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Essays and Travelogs

Deosai Ramblings by Hasan Karrar

Hasan Karrar

For seasoned Karakoram trekkers, we sure put on a dismal show on the morning of July first at the Daewoo bus station in Lahore. Still groggy from a late night at Yasser Hashmi’s, 8 o’clock in the morning found the dozen of us chasing packets of two-minute noodles as they floated in a Zen like fashion in the six inches of water that had accumulated outside the bus during the first of the monsoon downpours in the Punjab. That was the easy part. As the cartons of food had disintegrated in the water we also had to carry cans of food into the bus, holding many of them on our lap, and stashing the rest of them in the overhead rack as they rattled and rolled during the four hour ride to Islamabad. Unlike just about everyone else on the bus who had managed to stay dry, our entire group was drenched, which resulted in all of us going up to the bus driver at some point to beg him to turn down the air-conditioning. As a group of people who were off to spend between a week to a month in the Karakoram, we must have come across as rank amateurs off to a weekend in Kaghan. All except Yasir Khokar of course, who had managed to convince the people at the bus station that he was an army officer off to war in the high Himalayas. Perhaps the fact that he had chosen to wear his brother’s military shirt that day had something to do with this.

We were a mixed bag of students teachers, a token journalist, amateur photographers, chain-smokers, caffeine addicts, strung out, strung together, unemployed, unemployable (except maybe from a great distance), token film producer, computer geeks, black sheep of the family, barefoot doctor, Chinese Historian, some experienced, some inexperienced Karakoram travelers. The thirteen of us were off for a week long trek right through the Deosai Plateau, which stretches between the eastern Himalayas, Baltistan, and Indian Kashmir. Between thirteen and fourteen thousand feet, Deosai is the highest Plateau in the world with grasslands carpeted in flowers, rolling hills, sparkling rivers, and a sky more vast than anywhere else in the world. Yet despite this idyllic scenery Deosai also gives one a sense of endless isolation and stark wildness that I’ve only been able to experience on remote and torturous Karakoram glaciers.

Sitting in the bus and looking at the rain bring calamity to the streets of Lahore, Deosai seemed far away. I wondered why a country that can’t have a proper drainage system was allowed to have an atom bomb. Profound thoughts on a rainy morning after less than four hours of sleep. The rain would in fact stay with us for a while – between the 1st and the 24th of July we got rain or snow every day. But we didn’t know this yet, and for the most part I was content peering over Hajrah’s shoulder as she read a copy of The Friday Times from cover to cover. I let my mind drift to the trips we had planned. I was somewhat curious as to how the next few days would unfold. Even I had to admit that as far as travel plans went the next two days would be somewhat insane, stretching the limits of the human body’s ability to acclimatize to drastic changes in altitude.

“The plan is something like this,” I had explained to my friends, “We leave Lahore in the morning, and take the 4 o’clock bus to Gilgit in Islamabad, reaching Gilgit the next morning. The next day we get jeeps for Deosai, after ten hours we reach the Plateau at 13,000 feet and collapse from exhaustion and altitude sickness. Oh and Afghani Tikkas for lunch in Islamabad.- There was no question of not having the Afghani Tikkas – all my travel itineries in which we go to the Northern Areas from Lahore via Islamabad are scheduled around making time for Afghani Tikkas. I should know better though. Twice, including this time, we almost missed our bus to Gilgit because of those blessed Tikkas, and once we got so delayed that we didn’t reach Swat till 11 o’clock at night causing the father of one of our friends to assemble a search party in Saidu Sharif, pulling all the strings he could from a few hundred miles away in Islamabad.

One thing I’ve learned is that no matter how hard I try, and despite the fact that I’ve been going on similar trips for seven years now, I can never make things work with the precision of a Swiss watch. This is regardless of whether we are a group of two or a hundred and forty. In accordance with tradition, this time too there was major a misjudgment of time which resulted in the dozen of us being split up into half a dozen group once we reached Islamabad. Some were off in search for the Tikkas, some in search of the people who had gone looking for the Tikkas, some in search of those people too, and some running some mysterious errand in psychedelically colored folksy named Basanti. But miraculously, once the time came, we were all on the bus, though till a few minutes before departure I was standing on the side of the road outside the bus station waiting for the last group to show up on the horizon, yanking my hair in the process, and chain smoking cigarettes which I was shamelessly bumming off others, all the while making emergency contingency plans which I’ve become so good at making.

As far as the ride to Gilgit was concerned I couldn’t help but feel that this was one of the better ones. In his characteristic friendly manner that I would grow to love in the coming month, Rizwan Bajwa had become best friends with the bus conductor and driver (of course this still didn’t mean that the bus driver would play more than one song of the cassettes that were being furiously passed on to him. Then again, after dozens of trips on the Karakoram Highway in every sort of contraption, I have yet to meet a bus driver who appreciates Pink Floyd or the late Nazia Hassan). Another passenger who would become Bajwa and Qazi’s bosom friend was some fellow the bus driver picked up in the middle of nowhere on the Karakoram highway and whose claim to fame was a brother who supplied meat to troops posted in Karghil.

