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19. Feb, 2013

Ten minutes on top of the world

Ten minutes on top of the world

It was just before dawn as I pulled the ropes to climb to the top while taking deep breaths. The summit was a only a few feet away. I paused for a while, caught my breath and looked behind. The sky was a palette of orange and blue hues as spectacular mountains were silhouetted in the foreground.

The weather was bright and clear, I was at the top of one of the highest mountain passes on earth — “Gondogoro la Pass” at an altitude of 5,940 meters above sea level, was viewing some of the highest peaks on earth including Four of Eight-Thousander peaks K2 (Choghori), Broad Peak, Gasherbrum I and Gasherbrum II.

On top of Gondogoro Pass image by Attique Badar Ten minutes on top of the world

 

I’d been advised to spend no more than 10 minutes on the summit and then descend to the other side.

Those 10 minutes very easily became the most beautiful moments of my life where I saw the first beam of sunlight hitting K2 — the second highest mountain in the world.

My journey to the top started at 10:00 am in the morning on July 10, 2012 when a team of 27 trekkers left for Ali camp from Concordia. It took us all about six to eight hours to reach to the camp. We crossed through hard rocks and the Vigne Glacier. In many places, the snow came up to our waist and it didn’t take long before our shoes and socks were drenched.

After reaching Ali camp in the evening, we tried to dry our shoes on the stove in the kitchen tent, but with little success. The trek to the summit was in just a few hours and we were back on our way, in the dark, without much rest.

We’d been told to reach the summit before dawn. Gondogoro Pass can only be crossed during the night; it involves steep climbs and abrupt descents. Without the sun, temperatures fall below freezing causing the snow to harden, hence lessening the chances of slipping or getting caught in an avalanche.

desend on Gondogoro 2 Ten minutes on top of the world

 

Time is a commodity in this environment and even minutes wasted can prove deadly.

While at the Ali Camp, we had our meal and then prepared ourselves for the treacherous pass. Taking a limited supply of food packs and water, we started our hike at 22:00 hours towards the pass in complete darkness aided by a little moonlight and our head torches.

The initial trek was difficult to navigate, with the snow being so hard, but eventually our path evened out to a more manageable climb. It took us an hour and half to reach to the base of the Gondogoro pass.

The enormous snow walls were illuminated by the moon light, as I watched a few head torches at a distance going to the top. A few of them were my trek mates, while the man ahead belonged to the rescue team for the Pass who was trying to make the route easy for those following.

Ropes were fixed on the steepest slopes and I had to fix the carabinar into it to prevent a fall. It was hard to climb, especially as the air thinned with altitude and breathing became more laborious.

desend on Gondogoro Ten minutes on top of the world

It took me almost six hours to reach the summit. Even though there was a fear of avalanches, I had come too far to turn back. Reaching the top would be a seminal achievement in my life and a memory that would last me forever. After spending the allowed 10 minutes on the summit I began my descent.

To my surprise, the descent was steeper and harder than the ascent. We had to do it in daylight. I managed to descend down with the help of ropes while snow started to get soft. It took me two hours to climb down. Then I started my hike towards the beautiful lush green camp site of Khuspang, again crossing through soft snow and rocky patches for what seemed like hours.

The grand Gondogoro Pass quest ended at 1300 hours, the next day at Khuspang . Upon reaching the camp site, I joined my trekking mates for a meal.

As I lay in my sleeping bag, I thought back on the events of the day and realised how memorable the entire experience was. Despite the ropes and gear that we had, it had been an arduous and dangerous climb. I wondered how difficult it must have been for those before us who didn’t have the facilities that I had been provided with.

It was not just another adventure or exploration, for 10 minutes of my life I was literally on top of the world, and any number of words is not enough to define that.

 

The article was originally published in Dawn Blogs dated 21st August, 2012

 

 

13. Sep, 2012

Sheikh Badin: The road less travelled

Sheikh Badin: The road less travelled

Tucked away to the east of the Pezu Mountains, a two-hour drive from Dera Ismail Khan, lies Sheikh Badin — a hill station that could serve as a proverbial oasis in the midst of the largely arid terrain of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
I discovered this hidden getaway while on a family visit to DI Khan. My cousin, who would often venture out to Sheikh Badin on a bike — there are no paved roads on the last leg of the journey — suggested that we take a day trip there. And, the very next day, we were on the road.
The resort lies at an altitude of 1,400 metres above sea level, and to get there the two of us took the Indus Highway from DI Khan to Peshawar, reaching the foothills of Pezu some two hours later. The road beyond the Pezu foothill has been inaccessible to vehicles other than motorcycles and four-wheelers, and locals seem to prefer travelling either by foot or on the sturdy 70s’ Toyota jeeps that serve as public transport.


