Text and Photos by Iram Ramzan
A 23-hour coach journey from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan to the mountainous regions of the north was hardly ideal after a tiring flight the day before — but there was no other choice as our internal flight was cancelled.
Jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, I boarded the coach at around 3am in pitch darkness with 15 other women who were also wondering if we would be ready to climb a mountain the following day.
Chronicle readers will be aware of my charity trek in the Hunza Valley to Rakaposhi Base Camp in Nagar District, in the Karakoram mountain range, bordering the Himalayan mountain range and close to the Chinese and Afghan border in the northeast. At 25,550 feet altitude, Rakaposhi is the 27th highest mountain in the world and 12th in Pakistan.
As Pakistan has a ‘bad reputation’ in the world, I did not blame people for being concerned about my trip. However, the Hunza Valley is very safe and not riddled with the problems that plague the rest of the country.
I decided to do this trek for the #Dil #Trust, a #UK-based charity that aims to provide quality and secular education, primarily free of cost, to children at its 123 schools in Pakistan. Of the total students, 66 per cent are girls.
Most of our journey to Karimabad in Hunza was along the #Karakoram #Highway (KKH), one of the highest paved roads in the world. Built by China and Pakistan, it is often described as the eighth wonder of the world -- no surprise gave the mesmerising scenery surrounding us.
We eventually arrived at our hotel at 2am — on the same day, we were due to begin our trek. Bleary-eyed and exhausted, we set off for our trek in the village of Minapin in #Nagar at noon, about 20 miles from the hotel. What made it worse was that I was ill and I had vomited twice earlier. And again once we started walking. Not the best start to a trek and I did wonder how on earth I would make it to the top of the steep zig-zag path up, considering my energy levels dropped and I felt so dizzy I was struggling to walk in the intense heat.
Fortunately, our lovely guide Sadruddin (Sadru) came running back down the path and made me hold on to him so he could help me up.
The Rakaposhi Base Camp is regarded as “one of the easiest”. I don’t know who came up with that rating but it certainly did not feel easy!
Towards the top, I was feeling much better but Sadru insisted I hold on to him until we reached the campsite. He and the other porters kept telling us that we were “nearly there” — it only took about five hours…
Still, this did not stop me from appreciating the incredible scenery around me. I looked down in awe at the valley, enclosed by the Karakoram giants. No wonder this place is often referred to as heaven on earth, I thought.
After a good night’s sleep, I unzipped the tent the next morning to be greeted with a blue sky and a view of the mountains, ready for the challenge ahead.
I was feeling much better, so I was one of the first in the group to reach the base camp. It had been very warm further down when we started in the morning, whereas at the base camp it was very cold and windy. There in front of me, in her snow-covered glory, was #Rakaposhi #Mountain, simultaneously impressing and foreboding.
What struck me the most while I was up there was the silence. I felt my anxieties and worries melt away. Not only was I secluded physically, but mentally too — problems of the outside world were of no concern to me. We then stayed at Tagha Fari campsite, which was a winding path very high up — not for the faint-hearted. Once there I was too exhausted to do much so I slept all day and night until the next morning.
Thankfully, there were no bears or snow leopards to be seen, but the donkeys that had been brought up by our porters were not shy in expressing themselves at night. It’s a good job I brought my earplugs with me.
When I awoke I was refreshed and ready to go down to walk on the glacier nearby. We had to climb up the steep hill and then climb down the other side. There was no clear path and it was very slippery so I held on to Sadru for dear life. It was very cold throughout and it even rained on and off. On one night, the water came in through our tents as they had not been pegged down properly, so half our things got drenched.
I definitely felt the altitude while I was there; even walking between tents often left me feeling breathless and low in energy. After all, we were almost at an altitude of 13,120 feet.
Prior to our trip, we were told to expect very basic food at the campsite. I imagined beans being warmed over an open fire or the Pakistani staple of lentils and rice. Our “basic” food turned out to be lavish breakfasts followed by three-course meals at lunch and dinner, something we definitely did not get at home!
Of course, the less glamorous side of camping was fumbling around at night with just a head-torch to go to the toilets behind the rocks.
