The NASCAR Drivers of Pakistan

The Landcruiser drivers of the Karakorams are, according to Ahsan and Linda Iqbal, the NASCAR drivers of Pakistan. More than that, they are messengers – navigating the most dangerous roads in the world to bring 21st century news and information to their communities. Their ingenuity and initiative is awe inspiring. Ahsan and Linda give a picture into their lives:

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The Jeep Driver

By Linda and Ahsan Iqbal

In the forgotten valleys of northern Pakistan, where the infrequent collision with the 21st century is heralded by the billowing dust from a Toyota Land Cruiser, the drivers of these mechanical beasts have taken on mythic proportions. The jeep driver is like the fighter pilot or NASCAR driver of the west.

The bright aquamarine, magenta and cobalt hues and colorful window decals of the jeeps and Toyota Land Cruisers are the first hint that these are not merely 4×4 transportation. These are carefully maintained steeds of the drivers that ply the most dangerous roads in the world. With an air of casual indifference the driver will navigate roads in Baltistan with barely enough room for the vehicle to fit with drops of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of feet to roaring torrents
far below.

The kids that run along side the jeeps as they roar through the villages have their favourites. They are, after all, the link to the bigger world bringing prized items like Mountain Dew, and cell phones, as well as more mundane things like flour and sugar. And merits of each driver are hotly debated by the locals whenever the driver has to show exceptional skill, such as fording a raging river.

At one point along the road to Thungol, our way was blocked by turbid glacial meltwater that had washed away the road. Locals and porters quickly excavated ramps that led down to the river fifteen feet below and back up again and a ford across twenty feet of angry river. Here the spectating began. As each 4×4 lined up to dash across the river and negotiate a steep turn and climb the makeshift embankment, the locals would comment on the drivers. “Oh, that is Ashraf. He is too cautious. Look at him slow down at the turn. Haji took the turn at speed and didn’t get stuck.” Commentary was accompanied by gesticulation to mentally move the driver along.

One of the jeep drivers complained about the high cost of maintaining his vehicle. He owns mules as well and makes more money off the mules that accompany the trekking expeditions rather than the motorized transport. He poured out his life story after bringing his little baby to Linda to examine since he had heard she was a physician. After Linda told him that the baby had to get to a hospital that day or face death, he quickly brought his wife and baby along for the jeep ride to Skardu from the far off village of Thungol. He refused to drive the vehicle himself even though he owned it because he feared he would lose concentration with his family inside and only took over once they got to more suitable terrain. He explained that parts were difficult to find and you had to have good mechanics who could fix the vehicles so you did not end up with wire and string repair which is known to happen.

The driver’s tolerance for the fear of their occupants is amazing. Jeff and I rode one jeep up the steep rode from Raikot Bridge to Tatu, probably one of the most hair-raising rides I have ever taken. My assistant rowing coach was so terrified that he loudly recited verses from the Quran all the way up as we bounced around on our seats and couldn’t wait to jump out when he was delivered safely.

The sense of deliverance when you get out is hard to overstate, and I often wondered how the drivers were able to put themselves in such a dangerous position day after day. Maybe they are not that different than fighter pilots.

Voices from Pakistan: A Kid in Concordia

Anisa Iqbal conquers Concordia

Thinking about taking a trip to Pakistan? Anisa Iqbal – my newest hiking friend and the youngest American to ever reach Concordia – says that, at the very least, you’ll need a lot of luck, a pony named “Burraf” and a few Baltoro Dance Parties to keep you going.

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A Kid in Concordia

by Anisa Iqbal : 11/29/10

As I rise out of my tent in the early morning, a beautiful scene greets me, as it does every day. Since we’ve been here a week already I’m used to it, but when I stop to soak it in, the view still blows my mind. It amazes me most looking back on it now. While we were actually on the trip my goals were to eat, sleep, wake up, and keep hiking.

I slowly get up and shove on my glasses. After putting on a warm coat, I pick my way down the steep side of the mountain to our crazily colored mess tent. The bright blue, yellow, and red contrast the grey mountains. Almost everyone is already down for breakfast; yesterday we had decided to leave the table outside to enjoy the view, so our meal today is under the enormous blue sky. For breakfast we have eggs, like always, and chapattis with marmalade and Nutella. Also present is the Muesli that doesn’t taste good without a spoonful of honey.

Jeff crosses the Braldu river as it crashes over boulders in the path.

Place de la Concorde

We are in the Karakoram Mountains, next to the Himalayan Mountain Range. It’s one of the most amazing places on earth, called by many people the “Throne Room of the Gods.” In the morning, before you even see the sun, light spreads across the sky like silk, flowing over the mountains and sneaking past clouds to rest above them. At the juncture of two huge glaciers is a camp called Concordia, named after a place in France, Place de la Concorde, where all the major streets come together.

