Misty Mountain Hop, pt.2
Horses in the sky
Outskirts of Chilas
We had begun to wander deeper into the heart of the Karakoram now with the wind catching up as we moved towards Gilgit. I had skipped out on a friend we picked up on the way, a guide from a tourism camp, we had taken him along before entering Chilas as we needed a local to let us through the checkpoints with ease.
He was a small chap, very friendly but excruciatingly loud at times! Of course he wasn’t to blame he just wanted us to enjoy the trip so he kept screaming “WOW” at the top of his voice on the sight of a mountain along with random bursts of Ooooo’s and Aaaah’s (since we were in one of the largest mountain ranges in the world there was a lot of that going on). It bothered us at first but soon turned into an on going joke.
He kept us moving on as we hopped across the Karakoram Highway, the snake like road twisting and turning up the side of the mountain range with the now slowly turning icy cold wind whizzing and careening by us.
Now our guide was an interesting creature, I’m quite certain he was inflicted with some kind of guidesque-like-ailment where everything and anything had to be pointed out and emphasised with the utmost insanity coupled with severe cases of what I can only call Mountain Fits. So on the way whenever any large body of rock, ice and snow would be seen kissing the sky he would do the following:
- Jump up, if he was sitting down, else he’d go straight to step 2
- Turn swiftly in one fierce momentum simultaneously point towards what at a cursory glance always seemed like an arbitrary point in the heavens (later upon deeper observation we understood the exact target to be a mountain of some sort generally of an ominous nature)
- Yell out something in his native tongue while also trying to spew the same if not closer translation into a language we all understood (usually Urdu)
- Attach a specific name to the trajectory of his pointing finger (we heard a lot of Mt. Rakaposhi and Lady Finger on the trip)
- Move on towards an explanation of what exactly he was pointing at since we almost always missed it entirely.
He did all of that in a brisk moment of sheer energy and not necessarily in that particular order.
But that’s enough of our esteemed and entertaining guide. The route between Chilas and Gilgit was where the terrain began to change from barren wastes to a more stark mountainous region. It was here that we finally started seeing the icy caps of these giant beasts in the mountains. There were little trees here as it was mostly rocky but that soon changed as I noticed the hills beginning to crease with familiar shapes. Gilgit was near and that meant Hunza was closing in.
It was amazing seeing the mountains unfold like that before us, from the low hill tops of Islamabad to the desolate wastes of Chilas to these jewels some dark as obsidian others white as diamonds. One could almost see a character emerge from them all. I remember during a trip to Naran noticing the mountains like great hands and arms holding down the earth with their weights. You could sense them there these giants high above the sea pushing down with all their might, stress marks on their fingers and veins popping out in the form of crevasses and gashes in the earth left by miners and landslides. It was a beautiful sight all in all.
We soon entered Gilgit, its gates were welcoming as we understood just a few hours away was the valley renowned as being the inspiration for James Hilton’s Shangri-La from his novel Lost Horizon. It would be the first time I set eyes on it but I had already been lost to the beauty of the mountains, what wonders awaited us in the valley we would find out by night fall.
The Valley of Hunza
As everyone slept I woke up at my usual time, we had reached the hotel well passed evening the last day with the chilly winds of Hunza creeping up our jackets to hug us and remind us we weren’t in Lahore anymore. The morning was brilliant, it was bright, clean, and blue! The sky such a wonderfully bright hue it pushed me back for a moment, a sundae of brown, white and green mountains kissing the azure!
I say sundae because I was famished at that time! Me and Sasha had planned to wake up early and go have some breakfast on a hillside cafe in the city we spotted last night. I had hooked up with an old friend from Hunza he took us around for a bit, the boys a bit of a celebrity there since it’s a small city everyone knows everyone else there.
The Hunza City itself is basically just a road that stretches up the mountain side, there are a few large villages that come along the valley and all the villages come together to celebrate a spring festival where they pay heed to the old gods and their old traditions. A serpentine road with its cobbled streets that split up and down the sides to ancient forts and bazaars filled with crafts meant to amaze. Among the crafts mountaineer stores weren’t much a surprise as it’s a checkpoint for tourists, travellers and adventure seekers. Hunza is the gateway to the Himalayas and the Karokoram; the top of the world.
But as usual everyone being the average Pakistani had to wake up late and miss the beautiful morning…
That didn’t stop us from hiking up the trail to the cafe. It was a beautiful morning and the Cafe de Hunza has the most amazing breakfast in the valley! After finishing my apricot omelette (A combination I wouldn’t ever have thought of) we hiked around for a bit before returning to the hotel. Apparently we had stirred the others a bit with out morning breakfast run, bit by bit the others came to realise that breakfast on the hillside was definitely something they wanted to do! Of course that just led to delays piling one on top of the other!
