Leaving Shangri-la: Karimabad to Lahore

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Crossing a glacier from Rakaposhi Base Camp to Diran Base Camp

To really experience the soul of a country’s landscapes, one needs to travel away from the roads. I was enjoying every minute of cycling Pakistan’s incredible Karakoram highway, but my experience was made that much richer by my travels on foot. From Karimabad I cycled towards the village of Minapin, the base for the 2-day trek to Rakaposhi Base camp. Out of Karimabad the mountains continued to soar high above and the road was lined with apricot trees. Being apricot season I took every chance I could to gorge myself on the delicious fruit. Minapin was a small detour off of the main road and I climbed past tiny villages and friendly locals.

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Hiding out in one of Hunza’s many apricot trees

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I pitched my tent in the beautiful garden at the Diran Guesthouse while waiting for my Russian friend Semen that would accompany me on the Rakaposhi base camp trek. The garden was like a mini orchard of apple trees and I ate far too many. I immediately regretted my actions and I lay awake all night with horrible stomach cramps. I got up the next morning feeling far from 100 per cent, but I wasn’t willing to miss the trek.

It was a very hot morning and we started the long ascent to Rakaposhi base camp. The higher we climbed, the cooler the air became. We were surrounding by steep hillsides of small conifers.

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The continuous ascent to Rakaposhi base camp

_DSF2752  On the way up we met several locals from Minapin that wanted to hike to Diran peak base camp – a few hours further from Rakaposhi. To get to Diran, we would have to cross a glacier and to do so technically required a guide. We were lucky to run into these guys, who were willing to take us across. They spoke the Pakistani language Urdu, a tiny bit of English and the local language Burushaski, which has no relation to any other language group.

The bad apples from the previously day were wrecking havoc on stomach and it was a very challenging climb to the top for me. We stopped several times to drink from the icy clear streams and soak our heads. The ascent was continuous, swerving through bits of pine forest and rock cradled by the steep hillsides. As we neared the crest of the climb, our local guides suggested that we follow them up to a particular viewpoint. I scrambled up some loose rocks and what I saw next was nothing short of jaw-dropping.

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It is sight that will be forever etched into my memory. I have seen a lot of extraordinary mountain scenery in my life, but this glacial field was something truly unique.

We continued hiking high above the glacier and then started to descend to a small meadow. Then we could see the base camp, with a view of Rakaposhi – one of the most beautiful mountains.

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Rakaposhi Base Camp, 3568m

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Rakaposhi, 7788m

We set up camp for the night and decided to hike to Diran Peak across the glacier the next morning. We were all well taken care of by other locals and their families camping. We enjoyed some local curries while a bon fire raged in the background. A crowd of locals gathered around yelling and singing in Burushaski, playing makeshift drums made out of plastic containers. I eventually fell into a deep sleep in my tent, the evening songs fading away into silence.

Semen, our local guide and me left Rakaposhi Base Camp around 9am and headed for Diran Base Camp. It was beautiful morning, with Rakoposhi in full view, filling the sky. We scrambled over small fields of boulders before making contact with the glacial ice. Once on the glacier, it was exhausting work scrambling up and down its steep curvatures.

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The many forms of glacial ice

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Rakaposhi in all its glory

Sometimes we had to jump across rushing streams carving a path through the ice. I wondered about the safety of our mission and whether or not crampons would have been useful. The sun was intense, creating a blinding glow. Our “guide” paused often, often walking in circles and we started to feel like he was lost. Later, we learned that new crevasses had formed and the usual path to base camp was no longer safe to cross. With the language barrier, he wasn’t able to explain this to us. This led to a bit of improvisation and we could see that our local friend had grown tired and frustrated. After close to three hours of walking, we reached Diran Peak. We laid out a mat and took a nap on the green meadow under the face of the mountain.

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Taking a break at Diran Base Camp

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All three of us were quite tired at this point and tried to muster up some energy for the return journey.

On the way back we met some people from the previous night at Rakaposhi base camp. They also had trouble finding their way and navigating around the crevasses. My legs grew increasingly heavy and it was tough knowing that we still had a long descent back to Minapin. We arrived back at base camp in the early evening, our guide collapsing onto the grass near his friends. We gave him a few rupees and thanked him. It was a challenging but thrilling experience to cross a glacier. Before our journey back, we were given some instant noodles by a local  – the famous “Maggi” brand that was found all over Pakistan. If we had wanted to stay for dinner, he would feed us also. The kindness of Pakistani people was never ending. We said our goodbyes and started the knee-knackering hike down to Minapin.

We walked at a quick pace, racing against the darkness. We stopped for a break near a stream before continuing the hike down. Half an hour later I noticed in a panic that my camera was not with me. My only thought was that I had left it in the spot where we had taken a break. The light was fading fast and I sprinted back up the steep hill that I had just so happily descended. Some nice local men offered to help me find the camera.Thankfully I found it and ran back down.

At this point Semen and I quickened our pace, our knees taking a hammering with each step downward. We finished the last few kilometers in the dark. finally arriving in Minapin. I was so incredibly hungry that I wanted to eat everything in sight at the first shop that appeared.

