Far from the busy bazaars of Rawalpindi, the grand mosques of Lahore and the hustle and bustle of southern port city Karachi which altogether, under the sweltering summer heat results in a maelstrom of life and buzz that characterize Pakistan, lies a different world.
Here, a 45-min flight away or some 18 hours by road from administrative capital Islamabad, up in the Northern Areas, another kind of cacophony exists.
It is the sound of the Indus River gushing down at fast speeds, the roar of a distant avalanche, the athaan bouncing off mountain surfaces and the silent footsteps of the snow leopard. This harmony is more natural than man-made, except for the rumble of jeeps and buses trudging their way along the Karakoram Highway that threads the mountains.
The road, built by both Pakistan and China in 1986, was once the passageway undertaken by trading caravans on the ancient Silk route. It now forms the lifeline that runs for more than 8,000 miles, connecting rural Pakistan to the rest of the country.
Owing to its high elevation and dangerous conditions, it is often referred to as the Ninth Wonder of the world.
Decades later, the road continues to be a treacherous one.
Landslides are a common occurrence along the gravel-lined and narrow road that snakes the mountains, disrupting the already slow-moving traffic. Stones with markings to warn drivers of impending dangers dot the journey.
But for the many thousands of travelers before and now, the daunting road is one that is worth the trip.
Here, towering, snow-capped mountains converge resulting in dramatic backdrops flanking every side you set your eyes on.
After more than half a day of travelling in a Mashabrum bus which we boarded from the Rawalpindi bus station, we finally reached Raikot Serai. (Not before our bus suffered a mini collision with a car.)
From there, we rode in a jeep for about 40 minutes, which moved precariously along the unpaved road where any slight wrong turn could bring us off the edge of the cliff.
This was then followed by another three hours of trekking guided by speedy porters twice our age, in mud-coloured shalwar kameez and trainers. Our untrained physique showed from our short breaths and intermittent breaks but when we finally arrived in Fairy Meadows, a camping site popular with adventure travellers, all thoughts of fatigue dissolved as we soaked in the raw nature around us.
Marco Polo sheeps and goats graze on green pastures encircled by dense alpine forest.
Dusk was beginning to befall and our porters turned into hosts, skipping off hurriedly to prepare us dinner.
In our 6-metre by 6-metre wooden hut, we then sat around the fireplace that stood in the centre, a cup of hot kahwah (green tea) in our hands. Vegetable soup and noodles were brought in, food obviously accustomed to foreigners like us, as their diet would normally be comprised of dal chawal and occasionally, meat.
The next morning, I woke up to a clear view of Nanga Parbat’s northern face, its snow-tipped peak glistening with yellow streaks. Sublime soon took over; and continued to be my state of mind for the days after.
Nicknamed 'The Killer Mountain' because of the high rate of deaths that afflicts climbers, it is the ninth highest mountain in the world, standing at more than 8,000 meters. Every few hours, an avalanche is first heard, and then seen, as slabs of snow-covered rocks slide down the mountain surface.
Local children run around freely and when I approached them, they smiled sheepishly at first, before breaking into laughter and mild chatter as they posed for my camera. Fair-skinned and blue-eyed, they appeared more Gora than Sindhi.
Bemused that a female foreigner had taken a strong liking to them, they led me by the hand and brought me to their school, which stood atop a hill surrounded by tall fir trees. Their school, attended by some 50 boys, is made out of wooden planks and had only two classrooms where they are taught Urdu, Math, as well as Islamic studies.
In the evening, they accompanied me to see their mothers who greeted me warmly with freshly-made lassi while gently pushing my cameras into my bags.
Conversations with the older teenagers later revealed that 18-year-old Keramat, handsome and curly-haired, studies biology in Karachi while the slightly younger and well-built Islam is a skilled polo player. (His skills were clearly evident as I watched him mount his horse, in the way you only see in movies set in 19th century background.) The girls on the other hand, attend school in Chilas, a town two hours away.
In this part of the world, it appears that education is given top priority and a brighter future down south seems more attractive. The environment where they grew up in then becomes a summer retreat.
The next day, we trekked for two hours to Bi-yal, another camping site, where foaming streams in which ice-cold glacial water flows down rapidly and boulders as big as a van loom over us.