The only person I felt sorry for was William Clowney, our colleague from America. I somehow felt that this ride might have been a bit rough for someone not used to traveling such long distances in public buses in Pakistan. But to William’s credit he put up with all the rigors of the journey in grand style and with a cheerfulness that I find in the toughest of travelers. Little did he know but his adventures were just beginning.

Gilgit the next morning was just as we had left it five weeks ago. We made a beeline for a motel to have breakfast and to repack our gear that was being transported till then in a very haphazard manner. Nobody can claim to have slept for more than a few hours on the bus, but we were all ready to make the ten-hour jeep ride to the Plateau. Three jeeps were hired, last minute purchases had been made, and we had even put together a first aid kit. Since Khokar’s brother is a doctor he became the expeditions doctor, surgeon and physiotherapist by default.

The previous year we had spent five days on the Deosai Plateau approaching it from the Satpara Gorge near Skardu. This time we were planning on walking across the entire Plateau, approaching it from the Gilgit side and coming out in Skardu. Unlike the approach from Skardu, the approach from Gilgit takes close to ten hours, passing Jaglot and Astor before reaching Chilam Chowky, a military outpost, at the edge of the Plateau. The ride till Astor was monotonous; I had already come this way last spring en route to a trek to the Southern Base Camps of Nanga Parbat with my students and I knew there would be nothing to see – which made for a dull journey worsened by exhaustion. It was inevitable that we would end up playing the famous jeep game called “where are the other jeeps?” The purpose of this game is to have a furious and utterly pointless debate concerning the whereabouts of the other jeeps. Someone says something like, “they must be behind us”. At this point it is necessary for someone else to bet their weeklong supply of Mars Bars that the other jeeps are actually ahead. Then the first person has to raise the stakes, this time by swearing on someone or something. And so on and so forth. It is amazing what boredom can induce, especially after ten hours in a jeep.

However from Astor onwards the scenery changed as we made our way up an increasingly green valley. I made a mental note to spend time in this area someday with my camera. As the sunset turned the valley and the surrounding mountains into stark shades of orange and gray, it was hard to resist the temptation of getting my cameras and tripod out and start shooting.

We reached Chilam Chowky around 7:30, just as it was getting dark. In the meantime we had gotten our daily dose of rain and Maheen had even had a half a can of desi ghee, procured in Astor, applied to her hair. Our reception by the Pakistan Army, at the Chilam checkpoint, I regret to say, was just as I had anticipated. I was scolded for attempting to travel in a “war zone,” taken to task for only having an attested copy of my National Identity Card and not the original, and given a long lecture on how the army couldn’t care less about what instructions the ministry of tourism gives travelers (this was in response to my informing this young jawan that we had confirmed that the Southern Side of Deosai was open for trekking). After I was given a dressing down, I was gruffly told that I may proceed up to the Plateau. It seems odd that the person they should have been most concerned about, William, was of no concern to them. Clearly this was just an opportunity for a young enlisted person to through his weight around. It is sad to note that this behavior was not an isolated event, but something that I have encountered whenever I have dealt with members of the armed forces in the Northern Areas.

We still couldn’t proceed, however, as a fresh round of the jeep game started all over again. Of all the soldiers loitering by the side of the road in this Pakistan Army check point on the fringes of “a war zone” with India, none of them could tell me if a jeep or two full of trekkers had just driven up to the Deosai Plateau. In the meantime Hajrah proceeded to scold me in a loud voice for having been so courteous to the soldiers.

By this time it was dark. We figured that the others had probably reached the Plateau, which they had. The jeep climbed steeply up onto the Plateau, dropped us off just where the Park begins and was gone in a flash. In the dark we selected a level camping spot and proceeded to erect our tents and prepare food. Surprisingly it wasn’t as cold as I had expected, nor was anyone complaining about altitude sickness. It was only the next day that I would discover that I had miscalculated our altitude and we were in fact a thousand feet lower than I thought, at close to 12,000 feet. We would also discover that Chachoor Pass, which I thought to be a mere couple of hours walk away, was actually going to be much further. Of the entire six days we spent on Deosai, the next day was going to be the determining one.

There was much to do that night, but the primary item on the agenda was food. Everyone quickly began emptying out their packs of all the food they were carrying in the hope that it would be consumed that night so they wouldn’t have to lug it around for the next five days. In the meantime another very important decision was being made: who would bed with whom in which tent. On a camping trip of this size it is always fun to observe the peculiar and awkward social dynamics that conspire. For the men, the potential tent mates fall into two categories: those whom they are indifferent to sharing a tent with, and those whom they don’t want to share a tent with. It almost seems as if there’s a fear of being ostracized later if the wrong person is chosen. The selection process can be very delicate as there are usually a number of people who know who they want to bunk with but can’t say so openly for fear of offending other people because they are not considered tent worthy. It’s probably the shared space and the perceived intimacy which bothers the men, which also makes them particular about whom they share this space with. Women campers never have much of a problem. Clowney and I ended up bunking in one tent, a decision made easier as we were the two eldest male members of the party. After stashing my stuff in the tent, and while waiting for the food to be prepared, I entered a zanana tent (very reminiscent of the female quarters in old households which grandparents refer to). The zanana tents are also where you have a fair chance of finding goodies like chocolate, or a decent conversation, which doesn’t center around food or other such essential pivots of the male psyche.

