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04. Jul, 2014

Chailogue launched: Chai chronicles of a traveler

Chailogue launched: Chai chronicles of a traveler

 

10390312 256507854537271 7421204466335105921 n Chailogue launched: Chai chronicles of a traveler

Chai (tea) became an important part of my travels across Pakistan. Not just the place, but inspiring common people of Pakistan with whom i shared my cup of tea. I have launched a dedicated series of stories that revolve around chai during my travels in Pakistan. You can follow the series at: www.Chailogue.com.

Post in your comments and do give me your feedback.

07. Oct, 2013

3 weird myths people have about me

3 weird myths people have about me

I am a storyteller, a traveler, i love tea, i work and save to travel more from time to time. I am always bombarded with questions from people having different perceptions about me. I try to clarify things via mail and now finally decided to write a blog post about it. Though the list is long, but there are 3 most weird myths people have about me :

1. Your work as a tour operator/guide

“So when are you taking your next trip? I so want to join your group.”  I DON’T work as a tour operator or a tour guide. I do travel a lot but that doesn’t make me a tour operator.  Yes i can guide you by sharing my travel experiences but i can’t make itineraries for you. I travel randomly. I leave home with a vague idea about my destination. How can i plan it for you?

2. You are a chai addict.

No doubt i love chai (tea) but that doesn’t mean that i survive only on chai. I have had beautiful experiences of my life around chai. Evening time with family was always chai time when Abu would get home from work and sit with the family for chit chat. During my school days, i would often meet my friends and we would go for chai gathering in evenings. While traveling, the bus driver always stops at chai hotel for chai. It is a mandatory thing that revolved around every day of my life. I enjoy tea. 2 cups a day and if i am having too much of it then not more than 5 which is extreme when i have to meet different people in a day. I enjoy tea. Thats it. I AM NOT A CHAI ADDICT. or Does that make me one?

3. You are super rich hence you travel a lot

“Dear Danial. I love what you do. i wish i could do the same but i don’g have enough money. I work at the bank and use all my savings to travel to Thailand every year for vacation, spend nights in 5 star resorts doing nothing but watching TV. I wish i was rich like you to travel”.

Thank you! but your perception of travel is i assume “luxury travel” that you take once a year to escape your cubicle life and spend all your money you’ve saved all year in traveling abroad, a business class ticket and a luxury hotel with a nice swimming pool.Thats what i don’t do. If i am taking assignments that provide me travel, that doesn’t make me rich. And if i earn some money and save the rest to spend it on an another adventure, again that doesn’t make me rich. Don’t make money an excuse for not traveling.

The list goes on and on. I am sure people would still ask me questions related to that and  I enjoy answering icon smile 3 weird myths people have about me So what is your question/myth about me? icon razz 3 weird myths people have about me

11. Aug, 2013

Concordia: The mountaineer’s paradise

Concordia: The mountaineer’s paradise

It was a very restless night. As I lay on a glacier, in my warm sleeping bag, over a cold, hard, inhospitable and uneven surface. The silence of the wilderness was absolute and I was trying to get some sleep but the erratic and terrifying sounds of the heavy avalanches did not allow me to do so. To make it worse, the diluted oxygen level of the high altitude made it difficult to breathe. Thus, I spent the night tossing and turning in my constricted sleeping bag with some hope of catching much needed sleep.

Concordia camp site under snow Concordia: The mountaineer’s paradise

Concordia camp site under snow

 

It was still dark when I heard rain drops over my tent. And around 5:00 am, my tent lit up by the first light of the day. I inched forward to sneak out half way from my sleeping bag and unzipped my tent to catch a glimpse of the outside. The beauty of the scene had the celestial aura of a fantasy world! The sky all bright and clear, the camp site all carpeted with snow. Everything within my view was pure and white, surrounded by high grey mountains. A moment truly magical and of pure bliss!

Concordia camp site under snow 2 Concordia: The mountaineer’s paradise

Concordia camp site under snow

I am at Concordia, ‘The Mountaineer’s Paradise’ in the extreme north of Pakistan along the borders of China.

