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  • Writer's pictureBarry Hampshire

Not Quite Shangri-La

Updated: May 25



Looking up towards the Khunjerab Pass
Looking up towards the Khunjerab Pass

As a youth, I fared poorly at school. It wasn’t for a lack of intelligence, but life threw me a curve ball at a young age that stymied a chance for me to love reading. A week-long argument between my mother and me over reading a child’s storybook left me devastated and traumatized. I read my first complete book for enjoyment when I was 26, by which time, a chance for a decent education had long since sailed. In school, I read the absolute minimum for all school/college reading assignments and, as a result, my education suffered. However, when I had the opportunity to travel, I was rewarded with an education about life, people, and cultures at which books could only hint.

One such opportunity to travel and learn occurred in 1979 when I worked for the oil company in Saudi Arabia. For a short vacation, I signed up with a tour group headed to the Hindu Kush in northwestern Pakistan. For a week, we would explore valleys, high in the Karakorum mountains on the border with China. The itinerary had us booked at the one hotel, the Rakaposhi Inn, in a town called Gilgit. The town also housed the administration offices for the local province, Baltistan.

To visit such areas allowed me to witness a very different style of life, to see day-to-day priorities in a whole new light, and to understand that some of the assumptions I held were not universal. I have always loved to tell stories because, for me, stories are lessons about life, love, and community.

 

On a Thursday morning in April, our group gathered at the Rawalpindi airport to meet our Pakistani government guide. While we waited to check in for the flight to Gilgit, he said having such a clear, sunny day bode well for us. Apparently, we had reservations on one of the world’s most frequently canceled flights. The turboprop aircraft had an operating ceiling of 23,000 feet and the Himalayan pass we needed to go over lay at 22,000 feet. Fierce storms often ravaged the pass. As a result, the airline canceled one third of flights before takeoff, and a third of those that did takeoff turned back.

Our flight left Rawalpindi and headed towards the mountains as the plane climbed. After an hour, the pilot announced the flight had been cleared to cross the pass. Soon, the plane had no room to make a turn. The tips of our wings seemed almost to touch icy cliffs and snow fields. Outside temperatures caused me to shiver despite the brilliant sunlight flooding the plane’s interior. Surrounding peaks, glaciers, and rock faces loomed over us like giants. Thermals tossed the plane as if these giants kicked our tin can across the pass.


View from the Plane's Window
View from the Plane's Window

Gradually, the impression those giants hovered close over me and the plane being squeezed receded. We flew out of the pass as the surrounding mountains lost their intimidating closeness, giving us spectacular views of snowy peaks and icy rocky ridges. The ridges formed a web of connections between the peaks. Despite the mountains being black, gray, and white, their grandeur left me in speechless awe. The mountains dropped away, to be replaced by huge valleys with towering rock walls along their sides. The plane wove along several valleys before starting its descent into Gilgit. We landed and taxied to the small terminal. From the plane, we walked to the edge of the runway to collect our baggage. Beyond the terminal, a small bus waited to drive us into town.

It dropped our group at the hotel, where the staff seemed pleased to see our group of a dozen tourists. We spent the rest of the day being driven around the immediate area, looking at a small hydroelectric plant, a local industrial area – a prime tourist attraction, and several farms.


Road / Trail Snakes its Way across a Rock Face
Road / Trail Snakes its Way across a Rock Face

For outings, our group used two jeeps driven by local drivers who knew the roads and their challenging conditions. In places, narrow dirt roads ran along ledges, which had been carved into rock faces that reared vertically for thousands of feet. Sections resembled widened goat trails, crossing shear rock walls. In parts, a slot, high enough and wide enough for commercial trucks, had been excavated across a cliff face. Some trucks squeezed through with inches to spare, not yards. Sometimes, roads wove down gorges, dancing an intertwining path with raging rivers. To our relief, at times, roads meandered across wider valleys in which fields still lay fallow after the previous year’s harvest. Occasionally, our paths tenuously snaked a route through huge scree fields where rock slides and instability posed constant dangers.

 

Fields and Orchards in the Hunza Valley
Fields and Orchards in the Hunza Valley

On Friday, our party gathered in the lobby after breakfast for our first daylong outing. Some people shuffled around excitedly. Others rechecked they had packed everything they needed in their day packs. I smiled, realizing I used to be this way on school field trips when we traveled in groups. I paced a little to calm myself. I preferred to travel independently and make my own arrangements. I only went on this Karakorum tour and another to Tibet, as their governments forbade access to these areas to solo travelers, at that time.

After we loaded into the open-back jeeps, our drivers headed towards the Khunjerab Pass. The border crossing into China, which happened to be the highest border crossing in the world at over 15,000 feet, straddled the pass. Our path ran alongside the main river that flowed through Gilgit. While still close to town, the road climbed alongside the river as it cascaded down a series of rapids and small waterfalls. In quieter sections, locals used the river for transportation between villages but stretches like these rapids couldn’t be navigated. Close to the top of one section, we met two local men carrying a crude handmade raft. We stopped so our guide/translator could talk with them about their use of the raft. They said they regularly ferried goods along the river, their most direct and quickest route to Gilgit and its market.

The raft’s frame comprised sturdy tree branches tied firmly together with strips of hide. Thinner branches formed a deck on which the men sat to paddle and where their goods could be stored. The raft had a classic form of floatation, four inflated sheep skins. I suspected the raft, which measured about ten feet by six feet weighed over a hundred pounds. The two men carried its unwieldy weight, which caused them to stagger over the rocky uneven trail despite them being young, strong, and agile.

