Day 17: Finally Back to Kashgar to Wrap Up the Trip

We retraced our final steps from Tashkurgan to Kashgar today, and left straight after the 8am breakfast. Unlike our previous morning in Tashkurgan a couple of weeks ago for which we had a brilliant blue sky and sunshine, the pre-dawn light was hazy and the surrounding mountains were faintly visible through it. It turned out that there had been a sandstorm in Kashgar, with dust blowing in from the Taklamakan Desert, and the dust clouds had reached even Tashkurgan high in the mountains.

The constant haze was a disappointment, as I’d been hoping the spectacular views would break up the monotony of the long drive. For the first time all trip I dozed off in the bus, and woke up as we crested the pass at 4100m with Muztagh Ata’s silhouette faintly visible to our right with the sun rising behind it.

It was slow going as we worked our way through the 60km of construction and road works, but we still made good time back to Kashgar and were ensconced in our hotel (the brand spanking new Radisson Blu this time around) by mid-afternoon with time to relax before dinner.

The final group dinner for the trip was at a Chinese restaurant in the old British Consulate building, a now-dilapidated brick and plaster building dating from the early 1900s. Our Pakistani guides Shifa and Didar had stayed with us all the way to Kashgar, and they joined us to celebrate the end of our successful trip. Back at the hotel I downed a couple of whiskeys with Vassi and reflected on how the trip had gone, and I then toddled off to bed to get a good night’s sleep in before the monumental task starts tomorrow to get back to SFO via four flights and three countries.

Day 16: Back over the Khunjerab Pass to China

We started the day in Sost knowing we had a long day ahead to get out of Pakistan, over the Khunjerab Pass, into China, and back to the town of Tashkurgan.

We were at the immigration post in Sost by 8:30am in time for its 9am opening. The first step was easy enough, a pretty basic inspection of our bags for drugs. The second step was a new one introduced just last month, as the health counter wanted to see a vaccination against polio – the Chinese side is demanding it as a requirement for entry, and the Pakistanis want to ensure no one heading across the border will get turned around and sent back down. Fortunately I had my WHO vaccination card on me, but the last polio vaccination I got was back in 2001. I wanted to avoid taking the oral vaccination they were giving out, so I managed to bullshit that the polio vaccination was actually written “2007” and therefore within the 10 year vaccination period. They bought my ruse and I was on to the final step in the process: immigration.

It was just our luck that they had implemented a new electronic immigration system two days beforehand (we had been issued handwritten visas when we arrived two weeks ago), and it was taking about 10 minutes to process each person. Apart from general computer illiteracy by the government officials – they even had their IT guy there to hold their hand – the bigger problem was the iffy power supply, which kept cutting out. When it did, all the immigration officials downed tools and went for a smoke outside to wait for the grid to come back online.

It was a good three hours before we were all done, and we piled into the minivans and started the drive to the border. The trip up to the pass seemed to fly by, with a few quick stops for the bathroom and a couple of security checkpoints, and before we knew it were were back at 4730m and standing at the border! It was a beautiful sunny day, but windier and colder than it had been two weeks ago.

When we first arrived at the pass we started posing for a few photos before a gruff Chinese soldier came up and started barking at us in Mandarin, clearly unhappy at us taking the pics. A couple of Pakistanis nearby came up and shouted back at him, noting that he was actually on Pakistani soil (we hadn’t yet passed the barbed wire that marked the border line) and should f#ck off back to China! Which he then did. I found the exchange to be quite entertaining…

Our Pakistani team had prepared a tasty biryani lunch for us at the pass with some Hunza apricots for dessert, and we quickly wolfed down some food and drink as we had to keep moving to get through the Chinese side. We said goodbye to our Pakistani friends and drove a couple of kilometres down the road to the Chinese border post.

The Chinese side was where the fun really started. No smiles here and lots of Chinese flags and men with guns. We were escorted in to a room where we passed all our bags through an X-ray machine. One at a time we were then directed to a table where a guy in uniform rummaged thoroughly through all our gear, even looking on cameras at iPads at photos and files. I didn’t have anything of concern to the officials, but a few of our group had some non-fiction books of a political nature (eg. History of Central Asia) confiscated. While we were being searched, our vehicles were being taken apart piece by piece as they looked for anything contraband.

Once that was all done we were ushered back to our vehicles via a bathroom stop, a gross reminder that we were back in China – the country that gets my vote for the worst toilets on earth. We weren’t allowed to leave however, as vehicles need to travel in convoy with a military escort from the border to Tashkurgan. We waited for probably an hour and a half in the vans while other vehicles arrived and were searched. Eventually we reached quorum with around eight vehicles, and with a bored-looking soldier on board one of the vans we drove together down to Tashkurgan some 120km away.

