Hushe Valley, land of giants

Hushe Valley, land of giants

I followed Paco Ali like a shadow, jumping from rock to rock across a raging river. The river wasn’t deep, or particularly broad, but the water was freezing cold and one misstep would mean an emergency retreat to the Refugio 10km further down the valley where we started our hike early this morning. The river is created by melting water from the Masherbrum glacier, overshadowed by Masherbrum itself, a 7600m tall beast of a mountain that looked down on us, threatening and deadly. The continuous creaking of the ice made my hair stand on end. We climbed further, swiftly like an ibex. Paco Ali at least. I followed a bit slower, struggling for breath. The air is already thin at 4000m altitude, and I am only a city boy from a mountainless country.

The previous day I had gone through the same routine as before my trip around Shigar Valley two days earlier: buy some water, food provisions and fill up the tank of the motorbike. Strap the backpack to the bike and wave goodbye to the guys of Snowland guesthouse. Avoid all the chickens, goats, children and reckless drivers in bazaar morning traffic, then exit the town from the other end. The highway was empty, the weather good and my spirits high.

After 20 minutes I passed the point where I had taken a left towards Shigar a few days earlier. This time I continued straight. The first snowy mountain tops already appeared before me, but I still had a long drive ahead of me. I followed the valley of the broad and azurish brown Shyok river that lazily carved its way through the dry landscape for 100km until I reached Khaplu. It was nice to drive. The road was in a good condition, there was barely any traffic and a mesmerising beauty presented itself behind every corner.

This was the easy part though. It took two and a half hours to make it to Khaplu, but the last 40km would take 3 more hours. I crossed the mighty hanging bridge over the Shyok river. The road to Hushe is steep, beautiful and only accessible to 4x4’s and the occasional motorbike. The ride was exhausting. In most part the dirt road was terrible. It changed to pure rocks sometimes, too. Or sand. Or small streams of water crossed it. Combined with the steepness it sometimes became too much for the engine of the Suzuki, which had a hard time dealing with the terrain.

I also hit a little kid at some point, which made my heart stop and turned my legs into mud. I was only driving 25km/h when a little boy ran blindly across the road from inside a house, right in front of my motorbike. I managed to avoid hitting him with the front wheel out of sheer reflex, but he ran with his head straight into my thigh and fell to the ground. My heart skipped several beats. I stopped immediately and took off the helmet. The boy had already gotten back to his feet and was crying in his fathers lap, who was hanging around with a group of other men on the other side of the street. The accident had literally happened right I front of them. When I stepped towards them at least ten men stared at me angrily. I tried to explain helplessly, with a lot of hand gestures that I was sorry, that he had suddenly appeared out of nowhere. ‘It’s ok,’ the father said with cold eyes, and he dismissed me with one simple hand gesture. Leave.

Eventually I reached Hushe. I was tired and so was the bike. I asked a few locals for a camping place and they pointed to the very end of the road, where a large hotel appeared in sight. The Refugio. There I met Paco Ali and Ashraf, the two jolly caretakers. They invited me for tea and insisted that I took a room instead of camping out in the cold. The hotel was empty, with the start of the climbing season still a few weeks off, and I could pay whatever I wanted for a room.

That evening during dinner we talked about the mountains and the guys showed me pictures of all the famous mountaineers that had conquered them. Hushe village is the end point of the 14-day hike from Askole to K2 basecamp, across Baltoro and Gondogor La glaciers. I hadn’t made it to the starting point in Askole a few days ago, but at least I’d seen the end station! That night we discussed possibilities for a day hike, around a gas stove that served as the only heating in the cold and empty hotel. Then I retreated to my bed, covered in a double set of blankets. And before I shut the curtains I looked into a starry night. The mountains were waiting.

There are so many famous peaks in this region of Pakistan that mountaineers face difficult choices here. K2, Gasherbrum I and II and Broad peak are the most famous ones, four of the world’s 14 eight thousanders. Masherbrum, Sebas tower, Trango towers, Laila peak, are other well-known alternatives. It takes several days to actually go to the base camp of one of these mountains, and requires a permit from the military, a guide, porters and a cook. I didn’t have the time or the money for any of that, so Paco Ali and I just walked 10km up to Masherbrum glacier and back.

I brought my own lunch consisting of some dried fruits and nuts to get me through the day. We drank water from the crystal clear streams we crossed. It was a strange kinda day, the kind where it seems like you are alone in the world. There were no sounds except the creaking of the ice, the flow of water and the howling of the wind. No distractions on a phone or in the form of human interaction. Most of the time Paco Ali and I walked in silence, and we were both perfectly fine with that. The mountains all around us seemed to have a gravitational effect, preventing anything that happened here from getting out. It must be awe-inspiring to spend 2 weeks crossing these mountains, I remember thinking.

Practical

  • Skardu to Khaplu (100km) takes 2,5 hours by car/motorbike and the road is in good condition. Khaplu to Hushe (40km) however takes an additional 3 hours on a terrible road. Road works are ongoing and in two years time the whole road to Hushe will be asphalted, according to the locals.
  • In Hushe, there are several guest houses and camping sites although most of them don’t open until the high season, from June to August. Refugio, the biggest of the guesthouses offers 12 double rooms with private bathrooms (and even occasional hot showers) which go for 4000PKR (30€) per night in high season. No WiFi. In the off-season prices are highly negotiable, I paid 1000PKR (7€) for a room mid-May. Call the guys at 05816482488 for information.
  • No special permits are necessary to reach Hushe, but I needed 3 passport copies for the several police checkpoints between Skardu and Hushe (and 2 more for the way back).
  • From Hushe day hikes are possible, but staying at the basecamps of Masherbrum & co does require a permit and guide, which have to be arranged in Skardu or Islamabad.
  • Although hiking by yourself is possible (the trails are relatively well marked on the Maps.Me app) I strongly recommend to support the local economy and hire a guide. I paid 3000PKR (21€) for a guide for the day, although that price is probably negotiable too.
  • If you’re coming from Skardu count at least 3 days for this excursion, including transport. The ride to Hushe is quite exhausting in itself.
  • Six km behind Hushe (about 1,5h hike) there’s an incredibly scenic campsite with grass, fresh water and mountains all around where you can stay for free. Stay here if you’re carrying a tent, some food and a warm sleeping bag. I stumbled across this place during my day hike and would have camped there if I’d known. Check Maps.Me for the exact location!

