Leaving China – 17th – 20th April

In the morning Simon greeted me with the news that Rob was suffering badly with D & V, not really surprising after the excesses of the previous day.

Saying farewell to Hira and Keyoum again, we boarded our bus for the border.  Occasionally stopping for Rob, we arrived at the customs post after an hour and a half.  Rob was in a bad way and Simon seemed to be going down fast.  For the rest of us the process seemed far less arduous than on the way in but it still took us an hour and a half to pass through.  In that time I had to visit the toilets once and that was enough; they were some of the worst toilets I have ever seen and it was nothing to do with Rob and Simon.  How they coped I shall never understand.  Before we left the compound our passports were checked  again, and again a few hundred metres up the road, on the way up to the actual border.

Orange melt water

In the main the slopes were clear of snow, certainly on the lower hills, and the rivers were running with orange water, a sure sign that spring was on its way in these hills.  There was much less snow and hardly a lorry in sight as we approached the top of the Touroget Pass and the actual border.  Fortunately the two buses from Asia Mountains were waiting for us and the transfer was painless, particularly important for Rob and Simon who were really suffering.

What a transformation from white scape to agricultural scene

Without the snow the road was unmade and uneven, making the journey to Naryn a long, bone rattling affair.  Bring back the snow.  The high altitude plateau was now alive with life.  Where, three weeks ago there had been a white scape, there were now herds of horses, cattle and flocks of sheep and goats grazing and tended to by farmers on horseback.  Woken from their winter sleep, marmots gambolled in the warm sunshine.  It was an idyllic scene, always with the backdrop of snowcapped mountains.

Naryn looked very different without snow but the hospitality was as warm as ever, even if the room temperature was lower: the state heating was turned off on the 1st April.  We put Rob and Simon to bed and I gave them my Sigg bottles for hot water bottles.

The following morning they felt much better and much more able to cope with the remaining journey to Bishkek.

Leaving Naryn, we crossed one more pass before we started our descent to the plains below.

Charles designing his felt picture

After a couple of hours we stopped at Kochkor again, this time to visit a women’s cooperative felt making cottage industry involving 200 of the village women, and for lunch.  We were shown the processes involved, the beating of the unwashed wool, the laying in layers, the creation of a design (Charles had a go at this), the rolling into a reed tube and tying a cloth around it, pouring hot water on the tube and then dancing or jumping on it for about 20 minutes.  We all had a go at the various stages.  Once unwrapped, soap was applied to both sides and the felt thoroughly washed.  It proved to be really resilient and could be pulled and wrung out without fear of it falling apart.  The fibres had, remarkably, all knitted together.

Lunch in a yurt

Process completed, we had lunch provided in a yurt in the garden.  For a temporary structure it was incredibly firm  and was extremely comfortable inside, with carpets on the floor and four tables laid for lunch.  As with most meals we had experienced on this journey, the food just kept coming.  There was far too much for our shrunken stomachs.

After lunch we visited the shop and most of us were well disposed to spending some money on presents and souvenirs, partly, I suspect as a way of thanking them for the hospitality but also because we were not put under any pressure to buy anything.  The products themselves did the hard sell.

Lake Isyk-kol

Carrying on with our journey we took a detour to Lake Isyk-Kol, a huge expanse of water (the second largest mountain lake in the world after Titicaca) where the Russians had a torpedo factory and carried out tests on the lake.  Typical of most industrial sites in Kyrgyzstan, it now lies derelict and testimony to a past under Russian control.  The situation of the lake is superb with snowcapped mountains all around.  It has a much better future as a tourist destination, once the economy can allow investment.

The final leg of our journey took us to Bishkek.  The sunshine was warm, leaves out on the trees, fruit trees in blossom, men fishing in the river running parallel to the road and marking the boundary with Kazakstan, and couples picnicking on the river bank.  Such a different picture through the window of the bus to the one we had only three weeks previously.  In just three weeks Kyrgyzstan has been transported from winter to summer.

Somehow, even the asbestos pipes look more attractive in summer

In Bishkek the tree lined streets were green, people wore summer clothes and the hotel garden was bathed in the perfume of lilac.  Bishkek looked a lot more attractive.

We had come full circle and it was time to go home.

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Back to Kashgar and spring – 14th – 16th April

Everything packed in our land cruisers, we began the two day drive from Yilik to Kashgar via Yarkand.  The early part of the journey was on unmade roads and it was clear that the thaw had had an impact.  The rising temperatures had allowed the ice to release its grip on rocks above the road and many had taken advantage of their new found freedom and come crashing down on to the road.  We had to negotiate our way through some significant rock falls.

From Mazar the road was clearer, but no less bumpy, as we climbed steadily to the top of the first pass.  Here, there was more snow from the recent storm we had experienced on our trek out, and the surface of the road held different problems for the drivers, who sometimes found it difficult to maintain control of the back end of their vehicles.  The first pass crossed we began the long descent to the village, where we would encounter our first check point and have lunch.  As we were leaving a sensitive area, rather than entering, the formalities did not take too long.  Somewhere in the back of the land cruiser, among the bags etc. I lost my lunch, so I visited a roadside cafe/shop and bought, what can best be described as, a pot noodle.  The boiling water and spice sachets were added and I waited.  After five minutes I was able to tuck in.  It nearly blew my head off, causing great hilarity in the cafe among the staff and the other customers.  One of the ladies took the pot from me, drained the liquid, added more, stirring it to dilute the spices, drained it again before adding more water and returning it to me.  It was now a bit tasteless.

