Day 7: Islamabad – Margala Hills

Shopping and repairs in Rawalpindi, trek up to the top of Margala Hills.

30th June 2000


Taimur and the boys went to Pindi early in the morning as their vehicles were in need of minor repairs. The suspension on Khalid’s white Willy’s M38 needed attention, the broken luggage rack on Salman’s CJ-7 had to be re-welded and reinforced, and Taimur’s airconditioning system needed a recharge.

While Taimur and the boys were busy in Pindi, we got off to a lazy start with a late breakfast. Kabir had arrived yesterday from Lahore with his family to join us for the rest of the journey north. He would accompany me and Hamid to Pindi to look for plastic tarps for the roof racks in case of rain. We found colored sheets of plastic from the army surplus stores parallel to the railway crossing.

We also stopped by the old fishing shop in Pindi, where we had bought fresh water fishing gear many times before. The Phunder Valley, where we would go later in our journey, is supposedly full of trout. This time I was prepared to go all the way and intended on breaking all previous records in trout fishing. I bought a new fishing rod and some new spinners, and also rang Nichlolas in Karachi to bring the fishing rods that we had forgotten at home. Nicholas, Salman and Yaseen had been absent on this trip so far and they would be flying to Islamabad to join us. Work and school commitments had prevented them from being able to accompany us through Balochistan.

Afterwards, we drove to the auto parts market looking for some diesel additive so that we could be prepared for sub-standard fuel in Gilgit. Walking through the market I came across Rizwan’s friend, Arif, who was in Pindi for some work. We enjoyed a good ten-minute chat. However, the diesel fuel additive still eluded us for several hours until we finally managed to locate ten bottles. We would share them with the rest of the group. Our trip to Pindi was topped off with a hearty lunch at the famous Murgh Choola House of Pindi where Kabir ordered the irresistible murgh (chicken).

Upon arriving back at the guesthouse in Islamabad, the boys and I set off for a trek up the Margalla Hills. We had planned the trek with Shahid as an exercise to condition us for the high altitude climbing and walking we would be doing. Shahid is an old school friend of mine who settled in Islamabad. We drove to the base of the climb at about 5:30pm and started the gentle climb up the hill. The track is wide enough for a few people to pass through. Many people walk up the hill and we met with all age groups. Halfway up the hill Sikander had the brilliant idea of taking a difficult detour. This was an almost vertical climb up crumbly patches of rock and mud that were still mushy from the recent rains. It was strenuous exercise and we were all breathless and drenched in sweat in no time. Another few meters uphill and we were panting our lungs out. Sikander was being called all the names under the sun for bringing us this way. By the time we reached the top, our exhausted legs could hardly hold us up. My thighs were quivering as they pulled me up the remaining last few meters to the top. If the Margalla trek felt strenuous, what were we to expect at Fairy Meadows? In contrast, the walk downhill was very pleasant. We took the more traveled path this time and enjoyed the scenic beauty of the Margalla Hills. The sun had just set and the sudden fall in temperature was a welcome treat.

The Karakoram Highway

The lands route most of the way from Rawalpindi to Gilgit follows the Karakoram Highway up the deep Indus river gorge. The best way to go by road to Gilgit is by following the Grand Trunk road west over the Margalla Pass, a place that the noted British historian Sir Olaf Caroe considered demarcating the boundary between the South Asian subcontinent and Central Asia. Then you pass the turnoff to Taxila, past the monument on the hilltop at the edge of the pass. Taxilla boasts extensive series of archaeological sites from successive civilizations dating from 600 B.C to 600 A.D. that stood at the cultural crossroads of China, India, Central Asia, and the West. The road then curves south of Wah, a town favored by the Moghuls, who built elegant gardens and pavilions here in the sixteenth century, now home of the National Ordinance Factory. Three miles north of Hassan Abdal you enter the Hazara region of the North-West Frontier Province and continue past the bustling town of Haripur to Havelian, the railhead and official beginning of the Karakoram Highway. The KKH cuts through the town of Abbottabad, and a road branches east to the hilltown of Murree and the Galis. It carries on past Abbottabad through the gentle hills in Hazara region, a tranquil but very conservative area, laced with emerald green rice paddies, fields of corn, fruit trees, and pines the countryside is truly spectacular. After the town of Batagram, the land begins to change the road twists downward towards a drier canyon en route to its rendezvous with the mighty Indus river.

