Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Pakistan: From India to China

The Border Closing Ceremony; A Show of Patriotism and Machoism

We reached Pakistan by land from India at the Atari/Wagah border. After crossing into Pakistan, we stayed at the border to watch the closing ceremony - a one hour long show of patriotism and machoism between Pakistan and India. There are lots of flag waving and chants of "Pakistan, Pakistan, Pakistan" on this side and "Hindustan, Hindustan, Hindustan" on the other side. The Pakistan Rangers came out - giant men who looked incredibly dashing in their dress uniform and dark mustaches. They marched quickly around feigning anger towards the India side with severe facial expressions, squared shoulders, and dismissive hand waves. The soldiers on the India side followed suit.

After an hour of this, amid the cheers, the laughter and the patriotic shouts, the flags were finally lowered. This is supposed to be done completely in unison, so that one flag is never lower than the other. When India's flag accidentally dropped a few inches lower than Pakistan's, there were audible gasps across the crowd, with India trying to pull it back up and Pakistan hurriedly lowering theirs! A few minutes later it was tit for tat when Pakistan dropped their flag down a few inches below India's. After this all went well and the flags were lowered in unison before the gates slammed shut for the night. The dashing Rangers marched out (much to my disappointment). This ceremony is repeated daily after the land border closes, and every day hundreds, if not thousands of people turn out to watch it!

The women's side. Foreigners get up front 'box' seats. India's ceremony on the other side of the gate is not segregated like Pakistan's.

The men get a bit more rambunctious then the women.

Flag waving patriotism

A probable requirement to being a ranger involved in the closing ceremony is being huge; most were probably close to seven feet tall and built like bricks

Pakistani Rangers in front of the gate that divides India from Pakistan. Cointa, you would like them, too!

A Ranger makes mock angry gestures towards India

The Flags are about to be lowered

Finally, the flags are lowered

A Stay with a Pakistani Family

We spent our first five days in Pakistan with the Christian family of Naveed Walter, which gave us a different view of this country that is over 90% Muslim. Naveed is the National President of Crown Pakistan, a Christian organization that helps people manage their finances according to Bible. He is also the president of Human Rights Focus Pakistan, a charity that helps widows and orphans, educates young girls, and works to reduce discrimination and persecution against Christians in Pakistan.

The hospitality of Naveed and his family was amazing! We were warmly received, fed, picked up at the border and toured around like royalty in an air conditioned car with a driver. We ended up spending Pakistan's Independence Day with Naveed and his family in the village of Kushpur. Naveed's sister-in-law Humera was about 8 months pregnant, and the baby decided this day that he wanted independence himself! It was a difficult delivery and Humera ended up needing surgery and a blood transfusion. To obtain the blood needed, her friends and family in the waiting area were all tested for compatibility. One friend was found to be compatible and he donated the blood then and there! The baby had a few problems to begin with, being premature, but is OK now.

During our stay with the family, one of the things that really struck me as different about the Pakistani Christians was their unity. It does not matter whether a person is Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, etc - they simply call themselves and people of other denominations Christians. This is a big difference from what I have seen in the USA, where many people will whole-heartedly insist that their particular brand of Christianity is the only "right" and "true" way. Tim found it interesting to see the strength of faith among people who suffer active and passive persecution and discrimination, and who must sacrifice things to keep their faith. This is unlike many American Christians, who are free to believe whatever they like without persecution, and have become complacent in their faith.

Celebrating our 2nd anniversary with Naveed and his family

Being drawn around Kushpur in a horse pulled carriage

The houses are all built around high walled, central courtyards with all the windows and doors facing in. From the street, one only sees blank walls.

Water buffaloes occupy the rear courtyard of the home.

Getting ready to board the bus for Rawalpindi in our Salwar Kameez, the local clothing of choice for most Pakistanis. this clothing is extremely comfortable to wear in hot weather.

Hunza and Nagar Valley

After leaving Naveed's family, we hurried on up the Karakorum Highway towards Karimabad, the heart of the Hunza valley. This bus ride was long and bumpy, but otherwise nothing of much interest happened, except that when we stopped for dinner, I, being a woman, was rushed down into the dark, musty, fan-less basement to eat separate from the men. Some of the areas in between Islamabad and Gilgit are pretty strict. Finally, after nearly 24 hours on two buses we reached Karimabad. Here we received warm welcome. Tourism here is slow this year due to events in Islamabad, and people stopped in the street to shake our hands, try on my big sunglasses, and welcome us and tell us they are glad we are here. They reassured us, without our asking, that Hunza was safe and the people here were peaceful. They did, however, warn us against going further southwest, near the Afghanistan border, and in the Tribal Areas. If we did go there, we were advised to say we were Italian, Spanish, Canadian, etc!

