Wednesday, July 30, 2008

to goz khon

wed had a pretty long day, so us mamas called it a night fairly early - Nafeesahs migraine was escalating, walking back to camp she mentioned not having peripheral vision - she could just look straight ahead or her head really hurt. she had developed migraines of late - no worries it would go away she said. shed had some Tylenol but it wasn't helping much.
next day we were to walk to Goz Khon at the headwaters of the Braldu, a days walk from Shuwerth, for a two day fishing side trip - Gul had described the place endlessly, both in his emails to me earlier in the year as well as during the trek. very close to the Chinese border, it was a place few tourists visit. famed for its abundant fishing, and unparalleled scenery, it was a grassy oasis, alot warmer than all our campsites so far. wed get to fish, bathe in the river, sleep out doors under starry skies, rock climb, ofcourse eat and make merry. we had imagined heaven. the drop down was a good 3000 feet. which was fine, except that meant 3000 feet back up! with Nafeeshas huge headache, Nargis' deteriorating feet, and most importantly Kamila's hyper thyroid condition, i was beginning to get seriously worried.
it was a toss up between nadir and Nafeesah climbing 6000m Mingalik Sar, while Kamila Nargis and i hung around at Shuwerth for two days, or going down to Goz Khon.
with Nafeesahs headache and nadirs escalating cold, Mingalik Sar was looking very dicey, going back with out seeing the fabled Goz Khon would feel wed been cheated - we discussed this at length - Kamila and i - and finally decided that night, Goz Khon it would be. wed give it a try - if it was too strenuous for any one, wed hire two yaks for the trip.
even so, i stayed awake for the longest time - mulling over all the negatives in my head all night. what if Nafeesahs headache got much worse, what if Kamila's heart condition got out of hand, what if Nargis simply couldn't walk any more - what if, what if, what if--- kept me awake till 3am. finally after the usual out to pee walk, under a bright shinning moon and clear crisp cold morning air, i crawled back into my sleeping bag and called it a night, too exhausted to worry for anyone anymore.
next morning Nargis refused to use a yak, up or down any trail.
Kamila barely used one for most of the walk.
Nafeesah perked up - headache a thing of the past.
on the return journey, it was me who ended up making most use of the one yak - while the second one got used sporadically between Nargis and Kamila during the two day journey.

our walk covered a huge rocky expanse of dry river bed, till we came to our first river crossing. Nargis wasn't allowed to wet her feet, so was forced to cross on the back of one of the yaks - one look at that undertaking and the rest of us opted right out of yak crossings!

with the help of our spindly legged guide and porters, all of whom proved to be a lot stronger than their looks implied, we walked across the rocky surface of the river bed, water moving at fantastic speed. we each crossed with a couple of them holding on tight on either side, guiding us through the rough spots.
once wed crossed, all of us were showered with flower petals and given some to stick in our caps - proverbial feathers for crossing so smoothly! after the endless walk on rocky plains this woke us all up and energized us for the rest of the fairly monotonous trek over more rocky expanses. we had at least two more river crossings - off came the shoes and socks and got slung across shoulders, up went the pants and right into the water with one man or two if you wanted it, right across a cold rocky fast moving river. it became easier with each crossing.

by mid day we got to Chikar - descending down a steep scree slope to this small pasture, our lunch break. a small green oasis in the middle of this arid, monochromatic landscape - the sun shinning bright and clear all day.
after a long and well deserved break we continued further to our fabled camp site Goz Khon - one more river had to be crossed, and one more large expanse of rocks had to be walked across - it seemed this drudgery simply wouldn't end. by now i was in no mood to keep pace with anyone. if Gul was getting bored out of his mind having to walk at 0 miles an hour so i wouldn't walk alone, he was out of luck - i wasn't going to be bothered by it. i simply walked as slowly as i wanted, the sun was too strong and the walk too long - finally after having sung and re sung all those telephone book songs - even taught Gul 'akay wabasta' , talked about everything i could possibly talk about, kept quiet and walked in silence for ever, we spotted Kamila, Nargis, Nadir and Imran sprawled across soft green grass - i felt like a drunk, (whatever that feels like) disoriented, malang, finding his lost tribe in the dessert. we both plonked ourselves on the welcome grass and just lay there for a while - all 6 of us relieved not to be walking on rocks or scree or at all for that matter!
we had no idea how far Goz Khon was from this junction - seemed never to materialize - but this was almost 'it'. another 5 minutes and we were there----