Due to the waterfalls, their raft needed to be carried along this stretch of the river. Once they could drop the raft at a navigable stretch of river, they would return for the goods they had left with their third companion at the top of the rapids. While we talked, the men held the raft on their shoulders as putting it down and picking it up again required much effort.


It's okay, You Can Open your Eyes again now.
It's okay, You Can Open your Eyes again now.

We had been warned taking photographs of local people could be difficult as they considered taking a photograph similar to stealing their soul. We spoke to our guide and he asked if we could take photographs of them. This created some heated debate between the two men. But after a few minutes, they agreed and we all dodged around finding interesting vantage points. We still had bulky SLR cameras, but one woman in our group had the latest invention - a Polaroid camera.

For those who may not know about Polaroid cameras, they acted like a normal camera while taking the shot, but then it immediately produced a blank 4 x 4 photograph, which gradually developed into a full-colored photograph. The transition from a blank card to a faint image and finally to a fully resolved picture took about 30 seconds.

The woman took a Polaroid photograph of the man in the front and handed the still blank card to him. He examined it with a puzzled look. Then his eyes widened as he started to yell


Local Man with Raft Amazed by a Polaroid Photograph
Local Man with Raft Amazed by a Polaroid Photograph

excitedly at the man at the back. The man at the back started jumping around frantically trying to see the picture too, but he couldn’t just drop the raft. By the time the photograph had fully developed, the man holding it realized he was staring at a picture of himself. The look of delight and intrigue spoke louder than any words could have expressed. The woman took a second picture, focusing on the man at the rear of the raft. Again we heard cries of amazement as the picture developed right there in his hand.

In hindsight, this incident presented an excellent example of why I sometimes crave the old days when technology hadn’t overrun the entire world. Witnessing another person’s delight and surprise at seeing something they had never imagined possible can be truly amazing and rather humbling. Nowadays, most people react in a blasé fashion to new technological developments or dismiss them as fake.

After a little dancing around trying to see each other’s photographs, the men put the raft down. Their delight at seeing a photograph of their partner evoked immediate amazement, big grins, and much chatter and laughter. I wondered how their third member would feel when they excitedly showed the pictures to him, later.

We ventured further up the valley knowing those two men had stories to tell their grandchildren in years to come. I suspected those photographs took up prominent positions in their homes and many resulting conversations involved the magical transition from a blank card to a colored photograph.


Bridge across River Led to Rajah's Village
Bridge across River Led to Rajah's Village

Two days later, we traveled to a village that lay in a beautiful valley, fertile enough to support a large area of grain as well as fruit orchards. Just above the village, the local village chief and arbiter of local justice had his home and office. Our tour had us scheduled for a visit to his compound. Through our guide/interpreter, he told us the other villagers called him "Rajah". The title “Rajah” came from the British Empire’s days in the Indian subcontinent. The title implied king or prince, which the local population respected. We could not tell if his claim held up or if this braggart had spun a good tale. He invited us to have tea with him and to meet his family in the back garden, which looked English to me with its lawn and rose bushes. After the interaction and despite his living in the largest and only modern house in the village, I


Rajah and his Daughter
Rajah and his Daughter

couldn’t decide if I believed his Rajah claim. As our guide translated for him, I noticed several of our group rolling their eyes or cringing while listening to his tales. I suppose the fact the guide had him as a part of a government condoned tour gave him some credence.

After leaving his garden, our group had a couple of hours to tour around the village on our own. The main village center consisted of a collection of mud-walled houses lying alongside the main trail. I decided to head off into the surrounding fields. Small pathways wound their way around the fields to form a tight network. It allowed the villagers to move from their houses to their fields easily. Farm implements looked unsophisticated, made of wood and occasionally of iron. Very few of them could be tethered to animals, so I assumed most labor depended upon manual effort. As I wandered further down the valley, I found a few farms, a little distance from the village but close enough for their communal security.

I wandered past a field, prepared for planting while taking in the scenery and enjoying the warm spring weather. A young local man came from the opposite direction and he greeted me. "Hello, how are you doing, today?"

Immediately, I stopped in my tracks, he had just spoken to me in perfect English. I turned to look directly at him and replied, “Excuse me for asking, but I’m impressed with your English. I hadn’t expected to find someone in this area who speaks such good English. Where did you learn?”

As he looked over towards the nearby farms, he explained, “I recently graduated from Karachi University with a degree in Engineering. I learned English for my classwork. I hoped you spoke it so I could practice for a sentence or two. I live in one of the farms, which allows me little chance to use my English.”

  His circumstances confounded me and a thousand questions flashed through my mind. Why did he return to his village? What career path had he followed? Did he appreciate having a degree? As I thought about where to start, he invited me home for tea. I have since realized I received this invitation within a few miles of the supposed location in the now infamous book "Three Cups of Tea".

While we walked along the pathway, I introduced myself. “By the way, my name is Barry. What’s yours?”

He held out his hand to shake mine. “I am Hassan. Welcome to my home. I will introduce you to my family.”


