Being a rare guest in a valley hitherto unspoilt by the ravages of tourism can be a magical and an unforgettable experience, writes Asif Farrukhi.
A geographical confusion landed me in the Ishkoman Valley but having reached there, I decided to stay put. Like many Karachiites, I was filled with vague notions to travel up North as the summer set in with its unrelenting threats of the heat waves. I gleaned names from the map, tour guides and their colourful videos on social media. I booked the tickets to Islamabad and decided that this time I would visit Astore and Shandur instead of remaining confined to Gilgit and Hunza, where I could feign some degree of familiarity. Both the places were to surprise me later, but on different accounts.
The car moved out of the rather hastily urbanised Gilgit and journeyed on a winding road, adjacent to the meandering river. On both sides were mountains but they would begin to recede as we moved closer. Small villages and settlements dotted the scene. The wooden planks and rope strung across the swift river down below reminded me that we had entered the Punial valley, where I had been privileged to work on a project many decades ago. Names on the roadside boards announcing Sher Qilla and Singal seemed static while the car moved fast. This time round, Gahkuch seemed different with many more buildings, hotels, signboards announcing trekking opportunities and invitations to fairy country.
Moving out of the valley, there were signboards announcing more hotels and tourist attractions beyond, but the roads looked less promising. Its beauty was rugged with spots of green among the rocks. Not much of a promise for a tourist spot, I thought to myself as the road took a curve and brought us to Birgal. Fruit trees swinging in the wind, the riverbed running parallel to the road and people ready to smile at strangers were enough of a reason to make me get down from the car and stretch my legs and it was then that I literally walked into this amazing spot because of which I didn’t want to leave this place.
The majestic Himalayan ranges of the Hindu Kush and Karakoram meet each other somewhere across the horizon. This meeting of mountains justifies the name of Baam-i-Duniya, literally the Roof of the World. A signboard marks an arrow but as I walk towards it, I come to the lawns of a hotel filled with roses. This marks the beginning of Chatorkhand, the main town of the valley with its bazaar. Just before this, another gate announces the Royal Guest House, the house of a raja with rooms for rent inside a well-maintained garden, with an inviting charpoy and tents. Glistening cherries were placed before me and a cup of salted tea. As my hand moved towards my wallet, I was emphatically told that one did not pay for fruits from the garden. A pair of bulbuls and a hoopoe alighted from the trees and a bench was laid out under the grapevine.
It was more like a haveli than a hotel. I was the only guest on the premises and as the two hotel staff members went away, the place had the classical haunting feel of some old Victorian novel. As the rain-drenched morning cleared and I sat under the tree, I wished that this could become a retreat for thinkers, writers or plain old hassled people like me who could simply feel recuperated there — Tourist Haven for the Thinking or Reflecting Folks. The place deserves more tourists but not the commercial fate which has devastated Murree and is about to overtake Hunza, which I saw choked with a traffic jam across the main road.
A well-laid garden marks the residence of the ex-governor. I walked up and down the Chatorkhand bazaar where the new and the old intermingle, so you can buy a network connection and look for antiques, without being sure about what you find. I saw boys in school uniform and women walking confidently. It became my reference point for all the excursions I could manage. Stopping by to look at a walnut tree with lush green leaves and the mulberry tree with its tempting fruit that leaves a tangy flavour and violet colour on the lips, I crossed rocky roads and streams to reach Dain. A majestic waterfall crashed down on the rocks. As my local friends decided to walk up right to the top, I sat down and dipped my aching feet in the ice-cold stream, brimming with the waters of melted glaciers.
The other direction on the road took me to the trout farm. Separate areas were demarcated for the trout according to their age group. You could scoop down to catch and hold the fish in your hands. Baked and roasted, the succulent fish contributed to the dining table where I felt challenged as I did not eat the head or the tail in spite of coaxing from my hosts. “You have to turn into a bear to relish it!” their instructions were punctured with laughter.
More than bears, I was fascinated with snow leopards. The neat, small village of Phakora brought me to the house of Murad Khan who is a tracker of the fabled snow leopard and full of local lore. Along with his friends, we visited Ilmit, a turn in the road which takes you down the glaciers across the narrow strip of Wakhan in Afghanistan towards Tajikistan.
The majestic Himalayan ranges of the Hindu Kush and Karakoram meet each other somewhere across the horizon. This meeting of mountains justifies the name of Baam-i-Duniya, literally the Roof of the World.
An army post stood there with its sentinel. The road became gradually steeper as we moved ahead, and finally we had to walk as we headed towards Ghatoltai. Stones heaped over each other marked the spot, and I was told the legend of the old man who asked for some food from a woman plucking apricots in her garden. She screamed in terror thinking that he must be a supernatural creature as he helped her by finishing her share of work in a few minutes. The old man stamped his feet on the rocky stones and sank into the earth.
In the crisp mountain air and rugged, remote mountains, anything could have happened. There was a magical feel to Ishkoman in everything except time, indicating that all journeys must end. This feature was first published in Dawn, EOS, July 21st, 2019.
Asif Farrukhi is a critic, fiction writer and teaches literature & the humanities at the Habib University, Karachi.