this ???
puny little patch of greenery??
this poky grass and shrubs with rocks all over is where we're going to sleep out doors?
wheres the river were going to bathe in? and the tons of fish were going to catch?
no wonder tourists don't bother!
'this is it everyone - this is Goz Khon the most beautiful place on earth', Gul was announcing.
(remember you 'didn't choose me?' well here's my revenge!!- is what i was hearing him say.)
once again i was only looking and not seeing - jumping to conclusions and forming opinions without scratching beneath the surface.
as we continued to walk around this small camp ground, i began to see it for the magical place that it was - the beauty whose songs Gul had been singing for months -
the jagged snow clad edges of the Karakorum's made an amphitheater right around the camp site, in the distance the wide silvery expanse of the Braldu river glistened in the late afternoon sun, the walk to which was through a long marshy expanse, interspersed with a soft hue of pink (some shrubbery that was in full bloom), huge boulders broke up the flat landscape, some so inviting you'd want to sleep on them.
a small shepard's hut sat on one side, a large boulder on another marking the boundary of the actual campsite.
Nafeesha had already been in camp for a bit - re energized she, Nargis and Nadir were off to the river with the men - already getting a head start on the fishing expedition! the others began to set up our tents and the evenings dinner got cooking.
Gul gave us a rock climbing lesson - nimble Nafeesah the first to follow him up and try it out. Nadir was next, as i watched on, debating whether i wanted to be bouldering after a long day of walking - it was too tempting to ignore - so up i went - trying to remember some of the pointers from many a moon back. felt like a piece of lead sprawled across this huge rock. i got up somehow - Kamila followed next. everyone got down, my turn came around and impatient me decided to jump the last section instead of finding foot holds and hand holds - why bother when there were short cuts.
that was it - my ticket to yak riding on the way back! i landed squarely, only to twist my right ankle nice and good. more salt and warm water wraps for Gul to deliver, even slower pace for me to walk! bummer bummer bummer bummer - i was sooooo pissed at myself!

the rest day that ensued took my mind off the twisted ankle for a bit - but the ever present pain wasn't about to let up any time soon ---

more on heavenly Goz Khon later..........

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

woolio - the festival

July 29 '08

none of us had had a very rest full night - Nafeesha had begun to sport a serious migraine, nadirs cold was in full flow, Nargis' blistered toes were getting steadily worse, i was well, expect for the usual sleep deprived night - an hour or two was all i could muster. even though i make a hell of a tent mate - constantly shifting sides, opening the tent door a few times in the middle of the night for those pesky leaks, blowing my dry as wood nose, getting up for a sip of water, anything but quiet no movement sleep, Kamila slept through most of it and was fine next morning.
so once again under clear blue skies, puffy white clouds, and all the excitement of what was to unfold, we cheerfully headed down to Shuwerth, looking on at a quiet village, seemingly unfazed by the all important day ahead.

we visited Farmans home - were offered yak milk tea and chilpindoq - wheat chapati with layers of yak cheese and butter - pretty delicious stuff once you got to like the taste. no doesn't take too long.
in their customary laid back fashion everyone present then gathered at the village square, men squatting in rows, facing each other, women next to them in a similar fashion, everyone dressed in Sunday best, mostly brilliant reds.
several little boys dragged that evenings congregational dinner to the center - six or seven fatted goats, each given by different families for this auspicious meal - customary prayers were read on the heads of these unsuspecting creatures, before being dragged off to the chopping board and the communal kitchen where the women cooked every part of the animal all day long.
the taste - pure goat!
the mukhi - head priest - then stepped forward - i guess red must be an auspicious color cause even he was wearing a red jacket with a traditional white woolen cap. he started with the first chapter of the Quran, followed by some other suras, then by salutations in Arabic to God, Muhammad, Ali and his family and finally their own imam - perhaps the head of their order - i assume this cause i didn't recognise the last name as one of the imams names that i am familiar with. the surprise element was that to end of the ceremony he began to beseech God for good health, prosperity, protection etc. etc. all in very eloquent poetic Farsi! under this clear blue sky, it was so wonderful to suddenly hear duas being read in your mother tongue, albeit by a vastly different group of people, living in the remotest part of Pakistan, as far from Iran proper as can be! after listening to them speak Wakhi to each other, and having picked a word or phrase or two here and there, it was exciting to suddenly understand an entire little speech!
language - what a unifier of disparate souls.

