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Essays and Travelogs

Running down a Dream by Yasir Khokhar

 

There are certain experiences in life that one can never forget; they are ingrained within your being as a part of who you are. Perhaps subconsciously they govern your thoughts, actions and outlook of existence, some experiences leave your scathed, some leave you elated and others may leave you humbled. Shimshal humbled me. I could taste the transience of my existence the day we dug out a mud pit in search of water, I could feel the beauty of flight watching a crow play in the wind while I heaved another breath, climbing Shpodeen pass. I understood the meaning of partnership when Hasan stopped my fall on the north face of Chapchingol.

We started from Passu, a small town north of Gilget about 3 hours drive away. Staying overnight with the splendid hospitality of the manager at Passu Inn, we met our first companion Zafar, in Passu. Zafar was returning from some errand down south; probably seeing off one trekking party I guessed. He agreed to guide us through his land for the next two weeks. They said it was going to be a long trek, though mysteriously, they left out other details. I also wondered why no one was mentioning anything overly spectacular about the place, this was unlike what I was accustomed to. For last year, anyone whom we had inquired about the Snowlake trek had spoken endless words of the grandeur of the place, but when it came to Shimshal, long and tough were the only two adjectives. I shrugged to myself and let it go as paranoia.

The next morning we grudgingly woke up at 5am and after cursory breakfast of eggs, that I looked very longingly at, for those were going to be the last two I was going to have for a long time, we went through the ritual of unpacking and re-packing our backpacks. As much as Hasan disliked talking about the weight, I kept jabbering about how heavy our bags looked and how gruesome our trek would probably be with all that weight. I amused myself with ghastly images of myself and Hasan with bent backs, bleeding feet and drunken looks, dragging our bags up insane slopes with the sun beating down on us. Inspired by some horror movie of course, I now wonder if there is any truth to fortune telling.

Enter Montrail hiking boots. New shoes, lovingly brought for a lot of money a few months back, I had been breaking them in over the timid slopes of the margalla hills in Islamabad. They looked so nice and dandy sitting up there on the window of the jeep that was carrying us along towards Shimshal village. The jeep road, about an hour and half long, takes you up to a considerable distance of Shimshal village. Previously, this was a journey unto its own, with its own stories of adventure and peril, but the jeep road had obliterated most of that. It now took you most of the way, leaving still, a very long way for the likes of us and a mere 6 hour for those of Herculean descent. We had encountered some from the mentioned dynasty before we left for the trek, they had mentioned that we would make it to the village the same day from the end of the road block.

Hoping we would take a few more hours, we were in for, guess what? Yes, a surprise. As usual, might I add? The jeep came to an abrupt halt suddenly and it was time for Montrail boots to hit the trail. The ‘road block’ a euphuism for ‘the end of life as you know it’ turned out to be a dhaaba that had empty petrol barrels strewn about, owned by a scruffy looking lad.We needed another porter with us to carry our healthcare and beauty equipment and he was the only human within sight who could to the trick. It took a while convince him, but grudgingly he agreed to escort us to Shimshal village.

We started the journey after a small breakfast of roti and salted tea. The sun had risen high and after about half an hour we reached the place where the path ended, quite literally, had it not been for the road workers there, I doubt we would have made it across the area they had blasted out. That was the first introduction we had with scree, broken rock and gravel. Welcome to Shimshal, I heard me say.

That was a long day, and as we talked about it later that day, sitting in the comfort of our tent, we realized that hey, if this was what day 1 is, what do you suppose the next few days are going to be like? We had walked for more then 10 hours, during which I had banged my toes against every football size rock I could find and in due time had run out of water. We had rested in Ziaret for 2 hours, sleeping there for a while, which was probably a bad mistake. By the end of that day, the porters had left us to our own devices, myself and hasan had been walking together for a while, thoroughly tired and depending on each other, we did make it to the camp site known as garam chashma. Ironically, the water was glacial melt.

Montrial boots were taken off and replaced with chappals, food was made, consumed and digested over cigerrates and the cheerful thoughts of how lovely the next days would be like. So far, the scenery had been brazen, flat, dry, dusty and extremely rocky land pictured with a blazing sun that you could feel pounding the surface in relentless fury. I could almost imagine vultures circling above my head and dead animal carcasses strewn over this land.

The next day was the home-run to Shimshal village. I hobbled out of our tent, looking forward to making it to Shimshal that day. We set out early and had only walked for a few minutes when we met two people coming from the other side. We asked them if they knew a certain ‘Mahdi’ who lived in Shimshal; Mahdi was to be our second guide who had been recommended by our friends at Karavan. It turned out that one of them was Mahdi! He agreed to accompany us and turned around from his errand.

