Posts tagged “Pakistan blog

Pakistan

Pakistan 2017

In recent months I’ve struggled to maintain enthusiasm for photography and I’ve completely turned my back on social media. I’m sure anyone who has devoted a lot of time to any particular activity will at one time or another lose interest. Personally, I struggle to find the correct balance between photography and travel. Whilst in Pakistan a lot of my plans went awry and as such, I lacked motivation. I write this now almost six months after I returned, it’s taken me this long to get my thoughts together. I often find myself dreaming up new trips and I’m sure it won’t be too long before I dust off my hiking boots and begin a new adventure.

Right from the start in Pakistan, my careful planning went out the window and so I came away with very few (if any) worthwhile landscape photographs. Having said this I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Pakistan, I had a rented motorbike which gave me a lot of freedom and in many ways allowed me to return to the style of travel I was used to before taking up photography.

With so few photographs to show for my trip, I felt it would make sense to shed some light on the mistakes I made. The next few paragraphs will doubtless have little interest for anyone, save for a few people who might venture off to Pakistan. If you’re one of those people who enjoy travel to more remote areas and hope to do so without making too many mistakes then read on. If however, you stumbled upon this blog post only to see the photographs skip directly to the bottom.

Arrival in Islamabad and onward by road to Skardu

It would have been easier and cheaper to fly to Islamabad and get a connecting flight to Skardu, however, I had always wanted to travel on the Karakoram Highway. This great highway connects the western Chinese city of Kashgar with the lesser-known city of Hasan Abdal; which is itself south-west of the now infamous city of Abbattobad. I was picked up at the airport by a private driver and together we began the eighteen-hour drive northeast to Skardu. Driving to Skardu you actually miss a lot of the KKH, I wasn’t in any way bothered by this, there was plenty to see along the route we chose. I arrived in Pakistan during Eid al-Adha, which is one of the most important feasts of the Muslim calendar. I suppose in many ways this was a great time to arrive because the roads were quieter, although a quiet road to a Pakistani and a quiet road to a westerner is another thing entirely. Despite being tired from the flight I was determined to stay awake and absorb as much as I could from the journey. I remember the sight of blood on the road, my driver could speak very little English, but I quickly realized the blood was from the sacrifice of animals as part of Eid al-Adha and not some grizzly traffic accident! Amongst many of the sights, I can clearly remember seeing a bus driving toward us down a steep road with a cow stood on its roof.

My driver took the quicker route to Chilas via the N15 road over Babusar Top, this is the highest point on the drive, the pass reaches a height of 4173m, it’s not somewhere you want to break down, especially when you’re not acclimatised. Thankfully we had no such problems and continued on to Chilas without issue. It was on the edge of the town that our vehicle was stopped, this was an entry point into Gilgit Baltistan and I needed a foreigners registration card.

I was pre-warned to make sure I asked the officer to add in all the regions I wanted to visit. As you can see the card is initialed with the districts of Skardu, Gilgit, Hunza, and Ghanche.  What we don’t see here is a rubber stamp. Upon reaching Skardu I would discover that the missing stamp was going to drastically alter my trekking plans.

Skardu

Upon reaching Skardu I booked into the Snowland Guest House (35.295484N 75.610857E) I used this hotel as my ‘base camp’ for the duration of my stay in Pakistan. Initially I camped on the gardens, however, the lawn would be so wet from morning dew that I was soon forced inside. I secured one of the cheaper rooms in the back of the complex. I was charged 1000 rupees for this, it was basic but I was able to leave my suitcase in a locked room when I wasn’t in the hotel.

That first day I met the people who were to help organize my treks and I also collected the motorbike I had rented. I chose to use a foreign company who in turn used a local tour company. This might seem like a long-winded way of going about things, I had, of course, tried to contact local tour companies directly, but this became a frequent cause for frustration. The foreign company I found would answer emails quickly, whereas when I contacted local tour companies I would wait 2 weeks for a reply which would often be meaningless. Many mistakes were made by the local tour company I used and I feel there was, without doubt, a lack of communication between the local tour operator and the foreign tour operator. Because I don’t know who was responsible for the issues with my trip I’m not divulging the names of the operators.

