As the blue waters of the Karomber Lake bathe in the golden rays of a late September afternoon, I immerse myself in its warmth. Laying almost half-dead on a bed of wildflowers, I feel emptiness and fulfillment simultaneously.
Sealing the summer and ushering the autumn, September for me is a miraculous month, a doorway to a season that awakens my soul, letting me know that a time of cold mornings and chilly evenings is now around the corner.
My porter, Saifullah, whispers in my ear: "Sahab, chai (tea) got cold once again. A cup of tea will soothe your fatigued body. Let me fix you some tea up once more." I respond in a muffled nod.
The sun blazes liberally on this bank and my eyes steal the eternal dance of sunshine on the lake's deep waters, reflecting thousands of colours. I get up as I can no longer resist the beauty that's spread out everywhere. And well, although my gaze does not return from the endless waters outstretched everywhere, my tea does.
My journey to this majestic lake has by no means been an easy one. By the time the car I am travelling in enters the Lowari tunnel, Pakistan's longest tunnel, the night has sunk back in and the horizon is glazing with hues of dawn. This tunnel connects the districts of Dir and Chitral to each other, and in the case of Chitral's residents, it's also the key way to connect them to the rest of the country.
Life used to stand still in this region during the winters. All links into and out of here would remain closed for several months and the only route left to transport edibles was via Afghanistan. Former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had announced that the tunnel would be constructed but the project went nowhere for three decades. Finally, it was Pervez Musharraf who took it up to finally start the project to construct the Lowari tunnel.
The vehicle runs through the tunnel and dawn welcomes me the moment I emerge from it. Mountains are bathing in sunlight by the time we reach Darosh.
The sun covers almost half of the valley, illuminating the mountains and leaving the other half in darkness. A blue-eyed young lad knocks on the window of the vehicle as we break off in Darosh market and asks: “Sahab! chai?”
I go past Darosh and now I'm travelling onward along the Chitral River. Gazing at the freshly sunbathed snowy peaks of Tirich Mir, I finally enter Chitral town.
As roads begin bustling with people, this slumbering kingdom turns into a hip and happening city. Youths of all ages running to their schools and colleges, careful not to miss their first lecture of the day. What a memorable time in one's life which we live half-heartedly only to plunge into an age of never-ending responsibilities. Lost in the memories of childhood, I turn the car towards the town's Shahi Mosque.
The former ruler of Chitral, locally known as Mehtar, Shujaul Mulk had the mosque constructed on architectural lines similar to Peshawar's Sunehri Mosque. I bow in submission instantaneously and the touch of the cold marble soothes my soul. I stay in submission for several moments. In total surrender, I come to a perfect stillness, one with my surroundings.
Lying in the heart of the mountainous range of Hindukush, Chitral is a rare amalgamation of stillness and movement; of vastness and congestion, and its highest peak, the Tirich Mir, begins to beguile you the moment you venture into its grand territory.
Another feather in the cap of this region is its declaration of accession to Pakistan in 1947.
During the British Raj, this area was included under district Ghizer in Gilgit-Baltistan, with an appointed political agent. With a population of nearly 500,000, district Chitral contains seven tehsils or subdistricts. Broghil Pass, Darkot Pass, and Chambar Kun are some of its famous passes, whereas, Shandoor, Broghil, Yarkhun, Chan Tar, and Qazeda are some of its key valleys. Arkari, Laspor and Tourkho are some of the significant glaciers here, whereas Laspor, Molkho, Lutkaho, are all rivers of this area that get together and connect in the Chitral River.
In its east lie Gilgit, Swat, and Yasin, and in its west lie Badakhshan, China and Russia. Whereas the Lowari tunnel and Dir are located in its south.
Now at a local eatery near Chitral's main bus stop, I consume a cup of tea and take on a dose of vitamin D from the shining sun. My next destination, some 250 kilometres away, is the Broghil Valley that borders Afghanistan's Wakhan province and I start looking for a vehicle that can take me there.
Several exhausting hours later, I hear the honk of a jeep on which I board and this vehicle runs on the road to Shandoor Pass to meet its first destination Mastuj.
From that point, a stony road turns to Yarkhun and Broghil Valley, leaving the Shandoor Pass behind.
Sixteen long hours are to be lost in this hide and seek that I’m all set to play. The man driving my jeep is the native of a village in the Yarkhun Valley. As we near Mastuj, the sun ultimately sets but its warmth still haunts me as we travel onward.
The journey requires exposing oneself to a certain level of vulnerability, and that I’m up to — in some ways, completely vulnerable and at the mercy of the man driving me to my destination.
As we move along, I see a board inscribed with the name Mastuj, and to my surprise, the driver turns towards Mastuj market instead of the stony road that leads directly to Broghil Valley. I protest the detour but can't help but surrender when he says, “boss let’s have a short tea break here”.
The jeep's driver also seems to have learned other words in the English language, the result of regular interaction with foreign travellers. He misses no chance to reflect his knowledge of the language, and it's not always appropriate but I just smile away. Before boarding back on the vehicle, he purchases lots of candies and lollipops from a tuck shop.