On day four we set off for the climb all the way back down to Minapin village and on to #Karimabad. That morning I felt nauseous once again and I threw up as we headed down. Fortunately, it got easier as we descended and it was very warm as we made our way down the zig-zag path into #Minapin. With luscious green grassland and the mountains in the backdrop, Minapin embodies the idyllic village life. We were greeted warmly by locals and young children playing in the streets.
The trek had been fun and an amazing experience, notwithstanding my illness. We did 22 miles over four days so at that point I wanted nothing more than a hot shower back at the hotel — and a cold bottle of Coke.
From then on, it was time to relax and see the wonderful sites of the valley. The next day, we visited Baltit Fort, which is built at the top of a rocky hillock at Karimabad, past the bustling high street full of local handicrafts and souvenirs.
The picturesque fort is more than 700 years old and it used to be the seat of governance for the Mirs, who ruled the now defunct state for hundreds of years. Facing #Baltit #Fort is the #Altit #Fort, the oldest fort in Gilgit-Baltistan dating back 1,100 years. It is built with great architectural design on a rock of a mountain, with the Hunza River flowing behind it. Don’t look down if you are scared of heights.
We were then taken on a refreshing and pleasant boat ride on Attabad Lake that was an intense shade of turquoise blue I wondered if it was earthly. The 109m deep lake was formed when a massive landslide hit the Attabad village on January 4, 2010, proof that something beautiful can come after a tragedy. A few minutes of gazing out on the ice-cold water and all worldly matters seemed to slip away. In fact, it was the first time the entire group was literally lost for words.
Another “tourist attraction” in the valley is crossing the #Hussaini #Hanging #Bridge in #Gojal, upper Hunza. Known as the most dangerous bridge in the world, it is both long and poorly maintained. Many planks are missing and strong winds shake the bridge as you cross it. Despite its dangerous looks, it is a relatively safe bridge to cross, with hikers testing their nerves as they carefully work their way across. We lived to tell the tale anyway.
For a few nights we stayed in #Passu, a very peaceful and quiet village in the shadow of the dramatic and imposing #Passu #Cones, or #’Cathedral #Mountains’ on the northeast side, #Batura #Glacier, the fifth longest glacier in the world on its west and #Passu #Glacier on its south east. It really was something being able to have a cup of tea outside our hotel with that site in front of us.
Being so close to China it made sense to go to the China-Pak border — the Khunjerab Pass. The long, relatively flat pass is often snow-covered. In Passu the weather had been warm but as soon as we reached the border it was snowing and very cold. The winding road on the way up was scattered with large rocks, caused by bad weather. At around 15,420ft the Khunjerab Pass is the highest paved international border crossing in the world. There was also a large herd of cute yaks at the top. At the border, there was a large, grey gate with Chinese writing on it. On the Pakistani side, there was, well, nothing except the ‘world’s highest ATM machine’. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to see if it actually worked.
Most of the time, it did not feel as though we were in Pakistan. The locals in Hunza are very friendly and welcoming, a mixture of different ethnic groups speaking Burushaski, Wakhi, Domaki and Shina languages. Women could be seen going out and about more than is common in other regions. This might be because the majority of the population is followers of Ismaili Islam, so they adhere to less strict rules of segregation. We often saw some women without their hair covered. In fact, when we saw a woman on our trek wearing a face veil one of our porters thought it was the most bizarre thing he had ever seen and asked why a woman would wear such a garment.
Summer and autumn are the ideal times to visit this valley, where it is cooler than the intense heat prevalent in the rest of the country. Cherries are in season at the moment, which we could just pluck from the trees above us — and goodness me, were they the juiciest, most delicious cherries I have ever tasted.
Hunza is called heaven on earth for a reason, and once you arrive you’ll never want to leave. I wished I could have stayed for longer. I certainly want to go again. Alas, for me it was onwards to Rome. But that is a story for another time…
Donations can still be made on my Just Giving page, which is still open for a few more days, at https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/iram-ramzan.
This feature originally published British newspaper Oldham Evening Chronicle. The writer is a Manchester-based journalist.