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Climbing Gasherbrum II in Pakistan. The thirteenth highest mountain in the world at 8032m and supposedly the 'easiest' of the 14 8000ers. Oh yeah? Anyway, here's the story of how we got on...

Usual disclaimer

The following is extracted from the text of my diary as written by a sleep-deprived, lazy bugger! None of it is intended to cause any offence. If you feel something should be changed, deleted or corrected then please let me know. - Andy
Day 1 - Sunday 8 June 2008

Cafe Nero at Heathrow's Terminal 4. On the wrong side of the luggage drop unfortunately. We've got a couple of hours to wait until the check-in opens. But better this way than a mad last minute panic. Anyway, we are checked in for our flight already - the wonders of the Internet. How did we manage in the days before it existed? I am old enough to remember them - it's only a few years ago after all, but I have a hard time recalling how we used to get things done; picking up tickets from airline desks, visiting travel agents and all that stuff. No mobile phones in those days either!

Lars the Polar Bear performs his customary preflight checks on the North Face bags - 'Plenty of room for a bit more grub in this one'. [Andy]
'50 kilos if it's an ounce, rather you than me mate!' Sympathy has never been one of Lars's strong points. [Andy]
Clare relaxing in the sunshine at Totnes railway station, our customary launching point for many big trips. [Clare]
Andy at Totnes railway station. [Clare]

But enough digression. Here we are on our way to Islamabad. A couple of nights there and then off to Skardu for the start of the trek to Gasherbrum. After reading everything I could find about expeditions to big mountains since the age of about 12 - the golden days of Bonnington and Co. - I am finally about to do something I never imagined possible, set foot on an 8000m peak myself. A somewhat meandering path to get here though. Originally the choice was Cho Oyu in April - May with Adventure Peaks but then the Chinese closed the mountain, or, in fact the whole of Tibet, just so that they could get the Olympic flame to the summit of Everest without anyone visibly protesting. Of course the western world stood back and did bugger all while the whole summit farce took place witnessed only by a handful of hypoxic western journalists. On the Nepalese side many climbers willingly accepted the restrictions imposed on their movements by the Chinese just so that they would be able to continue to climb after the Chinese Everest team had gone home. OK, a tough decision, and one I was glad not to have to make myself, but I can't help feeling the climbing community sacrificed quite a lot of its integrity during the debacle. Hmmm, another digression and a rant already and we haven't even left the UK yet! Not bad!

So, Gasherbrum II is our target. Supposedly the easiest of the 8000ers. I couldn't find a group heading for Broad Peak which would have been my first choice, but you have to start somewhere. Anyway, given my record it's probably better to start out with something 'simple'. Field Touring Alpine are the agents and the guide is a Canadian called Chris. Since his name heads the permit we have become officially known as the 'Canadian Gasherbrum II Expedition 2008', but we are actually a pretty international bunch of people, 1 x Canadian, 2 x French, 1 x Dutch, 1 x Malaysian, 1 x Argentinean and me. In fact it looks like we will be the most international group in the region. Looking at the permit applications, there are some pretty famous names in big mountain mountaineering heading for the Karakoram this year - as an over ambitious trekker I'd probably better keep my head down.

Exactly one year ago today, Ray and I were heading for the Refugio camp on Huascaran. Seems a very long time ago now. A pity Ray couldn't make it on this trip but maybe we can organise something in the future... but for the time being, I think I'll just go one step at a time.

Day 2 - Monday 9 June 2008

Envoy Continental Hotel, Islamabad. So, we arrived in steamy Islamabad after an uneventful 8 hour flight courtesy of British Airways. Good seats thanks to an upgrade to World Traveller Plus, which also increased our baggage allowance to 2 bags each – so no excess baggage charges for us. Business class was packed but the economy section wasn’t and quite a few people managed to get entire rows to themselves to stretch out in. Good food and a last beer before going ‘dry’. Watched 10,000BC on the entertainment system, not as good as the trailers lead you to believe, but maybe the 6 inch screen doesn’t really do it justice.