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A micro adventure around Shigar Valley, Pakistan

A micro adventure around Shigar Valley, Pakistan

I’m running late when I’m finally leaving the outskirts of Skardu behind me. My motorbike, a Suzuki GS 150 I rented from Gilgit-based motorcycle enthusiasts group Karakoram Bikers, smoothly buzzes underneath me, seemingly happy to get its gears turning again after a while without a renter. As settlements disappear so do the exhaust gases and the children walking home from school. My backpack is securely fastened on the back of the saddle, filled with only the stuff I might need for 2 or 3 days on the road. I’m making a road trip, all by myself. Before me the desert starts, surrounded by mountains that look down on me seducingly. The entrance to Shigar Valley appears before me, a tiny dent in two giant walls of rock. I am in northern Pakistan, and I am on an adventure.

That same morning I was planning on leaving early, straight after breakfast. Just buy a few supplies, find a working atm and fill the tank with gas, I figured. My quick shopping spree across town took a little longer than expected. Among other things I got stuck in morning bazaar traffic with the motorbike, parked somewhere to ask a police officer on the street for directions to Allied Bank, which locals told me should work with my card. He promptly stopped in his tracks, gave me a hug and halted the first car that passed, shouted a few words in Urdu to the driver and gestured me to get in the passenger seat. A hundred meter further down the road the driver pointed out Allied bank to me and that was that. ‘Welcome to Pakistan sir!’, and he was off again. After rejections in 7 different banks I finally managed to withdraw some cash. Having stocked up on dry apricots, a bag of cashew nuts, 3 litres of bottled water and a roll of naan bread and with a full tank I finally set off on my road trip, hours later then planned. The guys from my hotel had warned me it was quite a drive to Askole, the last inhabited village before the ‘real’ mountains started, 120km from Skardu. Real mountains meaning several 8000+ peaks. I hoped to make it in time before nightfall, but this is Pakistan. Anything is possible here.

After about 20 minutes on the main road I took a left, followed a new road across a bridge and was halted by a police checkpoint. The guys demanded a copy of my visa and passport which I happily gave them. I came prepared to this country you know, armed with 50 passport copies. My research has definitely paid off already! After checking everything carefully the man smiled, asked me where I was from despite literally having my passport in his hand and opened the barrier. ‘When will you be back here,’ he asked. ‘Tomorrow or the day after,’ I shouted back while gearing up. He smiled and a threw a thumbs up in the direction of my rear view mirror. Friendly guys these Pakistani soldiers.

The landscape soon became very arid, and trees disappeared as I drove following hairpin bends up into the mountains. The sky was full of ear-deafening freedom roaring along to the sound of the Japanese engine underneath me. My heartbeat raised as I felt a liberating and primeval roar well up inside me, like a boy on a motorbike with the world at his feet. ‘Welcome to Pakistan indeed!’, I screamed to the mountain.

I quickly reached the top of the pass and parked on the side of the road for a moment to take in the magnificent view. Minivans, jeeps and tractors passed by at an alarming speed and people shouted, waved and smiled from behind the wheel, from the roof or hanging from the back. I was quite a sight to them, a white guy all by himself on a motorbike which, according to the jealous stares people threw my way, had to be a fairly decent one, equipped with a backpack tied to the back. I jumped back into the saddle, failed to start, embarrassed waved back to the teenager that almost rolled on the floor laughing, put the engine in neutral and got the motor going again at the second try. Back down into the valley I drove through Shigar, the biggest village around here. More children on their way home from school. People farming the fertile land next to the Indus River. Shopkeepers smoking outside of their roadside stalls. Construction workers building simple structures without power tools. After about an hour the asphalt stopped and I continued on a wide gravel road. Speed was not of any importance to me, I was simply enjoying the ride and the mountains. Nothing else seems to matter these days.

During a drinking break a guy who was also on a motorbike stopped for a chat. He introduced himself as Ali Ali and sat down next to me, curiously watching how I cleaned the dust off the sensor of my camera. ‘You very beautiful boy. Very smart,’ he said. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘I’m going to Askole,’ I answered. ‘Oooh Askole very far! Too much far!’ ‘I’ll still try to get there, and if it’s too far I’ll just camp by the side of the road,’ I explained. The conversation continued for some time and as I got up to get back on the bike Ali Ali got up as well. ‘I go with you, ok?’ ‘Sure, lead the way man’. We drove together for some time and Ali Ali helped me whenever I got stuck in a particularly sandy patch of the road, these places being still beyond my rookie driving skills. After about an hour Ali Ali pulled up beside me, said that he was turning back now and with a last ‘beautiful boy! Smartly shameful!’ disappeared out of sight.

