May 11th-15th: Karakoram Chronicles Part 6, The Descent from Zero Point to Hunza
May 11th: Lunchtime, Khunjerab Zero Point, 4730m, Jammu and Kashmir
We dine on boiled eggs and chapati by this high altitude landscape; crusted snow, soft and lilting hills, cottonwool clouds and a not so distant China. Time to wrap up warm, slip on some mitts, lower the goggles and descend from whence we came.
The road we strained up just an hour ago offers a fresh experience in reverse. I wonder how we must look from above - two black specks flying down this winding ribbon, towered over into insignificance by ranges all around. Zigzagging backwards and forwards, it unravels like a giant party streamer flung carelessly from the mountain top, whose each and every angle I know so well. Yet a startling combination of colours catch my eye - burnt-out orange, auburn, lime green, burgundy - layered into the mountainside.
A strong headwind whistles up the valley. We can't help but stop and gaze out in awe at this dramatic landscape, captured under a brilliantly clear light like in a photographer's studio. We sweep past a local cross breed of mini-yak, racing the Indus as it gathers pace, thickening and darkening with the glacial streams that swell its ranks. The valley folds in once more like a closed book and further on, an ice block shaped like a giant's molar lies by the roadside, oblivious to the burning sun.
We stop at Dih checkpoint; recognised by Khunjerab Security Forces, we're invited for more tea and biscuits. After a long descent battling a headwind, the guidebook may describe Sost as 'a depressing strip of hotels,' but we return feeling very much at home. At the 'Four Brothers Restaurant,' we bump into Brit traveller Matthew, who's enjoyed a day of hustling his opponents on the outdoor pool table.
We waste no time in placing orders in this deserted restaurant. Tucking into oily dahl, the TV is flicked on. Mysteriously, the room soon bustles with Pakistani men; skullcaps, topis, chadois camiz, long white beards, groomed moustaches, young and old. In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, it's World Wrestling Federation night. We sit glued to the melodrama of theatrical bouts between enormous hulks. We catch 'behind the scenes' interviews: 'The Rock' badmouths rippling giant 'Triple H.' We listen in rapture to two fat commentators inane comments: 'Man, he looks as tough as that two dollar steak I had for lunch!' Incredibly, all those around are engrossed; Islam has been left to one side for a slice of Western culture. 'Your country!' says a bystander with a beaming smile. 'No!' we reply as one. 'America!'
May 12th-15th: Sost to Borit Lake to Karimabad, 97km
Backtracking to Hunza, we're surprised by Australian Peter, who has just cycled over the pass from China, and excitingly, from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan before that. His tales of a crumbled USSR are intriguing; enormous Lenin billboards, sacrificial goat heads, time-warped horse and cart transport and copious amounts of vodka. A tempting rerouting to the 50 degree oven of Iran. The Central Asian flame is lit once more, and I begin to concoct yet another plan...
Resting in Borit Lake, we chat bikes, swap gear tips, pour over maps and busy ourselves with maintenance chores...Rosal's interest soon wanes. Our campsite overlooks the lake, reflecting the seven thousand metre peaks that surround it, so clearly they seem caught in its still waters. On a diet of fresh Hunza bread, homemade mandarin marmalade and local 'daudo soup,' I think once more of the Western impression of Pakistan. One cyclist described the KKH as the world's most expensive cycle path. Certainly, life's pretty good right now...
Moving on, the road continues to unravel downwards towards Hunza; we enjoy the descents and marvel at the scenery with fresh eyes. Granite rocks loom at random angles over us, towering like mysterious citadels lost in a swirl of cloud. Hunza women work the fields; like princesses, they wear their shawls over colourful pillbox caps. The 'One Pen' baton is eagerly passed from child to child. Old men, pink roses pinned to their topis, smile as we pass. We rest briefly in Minnapin, across the Indus in Nagar Valley where we camp in the lush grassland of Diran Guesthouse. Here, the cherry orchards are almost in season and the shower seems to be piped directly from the glacier above us, the perfect conclusion to a walk up to Rakaposhi Base Camp.
But we have a new mission: to return to the sweltering heat of Islamabad, procure ourselves a Chinese visa and venture into the land that was once the hunting ground of the very first super-spies. Central Asia, stuttering under independence, rich in history and tradition, now in economic limbo. Home to a forgotten colonial clandestine war; coined 'The Great Game' by the British, 'The Tournament of Shadows' by their Russian counterparts. If all goes well, we could be in Kyrgyzstan by spring...