Who carries the load

This was a feature I wrote for Alpinist magazine. It is available on their website for subscribers. Here it is for my clippings.

The first warning was a sharp crack that punctured the stillness like an exclamation mark.

Porters crossing the upper Baltoro glacier

Porters crossing the upper Baltoro glacier

At 4240 meters, Urdukas camp sits on a series of terraces among the looming boulders of a moraine wall. More rocks perch precariously on the mountainside above. Most expeditions stop here on their way up the Baltoro Glacier in the Karakoram Range of Pakistan. It’s warmer than the sites on the glacier, but the truly notable feature is the view: on a clear day, you can look out on mountains that jut like jagged teeth over the glacier’s tongue. Uli Biaho, Trango Towers, Cathedral Peaks. Names that resonate with mountain lore and forms that evoke a silent awe.

On August 16, 2011, the summits were obscured by a low ceiling of cloud. The mountains, the sky, the glacier—everything was a gunmetal grey. It was early afternoon. A gentle drizzle fell. The trekkers were in their tents. The porters huddled under sheets of plastic or in whatever dry spots they could find. Eight of them sheltered under a large boulder. The stone was the size of a house, but at some point in the past, it had split in two. One half leaned way out, creating an overhang, cantilevered in place by the weight of the other half and by a few smaller boulders wedged underneath.

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From Dust to Ice: Trekking in the Karakorams

I knew there was a reason why I didn’t pursue a career in law after finishing my LLB – I’m just not that great at reading fine print. It wasn’t until after entering this year’s Guardian travel writing competition that I noticed the competition was only open to UK residents. Ooops. Oh well, my entry was only 500 words long and didn’t take much in the way of mental effort so it could be worse. Maybe this start will provide me the motivation I need to write a longer piece.

View towards K2 (in background) from the Gondogoro Pass

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On my way, standing at the border

On my way, standing at the border
Another day alone I wander
 – The Turbo ACs ‘Fistful of fury’

After spending three days sick in Lahore listening to the ceiling fan chopping the air like a chinook taking off it was time to leave for my rendez-vous in Delhi. I gave up on a desultory morning sight-seeing after failing to find an open internet cafe to print off a train ticket. I bought some naan – the only food I could stomach – and some more tinidizole from a pharmacy. I arrived back at the guesthouse 1.30pm. Sweating. No time for a shower; the border closed at 3.30pm.

I didn’t have the 400 rupees the rickshaw driver asked for the 30km ride to the border so I asked him to drop me at the railway station instead. From there I piled myself and my packs into a crowded bus and paid the 30 rupee ticket. The bus left immediately but stopped every 100 metres to pick up or drop off more passengers. We made slow progress and I kept fishing in my pocket for my watch with the broken strap. Then, inexplicably the bus stopped all together and everyone got out; three kilometres from the border. End of the line, despite what I had been assured earlier.

I quickly negotiated with another rickshaw driver to take me the last few ks down the road before the border closed. It cost 50 of my last 70 rupees. Hopefully there wouldn’t be any more unforeseen expenses. The rickshaw departed but, like the bus, the driver kept stopping to pick up passengers, ignoring my pleading that I had less than half an hour left to get across the border.

I was hot just sitting in the rickshaw but as I shouldered my pack and walked towards the customs house the sweat bgan running off me in rivulets. A moustachioed border guard stopped me and asked for my passport. I wrote my details in a ledger, drenching it with my sweat. My passport was then stamped and my bags x-rayed. I was the only person undergoing customs formalities travelling in either direction.

“Please hurry, border closing,” the guard yelled to me as I jogged on towards the border.

Five hundred metres further down the road I reached the border gate, light-headed and queasy. I had flashed my passport a further three times and been told to hurry each time.

I cleared the Indian side of the gate and stepped into the customs building. Behind the glass of the counter the customs officials had air-conditioning on and I leaned into the hole in the glass to absorb as much of the cool air as possible.

“Welcome to India. What is your good name sir?”

My good name given and my passport stamped I was free to leave and I stepped into India as the local patriots were arriving in droves to cheer on Hindustan during the daily border closing ceremony.

I collapsed into the nearest chair of the nearest chai stall and waved over the chai-wallah.

“Namasté. Coca-cola?”

“Yes, yes”, he waggled his head. “You have very beautiful moustache, you want taxi sir?”

The coke was 40 Indian rupees, twice the price as in Pakistani rupees which in turn are worth half as much as Indian rupees. Back in the world of tourists.

Namasté rickshaw driver, full speed ahead

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The photos were taken a few days earlier at the border closing ceremony.

Sufi night. Or not.

Things don’t always go according to plan travelling. Yesterday was one of those times. I was really looking forward to checking out Lahore and then going to a Thursday sufi nights that Lahore is famous for. Unfortunately my gut flora conspired against me and I spent the day lying on my bed sweating watching the fan spin afraid to venture more than five metres from a toilet.

Of course this morning when the other travellers in the dorm finally got up – they didn’t get home until after four – they were raving about what a great time they had. One younger traveller the rest of us nicknamed Jesus (for his beard and hair) proudly boasted that he’d been the most stoned he’d ever been in his life. Well I’m not sure I’m disappointed to have missed out on that but the rest of it sounded good.

I’m still not feeling great but I hope I get a chance to see a little more of Lahore before I leave for Amristar tomorrow.