From the foothills of Pezu, on our four-wheeler that took us up the rough and steep incline in about an hour before finally hitting a winding path that we trekked on foot. As we ascended the steep slopes, the city down below became a distant sight and the hot city wind turned pleasant and cool.
Going by the place’s name one would imagine that it lies somewhere in Sindh (since its name is the same as the district of Badin), but it has nothing to do with our southernmost province. It is said that the hill of Sheikh Badin was named after Hazrat Bahauddin Zakariya, the great sufi saint of Multan who travelled to this town in order to preach Islam. Others believe that the hill is named after Pir Sheikh Bahauddin, whose tomb is built on the hilltop and attracts devotees from the vicinity all year round. Later, the name was shortened from Sheikh Bahauddin to Sheikh Badin. And so a place that has nothing to do with Badin got a name closely resembling it.
Sheikh Badin is perhaps not on the radar of domestic tourists, who instead flock to the Northern Areas for a vacation. But the British, who were known not to have let any hill station go unused, spotted this unlikely town and promptly set up shop. They arrived at Sheikh Badin somewhere around 1861 and set up a cantonment to entrench their presence. It is said that the station did not have a water supply at the time, but the British weren’t going to let such a small detail deny them a hill station. They promptly built four small reservoirs with channels of mountain stream water feeding into them. And to chill their drinks for the essential summer retreat experience, they converted a well next to the pools into an ice storage facility. Apparently, they also came up with some 19th century technique of filtering the water, but that’s been lost to antiquity since.
The present-day town, however, is somewhat underdeveloped. Upon reaching the cool hilltop, I discovered that it has only one rest house, known as the Daak Bangla, which was built more than 100 years ago. It comprises a few rooms with a vista view of the mountains, but I opted to take in the breathtaking view of the Pezu Mountains from a charpoy laid out in the veranda. Antique furniture and other accessories are still in use but in a rather decrepit condition. There is only one shop set up by a local that sells cold drinks and snacks, not surprisingly at double the usual price. Drinking water is difficult to find, so it is advisable to take your own.
But perhaps where Sheikh Badin beats every other tourist destination in Pakistan is in offering you your first-ever (hopefully) lock-up experience. Fancy that? Tourists can actually rent prison cells for a night’s stay or camp out in the lawn by paying a small amount to the local caretaker. And they can take their pick from among six small and four large cells, and a jailor’s room — all still in reasonable condition!
I learnt on the journey that there is wildlife in a nearby jungle that includes leopards, jackals, wolves, pheasants and partridges. Locals say that the jungle is being developed into a Sheikh Badin National Park. But would the animals still be there when the park is completed? We’ll have to keep our fingers crossed.
Animals aside, Sheikh Badin is sparsely populated, with only 25 to 30 houses, one primary school for boys and girls and four mosques. They do not have paved roads, hospitals, secondary schools or other basic amenities. The oasis town of Paniala lies in the southeast, while a cement factory is located in the west. Locals complain that the factory spews out pollution that is damaging the local environment and will eventually affect the little tourism that there is.
While the remote little town charmed me, it was saddening that such places are not given priority for development and promotion by the tourism ministry despite their potential as major tourist destinations. Hill stations in Pakistan are mostly synonymous with Murree or Bhurban, places that have an infrastructure in place to receive and accommodate thousands of domestic tourists every year. Sheikh Badin needs improved infrastructure too, in order to popularise it among tourists. There is news that the ministry is planning to build a carpeted road and a Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation motel in Sheikh Badin, along with a chair lift facility from the village of Paniala. But given the government’s record in delivering services, these promises are best not to be taken seriously. In the meantime, the jail awaits.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 29th, 2012.

02. Sep, 2012

Memories of Mantu

Memories of Mantu

Mantu is like a samosa, not fried but steam boiled. I was first introduced to it while roaming in the bazaar of Chitral where I came across a boy selling mantu on the road side. Locals in singles and groups were sitting around, enjoying mantu and a good gathering.

The first Mantu, which i ate in Chitral, was not freshly made. However, on my second try, I discovered fresh and delicious Mantu in a small restaurant in Gilgit Bazar, right behind PTDC Motel. This is the only famous mantu shop in the city, with a chef that hails from Kashgar (southern China). It is not a very fancy place: there is a kitchen by the entrance, and a few tables on which to dine.

Mantu dumplings consist of a spiced mixture of minced lamb or beef, couched alongside onions and spices wrapped in dough that is then steamed in a special circular steel utensil. It is steamed by placing number of mantus in a row on a circular tray with holes which is placed in the utensil a little above from boiling water and is then covered. Mantu can be served according to your appetite. The taste can be enhanced by adding black pepper, vinegar and chili sauce. Once can easily eat a dozen of mantu in one sitting.

