Thursday, 11 September 2008

John and Alun Being "Birdmen in the Karakorum" and Jim looking For "Temples in the Clouds"

Pakistan China trip summary

Look out for Ed

Wow! It’s been 2 months. What a journey! Doesn’t time fly when you’ve been having fun?

John Silvester, Alun Hughes and I met at Manchester airport on the 8th May. Jim Mallinson had very kindly driven me to the airport, enigmatically leaving us with the quiet words to John, “Keep an eye on and look out for Eddie.”

Suffice to say he tried, just as I did for him. We needed that kind of team attitude whilst making a paragliding film about flying up to 8000m and coping with some of the strongest and best possible flying conditions in some of the harshest and tallest mountain ranges of world. Furthermore it was not just the terrain that was expected to be difficult; the intended route took us through nations with the most suspect and suspicious political regimes, i.e. Pakistan’s Karakorum Range and China’s Tien Shen range.

After the normal flight out, i.e. expedition members trying with variable success to chat up other passengers, we arrived in Islamabad. In the words of a more famous writer, “it was like being slapped in the face with a warm wet nappy.” The comfort of an air conditioned hotel in nearby Rawalpindi soon overcame the humidity of the pre monsoon. Yet the smell remained pervasive, was it the open drains or just 3 men in the same room after 24 hours of travel? It didn’t matter, we soon got used to it!

Things improved still further when we met up with John’s old friend, Sajeed Shah and other members of PAFF (Pakistan’s Association of Free Flyers). They were extremely hospitable, providing an excellent welcoming BBQ and entertaining stories of their various mountain ascents, such as Masherbrum and K2, and ensuring our first aid bags were adequately provided with oromorph. This is an orally ingested morphine that can be easily administered, even to the worst of casualties.

The next four or five days were spent with Sajeed driving to launch sites in the Margalla Hills, approximately 30 minutes North West of Islamabad. Although it was great to hang out with Pakistan’s flyers, it was frustrating as temperatures were huge, humidity was high and there was very little wind coming up the awkward short and rocky launches. When the wind did come, it often preceded massive gust fronts, created by the high humidity and the huge Himalayan range 100kms to the north. This converted the apparently benign 2000m range into a single monstrous cumulonimbus with gust fronts that sent pilots scurrying for cover, tents flying away and other hysterical scenes when pilots, paddling in dinghies, were unable to control their vessels. They ended up being blown across the previously calm lake, amongst white water and spume worthy of the higher Himalayan rivers.

After one further day spent finding a better launch - where mineral excavators were persuaded to improve launches with cash incentives - in temperatures of 450C, we were unable to get high prior to the ferocious clouds building up, so we decided to head north by car. We had now met with Brad Sander and his sister Mellissa who both shared the 18 hour journey towards the old princely state of Hunza, up the Karakorum highway.

The KKH is precipitous and wonderfully engineered but suffering from significant wear due to the constant environmental stresses caused by a large temperature range, tectonic movements, unconsolidated moraines and the frequent resulting landslides. The surface is often not tarmac as it travels its way between Abbottabad and the Khunjerab Pass. This is the main route to China. Much of the way is alongside the sediment laden Indus River, which has the appearance of wet cement dark, and seems menacing, like the clouds we were trying to escape from. The activity on the highway is similarly turbulent. The coaches hoot appallingly loudly whilst weaving their way between the highly decorated old Pakistani Bedford and articulated Chinese trucks, which compete for the international trade on this vertiginous and potholed track, whilst the minibuses try to overtake everything in their way. This somehow mirrors the traders of the past wending there caravans through there whilst being harried by the local banditos. The 550km journey is less hazardous now although it is still slow.

It averaged less than 50kmh, but is worth it, as the scenery along the way is always beautiful. It includes breathtaking mountains like Nanga Parbat (8126m) which we passed early in the morning, which was already partly shrouded in cumulo-nimbus. This was unsurprising when one considers the huge lapse rates caused by the condensing humidity of the monsoon, the astronomical increase in altitude, the consequentially extreme temperature gradient and the effects of latent heat transfer. It also partly explains her other name of “Killer Mountain” and demonstrates why it particularly pertinent to paragliders, who are often sucked into these thunder clouds in the flatlands, let alone the mountains.