An interesting event happened this day. We were very near Shimshal village, perhaps half an hour away and I was lagging behind; the last one actually. My feet were bleeding and I was hobbling along without water. After a short climb up as soon as I reached the outskirts of Shimshal, I found a small water channel running and duly collapsed in front of it. Too tired to take off my pack and reach for my water bottle, I reached back and unscrewed the straw and plugged it into the stream itself, drinking from the channel. A middle aged man was eyeing my strangely from a certain distance; perhaps wondering at why this city boy with new shoes is sprawled spread eagle drinking with a straw from a stream.

He came over and introduced himself as Rajab Shah and offered me tea and water from his house nearby. I was certain his offer had everything to do with my appearance. At that point, I did not realize who he was, the name sounded familiar though. He asked me where I was headed and I told him our plan of Minglik Sar and Chapchingol, he agreed with my thoughts that it was going to be a long trek. I was now convinced I was headed for one heck of a ride.

A few minutes later, I met up with Hasan and the rest. Hasan was ecstatic and asked me if I had met Rajab Shah. Yes,I said “Who is he, the name sounds familiar” , “Oh, he is one of the greatest Pakistani mountaineers; he’s climbed all of the five 8000m peaks in Pakistan!”. That did it for my big introduction to a mountaineer I thought to myself. Inwards my ego had been dented a little. The first time I meet a real mountaineer and I looked like a complete dandy. Oh well. C’est la viet!

 Photos from the trek

Shimshal was beautiful. The quaint serenity of this haven within a desert struck me immediately as reminiscent of an age old community. Zafar took us to his home and they convinced us to stay over the next day; rest they said, we would need it. Not in the mood for much argument against what they called “tough and long” we decided it was probably a good idea. That night, we were served ‘chalpinduk’ a local dish of cheese and wheat. One of the simplest and most wholesome meal I had had, we spent the evening listening to Ghazals by Jagit and Chitra. I slept like a baby.

We take life for so granted, I had not known. Imagine carrying all of what you see around you this very instance, think everything. The bricks that make up your wall, the cement the joins them, the plaster that covers them, the wood that made your chair, the marble that makes your floor. Now imagine that you have to build all of this yourself, now imagine that you have had to carry this for three days on your back to get to your home. This was what life was like in Shimshal. I shuddered when Zafar told me he had carried those bags of cement and the as yet uninstalled WC for his new bathroom he was making.

Life here was simple. There were none of the pretentious made up cocoons of time structure we had made for ourselves back in the cities. Here, you spent summer growing your food for winter. Winter, you tried to survive the bitter cold that would creep through the walls of your home and cover your land in ice. Winter, you spent with your family, summer you earned for their lively hood; most of the men of Shimshal were guides and porters for the region.

The more I came to know about this village, the larger then life it became. The village had two schools, Zafar’s wife was a teacher in one of them. There was no police and crime was unheard of. The children of the village would spend time with almost everyone in the village, as if it was their own home. The elders of the village made the decisions for the village. The people looked forward to the day that the jeep road would be completed and they would have easy access to the world, perhaps for no other reason then better health care. They had lost one too many people to the non existent medical facilities.

I felt the same that Hasan did, we wanted to do something for them. We had nothing much on us and we knew that offering money for Zafar’s hospitality would be a crude and disrespectful way of thanking them. Instead we had a feast on canned peaches and pineapples. We left them some medicines that we thought we had extra on us. A part of me wanted to stay in Shimshal longer.

 

Day 1 from shimshal, we walked the entire day from morning till sunset, the highlight of the day not being the torturous two climbs that we had done, quite literally scaling two hills, but rather, the fact that we had run out of water. The only stream that we encountered on the way had dried up. We dug around the place, searching for water and found a millimeter deep pool of mud from which I sucked up two drops of water from the surface. The sun was hot and the trail kept getting steeper and longer. It had begun to get a little dark as we had gone around a mountain, Mahdi offered to come back later for our backpacks and I duly and without shame dropped mine at the very spot I stood. I dug into it and conjured up a can of chopped pineapples. I remembered they had some sort of liquid in them. Not bothering to find a can opener, I hammered a hole through it with my ice axe. Hasan perched slightly ahead of me on a rock looked down at and rather casually remarked ‘this is the most beautiful place I have ever seen’. I thought he had gone insane, here we were nearly dying of thirst and he had the gall to comment on the scenery. Later, I thought it was a brave remark in such odd circumstances. When we reached Farzeen, the sight of the stream running along it was one of the happiest moments of my life. Not so surprisingly, Hasan and myself agreed to call this the worst day of our lives.