However, we met several Pakistani tourists from the tribal areas, who were friendly and wanted to have their photos taken with us! The first asked us where we were from. "Alaska" we said, as we often do, because many people don't know Alaska is part of the US. This man then told us he was from the tribal areas. Having been warned away from these areas, we did not quite know what to expect meeting someone from there. Did he know where Alaska was??? Tim started fishing for more information, and began to ask "Oh, do you mean by..." The man interrupted him, laughing, and clarified "I am from Al Qaeda country". He told us he was here looking for peace! He proceeded to tell us how he visits this area every year, and gave us recommendation of the most beautiful places to go. Then both he and his friend took turns posing with us for photos. "To show my wife" he told us. Afterwards, they shook Tim's hand (not mine!) and left.

Tim and I made several friends in Karimabad who we spent many hours with, drinking tea and discussing many things, including politics, religion, women in Pakistani society, and traditional customs. The Hunza people are mostly Ismaili Muslims, which is a minority group that spreads across north Pakistan, northeast Afghanistan, south Tajikistan and other areas of the Muslim world. They follow the advice and spiritual leadership of the Prince Karim Aga Khan, who is the 49th descendant of the Prophet Mohammad through his daughter and son-in-law Ali. He lives in France and has introduced western style education to the Ismaili people. The people of the Hunza valley are very proud of their educational achievements and the fact that they have an almost 100% literacy rate among both males and females. The Ismailis tell me that some Sunni and Shia Muslims do not think they(the Ismailis)are Muslims, but they think of themselves as more progressive and educated then those who say this. Ismailis no longer follow the Islamic shariah law at the advice of the 24th spiritual leader and they have a much more relaxed attitude towards women. They do not practice plural marriage, but they do practice family planning (2 or 3 children), and they are peace-loving people, not believing in such things as holy wars.

We also met a couple of people in Pakistan who wanted us to give specific messages to the American people, which we promised to post here. Almost immediately after crossing the border, a young man engaged Tim in conversation, learned we were from America and bought us both a Pepsi. His friend asked Tim "Do these people look like a bunch of terrorists?"
"No." Tim answered.
"We are not. Please tell the American people that." the friend responded. The next man whom Tim met in Karimabad was Manzoor Baig from Karachi, in the far south of Pakistan. He claimed to speak for all Muslims, his political party, and even fundamentalists and had a specific message which Tim wrote down, word for word. Here it is: "Pakistan people love America. The bearded mullah and fundamentalist as well as men and women in Pakistan promote freedom of thought, speech and action, but the people of Pakistan hate American politics; the threat to non-developed countries and the dictation to act according to American wish and will, or else America will bomb them back into the Stone Age and bulldoze their infrastructure."

The Hunza valley (and the Nagar valley across the river) is a magnificently beautiful place, one of the most beautiful I've seen. It is in the midst of many 6000 and 7000+ meter peaks of the Karakorum Range. We spent several days here day hiking up into valleys surrounded by peaks covered in massive hanging glaciers and snow flutes. Altogether, we stayed in Pakistan just over two weeks, which is not near long enough. Visiting Pakistan was an amazing experience - the hospitality, the scenery, and the culture, and I am already scheming how to get back here again for at least one or two months!Pakistan seemed especially magical to us because of the low number of tourists this year. It is almost like an undiscovered area, but with infrastructure to support tourism. There is a lot of negative view and reports of Pakistan in the western media, and there might be some areas that are not very safe for travel. However, the northern areas that we traveled in felt quite safe. If you are able to plan a trip there you will not be disappointed and we highly recommend it.

Baltit fort in Karimabad

The friendly ticket seller at Baltit Fort

Rakaposhi peak at sunrise from the Duiker view point above the Eagles Nest Hotel (near Karimabad)

Lady Finger and Ultar peak from the Duiker viewpoint at sunrise. One hike we did went to the base of these peaks

Golden Peak at sunset from the view point in Duiker

Another unknown peak at sunset

Two girls near Karimabad

Old town Ganesh, near Karimabad

A window in the four hundred year old family mosque in Ganesh

Walking along the old irrigation chanel to Ultar glacier hundreds of feet above the river, a marvel of engineering done without modern technology.

