The following narrative recounts a 1995 journey to the ruby mines of Azad Kashmir in Northern Pakistan by a group of nine Americans, one Italian and one Briton. The trip was organized by Gemcore, a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of gemological knowledge through research and education. The expedition also was made possible by the Azad Kashmir Mineral and Industrial Development Corp. This is a personal account of the experiences, observations and thoughts of author Karen L. Rice, a first-time traveler to this remote region. Rice is a gemologist with Suna Bros. Inc., New York, N.Y.
Our August 1995 journey to the remote Nangimali and Lower Khora deposits – the world’s highest operational ruby mines – was the first by a foreign team. Our journey began amid the hustle and bustle of New York City with a luncheon and orientation meeting. From New York we flew some 17 hours to Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.
Due to military conflicts between Pakistan and India along the “line of control” (the disputed border between the two countries), our route to the mines would take us on a jour-ney through the North West Frontier Province, into the Northern Areas to the town of Gilgit and then, finally, into the foothills of the Himalayas, across Shounter Pass and into Azad Kashmir.
It was to take four days of hard travelling, first by bus/Jeep and then on mule/foot to reach Nangimali Village, location of the principal camp for both mines. From here we made our final ascent, first to Nangimali Top (14,000 ft.) and then to Lower Khora (12,500 ft.).
The account that follows is both a record of daily events and an expression of my personal thoughts while travelling in a country far different from my own. Since individuals occasionally pursued slightly different agendas, not all team members were witness to all the events recorded herein. In addition, the views expressed are solely my own.
I would hope that this narrative will allow the reader both to accompany the team on the expedition – albeit from the comfort of an arm chair – and to gain some insight into life in one of the remotest corners of the world, a beautiful and as yet unspoiled region.
JULY 31: ISLAMABAD TO GILGIT
A journey through the North West Frontier Province.
It was already getting light when the hotel wake-up call awakened me from a sound, if only short, sleep at 4:45 a.m. Within the hour the entire team was assembled in the hotel lobby (on time!!). But our planned 6 a.m. start came and went as an endless trail of baggage was hoisted aloft (firmly secured, we hoped, to the roof) or maneuvered into the bus, wedged between seats.
At first glance, the bus, a 25-seat Toyota Coaster, had appeared overly big for our needs considering that only around half that number would be on board. However, by the time everything was loaded, any feeling of spaciousness had disappeared completely. Instead, with a mass of baggage clogging the rear of the bus there was only just enough room for all the passengers.
Finally at 7 a.m., with all 11 team members, an officer of the Azad Kashmir Mineral and Industrial Development Corporation (AKMIDC), the driver and an additional driver (asleep on the back seat), we set course for Gilgit some 400 miles to the north. Our adventure had begun – one that would take us from the modern capital of Islamabad in the Punjab, through the North West Frontier Province, into the Northern Provinces to the town of Gilgit and then on into the foothills of the Himalayas. But this was not simply to be a “physical” journey. Rather, for most, it was also to be a passage of initiation – thrust into a world physically, mentally and spiritually far different from our own, bound by traditions we could not hope to come to fully understand during our brief visit.
The journey that day was to take nearly 16 hours, most of those spent travelling the infamous Karakoram Highway (KKH). Following a branch of the old Silk Road, the two-lane “highway” – devoid of any road markings or apparent speed limitations for most of its length – stretches some 800 miles from the Chinese trading town of Kashgar in the north to the old city of Rawalpindi, just south of Islamabad, although its official start is at the town of Thakot on the banks of the Indus where a shrine-like monument stands in remembrance to its builders. It can best be described as a mammoth feat of engineering and is testimony to the endurance of its builders who, quite literally, cut their way through some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain, not to mention the world’s highest mountain ranges – the Himalayas, Karakoram and Pamirs. In doing so, it cost the lives of hundreds of Chinese and Pakistani laborers during the twenty years it took to complete. By some estimates one life was lost for each mile of road constructed.
In the early morning the wide streets of Islamabad were already teeming with activity. In particular, yellow and black taxis cruised the streets, desperate to pick up fares (they became positively annoying when walking the streets, constantly trying to entice you to ride). Begun only in 1961, the capital – a centerless urban spread divided into sectors with map-like coordinates for names (Eg. F-7, G-6) – was a mixture of not-so-old and very modern; not-so-affluent and very wealthy (see photo 1). It is, as we were to discover at the end of the trip, in complete contrast to its sister city of Rawalpindi some ten miles away.
One- and two-story residences, many hidden behind high walls, lined the streets in neat rows. Breaking the monotony every now and again were the taller, featureless, once white flat-roofed buildings of the “markets.” These maze-like shopping malls, one to each sector, were packed to capacity with an assortment of small shops, their large signs promoting what was for sale. There were books, jewelry, fabrics, ladies’ clothes, rugs, woodcarvings and furniture to mention just a few, interspersed with tea shops and dry cleaners and launderers (who appeared to use the grass verges to air dry their customers’ clothes!).
On the road: Soon, the wide streets and modern white-faced buildings of Islamabad were left behind as we travelled north along a busy stretch of tarmac, softened by an already intense early morning sun. We joined a colorful array of other travellers crowding the road, riding every type of vehicle imaginable – both motorized and “animal” powered. Intricately decorated buses sped by with passengers packed into every available space, and more hanging from the outside. Trucks heavy with sacks of grain kicked up swirling clouds of dust and motorbikes weaved in and out of the traffic. In a seemingly indiscriminate manner, all honked their horns as they went by. It was just another Monday morning in the Punjab!
Our driver was no different; we, too, weaved in and out tooting the horn with regularity and redefining the concept of a “near-miss” over and over again. From our air-conditioned sanctum, we viewed images that many of us had previously seen only on celluloid. Paddy fields fed by irrigation channels crisscrossed an otherwise arid landscape. Shiny black-skinned water buffalo harnessed to ploughs struggled to till the hard ground. Colorfully dressed women tended crops and an endless number of small, highly decorated cemeteries dotted the roadside. Civilization had begun on this land some four millennium before, the Indus being one of the great riverine civilizations of antiquity. In many ways life had changed little since early times; clearly, it was still a struggle for most.