It was dark by the time we arrived in Tashkurgan, but we still needed to be processed through immigration into China. It was a fairly straightforward process, but still took over an hour to emerge out the other end of the building.

It was 10:30pm Beijing time (we had moved 3 hours forward going over the border) and dark by the time we limped in to the Crown Inn in Tashkurgan, and after a quick tasty dinner (more spice than Pakistan!) we all went to bed around midnight. Three days driving down, one more to the finish line in Kashgar tomorrow!

Day 15: From Skardu back to Sost near the Pakistan-China border

The second day of our long road trip retracing our steps back to Kashgar took us from Skardu, where we had spent the night, back up the valley to Sost which was to be our staging point short of the border crossing back into China.

The drive followed the Hunza River upstream around the western edge of Rakaposhi. We stopped at the memorial to the builders of the KKH, and later stopped at the Rakaposhi view point for tea. The staggering views up the north face above were just as impressive the second time around!

We drove straight through the green terraces of the Nagyr and Hunza without stopping and made good time to the rockfall which formed the Attabad Lake. It was at this point we said goodbye to our faithful 4WD drivers as well as Sher Baz, our cultural guide. Crossing the lake by wooden boat was a highlight of the entire trip, just as it was when we crossed it two weeks ago (even though it feels far longer than that!) – a mini adventure in itself, and lovely to kick back and take in the views of the turquoise lake, high cliffs and snow-capped mountains for the hour or so it took us to traverse from one end of the lake to the other.

The mooring place for the boats at the upstream end of the lake was past the point at which the lake meets the silty waters of the river pouring into it, and our boat struggled along near the bank (where the current wasn’t as formidable) to make headway. Some deft boatmanship got us across the river to the opposite bank where we were able to tie up to some rocks and scramble up to the road and into the same minivans we rode in when we first arrived in Pakistan.

A short drive later past the bulging snout and terrifying roadside moraines of the Gulmit Glacier and we were back in Passu for a late lunch at the hotel we had stayed in. We didn’t stay in the hotel however, as our objective for the night was the town of Sost and the basic/dated PTDC hotel. Sost was where we would be processed and stamped out of Pakistan tomorrow – if everything goes according to plan.

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Day 14: Over the Deosai Plains

We left Shigar at 6am expecting a 12+ hour day of driving ahead. Following the road back to Skardu, we turned up a side road just before we got into town and headed south up a deep valley. As we gained altitude we drove through different layers of vegetation, and the first light hitting the changing foliage of birch trees was quite brilliant.

The road surface was pretty good most of the way up, but the last couple of kilometres were nothing more than a jeep track. Approaching an altitude of almost 4000m the valley widened out and we entered the plateau of the Deosai Plains. The scenery reminded me of the Scottish Highlands with rolling hills covered in grass, and a dusting of recent snow had covered the higher slopes. This late in the summer, all the grass was brown.

It took around five hours to cross the plains, chugging along some very rocky jeep roads. We broke up the travel with a tea stop and lunch, and there wasn’t too much to see in the desolate expanse apart from the occasional herd of goats and sheep as well as colonies of golden marmots – the biggest (and tamest) I’ve ever seen, all fattened up for winter ahead.

While on the plains we were passed by a British motorcyclist who had ridden his Triumph bike from England across Europe and Russia, through China and down the KKH. He was on his way to Amritsar, where he planned to turn around and drive back to the UK along a different route through Iran. Impressive stuff! He joined us for tea and it was great to hear his stories. www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/China-Jolly/

Once we crested the 4300m pass on the western side of the plains we began a loooooong descent down the Astor Valley. It took about four hours to drive back to where the Astor river intersects with the Indus (and where we picked up the KKH again) at around 1200m altitude. We didn’t stop too often on the descent as the weather was turning and there wasn’t much to see, and we were hit by a thunderstorm at the point we should have been able to look straight up at Nanga Parbat – shame!

One and a half hours later we were back in Gilgit, exhausted and dusty from the full day of off-road driving. With one day behind us, we have still three full days of travel to get back to Kashgar in China.

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Days 12 & 13: From Khaplu back to Shigar via Skardu

We left Khaplu and drove back down the Shyok valley to where it converged with the Indus, and then followed the Indus past the turn-off to Shigar/Askoli to Skardu. We were going to spend a few hours in Skardu and I was curious to see what it was like given the historic role the town has played in the mountaineering history of the Karakoram.

