Destinations / JOURNEY
On the trip toward the Pakistan border near the village
of Sost I have a surprise for everyone. I know there is a snow
leopard close to the highway and ask Shifa if we can stop to
see it. The animal, 19 months old, was found by a villager.
She was apparently abandoned by her mother or her mother
was killed. The poor cat is in a large cage and looks sad and
lonely but the keepers tell us that there is no way to let her go
free because she does not know how to hunt. All of us decide
we want to do something for this creature but any kind of
transfer would be difficult because of all the red tape in dealing with government officials.
The Karakoram mountain range is unstable and landslides are commonplace. Sure enough, we come upon a huge
road blockage a couple of hours into the drive past Sost. With
the highway obstructed, gushing water has created a river of
fast-moving freezing glacial runoff. Shifa and I take our shoes
off and try to walk across to check the conditions. We make it
half way but the current is too strong and the water is freezing cold — I do not feel my toes anymore, so I decide this is
too risky for the clients. Didar tells me there is a small village
nearby where we can spend the night; in the morning, low
water levels might give us a better chance. We arrive at a small
guesthouse, where the innkeeper kindly cooks us dinner.
A Successful Crossing
The next morning sees us back at the landslide, where the
water is still running strong but indeed is much lower. Again
a few of us try to cross but the conditions aren’t right. I
notice a Chinese engineer nearby using a Caterpillar to clear
the road of debris and rocks and Shifa and I beg him to help.
After some “negotiating,” he agrees. It is an amusing sight
to see all these Westerners crossing on the tractor, but we
make it across dry and uninjured. We switch to another car
on the other side and start driving toward Hunza.
A couple of hours later, we come to Lake Attabad.
Another of the area’s frequent landslides cut off land
access to the other side a few years back, so we need to get
there by boat using an improvised ferry system that has
been in place for about two years. We unload the baggage
and equipment, load it on boats and cross. The water is
deep and a gorgeous turquoise color; the crossing takes
about an hour and a half and we pile into waiting Land
Cruisers. The landing site resembles a busy Indian Ocean
port with trucks, people unloading and loading cargo, and
the “usual suspects” that hang around every port. Our
military escort is also waiting for us there — officers with
AK-47s and T-shirts bearing slogans like “No Fear” or
“Antiterrorist Squad.” The senior officer is Mazrab Shah,
who became a hero a few years back after jumping into a
river to save some people whose car had flipped over into
the water. He got a medal from Pakistan’s prime minister
and is well respected in the area.
Despite the officer’s fame, I do not want an escort with
guns because it attracts attention. The Pakistan government insists, however, and my clients enjoy taking photos
with the soldiers. These images will no doubt be a big hit
Three hours later we finally arrive at Karimabad and the
wonderful Serena Hotel. The town has not changed much
since my travels here in the 1990s except for the addition of
Internet and cellphones. The people of the village are appreciative that American tourists are visiting and we see smiles
and hear welcoming words every where.
We spend a couple of days here exploring the village and visit a wonderful girls’ school (uncommon in
the area) built by Karim Aga Khan; the old Baltit Fort,
nicely restored by the Nor wegian government; and the
surrounding areas. The mountains are majestic, with
snowcapped peaks up to 24,000 feet.
Our next stop is Skardu, with an overnight in Gilgit, which
has always been a military town and isn’t that interesting to
tourists. The security is very tight and the Gilgit Serena Hotel
is no exception, but it’s a beautiful place to rest for the night,
We make it halfway but the current is
too strong and the water is freezing cold —
I do not feel my toes anymore so I decide
that this is too risky for the clients.