During ancient times, mantu was considered to be the food for travelers along Silk Route: they carried dried mantu with them and boiled it to eat at stopovers. Mantu is widely eaten in Asia, especially in Afghanistan, China and Turkey, though with some variations.

People in northern Pakistan, who are said to have received the dish from southern China, are fond ofeating it in small-sized mantu- but i also came across some Chinese engineers while traveling on the Karakoram highway who were seating a much larger version of mantu. Mantu-making is now a family activity in most parts of Gilgit-Baltistan, where a small utensil can be purchased from Gilgit bazaar and mantu can be prepared at home.

(The article was published in Herald by dawn, June 2012 travel edition)

 

27. Jul, 2012

Lake in the rocks – Kharfaq

Lake in the rocks – Kharfaq

Gilgit Baltistan is famous for its high mountains, water streams, sand dunes and far away lakes. Some lakes are famous, more touristic and very much accessible. I have been to most of them. But there are some lakes into the wild, far away and difficult to access.

I was staying in Khaplu Palace and Residence with Serena Hotel in Khaplu when Abid, the Guest Relational Manager of the hotel pin pointed Kharfaq lake out of a general conversation at dinner table.

“It’s sad that I haven’t been to this lake in our own Ghanche District. I’ve heard it’s beautiful and hardly any people go there.” Said Abid.

This triggered me. I still had a spare day in Khaplu so I decided to explore that lake.

route to Kharfaq lake 1 Lake in the rocks   Kharfaq

Route to Kharfaq Lake, Khaplu

Abid got excited with my intentions and hence we left hotel early next morning for the town called Kharfaq, a 45 minutes drive from Khaplu. We parked the car in bazaar on main road and Abid went out inquiring about the lake.

Everyone in the bazaar encircled Abid. He inquired with locals about the lake. We had to take permission from the local committee. I tried to understand their conversation but I found out Balti Language to be one of the most complicated one till now. I picked few words from their conversation like Jheel, Kharfaq, angrez, Karachi and Pakistani.

Some kids sneaked into the car’s windscreen and whispered “angrez”. I don’t know what gesture of mine made me look like a foreigner to them.

The committee there has a rule. One local guide must go with any outsider going to the lake and a fee must be paid. For foreigners, it was 1000 Rupee. Abid convinced them I am not a foreigner but a local journalist and hence they agreed on Rs. 500.

We left the car on road side and took my camera and lunch along. Meanwhile, Mohammad Amir from local village joined us as our local guide. Amir is a student of Matric, farmer and works as a local guide when not studying. I inquired about timings with him:

“I go in 45 minutes daily up to the lake”, said Amir.

Is it easy? I asked.

“Yes it’s an easy trek and you’ll take an hour to reach if you rest en-route. “

Amir did not know that I have spoiled stamina of city where we prefer walking less, travel in cars, and take lift in buildings rather stairs and try to park our car as closely as to our destination. And here Amir says pointing on top of the mountain “ONE hour”

We started our hike going through the village of Kharfaq, leaving the main road aside and taking a short cut. It leaded us to a beautiful path made of stones with lush green trees on both sides and a water channel flowing downwards.  The path then turned into a staircase made up of huge big stones, all the way up where your sight ends but stairs don’t. It didn’t scare me at all since I had that ONE hour hike in my mind.

Abid took lead while Amir was with me all the way up. Abid was in interesting character, he would talk with no expressions on his face and very difficult to guess what’s on his mind. He was always hiking ahead and the moment he realizes that he has gone too far, he would then wait sitting at some stone for me to arrive. He has good taste of music. He played his favorite ghazals of Munni Begam and Jagjit Singh in car. And on trek, his mobile with loudspeaker had the same music all the way up.

I was busy taking photos on the way while Abid kept intruding into my frame every now and then, posing for the camera. He was fond of getting himself photographed. He didn’t miss the chance of getting himself photographed with that big camera I have. He would pose in every possible way. I could do nothing but smile, click and ask him politely to sneak out.

The staircase never ended, I kept on stepping from stone to stone uneven, some low and some extremely high.  Big giant zigzag steps were taking us high. Hike was difficult and steep, but the only thing in my mind was the lake. Lakes always sound something beautiful and serene. That’s what kept me going. I had to take stopovers of 3-5 minutes after every 10 minutes of hike to give my spoiled city lungs some oxygen and rest.

Sometimes I would stop to take rest and pretend as if I am taking photos just not to embarrass myself in front of my guide since Amir was in no mood to rest. I kept on inquiring about the lake. Amir would only reply “not so far, just 10 minutes” pointing somewhere on the mountain up.

The way these mountain people hike is different. They are fast, used to of altitude while we are not.

The staircase ended up in beautiful mountain fields. Step by step, field by field all the way up spread miles and miles. The women were working in the fields while the view of the fields and river Shyok in the background was awestruck from top.