The next morning dawned reasonably clear, and we began the unenviable process of coaxing our stoves to make tea and porridge for breakfast. People took their time emerging from the tents and Khokar and I went off in search for photographs with our cameras and tripods before the light got too harsh. After breakfast, Yasir and I volunteered to burn and dispose the trash – during which time everyone slipped off. When we got ready to go (a local couldn’t possibly understand why we were so adamant about not leaving garbage lying behind) we discovered that some wise guy or gal had left behind his or her share of the communal load – a few dozen boxes of biscuits. Granted they don’t weigh anything, but we had to resort to hanging them to the outside of our already bulging packs which created this ridiculous swinging sensation similar to that of riding a camel. And it was bad style. Real trekkers don’t have a plastic bag full of biscuit boxes dangling from the ice axe loops on their backpacks.

Thus the day began. It felt wonderful to be on the Plateau again. Despite having been fortunate to visit some of the wildest and remotest places in the Karakoram, the Deosai Plateau captivates me like few other places can. Taking swigs of an ORS-Energile concoction (which we fondly refer to as rocket fuel), the sun beating down on my face, and with panoramic views all around, I got the feeling of intense joy, which one can only experience in the mountains. During the course of that morning I ran into most of our trekking companions. In accordance with tradition, this time around too, we were stretched out over a few miles. But Bajwa and Qazi were not anywhere in sight.

“Maybe they’ve gone ahead and taken a jeep. There’s no way they can walk so much distance, so quickly,” someone said. We could see the path for quite a distance and indeed there was no sign of them.

“That’s silly,” I remarked. “No jeep has passed us”.

“Maybe the jeep was coming from the opposite side and they flagged it and turned it around.”

This conversation was clearly getting rather silly so I continued walking, stopping only at a lovely stream and waiting for the others to catch up. It was a good place to sit back and take in the views.

The part of Deosai that borders the Astor Valley has traditionally been referred to as Choota Deosai (as opposed to Barra Deosai). The Plateau continues East for maybe 40 kilometers and then turns sharply north at Kaala Panni, which is the divides Barra and Choota Deosai. The scenery on Choota Deosai was very different from that which we had seen last year when we had explored the other side. This side of Deosai was carpeted in flowers, all the while ascending up a very broad valley to Chachoor Pass. I sat there idly thinking which one was more beautiful. One by one the others showed up. Clowney was nowhere to be seen and I was told that I should go back and see how things were going since he wasn’t feeling too well.

He wasn’t that far behind, but the altitude had caught up with him. I figured a rest was all he needed and we went and stopped by the stream where the others were still waiting. But he wasn’t doing too well. My remedy for every illness is food and I thought half a pack of Marie biscuits was all he needed. But after twenty minutes he had only nibbled the edge of one and I started taking him seriously as he kept on telling me that he wanted to go back.

An experienced trekker once told me that the hardest thing to do on a trek is to turn someone back. I tried telling him that he’d feel better once we moved on, settled down, and had some dinner. We distributed the bulky items in his pack and told white lies about how the next campsite couldn’t be more than a short walk away. But then I looked at him sitting in a daze, semi-delirious, and then stole a glance at the Marie biscuit in his hand, still uneaten but now soggy with saliva and I knew that he had to descend. But how?

Everyone had moved on, but I had made Yasir Khokar, Kamran and Mamo Ameel stay back while we sorted this issue out. It was decided that I would walk back down with Clowney till the edge of the Plateau where there were a few huts. From there he could find a porter to help him down to Chilam Chowky and hopefully be able to find a ride down to as far as Astor. I took my cameras and lenses and other valuables and gave them to Yasir, Kami and Mamo, and stashed my pack behind some rocks for easy retrieval on the way up. I was still feeling good, and the weather was holding, so I figured it didn’t really matter if I got to camp late. I told them to keep a light on in the camp so that I could find it, and we parted ways, with the three of them quickly heading up towards the Pass, and Clowney and I walking down.

We covered the distance quite quickly. It was hard to see him off for many reasons. He had put up with the rigors of the journey splendidly and cheerfully. He had enjoyed the scenery as much as anyone else had and I wanted him to see more, especially as a foreign guest who had taken such a great interest in our country and our culture. But I knew he had made the right decision. An hour or so into the walk we found a young lad who agreed to accompany him down.

It was an understated parting. We shook hands. “Have a safe journey,” I said; “I’ll see you in August”. I turned back and started walking quickly back towards the Pass.