Shimshal became a lybrinth of emotions thereafter. That fateful first day programmed our city minds to a less busy, less concerned state of affairs. We stopped wondering how long the path would be, when we would get there and wether the route was easy or tough. We walked, and walked and walked till the day got dark, Mahdi or Zafar would then comment that we had reached camp. A cauldron of tea would be drained in celebration followed by food and a sleep, sometimes restful, sometimes restless. It was one restless night on the 3rd of July we found ourselves at the foot of the highest mountain in the Pamirs; Minglik Sar. Two things dawned upon me, one, I was going to turn 23 in a few hours, second, I will be climbing my first mountain, and it was staring right at our flimsy tent right now. Would it let us climb it, I wondered? It must be a strong emotion because I remember I unzipped my sleeping bag in that cold, found my sandals and had the gal to take a stroll outside. It was cold and windy and very, very lonely. I felt free yet small, the mountain looked high and calm. Brimming with emotion I returned to the tent and slept.

A cauldron of tea and can of Heinz Beans greeted the next overcast morning. We started climbing a misty and hidden minglik sar. The mountain was shying from me on my birthday while I secretly begged for it to become my birthday present. 4 hours of hiking to the base of its snowcovered dome, she became adamant and called upon clouds to snow down upon us. Resilient we thought ourselves to be when we waited on its shoulders for two hours, only having to return all the way down. The storm did not feel as it would let up and gusts of wind carried us down. At three, the same afternoon, a clear blue sky greeted the summit of minglik sar. Hasan was being racked with altitude sickness headaches and me, with frustration. Both of us would only be cured by walking down, away from it all. And that is what we did the following day. Walking down to Arbopreen, we looked back fantastically to Minglik Sar and the lush pamirs. Once more in the company of red earth and brown rock, Shimshal had returned in its grandeur.

Stranger things started happening from here on. We met a French man with bleeding feet who was here on his first ever trek. He was advised to return immediately and try Fairy Meadows instead. I hope he took our suggestion as he seemed an enthusiast of outdoors and had been mistakenly thrown into one of the not-so-gentle treks this land had to offer.

The date was 5th July and we were surmising about our days ahead. The 11th of July kept coming up in our conversation, it was prince Aga Khan’s birthday and Hunza would be lit up. There would be celebration in this favorite town of ours, people would be dancing, there would be music in the air and we could taste the flavor of freshly barbequed meat in our parched mouths. It seemed like a good idea to get to Hunza on the 11th. But, there was a catch. We would have to either fly, or try to do two days in one. So, it was decided. Arbopreen, to Mai Dur, to the top of Shpodeen pass and down. One long day. Heck, we had done tough days before. Remember that day on snowlake we walked for so long and so forth? Ofcourse we’d do it.

By the time we were able to see the summit; I was not feeling much, neither physically nor mentally. It had gotten dark and my world was reduced to a two foot pale yellow pool of light. It scanned over thick, slippery ice and all I could hear was the crunch of ice under my tired, tired feet. These were the only two sensations I recall feeling that night we were climbing Shpoden pass in Shimshal valley. Having walked for 16 hours, Hasan and I were two wasted bodies climbing a pass that seemed endless. Our two guardian angels and companions from the village of Shimshal, Zafar and Mahdi had long before climbed and returned to take our loads from us. Mahdi had decided to shepherd us up while Zafar had moved on. At this point I was alone up ahead with no clue to where the summit was. My senses attuned to yellow pools of light would occasionally see Hasan’s headlamp twenty minutes below bobbing up and down, and I would heave another tired breath and step one foot closer to the top. Having lost my sense of reasoning or feeling the last of my intelligence repeated the breathing and climbing actions. I still do not recall how long it took me to reach the top, the top I figured only because I saw Zafar’s load lying there. I sat beside it and looked back at Hasan. I didn’t see his head lamp glowing, but I knew the reason why. He too was looking at the sight behind us. The moon was rising from behind the Pamirs, a moon so big and so pale it sent me across worlds and onto a planet I didn’t recognize. I felt alone. I yelled out to Hasan, who only turned towards me. I heard nothing from him. He made it up in the same timelessness that engulfed us at this moment. We decided to attempt a descent in the dark. I stumbled off the knife edge that made up the summit of shpoden pass, following Zafar and Hasan in lead. I have never stepped on land so broken that with every step I took created a small rock fall that fell into nothingness. The steepness didn’t help. Ice and loose rock all around I voiced my concern to Hasan. We tried locating space to pitch a tent but where there was hardly a ledge to stand, tent space was going to be impossible. Another while passed and we dug out space enough for four people to sit the night out on. Yasir found a twix bar and broke it 4 ways, dinner was served. At 5100m on Shpoden pass, scores of kilometers inside the Shimshal valley, we waited for the sun to rise.