A couple of hundred meters further, we spotted the world’s smallest ice cream shop. After such a long day, that bit of soft ice cream was the simplest and sweetest reward.

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From left: me, my hiking buddy Semen and one of our generous hosts Akif with his son Mahd

I spent most of the next day relaxing at Minapin guesthouse, recovering from the trek. I met an amazing family from a small town called Liaquat pur in the Punjab province. My friend Semen and I were invited to spend lunch with them. I had a great time chatting and sharing a delicious meal with Sarwat, her husband Akif and their four children Zahra , Smeet, Mahd and Rebecca. This was muslim hospitality at its finest. In Islam, travellers are given very high priority and are always treated like honoured guests. The next morning was my final cycling day in Pakistan – to Gilgit.

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A kind man fetching me some delicious Hunza apricots near Minapin

The ride to Gilgit was overwhelmingly hot. Only a few kilometres from the guesthouse a local man waved to me, asked if I was enjoying Pakistan and if I would like some Hunza apricots. He climbed a tree and brought me down handfuls. They were a delicious snack in the morning heat. Not very far from Minapin I had a spectacular view of Rakaposhi from the road. I went to a tourist shop to buy a few postcards to mail home to family. They were covered in dust and the designs reminded me of the early 90s – I guess the last time the country had large amounts of foreign tourists. I had a few local men aski to take photos with me – a solo female on a bike in Pakistan is a novelty indeed.

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I stopped many times for cold drinks and felt like I was melting away in the heat. From Gilgit onwards cyclists required a police escort which they would have to pay for themselves. I opted to take a bus to Islamabad and onward to Lahore. The reputation for general unfriendliness towards foreigners in the area and the extreme heat had put me off from cycling it. The closer I got to Gilgit the less dramatic the mountains become, but the scenery was no less awe-inspiring.

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Gilgit itself was a fairly busy place, chaotic in comparison to the Upper Hunza Valley. It wasn’t a place I would want to spend much time in. I went and bought a bus ticket, not looking forward to the 18 hour plus journey that lay ahead.

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Dozer the bike didn’t want to go either…

You know you are on an adventurous bus route when the driver walks on with a rifle and tucks it under the spare seat beside him. Sectarian violence has been an issue in the past in the Indus Kohistan area, between Besham and Chilas and I guess it was a “necessary” precaution. Buses also travel in a tight convoy through this area.

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In the convoy through Indus Kohistan

But the only act of terror on that road was against my stomach.  The combination of sketchy food from the night before and motion sickness from made it a tough journey for me. It led made for a not-so-lovely scene with me getting sick in front of a large group men at one of the stops. Luckily the people on the bus took good care of me, the only foreigner on the bus. They gave me medicine and made sure I had enough to eat. The good road stopped South of Gilgit, and the bus rode like a jackhammer down the Karakoram Highway. This area felt very different from the Northern Karakoram Highway as it was much more conservative. At one restaurant at a rest stop the men sat outside at the tables and they women were seated separately in a small room on a carpeted floor.  This was something I hadn’t really experienced North of Gilgit.

About 17 hours of hell later, I arrived in Islamabad at the ungodly hour of 3am. I had made a contact through Facebook that was going to pick me up when I arrived. I don’t know what I would have done without Shahzeb, who came to the bus terminal in the middle of the night. He told me back to his home, where I met the rest of the amazing Sarwar family. Here, I wasn’t a stranger – I was treated like a daughter. Unfortunately I was sick for my entire stay, and I felt bad that I couldn’t be a more energetic guest. I didn’t see much of Islamabad – that will have to wait for another visit. Next stop was the intriguing city of Lahore.

Islamabad was insanely hot and Lahore worse. Being Canadian, I have much more experience dealing with cold weather and in 40 plus degrees my body almost shuts down. Laziness takes over and all I want to do is remain indoors. This was how I spent a lot of my time in Lahore unfortunately. Though it was a fascinating city, the heat and chaos during the day was too much for me to handle. I did, however stay at a great hostel called Lahore Backpackers. The manager, Sajjad, was one of the most welcoming and generous people I’ve met. He told me that I had arrived on a good day, because it was Sufi Night in Lahore. Not knowing what to expect I went with another guy that worked at the hotel across the city for this event.  The atmosphere was electric. Hash smoke clung to the heavy air, encircling the dense crowd. Sweat poured down faces, people dancing frantically to the rhythm eyes locked into a heavy trance. The drumming was very fast-paced and captivating. The heat was so intense that several boys lingered by with rags to wipe the sweaty faces of the musicians.

The music was intoxicating and its effect took hold of the crowd.

The following night I visited parts of the old city and had a view of the Badshahi Mosque – the fifth largest in the world. Then, it was time to leave Lahore and head to the Indian border at Wagah.

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Badshahi Mosque, Lahore

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Pakistan was everything I had wanted it to be. As a country it offers so much to the traveller and its people and its people are waiting to welcome you. Riding the Karakoram highway was a long-held dream come true. Its people and landscapes have found a special place in my heart and will stay there forever. Out of about 22 countries I have visited, Pakistan is my #1 favourite. One day I will return to this amazing place, Inshallah.

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