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Archive for October, 2011

So my lasting memory of Pakistan is the unfortunate mayhem at Islamabad airport. The first obstacle is the queue as soon as you leave the crowds on the outside. This is for narcotics and they really were checking most bags very thoroughly. However, being Pakistan, there was always a stream of individuals and some families that by passed all of this without anyone saying a thing. There were a couple of separate occasions where both Nadia and I let off at some ‘official’ for allowing others to bunk in.

It’s frankly both disappointing and embarrassing that they can’t organise a proper queuing system that isn’t open to abuse.

That whole process took about an hour and a half by which time most people London bound were getting rightly agitated that they still hadn’t checked in and there were still people bunking in. Then you have this ludicrous insistency upon having copies of your passport which changes from year to year so you never know if you’re meant to have it. If you haven’t, you have to queue to get a photocopy then queue again so that some chap can check and sign it. THEN you can check in. Only in Pakistan do I ever have to do this.

The rest was all quite straight forward and before you know it, you’re back in London to an October heatwave and a week later writing up the blog but at least this time I got it completed!

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The trip had officially ended but everyone actually had an extra day to do their own thing.

Richard was keen to get as much pampering as possible so we dropped him off at The Marriott where he got a day member ship to the health club. The rest of us had lunch at another great place called Kuch Khas. A wonderful place recently opened that seeks to be a centre of arts and culture for the young, hip and unfortunately rather well to do.  http://www.kuchkhaas.org

I had a meeting with the World Wildlife Fund about setting up some eco tours and we regrouped at the hotel in the early evening.

Nadia S and Richard were flying late that night so we decided to pack the minibus and head for dinner. We decided to eat at Saidpur Village which I’d heard a lot about.

Saidpur Village was and is an existing village on the outskirts of Islamabad. The government bought or reclaimed some land at the edge of the village and went about building a posh restaurant village there. The concept was great and indeed it looks like a job very well done. There is an old Hindu and Sikh temple that has been restored and another building has been converted into a gallery that charts the development of the current complex.

The restaurants themselves have blended in well and are in keeping with traditional designs. There are many outdoor balconies for everyone to enjoy the experience and the food is great. Everyone’s a winner?

That is apart from those who actually live at Saidpur Village. A security guard working there told us that the villagers did not want the restaurant complex to be built and that no-one from the village was employed in the building phase. Not only that, but only about 10 people are currently employed at the complex that are from the village.

If this is indeed the case then it really is a very sad situation that everyday many wealthy people come to the complex and eat whilst the locals who live a stone’s throw away will not only never be able to eat there but will also never benefit from having the complex outside their front door.       

After dinner we dropped off Nadia and Richard to the airport and waved them farewell.

The next few days was a blur of family and last minute shopping but Imran (who was still about) and I did get a chance to catch up with Declan Walsh from the Guardian at his place. I’ve always enjoyed reading his articles and so it was great to be able to quiz him and share the latest conspiracy theories!

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The journey back to Islamabad was to take us over the Babusar Pass at about 4200m to Naran rather than continuing along the KKH. The government is planning to make this route the permanent route as the Basha Dam when built will flood a large section of the current KKH. This is still years away so let’s see how this progresses.

Besides the route towards the Babusar Pass is much more scenic than the KKH into Indus Kohistan and the roads were recently rebuilt only to be destroyed in last year’s rains and floods that devastated so much of the country.

The journey across the pass was not without its share of concern. As we were still some way from the top, it started snowing. So much so that it was a complete whiteout at the top and we all just hoped it wouldn’t get any worse. Thankfully, we made it to the top fine and shortly after descending we were out of the snow and in Naran by late evening.

The next day we visited the major draw for Naran if not for Pakistan. Lake Saif ul Maluk. My father used to talk about this lake when I was a child so it’s been ingrained into my head that this was always as close to paradise as one could get.

The reality is somewhat different but that’s only as I’ve since visited so many of Pakistan’s many other high altitude lakes. As most Pakistanis haven’t, Lake Saif ul Maluk remains as the most beautiful as far as they are concerned.  That’s not to say it isn’t. It is a beautiful lake and first thing in the morning before the crowds get there is something quite special.

Having not been for a few years, I noticed this year, an actual hotel has now been built overlooking the lake which should never have been allowed as well as many eateries and tea shacks. You are also surrounded by men offering you to the story of the lake as well as boat rides and pony rides. That’s why it’s not the most beautiful.

