Between high hills

February 21, 2021

Not a very tall mountain by Himalayan standards, the magical Musa ka Musalla is still a mountaineer’s dream come true

“A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.”

As far as mountain beauty is concerned, Pakistan stands alone in a far-flung valley of uniqueness. There might be a bit of exaggeration here, so hold your verdict till you see yourself somewhere within the deep-hidden valleys of northern Pakistan. Carpeted with green swards allowing glacier-melt through their hearts, I have been captivated by the wild and symmetrical nature of these mountains.

In July 2020, after recovering from a bout of Covid-19, I planned to walk to the top of Musa ka Musalla, situated in Siran valley. I was surprised when I heard the name of this valley the first time. The leading road is unknown, and its capital, Maunda Gaucha, is unheard of. We reached there before the evening fog had started building up in the valley. There were only five tourists, including us. It was a complete blackout. This town, Maunda Gaucha, is peculiar in the sense that it is sandwiched between two high mountains. This made it look quite like one of the villages in which Frodo and his companions took refuge while carrying the ring across Mordor. The clouds were dark, and the sky was soulless. People walked in small groups and rarely looked around.

The next morning had a clear sky except a few clouds waiting for the sun to appear. They melted away when the warmth in the air rose. The summit and the sun’s emerging place coincided in that time of the year, so the valley remained dimly bright for the longest time. The market was just a business place, and people lived in the nearby mountains where they did not need a driveway or a garden. Old trees kept their houses cool in the zenith of the day.

Our guide, Aslam, brought a slender horse to carry our comfort items to the mountain. He was perfectly in-sync with the horse as he understood the horse’s needs, and the horse followed his commands in Hindko. We started with an over-estimation of our will power and under-estimation of the humid weather. The water lifted off the river by sunlight, stayed in the valley, and caused a constant outpouring of our sweat. The tar-treated road soon gave way to a dirt track and the dirt track turned into a tapered path, made by livestock hooves. An occasional chirp of a bird could be heard, but the forest was mostly silent. When we crossed a small stream and came out of the gully, a panoramic view opened up before us. The confluence of two rivers made it the centrepiece of a wild image while smoke rising from a small hut tempted us to stop for a cup of tea. We were at Dhor campsite.

I was born in the plains of the Punjab. My summertime idea of paradise was an idyllic countryside where water pumped via diesel engine filled hurriedly constructed pools. There was always shade available to someone who needed it. Now I was looking for a different paradise. It wasn’t appealing unless it was on top of a mountain. Step by step, we defied gravity. Uneven terrain made our vestigial muscles work, and they protested with every stride. Hearts and lungs started learning to work together more efficiently so that we could survive more days than we anticipated. As we were crisscrossing our way through the jungle, we occasionally came across a running spring. It was always a delightful sight.

In the jungle, on the mountain, landmarks were not very reliable, so time and distance always stretched beyond our perception. As the tree line started to recede, we noticed more alpine plants, such as members of the Bupleurum family. Some of them are medicinal plants.

By afternoon, we had reached a place called Akhori, a high plateau. It was like a big yard for the local people. Children were playing hide and seek behind the bushes, and women were doing laundry. This was the only place where our guide asked us not to take photographs. We were forced to take refuge in a mosque when a drizzle started. It was our turn to get soaked as the raining cloud had circled the valley and had become relatively light after pouring rain on the neighbouring mountains. A mischievous child, merely ten years old, welcomed us at the door. Our arrival had excited him to the point that his voice had turned squeaky. To keep ourselves warm, one of us began to light a fire, but everything was damp. Whenever we picked another item to see if it would catch fire, Uzair, the naughty kid, said, “No! It won’t do.” When this had happened a few times, Sajid asked him to bugger off. Uzair replied, “Mera jism, meri marzi.” You would not expect that response high on a mountain in the deep end of a valley.

If I had come here a few years ago, I would have attached grand romance to this view and claimed that it had changed my life, but it would have proved a lie. Now that I had become relatively humble, I sat there and accepted nature as it is, not just the parts but also the whole. 