Thinking about making this journey? You’re going to need a lot of luck to get there. We were extremely fortunate, in that we were able to cross breaks in the road made by floods with relative ease, and that my father’s uncle is a retired army officer. He proved to be very helpful, getting fuel from the army when the only gas shop’s owner was shot. After somehow making the jeep ride to a small village called Thungol, you start walking. Ten days later, if everything goes as planned, you should reach the unbelievable camp of Concordia, where you can see some of the highest mountains in the world.

Anisa meaners through the pyramid maze

“The glacier is a living beast; restless, it creaks and groans under our feet, moving like an incredibly lethargic bear.”

Everyone notices the change of terrain. Before we reached the glacier, it was either loose dirt or hard dirt. In some places there was also sand. Rocks were often imbedded in the dirt, sometimes small and pebbly, some stretches filled with large water-smoothed boulders. Once we get onto the glacier, everything changes; we can hardly see the ice that is expected to be on a glacier. All we could see in front of us was rocks, rocks, and more rocks. But as we went along, even these were replaced. At first they were big, uneven chunks; about halfway down it turned into plain shale, like the sky shattered and fell to rest on the earth on a particularly stormy day. Most were loose, too, so just one step could send someone sliding down into a bottomless pit, deep into the bowels of the earth, called a crevasse. Read more…

Voices from Pakistan : Seeing is Believing

Khalil, on the right, with the chairman and another porter infront of K2 in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan

Dear Erin,
Thank you very much for your quick reply. As you know that Pakistan is a beautiful country and people are peaceful and loving. specially Gilgit-Baltistan is heaven on earth. There are thousand peaks, glaciers, Plato and 4 peaks more then 8000m. (K2, GI, G-II, Broad Peak, Nangaparbat). Media in Pakistan and outside Pakistan showing only negative aspect and the embassies are advising there citizens to avoid visiting Pakistan, the media is not showing the parts of Pakistan which is most peaceful in world. So the people who never been Pakistan should visit Pakistan, specially Gilgit-Baltistan because “seeing is believing”. ..

We always remember you friends.

Regards,
Ibrahim Khalil Nakjanpa

I’d like to introduce you to my friend and mountain guide, Khalil. Khalil was born in a village called Kanday which is nestled into Hushe Valley at the base of Masherbrum Mountain (7,821m, 24th highest in the world). In 1974 – one year before Khalil was born- the Hushe Valley was accessed from the north for the first time via the Masherbrum Pass. Khalil still lives in Kanday with his parents, Ahmed and Zura, his wife, and five children, who he talks about with a smile that is nearly as wide as Masherbrum is tall.

There will be many more things to say about Khalil, his family, the wonders and explorations of the Hushe valley – but what amazes me most about Khalil is that although he lives in a place as inaccessible to the world as the Hushe Valley, he has devoted himself to the education of the children of Kanday so that they can learn about the world beyond the peaks of their village.

His determination and enthusiasm for education is insatiable and 100% contagious. In 2006 Khalil started an English language school in Kanday. The Amin Brakk Public School currently has 115 students – 40 of them are girls. As Chairman of the school, Khalil is committed to finding ways to connect his community with others to provide the highest quality education for his village.

As if that wasn’t enough, Khalil continues to lead expeditions throughout the Karakoams and is also the President of the wildlife conservation committee in Kanday – who are committed to preserving the natural habitats of the makhor and snow leopard, raising awareness of climate change on the glaciers, and educating the local communities about the dangers of chemicals and pesticides in agriculture.

We chatted about these things as we picked our way across Baltoro, swapped emails about them when I returned and I realized that it is literally, the tip of the iceberg. He’s got lots to say and some amazing experience to share. Stay tuned for more news from Khalil!

Khalil salutes to K2 as we make the trek back to Concordia.

Goro II : August 18, 2010 : 4,350m

Porters at Goro II © Ayub Khan

I am sitting here in Goro II with the sun burning into my back, looking at the groups of porters huddled in their rock structures under tarps (clear or blue) that are propped up by their walking sticks. The lifestyle is one of great curiosity for me and commands all of my admiration and respect. Singing is common and I have gotten used to their chatter and conversation – although I can’t understand a word of it. Tanya says that when we return home she will hear the scraping of rocks and Balti refrains for a long time. I think she is right.

Urdukas to Goro II : August 18, 2010

The route to Goro II

We pick our way across crystal clear glacial streams and rocks rocks rocks. What else can I say about rocks? They are everywhere.

Last night avalanches and landslides rumbled through camp. Horses scattered and donkeys brayed. The slides seemed close. They woke me from my sleep and I was only vaguely aware of what was happening. The rest of the camp remained silent and so I shivered mostly from cold and a little bit from fight from inside my sleeping bag and, after a while, fell back to sleep.

Looking back over the morraines. If you compare this photo with the following you can get a sense of how enormous those mountains are.