Local folklore speaks of Bi-yal being the home of jinns. As with many parts of Pakistan, mysticism is rife here and mystical creatures like fairies and demons are thought to dwell in areas like these not inhabited by people.
This mysticism also forms the setting for British author James Hilton’s book Lost Horizon where he fantasised about a place called Shangri-la, rumoured to be paradise on earth that exists in Hunza valley.
At night though, surrealism rather then myth envelops the area.
Out on the field, the crackle of wood burning cuts through the silence of the night. We huddled around the bonfire, its fiery flame sending orange sparks into the sky already scattered with stars in myriad constellations.
Days later, I left Raikot Serai and made my way to the town of Gilgit, some three hours away.
In this busy town, street life is evident, shops open till late plying their trade and eateries; kebabs and momo dumplings are abundant. Shopkeepers beckon people in, their harsh Brushaski tongue slipping out from their naswah-chewing teeth. (Naswah is a cheaper subsititute for tobacco.)
The town’s vigor also stems from it being the central point from which buses depart to other places like Skardu and Chitral with routes running every half and hour.
Chinese men in large groups are also regularly seen about town, mostly for construction work on the Karakoram Highway.
Indeed, the road – which took 27 years in the making – is a constant work in progress. Also known as the “Friendship Highway”, it is a hallmark of Pakistan and China’s burgeoning relationship.
At the centre of the town, surrounded by a bustling market, stands a modest single-storey building, bordered by 2-feet high cement walls. A sign ‘Medina Guesthouse’ hangs above its entrance.
Inside, travellers from all over are to be found. I shared a dormitory, costing just 250 rupees a night with Jean from France along with two others, Fiona and Tim from Hong Kong. Among others that I met there included Mac from Ireland and Marc from Spain. Most of them have just spent months around India before crossing overland while a good number of them are serious trekkers as well as cyclists who traversed the road on their mountain bikes.
Over the next few days, we sat around in darbars (teahouses) drinking salty chai, exchanging stories and planning our next route.
At that time, they were some 15 of us foreigners up north, and our paths crossed often so much so that everyone knew or has heard of the other. When our bus made stops at ubiquitous checkpoints made out of make-shift tents along the Highway, we would recognize names in the books where we had to register, thus allowing us to track one another.
We thought ourselves to be disenfranchised wayfarers, avoiding hassle-free tour packages and traveling with only the clothes in our backpacks whilst collecting tales of rugged journeys.
More than ever, we found ourselves united in dispelling rumours of a rogue Pakistan, of which the Western media has often perpetrated.
As it appears to be, the half-expected gunfire was unheard and the truckloads of mujahideens with Kalashnikovs slung around their arms were non-existent, except for a few sightings of “Down with USA” scribbled on walls.
After days of doing pretty much nothing in Gilgit, I met up with friends from Karachi who had just returned from a trip to Deosai Plain and Astor Lake near Skardu where thick blankets of snow had surround them.
We continued on the road, this time in our rented jeep.
The landscape proved again to be dramatic, if not more. Here, the Hindu Kush Range comes together to produce a stunning backdrop of overlapping mountains. Our journey took us off the Karakoram, but on narrower roads that brought us onto higher elevation.
After a short stopover at Naltar Lake to fish for trouts amongst grazing sheep and Yaks, we were soon on route to Chitral via the 15,000 feet high Shandur Pass, passing by the grounds of the Shandur Polo Festival which attracts a lively crowd every July.
Finally after 13 hours on the road and a night spent in a motel managed by the Pakistan Tourism Development Corportation (PTDC) at Phundar Lake, we reached Chitral. As a treat for ourselves, we checked into the luxurious Hindukush Heights which sits on a hill and counts Robert De Niro as among its guests.
Owned by the Prince of Chitral himself, the rooms are tastefully decorated with hand-woven rugs, and open up to a balcony that overlooks the town with Terich Mir, the highest peak of the Hindu Kush, forming the background.
The next day, we set out to Bumboret Valley, 40 km away, to visit the Kalash tribe. Armed policemen greeted us, and insisted on accompanying us throughout the whole journey.