The crazy thing about the weather in the mountains is that you can’t see it changing. One moment you’re walking along enjoying the glorious sunshine and taking in awesome views, and the next thing you know your furiously pulling out layers of clothing from your pack in an attempt to keep reasonably warm and dry.

Something similar happened as soon as I saw William Clowney off near Chilam Chowky on the edge of the Deosai Plateau. I turned around to walk back up towards Chachoor Pass, and all of a sudden the sunshine disappeared. But these things are routine in the Northern Areas and it was little more than a minor inconvenience at the time. I had my faithful jacket with me which has been through hellish weather many times, and this was only a minor shower. But it was becoming cold. I figured it would take me only an hour to reach the stream where I had parted with the others and where my backpack was safely stashed behind boulders.

I was surprised to hear a jeep approaching from behind. Now jeeps do ply over the Deosai Plateau, but the presence of jeeps in the Deosai National Park is something I’m opposed to for a number of reasons. Firstly, jeeps are a source of environmental pollution in this fragile environment. Secondly, jeeps personify the quintessential domestic tourist mindset “why walk when you can take a jeep?” More relevant however, was the fact that it was unusual for a jeep to be on this side of the Plateau as most day tourists usually jeep in from Skardu and stay confined to the northeastern side of the Plateau.

The jeep pulled up besides me and I saw that it was a local jeep carrying lumber. In typical Northern Area hospitality, they offered me a ride and I must admit that I wasn’t too ashamed to climb aboard. When we reached the stream where my pack was stashed, I jumped off and thanked them gratefully. They looked a bit surprised to see a lone trekker out in the middle of nowhere. I explained that the other people were camping ahead at Chachoor Pass and that I had walked down to see off a friend who had succumbed to altitude sickness. When I told them I was going to walk the rest of the way, they looked at me as if I had gone mad. I figured this was divine intervention and so long as they were going in the direction of the Pass, I may as well get a ride. I was fairly certain that the others had reached the Pass, and to show up in a jeep while the others had walked the same distance was not something I was looking forward to. I felt relieved when they said they were stopping just short of the Pass. I could save face so I hoped back on. I was beginning to wonder how far this pass was anyway, and in the meantime feeling sorry for the others who had to cover all of it by foot.

It wasn’t long before we saw Kami, Khokar and Mamo. On seeing the jeep they moved aside to let it pass, then saw me waving furiously and their faces broke into smiles. Rescued. They climbed aboard with an open can of allo keema in their hands. Caught in a storm, with no end to the days hike in sight, they resorted to what any sane Lahori would do – break out the food. Steadily climbing upwards, we kept on picking up members of our thirteen-person party reminiscent of rescue scenes in movies following the sinking of a ship. I suspect the jeep driver was a bit surprised to see us scattered like seeds across the Plateau. Whenever we drove up behind someone I’d ask him to stop. “Yes, they are also part of group,” I’d explain sheepishly (he must have had quite a tale of search and rescue to tell afterwards).

Shortly after we had all been rescued, the jeep stopped and the driver pointed to a camp across the stream as his destination. Given the bitterly cold rain we decided to camp on the near side of the stream. Oddly we still hadn’t seen Bajwa and Qazi. Like the irritating bunny rabbit in the Energizer battery cell commercial they had kept on going and going. It wasn’t their fault exactly – after all we had planned on going all the way to Chachoor Pass today.

But we had to decide what to do about them. While it was tempting to just let them be and die of the cold and exposure, we decided against this on moral and practical grounds. Kami and I decided to go and look for them while the others were given the unenviable task of setting up camp in the freezing rain.

In order to cover ground quickly we began sprinting, which at close to fourteen thousand feet is not a good idea. Before I knew it we were not only out of breath but close to blacking out too. Luckily they weren’t too far ahead. They seemed justifiably disappointed at being turned back. I promised them we would double the weight in their packs to slow them down the next day.

Back at camp most of the tents had been erected, though they were put up is such a hurry that most of them were pitched on slanted ground which would make for a wet, miserable night. Having spent a night sleeping under the stars when my tent had been flooded up by the Batura Glacier in May, I knew that poor campsite was an invitation for trouble, and took the time to set up my tent properly.

Most of the people were understandably tired and crawled in their tents. I resisted the temptation, as going to sleep without a hearty meal would be inviting altitude sickness. In the meantime Khokar and I walked around with our tripods and cameras looking for shots. The rain had subsided for the time being. Faiza and some of the boys went across the river to have a chat with the people who were camped on the other side. They were MBA students from a university upcountry – an eclectic bunch of maulwis, charsis and alcoholics all rolled into one. They were also intrigued to learn of a faculty member in our group though I think my scruffy looks, crumpled clothes, and juvenile antics took them by surprise. They were kind enough to lend us some firewood and we got a fire raging to dry our clothes and started a stove to brew tea.

Huddling around a campfire in the evening is perhaps one of the finest things about camping. The rain stopped, and just as it was getting dark the clouds parted in the West to reveal the unmistakable South Face of Nanga Parbat on the horizon.

