June 2, 2012

Biking to the X-treme North

If you have heard people claiming to have travelled in Pakistan from ‘one end to the other,’ take it as no more than a figure of speech.  I thought such a sweeping contention should, for a start, entail a boat ride to the fabulous Astola Island in the Arabian Sea, thirty miles south-east of Pasni; and, no amount of travelling inside Pakistan’s heartland can be considered complete unless the sojourn is rounded off with the ultimate feat of reaching the northern-most latitude of the country.  That extreme geographical point was the goal of our two-man bicycle expedition last May, so we could proudly flaunt our ‘end-to-end’ travel credentials.
 

Most ordinary maps show a small kink jutting into China, a few miles north-east of the point where Pak, Afghan and Chinese borders meet, being aptly described by the British explorer Colonel Schomberg as the ‘solar plexus of the mountain system of Asia.’  Astride the kink is the 15,840-ft high Kilak Pass, which fans out northwards into a sprawling snow-clad pasture.  Here, herdsmen from Pakistan’s northern-most village of Misgar come to graze their sheep and goats, when the melting carpet of snow starts to uncover the rich herbage in May.  Up to the end of the 19th century, the pass was infrequently used by traders from Gilgit and Hunza to sell dried fruit and, of all items, wretched slaves – with the acquiescence of the heartless local rulers – to caravans plying between the fabled oasis towns of Western China and Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province, and beyond.  Much of the goods from China, however, came through the closer Mintaka Pass and, included silks, printed textiles, carpets and jade products, mostly destined for the ruling elite of the region.  Like most mountainous passes, Kilak and Mintaka were also notorious for being hideouts for brigands to waylay caravans laden with those exotic wares.  Some of the infamous outlaws of Gilgit and Hunza had spent their useful years prowling the crags and defiles of these passes, while living off the land in the company of wild animals and, lashed by bitterly cold winds.  I could almost hear the nervous whistles of marmots scampering about at the snarl of a hungry snow leopard in that mountain vastness, as I started to plan the expedition.

When I broached the subject with my friend Shahid Dad, last year, he seemed sufficiently enthused.  “Would you be willing to bike all the way from Gilgit to the extreme north of Pakistan?”  I inquired carefully, lest he take it as an indolent suggestion.  The strong fighter pilot bond we had shared in yesteryears came through when he emphatically replied in the affirmative.  When he added in his usual scholarly manner, “Age doesn’t matter, the heart is still young,” I knew I could take comfort, knee joints and all!  It was summarily decided that Shahid would be returning from Boston the following May, especially for this expedition.  I promptly purchased lightweight mountain bikes for the two of us from Nila Gumbad, Lahore’s crowded cycle mart.  Getting those ‘retired’ muscles back to vigorous work was a challenge, and the coming months saw me pedalling feverishly every morning on the outskirts of Lahore, while Shahid was mostly confined to a gym due to severe cold weather in Boston.  The expedition was to last a full fortnight, from Gilgit up to the northern limits of Upper Hunza Valley and back in 50-km daily stretches, so the demands on endurance and stamina had to be painstakingly catered for.

While physical conditioning was underway, the equally important planning aspects were looked into, critically.  Choice of route, basically dictated by suitable night stops, was followed by selection of nearby inns, motels or camping sites; geographical coordinates for GPS, climb gradients, astronomical and weather data were then gathered.  Most important, satellite pictures from Google® earth, which could be viewed in amazing 3-D ground-level panoramas, were downloaded, carefully analysed and then uploaded into our mobile phones for enroute correlation.  With a Mandarin vocabulary limited to nin hao and xiéxié, explaining a border violation to Chinese guards would have been a disaster; good navigation was, thus, the key to a successful mission.

The problem of Acute Mountain Sickness also had to be tackled.  The earliest mention of this sickness is known to have been made by a Chinese official by the name of To Kan in 32 BC, while he was touring in the vicinity of the Kilak Pass itself.  “A man’s face turns pale, his head aches, and he begins to vomit,” observed To Kan.  This malady afflicts even the very fit mountaineers if the rate of vertical traverse is more than 2,000-ft in 24 hours, above an elevation of 8,000-ft.  Such a situation was going to be encountered during our last leg, so we decided to break it up at the half way point.  With the vitals adequately taken care of, we were rearing to go.
 
