Full team in Skardu

Posted in Willy on June 19, 2011 by charakusa 2011

Josh has arrived.  Our bags are packed.  The ceremonial ‘Hunza water’ has been poured, toasted, and swallowed.  As we prepare for tomorrow’s Jeep ride to Hushe and the walk that will begin from there, I remember a few lines from a crazy old Chinese mountain poet:

Once at Cold Mountain, troubles cease –
No more tangled, hung up mind.
I idly scribble poems on the rock cliff,
Taking whatever comes, like a drifting boat.

-Han Shan
(translation by Gary Snyder)

Grocery Day in Skardu

Posted in Jake on June 18, 2011 by charakusa 2011

A few anecdotes aside, I’m just gonna sort of mime the last two days of supply shopping adventures with a few photos that will sum up the excitement.


Food Explosion

Funny how you don’t need a full acre or two of aisles upon aisles to contain just enough of what you need.  We bought ninety percent of our food in this little general store that was one 20’x20′ room.  The shelves were like little bottomless pits, and when we got done, our clutter filled the store.

Easing on over to the next shop

The little stands that sell the nuts and dried fruits are the funnest.  ‘Cause you get free samples.  “Now this ap’ercot tastes purty good, but not sure if it’s better than those dates over there.  Better get me a few more of those dates to be sure.”

Test driving some delicious dried apricotts

And how blissfully chaotic to save the fruit market for the end of the day…………….

'Those spuds look a little old..... like..... rotten'

Just three white dudes tryin' to blend in

Haji Zahid - pulling no punches

'Yeah dude... those potatoes are definitely kinda' old'

And base camp fuel…

'ok, so.... wow..... this is a lot of kerosene'

Please may you consider for your due respect.

Posted in Willy on June 18, 2011 by charakusa 2011

In between managing pre-expedition logistics like buying spare parts for our 10-kg two-burner stove and arranging for the two goats that we will be bringing to base camp, I’ve also been scratching my head and thinking about what we might un-creatively call ‘gender norms’ in this society.  I’ve been working for about eight months on a research project about girls’ education in rural Pakistan, and at some point in the future I am expected to turn in a long paper on said topic, but ultimately I am most comfortable identifying myself not as a ‘researcher’ so much as a person hanging out with other people and trying to make some sense of their world(s).  (Citation to the late Clifford Geertz, the American anthropologist who famously defined ethnography as the practice of ‘deep hanging out.’)

My observations in schools, households, and everyday interactions over the past week have given me a sense that Skardu– like many semi-urban areas in this part of the world– is changing very rapidly.  Informal interviews with mothers, fathers, teachers, and school administrators have indicated dramatic changes in social norms regarding whether or not girls should go to school, get a job, choose their spouse, or inherit property. These changes are both similar and different to what I observed during a recent month of ‘deep hanging out’ in southern Pakistan.  It is difficult to determine whether girls’ education is a cause or effect of such changes — it is likely both– but either way, it is undoubtedly bound up in them.  Yet it would be dangerously naive and arrogant to think or hope that increasing girls’ education in areas like this will somehow lead towards a future that perfectly matches our own biased conceptions of ‘gender equality’ or ‘women’s empowerment.’

There has been so much written and said about the veil (or hijab or dupatta) in Islamic culture that I need not introduce the topic any further than to mention that many Americans still assume it is some symbol of women’s oppression or marginalization in this context.  The same can be said for the general practice of maintaining physical separation between men and women who are not related: outsiders might tend to think this separation is a symbol and agent of women’s subordination.  The photo and video shown above suggest a different perspective, and challenge us to think harder about how to give ‘due respect’ to different norms while still remaining committed to our own (inevitably biased) ideals about what kind of world we should work to create.

Full Moon

Posted in Ben on June 17, 2011 by charakusa 2011

Full Moon Lights the Indus Valley

Expedition “Climbing”

Posted in Jake on June 16, 2011 by charakusa 2011

By this point, to some folks who have shown enough faith in this venture to take a look at this blog, maybe the DJ just stopped the disk:  BHBHBHRRRRRP.  Wait a minute.  I though you guys were going climbing.  What gives?  Where is the ACTION?  Huh.  Good question.  The answer to that could be as prosaic as [in the voice of the worst incarnation of a tenured ivy league professor] “Well, often we find in the cosmic outworkings of existence that the reality of our most treasured dreams, becomes tedious and slippery like oil…..”  Ok, you lost me.  We’re talking about climbing.  Or lack thereof.

