It was the first day of Ramzan (Ramadan), and the Fairy Meadows were completely abandoned. Down at Raikot bridge it had been a sunny, clear-skied day, but up here, at 3300m, the 9th highest mountain in the world dictated the weather. Nanga Parbat (8126m) hid its slopes in a shroud of white fog and even Raikot glacier was hidden from view. A few guesthouses were scattered along the Meadows, looking cold, sad and abandoned. An ominous Thursday afternoon in May on the first day of Ramzan is not the best day to visit one of the most touristic places in Northern Pakistan. Or is it?
Today I decided on a different tactic to arrange transport in Pakistan. Last time I took the bus here in Gilgit I waited hours before the minivans finally started departing the bus station. I was passed on from bus company to bus company like an unwanted piece of carry-on luggage while people curiously stared at me. Not this time. I had decided I would finally start using this tourist thing to my advantage, so I walked out of Gilgit to the first Military checkpoint about a kilometre down the road. There I introduced myself to the soldiers, shook some hands, drunk some chai, held an AK47 to pose for a selfie and told them some random facts about Belgium, then explained that I wanted to go to Raikot bridge. They stopped the first bus that passed by and basically obliged the driver to take me along. And that was that. ‘One hundred rupees please sir’. Here you go my friend, I said handing the driver the equivalent of 0,70€. And on my way I was. Snapshots of rural life whizz past while the bus makes its way down Karakoram Highway. Quaint little villages with roadside stalls selling watermelons. A shepherd guiding his herd of goats along a dusty trail overlooking the highway. Wrinkled faces under Pakistani woollen hats smoking cigarettes while talking over newspapers with beautiful calligraphic headlines in Arabic script. An argument in a barbershop, presumably about a messy cut or an arranged marriage of sons and daughters that would forever stay strangers to me. Driving through Pakistan is never a dull affair.
A group of men are sitting around at the dusty trailhead to Fairy Point, the closest mechanically accessible point to Fairy Meadows. They hold a monopoly over the only road up the mountain, thus prioritising money over hospitality, something unheard of in Pakistan. A negotiation, some waiting around under a blazing midday sun. Then giving in from my part and a sudden departure. As I climb into an old Toyota Land Cruiser 3 locals that have been sitting around nearby this whole time jump up and put bags of groceries in the backseat, climbing in themselves as well. They are locals from the village up there, I realise, and they are freeloading on my behalf. Or is it hitchhiking without asking permission?
Endless switchbacks taming an impossibly steep mountain slope. Raikot bridge and it’s jeep gang reduced to the size of ants. One side of crumbling, overhanging rock, the other a sheer vertical, several hundred meter drop. In between, a rough path exactly the width of the car. The driver clearly doesn’t mind. Talking on the phone half of the time and looking back shouting to the passengers in the backseat the other half this was just another day at the office for him. At one particularly memorable moment he literally took a deadly curve steering with his elbows while lighting a cigarette. I’d never imagined dying because of well… passive smoking.
On some of the steepest sections of the hiking trail that follows the jeep ride my driver, who also turns out to be my guide, nimbly leaps from rock to rock with his hands behind his back, a posture that seems to be patented around the world by guides and pensioners alike. Most of the time he’s talking on the phone, probably making a monthly appointment at the hairdresser or something. Meanwhile I can only focus on his heels, out of breath and buckled under the load of all my worldly belongings. With every step my conviction that I actually need any of that stuff diminishes. Comeback, or that’s what it sounds like when he pronounces his name, will stay up there for two nights as well and the only thing he carries is a plastic bag with 4 carrots inside.
The heating room is full of bearded men laughing and joking around a central wood stove. Two AK47’s lie forgotten on a pillow in the corner. Police presence is everywhere in Pakistan, but it’s impossible to tell who the guns belong to. We’re all sharing iftar, the breaking of the fast after sunset. Most of the conversation is in Urdu but every now and then one of the guys switches to broken English, shoves some of the dishes in my direction and insist that I help myself to yet another portion of rice or chapati. We stay up late that night, huddled around the fire. At 2.30am breakfast is served and people light up their final cigarettes. Right after they one by one start falling asleep on the mattresses that are scattered around the stove. It is clear to see how this holy month brings Muslims together in families and communities all across the world. To celebrate, discuss and share. It’s my cue to retreat to my sleeping bag too. That night, just like my body, my mind feels very full.