On arrival in Karimabad, the capital of Hunza, we soon met up with Manzoor Hussein and his Mountain Tiger jeep. He was to be our friend and fixer for our time in this area. Karimabad is overlooked by the 800 year old Baltit fort which has long helped with the defence of the realm against the many invaders, including the British, and was a sanctuary after raids against - and by - neighbours. Sorties were also run on travellers along the Silk Route which historically had many more dangers than the unforgiving terrain. Incidentally, this trait is disappearing: I and all my fellow modern travellers had great stories of the hospitality of the Pakistanis and in particular the Hunzakuts.

The fort and the valley are dominated by the many huge mountains including Rakaposhi (7778m), Diran (7257m) and Ultar peak (7388m). In fact, there are many more peaks over 7000m within sight of Baltit including Spantic (7027m). Hidden behind Ultar runs the Batura and Passu wall which is a 75km ridgeline, where most of the coIs are over 6500m and the peaks are over 7000m, crowned with Batura Muztagh (7785m). The area is also well known for its low rainfall and warm valleys where apricot, peaches and cherries are as abundant as the snow-capped peaks. Given these attributes, it is not surprising that it is increasingly becoming recognised as one of, if not, the best place in the world to fly.

During the first days the weather continued to play havoc with our flying plans. The skies often looked incredibly menacing. By 4pm there were gust fronts or micro bursts occurring as the clouds dumped huge snowfalls on the surrounding mountain slopes. The monsoon had arrived early. This explained the overdevelopment nearer to Islamabad, with its associated gust fronts, and the increased humidity in this mountain desert. Here, what little agriculture there is relies upon the astounding water channels, which are carved and engineered into the mountain faces to distribute water into the valley terraces to areas renowned worldwide for apricot production.
Despite all of that, we soon recognised that it was possible to fly. You had to watch the clouds oscillate in intensity between the snowfalls - where one cloud - say the one over Ultar would dump its snow, whilst the one over Rakaposhi would shrink. We would take off when both were shrinking which might not be until 3pm. Of course we also had to consider what the clouds towards Passu, Spantic and Shispar were doing, so it was not as easy as it sounds and not necessarily something that we would recommend to others.

On these days, only short flights were managed, but these “short flights” were incredible voyages up over Hon Pass (4600m), past Bublimotin (6000m), a rock needle with vertical elevations of 600m above a near sheer ice couloir, to Hunza Peak (6275m) and back to Karimabad via the huge bowl beneath Ultar 1 and 2 above the incredibly steep and jagged Ultar Glacier. This is a spectacular tour that would probably be impossible to achieve on foot in any season.
Many have died trying just one of those peaks. Most helicopters do not operate at those altitudes. We, meanwhile, would simply land at the cemetery or down by the beach beside the river and then nip back to hotel for a cup of chai.

Yes! Landing at the cemetery didn’t seem very respectful but we were assured it was the place. I admit, I had to alter my perception of the auspiciousness of doing a dangerous sport in a dangerous place and then to crown it all by landing in a functioning cemetery. This seemed to be tempting fate, especially landing when people were paying their respects to their departed friends and relatives. Fortunately the locals really didn’t seem to mind and the Spirits blessed us, even if they did give a warning to Brad and me. Brad, exhausted after one particularly stupendous 215km flight, misjudged his approach which forced him to land steeply upslope and almost in the lee of the cemetery promontory. He seemed happy enough anyhow.

My excuse was less noble; I simply bogged it up - maybe it was because I was nervous of the spirits. I had to bail out of the landing late and turn downwind, through a gap in the trees, whilst expecting my lines to ping or turn me in as I swooped through the narrow gap and the tip lines became entangled. Fortunately both events were just close shaves. Clearly Karimabad’s forbears were in a forgiving mood or maybe, as suggested by some of the mourning relatives, they approved of what we were doing. The living ones are definitely a fun-loving lot: they call the local moonshine, Hunza Water. This mulberry arrack was even more plentiful before Hunza lost its independent status as in the days of most of the cemetery’s residents and is firmly rooted in their culture.

