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Alone in Pakistan

Submitted by chrisharkness on 2004-11-29

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The culture shock to this place was immediate. As my taxi driver drove me from the Islamabad airport into the heart of Rawalpindi, Pakistan, I was struck by how different every iota of existence was here. I had just spent the previous month climbing in the Pamirs of Kyrgyzstan, and though these two countries were but one mountain range away from the other, the two cultures had obviously never intermingled.

I had no guide book and really no clue what to expect from this country. What I got was my first experience with a fully Arab, devoutly Muslim culture. As my driver drove crazily into the city, swerving around people and missing cars and other inanimate objects by inches, I was agape with the unexpected. Everyone was in uniform here. The traditional ‘shalwar kameez’ hung like baggy clown suits from all the men, while the rare woman was further clad in a face-concealing veil. What was this? All the men were holding hands!

Decoration was everywhere. Shiny gold, silver, and copper shone from street vendors to taxi cabs. In particular, there seemed to be some kind of correlation between the size of a vehicle and the extent to which it was decorated. Especially those ostentatious dump trucks; each one full of paintings, streamers, pinwheels, and everything that was shiny. Like some sort of over-sized Christmas decoration on wheels—I couldn’t help but laugh.

The vehicles here were all very strange. The ‘Ricksha’ car, a mini bike that towed a cart with two back-to-back benches (everything adorned in golds and silvers of course) would carry eight Pakistanis for just a couple of Rupees. The buses did not have horns, rather a high-pitched whistle. Everybody else with a horn used it liberally. The driving was by the far the most insane I had ever seen. The night air was hot and humid, and the smell was that universal third world stench of sewer and garbage. It was a bizarre ensemble for the senses indeed.

Embracing the shock, I asked my driver to take me to the cheapest hotel possible. I needed to save money and wanted to see no other tourists, so he took me to the Moeen Hotel in the middle of one of the bazaars. Soon, after checking in, I had the most proper introduction possible as a Punjabe man approached me. His name was Ali Babar and he sounded a bit like Apu from the “Simpsons” (classic, huh?). “Oh, you are from America? That is wonderful! If there is anything I can do to help you, anything you need, please my room is #4. Have you seen the city? Oh, I will show you!”

I spent the evening with this man as he showed me the southern bazaar, the food, shops, introduced everyone in the city as if they were his brother, and insisted on paying for everything. At first I thought he was just exceptionally nice, but this scenario would be repeated with nearly every Pakistani I would come to meet.

The next day, I had the blinders back on—Trango Tower. For years it had been my dream to climb in Pakistan; and as far as I was concerned, Trango was the mother of all rock climbs; the ‘crown jewel’ of the Karakoram. Unfortunately, the last of two partners had bailed on me just weeks before departing, leaving me stranded with a Pakistan visa and a fading dream. It was incredibly disappointing; but maybe, just maybe, I could bring a bare-bones rack, cross my fingers, and hope for a partner once I got there. It was a long shot, but I had to at least try.

So, the next day I met with Asghar from Jasmine Tours, and promptly learned it was illegal to go to the Trangos alone; it was in a restricted area and I would never get past the first checkpoint without a government-approved guide. I completely despised this idea but had no choice and was appointed Mr. Anwar Ali, a local from the mountain village of Hushe. Fortunately, Anwar would turn out to be a wonderful companion. He was knowledgeable, experienced, generous, and had a big heart. He met me there in Rawalpindi, and after a briefing with the Pakistan government we were off for the northern areas. To save money, I took the marathon-long 24 hour bus ride to Skardu.

Arriving in Skardu, the expenses began to accumulate at once. Dissimilar to Kyrgyzstan, everything was expensive here. Hotels, food, equipment—everything doubled or tripled in price the minute the greedy vendors saw my Western face. On top of this, I found out we would have to hire porters. I abhorred the idea! Though only $5/day, after insurance, equipment, food allowance, it got quite pricey to have six porters for 30 days. I didn’t understand the number at first; all they would carry was food! Worst of all, I was required to equip these guys with everything: insurance, kerosene, a stove, tent, tarp, food, and almost all of my warm clothing. Further expenses: camping fees, a $60 jeep ride to and from the trailhead, bridge fees, etc., etc.—I couldn’t believe all the crap I had to pay for! Tallying up the expenses that night I realized I was way short of funds. The money debacle had me completely floored, and as I finally considered aborting my dream to go to the Trangos, I began to cry. No, I couldn’t give up just yet; I could get money, but how? Skardu was in the middle of nowhere. I would have to go to Gilgit, six hours away, the nearest town with Western Union and have someone wire me the money; it was going to work.

