2015 Pakistan (1/2): Hindukush Winter

Places Hindukush, Karakorum, Pakistan. Lahore, Rawalpindi, Gilgit, Hunza, Karimabad, Naltar, Ishkoman Valley, Chatorkhand, Matramdan
Time & length September – November 2015, 8 weeks
Partners Sofia Matousek
Over the course of several weeks we hiked across the Hindukush without guides and porters and felt the struggle of an early winter in North Pakistan. We met the most wonderful people and witnessed extraordinary culture like we never had before but eventually couldn’t complete our route due to unfortunate weather conditions.

Pakistan was meant to be the highlight of this eight-month journey and didn’t fail to meet this expectation, at least in terms of culture.

On September 19 our time in Kyrgyzstan was up and we flew from Bishkek to Delhi. We were sick for a few days and barely left our hotel room before we took the train to Amritsar and visited the Golden Temple of the Sikh. We then continued to Wagah Border, crossed into Pakistan and watched the famous border closing procedure from the Pakistani side, surrounded by less than 100 spectators while a couple of thousand Indians stood and cheered on the other side.

We reached Lahore on September 23 and cured our sickness in a small hotel. It was a “Eid al-Adha” and people all over the places sacrifice animals while they keep one third for their own family, give one third to relatives and the last third to the poor. We didn’t mind the practice of the holiday so much as all the blood in the streets; especially that goat’s blood on the terrace right in front of our hotel room surely didn’t help with Sofia’s stomach problems.

A few days later we went on a 27-hour bus ride from Rawalpindi (Islamabad) to Karimabad, Hunza. We quickly made a lot of friends there; people were overwhelmingly friendly and hospitable. We even got invited to a wedding ceremony one night and discussed the concept of arranged marriage besides many other controversial topics locals were curious to hear our opinions on.

Now it was time to prepare for our first trek. Originally we wanted to go hiking in the Karakorum and even had a specific route planned but everybody told us that it’s impossible to do what we intended to do. The number one reason was the snow: it was late in the season; trekkers and mountaineers had already left, and even professional guides told us that nobody should currently hike 5.000+ meter passes in the area we wanted to travel to. First we thought they were all exaggerating, but after a few days and talking to a lot of people, Sofia and I gave in and considered other options. According to the locals, our preferred route was simply not doable.

With the help of 66-year-old former mountain guide, porter and shepherd Shabbir we designed a 4-week trek through the Hindukush, not far from the border to Afghanistan. This route included a couple of 5.000+ m passes, too, but we were told that the area is generally warmer and sees less snowfall. We packed our bags and left for Nalter. This was our presumed route: Naltar Valley – Pakhora Pass – Ishkoman Valley – Asumber Pass – Yasin Valley – Thui Pass – Yarkun Valley (Chitral District) – Borogol – Kurumber Lake Pass – Chilinj Pass –– Chapursam Valley – Sost

Our hike started on October 7 in Naltar. Sofia and I were both happy to be out in the wild again and headed straight towards our first pass at 4.650 m, which we reached on our fifth day in the Hindukush.

Hiking down the west side of Pakhora Pass was difficult. Plenty of crevasses made glacier travel dangerous, especially with the snow on top. But we managed and reached a small shepherd settlement with the name Guru the day after.

We then hiked all the way down to Ishkoman Valley, got invited into a couple of houses and spent the night in Chatorkhand. We adjusted our route a bit and planned to enter Yasin Valley further north via Utter Lake.

When we reached Ishkoman Kote, a small mountain village at the end of the road, the local teacher asked us to stay with his family for a night. We thankfully accepted, had a wonderful dinner together, exchanged thoughts on religion, jobs and (as always) politics. The teacher, Bulbul is his name, even invited us to see his school the next morning and meet the other teachers he is working with.

After visiting Bulbul’s school, we headed towards the small mountain villages of Ghotolti and Marok-Mushk, only accessible on foot and home to a handful of shepherd families. From there we continued further up the valley and met the last few families on their way down, preparing for the winter. All the small huts were empty.

We reached Utter Lake and continued higher and higher towards the presumed pass (no pass was shown on our 35 year old Soviet map but there had to be a way to cross the range). At one point we had to traverse a 500 meter long steep stretch of large loose boulders – that alone was very dangerous and took us over two hours. It started snowing and we knew that we were in danger now. The pass in front of us was invisible, covered in dark clouds and way too much snow. Behind us lay the boulder field, now snow-covered as well and only crossable with big risk. We made camp and talked about our options.

The snowfall got worse. In the next morning we knew there was no way we could continue our route – not only was our pass still not visible, but the snow made it impossible to keep trekking safely. Avalanches could tear us apart, and even if we made it to the pass, we would have to go down over a snow-covered glacier on the other side, which, given the risk of falling into hidden crevasses, is never a good idea.