Meanwhile, John and Alun got on with shooting their film, which appeared to be developing into a history of the exploration of the Karakorum by air, with some staggering footage from this and other trips by pioneering paragliding protagonists. John and Alun completed an unbelievable crossing of the Passu Massif on their tandem wing. I was stunned when I heard Alun’s account of how they soared in close to get the required altitude, and can’t wait to see the footage. Huge credit to Alun, who, suffering from the altitude and with vomit on the equipment, was still doing a sterling job of filming. I was also finding the altitude an issue, so was doing lower flights (not much above 6000m), exploring the areas to the west and searching for guidable routes and Ibex and Marco Polo sheep towards Chitral. It was an amazing solitary time with flights of over 5 hours, landing back at the beach in twilight. It was lonely, but my Axispara Vega 2 and I formed a loving and lasting relationship. Manzoor was even calling her sweet lips because of her red leading edge. The joke was, when was she going to kiss me? Thank God, she never did! It’s testament to what an upright glider she is, whilst still exciting and provocative to fly.

After approximately 2 weeks of enjoying the hospitality of Hunza, despite not seeing it at its flying best, Brad, Mellissa, Josh and Colin left for Booni, near Chitral in the west. Alun, due to other commitments, was also forced to leave for the UK’s cultural motherland of Wales. As expected, that day had perfect flying weather.

John announced on launch that his radio wasn’t working (in fact I think mine was transmitting over his) and that he was going to try to fly to Skardu, over l50 kms away with a 6000m+ col and a 45km glide down a shallow glacier. I hadn’t really responded. It took a while to process the information: 150km, no radio, incredibly inhospitable terrain. Besides, as we were a little late to launch, there was a lot to get ready. After getting to about 6000m John glided off. I stayed in the climb and followed him at about 6500m. It was hard to see his orange Addict 2 against the ochre terrain but I had a cloud to head for. After gliding for about 8kms the cloud worked its magic and I climbed in a ballistic thermal which measured 13m/s on the averager. For some of this I could see John circling someway beneath me; however I wasn’t going to wait long beneath the cloud of that climb, so, heading to the south side, I followed the cloud sometimes above its base and the ones forming in front of it towards Spantic 7027m and Golden peak. Hispar Glacier, all the way to Snow Lake looked magnificent but of course my camera was almost as frozen as I was.
The clouds were leading towards Spantic but the gaps were now large and the ground I was over was a huge crevassed glacier about 20kms long and 5 wide. I chose to alter course following a spur - not a British style spur but a 10km one crowned with a 6000m+ unnamed peak - where the valley led to Hispar valley, the Hispar glacier and ultimately Snow Lake, the second largest ice cap not on the poles. Following this “spur” and topping up with altitude en route I noticed John a little way behind and lowish, but climbing yet again on the other side of the valley. I then had to focus a little getting a snotty rough but good climb on Rash Lake (4725m) and lost sight of John again. So I continued along the ridge towards Spantic but kept an eye out for him. After about 1/2 hour of this I still couldn’t see him, so fearful of doing the col and the following glacier and 80 odd kms alone, I decided to look for him or head back to Hunza. I headed to the North side of the valley where I thought I had seen him and where I expected to get up as it was facing the sun and in the lee of the meteo wind.

Crossing the valley I was getting strong sink, but feeling committed I continued. I was also slightly worried about John and keen to put my mind at rest. Anyway, having lost most of my precious height, I discovered there was a strong valley wind and being a glaciated valley there were no spurs to soar along. There were some good thermals coming through but the drift was taking me further up the Hispar and I was already over 2 days walk to the nearest road. What to do? Work the gorges and then bar it into wind and try to keep edging into the parallel wind and annoying eddies, until I got above the valley wind and onto the higher slopes that had better aspects and where the thermals didn’t drift so much.

What a fantasy! I only made 3 kms progress in 2 hours. I was being buffeted like a yoyo but not really gaining any altitude other than the gradient of the valley. I wasn’t really scared but I knew it could get very nasty and it nearly did. I saw some dust blowing in the wind further down the valley. Having witnessed gust fronts whose only signal was a huge cloud of dust and knowing that the only place I would be able to land was the isolated, cold and serrated glacier, I straight lined for Hispar village where I landed, going gently backwards. 10 minutes later the wind increased considerably. I was down safe, a long way from Hunza and still not knowing what had happened to John.