The journey from Naran is a pleasant one with lush green valleys for company and a good road back to Islamabad. Traffic starts picking up considerably as we approach the more populated areas.

One of them being Abbotabad. We were all quite excited about what it would be like but as we drove through, it was just like driving through a big bustling town. There were no boards or placards hailing OBL or as we were hoping, signs to his last resting place. We’d heard that there had been a crack down on people wanting to visit his compound so we didn’t want to stop and ask random strangers for directions in case we were viewed as suspicious. The sun was also setting so it would have been unlikely that we would have even managed to get close enough to see anything of significance. Maybe next year!

We got back into Islamabad by late evening and had enough time to check out some of Islamabad’s newest eateries. One of them is the Chaaye Khanna which really is a funky place with every kind of tea under the sun as well as books and newspapers to read. Great desserts too.

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As we’d decided to stay an extra night in Karimabad (why wouldn’t you?!) it did mean a very early start to get down to Gilgit and then on to the Raikot Bridge where we would begin our journey to Fairy Meadows.

We had to drop Nadia A off at Gilgit as she was leaving the group early to catch a flight back to Islamabad but that combined with a few pit stops for some extra kit meant that we got to Raikot about 15.00 which was cutting it a little fine.

We got one of the local jeeps and made the white knuckle journey up to the village to Tato, 1000m up from the KKH. It was good to see that the road had been repaired and that where last year we had to cross a section of washed away road, there was now a wooden bridge that had been donated by the University of Lahore.

From Tato we met our good friend Fazal ur Rehman who had come to meet us and brought a pony for Richard. We set off as soon as we could and were maintaining a very good pace. So much so that we were at Fairy Meadows in two hours with Richard only minutes behind. The weather had been great and all the time we had stunning views of Nanga Parbat in front of us.

After some refreshing green tea, a campfire was set up and we sat back to enjoy the warmth and engage in discussions about pretty much everything. We were joined by two other travellers, a German and a Pakistani who had met couch surfing and were exploring some of North Pakistan. Kaiser, the Pakistani was originally from Parachinar which is in the Khurram Tribal Agency so it was very interesting to hear his take on the political situation.

Over the years, I’d seen Fazal Bhai, slowly improve the huts by building some new ones with attached toilet and bathrooms as well as piping hot water into them too by means of an outside metal barrel heated by a wood fire. In the last year, a turbine had been installed further down the valley meaning that there was now intermittent electricity at Fairy Meadows up at 3200m.

The next day, we had planned to trek to the Nanga Parbat base camp but the group decided that rather than going all out for the base camp and back in one day, we should just walk as far as we could whilst stopping and enjoying the scenery wherever we went. That was as good a plan as any I’d ever heard!

We got as far as the first official viewpoint where we stopped and sat. Perched high above the Raikot Glacier, we had the might of Nanga Parbat on the right of us with the sweeping view of the Karakoram Range to the left. Not bad at all.

We had some delicious lunch cooked by a local villager and we also had an interesting chat with one of the hut owners in Beyal Camp, a little further back from the viewpoint. He was naturally disappointed that, like the locals of Altit, most tourists stayed at Fairy Meadows rather that at Beyal Camp but what was really sad was him describing how many tourists used to visit in the past. He made a reference to ‘those explosions in America’ that destroyed his livelihood. He hadn’t even heard of 9/11…

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The next two days were spent in Hunza and as if to make our stay even more welcoming, the sun made sure it was out in force.

We had three nights in Karimabad which meant everyone could get a bit of washing done, laze about and generally do what they wanted to. The girls’ top priority was getting their clothes washed and the boys’ a pampered shave.

Of course there was the Baltit Fort but this time I was keen to explore the newly opened Altit Fort as well as the village of Ganish,  Hunza’s oldest known settlement.

I have to say that they didn’t disappoint. Firstly, visiting Ganish was like taking a step back in time as soon as we started wandering about the small narrow lanes. We were lucky enough to come across, Ifthikar Hussain who used to be one of Hunza’s first mountain guides and was now very happy to show people about Ganish. He is also part of the local conservation and renovation committee for the village. There is an excellent website www.ganishhunza.com that explains in more detail the history and development of the village.

For me, the highlight was definitely visiting the tiny wooden mosques that could probably accommodate about 10 people.

I had a chance to ‘interview’ Ifthikar about his views on tourism in Hunza and any messages he would like to relay to the outside world and he gave a very impassioned plea to the West to revisit Hunza as they once did. It was quite sad that he pointed out that the lost income that used to be generated in tourism meant children were now not being educated and livelihoods were not progressing.

