It all started when I was huffing and puffing with a heavy rucksack on my back, traversing an icefall nestled within the stony embrace of several boulders. The place was the final slope of Kachikhani Pass, a remote area in Ushu Valley, Swat. I stopped for a while to catch my breath. The high altitude was causing me to get short of breath. I was not the only one. Rushdi Khan, my porter, was also in the same situation.
We could see every nook and cranny of the valley spread below us. Opposite me was a wall of towering mountains, down below I could see the green lake next to our base camp, shining like a jewel beside the blue streak of water melting from the glaciers in the upper reaches. Rushdi Khan pointed a finger towards the opposite massif and told me of a place Kukush Pass (Bashkaro An) behind those mountains which led to remote and beautiful lakes packed with trout fish. He told me that the approach was extensive and tricky but the trouble was worth it.
I was not aware of the place, and at the time did not pay much attention, too occupied as I was dealing with the difficulties of that particular climb.
Once I returned home, the chitchat with Rushdi Khan became ancient history.
One day at home I Googled Mahodand Lake. As the software began zooming in, I spotted Kachikhani Pass; a couple of other passes appeared in its close environs, further away I saw the images of a chain of large azure blue lakes linked with each other. The words of Rushdi Khan rang in my ears, urging me to go on a quest for those lakes. I had to visit their remote atmosphere. I had to wet my fingers in their enchanting water and experience the chill.
Every year after that I planned to go there but my trekking buddies opted for other places. Gradually those lakes became my passion and obsession.
Bashkaro An and Kukush Lakes remained in the mist of my thoughts for another couple of years till finally I decided to take matters into my own hand and gathered a team under my leadership, a team of veteran climbers except one, and decided to do my dream trek once and for all.
It was raining when we left Rawalpindi for Mingora in Swat. Despite many requests to the transport company to have our luggage covered with a proper tarpaulin, it was covered with a flimsy plastic sheet with holes in it, when we reached Mingora bus stand all our luggage was dripping wet.
A Hiace wagon was our next means of transport up to Kalam.
We stayed the night at Matiltan, and the next morning a land cruiser took us to Mahodand Lake.
Mahodand Lake was surrounded by high mountains and a beautiful jungle. Usually tourists only go as far as Mahodand Lake, an oasis in the rocky environs of Ushu Valley. Spending a night at Mahodand Lake is thought compulsory but due to our tight schedule we opted for moving to the next destination, Diwanger or Doanger, about four hours away.
It was an easy stroll among narrow rocky trails, zigzagging through lush green meadows besides the nulla coming down from the upper valleys of Kachikhari, Kukush and Dadarilli pass. The trail passes numerous steams and flower-filled meadows beside the nulla.
Further on, the valley narrows and the trail forks into two gorges. To reach Doanger we had to cross Dadrilli stream. A log bridge has been erected by the local shepherds there whose cattle graze on the upper meadows. It was a good bridge by local standards. When we stepped on it, the foaming white water waved like thousands of white serpents leaping to get at us. It was a violent stream and its log bridge was quite thrilling to cross.
At Doanger we found empty huts of local shepherds who had gone to high pastures at Loi Pangal. We prepared a meal in one of the empty huts and ate it among the stars, even eventually sleeping under them in tents, not wanting to spend the night in the huts for fear of ticks.
The next day we passed through a beautiful forest of birch trees beside the Kachikhani stream. The bark of birch trees was used to write on in ancient times. In some valleys today it is used to wrap cheese and butter. The Loi Pangal settlement is at the edge of a picturesque landscape. It is a green vast meadow streaked with numerous rolling steams, calmly flowing against a mountainous backdrop.
Watching us passing by, the local Gujjars came and shared with us a generous feast containing butter, cheese, fresh goat milk, and local bread along with tea. The group enjoyed it fully.
The next camping place was scheduled to be at Neel Sar (Blue Lake). As we left Loi Pangal it started drizzling. In a short while, the drizzle turned into torrential rain. We took out our ponchos to cover ourselves but got drenched fully nonetheless. Our ponchos failed so badly that the cold wind and rain made it a situation of life and death for us. Our tents were with our porters who were far behind us.
We kept going down the trail in the freezing cold rain, rushing to find some shelter in the Neel Sar area, but only found a stone ledge which could barely accommodate two to three people. The four of us tried to squeeze under it. When other team members and porters arrived, they were also wet to the bone. We pitched our tents in the pouring rain, the porters erected their tarp and some peace prevailed alas in Neel Sar. After the rain ended, we changed our wet clothes and explored the lake.
Numerous alpine flowers blossomed there. A bunch of Edelweiss flowers at the edge of the lake fluttered in the mild breeze. The surrounding peaks’ reflection looked breathtaking in the calm water of the Neel Sar. There was not a single ripple on the surface of the water which looked like a colourful glass sheet. It was an amazing sight.
Next day the trail went over fractured rocks and boulders. We had to be very careful stepping over those killers. The trail followed next to the edge of a lake. The water of the lake seemed green in the sunlight because of which the locals call it Green Lake. Encircling the Green Lake we reached Raj Makan, our base camp.
In ancient times the Raja of Gilgit used to come to the place for hunting. Flower-filled areas, fresh water from the glacial melt from the passes, and amazing views of the mountains, it indeed was a place fit for a king. Reaching Raj Makan requires moderate trekking and the fatigue is bearable. Upon reaching Raj Makan, we had a siesta in the mild sunshine, but once again rain started making music on the fabric of tents and tarp.
Following morning we started early with a hastily eaten breakfast, and carried on to the trail in the light of our headlamps. As we gained altitude the panorama of the valley became clearer to us. Heading towards the top I could see the snowfield and trail of Kachikhani Pass on the left. It was midday when we reached the pass. The altitude and soft snow started taking its toll on our already exhausted bodies. The top of the pass was just half an hour away but walking on the soft snow seemed to be a formidable task. The area was experiencing rock fall with intervals. The trail to the top was amidst rocks and steep slopes. It was a matter of courage and careful timing. Time stood still for us. As soon as the rock fall stopped, the team dashed for the top not wanting to lose this small window of opportunity. I followed behind, tense and watching every team member reach the top safely.
The team was jubilant and we hugged each other on the successful attempt, the first attempt of any team of trekkers from upper side of the pass since a very long time.