The next day, crammed between 20 Pakistani men in a 15-passenger van, I headed to Gilgit-but the problems had only just begun. Checking my emails in the local café, I discovered that my truck (which doubled as a home while in the States) had been stolen from my friend’s house in Denver. All of my personal belongings had been in that truck. Next E-mail: $3000 of climbing gear (which I had mailed home from Kyrgyzstan upon discovering I had no partner for Pakistan) had been lost in the mail. I was now the owner of nothing, save the one backpack I’d been traveling with. Then, to make matters even worse, it took not one but six days of sitting around before I finally was able to get money sent via Western Union, due to a myriad of problems. I was beginning to wonder if God himself was on a mission to stifle any enthusiasm I might have had for this trip. Noticing me sitting there in the public call office, depressed, dazed, and otherwise incoherent, a kid named Usman invited me to his house, to which I complacently obliged. It turned out to be a momentary reprieve, and for 12 straight hours I almost totally forgot why I’d been so depressed.

The next day, I finally had my $500 dollars sent by my dad, and I was back on the way to the Trangos. After spending a day in scary Jeep rides (one with faulty brakes, requiring us to occasionally slam into the cliff-side in order to stop), and four days of hiking, it was my 25th birthday, and we had finally arrived at the Trango base camp.

Color me unimpressed. The world’s tallest big wall, the West face of ‘Great Trango Tower’, was a 2500’ rock wall sitting on a 2500’ pile of choss. It looked completely unstable. Talk about unappealing; I wasn’t quite sure what had ever compelled anyone to climb through that crappy approach slab. As was expected, the 3000-foot ‘Nameless Tower’ (a.k.a., just the “Trango Tower”) perched right next door was the real attraction. Even this, however, wasn’t quite as big as my imagination, or the poster above my bed, had proclaimed it should be.

Nonetheless, I was finally here! I began looking for partners at once. A Slovenian team had just gotten off of Trango, attempting and failing on a route called “Eternal Flame”. They looked thrashed but said they’d try another go via a different route in a few days. I tried to hint at a partnership, but they seemed pretty disinterested; I’d check again later. So, I went up the valley to check out the Shipton Spire base camp. Now, THAT was a big wall! Across the glacier a monstrous 4400-foot monolith of towering vertical stone protruded abruptly from the ice. Immediately to my left was ‘Hainablak Tower’, the ‘Cat’s ears’, and ‘Uli Biaho’. Not mountains, but vertical fangs of granite punched through the chaos of the Trango glacier and soared up through the clouds. A Slovakian team resided at this base camp. I hung out with them for the day, but they too were some of the world’s elite rock climbers, and not interested in pairing up with the likes of me.

Heading back to Trango, I tried one last time to persuade the Slovenian team, but I believe a sense of desperation had crept into my speech, and they stood firm that they did not want to climb with me. I could hardly blame them. I simply had nothing to bring to the table: very little climbing hardware or ice gear, no ropes, just one year of real big-wall climbing experience, and a semi-functioning right hand (which had been broken in Kyrgyzstan); plus they didn’t know me. I was just some random kid desperately looking for someone to climb with. I suppose I wouldn’t want to climb with me either. This was the problem with rock climbing; I had to have a partner. No amount of determination could get me up any of these walls if I didn’t have someone to give me a belay.

Such foolish optimism anyway; I suppose I blame it on a trip I had made to France a few years before. Armed with a rope and a French dictionary, I managed to hitch-hike my way to the ‘Verdon Gorge’ in Southern France. I had been exploring the European crags for two months, but rumor had it that “The Verdon” was the place to find the big cliffs. So, partnerless but hopeful, I decided to check it out. Aimlessly I wandered up to one of the climbs and watched as a party of three crawled up the last pitch and climbed out of the canyon. I walked over and introduced myself to a man dressed in a flamboyantly silly yellow climbing suit. “You are here alone?” he asked. “Yeah, just looking for a climbing partner”, I responded hopefully. “Well, you must climb with me then! You see? I have no climbing partner either.” As it turned out, Icaro was an aging Italian climbing guide from the “Dolomites” in Italy that had made several trips to the Verdon over the years. He was already very familiar with the area and happened to need a partner. I couldn’t believe my luck! I had been dealt the royal flush of all climbing opportunities and became determined not to let him down. Seeing my enthusiasm, he delegated me to the position of “rope-gun”, and let me do most of the leading. The days that followed were a joy as he led me from one enormous limestone line to the next. Two weeks prior, I had never even heard of the Verdon. Two weeks later, Icaro and I had climbed some of the best and the baddest that the Gorge had to offer.

But this was the world-famous Trango Tower; clearly a world away from France. The Verdon had been “sport-climbing” (if you call clipping wood blocks and stopper-knots between 20-foot run-outs “sport-climbing”). This was big-wall climbing of the tallest order, and any luck that I may have had on previous trips, had long since run out. Staring hopelessly up at Trango one last time, I resorted miserably to trekking—but not before the mountains had a chance to flex their Karakoram muscle.