2 hours later while there were no staircase but a high mountain in front, Amir again said “10 more minutes”. The steep hike ended with the start of a dry rough patch. The green field ended and dry terrain with dark rocks all over started appearing.

Walking with no rest, hungry and getting disappointed with the timings, Amir finally said: we are there. That’s the lake. He pointed again at the piece of rock on top that according to my calculation was not more than at 10 minute distance. Adrenaline in my blood rushed me running towards the lake. I saw a glacier on top of mountain, and a patch of turquoise green water at a distance started to appear. It took us 2 hour 40 minutes to finally reach to the lake.

This lake was totally different then other lakes I have been to. There was no greenery around, just dark mountains and shady rocks that gave it a wild look. But it was astonishing and different in its own wild way with no sign of human around it.

I threw my bag aside rushed towards the water, sat on a stone, took rest and indulged myself in that tranquility. It was calm, peaceful and serene there. I could listen to the silence of water, birds flying and chirping high above.

No wonder best moments don’t come easy way. You have to work hard to get them.

The three of us had our limited lunch, I made some photographs of the lake and Abid again sneaked into the frame. I started taking his photos and couldn’t realize I missed the frame of lake without Abid in it.

Kharfaq Lake 1 Lake in the rocks   Kharfaq

Kharfaq Lake, Khaplu

We headed back taking nothing but the beautiful silent memories of lake side. I has happy that descend would be easy and take less time. To my surprise, it was easy until the big staircase. It became much more difficult, I had to step down carefully, taking care of myself not to fall.I had to put a lot of pressure on foot and knees while getting down every step.

We reached the road in 1 hour 45 minutes. It wasn’t easy way back. Amir asked if I feel pain in my legs. I couldn’t feel them at that moment. He said that I’ll get good sleep that night, with lots of pain in legs that only time can heal.

I said good bye to Amir, and thanked him for his support all the way. If he was not there and wouldn’t have motivated us with “just 10 minutes”. We would have had difficult time hiking.

Reaching the hotel, everything around me was circling like a 3d cartoon movie. I couldn’t think of anything except a warm shower and bed. I couldn’t feel my feet. It was all stiff and difficult to move. This usually happens if you take such hikes after a long time especially with a lot of pressure during descend.

After a warm shower, I jumped straight into my cozy bed, switched off the lights and tried to take a power nap. The moment I was about to lose my senses into sleep, the phone next to my bed started ringing. It was Abid online and said in one go; “How are you Sir? Have you taken rest? Can I send my USB now so that you can copy my photographs?”

I obviously had to copy the photographs or he wouldn’t have let me sleep that night.

Dan Millman in his book Peaceful warrior says “It is the journey that brings happiness, not the destination”. I realized that it really wasn’t the destination, but the whole journey that brought charm that day to Kharfaq Lake.

(The edited version of article was published in The News Sunday, July 01, 2012)

23. Jul, 2012

Only for VIPs. a travelogue

Only for VIPs. a travelogue

Some journeys do not end up the way we want. There are bigger, unexpected plans that nature has for us.  I was staying in Chitral valley last summer and only place to see east side of Trich Mir (Highest mountain of Hindkush) can be from a town called Booni, some 2.5 bumpy drive from Chitral. I decided to photograph Trich Mir in a day trip. I got my van from main Chitral bazaar, the journey started with an inexperienced new young driver. Car broke several times on the way and a journey of 2.5 hours became of 4.5 hours.

Food has always been an integral part of my travel. I take Tea at every stopover. I decided to have my lunch after I reach Booni. For me, not having food from Booni was like disrespecting my journey.

 

Only for VIPs Only for VIPs. a travelogue

Before reaching Booni, the van started shaking and we realized the tire got flat. The driver pulled over at a town called Kuragh for tire repair. I could not resist sitting in the van waiting and started roaming around the bazaar in search for tea. I came across a restaurant with highlighted words “Only for VIPs” written on the main mirror door. This obviously prompted me to go inside and explore. May be I can have tea there. Although I wasn’t any “VIP” but I still wanted explore how VIP would that be in such remote locality where I can’t even get mobile signals. It was a small and very well organized restaurant from inside, clean but old furniture, beautiful cutleries and a television.

A man named Gul Faraz appeared from the kitchen door. He seemed in his late 50s wearing green shalwar kameez and yellow slippers, white hair, thin stubble and a well trimmed mustache.

I enquired “Aap ke pass chai hai?” (if you have tea)

Ji hai! Baithiye; he said while pulling the chair for me to sit, hence I felt VIP, so not like remote restaurants.

Tea was served nicely in a proper teacup and saucer as it is served in good high-end city restaurants. It was already lunch time and I had an empty stomach hence I enquired if there was any food in the restaurant. I have Shami Kababs, Pulao, Chicken Curry, salads and achar. Gul Faraz replied.

