With a sharp snap, my head cracks against the window of our jeep as we hurtle along a gruelling mountain road in the district of Upper Dir. I sit up and reposition myself as best I can in the cramped passenger seat while the last signs of residual sleep disappear from my face. Our driver and host from the previous night, Javaid, laughs at my discomfort before recommencing with a story I had long stopped listening to. It is centred around the eccentricities of a local museum owner whose village we are shortly about to pass. “Everyone who comes through here stops at the museum, but it’s nothing but a ramshackle hut, displaying some old family heirlooms,” he tells me in the same staccato rhythms of the crunching drive. There is no malice in his voice, but his words are laced with the discord of local rivalry.
Not long afterwards, Javaid flaps his arm around to point out the museum as it comes into view. The building, a stone and timber structure crowned by a covered skylight, though typical of the homesteads found in the region is made conspicuous by a plethora of tourism-related flex banners and family portraits that adorn the outside walls. One banner, which features two ill-proportioned mountain goats welcoming visitors to the valley, particularly catches the eye. Completing the unconventional display is a set of green benches that circle the building and a dreary curtain that hangs over the entrance Curiously the oddball look of the place makes me eager to visit it, but it is too early for the museum to have opened, and too late for us to make an unscheduled stop.
Our destination for the day is Katora Lake, an alpine body of water that lies at a moderate elevation (11,500ft) in the foothills of the Lamoti Valley. For once our running behind time is due to no fault of our own. A mash-up of phone and watch alarms had woken us up as planned at a time of the morning when the dark shroud of night still concealed the mountains. With fragile and tired minds we readied our gear, only to end up sucking on the melancholy air of an empty frontier town in wait for Javaid, who chose to show up an hour and a half later than expected, just as the first honeyed light of day broke through.
His loquaciousness now in the cloistered warmth of the jeep is born partly of his easy-going disposition. Partly, it appears to be an apology for his tardiness. After a full two hours of listening to him tell us about everything from why his hotel serves the best chappal kebabs in the region, to dubious anecdotes about his winter getaways to Lahore, we finally arrive in Gaam Ser from where our hike will begin. Javaid recommends that we do not hire a guide as the trail is fairly easy to follow and we are likely to encounter plenty of local villagers who can direct us along the way. After shooting several quick photos of our group, we strap on our rucksacks and make to go. The task of carrying the gas cylinder falls to me. Once I have it in hand, I start walking.
Despite being a regular visitor to the trails, I hate hiking. Actually that’s not quite true. It would perhaps be more accurate to describe my feelings towards it in the clichéd terms of a love-hate relationship. Hiking is not easy. Hiking is damn hard. Hiking can be one of the worst states of distress. The relentlessly tough existence of life on a trail that is more about gut-wrenching perseverance than beautiful vistas can take a ferocious toll on a person. Both the mind and the body can end up undone. They break and splinter, sometimes at once, sometimes over a stretch, sometimes in a shameful way. I often ask myself on a trek why I would choose to willingly exchange the ease of everyday life for the hazards of blisters, hunger, dehydration and physical annihilation. The fact is, a challenging hike has a mood, taste and texture that wraps itself around you like an unwanted skin; it is suffocating and incompatible and without compassion.
Ultimately, the suffering is the currency with which you pay for the intense moments of intimacy with nature and all of its attendant mysteries that only an activity like hiking can bring. I might hate travelling through the mountains, but I love to be among them, lost in an abundance of solitude beneath their towering grace as the imprint of the entire world weighs against me. For me hiking is an emotion; the capturing of something raw and human, a way of focusing on the purity of life as you return to parts of yourself that are otherwise cut adrift by the daily grind of existence.
The hike to Katora, though challenging, is not as onerous as others I have undertaken in previous years. We wind our way, on a steady ascent, through small meadows and alpine forests. The route is much busier than I am used to and we run into other small groups who are making their way up. It is slightly churlish to admit, but I dislike the presence of other people and the reminders of a world beyond the trail they bring with them. But my frustrations aren’t considerable. Also, they are more than recompensed for by the breath-taking views.
After about four hours of walking we arrive at Jahaz Banda meadows. Most people tend to break up the hike here and continue with the rest of the trail the following day, but we still have plenty of time at our hands. We drop our rucksacks at a camping ground and power ahead.
The clearly marked trail of the first half of the journey gives way to a more rocky terrain and loose shale. Up above, the sun has gone behind brooding clouds. The wildness that felt sparse not so long ago now rings all around us. Most of the path ahead requires subtle negotiation with its uneven and shifting ground. The uncertainties of the walk bite at the feet and provoke the mind. There is something of an element of peril now. While it is slight and manageable, it heightens the experience. The ruggedness of the landscape, studded by rocky outcrops, boulders and sharp cliff faces reminds me of Scotland, the place that gave me my love of the outdoors.
I was nine or ten then, I can’t quite remember, when we spent a week-long family holiday in the country during the half-term holidays. Though we stayed in the relative comfort of a caravan site, the untamed beauty of the remote villages, glens and peaks we visited or drove through captivated me. Scotland is a country that exhilarates. The visceral power of its landscape had a profound impact on me. For a long time afterwards I tried to satiate my yearning for the outdoors through an interest in rock-climbing, but try as I might to persist with it, my fear of heights eventually forced me to quit.
At 18, I took a gap year between college and university and spent part of it on a month-long inter-railing tour of Europe. Between visits to many of the great cities of the continent, I looked out for remote, haunting spaces high in the mountains. None of it was planned out or organised in advance, but I still managed several trails in Zermatt, Switzerland and Northern Italy. Ill-equipped and fitted with the most unsuitable shoes, I entered into the world of hiking without direction, maps or any technical understanding.
While I no longer recognise the novice hiker I once was, the spiritual language of the trails that drew me in back then, still speaks to me in the same way. The mountains are now a second home. Places of memory and stillness and wandering; far from any kind of comfort, but full of primitive freedoms and paths of my own choosing, and no matter how much I hate some of the hardships I cannot stop myself from coming back.
After an almost vertical scramble up a rock face, we are greeted by the sight of a blustering Pakistani flag and our first view of the lake. It is a deep turquoise and encircled by a ring of jagged mountains that loom above it like a troop of watchful guards. There are people dipping their toes in the water and a local guide is even having a swim, while the group he has led there replenish themselves at a small tea hut on the side of the lake.
I make my way down to the bank and take everything in. The endless movement at the surface of water shimmers gold as it catches the light of the sun. Below, pebbles sit on the bed of the lake. Motion counterpointed by stillness. I realise just now how exhausted I am. My mind is on edge and my body weary. But I like it. The fatigue is a companion in this place I might never see again. For the moment, the tiredness and the breath-taking landscape is what holds me.