At first, the road was straight and open. Our rapid progress was slowed only by the myriad of small busy towns we passed through, which forced the driver to slow and skillfully maneuver his vehicle around man and animals. One town was much like another. Their unpaved side streets were crammed with stores and roadside vendors squatting behind sackfuls of wares. Adding to the confusion, horse-drawn buggies, donkeys draped with heavy packs, cyclists and small Honda mini-vans with decorated fabric canopies fought their way through the crowds, all avoiding one another, if only by the narrowest of margins.
But soon the road narrowed and stretches of straight tarmac became a feature of the past. In an almost monotonous fashion the road began to curve left and right, continually swinging the passengers on the bus back and forth. We had also begun to climb, slowly at first, and then more steeply as we continued northward. But we were still a long way from the rugged, barren hills further north and a thick covering of lush vegetation hid many of the physical features the land possessed. Indeed, much of the time it was difficult to see beyond the road, a wall of tall greenery obscuring the view. On occasions the road would open out as it crossed a plateau or a wide flat valley floor, exposing small settlements and accompanying tilled terraces.
Landslide! At midday our journey was temporarily halted as we rounded a sharp bend only to find a “traffic jam” ahead of us. Upon investigation, we found the reason to be a landslide which had, apparently, occurred the day before. A long line of highly decorated Bedford trucks with carved wooden doors was patiently waiting for the road to reopen. The slip had wiped away some 500 feet of tarmac, creating a large ugly brown scar running up an otherwise green slope. A lone bulldozer slaved away trying to clear a passage. But as fast as it cleared, more rubble would come crashing down, sending the bulldozer and its accompanying entourage of military personnel running.
For their part, the people seemed resigned to the wait, displaying utmost patience. Some quietly slept beneath their trucks, feet protruding into the road. Others sipped freshly brewed tea in the shade. Still others, probably determined not to let a mere landslide stop their journey, found alternative routes, the steep slopes of the narrow valley posing little problem to them (see photos 2 and 3). While one group improvised by dropping into the valley, through the fast, waist- high river, along the opposite bank and back again across the river, another group climbed the steep hillside, crossed above the slide and descended on the other side. They demonstrated total adaptation to their environment. On slopes too steep for most, they walked sure footed. Women with babies in one arm, chickens in the other and baskets balanced on their heads traversed the narrow “homemade” paths without hesitation. Not a moan or a groan, just a determination to get the job done.
Our wait in the hot midday sun lasted three hours. During this time some team members took the opportunity to catch up on sleep while others tested their endurance in the pounding heat, walking up and down the convoy, content to observe first hand life and its hardships in this region. Eventually, all returned to the air-conditioned bus, with each visit lasting longer as the idea of venturing outside into the “oven” became less and less attractive.
As the bulldozer backed away for the last time, the waiting crowd descended on the rough and muddy single-track road, eager to remove the remaining large boulders and heave them over the edge down into the river. As the last obstacles were tossed aside, a frenzy of activity occurred as truck after truck jostled for position to cross the narrow track. The stream of vehicles was interspersed by a multitude of people, all totally unconcerned about the loose rubble above and the possibility of another slide. We too were caught up in the moment, racing on foot alongside the colorful convoy. By the time we reached the other side, the air was thick with dust and it became prudent to cover, as much as possible, nose and mouth to avoid inhaling the dirt.
Covered in a layer of brown dust, firmly embedded into the weave of our clothes and glued to all exposed wet skin, we piled back into the bus around 3 p.m. We still had many hours of driving ahead of us so there was no time to waste.
Into a forbidding land: Within a very short time the narrow valley we had been travelling along came to an abrupt end, opening out into a larger deeper valley. We had reached the mighty Indus, third longest river in Asia after the Yangzi and Yellow. Born at Mount Kailas in southwestern Tibet, its thick silt-laden waters rushed by at considerable speed, swallowing up all in its path, steadfast in its journey to the sea. Its channel was wide and the sides of the valley steep, dropping straight into the river and leaving little flat ground.
At the town of Thakot, official start of the Karakoram Highway, we began our journey through Indus Kohistan (Land of the Mountains). Crossing onto the west side of the Indus, the road now cut into the side of an ever deepening gorge. The hills became less and less fertile. At first, streams of white rock devoid of vegetation crisscrossed the slopes, creating complex patterns against a green background. No doubt the result of slides, they slowly began to dominate the view as the slopes became increasingly steep and soon vast tracks of bare rock stretched down the mountainsides. Scorched by the endless sun the barren rocks displayed few colors and the muddy waters of the Indus added little flavor to the scenery, which now consisted almost exclusively of various shades of brown and grey.
Once known as Yaghistan – Land of the Ungoverned – Kohistan was still a remote and forbidding land. Passing through an endless line of small towns (see photo #4), many positioned at the confluence of rivers joining the Indus, it was clear that we had entered a territory far different from the Pakistan of the south. The West had little impact here. Indeed, it appeared that Pakistan itself had little influence on the inhabitants of the North West Frontier Province. Instead, they were governed by their own rules and customs, formulated, no doubt, centuries past and steeped in religious doctrine.
As barren as the land was, these small towns seemed to thrive, some positively bursting with life. The streets, dominated almost exclusively by men (in some towns not a woman was seen), overflowed with pedestrians and traffic. Wooden open-fronted shops with concertina doors folded fully back sold everything from cassette tapes with the latest hits to rifles and automatic weapons, while tea rooms spilled customers and their guns out onto the narrow streets (see photo #5). At times, the presence of the four female team members caused concern among the inhabitants of the towns. Remembering our “visitor” status we obliged by getting back into the bus, if rather reluctantly.
As the road wound endlessly north and then east following the course of the Indus, which itself takes a detour around the Nanga Parbat Massif, signs of human habitation became more intermittent. Towns dwindled to little more than small dusty settlements, the vicious sun keeping their residents hidden in the shade. At times there seemed no end to the constant motion of the bus as it swerved around curve after curve, sometimes at speeds more in keeping with the Indianapolis 500. Indeed, one of the team aptly named our drive the Indus 500!
Our fellow road users also became more scarce. With the exception of a few buses similar to our own, probably ferrying tourists, the road was used primarily by trucks. The average family automobile was a rare sight indeed. Occasional roadside “cafes” catered to the needs of these long-distance drivers (see photo #6). Strategically located near mountain streams so as to provide water for drinking and to cool engines, they offered food and accommodation, even if it was under the stars: Specks of humanity in an otherwise lonely land.
