Raikot polo

The result is that visitors run a greater risk of culture shock than gunfire”€”by local lights the perps of the Nanga Parbat massacre are in deep trouble, not so much for shedding innocent blood as violating the laws of hospitality. In a valley where the Talibs hold sway, you may risk stoning if you violate a dress code strict as the Saudis”€™, but heaven help the man who insults another’s guest. This was the first deliberate attack on tourists or climbers in the region’s history.

In a land of mountains twice the size of the Alps, the cultural shifts can seem as exaggerated as the topography”€”one valley away from the latest hot spot of the Islamic dark ages, all girls may go to school and women walk abroad proudly bareheaded.

So if you really want to strike a blow against what looks to be the most blatant effort to isolate a beautiful region since Sendero Luminoso set out to drive capitalist tourists out of the Andes, consider an end run around the Taliban”€”you don”€™t have to run the fundamentalist gauntlet to get to the hinterland of Nanga Parbat or K2.

Instead of rough-riding it up the Karakoram Highway from Islamabad, with the lawless Northwest Frontier on one flank and a roaring river on the other, just skip the -stans entirely and do a Marco Polo.

Forget Karachi”€”the object is to get to the top of the world, not the bottom of the Punjab. Mountain weather permitting, you can fly up the Indus Valley from Islamabad or Peshawar to land in Gilgit or Skardu, but a far more intriguing option is to hop a plane to China’s far west instead. After a few days there, acclimating along the jade strewn rivers of Khotan, or the turquoise Karakul lakes on the north side of the great range, head up the old Silk Road to run the Karakoram Highway by jeep from north to south. The pass is a bit of a wheeze at 15,000 feet, but the only folks with guns up there are hunting ibex.

Once you”€™re over the top, it’s downhill to where the Mir presides over the astoundingly beautiful Hunza Valley. It’s an Ismaili enclave a hundred klicks north and a world away from Pakistan’s present woes, a sort of Islamic Liechtenstein where, in glorious defiance of the Taliban, you can sit down in a hotel with a wine list to toast the ten brave and sporting souls who, instead of taking a strenuous package tour of the top of Everest, died gearing up for a mountain whose fatal attraction is that it has killed a climber for every four to stand on its summit. Anybody for heli-skiing?

 



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