The only way out was to go back. One problem with that: the 500 m field of loose boulders, now covered in snow. Well, we did it with extreme caution, knowing that one wrong step could bury our bodies under rocks. 5 hours of immediate danger. Late in the day we reached a small shelter built of solid rocks just east of Utter Lake. It smelled like goat shit but kept us safe from the snowstorm outside.

We had no choice; at this point the only possible way out of here was the way back to where we had come from. So we went down again, stayed in Marok Mushk and at Bulbul’s place one more time and called a friend in Immit.

Immit wasn’t far from Ishkomen Kote; Bulbul’s cousin brought us there with his tractor. Our good friend Sajjad invited us to his mother’s house and made sure we felt very welcome. Actually his entire family was overwhelmingly welcoming and generous on all the occasions we met them throughout our time in Pakistan.

Sofia and I made plans to change our route again – although winter had obviously arrived, we weren’t quite ready to give up on our trek yet. Our new idea: hike from Immit to Matramdan, Kurumber Lake, Borochol and finish in Chitral. The first problem was a military outpost in Immit: they didn’t let us pass without a special permit; the area further up the valley apparently was too sensitive (possible Taliban territory since the border to Afghanistan was very near). So we needed a permit.

Sajjad took us to his family in Gilgit, hoping that we would find an official who would issue the permit for us. We visited a bunch of different offices, talked to high-ranked officials but none was able or willing to help us there.

Something else happened when we were in Gilgit. It was October 24, 2015, the 10th of Muharram, “Ashura”, in the Islamic calendar. That is the day when Shia Muslims around the world remember the murder of their imam Al-Husain, and, in some highly conservative places, injure themselves to show their solidarity with their murdered prophet. Even official leaders of the Shia community in Pakistan warn against that kind of self-harm but people often disobey: spiritual commitment goes beyond pragmatism; that seems to be true for places all over the world.

Gilgit in northern Pakistan is an especially sensitive place on that day, given the tension between Shia and Sunni Muslims, which in the past has often led to violence between the two communities. There are road blocks: nobody can enter or leave Gilgit on the 10th of Muharram and the government shuts down all mobile networks in order to make it harder for terrorists to organize and execute attacks. We stayed with an Ismaili family, obviously they advised us to stay inside that day. But Sofia and I insisted on witnessing the procession that took place in the streets of Gilgit, so they brought us to a known Shia family of high rank and respectfully asked them to introduce us to what was going on.

Sofia was allowed to stay on a rooftop for only ten minutes in the morning, accompanied by a soldier and several men who meant to protect her. Women were not allowed to be seen during the procession, so even though she was covered in traditional clothes and a black shawl people complained and she had to go back inside.

I held on to my new Shia friend who got me a press card and made sure I could walk around freely with him by my side, which allowed me to see and document the Ashura procession for the entire day. What I saw was somehow bizarre, unbearable and fascinating at the same time. There were thousands of people, men only. It seemed like most of them had fallen in trance, singing, beating against their own chests. Some young men used knives and other tools to injure themselves, often until they had lost a lot of blood and had to be brought into the hospital. I was allowed to witness all of that; they even showed me the hospital’s emergency room, introduced me to police and military staff and explained everything I wanted to know about the procession.

What I saw felt strange and it took days to process my thoughts on this, but at the same time this event was surely one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever made in my life. I felt very safe in the hands of the Shia Muslims who introduced me to a tradition I had no idea about and gave me the opportunity to make up my own mind about what happened. This travel report is not the right platform for sharing all my personal thoughts on what I saw during that day, so I encourage my readers to do their own research before making any judgments. As a traveler I’m trying to gain understanding, knowledge and wisdom – judging is the last thing I feel in the position to do. And let me remind you that Christianity has always had and still has its own practice of self-flagellation which is by no means any less grotesque.

The next day we did some grocery shopping and prepared a traditional Austrian-German dish for dinner with “our family” in Gilgit.

In order to start on our new route, Sofia and I still needed to get that permit. Apparently our last option was the Deputy Commissioner of Gahkuch in Ghizer District, so Sajjad thought we should go there together. Just when we found ourselves sitting in his 4×4 vehicle, driving through a narrow canyon, rocks and boulders started falling on the road, hitting our car and blocking the way in front of us. An earthquake! Sajjad reacted immediately and pushed the car back in reverse at full speed. A few seconds later we stopped, everything around us was covered in dust. The earthquake had hit the car badly; a window was broken and the body was punctured in several places. None of us were injured, but boulders were all over the place and the road right in front of us was blocked completely. We saw an ambulance that couldn’t get through and had to return back to where it had come from. It was scary and we couldn’t believe what had just happened – we were so lucky to be alive. Or maybe not lucky: it was Sajjads impressively quick reaction that saved us; without that our vehicle would have been buried under boulders or pushed into the river next to the road.

