road, but all in all I was surprised by the condition of it.

First stop was a KSF checkpoint, whee we had our first exposure to Pakistan bureaucracy which clearly follows the India and British Imperial model. With time to burn we had an impromptu tea party by the river, and after another hour or so we were on our way further down the valley to Sost to get our visas and clear customs – I won’t get into the details but you can imagine how that went, even when palms were greased with a ludicrous $150 per visa!

Near Sost we passed the rather sad roadside spectacle of a caged snow leopard. She had been found some 18 months ago as a cub abandoned in the river, and while the locals had plans for a conservation effort in the meantime this beautiful animal was being kept in less-than-ideal conditions. I was however curious to see this oh-so-rare animal, and I wasn’t disappointed: beautiful soft colorings, smaller than I thought, with a long busy spotted tail about the length of the body.

We made it to Passu around sunset at 7pm pretty exhausted from the day’s travels, and after dinner and a beer to celebrate making it to Pakistan while looking across the river at the jagged ridge above us we headed to bed fairly early.

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Day 2: Kashgar to Tashkurgan

With a long day of driving along the Karakoram Highway (KKH) ahead we had an early start after breakfast. The initial drive south out of Kashgar is surprisingly mundane, but we stopped off in the town of Upal after an hour or so to stretch our legs and check out the local bazaar (a bit more authentic than the Kashgar one).

After another hour or so we started climbing up the Ghez Valley, following the alluvial river bed past grazing camels and heading towards giant snow-capped mountains in the distance. Our progress was slowed by around 60km of horrendous mega-scale construction to improve the road considerably and develop an epic hydroelectric scheme to dam the waters from multiple valleys and channel it through the mountains down into a couple of generating stations.

One of the casualties of the hydro scheme is the lake around Sand Mountain. When I was here in 2006 the mountain (which is draped in sand dunes, hence the name) had a large shallow basin at its base with ribbons of water meandering across it – very scenic. Now, with the lake dammed up, it is a (still beautiful) turquoise lake instead.

Sand Mountain marked the end of the construction, and with that behind us we made good time past some of the Kyrgyz villages to Karakul Lake @ 3700m for a late lunch. This was as far as I made it down the KKH in 2006, and the vista was just as stunning as I remember with Muztagh Ata (7546m, the “Father of Ice Mountains”) and Kongur (7719m) providing an incredible backdrop with great glaciers streaming down towards the lake.

While it had been raining in Kashgar that morning (a very rare occurrence), the weather had cleared throughout the day and as we continued our onward journey south conditions continued to clear. With Muztagh Ata looming high above us on the left hand side, we crested the pass at almost 4000m and started descending down the other side. The terrain was much drier and very barren, and we had moved from an ethnic Kyrgyz region to an ethnic Tajik one – at one point we were just 10km and one Pamir mountain range away from Tajikistan.

Our descent was gradual, and after another hour or so down a wide valley we reached our destination for the night: Tashkurgan. This town, the last one before we reach the border with Pakistan, has been strategically important for a couple of millennia as it sits at the junction of the Karakoram, Pamir and Hindu Kush mountains. Unfortunately, even with all that history, the town has very little to show for it today and I checked out all that is left in the ruins of the ancient double-walled mud brick fortress on the hill above the valley plains.

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Day 1: (Re-)Exploring Kashgar

Having met the rest of the tour group in the hotel lobby over breakfast, we set out to sightsee around Kashgar for the day. I was curious to see what had changed since I was last here in 2006 on my epic Silk Road trip across the region. I was expecting the worst, as even back then relentless “progress” and modernization was destroying large swathes of the old town and taking away from the character of the place – making it just another dull, ubiquitous Chinese city rather than the crossroads of Central Asia.

The first surprise was a pleasant one, as I was expecting from reports that I’d see a lot less Uighur and a lot more Han Chinese – a la Tibet these days, another mislabeled “autonomous region”. I was pleased to see a lot of Uighur men and women throughout the city with their colored headscarves, boxy sequined hats (for the men) and jovial, smiley demeanor.

Highlight for the day was, as it was back in 2006, the livestock market – although it has since been moved to another location well out of town. Dusty, noisy and vibrant, it’s a photographers dream. Farmers and peasants come from all around in all sorts of vehicles with whatever animals they have to sell – goats, sheep, cows, yaks, horses and camels (the ungainly ones with two humps). They groom the animals, tie them together in neat rows and then haggle over prices with prospective buyers. Great fun to spectate!

Other sights/highlights for the day include the bazaar (now unfortunately stocked with more crap from the east of China than treasures from Central Asia) and a brief walk through what’s left of the old town with its mud brick buildings, city walls and narrow lanes. We ate like emperors through the day as well, lunch was Peking Duck (a long way from Peking!) and dinner was a veritable feast at a Uighur’s home complete with traditional music which showed its Turkish roots.

While it was fun to explore Kashgar again, it felt like a strange way to start the trip. The real adventure begins tomorrow when we head south down to Karakoram Highway into the mountains, and that’s what we’re really here for!

Getting There

I went to SFO ready to take on the challenge of getting to Kashgar via Shanghai (including an airport change across the city in the 4-hour layover), Beijing (an overnighter) and Urumqi (brief layover) before touching down in KSH some day and a half after I started. Unfortunately these best laid plans were put to rest from the outset as the outbound United flight was at least 4 hours delayed, meaning I wouldn’t make my onward connections.

After some nightmarish haggling with United and Air China I finally managed to wangle myself onto the direct SFO-Beijing flight, and slept most of the way on what seemed an endless flight over Alaska and the remote north-east of Russia.