At the town of Chilas we eventually left the confines of the deep gorge, crossing back to the eastern flank of a still barren valley, but one in which we were not so closed in. Dusk came and went, with giant shadows being cast as the sun set behind the mountains to the west. Soon, darkness fell and we were given a truly fantastic view of the night sky. The unpolluted atmosphere allowed the stars to shine as nature had intended, the Milky Way stretching its arch across the entire sky.
Our journey was broken only by checkpoints, which became increasingly common as we moved further north. Manned by “military looking” personnel, thin barriers strung haphazardly across the road were effective at bringing all traffic to a halt. There appeared to be no definite rule as to what was required to secure passage, but on most occasions a list of passport numbers and nationalities was handed over. Once satisfied, we were allowed to continue our journey.
We arrived in Gilgit around 11 p.m., our entry being slowed somewhat by three checkpoints of a more substantial nature than those on the open road further south. Our accommodation that night – Mirs Lodge, a walled “encampment” located in the middle of town – was a welcome sight after so many hours of travelling. The lodge itself, a stark white-walled building with an orange tiled roof, stood in much contrast to the rest of the town. However, it was comfortable, even if the unusually high ceilings created an eery hollowness to the place. Their hospitality was more than generous. The very late night meal cooked especially for us – a delicious chicken and vegetable soup followed by mutton curry – was a tasty end to a long day.
AUG. 1: GILGIT TO ASTORE
Tuesday began at 6:50 a.m. with the piercing monotonous tone of a wristwatch alarm which seemed to echo off every wall. The room was still dark, the only window covered by thick curtains. Outside, however, the sun was already high in a clear sky. This morning was notable in one important respect: it was the last opportunity to shower. So even if the water was not as hot as one might like, the moment could not be allowed to pass by!
The hotel served western style breakfast – French toast, omelettes and the like – and all the team made it to the 8 a.m. sitting. The other guests, a multitude of nationalities, wandered in and out of the dining room. While a group of Indians, their women in traditional dress, arrived from upstairs, a team of Chinese mountaineers just back from a successful ascent of Nanga Parbat (26,660 ft.) enjoyed the luxury of eating at a table, having been on the mountain for two months. One proudly displayed his frostbitten toes! It was evident that visitors had their own personal, very specific, reasons for being in this most northerly of towns.
After breakfast we readied ourselves to move. From here on there would be no stores to “pop” into to pick up supplies. This factor probably explained why 11 people amassed so much luggage! Rucksacks packed and repacked in the hope of trimming a few pounds off still bulged. We had an hour or so to wait until our transport arrived, affording us the opportunity to orient ourselves to the surroundings. In excruciatingly bright sunlight we could see barren mountains rising abruptly either side of the valley, whose flat fertile floor supported the town of Gilgit, largest settlement in the Northern Provinces and the regional capital. At an elevation of just under 5,000 ft. the town literally baked in the summer sun.
This bowl of greenery in an otherwise desolate region had been occupied for several thousand years. Its ancient name of Sargin was changed to Gilyit, later corrupted to Gilgit. Its geographical position and fertile land made it a desirable target for empires far and near; great powers such as China, Arabia and Tibet all sought supremacy over the valley at one time or another. By the eleventh century, Gilgit and the surrounding area had grown into a powerful kingdom in itself, called Dardistan by the British, but its greatness waned in the following centuries. In 1846 it came under the direct control of the Maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir, who never really secured the support of the inhabitants. By the 1870s the British, who had expanded their control over the Indian subcontinent, feared Russian and Chinese aggression to the north. They created Gilgit Agency in 1877, which became the furthest outpost of British India.
Two jeeps of indeterminable age had been procured by 10 a.m. and we began the task of loading our gear – a scene reminiscent of a child trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It soon became apparent that a third vehicle was needed and so a four-wheel drive was also commissioned. At 11 a.m., three heavily laden vehicles rolled out of the hotel compound. Passengers slick with sunblock hung out on all sides with sunglasses on and cameras at the ready – the epitome of the “western” tourist!
By midmorning Gilgit displayed all the hustle and bustle of any other town going about the business of the day. The main street, a wide dusty unpaved avenue, was crammed with men and vehicles. Honda 100cc motorbikes seemed particularly popular, probably due to their economic fuel consumption – important when fuel is expensive. It was an education to see just how many people you could fit on one motorbike and still ride it safely – or unsafely, as it appeared on many occasions. Observing the highway code did not seem to be a priority, even where smartly dressed, white-gloved traffic police stood on bandstand-like structures directing traffic at at least three points along a 300-yard stretch of road. I doubted that they were even seen, let alone taken any notice of!
Toward the roof of the world: Travelling out of Gilgit we were given our first glimpse of some of the highest peaks in the world; Rakaposhi (25,550 ft.) and Nanga Parbat (26,660 ft.) were clearly visible, their snowcapped summits set against a deep blue cloudless sky. We had truly entered “the roof of the world” and the magnitude of size destroyed any previous concept of scale.
Soon we had left the flat tarmac roads of suburban Gilgit and cleared the checkpoints on the outskirts of town (see photo #7), where the men of the Frontier Constabulary had thoroughly checked our passage. We headed back along the Karakoram Highway to the garrison town of Jaglot, where we would begin our climb into the mountains.
After crossing the Indus River via a long single-lane wooden suspension bridge, we began our ascent. We were now on the old Srinagar-Gilgit road (see photo #8). Although difficult to imagine, this winding narrow dirt track once was the only road between the two towns. Crossing over the Burzil Pass (13,700 ft.), it was passable for only three months of the year. Known as the “Dreary Road to Slavery,” it was the main supply route for the British garrison at Gilgit and thus was well guarded. During his travels as a government official in the 1860s and 1870s, Frederick Drew noted the presence of considerable numbers of troops along the road, most keeping watch over the all important bridges. Not until 1892 was a second road opened, traversing the Babusar Pass (13,685 ft.) and then following the Kaghan Valley. In those days it took the hardy traveller nearly a month to complete the journey from Srinagar to Gilgit. Fortunately for us, our progress using four-wheel drive vehicles would be somewhat quicker.