Hassan (tallest) and his Family
Hassan (tallest) and his Family

Hassan led me over to the first farmhouse, which lay just a hundred yards away. We entered a courtyard through a gated entrance. The surrounding wall, made of rock and mud, stood about six feet high. The courtyard comprised flat stones in parts and a large flat area of packed dried mud. We crossed onto the farmhouse veranda where the roof extension shaded us. The shade felt like a welcome relief as the sun’s rays had begun to beat down on the valley floor. Before walking into the small single-story farmhouse, Hassan introduced me to his mother, who had been sweeping off the wooden veranda. The cottage’s meager interior said so much about the family’s poverty. No internal walls broke up the space, just a few flimsy curtains to partition off small sections when necessary.A few items of furniture lay scattered around. His sister and younger brother waved as they ran past when Hassan tried to introduce me to them. They, along with their mother, spoke no English, so my host, Hassan, translated for them. We sat talking and drinking tea for a while.

I have only been invited into the homes of total strangers a few times in my travels. To me, such an invitation can be viewed as an act of generosity and openness. I have always been humbled and awe-struck at these times. It may not have been a fantastic and beautiful palace, far from it, but my appreciation and gratitude for being invited touched me no less deeply. In such encounters, I learned wonderful lessons about life and myself. In poverty, there’s no sense of shame, just the brutal openness and honesty of being seen for who people truly are. If only I could have lived a fraction of my life with that as my mantra. But, no, I lived my years as a white entitled male. So much to learn.

Hassan’s past intrigued me. He had been a boy from such an extremely poor area of remote Northern Pakistan. I asked him,. “Hassan, how did you manage to gain a place at a university and, ultimately, a degree?”


Children Assembled outside their School
Children Assembled outside their School

As a very young boy, he attended the village school, which only took boys back then. Their teacher had been strict but academically sharp. Hassan always managed to be top of his class, which led to his teacher forwarding his name for a Government sponsored degree at a state university. He passed all of the requisite exams and Karachi University accepted him. Life for him in the dorms felt lonely as he never learned many social skills, living in the small tight-knit community in his village. After four years, he graduated but could not find any work in Karachi. Even with a degree, he could find no jobs with a future or prospects. He felt people discriminated against him because of his poor family status, a result of the caste system that still prevailed in Pakistan. Eventually, he drifted back to the village even though he understood more about the larger world than most of his neighbors and family could ever imagine. As intrigued as I felt about him, he wanted to know about my circumstances. He said he dreamt of moving to England to work and to apply some of what he had learned. Listening to his questions and his explanations about his current situation, I realized his circumstances frustrated him and confused him as to how to change them. At that time, his university classwork never covered topics like living and working abroad. I believed he was bright and could have made the transition to living in, say, England. But he didn’t have access to resources to learn how to make such a move. Just writing about this now, I have no idea how I could have broken out of his circumstances.


Water Powered Mill Grinding Grain
Water Powered Mill Grinding Grain

Occasionally the village chief would ask for his expertise to fix the one piece of machinery, on which the village depended. Hassan decided to walk me over to see his most frequent project. Years before, the villagers had built a communal water-powered grinding mill for their locally grown grains. The villagers used the mill often during certain times of the year and then it stood unused for months. With it being rather old and crudely constructed, it frequently broke down. Local farmers recognized him to be the only person in their village with enough knowledge to fix it.

We walked along a few narrow paths towards the sound of flowing water. We had to duck down to enter the small rock-walled building, which stood alongside a small stream that ran towards a series of channels that irrigated the fields. Internally, the building only measured about six feet square, which probably caused problems for Hassan when he had to crawl around to mend the grinding mechanism. The grinding stones measured about two feet in diameter, which gave them sufficient capacity to grind the villagers’ annual harvest of grains. The farmers dried the harvested grains by hanging the cut stalks over the branches of their fruit trees so the wind and sun quickened the drying process. Their labors would hopefully produce enough flour to keep the village stocked throughout the coming winter. The water mill kept him occupied for a day or two each month, for which the village chief paid him a pittance, more like pocket change than a real income. We departed the water mill and headed back to his family’s farmhouse. As we strolled along, I tried to imagine how he must feel. We both had university degrees. I had a well-paying career, while he had a few brief periods of being challenged, and for his efforts, he received pocket money. I could not comprehend his situation.


House Straddles a Pathway
House Straddles a Pathway

Back at the farm, we chatted for a while before I had to return to my group. As I prepared to leave, his mother started to hunt around the poorly stocked house. I soon realized she sought a gift to give me as I left. As a guest in their house, etiquette called for me to give a gift in exchange. Thankfully, I had bought some trinkets in a market the day before, and I still had them stashed in my pack. I pulled one out to give to Hassan’s mother. While I had done this, she apparently had found something to give me.

We exchanged gifts out in the front courtyard. She smiled and thanked me. I looked down at the object she had placed in the palm of my hand. I had never seen anything quite like it before. I smiled in thanks and asked Hassan to thank her for the gift and her hospitality. Hassan walked with me back to the center of the village.

When we reached our jeeps and the other members of the group, he said, “Barry, I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed our time together, especially as opportunities to speak English like this are not that frequent. I am grateful to have a chance to practice my English and keep me in touch with a larger view of the world and all it has possibly to offer.”


Village Lays Hidden among the Blossoming Orchards
Village Lays Hidden among the Blossoming Orchards

I wondered if I could find a practical way for us to stay in contact. But considering the remoteness of his village, I realized I needed to say farewell. “Hassan, I really did appreciate your company and your family’s hospitality. I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to talk with you about your present life, here in the village. I hope you will find opportunities that bring you satisfaction and a decent income. We must head back to Gilgit before darkness. Thanks for everything. Bye.”

