“We bought so much junk food!”, I exclaimed excitedly to my friend on WhatsApp after my return from Green Valley, the local equivalent of Costco in Pakistan. I was conversing to her about my upcoming trip to the Northern Areas of Pakistan which, as per our plan, would include a visit to Kaghan and Naran Valley, Babusar Top (a mountain peak at a altitude of 13,760 feet) and to the Lakes Saif-ul-Mulook and Lulusar. For this trip, we had bought enough food to feed a small village, as blessed as we Alhamdo Lillah are!! It was around 6:30 in the afternoon and we were all set to leave for the journey at 4:00 AM. Deciding to rest for three hours so that the journey could be spent as wide-eyed as possible, I woke up from my slumber at 9:30 PM. I packed up everything, got ready and offerred my evening prayers, all set to embark on what was to be a real eye opening journey.
We left an hour late from our mark and were on the road by 5:00 AM. Not bad for a pack of 8 dizzy people with excitement at the prospect of travel amongst the mighty Karakoram Range. The sun was just rising, as if from around the corner, the pink and peach highlights were clearly visible in the sky about the time we turned towards the city exit. Having slept and fed, all of us were taking in every little moment that could be captured from the square view provided by the window of the vehicle we had rented; or at least I was. And soon, we had left Islamabad and were on our way to Abbottabad. Is it me or do journeys like these make you really think – and I mean think – as in take in every sound, image and feeling and incorporate it into your own world thereby throwing new light onto the meaning of life; a view that can be as breathtaking as the morning glow from the rising sun accompanying us straight into the twists and turns of the small roads leading to the city? I guess we will soon find out.
Abbottabad, a beautiful darling of a city situated some 100 KM away from Islamabad. We could have taken the route which went through Hasan Abdaal and mainly consisted of the neatly constructed highway, but instead we vouched to take the route which went through the mountains- a greener, more visually pleasing route albeit with its massive share of bumps and broken patches. But I am not complaining – not yet at least!
The first sight that caught my attention were the people. Dressed modestly in clothes that were far from fancy, these people on the roads seemed to be filled with wonder. I knew that our vehicle had dark tinted windows and that it was impossible to look through the tint and stare at the people inside, but still – these people looked on with wonder and interest. They looked at how the vehicle rushed by and maintained eyes for as long as they possibly could. There were men, women and children, old and young; sitting on the edge of the road or on a rocky ledge, a stone slab or simply standing in a patch of green grass – looking! To an onlooker, it would appear as if they have no purpose in life what so ever but to me, in reality, their sense of wonder and interest, their sense of curiosity that gleamed through their eyes was what stood out. As I looked on, searching their faces for anything but, I could not help thinking, that despite their obvious lack of basic facilities, luxuries and what must surely feel like envy and a sense of deprivation, these people still had hope. That is what the shine in their eyes meant- hope! They still took a keen interest in the world; they still believed that their time would come, they still had faith that all is not lost. It was a remarkable sight. These people seemed sure that if they worked hard, it will be possible for them to leave a small, mostly rural place and walk into the city (s). And instead of making them die inside, I believe that every little car that drove in from the cities filled them with a new sense of purpose, a rekindled motivation to achieve. And haven’t we heard of so many people belonging to places like these, making their mark in Pakistan and abroad. Yes the percentage of successful career men and women from these places would be far less than the percentage of successful career men and women from the cities but it was happening. And I could see it happening in their minds in front of me as we zoomed by, I could see the wheels turning in their heads and I could sense what they sensed. I could sense the opportunity that they saw! I always say that there are many different ways to look at things and this is the way I looked at the people who stared open eyed at my vehicle with tinted windows.
We soon passed through the city of Taxila. The road sides of the entire city were loitered (in the literal sense) with tomb stones of every kind imaginable. It was not hard to determine that the main craft of the people here was to make tomb stones. It was their business and to untrained eye like mine, it seemed desole’ – what with a place filled to the brim with coffin like structures inscribed with love – a place filled with people who spent the entirety of their days creating structures to glorify with final resting place of human beings. It pained me to think that their entire customer base must consist of people who had just lost someone – people going through those early few days of unbearable pain, grief ridden yet doing what was necessary. How must it feel, I thought, interacting with such a group but it seemed that to them it was business as usual. I could not help but understand how life and death intertwined at their doorstep. How for them, making a living was in glorifying death and how they took it in their stride. It was quite early in the day but as with these areas and localities, people were already up, going about their regular chores and try as I might, I could not find one person with a pained look on their face. I actually think I saw a few smiles. In the face of such naked truth about human mortality, they went about their business like any other day. And again, I thought about hope. If this was not hope, if this was not one of the truest forms of faith then I don’t know what can be. And then, just like life, we moved on while the image of this small town lingered in my mind as it does right now as I try to capture it in words.
