Life's Unexpected Gifts Often Mean the Most: A Birthday to Remember in Pakistan's Karakorum Range

Thursday, 27 August, 2015.  1745. Sitting on a ridge high above the town of Sost. Shepherds hut nearby.

Yaks grazing a couple of hundred metres off to my right along the banks of a glacial stream.  Sunset not far away so will need to allow myself enough time to get back to the hotel. It is so beautiful yet again.  The snowline and glaciers start about 400 metres above me. I love being in the mountains.

1930. Wow. That turned out to be such a wonderful amernoon. Earlier, down in Sost, I’d not felt entirely comfortable. It was the second day of the Khunjerab - Pamir Festival and it had relocated to Sost. There were many more people than yesterday. More music. Big crowds. The perfect place for a terrorist attack, albeit the chances being low. It was the same in the mainstreet. A huge police and military presence. Lots of guns. No such thing as pistols in these parts. They’re all machine guns. So whenever a crowd started to build in my vicinity I would relocate in case of a very small chance of a car bomb or something similar. Not a matter of being paranoid.Just being aware of the need to stay on your game.

The climb to the top of the ridge I was on had led me first across a suspension bridge and then up a long track to a village on the other side of the river. I’d intended to go with a local I’d met and another Japanese bloke. But they’d stuffed around and I decided the sun was getting low and I didn’t want to miss a training session. Still, I was not entirely comfortable about going on my own. There were many out-of-towners in Sost today - the perfect situation for terrorist groups and I didn’t want them to see me heading off if there were any of those people around. So I headed down through some quiet laneways until I hit the river, and then I followed that downstream until I reached the bridge.

My fitness felt good and it was a highlight having kids and women greet you with big smiles as you approached. I’m very careful about how I deal with women in this part of the world. In Skardu the Baltis were very very traditional. You couldn’t say hello or shake the hand of a woman as a general rule. Here, women seemed only too happy to smile and take your hand. The fences of all the homes were made of stone, as is the rule for these parts.

And then, as I sought to find a way to reach the start of the climbing proper, I came to a series of fields from which wheat had only recently been cut and tied into bundles. I climbed down to go across and then saw a woman and child collecting the bundles. I said hello - they couldn’t speak English - and then the woman gestured for me to take some bundles and assist her by carrying them to the stash she was building at the other end of the field. Go with the flow I figured. I did so, and then, having done that, she directed me to the other side of the field and some freshly picked apricots. The apricots were to die for. What a birthday present I thought. But it was also seeing the woman smile and laugh at having had our interaction that gave the experience something special.

Onward and upward. The hill became steeper - good for my legs and cardio - and up past a series of shepherds' huts and fields. The huts also being made of stone. No mortar. Just stones neatly and meticulously stacked on top of one another.

The trip down the hill was equally as special. Soon after leaving my ridge I came across an elderly man who had climbed up to collect water from the stream. He greeted me by putting down his two five litre water containers and grabbed my hand firmly and pressed it with his other hand. He was grateful to meet me. A man leading a traditional lifestyle. We walked together without saying a word but it was clear we enjoyed each other’s company. On us parting company he again grabbed my hand firmly and then pressed it with his other hand. Yet another wonderful experience with barely a word spoken.

These are the memories that remain with you for a very long time. Like the experience I had in Burkina Faso a few years ago during an absolute belter of a dust-storm.

On reaching the village proper I was hankering for some apricots. These apricots here are the best I have ever tasted. I asked a woman to whom I said hello and she asked me to follow her back to her house. There were apricots drying everywhere but they brought some freshly picked apricots out on a plate. I asked to pay for them but they would not hear of it. The people with the least they say tend to be the ones that give the most. These apricots were out of this world good. They’d been washed which had me thinking that I could be up for a crook stomach in a few days, but then I thought bugger it. These are too good not to eat. Take what comes down the track.

Shortly afterward the man of the house came out and they invited me into their house for some green tea. The room was beautifully decorated. No table or chairs. Just rugs and then cushions spaced around the room which themselves had a beautiful design. I asked whether the rugs and cushions were locally made and the man told me that they weren’t. These are modern design he said. They were provided as a wedding gift.

While having tea the man also asked whether I would like some cake which was kind of a nice touch given that it was my birthday. The cake tasted more like cold damper but it was still quite cool to have cake after-all on my birthday in the remote reaches of northern Pakistan. He lamented the lack of tourism following 9/11 and said that Sost was very very safe. I asked what they did during winter because road access is cut and the snows are very deep. He said that they did nothing. Just watched television when the electricity was working.

So that’s been my day. I would love to go to Kashgar in Western China because I’ve heard it’s pretty cool, but I have work to do and that’s why I’m here. Central Asia is an incredible place. So authentic and untainted by the West. Of all the places I’ve been to around the world this is right up there with the best of any of them. The people are just incredible. The redneck perceptions back home of the Muslim religion is so so wrong.

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