We boarded the open-top jeeps and bundled up against the chill that had descended on the valley as soon as the sun disappeared behind the peaks, so far above us. As we started the drive back to Gilgit, I pulled out my gift and tried to work out what it could be. Its roughly spherical shape looked brown highly polished, felt a little rubbery, and had a sweet aroma. I showed it to others and they all scratched their heads without even a suggestion. I had wanted to not insult Hassan's mother by asking her to identify it, so the mysterious object continued to challenge several of us over the following few days.

Eventually, I decided to ask our guide/translator about it and, thankfully, he immediately knew. He said I had been given an apple, which had been prepared for long-term storage (left in the rafters of the house for months or years). As soon as he said it, I instantly knew the sweet aroma - an over-ripe apple. I decided to check it out by cutting a slice. The flesh looked a little dried and not too dis-colored. I decided not to try a bite, wanting to avoid any possibility of being sick for the rest of the trip.


Goat and local hand-made Rug in the Market
Goat and local hand-made Rug in the Market

Having resolved this mystery, at last, my head could relax, but I also felt very humbled. There in a remote farming community, Hassan’s mother had given me an item of preserved food. They had little money and any stored food could be essential to their survival in harsh winters. She had given me an apple, but what that apple could potentially mean to them at some point in the future staggered me. Her gift awed me and filled me with humility. For my young maturing mind, on its journey to understanding life and people, I had to stop and take note. It may not have been a gift of gold, but in some ways, the comparison felt justified.

Now, I look back on these memories and am still deeply touched by Hassan’s Mother’s gift. But, unfortunately, the history of the last 40 years causes me to question if I witnessed the seeds of what potentially came to redefine peoples’ understanding of horror and terror. Twenty two years later, 9/11 happened.

I wonder how many other graduates of Karachi University have had to return to remote villages, disillusioned – for Hassan seemed that way to me. If one such educated but disillusioned graduate fell under the influence of a radical zealous imam, then we had the possible starting of an Al Qaida group with the academic knowledge to cause huge amounts of destruction and loss of life. Not a good combination - knowledge, disillusionment, and zeal. I could only pray they did not become part of Hassan’s journey because several such terrorist groups infested this area in later years.

            That night in Gilgit, I slept well, but now such fears about Hassan can haunt my ability to sleep peacefully. I believe most human beings would prefer peace over instability and bloodshed. But how can we persuade the few who still believe in inequality, retaliation, and vengeance that they are wrong?

           

Fortress / Palace Controlled Several Valleys
Fortress / Palace Controlled Several Valleys

For Monday’s outing, we headed further up toward the Khunjerab Pass. We planned to visit an old palace built by a prince who had wanted to control the area below the pass. I wondered how Baltistani palaces would compare to the palaces I had visited in Britain while growing up. Our jeeps snaked their way along roads, which hung to the valley’s cliff walls. To say we experienced a sweaty palms ride would not be an exaggeration. In places, the road took the form of barely more than a trail running along ledges. The only somewhat reassuring thought came from knowing local trucks carried goods and supplies along the rocky road as well. Meeting any of these trucks caused a short delay while our drivers backed down the road, ignoring the frightened expressions of their tourist passengers as they eyed the huge drop off the road’s edge, which had no barriers. We quickly learned to trust our drivers. Thankfully, every few hundred yards, slightly wider sections had been built where we could safely pass these trucks. We held our breath while the drivers maneuvered to these points.

At one spot, I relaxed in the second jeep and watched the lead jeep take a hairpin bend in a small gorge. The road appeared wide enough for the vehicle, but something about the roadway caught my eye. A 10 foot section of the road straddled a void, supported on a single tree branch, jammed into a crack. A few seconds later, I held my breath as our jeep crossed over that span.


Old Man Awaits his Friends
Old Man Awaits his Friends

After a couple of hours of traveling along this road, we reached a small village where our guide suggested we take a few minutes to stretch. It felt wonderful, walking on a solid stretch of ground. As we took a short wander, I noticed a group of local men sitting on a wall outside the village store. Their appearances struck me as interesting. They all had gnarled faces that spoke of many years of laboring in the fields under harsh conditions. When they moved, they did so with care and they all moved slowly. Several depended on staffs for balance. I asked our guide about the men. He told me this region had a reputation for its ancient population. Apparently, to join one group, participating men had to be over 90 years old, and many had passed the 100 year mark. They looked it and displayed a peace and acceptance, which I have never been able to fully understand, but I know what I witnessed. The guide said they met most mornings to talk, provided the weather looked not to be too bad. I wondered what they actually considered bad weather.

From the side of the road, I could look down on an area of rock and mud huts where most of the local farmers lived. The crowded dwellings lay in a hollow between open fields and orchards. The green from the new year’s growth tinted the gray fields. Fruit trees stood out with pink blossoms calling for my attention in comparison to the grey of the surrounding ridges and rock faces. I could have missed the huts as their color blended with the ground. But their straight lines, similar shaped shadows, and a square opening in their flat roofs caught my eye. The openings allowed smoke from cooking fires to escape.


Hay Drying
Hay Drying

Surrounding the farmed areas and on the lower slopes of the nearby ridges stood thousands of very tall, thin trees, awaiting the spring warmth to spark new foliage. Their gaunt, wispy appearance created a blurry feel to the view. This feeling blended with the misty ill-defined sense of the upper valley walls where light cloud cover wafted across rock faces and occasional views of snowy peaks. No views felt in focus, or sharp and clear.