The Taklimakan Desert

Again we climbed as we crossed the second, more spectacular pass, which now had less snow.  The descent gradually took us out of the mountains and into the Taklimakan Desert, a flat, barren landscape.  Or is it barren?  All along the banks of the Yarkand River it is green for some distance on either bank.  The fertile area is made up of small fields of wheat or barley with rows of almond and apricot trees providing colour and shade.  The trees were full of blossom.  At various points there were little conical clay ovens, which are lit at times when there is a risk of frost.  They provide just enough heat to stave off frost damage.  Also, occasionally, there were rows of beehives to take advantage of the blossom.  Amongst all of this there were thousands of poplar trees lining the tracks and separating the the fields.  These provide shelter from the desert winds and also provide a source of building material.  However, whenever a villager wants to take down a tree he must replace it in order to maintain the status quo.

Near Yarkand, we left the motorway and, surprisingly, at the end of the slip road there was nothing.  The roads off have not yet been built and, having been on a modern motorway, we found ourselves transported back a couple of centuries on to dirt tracks through the fields and farm houses.  There seemed to be some confusion about the way to Yarkand.  The route in led us to believe it was quite a small place but when we eventually hit tarmac again and headed towards the town centre it proved, yet again, to be a city of several hundred thousand.  One moment we were in quiet countryside with no inkling that there was a large city nearby, hidden by layers of poplar trees. The next we were in the thick of it with traffic, people, noise and lights all around us.  It sprang up out of nowhere.

Yarkand fuel saving initiative

Our hotel, Queen Hotel, was right in the centre of town.  It was not the hotel we should have been in but the government had taken over ours for a conference.  The room rates, as advertised in reception, amused us.  There were all the usual rooms, ‘single, twin double’ etc. but there were also some ‘o’clock rooms’ at 68 Yuan per hour.  It was noticeable by the nature of some of the women and the shiftiness of the men that the ‘o’clock rooms’ were quite popular.  The shower proved popular with us!!!

The following morning we continued our journey to Kashgar.  The speed and extent of the building development running parallel to the motorway and, nearby, new railway is phenomenal.  Agriculturally, the desert is being cleared of surface stones and the soil underneath irrigated and fertilised at an alarming rate.  The railway, which is not fully functional yet, has stations in the middle of nowhere, and then you look closely at the desert and you see lots of white surveyor’s sticks marking out the next phase of development on a huge scale.

On the way to the trek we stopped at a services, which was nothing more than a large flattened area of desert.  As we drove past it on our return journey there were already two buildings erected on the site with more to follow.  An army of workers had pitched their tents adjacent to the services so the work could be completed as quickly as possible.

An almost impossible task

Lunch time saw us arrive in Kashgar.  The blossom was out and the trees were in leaf but it was cold with a stiff breeze and light rain, the first rain we had encountered all trip.  Skipping lunch, the bus took us to the famous animal Sunday market.  It was raining and our journey was marred by a dead child lying in the road, the victim of a collision with a vehicle.  This was the first such incident we had seen, although I am sure it must be a fairly regular occurrence when pedestrians and vehicles vie for position in the road.  Drivers seem very reluctant to give in, even to the laws of the road.  We have found on several occasions that although we were given the green light on a crossing we were never safe.  I am sure there will be more accidents as roads become faster and more congested.  Only this morning we saw children as young as three and four playing on the central reservation of the motorway.  The animal market was beginning to wind down but it was amusing to watch impossibly large cattle being manhandled on to impossibly small trailers.

A cultural entertainment

In the evening we went to a restaurant for dinner and entertainment. We were the guests of Keyoum, the director of Kashgar Mountaineering Adventure.  The meal was Chinese and absolutely stunning, probably the best Chinese meal I have ever had.  Don’t ask what we had; plate after plate of delicious food just kept coming.  The entertainment was also excellent, not lasting too long but giving us a taste of the culture, with the obligatory audience participation at the end.

Back at the hotel a few of us chose to visit the KTV floor, affectionately known amongst us as the KY Jelly Bar.  We had been warned to stay away, largely by Akbar who indicated that they were not suitable places for us.  It’s a bit like telling a child not to do something.

Emerging from the lift on the 5th Floor I went in search of the bar.  There were lots of mirrors, coloured lighting and wailing voices.  When I asked where the bar was we were led along a corridor past rooms full of people making lots of noise and into a room of our own.  The room consisted of a long couch, a coffee table, a large screen TV and a computer.  Drinks were brought in, along with two microphones.  The TV and computer were switched on and the 1960s and ’70s music began to play.  The wailing we had heard before was from people trying to sing their favourite songs.  We had a bizarre selection from the Carpenters to Yellow Submarine and we soon discovered that we could wail as well as the next room.  Beers drunk we were told we could have three more without extra cost; presumably we had paid for the room and a certain number of beers.  I have to confess, that while it was fun initially, the novelty wore off and a sleep in my own bed seemed to be a more attractive option.  I was quite pleased that, having finished the second beers we all decided to get out and retire for the night.

