Within the cold depths of my achingly overworked heart, I couldn’t stop cursing my Omani friend and the moment I had acquiesced to his request to see the snow.
As we were short of time, we decided to plan something over the weekend. I had seen Nathiagali/Murree too many times and the crowd there overwhelmed me! Murree is more people and less trees now anyways! I wanted to go to a place which has lots of snow and is close to Islamabad, but beyond the overly mundaneness of Murree.
We had several options: Shogran, Naran, Kalam, Skardu, Gilgit, Chitral, etc. However, Gilgit, Chitral and Skardu had to be left out due to the time it would take if we travelled by road (almost seems like going to the moon,16-24 hours!) and the fact that PIA never ever gives you a confirmed seat on these routes (they say it’s the weather, I say its reasons unknown and typical of PIA).
Indecisive yet, we arrived in Islamabad on a cool winter day and went on straight to the bus stop in Rawalpindi.
Unfortunately, and as luck would have it, we ended up with a scoundrel, who lured us with his sweet talk and, salivating at the sight of Omani Riyals, managed to convince us to go to Shogran. “Just four to five hours” away from Islamabad.
We struck a deal and moved on. I wish I had remembered the famous saying, “When something is too good to be true, it usually isn’t!” Soon after we started the trip, the driver got a call from his family, began shouting at his wife fractiously, got out, heaved our luggage overboard and simply left us out in the open.
We hired another vehicle; he ostensibly was on bail after being caught on charges of heroin smuggling (he blamed the passenger, but we felt otherwise). He seemed a very devious character and somehow the vibes emanating from him belied his innocence. I made it a point to be extra wary of him.
While the sun sizzles, the memories of a cool Shogran are soothing
We set out again, but soon he started calling someone on phone continuously. Then, as we somehow had a premonition about, he told us that because of the excessive snow, we will have to hire a jeep for 6km (more money) and then walk just 2kms up the mountain (even more money since we’ll have to hire a porter).
What was so perplexing was the fact that despite being a seasoned driver he did not know the conditions at this time of the year. Two kilometres on paper sound very achievable, but when it’s climbing a mountain straight up at an incline of 90 degrees (yes, Shogran has one of the most steep climbs of all habitable mountains in Pakistan) in freezing temperatures, five feet of snow, a snap snowstorm and in pitch darkness with wolves, coyotes and the occasional leopard meowing around you from all nooks and corners, there is no horror movie that can match the experience.
We were caught in a situation where we could neither go up because of fatigue nor could go down. Had it been not for the porter who frolicked on the rocks like ibexes (and my fast depleting stock of Coke and Red Bull), we would have definitely died of exposure.
The trip to the top of the mountain took us a good four hours and the whole experience was reminiscent of my never ending search for a KFC outlet in Nairobi where whoever I asked only kept telling me that its “right over there” ... and that there turned out to be at least 5km, which eventually never did come as I had to turn back.
In this particular situation, our porter cum guide kept pushing us and trying to show us an imaginary light of the hotel on the horizon, but it seemed to move further and further away as we walked towards it. Being very tall and broad in stature, I had a more difficult time walking in the snow because of my top heavy centre of gravity.
There are just no words to describe the pain and ignominy of slipping over and over again in front of the laughing porter.
Finally, we saw a small ray of light. Civilisation, breathing on a generator. But the happiness was short lived. That was just a cell phone tower; the hotel was still a few hundred metres away.
Amongst frozen tears and aching bones, we finally saw the hotel, the last one on the farthest corner of the plateau. We were so tired and dirty that even if we were asked to pay Rs25,000 per night, I would have agreed.
However, the euphoria was short lived; the hotel was hellishly empty, there was no electricity, no warm water and, apart from the porters, the only living soul was the hotel chowkidar. I could swear that it was a scene straight out of Stephen King’s classic novel, The Shining. Salvation came in a different form, though; piping hot tea (which got cold in a matter of minutes), freshly-cooked parathas and eggs. But there was still no chance of taking the desperately needed shower.
When one is feeling as dirty as we were, the whole universe is limited to addressing that need and nothing else matters. But since there was no recourse at all, I just lay down to go to sleep as quickly as possible, all the time cursing my friend.
A technology person, I felt even more desperate since my mobile phone was not catching signals, though everyone else’s phones were working! The only heater they had was a small gas canister which barely served the purpose and that too we had to turn off before sleeping. That night seemed endless; the silence, eerie.
Coming from Karachi, we are not used to this. Not even the sound of the fan. The TV did turn on, replete with Indian channels, but all I wanted was to go back to Karachi to the comfort of my home. This was too alien, too scary and too surreal. I woke up often during the night waiting for morning to come so we can go back and never see Shogran again.
The morning did come finally, and it was beautiful. Pristine whiteness all around. Crackingly crisp sun. There was a brief period when we actually enjoyed the scenery and took some pictures but that joy too was fleeting as we quickly got tired walking in the snow; and the thought of embarking on another adventure, i.e., going down the mountain, played havoc on our nerves.
It seemed right out of an RPG game (role playing game) set in medieval Europe, going downhill over 4,000 feet on foot, made even more complicated by the fact that the snow had started melting and the terrain had become even more slippery and muddy.
Surprisingly, it took us longer to go down than to go up since most of our time was spent in getting up after skidding every 10 feet or so. The only consolation for next time (if there is a next time) is the construction of a chairlift which would make this an ideal destination all year around, maybe even for skiing.
I also marvelled at the strength of the natives; lean as they were, they still had the strength of a horse and could have literally carried me down along with our luggage had the situation come to that. I made sure that I gave them enough tip for their effort, as that is their only means of sustenance in winter.
Before we had set out for Shogran, we had excitedly thought of going to Siri Paya on foot since no jeep or horse is available in winter. One kilometre up the mountain to Shogran, that wish dissipated quickly. The thought of walking 7km in snow further 4,000 feet where air is at a minimum, seemed an almost impossible task.
Driving back to Abbottabad, we decided to break our journey because I could not take being that dirty anymore. The hotel we chose was PC (but not the actual PC). It was good enough though and the only thing that mattered to us was hot water and a soft bed. We slept like babies and ate at AFC (not KFC), since there is no foreign food chain in Abbottabad (thank you, Osama).
Lessons learned from this trip: plan beforehand. Shogran, you are the most beautiful place on earth. But only if someone was kind enough to develop you as a winter destination, too. But then again, when Murree is just a stone throw away from Islamabad, why go to Shogran in the first place, except only those who are maverick travellers.
— Photos by writer.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 6th, 2014