For the uninitiated, Landa Bazaar is perhaps the cheapest place to buy used clothes and, well, basically used everything. I was in the narrow galleys and shady basements of the bazaar, looking for hiking boots, hats, sleeping bags and knapsacks that it finally hit me where I am headed: Rakaposhi Base Camp. Those three words were echoed in my head as I bargained with a Pathan about the price of shoes. He wanted six hundred rupees – I offered two hundred. “A little too much,” exclaimed Sobia from somewhere in the back, promptly enough the English was caught by the Pathan and he became ever more adamant about his ‘sahih price’. We settled at three hundred for what seemed a decent pair of hiking shoes – more on those later. We spent a good 4 to 5 hours scouring the breadth of the bazaar, looking at things we thought we would never find anywhere else in the world and bargaining nonetheless about the prices. Our group walked out of Landa Bazaar armed with four pairs of boots, a lost bargain on hats, a knife, and a little bit of disappointment for not finding knapsacks which we hoped to find.
Running around the city looking for assortments that general stores sell very rarely, we were known instantly as LUMS students. I chuckled silently to myself as 50 people went to the poor chemist for 12 packets of ORS, Water purifier, motion sickness tablets, Panadol and ‘aisa karain keh chap stick bhee dey deain’. Gathering our gear before the trek was a build up to the eventual departure on May 13th. It’s hard to describe what one feels the first time you put on a full knapsack and feel the tug of the straps on your shoulder. Eventually it finds its way to the roof of the bus, but that first moment of trying it on and fixing the straps is ritualistic, for me at least.
The commotion got worse as more and more and more and yet even more people poured into the students’ center. Someone needed rope, others needed help tying a sleeping bag to their knapsack, yet others had forgotten batteries, and I was just loosing my patience to get going. I was all packed up, along with my lot of friends, and decided it was a good idea to get some grub. The 24-hour bus journey was the last place to develop an appetite. Rice and chicken sounded pretty decent to me; gulped down with 250 ml of coke and a very satisfied Yasir Khokhar headed towards a 48-seater bus. My big bag of good music was with me, along with the noise repressors; my monstrosity headphones that I know can shut out the noise of 10 very loud lunatics playing Antakhsri on the motorway. My refuge in music was a consequence of not knowing 95% of the songs that were being ping-ponged across the bus, some nice, others cheap and even though I would have not fancied to admit at that moment, it was an enjoyable ride by all standards. We made good time to Kallar Kahar. I munched on a burger and smoked the moment through. It was rather late by then, and some people were already looking tired, dozing off on the 2-hour ride! The stop over revitalized most of them and once we started off again, the noise levels definitely increased a few decibels. The next stop was going to be Besham, over 12 hours away. I spent most of my time idling between the view outside, the view inside and the music. It seemed to be a lifetime away but when the time finally came for the buffet breakfast, the river Indus to cool off in, and eventually a bed to get 10 minutes of rest in, I was grateful The bus that we had left behind in Lahore, which has been delayed due to technical problems by an hour or so, joined us and it was good to see the entire group together. We were almost half way to Gilgit; perhaps it was the fatigue that wasn’t making me bounce around, but I did get a funny sensation as the miles clocked to the mark
Gilgit. A weather-beaten, excited and ready to eat a horse Khokhar reached Gilgit by 10pm, almost an exact 24 hours from Lahore. The first thing I did after getting off was to ask, “Where do we get food from?”. The equally snappy answer was: “No food, find”. 140 people in a hill town is perhaps what a blue moon is to us, and our particular hotel was not equipped to serve us. The order of the night was to hunt for the first available place that would serve me chicken karahi, if not that then anything. Thinking from your stomach has its advantages; Kamran and I were the first ones to find the hotel and order. Our curfew was at 11, but we got back at midnight. A shortage of rooms had put the ‘men’ on the roof and verandah, while the ‘women’ and ‘children’ got the rooms. The spirit of adventure had already begun and after a few hours of idle chatter with the rest, I decided it was time to retire. It took quite a bit of effort to shut out the background noise.
