Gilgit to Chitral: High Adventure on Pakistan’s Shandur Pass

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Northern Areas/Northwest Frontier Province, Pakistan
By Llew Bardecki

My Teru bound cargo jeep leans precariously out over the Ghizer River
My Teru bound cargo jeep leans precariously out over the Ghizer River
My spring visit to northern Pakistan had lasted one month to date, and followed one of the mountainous region’s worst winters in memory. Earlier in the trip I’d been hoping to cross the legendary Shandur Pass between the towns of Chitral and Gilgit, but had been foiled by winter’s lingering presence on the pass.

Three weeks after this, in Gilgit, the largest city in Pakistan’s Northern Areas, I had a chance to make the trip in reverse, but things still sounded pretty grim. Despite some recent warm weather, jeeps were not running across the pass.

Nonetheless, after meeting an Australian named Nick who also wanted to cross the Shandur, I started investigating to see if there was ANY way to make the journey. Though the details offered by my many sources in Gilgit varied a lot, there was a general consensus amongst all my advisors: Shandur WAS closed to jeep travel. Jeeps WERE running to the last towns before the pass. Walking over the pass WOULD be possible (though how long it would take and how difficult it would be was uncertain.)

This sounded certain enough for Nick and I. We did a bit more checking around and found ourselves a cargo jeep that was headed to Teru (the last sizeable town before the pass) the following morning. Before setting out, we treated ourselves to a HUGE meal at the four-star Gilgit Serena Hotel’s Sunday high tea (150Rs, about US$3!)

The next morning we made our way to the jeep stand and found our vehicle waiting. Much to our surprise, the jeep left almost precisely on time, and with a mere three people in each of its wide rows of seats. Compared to overland travel in many developing nations this was positive luxury!

The road to Teru followed the beautiful Ghizer River valley for most of its length, and the trip was thoroughly enjoyable. But one question remained: why were we in a jeep? The road had actually been paved and very smooth for the entire trip. After our lunch stop in the town of Gupis we found out. Carrying on past the brilliant blue Phandur Lake, the road turned much rougher.

The worst moment came as we crossed the spot where an avalanche had swept over the road. Most of the snow had been cleared, but as we crept past, the Jeep gave a sudden lurch to the right. The snow and/or mud underneath had given way and the jeep leaned at a precarious angle out over the river, made still more worrisome because of the huge load on the vehicle’s roof. All of the passengers began to disembark, ready to walk over the blockage and lighten the vehicle. Nick and I were about to join them when the driver indicated that we, as valued guests, didn’t need to walk. Erm… Thanks, but really we’d rather walk with everyone else…
After a couple of minutes of spinning tires and pushing, the jeep was dislodged and we continued on towards Teru. When we arrived in the isolated rocky town at about 18:00 it seemed as though the entire town had come out to greet us. One of the first to say hello was the chowkidar (caretaker) of the Northern Areas Public Works Department inspection bungalow. These buildings are resthouses meant for visiting officials, but they’re often let out to tourists when they’re unoccupied. The chowkidar also gave some advice on how to approach the walk over Shandur. Most importantly, he explained that we would need to start very early; no later than 04:00, or the snow would be melting when we arrived at the top of the pass, making walking difficult. Before heading to bed, we loaded our packs and set our alarm for 03:00 with plans to start out shortly thereafter.

The road across Shandur isn’t heavily traveled, even in the summer, save for one special time of year. Sometime in the late summer, it plays host to the annual Shandur Polo Festival, which has been described as “the most spectacular polo event in the world.” Teams from Gilgit and Chitral, along with thousands and thousands of fans meet on top of the 3800m pass to decide who are the greatest polo players in northern Pakistan. A rough and tumble version of polo has been played in the area for centuries, but this tournament, contested for about 100 years running, is the highlight of the polo calendar. Indeed, the Shandur Polo Festival has become the place to be seen amongst Pakistan’s elite, with the date frequently being changed at the last minute to allow attendance by the president or other luminaries. July, and its accompanying pleasantly warm polo weather were, however, still a long way off.