As I say I met the tour operators, both the foreign operator and the local operator. It was at this point that I was asked to detail my plans for the trip. Alarm bells began to ring hard here. I’d already detailed my plans in a succession of emails; why were they asking these questions now?

Before I even flew to Pakistan I was told that everything was in order and I was ready to start my trek. This wasn’t the case, I still needed army permission. Unbeknown to me I was going to start my trek with another foreigner. This did make sense, the other trekker needed transportation to Askole. He was to start his trek up the Baltoro Glacier, while I planned to trek up Biafo Glacier. Unfortunately, the other chap wasn’t due to arrive until the day before the trek. I was in Skardu 10 days prior. Needless to say obtaining the foreigners army permission was put on hold until this person arrived. I only wish I had insisted the operators got my permission first because there would have been plenty of time to correct errors.

When the tour operators did apply for permit my foreigner’s entry card was scrutinised and because it wasn’t rubber stamped in Chilas I was denied entry (it transpired that this was just one of the issues).  I can appreciate here that the tour operators were not at fault, however, I’m sure if they had more experience they would have expected this sort of thing. My card could have been inspected on my first day of arrival. This delay took up 4 days and I was forced to pay for all costs.

Below we see the all important card with the correct rubber stamp, this was eventually procurred from the airport.
It’s worth noting that with this card I seem to have miraculously gained 10 more months visa validity! Also ‘Destination’ and Places to visit are mixed up. When you travel in Pakistan you’re frequently stopped at police checkpoints, It’s essential to have this foreigners card with you. I wrote the registration number of my motorbike on the card (bottom left).

As I mentioned earlier the entrance card wasn’t my only issue. The tour operators had also messed up the paperwork associated with my treks. I need to gloss over this because I doubt I ever got to the bottom of it. Essentially all tourists need a permit to visit ‘closed areas’. These include the trek up the Baltoro Glacier. My plan was to trek up the Biafo and then trek up the Baltoro. Later in August, I was to trek to K6 via the Charakusa Glacier. I was charged for two permits, however, to save money the tour operators tried to squeeze in both treks with one permit. Technically this should be possible because my first trek along the Biafo Glacier does not require a permit as it is in an open zone. Of course, this is Pakistan and the army official refused permission on the basis that I might not visit the Biafo at all, perhaps I might spend all my time on the Baltoro. This is stupid because there’s a police checkpoint at the start of the Baltoro in Askole.

I couldn’t argue and by this time I’d missed me schedule by about 4 days. Gone were my plans to shoot at night with half moonlight.

I was at my wit’s end at this point, the tour operators were clearly frustrated too. I should have demanded my money back, but I knew that the porters relied on this work. In the end, I decided to cut out the Biafo Glacier and trek up the Baltoro. I’d already been up the Baltoro ten years prior, however, this time I wanted to check out the Dunge Glacier. This had only ever been planned as a reconnaissance trek, with plans askew it had now become last option. I was to regret ever agreeing to it.

Baltoro Glacier

Right from the start, I got a bad feeling about my guide. I had a young kid who’d clearly been chosen for his excellent English rather than his experience or desire to be in the mountains. I could tell he had no interest in being there, in fact, he happily told me as much! The tour operators hired mules to carry the heavy equipment for the trek. At first this seemed like a good idea, mules are used to transport equipment to Concordia, however, this is a well-worn trail. In order to reach the Dunge Glacier, our mules had to cross much rougher moraine. The mules were pushed hard and really suffered, their hind legs were bleeding profusely as they regularly slipped on the rock. We eventually had to tie up the mules, but there were too few porters to carry equipment to the Dunge Glacier. I was able to reach the Dunge Glacier with my guide, and I did trek halfway up it, however, it wasn’t as photogenic as I had hoped. I decided to cut the trek short and get down to Askole.