From here we visited Altit Fort and were surprised to find that the ticker price there was more expensive than that of Baltit. We were told that this was because it included the Royal Gardens and access to the old city of Altit as well as the fort itself.

The first thing that one comes across is a women’s empowerment centre where local women who have no means of income are being taught carpentry and their items such as household furniture are then sold on. It was truly inspiring.

The old city of Altit is a little like Ganish in that it really does take you back in time to how people used to live and in fact still do. I can imagine that there must be a little rivalry and envy with Karimabad given that that’s where all the tourists stay and spend their money. It must be a tough one as you don’t want your own culture eroded by tourism yet you would still like a share of the trappings that it allows…so let’s see how Altit fares over the years to come.

The fort itself is different in design from the outside but similar inside and the restoration has been excellent. The views from the top over the looking the Hunza River are really something special.

On our last night we were treated to some traditional Hunza cooking and some local musicians were also invited to play to us during the meal. The music was initially quite gentle and played on a flute type instrument but after dinner and when the real Hunza water started flowing, the music become quite upbeat and the dancing started.

As we slowly sloped off to bed in anticipation of an early start, we left the hotel staff to revel into the early hours.

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Had an early start today as we wanted to make it to Passu in good time. Normally, this would be more than possible but given that we now had the Attabad Lake to cross, it meant needing more time.

What was new for me this time was that on the road to Hunza, we drove on part of the new KKH. I say new but it was newly tarmacced. It’s been about three years now that the Chinese have been rebuilding the KKH and it has caused so much disruption and chaos. The plan was to rip up all the tarmac first, then improve the drainage and add support walls. The last thing would be to lay new tarmac. The plan was to take Five years but it meant disruption and journey times doubling for four of them.

As were now in the fourth year, some contractors had clearly worked faster (is it unfair for me to say cut corners?) which meant we were treated to a section that gave us a taste of things to come. It was truly a delight!

However, it was for only about 30 mins but having not seen anything for the last three years, it gave me some hope for next year.

We made it to Karimabad for some traditional Hunza cooking in good time but we then had to deal with getting the NOC (No Objection Certificate) for the Attabad Lake as well as getting hold of two extra mountain bikes as the night before, both Imran and Nadia had said they’d also be interested in the downhill from the Khunjerab Pass.

We got to the Lake later than planned and it was disappointing to see that no progress had been made at the site of the Lake where the landslide had been.   It still resembled a construction site and the basic boats were still being used to ferry across cargo and passengers.

The other odd thing was that there was no official there to organise the cargo and so it had been left to the boatman and contractors paid by haulage companies to work out a system. This generally resulted in a lot of shouting and a god example of too many cooks spoiling the broth. This was even more apparent when Ehsan wanted to get his five-door Land Crusiser on to one of these boats.

This was also a case of when one says, ‘Only in Pakistan…’). It took a long time with no-one quite knowing what or how to go about it despite one man telling me they do this every day. Well maybe others did it every day…

It made you want to wade in and organise everyone but i kept telling myself that they knew what they were doing. Miraculously, they got the 4×4 on and rather well balanced. Occasionally, believe it or not, we would forget that there was a massive car on board and had to be reminded by the boat crew to even the numbers on each side to maintain balance.

The crossing took about  1hr15mins which was actually quite fast given that last year it took two hours.

Eventually we got to our accommodation where over dinner we decided on the logistics of the next day. It would have to be an early start – about 05.30 as it would take about four hours to get to the border, three hours of biking and about three hours to get back. We’d have to then head back to the lake to get the 4×4 back on, cross the lake and then try and get back to Karimabad before dark.

The other options which started becoming more appealing to Nadia and Imran was to either just stay, relax and enjoy the day and weather (it had cleared up great) or visit Passu Glacier and the 200m long suspension bridge. The bridge had been out of action last year but had now been repaired and back in use. It was always one of the highlights of the trip and that was enough for Imran. Nadia was not looking forward to a cold start and was seduced by a lie in and relaxing day reading.

