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M A R C H  1 9 9 9

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

AFTER the dust, crowds, and endless noodles of China, northern Pakistan was salve for the soul and the palate -- a land of solitude, of clean air and lapis lazuli sky, of hearty food. Fortified by a meal of chapati (unleavened bread), curried chicken, and fried potatoes, I hiked up the mountainside that evening, before the sun sank beneath the peaks, to the Wakhi Tadzhik hamlet of Nazimabad. Two brothers in their early teens, Tariq and Aziz, followed me, eager to show me their environs. "These are my apples, sir; these are my tomatoes, sir," Tariq said proudly, indicating two of many plots. Others, some no larger than prayer mats, had been seeded with wheat, planted with miniature fruit trees, dug into grids and sown with potatoes. The houses were of stone and surrounded by mowed grass intercut with impeccably clean walkways. Out of Islamic modesty, the women in the tiny fields averted their eyes as I passed, but they did so cheerfully, saying "Salaam," barely able to hide their smiles. The Wakhis and other reclusive Muslim tribes in northern Pakistan began regularly seeing foreigners only in 1986, when the northern part of the highway opened to outsiders; the townspeople of Sust could hardly conceal their delight at encountering a person like me.

Miniature agricultural plots in the hamlet of Nazimabad

Parting with the brothers, I decided to continue up the stone path past the village. The sun was falling fast, setting aflame peaks in the east, and the pale green of the valley floor was deepening to dark emerald. Eagles cried out as they soared across the chasms to their crags. I reached the lookout point, which was still far beneath the peaks: in Nazimabad, far below, women were moving splashes of red and gold, men were swatches of somber brown. Floating up to me, even here, was the soft, rushing lullaby of the Hunza River, at the foot of the mountains opposite.

But I was not to linger; I wanted to move on to hiking terrain, and Sust offered fewer possibilities than the land to the south. The next morning I caught the bus down to the town of Passu. Two days later I found myself on an excursion, swinging above the green torrents of the Hunza south of Passu, breathing the piercing blue, feeling the razor cut of cold, thin air in my lungs. My hands gripped the cables of a suspension bridge 150 yards long; my feet edged from plank to loose plank. If I craned my neck upward, I saw sky. On every side rose panoramas of red and brown rock; ahead on the slope, beneath the snows, lay the hamlet of Hussaini.

Ali, a Wakhi Tadzhik in beige robes, watched as I moved tediously across the bridge he had sprinted over minutes before. When I made it to the bank, he told me that a month earlier strong winds had swept two children from the bridge. They fell fifty feet into the water -- and lived. "They knew how to swim," Ali said with a shrug, as if such a fall and surviving it were everyday occurrences here. He made his living farming a plot of potatoes and apricots that was accessible only by the bridge, which he had crossed several times a day for most of his forty-four years.

Ali's house, in Hussaini, was typical of the region: one capacious, carpeted stone chamber served for living, eating, and sleeping; a wood stove provided heat; and outside was an immaculate courtyard. A stone wall surrounded everything and furnished a sense of sanctuary. His wife brought us spiced potatoes in a clay pot, and it seemed to me that the pottery enriched the flavor and enhanced the aroma. We dug in, using warm chapati instead of flatware to handle the food.

His occupation notwithstanding, Ali is no simple peasant: he studied engineering in Karachi and spent months in Europe years ago; his English and sophistication reflect all this. He had seen Karachi, lived in its squalor, and decided he'd had enough -- and so he'd returned to the tranquillity of his native north. Still, he seemed not quite at home in Hussaini. His education sets him apart from his fellow villagers, who rarely journey farther than Gilgit, seventy miles down the highway. He asked me if I liked Heineken beer; we talked about life in Europe; he wanted to know about Boris Yeltsin's health and the role of the mafia in Moscow, where I live; he expressed an articulate interest in the world. Later Ali saw me to the trail leading back to Passu. Parting from him, I felt nourished, relaxed, and optimistic about the world.

The next day I hired a jeep to take me the forty miles to Karimabad, whose idyllic apricot orchards, robust inhabitants, and unspoiled meadows have earned the surrounding Hunza Valley regard as the most beautiful section of the highway.

JAVED, my Hunzakut guide, hopped from rock to rock up the irrigation channel bringing glacier water down from the mountain. With sweat pouring from every pore, I tried to match his pace but could not. Instead I discovered the concert of my lungs, a symphony of whistling bronchi over which I had lost control. We were only at 7,500 feet, but our ascent toward the glacier by the meadow of Ultar Nala, beneath Ultar peak, was as steep as was climbable without the use of gear. Beneath us spread the village of Karimabad; across the Hunza Valley rose Mount Rakaposhi, trailed by a plume of blowing snow. Thinking of nothing more than sweat, thinning air, and the need to maintain my balance on the rocks, I almost forgot why I had set out on the hike: to see the glacier and drink in the view of the valley.

