Blue skies and green fields

August 28, 2022

Hushe valley, known for its many exciting routes, attracts a large number of people every year during the trekking season

Campsite at Dumsum.
Campsite at Dumsum.


t was a humid day in July. I was driving on the streets of Lahore in the sweltering heat, listening to Pink Floyd on the Radio:

So, so you think you can tell/ Heaven from hell?/ Blue skies from pain?/ Can you tell a green field/ From a cold steel rail?/ A smile from a veil?/ Do you think you can tell...

Suddenly, my cell phone rang. It was a friend from Karachi calling to inform me about a trip being organised by a friend who happens to be passionate about mountains and has made documentaries on environmental issues. Initially, I was a bit unsure but after looking at the weather reports and ever-increasing load shedding along with rising mercury; I decided to sign up for the trip along with my better half.

I was informed that the group would be a mix of eclectic ex-pats from America, England, Australia and Egypt, all family and friends. Another amazing aspect of the group was the gender balance and the age differential, including members aged from six to seventy years. In other words, it was truly a ‘family group’.

Khaplu Palace.
Khaplu Palace.

Our destination was Ghanche district in Gilgit-Baltistan. The word ‘gang’ means ‘glacier’, and ‘che’ is used in the Balti language to indicate ‘abundance’. To reach our destination, the group members converged in Skardu, via flights from Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. Domestic airlines have started daily flights from all major cities of the country. The opening up the area to a new stream of tourists, besides the trekkers and mountaineers, is posing a host of environmental and other issues. From Skardu Airport, our first destination was Khaplu, 110 kilometres away. It took us nearly three hours in a comfortable SUV to reach the town. In the past, the local transport used to be the old rickety, bone-shattering jeeps but now luxury SUVs are easily available for rent. On way to Khaplu, we crossed the famous Sarfranga Cold Desert, also known as the Katpana Desert, which is at a distance of 16 kilometres from Skardu. It is ranked as the world’s highest cold desert.

We were driving along the right bank of the Indus River. The weather was favourable. We stopped at several spots on the way to take photos and enjoy the apricots from local orchards. The metalled road to Khaplu is not too wide but the surface was good. The Indus is a trans-boundary river in Asia. It is 3,180 kilometres long, rising in western Tibet and flowing through Pakistan before culminating in the Arabian Sea near Karachi.

Our stay was arranged at the Khaplu Palace that was restored by Aga Khan Trust in 2011. Khaplu Palace was built in 1840 AD with help from Kashmiri and Balti artisans. Being on the border of several regions, the architecture of the palace has Tibetan, Kashmiri, Ladakhi and Central Asian features. At the reception courtyard, we met other members of the group who had already arrived. It was inspiring to see the enthusiasm and excitement of the young as well as old members. The Palace has several room options but the restored heritage rooms are a treat to stay in. The requirements of a modern hotel are all met comfortably… except perhaps for the short but steep staircases here and there.

In the evening, the group was informed about the following day’s plan for departure for Hushe and general instructions were shared. After dinner, it was time to have some sleep for the next day’s adventure. In the morning, we were all ready before departure time and gathered in the reception courtyard. We started our journey in a convoy of six SUVs and a few jeeps that were carrying the logistics and food supplies. The road to Hushe traverses along the Shyok River for a short while. At Saling village, it turns towards Hushe River. Shyok, meaning the River of Death, is a tributary of the mighty Indus.

En route, we stopped at Machlu village for lunch. The large dining room of the only hotel in the village was adorned with maps and pictures of mountain expeditions. It seemed that the place was a popular stopover for foreign tourists.

Along the Hushe River, one gets to have the first glimpse of Masherbrum Peak after crossing Kanday village. After travelling for over three hours and 60 kilometres, we reached our hotel in Hushe. It was built with the cooperation of Spanish mountaineers and their government. It was a basic hotel primarily serving the mountain expeditions to the Karakorum Range. Hushe is also a stopover for returning expeditions from K-2 and other peaks in the region. The backyard of the hotel has a stunning view of the Masherbrum and is used as a camping ground for trekkers. The Hushe valley is known for the surrounding high mountains of the Karakoram range, including several peaks above 6,000 metres. Every year Hushe attracts a large number of people who pass the valley during the trekking season. Hushe village is the last habitation in the valley. It has exciting trekking routes, many of which are easy and do not require special training. The main attractions are the trek to its five large glaciers Aling, Masherbrum, Gondogoro, Chogolisa and TsarakTsa.

Hushe Valley.
Hushe Valley.

It is fascinating how people living in mountains look forward to being in a city and not revere their own habitat, whereas people living in cities are hankering to be in the mountains. Human beings are enigmatic.

After checking into our rooms we rested for a while. In the evening, around the dinner table, the plan for the next day, which was the highlight of our trip was finalized. It was decided that considering the large size of the group we should split into subgroups for the trek to Dumsum.

We got up at the crack of dawn. Porters had already gathered in the parking area of the hotel; we handed over our bags to them. The porters are an essential part of any trek. Unfortunately, local porters seldom get due credit for their hard work. No expedition can succeed without their valuable input but it is hardly ever acknowledged. Little Karim, the legendary porter and climber, was also from Hushe Village and a mentor for many Hushe people.

Our group of five was the first one to set off from Hushe at 6.30am. From the gate of the hotel, we started walking on an unpaved road through the village with our local guide, Nabi. The road took us through the stone and mud houses and lush green fields of wheat, potatoes and vegetables. These would not be harvested until the end of August, a month after our visit. At the end of the village, the track narrowed down. After crossing a shaky wooden footbridge along the Hushe River that originates from the Gondogoro and Masherbrum Glacier, the track became steep.

After hiking for a few kilometres on the winding track, I realised that the rest of the group was not in sight. They had probably stopped to take some photos. I waited for a short while before a porter carrying our tents caught up with me. I asked him if I could trail behind him to Dumsum. Porter Khalil gladly agreed to take me along. On our way, he asked me how old I was. I responded by asking him about his age. It transpired that he was younger than I was. However, he looked much older due to the poor living conditions and environmental factors. However, he was extremely fit. He had worked in Lahore and was pleased to learn that I hailed from Lahore. It is fascinating how people living in the mountains look forward to being in a city and not revere their own habitat, whereas people living in cities are hankering to be in the mountains.

I told Khalil not to slow down because of me and instead let me try to keep pace with him. We stopped twice on the way for a few minutes each to hydrate. The track took us through some mildly steep hills and gently sloping fields and in less than two hours, we were at Dumsum, our campsite. In terms of difficulty level, I would rate this trek to be two out of 10. Two more porters had already arrived and were sitting under a tree, waiting for the rest of the porters.

I scouted the campsite and was pleased to find that it was large enough to accommodate our group. There were a few streams flowing through the area, an essential element for a campsite. The sun was still mild and I sat down on a rock under a Himalayan juniper to rest and relish the landscape. In the meantime, a guide and more porters arrived and started pitching the tents towards the northern side. The kitchen and mess tents were placed next to a stream and the area in between was left open for a campfire in the evening. After a short while, the group members started appearing in small groups. By midday, everyone had safely made it to Dumsum.

Dumsum is a flat grazing area at the junction of Masherbrum and Aling Rivers. The actual name is Dong Sum, which means three big mountains in the Balti language (the place is surrounded by three high granite walls). Native shepherds use the area for grazing their herds and have built a mosque and some stone shelters on an elevated area for the winter season.

The kitchen staff had started preparing the lunch soon after arriving at the campsite. It was served in the large mess tent. The food was adequate and mild for our urban palettes. On an earlier 14-day trek to Concordia; I had noticed that the locals use very little spice in their cuisine. After lunch, everyone started looking around for some shade. There is almost no dust or other pollution and the exposure to ultraviolet radiation is unbearably intense. The vegetation at 10,900 feet above sea level is sparse. Only the Himalayan junipers survive here. These are not very tall or broad and cast a very small shadow. It was difficult to use such trees for shade but one managed to get under the low branches to protect oneself against the strong sun.

The scale and sense of time in the mountains is different from the cities. To our astonishment, the head cook announced that the tea would be served at 4pm. It was my wife’s birthday and I had asked the head cook in Hushe to prepare a birthday cake for her. He had brought the ingredients with him and managed to bake it in a pot, with some chocolate icing on the top. I must say that he did a very decent job while using only some basic cooking utensils. Everyone enjoyed the cake at teatime. We were told that dinner would be served at 6.30pm. While it was a bit early to eat for the city dwellers, it was a good decision as later it gave us ample time to sit around the bonfire and listen to the local singer and musician, Manzoor Baltistani. He entertained us with many Balti songs while the porters and other staff danced around the bonfire. While enjoying the music we had a spectacular view of the star-spangled sky that is completely masked by pollution in the urban areas. Spotting the satellites and shooting stars became an exciting activity for us until late into the night.

After a good restful night’s sleep, I rose at up around 5am. Some of the trekkers were still slumbering. I had brought a down sleeping bag to protect me from the low temperatures at night but surprisingly it was not very cold and I could keep the outer layer open for ventilation. Over the years climate change has also affected the northern parts of our country. One can feel and experience this change with the passage of each year. The early morning light is the best time of the day to capture some nice clicks. I strolled around the area to do so. In the meantime, some other members of the group were also up. We ordered some tea and coffee to start the day. A sumptuous breakfast was served in the mess tent. The discussion revolved around the trekking options for the day. A consensus was reached to venture out towards Masherbrum glacier. It was a short trek. Masherbrum, formerly known as K-1 at 25,659 feet is the 22nd highest mountain peak in the world and the ninth highest in Pakistan. It was the first mapped peak in the Karakoram mountain range and was designated as K-1.

The trek along the Masherbrum River was also moderate in terms of difficulty. The track has been properly marked by the locals with boulders and stones. We trekked all the way until the mouth of the glacier, which was oozing a gushing stream of incessant ice-cold water. We selected a vantage point on the riverbank boulders to watch it. After spending some time there, we were back at the campsite by lunchtime to enjoy some hot soup and a freshly cooked meal. The afternoon and evening were spent mostly mingling with group members and sharing our travel tales.

The next morning we headed back to Hushe village from where our transport was ready to take us back to Skardu. On the way, we stopped at Saling village to enjoy a sumptuous lunch was organised by a member of the Raja family of the area. The general agreement at the lunch table was that having successfully completed the Dumsum trek the group members, from children to the elderly ones, should encourage more people to explore the Northern Areas of Pakistan, irrespective of their age. We must introduce our youth to the bounties of Nature so that they can learn to respect and coexist with it even while living in the cities.

We said our goodbyes. The return journey began from Skardu Airport. It was a memorable trip. Landing in Lahore and looking through the aircraft window at the cityscape, I could definitely tell… Heaven from hell, Blue skies from pain.

The writer is an architect based in Lahore/ Islamabad and an outdoor enthusiast who enjoys camping, hiking, off-roading and motor-biking. He can be reached at

Blue skies and green fields