We were soaking the sights , smells and views of Rama and chilling. The days are warm but not uncomfortable. If it is bright and sunny, care must be taken to avoid sunburns as the UV index is very high at these altitudes. The kitchen crew continued to feed us hot meals and we explored the area either solo or in small groups. We did drive down to the town of Astore where our cell phones worked. It was kind of amusing to find group members occupying high ground trying to get the strongest signal while making a call. Our club President Romano who did not accompany us on the trip was our focal point and we passed on all updates to him who posted them on our facebook page.
For the first time since we set off on this expedition we slept till late. We probably could have slept longer had it not been the uncomfortable rise in temperature inside our tents as the sun rose. We got out to appreciate the scenery as we had selected the camping spot almost at random. Towering mountains, tall pine, ceder, fir, juniper and oak trees, a noisy stream and proximity to good toilets made it a good choice. The kitchen crew had set up their wares and were preparing some good hot breakfast. ‘Parathas’ or fried bread with loads of eggs washed down with a hot cup of sugary tea prepared us for our days activity. For some the days activity was to crawl back into their tents for a snooze, the rest however chose to explore the area. Hammocks were strung, The plan was for a lazy day to recharge our batteries but some of the group members were ready for action so they left for the beautiful Lake Rama. The best way to get to the lake that is nestled in high mountains is to walk it. It is a steady climb that takes you to an altitude of about 11,000 ft. The view when you get to Lake Rama is absolutely breathtaking. The 2 hour trek from where we were camped is breathtaking too for those who smoked and those who had desk jobs and used the internal combustion engine to their advantage even when going to the water cooler. However if you are lucky you can hitch a ride part of the way on back of a tractor trolley that the locals use to bring granite for construction of their houses and firewood for their heating use.
Driving on the KKH to Hunza we saw some spectacular high mountain scenery. The exalting scenery en route does not prepare one enough for the majesty and serenity that is the Hunza Valley. The Hunza Valley is a high altitude, fertile valley that supports agriculture. Hunzakuts (peopel of Hunza) have been known to live well past their 100th birthday fit, full of vitality and virtually free from disease. Regardless of what the reality may be it is common to meet someone over 80 or 90 years of age working in the fields or climbing down the side of a mountain in flip flops. It is not uncommon for 90 year old Hunza men to father children. Hunza women of 80 or more look no older than their counterpart of 40 from a city – and not only any woman, but one who is in excellent shape.
Karimabad, Hunza is one of my favourite places on earth. Can you honestly name one place where you wake up surrounded by 7 peaks, all over 6000 m. (19,800 ft.) in height? To put things further in perspective let me tell you that the tallest mountain in Europe is about 5000 m. (16,500 ft) while there are 108 peaks over 7000 m and 30 peaks more than 7500 m. (24,750 ft.) in Pakistan. (Out of the total 14 mountains more than 8000 m. (26,400 ft) in the world 5 are in the Northern Areas of Pakistan)
We must have slept for hours. It was the drivers that got up first to check on their rides. I inspected my car and found nothing wrong except a missing tail pipe and a few small dents and dings on the rear fender. Billo rides low…not too low but barely stock height. That was great when cruising along North American roads but the track we travelled on in the past few days was pure torture. I found the carpet mats in the car a bit soggy so I removed them all and lay flat to dry in the searing Gilgit heat. They were dry in no time. I brushed loose dirt off and placed them under the hood. For the rest of the trip I’ll be driving without any mats.
In theory the drive down from the summit should have been easy. However the steep incline combined with hairpin turns and the loose rocks make it every bit as treacherous as the climb up to the top. We were getting into a whole different world as far as temperatures were concerned. From near zero temperatures at the top we gradually approached mid to high 30’s in a matter of a few kilometers. the road surface kept deteriorating and my worries that we would face the worst section of the road (it was actually a very close contest to award this dubious title as the track already was the bone jarring, nut loosening kind) We stopped along the way to wash off the dust and buy some cold drinks, some tea for those who preferred and to buy some snacks. The area we were passing thru is a semi lawless area and carrying guns is a norm. It is therefore difficult to choose how to react if you see a bunch of guys armed with AK 47’s. I wanted to get out of this area as soon as possible but I did not want to raise any un necessary alarm either. We rejoined the KKH with the shadows lengthening and barely enuff time to make it past Raikot Bridge which is also the turning for the Fairy Meadows – the base camp for those visiting the 26,600 ft Nanga Parbat. As we had no intention of calling on the fairies this once we carried on.
Along the way we passed the dreamy garrison town of Abbottabad… Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of Abbottabad? It is the place where the alleged perpetrator of 9/11 Mr. OBL was hiding all this time. We have unconfirmed reports that Osama used a VW for his trips around town. We couldn’t of course confirm these rumours as the man in question is swimming with the sharks about 1700 km away in the Arabian sea.
This the torturous bit…sharp rocks and uneven surfaces a sharp incline thrown in for added adrenalin rush
Rehan Afzal, who owns a catering and hospitality business chain in his Vanagon Syncro. The set of horns you see are genuine male Yak ‘accessories’ from a previous expedition
It was just us and the 4 x 4′s with their diesel engines. Our humble air cooled motors shined that day.
at Lalusar lake with Billo- my 1960 beetle and son. (Abdullah)
Another view of the Lalusar Lake
Do you think it is getting boring? same old water crossings, same old steep grades?..Are we there yet? Trust me, there wasn’t a dull moment as we maneuvered our cars past obstacles. It was literally a choice between going over a sharp rock that could damage the tyre or the big round boulder that might leave a gash in the underbelly of our cars, deciding the position of each wheel in a split second so as not to break the momentum as we climbed rapidly. At that moment the drivers brains were like on-board computers fed information thru the eyes, analyzing the data in a split second and then directing the vehicle over the best possible (and least damaging) spot.
an obstacle course, a mine field? I doubt if Volkswagen tested their vehicles in these conditions before they were put in service..well we did it for them several decades later.