John meanwhile, had seen me climb from the frozen Rash Lake and had headed there as I left. He was actually closer than I thought and on arriving at the lake, had got a ballistic climb. Rather than following my ridge route he had made directly to the col on Golden Peak, assuming I hadn’t been so silly as to worry about him. He’d claimed he was low to keep warm and conserve his energies for the following part of the journey. A sagely reply as he was going to need them.
On crossing the col at about 7000m, he had a nail biting, sphincter clenching flight down a glacier where he was rarely more than 1000ft above the ice for about 25kms. We’ve had many subsequent discussions about which parts of the ice created lift and why. He finally landed in the Shigar valley about 30kms short of Skardu, a flight of over 130kms through stupefying scenery, yet terrifying terrain.

The journeys back were another story. I get vertigo and despite finding a tractor that could cope with the track, it was the most loose and wobbly track I had ever been on, along an equally precipitous route with plenty of wire bridges for good measure. One of the great joys of a tractor is you can leap out it as it goes over the edge; the trick is not to do that on every bend and there were more bends than you could shake a stick at. It caused a lot of hilarity for the driver and embarrassment for me. Besides, if I had, we’d never have got back! The journey took over 5 hours without the hour it took to clear avalanche debris off the road. John on the other hand stayed the night with the local and apparently lonely male teacher and then had a 13 hr bus ride the following day to attempt further injury to his backside.

Yes, again! The following day dawned fantastically blue and stayed that way until after ten when the first very small cu started to form near Ultar peak (7388). It was a Rakaposhi day, the clouds were unlikely to overdevelop but I was the only pilot available, John was still stuck on the bus.

Whizzing up to launch with Manzoor in his trusty mountain tiger jeep I was keen to launch. There was a breeze, fantastic! But God, what a struggle to get up! The thermals were close in, squashed by the high pressure to the slope, tiny in diameter but strong. I found it hard and scary to get more than 2 turns in them. After about 1 hour of this, only gaining 1500m, I was tired and almost ready to give in. Instead I went on a long glide to where I’d noticed a regular convergence cloud, at the base of the Shispar glacier. Yes. It worked. I went up like a rocket, just adjusting the controls to stop the wing diving too radically and continued round in circles until I could make the crossing known locally as Eddie’s. It was great to be remembered from my 2001 trip. From there it was easy, although cold, to continue gliding to Chalt where I noticed some clouds forming in the middle of the valley. Crossing towards Secord peak (5800m) on Rakaposhi (7788m) I lost very little altitude arriving at about 5600m. I then spent about 2 hours trying very hard to climb Rakaposhi. Despite cloud bases approaching 7000m off the mountain I couldn’t get above 6200m on the mountain itself. Returning to Karimabad I had magical experiences eking the lift close to shepherds and their flocks. I thought I saw a herd of Ibex. I couldn’t tell anyone locally as the meat is so prized and hunting so enjoyed that it is making Ibex scarce outside of wildlife sanctuaries.

John had returned elated and exhausted after his flight. The following day dawned beautifully and we were both enthusiastic. However, on the walk to launch, John thought he had flu (he was later told it was malaria). He couldn’t move despite the wonderful conditions. It was really not wise for him to fly and he didn’t. Rather than spending a second day trying to climb Rakaposhi which still didn’t have any cumulus on it, I spent the day climbing Ultar peak. I got very close and had the most unbelievable and inexplicable time up there. Dangerously close to the peak in a hypoxic haze, I took photo after photo and even shot some film but I unfortunately couldn’t claim the peak and the camera couldn’t cope with the cold. What I did take was almost as fearfully over-exposed as I was. Despite over one hour of being about 100m below the 7388m peak that is where I remained until I couldn’t handle it anymore and just cruised out until I was at a more convivial 5500m. Finally I landed fully downwind on a sandy beach by the river, literally as the valley wind switched off. I got plenty of congratulations from John who was incredulous that I hadn’t crossed the 7200m col and circumnavigated Ultar. I’m still kicking myself for that one too. Next time, with oxygen, I hope.