That sounded tempting and before I could order anything, the driver outside started calling out loudly. It was time to leave. I did not want to miss that food.  I said good bye to Gul Faraz and promised that I will return from Booni to have lunch at his place.

I love shami kababs and pulao. I can have it everyday if I am in the city and I never expected that to be available with him in that remote area.

While going to Booni, I forgot the snow caped peak of Trich mir and the pulao kabab started circling my head.

After reaching Booni, I made my photographs quickly after taking a short trip of the village. Trich Mir peak was dominating the hindukush mountains across a beautiful crop fields in front of me. I headed back quickly to the bazaar to get my van back to Kuragh. I realized it was last van of the day leaving for Chitral.

All I had in my mind was the food and “Little Star Restaurant”. I was confused if it’s worth taking risk of missing the last van. At last, Food took over my confusion. I asked the driver to drop me in Kuragh while he yet again warned me.

Little Star restaurant was locked from inside, I knocked and after a while, Gul Faraz opened the door and was happy to see me that I kept my promise. I ordered food without any further delay.

Gul Faraz outside his restaurant Only for VIPs. a travelogue

While Gul Faraz got busy in the kitchen to cook food, I watched tv to pass my time. Within minutes, he served me the delicious made pulao, kababs, salads, pickles and chicken curry. It was served again in the same well mannered way. He said he respect his guests and the food.

Gul Faraz informed me that the only way to go back to Chitral was taking a taxi and that would cost me a fortune. I realized I had no money left except for the lunch; neither there was any ATM in the area. I told Gul Faraz my situation of empty wallet.

Gul Faraz was a nice man. He offered me to be his guest for the night. I was a bit reluctant since I had no money. Somehow, Gul Faraz managed to convince me. Just stay, don’t worry and enjoy your stay. I am happy to have a company, said Gul Faraz.

We started with general conversation and within minutes, Gul Faraz was enjoying my stories and adventures of travels across Pakistan.  He showed me his well organized restaurant. He manages it alone. He is the only employer here and the only boss. He cleans it himself, cooks himself and serves himself. He has a house behind the restaurant while restaurant had only one guest room having two clean beds for guests and a well built wash room.

Gul Faraz offered me tea in evening which we had outside his restaurant lawn that too made by himself, observing the last beam of light on closest snow capped peaks.

Food1 Only for VIPs. a travelogue

He has spent his entire life working in major cities of Pakistan in 4 star restaurants as a cook and was best at it. Later he decided to return to his village and relax with his family. He runs this restaurant just for the sake of getting himself busy.

I asked Gul Faraz about the idea behind “Only for VIPS”? He added : I don’t like customers who pass by the restaurant, come over for a cup of tea, treat it with less manners, split, litter, smoke and unclean the tables. They go away paying few bucks for the tea and don’t realize how hard it takes to clean their mess. I don’t like it. That’s why my restaurant is locked and I only have specialized guests who know me well. Officers and elite from the surrounding valleys visit my restaurant, order before hand, and have food along with good time. That’s all I enjoy.

He added more: Luckily, the restaurant was open at your time. I was reluctant to serve tea to other passengers, but you seemed to be a decent guy from city. People from cities are well mannered and educated. I was happy to serve you and I am happy to have you here now. I like journalists.

I felt honored. But I told him I am not a regular journalist. This is my passion to explore.

“And your passion brought you here.” I am honored too.

Gul Faraz was a man of dignity and knowledge. We spent time together while he shared his stories from the city, his passion to cook and serve.

He also told me that he was building two other rooms for his restaurant. I was happy for him. I was happy for the fact that now I have another spot to go next time, a reason to meet this guy and stay in that valley.

He served dinner to me. It was same as of lunch. I was feeling embarrassed from deep down. I did not have money to pay for the dinner, the evening tea. I only could pay for the lunch I had. He said: don’t worry about the money. Money is temporary, human relations are precious and permanent.

Gul Faraz showed me the room and bed where I had to sleep. It was a clean well formed bed, just like home.  He gave me his clean clothes to sleep in. He didn’t go home just go give me company and protection.

I was living that moment. The unexpected turn life had taken within hours. I was living it. I couldn’t think over it then, in fact, I really liked the flow and the game that nature plays.

I had a good sleep. He woke me up next morning before sunrise. I was overwhelmed by his hospitality as he offered me good cup of bed tea. He said he has already called Booni to reserve a seat for me in the first van leaving for Chitral. I was happy, and relaxed. He went in the kitchen to make breakfast.