We progressed close to where the road started its climb to the pass and the border crossing. Off in some trees on one side of the road, we could see a structure, the palace. The drivers parked below the structure and sat on a fender to have a smoke while our group headed toward the palace to explore. The palace had been built in the 12th century. Its walls looked thick, in fact several feet thick, made of rock and a form of natural cement. Faded white paint flaked from the exterior walls and gaps had opened up where the weather had scoured a path inside. Broken panels of wooden slats covered many window openings as glass windows had never been installed. Inside the palace, the vague hint of murals on inner walls showed scenes of hunting and armies marching. Our guide forbade us from taking the main stairway to the upper floors as rot and decay had weakened the stairs. Even our group of intrepid explorers understood the wisdom of his advice. We did find a smaller back


View across Palace Roof
View across Palace Roof

staircase that gave us access to the upper floors as well as the roof. Looking across sections of the flat roof, small ornately carved structures caught our attention. Our guide explained they allowed light to flood the room below while trying to protect the opening from rain and snow.

Having spent only a little time in the palace, we returned to the jeeps. The palace, from the outside, looked primarily like a fortress with its sheer high walls painted in greying white paint. Larger window openings lined only the uppermost floor. Huge wooden beams, which may have been red when they had last been painted in centuries past, supported balconies that protruded from the top of the structure. I had never seen such a building ever before. The structure was huge and mainly white, not a color I normally associate with power. And here it had been built many centuries ago in this remote valley to discourage invading Tibetan armies.


Kargah Buddha
Kargah Buddha

Tuesday morning, our guide took the group to view the Kargah Buddha, a six-mile drive from Gilgit. We viewed it from the road as it had been positioned high on a rock face. Being positioned towards the top of the cliff under an overhanging ledge, I could only guess the relief Buddha carving stood about 50 feet tall. Craftsmen had carved it in such a way that its details stood 4 to 6 inches out from a flat section of the cliff. Surrounding the Buddha, a series of square holes had been carved. Wooden scaffolding had been wedged into these holes for the craftsmen while they carved the Buddha.

This Buddha had been carved in the 6th century, the same period as two similar Buddhas in Afghanistan. These two Afghani carvings became world news in 2001, when the Taliban decreed them to be idols and commanded they be destroyed. The Taliban dynamited the cliff, demolishing the two Buddhas, which had been declared a World Heritage Site. I have since realized a sad irony in the Taliban’s actions. Ancient teachers of Buddhism created artistic renderings of deities and inspirational stories to engage their devotees but also to demonstrate a basic tenant of their beliefs – everything is impermanent.  So in destroying the two Buddhas, the Taliban proved the truth of Buddhist teachings – the impermanence of everything.

 

On Thursday morning, our day for departure, our guide joined us and announced, “Excuse me, I have some unfortunate news. Bad weather caused today’s incoming flight from Rawalpindi to be canceled. We need to extend your stay here until tomorrow. You can spend the day exploring Gilgit, but you should not leave the main part. I would recommend you stay in groups. We should plan on being ready to depart tomorrow morning at this same time. If you need me at any time, I will be here at the hotel.”

Luckily, we had not checked out of the hotel and it only took us a few minutes to dump our luggage back in our rooms. We had the day to wander the markets, which we had wanted to do as each day had been spent touring around the area without much time in Gilgit itself.


Road Crew Constructing the Karakorum Highway
Road Crew Constructing the Karakorum Highway

Most of us split up to explore the market individually, despite our guide indicating we should not do so. I found a few items on which I bartered what I considered reasonable prices. Just as I thought about heading back to the hotel to eat lunch with others from the group, I spotted a rug/wall hanging with three shades of brown in stripes. The rug's simple design and unsophisticated weave drew me to it. Also, it reflected the survival subsistence of many of the people in the area. The stall owner and I haggled for 10 minutes. I’m sure I paid four times what a local may have paid. I gave him cash for the purchase. He appeared to be very happy to receive the cash as I paid in Saudi Riyals. I suspected he could exchange them on the local black market at a better rate than a bank may have offered. He packaged the rug in a plastic sheet and tied it up with string.

After buying a falafel wrap, I headed back to the hotel. While a group of us sat showing what we had each bought, I untied the plastic sheet, and people dropped their food and reeled backward, away from my rug. It stunk. I had wondered about the smell in the market, but in the open air, it hadn’t been too bad. In the confines of the lobby, the aroma could only be described as appalling. Just then our guide walked past and stopped. He grimaced too. “Who bought a local rug?”

“I did. What’s the smell?”

“The locals have access only to vegetable dies to color the camel hair used for such weavings. They need to stabilize the dye color in the course hair. They use something else camels produce in copious quantities.”

“You mean camel piss?”

He smiled, nodded, and hurried away.

I wrapped the rug tightly in the plastic sheet and double-knotted the string. It would be traveling with the luggage on the plane. When I arrived home, the rug lived out on my back patio for over a year in blistering heat, rain, wind, and sandstorms before I allowed it inside the house.

 

Man Returns Home after Collecting Kindling
Man Returns Home after Collecting Kindling

On the following morning, we congregated in the hotel lobby again. We did not need to hear our guide’s words as the look on his face indicated a problem as he approached the group. Indeed, that day’s flight had also been canceled. We knew we could not take an alternate flight back to Rawalpindi. The once-a-day flight provided Gilgit with its only air connection to Rawalpindi. The raging storm prohibited all flights over the one mountain pass.