It was a magical moment. Few faces can match the grandeur of the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat that rises five miles in an unbroken vertical wall of rock and ice to the summit at 26,660 feet. Even from a hundred kilometers away it was hard to take one’s eyes off it. Some moments are so breathtaking that one can’t even bring oneself to photograph them. After a long day in the mountains it was a moment of extreme serenity – a brief reminder of why we were here. For me, it also brought back fond memories of a trek to the South Side of Nanga Parbat with my students in May 1999.

After dinner eight of us crowded in a two-person tent, and proceeded to sing songs and crack jokes. This is when the mutiny began – Hajrah and Mona wanted to turn back.

It was Faiza who helped us reach a compromise the next morning. I was adamant in wanting to continue on foot – others wanted to go home. Faiza agreed to ask the students camped ahead if their jeep driver would be so kind as to drop us off at Barra Panni, the half way point. From there it was decided that Hajrah and Mona would be able to hitch a ride with day tourists who come up from Skardu while the rest of us could opt for a more challenging route into Skardu – over the 16,000 feet Burji Pass. I was reluctant to miss out on the chance to camp at Chaucer Lake, just below Chachoor Pass on the other side, but I was even more reluctant to split the group at such an early stage. We had been forced to split the group on a trek along the Batura Glacier in May, and it had been a difficult decision and not one that I was willing to go through again.

For the second time in twenty-four hours, we all climbed on the jeep. As soon as the jeep ascended Chachoor Pass I let out a sharp cry. Right below laid Chaucer Lake – serene, huge, and beautiful with the endless Deosai Plateau stretching into the distant horizon as far as the eye could see. This is what I had come to see and it was breaking my heart to have to drive right by it.

“I’m getting off here,” I announced after a second’s pause. And then selfishly added: “You guys can do what you want.” The fact is that at that point I didn’t care about anyone anymore. Here was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever laid my eyes on, and I wasn’t going to drive away from it – I was going to savor every moment of it. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Kami, Khokar, Bajwa, Mamo, Bob and Maheen all disembarked.

The group was split – the inevitable had happened. We unloaded things we would need for the night and bid the others an unemotional farewell. We’d be meeting them tomorrow anyway; they would be staying at Barra Panni an extra day.

We set up camp next to a three-member Survey of Pakistan team. I would have preferred a bit more privacy, but they wouldn’t have it any other way, insisting that we camp near them so that we could have dinner together. They were wonderful people and their company would add tremendously to the fabulous day we spent at the lake.

At fourteen thousand feet, Chaucer Lake is said to be the highest lake in the world and the first thing Kami did was go for a swim. Last year, Khurram, Atif and I had been swimming at Barra Panni and I had made an incredibly big deal out of it. Naturally Kamran felt that I would join him in this momentous dip as well. But I was feeling too lazy and instead choose to laze around in the sun, cooking up some strange concoction of hot and sour soup and noodles for lunch.

Later in the afternoon, Yasir and I climbed a hill on the east of the Lake. The view was breathtaking, certainly more beautiful than any other view on the Plateau – standing there it seemed like we could see to eternity – hundreds of miles of rolling hills blending into the snow covered Himalayas.

“You know,” I remember commenting to Yasir. “We’ll never be able to describe this to anyone.”

He nodded, his eyes glued to Choota Deosai. In 1995 I climbed a volcano, Mt. Longonot, in the Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. The view from the rim of the crater had been breathtaking with the entire Rift Valley falling away all around us. But the view of Choota Deosai, though similar, was an order of magnitude more beautiful with distant Karakoram and Himalayan giants appearing as minor etchings bordering an infinite sky. We made a feeble attempt to photograph the infinite expanse in front of us, but more than anything we just stood there dumbfounded by it.

The day had one more delightful surprise in store for us. As we walked back to camp, the jeep that had dropped our friends off at Barra Panni had returned, and was making a quick stop to drop off some fresh fish which had been caught for us, before heading back down to the Chachoor Pass. Rizwan Bajwa and Qazi had struck up a friendship with a chap on the bus to Gilgit whose brother supplied meat to soldiers stationed in Karghil. The camp across the river where we had camped last night, had been housing this very individual. On hearing this, Bajwa had convinced the meat supplier that his brother, whom Rizwan had barely met, was actually a lifelong friend of his. Throughout the entire time we spent on the Plateau I had visions of the brother showing up on the horizon to settle a score with us.

The fish was much welcome. Of course we had no clue about what to do with it. Dead fish always remind me of Lucca Bracci’s assassination in The Godfather. Last summer we had been presented with fish at Barra Panni as well, and I had stood half a kilometer away making faces while Khurram and Atif heroically cleaned it. Despite their heroic efforts it had still turned out to be a complete flop, as apparently there’s more to making fish than boiling it in a saucepan with soup.