I now look back to that moment, perched on the ledge of a mountain that has stood for millions of years, looking at the sun rise from behind us and the moon setting in front of us, I feel the transience of our existence. Of how this magical act of nature is so perfect and so fleeting. I think back to our decision to sit the night out and realize it was a statement that we knew we had reached our limits and knew we must stop. An important lesson I’ve applied time again to my life after that day.

Once we managed to get down the pass the following morning, lunch was quickly followed by our ‘afternoon naps’, but the true highlight of the affair came that evening when we reached somewhere after Boisempeer pass. We actually, truly had good food. Two cans of tuna light meals and chapatti. Not to forget the cauldron of tea. Me and Hasan, we felt so good. One, we were alive, two, we were not hungry nor cold. We could spread our legs while sleeping. We felt like smiling and we slept smiling. The world could be such a happy place? I had not known such happiness.

Shimshal is endless, entwined in its labyrinthine ravines we headed north towards the Pakistan-China border. Along the way, we were to cross Chapchingol pass, ford the Chapchingol river and cross a few assorted health hazards. Some had been described to us by Mahdi and Zafar, others we extrapolated from past experiences. En route to Warbeen, the last human settlement before the Chapchingol pass, my knee began to complain rather loudly. Hobbling behind Hasan and Zafar, I ended up a good hour in the wrong direction of our camp site. A frustrating moment it was for me when I saw Zafar far in the distance beckoning me to turn back, I remember loosing my cool, stomping on my bag, cursing the earth, moon, stars and everything in-between– eventually gathering all that I had thrown about and started marching back, probably leaving black trails of smoke behind me.

At camp I found an unusually tense Hasan staring at the river raging a few feet away from us. Not exchanging many words, we rummaged through Zafar’s load and munched on a few cookies. Shimshal was beginning to take its toll on us mentally. This had become a very hardening experience and the grand finale was flowing right in front of us. Hoping against hope that my moody walkman would work, I put in new batteries and hooked up the various wires and toothpicks that made it work – it did. The sound of music at that time was soothing. Listening to ‘Sar Kiyae yeh pahar’ and ‘You and Me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals’ with our heads stuck outside the tent, looking up at the stars was a spiritual experience.

Chapchingol was indeed a river, previously described ‘naalas’ had been swift but not really what we city boys called ‘rivers’. This one looked like a river no matter what the definition of a naala was. The day that followed our camp at Warbeen started with crossing across the river on a steel cable. Normally skeptical of old rusted metal cables across raging rivers, I was rather pumped when it came to this particular ride. The crossing was longer then I had anticipated and the sag of the cable was considerable in the middle, making my shoulders ache on the latter half of the journey. Needless to say, the photographs from this moment were going to be prized possessions. Following the river crossing, we climbed the hill that formed the anchor for the cable crossing, an hour or so took us a good 500 feet above the river, and to our great pleasure, it ended up in a scree slope all the way down. At times like these, you begin to wonder the wisdom behind climbing a mountain, only to descend it the moment you thought you’d have time to reflect on the philosophy of your climb. I squatted on the edge of the ridge looking down at the slope and wondering why, how and why, again, was I supposed to go all the way down. Anyhow, we slid down the slope in a way unique to Shimshal creating a small landslide that we surfed on, only to meet the river again. This time, we walked along its bank for another hour and encountered a white-water rapid. Mahdi and Zafar announced that we were out of luck–the water level had risen to a level that was unacceptable for them to attempt. It was time for Hasan to do his thing — somewhat of an expert at river crossings, he setup a rope anchor for the rest of us to cross safely, and also managed to get our gear across. The cold, deep and rushing water was no easy exercise.

We crossed the same river, again, twice. But those crossing were much less dramatic and a cursory mention here would suffice.