The next day was much warmer and a free day in Kashgar, although I was committed to meeting with Keyoum and Hira.  While I waited in the reception area, in the company of the SWAT team, I was amused to watch a water tanker with a powerful hose wash the dust off the trees.  The operator seemed oblivious to anybody or anything that may be on the other side of the trees; a man sitting on a bench talking into a mobile phone, a news kiosk and a couple of women strolling innocently.  The amazing thing was that nobody overreacted, got angry or protested.  Perhaps they did not wish to draw themselves to the attention of the numerous police or the SWAT team sitting comfortably in the window near me.

Hira in the Uygar part of town

The meeting with Keyoum was fairly brief and mainly concerned settling up the finances of the expedition.  I refrained from being critical – not the time or the place and anyway  Hira would be the one to assess the positives and negatives.  Hira and Keyoum then went off for a meeting of their own, with Hira promising to be back soon to go into town with me.  When he returned we ventured into the predominantly Uygar part of town for some lunch at the Karakorum Cafe.  On the way we met Simon and Rob who, like little boys at Christmas, were excited and eating everything in sight!

After lunch Hira and I split up, he to return to his hotel, me to do some shopping.  I had a fair idea what I wanted so it did not take too long.

Modern, Chinese Kashgar

Every so often during the trek and a couple of times since I had the odd twinge in my back, largely, I think, the result of spending long periods horizontal in a tent that was really not big enough for me.  I wanted a massage, but unfortunately the spa in our hotel was, for some reason, closed.  I asked at reception if they could recommend somewhere and they suggested another hotel, bundled me into a taxi with a map and a bit of paper with Chinese writing on it, and off I went.  The hotel was not far away and I soon found myself in reception speaking to people with no English who thought I wanted a single room.  The bit of paper did not throw any light on the situation.  I was about to give up when a Chinese lady asked, ‘Can I help you?’  Relieved to meet somebody who could speak English, I began to explain.  We continued to struggle because it soon became apparent that the extent of her English did not go much beyond, ‘Can I help you?’  Having established I did not want a room, not even an o’clock room, and that I did not want a pedicure on the third floor, I finally got the message across that I wanted a massage.  That was on the fifth floor.  Emerging from the lift I was greeted by a number of faces, none of whom could speak English.  However, it was clear that I was requiring a massage.  Why else would I get out of the lift on the fifth floor.  I was taken to a room and left sitting on a bed.  A few moment later a large young man came in and put the fear of God in me.  He was wearing a sweat shirt, tracksuit bottoms tucked into blue wellies.  What frightened me most was the size of his hands.  On the plus side, he could speak a little faltering English and I was able to establish that it was going to cost me 80 Yuan (£8) for an hour with this brute.  I could not back out now.  I was committed.  I was just going to have to man up and take what was coming to me.  A pair of silk pyjamas were produced, which I obediently changed into before being instructed to lie on the bed on my back.  If I close my eyes I can use my imagination.  On hearing the door click shut I opened my eyes and was surprised, and pleased, to see that the incredible hulk had transformed into a young, slim Chinese girl, who then proceeded to beat me up.  Between bouts of pain, she tickled me and our only communication was an occasional smile or chuckle.  At the end of the hour she got up and left.  I got dressed and left.  Phew!  It was a close shave and I dread to think what the brute would have done to me had he got his hands on me.


Relieved, I walked back to the hotel via the Chinese shopping district.  It is such a contrast to the Uygar area, which in many respects is still Third World.  In the modern city where everybody is upwardly mobile it is all about consumerism.  Advertising sells all the latest gadgets and the shops are full to the brim with electrical goods and the latest fashions.  Mao must be turning in his grave.  No longer are the Chinese conformist but they are individuals with ambition.


In the evening we said our thanks to Akbar who could not be with us when we left China as he had a driving test.  We then went out for a meal where we expressed our thanks and said our farewells to Hira.

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The trek out – 9th – 13th April

Before we left Chinese Base Camp we discussed whether we wanted a rest day, before going back over the Aghil Pass, or to continue through without a rest day and have an extra day in Kashgar.  Surprisingly, everybody preferred to finish early and have the extra day in a hotel.  As it turned out this was the best decision that could have been made.

Given the freedom to leave camp when we were ready, before the crew were properly organised, we set off, retracing our steps.  I don’t enjoy this aspect of linear treks and prefer circular routes, so I put my head down and strode out.  When we came to the K2 River we approached cautiously, in case there were any visitors to the dead kiang on the ice.  There were none, but it was interesting to note that in the time we had been on the mountain the level of the ice had dropped about a foot, except where the kiang lay, which was now raised on an ice plinth.  Crossing the frozen river I was lucky to pick up the camel track across the stones, making walking that much easier.  I wish I had found it on the walk in.  However, walking on the stony riverbeds becomes tedious after a while and a number of us chose to leave the river at the point where we had lunch the other day.  The sand held a number of snow leopard prints suggesting they had been sniffing the remnants of food.