Here’s what my friend Nick had to say about sufi night.

Kids with guns

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A morning in Peshawar

The morning was fresh when we stepped out into the street blinking the sleep from our eyes. I wasn’t sweating yet but felt groggy. We tried to get back to the hotel after leaving the teahouse the night before but events conspired against us. More men stopped to shake our hands, wish us well and ask us if we were enjoying our stay. Finally, around 1.00am in a sheesha cafe in Saddar, Peshawar’s new city, we made our excuses to our new friends, exited the smoky room and headed back to the Rose Hotel.

The morning light was still soft and oblique rays of sunlight lit up shafts of dust filtering down through gaps in the awning over the the storefronts. The streets were quiet; the day was only just coming alive. At the barbecue restaurants that had been so busy the night before the proprietors were lighting their braziers. They placed small piles of animal skin and fat gleaned from the butcher’s offcuts in the braziers and placed a few chunks of charcoal on top. When lit, the skin and fat burned like a crude tallow candle and ignited the charcoal.

Passing one of the garage-sized restaurants we were waved in by a smiling man. Out the front was a tandoor, an enormous dish of bubbling brisket and a huge stack of cracked bones from which the corpulent cross-legged proprietor was tapping out the marrow. The place was packed with men slurping down their first breakfasts after Ramadan and we squeezed onto a bench and were brought a bowl of brisket and boiled marrow swimming in an gelatinous broth. Naan and plastic mugs of pepsi accompanied it. The meat was rich and gloopy and we ended up covered in grease. To clean up, a small boy poured water from a stainless steel cup over our hands while we rinsed. When it came time to leave they refused payment.

“No money, no money!” they said, grinning at us.

We wished them Eid muburak in return and continued on our way. Aside from some food stalls the shops were closed, garage doors pulled down over storefronts. Groups of boys roamed the streets, wearing their best clothes and armed with new BB guns received as Eid presents. They demanded to have their photos taken and posed like freedom fighters for the camera.

Walking down a street of coffin builders we were waved over for tea by a man sitting on a charpoy outside his stall. A group of boys appeared from the back of the shop and posed for photos. They didn’t have BB guns and weren’t wearing their best clothes; in fact they were filthy. Intrigued, we followed them to the back of the building where they disappeared up a narrow concrete staircase. Arriving at the top we entered a concrete courtyard. The brick walls were black and tarry from couldrons of oil and sugar bubbling over wood fires. Skinny men with oil burns and skin infections were working, stripped to the waist and wearing baggy trousers so greasy they were transluscent. They stirred huge vats of syrup with paddles, mixed piles of dough up past their elbows and pressed spaghetti strings of sugar into the woks of boilikng oil. It was a snack factory. On the bare ground lay heaps of sweets and savoury snacks that the young boys were piling by the armful into plastic bags for packaging.

The boss came out and seated us on a couple of empty cooking oil tins and brought tea in a battered enamel kettle. He piled a selection of snacks onto a piece of cardboard for us and then left us to photograph. After the while he returned with a hash cigarette and offered it to us. The young boys giggled and whispered “hasheesh” to each other. The boss then led us to a corner where an old man was squatting next to a 10 litre oil drum. On it sat a piece of burning charcoal, a cup of water and a block of hash. In his mouth was long thing paper taper. He pressed out a paper thin leaf of hash the size of his thumbnail and placed it on the charcoal. He then took a mouthful of water and inhaled the smoke through the taper, bubbbling it through the water. He sucked all the smoke from the hash in one long draw and then spurted out the water in a long spluttering jet. He then sat back on his haunches with his eyes closed with a look of supreme beatification on his face.

Next it was our turn. I worried about how much hash he was pressing out onto the charcoal but smoking it through the water it was cool and smooth. It wasn’t until I got to my feet with a sloppy grin slipping across my face that I realised how unsteady I was. We decided to leave and stepped back into the street giggling to ourselves. It was 10.00am.

In the interim the streets had turned to mayhem. The mobs of boys with their plastic assault rifles were clambering over the road blocks and barbed wire erected around the mosque the night before looking like child soliders. Unsupervised by adults, the boys moved up the streets shooting out all the lightbulbs outside the closed stalls.

A firefight broke out betweeen two rival groups of boys which quickly degenerated into a fist fight. I tried to separate them and restore order but they were out of control. We left them breaking their new BB guns over each others’ heads and retreated quickly up the street as BBs whizzed past our ears and a rock hit my ankle.

We took cover in an ice cream shop. The shop owner sat cross-legged by his chest freezer and placed his cigarette between his toes as he sliced our ice cream out of metal cones. We ate the ice cream quickly as it melted in the heat and then left.

We passed one building that looked like a mosque but was surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. It was the Peshawar All Saints Church, founded in 1883. We knocked on the gate hoping to be able to see inside. After a moment the gate opened a crack and we were greeted suspiciously by a man with a shotgun. The church was not open for visitors.

It was noon time for me to head to Lahore. We took a rickshaw to the Daewoo station but found it empty. Of course, it was closed for Eid and no buses were running. It looked like we were stuck.

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An evening in Peshawar – photographs

These photos are a few of the ones that I took the other night in Peshawar. They mostly speak for themselves. A second installement of Peshawar experiences will hopefully follow shortly.

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