On 26 April, I departed for Islamabad where I met up with Shahid who had arrived from Boston a few days before.  Next morning, we boarded PIA’s ATR-42 turbo-prop for Gilgit under command of a very helpful and friendly Captain.  The bikes had been transported to Gilgit by road earlier, as the baggage hold of the aircraft was found to be too small for bike cartons.  In Gilgit, we promptly assembled the bikes and went off for a familiarisation spin to the nearby town of Nomal, which we nostalgically remembered having passed by nearly four decades earlier, while on a tough route march during a survival course as cadets.

Riding the rather dazzling bikes – what, with Darth Vader helmets to complete the striking figures – we must have looked like some aliens, as we swished past the curious bystanders.  After returning from the test run, we rigged the bikes with pannier bags, tents and sleeping bags and, carefully calibrated the bike computers to help us keep track of speeds and distances during the expedition.

Finally, on 30th April, we set course for our first destination, Chalt.  The Karakoram Highway (KKH) was in good shape and pedalling seemed like a breeze.  The resplendent Common Magpies (Pica pica) in their black, white and iridescent green feathers were to become a common sight throughout our trip.  Said to be the most intelligent of all birds – being from the clever crow family – they cackled and quacked delightfully as if welcoming us to their garden localities.  A more hearty welcome came from the village children who would run alongside our bikes, chanting, “Hello, one penny please.”  We’d respond with salaams and good wishes in Urdu, but some of the kids would insist that we were angrez and, would keep on pestering for pennies!

After a tough 50-km leg, we approached Chalt by a suspension bridge and, to get our legs in normal working order, walked some distance to an old PWD rest house that had been booked in advance.  The facility had seen better times during the Raj – “comfortable bungalow,” according to the 19th century explorer Sir Aurel Stein – but even now, it wasn’t too bad for a night’s stay.  A hot bath before sleep and, a hearty open air breakfast at the nearby River View Hotel put us in top gear for the next leg.
 

Hunza evokes thoughts of a fabled land where everyone lives long, and happiness seems to be a gentle breeze that blows the year round.  We had been to Hunza previously in hurried affairs, but never as merrily as this time, on bikes.  Leaving Chalt, which also marks the northern limit of Gilgit District, we had to negotiate a steep climb over a highway that suddenly was no more.  The KKH was under major repair from Chalt onwards, and we found ourselves huffing and puffing over gravel and shingle, an ordeal that was to last till our final destination, all of the remaining 200 kms. 

As we approached Hunza’s main commercial town of Aliabad after a very steep 50-km leg, which took us nine long hours to cover, courteous adults and cheerful children made us feel quite welcome.  Following the unfortunate spate of sectarian killings a few weeks earlier, tourism had come to a complete standstill in the region; now, we seemed harbingers of better times to the locals.
 
Having no energy left to climb yet another 2,000-ft to the Eagle’s Nest Hotel perched atop a sheer cliff beyond Duikar village, we hired a pick-up to haul our bikes. Just in time to catch the ginger and orange glow of the setting sun bouncing off the snow clad mountains, we enjoyed the dazzling spectacle from the hotel terrace.  Not too far in the sky, the crow-like Red-billed Choughs (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) in their glossy black plumage could be seen performing some spectacular aerobatics in the mountain updrafts.  While climbing up, we had noticed scores of youngsters returning to their homes in the nearby towns after a day-long picnic at Duikar.  Interestingly, there was no segregation, much like the rest of Hunza and, one wondered if this might be one of the possible reasons for bliss in the happy valley!  Later at the hotel, a short dinner for two turned out to be a huge serving for four.  Though not quite a master of Burushaski, I suspected that the order for alto (two) was conveyed as walto (four) by the waiters to the cooks!  Well fed and tired to the bones, we were almost sleep-walking back to our rooms. 

The third leg promised to be different as we had to negotiate the 18-km long Ata-abad Lake that, in one of the vagaries of Nature, came into being three years ago as a result of a massive landslide damming the Hunza River.  We arrived at a dirty little jetty, where disorder and confusion vied with dust and a merciless sun to rile the coolest of nerves.  It took some tough shouting to ensure that our bikes were not mishandled as they were hauled onto the boats.  Thereafter started a 90-minute ferry, what with a deafening putter of the diesel motors for a serenade, as we watched the reflection of the towering mountains in the turquoise waters of the lake.  Disembarking a little short of Hussaini, we found ourselves in Gojal Tehsil or the Upper Hunza Valley, where Hunza’s Burushaski language largely gives way to the Afghan-linked Wakhi.
 