The Envoy Continental Hotel in the Blue Area, Islamabad. [Andy]
Front entrance. [Fred]

Islamabad airport is like so many others in Asia, pretty functional with not a lot of frills. Bus from the plane to the terminal, long queues for passport control (separate queues for women – welcome to the Muslim world!) where they only make a quick check to see if you have a visa, and on to baggage reclaim. There seemed to be a power cut when we got there so the carousel wasn’t working - all the bags were pushed through the two hatches into the waiting arms of the crowds. Fortunately we had already met Fred, our Dutch team mate, at Heathrow so between the three of us we were able to watch both entrances while keeping an eye on what we’d already got. One of ATP’s staff also turned up to help so we got everything sorted out pretty quickly.

So, out into the steamy heat of Islamabad to fight through the usual hordes of people wanting to help with your bags, get you a taxi, take you to meet their second cousin etc. etc. until we finally reached the hotel’s waiting minibus. One rapid drive from the outskirts of Islamabad to the central ‘Blue Area’ and we were deposited at the hotel. The doors are manned by shotgun toting, moustachioed men in smart khaki uniforms looking like throwbacks to the days of empire. Inside the hotel we met Chris, our Canadian team leader, in the cool of the air-conditioned lobby. He seems like an OK guy with a lot of experience of travelling around Asia. He flew in from Kathmandu a couple of days ago.

View from the roof of the Envoy Hotel. From here the place looks quite green.[Clare]
This looks very much like a Christian church, not what you would expect in the heart of Islamabad. [Clare]
Islamabad's World Trade Centre - The Saudi Pak Tower. [Clare]
The National Monument in Islamabad, designed by Arif Masood, represents the four provinces and three territories of Pakistan. [Andy]
Islamabad is surprisingly green, at least when seen from the ground. [Andy]

A brief break and then off to explore the Blue Area, basically the upmarket shopping and business centre of Islamabad, to change some Yankee Dollars into Rupees - we changed 800 dollars at a rate of 67.8 – and to buy some mineral water.

Back at the hotel, Clare and I joined the buffet in the restaurant for lunch; a large selection of curried dishes, salads, rice etc. Quite tasty, at least this early in the trip, little did we realise this was about as varied as our diet was going to get in the next 7 weeks. There was a big group from KMC Drilling also eating in the restaurant – about 30 Pakistanis and one fat American, maybe a rig crew meeting? Maybe I should read up on what the Pakistani oil business is up to these days.

A few hours kipping in the afternoon and then out again for a meal at an underground restaurant close to the hotel. Plastic tables and chairs, Elvis photographs on the wall, a huge flat screen TV showing old Bee Gees concerts interspersed with European football. A few local people coming in after us. Despite the dιcor, the food was excellent and the staff were really friendly. I have to admit that I only opted for a spicy chicken burger but Clare went for the ‘chicken ginger’ curry and rice. Fred also had a curried chicken dish while Nacho, our new Argentinean friend just went for ice-cream. Nacho’s only paying for base camp services on the mountain, above base camp he’s on his own. Bizarrely we figured out he’s actually an old friend from Aconcagua, one of Alessio’s guides, so he at least knows what he’s letting himself in for!

Made a quick trip up to the roof of the hotel to see Islamabad at night, not an awful lot to see in the dark actually. Got told off by some guy who may have been a member of the hotel management since apparently we were not allowed on the roof. We beat a hasty retreat as the conversation turned towards matters of religion and whether or not we were Christians. The concept of atheism appears to be totally alien here. Back to our hotel room for some diary writing accompanied by the sounds of a call to prayer from the nearby mosque. Are all Muslims masochists?

The 'Blue Area', a golden mile of shops and restaurants. [Andy]
Three women of the more extreme persuasion walking along the pavement outside the hotel. [Andy]
Andy on the roof of the hotel. [Clare]
Day 3 - Tuesday 10 June 2008

Today marks exactly 23 years since I joined the oil business. Who’d have imagined an oil price of $140 per barrel back then?