Thankfully this challenge was taken off our hands by the surveyors who insisted on preparing it for us, along with chapathis. At dinner we showed up at their cozy dinner tent armed with cans of nihari. That must have been one of the finest dinners of my life: nihari, fried fish, chapathis, lobia, and halwa, washed downed with a local kahwa. In a bizarre twist reminiscent of Garcia Marquez novel, it also turned out to be Yasir Khokar’s birthday that very day.

After we had consumed every last morsel of food and gratefully thanked our kind host we sat outside for a while trying to locate the constellations in a sky covered in a million stars. As people gradually succumbed to the cold there was only Mamo, Maheen and me left standing outside and the conversation started taking a pseudo profound twist. Yes, so what is the meaning of life?

“BULLLIYAAAAAA!”

I almost jumped out of skin.

“. TOO NA JANNA MA KOUN,” Ali Azmat of the rock group Junoon wailed in a mournful drag reminiscent of existentialist crises of the mid teens.

Between Yasir and Bajwa, they had managed to bring a portable CD player, a walkman, a speaker, and more music than I’ve owned in my life (and then they complained their packs were too heavy). Till now I’d always considered myself a purist, insisting that musical instruments do not have a place in the wilderness and one should rely on their own singing vocals instead. But on this trip I had grudgingly come around to admitting that it wasn’t too bad having music along, though I hardly put Junoon in that category. There’s a place in my life for both Sufism and Rock, but “Sufi Rock” has always struck me as being a marketing gimmick, or worse a deluded attempt to reach enlightenment circa Western hippies touring South Asia in search of Nirvana and cheap drugs to get high. For me “Sufi rock” has always been up there with Sufi cooking oil and Sufi washing soap.

The next morning we broke camp under a bright sun, a harbinger of a lovely day. Our friends from the Survey of Pakistan insisted that the walk to Barra Panni would not take us longer than an hour and a half at best. Assuming that these guys probably knew what they were talking about, I was pleased as I as looking forward to reaching Barra Panni early and lazing by the river. Who knows, I may even go for a swim.

But after walking for an hour and half it was quite clear that we were nowhere near Barra Panni – the Plateau just spread in every direction without a hint of the river and the unmistakable bridge across it. But who could complain on a day like this? After a few hours, Bajwa, Khokar, Kami and I made it to the halfway point, Kaala Panni. It was a small river and from here the route turned sharply north. This, as far as I could tell, was the dividing line between Barra and Choota Deosai. We waited for the others to catch up.

In the meantime a jeep showed up from the other side. I groaned and got up to remove my backpack from the middle of the road least the jeep run over it, when I noticed that it stopped on the other side of the river. First one person, then another, and then Faiza leapt out.

In case you’re wondering whether we were overjoyed to see her, we most certainly were not. I’d had enough of people plying across this Plateau on jeeps and the last thing I wanted was to be “rescued”. In indignation we picked up rocks and started throwing them across the river.

“GO AVVVAYY!” I yelled. “We don’t want to be rescued.”

Faiza looked genuinely surprised. Perhaps she thought we would be over-joyed to be given a ride to Barra Panni. Instead we were throwing stones at her.

I went back to look for the others. When I found Bob I told him I had good news and bad news.

“The good news is that Barra Panni is still some distance away so you’re going to have to suffer some more,” I said cheerfully. Bob had been struggling with a faulty backpack.

“And the bad news is that we have a ride waiting on the other side?” Bob guessed right away. I was amazed how he knew. Some of these CS majors are smart. Or maybe it was the grin on my face that gave it away.

Eventually we decided that Faiza would take the backpacks in the jeep and the rest of us would walk to Barra Panni. The walk between Kaala Panni and Barra Panni is the most beautiful part of the Plateau I’ve walked across. The trail climbs up sharply to around 14,000 feet and then levels out with nothing but you and the vast Deosai sky above. I was happy that we were no longer burdened by our packs. It felt lovely to walk up there with nothing but a camera and a water bottle. And it was certainly a long walk. We made it down to Barra Panni in ones and twos and it was late by the time the last person had arrived. Most just collapsed on reaching the campsite. I was thrilled to see our tents already pitched, and to this date I am grateful to Mudassir, Naeem and Faiza for taking care of the tea and later food as we slumbered into camp, utterly beat. A great day in the mountains.

But Mona and Hajrah had left, and while their absence did not exactly leave a vacancy that could not be filled, it was a sad reminder that of the people who had ventured on this trek, three had left at an early stage. I wasn’t racked by guilt, but I would rather this had not happened. As we stood around a campfire chatting later that evening it was clear that there was going to be another split. Half the people had decided that they wanted to exit via the Satpara gorge and not over the higher Burji La.

I was keen on going over Burji La. We had missed out on it last year and the thought that you could see the 8,000 meter peaks at the head of the Baltoro Glacier was indeed an intriguing prospect. I wasn’t too upset about the split that would take place tomorrow. Our group would reach Skardu a day later and we had already started making plans for massive consumption of chaapli kababs. Then, some of us were off to do the Biafo-Hispar traverse through the central Karakorams. Mamo, Bob and Mudassir were going to Hunza. Between upcoming plans, Burji La and of course the kababs, there was a lot to look forward to that evening.