At first, we wound our way through a narrow, steep-sided gorge. The dirt track had been cut right into the wall; at points the rock above almost formed a roof. These conditions made it inadvisable to stop in one place for too long for fear of falling rocks. Indeed, the remains of previous falls littered the dusty surface. There was little vegetation, due to the steep slopes and arid climate. The river, squeezed into a narrow channel, smashed repeatedly into large boulders on its way down, creating violent white water rapids.
As we travelled higher, we could look back on the vast flat plain of the Gilgit valley, now an almost insignificant smudge in an otherwise mountainous landscape. Soon all evidence of flat land disappeared and only mountains could be seen. Nearer to us, the sharp-ridged, barren mountains displayed huge scree slopes running down their sides, making them appear as smooth as glass. Interspersed between the scree were fingers of solid jagged rock. The dirt track we had travelled along was clearly visible as a white squiggle on the hillside, laboriously winding its way back towards Gilgit.
The crisp clear air, free of humidity and pollutants, allowed us to see for an incalculable distance. As we climbed, mountain after mountain came into view, the higher peaks capped with brilliant white snow reflecting the sun’s rays with intensity.
Within the hour the valley widened and the river became less turbulent. Because the lower road was impassable, we were forced to take an alternate route and ascend the mountain. The road fought its way up the steep slope in a series of zig-zags, some so sharp that our vehicles had to perform three-point turns in order to navigate around. Reversing with such a drop was slightly unnerving, especially when performed on tires with absolutely no tread! Fortunately, our drivers were experienced at maneuvering their loads in such tight conditions and seemed almost oblivious to the dangers as they slipped between gears, each time skillfully balancing clutch and accelerator pedals so as not to roll backwards.
At a point further down the road our driver gave us an even more remarkable demonstration by turning the jeep completely around on a stretch of dirt track only a couple of feet wider than the vehicle itself (see photo #9). For our part, bravery lasted until the jeep was at 90 degrees to the road and we could see only mountains and, more importantly, the river several thousand feet below. When one passenger made a move to exit, all others followed without hesitation – or notice to the driver, who was left alone to inch back and forth until he turned a complete 180 degrees.
The air cooled as we pushed higher. Eventually and rather suddenly, we entered an alpine type environment. Lush tall trees bounded the road, giving much needed shade. As one team member noted, we could have been in Montana! However, passing through the small mountain villages shattered this illusion. The flat-roofed wood and mud structures built in tiers were certainly not “Montana style” and our passage through them seemed to bring the inhabitants, especially the children, out en mass. They appeared to view our presence with some cynicism; they knew what was ahead of us, and that our clean-cut tidy appearance would not last for long!
Our journey was interrupted only by the odd stop for water to cool the overworked engines and a not-so-short stop to free a four-wheel drive vehicle from a deep patch of mud. However, this delay coupled with a late start put us behind schedule and, unable to reach our planned destination, we settled on staying the night in Astore. We had travelled just over 100 miles, but it had taken us almost all day.
Dream Land: Perched above the Astore River on flat fertile terraces either side of the Rama Gah ravine, the town of Astore appeared to be the only settlement of significant size along the road, and certainly the only one capable of accommodating such a large influx of visitors without notice. It was almost dark at around 7 p.m. when we drove the steep narrow track leading to the town. Discussions immediately got underway with a local official to procure lodging and food. For the former we were able to use a Government of Pakistan Rest House, located on the edge of town. As for food, Major Aziz, official bridge builder and restaurateur (not sure which one he excelled in), kindly agreed to cook for us. So during the late evening we piled into his small restaurant, aptly named “Dream Land Tourest Inn,” for rice, mutton curry and lentils followed by hot tea. All was consumed with enthusiasm while watching western music videos on a color television. Clearly even in the remotest regions of the world, technological progress has made it virtually impossible to escape from civilization. For better or worse, it allows the people of Astore to experience a world beyond their own.
After eating we returned to the rest house. The accommodation was basic but comfortable (in the following days we were to learn the real meaning of basic!), and within a short time the lights were out.
Not to sound ungrateful to Major Aziz’s hospitality, but his food did not settle well. I was up most of the night, walking back and forth on the concrete porch, trying not to startle our security guard sleeping on his “chair puai” (a four-legged cot) at the far end, gun at his side. Even at 7,700 feet the night air was warm and the sky clear. Several shooting stars displayed bright tails as they crossed the heavens and lightning from a far distant storm flickered behind the mountains, silhouetting their rugged outline with each flash. It was unfortunate that no sooner had I gone back inside in an attempt to sleep that the call to morning prayer by the muezzin from the minaret of a local mosque broke the silence. A recital of prayers by our security guard soon followed somewhat closer to our accommodation.
AUG. 2: ASTORE TO CAMP ONE
With hardly enough time to allow my stomach to recover, we were off again to sample Major Aziz’s cooking, this time a breakfast of fried “chapptis” (a form of bread resembling a thin flat pancake). Our “western” habit of spreading marmalade on them seemed to amuse the local population, but it added flavor to an otherwise bland dish.
In the morning light we could view our surroundings. Although remote, the town of Astore appeared to be thriving. The winding, steep and narrow dirt track which served as the town’s main thoroughfare was alive with activity. Indeed, clearing a path for our vehicle was a slow affair; both store keepers sitting in the shade of their premises and patrons on the street viewed us with as much interest as we viewed them (see photo #10).
Despite such activity it was difficult to imagine that this isolated town once was an empire in itself, albeit a small one, complete with its own raja (chief) and fortress, the ruins of which were still evident at the turn of the century. It was deprived of its autonomy by the expansion of the Sikh Empire in the nineteenth century. From the time of the British presence, the town served as a convenient resting point on the long haul from the capital, Srinagar. Two British telegraph operators were permanently stationed there to relay messages for the Crown (a lonely existence, I’m sure). The venerable Colonel Algernon Durand travelled this way during his tenure as British agent at Gilgit (1889-1894). Indeed, he was entertained by the former raja on his visit and attended a polo game there! Unfortunately, our schedule did not afford us the opportunity to investigate the town further.