Amongst the tallest 14 mountain peaks of the world that are above 8000 meters, Pakistan proudly bears five. And, of those, four peaks can easily be seen from the Concordia, a camp site at the elevation of 4600 meters. The tallest and most magical of the four is K-2 (8611m), the second highest mountain of the world, also known as ‘Choghori’ by the locals. The other three peaks are Gasherbrum I (8080m), Broad Peak (8051m) and Gasherbrum II (8035m). This is the very reason why Concordia has been labeled as “The Mountaineer’s Paradise.”

Danial Shah When concordia was all carpetted in white K2 shining in background Concordia: The mountaineer’s paradise

When concordia was all carpetted in white, K2 shining in background

At Concordia, the Godwin Austen glacier from K-2 flows into the Baltoro glacier from the north. The name Concordia is of Latin origin, meaning ‘harmony with the heart’ and was first used by a British mountaineer, John Frederic Hardy for a place where two or more glaciers meet, thus the name was then adopted for this camp site in the Karakoram Range.

Mitre Peak and Concorida camp site Concordia: The mountaineer’s paradise

Mitre Peak and Concorida camp site

Other than the 14 above-8000-meter peaks, the landscape of Concordia is also distinguished by the recognisable silhouette of Mitre Peak’s remarkable elegance, despite the fact that it is “only” 6017 meters.

As I stood out of my tent, with the sun still behind the mountains, light rays broke through high peaks to present to me a remarkably spectacular view. To my east, shining brightly were Gasherbrum I, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum II, whereas to my south was the majestic Mitre peak. To the west, were countless peaks all above 6000 and 7000 meters. While towards my north, proudly stood and stands still the breathtakingly beautiful, K-2, shining in front of my eyes in all its glory.

In late 19th century, the Englishman Sir Francis Younghusband, the first westerner to have witnessed the mountain up close, described K-2 as “A mountain of stunning dimensions. It seems to rise like a perfect cone, but incredibly tall” and he surely did justice to its brilliance.

50 rupee note Concordia: The mountaineer’s paradise

50 rupee note

It’s the same mountain that we see in our daily life on a 50 Rupee note.

I have always been befuddled by the coinage of the name K-2. “K” means Karakoram and rightfully, it should have been K-1, being the highest mountain in the range. But because of inattention of a British surveyor Thomas George Montgomerie who during the Great Trigonometric Survey in 1850s sketched the two most prominent peaks in Karakoram, labeling the 7280 meters Masherbrum (ranking 22nd highest in the world) as K1 and 8611 meters high Chogori as K2. The former came later during his journey hence, unfortunately the name was carried forward and the second highest mountain on earth became “K2”.

K2 second highest mountain on earth Concordia: The mountaineer’s paradise

K2 – second highest mountain on earth

My initial motivation for going to Concordia was only to see the K-2 with my naked eye. That mountain has been haunting my imagination since childhood, a dream to fulfill. But I never knew I would come across such spectacular beauty along the way. Reaching there is a formidable feat. It took me a week’s trek to actually get to Concordia, another day’s wait to to get the mountain in my sights and descend back in four more days. The route that runs to the Concordia camp site is a remarkable journey of exploration and truly a mountaineer’s haven.

I had been yearning to visit that place and after years of vague planning right at the 11th hour, I started preparing for all the possible trekking gear I could get a hold of. In the mid summers when all of Pakistan suffers an infernal heat wave, I was shopping for warm clothes for extreme cold weather. Though I had a general idea of mountains and trekking equipment, breathing in low oxygen levels at such high altitudes never crossed my mind.

I flew off to Islamabad from Karachi and then to Skardu in the north of Pakistan and tagged along with a group of trekkers in there. The first day was an 8 hour bumpy jeep ride to Askole, the last village before the start of absolute wilderness. Our camps were based at an empty site in the village. The real trek on foot started the next day.