Nick and I started our walk in the dark, reaching the village of Barsat at about 04:15, just as the sky was beginning to lighten. Barsat was truly the end of the line. Jeeps would have had trouble making it there given the road conditions, and it was the last settlement of any kind until we reached the army checkpoint at Shandur Top, 23km further on.

At 05:30 we stopped for breakfast before taking the last fork in the road and heading up the valley towards the pass itself. The valley was absolutely beautiful in the early morning light, and the walking was fairly easy. There was a lot of mud, and some snow as well, but almost all of this was still frozen from the night’s cold. We’d made great time up until this point, but the newly risen sun was already starting to impose itself on the snows, and things would soon get much, much harder.

The trail had been fairly flat all morning, but at the end of the valley it took a sharp right turn and started to climb steeply up alongside a small creek. Some of the braids of the stream were a delightful surprise, their bright colours and vigourous plant life showing how quickly life could return to the highlands once winter had run its course.

The altitude made the climb a bit difficult, but it really wasn’t that hard. It was AFTER the steep slope that we really started to get bogged down. The grade had ensured that most of the snow had been shed already, but on the flatter sections, the road was completely covered and there were some very deep drifts along its path. Worse, we began to punch through the icy crust on top and sink deep into the soft snow beneath, regularly crossing small valleys with hidden streams flowing at their centres. Soon, our feet were soaked and freezing. Completely aside from the physical effort, we now needed to rest regularly just to thaw out our toes on the sun-warmed rocks.

Spring's first grass and flowers mark the return of life to the pass as the snow recedes
Spring’s first grass and flowers mark the return of life to the pass as the snow recedes
Several road cuts free of snow provided a brief respite as we neared the top of the climb. We even began to enjoy the walk and scenery again.

It couldn’t last. Shortly after reaching the top we were spit out into a vast field of snow with virtually nothing to guide us. Worse, the snow had become very soft indeed, and we sunk into it up to our thighs or even waists with almost every step. A few hundred metres of walking took a seeming eternity, and Nick began to express doubts about whether we could actually make it. I’d been optimistic all morning, and still was. We had lots of time, and it was only another 3 or 4km to the checkpost. As the impossibly difficult walk continued, however, even I began to wonder whether we should start trying to find a (probably non-existent) spot to pitch our tents and then continue following the next night’s freeze.

Despite my concerns, I was keen to at least head over to another trail on the snow that was just visible from our location, and see if the walking was any easier there. The 200m over entirely open country was perhaps the hardest walking I’d ever done. Much to my relief, the packed snow of the second path was a bit stronger and was able to hold some of our weight.

On the new trail I started moving along as quickly as I could manage. It was difficult going, but I knew that every minute we were out there was one more minute for the sun to melt and soften the snow.

If I was having a hard time, Nick was having an absolutely nightmarish one. His greater weight meant that he fell through the surface at almost every step, and the fact that he wasn’t quite as fit or acclimatized to altitude as me made it even tougher on him. By the time we’d been on the snow path for forty minutes he was far, far behind me. We both stopped and yelled back and forth, trying to decide what to do. After considering all the options we decided that I should go ahead as fast as I could and try to return with some help from the checkpost. I promised that I’d come back myself to help him out if I needed to.

It was a shame that the walking was so, so difficult. It made it hard to appreciate the sublime beauty of the 10km long Shandur Pass as we headed across it. The entire pass was covered in snow, the only signs of colour coming from small, steep portions of the mountainsides and the pale green of the three lakes on the pass top, each of which had almost, but not quite, thawed out from the winter’s freeze. The whole place seemed one vast, arctic wasteland with no sign of civilization, or indeed, life of any kind in sight. When we DID stop to admire the place and think about it, we felt incredibly privileged to be there. In an ordinary year, perhaps 100 people and no more than five or six foreigners would see the Shandur Pass in the state it was in during our walk.

Making progress became harder and harder for me, and I fell through the top layer more and more often. On two occasions the instability of the surface and the weight of my pack combined to topple me face down into the snow. Finally, however, I saw the checkpost in the distance. I yelled out joyfully to Nick, who could just barely hear me, but who I’m sure was even more delighted than I.