However, our guide did not send us off to explore on our own again. “I am not certain when flights will resume with this storm raging in our flight path. I think it will be better if I commandeer the daily bus that goes to Rawalpindi.” Being a government guide, he had some level of authority and could take over the bus, in such circumstances.

One of the group asked, “How long will it take to drive all that way?”

“Around twenty to twenty-four hours, depending on conditions.” The guide replied in a manner that made it sound so normal.

We sat in the lobby for an hour while he made arrangements. Then we trudged across to a small muddy yard on the edge of town. There, half a dozen buses stood parked, with many locals scurrying around loading goods on the ornate luggage racks, mounted on the bus roofs. One bus sat empty – ours. It looked like it had been built back just after World War II and it had been enthusiastically decorated and painted. Each of the buses had been decorated in its own unique style, all extremely colorful and bright despite their thick layering of baked-on mud.

Several porters hauled our luggage onto the roof and tied it down under a tarpaulin. Inside, we found the interior seating to be even less comfortable than the average school bus. This journey had us wondering about its viability before we started. We pulled out coats and anything we could find to pad the seats, but nothing alleviated the lack of give in the cushioning or unrelenting vertical seat backs. We settled in, impressed by the lack of concern for comfort in the bus’s design. It had been constructed in hardier days, long gone by.

Our driver arrived and had a few words with the guide before settling into his seat at the wheel. Concerns about the driver appearing to be of an age that surpassed that of the bus itself displaced the group’s discomfort with the seating. He had a small assistant to run errands for him. But the assistant gave us no reason for confidence as he might have been born after the bus’s tires last received some air.

The fact our guide remained unalarmed by our situation kept the group from freaking out.

On the third attempt, the bus’s engine spluttered into life. I do not recall if I sensed relief with it starting or foreboding. With no alternative, I thought, “Oh well, here we go”. Our driver slammed it into gear and let up on the clutch. We soon would return to civilization.


Crossing the River Indus
Crossing the River Indus

To my surprise, the road heading south appeared to be well-paved and in quite good condition considering the terrain. Our route took us across large expanses of glacial deposits heading for the mountains we needed to cross. After several hours, we had made our way over one mountain pass and begun to wind down beautiful valleys with a more varied selection of vegetation caused by a less harsh climate. Heavier clouds hung over our route and scattered rain squalls soaked the road as they crossed our path.

The group started to relax and take time to enjoy the views through the bus’s misting windows. However, every once in a while we had reason to refocus on the road and our driver when he took one of the many hairpins a little too fast. Feeling the bus’s back wheels skidding towards a drop into a ravine created a little more than just concern in some of our group. Several members asked our guide to request the driver slow down. The ensuing discussion between the guide and driver seemed to have little effect, except for some blustering outbursts by the driver and laughter between him and his assistant.

After another hour, the rain showers stopped and thankfully, so did the skidding of the back wheels. We began to relax and enjoy the scenery of the mid-level valleys of the Hindu Kush. We had been on the road for about four hours. Rawalpindi lay a long way ahead of us, but we sensed it to be in our grasp. In those four hours, we had probably seen about twenty other vehicles. So when we rounded a curve and found a line of traffic at a halt on the road, we wondered what could be the problem.

As exhaust fumes permeated the bus’s interior after a few minutes, our guide told the driver to turn the engine off. He said, “Please stay on the bus while I take a walk to see what could be the issue.”

He returned about five minutes later with a frustrated look on his face. “It looks like the storm has brought a landslide down on the road and traffic cannot pass. Some of the drivers who drive the road regularly say the army will bring a bulldozer to clear it.”



Local watch the Bus Navigate across the Landslide
Local watch the Bus Navigate across the Landslide

Our guide let us walk down the road with him after we insisted we wanted to see the situation. He had some reservations but eventually agreed. About a dozen or more trucks and cars lay ahead of us in the line. And then we saw the problem; about a fifty-yard stretch of the road covered in mud, rocks, and vegetation. On the far side of the slide, a line of traffic that had been driving up to Gilgit stood silent. Alongside the first few vehicles in our line, groups of drivers had gathered, sitting on their haunches, smoking and talking. They seemed totally happy to sit and wait, no matter how long it took the army to come and clear the road. Several of our group took a meander through the landslide’s debris on the road. When they rejoined us, they said they didn’t see much of a problem as the landslide comprised mainly mud and small rocks. So, many of us took a walk through the area and quickly concluded we could clear a path wide enough for the bus and trucks in an hour or two.

A few of us identified the largest rocks, which would need to be moved, while other people found tree branches in the debris. Soon, we pushed or levered the largest rocks towards the edge of the road. The local drivers watched us with slightly amused contempt. After a little struggle, the two biggest rocks sat on the very edge of the road. We gave them a final shove, and they started a long bouncing descent into the wild valley that lay a far distance below us. As they dropped, we cheered and whistled as their descent seemed to continue for such a long time.

After this, we hurled most of the smaller rocks and branches over the side of the road. It felt good to start actually moving after hours on the bone-shaking bus. Soon, a competition as to whose rock dropped the furthest ensued, which led to enthusiastic shouts and cheering. The complacent local drivers saw our periodic delight. They had to join the fun. But their sense of personal space and safety transpired to be less than desirable. Very quickly, the situation began to resemble a war zone with rocks flying indiscriminately. Thankfully we suffered no fallen heroes when victory finally came. We had managed to clear a path through the debris, wide enough for one-way traffic.