So, another day in Islamabad. We dragged ourselves out of bed at 08:00 since we need to adjust to local time. Breakfast of porridge and strange tasting bread rolls in the restaurant downstairs. Plenty of other stuff but somehow curry for breakfast doesn’t do it for me. Chris came down not long after us and gradually the rest of the group turned up too. Surech flew in from Karachi last night, he’s an engineer working for Malaysian airlines specialising in jet engine technology. Seems like a really nice guy.

Outside the Alpine Club. [Andy]
Chris and the ATP bosses prepare to enter the Alpine Club. [Andy]
Inside the hallowed offices of the Alpine Club, Nacho checks his video while Chris meets Capt. Useless for the first time. [Andy]
Clare signs away her life to Baltoro Glacier. [Andy]
Chris fails to read the small print after being distracted by Nacjo. [Andy]
Capt. Useless tries to make it look like he knows what he's doing. [Andy]
Chris with Mr Saad Tariq Siddiqi, secretary of the Alpine Club. [Andy]
Fred outside the Faisal Mosque. [Clare]
Clare in front of the Faisal Mosque. [Clare]
Fred and Surech mixing with the locals. [Andy]

Found out that our briefing session at the Alpine Club is delayed so went out to show Surech where to change some money. Took a while to find the little shop again. On the way back we met Chris looking for us, turned out that the briefing hadn’t been delayed after all. So back to the hotel to meet the ATP people and then off to the Alpine Club HQ in the hotel minibus. In the bus was the head of ATP, Ashraf Aman, who made the second ever ascent of K2 and was the first Pakistani to reach the summit. A famous guy and no mistake. He definitely didn’t seem impressed by my meagre list of non-accomplishments!

The Alpine Club is located in an athletics ground, the same place where they brought the bodies after the Red Mosque massacre last year. You could still see where the lists of names of the deceased had been posted on the wall. Inside we were taken to a large room dominated by a huge table. On the walls were dozens of mountain photographs – K2, the Gasherbrums, Trango Tower and many more. We were introduced to our liason officers, one Pakistani army captain for the climbing team and Fida, a local guide, to oversee Clare’s trek before being given a brief lecture by the impressively white maned Mr. Saad Tariq Siddiqi, secretary of the Alpine Club. He seemed pretty switched on despite looking like he’d just spent 20 years meditating on the whichness of the why in a mountain retreat.

Chris and Clare signed for their respective permits and we all agreed to take only photographs (outside of any military restricted areas) and leave only government approved footprints.

Found out that Fida was just back from cooking and guiding for the recent Spanish winter attempt on Broad Peak – three months on the Baltoro glacier with temperatures dropping to minus 40 degrees and winds so strong that even strongly secured tents disappeared in the blink of an eye – tough stuff!

Back at the hotel we decided to go and visit the Shah Faisal Mosque. An impressive construction of white marble built between 1976 and 1986. Surprisingly, they not only welcomed us in but many people even wanted to have their photographs taken with us. They were all remarkably friendly. We were even allowed briefly into the main auditorium at the start of the lunchtime prayer session, although we left discretely after a few minutes. We were probably the only infidels there although there were lots of Muslim tourists from various parts of Pakistan. Clare attracted a lot of attention as a western woman in a shalwa kameez and made quite a few friends, especially amongst the women.

Another taxi ride back to the hotel, for less than a dollar, and then a late lunch at the Red Onion restaurant in the Blue Area. Then back to the hotel to relax for a while.

A very late dinner at yet another restaurant not far from the hotel. A large one with a big open area upstairs. Lots of Pakistani groups coming and going, a few families but mostly parties of men, very few women and definitely none on their own. The food was pretty good once again, although not as good as the Red Onion. No alcohol of any description of course, a strange concept for us – a cold beer would have been nice! Strangely, the staff seemed to think that Clare was in charge so almost everything was addressed through her to the rest of us. Kind of bizarre given the otherwise totally male dominated nature of the place.

