A site for a rare pilgrimage

June 27, 2021

A couple of young friends explore the breathtaking Dojanga and find perfect beauty, stillness and solitude in the heart of Kamrat

The sunlight came through the cloud in patches. I began to run again. I looked everywhere; I tried to remember everything.

I was running every night that summer, more than four miles at a time. When I finished, I stretched my legs in front of our house. An empty street, this would be late at night, the air like a weight pressing on my lungs. I looked at the traffic. I had never been in better shape. I massaged my ankles and spoke to them. Don’t you give up on me. I turned thirty one that spring. I worried about my ankles.

I’d attended two funerals that summer. A vague malaise filled my heart and no matter how much I ran, I felt there was no cure for this ailment. I no longer wrote or read books. I watched movies on the Criterion channel. I spoke to women on the Internet but never met them. I had no friends left in the city.

So one day when Zain said he was going to Kamrat valley with his university friends and someone had cancelled and asked if I could come, I said yes. Even though I knew it was a pity invitation. I had not seen the mountains in this country for a long time, not since I hiked in Kashmir one summer when I was still at Connecticut College. Is it okay with your friends? I asked. Zain grimaced. We are formal with each other. We have forgotten how to speak as brothers should, or maybe we never learned in the first place. We speak in English, it helps.

One night we packed our bags and stepped out of the house. Ali, who works in Dubai, smoked a cigarette. When he saw us coming, he put on his mask. We threw our bags in the trunk and climbed inside the car. Zain began to drive. Ali and I talked about Dubai’s labour laws, the perils of working abroad. Then I told him I had an MFA in fiction. He told me he had once dated a girl who was doing an MFA. I asked her name? Maybe I know her. He told me her name. Then we became quiet for a while.

In Islamabad, we met S, who had flown in from Karachi, and Dilawar. We went to a cafe and ate paratha rolls and drank chai. The waiters didn’t wear masks. This was September when everything was opening up in the country. The conversation fell into a comfortable pattern. I arranged my face so it showed the appropriate level of excitement. I nodded, I looked at my phone.

I knew nothing about Kamrat valley. I had not even tried to find it on the map. When I told my sister I was headed there, she seemed to know where it was. She spoke about videos of the valley circulating on the internet. The prime minister had seen it from his helicopter and asked to land there. He had discovered it, Honey said. How did he discover it? I said. Did people not live there before?

The mountains were on every side and the river became narrower.

Around two am, a white van pulled up outside the cafe. The driver went to use the restroom and our guide introduced himself. He was short with hair carefully pomaded. He had the look of someone who could not be ruffled by anything. I have always wanted to be cool like that. Instantly, I began to resent him. His name was Bilal and he was from Wah.

As we left the city, the driver turned off the lights inside the van. S played music on the van speakers from her phone. You’re fine with Nusrat, right? she asked. Yes. I closed my eyes and rested my cheek against the window. I have always been able to sleep in cars, in bus stations and airports that reek of sweat and desperation. When I worked for a magazine in London, I would go to the bathroom stall during lunch break and sleep on the potty. I am not embarrassed by the logistics of sleep.

When I woke up, the van was parked next to a small market. Charpoys were laid out. S smoked a cigarette and smiled at me. She pointed to a white sign on the mountaintop: Churchill Picket. There was a hut behind it, a pole without a flag rested there. The sun rose between lines of trees. I knew Churchill was here once as a soldier, but I didn’t think there was any need to remember him. He’d let thousands starve during the famine.

I gazed at the road twisting up the mountain and began to feel a relief setting inside me. I drank water, ate a biscuit that S offered me and put on my AirPods. I listened to the Lydia Davis translation of Madame Bovary. It was read by an American actress and I didn’t like her style of reading but I toiled on. Every now and then, S leaned in front of me to take a photograph. She was a banker in Karachi. She had two kids. She spoke in a halting manner, weighing every word carefully. I admired her.

We crossed the town centre of Chakdara. A sea of men stood on the roadside as if waiting for something. I felt uncomfortable. S suggested a game where we count the women. Whoever points out the most women, wins, she said. In thirty minutes, we counted to five, then we gave up. When we stopped for lunch, S and I purchased sunglasses from a shop. The cashier saw that we were tourists and asked us where we were going. We told him. You will love it, he said.

Probably soon, campsites will appear all the way to Dojanga. Jeeps will climb up the hills I ran on, where I found perfect stillness and solitude. Nothing lasts, especially not beauty. For now, the Panjkora is clean, the animals are happy, and the locals – well I am not one to speak for them.

As we neared Tall, where a jeep was waiting for us, the paved road ended. We drove over rock, pebble and mud. A path hastily blasted on the mountainside. Every bump hurt. I opened the window and the dust settled into my mouth. What was winter like here? Barefoot children stared at our van. This was unmistakable poverty. The houses were ramshackle, not the idyllic huts I had seen in Kashmir years before. The sky darkened, becoming grayer and heavier. The air turned cold. It rained for a moment, stopped, and then picked up again. We drove by the side of a great river for hours, the river came closer and closer to us, till we could hear the water. This was a blue river and a green river, the water moved fast, and big rocks jutted out in places. Panjkora. It comes from the glacier, S told me. I had my own thoughts about the river. I did not share them with her.

We reached Tall at nighttime. There was a bridge on the river and huts on the other side. I climbed out of the van. An involuntary sigh escaped me. I put on my raincoat and walked to the embankment. The water was so close. I watched a young man step into the river and scoop out a fish from a trap with his hand. The moonlight fell on his wet beard. The driver and Bilal began to move our bags into a jeep. We went to a restaurant and ordered chappal kebab, chanay ki daal, chicken karahi and naan. S walked to the market and came back with bananas, peaches and apples. We recharged our phones. Only one cellular company had coverage here. I looked at the pictures I had taken during the trip.