We threaded our way through the cleared path and could once again be on our way. We had taken less than two hours, so much better than opting to wait for the army. Our progress down through the green valleys, dotted with small groups of trees and occasional farms, seemed to be back on track. The group relaxed as best we could. Our padded cocoons of clothing lost the battle for comfort on the seats, which became harder with each passing mile.

An hour later, the weather brightened as did our spirits. So, when we encountered another line of halted traffic, we felt somewhat betrayed. At the same time, the group immediately went into an energized state, anticipating tackling a second landslide, we felt ready. Our guide sensed he could not hold us on the bus and let the group forge ahead to survey the obstacle. We had guessed correctly, a second landslide. However, the size of it proved to be much bigger than the first, and the dimensions of several boulders dwarfed the ability we had shown a short time before. We soon recognized this slide required an army bulldozer.


Local's Truck Waiting in Line
Local's Truck Waiting in Line

Disappointed, we explained the situation to our guide and left him to talk with the bus driver. They made their decision based on their experience of how long the army may take to clear the road. We all re-boarded the bus.

Our guide addressed us, “As you saw, we are not able to clear this slide, so we will be returning to Gilgit and we shall await the next flight. I am sorry, but I needed to make a decision that keeps you all safe.”

The mention of our safety immediately prompted us all to hurry off the bus as our driver started up the engine. He intended doing a multi-point turnaround on a road with a width that looked the same as the length of the bus. The significant drop off the one side of the road had no safety railing. Ten minutes later, we applauded our driver for turning the bus around in the most impossible of circumstances.

We reboarded and settled in for another six-plus hours to return to Gilgit. The weather had become more stable and the chance of rain had abated as we headed back up into the upper valleys. Hours passed as the afternoon sun dropped between banks of clouds before being lost behind the mountain peaks that topped the valley walls. We settled and people started to snooze in the comfort of knowing beds and soft pillows awaited our aching bodies.

With the bus’s engine sounding strong, we climbed higher and higher. Our belief that comfort lay in our not too distant future dissolved in an instant when we reached a line of three cars at a halt with their drivers sitting nearby on their haunches. Quickly, we had to switch gears – rather than relaxing, back to debris/landslide clean-up. We had been so relieved to think our time on the bus would be relatively short. None of us considered the possibility of a landslide coming down behind us, in the higher valleys. But the truth of our fallacious assumption sat there in the road, undeniable and ugly.

A quick inspection of the area discouraged any thoughts of this being a quick fix. The road gradually rose up a grade, while the road’s outer edge lay about a foot or two higher than the inner edge. A gully had dropped a large amount of rock and mud across the entire width of the road forming a dam. All the water in the original landslide plus the following rain had created a large lake on the upper side of the dam. The water at the lower end of the lake, at the dam, stood several feet deep. We had no tools and our bare hands had little effect on the dam. Optimistically, we tried to create some drainage channels along the edge of the lake, which could drain some of the water over the side of the road. The level of the lake seemed to stop rising, but we observed nothing to indicate it falling.

After an hour or so of fruitless ideas about clearing the road, the light quickly faded and the temperature plunged. We surrendered back onto the bus and talked about possible next steps.


Truck Crossing a Cleared Path
Truck Crossing a Cleared Path

Our guide addressed the bus. “I am afraid our current situation does not look good.” He could be quite adept with understatements. “It looks like we’ll have to sleep on the bus tonight. However, I must inform you that we’re in dangerous territory as many bandits and brigands roam these hills, especially after dark. As the light has now gone, nobody should get off the bus without three other people to keep a lookout. Before we settle down let us all try to relieve ourselves close to the bus door.”

Frustration filled the ensuing 15 minutes as multiple people failed to pee, knowing people – some friendly and some not, could be nearby watching.

To say our nights turned into hours of sweet, peaceful dreams would have been a stretch and I saw no sign of people wishing to relieve themselves, no matter how uncomfortable they felt. Watches have a vindictive nature that became apparent to everyone in the group. We discovered many more seconds existed in each minute than conventionally thought. As for the number of minutes in each hour, the jury still ponders the issue. We fixated on any vestige of first light. It taunted us for hours, but it eventually came. We all welcomed it as if we feared we might frighten it away.

As soon as we could, we returned to the dam, sculpting drainage channels with makeshift tools. After an hour or so, the lake began to look like we had reduced it a little, but it still posed a significant obstacle. In time, our driver decided to come and take a look himself. He could see we had made progress and seemed impressed. After looking at the situation for a few minutes, he declared we had done enough and he should be able to get the bus through. We all collectively pleaded with our guide to dissuade him from this action, which, in our opinions, would be foolhardy at best.

Our driver started the bus and gunned it several times to warm the engine. Meanwhile, the group climbed onto the bus roof to retrieve all of our luggage as the bus could potentially go over the edge and crash into a gorge many hundreds of feet below.


Before our Driver Took Matters into his own Hands
Before our Driver Took Matters into his own Hands

The driver pulled out of the traffic line and backed down the road so he could build up speed before reaching the dam. He drove up the road like a wild banshee and hit the lower edge of the dam. The front of the bus rose abruptly as the bus successfully flew up to the top of the dam. With the bus’s momentum, he looked good to make it over the dam. The engine compartment and front fender surged down the far side of the dam and into the lake. And there, the bus stopped and stayed while the engine spluttered and died. As to whether the middle of the bus bottoming out on the top of the dam, the weight of all the water still in the lake, or both, caused the result, it mattered little. The practical result turned out to be irrefutable with the bus’s engine firmly submerged in several feet of muddy water. It would not be restarting for a while, if ever again.

