Saturday, September 23, 2006


"Traveling among mountains is like undressing a maiden". The poetic exaltation penned down by German explorer Wilhelm von Goldberg as he crossed the Atlas range could easily be transported to Northern Pakistan, where each valley unfolds to reveal exclusive language, culture and traditions. The high peaks seem there as a veil for a parcel of this world that only confusedly has seen itself entangled in the phenomena called globalization.

From Chitral, my plan was to cross the Shandur Pass onto Gilgit, an from there start slowly the trip northwards through the Karakorum Highway towards China. It's been seventeen months on the road. I had been lucky enough to get a direct ride to Gilgit with a Chitrali merchant bound for Gilgit bazaar, the main gateway for incoming cheap Chinese goods. Trade has become the first income for some graduated Pakistanis who cannot find a job in their field. The prophet, who had urged his followers to seek knowledge, if need there be, as far afield as China, could have never imagined they would come, in search of household goodies and plastic toys. The bazaar, nevertheless, doesn't say it all about Gilgit, a town that for a century was in the eye of the Foreign Office as the last sure footed bastion of British India in a power wrestle with Russia for the contol of Asia. Those were times of bayonets and spies in pilgrim disguise. But much before that, Gilgit's claim to fame was its horsemanship. Polo is thought to have originated in the Northern Areas as a training game for the ruler's cavalry. Each year, the archrival teams of Gilgit and Chitral clash for honour over the world's highest polo ground at the Shandur Pass.

My stay in Gilgit, though, had nothing to do with Her Majesty's service or enraged horsemen. I wanted, for the first time in my life, to cross a glacier. Since this wandering began, road has meant anything from an old Roman Via in Syria to the spotless German Autobahn, from the cross- Baltic E-sixty seven to a maddeningly bumpy jeep tracks in Afghanistan. But it had never meant glacier. Finding a glacier in Northern Pakistan was decidedly short of being a challenge, for it's one of the most heavily glaciated areas on Earth. The challenge rather consisted in pulling myself over one of them, considering I regard the inclined plane as the most diabolic figure of the Pantheon of geometry... My hope was, of course, to parasit someone else’s experience and join a fit party. Madina Guesthouse, in Gilgit, was the obvious place to meet travelers with similar intentions. While in Indian guesthouses any bunch of travelers will be invariably found exposing their sayings about yoga, the Mayan calendar, and reincarnations, the patio at Madina guesthouse was a conference on climbing permits regulations and cycling technique. That's where I met Agneska and Martin, from Poland, and Sdanek, from Czech Republic. My new friends were committed to trek to Rakapochi (7780m) base camp on the following day, and from there, weather conditions allowing, they were hoping to cross Minapin glacier, as a side trip. Soon I realized that the two days walk to the 3500m high base camp and the glacier crossing were little more than a stroll for these guys, who now started to compete over who had smoked a cigarette at the highest altitude. Martin was quick enough to say I was welcome to trek with them, and slow enough to realize that they were climbers and I was a hitch hiker. At least there was one thing that, them being Eastern European and me being South American, needed no discussion: we would not hire guides or porters and we wouldn't use any of the official campsites.

The next most boring thing to describing mountains is describing trekking among them. For the reader is enough to know that more than once, as predicted, the author needed to be hand-towed as a kindergarten boy crossing an avenue. In a particular incident, I had resorted to having my backpack lifted with a rope to become light enough to ascend safely a vertical rock face. Standing over the southern Moraine of the glacier, we not only gained perspective over the magnificent river of ice and snow, but we also understood that we were in front of a live creature, the ice blocks cracking perfectly audible under our feet. Rakapochi wasn't n an static being either. On an hourly basis the sculptor sun would melt snow hangovers in any of the mountain's faces to unlock a sweeping and thunderous avalanche. Any climber on its way would have known how it feels to be a flea when the dog starts to scratch. Navigating the glacier was, to my surprise, the easiest part of the job, and I say it without underestimating crevasses and internal rivers. For a moment we looked like weird interplanetary beings jumping around an ice world: nothing else was visible except for the ice and the rocky edges of the moraines. The way back didn't lack an epic flavor: as a result of our policy of avoiding official campsites we were escorted a few meters by a local armed with a rifle, who vaguely claimed that, actually, the whole flat terrain belonged to the campsite....

When my little Artic adventure had concluded I headed on the Karakorum Highway, the road linking, since 1982 Pakistan and China. Almost twenty years were required to tend a double lane highway over one of the highest mountain ranges on Earth: the Pamir and the Karakorum. At that time the project was also an ostensive sign of the alliance of the two countries against the common enemy: India. The asphalt link greatly overlaps with the classic Silk Route, an commercial-ideological artery that until the 20th century saw generations of traders and scholars smuggling East-West and vice versa everything from walnuts to religions. It was also on these tracks that Islam made its way into China in the 20th century. The religion remains the main faith in Turkic ethnic Xinjinag province in Western China. Centuries brought, nevertheless, dust and oblivion, and the region fell in a medieval isolation that lasted until little time ago. Dervla Murphy, the Irish cyclist that in 1963 visited the region relates the story that, when in 1954 the fisrt jeep reached Chilas, the villagers provided it with a loadful of fresh cut grass. They believed that the jeep was the offspring of one of those strange metallic birds that occasionally flew over the valleys, and which if properly fed, would eventually fly.

From Gilgit northwards the road traverses the old kingdoms of Nagyr and Hunza, where fratricide and caravan preying was once as natural as the seasons. Hunza River marks also the geologic limit between Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, which collision against the earlier cause the Himalayan range to rise. After two disappointingly short rides in two fast new cars, both driven by Bank of Pakistan's employees, a philanthropic taxi driver and a motor biker, I arrived to the village of Nilt. Besides common features as apple trees, irrigation channels and old men hanging around teahouses, the village will always stay in my mind for a sign by the roadside... It goes like this: "Pepsi Agency: beat your thirst by the cold drink products". I tried my luck, only to discover that the pompously announced shop didn't have refrigerator. It is curious to see how the esthetic of the "American way of life" becomes eerily compatible with hatred for the same. Frequently I have spotted boys drinking their Cokes with the background of "Down with the USA" graffiti’s.

Nilt, Thole, and the other settlements along Hunza valley practice Ismailism, a more secular branch of Islam. Thus, for first time in a long time, I see women walking down the streets. Mosques have also left the landscape: Ismailies pray in their jamaat khana, or people's house, to which not only men but the whole family has access. Having left Gilgit fairly late, I was caught by darkness in Thole. When asked about a feasible place to camp, the village chemist, against my predictions, actually answers my question instead of inviting me into his house. I seat down by small general shop to wait for something. A gas fueled electric bulb coming from the shop made me visible to potential charitative souls, but after half an hour I had only gathered a bunch of local kids for whom I had become an effectively entertaining mix of clown and parachutist, as they deducted from the large backpack. Finally a tall mustached man wordlessly ordered me to follow him. He is the watchman of a health unit, where I would sleep that night.

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