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Several years ago now I was fortunate enough to partake in an expedition in Pakistan. We landed in Islamabad and spent the night in Rawilpindi before beginning what would turn out to be an arduous journey up into the mountains. The airport in Islamabad was a bustling centre of activity with hundreds of people crammed into a small space, all vying to get a glimpse of their newly-arriving relatives or friends, or simply just there for the hell of it. We went out into the car park to find some taxis to take us to our hotel, but the traffic was jam packed and not a vehicle could move. It was so bad that there was a fork-lift-truck in operation removing cars which had been left at the roadside with their engines still running! They were put to the back of the car park. On the way to the hotel we passed hundreds of brightly coloured vehicles with people hanging off them by the dozen! this apparently was normal, said our trekking guide from Karakoram Experience. The road etiquette was nothing like England - traffic lights were routinely ignored and there didn't seem to be a right or a wrong side of the road to drive on so far as I could tell.
We arrived at the hotel which was air conditioned - a far cry from the heat and sheer intensity of the external atmosphere. We spent the evening touring the streets of Rawilpindi where there was so much to see and such a diverse and alien experience to be had, given that I had never been to Asia before. I bought a Shalwar Kameez (sorry if that's not how it's spelt!) and soon I was dressed for the kill. I still have it and wear it sometimes - it's so comfortable and airy, excellent for the summer.
So, the next day we boarded this bus with bars on the side and blue perspex shutters. It was entirely decorated with ornate trinkets and colourful paintings, although the seats had apparently been relatively ignored - they were blue plastic and we ended up becoming welded to them in the heat of the journey. The tyre treads were virtually non-existent. We were headed towards the Karakoram highway (the old silk road leading to China) and had a two-day journey ahead of us. The driver was pretty sure that he could get us safely there by the will of Allah, and he did so despite nearly driving us off a steep mountain pass into the mighty Indus river many times! It was on this journey that I saw the most incredible mountains for the first time - they would tower over you and the sense of perspective was totally new to me, being used to buildings and fields in England. Such large objects I don't think had ever fallen on my retina.
We met some wonderful people on the journey up to the northern village of Hushe, the highest village in Baltistan. We had to take jeeps for this latter part of the trip because the roads became much more unstable and narrow, passing over fords and ditches. We were greeted with such a lovely warm welcome by the villagers, who served us up what to them must have been an absolute banquet. Unfortunately the majority of our group had not the immune systems that the locals benefitted from, and so as true Brits, we all got the worst case of the runs you could imagine. Immodium was the order of the day for most, while some managed to get in some acclimatisation climbs for we were at 3000m above sea level and would eventually be going to around 6000m or so. Once the tummy jibes had stopped we set about spending a few days in the foothills around Hushe helping on a water installation project for the village, carrying pipes up the mountains to a freshwater stream since the low streams were glacial meltwater and had impurities.
The smells in the valley were absolutely beautiful - like a perfume from a far-off land - totally intoxicating, combined with the slight light-headedness of the first day or two due to the altitude. I was in my element. After a day's digging and pipe-lugging we would wander back along dykes and drainage channels in between terraces of crops that were greener than any I have seen in this country. There were also yaks and goats to meet on the way, if you had the time.
We were camped in a valley and could see the 23rd highest mountain - Mashebrum - through our tent door - at the foot of the valley where the mountains split and turned into the Gondoro valley and the Mashebrum valley. We would be headed up both of these in due course. again, when it came to getting there the perspective was totally baffling. What had appeared like a couple of miles away from our camp turned out to be 10 miles or more. Little hills in the distance took an age to reach and when you reached their summit you realised they were enormous great things. It's just that beside these gigantic mountains, anything would appear to be small. That's pretty much how I felt most of the time actually - very very small.
We climbed a mountain called Gondoro Peak, and went up to the base camp of Mashebrum - the climb of Gondoro was slightly hampered by poor visibility from the top, however. Nonetheless, we began our homeward route back to Hushe, but when we got there much of the place had been washed out by some extremely heavy rainfall that we had missed by being above the clouds. Word quickly reached us that Pakistan had experienced its worst rainfall in 50 years, and that the roads were damaged. The extent of this was soon to hit home badly - most of the dozens of fords we had passed over on the way up had in fact totally been destroyed and were now huge ravines with streams at their base. One can only imagine what they must have gone through. We helped the vilagers where we could by donating groundsheets and other materials for building repairs, and we left what clothing we could for them.
With the roads totally impassible by vehicle we had to walk 80km to the point where the concrete roads began at the K2 Motel. We spent one night in a village school and met the locals who were great fun - we played them at cricket, but I'll keep the result a secret! Bridges enroute had been destroyed and we were all pretty tired by now since we had to make the distance in tome to catch our flight home. Sadly when we got to the K2 Motel we discovered that another party who had been climbing K2 itself (2nd highest, but the most dangerous, mountain in the world) had lost one of their team whilst on the mountain. this was a sobering time for us, having just climbed a mountain ourselves and coming some way near to understanding the close bond between team members of serious mountaineers.
Eventually we took a flight back to Islamabad (which had not been available on the route up) which allowed us to see the wonderful Karakoram range, along with K2 towering through the clouds. We landed and spent one last night in Rawilpindi with a fabulous barbeque by the hotel pool - a complete world apart from the last month of naan and primula cheese spread!
When we arrived back in England we all had certain things we wanted to do, like have a pint or eat a pizza (how very unoriginal, I know!) but after a few weeks of retrospecting and thought we realised that we had been somewhere and done something very special. Although those villagers would have been stuck for shelter for a while we subsequently heard from them and saw pictures of the new water supply for the village. The rains had left their mark but the people were so resourceful that apparently there was little left to show that the water had nearly washed their village away.
The one thing that the whole journey taught me was perseverence: I saw it in the locals, in my team-mates and I found it in myself. If you ever get the chance to go to this most hypnotic region of the world I would strongly advise it. I dream of this place - it was so beautiful. Once in a lifetime is how the saying goes.
I'm sorry not to have told you about the time I nearly died out there but was saved by a gorse bush in the groin, or about our dances at night with the porters, or the way the stars twinkle and you can see the Milky Way when you sleep outside. Indeed, there are so many things about that trip which live in me it's like talking about a huge part of my life and I will probably never do it justice. I will return.