I slept rather late, and woke at 5 am, must have gotten three hours of sleep but I felt very fresh. The first one to the washroom as well and that I believe is an achievement for any trip. I changed into trekking gear – put on my tracks, booted up, got my shades and slapped on sun screen – I could very well have been going to war. Packed my stuff and figured that the backpack was evenly balanced. Breakfast was somewhat of a disappointment and maybe I shouldn’t have broken my habit of not having breakfast. The soggy bread and egg was making itself felt half an hour later. This was where the parties split up into their groups. Batura and Rakaposhi filled one bus, while the rest were off to Hunza and Fairy Meadows. We took our pictures, smoked our stuff and said farewell to city life. Once on the bus, I handed down my favorite tape, “Rock the Poshi”, and the trek had started.
There was something in the air that day – I could taste it in my mouth. They weren’t playing Antakshri anymore and none of us were trying to sleep either, except for Hassan of course, who looked like he was nodding off now and then. In between his lapses of consciousness, he did remark “that’s one messed up selection you have”; perhaps that remark was well deserved. After all Santana, Abida Parveen and the Righteous Brothers do have a lot in common – not. The tape had just gone through one cycle when Rakaposhi came in full view. Love at first sight? You bet. Towering over the highway, snow covered, the sheer majesty of the mountain cannot be explained in words. My pulse must have picked a few notches and the murmur rose to very audible “oohs and aaahs”. Ten minutes later we were unloading our gear from the bus.
We got off on the highway; our trek would take us from Minapin village to Happakund, which was a few hours short of base camp. We would be at base camp, hopefully, the next day. Hassan slapped me on the back with the words “Oh, it”ll be a breeze for you”, making me wonder. 33 people with ugly looking backpacks trekked through a village that took us for live entertainment. Rows of children and elders lined up the streets and wished us “Hello”s” in accented English. I was surprised to see children hardly 2 years old saying “hello, give me pen, what is your name” to me. After an hour or so walking in the village, those comments got rather boring and I was wishing for a change in the soundtrack. By now the bread in my stomach was really making itself felt and I wanted to take a rest. Luckily I found a group of our people lounging under a tree. They had stopped as nobody was sure of the way up ahead. One party had gone left, another had gone right and the local children, our only guides at this time were pointing in all directions. Deciding that this was going nowhere, myself and Bubban thought we”d scout around. We took the left path and after a 10-minute walk realized that that was the correct way. The other path led to back to where we had come from.
Another walk of about 20 minutes got us to the bridge. The Minnapin River gushed from below the bridge; the wind was very surprisingly strong and came from the force of the river. We had to put on jackets and sweaters at this point. We were loitering around, chilling out waiting for the last group to arrive, when Khurram suddenly popped up from below and gestured that we had to go the other way. Almost as if on queue, a local appeared from whom we asked the way to “Happakund”. He pointed up towards the mountains. For me he could have very well been pointing to the sky, the path he was pointing to was a 40-degree incline up a very rocky hill, and it seemed pretty “steep” as had been described to us.
Gathering my spirits and trying not to think of how steep it actually was, the best possible solution was to see what one foot in front of the other looks like – a game I played with myself to keep me going on the last trek I went to. This was something else however: rocky, dusty and steep. It’s something peculiar to mountains the way they fool you. One minute you feel the path will end right at that “point” up there. And when you reach that point, you realize there is another trek, just like the one you did…going up steeper and longer. It’s a way they hide from us their majesty and demand the respect due to them.
