As a stranger stepping foot into a foreign country there is most certainly courtesies that you are yet to be accustomed to, likewise, there are behaviours that, to the compatriots of such a country, may be harmless but could be perceived as invasive or rude. One example of this could be someone watching you like a hawk while you put into practise the local table manners of attempting to eat daal with nothing but a naan using solely your right hand. This is most likely a harmless act and one is merely curious and didn’t expect to witness such a performance on their way home from a day at the market. This happens on an almost daily basis as a white, strawberry blonde haired Englishman in Pakistan, however this same behaviour can manifest in much more awkward and perhaps, uncomfortable yet humorous situations. Each morning Jacob and I will routinely stop after an hour of cycling for some brief respite by the road which inevitably turns in to some form or hard shoulder yoga session. It was during such a session when we were both a holding deep hamstring stretch, glutes raised proudly in the air when, riding in the opposite direction, two Pakistani men dressed in the traditional garb slowed to a halt. Usually this would be followed by “Hello!” Or “What country are you coming from?” In this instance, we were welcomed with nothing but silence. It seemed strange but enjoying the almost euphoric sensation of a morning stretch after consecutive days in the saddle, we continued assuming that, if they wanted a conversation, they would say.. something. Silence was followed by silence. Jacob and I, finding it quite amusing, moved on to stretching our calves, groin and back to hamstrings, left leg then the right leg. The entire time, our backsides raised to the sky. Over five minutes passed, not a word. Catching a glimpse of the couple between my legs they simply couldn’t avert their gaze, speechless. Finally, after what felt about 10 minutes, the engine of their motorbike roared into life and they were gone. Jacob and I were in stitches and it certainly made our morning. They must have been bemused, we can only assume that they were being polite and waiting for us to finish our routine but we were obviously preoccupied and thought we would see how long we could string it out. We expected that, because they had stopped it should have been their responsibility to initiate the conversation, as other Pakistani nationals have absolutely no reservations about stopping us mid-conversation or mid-ascent for a selfie or a chat. Either way, this pair didn’t but I hope they enjoyed and appreciated our elaborate gluteal display, a feast for ones eyes. I would have loved to over hear their conversation later that morning.
Gilgit became the base of operations for the following week. Crucially, Jacob had to figure a way to extend his visa having only been granted 30 days as opposed to my 60 days, despite submitting almost identical visa applications. On a wild, sweaty goose chase through the city we finally found ourselves at the office of the Federal Investigation Agency. We were ushered through and cautiously stepped into the office of the ‘Assistant Director General‘ who was sat behind his solid wooden desk with framed pictures of important, historical Pakistani individuals mounted on the walls. He was accompanied by, who we believed to be, his advisers. While Jacob tried to distinguish the formalities of a Pakistan visa extension I sat there trying to look innocently amicable. After learning that Jacob needed to make his way to Islamabad, which is what we expected but hoped wasn’t the only option, we engaged in a more topical conversation of our trip, thoughts of Pakistan and working life. We were then asked if we would kindly join him and his associates for a cup of tea. Jacob and I shared a glance that was quickly followed by “Certainly!” An Englishman rarely turns down a cup of tea. A few moments later the realisation his us, we were sat in a senior governmental office drinking sweet tea, dipping pink, marshmallow biscuits with the Assistant Director General. I felt that my seemingly vagabond apparel may have been slightly out of place but in fact, he appeared to relish the break from signing documents and simply enjoyed our company. We even left with his email address and an invitation to meet him the following year.
We set out ticking items off our to-do list in the dusty, smoggy city of Gilgit, teeming with Pakistani men clad in the traditional attire. While struggling to locate a shop that sold postcards, a young local man who could speak very good English, Adeel, rode up behind me on his Honda motorbike, an extremely popular mode of transport amongst the men of the Gilgit-Baltistan region, and started out with the usual introductory topics of conversation while expertly avoiding a road traffic collision. Once he learned the difficulty I was having he smirked and nodded “Not a problem. Follow me!” We weaved through the busy streets until finding a stationary store, unfortunately, postcards weren’t available, neither could we find a postcard at a photography print store. It quickly became apparent that we weren’t going to find a postcard in Gilgit, therefore I managed to print out a photo I had taken myself and would post this in an envelope with a written letter. I was thankful for Adeel’s assistance. “What next?” Adeel then generously gave up his entire afternoon and evening to help Jacob and I complete our check list: post letters, reinforce my handlebar bag, order a private car and armed guard for Jacobs trip to the capital, buy snacks, other essentials and even purchase a tea and coffee strainer as I had carelessly thrown my precious Sainsbury tea strainer into the Gul’cha River on day two. Adeel insisted that we were his guests and paid for everything, he wouldn’t even let me reach into my pocket for my wallet, what a kind, generous and benevolent gentleman. He even treated us to a chilled mango smoothie and a taste of his favourite local dish, steamed dumplings. We were extremely grateful for Adeel’s help and generosity, what could have been a two day endeavour turned out to be a quick whip around the city. We sat by the Gilgit River where we learned that he would spend an hour each evening in this location to relax and unwind in his own thoughts. I became very fond his Adeel, we swapped numbers and agreed to stay in touch.
