12 July, 2013

Biking the Road to Siachen

Having successfully undertaken an arduous bicycle trip from Gilgit to the northern-most latitude of Pakistan at Kilak Pass in May 2012, I and my former Air Force colleague Shahid Dad pledged to keep our fast-aging sinew and muscle in action over the coming years.  So thrilling was the previous wind-in-the-face biking expedition – with camping halts in the midst of snow leopard trails – that we promised ourselves a perennial treat in the Himalayas.  It was decided that for 2013, Baltistan’s Shyok Valley would be the place to explore, via the road from Skardu till its termination at the base of Siachen Glacier near Goma.  Of course, Army contacts would take care of our forays into operational areas if we could make it that far. 

Arrival at Skardu by PIA’s ATR-42 aircraft – aptly named Hasanabdal, for that is where my alma mater was – would have been a happy occasion, except for the rude discovery that our luggage had been left behind at Islamabad.  With a lot of string pulling and a bit of good luck, the luggage arrived the following morning while we waited it out in an Army guest house amidst the serene surroundings of Lower Kachura Lake, on the outskirts of Skardu. Our bikes, which had been earlier booked by bus, also arrived and we managed to assemble them for a test ride the next day.
The stark desert landscape and the hot weather on the way to Shigar did us no good as we pedalled our way over some gruelling terrain; the Shigar River that meandered alongside was some relief for our eyes, though. On the outskirts of Shigar a notice board caught our attention; it advised “all visitors to avoid playing all types of immoral audio-video songs and ladies are requested to please use vail (sic) during visit to Shigar.”
Shigar evoked memories of a wondrously vigorous Air Force colleague of yesteryears who carried that surname, so a visit to his fabled land would also satisfy our curiosity about his community, we thought.  In the event, it turned out the Shigaris are less energetic than our friend who was one of his kind, though a hardy and stout people they certainly are.  After three hours of cycling we were lucky to stumble into a store which kept ice-cold beverages, and we made sure that dehydration wouldn’t rear its head again as bottle after bottle was guzzled in front of amused onlookers in the shabby Shigar bazaar. 

The high point of our trip to Shigar was the discovery of an ultimate getaway in the form of Shigar Fort Residency, the palace of the former Rajas and now a renovated heritage guest house run by the Serena Hotels chain.  The exotic 17th century fort-palace at the foot of a mountain is highly recommended for honeymooners, as well as seniors who might want to revitalize their sagging proclivity for fun.  Being on a serious expedition, tired and hungry, we could do no better for ourselves than ordering a nourishing lunch. While it was being readied, we took a guided tour of the palace, which included a peep into the prisoners’ hellish dungeons in the basement and a stroll through the Raja and Rani’s heavenly bedrooms, separate as they were.  The sumptuous lunch by the side of a hill torrent cascading out of Thalle Valley could, unhappily, not be prolonged as we still had a laborious journey to complete on utterly spent muscles.  Thank goodness, by the end of the day we had completed the 55-km trial run, the bikes had behaved perfectly and we were well in time at Skardu to tend our sore limbs.
Our expedition proper started next day, the 13th of June, with the first of the six 50-km legs terminating at Keris, a village where Shyok River joins the mighty Indus during the latter’s north-westerly traverse.  Somehow, the limbs sprang back to full pedalling efficiency, and by late afternoon we were in the village scouting for a camp site.  Shahid was able to convince a friendly villager to allow us to camp adjacent to his orchard.  The sooner we started to pitch our tents, hordes of children started to congregate, for the novelty of seeing camping tourists – even though natives – in their midst was too much to let go. The colourful tents surrounded by even more colourfully dressed children gave the impression of a gala event in Keris. By evening, word had spread about the visitors and almost every boy and girl of the village had managed an awe-struck glimpse of our campsite.  Most touching was a gesture from three little girls who brought handfuls of sweet mulberries for us. An early supper being heated on the camp stove was also very entertaining for the onlookers.  Soon after we had retired, a thoughtful local brought a heavy jerry can of drinking water which could have sufficed for our bathing needs as well.
After a restive night – as anyone who has been sandwiched in a sleeping bag would know – we were woken up by an incessant melodious whistle that was bird song at its best.  A Blue Whistling Thrush (Myiophoneus caeruleus) had taken upon itself to wake us up at 4:30 in the morning.  Soon we were at the nearby stream for a wash up, followed by stove-cooked breakfast of oat meal and hot chocolate. Camp was then broken, and everything packed and trussed up on the bikes. By 7 o’clock, we were on the road again.
Khaplu, nestled amongst lush green orchards of apricots, apples, cherries and walnuts, was our next stop. The small town was once the seat of another petty principality, to which the splendidly restored Khaplu Fort Residency testifies.  It is from Khaplu that most mountaineering expeditions veer off towards various base camps.  A well stocked single-street bazaar caters to their basic requirements. The consumer lifestyle of the locals was surprisingly in evidence, perhaps a result of the influence of these trekking groups and climbing expeditions. 
Too tired for sightseeing in Khaplu, we decided to take a day’s break on the return leg and hastened to the PTDC Motel where we had a booking. The beautiful structure looks like a Swiss chalet from afar, but we were disappointed to discover appalling house-keeping and general apathy that now seems to afflict every government-run organisation in the country. After some livid dressing down administered to the staff, we made sure that the bathroom taps worked, dangling curtains were re-hooked and the bed linen and towels were changed.  With a much needed bath, laundry and lunch out of the way, we reviewed our plans for the next day as the climb gradient was getting to be steeper on every leg. Since the next two nights were to be in the Army Mess at Dumsum (Dansem), we decided to leave the camping gear at the motel, to be picked up on return.
The third leg started with an entry into areas where the Army was deployed, but since the authorities had been informed earlier, getting past the quizzical eyes of the sentries at various check points was never a problem. A cool rainy morning and a much lighter bike load helped negotiate the steep slopes with considerably less effort. The terraced emerald-green fields steadily crept upwards as we climbed, and the fruit orchards started to give way to the more hardy turnips and potatoes. Traffic had thinned out and only military vehicles, or those of civilian contractors provisioning the Army garrisons could be seen on the road. Just when six hours of rigorous cycling had started to take its toll, an MP post came into reassuring view and the sentries smartly paid their compliments. A few kilometres further, we caught sight of the Dumsum garrison buildings. As we approached the entry gate, a flurry of whistles and rifle slamming salutes welcomed us; even more surprising was the reception by the Officer Commanding of the deployed Unit who, along with all his officers, had lined up to receive us. Thereafter started an unending round of Army hospitality of which a hot bath, hot tea, and a multi-course dinner are still etched in memory.
While we had planned to pedal up to Goma garrison the next morning, the Army authorities offered us a ride on their daily mail run vehicle all the way to the Siachen base camp at Giyari.  Since this could not have been done on bikes, given the very steep gradient as well as the high altitude, the offer was gladly accepted.  After an hour-long drive, we had a short stopover at Goma where the smart Brigade Major was there to receive us. After a change of vehicle, we were on course to Giyari, a further eight kilometres away. The place made morbid headlines on 7 April 2012, when an avalanche buried 140 personnel of 6 NLI Battalion, perhaps one of the biggest disasters of its kind, anywhere.
Mention must be made of Captain Sherazi of the Army Engineers, who had been part of a recovery team looking for the dead bodies for more than one year. Various foreign rescue and recovery teams had suggested giving up the dead, due to the extremely harsh conditions and near impossibility of bringing in heavy machinery to such a remote location. Undeterred, the Army decided to take on the challenge, and under the passionate zeal of Sherazi and his team, 132 bodies had been recovered by the time we visited. A closure ceremony, including the unveiling of a memorial monument, had been planned as a final tribute to the ‘shaheeds’.  The trip to Giyari ended with a gracious send-off by the Deputy Brigade Commander and one of the local Battalion Commanders.
After relaxing for the rest of the day at Dumsum, we took leave from our hosts the following morning and set course for the return leg to Khaplu. The downhill bike ride was great fun and we even notched gale speeds of 55-kph. It was decided that we needed a break from the unceasingly tough regimen, and some sightseeing in Khaplu would be therapeutic.   A visit to the Khaplu Fort Residency – also run by Serena Hotels – was an education in heritage conservation; its renovation by Aga Khan Trust was quite similar to the one at Shigar.  We had lunch and some delicious Lavazza coffee, before setting off to see the old Chaqchan Mosque not too far from the Residency. The wooden mosque is said to have been commissioned by Mir Syed Ali Hamdani in 1381 AD (783 AH according to the plaque), making it one of the oldest in the country. The structure is rather decrepit and needs renovation on the lines of Khaplu Residency; however, being an in-use mosque of the dominant Nur Bakhshi Shia sect, the Ismailis' Aga Khan Trust would hardly be welcome to undertake the project. 