So, I can’t help but see the humor in expedition climbing.  To illustrate this, I can’t think of a better way than to will borrow a line from one of my heroes, Warren Harding.  (Ethics Police, please stand down!  Calm yourselves…. Harding knew how to call a spade a spade, and he, above all, realized the ultimate folly in this game we play at – scrambling up rocks.  For that, he warrants hero status in my book.)  In his book, Downward Bound: A Mad Guide to Rock Climbing he has this line about climbing being “the hardest way to get absolutely nowhere”.  (If I didn’t quote verbatim, I apologize.)  And, addressing the age-old, beaten dead horse question of ‘why do people climb’, he says in so many words – Mallory was right, but he was too snobby to get to the real truth.  We climb because it’s there, and because we’re mad!!  Harding also was portrayed as Satan.  literally.  So maybe a grain of salt is in order.  But I can’t help but think how appropriate Harding’s rebellious quips are to this thing so many climbers just can’t help themselves with.  This being: choosing to climb something that one must mount an expedition to get to.

Climbing itself becomes such a small part of the whole that in order to not become impatient, frustrated, aggravated, pissy, difficult to be with, causing interpersonal strife amongst the brethren of the climbing team…. the climber must in some way become the processor.  Because, really, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, it’s the process that is so compelling.

The crumbling streets crawled with the rancid offings of humanity.  Smell of smoke.  Burning waste, plastic, diesel, decomposing animal carcasses.  Noises.  Overwhelming, otherworldly.  Horns of trucks, cars, rat-a-rat-a-rat-a-rat-a sound of little Yamaha motorcycles es speeding by.  In all of this, there is an explosion of color, images from ancient times still today very much alive and vital.  A snake charmer sits in the bazar, hypnotizing serpents from a basket as easily as he hypnotized the thick crowd of onlookers to buy his quack medicines.  The heat beats down like a hammer.  On the corner, a small wrinkled man in rags sits on a mat and repairs shoes.  His eyes shift quickly up, then down and away.  The cell phone explodes.  It’s a message from Faisal Ali…..

A scene from Indiana Jones?  Bourne Supremacy?  Star Wars?  No it’s us!  It’s just three gawky North American dudes walking down the street in Skardu, trying not to look too out-of-place (HA!), as they go to meet up with their tour operator to discuss plans for a fast approaching climbing expedition.  (Ok, maybe just one of those dudes is gawky.)  The thing about expedition climbing, is that, let’s face it: everything sounds way more badass if you can say you did something, then tack on a nice little postscript like: in Pakistan.  When, really, what you’re actually doing is finding the hardest possible way to get absolutely nowhere!

Everything becomes way more engaging.  For example figuring out what food you’ll take.  To do this, you need to have a few things in mind such as: what kinds of food will give a high calorie to weight ratio; what kinds of meals will you actually be able to eat day after day for a month or so without forming some sort of hateful/barf reflex sort of relationship with that food; what kind of food do know how to cook; how many pounds per person per day based on activity, expected weather or altitude.  But here, first of all the diet is different.  Rice and chappatis breakfast and dinner.  (In some form or another.)  It’s difficult to get a feel for how much rice, how much flower will go how far.  And forget finding sausage or cheese – which are two indispensable sources of fat and protein (and soul comfort).  Actually there is cheese.  But not in the sort of quality many might be excited to find.  Chocolate… choco-who?   Ah, peanut butter!  Yes.  Well, in lieu of sausage and chocolate, we’d better take a bunch of peanut butter.  20 jars sound reasonable?  They’re small jars…. sure, 20, why not?  Coffee.  Hmm.  We could take lots of tea.  (We did bring a bunch of coffee, but there is no way it’ll last clear through.  We have some yerba mate as well.)  Let’s see, what else is on the list…. cloths for serving chappatis.  Do we need those?  Well, when in Rome, I guess.  Maybe our guide will like having them.  Table (for the mess tent that is)?  Absolutely not!

And so the process of climbing goes.  And we haven’t even addressed mountain weather yet.  My point is that, sometimes, there’s so much to see and experience outside of the bone crimps and finger locks, that maybe it’s refreshing to have to do some processing now and then.  There’s much to see.

P.S. Since I’m sure some readers may be wondering who Warren Harding is: He was a visionary and rebellious climber during the “Golden Years” of Yosemite rock climbing in the 50’s and 60’s.  He is most known for the first ascent of the Nose on El Capitan.  Some of his climbs continue to be controversial to this day.