Rakaposhi peak under the moon from Minipin

Near Rakaposhi base camp, a hike that starts at Minipin

Mountains surrounding Passu

Hiking up Borit Sar, near Passu. View is to the NW.

View from Borit Sar to the SW. Despite the poor lighting, it was still a fabulous scene.

Looking across from Borit Sar at some amazing snow mountains

More peaks seen from Borit Sar

A decorated Pakistani cargo truck

Tim, in traditional Pakistani dress with the men who fixed his shoes for about 60 cents in Sost, Pakistan's border town with China. My grandfather says "put a turban on him and he will look like Taliban". Do you agree?

The Hunza people have beautiful smiles, but when they pose for photos they try to look very solemn.

The bus from Sost into China unloaded for prayer time near the top of the pass which divides the two countries

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Lamayuru to Padum

Lamayuru to Padum: a trip diary

Our pony guide with the horses. From left to right: Dolma, Poru, Seri, and Nori.

7/12 Lamayuru to Wanla

It is the first day of our trek and our four ponies are loaded and ready to go. Our pony guide, Sonam, is from a Tibetan refugee colony near Leh, and has taken three days to get here. Sonam will be our pony guide and our cook. My first impressions of Ladakh and Zanskar are that they are lands of great beauty and contrast. Dry, barren landscape is cut by flowing water into canyons and plateaus. Above this tower jagged peaks clothed in snow at the upper regions. Where there is adequate water and a slice of level land is the shocking green of cultivation. We start out in this cultivated land and move abruptly to a desert moonscape of hills and mountains, then plateaus and finally over our first pass, which rewards with glimpses of rock and snow peaks Then we follow a gully set in conglomerates down to the valley where Wanla, our stop for the night, is located.

The geology is fascinating, peaks with layers of conglomerate, rows of fins, and tortured, folded rock that must have seen hell near the earth's center.


Throughout the journey we see walls and walls of beautifully carved prayer stones. These are in Lamayuru.

Inside Lamayuru Monestary

The contrast between cultivation and desert is incredible

The sun peaks through the clouds at Wanla

7/13 Wanla to Honupatta
We are walking through a maze of valleys and gorges. Down one valley, right turn to go up another, another right turn into a towering gorge with rock walls of 1000 feet rising above a rushing, boiling river, and finally another right turn into a narrow valley perfumed by wild rose bushes. Although there is a lack of vegetation in many areas, there is no lack of color. In the rocks there is black, green, purple, orange, gold, russet, brown, and yellow that glows so brightly I think it must be full of yellowcake (uranium)! We reach Honupatta camp just as it begins to rain.

This was an incredible gorge.

Looking back from Honupatta

7/14 Honupatta to base of Sisir La
We got a late start today, as Sonam had to walk about two hours to retrieve the horses, which he had dropped off last night high up the mountains, where the grazing was better. As we went up the valley it became decidedly more alpine, full of low growing flowers and with views of snowy peaks up ahead. We had planned on going over the Sisir La (La means pass) today, but decided instead to stop at the base of the pass as the valley looked beautiful to explore and there was and unnamed 18,000 foot peak that looked like it might be fun to try to climb.

Sonam carefully leads the horses over a slippery (for horses) rock bridge. The peak we tried to climb is in the background.

This photo is for my geologist readers. The folding is amazing.

7/15-7/16 "Rest Days" at Sisir La base
We awoke to a thick ice fog, wind, rain, and finally snow. It is a good day for reading, not exploring! For Sonam, who has a cotton parachute tent with many holes (he calls it air conditioning), it is a struggle to stay dry. We gave him a tarp we brought but it was only big enough to cover less than half the tent. Around 1pm, it had cleared and we decided to scout climbing routes today and that tomorrow would be one more "rest day" to attempt to climb our peak. Tim went up to the pass and climbed within 10 meters of the summit of a 5200m peak and I went back into the valley. The valley was magnificent, with glacier hung peaks at its heart. Putting our information together, we decided on a route for our climb.

The next day, we started out around 9:30am at our camp at 4450 meters. We hiked a few kilometers back into the valley and got onto a secondary ridge which led steeply up scree and boulders to the main ridge, at about 17,000 feet. From the main ridge it is 1000+ feet to the summit. It was a difficult day, with each step growing more and more difficult due to the steadily increasing altitude. We finally gained the ridge at 17,130 feet, the highest I have climbed by about 3000 feet! The view was absolutely stunning! We could see snow and glacier clad peaks of the Zanskar range surrounding beautiful river valleys, and off in the distance several white pyramids of the Himalaya range.

