It was extremely hot and humid in Lahore. A pair of hawk-cuckoo was nestling on a mango tree close to my house and could hear their singing all afternoon.
Sometimes when their singing got louder, I would remove the screen of my window to look at their nest suspending from the tree. The female would remain busy decorating the nest with straws brought by the male.
One afternoon, it rained, but the birds weren't singing that day. I removed the screen and saw them sitting in their nest quietly; they were avoiding getting wet. The nest was suspending like a fruit from the tree. The home they had built with so much care was coming apart. I heard the whistle of marmot in my imagination.
I left Lahore that very afternoon. I intended to walk on the grassy plains along the Himalaya Range — the largest mountainous range in the world extending from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east. Everest, Nanga Parbat, and some other mountains higher than 8,000 metres are part of this range.
This range extends from the Indus Valley in the west to the Brahmaputra Valley in the east. I intended to visit Fairy Meadows along Nanga Parbat in Diamer district of Gilgit-Baltistan, the Deosai plains in district Astore, the valleys of Minimarg and Domel, and then the Rattigali Lake in Azad Kashmir. These grassy plains are the habitat of marmot.
I have an affection for marmots, something I find difficult to describe. I love their whistling, it induces a sense of nostalgia in me. Then again, what is the asset of a traveller except for his memories? I had left Lahore far behind. A foggy morning had descended on the Kunhar River when I reached Balakot.
Clouds had covered half the sky and the sun was about to rise. The green lower Himalaya mountains were enveloped by fog and the river was flowing noiselessly. The locals were out of their homes to begin their day’s work.
I recalled the many mornings I had enjoyed along this river. Lulusar Lake looked desolate as tourists were still asleep in their hotel rooms. One’s heart sinks when one sees such a place lying unadmired because one has always seen it thronged by visitors.
I passed the Babusar Pass. And it got colder. Nothing but the road could be seen at this point. Then I noticed a young man who was standing on the roadside with his dog beside him, looking down at the fog-covered valley.
By the time I reached Chilas, it was hot again. The vehicle I was in was now moving between the heat-struck mountains of the Karakoram Range and along the winding Indus, and I had begun to perspire.
It was early afternoon when I reached Raikot Bridge. There I hired a jeep for the narrow, dusty path that leads to Fairy Meadows. When I reached Tattoo village, the driver and I had begun to look like statues of clay and lime. The jeep could not go any farther. From Tattoo village, one has to walk for around three hours to reach Fairy Meadows. It was evening when Nanga Parbat came into view. The sun was about to set but the grassy plain was already dark.
Exhausted by the journey, I sank into my bed at the campsite. As soon as he heard of my arrival, Qari Rehmat came to my camp. He is the owner of Fairy Meadows Cottages and has built a world of his own under the shade of Nanga Parbat. He told me the story of his life upon this meeting and it was quite engrossing.
“I used to teach the Holy Quran at a madrassah. I was paid 1,200 rupees a month. But a lot of that money had to be spent to entertain people who came from afar to get their children enrolled in the seminary. I was left with almost nothing at the end of the month, unable to support my family. I had to quit that job in frustration and I had no work for nearly a year. I did not know what to do. I was not literate. And I had no skills either.
“One day I came across a man in Gilgit who heard my story and advised me to set up a hotel in Fairy Meadows. He also identified what location I could use. In 1992, there used to be a hotel owned by Rehmat Nabi in Fairy Meadows. At some distance from that hotel, there was a place called Shamlat, which was jointly owned by the locals. I came to Raikot Bridge in a vehicle and from there I walked for some seven hours to reach the place where I now have my hotel.
“As soon as I reached that place, I began demarcating it with stones. I spent the whole night doing that. By morning, I had demarcated the place that I needed for the hotel. I started building the hotel. I had 800 rupees. I erected a make-do kind of structure for the hotel with the wood that I brought from the nearby forest. But for five years, there was nothing to do because local tourists did not visit the place and foreigners would set up their own camps. But now the situation is such that my hotel is always fully booked in all seasons.”
I said to him: “God provides a livelihood to everyone. Did you ever think you earn money because of these mountains? After all, people come to your hotel because they want to see these mountains.”
“I have one other way to earn my bread," Qari said, chuckling.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“The person sitting in front of me,” he said.