We first took a stroll down the street through the bazaar in the old part of town. Nothing too special to see, just a busy local scene. We then drove a short distance away to the famous K2 Hotel, where so many of the expeditions over the decades have started and ended. After a basic lunch we walked through the hallways which are adorned with stickers, postcards, photos, posters and handwritten notes from all of the various expeditions and groups over the years. There were a lot of famous names in the world of climbing up there, and it was great to see even the Army Alpine Association (to which I used to belong in Australia) get a mention.

We also toured the K2 Museum adjacent to the hotel, erected by the Italians to celebrate their first ascent of the mountain in 1954. I loved seeing the old photos (not much has changed locally it seems, but Westerners tend to wear fewer pith helmets) and the old maps of the Baltoro Glacier and Karakoram range. Once we were done there we drove back to Shigar, to the Fort Palace where we had stayed a few nights ago.

The following morning we took a long walk around the lovely village of Shigar. The locals were very friendly to us and we visited a girls primary school – super cute watching them learn Urdu by reciting poems they had written in front of the class (and a gaggle of Westerners).

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Day 11: Masherbrum Sighting & No-Rules Polo

I was excited this morning as overnight we had received special permission from the authorities (police + army) to travel further up the valley from Khaplu. Usually foreigners aren’t allowed further east as we’re getting close to the Line of Control, and the Siachen Glacier (the world’s highest battlefield with soldiers posted at over 5000m, the Pakistanis and Indians lob mortars and artillery shells at each over the ridges every now and then) is at the end of the road.

After breakfast we drove to the checkpoint and after some animated discussion with the soldiers on duty we successfully passed through. Our destination on the other side was just 2km past the checkout. At a view point a couple of hundred metres above the sandy Shyok river delta we had perfectly clear views to the north with a jagged granite ridge framing the right-hand side of the valley and Masherbrum (7821m) with its irregular, iconic peak visible at the head of the valley. Fantastic to see such a formidable mountain!

In the late afternoon we walked down to the nearby polo ground (a long but narrow stone-walled field which the kids usually use for kicking a ball or playing cricket) in the village to watch two Khaplu teams play the local version of polo. In the polo played here in the mountains, there really aren’t too many rules and the objective of the game is to get the ball through the posts any way you can. Unlike the more refined version of the game, the players are allowed to carry the ball up the field on their horses and their opponents are allowed to whack their hands/arms with their sticks to try and dislodge it. You can score goals by hitting the ball through, carrying it through, or even throwing it through! They also play five to a side (not four) and don’t play to a certain winning score but play for an allotted time (2 x 20 minute halves). It was thoroughly entertaining to watch them play and the horsemanship was impressive, and seeing polo in the mountains of northern Pakistan was like watching rugby at Rugby School in England.

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Day 10: Further up the Indus to Khaplu in the Shyok Valley

Shigar was just our destination for the night – we’ll be back there for a couple of nights in a few days. The reason we stayed there on the way out was to break up the long trip from Gilgit to Khaplu, our farthest destination on the entire trip.

After breakfast we had a quick tour of the Shigar Fort, which has a fascinating history as both the former seat of power for the Raja as well as serving as the royal residence. They have done an amazing job restoring the building, and it’s conversion into a luxury hotel has been done tastefully. It’s easily one of the most quaint, unique and romantic hotels I’ve stayed in, and I’m looking forward to coming back to relax here for a couple more nights after we’ve been out to Khaplu.

The drive was a short one today, first back across the Indus River near Skardu and then heading east following the river further upstream. The Indus was more of a gentle giant along this stretch, meandering in slow esses down the wide valley with rock-strewn mountains above. Apart from the occasional lush green village it was quite barren and arid.

After a couple of hours driving we reached another convergence of rivers with a dodgy suspension bridge to cross. If we stayed following the Indus (along here called the Sind) we would cross some 40km away over the Line of Control and into Indian Kashmir (Ladakh). In 2009 I rode a motorcycle along the Indus from Leh around Ladakh with my mate Guillermo, and it was nice to be able to almost join the dots now.

We instead left the Indus and drove north-east into the Shyok river valley. An hour and a bit later and we arrived in the sprawling village of Khaplu nestled amongst terraced fields and orchards on the hill. We drove towards the upper part of the village to the Khaplu Fort & Residence, which like the one in Shigar has been restored and converted into a luxury hotel. It seemed out of place to have such nice accommodation all the way out here, and it seemed like the hotel hadn’t seen any guests in a while!

The hotel was a lovely collection of old restored buildings, and following a tour of the fortress-like royal quarters we sat on the balcony with some tea to watch the sun set over a really jagged ridge of granite peaks across the valley.

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