Tue. Oct 20th, 2020

Biking to the Extreme North – Final Part

Kaiser Tufail

Setting out from Morkushi to Sad Buldi – which was to be our base camp for the final trek to Kilak Pass – we passed by a number of crude stone tombs said to be those of Kyrgyz nomads who had been settlers here, once upon a time.  Nearby, a neat helipad with a floor of well laid out stones testified to visits by senior military commanders who keep the area under their watchful eyes.

During the trek to Sad Buldi, we came across numerous marmots whose warning calls to their mates sounded to me like, Heeeeere they come … hide, hide, hide!”  If during the day we were there to startle them, they had a tougher time at night when they had to stay clear of prowling snow leopards, whose pug marks we spotted a dozen times across our track.

Trekking near Morkushi

On the way, we stopped at an odd run-down monument known as Bozai Gumbaz (dome of the elders), which had a couple of ibex horns strung up, apparently votive in nature.  Similarly named structures stand not too far inAfghanistan’s Wakhan strip and are actually tombs in the vicinity of Kyrgyz settlements.  During the short break at the monument, our porters built a quick fire and we had some hot coffee to pep us up for the remaining trek.

Our base camp at Sad Buldi

Reaching Sad Buldi in the afternoon, we were caught by a snow flurry followed by icy cold winds.  During the night, the temperature fell to minus 10ºC and a 40-knot wind kept lashing our tents.  Shahid, who is prone to freezing earlier than most, got up in the middle of the night and jogged around while I wondered what the hullabaloo was all about!

The Big Day dawned with a surprisingly clear sky and we set course at six in the morning before the snow started to melt under the sharp rays of the sun.  The 6-km trek toKilakPassturned out to be a tough one as we had to climb a good 2,000-ft, what with the atmospheric oxygen at Sad Buldi’s 14,000-ft elevation already 45% less than at sea level.  Shahid led the way with a surprisingly brisk gait and by9:00 amwe were at our objective, Border Pillar No 2, that denotes the Pak-China border atKilakPass.

Setting course for Kilak

The amount of snow for the first week of May was far more than what we had expected.  All around, the vista had Arctic overtones and, only the blue sky added colour to what was otherwise a most enchanting composition in various shades of white.  So pristine was the scenery that our footsteps in the snow seemed to mar eons of stillness, much like Armstrong’s did on the moon, I liked to imagine.

Kaiser and Shahid at Border Post No 2_Kilak Pass

The Kilak Pass opens into a sprawling plain about two kilometres wide, enclosed by towering mountains on the eastern and western sides.  A border fence about 50 metres inside the Chinese territory ensures that shepherds and their animals do not create a diplomatic fuss every now and then.  We stayed around the border pillar and took numerous pictures, though in the excitement we missed an important screen snap of the GPS, that could have recorded the latitude of 37º 05’ N and an elevation of 16,000’ above sea level.

Having to rush before the snow turned into slush, we headed back carefully but to little avail.  I plunged several times in to waist deep snow and, in a few instances, scraped my shins against hidden rocks.  Luckily, the injuries were Band-Aid® curable.  Anything more serious would have been disastrous and, in retrospect, I feel that donkeys or other pack animals might be the next best thing to helicopters for evacuation in a hiking eventuality, especially in a remote area.

Kilak Pass full of snow in ealry May. Pak-China border fence is visible

Back at our camp bymidday, both Shahid and I started to feel a bit of queasiness which we put down to altitude sickness.  Feeling better by the evening, we called our anxious families to tell them that the mission had been accomplished.  Eight days of hard work had paid off and we were eager to get back.

The trek back to Misgar was on familiar route and included a night halt at Morkushi.  Before we got to Misgar the following afternoon, we made a short detour to Qalandarchi Fort.  Built by the British in the 1930s to show a military presence in a sensitive area, the fort found new use half a century later, when the Pakistan Army posted a small section of soldiers in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  In the late eighties, whenIndiaoccupied the Siachen glacier, Pakistan Army decided to establish a High Altitude Comb at School for its Northern Area troops that were earmarked for duties in Siachen.  A decade later, when training began in situ at Siachen, Qalandarchi was finally abandoned.  Today a mosque and some barracks in the vicinity of the decrepit fort await new residents.  Maybe the infrastructure could be leased out to some enterprising tour operator if the Army doesn’t find the area as ‘sensitive’.  I am told, however, that cross-border sensitivities may be a bigger issue.

Reaching Misgar at midday, we were welcomed by Ata-ullah over sumptuous snacks and tea.  We paid off the porters, rigged our bikes with the camping gear, and took leave from our genial host.  As we cycled through the village, we were cheerfully waved at by all and sundry as word had gotten out about our successful expedition.

We were confronted with near Arctic conditions at Kilak Pass

Arriving in Sost by evening, we checked in the PTDC Motel, which this time, was mostly vacant.  A bath never felt so good, as we had to do without this facility during our camping.  A good load of laundry was also done in quick time.  With the household chores out of the way, we had a sumptuous dinner, much starved as we were on our limited rations in the camp.

Next morning, we decided to leap-frog to Hussaini in a vehicle, cross the Ata-abad Lake by boat and then ride our bicycles to Aliabad in Hunza.  After a luxury stay at another of PTDC’s excellent motel in Aliabad, we moved on to Gilgit, where the friendly and caring ways of the Army made us feel absolutely at home.

Unfortunately, the way out of Gilgit by air was closed due to bad weather and, the prospects were not favourable for the coming days, so we decided to take a 20-hour ride by bus to Rawalpindi.

We had been on the road or the trail for a fortnight and, most of the daylight hours had been taken up by a gruelling regimen.  The sense of accomplishment was immense indeed, particularly because our mode of transport was unique as not too many Pakistanis are given to cycling for leisure.  We hope that the younger lot is inspired enough to take up similar challenges; that is not to say that the senior lot should be considered past the age of pluck and resolve.  Here is a little secret that should get you going: we are both 58 and, there is no stopping yet!

Editor’s note: The story ends today but the journey shall continue. Hope you enjoyed the write-up and the photographs. 

You can search Pamir Times with the name “Kaiser Tufail” and read all four parts of the story. You can connect with the writer by emailing him at kaiser_mach2@yahoo.com

3 thoughts on “Biking to the Extreme North – Final Part

  1. People ought to know the word is ‘TREKKING’ AND NOT tracking. And one who does it is a ‘TREKKER’. Tracking is something else. When you track, you follow the spoor of something or somebody.

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