Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Khyung

October 2006

John Vincent Bellezza

Writing, Walking and Flying
Another month has slipped past with much of it at my desk editing and adding bits to my new book manuscript Antiquities of High Tibet. I did have to slip away to Singapore at the beginning of the month to again work on a Discovery Asia documentary about Buddhist Guge, Tibet’s Lost Kingdom. It seems as though the narrative has changed a bit and I was needed for more interviews to fill in gaps in the storyline. I had only been to the airport before so this was really my first trip to Singapore, an impressive modern city and trade center. As I would wander around downtown Singapore, I wondered if there might be a way of applying some of the things this city-state has learned to the rest of the world. In particular, I was impressed by the way in which ethnicity and religious differences were relatively minor issues, subsumed under the more vital matter of becoming prosperous. Singapore is a small manageable and affluent place so I suppose it is unrealistic to expect its way of dealing with social realities could be transferred to the world at large. Still, I don’t think it is unreasonable to see if certain lessons could be drawn from this urban hub (its lack of freedom of speech, etc., notwithstanding).

My trekking years
I could wax enthusiastically about this post-monsoon season and the glories of the Himalaya in the most lucid skies of the year but instead, I have pulled out photocopies of my many old journals and opened up somewhere in the middle. My random search turned up the following entries:

August 8, 1990 (on the Hispar Glacier in the Pakistan Karakorum)
I woke up several times to have a look out. The clouds gradually built up until dawn. I was anxious for fair weather. Traversing glaciers in a snowstorm was positively something I wanted to avoid. It was nearly a year ago when I got marooned on the Kang glacier (in Himachal Pradesh) for three days [without a tent]. This was nothing I wanted to repeat. I drank only tea so that I could move quickly without digesting. I began walking at dawn. The cloud cover caused me some worry, though I know chances are in won’t snow heavily this time of the year. Up I climbed religiously following the faint track that grooved the snow cover. Several ice bridges over huge crevasses had to be crossed. A couple of them looked like they would not hold much longer. By looking into a couple deep pits I could see the guts of glacier. Peering into the pits and crevasses is something I did quickly. A glimpse is sufficient. I am thankful for the track to the Hispar Pass. It gave me a sense of confidence. To the north against the Karakorum is a massive glacial bowl exploding with enormous crevasses. The route to the pass must be followed lest one gets into a dangerous crevasse field. I made it to the pass with only a couple of short rests. The weather would stabilize but early this morning I couldn’t be certain of this.

The pass is flat-topped and actually nothing more than a high point on the ice surface. Over 100 kms away I could see the range on the far side of the Hunza valley. However, the Biafo glacier was hidden by an arête. I would have to traverse a glacial bowl before spotting it. The head of the Biafo glacier is incredibly large – perhaps 100 square miles! I can readily appreciate the extent of the ice mantle and understand why it is the largest in the temperate zones. I followed the admonition [I had received] to stay to the right side of the Biafo. Fields of crevasses pack the surface. I had to be constantly on the lookout for hidden crevasses. Once I stepped through the snow cover with my trailing foot. In the split second that I looked down I could see a yawning gap God knows how many meters deep. I jumped over I don’t know how many crevasses but I did not tarry long enough to estimate their depth. I pushed on with full adrenalin, praying that I would stay alive. Actually the route is not that treacherous, but no one should underestimate the danger.

After a brief nap I continued on to the clear ice. I have made camp near a medial moraine. I stopped in the mid-afternoon satisfied that I had passed the worst. Before reaching the naked glacial surface I had to jump over many small crevasses. Thank God the grueling moraine crossings and the hidden dangers of covered crevasses are behind me. Inshalah, I’ll be on terra firma in two more days. As I understand it, the trail follows the middle of glacier and presents no major dangers or obstacles. I am now traveling southeast. The brown and orange crags to the right of me are designated the ‘Moro Group’ on my Pakistani trekking map. The sun has set behind the range and I am set for another cold night. Why is the Biafo a continuous sheet of ice why most of the Hispar is broken and debris covered? The head of the Biafo is much more extensive and secondly this side is more continental. I wonder what kind of marks a glaciologist would give me on this call? Channels of water crisscross the surface of the glacier. They drain into subsurface rivers. There is probably not purer water anywhere in the world. The Hispar and Biafo valleys are colossal. A single man is dwarfed to a microscopic speck. I haven’t seen anyone in two days. Last week there was a spate of passages with the trekking groups and expeditions. I have been warned by both locals and Westerners to beware of bears. I am appalled at the litter in the major campsites. There is no reason it can’t be hauled out. I do and I am only a single individual. Again, I am camped on the glacier. The ice is not a problem when you are adequately equipped. However, my boots are on their last legs. How will I get a replacement?

August 9, 1990
One month in Pakistan [this trip]. I made fry bread and tea for breakfast inside my little yellow nylon envelope. I gathered water last evening because during the night the water drains off the surface of the glacier and freezes. I approximately fixed my position on the map by locating the first tributary glacier. As per the last few days, I was off and walking early. I had to pick my way across crevasses by either going around them or hopping over them. Unlike yesterday, the crevasses were very visible on the bare glacial surface. Without snow to obscure them there wasn’t a problem and anyway, they were less in frequency. The crevasses mainly disappeared a few kms from my last tent camp and the walking became easier. The vast ice sheet provided an easy surface for hiking. Each glacier has its own personality. I know firsthand since I have been on approximately two dozen Great Himalayan ones. The Biafo glacier is mostly gray from surface sediment. It is pocked and striated [that are bent] in the direction of its frontal movement. The striations vary from wide bands to shaded strips like the stratification of rocks. The surface texture is usually rough like a lava flow due to the crystallization of the ice? The incline of the Biafo glacier is fairly steady with a few humps where elevation is lost more quickly than the average rate. Why does the head of the glacier seem more crevassed? Perhaps due to the gravitational effect of a sharper incline. On and on I hiked across the sea of ice. Slowly and with effort, I passed one mountain after another. I could gauge my progress by watching the ranges to the sides of the glacier. The glacier itself is too big to gauge distance [from]. Perceptually it swallows you up like boat floundering at sea.

From a mainly continuous ice sheet the glacier again changed its mood. Parallels ribs formed each separated by water channels. These ribs run in the direction of the glacier and ranges. By getting on top of one or another travel was expeditious. I gravitated to the middle of the glacier as [had been] suggested to me by several people. Many miles after beginning this morning, I stopped for as lunch of nuts, Hunza apricots and good cold, blue glacial water. Since this morning there has been a prominence jutting out into the glacier. I was focused on getting past it today. After six or seven hours of hiking I did. About this time the glacier again changed its face. Three or four medial ice engorged moraines separated relatively smooth ice. For several kms I walked down one of these fairly narrow sheets of ice until it disappeared under rocky debris. I now had to climb to the top of one of the medial moraines and walk down it. Between the moraine I followed and the next one over to my right was a marble white rolling channel of ice quite different from the gray rough textured masses I was now quite used to. Why is this ice so different? I followed the top of the moraine for several [more] kms before crossing over to the next one. At the end of this one I found myself faced with broken debris-covered ice I know so well from the Hispar glacier. Negotiating my way through this labyrinth I finally came to the side of the glacier and a large encampment. On a shelf above the glacier were a group of over fifty Balti porters and a French trekking party of eleven. These were the first people I had seen in three days. The hum of human voices was at once reassuring and disruptive. Solitude like society becomes the norm. The leader of the group, a man who had done a considerable amount of climbing and trekking invited me to share their five course dinner. In a mess tent and with company I ate.

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