French physicist Blaise Pascal had famously said: “Nature is an infinite sphere, of which the centre is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.”
Traveling is the best way to cast out depression, to run away from the suffocation that surrounds you – travel to far flung mountains, where there are no people, only snow, mountains, trees, and the fragrance of wet leaves filling the atmosphere. Where there is endless solitude, and the sound of your own breath whistles in your ears. In a valley, which lights up as soon as the night falls.
It doesn’t matter whether the different hues of evenings are splattered on the horizons, or if plain foggy white is the only colour you see. If you just want some respite, even one colour is enough.
Sitting on top, watching the thin traffic in the valley as the freezing wind blows, then walking up the long and winding mountain path – that’s the recipe for escaping from the world. Returning back you see you surroundings, your home, your job, your society with new eyes, with new hope; the hope that things can change, they can be different. The hope that sustains life.
If nothing changes, the road to escape will always be there. The traveller will escape back to the mountains, where their snow-covered darkness will welcome him with arms wide open. Here, your own voice echoes back to you, and even the kraa-kraa of a crow sounds like the coo-oo-ooh of a koel.
The desire to embrace nature has pushed me to travel extensively, but when I passed through Ghizer, it felt, for the first time, that this was where the circumference of nature’s sphere lay.
I have seen countless such scenes inside and outside the country, which, when relived later, fill my mind and my heart with their colours and fragrances every single time. But among these mental memorabilia, the most sensuous ones belong to Ghizer.
With the strange fragrance of Deosai, I will always stay in love. Especially the musky scents of Ghizer, and the way the soil smells after the first rains. I have a habit of breathing in deeply whenever I pass from here. I left the serenity of the Phunder Valley on one such rainy noon. Now, I am going through Ghizer’s settlements: Teru, Gulaghmuli, and Langer, all the way to Shandoor Pass, and the Kalash Valley beyond that in Chitral.
|Autumn in Ghizer.|
|Near Phundar Valley.|
The rain stops for a few minutes, and I unpack my camera for a little photography alongside my companion, the Ghizer River. The sun is setting in Teru, and the day’s luminosity is slowly turning into the night’s darkness.
The birds are returning to their nests, but the valley seems to bustling with life – men returning from the fields, the children playing in streets, youngsters busy chatting; everyone is now returning to their nests under the gray sky. The river, too, has become calmer, perhaps it is tired after a whole day of flowing.
Then, night falls. The orangish rays of the setting sun make the yellow-turning leaves of poplar trees look like burning matchsticks lined up. The last rays of the sun are still dancing on the summits of the Shandoor Pass, and the Hindukush Peaks are wearing a metallic red shade.
Heading to Shandoor, I am thinking of the people I left behind in Gilgit-Baltistan. What sceneries those were! There are certain evenings when you recall these memories and your heart skips a beat. On these days, the journey down the lane of memories are most radiant.
I drive by Teru and now enter Gulaghmuli. This small village too, is enveloped in the sadness of the night, and even the children are in their homes rather than playing in the streets. I see Gulaghmuli’s Government Primary School Building. Last I was here, spring had returned to Hunza and the flowers of the cherry trees were blooming everywhere. I had come to Ghizer all the way from Hunzah in mid-April. I had wanted to go to the Shandoor Pass even then, but the snow hadn’t melted there yet.
|Spring in Gulaghmuli.|
|Winter in Gulaghmuli.|
On my way, I saw this school for children. The weather was extremely cold, with chilly winds from the nearby snow-covered mountains filling up the valley. When I stepped inside the school premises to take a few photographs, I ended up crying. The two female teachers of the school thought I was from the media, and told me about the problems that the children and the school faced.
The children were from farmer families. In this extreme cold, when I was shivering, they neither had any shoes on their feet nor adequately warm clothes on their body. Many didn’t have sweaters. I couldn’t help myself but salute the ambition of these young children, who were immersed in their lesson, without a trace of worry or discomfort on their faces.
The national flag waved in the courtyard as the little angels sat on the ground, seeking knowledge.
A teacher asked the children to recite the national anthem. I couldn’t keep my eyes off this particularly shy little girl, her blue eyes filled with pure innocence. While reciting the national anthem, she would should louder than the rest of them the line, “Kishwar-e-Haseen Shadbaad” (May this beauteous land remain happy and bountiful), and all the students broke into fits of laughter. Seeing the children happy, at school, despite all the hardships was extremely heartening. I turned to leave before my eyes teared up again.
|A school in Gulaghmuli.|
|A school in Gulaghmuli.|
During the next leg of my journey, the little girl remained on my mind, who didn’t have any warm clothes, yet her face exuded warmth. After several months, I passed by the valley again, and stopped by the school with presents for children. The girl was absent that day. I didn’t know her name so I could only ask, “Where’s Kishwar-e-Haseen Shadbaad?”