Khambach sets a steady pace as we set out through the pine woods of Fairy Meadows. It’s rained all night and now snow falls in thick flakes all around us. It’s hard to imagine down in the valley it must still be 25 degrees, but the mountain weather is unpredictable, and we’re reaching the 4000m altitude point again. Our original plan of getting to Nanga Parbat basecamp has been abandoned before it even became a real plan. The snowfall of the last weeks made it inaccessible this early in the season, so we settle for the viewpoint. Comeback seems to have borrowed a rain jacket from one of the other guys working at the guesthouse. I am sporting my favourite hat today, one of those dead weight items that has barely left my backpack during the past 9 months. Today it’s cold and proves its service. The muddy trail goes slowly up, and the landscape changes with the altitude.
By the time we get to Behal camp I am confused wether we are still in Pakistan or wandering across the Swiss alps. Wooden chalets are scattered across the green and fertile landscape. Small streams of crystal clear water crisscross all around us and cows wander about freely, grazing lazily and indifferent to the layer of virgin snow that is turning the green to white. Only the big bells around their necks are missing.
Nanga Parbat is covered in mist when we arrive at the viewpoint. The glacier is visible though, a river of sharp angled blocks of ice shaped by centuries of seasonal freezing and melting cycles. Khambach squats on a rock, cigarette between the lips, seemingly unphased by the beauty that stretches further than our eyes can see. He’s been here numerous times, I’m sure.
I spend the rest of the day in the kitchen of the guesthouse squeezed between the chimney and the windowsill. Most of the other guys that are working here are around my age, and they take turns in the second seat that is close to the burning fire in the fireplace. Whenever I try to make room for someone else they insists I stay where I am. They make tea, even though they can’t drink it themselves because of Ramadan. The continuous murmur in Urdu slowly shifts to the background as I stare deeply into the flames and my mind takes me back, reminiscing about all these past months of seeing and experiencing incredible things in so many places. I realise I’m truly fortunate to have the resources to make these sort of things happen. I am thousands of miles away from home in a country that is considered a hellhole by western media, and an uncivilised poor people’s land by most of the rest of the world. It’s a holy month full of traditions of a religion that is not mine. Yet the guys that are sitting all around me are just like me. Trying to stay warm, talking about girls and joking about their mates’ terrible knowledge of the English language, among other things. Hospitable and kind and curious, despite having led a life that couldn’t be more different from mine up to this point. Towards the end of the afternoon some older guys show up and also gather in front of the fireplace. The young crowd makes way without protest. Respect for the elders is unquestionable here. One of the older men is a police officer as it turns out. He tells me about how his 40 years of service in the force have gotten him a painful knee and not much else. The flames dance around in his emerald eyes while he seems to contemplate this chapter of his life, just like me. Fires are enchanting like that. They have a hypnotising effect that seems to resonate with our primeval instincts as human being inhabiting harsh surroundings.
On the way back to Gilgit the next day I’m accompanied by policeman Ali. He’s going to see a doctor for his knee, he tells me, but at the same time I suspect him from wanting to keep an eye on me. His AK47 is hanging around my shoulder on our two-hour hike back down. He just pushed it into my hands pointing to his knee, gesturing that it’s painful enough to walk downhill without any heavy objects to take care of. Ill at ease I carry it down, careful not to accidentally shoot it and cause an avalanche or something. Guns are a surreal something to me. It feels like they might just as well have given me a ticking nuclear time bomb in my opinion. Back down in the sunny warmth of the valley near Raikot Bridge I gladly hand it back to him. I attract enough stares on the bus without an extremely efficient assault weapon in my lap, thank you very much.
- The drive from Gilgit to Raikot bridge takes a little less than 2 hours. Take a minivan from the main bus station (most of them leave early morning or around noon) or hitchhike like me, which is probably way faster!
- The jeep track from Raikot bridge to Fairy Point takes 1,5h and costs 7000PKR (50€) return, which can be split between 4 people. If you travel alone you can try to wait around for other tourists to show up to split the costs, but take into account that you shouldn’t leave after 2pm since there’s a 2 to 3 hour trek after the jeep ride and you want to arrive before the dark. Your best chances to split costs are to arrive early morning during the weekend outside of Ramadan.
- There are a few guesthouses on Fairy Meadows, but mid-may only one of them was open (Raikot Serai Guesthouse). The owner quoted 4000PKR (30€) for a cabin which sleeps 4 people. I pitched my tent for a fee of 400PKR per night (3€).
- Alternatively you can also stay / camp a little higher up in Behal Camp. There’s one guesthouse owned by the cousin of the owner of Raikot Serai. It does get quite cold here during the night and I’ve been told there’s no heating room, so bring a good sleeping bag.
- There’s a kiosk selling some basic things like water, Coke and cookies next to Raikot Serai Guesthouse, but you’re best to bring some dried fruit and nuts if you don’t want to eat in the restaurant of the guesthouse.