we then set off to the plains just below the village. women stood in rows, again by order of seniority. men gathered their yaks and began mounting them - some alone, others with a rider, everyone anxious to be on a yak and ride it to Woolio. not everyone had a yak to ride, so many accompanied the whole bunch by foot, an hours walk from where we began. each one of us got to ride behind one of our men. this time saddled - but not much more comfortable than the saddle less ride of the previous day. except the shock factor was alot less severe, and we'd figured out how to adjust our buts to the yak and our riders back in as seamless a fashion as was kosher!
Farman and Nafeesha set out the quickest - theirs was a sprightly yak, and Farman was determined to be the first to reach Woolio.

a few details I've missed mentioning -
this is a community of 200 Wakhi families - speaking an ancient dialect of Farsi called Wakhi.
all Ismaili Muslims - 'shia imamis' as they call themselves.
the standard greeting in wakhi - chez holi - as in 'che haal daari' (in Farsi).
another standard greeting all over the village and all over Ismaili areas " Ya Ali Madaat" the response to which is "Mowla Ali Madaat".
seating order is based on seniority - guests get to sit at the head of the row.
every one stands up to great any new person who enters a room or gathering.
the newcomers kiss the hand of each person who has stood up to greet him/her and the kiss is reciprocated.
applies to men and women alike.
women kiss the hands of male relatives only.
all younger people do this when meeting an elder, whatever the relationship.
younger women don't necessarily cover their hair - but are modestly dressed.
older mamma's wear a cross stitch embroidered pill box hat covered with a duppatta - not sure where the 'older' age sets in - some looked a 100 years old, but were no more than a year or two older or younger than Kamila and myself!

Woolio - a pre-Islamic yak racing festival - a coming of age race for young men and boys who are beginning to master the art of riding/racing a yak. the festival named after a large rock called Woolio, to which everyone is headed and from where the race begins back to the village, aside from the customary prayers to the rock and the Almighty, also entails song, dance and communal eating. a dry bread - I've already forgotten its name - is shared amongst all present, washed down by yak milk tea.
an oily substance has been oozing out from under this rock for as long as any one can tell. the year more oil oozes, their yaks give more milk - it is a very special year. offerings of home grown wheat, and home made yak butter are made to the rock. prayer flags flap around its periphery, and wishes of all sorts are made to the heavens above - if the rock can ooze oil, then surely any ones most outrageous wish can be granted by the same power that gives this rock its miraculously unending supply of oil!

more on the festival later-------------

woolio - continues......

did i mention the locks? yes the older pill box hat wearing women also sport long black ringlet's that fall on both sides of their weathered faces. interesting thing is that no one has any visible white hair - even the 100 (50 something) year olds. must be that chilpindooq!

the festival..............
the whole village took off all saddled up on the yaks or just walking - it was a surreal sight, riding a yak on this wide open expanse in and out of a wide river bed - part dry, part gushing glacier melt, tall snow clad mountains all around. the scenery so magnificent that after a while the discomfort was forgotten - from time to time Gul would break into a faster pace (i was his passenger) - that's when id be jerked into 'oooooooo ffffff ' except i wasn't about to make a beep. at one point our yak decided it didn't want to walk in the river any more - he just started straight up the mountain - this was one time i thought id surely land back wards and crack my skull.
Gul seemed completely oblivious to any perils that might befall his rider. i simply held on tight, kept my eyes and mouth shut, and figured best not to think too much. there was nothing to it but to begin to trust Guls ability to steer him forward instead of backwards, take some pictures and just enjoy this unreal experience.