The Sarpo Lago River Valley flowing into the Shagskam River Valley

Climbing up the hill to take the short cut we followed no path in particular but our prints were clear in the very sandy, dusty soil.  Others would follow easily.  It soon became apparent that we were going much higher on the hill than we did on the outward journey.  While some wanted to go higher still in the belief that a shoulder above would give them access to the next valley, I was not convinced and dropped to where I knew we would gain access.  Indeed, I was right and, having entered the Shagskam Valley, waited for the others to appear.  After 45 minutes the only person to appear, not from the hills but from around the corner, was Tendi.  He wasn’t sure where the rest of the group was so we had lunch and waited a further 20 minutes.  Still no sign so we headed off.

Making use of the ice to speed up the walk

Very close to where we camped on the way up was a large rock sticking out into the valley.  I decided to climb to the top to give me a good view to where the others were coming from and so that they could see me.  Eventually they all began to filter along the valley and join me.  Those that had earlier chosen to climb higher were full of excitement; they had not found a route through but had found a cave with lots of remains and huge bird pellets.  What could have been a trudge over a familiar route had turned into a bit of an adventure.

River crossing

Along the Shagskam River there had been a noticeable reduction in the ice and we were faced with a number of river crossings during the afternoon, where  only a few days previously we had been able to cross on the ice.  Fortunately the river was never more than knee deep where we chose to cross.  I don’t think I would have wanted it much deeper as it was still extremely cold.  As it was, our feet felt very refreshed and had a much needed wash!  We were well equipped this time with our water footwear, all except Rob who hadn’t packed any in the first place.  Nigel was feeling either sorry for him or generous towards him and, having crossed the river himself, offered to throw his shoes across for Rob to wear.  Unfortunately, Nigel used a girlie underarm technique with the first shoe and it plopped right in the middle of the fast flowing river and disappeared at a rate of knots.  Those around were so busy rolling about laughing that they were not able to even attempt a rescue.  Perhaps Nigel was just teasing Rob.

Later in the afternoon, just before we reached camp, there was one final river crossing.  For this the camels came back to carry everyone.  I chose not to take advantage of the camels but to walk through the river as I was already wearing my water shoes, and I wanted to be in a position to film the crossing.  I am so pleased I took that decision.  David had grown very fond of a particular camel, a blond leggy specimen with long fluttery eye lashes.  He eagerly climbed aboard and Robin joined him on the back of the animal.  The camel had a fiery personality and bucked from side to side causing both David and Robin to hang on for dear life.  I have never seen David look so frightened.

However, David and Robin got off lightly compared with Simon and Chris who rode their placid natured camel with confidence.  That was until the camel started to climb up the bank, having crossed safely.  Its legs gave way and then it began to slide back down the bank, into the river, dumping Simon into the water, giving him wet feet and, more worryingly, wet boots.  Chris managed to save himself and maintained his dignity.

Our camp for that night was further up the valley and on the opposite side from our corresponding outward camp.  The camel men advised us that it was a much better camp and would be sheltered from the strong winds that swept through the valley late in the day.  It would also make the next day’s walk quite short, giving us some rest before crossing the Aghil Pass.  It was certainly an attractive place to camp but because of the stony nature of the ground we could not use pegs, but anchored the tents with large rocks.  That evening the wind was so strong we had to lie in our tents to make sure the wind did not carry them away and the mess tent was in serious jeopardy until the wind died during the course of the night.

The weather was now not as clear or as bright as it had been on the way up and it was not getting any warmer.  We were only walking for about three hours and, understandably, we arrived at camp before the crew.  It was while waiting for the crew to arrive that we realised just how cold it was becoming.  Layers were going on to try to maintain body temperatures. The tents could not come soon enough and once they were there they were rapidly erected and people disappeared into them for warmth and shelter from the strengthening wind.  As the day progressed the weather continued to deteriorate and by evening snow began to fall.

By morning we had two to three inches of snow and it was still falling.  The flakes were incredibly fine and it was a dry snow.  Thankfully the fineness of the flakes had limited the depth but we knew it might be a different story on the Aghil Pass, which we still had to cross.

Setting off we first had to cross the mile wide river bed to the mouth of the gorge.  It was a steady climb up the boulder strewn gorge bed with the occasional scramble up the still dry waterfalls.  We kept a wary eye on the cliffs above just in case a boulder should free itself from its fragile sandy bed.  We kept the noise down to a minimum, just in case sound should dislodge a rock.  Also, temperature rises can affect the stability of such fragile landscapes so we wanted to pass through this area as quickly as we could.  Forty five minutes saw us scrambling out of the gorge and the danger had passed.  Fortunately the temperature was not noticeably rising, rather the opposite, in fact.

