Autumn isn’t an especially pronounced season in Lahore. The sweltering summer segues into nights that sting a little less. But the monsoon greenery turns to a smoky dullness marked by a thick film of dust that clings to every surface. Of late a pall-like smog descends upon the city. Were Keats a Lahori there would have been no Ode to Autumn.
So where to go searching for autumn in Pakistan?
Hunza, I heard from friends, was full of it: crisp blue skies, clean air and colourful trees.
How does one get to Hunza, though? In the age of Facebook your options are plenty. There was a time when Pakistani women without a ‘family’ (read male chaperones) could not hope to travel, but with the advent of local tour operators travel has become possible for anyone with the time and money. At the time I decided to go, there were at least two tour groups I knew of leaving more or less at the same time.
The touring company I went with, a startup called The Mad Hatters, is run by a young Lahori woman, Aneeqa Ali, who left her steady job in the corporate world to try her hand at the uncertain business of leisure travel. Having a female group lead can mean a certain psychological comfort for women travelling alone, thanks to which we had two women travelling solo in our mixed lot of eight.
Sometimes I feel many of the barriers women face for entry into ‘unusual’ fields are self-imposed, or urged upon them by close family members; the ‘big bad world’ often feels like a mythical creation to keep women circumscribed within four walls, or traditional careers like teaching, where they can be easily monitored or segregated from men.
Aneeqa led us competently all through the week and faced no hindrance on account of being a woman.
Our first stop was to be Chilas in Gilgit Baltistan, which meant we travelled all through the night, only stopping to pick up some travellers in Islamabad, but essentially continuing to travel all night and all day through hundreds of miles of barren mountains with not a single sapling on their surface. Often urban travellers from our part of the world consider lush greenery the only kind of natural beauty, exhausted as they are by the grey fumes and brown dust of unmitigated city life, but divorced from that context, the brown mountains of the Karakoram have a beauty all their own. Their grandeur and vastness rivals the Grand Canyon’s, without the benefit of an aerial vantage point, however.
Along the way two of the spots of particular interest were the Nanga Parbat and Rakaposhi viewpoints. While the position of the sun did not allow us to catch Nanga Parbat with much clarity, the Rakaposhi viewpoint made up for it. Nestled amongst other snow-capped peaks, the Rakaposhi juts out majestically, harking back to lessons from primary school textbooks about the beauty of Pakistan, and the magic of it having every kind of landscape.
Although only the 12th highest peak in the country and the 27th highest in the world, the Rakaposhi’s beauty lies not in its height but in its snowy expanse flanked by the chocolate mountains beside it.
After a night and day of constant travel, we finally reached Chilas, a shabby, non-descript small town mainly used as stopover by tourists going to the Khunjerab Pass at the China-Pakistan, or to the K-2 basecamp. Its distinguishing feature is the more than 50,000 petroglyphs of Buddhist rock art, the earliest dating back to 5000 and 1000 BC.
We weren’t able to catch these petroglyphs at Chilas but did manage to come across some the next day on the road, well-marked by the government, with absorbing, well-written information on their history and meaning. That is something I observed throughout the trip. Most of the landmarks marked by the government were happily free of typographical errors or bad aesthetics.
Our first stop upon reaching Hunza was the town of Gulmit in the upper region of the district, a breathtaking valley full of tall, willowy trees in various shades of yellow, surrounded by snow-covered mountains. The sky here was a brilliant blue with not even a wisp of cloud.
Although freezing cold at the end of October, bright sunlight in the day made walking around a pleasant experience, as did the friendliness of the locals. Wherever we trekked, we came across villagers who took the lead in saying ‘hello’ and sticking out their hand to greet us. Most surprising for us raised in Lahore was their refusal to distinguish between the sexes. All the village women shook hands regardless of whether it was a man or a woman in front of them.
Our local guide and friend, Deedaar, took us to his home in the village, a well-built, well-maintained house of poplar wood that had the peace of God within. The open living area had plush local, hand-knotted carpets spread all over, with gaao takiyaas to relax on, and a small sun-roof window in the middle of the ceiling that welcomed a strong beam of light into the house. His mother and sister had prepared a spread of local delicacies for us (I guess even Hunzan forward thinking stops in the kitchen), chief among which was a dish called Graal — pancakes with mulberry sauce and walnut oil, a refreshing combination that was sweet, but in the most delicate, naturally flavoured way.
The Aga Khan Foundation’s footprints can be seen all over Hunza, and one can tell what a hugely positive force it is for the locals there. Apart from the architecturally handsome jamaat khaana, every single developmental project in the area has the Aga Khan’s name on it, and his picture in every household.
Another highlight of our marvellous day in Gulmit was ‘the sacred garden’. So named by our fellow-traveller and photographer Mobeen Ansari, who made us trek through quaint pathways lined with low stone walls up to a large rectangular clearing which seemed to possess the quality of not belonging to this world. Coated in the fallen crunchy yellow and brown leaves of autumn, the garden had an ethereality usually found in temples and churches. The five of us who had trekked up there sat apart from each other for nearly an hour, imbibing the presence of a divine force in the tranquility as we lay on our backs and soaked in the azure blue sky and the quiet rustling of the wind.
To be continued