|"Muhammad Isaac, a member of a mining team." (Anna Huix)|
By Simon Elias
The Independent, June 23, 2013
"An explosion shatters the peace of the village of Dassu, on the banks of the river Braldo, deep in the mountains of the Pakistani Karakoram. A mile upstream, suspended 260ft above the ground, Mohammad Ashraf puts another explosive in place and lights the fuse before taking cover. The explosion shakes the valley and spews a hail of stones into the void. Ashraf and his partner Gulam Nassur, armed with mallets and chisels, set to work while poised over the abyss. They're searching for gems, turned into crystals at great depth by tectonic phenomena in what are known as 'pegmatite' seams. Here, on the doorstep of a national park, Ashraf and Gulam handle large amounts of illegal explosives, working on a sheer cliff face while loaded with heavy pneumatic drills. In these mountains, however, as in many other parts of Pakistan, survival comes first, and obedience to the law second. The story of Gulam and Ashraf is the story of a country always on the brink of tragedy which has learnt that often the best way to get by is through laughter. Should they find a nice aquamarine, ruby or emerald, they will be rich; if not, they will go on working from sunrise to sundown, struggling on in poverty. [...] The village of Hushe is located more than 10,000ft above sea level, in the heart of the Karakoram mountains, not too far from the Chinese border and the Siachen glacier, a disputed zone now occupied by the Indian army. This remote area is home to four of only 14 mountains in the world to top 26,247ft (8,000m). K2, the planet's second highest peak at 28,250ft and perhaps the most difficult and dangerous k of all to climb, is the best known. One in every nine people who reach the top of K2 dies during the descent. In 2008, 11 people were killed by an avalanche at 27,230ft. At that altitude, even breathing is an extreme exertion. Over the past 30 years, due to the increasing popularity of mountain tourism, the strongest men in Hushe have worked as high-altitude porters. These are the men who carry the equipment, set the ropes and take the lead; they are also those who carry the oxygen bottles, tidy up the camp when it's all over and, above all, those who die. During the short and risky season they may earn about £1,250 for a five-week expedition. The alternatives, for those who lack the strength or prefer to avoid disproportionate risk, are shepherding and mining. Gulam Nabi looks frail, but if you peer deep into his eyes you may catch of a glimpse of the cheerful and indifferent disposition of a man who has escaped death many times.
His hands also tell a story that seemingly has little to do with his slight build and shy appearance. All his fingers are intact, an unusual feature among men who spend their lives handling explosives or carrying loads at 26,000ft at temperatures of 20 degrees below freezing. Nabi, who is 32, explains that he's always taken good care of himself up in the mountains. 'When I'm above 23,000ft, I never take off my goose-feather gloves,' he says. 'Uncovering your hand for a moment would be enough for it to freeze.' Nabi is from Hushe, and has spent the past eight years working as a high-altitude porter. This year, however, he decided to take some time off during the summer season to try his luck at mining. In the mountains of Pakistan, summer is short: about two months during which the climate is benign enough to work at high altitude. Nabi's mine is two days' walk from Hushe, on the right side of the Gondogoro glacier, and surrounded by mountains above 20,000ft. The miners work in a team of eight or nine called a handual. Two or three of them will be investors. One buys the explosives; another purchases the pneumatic drill; a third takes care of food expenses. The rest are unskilled labourers. Investors don't work, but the profits are divided equally among all members of the handual. Nabi's case is exceptional, as he has decided to work on his own, with only his wife for company. The mine, located inside the Karakoram National Park, belongs to the Pakistani people, but he doesn't have a permit to work there. For several days he carries 80lb loads to the campsite, a tough job but one he's used to as a result of his work as a porter. From the meadow of Shakg La, at 14,110ft, he searches for a vein of pegmatite to work on. The chosen spot is awe-inspiring. [...] One might say that the makeshift, dangerous and unregulated industry of the Baltistan mines is a reflection of a country torn apart by wars and civil strife. According to one observer, Haroon Arbab, who worked for the Stone and Mining Department, Baltistan's illegal miners can only be understood in this context. In the final analysis, he reflects, 'These men aren't miners, they're survivors.'"