Looking down from the Aghil Pass

We now had to pick our route through a maze of rocks and gullies towards the pass.  With height gained the snow deepened and Akbar became less comfortable.  It was clear he was being affected by the cold and altitude.  He borrowed a pair of gloves off Ann, sunglasses off Hira.  He lost interest, focus and direction and it was left to us to route find our way to the top of the pass.  While this was happening Mo also began to suffer; lacking energy etc. so we fed him dextrose and I took him to the top doing the ‘Walton plod’.  Once on the top he perked up, as did Akbar, and we began the long descent down the other side.  This time the wind was not such a factor in our crossing the pass but, instead of being at our backs, as expected, it was in our faces.  This meant that there was much more snow gathered on our downward slope and for much of the time it was knee deep, with many dips and tussocks for us to twist an ankle beneath the surface.

Frozen beard

Taking time for the camels to catch up and overtake we paused for lunch.  My beard was a frozen mass of icicles.  The camels, now ahead of us, paved the way, flattening the snow and making walking much easier and safer.  It was a long descent, about three hours, and just before camp I caught up with the camels.  I was intrigued by how quiet and placid they were.  They required no instruction or encouragement, they just plodded on their dinner plate sized feet, flattening the snow for me to follow.  It was the same when they reached camp.  A little click of the tongue instructed them to sit so they could be unloaded and a second click told them to stand again.

Camp at Kotaz

As we arrived in camp it started to snow more heavily, making the putting up of tents a miserable affair.  Once up, we snuggled down to keep warm.  We did not bother with the mess tent and our food was brought to us.  Spending so long (14 hours on this occasion) in a horizontal position was not doing my back any good.  It had been the same on the glacier a few days previously

It snowed all night.  When we woke up we realised just what a good decision it had been not to take a rest day before the Aghil Pass.  Had we done so we would not have been able to cross.  The snow would have been getting on for waist deep, and while we might have been able to exhaustingly plough our way through, the camels and donkeys would not.  We would have been stuck on the wrong side of the pass, certainly for another day, probably more, with diminishing supplies of food and gas.

Rising above the valley

Now that we were over the pass our journey over the next two days should be easier.  We just had one more obstacle to overcome in the conditions.  Travelling down from camp the valley narrows to such an extent that the river, when not frozen, flows through a notch only a few feet wide.  It is impractical for the path to follow the river, so it climbs above and undulates on a narrow path some distance above on the cliffs.  In the snowy conditions the path proved quite treacherous and care had to be taken not to tumble to the rocks and ice below.

Bypassing the narrow cleft in the valley

Successfully negotiated, the valley opened out again and we were able to enjoy the walk to camp at Sarak.  Towering cliffs rose on either side and our path hugged the left bank of the valley.  The likelihood of a rock dislodging from the cliff as we walked by was slim but there was plenty of evidence of rocks having fallen on to the path.

By the time we reached camp all the snow had gone, not melted, but evaporated, leaving the ground as dry as it had been before any snow had fallen.  There had been a mist hanging over us all day and I can only assume it was brought about by this evaporation process.

In the morning more snow had fallen but it did not last long as the sun soon cleared it away.  We only had to walk the short distance to Yilik, estimated to be about four hours.  In fact it only took some of us three hours as we put our heads down and got on with the job. Once we entered the Yilik Valley we were faced with a strong, cold wind but after, what seemed an endless trudge to the village, we reached the shelter of the house that was hosting us.

When we had left Yilik two weeks previously there were signs that some building work was going to take place a short distance from the village.  On our return a crane was in place and the shells of several buildings had been erected.  This is all part of the Chinese policy of rehousing communities out of their mud constructed houses and into more modern, but less individualistic houses.  Whether there is any choice in the matter I do not know.  I doubt it!

David cements his relationship with 'Blondie'

When everybody finally arrived at Yilik we all had an opportunity to  ride the camels briefly. David, determined to make amends for his girlie screaming three days previously, girded his loins and mounted Blondie.  She was far more accepting this time.

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Life above base camp – 5th – 8th April

Before we set out on our journey above Chinese Base Camp, we checked again that we had everything we needed for the next few days and that we were not carrying anything unnecessary.  It was a tight fit to get everything into our 35 litre rucksacks but life was made a little easier, and lighter, when Hira suggested we let the donkeys carry our sleeping bags.

The good path up from Chinese Base Camp

Our original plan had been to trek to the Italian Base Camp, several kilometres up the glacier but, despite the fact that the distance was not excessive, it would take too long and too much out of us if we did so.  Therefore, our first day above Chinese Base Camp would take us as far as the Pakistan Base Camp at the snout of the glacier.  It was lovely to be walking on a proper mountain path as we climbed out of camp.  The path took us to a pass and a traverse around a spur into the K2 valley.  We were surrounded by stunning peaks but, as yet, the elusive K2 had not shown herself.

Pakistan Base Camp

In order to reach Pakistan Base Camp we had to descend into the valley via a loose soil path down a very steep slope, a remnant of when the glacier had reached this far down the valley.  The only ice now was the frozen K2 River and we could see the snout of the glacier just beyond where our planned camp.  As we got closer to camp and the glacier the air cooled significantly.  Camp was a dry platform on the edge of the very fragile cliff down to the river.  As we arrived the crew were collecting water in a barrel, having first made a hole in the ice, to get at the water below.  The barrel was then hauled up the cliff with a rope.