It was getting to be a longer day then we had expected. The sun was setting and we were traversing a rockslide on the slopes of a mountain. Out of nowhere, a swarm of house flies descended upon us. Large, black and buzzing with hundreds of years of excitement, these flies followed us as if we were made of cinnamon. They added to my frustration and would constantly group around my water bottle in constellations. Hasan was probably quite tired as well, when I eventually caught up with him I found him muttering under his breath, naming those flies after politicians and then trying to swat them — finding great pleasure in killing them. I joined him, it was fun.

Chapchingol base camp was a pleasant camp site with a box canyon on one side and an intimidating view of the pass that was actually the shoulder of a mountain on the other. I craned my neck up to look up at the pass and tried looking for places I’ll be able to rest on–found none. We had a good meal that night and slept well.

The climb up to Chapchingol is fairly steep. The entire climb is on loose rock and gravel and there is no defined path up the pass. You just make educated guesses and keep going up however the top is marked with a huge cairn. At many points on the climb, you’ll have to do a little bit of rock climbing, non technical scramble mostly. The views from the top of the pass are indeed spectacular, you can see most of the summits in Shimshal scattered around you as well as the Chapchingol river. We did not linger for long on the summit of the pass as it was past noon and the snow would get very soft on the north face.

Our descent from the start was a bit uneasy. The north face of the Chapchingol is extremely steep and snow covered, at about 60-70 degrees, the pass is better crossed if you use an anchor to repel down–however Zafar and Mahdi insisted that we could make it down without the hassle of setting up all that. We followed them down with the thought they probably have done this more times then us. The snow was extremely soft, every two steps I sank up to my waist or in some cases up to my chest. I was convinced that any one step up ahead and I’ll probably sink in. We were roped up and these sinking and digging episodes were slowing us down. Zafar and Mahdi then decided they had had enough, I was digging myself out when I saw Mahdi zoom down the pass sitting on his backpack. I thought he had fallen and looked at this human bullet with my mouth agape. He landed hard and started running about, he had burnt his hands while sliding on the snow. Five minutes later, Zafar did the same–this time he beckoned us to follow suite–just slide down the pass they were indicating.

It was about 200-300 feet of a slide and didn’t seem like a good idea. I tried looking around us for a ream of snow that was hard enough to walk on–I did find one and immediately slipped and started sliding down the pass, head first. I recalling seeing Hasan’s yellow backpack get bigger and bigger as I made a futile attempt to grab on to it–but then I recoiled, I remembered that if I do that, I’ll pull him in too, instead I shouted–falling. The next thing I remember is hanging upside down on the pass, with Hasan yelling at me to get my weight off the rope, he had used a self arrest to break our fall. For a minute his language seemed Greek to me, then I heard Hasan “there is blood everywhere” which snapped me back to earth, I thought he had stabbed himself with an ice axe. By the time I was standing he was shaking his hands– snow abrasion. He had lost a good deal of meat off his knuckles. I was in a state of shock at this point in time but the better half of the deal was that we had both slid down a considerable distance and from here we could easily walk down. Walking down, I felt like an amateur, “out of my depth” I thought to myself and that climbing was not for me, I could have killed us both there. It was a disappointing feeling that stayed with me for the rest of that summer, including the hike to K2.

After crossing the pass and a cursory lunch, we headed off to Kuksil check post. The check post is the last point of Pakistani presence apart from the border guard about 20 minutes of drive time from this place. The 4 individuals at this check post gave us shelter and lodging for a night and were excellent hosts. We feasted like kings on the beans and roti they provided us and slept fitfully. After waiting for 24 hours or so, we found a ride heading down to Gilgit–and then onwards to Hunza in time for the celebrations on the 11th of July. As Hasan and I stood on the balcony of Hill Top Hotel, I couldn’t help think about Shimshal and the memories it had given me. But what I was really thinking about was the food waiting for us at Punjab Sindh. We feasted on boneless chicken and freshly cooked vegetables, smoothing it down with tall, cool mugs of Mango Shake. I felt I was soaring above the Earth by the time I was done. How we made it back to the hotel is perhaps a story told separately.

The next day we woke late and began to think about the days ahead. It was time to head off to Skardu and pay K2 a visit. Our friends had probably reached Skardu by now and we were looking forward to meeting up with them. The adventure was only half over.

The summer of 2001, I will always remember as the year of Shimshal. Even though it was the first time I spent more then a month in the mountains including a visit to K2 and the formidable Gondogoro La pass, quite literally ‘bumming’ around the north, I realized I felt most at peace during those days in Shimshal. There seemed to be no end to the labyrinthine routes and passes, there are so many places to go, so many experiences to be had in that wilderness. It’s a land that inspires a magical feeling, much like something out of the Arabian Nights–only this is real.

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