Misty Mountain Hop, pt.1

The Mall

Deserted, embarrassed, enraged and slightly thirsty but we can safely blame that to a unique combination of the embarrassment and anger. I was early, yet again, and that meant having to do the 4 letter rumble. Wait.

By rumble of course I’m referring to the furrow lines playing hopscotch on my forehead as I eagerly and with slowly gathered malice sit and wait. I must point out that I didn’t get to the sitting part so easily, not only was I denied access to my college (I shall ignore the fact that it’s an hour before midnight for I am the victim here and that card shall be played to the fullest) I had to persuade them to allow me in and hold my tongue of all the absurdity that would have flowed out otherwise while my escort arrived ‘on time’.

You see I was to meet up with a band of brothers and sisters who were to depart on the most exquisite of adventures! Unfortunately this is Pakistan and we all are, if not were, related to the Arts in some way and—save myself and a few others but in this instance just myself—the art of telling time is rather lost in this field. But I waited nonetheless by the college gate, it had just rained the pavement was wet as the walls dripped with a moist breeze in the air so I suppose not all was lost.

Incredibly ironic it was, here I was getting ready to leave for cooler climates after an incredible heat wave only to realise I was leaving behind a wet and much cooler Lahore; perhaps I should rethink my last paragraphs end. But gazing upon my reflection in a little puddle near the gate I couldn’t help but invite a smile as I began to contemplate just what could happen in the coming days, where I would go and who I would meet. Adventure was in the air and it was buzzing with energy. If only my comrades would arrive in time.

The wait soon subsided as I saw the glimmering bald spot of our rouge leader and I say rouge appropriately! An ex-cadet, architect and batch fellow of mine he was a character through in through as he strut across the gate his slowly balding head shining a muffled shine in the light that fell from off a halogen bulb above, it was only ever so distracting if it weren’t for his bright yellow sponge-bob t-shirt and cardamom corduroy jeans! He placed his fairly large orange rucksack down near my tiny little backpack and I stood there in awe and worriment if whether I was under packed for the trip. The next few days would be testament to not only my packing skills but also my packing blunders.

One by one with a very slow and arduous trickle did the other compadre’s line up at the gate their rucksacks and suitcases decorating the base of a large oak in the college parking making me more and more nervous as to my packing arrangements. The oak tree served many purposes in the college from a regular smoking point (arguably not the best place to smoke a cigarette) to a protest area and crow-starling wrestling arena/bathing pool by the roots. Many a crow have fallen there. But mostly it was just a tree with cars parked around it.

I didn’t mingle with the others at first, no I was still angry with myself for coming by so early or to be correct arriving on time! So I kept to myself.

It was 2 hours past our departure time and the admin of the trip was yet to show herself. She finally arrived 3 hours late and we all decided after a rather lengthy and well needed verbal bashing to toss everything on the coaster and be off for God’s sakes!

The driver was in place, we all were in place. I made the terrible decision of keeping my little tiny backpack to myself in the coaster instead of snug on top with the other luggage leading to a good 10 hours of sitting side ways or perched up on a rather uncomfortable coaster seat.

We had left Lahore, our destination was the valley of Hunza, little did we know that when you place the prospects of an adventurous trip into the hands of God—and ex-cadet’s/architect’s with bald spots and a craving for colourful clothing—you can kiss planning goodbye!

Your hearts got a heavy load, there’s still a long way to go, keep your eyes on the road.

Towards Islamabad

Hunza was a long way away and the crack in the clouds over a dew ridden horizon only forewarned of less rainy, comfortable weather ahead. It wasn’t something you had anticipated seeing upon leaving for a summer break towards cooler climate. But that was the least of our worries.

I’ve been cursed with punctuality and unfortunately the curse never ceases to work. I’m always punctual, to work, to bed, to eat. It’s as if I’m living on the hands of a clock, teetering over the edge. A very ghastly thought indeed but some of my colleagues and friends consider it a gift. The tour began with me punctual although we left Lahore rather dysfunctional. For starters our team leader had planned the route in a way where he had to pick half of our band of adventurers en route, of course that would’ve been a wonderful time saving idea if only everyone were on the route we were to take!

There are two major roads in Pakistan, one being the Motorway a not so recent but rather straight forward and arguably lonely approach to travel and the other is the Grand Trunk Road (more commonly known as the G.T. Road) it’s what you could call the scenic route as it’s the oldest road in the region going through every major city in the country and it also sports a rather long history not to mention a plethora of stops and rather beautiful scenery.

Unfortunately the two roads are rather opposites of each other though they do touch the major tributaries of civilisation they are very far apart. You’d expect a person leading you on to know where he’s going and also to know the route. It turns out that wasn’t really the case, half of the party that we were to pick up on the way were waiting for us on the Motorway the other half on G.T. Road as we drove on ripping through the mildly wet roads of and around Lahore towards Hunza via the G.T. Road!

Thankfully someone pointed that out in time for us to swerve off the G.T. and onto the Motorway, at the same time with just a little inconvenience the poor chaps waiting on the wrong road were asked to move on and wait on the right road. For some reason it made more sense in execution than it does when you word it out.

