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 & Rugby on Horses (i.e. 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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Day 9: Gilgit to Skardu/Shigar along the Indus River

We had another early start today as this was going to be one of our longest days yet. The plan was to follow the Gilgit River downstream to where it meets the mighty Indus River. From there we were going to turn off the KKH and follow the Indus upstream for around 200km to Skardu and Shigar, our destination for the night.

Our first stop was a notable one. Where the Gilgit joins the Indus River is the point at which three of the great mountain ranges meet: the Karakoram to the north, the Himalayas to the south-east and the Hindu Kush to the west. A short drive further on took us to a point where we could see the entire Nanga Parbat massif some 30km to the south of us – thankfully free of clouds and visible. Nanga Parbat marks the western end of the Himalayas and this historic mountain at 8125m is the 9th highest mountain in the world.

A short time later we entered the narrow Indus valley and so began six hours of driving along some hairy, gravity-defying roads that give you some idea of what the KKH used to be like: single vehicle width, patchy road surface with a crumbling shoulder at the cliff’s edge, etc. All the way along the valley the muddy brown Indus churned away far below us – a frightful sight.

Apart from the dramatic scenery there were a few interesting things to see along the way. Patches of green marked the small villages with their terraced fields clinging to the mountainsides, and those villages on the opposite side of the valley were connected to the outside world via suspension bridges, or even more archaically by a single wire strung hundreds of metres over the river with a metal basket to ride in – a jhula in the local language. At one point we saw some rudimentary mines that followed the quartz veins through the rock walls, where all sorts of gemstones are unearthed.

A basic lunch at a roadside PTDC and a few photo/toilet stops were all that broke up the trip, along with a few times we had to pull over to allow some large brightly-colored and decorated Pakistani trucks to pass.

We emerged at the other end of the narrow gorge in the late afternoon, and crossed a temporary looking suspension bridge constructed like a giant Meccano set which could only take one vehicle at a time – the amount it flexed and contorted when a large truck went across it was frightful!

Forty-five minutes later we drove through Skardu (similarly disappointing, given its mountaineering heritage I was expecting something a bit like the Thamel part of Kathmandu), crossed another bridge north over the Indus and headed into the Shigar valley. Ten hours after our departure from Gilgit we arrived at our destination: the stunning Shigar Fort hotel.

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Day 8: Hunza to Gilgit

I woke up early in Duikar with the clouds and a little rain still obscuring the views of the valley below and Hunza Peak above, so I opted to stay in bed rather than hike up the hill to snap some photos. With a short drive ahead for the day we spent most of the morning at the Eagle’s Nest, and fortunately the weather blew through and we were treated to some fine views down the valley.

We saddled up late in the morning and drove in convoy down the Hunza valley, following the Hunza river downstream. The KKH took us right underneath gigantic Rakaposhi with its glaciers and seracs cascading down the valleys from the north face. Where we stopped for lunch, about an hour from Karimabad, the summit at 7788m was visible an incredible 6km above us! You couldn’t quite grasp the scale it was that immense: seracs hundreds of metres tall, and ice walls over a kilometre high. A mountain of truly Himalayan (Karakoram!) proportions.

As we descended further down the river we were reminded that the region, except for the ingenious irrigated terraces that utilize what water comes off the glacier above, is a high alpine desert: no green, just greys and browns of the rocks and sand with snow-capped peaks above and a muddy great river in the valley floor.

After a couple more hours of driving around Rakaposhi from the north side to the south-west, we crossed the river over a concrete bridge and entered the regional capital Gilgit. For a place with such history I was disappointed by the town: busy, polluted, unattractive, unfriendly. Given security concerns we drove straight to the hotel, which was entered via a checkpoint and tucked away behind high barbed-wire topped walls, and we had no plans to head out and see the few meager sights which Gilgit has to offer the tourist. Without much else to do I had an early night after the BBQ dinner in the pretty hotel gardens.

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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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