Welcome to Beautiful Baltistan

Posted in Willy on June 15, 2011 by charakusa 2011


I Love Pakistan

Posted in Ben on June 14, 2011 by charakusa 2011

This morning I’m sitting outside our room at the Concordia Motel in Skardu.  It’s an idyllic setting and I’m feeling really lucky to be here.  From my perch on this grassy terrace I see goats scavenging the sandy terraces which lead to the mighty Indus River 200 feet below. The river bends around a small butte and then crosses the 10 mile wide floodplain before getting sent back to the southwest by the biggest mountain I’ve ever seen.  My mind wanders from ridgeline to snowy coulouir as I draw imaginary lines of ascent up these intimidating peaks.   I’m eagerly anticipating our departure for the Charakusa Valley but as I reflect on the past week I realize that this experience has already validated the months of planning that went into making this trip possible.

Yesterday Jake and I traveled by motorcycle to Shigar.   I had heard from 2 local guys that the Shigar Valley was the most beautiful valley in Pakistan.  We rented motorcycles from a shop just a short walk from our hotel. I had asked our hotel manager earlier in the day what a reasonable price is. He suggested that 1200-1500 rupees would be fair(80 Pak rupees= 1US$).

Haggling for the bikes

We started our offer at 1000 and the bike peddler Zyeed came back with 2000.  We went through the rounds and reached a stalemate when we refused to go above 1600 and Zyeed below 1800.  “Impossible! Nobody in Skardu can give you that price!”  “Shukriya (Thank You)”  we said as we walked away, to go see for ourselves at another bike peddler.  After ten steps we heard “Come back sir! Ok, 1600 per bike, we make deal!”

It took about an hour to get the fuel and finish some last minute tune-ups.  The mechanic had to go past the adjacent gas station to the far side of town to a station that actually had a bit of gas.  Of course he only got 10 liters of fuel to split between the 2 bikes and rather than filling each with 5 liters he filled one completely and then siphoned off the gas by mouth to the 2nd bike.  But alas, after a quick refresher( read 1stlesson) in where the clutch, brake, shifter and starter were, we were off. Zyeed and the other shopkeepers who had gathered to watch the spectacle laughed and waved as we stalled and jerked our way onto the Karakoram Highway.

Jake, ready to go!

We wove through the crowded streets, passing cows, goats and men while the other vehicles beeped and left us in their black exhaust clouds.  Crossing through the police check point on the edge of Skardu was slightly unnerving. They met us with stern gazes and big guns and our lack of a common language didn’t ease things.   It turned out that they just wanted our passport and visa numbers, which we wrote ourselves into their paper entry book. Beyond the checkpoint we moved into the country side.

Entering the Shigar Valley

Entering the Shigar Valley

Settled areas with vibrant green wheat fields, tall rows of poplar trees and low maples were separated by areas of dark, shattered rock and white sand dunes that abut the Indus and it’s many small tributaries. These elements contrast one another so harshly, it’s hard to believe that they exist in the same space. And above it all, even more unbelievable, are the snowcapped peaks. As we moved up the Shigar Valley we looked toward Askole, the end of the Baltoro Glacier, where climbers start the walk to K2, Broad Peak and the Trango Towers.  Traveling through this exotic land of fabled mountains had me smiling and laughing as Jake and I passed each other, yelling and screaming as we opened the throttles on our little Honda 125’s and sped along the open road.

As we pulled into Shigar we noticed Jake’s rear tire was flat and lucky for us we had stopped in front of a tire repair shop.  We parked our bikes and were quickly invited to take tea by a number of people.  We declined and hiked up to the Shigar Fort, a 400 year old fort that was home to one of the regions warring Rajas in the 17thcentury.

Inside Shigar Fort

It has been beautifully restored by the Aga Khan Network and is now a posh resort that charges 300 rupees just to take a tour.  We got the speed tour and returned to get the bike in the center of the Village.  Jake paid 100 rupees (just over a dollar) for the repair and the mechanic apologetically explained that it was so expensive because there were 2 holes in the tube.

Halfway back to Skardu, at the top of a barren pass my clutch cable broke.  Jake found a piece of wire on the ground but without tools we couldn’t quite get the tension right to engage the clutch. A car and a motor-bike with 2 people on it pulled over to help us.  “ Assalam Alaikum” they all warmly greeted us and shook hands.  They pulled out their tools and had the bike fixed in less than 5 minutes.  “Bot Shukriya” (Many Thanks) We expressed our gratitude and shook hands with all again who reconfirmed that we “are very welcome in Baltistan!”