I was not finished with the tea yet when the van arrived and started honking. Usually they don’t wait for a passenger. Gul Faraz apologized he couldn’t serve me breakfast. As I was saying good bye to him, I approached my wallet and tried to give him whatever money I had. Bending his hands backward, he smiled and said “Guests are blessing sent by God, so that we can serve them” You have to pay Nothing. Have a safe journey ahead!

I asked again: not even for the food? Not even for the lunch I had?

Good bye Danial. Hope to see you again!

I rode the van and headed back to Chitral.

I sneaked my head out of the moving van, looked backwards and waved good bye to Gul Faraz, There was a sense of happiness. I was smiling all the way for no reason. All I was thinking about this amazing hospitality. What if Gul Faraz was not there? What if I couldn’t have the place to sleep? To eat? What if I was lost? Would it be more memorable if I had gone with the plan, had my food in Booni and returned back to my hotel in Chitral? I am happy that “Some journeys do not end up the way we want them to be….

(The edited version of article was  published in Herald by dawn, june 2012 travel edition)

27. Mar, 2012

Cave City of Balochsitan

Cave City of Balochsitan

About all I knew when I set out to visit the Cave City was that there is a place in Balochistan with cave houses — a mountain, isolated from civilisation, with lots and lots of caves. Returning by road from Quetta to Karachi, I was struck with the realisation that the Cave City was likely to be somewhere along the route my companion and I were taking. Despite the fact that I had no concrete information about the site, the curiosity of exploring the caves got the better of me. I called my father who had spent more than a decade in Balochistan for infrastructure work. He gave us rough directions, telling us that it was located close to the city of Bela and was called Gondrani. Armed with only that tidbit of information — and a few snapshots from a travelogue Salman Rashid had written on the Cave City years back — we set off.

 
Our plan, when we left Khuzdar, was to stop over at the Cave City — if, indeed, we found it — and take photos.
We travelled on the RCD Highway and, with the judicious use of Google maps, were able to pick our way to Bela. But since there were no road directions to Gondrani, we stopped locals and quizzed them about the way to the “puraney ghaar” (old caves). At first we got only blank looks or incomprehensible directions. Then we found Asif, a middle-aged man who told us that he was a police inspector. Not only did he claim to know the place, he also offered to take us there. With Asif as our guide, we drove north, then turned west and started following a narrow but carpeted road. After many miles, the road turned into a dirt road and finally, there was no road at all. We hit a riverbank and after a distance of almost three miles, Asif made us park the vehicle. I poked my head out the window, straining to see in the direction Asif was pointing. A distant mountain with black holes was my first sight of the Cave City of Balochistan.
It was a 10-minute walk to the caves — an arduous one, at that, over a dry riverbed strewn with rocks. But my curiosity was growing as were the black holes which had seemed tiny from a distance.
The place was pretty much deserted and, in the absence of locals, Asif was our only source of information. His version of the history of this place was fanciful, to say the least. According to him, these mountains used to be the home of demons and evil spirits who would satiate their appetite with the flesh of the locals of Gondrani. That is until Mai Gondrani, a holy lady, sacrificed her life to kill these demons and save the rest from their scourge. Now she rests in her shrine in the nearby village in Sher-e-Roghan. We listened, intrigued and mystified. This version of the story gave rise to more questions than answers: Who would have really lived here? Why did they leave? Would it before or after the Indus civilisation?
As we approached the mountains, more caves came into sight. With scenes from Hollywood movies about lost treasures flashing in my mind, I scrambled to explore every single cave. Only I wasn’t in search of the Ark of the Covenant or Montezuma’s gold. Here, the treasure was simply having discovered such a unique place in Pakistan. Inside the caves I saw that a typical ‘cave house’ had one veranda and two separate rooms. I even saw what I gathered was a kitchen of sorts, having separate compartments for storage. Another seemed like a living room or a bedroom. In the aforementioned article, Salman Rashid says that the Cave City would have been a class conscious society and I could easily figure that out, seeing the contrast between the ill-constructed houses and the well-formed ones.

Unlike cave cities elsewhere — Kandovan in Iran and Cappadocia in Turkey come to mind — the Cave City of Balochistan is uninhabited, though the caves do provide a home for bats. These caves are the worse for erosion and, as far as I could see, no effort has been made to preserve them. Barely accessible, since there is no path that leads to them, they are also difficult to explore higher than the two lowest levels for those without any climbing expertise. Had this site been anywhere else in the world, it would have been preserved as a world heritage site, but sadly it is crumbling in neglect here.
Our little expedition ended with a stopover in Hub for tea and then we headed to Karachi, leaving behind a silent city, a mysterious mountain.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, February 19th, 2012.

http://tribune.com.pk/story/336879/house-of-the-spirits/

29. Aug, 2011

A 45 Minute Flight over Hindukush

A 45 Minute Flight over Hindukush

Have you ever been to a place where you completely fall in love with? And you would want to come back some day again? Or again and again? Every traveler at some point in time feels the same for some place. Being a nature lover, I actually fall in love with everyplace that offers me nature in its real form. Chitral was one of it and going back there felt like I will be reading best stories of my life visually with new additions.