I leave the school and the memories of those children behind. Gulaghmuli is now in my rear-mirror. As the road turns near Langer, I can see River Ghizer spread out in the openness of the valley ahead. In the winters, I have witnessed hundreds of yaks grazing below from this same point. Then, the mountains were fully covered with snow, and the yaks looked like tiny moving dots. The valley was silent that day, and it is silent even today in the enveloping darkness. As I cross the bridge of a mountainous stream, I can see the vibrant red sky in the water.
|Yaks grazing on the fields.|
As the sun sets, I can see the full moon. For the Chukar Partridge and the traveler, the moon is a superlative attraction. A small caravan of the nomads pass by, a man from the caravan waves at me. I keep looking at them until they dissolve into the darkness. The Shandoor Pass is coming closer, and very soon the jeep will start scaling its heights. It’s the start of November, and it is getting colder as the daylight goes, as does the sound of the flowing water; I switch on my jeep’s headlights.
By the time Shandoor’s heights end, the day has completed its transformation in to nightfall. The army outposts at Shandoor are also surrounded by darkness. In front of them is a one-room hotel on the mountain slope. This is the stop for the Natco buses, where tourists rest for a while, freshen up, and resume their destination. An old hotel owner comes out wearing a long coat and a muffler – for a second he appears to be a villain right out of a Hollywood movie.
|Near Shandur Pass.|
|Near Shandur Pass.|
|Night at Shandur.|
The room is warm and comfortable inside. The old man’s stories continue long into the night, and I don’t know at what point exactly I fall asleep. When I wake up, it’s early morning, so I head out to photograph the Shandoor Lake. The temperature is in the negative, and the morning is dawning in very very slowly. As I pass from the Shandoor Polo Ground, I reminisce those great days when I used to come here to watch the Shandoor Polo Festival.
The Shandoor Polo Festival takes place every year from the 7th to the 9th of July. At the height of 12,200 feet, this is the world’s highest polo ground. Lower oxygen levels make breathing difficult, but the strong men of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral have been playing here for a long time. Every year, there’s a match between the polo teams of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral, and the winning team celebrates for an entire week.
Horses are specially bred and trained for polo at this height, because at 12,000 feet, this is not an ordinary horse’s game. Even trained horses sometimes die during the games here. When I had first arrived at Shandoor to watch a polo match, the air was filled with dust. The festival seemed like any other festival, lines of tents with stalls at every next step, the roaring of generators and spectators alike was everywhere.
People from the stretches of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral come to watch the match. These are the people who have learnt to live in the harshest of colds, secluded from the rest of the world. Life in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral continues because of these very people. For centuries, they have lived without sumptuous meals, comfortable homes, and any proper education and health facilities. For centuries, they have been playing polo.
|Shandur Polo Festival.|
|Shandur Polo Festival.|
|Shandur Polo Festival.|
|Shandur Polo Festival.|
With the passage of time, things have changed. Education is now more accessible, with the literacy rate sharply on the rise. The standard of living and awareness has also improved, though these people are still deprived of many of their constitutional rights, as are many others in this nation.
Right now, the polo ground is deserted and a dim blue light has spread on the horizon. Seeing the ground in this blue light is bringing my spirits down. When you have once seen a place brimming with life, seeing it without that life becomes a sad experience.
|Night at Shandur Polo Ground.|
The sun rises from behind the mountains, and I can see its shimmering rays on the Shandoor Lake. The frozen water at the shore begins to melt gradually.
The sun is now high, the heat has warmed me so much that I can feel the humidity on my face. The dew, which had frozen on my face and hair, is now melting. All of a sudden, a wave from the lake wets my shoes. I’ve been longing for this morning in Shandoor for a very long time.
As I leave the Shandoor Pass and go down a steep slope, I hear nothing, due to the pressure building up in my ears. Unconscious of my situation, my driver keeps talking, but I can’t hear him. Soon, we find ourselves in the Sorlaspur Valley. By the time we reach Boni town, I feel my backbone has shattered in to pieces; the road is full of bumps and craters. As I reach Chitral from Mastuj, the night has completely enveloped the mountains. I am so tired from the rugged journey that I decide to spend the night in Chitral.