I had been driving almost 4 hours when I reached the village of Dassu, where another roadblock announced a military checkpoint. A soldier in camouflage uniform gestured me to follow him to one of the barracks nearby. There a stern and annoyed looking man dressed in a local salwar kameez, which looks a bit like a pyjama, promptly asked to see my passport and route permit. His name was Mohammed and apparently he was the officer in charge. I gave him a passport copy and the foreigner’s registration card they had given me at another checkpoint on my way north from Islamabad when my bus entered the Gilgit-Baltistan area. ‘This no route permit! Where is route permit?’ He told me to get inside the barrack which turned out to be his bedroom / foreigner cross-examination room. He saw my camera and demanded to be shown all the pictures on it. I gave him the camera and as he started scrolling through nine hundred pictures of mountains and valleys his tone softened. ‘You like landscape photography sir!’ After about 200 pictures he had seen enough and explained me that in order to be allowed past the checkpoint and on the road for the last 40km to Askole foreigners needed a special permit. Askole is the starting point of an 18-day trek to K2 and Baltoro glacier, at 8600m the world’s second largest mountain and longest non polar glacier. He showed me an example of the permit, used by a group of 8 French mountaineers who passed by here 40 days earlier en route to K2. They were the last people he had seen. Another officer joined and offered us all tea while showing me pictures of his young daughters he was eager to see again after his 3 month shift here at the checkpoint ended. We all took some selfies together and an hour after arriving at the checkpoint I turned around the motorbike and started the journey back to Shigar, a bit more confident on the bike and slightly faster this time. It was 4.30pm already, and sunset happens around 6.15 here in the mountains. I needed to find a place to camp and remembered the desert area and viewpoint just before entering Shigar. That would be a perfect spot, I decided.

At 6.15pm on the dot I sat in front of my tent in one of the most scenic camping spots I have ever stumbled upon, right out of a fairy tale. The place looked like a small clearing on a mountain ridge above the road that shepherds might have used years ago to spend the night. Listening to some Coldplay while taking in the sunset across the valley I felt at peace, both with myself and with the world. I didn’t really mind not making it to Askole. I had ridden a bike all day, had had tea with two military officers and saw the length of Shigar Valley. Mission accomplished. To me Askole was just a yardstick, an anonymous name on the map that marked the farthest point of the valley. Getting there was more of a general idea rather than an actual goal. And I had already promised myself to come back here one day and do the K2 basecamp trek when the season was right, most of the snow had melted and I had the money to actually pay for it. I munched on the naan and cashews, and ate a few dried apricots for dessert, a simple dinner for a simple day. Before crawling in my brand new sleeping bag (thanks North Face) I gazed up at the stars. It was a beautiful night indeed.

The following day I watched the sunlight and warmth return to the valley, high up from my shepherd’s stakeout overlooking the Indus River. This is the essence of a good old fashioned adventure, I thought to myself. A simple trip, one that anyone could do, wether by bike, hitchhiking or just walking. Without too many variables or need of planning, just with the curiosity to get out and see what would happen. After breakfast I jumped back on the bike, drove once more through Shigar and this time took another turn leading me across a bridge over the Indus River. Another police checkpoint and thus another tea invitation later I started the loop back to Skardu on the other side of the river. The guys on this post were part of the police force and not the army, but they looked all the same to me. Guys in pyjama’s guarding empty roads where, on a good day, maybe a dozen people pass by. Some of the policemen were much younger than me. It was a very simple life, I thought to myself. Guarding empty roads somewhere on a mountain for 3 months, then go home for 1 to spend time with family. At least the environment they are in is incredibly scenic.

The landscape changed to desert again and fewer villages crossed my path. I drove for hours until my bum hurt. Took a break in an abandoned hut in the middle of nowhere, where I stupidly fell off the bike while driving 2kph on an extremely sandy part of the road. I fell sideways and broke off the left rear view mirror in my fall. There was no other bodily or mechanic damage though, luckily. Bewildered I looked at the broken mirror in my hand. ‘Oh well… shit happens. Nothing to do about it. I’ll have to pay for that I guess.’ I continued on my way, hiked up to Kachura lake and eventually doubled back into Skardu just in time for lunch. Very dusty, satisfied and with only one rear view mirror I arrived back to my hotel exactly 24 hours after departing. The guys there seemed happy enough to see their only guest back.

Practical

  • Karakoram Bikers is a travel company based in Gilgit and Lahore. They rent out motorbikes for 2000PKR / day, no license needed. Get in touch through their website or social media. www.karakorambikers.com
  • The trek to K2 basecamp takes between 14 and 18 days and can be arranged online. Permits are necessary, so inform yourself well beforehand. In my opinion it would be better to arrange the trek starting from Skardu instead of Islamabad. Prices vary, I’ve read everything between 1000 and 3000$.
  • If you do get a permit, which you can request in Skardu, you can drive from Dassu to Askole. I’ve been told the 40km take 3 hours by motorbike, so time your trip well if you don’t want to get stuck in the dark. Askole has a camping ground mostly used by mountaineers as the starting point of their trek but I’m fairly certain you can camp there for a night before returning back to Dassu as well.
  • To do this trip I needed 3 passport copies, one for each of the police / army checkpoints along the way.

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Couchsurfing in Islamabad, Pakistan

Couchsurfing in Islamabad, Pakistan

The bus makes its way along the Karakoram Highway, twisting and turning and shaking like a wounded snake on amphetamines. Mostly up it goes, for the length of the 490km that separate Islamabad from Gilgit, capital city of the Gilgit-Baltistan area, the pearl of Pakistan. A few hours into the journey we pass by Abbottabad, a town that became world famous overnight in 2012 because this is where Osama Bin Laden was allegedly killed during a nightly raid by US special forces. Under the cover of darkness the bus passes 3km from the compound, oblivious to its reputation and the history that was written here. I’m 48h into my Pakistan adventure, and couldn’t have wished for a better introduction to this beautiful country.