Next day, the ride from Khaplu to Keris was a familiar and unremarkable one.  We decided to camp in a secluded spot by the riverside at the edge of Keris, to keep away from the prying eyes of locals.  Somehow, a dozen youngsters still managed to spy us; perhaps it was the aroma of the noodles being cooked on the stove that attracted them, or maybe they had caught a flash of the colourful tents from afar. After shooing them off, we retired early to be up at dawn for another day’s slog.
The tenth day of the expedition turned out to be the toughest, if for no other reason than the sun being absolutely merciless. On the way we stopped by a huge tree and were pleasantly surprised to see its boughs laden with ripe, dark red mulberries. Much like overgrown schoolchildren, we had a hearty fill devouring every mulberry within arm’s reach. Still some distance from Skardu, we were surprised to hear the noise of fighter aircraft which had deployed for an exercise.  The nostalgia was boundless when we spotted a pair of the old faithful Mirages piercing the azure skies. 
It was to be another hour before we actually got to Skardu, choking on diesel fumes that have heavily polluted the city’s pristine air.  Vehicles have been converted to the high-torque diesel engines with non-existent emission standards, and nobody seems to care as long as they can easily spin up a mountain.  A consumption-oriented society is on the rise, as was amply evident from the array of consumer goods in the smallest of stores.  We were, however, quite pleased to note that sectarianism, as it exists in other parts of the country as well as nearby Gilgit and Chilas areas, is non-existent in all of Baltistan. The people are friendly and peaceful, and seemingly the only curiosity about them is linguistic, for the Balti language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family, unlike the rest of the country where languages belonging to the Indo-European family are spoken (the other exception being Brauhi of the Dravidian family).  Baltistan surely has a place on the ethnographic map of Pakistan.
While we waited for our return flight to Islamabad, we had a couple of days to saunter around so a tough bike ride to Satpara Lake and a jeep ride to Deosai Plains was also undertaken.  All in all, the Baltistan expedition was a total success and the wonder was that at our age, we could manage it on muscle power. Let’s see if we can pull off another one next year to celebrate our official entry into the Seniors’ Club!


© 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 on 21 July, 2013. It was also published in Pamir Times, in two parts, on 22 July and 25 July, 2013.