I had an opportunity to repay my good karma just minutes later as another pair on a bike coming up the pass waved me over.  They had run out of gas and asked to borrow one half liter of fuel.  Having seen the siphoning shenanigans from earlier I eagerly agreed and asked if they had a tube.  This man was very resourceful and used an old grocery bag to catch the fuel directly from the fuel line.  I was quite impressed.  They thanked us and offered to pay.  We declined and kicked off down the hill, coasting with the engines off, the way the locals do to conserve fuel.

Sharing some petrol

I stalled the bike a number of times along the journey and each time someone would stop immediately to offer assistance.  I’ve been continually impressed by the good nature of the people of Baltistan and by the incredible hospitality.  Everywhere we go people go out of their way to greet us, introduce themselves and express that we are very welcome in Baltistan.  Even the Police at the checkpoint proved to be un-intimidating.  As we returned to town and signed back in they smiled and greeted us warmly.  I think they were also impressed with our motorcycle skills!

“You are American!? We love Americans! You fight terrorists and we hate terrorists too!”  That hasn’t been the sentiment we’ve seen everywhere but it certainly isn’t uncommon.  People speak very rationally about the US role in Pakistan and are very willing to hear both sides of the coin.  I’ve experienced much, much more anti-American sentiment while traveling in Patagonia and Europe.

The motorcycle journey ended without incident and has only bolstered my feeling of security in this region.  I’m feel obliged to say for my mom and dad’s sake that I recognize that it seems like an incredibly risky thing to be riding around the mountains and towns in Pakistan on a motorcycle but I feel safer doing it here than I would in the US.  The roads appear chaotic but the drivers are hyper aware of other travelers and they announce their presence with almost incessant beeping.  There are very few traffic signs and I haven’t seen a speed limit sign yet but with all of the traffic in the road vehicles rarely exceed 30 mph.  People here are considerate, concerned and helpful in a way that I have rarely experienced in America.

Balti girls

To quickly summarize the previous days in Skardu, we arrived safely. We explored the town and met Willy’s contacts at 2 local Schools.  At the Pine Hills School in Neoranga, just outside of Skardu, we were welcomed by principal Faisal Ali and  3 girls in traditional Balti dress.  We were then escorted inside where the entire school of ~150 students had gathered to welcome us and gave us 3 seats of honor in the front of their meeting hall. We were asked to be the judges for a sort of end of the year athletic competition amongst the students.  The young students conducted an impressively organized ceremony with welcoming speeches, chants, flowers which we received and medals and trophies which we awarded to the winners of the competitions.

We enjoyed a traditional Balti lunch with Faisal Ali and some of the other faculty of the school and Faisal’s 2 daughters.   Pine Hills school is the only Co-Ed school in the region and Faisal Ali has gone against the norm to make this school exist.  We discussed the changing trend in women’s education in Pakistan as well as some of the greater misconceptions of Islam and of America.  Faisal repeated a message which I have heard from so many other Pakistani’s.  “We are a peaceful people and Islam is a peaceful religion”.  Assalam Alaikum literally means peace be upon you and it is not just a saying.  Everyone I have met here genuinely seems respectful and peaceful.  Even an aggressive haggling session in the bazaar ends with “assalam alaikum”, smiles and warm, 2 handed handshakes.

Faisal Ali and Jake enjoying typical hospitality

It saddens me that Pakistan has such a negative image in the mind of most American people.  It would be naïve to ignore the real danger that exists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan, and in other parts of Pakistan but it is equally naïve to say that America is “safe”.  Unaware travelers could easily find themselves in the wrong corner of any city in America or in a bad spot along the US-Mexico border.  Is it really so different?

It is easy to let a bit of bad press spoil our image of a foreign place but it is unfair to let that dominate our understanding.   I think it is important to look for the common ground, to stop and ask, “is that all there is to the story? Is that really the case?”  Neither place is perfect .  There are many things I am missing here, mostly creature comforts and people, but already I have found many things that I wish I could bring home.  I love Pakistan!