After dinner and chai, we walked to the old Jamia Masjid. Zain kept talking about how it was built in the 19th Century and made of wood. It’s so quaint, he said. S laughed. Even though the moon was up, we could not see the mosque properly. Still, we stood before it and listened to the river. Then Bilal said, chalo, chalo.

It must have been a two-hour drive from Tall to our campsite. We expected to camp in the woods but this was a clearing. In the dark, we could not see the mountains and they seemed removed from us. S and Ali began to complain to Zain because he had arranged the trip. I took out my torch and explored the campsite. Then I grabbed my bag and walked towards the sound of water.

In the darkness, the river looked sinister. It was here before I was born, I thought, and it will be here when I am dead. I placed my bag on a large rock and looked around. One by one I took my clothes off and folded them. I lowered myself into the river. A river has no memory, I know this. Perhaps I hoped to forget a few things myself. I rubbed the soap on my armpits and shoulders, closed my eyes and listened. Then I stepped out and dried my body. I was shaking. The cold was settling inside. I put on fresh clothes, brushed my teeth and walked back to the campsite. They had started a fire and were drinking chai and laughing. I didn’t want to join them. I went to the tent which had been erected for us before hand, I got into my sleeping bag. I was awake for a long time.

The river was blue, the valley was green, the tree trunks were brown, the sky was overcast.

After a quick breakfast in the morning, Bilal told us we’d take the jeep to Kala Chashma, where the views were breathtaking. Zain and Dilawar decided to sit on the roof. Hold on tight, Bilal said. We drove in circles through the woods. A black cloud of exhaust followed us. I saw many deodar trees being cut. Bilal told us there was no gas so the locals had to cut the trees for firewood. We crossed other campsites. I saw piles of litter. Plastic soda bottles, packets of chips and juice, discarded clothes.

In the daylight, you could feel you were in a valley. The mountains were on every side and the river became narrower. Around noon, we reached Kala Chashma. The mountains had changed in aspect here, they were darker, or perhaps my view was compromised. The chashma was crowded with tourists. At a chai stall, men sat smoking on benches. On a large rock, a boy with a guitar sang an English song. His voice cracked and he began to laugh. A man drove his jeep into the chashma for a photograph. He looks like he is from Lahore, S said. I smiled at her.

This is as far as the jeeps goes, Bilal said. You can take the trail but be back by 5 pm. Are you not coming? S asked him. I’ve seen it all before, he said.

At first, our path ran through the woods but then the trees receded and we saw large tracts of grazing land. We could have been in a meadow. The river was blue, the valley was green, the tree trunks were brown, the sky was overcast. We saw cows and goats unaccompanied, chilling on the hillside. They were chewing on the grass. They showed no curiosity about us. They were free and happy. It was impossible to ignore their happiness. We, too, began to laugh and joke with one another.

The longer we hiked and the more tired we became, the happier we were. We filled our bottles in the chashma, we climbed the rocky inclines, though most of the climb here was easy, nothing like the trekking we would do a few days later on the other side of the valley on our way to Jahaz Banda and Katora Lake.

After a couple of hours, we stopped seeing felled trees; we no longer saw other tourists. Now it was just a path astride a blue river in the shade of deodar trees, which were crooked in places where they grew on the hill. We saw a man fishing by the river and asked him if there was a landmark we should see before we turned. He told us about Dojanga, the point where two tributaries of the river met.

S and I sat down on the river bank and took off our shoes. I put my feet in the river and ate the granola bar she gave me. Zain, Ali and Dilawar were behind us; we waited for them. Dilawar carried a walking stick he’d brought with him; he’d given one to Ali too. They looked flushed in the face. We should turn back soon, Zain said. It’ll take us at least two hours from here.

Thirty more minutes, I said. I started a timer on my phone and showed it to him. He said, okay. Then I began to walk in the direction of Dojanga. I wanted to be alone, to sink into this happiness. I was wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt. I stuffed my raincoat into my backpack. At first, I jogged but then I got into a rhythm and sprinted. The path twisted around hills and every turn brought new shades of light, new concentration patterns of trees, and on the other side, the river was narrow and unyielding and blue. There was no sound in the valley except the river and my sneakers against the pebbles.

I stopped. The path was blocked by a fenced area. Two men walked up to me. They lowered the wooden logs so I could pass. This is for the horses, they said. I hadn’t seen any horses yet. I thanked them. One of them gave me a couple of walnuts to eat. Beyond Dojanga, there was a path that led to Naraan, he told me, a two-day hike. He pointed up to a mountain and said, “the real views are there. A four hours’ climb.”

Here the sunlight came through the cloud in patches. I began to run again. I looked everywhere; I tried to remember everything. When the timer on my phone rang, I didn’t stop. I saw a child walking with two sheep. How far is Dojanga? Aik ghainta. I looked helplessly ahead. Then I began to walk back. Again and again, I turned to look at what I was leaving behind.

Reader, I hope that you may never reach Dojanga, that it remains inaccessible and preserved - a site for a rare pilgrimage. Probably, campsites will soon appear all the way to Dojanga. Jeeps will climb up the hills I ran on, where I found perfect stillness and solitude. Nothing lasts, especially not beauty. For now, the Panjkora is clean, the animals are happy, and the locals – well I am not one to speak for them.

The writer has an MFA from Purdue University and PhD from Florida State University

A site for a rare pilgrimage