“But I haven’t written anything about Fairy Meadows so far,” I said, and to change the subject asked him to tell me about German mountaineer Reinhold Messner. Qari then began talking about mountaineers and listening to his stories I fell asleep.
The next morning, the grassy plain of Fairy Meadows was receiving sunshine intermittently. The snow-covered Himalaya mountains and the Nanga Parbat were sparkling in the sunshine. It is sights like these that attract German mountaineers. Messner’s brother and many other mountaineers who lost their lives here are buried in its lap.
This mountain had already claimed the lives of 31 mountaineers before Austria’s Hermann Buhl reached its peak in 1953. Bhul writes in his book that he felt someone was following him when he was on his last climb. Ropes snapped for no apparent reason. Bhul hinted at an invisible being. Is there such a being in those mountains, no one knows.
I had a final look at the grassy Himalayan plain before starting the return journey from Fairy Meadows. Nanga Parbat was looking at me from a height of 8126 meters. After the Raikot Bridge, the new Silk Road began. The Indus was now at my right. The vehicle got on the road to Astore which was in very bad shape, compelling us to move cautiously. We drove along the noisy, surfy Astore River and it was evening by the time we entered Astore city.
District Astore is a land of fountains, streams, lakes and sky-high, green mountains. It has a population of 120,000. From here, there is a path going towards Rama Meadows where the Chongra Peak is a major tourist attraction. There is another path from here which leads to Rito, Rupal, and Trishung villages, from where one can see the eastern part of Nanga Parbat. Another road leads to Burzil Pass and Minimarg with Chilam Chowki on the way. Meanwhile, there is another path from Chilam Chowki going towards Sheosar Lake and Deosai National Park.
Let me tell you a little bit about the history of Astore. Ghazi Makpon, who came here from Persia, married into the ruling family of Skardu. He had four children who ruled Skardu, Astore, Rondu, and Kharmang. This dynasty ruled these areas for a long time until Astore fell into the hands of the Dogras.
In the centre of Astore, we ended up in a crowded market; human voices mingled with the noise of jeeps around us. Here I moved to a jeep as the way ahead was not suited to take a regular car on. Now on my way to Chilam Chowki, pine trees were all around and by the time I reached it, a part of the day had gone by.
After registering entry at the chowki, began my journey towards Minimarg. On both sides of our path were grassy slopes. Wildflowers were in abundance, moving gaily in the air. We saw groups of shepherds lying on the slopes around us. Their cattle were grazing. The jeep stopped with a shriek when we finally reached Minimarg.
It is an enchantingly beautiful village. Most of people do hard labour. Houses are made of wood and have tin roofs. Women were working in the fields and children were playing in the streets. Surrounded by green mountains, this is arguably the loveliest village in Pakistan. I spent the day roaming around and stayed at the military guest house for the night. The night was as beautiful as the day. I can still recall that night vividly: the shrill noises of insects, the numerous stars across the sky. I went to sleep quite late.
When I was woken up by the driver, it was broad daylight. I thought of the Rainbow Lake. There is a village named Domel about an hour and a half drive away from Minimarg. There were flowers of many hues all around. We finally reached the lake, welcomed by a cool breeze. I heard a marmot whistle. When I turned around, I saw it looking at me, standing on its toes. I felt as if it was presenting me a guard of honour. When the marmot went back into its burrow, I took my camera out and started taking some photographs.
I have always been fascinated by lakes. I have spent many a day of my life at lakesides. Sitting near the Rainbow Lake, I recalled the time when I had camped near Dudipatsar Lake in Naran Valley. It was as if the Dudipatsar Lake, surrounded by red flowers, was all mine. There was no other human being in sight. It was silence all around. But then a man riding a horse came to me from afar. He had a gun on him. “Jo kuch hai nikal dou (Hand over whatever you have),” he said.
I did not put up a fight. I gave him all the money that was in my pocket and he left. Though I lost a big amount, I was still happy because luckily he did not snatch my camera — my real asset.
I kept sitting there, looking at the lake. I had a wonderland in front of me. That was my real happiness.
I stayed at Rainbow Lake till the evening. The lake was surrounded by greenery and it was as if an artist had spread green paint on his canvas. Clouds were beginning to change their colour.
The lake was still and the light from the setting sun made the mountains look like copper. Among these inflamed peaks, the water was tranquil. At last, all the colours left the scene. Brightness disappeared. The chapter of Domel was over.