Back to the hotel to meet Jean-Rene and Francois, the two French members of the group, just arrived from an eight hour stopover in Doha – poor bastards, they should have flown British Airways! Finally back to the room for some quick preparations for an early start tomorrow.

Day 4 - Wednesday 11 June 2008

Up at 06:30 for an 07:00 breakfast, transferring our 100kg of luggage down to reception. The hotel staff must cringe every time they see a group of climbers approaching the entrance. Only bread and jam for breakfast since they were not ready with the rest of the breakfast buffet although I heard later that some people managed to get an omelette.

Fred, Surech and Chris on the plane. [Fred]
Nanga Parbat - the 'Killer Mountain'. [Fred]
The team arrives in Skardu. [Fred]
The Mashabrum Hotel in Skardu. [Andy]

Piled into the minibuses for a hot drive to the airport where it was even hotter in the domestic departure queues. It all went surprisingly smoothly, helped by the fact that most of our bags were travelling to Skardu by road. A number of security checks but none of them were that interested. No restrictions on water, I carried 1.5 litres through without any comment – Brown and Bush take note.

Our 737 to Skardu boarded on time. An amazing flight, especially when you can look out of the window and see the summit of Nanga Parbat above you as you fly past the massive bulk of the mountain. Scraping over the mountains with what looks like only a few wing spans to spare you are then faced with a hairy decent into the Skardu valley before landing safely at Skardu airport.

Retrieved various bags before boarding a minibus to the Masherbrum Hotel. Skardu looks very similar to Leh, Ladakh although poorer without the benefit of large amounts of tourist dollars. It’s probably the same as any number of towns dotting the northern parts of India and Pakistan – dusty, dirty, ramshackle, half built and absolutely fantastic, but only if you have a nice, comfortable hotel to retreat to from time to time.

Had a buffet lunch at the hotel – curried chicken – and then a couple of hours napping because it was way to hot to venture outside.

Around 17:00 we took a walk around Skardu. Clare in her pink shalwa kameez attracting a huge amount of attention. Not surprising as the entire town seemed to be otherwise devoid of women – in a couple of hours we saw only four others and they all dived for cover as soon as we appeared. Very strange behaviour to us and even more to Nacho, our hot blooded south American friend.

View from the rear of the hotel, the river is a tributary of the Indus. [Clare]
Looking up river from the rear of the hotel. [Andy]
A side street in Skardu. [Andy]
A side street in Skardu. [Andy]
Clare talking to kid on the street in Skardu. [Andy]
Main street Skardu. [Andy]
Main street Skardu. [Andy]
Clare buying material for a new shalwa kamize in Skardu. [Andy]
Monument in the centre of Skardu's main street. [Fred]

We wandered around the bazaar and found our way to the polo ground, possibly the one visited by Michael Palin in his ‘Himalaya’ series [it wasn't - he went to Gilgit!]. The polo season starts in August and it looked like preparations to prepare the ground were already in progress; at least they had a few animals in there to trim the grass. Clare bought another shalwa kameez for 500 rupees – about 6 dollars. Unfortunately it came flat packed but the owner of the Masherbrum Hotel whisked her off to a tailor who was prepared to make it up overnight for her. Great service!

Back at the hotel for dinner at 20:30 before a well earned sleep. No air-conditioning here but at over 2000m it’s a bit cooler than Islamabad and the ceiling fan does an OK job of reducing the effective temperature by a couple of degrees – as long as the electricity supply lasts.

Delivery service, Skardu style. [Fred]
The polo ground in Skardu is already being prepared for the August games. [Andy]
Cattle grazing on the polo ground, cheaper than a lawn mower. [Andy]
The youth of Skardu escape the afternoon heat in the river behind the hotel. [Andy]
Looking up-river from the Mashabrum Hotel. [Andy]
Day 5 - Thursday 12 June 2008

Hanging out in Skardu. We went for a walk up to Kharpocho, the 16th century fort perched on the hillside above the town. An old guy followed us up, thought he was going sting us for guide services but it turned out he had the keys to the place and let us in through a minute hatch in the main door. Cost 200 rps each but what the heck. The fort is just a collection of abandoned walls and revetments but gives a fine view over the town and the Indus river. As usual, we got told off for taking photographs in the general direction of the military compound on the outskirts of the town. If these people knew about Google Earth they would go ballistic! Apparently we should also keep any GPSs hidden from Captain Useless, our liaison officer, too.