We finally settled down in the bus once everyone had had their fill of omelettes and tea and moved on with our ever excited guide. Starting off with the Attabad Lake a rather recent naturally formed lake at the top of the valley, the lake cut off the villages on the upper side to Gulmit and now the only way to go across is through boats crafted by the locals, they ferry across people, goods and cars. The water so clean and pure is a sight to see, it’s a natural bowl that collects fresh water from the melting glaciers and springs that bleed water through the mountains.
The brilliance of the lake was only shadowed by the clatter of the ferries with their out board motors that were so loud you could hardly hear your own thoughts! We were short of time otherwise we would have gone across into Gulmit towards the borderlands.
Coming back there were many sites we went across stopping occasionally where some Chinese worker were busy building roads around the mountains. The Karokoram Highway is the highest paved road in the world a wonder in its own right, though it does call for heavy maintenance China has been greatly helpful to Pakistan to keep it running smooth.
We had local Hunzai food at a restaurant called Paradise Point, a little perch on the side of a cliff that was sheer heaven on earth with it’s old wooden terrace design and raw bark benches. The local cuisine was a variety of yogurt and cheese mixed with an assortment of vegetables and fruits, one look and you might be confused but one bite and bliss! The arrangement of tastes just happen to explode in your mouth as you bite through the small morsels. All in all James Hilton’s inspiration can be seen vividly, Hunza truly is a wonderful sight to behold.
I’ll take some time now to describe the events of the evening ahead, the sun was about to set and our guide was keen to get us to a mountain ridge called The Eagles Nest. The route was a cobbled road good for one vehicle at a time and with sharp turns so perfect for a hike but we were on a caravan and although many did pass by the road it was still a treacherous pass up the side of the mountain and we had to stop by at points to let others pass, but more importantly not let anyone fall!
As daylight wained we made our way up the mountain crossing small huts and villages with their vegetable gardens lining the sides. Potatoes like children in a school ready for practice and carrots erect like soldiers. The twists and turns made for a sickening trip but the destination was well worth the upset stomach. Imagine a window so clean and clear as if you were a bird perched up on a mountain seeing everything below and afar. The horizon lined with a broken ridge, the lip of the mountain kissing the dying sunlight. The snow capped mountains, Rakaposhi, Nanga Parbat, Diamir, Golden Peak and others standing hand in hand as they looked up to the heavens. And amid the giants a pinnacle of fearsome might, a peak the locals call the Lady Finger because of its steep vertical climb so dangerous and yet so beautiful. They call it such because it resembles a finger pointing upwards.
But the true sight wasn’t seeing all these mountains, it was the beautiful sunset that complimented the terrain and the chilly winds of the North. I can remember it still. Standing on a rock over looking the cliff that fell horrifyingly down a sheer deathly drop, yet it all seemed so calm and serene, the fear of death looming over us all yes, but a fear we could live with.
They called it The Eagle’s Nest not just because of the location but because of a particular rock that’s been transformed over time through icy cold and fearsome winds into the shape of an eagle its wings spread over what has become a hollow space in the rock. It looks as if the bird is protecting it’s eggs or children from the terrifying winds that whistle across the edges of the rocks and mountain sides, calling, bellowing, enchanting. The eagle forever protecting its young as the stone slowly erodes over time, some day travellers will come by the nest and find the mother gone, the eggs baring the deathly winds. Would it still be called the Eagle’s Nest then, I wonder?
Amid the scattered stones were some which struck our fancy. My friend from the village told me of how Hunza came to be. A valley with an ancient history of fairies and giants the Hunza people used to believe in gods of old that roamed the mountains and cultivated the earth, these giants and godly creatures claimed the valley until a revolt arose in between. A new race the race of man that bore down the mountains and took control over the gods. Alas they couldn’t cultivate the land for the land was not theirs, and so each year in the spring they planted the first seeds by the hands of those very gods and over the centuries this first harvest has been given to them as homage to their lands—lands which were now controlled by man.
Centuries have passed but the rituals have remained the tradition of cultivating the first harvest by the ‘hands of the gods’ has continued on into the form of a Spring Festival. Today they do the same by the hands of a family, the family their believe to be direct descendants of the gods of old after they married into Man. Although the valley is predominately Muslim now, old traditions die hard.
My friend told me of rocks and huts that were remnants of an age long forgotten, an age of fairies and gods and creatures we lesser beings can only imagine. The rocks placed in circular formations along the side of the mountain so perfectly aligned and the huts at strategic locations, locations to look over the land that was cultivated. The thought that kept us amazed was that these locations were in places that seemed impossible to reach, either the mountain pass had changed over the years or these ‘creatures’ of old had their own methods of travel.
A friend of mine pointed out a few circles that seemed to be points of interest for rituals, what kind of rituals we could only speculate. But up here in the mountains where none could see you or hear you, where the slightest err in your stride could send you down to your death, the thought of people coming up all this way to attempt to call demons, fairies and gods was a thought that brought an all too mortal chill down our spine. The circles we decided were now something to leave behind us, it was dark and we had to return down the side of the mountain to our hotel where hopefully dinner awaited us.
Originally published at haideraliakmal.tumblr.com as part of an earlier travel log.