All expeditions begins somewhere and this one started 15 years ago, with my over-long legs trying to fit in the back of a very small bus/truck in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. I had managed to secure a small grant to research the history of the area as part of my degree and so being a good student, headed up the Karakoram Highway from Lahore to the mountains of the Karakoram and the Pamir, bag packed with instant noodles, porridge and a jumble of ill-sorted clothes.
This was my first expedition and things like maps, local fixers, communications equipment and risk assessments were all forgotten in a whirl of enthusiasm, naivety and adventure. I wanted to investigate and explore the Shimshal Valley, the northernmost area of Pakistan before the border with China. My map was wholly inadequate, showing the red dotted line of a path, the solid blue of a river and two bold black ridges on either side.
It all seemed fairly simple. Follow the river and don’t attempt to climb the precipitous mountains on either side. My training was lengthy wanders into the Pakistani mountain was feeble to non-existent. A siesta was in order around lunchtime on day one.
I was woken about an hour later, by a rather bemused road builder. Why was there a lanky British student lying next to his little house? I was informed via much sign language, smatterings of English and my restricted Urdu that I needed to have a guide. Why did I need a guide, I could follow my excellent map? I needed a guide in case I fell of the red dotted line and died, because there would be an investigation and police and the army and pieces of paper to fill in and questions and bother.
Inayat would be my guide for the princely sum of 300 rupees a day (about £5 in 1996). Excellent. I didn’t have an extra £50 to spare. I would have to come back with the money later. Going to the next bank on my route would involve a 5 day / 700 mile round trip. No bother. That’s fine. Let’s go.
The next days, we danced round fires, taught each other English / Wakhi (the Wakhi for a toad is mukd – a highly useful word that has stayed with me beyond its usefulness, but not its amusement). We shared very little in background, cultural references or language, but it was an incredible journey of exploration, discovery and the shared bond between two people playing in the mountains.
We arrived in Central Shimshal, which sounds like it should be a sprawling metropolis, but is a collection of small fields of peas and barley, homesteads and the odd yak or three. I was offered a spare house that Inayat’s family had and was told to make myself at home and when I was ready to head back to the roadhead, just to let him know.
In the time I spent in Shimshal, I was invited into house and offered food and drink to bursting before any other family members would eat. I was treated as an honoured guest, which was humbling in many ways. Not wishing to sound ungrateful, but Shimshali cuisine leaves much to be desired. They have two main dishes - dildungi and chipendok. I didn’t write down the recipe, but it involves ripped up chappati, a paste made from dried yak cheese and a modest quantity of ghee or melted yak mutter. It’s not unenjoyable, but the yak whey to wash it all down was a step too far.
After a bucolic few days in and around Shimshal, we headed back to the road head. Ever since this experience in Shimshal, I wonder what would happen if a young Pakistani student fell asleep beside the road in Britain. Would they be offered guidance? Would they be trusted to go to the equivalent of Paris and back to get some money? Would they be offered a spare room or house and drowned in hospitality?
I wonder what the students will think of Pakistan during the expedition.