"Entrky" tickets to the fort. [Andy]
The entrance is pretty restrictive, maybe to keep the Americans out? [Andy]
The Indus River from Kharpocho. [Andy]
Looking up the Indus Valley from Skardu. [Andy]
The "forbidden" military camp in Skardu. [Andy]
Looking across the Skardu valley. [Andy]
The centre of Skardu seen from Kharpocho Fort. [Andy]
Fred, Clare, Surech with Enda, our Irish friend. [Andy]
Kharpocho has seen better days. [Andy]
Andy with the Indus valley behind. [Andy]
Clare with the Indus valley behind. [Andy]
Old building on the back road to the fort. [Fred]

Back to the hotel for lunch and generally lazing around. Clare got her new shalwa kameez fresh from the tailors and very nicely made up. Wrote postcards and stuff and then we all headed off down to the river below the hotel for a paddle. After a few false starts we found our way down to the water. Went wading in the cool water, very refreshing but without shoes the sharp stones were agony on the feet. The locals didn’t seem to have any problems jumping barefoot from rock to pointed rock though. Clare attracted plenty of attention as usual although we did actually see a few women down there for a change. None of them were prepared to communicate with us in any way though. I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised given the possible consequences. Strangely enough, although they are covered from head to foot to prevent men from lusting after them, the actual effect is almost the opposite – they appear far more attractive than many of the bloated sights to be seen waddling around the streets of Europe these days.

Clare after wading through the river. [Clare]
Keeping an eye on the strange people. [Clare]
Kids swimming in the river. [Fred]

In the evening when it was cooling down I wandered into town with Fred. Tried to get on the internet in one of the internet cafιs but it was so slow that I gave up in the end. Went to the post office to buy 35 stamps for the postcards. 33 rps each as opposed to 10 rps for each of the postcards. The post office turned out to be a large white building on the road out of town. Surrounded by a gravel courtyard entered through a small, narrow door in the wrought iron gate. It may actually have been closed, I couldn’t tell for sure, but there were people working inside and they seemed prepared to sell me some stamps. Inside it was just a single large room filled with trestle tables where 4 guys were working in dusty splendour. The closest they had to anything resembling technology was a large, solar powered, desktop calculator. For everything else they used pen and paper, recording everything meticulously in various ledgers. They claimed not to speak any English but I managed to get the stamps without any problem.

Fred checking today's highlights back at the hotel. [Clare]
It's the real thing, Surech! [Clare]
Day 6 - Friday 13 June 2008

Didn’t feel so good today; stomach cramps and a slight temperature. After a quick trip into town to buy water etc. I retreated to the room and immersed myself in the MP3 player. Some of the group hired motorbikes and rode off to do some sightseeing around Skardu. Somehow this doesn’t seem like the safest place to be learning to ride a bike so I didn’t offer to join them!

The kit bags arrived from Islamabad at around 15:30 after their long drive up the Karakoram Highway. Moved them up to our room and then spent a couple of hours sorting kit. We were supposed to have a bag weighing session at 18:00 – each porter carries a maximum of 25kg so it’s important to check the weight.

Dinner in the hotel at 21:30, met a lieutenant colonel from the British army. He was working for the foreign office as some kind of liaison with the Pakistanis but had decided to spend a weekend’s leave in Skardu. He was a keen climber and seemed to be a good friend of Dave Bunting – he of Everest West Ridge fame.

Apparently we have yet another early start tomorrow – breakfast at 05:30 – so off to bed soon after 22:00. France vs Holland tonight so JR, Francois, Fred and Surech are planning to stay up and watch – they are mad!