I arrived on a short flight from Abu Dhabi to the New Islamabad International Airport on it’s second day of operation. Brand new unfortunately also meant no ATM’s or money exchange, and no SIM card sales booths. The only operated booth in the arrivals hall belonged to a taxi company and after a few futile attempts to talk to the guy behind the counter, who seemed as lost as I was, I managed to exchange 20$ into 2000 Pakistani rupees from his own pocket. With a swish of his hand a minion in a fluorescent vest materialised out of nowhere to lead me outside to the taxi queue. The hall outside arrivals was so crowded with people that were waiting for arriving relatives that they had to be held back by steel fences. A military clothed gentleman nodded at me when I entered the hall and, waving his AK47, lead me and my taxi minion through the midst of the staring crowd. So this is what it feels like to be Justin Bieber…

When I told Omar the taxi driver about my experience he explained that every low or even middle class family needs one or more members working overseas to send back a never ending stream of monthly checks to support the rest of the family. Consequently, short visits of that relative to the motherland are a big event, celebrated by the entire family, a celebration that starts at the airport. Omar himself spent 2 years as an electrician in France and 4 as a pizza maker in Italy. Then he came back to Islamabad to take care of his ill father. There are millions of Pakistani like Omar, working abroad to provide for their families. With 200 million inhabitants this is the sixth most populous country in the world. That is a lot of mouths to be fed.

After a crazy ride through Friday night traffic Omar delivers me to the doorstep of Saad, a Pakistani guy who invited me into his house after I posted a public trip to Couchsurfing. As CS is always a bit of a gamble I didn’t know what to expect, and because of my typical disorganizedness I had only contacted Saad yesterday evening. After a nervous minute or so he opened the gate to his house though and introduced me to his wife Nadia and toddlers Mikael and Ozil. Their house was huge, and very comfortable. I left my stuff in the guest room which, to my astonishment, had its own private bathroom. Then Omar whisked me away to experience an amazing street food dinner in the streets of Rawalpindi, and the ball of incredible hospitality that seems to be characterising this part of the world started rolling, never to stop again.

Saturdays are for sightseeing! After a rich breakfast in the company of Saad’s father, a former judge, and with more food than an average football team can finish Nadia, Saad, the kids and I took a drive to drop off Mikael and Ozil at Nadia’s parents. Her mother, a fashion designer, insisted on trying some kebab and juice on the terrace of their house in a new development on the outskirts of the city. Despite my swollen stomach I managed to stow away a few different ones while Ozil entertained everyone by singing the Frozen song, happily munching on some kebab at the same time. Then Saad and Nadia took me on a road trip through town, past some of the government buildings to the Faisal mosque, the biggest in the country. Somehow I was interviewed by a crew of the national television while checking out a handicraft store in the Saidpur village asking me what I thought of Pakistan. Apparently they didn’t care that I only arrived the previous day and were very happy to hear that I had enjoyed my first 20 hours in their country.

For dinner we went up to a viewpoint of the hills overlooking Islamabad. The Monal restaurant was a very fancy place and we watched the sun slowly disappear in the smoggy skyline of a surprisingly modern city while discussing a range of subjects, both from a European and a Pakistani point of view. A quick coffee to go from an Italian place in an area frequented by expats and off we were, returning to pick up the kids.

One of my favourite moments happened right before picking them up though. During our many conversations the subject of alcohol had come up, and Saad had explained to me that, despite there being a beer brewery a few hours north from Islamabad, drinking alcohol is by law prohibited for locals in the whole country. Non Muslim foreigners do not fall into that category though, creating a vague legal grey area where underground alcohol dealers can hook you up with local beer and even liquors. When Saad asked me wether I wanted to try the only Pakistani beer in existence I didn’t have to think twice! A few phone calls were made back and forth, a time and place agreed upon and eventually a back alley transaction sealed between our car and the dealer’s, both with dimmed lights and without ever exiting the vehicle. A quick whisper and laugh and the merchandise was handed over. The monkey on the roof of the guy’s car, chained through the window to the back seat, made the whole scene look even more like a movie. Me, Saad and Nadia stayed up talking late that night while I tried the surprisingly tasty beer. A memorable night in good company of people that were strangers only yesterday. My faith in the world is skyrocketing these days.

On Sunday none of us did a lot. I spent most of the time in the living room planning the next few days and weeks while continuously harassing Saad with questions. Pakistan is a very off the beaten track destination and although the people are extremely helpful it still takes some research to get the most out of my stay here. After dinner I said goodbye to Nadia and the kids and Saad drove me to the bus station. It takes 18 hours to reach Gilgit, an overnight journey that will also take most of the next day. But I’m traveling the legendary Karakoram Highway now, and no lack of legroom, bus seats designed for midgets or questionable bodily odours will wipe the huge grin off my face.

Practical

  • The new Islamabad international airport (opened on May 3rd 2018) is about an hour’s taxi ride away from Islamabad city centre. Bring at least dollars from home to get away from the airport since ATM’s or money exchange were not yet possible yet (May 4th 2018). Use the taxi stand next to baggage reclaim, the fare is less then 2000PKR (I paid 1900PKR for a longer ride since I wasn’t staying in the centre).
  • Withdrawing money in Islamabad was no problem with my Belgian cards, both maestro and MasterCard worked but only in Standard Chartered Bank!
  • NATCO is the most reliable bus company to get to the northern areas, the bus leaves at 6pm, 7pm, 9pm and 10pm. The journey takes anywhere from 16 to 20 hours depending on traffic and road conditions. The price to Gilgit was 1850PKR. Hiring a car, motorbike or private driver is also possible.
  • Bring passport an visa copies to get faster past police checkpoints, I needed a total of 5 between Islamabad and Gilgit (but still less then the 11 The Broke Backpacker needed back in 2016!).

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Rakaposhi is the 27th highest mountain in the world at 7788m. It’s name means ‘snow covered’ in the local language, and for good reason. I hiked to its basecamp in May and encountered lots and lots of the white cold powdery stuff. It made for an interesting ascent......