At Thakot (2,515 feet in elevation and 123 miles from ‘Pindi), the KKH leaves Hazara and enters the Swat District, crossing to the right bank of the Indus over the first of the more than ninety graceful suspension bridges built by the Chinese and Pakistani engineers that lie between here and the northern border. The bustling town of Besham Qila is a short distance ahead.

Pattan is Kohistan’s administrative center and was the hardest-hit village when an earthquake struck Kohistan in 1974, killing thousands of people. Here the Indus flows through a V-shaped gorge with scattered trees and small homes that cling to the steep, brown slopes as if camouflaged. The rocky hills are particularly steep in this part of the gorge, and in the 1960s road workers had to lower themselves down on ropes to drill and set the first charges of dynamite. Five hundred Pakistanis and Chinese lost their lives building the KKH, and more were killed in this stretch than anywhere else. Over fifteen thousand Pakistanis and ten thousand Chinese worked on the KKH, they used 8,000 tons of dynamite, removing 30 million cubic yards of earth and rocks to complete the road. The KKH was officially opened for traffic in 1978, but the last Chinese engineers stayed on till late 1979, and up to 1981 foreigners needed permits to travel on the road. Landslides are a regular phenomenon on the KKH and you may find yourself temporarily marooned between two landslides at any time, particularly during the rainy season.

Above Pattan the road crosses to the left bank of the river, and a little farther on, just before the river trends easterly, the Kandia Valley joins the Indus. There are three passes between 15,000 and 17,000 feet in elevation that lead from Kandia into the upper Swat Valley.

As the town of Sazin approaches the blind turns and stomach-turning precipices diminish and the valley widens, scattered grey sandy beaches appear below on the riverbank. Almost directly across the river to the north of Sazin is the mouth of the Tangir valley. Tangir and the neighboring valley of Darel blends into the Indus 6 miles to the east and are well known for their lush terrain.

East of Sazin the KKH leaves the North-West Frontier Province and enters the administrative region called the Northern Areas. You are in Baltistan now. The principal town in this west-to-east part of the Indus valley is Chilas, an inhospitable and sun-bleached place. At Chilas (about 3,900 feet in elevation and 280 miles from Rawalpindi) the road descending from the Babusar Pass and the Kaghan valley to joins the KKH. The most interesting sites in the Chilas vicinity are various rocks where ancient petroglyphs can be seen. Over the past four millennia, Kushan, Buddhist, and Hindu conquerors, merchants, missionaries, and pilgrims carved symbols and inscriptions into various large boulders glazed dark brown by oxidation of their iron content. At these sites you can see the likenesses of horses, serpents, ibex, stupas, and fugures of Buddha.

East of Chilas this dry gorge becomes even deeper, because high above and out of sight to the south rises Nanga Parbat (26,650 feet), the western most peak in the great Himalaya Range, a mountain so gargantuan that it immolates more as a range than a single massif.

In this area north of Nanga Parbat is the second deepest gorge on earth, as measured from the peak to the base of the valley. (The Arun Valley, in eastern Nepal, from the summit of Makalu to the Arun River, is the greatest vertical drop.) While driving up this oven like gorge in summer, it seems utterly incongruous to know that nearly 4 miles vertically above are shimmering snowfields. At Raikot village, the Raikot valley joins the Indus. From the village a road angles up a steep ridge and leads up the valley as far as the Shangri La hotel. A long day’s walk above the road ahead takes you to the pastures called Fairy Meadows, below the Raikot Glacier. Just upriver from Raikot, the KKH crosses to the north (right) bank of the Indus.