We returned back home immediately. Sajjad knew that his family would worry about us; obviously the earthquake was noticed all over the place. It turned out his brother was already on the way to find out about us and broke into tears of joy when he realized that Sajjad was uninjured.

With great relief to be alive we arrived back in Gilgit. The earthquake was magnitude 7.5 with its epicenter in northern Afghanistan, not too far from where we were.

One day later we reached Gahkuch. Again we had no luck since the commissioner was gone to visit places that had been destroyed by the earthquake, so we passed the time at Sajjad’s uncle’s place in Chatorkhand, where we celebrated with music, dance and good food.

Finally, on October 28, we met the commissioner, debated our case and eventually got what we wanted. Back in Immit we prepared for the last big outdoor adventure of our Pakistan journey.

We packed our things and left Immit in the morning of October 29. After a cold night in the small village of Matramdan, we hiked further up the valley for a couple of days and camped close to a big glacier tongue coming from the east that was blocking the valley entirely.

Unfortunately the glacier was not crossable without technical gear: it was broken into a thousand pieces which looked like huge ice needles sticking into the air. The only way to pass this was the steep rock cliff in the west. We found a tiny path leading through the cliff; walking that path was dangerous not only because of its steepness but also because of the gusting wind which came from all sides. Some parts were icy or deeply covered in snow. We managed to traverse this section safely but Sofia promised to never go back the same way.

We came quite far that day and camped in front of another big glacier which we planned on crossing the next day. The wind got stronger and snowfall kicked in. I used my sat phone to find out about the current weather report: 3 days of snow ahead. Damn! Our thinking process: if we continue, we would have to cross a 5 km wide glacier which by then would probably be covered in snow completely. After that, there would be a 4.300 m pass and at least another week of high altitude trekking ahead of us – much longer if the snow was deep. If we wanted to avoid that, the only way back would lead through that crazy cliff again, which, if snow level increased, could not be traversed anymore. At that point, both ways were open still, but if the weather report was right, we would soon be trapped.

The night was windy and we slept poorly. Fortunately it hadn’t snowed too much so both ways were still open. A decision needed to be made. Given the weather report and the chances to get snowed in badly, it was clear what needed to be done, although we felt really miserable about it. But we had to turn around. Crossing the glacier under these conditions and walking in deep snow for over a week could end our journey in an even worse way… So we decided to risk crossing that cliff again and turned around. We were extremely cautious and arrived safely on the other side where we found shelter in a stable-like shack.

It was snowing for two days straight and we barely left the tent. We were safe and happy to have made the right decision: how horrifying it would have been to still be out there, we thought, on the glacier or on the way to the pass. Maybe our decision to go back saved our lives just in time.

Eventually we left the shack and went down again. One more night in our tent before we arrived back in Matramdan., This time we were invited by a shepherd’s family and stayed with them for the night. 16 people in only one room, that’s how modestly they lived. But regardless, they prepared Yak meet for us, which must have been a once-a-month occasion.

Back in Immit we only stayed one night and then hitchhiked down to Gilgit to see “our family” there. Everybody was happy to meet us again and obviously we were happy, too. Later we took a bus to Karimabad, Hunza, were we had deposited some equipment that needed to be picked up again. We used the opportunity to stay in town for a few days, eating as much as we could and warming up below numerous blankets after our cold and only partly satisfying Hindukush adventure.

At 4 o’clock in the morning of November 13 we went on the long bus ride to Rawalpindi, close to Islamabad, leaving the winter behind us.

Looking back, I can surely say that I have fallen in love with Pakistan a bit. Culturally speaking, I can think of no experience in my life that I could compare to what we witnessed there: people are unbelievable friendly, helpful, interested, respectful and modest. Simply “fine” people, as my Alaskan friend Keith would say. They like to serve their guests just as much as they like to controversially discuss with them – and I can appreciate both. I can’t say that I endorse all Pakistani traditions and practices; we especially struggled with views on women’s rights and some radical religion-based mindsets, but as I mentioned earlier: I travel to learn, understand and grow. And there was plenty of opportunity for all that in Pakistan.

From a trekking point of view, although we spent 23 days in the wild, our time in the Hindukush was not as satisfying as I had hoped it would be. But that has nothing to do with the extraordinary environment or the present nature there; there is only one reason: we started hiking the mountains in late fall with winter knocking at the door. We were simply too late. That was unfortunate, but it’s not too disappointing anymore since I already have plans to make up for it, maybe even this year.

Click here to see how our journey continued.