K2: Cutting It Close in Skardu

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In the blink of an eye there was a razor to my neck. I had committed the ultimate rookie tourist error, suckered into compliance by a few friendly encounters that lulled me into dropping my guard. I was on the outskirts of a remote village in northern Pakistan in a room filled with men all staring intently, waiting to hear what the foreigner would say or do to determine his fate.

The razor was cold and smooth against my neck. I could sense the barber's skill by the way he handled the blade. My mind raced. If I said the wrong thing there would be hell to pay, and no doubt the guy behind the video camera would be posting the disastrous results for all to see.

The clock was ticking. I measured my words carefully. “A little off the sides, please. And see if there’s anything you can do about that bald area on top.” The barber moved in with grace and precision. The gallery sat back in their seats, smiling at the foreigner’s well-chosen words. Yes, this man had skills with a razor. I was just another unkempt head in a long line of many.

All part of my Skardu experience. Thank God for airplanes, specifically, the one that flies very irregularly from Islamabad and upon which we were lucky enough to score seats. This 1-in-5 chance had saved us two long days of bus travel on the Karakorum Highway, a dramatic adventure in itself but one that most climbers find harrowing.

Skardu is a dry, dusty town with a dirt main street, packed shoulder-to-shoulder with ramshackle shops of every description. But beneath the surface there’s something kinda cool about the place. It’s sitting in the bottom of a beautiful river valley, surrounded by high peaks. It’s got the kind of high-energy yet laid back vibe of other mountain towns. The people here are salt-of-the-earth kind of people. If you wave at them they smile and wave back. Kids of all ages are running loose everywhere you look.

Skardu is the launching point for expeditions and trekkers heading up the Baltoro, Biafo, and Trango glaciers or the Deosai Plains, which means it has plenty of adequate hotels with hot showers and even WiFi connections. However, you won’t find a multiplex cinema or a Starbucks or even a sidewalk cafe here. So when we heard there was a polo match being played we grabbed the cameras and headed out.

Polo is a big deal ‘round these parts, and spectators told me Pakistanis played freestyle polo–meaning no referees and few rules–a fact of which the locals were quite proud of, almost holding in disdain the genteel version practiced by westerners.

We spent the rest of the day wandering the dusty streets picking up last-minute gear–snow stakes, gas canisters, batteries, potato chips–before we swung towards the outskirts for the last lid spin of the next two months. In a town like Skardu, a good barber shop–not a hair salon, mind you–is one of the best ways to get the true vibe of a place. You’re stuck at the barber’s mercy for a good half hour, and if the guy is worth his hair tonic then there’s bound to be some good conversation and lively comments from the folks filling the waiting seats. In fact, as in choosing a diner based on the number of trucks parked out front, you want to select a barber by the quality and quantity of the back benchers.

It wasn’t long before talk turned to the local economy and how Skardu, with its heavy reliance on tourism, had been taking a beating as of late. Peak permits were far below normal, and on the streets of Skardu we only saw two other westerners. The crew in the barber shop were quick to blame the media for exaggerating the terrorist threat and for not explaining that the few incidents that had occurred were mostly down south or in the North West Frontier, far removed from the newly formed Gilgit Skardu Territory. There was no hesitation in telling us how much they dislike the Taliban and the U.S. government all in the same breath, quickly followed by how much they like the American people.

It was then that I had one of those revelations about how small our planet really is. To realize that these people in a remote village in northern Pakistan–people who, according to a lot of American media reports want nothing more than to kill us because of our differences–could, in actuality, have some of the same ideas as a lot of people I know back in the States.

I must say, that was one of the best haircuts I've ever had–and it only cost $1.25 (100 rupees). 

–Trey Cook

For more photos of K2, check out climber Fabrizio Zangrilli's gallery.

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