A lone wanderer

October 27, 2019

A first-time solo traveller finds out how travelling to the mountains puts your life into perspective and gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘down to earth’

A lone wanderer

In the face of fear and uncertainty, when life suddenly goes topsy-turvy on you, and every second of your day is a struggle to soldier on, abandoning your comfort zone has the power to bring out the strength you never knew you possessed. Risk is a phenomenon a majority of us run away from, but when you decide to take that leap of faith and explore what the world might have in store for you, circumstances find themselves falling into place one by one, like scattered pieces of a puzzle coming together. This thought alone encouraged me to explore the northern side of Pakistan.

A confession: I had truly never entertained the idea of travelling within Pakistan. The wanderer in me inherently aims to observe myriad cultures and understand what existence is like for the rest of mankind. In my naiveté I never believed I would get to see that in my own country. To escape the stress and endless chase that I have begun to associate with my hometown, Karachi and with a budget too tight and wanderlust too strong, I wasn’t left with much of a choice but to reluctantly opt for a trip up north. What I discovered in those two weeks entirely altered my perception. Pakistan is beyond stunning - words aren’t enough to describe its beauty. There are multitudes of hidden treasures in nooks and corners of the country, and most of us remain oblivious to them.

Although solo travel for females in our desi community is not yet widely accepted, the notion is slowly gaining momentum. Out of a tour group of 22 individuals, I was the only person travelling alone with not a familiar face in town. Carrying a mild phobia of heights and occasional bouts of social anxiety, my belly served as a battlefield for a million butterflies, as I boarded the train taking me from Karachi to Islamabad. Did I mention I had also never travelled on a train before?

‘Face your fears’, is all I could hear myself chant repeatedly - but those nerves vanished in the mere seven minutes it took for me to become good friends with these strangers, who were going to be my companions for the rest of my journey. The 22-hour train ride restored long-forgotten childhood memories, with multiple rounds of chai, ludo, bluff and UNO.

An exhausted arrival in Islamabad and a much-needed shower later, I was back on the road for a long bus drive to Bunji for a stayover, before heading onto Hunza. What I hadn’t anticipated was the view awaiting me in the morning from our hotel in Bunji. Being a Batman fan, the Nanga Parbat had always intrigued me (remember Raas-al-Ghoul, anyone?). At around 7am a clear view of the Killer Mountain greeted me, shining bright under the sunlight with its snowy top gleaming menacingly. Truly a sight to behold.

What I discovered in these two weeks entirely altered my perception of Pakistan. The country is beyond stunning - words aren’t enough to describe its beauty. There are multitudes of hidden treasures in nooks and corners, and most of us remain oblivious to them.

A drive along the 1,300 kilometres long Karakoram Highway (KKH) is a delight on its own. Unofficially referred to as the eighth wonder of the world, it is one of the highest paved roads worldwide, with a maximum elevation of 4,714m. Enroute Hunza, you can stop at the Jaglot Junction, from where all the three mighty mountain ranges are visible - the Karakoram, the Hindukush and the Himalayas.

Stopping over at the Rakaposhi viewpoint is integral. Known as the Mother of Mist, this is the 27th highest mountain peak in the world. The KKH forms a little bridge built on a stream that flows directly from the Rakaposhi; its icy cold water rushing down in a ceaseless, entrancing flow.

Hunza’s allure is not overrated. From the streets of Hussainabad littered with shops selling shawls, stones, dried fruits and Pakols, the fascinating history linked with the Baltit and Altit Forts, the serenity of the Royal Gardens, to the breathtaking view from Eagle’s Nest, the general vibe in Hunza will leave you bubbling with warmth and tranquillity.

For a traveller, experiencing local culture and cuisine is vital. For that reason Laal Pari’s handmade chhapshooro and spinach pasta, along with a glass of fresh cherry juice must not be missed.

Thirty minutes out of Hunza, we came across the Attabad Lake. As surreal as these gorgeous turquoise waters are, they don’t let you forget the tragedy that this lake was a result of.

Attabad Lake was formed after a massive landslide occurred near the Hunza Valley in 2010. The resultant flooding caused many casualties in terms of death and displacement, submerging parts of Shishkat and Gulmit, along with a 24kms long stretch of the Karakoram Highway. For a long time vehicles travelling along the KKH had to be taken to the other side of the lake via boats, until in 2015, five tunnels were constructed as a realignment project of the KKH. Now the Attabad Lake has become a place of recreation for tourists; however, it still carries a distinct vibe of loss and calamity.

About three hours away from Attabad Lake, with the temperature dropping swiftly, we found ourselves at the Khunjerab Pass. Freezing cold, light-headed and breathless, while I slowly walked towards the Pak-China border, an unexpected sense of accomplishment struck my senses when I realised how far I had managed to come on my own, from one end of the country to the other. This was the proudest I have ever felt in my life.

The next day I started the most difficult journey I had ever undertaken - to Skardu. Not for weak hearts, the road to Skardu is harsh and unforgiving -- an extremely rough terrain, with barren mountains rising up from one side and a massive drop into a hungry river on the other. Somewhere among the many stops on the way, thanks to landslides, the consequent trekking over sharp, loose rocks in pitch darkness, a tyre bursts and a dharna (yes, you read that right!) I think I did witness ‘facing my fears’ turn to reality.

However, once I reached Skardu and let the magnificence of what’s in front of me sink in deep and touch my soul, the trauma was soon forgotten. The trek to the Upper Kachura Lake lined with fields of wheat and mulberry trees, the splendour of the Himalaya and Karakoram protecting its untouched beauty, delectable lunch of freshly caught trout grilled on smoking hot coals, the quietude at the Shangrila Resort - all made it worth it.

While in Skardu, a venture up to the Deosai Plains is mandatory. The second highest plateau in the world, Deosai National Park is famously known as the ‘Land of the Giants’, covering an area of about 3,000 square kilometres. Devoid of human settlements, these plains display a culmination of everything that nature has to offer: from strong icy winds, the hypnotising melody of ever-flowing streams, golden marmots playing around in the vast fields of fresh, green grass, to majestic snow-covered mountains ascending from a distance, humbling you to the core with the magnanimity of where you’re standing.

It is imperative to mention here that I did not for a moment feel unsafe in any of these regions, even in the darkness of the night, and will forever be amazed at how unfamiliar this sentiment is for me, having grown up in Karachi.

A few things to note: Travel isn’t always comfortable, and requires patience and compromise. Don’t expect luxuries, but do expect to be awe-struck by what you’ll witness. While travelling in a group, it is essential to understand that your tour operator is not your servant and constantly complaining about everything wouldn’t really help. "Yar ye AC kyun nae chal raha hai bhai?";"Yar ye kesa khana diya hai? Kuch aur mangwao!" - is simply unpleasant. Secondly, the locals are immensely friendly; in return it would be nice if you would be polite and respect their traditions and practices.

I often sit at the seashore in Karachi and wonder about how vast the ocean is, and how inconsequential our existence in comparison. The mountains added another dose of humility to this thought. Beautiful, yet terrifying, these giant piles of stones put your life into perspective and ground you. Being down to earth sort of makes a lot more sense now.


The writer is a business graduate and a teacher with a passion for writing & travelling

A lone wanderer