That following evening Jacob was confined to his bed with an uncomfortable bloated gut. I ate a small portion of curry and naan before crawling into bed with a sharp pain in my stomach, something wasn’t quite right. I couldn’t sleep, I felt terrible, bloated, dizzy and nauseous. Throughout the night I repeatedly felt my way through the dark to the bathroom. Three violent bouts of projectile vomiting left me bed bound. Neither of us could put our finger on what it was, perhaps the local water, maybe something we ate. Either way, it was not great timing as that morning I would wave goodbye to Jacob for an uncertain length of time. The partnership between Jacob and I was to temporarily come to an end. In my sorry state I was sad to say goodbye and was encompassed by an imposing wave of loneliness and bereavement. Learning of my poor, ill state of health Adeel came to the rescue in a bid to keep me company and once again lend his assistance. He offered to take me out to get some fresh air on a short, stomach churning, motorbike ride to see the Kargah Buddah, a 7th century carving in a cliff face just outside of Gilgit. Feeling extremely unwell, we visited a chemist, that unnervingly resembled nothing more than a garden shed. Though, in spite of my preconception, the medical professional exuded competence, he took my radial pulse while Adeel explained my symptoms and considered his assessment. He seemed confident and handed me a bottle of stomach acid medicine and some tablets. On the way back to the guest house Adeel stopped by his home and proudly showed me around, he lived in a comfortable, modest house, with a colourful garden hosting a lawn of short, green grass, it reminded me of gardens back home in the United Kingdom. In desperate need of sleep Adeel took me home, I thanked him sincerely for his selflessness, “Not a problem Luke bro.” What a saint.
In attempt to stave off a bout of cabin fever I contacted the Karakoram Bikers, who hosted our stay in Gilgit and helped us with our Pakistan visa application and letter of invitation, to enquire about potential treks around the area. Confident that my digestive condition had improved I was excited to join a trek to the Rakaposhi Base Camp the following day. I was relieved to learn that I would be accompanying Adam, a fellow Englishman, who had landed at Gilgit airport that morning for a three week motorbike tour of the Northern Areas. Adam and I were immediately comfortable in the company of each other, chatted relentlessly during our taxi ride to Minapin, the starting point of the trek where he sought to fit right in by purchasing a traditional Chitrali hat which was a perfect match for his trendy sunglasses and walking boot combination.
The trek was a relatively leisurely few days, nothing too strenuous, which was good considering I was wading gingerly in the wake of illness. The first afternoon we gained altitude quite rapidly winding up a series of switchbacks before the path levelled out to more green pastures and wooded areas that were rich with the scent of pine trees, the sweet smells reminded me of hiking in the French Alps. We stopped by a little settlement of stone walled buildings, nestled in the forest by a stream that was, rather oddly, home to a pair of mallards. We rested and enjoyed a snack of local dried apricot and walnuts that we carelessly smashed out of their shells, mimicking the actions of neanderthals. The nuts were a delight and tasted so fresh and creamy, much more so than the de-shelled, supermarket walnuts available back home.
It was another hour trek to the first camp, Hakapun. Two mess tents were set up permanently on the small flat, grassy plateau to provide tea and food to the eager tourists who passed through to catch a glimpse of the 7,000 metre peaks of Rakaposhi and Diran. We were the first to arrive that day and were welcomed with a smile, a cup of oregano “mountain tea” and a bowl of noodles. Darkness engulfed the valley as another group of tourists arrived, two German couples, who quickly set up camp. Just before dinner was served, as Adam and I were mid conversation when we were interrupted by a gentle murmuring of what we believed to be… jazz? Somewhat bemused I pottered over to the German mess tent to investigate. To my amazement, they were sitting round a table eating a plate of chunky chips with ketchup, listening to soft German jazz. In a fit of laughter Adam and I couldn’t believe we were in a remote valley of northern Pakistan on our way to the base camp of the 29th tallest mountain in the world with such atypical background music, the Germans were clearly travelling in style. A short time later dinner was served, as soon as we were called I immediately regretted not stating that I wasn’t eating meat. A dish of chicken, rice and naan was served. I am well attuned to my body and having fasted due to ill health the previous day and with a six hour trek in the morning I knew my body needed nourishment, I nibbled at the chicken which my body thankfully seemed to accept. As we left the mess tent we were stopped in our tracks as the view of the night sky blew us away. The Milky Way was clearly visible, shooting stars streaked across the sky between the black shadows of the neighbouring mountains.
Morning came and the usual Pakistani breakfast was served, omelette and poratha. Worryingly, I had no appetite and even the thought of food was severely unappealing. I managed to peck at some old plain naan that I kept in my rucksack for such an occasion and sip a sweet green tea. The trek that morning was a short yet steep ascent up a dirt track, twisting amongst the fir and juniper trees. A few hours later we crested a ridge to one of the most spectacular sights. The brilliant white Rakaposhi Glacier lead up to the mighty peaks of Diran and Rakaposhi piercing the deep blue skies. I was star struck. As a self-acclaimed mountaineer I have never before witnessed such divine, natural beauty. My mind couldn’t quite comprehend that the summit of Rakaposhi was another four vertical kilometres above where we stood. We rested upon the ridge for a short time and soaked up the magnificent spectacle.