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Mind surgery: a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat – Day 2 & 3

Mind surgery: a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat – Day 2 & 3

Confused I wake up at 4am on day 2. Did that gong sound or was that my imagination? Without any way to check the time I stare at the ceiling of my cubicle for a moment, listening. Then suddenly one of my neighbours turns on his light, casting a long shadow over the wall and across my ceiling. All around me I hear the muffled sounds of tired people waking up and moving around. I’m so much of an evening person that I’m happy there are no mirrors and I can’t see my own face. The gong sounds again. It’s time for the first session in the hall. I take a deep breath, move aside the mosquito net and slide into my hippie pants and slippers.


The night is still pitch black when I enter the hall. The first session of the day takes two hours and is without instructions. In fact the teachers are nowhere to be seen. Nevertheless most seats are taken by people who seem to be in trance already. I sit down on my cushion and close my eyes. Almost immediately a sharp pain in my back starts manifesting, something I feared might happen. I try to ignore it and remember yesterday’s instructions. Close eyes. Keep hands relaxed in my lap. Start focusing on breathing through the nose. Try to become aware of any sensation at all on the tiny area of the nostrils and the upper lip. Keep doing this for the entire session.

It’s very hard to keep focusing on something that isn’t there, I think after ten minutes. Apart from the occasional itching I feel nothing much close to anything I’d call a sensation. Instead my mind wanders. There’ll be breakfast soon, and even though I won’t be able to talk to anyone at least I get to sit in a real chair. Happy days! I wish the food they served was any good. It’s not the vegan thing, no I don’t care about eating vegan for ten days. Should I become vegan? It’s better for the planet. Hmmm where on the planet should I go for the next couple of months? But wait, flying all over the world means I’m accumulating a giant ecological footprint, then it doesn’t make sense to become vegan, I’d better not fly anymore instead. Hmmm eating vegan is not that hard, I did it while I was volunteering in the organic olive grove too, months and months ago in Greece. The food there was delicious. Do I feel something crawling up my leg? Better take a look. I don’t want it to be like yesterday when I saw a big spider scurrying around my neighbour’s cushion. Better check to make sure. What do spiders eat actually? Meat? Yeah they’re not vegan at all. It’s not fair, we get only rice. Steamed rice, watery rice, sticky rice, rice with sugar for desert. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wait I should be focusing on my breath and nostrils. How long has my mind been wandering? Let’s try again. Pompidompidom… would there be bananas for breakfast? I don’t like bananas but here I do like them. They’re not rice. Oh the irony. I have to pee. Do I drink too much water? I thought rice soaks in all the water? Let’s focus on the breath shall we? I’d like to but do you remember yesterday when during lunch that old guy accidentally spilled soup in Mr Miyagi’s slipper? Haha that cracked me up so much. Almost broke my vow of silence there. Oh wait I’m supposed to focus on my breath. Damn you gong, what’s taking you so long?

The course schedule is very strict. At 4am sharp the gong wakes up everyone lucky enough to get some sleep on the prison bed. At 4.30am the meditation hall is full and silent. 120 people sit cross-legged on pillows with their eyes closed. It’s a long session, that lasts until 6.30am. Then the gong announces breakfast and rest until 8am. 8am – 9am is the first session of strong determination, but more on that later. A 5 minute break and another 2 hour session, until 11am. Then lunch is prepared. It’s remarkably similar to breakfast. After lunch there’s a break until 1pm, my favourite moment of the whole day. Exhausted after a short night with little sleep and a draining morning program I manage to fall asleep almost every day. Then the gong announces the next session, from 1pm until 2.30. Five minutes break, another session of strong determination until 3.30, five minutes break and another 1,5 hour session, until dinner is announced at 5pm. According to the official Vipassana rules there is no dinner to be had at 5, which is supposed to be merely a tea break with some fruits. But like with many things Cambodians don’t feel the need to adhere to the rules too much. They serve a dinner, which is basically just leftovers from breakfast and lunch. From 6pm until 7 there is the third session of strong determination, followed by a video discourse until 8.30. Then the final session lasts until 9, which is bed time.

Everyone seems to be using day 2 as a way to experiment with the auxiliary pillows. Next to the entrance of the hall there’s a giant box filled with pillows in different shapes and sizes which we can use to find a more comfortable posture. People put a small pillow under each knee, or under their bum , or just put one in their lap to rest their hands on. I’m also looking for the perfect posture, jealously eyeballing some individuals in the ladies crowd who somehow got their hands on some sort of back support device. Why do these ladies get preferential treatment? Why does that hundred-twenty-year-old get to sit with her back against the wall? All of this is not fair. I hate all these people burping and breathing loudly! Oh well there we have the dying llama again, shut up with the stupid chanting! In my mind I’m giving the guy in front of me a light push as retribution for all the farts he’s been sending my way today. Off balance by the sudden change in equilibrium he falls forwards onto the person in front on him, who then topples over onto the person in front of that. The human domino keeps going until everyone is head first on the floor except me. Satisfied I jump up, tear open my shirt hiding a superman costume and disappear with a devilish laugh in a haze of smoke and thunder.

