AS we drive towards Shamsabad, a small village in Rawalpindi, my fellow passenger speaks to his friend over the phone in a language foreign to me. “It’s Wakhi,” beams Muqeem Baig. “This is what I speak in my hometown of Upper Hunza.”
A trainer of adventure sports, Baig has just returned from Hunza, where he went on a week-long trekking and camping expedition with 200 students from Lahore. He leads me to a wholesale shop surrounded by kiosks and hardware stores where his friends Hasil Shah and Wazir Aman await us. The shop is well-stocked with mountaineering essentials: ice axes, crampons, camping tents, climbing ropes and hiking poles lie next to each other, heaps of equipment. The three men, all ardent mountaineers, former and current, make space in the cramped room by removing metallic gear and an oversized pair of boots.
“Guess how much these snow boots are for?” asks Shah, owner of the wholesale shop. As I shrug, clueless, he says the pair is worth Rs150,000. “Pakistani tourists who come here would not even be willing to spend Rs200 on these as they are usually unaware of the value of equipment according to climatic needs,” he tells me. “When foreigners come here, they buy it readily, and in fact, educate us about the equipment.”
This is the peak season for mountaineering in Pakistan, but the number of foreigners coming here has decreased. Since June last year, when militants attacked a mountaineering base camp in Nanga Parbat, killing 10 climbers — all foreigners — and their local guide, the mountaineering industry has suffered a steep decline.
“Business was good last year but after the Nanga Parbat incident, foreigners stopped coming here,” Shah says. “My income has been reduced to 60 per cent in a year.” He adds that when tourists come, they don’t just purchase tents but also hiking shoes, backpacks and a lot of other equipment. Since the beginning of the year, he’s had only four or five foreign visitors.
Although Shah has no alternative plan in case the mountaineering industry suffers further decline, he finds stability in business by providing equipment to Rangers and the police to keep his earnings stable.
In 2013, Baig accompanied three different groups of foreigners. This year so far, only one group of three men from France, Italy and the UK have come to him. He is now focused on his damage-control plan, the domestic tourist. He has been visiting schools and colleges in different cities across the country, where he talks to students about the scenic sites of Fairy Meadows, Skardu and the Deosai plains, and the kind of food, physical strength and equipment which is essential for such adventures. He feels that if they knew more about what the country has to offer, more people would be drawn to outdoor excursions.
“Seeing the country’s situation, why would foreigners want to come here?” he asks. “My focus is now on domestic tourism because I see more business here.”
Baig says that in recent years, business from the corporate sector has been good too. Multinationals take staff for team-building expeditions in the north and at times choose exotic sites to hold conferences and seminars.
Sitting unobtrusively next to Baig, listening to his alternative plans of business in this industry, Wazir Aman, a former guide, says that he left the profession long before the Nanga Parbat attack took place. “After 9/11, when I saw the conditions, I realised that I wouldn’t make much income as a guide and started a food processing business.”
Other than selling dried fruit and organic food that he grows in Upper Hunza and brings to Rawalpindi and Islamabad, Aman provides packaged food essential for mountaineering jaunts. He leaves the room briefly and returns with sealed packs of Sea Buckthorn seeds that he claims have significant medicinal value, dried cherries and apricots, yak meat that he uses to make soup, and herbal mountaineering tea as “milk tea on heights is not recommended”.
Aman sees his interest in growing organic food as a way of staying connected with the tourism industry. “Being from Hunza, tourism is everything for us,” he says. “The north has been affected a lot now by terrorism. People have moved around, started new businesses, but in Hunza, tourism is all we have.”
Hopeful but cautious, Baig says he thinks that eventually things will get better but “till we have that gap, we need a plan”. He gushes with pride over the three highest mountain ranges of the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush, and the Himalayas and their meeting point, Pakistan. “We have so much beauty but terrorism has affected tourism,” he rues.
“You’ve poured salt on an open wound,” adds Aman. “We have our own Switzerland right here and people shouldn’t have to go anywhere else. Pakistan is heaven for us but we have made it hell. We’re hoping someday, someone will come and fix it.”
Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2014