once we reached the 'rock' everyone made a large ring around its periphery - the flour and butter offerings were made to it, another prayer was read, both Quranic and Farsi.. then began song and dance. various groups of men would stand up in pairs of twos or fours and do their folk dance to the wakhi songs the crowd was singing. a poet or two were asked to give renditions of their work, poetry describing the beauty of the land. all related to Woolio, the Pamirs, gardens, the special mountain flower 'banafsheh', or love of some imaginary woman. the shimshalis have soft singing voices so it all sounded really gentle and soothing. just wonderful, even though i could only catch a Farsi word here and there.
i was asked to come bless the day with my own singing - they thought i was a 'goolukara' from Karachi!!! ofcourse i don't need any coaxing to burst into song myself, so i sat right among a bunch of shimshali men - mukhi and all, and sang every song in my telephone book. it was great - they were so easy to mingle with, no one was uncomfortable with a woman right in their midst, nor did they make me uncomfortable, it was as if this was the most common place thing to be doing here at the Pamirs!
Nadir, Farman and Gul did a dance of their own. seemed so effortless for these men - Nadir later told us he was breathless by the end of it. in the excitement it was easy to forget you were above 4000 meters - i would realise this from time to time myself, specially when walking and singing at full throttle. what was amazing though was that my voice had a whole different quality to it - a sharp clarity - you could hear every note, every high and low, as clear as the blue sky. id never heard my own voice so clearly before - the down side was that every wrong note was loud and clear as well!

and that pretty much was it - this whole 'festival'. we saddled back up - but this time the men began to race back to shuwerth. there was much noise and excitement. every yak being hushed and shushed into getting ahead of the others. Gul the ever competitive person was itching to just ride as fast and rough as he could to get there first - but would break into a run for a few minutes and realise my dead silence meant i wasn't having too much fun landing on the yaks spine every jump it took, so he'd slow down and just cantor along - then he'd itch again - how could he - the leader of this group of 'guests' be the last one in! so wed break into another painful run - this went on all the way to the village. once you got there the women greeted you by harassing the yak, hit it and tease it so that the riders fall off , this is part of the fun and games of the race. farmans sister was one such ferocious player. greeting the riders with her stick on the yaks butt. the rider who gets there first and manages to stay on his yak wins the day.
farman and nafeesh were one of the early arrivals, but it was Gul's father in law - the oldest person riding a yak, who won the days race!
the rest of the day involved cleaning up the slaughtered goats, not an inch of the animal was wasted. watch the women bring all the goats and sheep back to their large pens. milk the animals - bringing the yaks down to the pens...............will continue tomorrow just too sleepy now.
Nargis played a long game of cricket - something shes never done any other time in her life - blistered toes and all. this is another favourite woolio day activity . i took a long nap right beside Farmans three family yaks. the most wonderful late afternoon sleep.
then came the feast of the day - communal eating at its very best - just plain old somewhat tough mountain goat, stewed all afternoon with the barest of masalas, wheat chappati for dipping in the quickly congealing fatty gravy. looked most unappetizing - till we dipped right in, it was delicious. the most unadulterated taste of pure meat I've ever had.
by now none of us had the energy for goat sheering or more late night song and dance - Farmans mother gave us a few delicious helpings of goat milk tea and then off we went to the comfort of our tents - and my usual sleepless nights!!!

Monday, July 28, 2008


shimshal pass to shuwerth-----

we still had some walking to do to get to our campsite - but by the time we got to the two turquoise lakes that had elicited 'where are these lakes?' and got us here in the first place, Kamila and i had had enough of the endless walking. all the rest were long gone. we had come along at our usual leisurely pace, by now were pretty tired. Gul had read our minds - rather seen our pace - and brought two yaks to greet us just by the lakes. it was our 'surprise' initiation to tomorrows yak riding to Woolio.
at first it was a welcome sight - just had to sit behind the rider and be carried right across the plain - no more expending energy. well surprise it was alright. the yak is one benign looking and feeling animal, except it has a pretty wide back - sitting on which stretches those thigh muscles to places it has never been - at least not mine. as for riding doubles - if you don't 'stick' to the front rider, every step the yak takes is a hard bump up your you know where, not to mention if you don't hold on tight, you find yourself gliding backwards in slow bumpy increments - turned out to be a pretty miserable one hour on the back of a saddle less animal that just did its own thing - walking when he pleased, eating and drinking along the way, in no rush to get anywhere. no amount of 'hushing' and kicking would do it either. the shimshalis talk to their yaks in gentle wakhi phrases. never using harsh language, nor do they get rough and kick or hit hard, (unless its a race) this yak was simply spoilt rotten!
Kamila's yak and rider had somehow managed to move faster, which left our yak by himself - this the yaks dislike immensely, we were told later - so ours decided it just wont move. this was great for a while, enjoying the gorgeous scenery at crawl pace on the back of a yak - but an hour later those thigh muscles were screaming for relief.
off and on the yak Gul would get, to try and coax it to move. a few steps forward, then back to eating and drinking is all the yak did. finally after what seemed like eternity the other rider showed up to help us out of this 'impasse.' together they literally pulled and pushed, did all their hush hushing and shouted their wakhi sweet somethings, while i coaxed with every term of Farsi endearment i knew, thinking perhaps it was bored with the wakhi babble! by now it was two stubborn creatures testing each others metal - i wasn't getting off even if the gods came calling, and the yak wasn't moving even if i were to call it God.
poor beast - one stubborn yak got to camp at last, and i kissed its face with relief - i was finally off his back!!