It’s strange to be completely and utterly alone amidst 120 other people. During the meditation sessions everyone is doing his own thing in silence, but also during the meals, while walking in the garden, during teeth brushing or after the sessions speaking is not allowed, and neither is eye contact, gesturing or any other form of non verbal communication. By the end of day three I have given everyone that I recognise nicknames as a way to pass the time. I also invented a whole background story for each of them, including the reason they are here, their hopes and dreams for the future and their family tree, up until the third generation. The first to receive a nickname was the guy sitting on the pillow in front of me. I always stare at the back of his head and nicknamed him den Trappe, based on his trapezium shaped haircut. Den trappe was more or less my age and was always the last one to appear in the meditation hall after the sounding of the gong. He didn’t really like to be here it seemed, which made me like him immediately. When the gong rang he actively walked away from the entrance to the meditation hall as far as possible before dragging himself as slowly as possible and with hunched shoulders towards his seat as if it was the executioner’s block. His outfits looked expensive and I imagined he was sent here by his wealthy and powerful Cambodian father who hoped he would finally learn some discipline before taking over the family business, much against the will of the former, who’d much more like to join the circus. The guy on the pillow to my right on the other hand seemed to be born with the sole purpose of becoming a Vipassana meditator. During the whole 10 days I never even once caught him moving or opening his eyes during any of the meditation sessions, thus earning him the nickname Rock. Together with Glasses, the guy on my left, they were among the better students of the class. Then there was Dirk, a tall Dutch guy who used so many auxiliary pillows that his seat looked more like a blanket fort than an area for quiet contemplation. He regularly skipped sessions and spent most of the time of the other sessions on a plastic chair in the back of the hall to release the pressure on his painful knees, despite his young age. Eventually he left the course on day 9 for reasons of a wrongly scheduled flight. Stick on the other hand had to be at least a hundred and twelve years old, was so slow he usually struggled to make it to the dining hall in time before the other hungry participants finished all the food and scared everyone time and again with his shrieking bones every time he sat down, but nonetheless made it to day 11 glamorously as if he was the inventor of the elixir of life. I later learned he did a course every year together with his wife, and didn’t have the slightest trouble sitting for so long.

By the morning of day 3, despite a lot of internal cursing, sweating, frustration and painful limbs I could finally see some progress in my idle attempts to shut down my agitated mind. During some of the sessions I noticed how I could focus longer without my mind wandering to every dark corner of my subconscience. The morning sessions were usually easiest. Still half asleep it seemed less difficult to keep my mind at bay. I was less distracted and sometimes managed to get into some kind of sleepy trance where my mind was blank but I could still focus on my bodily sensations. It was the darkest and the quietest time of day as well. As the course progressed I really came to treasure these early morning sessions in the hall, where after some time the chattering of the birds announced a new day full of daylight and opportunities, followed by the gong that meant breakfast. As a general rule the sessions after a longer break usually went relatively well, whereas the sessions after 5 minute breaks were still excruciatingly painful and impossible to focus. It is extremely unsatisfying to sit through a one-hour session going to great lengths to focus, suffering physical pain and mental self abuse pushing yourself further and further to then hear the gong, take a walk in the garden for 5 minutes and sit back down on the pillow to go through the whole experience again, knowing that after that there are even more sessions. And tomorrow the whole cycle repeats itself…

During one of the afternoon sessions of day 3 I’m determined to try and sit still for the entire hour. Tomorrow, on day 4, the actual Vipassana meditation exercises start. So far we have only practised Annapana, a technique to quiet down the mind and learn to focus on the experiencing of physical sensations. The area of the nostrils and upper lip is just an introduction, a pars pro toto. We’re narrowing down the focus area in order to be able to go deeper into the sensations. Starting tomorrow we will expand the focus area to the entire body. Combined with this we’ll also have 3 sessions of strong determination, where we cannot move for the entire time. I’m anxious for both aspects of this change. So far I’ve barely managed to feel any nostril sensations. Every previous session I’ve been making some progress when it comes to sitting still though. Every time I make it a few more minutes before giving up in pain. Currently I can more or less hang in there for 35 minutes, a big difference compared to the initial 5. Sixty whole minutes is still way off though…

Mind surgery: a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat – Day 1

Mind surgery: a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat – Day 1

I can’t bear the pain in my upper back anymore when I finally give up the internal struggle that has been going on for some time in my mind. We’re not supposed to move for the entire session, but my physical pain has been slowly eating away at my determination to follow that guideline. I open my eyes without a clue of how much time has passed since the start of the hour. One’s perception of time passage when sitting on a cushion with closed eyes doing nothing is very, very different from reality. It wouldn’t be until the afternoon that I would find out about the clock hanging on the wall behind me. Idiot. I’m completely helpless and, despite the presence of 119 other motionless cross-legged figures in the meditation hall, utterly alone. Slowly it starts to sink in what I’ve gotten myself into here.


‘Here’ is in the Dhamma Lattika meditation centre in the Cambodian countryside, a few kilometres outside of the city of Battambang. I’m here because I signed up for a 10 day silent Vipassana meditation course. Looking back, I still can’t pinpoint when I decided to take this spiritual boot-camp. Before arriving here I had never even meditated. I had heard others talk about the benefits of meditation in their lives and the spiritual intensity of 10-day courses like these, so I was curious but not well-versed. Maybe I took this course exactly because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I signed up.

Created by and taught using recordings of the late S.N. Goenka, the course is a rigorous 10-day mental training intended to turn students into “masters of their minds”. Although the technique of Vipassana originates 2500 years ago when the Buddha became enlightened under a bodhi tree, and Buddhist philosophy certainly guides the course, Goenka insists that it is entirely nonsectarian, universal, and scientific in nature, as its aim is to create mental peace and stop the vicious circle of creating misery for oneself, rather than worship any higher being.

How hard can it be to spend 10 days in absolute silence, thinking about “stuff”, I had thought. To abstain from my busy, connected life for once. To lock all my ‘devices’ (what a terrible word) into a locker for the next ten days. To surrender not only my phone, but also my speech. Not just my books, notebook and pen, but also my entire right to communicate. When I filled out the registration form after my arrival here yesterday I answered the question “Why did you decide to participate in this course and what do you hope to accomplish during your time here?” truthfully saying that I was looking for some peace of mind and body after six exhausting months traveling the world. To stop moving around for 10 days to process the experiences and insights of the last few months. Reflection reduced to its bare essence.

