[Opinion] A tribute to the Karakoram Range
Like sardines in a tin can, I was one of thirteen people, heading north from Islamabad to Rakaposhi – the 25th highest mountain of the world –in a Toyota Hiace van. En route I exchanged a brief but intense look with a caged chicken on four wheels, similarly sharing space with countless others of its ilk, probably on its way to an abattoir. We were both uncomfortably confined, and at some level, we empathized with each other. This is how the journey began at least.
Soon enough though, when a beautiful vista opened up on the Karakoram Highway, I was virtually transposed to another universe. Almost every bend added a new element to a constantly changing, spellbinding panorama. I forgot about the 30 hour long journey, most of which was still ahead of me. And as I greedily soaked in on every detail in the landscape, I hoped the chicken I connected with had the capacity to do the same.
There is something incredibly cathartic about being around a breathtakingly massive mountain. Apart from the undeniable feeling of insignificance with respect to its enormity or the feeling of intimidation with respect to its insurmountability, there is a sense of certainty about an unchanging natural wonder; a strange comfort in knowing that no matter what happens to us in our private, petty lives, some things, like mountains, and their overwhelming presence, will never change.
Back in 2007 I was trekking along the Indus on some trail near Skardu when night fell sooner than I expected. I was lost and desperate to make human contact when I saw a silhouette in the moonlight. An old lady was picking wild sage in knee-high grassland. She noticed how I was captivated by the starry sky and the glowing snow-capped Karakoram Range. The lady was kind enough to show me the way back to my camp site and before I left she said, ‘They have a purpose, these mountains. Just like the sun pulls on all the planets, keeping them in their respective orbits, the mountains pull on us, and as we traverse around them, we forget about our burdens. That’s why there is so much peace here.’
As though I wasn’t mesmerized enough already, when I realigned my view of the hills with these words in my head, the only rationale that vaguely qualified to explain this sequence of events was that all this happened, or perhaps could only happen, in adream. In that moment I was forced to pinch myself and to my surprise nothing changed. My reality had never been this enchanting. Also, in retrospect, I now wonder how anybody could ever be lost with so many landmarks in the sky.
Ever since I caught the ‘trekking bug’ in 2007 I have had the good fortune of reliving several such dreams. These include treks to Deosai plains, the Organic Village near Kharpacho Fort in Skardu, Satpara Lake, Kachura Lake, Shigar Fort, and now finally the Rakaposhi base camp via Hunza-Nagar.
While I’ve immensely enjoyed excursions ‘up north’, I cannot deny the underlying sense of remorse that creeps into the magic of the Karakoram Range each time I visit it. Two incidents: nine eleven and the death of nine foreigners at Nanga Parbat base camp last year (a last nail in the coffin) have practically broken the legs of a thriving tourist scene in the region. Just to put things in perspective, the over 700 year old Baltit Fort in Karimabad, Hunza, registered approximately 9000 foreign tourists between March and September 2001. In 2002, within the same period, barely 500 foreign tourists visited Baltit fort. Generally, the numbers have improved since then but they are nowhere close to what they were like prior to 2001.
In recent times, however, China’s interest in developing seamless access to the Arabian Sea – that can only be realized through a robust Karakoram Highway – has offered some peripheral dividends to the tourist industry. In many parts now the KKH is a wide metal road that could entertain the weakest of wheels – a distant scenario not too many years ago.
In my recent trek to Rakaposhi base camp, it was most heartening to see trekkers from different parts of Pakistan, all fighting the debilitating ascent to realize their own respective dreams in the Karakoram. The only tragedy in this tale then is that unlike foreign tourists, Pakistanis haven’t yet fully understood their responsibility in safeguarding their natural jewels. The odd beverage bottle in an otherwise pristine stream will surface to disgust you. Camp sites will provide evidence of products consumed by previous trekkers. And the list goes on.
The Karakoram is home to the highest concentration of peaks over 8000 meters in height. There is no range like it in the world and countries with far less to boast about are attracting and entertaining millions of tourists each year.
While a renewed Karakoram Highway improves access for the mountain-less folk in the south of Pakistan, we are still far from exhausting the Karakoram’s potential for tourism. Gilgit-Baltistan, the one province that is home to a many of our natural wonders, has no representation in the parliament! Hunza, which has grown and developed under the aegis of Prince Karim Aga Khan, is an exception to the rule in a land where a majority of towns and villages carry on living like orphans.
Incidents of violence in this region are few and far apart and that gives us hope that the security threat can be curtailed. With the appropriate investment in infrastructure, mountaineers, trekkers and other tourists can be brought back. Before anything else though, the ‘voice’ of Gilgit-Baltistan – an isolated voice at best – must be given its due share in mainstream national politics. This is the only plausible path to the responsible and sustainable development of our natural wonders across the majestic Karakoram Range.
The writer is a communications consultant based in Lahore.