February 04, 2017

Treks and Drugs and Chapati Rolls. Passu.

This is the Passu Cathedral. The magnificent snow covered mountain spires that reach over 6,100 metres (21,000 feet) surrounding the small Hunza Valley village of Passu in north east Pakistan. My plan was to find a good spot for a photo, probably just off to the side of the Karakorum Highway on which I was travelling, and then head to the border town of Sost for an early bus the next morning into China. Yet, exactly as Rabbie Burns had predicted in his poem about the dangers of making detailed plans over two hundred years previously, things went awry.

The Chinese and Pakistani border guards were involved in a little spat over this years schedule of border openings. It was already closed six months of the year (the snows at the Khunjerab Pass made it impassable in winter) and also on weekends. The best way to deal with an argument about the opening of the border? Yes, you guessed, close it. It was the only main transportation corridor between the two countries after all. 

I was stuck. Sost was a pretty run down border town, with the odd pack of roaming dogs wandering through the main street. There was at least a kilometre line of trucks backed up waiting for the border to open, and I did not fancy my chances of finding any accommodation. I wanted to stay anywhere but Sost, and then I remembered the small village in the mountain valley that we had passed about an hour ago, Passu.

I managed to get a lift back down the infamous highway, rated as one of the ten most dangerous in the world due to frequent rock falls, flooding and earthquakes blocking it. This journey we faced no problems, and with the border closed and no traffic able to go south, we sped back to Passu. 

With only about 200 inhabitants the village is sandwiched between the Batura and Passu Glaciers, with mountains either side of it, which somewhat restricts its growth. Apple orchards face the Hunza river which flows alongside the village, fed by the Karakorum mountains near the border.

A local Hunza Valley boy
For such a tiny place it was surprisingly well endowed with hotels. It had been an important rest stop on the Silk Road from China to Europe, and its economy was still dependant on travellers coming to and from Islamabad and Kashgar. A small hotel, named the Sarai Silk Route, looked the most inviting place to stay. With only eight rooms, a cosy restaurant, and the walls built out of local stone, it had the makings of a boutique hotel. Except for the room rate, as this was the lowest I had paid so far in Pakistan.

Set back from the road and with a view forwards to the Cathedral Mountains it proved to be an inspired choice. I was the only guest, and although there was no wi-fi, there was a big bath with running hot water. Since Islamabad I had been coping with very low pressure and tepid showers.

Being the only guest meant I could order what I wanted for dinner. Talking with Javed, the hotel cook, he recommended an Aloo dish, made with the local potatoes and chilli, a black bean Makhani dhal, and unlimited chapatti bread, which I used to made delicious chapati rolls. And the cost? I had spare change from 300 Rupees (US$ 3) for the meal.

I still had time to kill in Passu, which was not looking that bad a situation to be in. The clouds had cleared from the mountaintops leaving an inspiring view of newly fallen snow, jagged spires, and the clear blue sky. I explored the village. A couple of shops with basic supplies, one delightfully named a 'Tuck Shop' which would excite any English schoolboy, and then the stone built houses and their orchards running to the riverbank.

Running across the Passu Suspension Bridge. Possibly the most dangerous bridge in the world, definitely the scariest

A kilometre or two south of the orchards was the only river crossing for 20km (12 miles) for either side. You needed to cross it to reach the orchards on the other bank, and to head east to the other Hunza villages. The Passu Suspension Bridge. Only when I got back to Australia and rediscovered the internet, did I realise that it has become known as the most dangerous bridge in the world.

It certainly was not for the fainthearted. Crossing freezing glacial meltwaters for 200 metres (650 feet) from bank to bank it was made of mis-shapen, and uneven, planks of wood attached to rusted metal cables. 

Even the slightest breeze made it sway. I set out to cross it. Every step made the whole structure bounce scarily. And then I looked down though the massive gaps in the planks, big mistake. Even holding on with the tightest grip I had was not enough to stop an increasing level of panic. The river was not at full strength, but if the fall did not kill you, the icy cold water would.

I started to go back, and then a villager appeared running, yes, running over the bridge. I felt like I was on a theme park ride, without the required safety features, as the bridge starting gyrating like a ship corkscrewing in heavy seas. I still had the presence of mind to take a hurried photo with one hand as he overtook me shouting out a hello without turning around.

Gradually the bridge returned to just a gentle swaying and I decided if he could do it, so could I. At an extremely slow and measured pace I reached the other side.

Stopping and smelling the, ahem, local roses 

The orchards here were full of apples and apricots. Cattle wandered around their enclosures, and I felt like I was walking in the English countryside. The only difference was the mighty mountain ranges and the frequent bunches of the herb sometimes known as 'sweet mary jane' that grew wild along the walk. As I passed each patch I mentally added up all the hundreds of thousands of dollars they would be worth at street level value, as the police would say in their report, when they caught me.

I returned slowly back across the bridge, smelling very herbal from the plants that I had walked amongst, and made it back to the hotel for more chapatis followed by a fitful sleep where I had nightmares of falling from high cliffs for some reason.

The next day I organised a trek. With the Passu Glacier so close it seemed a shame not to climb up to it. I met with my guide Mohammed. Like most of the people in the Hunza region he had very pale skin, and could have been from Paris rather than Passu. Legend has it that the almost Caucasian appearance is inherited from Alexander the Great, who swept through the valley in 327 BC, and left some of his troops behind. 

This may have an element of truth in it, as would genes derived from the Huns, after who the valley is named. Striking in appearance, and very unlike any expectation of how Pakistanis should look, I was caught out on several occasions in the Hunza Valley when I tried to talk to a rare German or Scandinavian tourist only to find in fact that they were a local with absolutely no English.

After two hours of a mixture of steep climbing and rock scrambling, we reached the edge of the glacier. The moraine mixed with the white snow to produce a sludge like appearance. Mohammed wanted to climb down and walk on it, my fear of an untimely end wedged at the bottom of a crevasse, along with a total lack of suitable footwear, led me to suggest we clambered down to the snout of the glacier and observe it from below.

The tongue of the Passu Glacier.
I spent hours watching the snout, it was far more entertaining than any TV show. Every few minutes a small piece of ice would break off from the top of the glacier and tumble into the lake below, creating waves that reached just below where we were sitting. And then a large chunk would break off, the falling rocks and ice making an echoing crash that resounded through the previously silent valley. We would have to scamper to higher ground to avoid the resulting mini tsunami.

As it began to get late I reluctantly started on the trek back. This required crossing the glacial streams on the floodplain. The pain of near freezing water swirling around my feet and lower legs was akin to being prodded by hundreds of lighted matches. It was unbearable and I raced across as fast as I could, following Mohammed who was carefully checking the route for sinking sand in the bed and banks of the streams.

After a long hot bath that evening to recuperate, followed by more chapati rolls, I reflected on the last few days in this relaxing, adventurous, and unexpected place. I was supremely grateful that the border guards were in dispute. Although, with now only one day left on my Pakistani visa, I was also rather hopeful that the border dispute would end and that I could cross to China tomorrow.

* With apologies for the title inspired by the unforgettable talent of Ian Dury

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