After everyone had gone to bed, me, Atif and Ehsan needed to give the bikes a once over and it’s just as well we did – the brakes and gears were all over the place! With the basic tools we had, we went about tightening and adjusting all that we could and even had to get some vegetable oil from the kitchen and dunk a tissue in and drop oil on in order to lubricate the moving parts. The last time I’d ridden down, I’d used my own bike and had kept it in top condition so I was cursing the poor maintenance of these bikes. I’d have to bring my spare from home next time just to ensure I have two decent bikes should I ever need them. As we had flown to Chitral, I hadn’t had enough time to get mine sent over from Daultala to Gilgit via a reliable source.

So it was me, Richard, Nadia A and Ehsan that were up on a cold but cloudless morning making for border. We made good time and soon enough we were on the flat snowy pass with just beautiful white peaks for company. I’ve always been very lucky with the Khunjerab Pass, always getting lucky and having crisp, clear weather but it isn’t always like that and could have easily been a blizzard even in July or August.

After a wander about and photos of the Chinese memorials we made a start on the bikes. Richard was already finding that the altitude was taking a lot out of him on mild exertion. With a fair bit of flat at the start, he opted to get on the bike when the proper downhill started. Me being just a touch competitive started from the border and was soon huffing and puffing like no tomorrow on the flat. I should point out that as there was no tarmac, this involved cycling over rubble with some pretty big rocks to negotiate.

Thankfully, there were other sections where the track was smoother allowing us to pick up some good speed and do what you’re meant to do – enjoy the scenery.  I swapped with Nadia for a little bit so she could have a go as well and we were lucky to have the 4×4 alongside so we could grab hold and be taken up any uphill sections.

As there were a lot of engineers and workers along the route, we were always greeted with smiles and waves which just added to the great experience. The other great thing was that the Chinese trucks don’t reach Sust (Pakistan Customs) till late afternoon which meant that there was next to no traffic. Just a 1500m altitude drop on two wheels

Overall on this occasion, I have to say that I was just slightly disappointed that the state of the road didn’t allow me to get up some serious eye watering speed like I have before  so I guess I’ll just have to come back when the KKH is newly tarmacced with my own bike!

We made it back just in the nick of time to get the others and head to the lake to get the last boat out. As we approached the docking area on the other side, it really reminded you of what a small port could have been like hundreds of years ago.

As it was dark when we got there, all you could see were torches and all you could hear were the various shouts of the crews unloading cargo here and loading cargo there. Every now and then a tractor would roar into life and carry a full load to waiting trucks on the main road.

Just as we were about to descend the top of the spillway, we found our rout blocked by a trailer that had overturned. It was easily done given the rough terrain that they were expected to go over. Luckily, the tractor and driver were ok. Partly because we were thoroughly good blokes and partly that we needed to be on our way, Richard, Imran and I jumped out and started to help the locals shift the cargo to the side. What looked like fluffy bales turned out to be very heavy but with two of us on each one, we managed to roll them out of the way.

Our next problem took a little longer to resolve. A passing jeep motioned for us to stop. They informed us that there was a road block a little further along. This meant a landslide. Sure enough, we saw the rocks and rubble on the ground and pull up to have a look. He air was still dusty meaning that the landslide had just happened. The road wasn’t completely blocked but it was impassable as it was. The more pressing issue was whether there was still any more to come. As it was dark, we could only hear the sound of small rocks still falling and the gently hissing of the smaller particles. That was not good.

After a while a few more cars turned up and more people came to look at what was going on. Every time a few went further they then ran back as someone had heard a noise of a rock whizzing past.

It had been about 45 mins and we were debating whether to run across and try for a vehicle on the other side or brave it and start clearing some of the rocks. Eventually, some locals had the same idea and started shifting some of the rocks to try and make some room for the jeeps. I also chipped in with some of the larger ones that required at least three of us to roll out of the way.

Sure enough, after about 10 minutes, we had cleared enough of a way for the jeep. Qasim, sped through the clearing and we were finally back on track.

The day ended well with us getting back to Karimabad and a hot meal.

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As we’d gained a day from not being allowed to stay in the Kalash Valley, we decided to have a late breakfast and try our hand at some trout fishing. The weather had slightly improved in that it had stopped raining but it was still quite chilly and very overcast.

We drove back up the road towards Teru as we’d missed some of that stunning scenery on the way in the previous night so it was great to be able to stop by the river and try our luck surrounded by the most amazing views even with the low clouds.

Just as we were about to give up, Ehsan reeled a decent sized fish in to a big applause. After a few other spots downstream where we were unlucky we took our one fish to Gupis where we got the restaurant to fry it up as part of our lunch. It was delicious!

From there it was the 3 hours back to Gilgit.

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