It was a strange first day, yesterday. Straight after hopping out of the tuktuk that delivered me to the centre’s doorstep I walked into what was apparently the ladies’ entrance of the registration building. Wildly gesturing and shouting incomprehensible things in Kmer I was chased back out of the door and into the right entrance. There I was presented with a questionnaire and a contract to sign by a guy that looked a bit like Mr. Miyagi from the Karate kid. ‘That I’d adhere to the rules and schedule of the course and that I’d stay until the official end in ten days.’ After registration I was shown my residential quarters in a dormitory building that looked like it could have been used as horse stables just the same. Every room had its own front door, a bed with mosquito net, a light and a fan, but the walls didn’t go all the way to the ceiling. The door had a square area with hinges that could open separately from the door itself. Like how the horses can put their heads outside to smell the fresh air without taking flight. Do they want to prevent us from running? The rest of the meditation centre consisted of two Asian style sanitary buildings (toilet and shower in one, do I still want to be here?), a dining hall with tables and chairs facing the same wall to avoid students sitting face to face, and the dhamma or meditation hall. Male and female accommodations were strictly separated by a fence cutting straight through the garden, and the only time we would get to see people of the opposite sex was during the meditation sessions in the hall.

After dropping my stuff in room number nine I had handed over all my forbidden items. Camera, phone, iPad, notebook and pens, e-reader, and the hard copy of some book I’d been dragging around since Iran three months ago. I met Douglas and Michael, a Scot and an Austrian guy and we introduced ourselves and talked for a bit about our fears and expectations for the upcoming ten days over coffee. It was reassuring that they were complete newbies to meditation too. After that and with an hour to spare before the official kickoff of the course and start of the Noble silence I went for a walk in the garden, where small groups of Cambodians were already pacing around. A Buddhist monk engaged in conversation with me, eager to practice his English. We kept talking for about an hour, walking circles around the garden while the sun started to set over the surrounding rice paddies. He told me this was the seventh time he came for a course and that he was looking forward to the moment it would finally begin. I asked him how the other times had been but he responded with a peculiar, almost invisible smile on his lips that everyone’s journey is different and personal, and therefore incomparable to anyone else’s. Our conversation was interrupted by a loud gong in the middle of the garden and my new companion left me behind with a twinkle in his eyes. All the participants had by now settled in their respective stable and everyone gathered at the entrance of the meditation hall, where we were assigned our cushions. Noble silence had begun, and the very first meditation session was about to begin…

To be honest I had no idea what it meant exactly to meditate before I started this adventure. My fairytale version of it involved a lot of sitting and thinking and processing and growing and not so much physical pain and boredom. As a result that first time on the cushion in the meditation hall yesterday was very startling. A tape recording was played and I almost fell off my pillow when the sound of a dying llama reverberated around the room. After a while I realised it was the voice of ‘guru’ Goenka chanting in an ancient Indian language, something he would do at the start and the end of most sessions from then on. Eventually the chanting died away and the instructions for that specific session were given. This first session the only instruction was to focus all our attention to physical sensations on the area between the nostrils and the upper lip. To try and focus on purely that and block out all other thoughts or sensations. And when our mind started wandering, to realise it wandering, and emotionless bring it back to the sensations on the upper lip.

I’ve agreed to be locked up inside my own head, I realised while sitting cross-legged on that pillow. I tried to remember the daily schedule that we have to follow scrupulously. Did it really say that there are 10,5 hours worth of meditation sessions like this every day? This is the first hour of day 0, people can’t possibly sign up for this out of their own free will? This is worse then sitting in front of the microwave and putting the timer at 10,5 hours, waiting for a dish to be ready. Everyone knows that microwave minutes are the longest minutes on the speed scale of time passage. But here, there’s no amazing yesterday’s lasagna when that timer actually goes off. All it means is going back to your windowless cubicle, turn on the fan and try to shut your eyes again for 6 hours. Is that even healthy, to have your eyes closed for 18 hours a day?

All these thoughts race through my head while I’m sitting there on my pillow, waiting for a gong that seems an eternity away. Day 0 of 10, try not to go crazy yet, ok? Just try to make it to the end of the hour. That gong will come at some point. That’s the law of nature. Everything is impermanent, and also this shall pass.

The following day I’m on the same pillow again. This will be my cushion for the rest of the course, I’ve come to understand. This seat, on the last of 6 neat rows of pillows, will be my home for the next ten days. At least I can look at the clock behind me without anyone that might have his eyes open seeing it. I’ve got that going for me, I guess. Not that anyone, except me, would ever open his eyes or change his position before the gongs sounds. We’re supposed to sit still for one hour but it seems I’m the only one struggling with this. Every five or ten minutes I have to change my posture, and every time I do I have to look at the clock on the wall to make sure I see how much longer this tragedy has to go on. Everyone else though, seems to sit still like the Buddha himself. Are they becoming enlightened already, while I’m here struggling to even keep my eyes closed and my back straight? Why am I so bad at this? Maybe all these Cambodians are just way more used to sitting on the ground? Yeah that must be it. I’ve seen them do it, the Asian people. I can’t even squat for five minutes to relieve myself of number two, holding myself steady in the toilet stall using both arms in grotesque positions just to hover over that hole long enough to release my previous meal back into the wild, but Asians they squat when they’re waiting for the bus. Or fishing in the rivers and ponds. Or talking on the phone. Even these old guys on the pillow frontline aren’t moving, and I’m pretty sure they might have fought in the second world war. Ninety years old at least. I’ve even seen that guy there walking with a stick, imagine! I open my eyes and look at the clock. Twenty five minutes gone. Not even halfway yet. I arrived here yesterday afternoon already you know, they call it day 0. There’s also a day 11, for that matter. I’m not getting any happier.

