SIL Visits Gulmit

A few weeks ago when I received the suggestion that I visit Gulmit in Gilgit Baltistan, I had other ideas. For instance, that it is almost December, that here in Lahore, temperatures do not drop to minus 10 degrees Celsius or that my GMAT exam is creeping up. In hindsight, however, I’m thankful for that nudge into an icy adventure that might not have otherwise transpired, not till next summer at any rate. Here are a few words I penned and some photos I took during my four days in Gulmit.

22/11/2014: Rubber strikes tarmac. I arrive at Gilgit airport, a modest building nestled inside a vast coliseum of towering mountains. My cell-phone rings; a driver has come to pick me and my colleague Umar on behalf of AKRSP, an organization that has partnered with ours to support women entrepreneurs in Gulmit. We begin a two-hour car journey through Gilgit Valley, meandering along the Gilgit River, marveling at this stunning yet fleeting grandeur that is a tributary on a path to the mightier Indus.

An hour elapses in our uphill journey and we enter Aliabad, the main town of Hunza Valley. We stop at a roadside shop to purchase thermal wear. The journey continues, getting shakier till the car halts at the final jolt short of Attabad Lake. The lake had formed in a massive landslide in 2010, separating Lower Hunza from the Gojal Valley. It is the only route across to Gulmit and other villages in Gojal Valley. I take a deep breath, looking down from the precipice at the quiet, green expanse below us. The only sound is the faint hum of distant motored boats and cargo vehicles dotting the lake. On reaching the bottom, I ponder the remoteness of our destination, step into a boat and pay a hundred rupee share of the fare to get to the other side. Before the opportunity presents itself and I remark to the boatman about the beauty of the lake, I’m told it is regarded as an anathema in these parts; it destroyed populated villages and ended many a livelihood after all. So I keep mum and try to mute my ears to the impending thunder of the engine.

Half an hour and twelve kilometers later, we arrive in Gulmit. Our lodge is the Marco Polo Inn, a cozy guesthouse whose manager, Raja Sahib, squanders no time in offering his hospitality and regaling us with stories of Hunza and beyond.

23/11/2014: I wake up to a brilliant azure sky. It is Sunday so work can wait. We hear that the Khunjerav Pass which connects Pakistan to China is only a couple hours away by car. The sun’s out and the roads are clear of traffic so we set out before noon. On the way we drive past the Khunjerav National Park where all manner of wild beast and foul abound: markhor, blue sheep, marco polo sheep, snow leopards, golden eagles and peregrine falcons to name a few. We are lucky enough to actually see a snow leopard. No, not that lucky, it’s in a cage. A local hunter had found it as an abandoned cub a couple years ago and taken it in to rehabilitate it for the wild. It is a truly magnificent creature and we hope the hunter releases it soon.

24/11/2014: We head out to the location that is the focus of the visit: The Gulmit Carpet Center, a weaving center owned and operated by 16 women artisans from Gulmit. It was started as an initiative by a local development agency to economically empower women unable to continue education but eventually divested to the women as an independent company. It is now a means for the women to support their children’s education. Our role is to help strengthen and possibly scale their operations.

The center itself is housed in the most ancient intact building in the region, the Old House, said to be over six centuries old. It is neighbored by the old Summer Palace of the Mir of Hunza, standing at the northern edge of Gulmit’s historic Polo Ground. The building’s interior is that of a traditional Gulmit house with four pillars supporting the main chamber, elevated platforms called ‘razkh’ bordering three sides of the chamber, a central fireplace or ‘bokhari’ and a chimney leading to a perforated ceiling functioning as both exhaust and skylight.

25/11/2014: We sit down and talk to the women about their enterprise. They speak Wakhi, a language originating from Wakhan — the narrow strip of Afghanistan that separates Pakistan from Tajikistan — but are surprisingly conversant in Urdu as well. They share the workings of their business cycle and the setbacks they suffered due to the decline in foreign tourism after 2001 and the more recent formation of the lake. Yet they go on, helped by friends and relatives here and in the larger cities of Pakistan. They shrug off their troubles and eagerly show us the effort that goes into the wide variety of carpets they still make, of which ‘Ghazni’ is the largest and most ornate.

A film production crew we hired joins us at the Center to shoot a documentary on the women. It is part of an effort to highlight the human quotient behind the carpets. When the crew has finished filming, the women serve us Malida, a savory concoction of wheat flour, semolina, butter and milk. They tell us it is served on auspicious occasions and that it was the Prophet’s favorite dish.

26/11/2014: It’s time for me to depart for Gilgit. I check out of the guesthouse and say my goodbyes, to Umar, who plans to stay longer, and to the women at the Center. Raja Sahib is kind enough to gift me a bottle of fine apple jam from the orchards surrounding the Marco Polo Inn. On my way to the car, I throw a last glance at the courtyard and the cherry blossoms that flank its periphery. Their withered arms seem oddly bowed towards the gate. I’d like to see them bloom.

This story was written by Taimoor Toor on 9th December, 2014

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