While Pakistan struggles with a severed submarine Internet cable (the communications ministry, apparently, had misled the country for years about the existence of a backup line), the TT struggles with how best to introduce you, fellow travelers, to the awesome, mind-clearing spectacle that is the Hunza Valley.
[Warning: if, by accidental osmosis, I employ any Salman Rushdie-esque putting-together-of-words or random narrative experiments, it is because I am reading Shame, the pre-Satanic Verses novel about â€œnot-quite Pakistan,â€ loaned to me by Rachel-in-Islamabad, and possibly illegal to possess in this country (donâ€™t worry, Iâ€™ve got a book cover).]
For a time, I was going to regale you with descriptions of our flight, soaring above icy peaks and green valleys, like Gandalf-astride-an-eagle; then the harrowing, wing-tippy landing followed by stepping-off-the-plane, the blast of lightness, the cool of mile-high air, blooming flowers, and us, surrounded by so many embracing family members with their warm, drawn-out â€œSalaams.â€
Then, I thought, the entry should be about our minibus ride along the Karakorum Highway (KKH), the High Road to China, claimed by the many thousands of Pakistani and Chinese workers who blasted it out of cliff-hugging donkey trails to be the Eighth Wonder of the World; crammed into our seat with people who spoke differently than those in Islamabad, dressed differently, mountain people who smiled warmly at the token foreigners in their midst, these whites who oohed, ahhed, and clutched each otherâ€™s arms while not-looking at the long, straight-down voids beyond their open window.
But, upon entering the Hunza Valley, a sweeping swath of greenery painted between gray, white-capped sharpness, cleaved down the middle by a deeply gouged river whose sheer thousand-foot banks spoke of its power, I knew that the starting point of my mountain report was here, in this astounding oasis where the name â€œShangri-laâ€ is bandied without abandon.
Let us climb to a perch above it all then, to Duikar, the Eagleâ€™s Nest, the famed sunrise spot, where east-west, valley-long views are unique enough to endure the hike to them, and whose height reveals even more five-, six-, and seven-thousand meter peaks than are visible from the villages below. Yes, Duikar, whose Middle-Earth-sounding name fits nicely with the fairytale scenery which, in turn, belittles any trifling adjectives applied to its grandiosity.
We ascended to Duikar from our hotel in Karimabad, through the village of Altit, where children shouted â€œHalloâ€ from the treetops; where twenty-something bachelor, Rahmal Kazim, invited us into his home for the use of his toilet, then served us tea, fresh cherries, mulberries, dried apricots, and conversation; where gentle old men in their flat-topped woolen Hunza caps, greeted us with â€œAsalaam aleikum,â€ and â€œHow-are-you-sir-what-is-your-good-name,â€ shaking hands and smiling.
We finally reached the top, my wife and I, watched a drawn-out sunset, and decided to spend the night, ceiling of stars above the roof of the world, in a canvas tent with made-up beds (100 rupees, or $1.67 for us both), in order to witness this famous dawn.
â€œWake up call, sir,â€ came our soft-spoken host, Shah Aliâ€™s voice at 4:30 a.m.
Finally, we come to the beginning â€” the beginning of my report to you, the beginning of the day, the beginning of our mountain exploits. At precisely 5 oâ€™clock, the pointed peak of Mt. Rakiposhi (7,790 meters tall, nearly five miles above sea level!) turned apricot-orange. First light traveled above and between the folds of the Hindukush, striking this highest mass from some impossible angle, then, slowly, began washing down the crisp-white slopes â€” first of Rakiposhi, then the others, then alighting on nearer, lower ridge tops, until, finally, at 7:30, the Himalayan sun struck the back of my neck as I sipped instant coffee and breakfasted on eggs, Hunza bread, local butter, and apricot jam.
In our sphere-encircling journey of geographical â€” and historical â€” loops and rings, we arrive full circle to the Tranquilo Travelerâ€™s first report: standing at 9,000 feet above the sea, surrounded on all sides by heart-swelling mountains.
Welcome, everybody, to the Hunza Valley:
P.S. Tomorrow we will be received in the Hunza Royal Palace. The following day, Sunday, we depart for a 5-day trek to Rash Lake and possibly to 5,100-meter Rash Peak for views of K2. If I don’t get a chance to update tomorrow after our meeting with the Mir and his wife, I’ll be back on line at the end of the week. Until then…