Freedom with the motorbike

My motorbike was a Honda CG125, it’s the most popular bike in Pakistan. They’re made in Pakistan and you can get parts everywhere, quite literally in every small town, even village you’ll find spares.  I rented the bike after being told that it isn’t possible for foreigners to buy motorbikes. This is bullshit and I should have realized it was bullshit. If you have money you can buy a motorbike. I was never even given (or asked for) the papers for the bike I rented. I heard stories of foreigners buying bikes and paying less than I paid for my rental. Having said this it was nice to know I had a bike upon arrival in Skardu. There’s nowhere to rent bikes in Skardu so mine was personally delivered there. In all, I rode a little over 5000km. I had very little trouble with it and when I did I was always miraculously close to a mechanic. In hindsight, I think I would have enjoyed my trip more had I concentrated more on the bike and less on photography.

Gondogoro Glacier K6 and the Charakusa Glacier

After finishing the trek to the Dunge Glacier I’d enjoyed a few weeks on the bike, but I was ready and keen to hike to K6. Back in 2010, I’d hiked the Baltoro to K2 base camp. That trek had finished in the small village of Hushe. I distinctly remember gazing up the valley towards K7 (at that point you can’t see K6). I knew back in 2010 that I wanted to return to that valley. From Skardu, I emailed the foreign operator and demanded a meeting with the local operator who was responsible for my trip to K6/K7 basecamp. I wanted to be sure that this time around all the paperwork was in order.  Whether or not I was ignored or the message didn’t get through I don’t know, but it wasn’t until the morning of my departure that I met up with the local tour operator. Needless to say, there was a problem; they couldn’t find the paperwork.

Here we are mid-afternoon still looking for the paperwork (time of departure was supposed to be 7.00am).

It was late in the afternoon before we set off for Hushe.

We arrived Hushe late in the night. I was tired and fell asleep quickly. Come the morning I was introduced to my new guide Mohammed Ali no less!  I warmed to my new guide immediately. He looked about 70, but was in fact, a few months younger than me, this was something the porters found hard to believe. Mohammed lives in Hushe and really knows the area. I felt much happier knowing I was in his safe hands. There was, however, some new issues. We’d arrived at a time when the locals were collecting firewood for the winter. It was explained to me that there weren’t enough porters because they were all chopping wood at some high pasture and wouldn’t be back until midday. Fortunately, we found one porter, the rest would catch us up. As we began hiking we passed groups of women carrying heavy loads of firewood. I couldn’t photograph the women which was a shame. I did try lifting one of their loads, they were carrying approximately 25kg of timber with makeshift packs. Mohammed explained to me that they would begin around 5.00am and would carry the wood for around 5 hours before reaching home. There was a strict rationing for each household, the wood was not for warmth, it was for cooking. Bearing in mind the temperature in Hushe would reach at least -20ºc in the winter it must be a harsh experience.

We reached the Shaiescho Camp before noon. This is the junction of the Charakusa and Gondogoro Glaciers. This is where I had gazed up at K7 back in 2010. My plan was to continue to Laila Base Camp. I’d explained this in detail to my local tour operator. Unfortunately, the tour operator had mistaken my instructions (he’d never actually set foot on the Gondogoro Glacier). Had he done so he might have been able to tell me that L.B.C was in fact at a lower altitude.  Mohammed told me I would not be able to reach the viewpoint where I could photograph Leila Peak. Not only was it a further 3-hour hike the porters had yet to catch us up. This was frustrating to say the least, were forced to wait for the porters. I got my tent set up whilst Mohammed gathered some yak dung to burn. No sooner had we got the fire started it began to snow. We were at 4100m here so it was a cold, I felt sorry for the porters, they arrived when it was almost dark.

The following morning we made the hike to a point I now know to be called Dalsampa Campsite. Once the clouds cleared I took this shot of Leila Peak. We stuck around for two more days before heading off to the Charakusa Glacier.

