Having successfully undertaken an arduous bicycle trip from Gilgit to the northern-most latitude of Pakistan at Kilak Pass in May 2012, I and my former Air Force colleague Shahid Dad pledged to keep our fast-aging sinew and muscle in action over the coming years. So thrilling was the previous wind-in-the-face biking expedition – with camping halts in the midst of snow leopard trails – that we promised ourselves a perennial treat in the Himalayas. It was decided that for 2013, Baltistan’s ShyokValley would be the place to explore, via the road from Skardu till its termination at the base of Siachen Glacier near Goma. Of course, Army contacts would take care of our forays in operational areas if we could make it that far.
Arrival at Skardu by PIA’s ATR-42 aircraft – aptly named Hasanabdal, for that is where my alma mater was – would have been a happy occasion, except for the rude discovery that our luggage had been left behind at Islamabad. With a lot of string pulling and a bit of good luck, the luggage arrived the following morning while we waited it out in an Army guest house amidst the serene surroundings of Lower Kachura Lake, on the outskirts of Skardu. Our bikes, which had been earlier booked by bus, also arrived and we managed to assemble them for a test ride the next day.
The stark desert landscape and the hot weather on the way to Shigar did us no good as we pedalled our way over some gruelling terrain; the ShigarRiver that meandered alongside was some relief for our eyes, though. On the outskirts of Shigar a notice board caught our attention; it advised “all visitors to avoid playing all types of immoral audio-video songs and ladies are requested to please use vail (sic) during visit to Shigar.”
Shigar evoked memories of a wondrously vigorous Air Force colleague of yesteryears who carried that surname, so a visit to his fabled land would also satisfy our curiosity about his community, we thought. In the event, it turned out the Shigaris were less energetic than our friend who was one of his kind, though a hardy and stout people they certainly are. After three hours of cycling we were lucky to stumble into a store which kept ice-cold beverages, and we made sure that dehydration wouldn’t rear its head again as bottle after bottle was guzzled in front of amused onlookers in the shabby Shigar bazaar.
The high point of our trip to Shigar was the discovery of an ultimate getaway in the form of Shigar Fort Residency, the palace of the former Rajas and now a renovated heritage guest house run by the Serena Hotels chain. The exotic 17th century fort-palace at the foot of a mountain is highly recommended for honeymooners, as well as seniors who might want to revitalize their sagging proclivity for fun. Being on a serious expedition, tired and hungry, we could do no better for ourselves than ordering a nourishing lunch. While it was being readied, we took a guided tour of the palace, which included a peep into the prisoners’ hellish dungeons in the basement and a stroll through the Raja and Rani’s heavenly bedrooms, separate as they were. The sumptuous lunch by the side of a hill torrent cascading out of Thalle Valley could, unhappily, not be prolonged as we still had a laborious journey to complete on utterly spent muscles. Thank goodness, by the end of the day we had completed the 55-km trial run, the bikes had behaved perfectly and we were well in time at Skardu to tend our sore limbs.
Our expedition proper started next day, the 13th of June, with the first of the six 50-km legs terminating at Keris, a village where Shyok River joins the mighty Indus during the latter’s north-westerly traverse. Somehow, the limbs sprang back to full pedalling efficiency, and by late afternoon we were in the village scouting for a camp site. Shahid was able to convince a friendly villager to allow us to camp adjacent to his orchard. The sooner we started to pitch our tents, hordes of children started to congregate, for the novelty of seeing camping tourists – even though natives – in their midst was too much to let go. The colourful tents surrounded by even more colourfully dressed children gave the impression of a gala event in Keris. By evening, word had spread about the visitors and almost every boy and girl of the village had managed an awe-struck glimpse of our campsite. Most touching was a gesture from three little girls who brought handfuls of sweet mulberries for us. An early supper being heated on the camp stove was also very entertaining for the onlookers. Soon after we had retired, a thoughtful local brought a heavy jerry can of drinking water which could have sufficed for our bathing needs as well.
After a restive night – as anyone who has been sandwiched in a sleeping bag would know – we were woken up by an incessant melodious whistle that was bird song at its best. A Blue Whistling Thrush (Myiophoneus caeruleus) had taken upon itself to wake us up at 4:30 in the morning. Soon we were at the nearby stream for a wash up, followed by stove-cooked breakfast of oat meal and hot chocolate. Camp was then broken, and everything packed and trussed up on the bikes. By 7:00 o’clock, we were on the road again.
Khaplu, nestled amongst lush green orchards of apricots, apples, cherries and walnuts, was our next stop. The small town was once the seat of another petty principality, to which the splendidly restored Khaplu Fort Residency testifies. It is from Khaplu that most mountaineering expeditions veer off towards various base camps. A well stocked single-street bazaar caters to their basic requirements. The consumer lifestyle of the locals was surprisingly in evidence, perhaps a result of the influence of these trekking groups and climbing expeditions.
Too tired for sightseeing in Khaplu, we decided to take a day’s break on the return leg and hastened to the PTDC Motel where we had a booking. The beautiful structure looks like a Swiss chalet from afar, but we were disappointed to discover appalling house-keeping and general apathy that now seems to afflict every government-run organisation in the country. After some livid dressing down administered to the staff, we made sure that the bathroom taps worked, dangling curtains were re-hooked and the bed linen and towels were changed. With a much needed bath, laundry and lunch out of the way, we reviewed our plans for the next day as the climb gradient was getting to be steeper on every leg. Since the next two nights were to be in the Army Mess at Dumsum (Dansem), we decided to leave the camping gear at the motel, to be picked up on return.