During the 18 months leading to our departure date, with the exception of an occasional pizza base, I had almost eradicated bread and other flour based products from my diet. Throughout many central Asian countries, bread in some form is often the staple of the local diet. The glazed flat bread of Kyrgyzstan was often tough, chewy and stale and only improved when dipped in a camp stew or with generous lashings of jam. China provided a selection of flat breads but the most common, a dinner plate sized “naan” often seasoned with salt and cumin seeds and decorated with an elaborate perforated design. Delicious when baked fresh, though unfortunately within 24 hours, the Chinese naan would transform into a rock hard disc, perhaps more suited to a game of ultimate frisbee.
Pakistan offers a more curry-based cuisine and one I was very excited about after the oily, fried foods of China. The Pakistani bread based products range from, but are by no means limited to the roti, chapati, poratha and the classic naan which, in the absence of knives and forks, are usually used as the vessel by which the curry is transported to one’s mouth. Fresh bread in some form is therefore essential and usually present at almost every meal. It wasn’t until arriving in Karimabad when we heard rumours about the elusive ‘Naan Man‘. Perhaps not his official title but a term that we have stamped into our cycle touring memoirs. Throughout Gilgit-Baltistan, the Naan Man is usually housed in a small, vintage looking shack with a wooden hinged opening where customers place their orders, be it a single naan or a stack of 30 ordered and delivered by a young child to a local restaurant. Every day the Naan Man painstakingly mixes huge vats of dough, prepares hundreds of identically sized dough balls, stokes up the fire of the tandoor and then naan by naan rolls out the dough, arranges on his naan cushion, sticks the naan to the inside of the tandoor miraculously avoiding singed arm hair and when ready, hooks out with a metal rod. This process is repeated relentlessly throughout the day, all day, every day. Personally, my lower back would be in agony and the monotonous task would become a mind numbing endeavour. And it is for these reasons, Jacob and I are sincerely grateful and respectful of the naan man whose deliciously fresh naan are on sale for a meager 10 Pakistani Rupees, or £0.06 in relative UK terms. When preparing for consecutive days without access to shops or restaurants we would place an order “14 naan please.” Which was often reciprocated with a look of bemusement. We then attempt to enforce that, what seems to be an unusually large naan order for a foreigner, is a genuine request with a series of charade gestures and facial expressions, usually concluding with a wide-eyed smile and a thumbs up.
For a cycle tourer the naan is a versatile food, our naan variations extend beyond the standard naan and curry combination. Boiled egg and fresh tomato naan wrap for breakfast was a morning staple. Naan with jam, fried fruit and walnuts replaced the Danish pastry yet rarely eaten, and only as an ‘emergency breakfast‘ where we have to break into road rations. Naan with peanut butter, jam or both as a high calorie midday cycling snack. The options are endless, you simply just can’t beat a naan. And for this our deepest respects go out to the legend, the Naan Man. A hard working, keystone of society. Jacob and I have a pre-meal prayer we would like to share;
Homage to the Naan Man
At this time, before we dine,
We say thanks to the man who made this naan.
Jacob and I donned our day packs and left the village of Astore and hiked the 11 kilometre winding stretch of road up to Rama, home of Rama Lake. The road snaked its way through green terraces where whole families harvested wheat and potatoes, cattle roamed freely and donkeys hauled ridiculous sized loads of straw down to the village. As the season transitioned from summer to autumn the temperature dropped, life in the Astore Valley must be extremely harsh throughout the winter, the locals were working hard in preparation for the short, dark days and the inevitable snowfall.