Day 7 - Saturday 14 June 2008

Sitting on a rock in the shade on the Askole side of a big landslide. Waiting for the porters to bring all the gear across. Not the safest of tasks since more rock and stones are coming down all the time. One slip and everything goes in the river below, never to be seen again.

Earlier today, much earlier, we set off from Skardu in a fleet of jeeps loaded up with our expedition gear, several weeks of food, base camp equipment and a mass of other stuff. All of which has to be moved 70 miles up the Baltoro glacier by an army of porters.

Early morning and the luggage is piling up. [Andy]
Our jeeps start arriving outside the Mashabrum. [Andy]
Clare with colour co-ordinated jeep. [Andy]
Capt. Useless takes command of the troops. [Andy]

Along the road we stopped off at a chemist's shop to buy drugs - shelves stocked with just about every pharmaceutical you could imagine - and later for lunch in a roadside restaurant. Loads of fun bouncing around in Toyota jeeps in the heat and dust of Pakistan. Francois wasn't too well this morning, looks like another stomach bug. Fortunately they seem to pass over in 24 hours.

Loading the jeeps. [Andy]
Stopping at Kargili for medical supplies. [Andy]
Children buying sweets on the way to school. [Andy]
Nacho and Clare. [Andy]
Heavily loaded jeeps, the porters ride on top of the baggage! [Andy]
This is why it's better to have barrels for fragile stuff. [Andy]
Rest stop on the way to Askole. [Clare]
Andy and Clare. [Clare]
Jeeps on the road to Askole. [Andy]
A popular lunch stop on the Askole road. [Clare]
Surprisingly nice looking new house beside the road. [Clare]
Enda's lunch looks rather better than our Mashabrum Hotel rations. [Clare]
Enda with his guide, a strange, rather spooky, character. [Clare]
The team enjoying yet more chicken. [Clare]

Jeeps queuing on the Askole side of the landslide. [Andy]
Fred, two porters, Surech and Capt. Useless taking their chances crossing the landslide. [Andy]
Surech goes for it. [Andy]
Clare's angels are working overtime here. [Andy]
New landslide, the end of the road for today. [Andy]
On the landslide, effectively a river bed. [Clare]
Clare entertains the local children with photos. [Andy]
What did we do before digital cameras came along? [Andy]

Now there are 22 jeeps lined up along the single track road cut into the cliff. If they can sort out this chaos it’ll be amazing. We still have about 20km or one and a half hours to go to reach the village of Askole and it is already three in the afternoon. Still, I guess we are in no real hurry. Enda, the Irish guy trekking alone to Concordia is also in the queue and there seem to be a few Japanese or Koreans too.

We just had some excitement – a jeep driver mutiny. Too many jeeps and not enough loads to go round sparked a big revolt lead by a short, fat bastard who is obviously a big cheese in this neck of the woods. A lot of shouting and gesturing and group huddling going on. The end result being a big jeep reshuffle requiring the construction of some new road sections in order to let the fat bastard and his partner squeeze out. Taking advantage of the momentary chaos we piled into another handy jeep which moved about 10m before coming to a halt amidst more angry shouting. Back to waiting while more discussions take place. With 22 jeeps waiting all day for just half a dozen loads everyone thinks they deserve a share. Well, it wouldn’t be Pakistan without stuff like this. Eventually some kind of agreement will be reached and we’ll be able to continue on our way.

Later: Another 16km of dirt track and one more rickety suspension bridge took us to the village of Thulow, a few kilometres down river from Askole. Rumour was that there was another landslide ahead. After some minutes we decided to drive on and take a look, accompanied by half the village. Five minutes down the road we were confronted by a cascade of water streaming down the hillside bringing with it a large pile of rocks that were blocking the road. Much debate and scratching of heads later, not to mention an aborted attempt to divert the flow of water, we called it a day and walked back to Thulow. More sitting around and being the focus of attention of the local population, old and young alike. After a while you get used to being stared at all the time but initially it does take some getting used to. (In fact, on return to the UK it’s equally disconcerting to find that you are no longer being stared at!)