Due to lack of research about the trek, except for the type of gears and clothing I would need, I didn’t know about the terrain, or the difficulties involved in it. My whole idea of being there was to experience the great outdoors and treat myself to the experience of the second highest mountain on earth.

first camp site in askole village Concordia: The mountaineer’s paradise

first camp site in askole village

The initial trail from Askole that follows a sandy and rocky valley ends at a lovely green park of Paiju camp site that lies just before the Baltoro glacier. This place marks the beginning of the famous granite towers: the Cathedrals, Paiju peak (6600 meters) and the renowned and wild Trango Tower (6237 meters). The Baltoro glacier starts right after the Paiju camp site and goes all the way up till Concordia. Further along as I ventured up the glacier, I spotted the regular pyramid of K1 (Masherbrum). There only, did I realise why Thomas George named it K1, not K2. K2 was still far.

Sketch by Thomas Montgomerie made during his exploration of the Karakoram photo from wikipedia Concordia: The mountaineer’s paradise

Sketch by Thomas Montgomerie made during his exploration of the Karakoram – photo from wikipedia

First day of the trek Concordia: The mountaineer’s paradise

First day of the trek

Baltoro glacier is claimed to be one of the longest glaciers outside of the polar region alongside the famous Siachin and Biafoh. I had always pictured and imagined glaciers to be very beautiful, pure and white, while growing up watching documentaries about Antarctica, on TV. The real scenario was totally the opposite. I found them as dark, rigid, with rubble of rocks all over it, slippery and not so appealing until the 3rd day, I finally saw some pure white, huge boulders of ice that gave a spectacular landscape to it. Only penguins were missing to add to their allure.

Ice boulders Baltoro glacier Concordia: The mountaineer’s paradise

Ice boulders – Baltoro glacier

The glacier went all along up till Concordia, I reached there after a day in the jeep and 6 days on foot and in one piece, except with blisters on my feet and severely tanned skin.

Trekking on Baltoro glacier Concordia: The mountaineer’s paradise

Trekking on Baltoro glacier

We spent a spare day at Concordia enjoying the spectacular view. The time was spent playing volleyball, eating pakoras and drinking a lot of hot tea. By mid-day, K-2 was shrouded in clouds. It’s a shy mountain and likes being behind the clouds most of the time. The sunset over Concordia is undoubtedly one of the most wonderful moments in the trek as you tend to see last rays of light hitting some of the highest peaks of the world.

Now the joy of being at Concordia was over, but not the journey. We had to descend back then either by the same harsh route or through the dangerous top of 19,500 feet high Gondogoro La which was shorter but more difficult. Regardless of the difficulty, we all chose the shorter one as everyone was in favor of avoiding the path we came from. Those who wanted to challenge themselves were happy and those who didn’t want to had no other option. I was indifferent.

To reach the pass, we started early in the morning from Concordia, crossing through deep soft snow on Vigne glacier and reached “Ali Camp” after 6 hours for a stopover. Ali Camp is a stopover for trekkers to prepare themselves for their journey towards the pass. If the weather goes bad, they stay at the camp and wait. For us, the weather was clear and that meant no rest.

Gondogoro can only be crossed during night as it is more prone to avalanches during day time. We filled our stomachs, took a short nap and started preparing for our ascend during the night. The group left Ali Camp the same day around 10 pm, and all of us tried to pace up respectively in a hurry to cross the ‘La’ before daylight appeared.

Gondogoro glacier Concordia: The mountaineer’s paradise

Gondogoro glacier

The sky was shining bright with stars, snow capped peaks were lit up with the dim moon light and the sun started to appear as I reached the top. The sky was now turning from deep dark blue to bright orange and then light blue. A few of my trekking mates had already crossed over and most of them were still behind. I enjoyed the view from the top, of a world unknown to many. Especially the first rays of light on mountain peaks, a view that I will never be able to see down in the country where I dwell.