After bidding farewell to the restaurateur we left Astore around 8.30 a.m., stopping to pick up dinner (chickens) along the way. We had swapped our jeeps for two four-wheel drive vehicles with good suspension, air conditioning and, importantly, large roof racks! However, our comfortable ride was not to last long. The bridge ahead had been damaged by recent heavy rains and was unsafe for vehicles, so we had to cross on foot. The luggage we had secured on the roof not an hour before all had to come down again. This was the first time most of us had put on our fully loaded packs. There were some shocked faces as team members suddenly realized that the packs were heavier than they looked. But we all put on a brave face and confidently marched across the sloping, wooden-slatted suspension bridge, carefully avoiding the gaps left by missing planks. The river rushed by below, smashing into the numerous boulders that littered its course.
Once on the other side we were relieved to find two open-backed jeeps waiting, one for our luggage, the other for us. We climbed in (standing room only) and soon set off along the valley. But after about 20 minutes, it was time to repeat our actions – luggage unloaded, backpacks on, cross a bridge (this time a foot-wide plank over a gushing stream), backpacks off, luggage and people back into two more jeeps. Travel is seldom easy or straightforward in this part of the world! This time, we had to spend some three hours perched in a cattle-like pen on the back of the jeep (see photo #11). Soon, the exhilaration of riding in this unusual manner wore thin. Leg and arm muscles ached as we fought to keep our balance, but much as we tried, none of us could stop ourselves from hitting the metal bars of our “pen.”
Sleeping beauty: The road followed the river, hovering slightly above the water line. The valley was nowhere near as rugged, barren or deep as the previous day and our ascent was hardly perceptible. As we wound our way upstream, leaving a cloud of dust behind us, we had a magnificent view of Nanga Parbat (26,660 ft.). At a curve in the road where a second valley intersected our path, we were brought face to face with this most mighty of earth’s structures (see photo #12). While not the world’s highest peak (seven others are higher), it can claim to be the largest, consisting not of a single peak but rather an entire massif. Some say the ridge-like spine which forms the summit region resembles a woman lying along its length, giving rise to the name “sleeping beauty” (imagination needed!). First climbed in 1953 by Herman Bulh, Nanga Parbat’s slopes are steep, the south east Rupal face being a sheer 4,500-ft. vertical wall. Its very name, literally translated as the “naked mountain,” refers to the vast, almost vertical walls that are so steep they are devoid of snow.
Thrust up at the very western end of the Himalaya Range in one of the most geologically active regions of the world, this great mountain continues to grow, rising an estimated 7mm a year. It and K2 (28,250 ft.) are considered the most difficult to climb of the 14 peaks above 26,000 ft. (8,000 meters) and its slopes have claimed more lives than any others except Everest (29,028 ft.) and Annapurna (26,504 ft.).
On this day, the summit and most of its snow and rock bulk were clearly visible, a rare event. For this mountain, more than most, is normally shrouded in cloud. A small white billowy cloud midway up the mountain created a picture perfect scene. A rickety wooden bridge served as the stage for a long photographic session with Nanga Parbat as the backdrop. It was a most magnificent but almost unreal picture, with the only noise in the clear still air originating from the constant clicking of camera shutters.
The valley broadened gradually, becoming fertile enough to support small villages whose colorful inhabitants eagerly came to the roadside. By 4 p.m. we had reached Ratu, the last permanent settlement along the road. Here, the jeeps had to refuel, a long process done by hand (no fuel pumps in this region). The team took the opportunity to stretch stiff legs and experience terra firma. We decided to carry on down the track on foot with the vehicles eventually catching up to us.
The track was wide and even at first, and the walk a pleasure since we’d spent so long standing in the back of the jeep. However, we soon learned a very valuable lesson. Having left our packs and our water purifiers in the second jeep we suddenly found ourselves short and eventually out of water completely when the jeeps failed to catch up to us within the expected time. The sun was intense and there was no shade in the treeless valley. The gushing Astore River only 20 or so yards away looked inviting, but to drink without first treating its waters would mean almost certain illness. Eventually, hot and thirsty, we all sat on the roadside and waited. When the jeeps caught up with us we had been in the open for only about an hour and half, but that was ample time for us to become uncomfortably dehydrated. After this experience we made sure that at least one of us had a water purifier handy at all times.
Slowly but surely the track became rougher and our progress painfully slow. Sometimes it seemed that it would be quicker and definitely more comfortable to walk. We were taking vehicles where they had never been designed to go, testing both mechanics and our own human endurance. At one point we had to wait while the jeep carrying our luggage underwent a quick “field” repair to the throttle cable.
As the sun began to move behind the high mountains to our right and the temperature began to drop, the motorized part of our adventure came to an abrupt halt. The rest of the journey would be made on mule and foot. From here on we would be travelling in much the same manner as all those who had passed this way over the centuries. Man may have reached the moon, but such progress seemed insignificant in the Himalayas. Here the requirements for penetrating the remote mountains and valleys were still four hoofs and a strong pair of walking boots!
The porters join in: Assembled on a flat piece of grassy land, in what felt like the middle of nowhere, were 15 or so rugged men of varying ages waiting patiently for our arrival (see photo #13). From this point on, these men would help us get to the mines. Their mules would carry both our luggage and our tired bodies! Dressed in little more than what could best be described as “Pakistani casual” wear and often with nothing more than loafers on their feet, they walked the entire way, often making us feel incredibly unfit as they effortlessly climbed steep slopes as if on an afternoon stroll.
No sooner had the engines been silenced than our baggage was heaved off the jeeps and stuffed into sacks. Two sacks were then tied together and hung over a mule, thus balancing the weight on the unfortunate animal. Meanwhile the team members, now wearing extra layers to ward off the cooling air, were helped onto the mules. This was the first time on a “moving” animal for some, including myself. There is nothing like being handed the reins and told to get on with it when you haven’t a clue how to steer or stop. Fortunately, the agile mules knew the best path and regardless of reins pulling in every direction would have gone their own way anyway.
Within 20 minutes or so we were ready to go. We rode for about two hours, which seemed like an eternity. The valley widened, taking on the classic “U” shape typical of snow- and ice-gouged terrain. The ascent was gentle, with the river never far away. Large boulders littered the green carpet of short hardy grass and every now and again a shallow mountain stream, its bed a concentrate of water-worn rubble, would cross our path. As we progressed up the valley the hills gradually turned into mountains with channels of snow and ice rippling down their sides. Porters talking to each other and egging on their mules made the only sound.