Two hours into the trek, I threw up. The air was getting chillier, and I was in the pursuit of this “goal” I had set. By the time I got there, the heavy backpack, thin air and a not so good feeling in my stomach, reached and expelled. I gulped down more of rocket fuel (ORS + Energile + water) and felt better. I actually thought I felt lighter. For the past half hour I had been walking alone. Sobia and Sadia joined me a few minutes later at the first stream we encountered since we had started walking from the bridge. Complaints had started pouring in about how much longer it would go on. Personally, I knew it was about three hours more, but that too was an underestimate. Three hours later, we reached “dead cow”, from where the guide showed us a distant waterfall, and described that place as “Happakund”. What seemed like a two-hour walk, he described as “5 minutes”. Either his sense of timing was skewed or he was using porter psychology on me. Either ways, I believed him for there was no better feeling then to know its 5 minutes away.
Five minutes later, it started raining. As a slight drizzle and a bit of breeze kicked in, I recalled that Hassan had mentioned earlier how he had once stood for 9 hours in a storm. I didn”t fancy Rakaposhi storms ever since. A few minutes up, the very first party who had set off was waiting out the rain. I had lost all sense of scalability by then, I asked if everything was all right, took another gulp from rocket fuel and moved on. Sobia, Huma, Sadia and Omer followed. I was going on auto drive and had not noticed who else was with us.
Two hours later the first party reached Happakund and collapsed on the manure enriched meadow. We rested for about 30 minutes during which not much was said but a lot of canned baked beans eaten with a hunger few people know. It was getting dark and I was becoming concerned about the last group, who was in my estimate were an hour or so behind us. They started coming in, in groups of 3′s and 4′s, brining with them news of those behind them. We organized ourselves into groups. One did the tents, another took care of firewood and water and the last started the stoves to get the water boiling. I sure was looking forward to maggi noodles and attached myself to this last group. Water takes quite a while to boil up there, and when I mean quite a while, it was beyond my expectations that 2 hours is what we are looking it. Lesson learned, the more the quantity, and the more time it takes. Especially when you are at 8000 feet.
Dinner that night was tasteless but delicious. It was hot and it filled up space inside. Asim had a very small. And I mean, very small fire going around which we could fit at most 4 people. Reason: no firewood. Being surrounded by a forest is not without irony. We had no axes, and there was hardly any wood around. We ended up burning thorn bushes, paper and anything that would burn – it was a brave effort nonetheless. I figured that the fire was not going to last too long, I retired early that night and discovered that I had developed a blister on my foot, but I didn”t think much of that and slept a dreamless sleep.
Next morning I jumped out of my tent crying bloody murder. My first instinct was that I had died and gone to hell, but on closer inspection of my surroundings it seemed rather to the contrary. The sun had been beating down on my obnoxiously orange tent, making it a green house fit for cooking humans. However, I should mention here that I too was a bit at fault; my night suit consisted of my entire trekking wardrobe, save for the boots, which had on popular demand been left out for the night.
It was seven in the morning and it seemed as if I had been sleeping through a greater portion of the day. The campsite was alive with freshly baked, and somewhat well slept, campers. Apart from the chatter about how miserably cold it was that night, most of us were engaged in the chores of looking for secluded bathroom spot, toothpaste or, in my case, more food. Happily munching on a Mars Bar and Energile, and lying under a shade idly gazing at the rest going though their daily rituals. Insistence from Khurram to “move my ***” and start packing, prompted me to shift gears. I was packed, fed, and ready to go in another 20 minutes.
We took a ritualized “leaving first came site” trash collection drive, followed by a camp picture. In my view, the entire party was up to the climb ahead; we seemed to have come out stronger from the beating of the night before. According to locals, the trek to Tagafri Base Camp was another 3 to 4 hours. We estimated that with our speed and porter logic it was another 6 hours. However, this path was much tamer than the one we had climbed. Less rocky, steep at times but generally lazy, it snaked through the mountains giving a spectacular view of the Minnapin glacier. The glacier itself was an ugly beast. Craggy and heavily creviced, you could feel it gnawing at itself from the inside. The path took us trough a forest with some patches of steep slopes. The porters that had been hired for the injured warned us not to consume too much water as the next water spot was at base camp. My bottle showed an alarmingly low rate of water supply and I switched to backup; orange fruit drops. The altitude made for some huffing and puffing up the slopes and at times an urge to gulp down the last drops of water I had with me. Luckily we were met half way to base camp by a frozen stream trickling some refreshingly cold water.