Usually long drives and music go hand and hand, and as the jeep starts, the driver puts on some music, with a vocalist who goes by the moniker safeer-i-dard (ambassador of pain) singing from the work of a Chitrali poet Shorash Bangash. Though I'm not sure this really works for me and as we drive on, with the jeep running on a stream of stones and boulders, the vocals end up making the ambiance of a difficult journey aggravating as opposed to enchanting.
The tossing and swerving of the vehicle tells me something about the deep animosity between my driver and the rocks, and it seems he drives to shatter them into a thousand fragments. Alongside this rocky road, the Yarkhun River flows steadily with the sun out in its full might.
My neck and back start aching badly with the constant shaking of the jeep but the continuous pain my poor ears have been bearing since long is indescribable. Unaware of how averse I was to the music he was playing, my driver seems to be enjoying the journey and pauses now and then to meet a passerby and offer them a candy. When the short and long meetings do not stop, I break my silence. To my surprise, he has no reason to be doing this other than compassion.
I try to come to terms with the limitations as we move ahead but the songs on play still annoy me. As for the driver, he has his reasons, the most important one that it keeps him awake.
Crossing nooks and crannies of various villages, we move forward and thankfully the heat is not all that bad as we go uphill. As the driver stops the jeep again to greet somebody, a child comes near our vehicle and asks us to buy him a football. Not able to say no to the little boy, I board off to buy him a football from a nearby tuck shop. The gesture fills my heart with joy, a joy that I can also see on locals' faces as they wave us goodbye.
With this lovely memory to take along, we move back on track.
My generous driver offers me a candy though I politely decline for the sake of my throat, which has already eaten up enough dust. Evening sets and with it my back and neck pain becomes unbearable, as do the driver’s short and long meetings.
At last, I speak up. The driver realises my situation, but in less than 30 minutes, he breaks off by saying “let’s have a cup of tea.”
Night falls when we reach the Ankep rest house in Yarkhun and I finally get to sleep.
Next morning, we leave the Yarkhun Valley behind and are now moving onward. The weather gets pleasant as we reach the Garam Chashma Village. The blazing sun has no intention of going away in the afternoon but that's okay and I'm finally beginning to feel better.
In Darkot, I look at the snow bemusedly, and watch a giant glacier fall off the mountain and into the river bank. One can cross the Darkot Pass through the Chakar Village to reach Ishkoman Village of Gilgit-Baltistan's Ghizer district.
Passing this glacier is a unique experience. Moving ahead and viewing the mighty snows of Darkot, we end up at the Chitral Scouts check post. The driver mentions the purpose of the tour and we move forward after our entry is registered.
The Ashkervaz Village of Broghil Valley starts here. The borders of this valley meet Gilgit-Baltistan on one side and Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor on the other. The Karomber Pass lies in the heart of the Broghil and Ishkoman valleys; in fact, it separates them, and the Karomber Lake is also in the area.
And it is this lake and its cerulean blue waters that made me leave home and come this far only to get a glimpse of it. Situated 4,300 metres above sea level, Karomber is Pakistan’s second and the world’s 31st highest naturally actively lake.
Apart from this vast lake, there are several small lakes in between the mountainous highland. But to reach them, you'll have to go a little off track. And as winter falls, some five to six feet of snow covers the whole area and all links to and from can suddenly disconnect. So before winter arrives, the locals move to Chitral to sell their only bread and butter, the Yak. By selling the Yak, they are able to purchase household items for the rest of the winter season.
From Broghil to the valley of Gojal in upper Hunza, locals speak the Wakhi language. An oral language with no script, Wakhi is hard to learn and even harder to understand for outsiders.
Swiftly passing through Ashkervaz, we reach the Gharail Village — the jeep's last destination. From now on, I have to trek. Karomber Lake is still 24 kilometres away and my first stopover, the village of Lashkargaz, is two hours away. Once I'm there, I'll have to hire a porter.
The evening is about to set and carrying my rucksack and camera, I begin my trek. On parting, the driver gives me a lollipop and says, “Boss! Enjoy it at Karomber Lake. I’ll be waiting for you right here after four days. Slipping that farewell gift in my pocket, I start trekking uphill.
Soon after, I realise that only packs of Yaks are my travelling mates on these lonely roads. Most locals use horses or Yaks for travelling here, and very few of them have motorbikes to move freely on these slopes.
After having managed to cover a long distance, I barely see anybody on these far off planes. On a journey like this, people are seen occasionally if not rarely and being by one self is all that one needs. And while one can enjoy the lush landscape outstretched and visible wherever the sight goes, it is a little intimidating being alone in this vastness.
Seeing a few tamed horses and hearing the honks of Yaks, I pass meadow after meadow. I stop as I begin to near the Lashkargaz Village, seeing snow from the peaks melting and making small lakes here and there.
Azure waters of these lakes are a breathtaking sight and as I decide to spend some time on these still banks, night falls and I fall asleep.
As I wake up in the morning, the first chant I hear is; “Sahab tea is ready”. It’s Salman, the owner of the only hotel here.