The snout of the K2 Glacier

From just above Pakistan Base Camp we should have been able to see K2 but she was still being elusive so we went to explore the snout of the glacier.  We had to be careful and be aware of the stones, some quite sizeable, hurtling fifty or so feet down the icy snout to the ground below.  To be hit by one would be curtains.

As the afternoon progressed into the evening the clouds cleared from K2, giving us some superb shots in the evening light.

Evening sunlight on the upper slopes of K2

Dinner was served in our tents as we were now minus a mess tent.  To be honest our tents were the best place to be as the temperature plummeted.  Despite the cold it was well worth vacating our tents for a second spell of photography as the last rays of the setting sun faded from K2s upper slopes.

The night proved not to be quite as cold as expected for cloud rolled in and dumped a couple of inches of snow on us.  It was still snowing, although only lightly, when we emerged from our tents for breakfast. The sun soon forced its way through the cloud and we were able to proceed to Italian Base Camp, several kilometres up the glacier and a few hundred metres higher at around 4800m.

David negotiates the tricky path between PBC and IBC

Our journey took us through an area of extremely fragile landscape, which brought imminent danger from rock fall, landslide and possible avalanche.  If yesterday’s path had been pleasant, today’s was anything but.  We were constantly having to watch where we put our feet on the rocky, stony surface where there was hardly a discernible path.  All we could do was link a series of small cairns (only two or three stones in height) to be sure we were on the right track.  After seven ankle twisting, foot bruising hours we reached Italian Base Camp.  It is situated at the side of the glacier in a very barren, rocky landscape.  A few relatively stone free platforms have been created for tents, which had to be held down with rocks rather than tent pegs.  Despite its barrenness it was a most amazing place.

Looking up valley from Italian Base Camp

Now that we were in camp, and not having to concentrate on each footstep, we could take in the scenery around us.  Further up the valley, head and shoulders above anything was the beautiful and spell binding K2.  On either side it was flanked by lesser, but none the less beautiful, peaks.  Descending from the foot of K2 snaked the glacier, in the main covered with rocky debris out of which, soared pure white pinnacles of ice.  Other glaciers tumbled from smaller side valleys to interfere with the downward flow of the main glacier.  This place is special.

During the night we expected to hear lots of complaining cracks and groans from the glacier, but there were none.  I can only assume that the glaciers on the north side are less active than those on the south.

The team at Italian Base Camp with K2 showing top left

The following morning we could choose what we wanted to do.  We were not going to camp any nearer to K2.  The terrain was much too difficult for the donkeys and camel men to carry the kit and suitable camping places were minimal.  Also, the further up the glacier we went the more technical the journey would become. Going from Italian Base Camp we could explore further up the glacier.

Heading off to explore the glacier and upper valley

One group went with one of the camel drivers as a guide to get a closer look at the awesome pinnacles on the glacier. Others, including me, preferred just to potter about on the glacier and enjoy its features and those of the surrounding peaks.  We ambled up to a point where a hanging glacier tumbled into the main glacier.  Here there was more activity with occasional ice falls entertaining us.  We sat in very pleasant sunshine for some considerable time chatting while, all the time, taking in the scenery.  Gradually people drifted apart while Ann and I continued to absorb our surroundings.  Eventually I guided Ann back to camp avoiding the many crevasses.  Dropping off the glacier we walked down the frozen river running by the side before climbing back to our rocky camp.

The majestic ice pinnacles of the K2 Glacie

The sun began to lose its power as some cloud drifted in and the temperature dropped.  Soon after lunch I stuck my cold feet into my sleeping bag and contemplated what to do.  I had not brought my diary, my kindle nor my MP3 player with me in order to reduce weight.  I could have done with something.  Gradually others returned with their tales of excitement on the glacier and they were all tired from their effort on such terrain at such altitude.  Glacier walking is not an easy exercise.

I didn’t really get out of my sleeping bag for the rest of the day; it was far too cold to stand around for long.

The following morning was particularly cold, with an in tent temperature of -15C recorded.  The outside temperature would be a few degrees lower.  Our breath had condensed on the walls of the tents and turned to frost.

Fascinating ice features

We were given the freedom to head down as soon as we were ready, rather than wait for our guides.  I needed to get my feet warm, so I set off as soon as I was ready.  I felt energised to be going down and set a good pace to utilise my new found energy and to warm my feet.  Occasionally route finding proved interesting when it was difficult to pick out the small cairns in a sea of stones.  In order to help those coming behind I enlarged some cairns and created others so that the trail became more obvious.

As we left K2 the clouds began to envelope her.

As we descended whips of cloud, like fingers, encircled K2.  She had revealed herself to us throughout our time at the high camps.  Now that we were leaving she was covering herself up again as a sign of farewell.

The journey down to Pakistan Base Camp took four hours and although faster than our ascent it required maximum concentration.  Robin, coming down some way behind, lost his footing and took a tumble, hitting his head on a rock, cutting his arm and shin, hurting his wrist and little finger and denting his pride.  Remarkably, the bump on the head was the least of his injuries.  Patched up by nurse, David, he was able to continue.