 Already tired and profusely hungry, the stretch from Hussaini onwards to Pasu was torment for our lower limbs.  We had to get off the bikes when even the lowest gear refused to generate forward motion over the precipitous mountains.  After a good two hours of lugging our wobbly selves along with the bikes, we finally hit downhill.  In the fading light of the day, a ‘Welcome to Pasu’ road sign came as a godsend and we raced to get to Sarai Silk Route, a small but adequate hotel.  As everywhere else, our requirements centred on a hot bath and enough to eat, both of which were available promptly.  Over dinner, our waiter who preferred to speak only in English, explained that he was basically a tourist guide and in this lean season, was doing odd jobs.  Those with better means were offering the services of their vehicles to the locals to get to the ferry at Hussaini and back.  The Ata-abad Lake has hampered the movement of tourists as well the locals, who have to pay hefty amounts to get their goods across.  A permanent solution seems years away, though it is my considered opinion that two modern berths at either end, suitably equipped with cranes to service heavy duty barges, might be a functional interim solution. 
 
The hearty dinner we had at Pasu gave us reason to rest an extra day, for Shahid had taken ill not long after the meal.  In the meantime, I sauntered around the apricot and apple orchards and, took some striking pictures of the serrated Pasu peaks also known as the Cathedral Spires.  The day after, we set course for the fourth leg to Sost, which is the dry port for trade with China via the Khunjerab Pass, 80-km further east.  After another arduous day of cycling which saw us through the beautiful village of Khaibar  where everyone looked like a Bosnian or a Croat – we arrived in Sost.  A rather shabby town despite the natural beauty all around, we were hard-pressed to look for accommodation.  Due to an unusual influx of two busloads of Japanese tourists, the PTDC Motel was fully booked; however, we were permitted to set up our tents at the little camp site in the hotel premises.  Once again a hot bath and, some very appetising food served by a most eager-to-please waiter Shams-uddin, lulled us to an early sleep.

It was a wonder that, having biked for more than 200-kms over a rubble of a highway, our cycles held out, with not even a puncture to stop our progress.  We were glad that much of our cycling was over, but in all earnest, we knew that the remaining trek wouldn’t be Boy Scout stuff.  Physical rigours had expended the last of our calories and will power had been sapped to the last grimace.  Kilak Pass was still 7,000 feet above and, a perilous 55-kms beyond.  Our trainer in boot camp of yesteryears, the late Sqn Ldr Sabir, had always reminded us that when all else is spent, determination surely lends a helping hand.  We had loads of it and it was time to tap into this resource.

As we set out from Sost for Misgar about 15-km away, we were excited about seeing this last outpost of the British Empire.  During the ‘Great Game’ of the late 19th century, Misgar served as an important station for keeping an eye on Czarist Russia’s involvement, gauging the extent of Chinese influence and, trying to manipulate the double-dealing Mir of Hunza to side with the British. 

Much earlier in 1844, Mir Ghanzanfar Khan of Hunza had driven out some Kyrgyz settlers in the area in an effort to assert his authority and, to secure exclusive trade relations with China.  After evicting the intruders, the Mir ordered his small expeditionary force to settle there permanently, which is how the Burushaski-speaking Misgar village emerged in the predominantly Wakhi-speaking Upper Hunza Valley. 
 
About an hour out of Sost, we diverted off the Karakoram Highway, onto a very steep jeepable track that led to Misgar.  During the climb, one had to keep the eyes off the deep gorges and plunging ravines, lest a flash of dizziness caused a fatal wobble.  After some of the toughest cycling so far, we reached the outskirts of the village, welcomed as usual by little children asking for their share of pennies.  Pakistan's northern-most village, Misgar is set in a valley of verdant fields and rushing streams surrounded by towering snow-clad mountains.  Terraced gardens, awash with pink apricot blossoms, were tended by colourfully clad womenfolk.
 