Luckily, everyone crossed the pass without injury, it was a difficult climb, however, much harder was its descent, which was longer and more prone to accidents. The path to the next camp site after the descent was again longer than expected. After falling countless times on melted snow and saving myself from stones falling from high mountains, I made it to the Khuspang camp site at 1 pm in the afternoon while most of my mates made it in the evening. For amateur trekkers, it was a difficult yet possible task. It was an achievement and we were proud of our selves.

Khuspang was the first camp site, dominated by the breathtaking, 6096 meters, Laila peak and a water stream. We stayed there during the night and trekked towards Siacho camp site the next morning.

Siacho is a summer settlement of shepherds coming up north from down country. This camp site has lush green pastures, surrounded predominantly by the willows, cedars and junipers. Reaching the camp site alive, it was a marked achievement for the whole group. We celebrated our success while cheering with expensive soft drinks and sacrificed a sheep for dinner – the first meal of fresh meat on our entire expedition.

Finally, the last day became the easiest day of the trek. Comprising of a very short hike of 3-4 hours to Hushe village, where we finally came across electricity, people and vehicles. We were to stay for a night at Hushe and leave for Skardu in the morning. Luckily, we got the jeeps ready therefore, we headed towards Skardu by road, the same day.

It felt rather odd then to travel in a jeep after trekking our ways through the rocky mountains for almost two weeks. Our feet had gotten used to those hard, rigid walks. No matter how hard and bumpy the jeep ride was, it was the most comfortable leg of the entire journey.

Eventually, from Skardu onwards, our expedition ended and everyone bid farewell and headed home, leaving the majestic K-2 far behind, to carry on playing its signature game of hide and seek with the clouds. I returned with the desire to revisit and experience this wonderful magical place.

The article was originally published in Dawn Blogs dated March 10, 2013

13. Jul, 2013

A starry night & the second highest mountain

A starry night & the second highest mountain

As i have always mentioned in my articles, K2 is a shy mountain. It’s always hidden behind clouds and if you are lucky it might sneak out for a while.
To view that mountain, i trekked for 6 long days starting from Skardu town and reached Concordia camp site. During the first night, while every other trekker went to sleep, i sneaked out of my tent to see how the second highest mountain looks like under stars.

k2 concordia danial shah 141 A starry night & the second highest mountain

K2 hidden behind clouds, from Concordia campsite

 

Initially it was pitch-dark, i used my flashlight to find my way, skip rocks and went to an elevation, a place where i could easily spot K2. I started to setup my camera on tripod while found myself lost in that area.

 

k2 concordia danial shah 16 A starry night & the second highest mountain

Mitre peak (6017m) shining under stars

 

I got scared. I had never been scared of the places while travelling. i have been to places, felt things in my surroundings, felt things happening to me, could be super natural or whatever, but this time it was way too different.

The mightiness of nature overtook me. I found myself in a different world.

Those ten minutes i was not in this world.

It was too difficult for me to grasp the hold of that reality around me.

What i saw was silhouettes of giant big cony mountains all around me, from front to back. I gazed at all of them and could see nothing but black huge structures with snow shining on top. And above them i saw a different world. Millions of stars, not just bright but colourful stars, i saw galaxies and it was very easy to spot them all with naked eye. In my front was K2 hidden under stars.

10 minutes were too difficult for me to bear such moments of glory.

I got scared, I was alone and without any further delay, i packed my camera and went back to sleep in my tent.

Have you ever had any such experience?

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

 

 

01. Jan, 2013

Not a Happy New Year but…

Not a Happy New Year but…

vigne glacier Not a Happy New Year but...

It’s been a long time for me now that I’ve lost track of days and dates. Everyday is a new day for me. I’m not sure if it’s a new year or not. All i know is that I’ve a new day, just like yesterday, today and tomorrow. This will also be loaded with similar ups and downs of life as it was before and as it will be after with a lot of new challenges and new travels, as everyday.

I’m happy to have this new day in my life, like everyday, and waiting for an another one tomorrow. Wish you a lot of travels.

Happy New Day

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)