Security it seems is an issue here. We were three hours away from Afghanistan and cases of kidnappings are supposedly rampant.
But the increased security only serves to highlight the importance of the valley.
Here in the valleys of Rumbur, Birir and Bumboret, the indigenous Kalash people, numbering around 3,000 live and practice their own form religion. Said to be the descendants of Alexander the Great whose army arrived here some 2,000 years ago, they appear distinct from the rest of the Muslim-majority population in their worship of ancestral gods and deities.
During the day the women, dressed in their everyday long black robes and colourful headbands decorated with cowrie shells and beads, are seen working in the fields alongside the men who have adopted the shalwar kameez.
The girls, blond and green-eyed, embrace a free-spirited nature, manifested in romantic tales of elopement that has been accepted by the society as a natural form of order.
During festival time, men and women alike congregate together to celebrate and carry out rituals. As nighttime approached, they danced and sang to the heady beat of drums while sipping local moonshine called tara. Here, pagan rituals dating back to the 2nd century underscores the title of Kafirs, or non-believers that have been stamped upon them.
Over the years too, cultural tourism that borders on exploitation has thrived in this part of Khyber-Pakthunkwa. Guesthouses have sprung up, and during festival periods, enjoy full occupancy.
The Kalash people themselves, are aware of this, and make full use of it by expecting money when their photographs are taken.
Although the area has seen higher conversion rates to Islam in recent years, a tolerant approach by the government towards them has allowed the Kalash to continue their way of life.
At the end of the valley, graves have been overturned for the purpose of anthropology studies, except for one that remained intact and said to hold the body of a Spanish man beheaded by the Taliban for being a spy.
Around town the mood is less somber with shops selling beaded accessories you find so often in Karachi’s Sunday bazaars, suddenly reminding you of these two jarring cities that exist under the same sovereign name of Pakistan, “Land of the Pure.”
Truly, the passage on the high terrains is not for the faint-hearted but the harshness of the road depicts exactly the kind of tough mountain-living that prevails in this part of the world.
Where once-popular ibex hunting and polo matches made up the sports presided over by kings, today, it is a different game altogether. Economic demands of a developing country has led to many moving to other parts of the state in search of a seemingly better life.
Nevertheless, much of the Northern Areas still appear alienated – physically and psychologically – from the rest of the country. Here, thousands of feet high, they are left alone to prosper as well as perish.
In the weeks that followed my departure from the Northern Areas, rains ravaged the mountains, swallowing whole large swathes of land and displacing thousands.
Some four months after, I shot off an email to a well-known guide named Imran Schah who assured me that lives were slowly returning to normalcy.
“Send my Salam to the mountains,” I signed off.
“I passed your Salam to the blizzards and they took it to Terich Mir, and the castle of fairies replied, Walaikum Asalam,” he said.
It seems that the very mysticism that has made the mountains so daunting, is the one thing that offers solace in troubled times.
Things to do there:
In Raikot Serai:
• Camp in Fairy Meadows • Trek to Bi-yal or base camp of Nanga Parbat
• Fish for trouts at Naltar Lake, or Phundar Lake • Plan a trip to Skardu with a stop over at Deosai Plain
• Attend the annual Shandur Polo Festival (early-July) • Pay a visit to the Kalash tribe in Bumboret, Rumbur or Birir Valleys, the best time to visit would be during Joshi (mid-May), Utchal (mid-July), Phool (end-Sep) or Chowmas (end-Dec) • Spend a night at the Hindukush Heights.
More info can be found here: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/pakistan/north-west-frontier-province/kalasha-valleys
How to get there:
1) By air: Pakistan International Airlines run daily 45-min flights from Islamabad to Gilgit, and Chitra with tickets costing around 3,000 -5,000 rupees. Passengers will be able to enjoy an aerial view of mountains on board. Flights are also subjected to weather conditions. 2) By land: Bus companies like NATCO and Mashabrum carry out services daily from Rawalpindi to Gilgit, tickets start from 1,000 rupees and journey time is around 20 hours. Buses also run from Peshawar to Chitral daily.
This is the second part of a three-part series of travel musings by the writer. Her first part can be found here.
She would like to believe she understands cricket and speaks some Urdu. You may contact her at email@example.com