After another half hour of struggle I was overjoyed to reach the post and find three Pakistani men standing by one of the buildings, greeting me with a friendly smile and an “asalam aleikum.”

I’d promised to go back for Nick, but I couldn’t bring myself to go until I’d thawed out my feet. As such I happily accepted the cup of tea I was offered and collapsed into a chair where my hosts set about removing my boots (this was just too much, but they managed to get one off before I convinced them that I could do it myself.)

After a bit of time warming my feet in the sun and by their cooking fire, I explained that I had to go back and get Nick. “My friend is sick,” I said in Urdu. (I didn’t know the Urdu words for “utterly exhausted and very cold,” so “sick” was the best I could do to explain that he needed help.) I’d put my soggy socks back on and was picking up my boots when one of them indicated that I should stay in my chair, pointing to another fellow and saying, “he will go.”

I’d been entirely prepared to head back into the snow myself, but I must admit that I was very very happy and relieved when they offered to do so.

The man grabbed a walking stick and set out sprinting along the path I’d just walked. As he went, I changed into clean dry clothing, and started to talk with my hosts a bit more. Their English was almost as limited as my Urdu, but I learned that they were from the Chitral Scouts, a light infantry branch of the Pakistani Army. They spent the entire year upon Shandur Top and were happy to see Nick and I, if only as some break in their routine. They also confirmed that, as we’d expected and sort of secretly hoped, we were the first foreigners to have made the crossing that year.

Before much longer, Nick arrived alongside his guide who had very, very generously carried his pack for the final 800m or so. It was 17:00. The first 18km of the walk had taken 4.5 hours, the final 10km, 9 hours. But we had made it.

My trekking partner Nick far in the distance on snowy Shandur Top
My trekking partner Nick far in the distance on snowy Shandur Top
The Chitral Scouts couldn’t have been better hosts. They provided us with several cups of hot tea, and kept the fire going so we could warm ourselves next to it. When we asked about a place to set up our tents, they emptied out a room and gave us not just two beds, but piles of blankets and thick down quilts as well. They even offered us some of their dinner, but I thought we’d already taken enough from them and cooked up a huge quantity of instant noodles, much to their amusement (though we had plenty to share they stuck to the dal (lentils) and chapattis that they ate twice a day, 365 days a year.) Chicken flavoured broth and oily processed noodles had never, and probably will never taste so good as they did to Nick and I that night.

Quite understandably we went to bed early, exhausted from the day’s ordeal.

The next morning we thanked our hosts/saviours very, very profusely, leaving behind all of the food we had left (a lot of dried fruit and candy, a few packs of instant noodles) in hopes that they might enjoy at least a bit of it as a variation in their diet.

Setting out at 05:30 we almost immediately ran into trouble. We could hardly find our way back up to the road! Seeing this, one of the Scouts came out to join us and, to our amazement and delight, ended up accompanying us all the way down off the pass to the village Laspur.

Thankfully we’d crossed most of the pass’ 10km the previous day, and soon came to the start of the climb back down. The last 100m or so before this was some of the toughest walking of all, but having our goal in sight made it that much easier. A valley full of light snow and mud has never been a prettier sight. With the completion of the pass crossing we’d moved from Gilgit District in the Northern Areas to Chitral District in Northwest Frontier Province.

Having reached the valley, we left the road behind, following the stream at the valley’s centre instead. Our guide set a blistering pace, which was very hard on the knees, but which got us down off the pass in next to no time. Near the bottom of the valley, trees began to appear, livestock followed, and then other people. We’d arrived at Sor Laspur. Before we’d even had a chance to properly thank him our guide started sprinting up the valley again, intent on an early return to the checkpost. It wasn’t even 10:00.

Nick and I plopped ourselves down on the verandah of the town’s one tiny hotel, took off our sopping boots and just basked in the sun. The journey had tested the limits of our strength and resolve, but we’d made it, and now had the whole west side of the Hindu Kush range to explore for ourselves!

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