it was a sweet feeling - a break from the daily walking - we had come to our first rest day and of course the much awaited festival at Woolio. after some well deserved rest and general lolling we headed out to the edge of the pass from where we could see the village of shuwerth below.
this is the summer settlement at shimshal pass where most families maintain a home, where their women bring the animals to graze all summer, make yak butter , yak cheese (Qurut) for the winter and weave carpets from their wool. in Oct women, children, goats and sheep all come down to the valley and the men and yaks take over for the winter. its a harsh life, but it is lived with such zest and joy you would think there was nothing more comfortable and enjoyable than herding animals at 4700 meters year after year!
this is where we were headed next morning for the start of the festival we had walked so far to attend. many of our porters had family homes at the village. their mothers, sisters,wives happily waiting to greet them.
Farman, Gul's brother in law to be, had his home down at the village. Kamila and i had met his sister and her friends sitting above the lakes while we were taking our leisurely walk to camp earlier on.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

shimshal pass 4735 m

July 27

4500 m Shujerab - our next campsite was just below Shimshal pass at 'Shujerab'. a small rest stop by the river, where the yaks are gathered every evening after they'd finished grazing higher up. even though the pass was now a few hundered meters above us, we were happy to have camped just below it.
Nafeesah always the most energetic, climbed up a distance in the late evening, helping the porters herd the yaks back into their pens, even got to ride one briefly.

Jul 28 - next morning, in spite of nadirs worsening cold, Nargis' blistered toes, and the general slowing of everyones bodies, as we were getting higher into the mountains, yaks, porters, us - all were anxious to get to the top. there is an excitement the day you get to climb a pass. it is hard for me to describe. its a sort of butterflies in the stomach feeling, the kind you get when you're a kid sitting for exams - no matter how much you've studied and how sure you are of the subject, never 100% sure if you'll get it all right. its the same excitement mixed with trepidation and a mild sense of insecurity mixed with a steely determination to get there - no matter what. ofcourse this was a very short walk to the top - but it still felt like all the other times I've climbed higher more difficult passes. the same tense excitement that makes you burst into song or cry with happiness when you get to the ' top' as the locals call it.

under a clear blue sky, puffy white clouds, perfect gods are smiling on us weather, we started out for the pass from Shujerab.
as always the three young ones got up there much before Kamila and myself, even Nargis with her quickly deteriorating blistered toes was up there to receive the mamas.

there was much clapping and jubilation on our arrival - most of the men weren't too sure if we would really make it up to Shimshal pass - the porters burst into Wakhi song and of course dance ensued. i tried my foot at it - gave up quickly - dancing gracefully was too much effort - out came the phone book instead and 'dil kay afsane' and all the other songs followed.

Shimshal pass - after three days of endless up and down walks on rock and scree with lunch breaks at rivers, we had finally arrived at the 'Pamirs'.

one and all would ask us 'kaisay laga aap ko 'hamra' pamir?' and of course the answer was always in the affirmative 'buhawt acha'. every one was in high spirits - no one was in a rush to get anywhere any more - we just soaked in the snow covered mountains all around this vast plateau , yaks grazing along its green slopes, the Shujerab river shining brilliant in the morning sun. it was heaven - wed all died and arrived at its door smiling for no particular reason. if Tahir were to describe the moment and Hafez were to speak my mind, it would be
'agar aan turk e shirazi bedast aarad dil e mara,
be aan yek khaal e hinduyash bebakhsam samarkand o bukhara raa'