The day I stepped on the grassy plains of Deosai, the evening had descended on Sheosar Lake. Sitting inside the camp I shivered. The lake kept changing its hues. I had visited the lake many a time before but every time it gave me a new, exhilarating feeling. The mosquitos there are much bigger than the ones we see in cities. When they bite you, the pain does not go away soon. And there is no way you can protect yourself from them.
The full moon was covered by clouds. When clouds parted, the lake was bathed in moonlight — but only momentarily. The moon kept competing with clouds just as I was fighting the mosquitos.
The next morning I set off to see bears. The whistling of marmots was musical. I was off the jeep track and in a place I did not know the name of. I had seen the bear in Deosai twice before and was overcome by the desire to see it again. Deosai is a compound noun, comprising deo, meaning a giant, and sai, meaning shadow. It is not possible to live there in that mysterious plain. Not even with the technology we have access to now. The temperature drops to as low as minus 30 degrees in winter.
Untouched by human activity, this plain is the habitat of some rarely seen wildlife — including the brown bear, the red fox, and the golden eagle.
The shepherds who move to Skardu or Astore from Kashmir pass through these plains. These shepherds start from the plains of Punjab with their cattle. By the time they reach their destination, their cattle are a picture of health. The shepherd's life an endless journey. They bury their dead wherever they are. There are graves of shepherds from the plains of Punjab to the Deosai plains.
I came across a shepherd and asked him where he was going. He told me he was going to Skardu.
Roaming around, I reached a small lake where a Shephard was setting up a tent. A small girl was managing the sheep-like an expert Shephard. The lake was framed by wild white flowers.
Marmots were sitting outside their burrows, enjoying the sunlight. The girl kept controlling the sheep and the marmots kept whistling.
I lay down on the grass to take in as much of the beauty around me as I could. This was the end of the strip of the Himalayan mountains in Gilgit-Baltistan. Rattigali, the largest lake in Kashmir, awaited me.
The day I reached Muzaffarabad, the city gave a deserted look. Markets were closed, there was hardly any traffic, most people were indoors, observing a black day against Indian aggression in occupied Kashmir.
Muzaffarabad is a populous city. I had always seen it bustling. Seeing it in that desolate state, my heart sank. The Kashmiris living on both sides love each other. They cannot be separated. I left this mourning city to head towards Neelam Valley. Moving along the Neelam River, I reached Keran Sector.
When I went to the military check-post to register my entry, a soldier advised me not to go further ahead. He told me there had been firing only two days ago, and four people had been martyred. “This road is directly in front of the enemy forces,” he said.
I inquired about the latest situation and told him the blue lake was waiting for me. “I must go. Accept my last salutation if I don’t come back,” I said to him. The soldier smiled and removed the barrier.
I reached Dwarian, a small town in Neelam valley, which opens up to a path towards Rattigali. I took a jeep and continued my journey. The jeep moved at a snail’s pace. The track was all stones which made the journey painful. After two and a half hours’ arduous travel, I finally reached Rattigali base camp. It was crowded with tourists and looked like a city comprising tents.
The tourists were haggling with the locals for horse rides. The lake was only two and a half kilometres away, but the climb to get to it was steep and tourists had no option but to ride horses and mules.
I was panting when Rattigali came into my view. The blue water was mesmerising. I sat cross-legged, staring at the unmatched beauty.
The golden evening rays made the lake and the nearby mountains look even lovelier. I added the beauteous forms and the consequent sensations to the store of my memory.
As the day declined, I touched the velvety grass with my forehead to thank the Almighty for His blessings. One feels as if one is talking to one’s Creator in those plains, in those mountains, amid all that beauty of Kashmir.
I returned to Lahore; here the days were now hot and humid. I was resting trying to make my weariness after the journey goes away. Sunshine, filtering through the window screen, was giving the floor a bluish glow.
When I rose to shut the window, I realised what had happened. The pair had departed. The nest lay disintegrated. The mango tree stood sad. Even its shade looked gloomy.
The bustle of life was gone. The birds had perhaps found another home. A traveller can stay at a place only for so long.
I knew I too would not stay long. I would soon be in other places, in other valleys, with new friends. With tears in my eyes, I shut the window.
Translated by Mohsin Ahmed from the original in Urdu here.