John’s illness continued for about 2 weeks. Whilst waiting in Hunza, we chatted to the mainly Japanese and Korean travellers who were passing through from China. Generally, the impression was “a difficult country with a lot of red tape, but there’s alcohol and the girls are very liberated”. I carried on paragliding, although without John to compete against I was less driven. I still had some wonderfully memorable flights but they were all in the home valley of Hunza. In fact I became so familiar with the rock face on Hon that I noticed an inspiring route which wriggled its way up the precipitous peak onto the col between Sorrow peak (named by some climbers who were embarrassed not to reach the top and said too many ‘sorrys’ to the locals on their return).

The drugs finally started to work for John. As our time was running out we left for China by Pakistani bus. This should have been a fast and reliable method to get to Kasghar. The Pakistani bus was meant to take us the whole way through the various check points over the Khunjerab pass, past the ski-able Mustagh gata (7400m) and the beautiful Karakul Lake to ancient Asian crossroads of Kasghar.

On arrival at the first of many Chinese border posts we got a small taste of what was to come. John was resting, lying down outside as the very thorough security checks were being done - apparently internal searches are common. He was harshly told to stand up and I was even told to stand in line, in a queue of 4 people, as standing beside someone and chatting seemed to be prohibited.

On arrival in Tashkurgan for the final passport check (we mistakenly hoped) our bus got impounded by the Chinese customs. We were first told of this an hour after our arrival, I couldn’t find our drivers and our kit was still on the bus. On eventually finding them, comfortably ensconced in a restaurant, we were told they would not be continuing until the following morning. Our 12 hour journey was now to become 36 and involve an expensive place to stay. We managed to combine with other travellers on the bus and hire a vehicle to take us on to Kasghar some 4/5hrs distant. We left with the feeling that this was a set up between the taxi drivers, hotel owners and customs officials to extract more money from travellers.

Despite the huge improvements in the road quality, we came across 2 accidents en route; one of them was very serious, judging from the debris resembling human body parts and the condition of one of the vehicles. Reassuringly the emergency services were quick to respond. On arrival at about 2am in Kasghar we booked into the recommended Semans hotel, where a few Pakistanis were enjoying China’s more liberal attitudes to alcohol and prostitution.

At the hotel we met a number of tourist travellers who had all experienced various difficulties travelling within China, with innumerable showings of passports. Some even been forced to leave cities as they were inexplicably and without notification “off limits”; unfortunately this was a further taste of the future.

Kasghar is situated to the north of the Kun Lun, east of the Pamirs and south of the Tien Shen. Further to the west is the Taklamakan desert, which stretches for 100’s of miles and includes the Tarim basin. At more than 100m below sea level, rivers disappear into the vast expanse. The desert’s name strikes fear meaning “desert of no return” and its shifting sands hide cities of ancient Buddhist civilisations indicating a wetter time. It was our intention to fly along the Tien Shen as far as we could. It all looked perfect i.e. huge dry desert, dry stable conditions and a southish facing range stretching for further than it would be possible to fly in the time available. There was even a road along most of the intended route. None of the pilots I’d contacted had ever flown in this area and I couldn’t track anyone down who had. Those pilots who had flown in China indicated that seeking permission was not worthwhile, as no one would take the responsibility of saying yes, and that it was better to cross their hand with silver and charm them after the event. For us it was not to be that simple.

After one day driving partly with taxi drivers who’d abruptly stop in the middle of deserts and then renegotiate their fare, numerous passport checks, we’d suddenly and inexplicably be turned away and taken to a police station where it become apparent that the border to Kyrgyzstan was 100kms away. Big deal, is there a war on? No, but if you want to go there, you’ll have to back track your day’s travel and seek permission in the city police station would be the polite but persistent reply. So we did. Back into the car for another 6/7hours and more hassle in police stations, to be told “no”, but if you go further into the province and away from the Kyrgyzstan border, it should be ok. It was all very polite; in fact it became death by platitudes and seemed more effective at enraging us than Gandhi’s peaceful resistance and non-cooperation to the Raj was.

So this time we took a train for 8 hours to Aksu, a city on a river surrounded by desert and covered in coal processing plants. We fought with the taxi drivers, eventually found one who seemed to be a human being and headed towards a village in the range about 50 km away from Tuōmù'ěr Fēng which is the Tien Shen’s tallest mountain at 7,439m. However, it also marks the border between China, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan; the police in Artux had implied it would be ok but they hadn’t given us a pass.

