Travel: Credit on a high road with no bank: Desperately short of readies and several days' drive from the nearest cashpoint, Sue Norris sets out on a trek across the mountain ranges of northern Pakistan

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The Independent Travel
The manager of the Naran tourist camp was depressed. As he handed over the keys to our chalet he told us that a family of six from Karachi, booked into one of his larger rooms, had just been seen setting up bedrolls for a further half-dozen relatives. 'It is always this way,' he sighed. 'So much corruption. It will ruin our country.'

We were even more unhappy. Although Naran is an important summer base for touring the mountains of the Kagan Valley in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, we had just learnt that it has no bank. Worse, a stretch of the road behind us had fallen into the Kunhar river, making it impossible to get back to the Karakoram Highway and find a town with a bank.

Feeling slightly foolish, we wondered whether we had enough cash to sit it out in the fir-clad hills of Naran for a few days until the road was restored. The manager refused to cash a traveller's cheque. 'It is forbidden,' he said.

The state tourist camp we had booked into is a collection of wooden chalets with concrete floors and verandas, and electricity between 6pm and midnight. The setting is in woodland by the Kunhar river, and in July it is like a warm Scotland, minus the midges.

A lot of middle-class Pakistanis come here in the summer to visit Saiful-ul- Muluk, a volcanic lake fed by an immense glacier, a couple of kilometres above the town. The surrounding meadows are used as summer pasture by the Gujar nomads, whose children chant 'Cup of tea, cup of tea' at all Europeans. It is not an invitation but a greeting.

The lake is huge, green and shining, the mountains in summer sun deceptively benign-looking: we later met a climber who had pitched camp in sunbathed foothills here, and in the morning had had to hack out his tent pegs, which had frozen into the ground.

Back in a Naran cafe we heard that the road south was, if anything, getting worse. For two nights torrential rain had thumped on to our little chalet. We cursed our stupidity in not changing enough money when we had had the chance. Then we met Mohammed Bashir, a professional guide who seemed mildly amused that we were worried by something as trivial as lack of ready cash.

We actually wanted to get on north to Gilgit, a market town off the Karakoram Highway, 260 kilometres (160 or so miles) south of the Khunjerab Pass into China. At the turn of the century it was the base for a British agent, and for spies wearing all manner of disguises. The place was central to the so-called Great Game between Britain and Russia, Britain being convinced that its imperial rival might invade India.

Gilgit lies in a staggeringly beautiful region, a place to rest before pressing on to the Hunza Valley, where apricots, peaches and pears grow in abundance - even the soup is made with apricots. We had tea and increasingly battered chocolate to deliver to a friend of a friend working in a health clinic there.

The direct way from Naran is by Jeep through the mountains and over the Babusar Pass, which for much of the year is blocked by snow but clears briefly in the summer. Mohammed said that he, a driver and a 'Jeep-helper', would take us and that we could pay them after we had been to the bank in Gilgit. We signed a piece of paper headed 'this is a contract' and left just after sunrise.

Within three hours we had put on every scrap of our clothing and were still climbing up through wild, wind-raw valleys where glaciers slide into lakes and often across the road.

Nomad families slapped aside herds of bony, horned cattle to let us pass on the boulder-strewn track; some of the women wore immense pieces of heavy silver jewellery, originals of the versions that are palmed off in swish city shops as tribal antiques. Other families emerged into the wind from under rough, horse- hair blankets that seemed to serve as both sleeping bag and tent.

Stopping at a village of a few stone buildings, we were ushered, frozen, into a warm, dark room where several men sat tending a fire and making parathas. As we were pressed to the fireside to be given tea and omelettes, Mohammed mentioned that farther on, towards the top of the pass, were 'bad men with guns'. It would be best, he observed, if we didn't stare too obviously and kept our bags out of sight.

There are a lot of guns in Pakistan. Even in Islamabad, the capital, we had returned to our hotel on our first night in the country to find the foyer heaving with Pathans, all armed to the teeth. They were totally casual about it.