We continued trekking to the Rakaposhi Base Camp where we were greeted with another tin mug of sweet mountain tea. The sun was extremely powerful so Adam and I retreated to some shade by a stone walled building. Our tents were erected and we were joined by a Polish couple to walk onto the Rakaposhi Glacier. This was an enchanting experience, carefully picking our way across the ice as crystal clear glacial melt water snaked its way towards the valley below. We stopped for a rest out on the ice for a small snack of dried apricot and walnuts as the icy wind blew across the ancient glacier ice. Realising that I had only drank about 200 millilitres of water all day due to my fragile, digestive condition I sipped at my water in an attempt to re-hydrate myself. I couldn’t put my finger on what happened next but I immediately started to turn, I was once again experiencing sharp stabbing pains in my stomach. The walk back to base camp was a dismal 60 minutes as I ambled my way over the ice trying to avoid any sudden movements. My stomach had bloated to an inhumane size, I couldn’t bend over, something was definitely wrong. The following afternoon and evening was spent lying in the fetal position interspersed by repeatedly shameful walks passed the mess tent to the latrine. Where, during my first ‘episode‘ I was so desperate that I didn’t see the hole for, lets say, ‘solids‘ and therefore mistakenly did my business in the ‘liquids‘ tray. Before I could rectify my error, the piping was blocked. Thinking I had innocently gotten away with the honest mistake I continued trotting back and forth into the night. Wanting to let the other trekkers aware that there was a reason for my unwillingness to socialise that afternoon I sparked up a conversation with one of the Polish couple and, as it was quite obvious, I thought it would be a good idea to make a lighthearted joke about my numerous trips to the long drop and my ‘mistake‘ earlier to lessen my embarrassment about the whole situation. “Oh yes, I had heard about that,” brilliant, it seemed as though the rumour of my misuse of the toilet had spread around camp. On my next trip up the awkward stone staircase to that dreaded, roofless cell where I spent much of that evening, I was stopped by a member of the Pakistani base camp team “Hello, mister!” He shouted as he enthusiastically ran over to me, “This toilet is digital!” He then proceeded to demonstrate the difference between the ‘number 1‘ and ‘number 2‘ stances as he squatted over the long drop. Fantastic, not only was I the laughing stock of camp, I felt like a primary school child who had wet themselves in front of the class. Anyway, there was nothing I could do but roll with it and wait for time to pass. Putting the joking aside, I was very concerned, I had visions of myself collapsing, severely dehydrated, being carried down to the foot of the mountain. The last words written in my diary that night were “I feel I need to see a doctor…”
My alarm woke me at 06:30 the following morning. Miraculously, I was thirsty, a sensation that I had been deprived of for the previous 48 hours. Not only did I manage to drink a few gulps, I ate a pack of plain biscuit rations that I packed for emergencies. I crawled out of my tent reborn, a new man. So much so that I hiked to the top of the neighbouring ridge to once again view the mighty glacier. Unfortunately, it was overcast but the fresh icy breeze blew away the cobwebs from another poor night of sleep. In the mess tent I ate an omelette, poratha with jam, a cup of porridge and two sweet, green teas. I was finally recovering, what a relief. The walk back to Minapin took about three hours, where we spent the afternoon relaxing at a ‘swanky‘ hotel, drinking coffee, gazing back up at the peaks of Rakaposhi and Diran and in true cycle touring, opportunistic style, stashed away the complimentary soap and toilet paper. Despite my condition, I thoroughly enjoyed the last few days spent with Adam, he was great company and he opened my eyes, leaving me with a yearning to improve my photography skills, expand my kindle library and learn more about the places I visit.
The more time I spent in Pakistan, as one would expect, the more I was learning about the lives, religion and culture of the inhabitants of the Northern Areas or what is now known as Gilgit-Baltistan. Though this was also a realisation that despite spending a long time preparing for this journey, I had spent far too much time focusing selfishly, yet in my eyes, essentially, on the practical and logistical aspects of the tour and not investing my time in researching socialism, politics and history of Pakistan. Admittedly, my general knowledge of this young country was limited, yet perhaps this is a reflection of my more practical nature. I naively assumed that once I was immersed into the communities of these people I would some how become an expert, though this was of course far from factual and I regret not investing sufficient time in learning about the people, culture and history of Kyrgyzstan or the Xinjiang region of China.
To that end, I have vowed to invest more time in studying the countries and regions that I plan to visit, rather than manically trying to assemble a web of understanding in what sometimes feels like a last minute dash when, before I know it, I am in an entirely different country once again learning what type of bread is on offer and desperately reciting the phrases “Hello“, “Thank you” and “Vegetables only please” in the local lingo.