May 3rd-4th: Karakoram Chronicles Part 4, Gilgit to Karimabad
May 3rd: Gilgit to Gulmet, Karakoram Highway, Jammu and Kashmir, 72km
Stocking up on toothpaste style honey, strings of dried figs, a bag of mixed nuts and a bottle of fresh apricot juice, we resume our journey once more. Across two spectacular suspension bridges that sway in the wind, burrowing through a winding tunnel, we re-emerge onto the Karakoram Highway. The backdrop of snowy peaks rising above this featureless grey valley create an atmosphere of expectation - the Throne Room of the Gods awaits us...
The usual pack of kids, clad in their school uniform of neon-orange chadois camiz, hound us with their 'One pen!' slogan. But it's relaxed, and they're just as happy when I stop to admire their written English and take a few photos. 'One pen! One Pen!' shouts a tree, or rather the kid picking fruit from its branches. 'Pen! Pen!' calls out a tiny child from behind a stone wall, as if these are the very first words he's uttered.
We sample our supplies on a grassy verge, resting to the sound of mountain streams filtering through the rockface. Leaving behind the heat of the plains to begin a gentle climb, crystal clear spring water, loosely referred to as 'mineral' by locals, gushes along a channel where we break for lunch. It's a lazy day; we guzzle on watermelon and sip glacially cooled Sprite. 'You know, the KKH is an awesomely beautiful road. But it's not really THAT adventurous,' I comment contentedly as we continue on this peaceful journey.
We've entered another steep-banked valley, a patchwork of brown, rose, mauve, burgundy and lime. Scree gently sweeps down its side and a clear blue sky is now muffled by a blanket of clouds; in this flat light the subtle hues of these colours are pronounced. A headwind begins to stir - has Allah overheard my flippant remark?! Within moments, an almighty sand storm is thrown before us; rocks cascade onto the road and dust pierces our eyes like grains of pepper. Swept to one side, we don goggles and scarves, our clothes flapping frantically around us as a tractor pulls over, its driver wrapped in his shawl. The gauntlet's been thrown down and it's up to us to cycle with it! Buffeted along this steep and narrow road, grit clings to our teeth as we persevere up a winding pass, dodging tumble weeds as we pause for breath. All around there is movement; trees bend like bamboo shoots, men and women scatter to their homes as the whole valley is shaken into life.
Our efforts are rewarded, for as the storm subsides, the air is clear once more. We are left to admire the lush green valley floor, dotted with jabs of pink where women resume work in the fields. Mountains emerge to our sides, heavy with chunks of fresh thick snow, connected by bleached white ridges, cut by granite spikes that pierce the skyline like needle tips. We stop at a viewpoint restaurant that's nestled at the foot of Rakaposhi, a 7,788m peak now lost in a swirl of mist and snow, to camp for the night. Its owner, a young mountain guide, welcomes us with local green tea and dried apricots. 'All this land,' he says, sweeping his hand around this part of the valley, ' was given to the father of my grandfather in exchange for 5 kilos of onions by the Mir of the time.'
May 4th: Gulmit to Karimabad, 35km
In this desolate valley, marbled by crazy streaks running riot through the rockface, our road winds on once more. We pass suspension bridges strung across the Indus, ropes frayed, planks missing, like sets from a 'Spielberg' picture. But this sense of abandon is set to change. We are entering Hunza, the lost Shangri-la, renowned for its kindhearted people and fertile valleys. A land forgotten by time.
Mythology, apparent in the black material tied to vehicles, also encompasses the casting of spells and the roaming of fairies. Rumour has it the right words uttered over a lock of hair can cause a field to fall fallow or a woman to be tricked into love. Old Hunza women still bury their toe nail clippings lest they fall into the wrong hands... But as magical as the views that extend before Karimabad may seem, it's not a village untouched by the tentacles of commercial tourism. Prices are quoted in dollars, smart four wheel drives rush elderly holiday-makers round a 'best of Hunza' tour and shopkeepers are delighted to welcome 'American Express.'
The Old Hunza Inn is more in keeping with our budget. I meet up with Atshushi, my cyclist friend from Japan, and there's even a Swiss on a recumbent bicycle too. 'How long are you travelling for,' I ask. 'Oh, perhaps 5, 10 or 20 years,' he replies nonchalantly, twirling his budding Daliesque moustache. 'Time is not a problem.' I wonder if perhaps the fairies have already cast a spell upon him in this timeless realm...
We forego a night of camping for a two dollar room with hot water. Just as well, for as I write, a storm lashes, pounds and howls outside. Cocooned behind rattling glass, I'm listening to the appropriate, melancholic verses of Peter Gabriel's 'Here Comes the Flood.' Moments ago, mountains could be seen; now, nothing. The 7,000 metre peaks that surround us are simply not there. Echoes of thunder roll across this ethereal mist, resounding off these vast but quite invisible creations of nature.
As impulsively as it began, the storm subsides. Mountainous half silhouettes emerge through the mist; soft grey and blue outlines peer over each other in anticipation of the clearing air. A gloss of rain collects in fields, roofs and roads. Caught in angular granite protrusions, a powder of fresh snow seeps into each nook and cranny. As do the last lingering clouds, which lie stretched over valley folds, shadowless. Utter calm wraps up this moment of raw power, as shards of rock reflect a glimmering orange light. Unreal in its stillness, the last light of the evening lends a clarity that defies all sense of depth. We look out to layers of mountains, as crisp as a movie set; silent power personified.
The electricity flickers back on and it's my turn for the shower...