I remember my friend, Jason Lewis, telling me that whilst completing the first solely human powered global circumnavigation, . When crossing China he’d been unable to get a long enough visa. Consequently he’d biked at night, so he could slip through the check posts silently. We used the same principle and bumped up this appalling track through the desert and up into the foothills of the Tien Shen at night, with a queue of huge 16 wheel trucks funnelling past us kicking up huge clouds of dust and making the road almost impassable. Our friendly taxi driver’s discontented mumbling began to match that of his struggling suspension and finally reached a new crescendo and the notepad was brought out again for more frantic renegotiation of the fee. At least he didn’t throw us out like one of the last ones!

Our arrival at the foothills of the tien shien in the Talamakan Desert

6 hours later and at 2.30am, we’d done brilliantly: no checkposts, we were in the mountains and couldn’t be far from our destination. Then the first and only checkpost appeared. The gatekeepers were very excited to see us and friendly and they let us through. The taxi driver took us to a building, where he woke the occupant by banging incessantly on his door, causing the 10 dogs to bark furiously. Inside the building was a shop and it was filthy. But it sold something resembling a pot noodle and beer, and apparently had rooms where we could stay: - So we sat down and had supper. Before the water had boiled, the police started arriving. By the time we’d finished eating, there were 5 in our room and about 6 “guarding” the building. Yes, they were friendly and polite, they even bought us beer, but they took our passports away, posted a guard, and didn’t let us leave the area until the following afternoon after questioning us repetitively for ages. Eventually they took us on a terrifying drive where they arrogantly sirenned their way either side of all forms of traffic, trucks, bikes, goats etc at speeds between 100-150kph back to a city just north of Aksu. This was Wensu, where we went to another police station.

By now, we had pretty much decided to leave China, as we hadn’t even got our gliders out of the bags, after travelling over 1500km, spending loads of time bumping up tracks and waiting in police stations. What we saw in Wensu convinced us China was definitely a place we didn’t want to be. On arriving at the police station John needed a pee. He was sent to the loo, which he found locked. Outside the loo there was a chair resembling a child’s high chair but adult sized with manacles on the arm rests and by the shins. John didn’t like it and mentioned it to me on his return. We were then ushered into a room with a bench, a bed, another door and a desk. As we were told to sit on the bench, the other door opened to reveal one of those terrible chairs with a rather beautiful young girl strapped in it. From her looks, she was probably of the Uyghur majority. I was certain she was drugged as her head lolled and despite looking at us she appeared not to see us. The door abruptly slammed, someone was shouted at and we were escorted out of the room. Although still polite, the mood of the police changed, cigarettes were proffered, but we were told if we continued to go to areas we were not meant to, we would be fined $5000 and that we should go and stay in the tourist hotel in the town. We nodded like obedient school kids, cowering at the alternatives; disobedience looked like the electric chair. We didn’t comment on what we’d seen but couldn’t help thinking about that poor girl - what misdemeanour might she have done and what has happened to her now?

On our release, we decided China wasn’t worth it. We didn’t want to experience the inevitable issues on landing out - that’s if we were ever allowed to launch. I even feared what an overzealous backwoods bureaucratic might do with his rifle let alone his notebook. The plan was to head back to Kasghar to watch the Olympic torch procession, prior to returning to our beloved Pakistan. We couldn’t leave Wensu quickly enough and there was a bus that evening. During the journey we were woken every hour, sometimes by the butt of the policeman’s torch. We were made to stand outside, once in one of the notorious Taklamakan sandstorms, so they could check our passports AGAIN. On arrival in Kasghar we were informed by friendly local contacts that no one was to be able to leave the hotel during the procession unless they had a pass. We would be very unlikely to get one. Furthermore public transport was going to close for the day, as was the border. We had the choice of more involuntary incarceration or heading for the border immediately. We chose the latter.