Emerging from Beijing airport’s incredible Terminal 3 it felt otherworldly with thick smoggy haze, muggy temperatures, a weak orange evening sun and a cream-colored moon in the sky. I now had time to burn in Beijing overnight and treated myself to a surprisingly decent $20 hotel room near the terminal. The room was clean and functional, and somehow a lifetime of Chinese cigarettes had given it a pleasant odor of Argentinian maté. After a bargain $5 dinner and a beer around the corner – in which I perhaps unwisely went for the spiciest thing on the menu after a day of bland airline food – I went to bed knowing I’d be up in a few hours to head back to the terminal.

At 5am I was already back at the terminal to check in for my flights. At security I was ushered in to a separate queue for additional screening as I was heading to the Wild West badlands of the country (there has been some violence recently in Xinjiang between the indigenous Uighur Muslims and the Han Chinese).

The flight to Urumqi was uneventful, although I sat glued to the window as we flew over the empty, sandy expanse of the Gobi Desert, which then contrasted with some fabulous views of one of the snow-capped and forested ranges of the Tian Shan mountains at eye level on approach to the airport (see photo below).

After a quick transfer I hopped on to the final flight of my trip, this time choosing to sit on the right side of the plane to nab some views of the Tian Shan mountains as we took off and climbed to crushing altitude. On the run from Urumqi down to Kashgar, the flights parallel the mountain range that separates China from Kyrgyzstan, and it was quite the contrast setting snowy peaks out one window and the Taklamakan Desert on the other side.

As we approached to land, Kashgar emerged as a green oasis in the desert: the city taps into the great rivers of glacial runoff that emerge from the towering mountains to the south (Karakoram) and west (Pamir). In Kashgar I met with two of the clients and the other trip leader Vassi, and together we rendezvoused with the local Wild China representative (GeoEx’s local operator in the country) who took us to our hotel in town. Driving through the pleasant, sunny streets lined with poplar trees and mulberry trees took me back to my Silk Road travels through the region back in 2006 – it feels good to be back!

Following our check-in at the romantically named Tarim Petroleum Barony Hotel, we met a few more of the clients and went for a quick dinner around the corner at a Uighur restaurant. After that I collapsed into bed exhausted after almost two days of travel. Need to get my rest – the tour starts tomorrow!

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Hopefully the Last of These Sorts of Posts!

The blog has suffered from even more neglect over the past year or two, but I’m determined to start being more diligent!  For the time being I’ll capture the travels I’ve done from the last post until now, so at least I have it documented:

  • Australia: Business trip to the Gold Coast and Melbourne to see the fam
  • Cuba: Havana, Pinar del Rio, Cayo Levisa
  • Iceland: Reykjavik, Snaefells, Jökulsarlon, Golden Circle, Blue Lagoon
  • Ireland: Dublin, County Wicklow, Glendalough, Eoin & Sally’s wedding in Tinahely/Aughrim
  • Netherlands: A couple more business trips to Amsterdam
  • Norway: Winter visit to Oslo to see my sister, Christmas 2013 with the family in Oslo, skiing and ice climbing in Beitostølen, Tromsø for Aurora Borealis and a half-marathon
  • Peru: Cusco, Ausangate trek & climbs with Sky High Expeditions, Machu Picchu
  • UK: London over several visits for work, Skipton (Yorkshire), Edinburgh
  • US: SF Bay Area, couple of weekend trips to Yosemite NP, SXSW @ Austin TX, Hawaiian island of Kauai for Thanksgiving 2013, Houston TX to see my sister, Big Sur/Monterey

Now I just need to work out what service to use to get my photos in the cloud – Flickr, Picasa, iPhoto…?

Yet More Updates to Come

Yet more travels, and not a blog update in sight.  Sigh…

  • France: Bordeaux, Medoc, Cognac, Provence, Avignon, Arles, Corsica, Dordogne (Rocamadour, Domme, Monpazier), St Emilion, Chamonix, mountaineering week around Mont Blanc massif
  • Spain: Barcelona, Andy & Laura’s wedding, Montserrat
  • Germany: Munich
  • Netherlands: Amsterdam x 2
  • Switzerland: Zurich, Baden, Lausanne, Berner Oberland, Grindelwald, Muerren, Oberwallis, Zermatt, various klettersteigs, Matterhorn preparation and ascent, Geneva
  • Costa Rica: Guanacaste
  • Bahamas: Sailing trip from Miami to the Bahamas, Bimini Islands, New Providence, Nassau, Eleuthera Island, Spanish Wells
  • USA: San Francisco Bay Area, Berkeley MBA 5-year reunion, Yosemite National Park, Miami, Houston
  • Vietnam: Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hoi An
  • South Korea: Seoul
  • Australia: Melbourne, Sydney, New Years Eve 2011, Mum & Dad’s 40th Wedding Anniversary
  • New Zealand: Rugby World Cup 2011, New Plymouth, Mt Taranaki, Lake Taupo, Wellington
  • Peru: Huaraz, trekking & alpine climbing in the Cordillera Blanca (including ascents of Ishinca and Pisco mountains), Lima
  • Turks & Caicos: Sailing trip around the islands
  • Dominican Republic: Punta Cana beach R&R
  • United Kingdom: London business trips, Yorkshire countryside, Edinburgh
  • Norway: Oslo to visit family

Happy to provide information on any of those places if someone is looking to travel there sometime!  Drop me a line or write a comment to this blog post and I’ll answer back.

At the helm of the “Tariro” on the crossing from Miami to Nassau in the Bahamas, October 2011.