Clare started talking to a couple of Pakistani students returning home from university in Islamabad or Gilgit to their family homes in Askole. The discussion quickly lead to a massive pen distribution to all the local kids, followed by endless requests for ‘pen... pen...’ from countless other children who seemed to appear from nowhere. Seems like some of the 100 pens we brought to hand out are going directly to the schools in the area while others are being given straight to the kids – you try explaining that to them! So it’s ‘pen, pen’ from all sides at the moment, but all in a good cause I guess.

Took until 21:00 before all the gear had finally arrived and then the ATP cooks miraculously whipped up a 3 course meal for us. Off to bed afterwards, an 05:00 start tomorrow. Our first night in the tents tonight – lovely!

Two kids from Thulow village. [Clare]
More kids from Thulow. [Clare]
The dangerous brothers! [Clare]
The kids are real characters. [Clare]
Back at Thulow, more kids! [Clare]
The news is getting around fast - pens! [Clare]
Pen? Pen? [Clare]
Everyone wants to see what the strangers are up to. [Andy]
The local school teacher puts in an appearance. [Andy]
The most entertaining thing that's happened around here for weeks. [Andy]
The group waits for the last of the gear to arrive. [Clare]
The last jeep finally appears. [Andy]
Day 8 - Sunday 15 June 2008

Weighing the porter loads. [Fred]

Up at 05:00 prompt to begin packing the bags immediately. This is the worst bit of the trip for me since I have to pack for both me and Clare – double the fun. Thankfully it’s already getting light at this time. A quick trip to the toilets, actually a roofless brick construction with three holes in the ground providing fine views of the Braldu river for tall people like me. A quick breakfast in the mess tent and then back to watch the porters, all 118 of them, milling around and jockeying for position to get the best loads. An amazing sight.

Eventually Fida collected us and we set off on foot towards Askole, skipping lightly over the remains of yesterday’s landslide.

Andy setting out on the first day of the trek. [Clare]
Capt. Useless meets with local law enforcement. [Clare]
The green fields around Thulow village. [Clare]
Approaching Askole from Thulow. [Clare]
On the trail with a police escort. [Surech]
On the jeep track to Askole. [Andy]

Askole is a small village of mud brick houses on a plateau perched high above the river. Plenty of trees. An irrigation project provides water from a leat for Askole and several other communities in the area. The people appear to be incredibly poor, how or why they stay here is a mystery to us. Apparently the whole area is completely cut off from the outside world from September to April.

In Askole Fred finds a little piece of home. [Clare]
Goat and sheep herding in the streets of Askole. [Clare]
Mud buildings, must be tough in winter! [Clare]
New and old buildings in Askole. [Clare]
Kids standing on a leat in Askole. [Clare]
Askole hospital. [Clare]

In Askole we bought a couple of bottles of mineral water for 100 rps each, four times the Skardu price, from the self styled ‘Prince of Askole’ and then started walking up river. Managed to get a ride on a tractor and trailer for a kilometre or so up the trail – a promising start! But from then on it was a hard slog beside the Braldu river, frequently climbing up and down the cliffs. Without a single cloud in the sky, the heat was incredible, building up steadily through the day. I used my trusty umbrella, a last minute purchase in Skardu, which helped a little but there was still considerable reflected heat coming off the rocks and glacial sand over which we staggered.

The trail winds along the cliffside. [Andy]
Jean-Rene crossing a suspension bridge on the first day. [Clare]
Clare on the bridge. [Andy]
Resting in the shade as the temperature starts to soar. [Clare]
It's hot, damned hot! [Clare]
An umbrella provides portable shade from the blazing sun. [Clare]
Life's a beach, on the trail to Jhula. [Andy]
Clare with umbrella. [Andy]

We had lunch at Korophon in a glade of trees which provided welcome shelter from the sun. A pleasant spot to spend an hour or two. All too soon we had to head back out into the blazing heat to complete the rest of the day’s trek to the campsite at Jhula. After an impressive walk along a pathway cut into the cliffs above the river, the trail finally turned up a tributary river for a couple of kilometres before crossing a rickety suspension bridge. Back down the other side and we shortly arrived at Jhula, a government sponsored campsite.