Located in the Hindukush mountains, Chitral was known as the Riyasat Chitral, or Chitral State at the time of Pakistan’s creation. This state was previously part of the British Raj, and comprised of all the valleys of Chitral, and district Ghizer. A representative of British Raj was sovereign on the area, and the Mehtars of Chitral would represent him. Chitral was the first state to join Pakistan after independence, unconditionally.
|Paragliding at Shandur Lake.|
|A frozen Shandur Lake.|
|Sunrise at Shandur Lake.|
|Sunset at Shandur Lake.|
The next morning, my destination is the Bamburet Valley of Kalash. People here are known for their traditional black ornamental dresses and a belief system which has brought the name “Kafiristan” (Land of Infidels) to this place. Locals trace their roots to Alexander the Great and Greece. On my way to Bamburet, I can see the Ayun Valley and the lush greenery on the mountain slopes.
|In the middle of Shandur and Boni.|
|A Kalashi girl.|
The road to Kalash is bumpy, the wayfarer is constantly accompanied by the River Kalash. After a two-hour long journey, I arrive in Bamburet, the central location of Kalash. Apart from Bamburet, Rumbur and Birir are two other valleys of Kalash. The indigenous people of Kalash are the custodians of a unique set of rituals and festivals.
As I reach Bamburet, I can see the corn fields in all their green glory. Kalashi women and girls, adorned in their traditional black outfits, are sitting in small groups under the shades of these trees. Young men and elders are walking or sitting at the shops. You don’t have to walk too far to find shade. The silence and serenity of the valley makes you forget everything; the only fearsome thing here are the black mountains across the fields.
I spend the whole day walking the streets of Bamburet. There are two and three-storey homes, built in vintage style. Visible in some of the windows were girls wearing blue necklaces and colourful caps; they would start to giggle when they saw me, but would vanish as soon as I’d turn to look at them. I see men and women walking with bundles of fodder on their heads. Children ask me “Esh pata”. I don’t know how to respond, until someone explains to me that they're inquiring: “How are you?”
|A boy from Bamburet.|
|A boy from Bamburet.|
The day is nearing its end, and I can hear the flowing water clearer than ever before. With every passing hour, there are lesser people in the streets. I am sitting next to the river, looking at my face in its clear water. I can see the sunburn.
After the 32 autumns of my life, I can see my hair turning white gradually. White hair, black under-eye bags, subdued emotions, lost relationships, all combine to make me feel like a traveler standing in the middle of the nowhere, with no place to go.
If the average age of a human is 60 years, then I have lived half of it. Even if the traveler looks behind, he can’t see his tracks, just like dust clouds from your jeep that make it impossible to see the road. In this same dust, several of my friends, relationships, my parents, and my loved ones are buried.
Friends have gone farther in search of better careers and lifestyles, and I am right here, chained by my passion. A working person can travel only to the extent his job permits him, and that is what I do – travel as much as I can with my job in parallel.
Photography is of secondary interest. The real joy is the travelling itself, which makes a man conscious. Some of the companions along my trips have a permanent place in my memory, others never made a place in the first place.
As night approaches in Bamburet, I continue to sit under the shade of a tree. The cool mountain wind plays with my hair, and refreshes my soul. I can't help but recall a fascinating free verse by Aslam Ansari, titled Gotam Ka Aakhri Wa’az (The last sermon of Gotam):
میرے عزیزو میں جل چکا ہوں
میرے عزیزو میں بُجھ رہا ہوں
My friends, I am all but burnt
My friends, I am all but extinguished
ميں اپنے ہونے کی آخری حد پہ آگيا ہوں
وجود دکھ ہے، وجود کی يہ نمود دکھ ہے
I have reached the last stage of my existence
Existence is sorrow, this show of existence is sorrow
حيات دکھ ہے، ممات دکھ ہے
يہ ساری موہوم و بے نشاں کائنات دکھ ہے
Life is sorrow, death is sorrow
The entirety of this fragile, empty cosmos is sorrow
شعور کيا ہے؟ اک التزامِ وجود ہے، اور وجود کا التزام دکھ ہے
يہ زندہ رہنے کا، باقی رہنے کا شوق، يہ اہتمام دکھ ہے
What is consciousness but just a precursor of existence; existence of necessity is sorrow
This desire to live, to survive; this plan is sorrow
سکوت دکھ ہے، کہ اس کے کربِ عظيم کو کون سہہ سکا ہے
کلام دکھ ہے، کہ کون دنيا ميں کہہ سکا ہے جو ماورائے کلام دکھ ہے
Silence is sorrow, who has been able to bear this sorrow?
Words are sorrow too, for who has been able to express the unworded sorrow?
يہ ہونا دکھ ہے، نہ ہونا دکھ ہے، ثبات دکھ ہے، دوام دکھ ہے،
میرے عزيزو تمام دکھ ہے
This happening is sorrow, not happening is sorrow, lasting is sorrow, eternity is sorrow
My friends, everything is sorrow.
—All photos by author | Translated by Bilal Karim Mughal from the original in Urdu here.
Syed Mehdi Bukhari is a Network Engineer by profession, and a traveler, poet, photographer and writer by passion.
He can be reached on Facebook.