Hushe Valley, land of giants

by | May 24, 2018 | Around the world, Pakistan, Thoughts | 2 comments

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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