In the photos, the valley is full of colours but when the mountains turn dark brown and the sky becomes overcast, the Katora Lake is desolate and your path unforgiving
Last night I scrolled through the photos of Kumrat Valley on Zain’s phone. I noticed a line running through my forehead, a deep frown emerging from a year of despair – this, I can say only in hindsight. When I went to Kumrat last fall, I thought I was fulfilled, that my solitude was purposeful, that my life was stable; and it’s true I was in great health. In the photos, the valley is full of colours that will erase anyone’s sadness, but I remember when the mountains turned dark brown and grey and the sky became overcast; the Katora Lake was desolate and our path cruel and unforgiving.
On the jeep ride back from Kala Chashma, we counted the campsites, tried to locate the nicest ones. I spoke to Jamal, our driver, who grew up in Kumrat. He had stopped many times to pick up men who climbed the back of our jeep with a practiced bravado. Jamal knew all the men we met by name. They were his relatives, he told me. Kumrat’s land is owned by one big family of ten thousand people. I wondered if he was counting only the men. No one is allowed to sell the land. The hotels are being built on leased land. Everything must be approved by the local council. Jamal gave me the impression of an environmentally conscious community, sensitive to indigenous rights, to the blight of capitalism and unchecked tourism.
I was sceptical. I’d seen trees being cut all the way up to Kala Chashma.
At our campsite, we gathered by the fire and drank chai. Jamal and some local jeep drivers joined us. Zain asked them about the tax-free car situation, the kind of cars that came to Dir. A boy from a neighbouring campsite sat down with us and showed Jamal something in his palm. Granular, dark brown. Shilajit. Is it real? He asked. Someone was selling it to him. Jamal smelled it. He said, “drink it with hot milk.”
That night I woke up to the sound of pistol shots. Zain said they were just having fun. I am not worried, I said. I pressed my ear against the pillow and listened. The sound of laughter and singing filled the night but if I listened carefully, I could hear the swift movement of the Panjkora River. There was one more sound I’d learned to negotiate in Kumrat and I knew not to let the silence creep up on me during nighttime. It was best to face it in broad daylight.
I felt safe there. During the military operation in Swat, I’d heard stories about Dir, about a militarised region with conservative men. What I found here were soft-bodied men, who looked, at thirty years old, already like they were forty. They hugged one another. They laughed easily. They were hospitable. They answered every question. I did wonder where the women were in all of this. Were they counted in the family of ten thousand? And it’s true the women were invisible, tucked away; I did not forget that. But I didn’t think it was my place to drive for one week from Lahore into the heart of Dir and make judgments about the residents. I saw only the surface; the colours of the trees, the rocks, the distant peaks, witnessed only the silences. To be honest, I had come here for nothing else.
In the morning we drove back to Tall and had breakfast. It felt good to be at the town centre when the sun fell on the river and the local boys sat laughing by the shops. I walked by the river and took photographs. It was nice to stretch my legs. I wanted to take a hot bath but I learned that there were no public baths in Tall. I asked a fruit seller, where I should bathe then. He pointed to the river. I’d gone into the river my first night. I was not going to do it again.
Around noon, we got into our jeep and began to climb up again. We drove by dozens of houses. People lived here. The huts were small and square, the fields were sectioned neatly. The road was narrow and unpaved, a nightmare to negotiate even as a passenger. I was thrown sideways ten times every minute. I felt dizzy. As we turned a corner, Zain voiced a thought I was having: we should have walked.
Near the entrance of the trail that led to Jahaz Banda, cars were parked in a row by the roadside. A man approached us to ask if we wanted to rent donkeys. I told him that we would carry our bags. As I put on my backpack, Zain came over and helped me with the harness.
The moment we began our climb, it became cooler. We ascended quickly at first, not knowing how long it would take us, or how difficult the climb would get. Bilal gave vague estimates when asked about the duration of the climb. We decided that our guide, who never broke a sweat and didn’t carry anything but a DSLR camera, could not be trusted.
In my bag, I carried all my clothes, climbing shoes, a sleeping bag, fruits and granola bars. Mostly, it was the clothes that weighed me down. I’d brought too many jackets and coats, too many sweaters and shirts and sweatshirts. It was all unnecessary. The desire to take photographs in cool clothes had vanished.
The trail was so narrow that in certain places only one human or donkey could pass at a time. Many times we paused when we heard the approach of donkeys. We stared at the embarrassed faces of the riders – mostly university students. I saw more girls than we had seen in our entire time in Dir. I saw group photos being taken, wherever the trail opened. It was exhausting at first to see so many sights worthy of postcards. I stopped taking photographs, stopped looking behind to see if my companions were seeing what I was seeing. I felt calmer immediately.
A blue mosque was under construction on a hilltop. An eager-faced young man stood on the trail and asked us for donations. It felt strange that a mosque was needed in a place so desolate. In Dir, I’d seen mosques under construction in other inaccessible spots. I formed an opinion about this. I will not share it on these pages.
Jahaz Banda is a meadow. A polo match or a music festival could be organised here. I saw ponies in the distance. There were camping huts on the boundaries of the ground, which was mostly level and the kind of rich green that makes the body ache. Mountains on all sides. The people who were already here had an ecstatic look on their faces. I have seen that look on people’s faces before, ravenous and unrelenting, and it has always made me uncomfortable.
In my bag, I carried all my clothes, climbing shoes, a sleeping bag, fruits and granola bars. Mostly, the clothes weighed me down. I’d brought too many jackets and coats, too many sweaters and shirts and sweatshirts. It was all unnecessary. The desire to take photographs in cool clothes had vanished.
