Getting lost above the treeline

Travel notes from explorations in Gilgit Baltistan

The 50-plus-year-old uncle in a black polo shirt is perched on top of his white horse as I walk down the trail towards him. Suddenly he sees me and raises his arms up above his horse’s thin back, like I had insulted him in a previous lifetime and he has been looking for me ever since. “All alone?” he shouts as I stop just in front of a pile of wet cow manure and the young man guiding him.

“Well,” I say, looking around at the billions of Himalayan pine trees, the miles of glaciers melting into flashing rivers of water, the family of magpies singing love ghazals to the Nanga Parbat mountain range behind me, “not really, I guess.”

But the uncle doesn’t seem to see any of this. “No, no,” he says, pointing his horse reigns ahead to his caravan of five friends, “I mean, no friends, huh?”

The Rakhiot Glacier melting below us suddenly stops thawing. The sun curving around the Rakaposhi peak behind him stops rotating. The morinda spruce trees making sugar through their trillions of leaves stop photosynthesising. “No, not today, boss,” I finally say. And the uncle passes me with an “Okay, enjoy.”

The day I’m supposed to fly to Gilgit, my flight is canceled “due to weather” and I’m stranded in Islamabad for 24 hours, with the hope that the flight the next day would somehow takeoff. Of course, I have absolutely no plan of what I would do if I eventually reach Gilgit, so at least I can spend some of my new-found free time doing some “research,” I tell myself.

Nanga Parbat is the second tallest mountain in Pakistan, behind K2, and the ninth highest in the world, my research (Wikipedia) says. At 26,600 feet, it kinda demands that you notice it, I realize as one of 48 elated passengers flying over it the next day. It demands that you respect it, and maybe even find your way towards it, regardless of whether you had any plan to pursue its path. It even glows at night, I eventually marvel when camping underneath it, with its white snow caps and glaciers inhaling light from the moon and billions of stars, as if to announce its own place in the universe of planets and galaxies and solar systems. As if to say it will pull you towards it with an extraterrestrial gravity, even and especially if you try to resist it.

Maybe I’m not resisting though, I think, as my luggage is lost and my taxi dervishes for 2.5 hours along the Karakoram highway, from the airport towards the hills of Hunza. Maybe I’m just happy to wander in the constellation that is Gilgit Baltistan: the green vastness of weeping willow branches kissing each other as they sway over the street where we are eating chup shuro; the creaking of the Passu Glacier, recreating itself on top of the world from which it grew and is slowly becoming a part of; the thumping noise of the apricots hitting the ground underneath the canopy the woman is climbing inside of; the 1,300-year-old walnut tree curling its trunk-like branches through the sky and back towards the soil where its roots are still growing; the brown Hunza River sprinting forward at 2,800 cubic feet per second, 1,000 feet below the 1,100-year-old Altit Fort where I am staying.

A few days later, I drive back through all of this, alone and on top of a rented Honda 125 motorbike, wondering as Mary Oliver wrote what it means that this world is so beautiful, and what should I do about it? How is it that I can survive and matter when I am just a single black dot in a universe of panoramic color and light?

Just stop and listen, the women nod as they steep tumoro tea leaves and strum rebab Sufi strings at the hand-crafted Khabasi wooden cabin. Just look straight ahead, the jeep driver squints as we crawl around an entire mountain of glacier-eaten rocks and 1,500 feet drops, on our 2-hour climb to the drop-off point for the Nanga Parbat trail. Just sit and be, the marmots squeak back and forth as they lay on top of the flat, sun-warmed rocks alongside the hike to the Fairy Meadows grassland. I try all of it, but sometimes it’s hard to listen, look or just be through all the endless questioning: “Ap akaylay akaylay, are you really alone?”

Maybe it’s not about what you don’t have, but about what you have, the Beyal camp site owner suggests the night before I set out for the base of Nanga Parbat, as I ask him about the bathroom accommodations. “We have an open toilet,” he responds, through the charcoal-smoked and candle-lit kitchen-turned-dining-room. “Acha, so you don’t have a toilet,” I clarify, pushing my roti through the daal and subzi he and three of his friends just cooked. “Yes yes, brother. We have an open toilet,” he says again, as if I had misheard him. And as if I hadn’t already asked about the non-existent electricity or running water.

Just feel the rough fragility of the peeling trunk, my guide, Rahim Ullah, hums at 6am as we jungle through the whitebarked Himalayan birch forest towards Nanga Parbat. Maybe it’s not about scanning the horizon for picturesque panoramas or scenic overlooks, the cloud of snow erupts as it avalanches down the North Peak while we sit on top of Camp 1, just beyond the base camp. Maybe it’s about focusing on what’s right in front of you, the river rumbles as we reach a point on our descent where the bridge over the rushing Ganalo Glacier has been swept away. “Be melting snow / Wash yourself of yourself,” Rahim Ullah conjures Rumi lines as he leaps across a 7-foot-wide gap and then motions for me to do the same.

Maybe the point is to get lost, Thoreau writes as I miss my flight home and am told the next available seat isn’t for five days. “It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable, experience to be lost in the woods any time,” I read as I taxi 2.5 hours back to the airport the next day anyway, for an “on chance” ticket, and then miraculously get the last of 48 seats on the ATR-42 PIA plane. “Not till we are completely lost, or turned round — for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost — do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature,” I continue reading as the same flight is cancelled 45 minutes later, due to weather, and now all 48 passengers are told that the next available flight isn’t for five days. “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations,” I close the book as a stranger and fellow-stranded passenger helps me rent a car and I begin the 20 hour drive through Lulusar, Naran, Kaghan and the snakey roads of Balakot.

Maybe you need to love your solitude, to hold fast to what is difficult, to bear your sadness with greater assurance than your joys, Rilke asks after I finally return to the solitude of my Lahore house. Because your solitude, even in the midst of quite foreign circumstances, will be a hold and a home for you. And leading from it, you will find all the paths you need.

Maybe the 50-plus-year-old uncle knows something that I don’t. Or that I’m only now learning. Perhaps he knows that the glacier bridge could be swept away, and I would need someone to catch me as I jumped across the 7-foot river. Perhaps he knows that there is a line on Nanga Parbat above which the forest trees don’t grow. Above which the conditions are too harsh, the water too little or too vastly frozen. Perhaps he knows that there are some places where we just aren’t meant to be alone. Where the pain is too heavy to carry up the ascent by ourselves. Where the joy at the top is too brief and spotted to not have others to stretch and relive it with. Perhaps he knows that even in Pakistan’s most hospitable parts, in her peaks and in her valleys, a country can still be that type of place.

“it is common to take a dog for a walk, it is less common to take a dream for a walk” || @amalacademy + @understory cofounder | nature novel in progress

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