Aerial view of Rawal Lake Islamabad A 45 Minute Flight over Hindukush

Aerial view of Rawal Lake, Islamabad

It was an early morning flight from Islamabad to Chitral.  I already knew it would be a small flight but after listening to the announcement of the pilot, 45 minutes sounded too less since nowhere in Pakistan you fly for less than an hour at least.

Weather in Islamabad was cloudy, and flying in PIA ATR meant It was going to be a bumpy ride.

Just like my other journeys, I had my camera all ready to shoot. The uncle sitting next to me was wondering what I was so excited about. I told him this could be a routine for him but I am coming here for the second time to enjoy this picturesque view, to fly over Hindukush Mountains. I took this flight with an objective to have new photographic ideas and I wanted to live in the moment to the fullest. I hope he understood my feelings.

The start of Hindukush Mountain range A 45 Minute Flight over Hindukush

The start of Hindukush Mountain range

It was one of its kinds and different flight for me, I flew over the green Margalla hills initially which took me an aerial view ride of the Rawal Lake covered with dark clouds with a new perspective. The Margalla hills felt like a magical place covered in clouds. All of a sudden I saw a far away mountain having snow shine on its top. Looked Like a huge vanilla flavored ice cream cone from a distance. Uncle on my right said: here starts your Hindukush. Snow means Hindukush.

Hindukush range from the window of PIA ATR A 45 Minute Flight over Hindukush

Hindukush range from the window of PIA ATR

 

This made me forget the meal and tea I was having and I started taking pictures. The snow caped peak came nearer and nearer and the green mountains of Margalla vanished into dry Rocky Mountains of Hindukush with snow spreaded all over. The window on my left had the view of only white snowy dry mountains with green patches far and wide. This continued till the pilot announced we are about to land in Chitral. We came down the snow capped mountains and now all I could see was the green fields of Chitral all over. A valley covered between giant mountains.

Aerial view of Chitral Valley and the shadow of the plane before landing A 45 Minute Flight over Hindukush

Aerial view of Chitral Valley and the shadow of the plane before landing

This was not the only journey that I enjoyed, but I enjoy each and every journey with the same excitement. Be it a flight from Islamabad to Gilgit, a road trip to Quetta from Karachi, a train trip in Southern Punjab or a jeep ride to Naran Valley, because this is all Pakistan and each and every place of this country is worth appreciating. Not just the landscapes but the culture and hospitable people.

 

(This story was origionally published the August 2011 edition of Blah-Magazine for youth, Pakistan)

30. Jul, 2011

10 Breathtaking Spots Around Pakistan

10 Breathtaking Spots Around Pakistan

Traveling and taking photos all across Pakistan, its really difficult to conclude which places are my favorite or which place actually took my breath away. However, I have selected few photographs out of my archive that i can say actually are overwhelming not because of the popularity of the place or the tourism it receives yearly, but because of the moment that made me feel astonished. Here is the list of 10 breathtaking spots around Pakistan.

1. Sheikh Badin Hill Station – Khyber Pakthunkhwa.

Sheikh Badin Hill Station – Khyber Pakthunkhwa. 10 Breathtaking Spots Around Pakistan

Sheikh Badin Hill Station-Khyber-Pakthunkhwa, Pakistan

 

Nothing can beat the feeling of being at an entirely isolated place, on top of a mountain having a bird eye view of magnificent mountain range and surrounded by cool breezes sitting at this Charpai. For me such a place offer a sense of tranquility, an opportunity to indulge yourself in a deep thought and think about this mighty creation. It is more than 100 year old long forgotten hill station made during the British era in mid 19th century.

 

2. Islamabad Cityscape from Daman-e-Koh View Point.

Islamabad Cityscape from Daman e Koh View Point 10 Breathtaking Spots Around Pakistan

Islamabad Cityscape from Daman-e-Koh View Point, Pakistan


For me viewing the Islamabad cityscape from Daman-e-Koh was not really striking unless you wait for the perfect light, wait for the sun to set and observe how magically the clouds get mix with the orange and bluish tone of sky. Sunsets and twilights are one of the most appealing light conditions that sparks me to take photos.

3. Twilight at Clifton Beach Karachi – Sindh

Twilight at Clifton Beach Karachi Sindh 10 Breathtaking Spots Around Pakistan

Twilight at Clifton Beach Karachi – Sindh, Pakistan


Clifton beach is one of the most favorite places of mine in Karachi, especially for shooting the sunset. You get to have every kind of human subjects from every walk of life at the beach. Being a nature enthusiast, I always look for how nature can change the landscape and make it delightful for us. Have you ever experienced twilight at Clifton beach? It’s rare but I am fortunate enough to experience this sundown at the beach quite often. The world around you totally changes from a real world to a Magical fantasy of blues, oranges and silhouetted living creatures.