After the clouds had disappeared and the rain had stopped, we took a path behind the mosque. Aslam waited for us in the shade of a tree with a shawl around his torso and horse’s rein in one hand. He was a man of few words and a humble demeanour. We walked through a series of high-terraced plateaus until we reached a place, Gali, the base camp of the mountain.

We focused on the task at hand, the rejuvenation of our tired bodies. We were staying at a mosque. It stood like a thick solid block of stone, a fence of resistance against the elements. The mosque had a basement, used as a kitchen, and a resting place. Thin, flat stone tiles in the walls, carved out of mountain ledges, were held together by their symmetry and mud. The stairs sprung out of the north wall as stone plates, led to the balcony. The balcony provided a superb view of the mountain towards the east. The front of the mosque mirrored a horse stable, with a central wooden door and a three-foot barrier on both sides with open upper ends. The roof was made of wood planks, and the floor was carpeted with a kind of wild recoiling grass. An eerie presence was palpable, mostly due to the free-roaming rodents and new faces of worshippers at each prayer time.

Two elevated graves in a square grassy patch of earth could be spotted in front of the mosque, demarcated with stone blocks. At first glance, nothing seemed unusual about the graves, but a house had once stood in the patch. Fifteen years ago, the earth shook and engulfed the house along with its dwellers. Time had not erased their memories and the family of one of the brothers still lives on the far side of the meadow to the south.

The summit did not look far away and seemed within reach. With that thought in mind, I dozed off to sleep. The next morning, we packed light and started walking towards the peak.

After three hours, I stepped on the glacier that wrapped itself around the summit shoulder as a prayer mat. I did not have to break trail as Sajid and Sikandar were doing it for us. I noticed animal tracks, going in the same direction as I was. The sight of a few big imprints with four front-pointing nails was not as stimulating as the top itself. I plodded along, straining my lungs and legs alike. A whole vista of what is Himalaya opened up before me. To my right was Malika Parbat. I was longing to see Nanga Parbat dead ahead, but the weather had been moody. A half dozen asymmetrical clouds obstructed my view and put a high wall between Nanga Parbat and me. The summit slopped sharply to the other side and had a few scattered bits and pieces of the receding glacier.

I sat on a heap of stones, soaking in the incredible beauty of everything that lay in front of me. Had I come here a few years ago, I would have attached grand romance to this view and claimed that it had changed my life, but it would have proved a lie. Now that I had become relatively humble, I sat there and accepted Nature as it is, not just the parts but also the whole.

It appeared as if an oceanic storm had been stilled at its peak. The reality had been stripped of the mind-numbing intellectual gossip, and that in itself is an incredible reward.

Zulqarnain ventured in twenty minutes later, but Saad had been still far behind. Musa ka Musalla is not a very tall mountain by Himalayan standards as it invokes a reading of only 13,327 feet on an altimeter. However, its gradient is such that it adds considerable miles to its length, some twenty kilometres for a height of 2,300 metres. While inviting Saad for the trek, I had bet more on his mental resolve than on his physical fitness. Lying on a sheltered patch a few hundred metres below the summit, he knew that his legs had failed him.

On the other hand, Zulqarnain was proud of his obtuse physique. He had fallen in love with chai in our early years as young medical students. That had added a few hundred calories each day, culminating in an un-athletic figure. But he knew how to quieten his mind when the task at hand was to lift one foot and put it ahead of the other for several hours. We waited at the summit for a good ninety minutes before Saad appeared from the left, visibly distraught but still keen on getting to the summit. Just three days ago, he had been sitting on a comfortable sofa in his TV lounge with a bowel of French fries on his lap. We were thrilled for him.

Two hours later, we were sipping tea on the balcony of the mosque with our legs hanging down. The fog had started moving in front of us and the high peaks were again hidden behind the clouds. It was nothing short of a natural amphitheatre. It had been more than a week since I left home. I was expecting to be nostalgic, but the beauty in front of me did not leave room for any emotion except sheer joy and serenity. The next day, we turned our backs to the mountain and headed home – the only thing permanent in our transitory travels.

The writer, a medical doctor by profession, is an occasional mountaineer. He can be reached at [email protected]

Musa ka Musalla: Between high hills