We had planned to hand over our bikes to the village numberdar (headman) and, on making an inquiry about his residence, were held back for a cup of tea by a stranger.  Our host Irshad-ullah would not let us go without taking a little rest and he brought in his excited children who met us most courteously.  After some invigorating tea and biscuits, we took leave and headed for the numberdar’s residence at the far end of the village.  A surprised Ata-ullah welcomed us at his home and insisted that we stay over for a night as we were tired.  When we told him that we were hard-pressed due to our schedule and wanted to start our trek immediately, he got busy with arranging porters for us.  In the meantime we readied the backpacks, tents, sleeping bags and our food supplies which were to be carried along, while the bikes were safely kept by Ata-ullah.  In an hour, we were hiking off to Runghil, about 13-km away.  On our way out of Misgar, we passed by the old post and telegraph office that was an important message despatch facility for the British and, continues to be fully functional nearly a century after it was established in 1916. 

Five kilometres out of Misgar, we came across the Qalandarchi Fort, another relic of the ‘Great Game’ where the British maintained a small garrison to keep an eye on Russian and Chinese activities across the frontier.  We decided to survey the fort on our way back, so more about it later.

From Misgar to Kilak, there are several shepherds’ way stations having a single stone hut each, where a team of four shepherds lives during the summer grazing season.  The shepherds take short monthly breaks to Misgar in rotation for visiting their families, and for restocking their food supplies.  A single team tends a flock of as many as five hundred sheep and goats, most of which are later sold off in the markets of Gilgit and Hunza.  Runghil was the first of these staging posts where we camped for the night, reaching there just before night fall.  Our porters being educated up to high school had kept up a good conversation, filling us up on the terrain, flora and fauna, as well as local lore and history.  Out of mobile phone coverage, we started using the handy satellite phone to call our families daily about our progress and well-being.

Next morning, a nourishing breakfast of oatmeal and coffee cooked by Shahid over firewood got us going to our next destination of Morkushi.  Being a mere seven kilometres from Runghil, we reached Morkushi by midday and decided to give ourselves a rest as some tough trekking was expected the following day.  Morkushi is another shepherds’ way station and large herds of goats could be seen grazing in the alpine meadows at an elevation of 12,000-ft.  Juniper, birch and willow are the common trees of the valley.  Wild rose grows plentifully, and some delightful White-winged Redstarts (Phoenicurus erythrogaster) could be seen perching on the bushes, seemingly filling in for the roses that had not yet blossomed.
 
“Down in the little wood of stunted birch trees by the river,” wrote the explorer Sir Aurel Stein about the site where he had camped in 1900, on his way to Kashgar via Kilak Pass.  We too, found a place to camp in the woods by the river and Shahid soon got to work building a fire for a meal of rice and vegetable soup, while I collected some ice-cold water from the nearby river.  The Kilak and Mintaka Rivers meet at Morkushi, flowing in from the north-west and north-east respectively.  Interestingly, while the sandy bed of Mintaka River is sparkling white, that of Kilak River is jet black seemingly laden with antimony compounds, though a proper soil analysis might suggest a more complex composition.   

Setting out from Morkushi to Sad Buldi – which was to be our base camp for the final trek to Kilak Pass – we passed by a number of crude stone tombs said to be those of Kyrgyz nomads who had been settlers here, once upon a time.  Nearby, a neat helipad with a floor of well laid out stones testified to visits by senior military commanders who keep the area under their watchful eyes.
          
During the trek to Sad Buldi, we came across numerous marmots whose warning calls to their mates sounded to me like, Heeeeere they come … run, run, run!”  If during the day we were there to startle them, they had a tougher time at night when they had to stay clear of prowling snow leopards, whose pug marks we spotted a dozen times across our track.

On the way, we stopped at an odd run-down monument known as Bozai Gumbaz (dome of the elders), which had a couple of ibex horns strung up, apparently votive in nature.  Similarly named structures stand not too far in Afghanistan’s Wakhan strip and are actually tombs in the vicinity of Kyrgyz settlements.  During the short break at the monument, our porters built a quick fire and we had some hot coffee to pep us up for the remaining trek.
 
Reaching Sad Buldi in the afternoon, we were caught by a snow flurry followed by icy cold winds.  During the night, the temperature fell to minus 10ºC and a 40-knot wind kept lashing our tents.  Shahid, who is prone to freezing earlier than most, got up in the middle of the night and jogged around while I wondered what the hullabaloo was all about!