It was almost dark when we reached our campsite, quietly nestled in the bow of a river near the head of the valley. We were now at an elevation of 11,500 feet. Our tents – a mixture of modern brightly colored nylon and older, tall canvas house-like structures – were already erected on the small palette of flat grassy land. Some porters had travelled ahead of the main group and were busy fixing our evening meal. After dismounting and attempting to straighten our legs, we selected tents and unpacked sleeping bags and the like. We all assembled in one tent to eat. The chicken curry with canned sausages (which we had brought with us) was different, but good. Although upon arrival in camp I had seen our porters enthusiastically tenderizing the meat by hitting it with a hammer against a large boulder, my appetite was not diminished in any way.
After eating, we retired to our canvas houses almost immediately. It was surprisingly warm and cozy inside the tents, with a candle near the door providing a relaxing subdued light. Of course we had to climb around the naked flame when getting into the tent – hopefully without knocking it over and setting the entire place on fire.
The night was cloudless with an almost full moon. The surrounding mountains were clearly visible, the lunar light casting a blue tinge on the snow and ice high above us. Rippling water provided the only sound. This valley is surely one of the last vestiges of peace and serenity left on earth, virgin land so far untouched by man’s destructive tendencies.
AUG. 3: ARRIVE AT NANGIMALI VILLAGE VIA SHOUNTER PASS
It was just turning light when our AKMIDC officer popped his head through the flap of our tent at 5:30 a.m. in a vain attempt to arouse the occupants. I had not slept too well. First I was too hot in my cocoon-like sleeping bag and then too cold as I awoke to find the tent acting as a wind tunnel. I had struggled in the darkness to stop a side panel from furiously flapping in the wind, using a rucksack to secure it to the floor, but never got quite comfortable again. Sleeping on the ground had also stiffened my entire body.
The first act of the day was to stretch by walking 20 yards or so across a patch of soggy grass, littered with boulders of varying sizes, to a fast but smooth-flowing river meandering down the valley. Fed by melt water, it was a peculiar milky blue. The sun’s rays were still a long way from penetrating the depths of the valley, leaving the air still and cool. High above, however, the surrounding snowy summits were already bathed in the new day’s sunlight. The only sounds came from the ever present rumble of running water and the dull hum of conversation from the porters.
The team was slow to rise but our porters were already huddled around a smoky fire brewing tea and preparing breakfast – chapptis again. We ate standing up, then packed our rucksacks for loading onto the mules. While the porters stuffed our bags into sacks, the team left on foot. It had been decided that we acclimatize and take a more direct route to begin with, meeting up with the mules and porters higher up the mountain. Armed with only the bare essentials we set out at around 7 a.m. We had begun our ascent of Shounter Pass.
In single file we zig-zagged “conga” style up a steep grassy slope. The effort of climbing at nearly 12,000 feet had an immediate effect and we huffed and puffed with every step; so much for the many hours spent on the “stairmaster” over the previous months! The going was made a little more strenuous because there was no path. The route was arbitrary and our steps irregular – some short, some long. The only consistent factor was the relentless uphill grade.
Every now and again we stopped to rest and admire the view, which became more and more spectacular as we got higher. Our camp, now in the process of being dismantled, resembled a mere dot in a monumentally huge landscape. Deep ice-filled gullies scarred the mountains on the opposite side of the valley. Massive ice walls hung over vertical cliff faces high on their sides, the leading edges just waiting to be pushed over and crash into the valley below.
Once we rendezvoused with the mule team we were able to ride, a welcome relief. Although we had climbed only some 400 or 500 feet on foot, it seemed much further. At first, the going was smooth, but as we climbed the terrain became more rugged and patches of snow began to appear on the rocky ground. When the trail became too steep we would dismount and walk until it evened out again. Slowly but surely we climbed to the top of the pass, traversing several snow and ice fields along the way. Although the mules kept a sure footing in the snow, some team members crossed the fields on foot, laboriously kicking toes into the hard icy snow to prevent a slip and possibly a fatal fall. It was exhausting work with a rest stop needed every 20 or 30 steps.
Just before 11 a.m. we reached the top of the pass, a small shallow U-shaped depression between two spires of jagged rock. At 15,000 feet this was the highest point on our journey and, more importantly, our entry into the territory of Azad Kashmir. At this altitude the air was cool and wispy translucent clouds swirled around us. We took the opportunity to rest and enjoy the magnificent scenery. Looking back, we could see the valley along which we had travelled to get to our first camp. Beyond that, magnificent snow-capped mountains stretched as far as the eye could see (photo #14). On the other side of the pass, Azad Kashmir presented itself. Again, snow-capped mountains dominated the higher elevations but, far below, the snow and rock gave way to lush green slopes and deep valleys.
At 11:10 a.m. we officially crossed into Azad Kashmir. Our AKMIDC officer, a native of the territory, welcomed each of us in turn to this historic land. Our entry via this route was the first by a foreign team and, significantly, the first by foreign women.
Peering over the sharp edge of the pass, we saw an expanse of white ice, a magnificent glacier stretching down the mountainside. The only discernible features in this otherwise featureless and eternally frozen landscape were the many boulders strewn across its surface and a narrow sharp grove running down its center with waves of ice ridges radiating outward from it. Their undulations became larger on the higher sections of the glacier, which clawed its way up the mountainside far to our right. Some members of the team tried their hand at sliding down the first 100 feet or so of the glacier; others took the longer route, slowly walking down along a narrow path of trodden snow. As we descended the cloud cover thickened behind us, partly obscuring the top of the pass. A strange silence ensued, it was as if the rest of the world had suddenly been shut out and we were alone.
On a rocky outcrop near the lower edge of the glacier we stopped for lunch and basked in the warm sun. A small stream of melt water allowed us to replenish our water bottles and much effort was expended in pumping it through the purifier. Soon, the mules and porters who had stayed at the top of the pass for lunch caught up with us and we were able to ride again. Slowly, the last remnants of snow faded away and the ground adjusted to an even slope. Short coarse grass sprouted from around the rocks and soon carpeted the ground. The trail wound its way down; we were able to ride most of the way, but on the steeper sections we dismounted and walked.
We had to cross a rapidly flowing mountain stream in one small valley via a narrow bridge (see photo #15) secured on top of a small rocky pedestal on either side. It was constructed from two flimsy tree branches with rocks and sod packed between. The lack of any hand rail and its tendency to bounce with each step made the crossing an adrenaline-packed experience. Once committed there was no room for error or hesitation.