The hours creep by so slowly it’s like the earth has stopped turning. Two hour meditation session. Breakfast. Three hour meditation session. Lunch. Four hour meditation session. Dinner. The two of them are quite a pair, I think while observing the male and female assistant teachers tediously during one of the lesser successful sitting sessions of that first day. The male teacher is a small man with a face like he has to do Vipassana meditation every day. Probably because he does. He looks a bit like Count Odilon, a side character from a Belgian comic book that rides his dog Tobias together with his wife the countess, who rides a dog like a polar bear. He sits on an elevated platform next to the female assistant teacher, who looks like the most devoted housewife ever, the kind of woman who spends her time knitting scarfs and socks for her grandchildren years before they are born. The count and countess were obviously very good at sitting still with their eyes closed. They made it their life’s purpose. I think I’ll choose a different path, with all due respect.

The end of day 1 draws nearer. After dinner there’re two more sessions, separated by a Dhamma talk. In these talks, that we’ll get to see every night, a video is displayed in which Goenka gives some theoretical and philosophical background on the technique we’re learning and the daily struggles on the path towards wisdom. Since the videos are in English we follow them in a smaller, separate room while the Cambodians take their place on our by now well known pillows in the hall.

We’re only six foreign guys, and when the girls enter I count nine of them. Fifteen foreigners out of 120 participants! I’d expected different numbers. After 10 hours of meditation sessions I’d hoped to find a comfortable couch waiting for us. Maybe they even have some popcorn, we’re watching tv after all. To my disappointment there are fifteen pillows waiting for us in rows that are just as neat as in the big hall. My back protests heavily, which lands me in the doghouse with the teacher. When I can’t take it any longer and lay down on my side, curled in a little ball like a beaten dog he shakes his head disapprovingly and gestures me to sit up again with the swish of a stern finger. No words needed. I groan.

At 9pm the gong finally calls it a day and before the teacher’s done explaining that there is half an hour of Q&A for those who have doubts I’m already out the door, in my slippers and halfway the garden to my own room. I close the door, turn on the fan and crawl onto my cardboard mattress. I’m happy to have brushed my teeth straight after dinner. This is getting familiar, I think when I close my eyes.

CAPPADOCIA – Flying a hot air balloon into the sunrise

CAPPADOCIA – Flying a hot air balloon into the sunrise

In een luchtballon over het Centraal-Anatolische Plateau glijden tijdens zonsopgang, wie droomt er niet van? Er moeten zowat tienduizend miljoen miljard foto’s circuleren op het internet van ochtendlijke ballonvaartjes in Cappadocia, centraal Turkije, het ballonvaartwalhalla van de wereld. Mijn aandacht hadden ze alvast, die Turken. Met een camera in de aanslag passeerde ik in Kapadokya tijdens mijn overland tocht naar het verre oosten. Met kleine oogjes en een licht oversture maag na die tweede Döner van de avond voordien hees ik me om 4.45u uit bed om het fenomeen met eigen ogen te aanschouwen. En ik zag dat het goed was.

Reeds één keer eerder was ik hier, in Cappadocia. Bijna 10 jaar geleden tijdens een dolle eindejaarsreis doorheen Turkije, waarbij in een acht-daags tijdsinterval zowat 57 steden op het programma stonden, spendeerden we een terloops dagje tussen de fairy chimneys van de Pigeon valley en de groot geschapen fallusrotsen van de Love valley. Het ruime luchtsop kozen we toen evenwel niet, en laat dat nu net íets spannender zijn dan dat muffe edelstenenmuseum langs de steenweg. Hoog tijd dus voor een tweede passage. Twee dagen op rij vroeg uit de veren leidde tot onderstaand fotoverslag. Dat het licht perfect was dat hoef ik u niet te vertellen.

Practical

  • Uitvalsbasis voor een ballonvluchtje in Cappadocia is Göreme, een klein dorpje pal in het hart van Turkije. Afhankelijk van het seizoen gooi je tussen de 60 en 120€ euro per persoon over de balk voor een luchtdoop van een uurtje. Ik huppelde hier eind oktober voorbij en genoot dus van het off-season tarief.
  • Ook het aantal ballonnen dat je piloot zal moeten zien te ontwijken is afhankelijk van het seizoen én de weersomstandigheden. Ikzelf telde in oktober dagelijks een 90-tal luchtballonnen, in het hoogseizoen loopt dit op tot 2 á 300. Let wel op, want als er teveel wind staat mogen de ballonnen niet uitvliegen. Geef jezelf dus na aankomst meteen op als geïnteresseerde en wacht niet tot de laatste dag van je verblijf om het op een vliegen te zetten!
  • Göreme heeft zelf geen luchthaven. Turkish vliegt wel dagelijks meerdere malen van Istanboel naar Kayseri, zo’n 45 minuten verderop. Nachtbussen van Istanboel doen er zo’n 12 uur over maar zijn wel de comfortabelste die ik ooit al heb genomen (samen met de VIP bussen in Iran). Denk business class van de gemiddelde vliegtuigmaatschappij, inclusief bediening met thee en koekjes.
  • Göreme heeft een hele rits aan accommodaties in alle prijsklassen. Meng je voor een habbekrats tussen de backpackers in hostel Terra Vista (5€), boek een van de vele midrange Cave hotels (20-50€) of doe eens zot en boek een kamer in het Instagram-bekende Sultan Cave Suites (100-150€).
  • Zowat alle guesthouses, hotels, Airbnb’s en hun moeder kunnen ballontours regelen, de prijzen zijn vaak vergelijkbaar. Ikzelf was zeer tevreden van de service in hostel Terra Vista. Ali en zijn broer zijn goeie gasten!

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