An hour and a half later we were treading gingerly along the foot-wide stones laid as a walkway beside the irrigation channel. On our right a sheer drop of 2,000 feet ended in a crashing glacial stream. Thunder rumbled, and I scanned the sky, but it was clear. Responding to my puzzled look, Javed said that this was the wrong time of year to make the hike. I mentioned sudden storms. "No, no storms now," he answered. I lost my balance and caught it again, feeling fear prick the soles of my feet. I stopped thinking about the sky and focused on avoiding a ruinous topple over the edge.

We left the channel and reached a scree covered with a strange silvery dust, and ascended it by hand and foot, raising puffs of silver with every move. Then the irrigation channel reappeared, snaking along a concave granite façade, and once again we set out along its ledge. We had to crawl where it cut deep into the mountainside. As I negotiated a particularly parlous, crumbling stretch, Javed told me that a few weeks earlier some Japanese hikers had fallen from here -- the channel wall had given way -- and broken their backs.

After alighting on solid ground and scrambling up a goat trail to a clearing, I saw no glacier, nor was there a sign of one. Where were we headed? Javed pointed upward again. More thunder resounded from on high. We kept going. Farther on, water cascaded off a cliff in a scintillating rainbow shower; I turned my face toward it and imbibed. It was sweet and pure, and I felt dizzily refreshed. Soon the mingled scents of wild mint and sheep pellets suggested that we were arriving at a meadow. We came upon another small clearing, under rock faces glowing amber and jade-green with reflected sunlight -- beautiful, but not the meadow of Ultar Nala. Above us loomed the immense Ultar peak, but where? Javed pointed skyward, but I could discern nothing amid the mists except the charcoal-black lesser pinnacle of Bubulimating. Were the glacier and the Ultar peak mountain spirits I was unworthy to see?

Soon after, we met Hunzakut shepherds who resembled puckish sprites, with their smiling blue eyes and their rolled wool caps adorned with violets. They ambled cheerfully down the trail, leading their flocks, laughing and calling out greetings to us.

At noon, three and a half hours after leaving Karimabad, we arrived at the meadow. Velvety grass cut to a low shag by grazing sheep spread above a gray moraine. Still higher, the snowy, frozen torrent of Ultar glacier ran down an inaccessible defile, becoming gritty in its lower reaches and, by the time it touched the moraine, turning into what resembled a floe of solidified black lava. Stone huts stood lonely in the farthest corners of the meadow; just ahead of us were a tent and a ring of stone benches covered with cushions of grass turf. Ancient shepherds resting on rocks nodded greetings to us; one got up and offered to make us a meal of potatoes, a chopped vegetable dish that the Pakistanis call ladyfingers, and rice for a couple of dollars. We accepted. Again there was thunder.

"Why do we hear so much thunder up here?" I asked Javed.

He looked up. "That's not thunder but an avalanche. Spring is avalanche time. The snow melts, rocks loosen and slip, but because of the clouds and fog you cannot see this from down here. But the avalanches are real: two Japanese climbers trying to climb Ultar peak were killed in one above here, and their graves are just beyond the meadow."

More thunder followed. Now I felt Ultar peak to be frighteningly close, sinister, hiding itself behind cloaks of fog, angry at our proximity. Until 1991, when it was finally scaled, it was among the highest unclimbed mountains in the world. I set out to visit the climbers' graves, but in an hour of rambling up and down the meadow I could not find them.

As we were preparing to start the hike back to Karimabad, an especially loud roar resounded from above. Javed, the shepherds, and I all turned our heads toward Ultar glacier: from its fog-shrouded heights came a slow-motion tidal wave of snow and black rock, which broke over ramparts of ice and lashed at the stone walls. It crashed over the ledge beyond the moraine and tumbled onto the gritty ice below. Then there was silence. Clouds closed like curtains over the mouth of the defile.

Back in Karimabad that evening, I sat at a rooftop restaurant and devoured a traditional Hunza meal of beef baked in embers and wrapped in chapati, and boiled potatoes served with apricot shavings. Sated and refreshed, I reclined in my seat and raised my eyes to Rakaposhi. Its summit, a heavenly anvil of black rock and eternal ice, was now wreathed with clouds that absorbed the pale-orange hues of the setting sun. I surrendered myself to the spectacle: Rakaposhi drew me toward the empyrean; it lured me out of myself and into communion with something akin to the divine.

AFTER I left the Hunza Valley, the divine slipped away, the temporal edged in again, and the highway lost its charm. Jaglot and Komila, impoverished roadside settlements to the south, hurried me out of the cool Karakoram, into the warm hills, and then down onto the flatlands of the Punjab -- flatlands of feverish bustle. I found myself sweating in the cities of the plain, with images of the Khunjerab Pass, tranquil Sust, and the peaks along the highway fading from my inner eye. But one memory remained clear, lifting me out of the clamor and the heat: Rakaposhi, soaring and snow-plumed, a lodestar of the heavenly on earth, a profferer of peace.

The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.

Jeffrey Tayler lives in Moscow. His first book, Siberian Dawn, was published last month.

Photographs by Jeffrey Tayler

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 1999; On Top of the World; Volume 283, No. 3; pages 42 - 48.

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