Further down the valley we passed a spectacular waterfall, its frothy white water roaring furiously. The remnants of ice bridges hollowed from the inside out stretched across its channel, stark evidence of the severity of winters in this lonely valley.
Nearing Nangimali: Slowly we made our way down. Near the valley floor where the trail opened out, we were met by several officers of the AKMIDC who had walked from the mining camp. They welcomed us with hot tea, boiled potatoes and hard-boiled eggs. Perching our tired bones on suitably flat rocks, we enjoyed both food and scenery. From our picnic site we could see almost the entire length of the valley, its narrow arm stretching far into the distance towards the Neelum Valley and, ultimately, the “line of control” where Pakistan and India battled for supremacy. Our destination, the village of Nangimali, was still several miles away and hidden from view.
The valley, although remote, was not without inhabitants. To our right, we could see a small gypsy camp with tents erected beside a mountain stream. These travellers roam the highlands during the summer, retreating to lower ground as winter approaches. To our left, several small permanent settlements eked out a solitary existence, each group of homes surrounded by small terraces of crops. It was hard to imagine how these people survive the cold and isolation in a valley which receives several meters of snow during the long winter. At the lower elevations forest clung to the steep slopes, but higher up, the green turned to grey and white as walls of rock rose steeply to over 17,000 feet. Snow-filled gullies replaced vegetation, and great spires of rock pushed through the tops of the clouds. To our right, the valley walls were less imposing and rugged, rising several thousand feet less than their counterparts. Strangely, this area was devoid of the trees and tall vegetation which seemed to thrive on the other side.
Soon we were off again, most of us walking. The mules trotted on in front – glad, I’m sure, to have us off their backs. A narrow, well-worn path wound down the last but steep few hundred feet to the valley floor. Shortly after we set off, the clouds which had gradually thickened all day began to dispense a light drizzle. Typically, several of us had left our waterproofs in the packs now on the mules some distance ahead. Fortunately, luck was on our side as a full-scale downpour held off.
Once on the valley floor we mounted the mules and followed the trail along the edge of the river, whose swollen waters rushed past us at considerable speed. Flat ground did not necessarily mean an easy trek as our path took us across several gushing streams pouring down the mountainside. Some were not so “stream-like,” their mouths widened in anticipation of joining the main river. At one point my guide casually handed me the reins, slapped the mule on the back and sent us both through a stream which proved to be several feet deep. Fortunately, the mule, the calmer of the two of us, seemed to know the best place to cross. I just sat there, feet out of the stirrups, knees hoisted high to avoid getting wet and hoped he did not lose his footing as he felt for every step in the fast-flowing waters.
Soon it was time to walk once more. Crossing to the opposite side of the river on a rickety footbridge, again lacking hand rails, the team marched on. The trail seemed to go either up hill or down, but never on the flat. Several great rivers of ice originating from far above flowed across our path, necessitating a careful traverse of their slippery surface.
The last mile or so was exhausting and it was late afternoon when we caught our first glimpse of Nangimali Village. Nestled at a slight bend in the valley at an elevation of 9,700 feet, the village had 15 or so dwellings scattered about a lush green terrace. From a distance it was hard to distinguish the brown earth-colored structures from their surroundings; only their box-like shape gave their man-made origins away. Nearer, it became apparent that the village was, in fact, a permanent settlement built for year-round occupancy.
Most of the flat-roofed abodes, held together by stone and mud walls with wooden rafters, seemed to defy the laws of gravity by sloping precariously in every direction. Each was surrounded by a small walled enclosure of cultivated crops. The inhabitants (see photo #16) were wary of our arrival, content to observe from the shadows of doorways and porches. Foreign nationals were a rarity in this remote region. In addition to the native abodes, the mining company had built two stone huts (see photo #17) with silver-colored corrugated metal roofs which stood out for miles in the otherwise brown and green landscape. This remote place with few amenities meant hot food and a place to rest for our weary team. We had arrived!
As we staggered into camp the team was served hot tea, soon followed by a dinner of rice, mutton and lentils. Afterwards there was little time to socialize, as the generator which powered the few light bulbs in camp had to be turned off to conserve fuel. So on full stomachs we hurried to prepare ourselves for the night. Two of us used the valuable time to pack our ankles with ice to help reduce the swelling from accidents earlier in the day. One team member had fallen on rocks; I had been thrown off my mule. The generator was turned off at 10:30 p.m., the light bulb dimmed and then came complete darkness. The only sounds came from the rain hitting the metal roof and from a solitary drip through a leak in the ceiling onto the mud “carpet” between two cots. I was asleep before I could worry seriously about other leaks occurring over me during the night; I was so exhausted that I probably would not have cared anyway.
AUG. 4: NANGIMALI VILLAGE TO NANGIMALI TOP RUBY MINE
The weather turned for the worse during the night. By morning the blue sky of the past several days had disappeared behind heavy-looking gray clouds which hung ominously low in the valley. The air was thick with moisture and there was a definite chill to the new day.
Breakfast was the same as the day before and the day before that, so it was disposed with quickly and without fuss. As the mules were readied, the team set off on foot. Almost immediately we crossed a wooden foot bridge and proceeded along the side of the valley at an unusually comfortable rate of ascent. The path was wide, even allowing us to chat as we walked. Of course, the easy part didn’t last and after about half an hour we cut off the main trail and began to climb steeply. Fortunately, the mules and porters had caught up, so we were spared from making the arduous climb on foot. Even the mules were soon breathing deeply as they strained to carry us up the grassy slope, now wet and slippery from the previous night’s rain. But our porters simply marched on, unaware of the steep ascent.
After two hours we reached the higher mining camp, a single stone hut with the customary corrugated metal roof anchored to the side of the mountain at an altitude of 11,000 ft. Even on this most isolated slope, an air of civility was exercised and we were served hot tea and biscuits upon arrival. However, there was no time to socialize; we still had a long climb ahead of us. With feet firmly in the stirrups we set off again, this time for Nangimali Top, site of the world’s highest ruby deposit and, until recently, the highest operational ruby mine. Lower Khora, its sister mine, now holds that title (see photo #18).