That night I was awoke by a CRACK! Then another crack followed by a horrible guttural explosion. It was distant, but also very near. Suddenly, everything was rumbling and exploding. Normally a rock fall should have died out by now, but the noise continued to crescendo to a terrifying climax, the resulting earthquake triggering rock falls across the valley. I futilely curled into my sleeping bag beginning to think the entire valley was caving in on itself. ‘Uli Biaho’. Snowmelt had been releasing rocks all day from this cliff which stood half a mile across the glacier, and stood a mile overhead. I tried to imagine what sort of massive boulder could have unleashed such power; I wished I could have seen it.

The next day I said good-bye to the Slovenian team and wandered back across the Baltoro Glacier, depressed, but at peace—at least I had gone down swinging. Plan B: we would explore the virgin ‘Aling Valley’, which had been named after my guide, (the ‘ng’ suffix meaning ‘long’ valley). This valley had been traversed just once by him and was rumored to have loads of virgin mountains. However, after getting to the 15,000 ft. mark or so, we were stopped by treacherous crevasses; impassable after all for my porters that were equipped with no more than sweaters and running shoes. The weather was horrible anyway, so we were forced to turn around. But again, I would be reminded of my location. The clouds, having enshrouded the mountains for two days now, finally unfurled to reveal a spectacular display of Karakoram beauty. The Trangos on the left paled in comparison to the Cathedral Towers on the right. 1000 meter walls of perfect rock perched above miles of precarious granite made up the first set. Then behind the whole massif, an enormous disembodied form uncloaked itself, towering above everything. Convinced that this craggy pyramid-shaped monster was none other than K2, I began taking pictures. “Is that K2?” I asked Anwar. He just laughed. “No, that’s... (he thought a moment as if to emphasize its insignificance)...Biale Peak!” Biale Peak? It sounded only vaguely familiar.

So, we headed back down valley. I was disappointed and complacent again. Well, I guess I may as well just check out all the big-wall opportunity I can, forget about climbing. So that was precisely what I did. The following weeks were spent visiting various other climbing venues like the Charakusa Valley, Masherbrum Valley, and the Amin Brak base camp-doing recon for my next trip. Unfortunately, the clouds seemed to instinctively know every time that I wanted to snap a photo, and were a permanent obstruction to any decent pictures.

Anwar turned out to be much appreciated this trip. In the States, I’m sure his expertise would have cost at least $200/ day, but here he only charged $10. Most appreciated though, was his willingness to fight tooth and nail every time I had to pay for anything. Even with his badgering of the bastard jeep drivers and vendors trying to overcharge me, I still had to borrow money from him to afford the jeep ride back to Rawalpindi. My last Rupee had been spent on the porters.

As we headed back to “Pindi”, I was completely spent. I had wanted an authentic Pakistani experience, and now that I had gotten it, I was absolutely sick of it. For a month, I had heard nothing but Urdu (the local language), Balti music, and eaten Pakistani food. At first, this food was a fun and new experience. But after the 100th meal of chapati, rice, and chewy tasteless meat, I was ready to puke. The local Balti food wasn’t much better either: sour curdled “yogurt”, salt tea, bland stale bread, and a substance that looked like cookie dough but tasted rather like nothing (perhaps wheat germ--or dirt). Although I had long-since forgotten about such luxuries as a toilet, a bed, toilet paper, or a warm shower; I found myself sometimes literally having dreams about eating pizza. A bowl of cereal, cottage cheese, an Oreo shake; man, what I wouldn’t give...Unfortunately, once I got back to civilization again, I couldn’t eat a thing due to a case of Giardia I managed to pick up (which ended up lasting for two months!).

Sometimes I felt as if I’d been getting continually punished for some odd reason for being there. Almost everything I hoped to do had failed miserably. Just about the only thing I got out of this was the knowledge of how to put together my own expedition—a knowledge which I hope to use in the future. My guide Anwar proved to be a valuable resource for me, and I had at least successfully de-mystified the whole “Pakistan” thing. It had always driven me crazy reading an article on yet another successful climbing expedition to Pakistan. I wondered, ‘how did they get there? How do they know what to climb? How does one plan an expedition anyway? What’s involved? How much does it cost, etc.?’ Now I knew.

As I paid off Anwar, we began discussing future expeditions together. Actually, my entire trip had been devoted to figuring out how to make the next trip a success. “Inshallah, next time is better”, he promised. I spent the next few days making my way to Lahore, Pakistan-slowly, and under the influence of my miserable stomach ailment. As I boarded a plane to Korea, I looked back over the polluted city and cringed at the thought of returning to this place. Reminiscing, all I could think of was failure, loss, disappointment, sickness, and the gag reflex I would now have from the smell of curry. True, I do believe this country had gotten the better of me-for now; but even then I knew I could not leave it for good. I knew I would be back again for Round 2.


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