Borith Lake and Majestic Hunza — Published in The More Magazine
As I whizzed past the chilly Chilas, I was thinking about what lies ahead of me. I had never gone past the lower Kashmir let alone the princely state of Hunza before.
The thought of a medieval princely state with Mirs still perched upon the throne with riveting folklore rampant among the fair-skinned denizens of these barren mountains arose a feeling of mixed exuberance.
My passion for mountaineering and high-altitudes have taken me to scenic Zermatt where the mighty Matterhorn stands tall looking over the small but delightful town. I was charmed by the winding train rides in Austrian Alps and their funny German accent which they proudly claim to be the only way of speaking it. I drove to Norwegian fjords through a spectacular landscape driving through hordes of reindeer.
Only my homesickness grew by my interactions with the travelers who had been to Pakistan and their stories. I was told about, a world, I never knew existed very close to Nanga Parbat and the spot where the three greatest mountain ranges meet are a visual delight.
Crossing there I had spent a good half of my life. The Himalayan folklore was nothing like Bavarian dresses and customs. It was elegant, a story of perseverance, valor, and belief, very different from pastoral Gesellschaft of the Alps. I was northbound to one of the remotest city in Hunza called Shimshal, a good 80 km off the Karakoram Highway, the city is known for its remoteness and peace. Chronicles from Mustansar Hassan Tarrar and word of mouth were intriguing enough to lure me away from touristic routes and places without a story.
Even though it was only in the coming hours that my destiny was revealed to me. After a rainy and rocky journey to serene Dasu, we hit a stop because of a landslide. An ironic felicity subdued me from my natural confusion over the time it took to clear that up. That was something that would never happen in The Alps but again, I was on a journey like Frodo and fewer chances of rescue meant a slightly more palatable sense of adventure.
As I perched on a rock with a local Baba willing to impart his wisdom through his wizened eyes the tumultuous Indus river kept roaring, a kind of unintimidated welcome only for the brave. As our happy caravan set off again, among them the older, grunted despise for the inconvenience they have had to endure. Our public transport snaked along the miraculous KKH. The miraculous highest paved international highway, it’s sometimes sarcastically called the joy-ride to death.
It takes a type of sadistic pleasure to enjoy a barricade-less treacherous ride that can punish your reluctance in a lethal manner. Connecting Islamabad to historic Kashgar, KKH was ranked 3rd among best tourist attractions in Guardian. Catching glimpses of snow-clad Diamir district, we entered into the fairy tale state of Gilgit. The Alps were already fading away by the majestic elevations of the terrain.
The tallest rock sculpture of the Swiss Alps, Mont Blanc, which literally means ‘White Mountain’ stands at an elevation of 4807 meters and I was struggling to find a peak that was below that altitude already in Gilgit. After an acclimatization overnighter, I took a local bus to Aliabad, the de facto capital of Hunza state. A great travel tip that has always served me well from good old days as ‘Do in Rome as the Romans do’. A simple shalwar kameez and low profile will do you wonders.
Showing off your Northface climbing gear will only make you another tourist, the ones infamous for their Mallorca style havoc. My new travel partner in Aliabad, which I befriend over a cup of tea in a local bus stop cum hotel was heading towards a small village called Shiskat in Attabad Lake. A lake that was supposed to be a part of KKH before a disastrous landslide in January 2010. Attabad village came crumbling down onto the road merging it with the river leaving behind a 23 KM lake with changing watercolors.
As with us Pakistanis, when life gives us lemons we make a perfect lemonade. Years from the incident there are boats that take in cars, cattle, motorbikes, luggage and sometimes a moving hotel across the lake. As we sat and sipped our strong teas, entered a lanky young lad over-tanned with high-altitude sun and a hazel-eyed, blond foreigner. They ensconced themselves in seats and ordered some snacks as the foreigner started talking to an eager youth.
He pointed towards the wall behind me towards something. Finger pointed towards a poster on the wall about Borith Lake swimming competition. My eyes shuttled back to his face in horror. Why on earth someone would swim amidst these Rocky Mountains and lovely people. The more he spoke the more I found the struggle he had to put in pronouncing the R’s and phrasing his expressions.