Finally here are some points to remember whilst traveling in Pakistan

  • Carry toilet paper as this is rarely provided
  • Zip up pockets before using a squat toilet!
  • Take multiple ATM cards and/or travel charge cards, also U.S dollars to change in a bank
  • Keep ATM receipts so you have a record of which banks take your cards
  • Prior to traveling give some money to a trusted friend who will send it to you via Western Union if you lose everything
  • You probably won’t need a water purifier in the high mountains, but use caution and boil water especially if collected near animals
  • Take nobody’s word as gospel, many have an opinion, few are right!
  • A hard lockable suitcase will help protect your gear when traveling, this is especially important when flying or using buses. It can be left safely at most hotels
  • Charge batteries whenever possible as power can fail at any time
  • Electricity may only come on for a few hours in the evening
  • Use a licensed tour operator that arranges tours for climbing teams rather than a tin pot outfit, question the operator in detail about your plans, ask your country’s climbing organization for a recommendation, try the American Mountaineering Council or the British Mountaineering Council. Don’t accept a tour company because they promote K2 climbing on their website. Many promote this but few have ever organized any climbing expeditions.
  • Check your foreigner’s entry card is rubber stamped and request that it is initialed with the districts you plan to visit, guard it with your life!
  • Keep your passport in a zipped breast pocket, this way you don’t have to rummage through a backpack every time you question where it is
  • When showing passport and foreigners registration card to police be sure they return both items, they are notoriously forgetful!
  • Get adequate travel insurance and give next of kin a copy of the document, keep a copy for yourself in your wallet, in the event of a serious accident medical staff can find it if you’re unconscious
  • When on the road keep a close eye for animals, they have a death wish and don’t want to wait for the slaughterhouse, the same could be said of humans
  • Scan your passport and email it to yourself, this will be a huge help if you lose it
  • Check your country’s foreign office for local advice, you may not be insured if you have an accident in an area deemed unsafe for travel
  • Note the dates of religious festivals, these dates are likely to affect your travel plans
  • Do not approach the Indian border even if a police check post allows passage
  • Download Google Maps offline, or my personal favorite Pocket Earth Pro
  • Consider donating some trekking gear to your porters, they will probably appreciate it more than a tip
  • Don’t be surprised if offered tea at police checkpoints, it’s polite to accept
  • Pack some earplugs, the call to prayer can start as early as 5.00am
  • If traveling by bus you will need multiple passport photocopies
  • Carry a few passport-sized photos as these may be needed by your trekking company
  • Write on, or label equipment with your email address, there are still some honest people!
  • If you get really bad food poisoning Ciprofloxacin is a well-known antibiotic, it should be available over the counter in Pakistan. However, due to poor quality medication in Pakistan bring this from your home country if possible
  • Due to frequent delays do not attempt to take a national flight on the day you’re due to take an international flight. Travel by bus from Gilgit to Islamabad takes at least 18 hours, longer if leaving from Skardu
  • Whatever the season if trekking above 5000m you will need a warm down sleeping bag. Temperatures are likely to be several degrees below freezing
  • A down jacket is a godsend in the mountains, but be careful not to let down get wet
  • Be careful not to gain altitude too quickly, research altitude sickness
  • A Nalgene bottle filled with boiling water will really help keep you warm in your sleeping bag
  • Pack a trash bag in your backpack so you can keep your gear dry if it rains, this is much more effective than a rain cover
  • If leaving your guest house early in the morning make sure the gate won’t be locked, pay the night before you leave. Pakistani hotel staff sometimes wake late
  • Do not photograph strangers in Pakistan, especially women, unless you have their permission

Some basic advice for motorbikers

  • Get a spare key cut and keep separate
  • Fold back the pillion riders foot pegs, otherwise, if you slide on a corner your leg could catch on them
  • Wear a motorbike helmet, besides the obvious risk your insurance won’t cover you if you have an accident
  • Download the manufacturer’s user manual as a pdf
  • When you first receive a rental bike take a note of the bikes odometer so you have a record and will know when it’s time for service such as oil changes etc
  • Make certain your insurance covers you to ride a motorbike, check the policy for engine size restrictions
  • Sleeping policemen; otherwise known as speed bumps are rarely marked

 

Haldi Brakk from Machulo

Polo playing at Chapursan Valley

K6 and Kapura mountains

Masherbrum 7821m

Shimshal Valley

Nayser Brakk