Footprints: Northern exposure

Updated 06 Sep 2020

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A walk by the Passu Cones in the Gojal Valley can calm even the most overactive mind. — Photo by writer
A walk by the Passu Cones in the Gojal Valley can calm even the most overactive mind. — Photo by writer

“No test results, no rooms,” Ghadeer Shah, the proprietor of Passu Ambassador Hotel, told a group of four young men looking for accommodation.

“We’ve been here 10 days,” one of them said, “no one has asked us for test results.”

“We’re asking,” Ghadeer bhai replied and walked into his office, indicating he was done with the conversation.

I won’t lie. I was relieved when the boys drove off. I wanted the view of the Passu Cones to ourselves – the group of five, myself included, which had travelled various long distances to be here, in the first week of August. I was also impressed how Ghadeer bhai turned business away given that they must have been impacted by Covid. Apart from being a stickler for rules, he later admitted he just didn’t like the look of those boys. “This is a family place,” he said, pointing to my group and Athena — our guide Naveed Khan’s Shepsky dog.

The view from his hotel of the Passu Cones was worth the trials and tribulations of making the decision to travel at this time.

Like many travellers, my primary concern wasn’t just my health but others’ wellbeing. I realised I could be an asymptomatic carrier and while I may be able to ultimately find good care, if I contracted the virus, the same may not be true for the people I exposed — especially if contact tracing isn’t possible in remote areas.

In the quest for a change of scene and all the serenity it brings, was I being irresponsible? Could I survive the “travel shaming” — a term gaining traction— wherein travellers are ‘shamed’ for taking vacation during a pandemic. The New York Times magazine recently did a story on folks too scared to disclose their travel plans for fear of being reprimanded for irresponsible behaviour. Travel poses many ethical and philosophical approaches to the pandemic, according to a history professor quoted in the piece. And ethical — if you’re shying away from discussing your plans, it demonstrates you don’t feel ethically sound about your decision.

Ultimately, our decision was made easier thanks to our intrepid guide and explorer aka Hunza on Foot on social media. Khan, who is deeply entrenched in communities across Hunza, was himself making his first journey post lockdown. He shared our concerns, and created an itinerary that would see us travel “off the beaten track” and exclusively on the road – until we had to fly home. He also assured our drivers, hotel owners and any locals we planned to visit that we would have our Covid test results.

With enough protective paraphernalia to last us a month, Covid tests in hand, appropriate footwear and a very long journey later (flight, 12-hour transit plus 13-hour drive) we were in Passu.

We weren’t the only ones in the upper Hunza region as evidenced by the innumerable cars causing traffic chaos at Chalt Nagar, which we needed to cross to get to Passu. We managed to crawl our way through one of the few lines that miraculously form in a strictly two-way road in Pakistan; we could do this because we had our Covid tests. Traffic jams caused by belligerent men with a sense of entitlement about being let in without tests somehow seem less ugly when you’re in the mountains.

Our few days in Passu involved a trek to Passu Glacier, a day spent in a village in Mizgar valley, a boat ride in Attabad lake and some time in Gulmit, as we were unable to walk the Hussaini bridge, because it had been closed due to the large influx of tourists and a reported outbreak of Covid.

After a night in Gilgit we began our 12-hour drive to Skardu through the Deosai plains which truly are indescribably stunning. The expansiveness took our breath away. Our remaining days were spent in Shigar Fort and Khaplu, which were much hotter but we did manage to get a good lay of the land for ourselves. One night, we ate dinner in the Sarfaranga desert, known as cold desert, under the sky; the sight of the Milky Way as our canopy will forever stay with me.

However, my most memorable moments were the times spent interacting with the families who had invited us to their homes. We practised social distancing and availed their hospitality as responsibly as we could. The interaction was organic and genuine — as opposed to locals being rolled out to meet the tourists in exchange for a few dollars, a sight I’m all too familiar with having spent a few years working in Southeast Asia.

I can’t tell you whether you should travel or not, especially since Pamir Times reported that 75 tourists out of 1,611 tested positive for Covid in Gilgit-Baltistan the day before I filed this story on August 24; 37 locals tested positive too. I can only say I’m grateful for the vacation, and not “shame-cation”, which helped put a lot of things, pandemic included, in perspective. But I’ll save those thoughts for another day.

The writer has worked as a journalist since 1995 in Pakistan, the UAE and teaches journalism at IBA in Karachi

Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2020