Jeep Across the Deosai Plains
You Call That A Trek?
Psst, buddy, you want to make a deal? That wasn’t exactly what the guy said, but it was what it sounded like to me. I was sitting in the dusty back room of a hovel in a small village in Pakistan and was trying desperately to send an email on a 1984 IBM PC before the power or connection failed. I didn’t need an interruption and certainly not for the sake of a deal so I simply nodded and kept typing while the guy kept talking. After a while I began to understand that the guy wasn’t trying to sell me some kind of trinket so I tried to pay more attention while reading an email. It turned out that a strange Frenchman that I had met briefly in a van that morning had mentioned my desire to trek to a fellow traveler in his guesthouse and that traveler was this fellow offering to share the expenses of a jeep safari across the Deosai Plains in order to do a short trek to the base camp of Nanga Parbat, 8125m and the 8 th highest mountain in the world. Now he had my attention. I stopped typing, turned around and simply stated that I was interested and would love to discuss the details later in the evening, perhaps after I had finished doing my email. The guy introduced himself as Edwin, a Scotsman of Chinese decent, and agreed to meet me at the Indus Hotel at 7pm that evening, to go over the details. The deal was essentially done at the introduction and that was how this adventure was born.
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Cost of this trek is $
That evening I explained to Edwin that I had just finished a four-day mountain trek ( Machi Lu La ) that morning and that I needed a few days off to fatten up and wash my clothes. He suggested that I wash my clothes that night and that we depart the following morning since he was on a very tight schedule. I wasn’t convinced, but let him lay out the plan.
It seems that Edwin had spent the day visiting every jeep and package operator in Skardu and had basically taken the lowest price for a three-day package (his time limit) and cut it in half. He then went about negotiating one operator against another until he found a taker. He had convinced the Indus Travel Rent A Car Service to provide us with a jeep and driver to take him across the Deosai Plains to the small village of Tarishing the following day, wait there a day while he trekked and then drive him back to Skardu on the third day. The jeep and driver would cost 9,000 Rs or $112. It was a very favorable price (half the going rate) so I had no choice. I accepted the plan and agreed to split the 9,000 fee with him. I then rushed back to my guesthouse to wash my socks and pack for the next day’s departure. Sometimes I simply have to go with the flow.
We Depart Skardu
The driver picked us up in front of the Indus Hotel the next morning, accepted the first half of the payment, filled the fuel tank and then tore out of Skardu as though the world was on fire. Very quickly we left the small town and began to climb the winding dirt road leading to the pass that opens onto the plains, however, I doubted that we would ever reach those plains. The driver seemed to become more and more reckless as we gained altitude. I was in the front seat and my knuckles were white with the strain from holding onto the hand grips, as we fishtailed around the dirt bends. Then as if to remind me of my mortality, another jeep rounded the bend, coming towards us, just as we reached the same bend. Our driver jumped on the breaks, the wheels locked, dust engulfed us, we skidded up and over some low boulders, and came to a stop as the other jeep ground past us with his horn blaring. That was it. I reached over and held the steering wheel firmly and spoke to the driver in clear, forceful English. I explained that we had all day. There was no reason to hurry and that he must drive slowly. He accepted my rebuke with silence and a nod. We continued up the road again at a more sedate speed and I only had to remind the driver to slow down a few more times (usually after he almost ran over a pedestrian) before he gave up any hopes of breaking a land speed record, turned on the radio, and drove like a rational human being.
We crested the pass and entered the plains with a visible sigh of relief from both Edwin and myself. Although the road still curved a lot, at least now it did so over relatively flat terrain. The Deosai Plains are a marvel of nature. A vast, desolate, and undulating high plain enclosed by distant white snow capped mountains. It is a fairy tale landscape with marshy expanses, the constant chirping of birds, cries from mountain marmots, and crystal clear rippling rivers making lazy curves across the landscape. The entire area is now a national park and protected from development, so perhaps it will retain the empty and unusual feel and continue to be the home of the elusive Snow Leopard.
The drive across the plains was wonderful and included many river crossings or stops to take scenic or wildlife photos. By late afternoon we reached Sheosar Lake and then crossed Chachur Pass (4266m) before dropping down to the military village of Chilam, (west park gate) and a paved road that followed one of the most beautiful rivers I had ever seen, the Das Khiram Gah. We followed the Khiram for the remainder of the afternoon until it reached the junction with the muddy Astor River. We turned south at this stage and were back on a dirt road again. We bumped and grinded our dusty way along the raging Astor towards its source, the glaciers on the south face of Nanga Parbat. By 8pm we ran out of road at the tiny village of Tarishing where we pulled into the Rupal Hotel, a simple trekking style guesthouse, for the next two night’s accommodation.
The hotel staff gave us the rundown on the place, the neighborhood, and unfortunately the local regulations. It seems that a local police law had been enacted by the Police Chief in faraway Astore. He had decreed that no foreigners were permitted to venture beyond the village without a local guide. The rule was strictly for our own protection since a tourist had died of a heart attack and a single foreign woman had allegedly been raped while alone in the countryside a few years back.
The trek from Tarishing to the Herlligkoffer Base Camp, next to the Bazhin Glacier, at the foot of Nanga Parbat’s south face, is an easy 8 km from Tarishing and it is impossible to get lost along the way since it traverses small villages and cultivated fields. At no point does the route take you into wilderness or uncultivated areas. So we complained about the regulation to the local police representative that evening, when he came to perform the required registration procedures, to no avail. He showed us the letter from Astore and apologized as it was out of his hands.
As with the jeep negotiations, I left the guide negotiations up to Edwin. He accepted the challenge willingly. By the next morning he had negotiated our hotel guide down from 1500 Rs ($19) to 500 Rs ($6). Edwin was deemed my official negotiator.
We Start the Trek
The trek from Tarishing took us up a steep short trail to the west of the village, over the Chungphar Glacier, thru the village of Upper Tarishing, across cultivated fields, along the outline of a new road being constructed and then up an incline to a shallow lake at the foot of the Herlligkoffer Base Camp. We took our time, strolled, took photos, stopped for drinks at small shacks/shops and basically walked as though on a park stroll and yet it still only took us about 4 hours to cover the 8 km to the Base Camp.
The camp itself (at 3550m) is one of the most luxurious 8-thousander base camps that I have ever visited. It is on an open grassy plain, the weather is generally warm to hot, a natural stream forms to the side of the glade and access to the mountain itself is simply over a low crest and across the Bazhin Glacier. If I had to be stuck at this base camp for acclimatization or as a support person on an expedition it would not seem like a hardship at all.
We spent the afternoon being lazy, climbed along the crest of the massive glacier flow and took a lot of photos while our “guide” vigilantly protected us by napping in the shade of a large boulder. Around 4 pm we wrapped up our wanderings, returned to the boulder to collect our guide and then strolled back to Tarishing for the evening. The trek was hardly a trek and it certainly didn’t require a guide but, at a cost of $3 each, at least the guide had stayed out our way and had not been a financial burden.
The next day we got up early, ate a breakfast of watery porridge and then set off on our return jeep ride. By late afternoon of the third day we were back in Skardu for the start of a terrific dust storm. I settled into my room content with the trip and the realization that my clothes would simply have to wait for another day to be washed.