From Pakistan Base Camp we had to climb up the steep, precarious path out of the valley and from there on it was a delightful romp back to Chinese Base Camp.  The weather seemed to be deteriorating so those of us who made it to camp first put up all the tents.  Remarkably, as soon as they were up, the skies cleared and nothing untoward happened.

Mo & Katrina

In the evening, after dinner, there was an announcement made.  All the crew joined us for it.  While on the glacier Mo asked Katrina to marry him.  She said ‘yes’, of course.  It was such a surprise and the first engagement to occur on a Himalayan Club trip.  Good luck to them.  Perhaps they should get married on the Mustang trip next year.

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The trek in – 30th March – 4th April

Our first day of trek got off to a very slow start.  We were ready by 8.00 but the crew, and the camels in particular, were not.  To save us hanging around we wandered into the village and then headed in the right general direction to a group of stones, which provided us with seats in the sun.  Akbar, Hira and Bishnu finally joined us at about 10.30 and we properly started our trek.

Descending to the Yarkand River

Despite the fact that it was a good path and any gradients were easy it was still a bit of a struggle.  First days often are and after a week of travelling, walking at 3500m is always going to be difficult.  Having come over the shoulder at the end of a ridge separating  the valley with Yilik and the Yarkand River, the walk became more interesting, especially when we dropped down to the river for lunch.  The river cut valley is fabulous with a braided river on the flat bed with steep cliffs on either side.  Looking up towards the head of the valley there were beautiful snowcapped peaks.

The camels finally catch up

Another point of interest lay on the river bed where there were huge lumps of jade.  One rock, Hira estimated, would be worth about a £1,000,000!  Having found one we found lots.  It is hard to imagine that the Chinese have not taken advantage of such a treasure at their feet.  Soon after lunch we reached camp situated in a beautiful part of the valley and bathed in glorious sunshine.

The following morning we continued up the gorge with spectacular cliffs on either side and hardly any sign of vegetation.  As the path, at times, was very close to the fragile cliffs, we kept a wary eye on them in case any rocks chose to dislodge themselves as we passed beneath.  We stopped for lunch where the river cut through a narrow cleft in the rock and where we had to leave the river bed and negotiate our way across the cliffs before descending to the riverbed again.  It made a nice change from picking our way over the stones of the river bed, which you constantly had to watch to make sure you put your foot down safely.  The stones were so varied, and many were beautiful works of art.

It is very difficult to judge distances in this environment.  We can see our target along the valley, or the next bend or rocky outcrop, but it takes ages to reach.  In places the valley, river floor, may be a mile or more across with mountains rising vertically on either side for several thousand feet.

By mid afternoon tiredness was beginning to set in with the feet suffering most from continually being pummelled by stones.  Simon was struggling and Rachel had taken to riding one of the donkeys.  We eventually arrived in camp, a summer grazing area for sheep and goats.  Now there was no grass to be seen and the area was covered in pellets from last year’s flocks.  It was also very windy and not the most pleasant place to pitch a tent.  We were also warned not to pitch too close to the valley edge because of potential rock fall.  During the evening the loo tent blew away, leaving us with only the alfresco version for the rest of the trek.

A slight diversion gave us this view of a glacier

Later that evening the wind died down and we had a peaceful night but as soon as it got light the wind picked up again and the wind chill made it extremely cold.  Rather than wait around in camp and get cold we decided to set off without the crew, some of us taking the slight detour to have a look at a nearby glacier with an impressive snout.  This required us to cross the river which was fortunately frozen at this point.

Approaching the top of the Aghil Pass

Having visited the glacier we set about the task of climbing and crossing the Aghil Pass.  It was expected that it would take us about five hours to reach the top.  With the wind blowing fiercely in our faces it actually took about five and a half hours.  By the time I reached the top I was feeling exhausted.  The wind had made my eyes run and my tears had frozen on my cheeks.  It was stunningly beautiful with rocky, snowy mountains to either side.  We alternated between walking on stony paths and snowfields.  On one of the snowfields we came across the paw prints of snow leopards, two adults and a young one.

Looking down the other side of the Aghil Pass

I had hoped to have lunch on the top and admire the view.  It gave a superb panoramic view of the Karakorum mountains to the south with Gasherbrum 2 and 3 being the most spectacular.  Unfortunately it was too windy and there was nowhere to shelter.  It was disappointing that the conditions did not allow for us to linger and make the most of the situation.  Instead, we focused our attention on getting down out of the wind.  Going downhill I suddenly found renewed energy and soon found a sheltered spot for lunch.

A short cut took us down this gorge

The path down was good and as I was walking on my own I was able to make good progress .  However the lower I got the more complicated it became.  There was no sign of a clear path and it was simply a case of picking my way through a boulder field.  Eventually, I had a choice to make.  The river bed descended into a gorge with steep cliffs on either side.  Should I follow that or stay above it?  Akbar suddenly showed up and directed me into the gorge as it was a short cut avoiding a three hour detour, which the camels had to make.  The river bed in the gorge was strewn with huge boulders and the cliffs looked very dangerous with rocks defying gravity and clinging to the loose material in between.  Sometimes we had to scramble down dry waterfalls, making our descent more interesting.  All the time we could hear rock falls on the slopes above and it felt it was only a matter of time before boulders came crashing down into the gorge.  I felt a little annoyed that we were being subjected to this towards the end of a long day when everyone was tired and, therefore, more likely to make a mistake.