Our guides were not armed. What they did have, though, was about a dozen languages between them: and somehow we were utterly confident that they could talk their, and our, way out of any trouble. Many of the valleys in this region were for centuries inaccessible, and each has developed its own distinct language.

It was not until the Karakoram Highway was blasted through the mountain ranges (the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, Pamir and Himalayas) which literally collide here that travel between valleys became feasible. The highway, which roughly follows the ancient silk route from China, was opened fully in 1986, after a surge of Pakistani-Chinese co-operation, and turned life in this region on its head. Several times we were told that when the first Jeeps appeared villagers brought out hay for them: we thought this was apocryphal until we repeatedly met people who claimed to remember it.

There are lurid accounts of occasional robbery and worse, but these are usually third-hand. One trekker told us of a terrifying encounter he had had with an armed shepherd who appeared from nowhere as he pitched his tent on the pass, yelling and shoving him before spitting and stalking off. Next morning, when he saw bear prints in the snow around his tent, he realised what the shepherd had been trying to tell him.

Hiring a guide is sensible. Guides know the risks, the roads, the weather signals and many of the languages. They also charge embarrassingly low prices.

So, with injunctions to keep our eyes fixed ahead when we passed through the tribal pasture grounds, we set off again, over the Lalazar Plateau, where Lalazar Lake sat green in the sun, two huge glaciers feeding into it.

The nature of the Jeep-helper's work was soon revealed: he was in charge of gauging the safety of crossing the fast- melting glaciers that split the track for metres at a time: and underneath is not earth but a torrent of freezing water. He also had to do most of the pushing when the Jeep was man-handled perilously across the ice.

By now there were herds of goats and cattle straying about, watched over by gun-toting boys. As the terrain opened out into flat pasture we could see settlements from which dozens of children poured out in excitement. Nearing the squat, stone-and-turf houses, we saw a great crowd of men and heard a low rumble of shouting.

As we rattled past we merited scarcely a second look. The 'bad men with guns' were too busy playing volleyball in the sunshine.

At the top of the pass a kind of dual temperature seemed to be in operation as two distinct banks of air, one cold, one hot, hit each other. If you picked your spot you could wave one hand about in a blast of oven-like heat while the other felt as if you had plunged it into a freezer. Somewhere to the east, hidden by cloud, was Nanga Parbat, at 26,660ft the eighth highest mountain in the world.

After making a spine-wrecking descent to Babusar, we were met by the the entire village. Having crossed into the Northern Areas, we had to produce our passports and then the reason for the excitement became apparent - our arrival signalled that the pass was at last clear. Ours was the first Jeep to manage the journey for an astonishing nine months. Mohammed was delighted.

We arrived in Gilgit hours too late for the bank. Mohammed simply dropped us at a hotel with a garden full of hollyhocks and roses, and balcony views of Rakaposhi peak. 'See you tomorrow,' he said, and went in search of a mechanic to fix the Jeep's shattered shock absorbers.

Getting there: Pakistan International Airlines (071-734 5544) and British Airways fly direct to Islamabad; Bridge The World (071-911 0900) discounted tickets on PIA for pounds 539 return. PIA also flies from Islamabad to Gilgit ( pounds 27 single if booked in the UK), but these flights are heavily booked and weather dependent. .

Accommodation: Most travellers in the region find accommodation when they arrive. A double room with shower costs pounds 6 a night or less. The Pakistan Tourist Development Corporation runs motels throughout the area.

Health: Protection against malaria is essential; tetanus, typhoid and polio vaccinations are recommended. Consult your GP about hepatitis A and cholera risks.

Further information: Pakistan Tourist Development Corporation, 52 High Holborn, London WC1V 6RL (071-242 3131). Useful books are the Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit guides to the Karakoram Highway ( pounds 8.95) and Pakistan ( pounds 9.95), and Pakistan Handbook by Isobel Shaw, published by John Murray ( pounds 14.95).

(Photograph omitted)

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