The walk from Chaucer Lake to Barra Panni had been a long one, and it was with a great sense relief that I strolled across the rickety suspension bridge to our camp on the far side of the river. Faiza and a group of five others had reached Barra Panni the day before, and on seeing our group of six descend from a high ridge on our way from Chaucer Lake, walked out to meet us. On reaching the campsite I was thrilled to see the tents had been set up and preparations were underway for dinner. A warm cup of tea was thrust into my hands. I could relax.

I looked at the last members of our party coming across that grand old suspension bridge and couldn’t help smiling. The Ministry of Tourism forbids tourists from photographing bridges but itself sells huge posters of this very bridge at every one of their offices. I could picture Indian and Chinese spies buying armfuls of these and sending them back to Beijing and New Delhi for analysis.

Barra Panni is an idyllic place to spend a day contemplating the Plateau. At about thirteen thousand feet or so, my guess is that Barra Panni marks the lowest point on the Plateau. The river widens out considerably and is deep, fast, and freezing cold. Unfortunately we had reached the river a lot later than anticipated so there was no chance to laze in the sun and listen to the river. Still, it was a sort of homecoming. We had had a grand time here last summer. Khurram, Atif, and I had gone for a swim in the river. I had been in the water for perhaps fifteen seconds before I started turning blue with cold, but Khurram and Atif had actually made an effort to swim against the current for a few minutes. The fact that they covered maybe a yard or two at best, doesn’t take away from the fact that it was the most heroic bit of swimming I had seen – nothing in the Olympics comes even remotely close. Ahmed Shamim had climbed a large hill to the east and spotted the unmistakable massif of Nanga Parbat, now perhaps a hundred and fifty kilometers away. Faiza Mushtaq had learned how to smoke, and Faiza Zafar and Yasser had sung every ghazzal known to humanity. It had been the perfect trip, and strolling by the river that evening I was able to recall all the pleasant details from last summer, which had subsequently been buried by the pointless chaos of city life.

Of the seven of us who had been on the Plateau last year, only Faiza Zafar and myself had been able to return. Unlike last year when Barra Panni had marked the furthest we had reached, this time we had traversed the entire Plateau, and this was to be the second to last camp before we descended into Skardu.

A little had indeed changed over the year. The Himalayan Wildlife Foundation, which had had a large camp set up for the conservation of the 28 Himalayan bears remaining in the region, did not have a large presence at Barra Panni this year. Only a token representative was there and from time to time members of the HWF were said to visit. Until recently, the Himalayan Brown Bear had been plentiful on the Plateau but their numbers have shrunk alarmingly due to lack of conservation attempts by the government. Sadly, the military has been a prime culprit. The Northern Areas, once abundant in all sorts if wildlife ranging from Snow Leopards to Ibex to Marco Polo Sheep are now sadly barren, as all animals were considered fair game by the defenders of this country who shot them for sport. The army is currently constructing a road from Barra Panni south towards the border regions with India for purposes of defence. This area is the last refuge of the Himalayan Bears and by the time this road is constructed, there is every possibility that the bears will be extinct – yet another casualty of this senseless war that India and Pakistan insist on fighting.

Unlike last year, there was a small camp of army engineers a few hundred yards away complete with heavy machinery rusting away. Half a dozen bored looking soldiers lazed around playing cards, unable to comprehend why anyone would want to come up here on their own free will.

The next morning we split into two groups yet again. Half of the group was going to walk out of the Satpara Gorge, while the rest of us were planning on crossing over the 16,000 feet Burji La and come down directly in Skardu a day after the others. As this decision was being formulated, I was in no mood to break camp and was feeling exceptionally lazy. Feeling bad for not having done my share around the camp lately, I collected all our used cans and took them down to the river to wash and crush. It took an incredibly effort and I absentmindedly cut my hands a few times. The allo-keema cans in particular seemed to be made of titanium and I had to jump on them to crush them.

The bright sunshine was making me feel lethargic and even after my gear was packed I just lazed in the sun, smoking cigarettes and making excuses to delay the departure. People started leaving in ones and twos and I reluctantly got up. I strolled along the path, falling behind the others, as we headed north to Choota Panni. I had covered this distance rather quickly on the return trip last year, but this time I didn’t see the need to rush. My only concern was that I was carrying the rope and the others would not be able to cross Choota Panni without me. Unlike Kaala Panni, which is a minor crossing, and Barra Panni with its bridge, the Choota Panni crossing requires either a rope, or prior experience in its deceptively rough waters. We almost had someone drown here last year and to avoid another such incident this year, we brought a rope along.

I reached Choota Panni to find everyone waiting patiently. I smoked a cigarette and proceeded to sort out the rope, harnesses, carabiners, and slings needed to rig up a safe system. All of a sudden I felt alert and excited at the prospect of rigging a technical system for the crossing. I led across the river first, trailing the rope. Once on the other side, I set the rope in place, Mamo and I acting as the two be layers across the stream.