From this point on we would travel light, our packs staying at the one-hut mountainside retreat to which we would return for the night. Unfortunately, the weather obscured our ultimate destination. Looking ahead we could see the grassy mountain slope gradually becoming steeper and steeper, eventually ending abruptly at a sheet of light-colored rock whose top disappeared into the clouds. From a distance the huge mass of rock looked smooth, with undulating folds in various shades of gray giving the impression that it had been poured on to the mountain top and simply allowed to flow down the sides. There was little human habitation this high on the mountain. A small settlement, slightly uphill from the camp, consisted of a few box-like stone and mud abodes. Its shy residents cautiously observed our presence as we passed by, the women turning their heads away.
We approached the summit first by mule and then on foot, crossing an extensive and rather steep snow field before reaching the base of the rock face. Now we began our final ascent, following a not-so-well-defined trail. We scrambled up single file. This was an exhausting exercise; we were nearing 14,000 ft. and ascending at an angle of around 45 degrees. We had to concentrate on planting each foot securely to avoid slipping. It was a long way down.
Around 2 p.m. we reached our destination, Nangimali Top. The air was still and we were enveloped in thick clouds which cast a damp chill around us. Once on top, we realized that the summit was in fact a long ridge. On one side, a vertical cliff face dropped away several thousand feet, the jagged walls disappearing into the clouds below. Some cataclysmic event obviously had sheered off the whole side of the mountain. On the other side, where we had made our approach, a long steep slope ran the length of the mountain.
The mine itself – two benches 90 meters apart located at an altitude of 14,000 ft. – lay silent. All production now is concentrated at its sister mine lower down. Indeed, the mine is the only sign that the summit once was the target of an extensive gem hunt. Bench number one, a cut some 40 or 50 feet long, becomes shallower as it moves away from the cliff face (see photo #19). The gray calcite bands containing the rubies were clearly visible on the main wall, sloping downward in long uneven lines. Both the thickness of the bands and the distances between them varied considerably. It was easy to see why it took several years after a ruby-bearing boulder was first found in a stream far below to locate the rubies in situ and launch a mining operation.
After a brief survey of the cut we gathered at the “tea room” for lunch (see photo #20, page 324). Located some 50 feet or so from the cut and perched right on the edge of the cliff, this small ledge was surely one of the most unusual dinning rooms. Nearly oblivious to the sheer drop on two sides, we all eagerly crowded on to enjoy some much needed food.
After a nourishing lunch of lentils and chapptis we returned to the cut for a brief but informative lecture by AKMIDC staff. Then we prospected for rubies in the rubble. Several small fragments of pink ruby in matrix were recovered along with specimens of pyrite, an accessory mineral in the calcite. All material was handed over to AKMIDC security staff for inspection back in Muzaffarabad; we did not see our “treasures” again until Islamabad. The deteriorating weather kept our visit to this remote location brief, possibly an hour and half at most. Clearly, this was not a place to get stranded.
Back to camp: Male team members were searched before beginning the long trek back to camp; female members were spared this intrusion. Then we returned the way we had come. By now some team members considered themselves experienced enough to almost run down the snowfields, sliding as they went. Even those who preferred a less dare-devil approach went down at a very respectable pace. Soon rain began to fall. But while we bundled up in expensive mountain wear, the Kashmiri natives simply put up their umbrellas. It was amusing to see them stroll down a Himalayan mountain with umbrellas held high; in retrospect, it’s hard to say which method was more effective.
As the rain fell harder, the wet grass and muddy path made the trail especially slippery. The team soon spread out along the mountainside. Now trapped inside bulky waterproof shells, with hearing and side vision limited by our hoods, we found the walk back lonely as well as long. At 5 p.m., an exhausted, bedraggled team began to arrive at camp, most sloshing around in their boots.
Since the small mine hut could not accommodate so many people, four tall gray canvas tents had been erected on a flat mud terrace next door exclusively for our use. Inside, cots were arranged with each leg resting precariously on a flattish rock to stop the whole assembly from sinking into the muddy floor which became ever more fluid as the rain continued. A small generator supplied limited power, lighting a single light bulb in each tent and several others in and about the camp. Once again, use of the generator was restricted to the shortest time possible.
We quickly changed into dry clothes before becoming too cold, since it would be difficult to get warm again. This had to be done without letting feet or dry clothes touch the floor, showing once again that no task, however straightforward, is easy in this part of the world. Ties commandeered from sleeping bags and strung between two tent posts formed a makeshift clothesline; masses of wet clothes quickly appeared from every direction to be slung across in the vain hope that they would dry during the night. A kerosene heater strategically placed underneath produced more fumes than heat.
Basic though the camp was, it did have one advantage over its sister lower down, namely an indoor water closet, although its design was Pakistani rather than Western. (Below, the square cubicles constructed from sacking draped around four thick branches were just large enough to maneuver in. Of course, there was no roof so if it happened to be raining the occupant simply got wet!)
When called for dinner we marched into a small rectangular room in the hut where we were served a delicious meal consisting of much the same ingredients as the previous night’s menu. There were no chairs, only the table on which the food was placed, so we stood around with food in hand. Fuel may have been in short supply, but food and good company certainly were not. Immediately after dinner we returned to our respective tents, relishing the thought of slipping into our sleeping bags and getting warm. Outside the rain continued, pattering monotonously on the canvas ceiling.
AUG. 5: A VISIT TO LOWER KHORA
I woke just after 6 a.m. to find that I was somewhat closer to the floor than I had been the previous evening due to the legs of my cot sinking into the mud. After struggling to undo the strings holding the tent door flap in place without waking anyone else up, I was rewarded with a most spectacular view, possibly the best on the entire trip. Looking across the valley, I could see giant jagged spires of rock reaching toward an intense blue sky. The concept of distance was almost obliterated. As I stood in awe, brilliant white clouds floated across the field of view, at times obscuring the valley below and creating a rather surreal picture: summits without foundations. I grabbed the camera – hidden, of course, under a stack of damp clothing – and attempted to capture the moment on film (see photo #21).
Soon I was joined by our AKMIDC officer. We sat on two nylon garden chairs at the side of the hut sipping tea and exchanged opinions. As we talked we viewed the craggy summit of Hari Parbat and accompanying mountains which lay, one after another, in an endless chain. The porters hurried around us, preparing both breakfast and lunch for the long day ahead. By 7 a.m., other team members had begun to poke their heads through the tent flaps an