The Indus valley gently bends to the north, and as you move further away from the Nanga Parbat the range comes into view as miles of snow above the valley. The large Astor river empties into the East side of the Indus in the lower portion of this area. The sun-bleached town of Bunji lies north of the Astor river on the east bank of the mighty Indus. Bunji is the headquarters of the Northern Light Infantry. The KKH crosses a clear stream on a suspension bridge, then passes through the town of Jaglot, where the road from Bunji and the Astor valley crosses the Indus to join the main KKH.

The Gilgit River joins the Indus from the west just up ahead of jaglot. Here in a parched wasteland is a brief stretch of road from where one can view the two mighty rivers as they meet to form a hugh bulk of water as it gushes down the slopes. In summer the waters from the Gilgit river is grayish black, while the Indus is light brown in hue. The KKH follows first the Gilgit river, then the Hunza valley to the border with Sinkiang, China, at the Khunjerab Pass. A mile up the Gilgit valley, the road to Baltistan diverges northeast from the KKH, crossing the Gilgit river on its way up the Indus. It is uncanny to think that just 10 miles away up the Indus gorge the river bends to the southeast and continues from there in the same direction for some 500 miles to its source north of the sacred Mt. Kailas in western Tibet.

The town of Gilgit is 4900 feet in elevation and 365 miles from Rawalpindi. It is a place travelers must pass through and pause at on the way to or from their excursions in Hunza, or between Chitral and Baltistan, but it is not a destination in itself, particularly in the hot midsummer months. In the past, the town was alternately fought over, plundered, and ignored.

Near Gilgit is a Buddha carved into a stone face, a remnant of the era over seven hundred years ago when Buddhism held sway across much of what is now the North-West Frontier Province, the Northern Areas, and Afghanistan.

Ghizar valley is the westernmost extension of the Gilgit river and provides the road link between Gilgit and Chitral. Ghizar was ruled alternately by the Khushwaqt clan of Mastuj and its own raja in the town of Gupis near the mouth of the valley, 68 miles west of Gilgit.

Leaving Gilgit, your vehicle skirts the airport runway on the East End of town, then passes the suburb called Jutial and crosses a few dry alluvial fans. Joining the KKH, the road turns north, crossing the Gilgit River on a large suspension bridge and passing through the large oasis of Dainyor, a town where many Hunzakuts live. Beyond Dainyor the road curls in and out of several nalas, entering the lowest reaches of the Hunza Valley, here a dry, rocky, and uninspiring V-shaped gorge.

North of Rahimabad your vehicle barrels along at the base of the rock ridges that are the western most edge of Rakaposhi. Across the river lies Nomal at the base of the Naltar Valley, and north of Nomal on the West Side of the gorge you can still see some fragments of the original road clinging to a series of impossibly steep precipices and cliffs.

A forty five-minute drive from Gilgit, the valley opens up and the Hunza River bends to the east, now north of the Rakaposhi. To the north across the valley you can see the irrigated fields of Chalt at 6560 feet, a town that was formerly part of the state of Nagar.

As the KKH continues up valley beyond Chalt, it remains in Nagar as long as the road lies on the south bank of the Hunza river. Just beyond Chalt on the northern side of the Hunza river is the former boundary of Hunza State. The Jeep bridge at Sikandarabad (“Alexander’s Town”) gives access to the northern side of the river at the Bar valley, and soon another bridge leads off the KKH to the village of Maiun. The KKH crosses several streams that tumble down the flanks of Rakaposhi. The road enters Hunza proper as it crosses to the north side of the river and passes through the village of Hini. The 25,550 foot Rakaposhi, the “Crown Jewel of Hunza,” towering over the Pisan Glacier is visible on a clear day. This is, as close to the peak as the vehicle bound viewer will ever get. Rakaposhi, like Tirich Mir and Nanga Parbat, is believed to be the home of fairies who may play tricks on humans when people get too close to their snowbound homes. The peak is also called Dumani, a Shina name meaning “Two Princesses.”