Today, the Laila Rabat campsite, that lies at a distance of a seven-hour-long trek, is my next destination and a young man from Lashkargaz Village is my porter for the next few days. Twenty-one year old Saifullah studies in Islamabad and when the season comes, he moves here to escort tourists to Karomber Lake, and thus helps his family financially.
Yaks can be seen munching over the infinite pastures of Lashkargaz as locals cut the long grass to save for coming winters. Suddenly the grass turns its hues, and the wintry chill fills up the ambiance. But this time, besides yaks and horses, Saifullah is my companion in these deserted moors of the Hindukush.
After tiresome trekking for four hours, we stumble upon the small village of Shawar Shair, comprising 15 to 16 houses. Children of all ages start whirling around us in this hamlet, where a traveller’s presence becomes major news, and everybody is interested.
An older man offers me yogurt made from yak's milk along with a jug full of lassi. In this last human settlement, this is the height of hospitality.
As we get further from this village, absolute loneliness and a murky silence starts to prevail the atmosphere.
Lost in thoughts, I overlook the changing moods of the weather. Finally, as I look up, clouds have wrapped the sky and a chill air blows. It is as if somebody shook a magic wand and announced that winter is coming. Gashing against the wild winds, we don’t stop trekking. And that ferocious afternoon wind is the only and lonely vocalist in the whole moor.
Suddenly, it starts to drizzle and that's followed by a heavy rainstorm. The band of yaks stops and surrenders to nature, and shivering, I too surrender to the Almighty, murmuring “we offer our prayers only to You, and we seek refuge in You.” After an hour, the rainstorm fades away and by evening, we reach the Laila Rabat campsite.
Saifullah sets up the camp and tired, I move straight in and fall asleep. And all night, the sky cried and screamed.
Saifullah tries to wake me up the next morning with a bright sunny day waiting for me. Half-heartedly, I get up, and the moment I open the camp’s flap, the sight before me is majestic. Giant mountains sunbathing in golden gleams and grass nurtured by the rain. The perfect morning and a cup of tea rejuvenates me, instilling a new zeal to travel ahead.
My next and last destination is Karomber Lake which had kept me wandering.
Morning turns into the afternoon, then melts into evening and crimson hues of the sky turn a grayish black and it begins to rain again.
As I trek, Saifullah surpasses me and starts to set up the camp. Exhausted, I get straight into it. Lord Almighty must be laughing at me at this hour.
Not feeling well, with a bad headache, I even start to feel homesick owing to Saifullah's caring nature as he worries about my condition and fetches me some medicine. A good porter is a real blessing.
A new day has begun and I wake up and come out of my tent, seeing the sun scattering its glitters all around and the majestic Karomber Lake right in front of me. Overwhelmed by the grandeur of this marvel of nature, I freeze at this mesmerising sight.
Spellbound, I remain still for a while. The chai soothes my aching throat, and the sight before me calms my nerves. The water seems still as I feel the whistling wind stopping and the grand snowy mountain around the lake reflecting in it.
At the verge of mad tranquility, Saifullah voice breaks this spell I'm under. He seems eager that I imprison this sight of this marvel in my camera.
"Sahab, you look better, won't you do some photography now?"
I respond with a joke and with camera in hand start descending to go closer to the lake. Behind me, Saifullah says: "Sahab I will get the tea ready on your arrival."
Have I become a part of this wild splendour, or have I been living here since forever; sipping on some tea I ask myself. Suddenly a strange chant intrudes the train of my random thoughts. I follow the echo only to find that sitting at a big rock near the lake, Saifullah is singing. His song makes me even more restless and I ask him what it means.
"My Love! I am the receding sunshine on the mountains, the running wind on the lake, the fading chant of the shepherd. I’m the story that's over. Don’t call me or recall me for I’m gone now once and for all."
As the deep waters of this lake change colours, a film of all the moments spent in search of this gem rolls-out in the backdrop of Saifullah's Wakhi song. All the lakes that have beguiled me in this journey come back to me in a vision, only to say goodbye. And the time has come. This magical world is all set to bid this nomad a farewell.
Departing is painful, even if one is going back home.
Sometimes we look for home all around and when we find one, the time comes to part with it. But that's life, with another memory made, and a new chapter written. I give the lake one last glance, that lasts only a few seconds. I'm afraid to look at it for long, not a jewel I can have, but the sight of it will always brighten my silent blues. Adding another memory, I turns back to the passage that brought me here. Paths don't go anywhere, even if we take one or we don't; they are there forever and I now take the one back to my hometown Lahore.
I can't help but recall what Munir Niazi said: "One doesn't fall in love when they are with the beloved; one only falls in love in separation. Love ignites only in separation."
Back home as I write, I take an imaginary flight to Broghil Valley, the land of Karomber Lake, which awaits another wanderer to discover her jewels. As I am to sink into its azure waters, my wife's voice brings me back: "I don't know what thought you are lost in, but your chai has turned cold twice."
And with Saifullah's song playing in my head, I think to myself: don't call me now, I have gone far away.
Translated by Sameeha Khaliq from the original in Urdu here.