Karakoram 2
July 2001



Inspired by Lonely Planet's description of the 'Karakoram Highway' as 'one of the most spectacular road journies in the world', we flew from Katmandu to Pakistan to pursue this route from Pakistan to China.

We flew into Lahore, which is a miserably sweltering city on the plains of Pakistan. We decided to splurge on a hotel - I wanted to soak up the atmosphere in a decaying colonial hotel, but Robyn's assessment of the hygiene standards vetoed my choice. As we entered the characterless but air-conditioned Holiday Inn room we ended up in Robyn announced 'This is what I'M TALKIN' about!'.

Unlike any other Muslim countries that I've visited, most of the buses in Pakistan are segregated by sex. The public buses have a wall half way down the bus to separate the women from the men. The buses were so hot and sweaty that we continuously rocked from one butt cheek to the other in a vain attempt to air out our buns which were perpetually drenched in sweat. Absolutely gross.

Although we found the women in Pakistan generally aloof to both Robyn and myself, the men were almost overbearingly friendly. It took awhile to overcome ingrained suspicions of men who would walk across a road, shake my hand and walk off again without saying anything beyond a simple greeting! I also liked the silent greeting many men used when passing each other on the street - a nod while cupping their heart with their right hand.

Further north we explored the also sweltering capital town of Islamabad and it's sister city of Rawalpindi. We linked up with local 'Hash House Harriers' for their Sunday run. We ran with about 60 ex-pats through a small village and some beautiful countryside. Most of the ex-pats we're working in Islamabad's cloistered embassy compounds and we had dinner and drinks at the Canadian Embassy compound - our only alcohol in this 'dry' country. One woman we talked to a lot had moved to Islamabad from Karachi a couple years ago when 5 of her husbands American peers at his oil company were assassinated!

A long overnight bus brought us into the cooler mountains around the northern town of Gilgit where the scenery once again became amazing. For the next 2 weeks from Gilgit to Kashgar, the scenery was breathtaking. The Karakoram highway itself is an amazing highway, as it cuts though the densest concentration of huge mountains (7000m+) on earth. When it was completed in the 1970s, at the cost of one life for each 2 kilometers of construction, it opened up vast areas of northern Pakistan and western China that had previously been accessible only by foot or plane.

In Gilgit, I unsuccessfully searched for the local form of polo which reportedly involves riding bareback on horses while trying to pick up and move a dead calf towards your team's end-zone in a free-for-all with almost no rules and lots of violence. We enjoyed however our new 'shalwar quamizes' - the clothes the locals wear which essentially look like pajamas. Long and loose, most travelers adopt them as they are cooler and tend to minimize unwanted attention from locals. We also enjoyed the local form of transport - covered pickup trucks, which were a lot of fun to hang onto the back of as they raced around the area.

From Gilgit, we took a terrifying jeep ride on a cliff hanger road up to a meadow at the foot of Nanga Prabat, the 8th tallest mountain in the world. The meadow and the views of Nanga Prabat were stunning; we spent a couple of days camping and hiking in the area. Next we hiked to another meadow near Karimabad in the also spectacular 'Hunza Valley'. This valley was beautiful for both it's scenery and people, who amazingly looked like Europeans, are exceedingly friendly (both the men and women) and extremely well educated (in a county with a literacy rate of around 50%). Our camping site was surrounded by steep mountains with wonderful names like 'Ultar 1' and 'Ultar 2'. We spent hours reading and watching the mountains, huge glaciers and periodic avalanches intermixed with the cracking and groaning of moving ice. We shared our beautiful meadow with only one other camper and many sheep, the latter of which liked to push their way into your company in the meadow's outhouse to see what was going on.

After spending so much time around huge mountains and reading 'K2: The Story of Savage Mountain', I've become a bit of an obnoxious know-it-all about mountain climbing. I also have a few peaks under my belt - Mt Tamalpias in Marin County at 3000ft and Mt Washington in New England at 6000ft come to mind. After reading 'K2', however, I astutely noticed that the cool thing to do in mountain climbing is to climb mountains by new routes or in other distinguishing ways. From this angle I have to concede that being 'the first person to summit the north face of K2' is in a different league from Robyn and I, who were the '20 thousandth losers to get lost on the south face of Mt Tamalpias while summiting alpine style (no guides, high altitude porters or oxygen).

After some more stops and hiking in the northern parts of the Hunza Valley, we crossed the Khunjerab Pass into China where we were in the middle of crossing a 3 hour wide (by car) no-mans land when our bus's transmission fell out while we were driving. As not a single car passed in hours, we had to send two people to walk an hour to the (thankfully) relatively near next town. Help in the form of a new bus arrived about 6 hours after ours broke down!

The scenery on the Chinese side of the pass was still fantastic and the next day we camped again at Kurkul Lake, a beautiful turquoise lake nestled between two 7500m+ mountains and surrounded by Kyrgiz nomads and their yurts. We ate most of our meals with the nomads and enjoyed their vegetable based meals cooked over yak shit stoves (not kidding).

We concluded the Karakoram highway at the legendary market town of Kashgar, nestled in the very far western corner of China between such impressive future traveling destinations such as Tajikistan, Kyrgastan and Kazakatan, not to mention Tibet, Pakistan and Russia. Kashgar is famous for it's huge Sunday Market, which is reputed to be the best and biggest in Asia. It was a massive sprawling affair, crowded with 50,000 people and even more lamb, sheep, cows and horses. Famous for it's animal and Central Asian carpet sections, it also had massive sections for even the most mundane items. We noticed that the tourists in Kashgar have the hugest cameras we've ever seen! Every single tourist is carrying a huge 300mm manual zoom camera that looks like it would cause back pain. Perhaps they all want to take vivid pictures of the Uygher (the local Muslim ethnic group) restauraunts. These restaurants are a little traumatic to eat at as they are part restaurant and part butcher shop. To get into the average restaurant, you have to push your way past a hanging wall of skinned and bloody animal carcasses covered in flies - hardly the kind of place you'd like to take a prospective for a 'first date'! Today we saw the most traumatic one yet - a freshly bloody calf that had just been filleted down it's middle so you could see both sides of it's body around it's gaping and bleeding ass! (YUMMMMM!!) We gave a Uygher restaurant one bold try and have been eating vegetarian ever since.

The other thing that I've become an obnoxious expert in (in my mind only!) is the history of 'the Great Game' - the 19th century power struggle between Britain and Russia in Central Asia and India. This 'Great Game' (as detailed in the book of the same name) seems like it was a lot of fun. Everyone had lots of spies that traveled to dangerous and exotic destinations, although they generally seemed to get executed by local Muslim tyrants who had never heard of their countries and didn't like spies. Anyways, in the spirit of the area, I keep giving people false names for myself and Robyn. So far we haven't been caught.

from the 'Great Game of Life'
Kashgar Party Cell

Our campsite at thbase of Nanga Pratbat - 8th tallest mountain in world.e
The Hunza Valley.
Our campsite at Ultar meadows.
An avalanche on the glacier below Ultar 1.

Created: August 18, 2001
Maintainer: Keir Paesel