The next 10 or so km were pure torture. We climbed an insane grade dodging rocks and ruts maintaining the momentum. The co-drivers were always on the ready to jump out grab a rock and wedge it behind the rear wheel in case the engine ever stalled and the car started to roll backwards. We had good working parking brakes but the incline was such that we did not wish to take any chances. Every so often we would hear the gut wrenching thud and crunch as, despite all our efforts a rock would make contact with the lower most parts of the cars. Going thru one glacial stream I lost one of the tail pipes. Emerging at the other end I noticed the change in sound, stopped to inspect but the tail pipe was washed away by then and it was no point trying to look for it. Mujeeb’s ‘Grey matter’ took a bad hit on the crank case that almost ripped off the drain plate. two of the cars lost a headlight glass each after receiving direct hits from flying stones. (the rocks that pop out from under the wheels of the car in front or the vehicle passing going up or downhill) I was so glad Billo’s headlights were protected by simple but sturdy headlight protectors fabricated, especially as I had the $200 LED inserts loaned to me by a friend just for the trip. Despite all these minor setbacks we kept on going. The scenery was changing rapidly and for once we found that the mountain tops around us were not too high. Then the realization hit us. We were at the top!. The altimeter on the Garmin GPS read 13,721 ft. We stopped to admire the scenery take pictures and share high fives…we had just reached the highest point in the Kaghan valley and done what has probably never been done by a Volkswagen in similar circumstances. The best thing is that all our cars were intact and had made it to the top without a hiccup. We had a plan if any of the cars broke down or found the steep climb too much to handle. The Syncro 4 x 4 would have towed the weaker link and we suspected it would be Mujeeb Mufti’s Grey Matter with its 1200 cc engine packed with everything but the kitchen sink and 3 occupants including the driver. Surprisingly Grey matter made it without any difficulty. She was ‘bleeding’ but still going strong. The wind was strong and the wind chill necessitated reaching in for the light jackets. We lined up the cars for a god group shot and while everyone wanted to spend more time here I managed to herd everyone into their cars and got going…We had a long way to go.
Maqsood’s headlight glass..busted
Farhan’s too..both cars lost these on the left side.
Billo with her headlight protectors
Mujeeb Mufti – a Systems Analyst in his 1968 1200 cc ‘Grey Matter’
You know her well by now
The tech team transport enjoying the splash
Another good shot captured by Mujeeb
some local kids posing in front of Billo. I know of no other car that gives a better smile per mile average.
like i said
group picture of our rides
with the expedition participants
5 beetles, a bay window bus and a Vanagon Syncro left Islamabad on an apic journey through 1600 KM of Glaciers,Rocks,slush, mud, water crossings and unforgiving nature and the three mightiest mountain ranges – the Himalaya, the Karakorum and Hindukush, across glaciers and to heights of +14,000 ft …
The idea was to start early in the morning to beat the heat in the first three or 4 hours of driving till we reached the town of Balakot on our way to our first campsite in Jalkhad. The meeting place was the parking lot of iconic Faisal Mosque in Islamabad. We did assemble in the parking lot but the last minute shifting of camping gear from cars to the VW bus delayed us by about an hour. Luckily the day turned out to be an overcast one so it wasn’t too bad.
We made good progress and stopped only to buy ice to fill our coolers.
In Pakistan, the months of May to September are generally very hot. The mercury touches the 120*F mark several times but mostly stays between 112* and 116* in the plains. We were heading to higher altitude where the temperatures are much cooler. There is a big flow of tourists wishing to escape the heat in the plains and as the road leading to our destination was not a very wide one I had briefed the group members to pack in a lot of patience.
The other factor that I made everyone aware of was the road condition. There are two ways to get to Hunza – our first destination. The main artery is the Karakoram highway popularly referred to as the KKH. The KKH is the highest international paved road in the world, a feat of engineering and human resilience and also called the 9th wonder of the world. The KKH connects Pakistan to China and is the main trading route between the two countries.
The river Indus flows almost all the way alongside the KKH. The under construction Basha Dam on the river Indus, when completed, would store massive quantities of water for irrigation as well as produce electricity. The site of the dam is smack in the middle of the KKH. When the dam starts storing water, a big chunk of the KKH would eventually be under water. In anticipation, the government of Pakistan has stopped doing any maintenance work on the highway and it is currently a nightmare to travel on.
The other alternative is to drive up to Babusar Pass (and eventually Babusar top Alt. 13, 700 ft) and climb down to Chilas (a small town in Distt. Diamir) and rejoin the KKH. This road – if one chooses to call it that, is unpaved for the most part and although it has been widened in anticipation of it being developed as an alternate to the KKH, is still a challenge to travel on. There are steep climbs and glaciers that one has to deal with in addition to a number of fast flowing glacier melt streams. There are no bridges and the only way to get across is to drive through. The best option is to cross these streams before noon as the water flow increases with the rise in temperature during the day. It would be almost impossible to cross these streams for our humble VW beetles if we got delayed for any reason.
The plan was to start from Islamabad early in the morning and get to our campsite in Jalkhad to set up camp for the night. Jalkhad is about 2 hours drive from the top of the pass so we could cross the streams in low flow.
Ok so i have given you most of the dry talk on the plan and hopefully have got your full attention too. We’ll take a break here and share some pictures so you don’t go off to watch the weather channel instead.