I had almost no doubts by then he was a German. Our gaze met after a while when he had a hiatus from his fan who had left with his friend. I took a wild guess and greeted him in German, which I had picked up during my stay in Germany. With a pleasant surprise, he chirped back in passionate Berlin accent! It turned out Gilbert Kolonko was not our typical German climber or summer backpacker.
He has lived in Pakistan for over 10 years, having written two books on Pakistan and working as a foreign correspondent for an Austrian magazine, he had some fun stories to tell about Pakistan. It was already late afternoon and my chances of reaching to Shimshal had literally died out. The valley had only scarce traffic and upon reaching Attabad Lake I met a Shimshali who was staying the night because he couldn’t find a ride either. Gilbert invited me to accompany him to Borith Lake Inn which was on a mountain top just before Passu where I was supposed to reach in order to get to Shimshal.
I was sold and got into the car with Fareed, the handsome son of Inn owner, Mr. Khan to whom I was introduced later. Gils insight into societal issues especially into Gilgit-Baltistan was quite profound for a foreigner. Our passionate discussions sometimes bringing people around us to the edge included diverse topics from Politics to Sufism and Geography to Anthropology. It was only he who would trust me with going alone into a rather tortuous trek up the mountains called the Passu Gor, a shepherd valley around 3300 meters above the sea level.
A 2-hour 40-minute one-way trek which lead me to some of the most astonishing Glacier views I had ever seen. The gorgeous Passu Glacier and Gulkhin glacier make up the Batura Muztagh a part of Greater Karakorum. My stay at the inn gave me the opportunity to interact with the villagers, the meek and shy beings with curious eyes to tell their story. My Shimshal plan changed because all I needed to know about this fairyland was here in Gojal.
I was told by a passionate Gojali how years ago the only food they had was Apricot and goat milk. Few had the luxury of having real shoes. They wore animal hides and on a good day had meat. Their hands were a softer version of rocks. It’s only then when the locals decided they need to do something about it. Today young people from the area can be found in prestigious universities around the globe, some of them making it to Oxford. Their simplicity betrays their erudition.
Like the bright guy, I met on the boat, ordinary looking fellow coming back from Sydney after completing his Masters in Documentary Making. Gulmit the village on the far side of Attabad Lake boasts a literacy rate of whopping 98%. The rest are old people. That brings a sad side to the equation, however. With the mass exodus of the young generation, the valley is left with older and the weaker. A dilemma tantamount to urbanization, westernization, brain drain and war migration.
The folklore was dying, the one I had read about the region in 1913 book of H.L. Haughton and others. The infamous dacoits of the region were no longer highlanders with swords and daggers looting caravans. Many were known to ambush the trade routes that connected the southern parts to Gilgit and Skardu through Kashmir, the older route before KKH was built. The infamous Nanga Parbat massacre and 9/11 stabbed the tourism industry in the back and very few mountaineers attempt plethora of wildest and highest of the mountains.
From the time when Rheinhold Messner, arguably the most skillful climber in history attempted Nanga Parbat with his brother Günther in which only he came out victorious, things have changed. Lonely Planet guide from Michael Beek is quite obsolete and they never bothered to come up with a new one. Leomann Maps have changed and Jerzy Wala orographic maps have significant new developments to account for.
Schools are being built, hydropower plants, bridges, hospitals, and mountain conservation programs are in the pipeline just as the KKH itself. Money has been pouring in from NGOs, local communities, and the south. Some making it to the deserving other lost in the red-tape. Tribal pride and sectarianism sometimes becoming a wedge that nullifies the development. What I have seen is nothing short of a Koh-Kaf.
A dream-like world in a Disneyland-like castle, the feeling you get when you stand on the rampart of Neuschwanstein Castle in southern Bavaria only amplified. What aches me to the core is our attitude towards our wealth and nature. Decades after annexation with Pakistan, Gilgit-Baltistan has limited constitutional rights. A beauty that by far surpasses anything I have seen in Europe or elsewhere is literally being choked to death by the callousness of the powers that be. The Frankenstein that we created ourselves. The question remains, will we ever free ourselves from our shackles or Stockholm syndrome will haunt us for the rest of our lives?
Originally published in More Magazine Pakistan — Aug 2015