While the driver waded his way out of the bus, our group gathered to discuss our next move. Sensing our guide’s uncertainty about the new day’s bus leaving Gilgit with the previous day’s having not arrived from Rawalpindi, the group considered alternative plans. Luckily, one other member of our group, like myself, claimed to be a long-distance athlete. We volunteered to walk the 20 or so miles that the guide guessed it would take to return to Gilgit. If we had not seen any bus, we would return with some taxis to pick up the party.

We gathered emergency gear and supplies before heading up the road, past the traffic, waiting on the upper side of the lake. Thankfully the new day’s weather started out settled and warm with a clear blue sky. The surrounding mountains and valleys looked spectacular, showing off their bright and colorful beauty. We walked along spellbound. We observed sections of the road as it snaked its way up the valley, headed towards a far mountain pass.

Walking up the road, we admired the surrounding scenery but felt uncertain as to where we were headed. We hoped the road would be a straight shot back into Gilgit. How far was it? We had no one to ask, just miles of blacktop winding up towards another break in the ridge line. Few cars passed us, but if any stopped, we couldn’t communicate with their drivers as locals only spoke Urdu or a local dialect.

Gradually, the ridge to our right dropped away, opening up a vast labyrinth of high pastures, wooded hillsides, and cascading rivers. It gave us a physical understanding of the word, panorama. I didn’t recall us passing this area earlier. The bus windows had been misted or a rain squall had obliterated the view. After we cleared the end of the ridge and the last of the clouds lifted my companion and I were stopped. A surreal sensation held me, so unexpectedly viewing a massive peak. Normally to view huge peaks, I had to hike for days or weeks and possibly wait for the weather to clear. Here, I had been presented with the view of quite obviously a majestic mountain with its intricate network of ridges and ancillary peaks, and it happened by chance. Nothing had been planned. It just happened. What peak had just nudged its way into my life? I had started this walk with little in the way of expectations and yet my eyes could not deny the beauty that I beheld.

I desperately thought back to the maps of the area I had reviewed before this trip. Was it Nangar Parbat? I recalled it was in this region, but where precisely?

Thankfully, I still had two shots on my last roll of film. They recorded this most wonderful spectacle. The sight of this incredible peak humbled me. Was it 5 miles away or 50 miles away? The foreground of ridges, upon ridges, upon ridges, and wild country indicated it was closer to the 50.

Many years later, I compared my photographs to those available online. I had been wrong and hadn’t seen Nangar Parbat. I had been granted a view of the second highest mountain in the world, Mount Godwin-Austen, otherwise known as K2. For years, I heard tales about


K2
K2

the inaccessibility of K2 and there I stood as close as one can be to that mountain while still being on a road. The hike to base camp apparently took over a week. I have carried memories of this sighting for most of my life. How could I not have realized the detail of that memory was fallacious? My memory of that incident may have been reasonably accurate, but it was my initial assumption about which peak we had discovered that had been wrong. I indeed had walked past K2 on our hike up the road from the bus, which lay miles behind us, submerged in muddy water.

            Memories, memories, memories. How we create a world that we thought we lived in only to find later it was not the case. But does it matter? No, because it was the memories as we thought they occurred that fueled our lives’ pathway. It just may not have been as we imagined.

 

After another hour, we saw a group of vehicles heading down the valley including that day’s bus. Our attempts to stop it only resulted in the driver giving us a strange look and carrying on. We kept walking, until several hours later, the same bus pulled up alongside us. This time, the driver smiled as he opened the doors for us. Our guide had seconded the bus to take us all back to Gilgit with the displeased local people who had left Gilgit earlier in the morning.


The ride back to town seemed surprisingly uneventful. As no planes had made it in for several days, the hotel had our rooms available and cleaned. For the remainder of the afternoon, we spent time relaxing and snoozing. That night, I lay awake, amazed at how a night in an ancient bus improved the luxurious quotient of just about any bed.

 

View across a Farming Community
View across a Farming Community

On the following morning our much happier and refreshed guide looked optimistic as he announced, “The weather forecast says it should be clear again. I think it will be perfect for flying to Rawalpindi.” An audible sigh of relief arose from us all. Indeed, the flight turned out to be spectacular and much easier than taking the bus.

Now, many years later, I look back on that journey and it all seems like a dream. Probably, at times, during the actual events, it felt more like a nightmare, but without any long-term bad results, except maybe for the bus.

Even with full hindsight, I have no doubt if I could once again be young and a little foolish, I would sign up for the same adventure again. Why did these types of adventures appeal to me? I suspected I gained a sense of confidence by challenging myself physically, rather than gaining it through the acquisition of knowledge. My mother may have wished I had not been this way. However, I’m certain she would have thanked me for never sharing all the details of these trips with her.

From our ten-day trip, I hold Hassan and his mother most prominently in my heart and thoughts. They touched and inspired me, similar to how the beauty and vistas surrounding Gilgit took my breath away.

Looking back at my life, I acknowledge failing to gain a good education at school hurt me. But I fervently believe traveling the world has made up for much of that deficit. Through recollecting such times as this trip, may I deepen my sense of gratitude for my life and the encounters along the way, have compassion towards all sentient beings, and encourage everyone to value simple human humbleness.


Barry D. Hampshire



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1 Comment


marmcbride
Mar 07

Stunning adventure, Barry. Beautiful descriptions ...and photos.

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