Unfortunately, it was about 3pm and getting to the summit looked more difficult from close up. We decided that we would never make it up and back before dark, but the views from the ridge were worth each and every difficult step that day and so I was not too dissappointed! After descending and exploring the valley a bit more, we reached camp at 7:30, to a hot meal of rice, dal, and curried potatoes cooked by Sonam. Having a cook is truly luxurious way to trek!

Himalayan peaks seen from the ridge of our unamed peak

Tim then I on the ridge

The glaciers on this peak are amazing. You can really see and imagine mountain carving in action.

7/17 Sisir La Base to Singge La Base
Over our second pass today and up the long valley to the base of our third. Coming down Sisir Las was pretty scary, especially with the horses. The trail was super steep, narrow and slippery as it switched back down a near vertical slope with a deadly fall zone. The horses alternated slipping and sliding down with freezing in fear in some precarious position that looked to have no way out. At the top of the pass, Sonam had pulled hair from their manes to tie in the prayer flags. After they made it safely down to easier ground, he breathed a sigh of relief.

Our fear coming down the pass turned out not to be unfounded. On the trail we ran into Sonam's uncle, who was returning from the Lamayuru to Padum trek. Earlier, on his way to Padum, he lost two of his horses. One had fallen coming down the pass that we had just come down. Another he lost on the high ledges between Wanla and Honupatta. Sonam said that his uncle was very sad and confused and would not do this trek again.

Sonam and the horses on SirSir La. From left to right are crazy Poru, Dolma, Seri, and Nori

7/18 Singge La Base to Khyupa La Base
Last night was my second bath of the trip, taken in the ice cold glacier water near Singge La. As we went over this pass today, the landscape has become drier and more rocky with canyons, rock fins, and towering gorges. The Zanskar River is somewhere below us, hidden within the gorges.

Peak visable from Singge La

Sunset at Khyupa La base camp

7/19 Khyupa La base to Lingshet
We went over Khyupa La and Netuke La today to arrive in Lingshet in the midst of bustling activity. The Dalai Lama is coming in August and the entire place is in uproar! A beautiful two story building with many windows is being built as a holy place, for the Dalai Lama to teach. In a room of this building, six monks spend their days painting brand new cabinets, tables and intricately carved wood trim. Within the monastery itself, there is much construction and many new murals being painted on the walls. A beautiful room with walls of windows, wall paintings, and lots of carved wood is being constructed for the Dalai Lama to stay. The monks and villagers do not know how long he will stay, but they hope he will spend one night at the gompa I hope so too, seeing all the effort preparing for his arrival!

A newly painted mural in Lingshet

The room being prepared for the Dalai Lama

7/20-7/21 Lingshet to Snertse
Over our fifth pass today, a difficult one, and down a river drainage, where I saw Fireweed, which also grows profusely in Alaska! We stayed in Snertse for an extra rest day, and met a monk who specializes in mandalas (sand paintings) and was heading to Lingshet to teach.

Barley fields near Lingshet

Barley is one of the staples of the diet

Woman wearing the traditional clothing with an animal hide around the waist. Click on photo to enlarge and see detail.

7/22 Snertse to Hanumil
We crossed our sixth pass today, and on the other side we could look down on the Zanskar River, flowing trough an impressive gorge below. We are now out of Ladakh and in the Zanskar region. As we yet again side hilled down a narrow, slippery path above a near vertical 1000 foot drop off, I feel sorry for the person doing this trek who is afraid of heights!

7/23 Hanumil to Pishu
7/24 Pishu to Karsha
7/25 Karsha to Padum
These were fairly easy days, as the valley gradually grew wider and flatter. Turning one large river bend we suddenly saw before us the glacier clad wall of the Himalaya! The camping area in Karsha was full, but a boy of about 10 years old brought us to his house and let us camp in the yard. The next day, after visiting the Karsha monastery, we headed into Padum. Tim and I enjoyed the luxury of a hotel here. Sonam spent his time helping a friend who had broken his hip working as a pony man. The clinic in Padum was inadequate for his care, and Sonam and another man worked until 9 that evening finding a taxi that would take him to Leh. The bill of US$250 was footed by the trekkers. It seems like being a pony guide is rather dangerous for both the guide and the horses! We are thankful to have reached as far as Padum safely. Tomorrow we begin the second half of the trek, from Padum over the Himalaya range to Darcha.

Pishu village

The Future Buddha in the Karsha Monastary

A monk at the Karsha monastary

A woman hefts her load

A woman weeds her Barley field near Padum