The pleasant hike lead us up into the Rama Valley where forests of pine, cedar, fir and juniper trees had made it their home, I almost felt as we were hiking through the Austrian Alps. Unfortunately, the weather turned, our views were obscured and as Jacob and I neared the lake heavy, dark grey clouds descended and rain began to fall. Considering it took four hours to hike to the lake, we were rather unimpressed, but perhaps this was a result of the grim conditions. We decided to head back to Astore though, as keen hikers, we felt that there was something about this valley that called out to us. I had spotted a hiking trail through the clouds that lead high onto the western ridge of the valley, perhaps Rama had more to offer and, if the weather improved, we would consider spending a few days exploring the area. On the walk back the temperature had plummeted, we were unprepared and quickly felt the biting cold. We passed through a seemingly deserted campsite when Ali, who with the help of his father managed the only hotel at the Rama camping grounds, waved us over to shelter as the weather deteriorated. Ali kindly lit the log burner in the centre of his living room as we huddled around in an attempt to regain the feeling in our fingers. We drank sweet chai, waited for the rain to subside and told Ali that, if the weather improved, we would be back. During our walk back to Astore a local farmer who was ferrying a trailer load of large rocks further down the valley to repair the deteriorating road offered us a lift, we gladly jumped on top of his trailer then endured an extremely uncomfortable ride down, though despite our sore cheeks we were glad to get back to the Dreamland Hotel and hoped for a morning of blue skies.
The following morning offered no improvement in the weather, however, the forecast over the coming days promised clear skies. We packed up and after a legitimate order of 20 naan from the Naan Man we flagged down a taxi for a lift back to Rama. We somehow managed to cram our bikes and all our gear into the ancient estate car and shared the front seat, my head and arm hanging out of the passenger window. The driver, who now drove with his son falling asleep in his lap, pushed a cassette into the player, cranked up the volume and valiantly navigated the boulder strewn road in the drizzle with no windshield wipers. Ali and his father once again welcomed us into their home, stoked up the log burner and hung a blanket in front of the door-less entrance in an attempt to keep in the warmth. I drank orange mug after orange mug of tea as we stared out of the perspex windows watching the relentless pitter-patter of rain. We agreed that camping would perhaps be a miserable experience and decided to stay in one of Ali’s hotel rooms. The rooms were cold and draughty but we were thankful to be sheltered under a roof and four walls.
The next day we were delighted to wake to blue skies and glorious sunshine. Adam, whom I accompanied on the trek to Rakaposhi Base Camp and who knew of our proposed hiking plans, rode up to Rama on his rental motorbike and joined us for the day. After sampling a new breakfast ‘halwa‘ with chapati, a sweet crumbly mixture of flour, sugar, milk, water and oil, a winter staple for the local community that tasted like pancake, we walked up the dirt track road to Rama Lake. As we crested the ridge we were met with impressive views of the lake with a stunning backdrop, crystal clear waters encompassed by towering, snow covered mountains. A sight that Jacob and I were deprived of on our initial visit. We continued hiking around the lakes crater, a large rocky embankment, formed by the force of the neighbouring glacier, that was impregnated with ferns turning a deep orange in the autumnal climate. Snow began to fall as we carefully made our way around the lake along the knife edged ridge. Snow carpeting the rocky glacier to our right and a steep drop down to the lake on our left. Sun streamed temporarily through clearings in the clouds and warmed us despite the falling snow. I gladly filled my lungs with the fresh cool mountain air, smiling to myself, revelling in the freedom from polluted roads and littered, crowded towns. We circled back round and descended to Rama where we spent the rest of the evening conversing, drinking tea around the log burner with Ali, reluctantly preparing for another cold night in the hotel room.
In the morning we waved goodbye to Adam as he rode off to tackle the high altitude plateau and the rough roads of the Deosai National Park, which was coincidentally the next destination of our cycle tour. Unfortunately, we had heard rumours of heavy snowfall and it was apparently only possible for jeeps to plough through to the next town, Skardu. Despite these whispers, Adam was keen to stick to his plan and promised to send word once he found mobile signal. All we could do was cross our fingers.
After the six hour hike the previous day Jacob and I opted for a gentle stroll through the alpine forests expecting to be out wandering for a couple of hours. We packed a bottle of water each and two small packs of Candys, caramelised biscuits similar to that of the Lotus variety back home that were quickly becoming our primary snack of choice. Unfortunately, the typical Pakistani convenience store offers little in the realm of snack foods other than crisps and biscuits. We ambled between the towering tall trees inhaling the warm, rich sweet scent of fresh pine. We came across a clearing with luscious, soft green grass which would have made an absolutely idyllic camping spot when, through the trees I spotted the trail that caught my attention on our initial walk to Rama Lake. In typical Luke Woods mountain goat fashion I claimed “It looks doable to me, we could be up on the ridge in an hour and a half no problem!” Although we only had two snack packs of biscuits between us we just couldn’t resist the alluring trail. And of course, who doesn’t love a good ridge?
