It was a totally aimless journey. And that was the best thing about it, for there were no schedules to keep and nowhere particular to go. And so around sun up on a June day that promised to be the kind when you can fry a cat on the sidewalk I rode a rattling pick up truck from Abbottabad
to the well known summer resort of Thandiani (about 2700 metres). The idea was to walk to Nathiagali about thirty-five kilometres away along the curving ridge whose highest points offered breathtaking views of Nanga Parbat
, the last great bastion of the Himalayas.
Past the straggle of shops and the rest house of the Forest Department the path to Biran Gali took off to the right through a forested hillside. It was a busy day with a steady stream of men coming up towards Thandiani to ride to work at Abbottabad or nearby towns. A solitary trekker is still a rare sight and I was stopped several times to be asked where I was headed. This was followed by three repetitions of instructions about getting to Biran Gali. The fourth was always hurled at me as I walked away; the more helpful kind kept up the banter as long as I was in sight.
Within about four hours I could see the cluster of shiny tin roofs in the bowl that was Biran Gali. Although I had no plans to spend the night at Biran Gali I, nonetheless, stopped to have a chat with the keeper of the rest house. There was no ambivalence about the young man: he was very clear in his mind about what the Forest Department expected of him. Since I had no permit he would not even allow me to look inside the rooms. I had known this trek was a favourite with diplomats from Islamabad so I asked if he was equally determined with them.
‘I will have you know that Pakistanis are not to be trusted. I am quite certain you have a bomb in your rucksack. For what other reason would you be gallivanting around here?’ This was priceless so I asked if Biran Gali was where they were manufacturing the bomb. This was the most imbecile question for it magnified his sense of self-importance by a factor of ten and rather haughtily he informed me that he was not allowed to divulge ‘secret information.’ But he didn’t know I had perfected the art of travelling like a hobo and I wheedled him until he got a pot of tea and a packet of biscuits for his ‘guest.’
As I was leaving he pointed me to a short cut up a forested slope and as I struggled through thick vegetation and pine needles I knew it was just his way of getting even with an unwanted guest. Succour came in the form of a young shepherd who led me to a patch of wild strawberries and when thirst was allayed showed me a better way of getting to the top of the ridge. As we parted, the boy warned me to look out for the leopards and seeing my interest told me of the three goats taken from his flock when last winter’s snow was still on the ground. I feigned even more interest and he invented a story about an attack on humans.
The top was windy and wide open with few trees. To the right a large pond shimmered in the sunlight and I knew this was the place that the trekking guide published by the Asian Study Group recommended as a good camping ground. But I had no tent and had to reach the rest house of Dagri. The views, as the book had said, were breathtaking. Below me scattered houses spilled down the contours of the forested slopes and to the north I could see, for the first time, the snowy peaks of the Western Himalayas but failed to identify Nanga Parbat
By three in the afternoon Dagri was made where a party seemed to be in progress. A ghetto-blaster was belting out film songs into the blue sky and eight boisterous young men were fooling about. There was an amazing assortment of gear, gear that could make a real trekker balk, especially without a rucksack: a couple of bedrolls, several handbags, a portable gas burner that weighed more than ten kilograms, several cooking pots one of which was stuffed with butchered chicken that was well on its way to becoming leather, several kilograms of flour, and onions, a rusty shot gun and the ghetto-blaster.
The boys were from Abbottabad and said they came here every summer for a week-long picnic. Now they were on their way back. They were good, friendly men and without putting my calibre as a tramp to the test took me in as a guest. It, however, did not fail to surprise the lot that all my rucksack contained was my sleeping bag, shaving kit, a few bars of chocolate, six boiled eggs and some cucumbers.
They said the mountains around the Dagri rest house were infested with ‘lions.’ It made no sense to them that this was not lion country and that lions were incapable of hunting in such thickly forested mountains. They believed the cats had been let loose in this forest around the mid-sixties to keep locals from wanton destruction of the trees. My suggestion that it could possibly be leopards was rejected; it was lions because there had been so many sightings. And since reading was not their forte (like most other people in the country), they hadn’t the faintest clue about animal behaviour. They believed humans were attacked out of malice and not out of fear or the inability to hunt more difficult prey. I shut up for hadn’t this lot taken it upon themselves to feed me and put me up in one of the rooms booked for them?
The sky was just beginning to light up and the gang was still asleep when I departed after a breakfast of a couple of cucumbers and a bar of chocolate. Beyond the rest house, although I was at about 2500 metres and climbing, the conifers gave way to broad leafed forest. To my left the slope rose sharply and blocked the view, but to the right was an immense bowl studded with flat roofed houses from which thin fingers of smoke rose to mark the beginning of a new day. Red headed merlins glided about the bowl and a barrage of bird song shot out of the trees. Rising above this rhapsody was the occasionally discordant shrieking of unseen groups of rhesus monkeys.
As I crested a knoll about two hours later I could see the painted tin roofs of Nathiagali. A path forked to the right for Miranjani, which at 2935 metres was the highest hill in the area. I paused one last time to look northward. In the clear light of early morning the great snowy ridge in the distance was a majestic scene, each peak more imposing than the other. And above them all rose the magnificent cone of Nanga Parbat – Naked Mountain: a great snow peak towering above a sheer wall of granite with few scarps where snow or ice could find a hold.
Down the forested slope I went and another two hours saw me clomping up the dusty path to the first houses of Nathiagali. As I came up on the black top road with sweat streaming down my face I passed two jeans-clad city boys. In a Gujranwala accent they suggested I dump my load, I passed on wordlessly and was followed by calls of ‘Paghal ee oy!’ Madman. Poor souls. They had surely never walked in the mountains and did not know what was to be got out of it. But then perhaps they were right and it was a kind of madness that betook people to the wilderness.
Ah well, there was going to be time enough to sort this out. For the present I had more momentous thoughts to concern myself with. Like what the restaurants of Nathiagali had to offer for breakfast.
Labels: Prisoner on a Bus: Travels Through Pakistan, Punjab
posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,
At December 26, 2013 at 10:41 AM,
Adnan Alam Awan said...
Pleasured reading it sir
At December 26, 2013 at 1:14 PM,
Salman Rashid said...
Thank you, Adnan. I was in Soon with my friend Gul Baz Afaqi on Monday/Tuesday. Your name was fondly mentioned.
At December 26, 2013 at 6:42 PM,
M Behzad Jhatial said...
what a comprehensive brief of beauties of Pakistan....
At December 31, 2013 at 12:07 AM,
I can relate to some of it. Been there during my stay in Kakul. Have walked some of it.
At August 13, 2016 at 6:16 AM,
Muhammad Kashif Ali said...
Motivated sir for this wilderness, though I have been there at Miranjani twice in spring and in winter. Your narration is compelling me for trekking Nathiagali to Thandiani in search of "lions".
At August 16, 2016 at 9:15 AM,
Salman Rashid said...
Lions, indeed, Kashif Ali. Go look for them. Though I hear their number has increased. That is, there are more leopards than 24 years ago when I did this walk.
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