The stunning Shagskam Valley

Eventually we emerged from the gorge into the magnificent Shagskam River valley, with mountains towering above.  Here the river was about a mile across and it seemed to take ages to pick our way across it to our camp on the other side.  It was a super spot for camping among some low bushes with a spring emerging from the rock wall adjacent to the camp.  Over dinner we discussed the merits of having a rest day or continuing to base camp.  The weather continues to be very good and seemed settled so we decided to continue and make the most of it before it decides to break and turn nasty on us.

Walking along the Shagskam Valley

The next day was spent entirely walking along the Shagskam river bed across a mixture of stones and large areas of frozen river.  It was much easier walking on the ice as the stones again proved very tiring on the feet.  It seemed to go on for ever and while we were walking we had to concentrate on our feet and not take in the beautiful scenery around us.  It was very dispiriting to not appear to make any progress.  At one point in the morning we had to de-boot in order to cross the river.  We all had water shoes in our kitbags but Akbar had told us in the morning that we would not need them today.  The water was extremely cold as it was flanked on either side by snow and ice.  Negotiating the pebbles without shoes protracted the crossing.

By lunch time we had only covered half the distance to camp.  Those of us who were the first to leave after lunch were instructed, for some inexplicable reason, to climb above the river and drop into a gorge to avoid the river close to the left bank.  Obediently, we followed instructions only to find Akbar and the rest of the group following by the water’s edge.  The bonus for us was that we saw some fantastic fossils.

We reached camp late in the afternoon and pitched our tents in the strong breeze, which seems to be a feature of each afternoon.

During the evening I had discussions with Hira, Akbar and the camel men about what we might achieve on the glacier.  Hira was very optimistic and determined while Akbar seemed less enthusiastic.  It turns out he has never been above Italian Base Camp because he has not encouraged it and groups have turned back.  The truth of it seems to be that Akbar does not like the cold and does not fair well at altitude so he encourages groups to turn back at the first opportunity.

The camel train walking up the Sarpo Lago Valley

The next morning we continued along the river to the junction with the Sarpo Largo River where we climbed up on to a shoulder above the river for our first view of K2.  By the time we got to the viewpoint the cloud had begun to build up and although the outline was visible it was not very clear.  The mountains around it were pretty spectacular but K2 stood out head and shoulders above them.

Dropping back down to the river we continued towards Chinese Base Camp, stopping for lunch on the way.  After lunch we had a further three hours of sole destroying trudge into camp.  Along the way we had to cross the frozen K2 River, the most dangerous to cross in the summer when the waters thunder off the glaciers above.  On the frozen river lay the corpse of a Kiang, a wild ass, which had fallen victim to a snow leopard, the stomach and the heart being the only meat taken.

Robin at Chinese Base Camp

Chinese Base Camp, at 3900m, proved to be a very cold place at night and it was necessary to wear my down jacket for dinner.  Taking ourselves off to bed fairly early we were woken at 9.45pm by a stampede of camels through the camp.  It was all to do with sex!  As they ran at full tilt through the tents, the guy ropes were ripped out.  The crew were called to deal with the rampant animals and it took them a while to round them up and lead them well away from camp.  Those who witnessed the camels said that they were jumping over bushes and could easily have jumped over the tents, which they looked upon more as rocks to run round.  It was quite worrying for them, less so for those of us who remained in our tents.

The next day was a rest day, a day for washing body and clothes, sorting kit to take on to the glacier and relaxing in the glorious sunshine.  Bliss!

The food on this trek has been amazing and some of the best and tastiest I have had on any trek.  We do not miss the cooked lunch, nor the puddings in the evening.  It was such a relief after the concerns we had before we left home.  All the extra provisions we brought out with us, comfort treats, soups and pasta sachets were all unnecessary.

Trekking up to Chinese Base Camp has been fantastic and one of the things, I think, that makes it a bit special is the remoteness of it.  When Shipton explored this area he wrote the book, ‘Blank on the Map’.  That is exactly what this is.  There are no villages, no people; we were the only ones there with nobody else in the world within at least 35 miles in any direction.

On the afternoon of our rest day, John Leeson took himself for a walk in the direction of Pakistan Base Camp in the hope of meeting Hira and Bishnu returning from their recce on the glacier.  Just before they met, John needed the privacy of a rock for a few minutes.  Hira, on approaching the rock, spotted two snow leopards about 200m below where John was.  By the time John had pulled up his trousers, the snow leopards were gone and he missed them!

That night we held a quiz in the mess tent with Charles as the compiler of the questions and quiz master.  We all had to dress for the evening, the theme being ‘the boat club’.  I simply wore a bow tie but others went to great lengths to dress up for the occasion.  David acquired some cardboard from the kitchen tent and made himself a boater, as did Chris using reeds from the river bank, but Charles went one stage further turning his silk liner into a 1920s style dress with flexible boobs.  We had a great evening, even if we found the questions hard.  The brain does not function very well at altitude.


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