We passed through the beautiful village of Haripur and Havailian and I was fascinated by the beautiful structures that were homes to so many people, nestled right there amongst the mighty and towering mountains. Here and there I could see that the roofs of these houses were painted in vibrant colors- colors that I believed were used so that houses were easily spotted amongst the lush greenery of these mountainous areas. Yet, as functional it may sound, I’d be damned if these gorgeous color palettes did not once inspire an elitist fashion designers’ new collection. Imagine seeing a hut with a fuchsia roof top standing proudly in the midst of a lush green forest – the magic of such a sight could spring you out of doom if need be.
It was 8.30 in the morning when we finally reached Abbottabad and as much as we were enjoying the sights and sounds of our surroundings, we were famished. The kettle of hot tea that we had brought with us was devoid of every single drop and at such a point in the journey, the driver gladly point out, “Madam, Mian Jee hotel pe rouk dian (madam may I stop at Mian Jee hotel)?” Man was that a question for sore ears. Amidst a loud cheer of “yes please”, our vehicle with came to a stop at the famous Mian Jee Hotel. With the sun shining as bright as we had ever seen it, with the weather now cool enough to enable outdoor eating, it was a moment we could all but roll our eyes in elation. For all those who are unaware, Mian Jee is a hotel chain, not posh by any standards but catering to a wide variety of clientele. Its branches are mostly located on road sides like the one we were visiting and its food is truly worth devouring, and devour we did. With a serving of tandoori parathas, steaming omelets and mugs of hot doodh patti (milk tea) each, we were a sight of pure bliss, glistening away in the morning sun.
After that breakfast, to say that we sat in the car with an invigorated zeal would be the understatement of the year. We knew that it was still a five hour journey to our base destination i.e. Naran, but it was all smiles and jokes as we went back on the road. No amount of bumps and jumps could dampen our mood- not now at least.
We passed through the city of Abbottabad, through the city of Mansehra, through the mountainous wonder called Kaghan Valley and finally entered Naran. At an altitude of 8,202 feet, Naran was filled with side-street shops selling local handmade goods and a number of local eateries. All along the way we could hear the river rushing by through the rocks and that coupled with the cleanest air created as refreshing an environment as could be.
For boarding and lodging, we went straight to PTDC which is a chain of motels by the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation. We rented a hut on the river side and unpacked, so to speak, as we barely had any heavy luggage. To say that the boarding facility was neat, comfy and homely will be to barely scratch the surface of what the experience truly was. We had settled in for what seemed like 10 minutes before we all decided to take a jeep up to Lake Saiful Mulook. As it turns out, a normal car cannot take you up there and so with heavy hearts, we decided to leave behind our vehicle and booked ourselves a mountain jeep. The thrill awaited! In the meanwhile, with what could only be explained as pure pleasure, I witnessed a horse right outside the window of my hut. I was ecstatic at the beauty of the animal who by the way was called “Sooraj”, which means “Sun” in English. Call it cheesy if you like, but my excitement was barely contained. The owner was charging a 100 rupees for 25 minutes of riding Sooraj so while our jeep got ready, we all took turns riding the horse. The people of Naran sure are enterprising individuals I must say as within an hour, the owner of Sooraj had earned 500 rupees.
Before long, we were all stuffing ourselves inside the “Rangler” style jeep and an old man who looked to be around 70 years old was all set to go in the drivers’ seat. His one question caught us off guard. He asked, “Would you like to get there in half an hour or 45 minutes?” and we were all dumbfounded. With certainty as solid as a rock we decided on 45 minutes and with that decision we took off. Lake Saiful Mulook is at an elevation of 10,000 feet and is the main source for the water that is fed to river Kunhar. It is also called the Lake of Fairies and legend had it that fairies still come and dance on the water surface when it is all quiet and dark. The road leading to the lake, though, was anything but a magical legend. We practically got sore from bumping into the iron rails of jeep as it ventured through rocks upon rocks on what was an endless uphill trek. The driver, though old in age, was an expert. Sometimes the jeep cut across places where the edge of the road, which by the way had no secure railings or anything, was barely an inch away and I am not speaking figuratively. As we went up, we crossed so many tourists stuffed in jeeps just like us, either going up or coming down. The look on their faces, the cheerful laughter and roars of people high on happiness could be heard all along the way.