Zain found the camping spot he had booked. It was a small room with plastic sheets as walls and wooden flooring and roof. We took off our backpacks. Without any discussion, we opened our sleeping bags, lined them up and lay down in the darkroom.
When I woke up from my nap, a cold had settled inside me. The camping ground was vulnerable to the winds. The proximity of the mountains, the altitude, the lack of trees in Jahaz Banda all contributed to this. An old man ran the kitchen at our campsite. We spoke to him about dinner; he promised to set up a fire while we went for a walk around the ground.
The night creeps up on the meadow, the starlight pierces the darkness. (The air is clean). How to describe the shadow a mountain casts? It’s a thing that the spirit feels. Then a generator sputters to life. Bulbs begin to glow. I wondered if this plain ever had trees if anything bad could happen to this place. Zain thought that since it was so hard to get here, it would be difficult for the government to ruin it. But, he said, there is always a way to overcome difficulties, if money can be made. I thought that Jahaz Banda was safe for now. Kala Chashma and Dojanga were in peril.
That night we had chicken karahi and roti in our hut. Then we sat outside by the fire and spoke to the other campers. A group of students was here for the long weekend. They had taken a bus from Islamabad to Tall for Rs 600 each, then a van from Tall. They had brought their own food and would cook later in the night. One of them, named Urooj, asked me about getting scholarships for study abroad. She was studying business. She was from Faisalabad. When she spoke Punjabi with her friends a familiar sharpness entered her speech.
Three men from a textile company were sent here by their boss. He is a great man, one of them said. He’s climbed K-2. Zain said, “No, he has not.” I turned to look at Zain. Then Zain said, only a handful of Pakistanis have climbed K-2. There is a list. A note of condescension crept into his voice. He’s number five on the list, one of the men said quietly. He has thighs the size of my stomach. We contemplated this last image and became quiet.
In my dream, I spoke to the moon and the moon spoke back. The moon told me things about my past that I no longer cared to remember. The moon was my friend and needed a favour from me. That’s all I can remember.
Zain woke me up at six in the morning and we had anda paratha and chai. We filled our water bottles and began the hike to Katora Lake. Bilal, our guide, was not coming with us. He said, if you go fast, you can get there in three hours. Zain said it can be done in two. We are not going to take long breaks.
The doors of the huts were closed. Everyone slept. Zain walked at a brisk pace and waited for me to catch up every fifteen minutes. He had a map downloaded on his watch. He had an idea of where we were going. There was a clear path we could take for most of the journey but at two or three points, we needed to follow directions that Bilal had given Zain so we didn’t get lost.
There were clouds in the sky. A thin fog lay over our path. As a Lahori, I am wary of fog. The path twisted, became slippery and disappeared. Colour slowly drained out of our surroundings. Everything turned to a shade of grey. The grass, the flowers and the trees receded and rocks took their place. I saw no one and I knew it was possible we were lost. I scraped my knee and watched Zain get ahead till he was a distant speck. On a recent trip to K-2 base camp, he had done this kind of climbing — jumping over rock after rock for ceaseless stretches. I hadn’t.
There are two Katora Lakes. The first is like a teardrop and you see it midway, a little taste to whet the appetite. You can sit on a boulder and look at it for hours. You can climb down, if you have time, and touch the surface. I saw it half-dried, sitting on the rockiest stretches, nothing bowl-shaped about it. The sun came up for a moment, then disappeared.
I believe in God. It makes living in this world much easier. And I believe in Pakistan. I had no other option when living abroad became unbearable. Here, it was easy to be calm, to have faith that even if the worst happened, what I was doing, where I was – it was sufficient.
On the way to the main Katora Lake, you see glacial rocks, which feed the lakes. I’m sure there is an easier path to reach Katora Lake, perhaps the donkeys take it, but we were in a hurry to get there. We were climbing. We were jumping. We were running.
The desolation of our surroundings was more enveloping than any emotions I could harbour. It left me with nothing. It satisfied me completely. If you, like me, are prone to fits of sadness, the path to Katora might cure you. It almost cured me. At the end of the journey, it rained, a wet muddy wall needed to be climbed. I thought I wouldn’t manage but then I found my footing.
Katora Lake was wrapped in a mist. The surface of the lake was clear, a greyish blue. The air was sombre, a silvery hue I could almost touch. The lake was sombre, too. It made me think of aliens, ancient men and women. and their loneliness and it scared me. It was doing nothing. Still as anything, I’ll ever see. But it seemed to mark me. Perhaps I prayed on the way back.
Standing before the lake, staring at it from an elevation, there was really nothing to do. I thought how easily the rocks could come together and swallow the lake. I thought how hard it would be for us to turn this place into something else. Here what I was looking at was untouched, straight from the factory which made everything. The vibrations were authentic, like the sounds of a planet in space.
We took photographs. We looked at one another from time to time. Then we began our climb back on the wet rock, careful with our feet. We saw the first humans near the smaller Katora Lake. A group of university students lying down side by side, music coming from their speakers. Pride by Kendrick Lamar. One of them smiled at me and said, how far is the big lake? It depends, I said. I kept walking, thinking already of lunchtime, hot showers, the nice Motorway bathrooms, the Ring Road exit to my house in Lahore.
The writer has an MFA from Purdue University and a PhD from Florida State University. He can be reached on Twitter @MunibAhmadKhan