Finally Jhula! The end of a hot, hard day's walking. [Fred]
Clare in the shade at Jhula. [Andy]
Jean-Rene and a Swiss friend take a well-earned nap. [Andy]
Looking back to the Braldu River from Jhula. [Andy]

I got there about 14:00 to find everyone jostling for position in the only shade in the area – a small brick building near the entrance to the campsite. Starting a trend for the rest of the trip I bought a can of Pepsi for 100 rps. Normally I wouldn’t touch the stuff but under these conditions it is just what you need. In addition I started purifying and drinking litre after litre of water with iodine – talk about dehydrated.

It took a long time for our extended porter train to trickle into camp but eventually we got our tents up and could move in. I spent some time listening to MP3s and then went for a ‘shower’ courtesy of a bucket of water and a jug. Then off to the mess tent for tea and biscuits. Ended up playing a card game called ‘Uno’ with JR, Francois, Mark, Surech and Fred. A fast moving game that’s not easy to follow at altitude!

Dinner was ready at 21:00. One of the porters, a guy called Sayeed Ali, has developed an affection for one of Clare’s North Face bags and came back to write his name on it in felt pen. He asked me to write his name in English and then he wrote it in Balti underneath. A nice touch.

These guys are incredibly tough. They carry 25kg on their backs using the roughest of pack frames. Some are aluminium but a lot are made of wood. For padding they use string or whatever they can find. Some of them have obviously ‘acquired’ shoulder straps from North Face bags and other western style rucksacks but the unlucky ones make do with rope. All in all, it must be incredibly uncomfortable to carry for any length of time. No wonder they seem to prefer walking in short spurts with frequent rests along the way, especially before and after any kind of ascent or descent. Compared to the sherpas in Nepal the Pakistanis carry less weight but it is still far more than we could easily carry ourselves.

After dinner we went straight back to the tents because we’ve got another 05:00 start tomorrow.

Day 9 - Monday 16 June 2008

Early start at 05:00 and on the trail by 07:00. Another longish day trekking alongside the Braldu river, gradually gaining altitude. Some clouds today so not so hot for a change. After yesterday I had filled my rucksack with 5.5 litres of water for me and Clare but ended up carrying it all the way to the next campsite and then throwing it away – talk about wasted energy.

Heavily loaded pony crossing a rickety bridge. [Clare]
Looking back down the Braldu River. [Andy]
Francois, Jean-Rene and Mark with the Trango range ahead. [Andy]

The next camp is Payu where we arrived at about 14:00. Everything seemed better organised today and the porters were moving at more or less the same speed as the rest of us. This meant we got our tents set up at a more reasonable time and the bags arrived while we were still recovering from the trek. There were actually a few brief rain showers this afternoon but nothing too serious.

Fida organising porters after arriving at Paju camp. [Clare]
Some of our tents at Payu. [Fred]
Fred enjoying the camp's al-fresco facilities. [Andy]
Looking towards the Trango Massif from Paju. [Andy]
Clare with toilet tardises behind. [Andy]
Clouds building up behind the distant peaks. [Clare]
Paju oasis with the Trango range in the distance. [Andy]
Incongruous street lighting infront of the Trangos. [Andy]
Not your everyday street view. [Andy]

Played some hard fought games of Uno before and after dinner this evening. After a while we had quite an audience gathered on the terraces around the mess tent. Our card playing antics were obviously the biggest entertainment this side of Concordia.

Learning to play 'Uno' before dinner at Paju. [Clare]
An audience gathers to watch the card games. [Clare]

Finally off to bed at 22:30 – tomorrow is a rest day! More...

 
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