Just beyond Ganesh village below Kareemabad, the KKH crosses the Hunza river on a large bridge within walking distance from the bridge right on the roadside is Haldikish (“Place of the Rams”), also known as the Sacred Rock of Hunza. This large rock has many carvings from different eras and in varying scripts. From here up valley for some distance the Hunza river flows in an arid, V-shaped gorge that is sparsely populated. In a few miles the riverbed curves to the north, and as you proceed along this deep gutter, the main peaks of the Karakoram tower above out of sight, for here the river is cutting between the highest summits of the range. Now you are entering the region called Gujal, the largest area within the Hunza valley.

At shishkot the KKH crosses to the west side of the river and soon reaches Gulmit (about 8,000 feet). Gulmit, within a lushly irrigated acreage of orchards and fields, was once the summer residence of the Mir.

Near Gulmit the valley widens dramatically. The KKH crosses the raucous streams of the Gulmit and Ghulkin glaciers, and then passes the town of Sesoni. In this stretch of the valley you begin to see Tupopdan, a multipinnacled ridge culminating in a 20,000-foot peak. Tupopdan is a giant pincushion of sheer, knifelike spires, a sui generis mountain rising straight up from the plain and dominating this section of the valley. The Wakhi village of Pasu (8,500 feet elevation, 102 miles from gilgit is next on the KKH.)

North of Gujal’s Batura Glacier, the KKH and the Hunza river enter a narrow gorge and squeeze by the western flanks of Tupopdan. The road continues through the narrow gorge, crosses the river to the east bank village of Gallapan, and reaches Murkhun. The high, now unused trail up to Karun Pir Pass and the Shimshal gorge climbs up the north side of the Karun Pir ridge from the wide nala behind Murkhun. Up valley 3 miles from Murkhun is the village of Gircha with a large spring of pure water. From Murkhun to Sust the valley widens, and you have an increasingly grand view of the northern slopes of the main Karakoram Range.

The village of Sust (9100 feet elevation and 125 miles from Gilgit) used to be a tranquil Wakhi village but has now become Gujal’s unlikely boomtown. The Khunjerab pass (or Khunjerab “Top” as it is usually referred to locally), on the border between Pakistan and China, has been crossed on the road by construction workers, officials and goods trucks since 1973. But on May 1, 1986, the Khunjerab was opened to foreigners and Pakistanis for travel between Hunza and Kashgar in Sinkiang Province.

A few miles north of Sost, the brown Kilik (or Misgar) Nala and the gray Khunjerab Nala join to form the Hunza river, each stream vying with the other to donate a more brackish contribution in summer when the glaciers up their respective valleys are melting. The second of the nalas forming the Hunza river is the larger Khunjerab, a Wakhi word meaning “the Red (or Bloody) valley.” Here the KKH follows the river along the bottom of a narrow, utterly inhospitable canyon of slate and shale. Soon the road turns north into the smaller of two narrow gorges. This is still the Khunjerab Nala, and the valley to the east is the Ghujerab. At the junction of the two valleys you enter the Khunjerab National Park, a preserve of over 800 square miles that was first proposed by the eminent wildlife biologist George B. Schaller in 1973 and established in 1975 at the bleak outpost called Dih (or Dhi).

At Kara Jilga (“Black Stream”) the road again turns north into the smaller of two streams and begins a series of switchbacks. Now you are truly between the rolling Khunjerab and Ghujerab uplands used by the Wakhi to graze vast numbers of sheep, goats, cattle, and yaks that they drive up-valley each year. Formerly the Mir reserved vast tracts in these upper meadows for his own animals. These 13,000 to 16,000 foot grasslands packed with marmot burrows resemble the Pamirs over the pass to the north far more than they do the Karakoram. The Khunjerab pass is at 15,400 feet.

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