Finally we pulled up onto a parking of sorts where a few steps downhill was the lake itself. I would certainly say that pictures have done no justice to that place. The view was stunning, cold and mesmerizing. With the smell of local fried food wafting through the air, we made our way down to what was a form of dock and decided upon a boat ride to the other side of the lake. Along with the way, the captains of our boat spoke about the folklore of this small area and about the fairies as we all had our share of pakoras and selfies, oohing and aahing at nature in its best possible form. Once on the other side of the lake, we took a small hike and were face to face with the biggest glaciers we had ever seen- up close and personal at least. We marveled at how such a large block of ice was just resting there, melting away. We took pictures with the glacier and stared open-mouthed at the view from our vantage point. It was there that I finally realized why poets have always fancied nature and how it has a calming effect on your whole being. Breathing in that pure air was like waking up to live again- pure bliss.
It was soon time to head back and so we took the boat, went back to the docks (sort of), found our jeep and were off. On our way back, we stopped at this glacier right in the middle of the road, which formed what could only be called an ice-cave. The inside had melted off creating a hollow space and people were standing underneath that to take pictures. The experience felt like walking into a life size refrigerator/freezer. It was while snapping a family photograph that I noticed that someone had carved out a part of the glacier and placed a chair inside it. On top of the chair, on the iced wall, hung garlands made from artificial flowers and there was a man standing next to it. On inquiry it transpired that the man was charging 10 Rupees per person for whoever wants to sit on that chair and take a picture. I guess what he was providing on that “Ice Throne” was a momentary role play of what can only be described as the “King/Queen in the North”. It was hilarious and to this day, I resent not taking a picture there, even if it was for the sake of the pun that I obviously intended a sentence ago. Since no one can lay claim to that glacier, the owner of chair showed some major entrepreneurial element by thinking of using it as a means to make some money. And I thought, all this and still we think that Pakistan, this gorgeous country, lacks potential?! Lacks initiative?! Lacks ingenuity?! I highly doubt that!
Feeling very proud and very accomplished at what I had seen and what I had learnt about the people of Pakistan, I enjoyed the journey back down with a smile on my face. Once we reached our temporary place of residence, we all had some steaming hot biryani and snuggled into our beds. Another interesting thing was the fact that electricity was barely ever available in Naran but still, life seemed to go on perfectly well. As for me, I was thoroughly enjoying my digital detox. It was 8:30 PM, the time I would usually spend scrolling and stalking on Facebook, Instagram and Youtube when at home, and I did not feel even the slightest urge to look at my phone let alone search for signals. Extremely tired from the days’ events, we all fell asleep instantaneously.
I woke up at 4:00 AM and I could hear the sound of the rushing river. I took my aunt along and we went to sit at the river side on a rock just chatting away. If not for the sound of the running water, it was eerily quiet, so peaceful and so calming. We enjoyed till the sun finally rose over the mountains. This again was a sight I will not soon forget. At around 6:30 AM, we had our breakfast and set off for Babusar Top. Since it is a peak, it took us around 3 hours to get there and along the way, we crossed many a streams and glaciers. The topsy turvy road was a delight and so was the top itself. From that peak, we could either go forwards which meant a descent into Chillas and onto Gilgit or head back to Naran. Our plan for this time did not include going to Gilgit. So we huddled into a tent and had some tea and fried food. The temperature was around 1 Degrees Celsius and the howling wind was no help at all so the tent was a welcome retreat. No doubt, His blessings are endless and we found ourselves filled with gratitude for having the ability to afford this luxury.
We reached our hotel in good time and packed up to leave for Islamabad. Before leaving Naran, however, we stopped for a little rafting (the totally non-dangerous type) and had the most amazing experience. It was around 5 PM when we had a late lunch and finally set off on the road for home. As we made our way through the valleys, it got dark which meant we could no longer marvel at the beautiful views. Extremely tired as we were, it was then that we realized the roads were not as enchanting and romantic as they seemed when we were coming to Naran. Every bump and boulder on the road made us jump out of our seats and coupled with our hazy slumber from food and exhaustion, the ride back seemed to take forever.
It was 2:30 in the morning when I finally stepped out onto the pavement of my own house. I felt like I had left behind the darkness inside me – dark thoughts, dark memories, dark feelings, negativity – I had left them behind in my vehicle with tinted windows. As the rented car rushed off, I felt the darkness rushing off with it. I looked on to the empty driveway with these happy thoughts, thoughts that were punctuated by the pinging noises from my phone as it connected to the Wi Fi in my house, bringing me back where I belonged, one notification at a time. I was home and I was ready to take on the world.