Crossing back through the Khunjerab we phoned our Kasghar friends. They were stuck in their houses and scared to talk. The other westerners were guarded about complaining about China but it was implied. Camera files had been scanned, Buddhist articles confiscated, tours curtailed or altered and there had been frequent additional fees. The moony, that a 50 yr old tourist did out of the rear window of the bus, said it all. The differences between the two countries were made more explicit by the friendly warm greeting of the Pakistani officials, “As-Salāmu `Alaykum” meaning “peace be with you”, with the gentle handshakes and smiles, goodbye to the harsh PASSPORT. Sure, the roads are worse and the economy is not expanding at anything like the same rate, but I know where I’d rather live and who I’d trust more with a peaceful unifying event such as the Olympics given the choice between a peaceful Pakistan pinned and parleying between the East/West, Christian/Muslim divide or a bureaucratic behemoth whose authorities seem to be paranoid bullies and where educated open minded people are scared to speak. China doesn’t seem ready for paragliders yet and I’m certainly not ready for China.

Our re-arrival in Hunza was beautiful, the cherries were only on the higher slopes, the peaches were now blossoming and this year’s Mulberry crop was busy being distilled. The flying was epic and more consistent. Brad even flew from Booni 215kms away in over 9 hours, an astounding flight. I did a more modest 130km out and return. I’m afraid John suffered a little more illness. We met more Hunza backpackers including the superb photographer and all round lovely person, Maddelana Arrigoni with whom I negotiated Hon Pass on foot. Considering how easy it had become to paraglide over, it was a nightmare to walk up and we frequently lost the path. We even became separated from our guide, Saddam, who had all our supplies.

Saddam is an 11yr old boy with a very difficult background, an unfortunate surname of Hussain, and was referred to by the headmaster of the school he wished to go to, as a “matchbox”. I don’t think this meant he was an arsonist; just that he was often causing trouble. Frankly, considering his background and the label he’d been given, it wasn’t surprising. He was frequently truant from school and consequently 3 years behind his year group. He was always trying to help us, during this trip and previous one and seemed particularly intelligent for a guy of his age. Although after 14 hours of walking and climbing without our precious supplies and water (they was in his bag at the bottom of the hill, with him), I was finding it hard to appreciate his help or see his intelligence. Yet, by the time I had left Hunza I had taken over responsibility for his education, paying for a private tutor to teach him 2 hours a day, 6 days a week, for a year with an emailed monthly report from his tutor. All this, for less than the average UK family’s weekly shop. The teacher in me told me it was wrong to tip someone who was playing truant. So far the reports are good and if it continues, it will be, £ for £, the most pleasurable and the most beneficial investment of my life.

UK life was catching up with me, forcing a return. John had already returned to his family and Snowdonia. The monsoon was still in the Punjab, the clouds around Nanga Parbat would be even larger than before and the extra baggage I’d acquired made a vol biv return too difficult. I returned to Islamabad by bus, much of the way on the roof. I had a lovely time being shown around sites by Hilary, a new friend from the Dubai waiting lounge. Murree, a hill station near Islamabad, could be a great flying destination although when I was there it was in cloud. The high street was as busy as Weymouth on a bank holiday weekend. The monsoon flooding in Islamabad was impressive; the highways became torrents; the open drains and manholes became invisible with people and cars falling into them and waterfalls appeared from the flyovers. Despite the job Hilary and others were doing with the 2000 hectare site outside the city, the infrastructure of the old city was suffering. We also had to negotiate our car around bomb blasts including one where the police station had been targeted. The officer I spoke to seemed very philosophical, asking me what to do but then replying to his own question – “carry on trying to do our best”. The Pakistani nation seems to do just that, whilst living at a harsh geo-political cross road. It’s no surprise the Karakorum is growing so fast and the Pakistanis are doing such a good job parleying between east and west. What a great philosophy for me to take away.

The Bradford Kashmiris I met in the airport had a bit of a grumble about the scrutiny they and their bags had suffered in Pakistan. When I described our ordeals in China and pointed out Pakistan and Kashmir were technically at war they were much more accepting of their inconvenience. On my eventual re-arrival in the UK, I couldn’t understand why I was clinging on for dear life in the car. I figured it wasn’t Jim’s relatively fast driving, it was just that I was constantly on edge waiting for the unlit truck or the motorcyclist travelling the wrong way up the dual carriageway. I’m looking forward very much to my return to Pakistan, but I’ll leave China to the Chinese and the Olympics.