So far, we had not even caught a glimpse of Raksposhi on the entire trek. Hasan had warned us that we would not be able to see the peak till we got to the ridge. He could not have been more correct in his description for as soon as I reached the ridge, my jaw crashed to the floor, taking me with it. Myself, and the three others in my group, collapsed on the ground and said nothing, just stared at where we had landed.
The ridge was located at the top of the mountain we were inching up on. It ended up in a sheer fall to the Minnapin glacier, and beyond that lay the most unreal sight that one can imagine: The entire Rakaposhi – Diran ridge was in front of us, with a spectacular view of the Minnapin glacier bowl. We could see the base of the mountains and the glaciers feeding off their ice. To the right rose the Rakaposhi, ice clad. The midday sun beat heavily on the ice and made it shimmer at the top, while the glacier, ugly and craggy with blacks and whites, filled the foreground. To the right were the Kacheli peaks with greener bases and snow-covered peaks. And on our back was an unbroken view of Hunza Valley. This was worth ever step of the way.
Reciting as if from the Bible, Runaas mentioned the “ridge”. Hasan had forewarned the people of Rakaposhi of a difficult ridge crossing to the base camp. We had still not reached the base camp, but were one “crossing” away from it. We decided to go ahead and check that part out. Myself, Kamran and Runaas walked for about five minutes till we reached what seemed like a “path ends here, go back home” sign. The two feet wide nicely laid out path we had been walking on, ended in to a mountain with plenty of footholds, but a very unpleasant 200-300 foot fall to the glacier below. My immediate reaction was to exclaim that my tent would be pitched at the ridge and there was no point in playing Spider Man today. We walked back to wait for others and take a majority decision. The factors playing their part were that the ridge had no access to water, it was extremely windy, and most of all, the guide told us that a small shack that served food had been opened at base camp. That did feel worth an attempt across the ridge. Runaas upon hearing that declared he was going to cross. He made it without apparent difficulty by holding on to natural handholds and going across Indy Jones style. Ten minutes later myself, Mamoo, and Said, who had joined us, decided to go as well. The crossing was difficult. What we had initially thought as a small patch was instead a 10-15 minute crossing on rock and gravel. The path did not exist in certain places, and where it did, one had to be extremely careful about foot placement. One slip and it was goodbye cruel world.
Base camp was a flat meadow with a stream running right through it. Rakaposhi towered above us and a hut spewed out smoke, promising warm food. If I had thought I had died and gone to hell earlier that morning, I was living to see heaven right now. I limped across the flat ground (courtesy of my blister) to the hotel, where they were serving, beat this, Coke!!! My barbarian instincts overtook all others and I took down that bottle in one hefty stroke. Daal chawal was served next, followed by a cigarette and what a wonderful world this was! Everyone was down to base camp within the hour and the party had begun! For most that consisted of lazing around, guzzling coke, smoking, or destroying the contents of a plate of daal chawal.
The base camp itself was lovely. We were blocked from the wind by the 100 foot glacier moraine on one side, and mountains on the other. The stream was channeled from melting snow off the glacier, and a five-minute climb up the moraine gave us the view of the Diran-Raksposhi ridge. I would have wanted to shoot at sunset, but I had opened my blisters and walking was a pain in every sense. That day I retired to rest and food. We sat around on sleeping bags and mattresses, chatting away the evening till nightfall. Dinner was served from the shack and consisted of roti and daal, which was warm and positively good. We were not allowed to light a fire, as there was scarcity of firewood, plus a local effort to preserve the adjoining forests. The cold had gotten to some and most of us were in our tents by eleven. However, cross tent conversations went on till late. What goes on between tents when you have a group of 33 below 25 is a story in itself and better left to the imagination.