 

4. Lion’s Face, Hanna Urak – Wali Tangi Valley – Balochistan

Loins Face Hanna Urak Wali Tangi Valley – Balochistan 10 Breathtaking Spots Around Pakistan

Loins Face, Hanna Urak – Wali Tangi Valley – Balochistan, Pakistan

I have spent my childhood in the middle of dry mountains of Quetta city.Hanna Urak & Wali Tangi Valley used to be the only nearby picnic. However I started trekking in Balochistan quite late and discovered this Loin’s face naturally encarved on a huge mountain in Wali Tangi. I wonder how no one talked about it, never mentioned it anywhere or at least no one has yet marked the place. A part from that,  you can observe an enormous mountain far behind in the background that actually reminds me of old Malbaro TV ads that made me fanaticized climbing that mountain. I still wish to do so.

 

5. Rain at Astore Valley – Gilgit Baltistan

Rain at Astore Valley – Gilgit Baltistan 10 Breathtaking Spots Around Pakistan

Rain at Astore Valley – Gilgit Baltistan, Pakistan


Rain has always been a part of my inspirations. To read, to write, to travel and to photograph. It makes me feel to the fullest of my creativity, especially when it rains in tranquil morning. I love the fragrance when a tiny droplet falls on the soil making it semi-muddy, the freshness all around.  One breath taking moment that made me awestruck was when a flock passed by my jeep, I felt the rain drops on my car’s wind screen and the rushed shepherd was a cherry on top in that whole scene, especially when you experience it in the middle of green mountains with snow top in summers.

 

6. Hunza Valley from Baltit Fort – Gilgit-Baltistan

Hunza Valley from Baltit Fort – Gilgit Baltistan 10 Breathtaking Spots Around Pakistan

Hunza Valley from Baltit Fort – Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan


Hunza, one can only enjoy the spectacular view of the valley once you climb up to the top of the valley where lies Baltit Fort. Being a photographer, I was looking for a view to actually capture a photo that can show the valley as well as a glimpse of the fort in one picture. Framing the valley in these arches from inside the fort helped me to communicate what I wanted.

 

7. Shingrilla – Skardu – Gilgit Baltistan

Shingrilla – Skardu – Gilgit Baltistan 10 Breathtaking Spots Around Pakistan

Shingrilla – Skardu – Gilgit Baltistan, Pakistan


How comforting it is when you actually experience and see the place that you’ve always been seeing printed on calendars, watching it on TV or going through a post card in a book shop. Shangrila it was for me. I even didn’t remember the name when I first showed a post card picture to my taxi driver and asked him to take me there. Being a student, I didn’t have or can say I never wanted to spend that much money to actually stay there. However I enjoyed its view from a hotel on the other side of the lake.

 

8. Ziarat Valley – Balochistan

Ziarat Valley – Balochistan 10 Breathtaking Spots Around Pakistan

Ziarat Valley – Balochistan, Pakistan


The famous view point of Ziarat has an astonishing view of the 2nd largest juniper forest in the world that is more than 4500 years old. Have you ever imagined a Juniper forest and a Hill station in Balochistan? I never thought about it unless I discovered while doing excursion photo trips in Balochistan. One could only feel the smell of these juniper trees all around if you are there.

 

9. Chitral Valley from my hotel room of Hindukush Heights – Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

Chitral Valley from my hotel room of Hindukush Heights – Khyber Pakhtunkhwa 10 Breathtaking Spots Around Pakistan

Chitral Valley from my hotel room of Hindukush Heights – Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan


Yes, it’s real. In reality there are hotels and resorts having rooms with such a magnificent view. Even I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first entered this room at Hotel Hindukush Heights located in north of Chitral Valley. I have spent almost 3 full days in this room with that spectacular view. All I did was reading travelogues and having lots & lots of teas. The best thing about this view was that it gave different feelings and moods at different time of the day. I loved it at sunrise and sunset every day.

 

10. Multan Clock Tower – Punjab

Multan Clock Tower – Punjab 10 Breathtaking Spots Around Pakistan

Multan Clock Tower – Punjab, Pakistan


While wandering in the city of heat and shrines and searching for historical places, I came through this wonderfully built clock tower built during the British Empire. The tower itself will not give you an awestruck moment unless you wait for the perfect light right after the sunset and let the heavy traffic of Multan move around the tower. The contrast between an old British architect and the current hustle bustle of the city is a must watch.

(The article was originally published in the June 2011 edition of Xpoze Monthly Magazine Pakistan)