Posted in Willy on June 13, 2011 by charakusa 2011

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There are big mountains here, and fruit trees, and wheat fields, and a common hospitality unlike what a foreigner might find in the United States.  Today I visited three households to talk to parents about their daughters’ education, and each of my hosts served me tea, biscuits, and fresh-picked mulberries and cherries.  One also served a full-fledged lunch of rice and chicken curry and curd and lassi, and followed it up with butter tea– a flavor reminding me that this region shares much more with Tibet and Ladakh than national or religious differences might suggest.  But of course the hospitality I describe is more than a matter of food and drink; it is an entire attitude perhaps best captured by the oft-heard phrase, “You are our guest; it is our honor to serve you.”  Again and again, I’ve wondered how I can repay such generosity.  One recent attempt backfired pretty hard, but that’s a different story.

The photos above give a taste of this place, but of course only the smallest taste.  During several conversations today, I wished I could record what I was hearing and post it on this blog, because it was generally along the lines of “Islam is a religion of peace, and the people who do violent things are not true Muslims.”  Three people– a young female teacher, an older male headmaster, and a student’s father– specifically asked me to go home and share this point with Americans.  Yet when I asked if I could make a video of them so they could speak for themselves, they shied away– understandably– and thus, like so much else, what remains is just my own paltry retelling.

Passengers of Chance

Posted in Jake on June 9, 2011 by charakusa 2011

Inevitably all things are connected.  That’s basic ecology, right?  So during a mountaineering trip, the intrepid traveler will need his faculties tuned, and his ninja skills sharp in all disciplines of life to overcome the many roadblocks and obstacles that will be encountered.  Actually, what he really needs is a sense of humor.  Otherwise, it’s just too sad and frustrating.

Well, ok, things are connected.  So, that being the case, we had a good business class presented to us by Pakistan International Airways today.  All you entrepeneurs pay attention.  Here’s a fail safe formula to a lucrative enterprise as modeled by PIA:

-Charge as many people as possible for a hypothetical service.

-Charge as much money as you can possibly get away with for that hypothetical service.

-Set up rules whereby foreigners must pay foreigner rates (read as: regular rate multiplied by 2.  But also, maybe just make up a new and much larger number when you find out that your customer is: pssssst…. he ain’t from around here!)

-(OK, now it gets really exciting) because your service is hypothetical, don’t actually provide any service!!

Willy Oppenheim, Passenger of Chance

-Never provide the possibility of refunding cash.

-If someone asks for a refund to a credit card, have them directed to the other counter, where…

-At the other counter, inform the customer that they must do all refunds over the phone, where…

-On the phone, inform the customer that they can only do refunds at the actual office or desk where the hypothetical service was purchased.  (Of course care must be taken to ensure that the caller is nowhere close to the place of actual purchase.)

-Hire a staff of employees who are dedicated to the company mission of complete helplessness to solve problems or think outside the box  and who always, always, ALWAYS pass the buck!

-But provide just enough customers with an actual service, (it doesn’t have to live up to what they paid for; just has to cut it) so that there always remains just a glimmer of hope, that maybe, just maybe if I’m patient enough, if I wait in line long enough, if I’m longsuffering and kind enough, or maybe if I lose my cool once or twice with the jellyfish composition employee, that in the end I will obtain that long sought after thing that I paid for.  It has to be exciting, like a roulette wheel.  Has to give the customer a rush so that he or she just wants to keep on spinning that wheel, taking the chance, riding that white streak of electric thrill just to play the game, to be all in, everything on the line and riding all the way that slim emaciated little wraith of chance.

I hear that booking your tickets with the company who did such impeccable role modeling for us, extremely! early helps to eliminate some of that uncertainty.  But I doubt it.

3 in Islamabad

Posted in Ben on June 9, 2011 by charakusa 2011

Check in: JFK

If it was uncertain before I think it is safe to say now that thejourneyhas officially begun.As of 7:45 AM Islamabad time Willy, Jake and Ben are all together.  We came from Indiana, London and New York City and now we are anxiously awaiting the next step in Benazir Bhutto International Airport.   We are on standby for the flight to Skardu.  Inshallah we will all make it aboard.  If not, an adventure awaits us in Islamabad as we wait another 24 hours to catch tomorrow’s plane.

Jake, waiting for Willy

I (Ben) arrived first in Islamabad and had the pleasure of watching both Jake and Willy walk through the International Arrivals door and into the hot, muggy 110 degree air of Islamabad’s outdoor terminal.   With firm embraces and smiles we pushed awkwardly full carts of Haul bags, duffels and back packs around the terminal as we are bide our time, waiting, as we are bound to do so much on this expedition.

3 out of 4 together!

I am anxious to see the mountains to the north and for Josh to arrive so that we are complete. In the meantime, Willy has made some great progress with contacts at schools in the Skardu area and we are sure to have some interesting times ahead.