But the inconvenience was more or less laughed upon as the view on the horizon was absolutely stunning. Morning slightly creeping from behind the distance a glare of light being punched here and there in shards by shadows blocking them from the eye as clouds slowly dissolved into nothing. Once bulbous dark clouds filled with water now little puffs of cotton candy as the morning’s lavender, pink and amber merged on the canvas of the sky.

It’s a long way to the top, if you wanna Rock ’n Roll!

En route Chilas

The journey had finally begun! We had crossed Islamabad shortly after a little breakfast break, I kept to myself but managed to sneak out for a little juice just before mingling with the others. We had hoped to go cross Babusar Top a glacier ridden peak near the outskirts of the Karakoram, very dangerous yet breathtakingly beautiful terrain. Our driver wasn’t very pleased with that thought lingering in the air so he made haste at changing our minds.

Apparently the terrain around the mountain side on that particular track is so narrow that larger vehicles rarely leave the pass without a scratch or two. Jeeps were the best option for such terrain but we had to make do with what we had. In some portions the road is actually carved through the glacier which towers on either side, the icy cool air causing your lips to crack and your cold sweat to freeze in a heartbeat!

Alas, such dangers were not what our driver had in mind no matter how much we wanted to drag ourselves through the mud—and mud there was, frozen at least!

Little did he know things don’t always work out the way you plan…

So our pack leader sat down with him and decided on an alternative route, one albeit slightly safer was unfortunately twice as long. Now when I say safer you need to understand that I’m comparing the death defying cliff side drops of Babusur Top to the sheer desolate waste lands of Chilas in the Gilgat-Baltistan region. You might think that’s silly obviously a more flatter terrain is safer for a journey? Of course it is except that Chilas is an area that has been evacuated hence its barren nature, the reason being its open terrain coupled with rocky mountains all around ones that lead into Afghanistan and Balochistan. The area is under high surveillance and you can’t just casually stroll through it finding some bread for breakfast unless you’re a local of the region or the military know you. Either way most large caravans, campers, and tours are always accompanied by security escorts between checkpoints and there are several entry points to keep track of whose been in and out of the road.

Rather ghastly business, we were hoping to reach Chilas city before evening and hopefully Hunza by night but the track just kept going on and on! It gave me new insight in just how massive Pakistan is compared to other countries I’ve been too. To be honest I haven’t really been to a country larger than Pakistan as of yet!

But before I tell you of the tales of the night in Chilas let me enlighten you on a little stop over we had in between a place called Besham. The little restaurant hotel we stopped at could do well with a new toilet but the soft sound of the river down in the valley added with the absolutely brilliant food we were served had me wanting more of that place. As rain trickled down first very softly then in an immense roar the place seemed magical, this little hovel in the middle of the mountains one that was visited by many adventurers and mountaineers on their way to the behemoths that awaited them with their frosty peaks to the north. The stickers these motels and restaurants collected of trips and tours adorned their windows like badges on a boy scout!

I wouldn’t have changed much in that place, even the stale smell from the carpet that seemed to be put together in pieces from wherever the owner could find a similar shade of red. It all added to a music that was playing in the air through the ambiance of the moment.

Moving on we finally reached the borders of Chilas as night fell, we were off our mark by several hours and complains had already started to arise. There was a certain terror in the air as you knew outside nothing moved, there was no light save that form the stars for even the moon was hiding, cowering away in a pass behind the mountains. The region felt dead. Occasionally we would see a goat or a dog or something with four legs or perhaps that was but our eyes playing tricks with us as we tried to make out shapes in the darkness. The only activity we found was at the checkpoints as burly, heavy shouldered, moustache clad, pathans and northerners would inspect our vehicle and our papers making sure we were who and what we claimed to be. Just passing through.

No one from the checkpoints seem to be pleased to see us, it just meant extra paper work keeping track of people going by, people who weren’t from here, people who had other people wondering where they were and if they were safe. Perhaps the most bone chilling of all experiences in this region was the fact that there was no network coverage across 90% of our route! So if anything happened to you, you were truly in the wild.

Our driver was most concerned and he drove like a mad man taking advantage of the fact that in the darkness we couldn’t see on the sides what he saw ahead. Chilas isn’t all open wastelands it is after all on the road that leads to the Karakoram Mountains. Just around the bend was the route through Babusar Pass so it was still a land of vast mountains and with that vast drops and cliff sides. We did get a hint though and with that kept the curtains closed.

Upon finally reaching the Chilas city it was just as barren as the rest with a very small population the place was a bit of a disappointment truly. We were tired though and the hotel also tried to get by with feeding us day old food. A few quick protests and an egg or two later and we were lost in sleep in our rooms.

The morning brought with it the smell of dew and pine though a musky flavour in the air kept us cautious. We weren’t in the heart of the mountains yet this was more the thigh! Dangerous territory, pun intended. We left the hotel in a hurry not stoping much for the sights but the sheer clarity of the azure above me left no doubt that whatever laid ahead was a beauty beyond anything I could ever imagine.

Originally published at haideraliakmal.tumblr.com as part of an earlier travel log.

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Design Futurist, Printmaker, nerd, and occasional writer interested in the interconnectivity between empathy, memory, and the digital world.

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Haider Ali Akmal

Haider Ali Akmal

Design Futurist, Printmaker, nerd, and occasional writer interested in the interconnectivity between empathy, memory, and the digital world.

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