Today we landed at Goro 2 – a rocky and uneven campsite with full view of Gasherbrum IV and the tip of Broad Peak (SO HUGE!) and Masherbrum lurks behind us, but has been hiding in the clouds for most of the day.

Picking our way over the morraines There was always about 6" to 2ft of shale and rock over the ice. It made walking quite difficult!

We got our first view of huge ice boulders today sitting in the middle of the moraines. They are nothing short of huge. They are white. They are cold. And they look as if they were set down on the rocks intentionally.

The path is still rocky and rolling and each rise gives way to an even more magnificent view. Glacial formations rise up and melt away and look like carefully balanced fortresses in a field of rock.

(r-l) Ibrahim, Murad, Zohoor and the Chairman play cards.

Khorbutse to Urdukas : August 17, 2010

Every day you would take a new turn in the valley and see mountains that you had never seen before. Murad had his analogy of K2 being a beautiful woman who revealed her face a little at a time. Photo © Ahsan Iqbal

Today my lungs felt like they were going to explode. It was the first time when I truly didn’t feel like going on – ever. At one point, I thought a 2k erg test would be easier. Undoubtedly this is the hardest thing I have ever done. My arms and legs felt like molten lead one minute and light as a feather the next. Sometimes it was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other. I attribute this to altitude, naturally. I also attribute this to the fact that I didn’t drink enough water.

Hopping over a glacial stream. Ayub stands ready in case I fall. Photo © Ahsan Iqbal 2010

Most times, I feel like a bumbling idiot around the porters who fly by over mounds of rock and ice in plastic sandals – some of them wear socks. With your  boots, fancy backpack and clothes you truly feel like a spoiled and pampered hot house flower. I hate this feeling. Yet I love the porters’ friendly and inquisitive attitudes and soft yet probing stares as we pass.

For all the to-do and trouble breathing, I must say that this land is stunning. Today was our second day on Baltoro with its enormous and undulating rock fields that stretch forward endlessly … it is as if there is a mighty procession through these soaring and truly awe inspiring peaks. They look downwards on the glacier’s slow March towards the river and hold us – the smallest of all moving things – with disregard as we make our march against the flow.

We make our way along one of the many chasms of the Baltoro Galcier. Ayub and Murad had the disconcerting habit of kicking rocks into the crevasses to hear it rattling down as it descended into unknown depths. Sometimes the rattling would go on for a long time! Photo © Ahsan Iqbal 2010

We proceed cautiously stepping our way through the boulder fields -so preoccupied with where out next foot will fall that we almost forget to look upwards at the grandeur that surrounds us. I think that is how they would want it. The sky spills out a bothersome drizzle and the raindrops add to the crystal clear water that flows along white ice partially hidden beneath the rocks. Ayub is careful to point our where the boulders are hiding crevasses and at one point we stumbled and scrambled our way down the edge of one only to realize on the other side the true nature of what was under our feet. It reminds me of those children’s movies where the characters are frolicking happily along in a grassy field only to realize that the grass is actually hair and the mounds of earth are actually ears and the ground so soft and supple beneath their feet is actually the breathing flesh of a giant creature. I think it is not lost on us that we are like those little children walking along a great living organism, which could rise up at any moment and swallow us.

Urdukas : August 17, 2010

Dawn at Urdukas Camp looking over the glacial lake wit the Trango Towers and Ulli Biaho in the background. Photo © Ahsan Iqbal 2010

Now we are in Urdukas set up high in the hills away from the shifting sands. Two very large glacial pools have formed since last season, and have engulfed the original trail. Another route has been improvised over the rocky landscape (on our return trip, this new trail will also have disappeared.) The sight out the front door of my tent is truly a sight to behold. Trango Towers slip in and out of a mysterious cloud cover that shrouds everything in a bit of secrecy – leaving the most brilliant views only for those who are vigilant enough to keep and eye on the sky. A giant behemoth of rock is thrust up directly in front of me and flanked by two glaciers, which spill into the Baltoro. The mountainside behind us is rocky and green, giving the donkeys and ponies a well-deserved grazing ground before setting off again tomorrow.

The pulpit rock with some of our porters. Photo © Ahsan Iqbal 2010

When surrounded by sights so magnificent, it is oftentimes hard to scale things down and look and listen to the sight and sounds right in front of you. Six porters are perched on the boulder that overlooks the glacier, wearing varying shades of brown and gray shalwar camis. The color is not so dependent on the color of fabric as much as it is on the number of days since they have been washed. They squat in traditional Pakistani fashion – back on their haunches.

In the twilight air they smoke cigarettes and chat amicably in their local Balti tongue and let their fading jackets hang over slumping, yet proud shoulders. One is singing. There was quite a lot of singing today. Four of the others now join in song and their voices echo through camp.

Porters watching the sun go down. Photo © Ahsan Iqbal 2010