The Big Day dawned with a surprisingly clear sky and we set course at six in the morning before the snow started to melt under the sharp rays of the sun.  The 6-km trek to Kilak Pass turned out to be a tough one as we had to climb a good 2,000-ft, what with the atmospheric oxygen at Sad Buldi’s 14,000-ft elevation already 45% less than at sea level.  Shahid led the way with a surprisingly brisk gait and by 9:00 am we were at our objective, Border Pillar No 2, that denotes the Pak-China border at Kilak Pass.

The amount of snow for the first week of May was far more than what we had expected.  All around, the vista had Arctic overtones and, only the blue sky added colour to what was otherwise a most enchanting composition in various shades of white.  So pristine was the scenery that our footsteps in the snow seemed to mar eons of stillness, much like Armstrong’s did on the moon, I liked to imagine.
 
The Kilak Pass opens into a sprawling plain about two kilometres wide, enclosed by towering mountains on the eastern and western sides.  A border fence about 50 metres inside the Chinese territory ensures that shepherds and their animals do not create a diplomatic fuss every now and then.  We stayed around the border pillar and took numerous pictures, though in the excitement we missed an important screen snap of the GPS, that could have recorded the latitude of 37º 05’ N and an elevation of 16,000’ above sea level.

Having to rush before the snow turned into slush, we headed back carefully but to little avail.  I plunged several times in to waist deep snow and, in a few instances, scraped my shins against hidden rocks.  Luckily, the injuries were Band-Aid curable.  Anything more serious would have been disastrous and, in retrospect, I feel that donkeys or other pack animals might be the next best thing to helicopters for evacuation in a hiking eventuality, especially in a remote area.

Back at our camp by midday, both Shahid and I started to feel a bit of queasiness which we put down to altitude sickness.  Feeling better by the evening, we called our anxious families to tell them that the mission had been accomplished.  Eight days of hard work had paid off and we were eager to get back.
 
The trek back to Misgar was on familiar route and included a night halt at Morkushi.  Before we got to Misgar the following afternoon, we made a short detour to Qalandarchi Fort.  Built by the British in the 1930s to show a military presence in a sensitive area, the fort found new use half a century later, when the Pakistan Army posted a small section of soldiers in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  In the late eighties, when India occupied the Siachen glacier, Pakistan Army decided to establish a High Altitude Combat School for its Northern Areas troops that were earmarked for duties in Siachen.  A decade later, when training began in situ at Siachen, Qalandarchi was finally abandoned.  Today a mosque and some barracks in the vicinity of the decrepit fort await new residents.  Maybe the infrastructure could be leased out to some enterprising tour operator if the Army doesn’t find the area as ‘sensitive’.  I am told, however, that cross-border sensitivities may be a bigger issue.

Reaching Misgar at midday, we were welcomed by Ata-ullah over sumptuous snacks and tea.  We paid off the porters, rigged our bikes with the camping gear, and took leave from our genial host.  As we cycled through the village, we were cheerfully waved at by all and sundry, as word had gotten out about our successful expedition.

Arriving in Sost by evening, we checked in the PTDC Motel, which this time, was mostly vacant.  A bath never felt so good, as we had to do without this facility during our camping.  A good load of laundry was also done in quick time.  With the household chores out of the way, we had a sumptuous dinner, much starved as we were on our limited rations in the camp.

Next morning, we decided to leap-frog to Hussaini in a vehicle, cross the Ata-abad Lake by boat and then ride our bicycles to Aliabad in Hunza.  After a luxury stay at another of PTDC’s excellent motel in Aliabad, we moved on to Gilgit, where the friendly and caring ways of the Army made us feel absolutely at home. 

Unfortunately, the way out of Gilgit by air was closed due to bad weather and, the prospects were not favourable for the coming days, so we decided to take a 20-hour ride by bus to Rawalpindi. 

We had been on the road or the trail for a fortnight and, most of the daylight hours had been taken up by a gruelling regimen.  The sense of accomplishment was immense indeed, particularly because our mode of transport was unique as not too many Pakistanis are given to cycling for leisure.  We hope that the younger lot is inspired enough to take up similar challenges; that is not to say that the senior lot should be considered past the age of pluck and resolve.  Here is a little secret that should get you going: we are both 58 and, there is no stopping yet! 

© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International, in two parts, on 3 June and 10 Jun, 2012. It was also published in Pamir Times, in four parts, between 11 June and 21 June, 2012.