At its narrowest Choota Panni is about sixty feet wide. First timers have a tendency to be dismissive about the crossing. We had many of these types in our group. I think it’s only when Rizwan Bajwa started across, fell a few times only to be held by the system, that the scorn for Choota Panni turned to awe. In the meantime a jeep stopped on the far side of the river. All the people who had previously been dismissive of the crossing quickly jumped aboard it. All except Maheen, who wanted to have a shot at the crossing.

Halfway across Maheen started having some difficulty. The only person who could have gone to her aid was Rizwan who was standing besides me, hands thrust in his pocket, whistling, lost in his own world.

“Huh?”

“Rizwan, give Maheen a hand,” I said slightly irritated that he hadn’t already done so.

Finally on the other side, we discovered that the only casualty of the crossing had been Maheen’s toenail, which must have been a source of pain, though she never complained. The others used the jeep to come across and were going down to Skardu in the same vehicle. We quickly emptied our packs of gear we wouldn’t need for Burji La. Yasir handed over his beloved speaker, which Bajwa managed to salvage just in time.

It was a while before our group, now reduced to six, got ready to move again. As we entered the Burji gorge in the late afternoon it was clear that we were way behind schedule. Reluctantly we decided to head up towards Ali Malik Pass and possibly attempt Burji from there the next day. It grew dark on the way and we lost the trail. I knew exactly where we were but there was no point in stumbling around the Plateau in the dark. We were tired enough as it was. We set up camp in the dark on the side of a mountain – it was a rocky and desolate campsite. While we had a few liters of water between us, there was no stream nearby. Our stove also decided to die on us at the moment and dinner consisted of cold food. We later crowded into a tent and sang kuch kuch hoota hai, and that cheered us up considerably. Though we didn’t talk about it, we were all rethinking the Burji option.

In the end it was the faulty stove that made the decision for us. In the evening we had been fairly certain that we could fix it in the morning. But even Kamran and Yasir’s technical abilities combined with generous amounts of glue and duct tape weren’t going to do the job. I was still keen on given Burji a shot though; something similar had happened last year and to miss out on the Pass two years in a row was disappointing. But the others were keen to conserve their energy for the next trek and without a stove it didn’t make too much sense. Secretly I knew they were right and in a way I was glad the majority had decided – Burji La would have to wait yet again. We skirted around the mountain the next morning to reach Ali Malik Pass from where the Satpara Gorge led down to Skardu. The traverse was over.

There’s a small shack at Ali Malik Pass and last year we had bought parathas from there. We aimed for the shack. I was quite surprised to find that the owner, Ali Maddad, actually remembered my name. We threw off our packs for the last time and made ourselves comfortable as he prepared breakfast.

Since we didn’t have a vehicle waiting for us, we had to resort to hitching rides in ones and twos from vehicles that would come up from Skardu for the day. Yasir and Kami were the first to go, followed by Maheen. Faiza, Rizwan and myself were there till later in the afternoon. Now that the trek was over I wanted to head down to Skardu, have a shower, eat decent food and start preparations for the Biafo-Hispar traverse that was to follow. But another part of me wanted to stay on the Plateau for as long as I could. Looking across the wind-swept Plateau from Ali Malik Pass I had a sense this was the perfect personification of eternity. Ali Maddad brought us more tea later in the afternoon and the four of us sat there smoking and chatting. I felt at home.

We eventually got a ride from a seemingly psychotic family from the Punjab who were curious to know why, if we were trekkers, we weren’t walking down? I tried to be as polite as possible in my answers, but Rizwan kept making faces and I kept kicking him. Somewhere in the back of mind was the paranoia that these people might chop us up into little bits and store us in a deep freezer. We were returning to civilization.

Over the years we have been venturing further into more and more desolate regions of the Karakoram. Our 140-kilometer Biafo-Hispar traverse that followed the Deosai traverse, has set the standard for even more technical and committing trekking in the summers ahead. Unlike these treks, on Deosai there are no physical challenges to face, no obstacles to overcome, or any adversity greater than the vicious mosquitoes. With the exception of the Choota Panni crossing, the entire trek is an easy walk over a very well beaten track. Unlike the desolate Karakoram, there are no distinctive features on Deosai: no glaciers, no granite spires shooting up vertically into the sky, no 8,000 meter mountains – in fact no mountains at all. Even the rivers are arbitrarily called Barra and Choota Panni, the names derived from their relative size. To the best of my knowledge none of the hills have names either, nor are they particularly high, impressive, or distinct in any other way. What there is instead is a vast emptiness, a never ending horizon, and feeling of being witness to true desolation and wilderness. As I head out deeper and deeper into the Karakoram in search of increasingly remote valleys, endless glaciers, and unclimbed passes, a part of me knows that everything I’m looking for I’ve already found in Deosai.

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