We started out in the direction of the western valley wall, to the foot of the ascent where we planned to scramble up a small gully. We navigated our way down steep slopes and across an expansive, loose boulder field that we later realised was in fact the ancient, crumbled, rocky aftermath that had been forced down the valley by the glacier. At the foot of the ascent we shared the first pack of Candys, five and a half thumb sized biscuits each, far from the nourishment required for the mission laid out before us. The ascent was steep, we zig-zagged our way up the gully with the midday sun to our backs until we had climbed above the tree line and into a clearing. We continued upwards following a series of animal tracks in the relative direction of the hiking trail. The steep gradient never relented and it soon became evident that this was perhaps not quite the leisurely 90 minute hike I initially thought it to be. As a matter of fact it was an all out mountain trek. Despite believing that we were reasonably well acclimatised to the high altitudes due to our experience cycling the challenging route across the mountain passes of Kyrgyzstan, China and the almighty Khunjerab Pass, we were struggling for breath and severely lacking energy. The route had started out at about 3,100 metres and unbeknownst to ourselves, lead to a cairn mounted at the highest point of the ridge at approximately 3,975 metres. We continued on, heads down, putting one foot in front of the other determined to make the summit. We finally found our way onto the trail that I had spotted through the alpine forest, yet what resembled a Sunday afternoon jaunt from our perspective down in the forest clearing was in fact a continuation of the relentlessly steep ascent from the foot of the gully.
As we neared the summit, the views grew ever more impressive. Distant peaks appearing on the horizon and barely a cloud in the sky. I started to forget about my burning calves and gasping lungs, the raw excitement ignited inside as I realised that the view from a summit, just shy of four kilometres above sea level should prove to be pretty impressive. Two and a half hours since my initial estimation, we crested the ridge. I was immediately overwhelmed with a sense of wonder. I was hit with a wave of emotion, the view was breathtaking, enchanting. If there is a heaven, I expected that the gates would be up here somewhere. Which ever direction we looked majestic, eminent peaks pierced the deep blue sky and following the ridge along to the south stood Nanga Parbat, the 9th highest mountain on the planet, reaching an awe inspiring 8,126 metres. It almost looked, possible? Perhaps another hour and a half… but in all seriousness, it stood omnipotent above the rest, an incomprehensible four vertical kilometers above where we stood. I felt like a child in a sweet shop. Jacob and I embraced each other, triumphant, feeling we had hiked to the top of the world. I never thought I would witness views of this magnitude from the peak of a mountain that I had summitted on foot. In celebration we ate another five and a half biscuits whilst perched on a rock and sat for a time in an attempt to capture this perfect moment.
Inevitably we had to head down off the ridge and back to reality. It was then when we realised the only food we had ready to eat back in our hotel room in Rama was one, three day old naan each. Though, never have I been so enthusiastic about a stale, single naan. My mouth watered just imagining the flat bread spread with crunchy peanut butter and mango jam. It was a good job we had ordered that batch of 20 from the Naan Man.
Back down off the ridge and finally back to the hotel. Just after 18:00 darkness shrouded the Rama Valley and the temperature routinely plummeted. Jacob and I were both shattered after what was meant to be a two hour gentle stroll through the forest. At 18:15 we were undeniably tucked up in bed, stomachs finally satisfied with an extra large portion of vegetable daal that we rustled up out of our rations and devoured with a batch of fresh chapati that our host, Ali had kindly rustled up.
This day was a day that we will cherish and never forget. It is worrying to think that we almost dismissed the idea of revisiting the Rama Valley when deterred by inclement weather, but we are eternally grateful to have returned. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned.