Sunday, 29 June 2014

Struck by beauty

Beauty is subjective but if you feel you have met it face to face, gazed at it in wonder and disbelief, it transforms you.  Experiencing beauty feels like you have experienced perfection.

My visit to Baltistan in the early part of June this year is going to be stuck in my head, in my heart forever. Visiting the mountains of my homeland made a wonderful impression on me. I have done some traveling in my life thus far and seen some breathtaking beauty but I do not remember being struck by beauty the way I did in Baltistan. 

I felt I had soared into the mountains. I felt I was someplace completely new and exciting. 

Beauty is subjective but if you feel you have met it face to face, gazed at it in wonder and disbelief, it transforms you.  Experiencing beauty feels like you have experienced perfection.

With only three days there and, so much that I had not seen, the anticipation of discovering and seeing the rest of Baltistan some day, made me even more drunk with beauty.   

The first day

From the moment I landed at the Skardu Airport and as I looked around at the magnificent peaks towering above us over the runway I felt excited and thrilled. 

The hotel had sent a driver to pick me up and, he suggested we see Satpara Lake on the way to the hotel. The road to the Lake was through a rocky mountainous pass. We stopped in town to buy some juice. The driver proudly told me that Skardu was so safe that people left their cars unlocked. The driver and I chatted a lot. He was extremely friendly and helpful. He had performed Umrah a couple of years ago so he had Haji in front of his name. He like so many other people there relied on the tourists during the summer months although with the unreliability of PIA which was the only airline going up to the northern areas, the tourist season itself was unpredictable. He had also spent some time in Punjab working.

It was about an hour's journey from the airport. It started to get overcast by the time we got there. We couldn't actually get that close to the Lake and saw it from a couple of vantage points. At first I was unimpressed because the lake's water level was low. We had stopped on the road and I took a few shots through the barbed wire. We got down closer to the lake at a small and very basic guesthouse. We met the owner and chatted to him a bit. He said he had hosted many expat mountaineers and hikers. Some people even preferred to camp close to the lake instead of staying in the guesthouse itself. he wanted to take me up to the Deosai Plains (I had never heard the name before, so much for doing prior research) the next day and, wanted me to confirm how many packed lunches he should prepare. I was not sure so I could not confirm it. 

After this, we drove up round the corner to get a better view of the lake. It started to get very windy so much so that Kavita started crying. Thankfully, I had her jacket in the diaper bag and pulled it out. She was still quite bothered with these gusts of wind. From one view we could see the PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation) motel and the guesthouse we had just seen. From the other view we could see even higher peaks. It was this view that was quite magnificent since the peaks framed the lake. Also, the gusts of wind were blowing from that direction. The blue lake, framed by rocky mountains, suddenly became overcast with dusty winds. It was time to go!

We started heading back and on our way down, I could see that the Satpara dam project more carefully since I did not pay much attention to it going up. The dam was providing electricity to Skardu and, electricity was quite stable apparently.  

The drive to Shigar Valley was a memorable one. It was late afternoon and, the day just got more and more overcast. As I try to find the words to describe the images in my mind, I realise I might not really know all the proper words to describe the environment I was in. Was it a plain or valley that I had passed through? We passed through valleys of such contrasts. I felt we were enveloped in a fine, gray dust which made the rocky peaks almost hazy yet bright green trees dotted this most strange scenery. The only word I feel I can use for this new frontier is pure. It was pure scenery. It is the kind of scenery where one feels small, humbled. It is the kind of pure natural scenery where one only thinks about discovering and learning about animals, birds, lakes, rivers and mountains instead of man's creations such as old churches, mosques or skyscrapers.

We also saw the Indus River (or Dary-e-Sindh). I felt so excited to see it although the river bed was completely dry.

We finally arrived at the Shigar Fort Residence. Converted from a 17th century fort and palace, this is a beautiful Serena boutique hotel. With a museum, beautifully restored and preserved features of the palace, charming gardens and orchards and a bubbling brook right next to the hotel, I felt I was truly in paradise for the next three days. While it was scorching hot down in Punjab, Kavita and I snuggled under a razai every night! We ate delicious fresh-water trout nearly every day cooked in the hotel restaurant.  Kavita ran amok everywhere and, I took lots of photos of her rosy cheeks.

Second Day

Although I could have made a day trip to see Khaplu Valley, I decided to spend the day in Shigar Valley. I thought I would just savour the thrill of being in the mountains by doing very little. So, what I did was ask the driver to drive around and show me a bit of the town and valley. We saw a bridge. Got down to take some photos. On the way back, I asked to stop by the wheat fields. I walked through the fields and since Kavita had decided to take a nap, I decided to sit under a tree while she napped. I sat drowsily under the tree.

I looked around and all I could see was the most idyllic views around me. Wheat fields in front of me with snow-clad peaks in the distance. It was peaceful. The driver was nearby but I did not feel out of place without his escort. A passerby stopped to chat and, before I knew it I was invited to his house for tea. But to tell you honestly, I was itching to be invited to someone's house. We followed our host to his house in the village next to the fields. 

His house was was very modest as would be a villager's. We were asked to wait in the living room which was covered with bright red carpets. We met his wife who did not speak Urdu but only Balti. We tried to understand each other. She explained that she suffered from cramps. Her husband told me he had already taken her to the hospital in Skardu and was going to take her again. She was in fact his first wife who encouraged her husband to marry a second time because they only had one child. Our host had briefly served in the Army. We were asked to wait while they brought tea. We ended up waiting for a while and then I realised that our hosts were going through a lot of trouble. Our host had gone up to the shop for sure while his wife was boiling water for tea. A lavishly-laid tea arrived with biscuits, green tea and boiled eggs. I felt overwhelmed.    

We finished our tea. I thanked my hosts and expressed my appreciation. Our host walked us to the main road. On the way, a young mother walked beside me and we chatted. She was hardly 20 or 21 and already had several children. Her youngest was wrapped around her back (just like Africa!) and, what an adorable little girl it was. We passed some shrubs and trees wrapped in cloth. I asked her why it was so. She said so that the goats wouldn't eat up all the bark. We came onto the road and bid our host good bye and gave a lift to the lady.

We headed back to the hotel where we spent the rest of the evening simply relaxing. I had delicious hot tea in the garden while Kavita played. We then took a long nap and, then had dinner in the outdoor balcony of the restaurant. One could hear the babbling stream. We sat out in the chilly night, dressed in sweaters, and enjoyed our dinner. Kavita thankfully had a good appetite and ate everything I gave her. Before going back into the room, I passed by the gift shop and bought some souvenirs. The shop keeper somehow managed to convince me that the Deosai Plains were accessible (everyone had told me they would not be until later in the month). I couldn't believe my ears. The shop keeper booked a car for me the next day. I went to sleep excitedly dreaming of cuddling the Himalayan marmot and spotting some brown bears (from afar).

Third Day

After a hearty breakfast of parathas and prepared with packed lunches that the hotel kitchen prepared for us, I excitedly got into the car that was waiting for me. "To the Deosai Plains," I told our driver. He was not very talkative and, I was a little disappointed since I was banking on some good company. I tried to make some small talk and asked him how far it was to the Plains to which he replied that it was around two hours but I would have to trek up to the plains themselves since the pass was full of snow and the car would not go right up to the entrance. "What!!" I shrieked. I would not be able to trek with Kavita. I have not trekked since seventh grade and even then I was really lousy at it. We decided to go back and, I straightened a few things out with that shop keeper. The hotel staff were annoyed with him but told me that I should have checked with them first.

We changed plans and headed out to see the Upper and Lower Kachura Lakes. The Upper Kachura Lake was indeed beautiful but a bit hard to reach.  I had to scramble down a hill to reach it. I painfully realised how unfit I was since I could hardly manage on my own. I was trying not to think about how scared I was of slopes and heights while a young fellow helped by skipping and hopping down while carrying Kavita.  The lake was pristine, blue and green, framed by rocks. We took a boat ride in it. Later I walked around the edge with Kavita and really enjoyed the peace and quiet. There were not many other tourists and only some local boys who were fishing and skipping stones on the lake.

After this, we stopped to see the Lower Kachura Lake. The famous Shangrila Resort is right on this lake. I think this lake was postcard beautiful since it had the most beautiful manicured gardens and roses around it. This lake was not contained in a small enclave like the Upper Kachura Lake but in a much wider open space. The mountains were reflected in its water, dotted by reflections of gorgeous roses. The gardens of the hotel were really magnificent. There were tourists everywhere. I saw families posing for pictures. I saw groups of men posing for pictures. There were boating couples on the lake. I did not stay long.

We headed back to our hotel in time for tea. The hotel was buzzing with preparations for the Chief Minister who was apparently coming for dinner. I met a family from Karachi and exchanged travel notes. Kavita and I turned in for a nap and later had dinner.

Struck by beauty

The return flight was smooth but I felt sad leaving Baltistan. I wished I could have seen the Deosai Plains. I wish I could have done some trekking. I wish I had more trout. I wish I could learn a bit more about the Balti people, their language, their habits and so on.

I felt extremely indignant when I learned that Balti is not taught in schools! I read up about it on the Internet and that it is related to Tibetan. Urdu really is a colonising language which has rendered all other languages of this land as second, third or of no importance. How can a language spoken for time immemorial not be considered important enough not to be taught to the children of those who speak it? We will lose this language at this rate!

And who knows of what beliefs existed before Islam arrived?

This three-day holiday to Baltistan showed me a part of Pakistan which I have just known about in coffee table books or from TV (specifically probably only a shot of a mountain in a Pakistani music video, a patriotic song or a brief documentary on PTV).  I felt proud of myself of exploring a new part of Pakistan on my own and vowed to return for longer next year bringing some friends.

I really was struck by the beauty of the mountains and valleys.  The idea alone that Baltistan was the gateway to some of the highest peaks in the world thrilled me. I was literally at the top of the world. I looked up at rocky mountains, snow-clad peaks, valleys and gorges, and turqoise lakes. What could be more beautiful than these sights? Who could be more hospitable than the kind-faced Balti people?

I have never really taken a holiday on my own. It has usually always been with a companion. This time, it was me and my little Kavita. I really enjoyed myself and really cannot wait to come back.

Might I add that I am now obsessed with the Deosai Plains and, really cannot wait to see them. 

No comments:

Post a Comment