I happen to be a rather cynical person, and as such I do not really get into the whole “think positive” group. So it was a pleasant surprise when I heard from an old friend and she asked me to fill a form to apply for a youth leadership conference. I had not heard of the conference, or anything related to it, but I filled the form anyway, figuring I won’t get in and might as well try it. Little did I know that this would be the beginning of a life changing experience for me.

Markhor is a unique leadership conference: It does not take place in stuffy hotel rooms where people lecture you on boring topics and you stuff your face and then go back home. It is an experience in itself. Taking place at nearly ten thousand feet above sea level, at Mukshpuri top, it is the first Wilderness-based youth leadership conference where people are put in difficult and rewarding situations, where they learn everything from problem-solving to teamwork first hand, while surrounded by the unparalleled beauty of nature, free from the tethers of technology.

As it happened, I did get selected as one of the 120-odd delegates to the conference, from almost 1800 applications sent. I was still apprehensive: I had never hiked before and I was, and am, very out of shape. I went along with it anyway. The morning of the trip, we were sitting around a small table at the Islamabad ibex club. Joining me were 11 strangers, people I had not met before and I was as different as possible. This was my tribe, Kolach, one of ten named after the regions of Pakistan. From these strangers, over the next 4 days, fights would be had and lasting friendships will be formed.

The trek to Mukshpuri top is long, especially for people that are unaccustomed to walks that long, and are loaded with luggage. The tribe very quickly figured that out but they pressed on. We kept going until the very end, even though daylight faded very quickly around us and we seemed to have more differences of opinion than we had differences among us. And boy, were there differences among us! While the conference boasted delegates from all over Pakistan, representing 38 cities and over a hundred universities and colleges, there was an even smaller representative group of the mini Pakistan Markhor. We had people from all four provinces and every culture was represented in our mini-mini-Pakistan.

The first day, after reaching the campsite, we were made to cook our dinner and that was our first experience of both conflict and teamwork in earnest. If too many cooks spoil the broth, they make an excellent daal. The daal we cooked, by dumping everything we had into the pot and cooking it for however long it took will probably be one of the best meals I have eaten and will ever eat in my lifetime. The bickering and yet still working to make sure we won’t go hungry is just one of the dozens of memorable experiences I had during the entire conference.

The war cry for Markhor was #FitForPakistan. That was indeed what we were turned into during the four days of intense physical tasks coupled with lectures by industry leaders from all over Pakistan. The lectures themselves were less like classroom lectures and more akin to talks where the listeners were encouraged to participate. Even a cynic as myself was overtaken by the positivity of the atmosphere and the scenery. Atop the green mountain, without any technological distractions, I was forced to confront my shortcomings as a person, and surrounded by mentors that we could just walk up to and talk to without any reservation, gave me the opportunity to figure out the answers to a lot of questions that had plagued me throughout my life and at least make headway in fixing myself.

That is not to say that the conference was all introspection and self flagellation: We had bonfires every night, where we would gather around the fire and swap stories. Where Mr. Faiq Sadiq would tell us about his story and just like him, the participants will tell why they were at Markhor. There was a cultural night, where all tribes were dissolved and people represented their cultures, from Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan, to Karachi, From Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to Punjab and from Balochistan to interior Sindh. Everyone was given equal representation and time and everyone performed with pride, as Pakistanis and as the culture they were representing.

The walk back was difficult: In just a few hours, we had become accustomed to life on the top of the mountain and people we had never met in our life had become our family, but all good things come to an end. We came back, with great memories, new friendships and laughter. This was an unforgettable event in my life.

I would like to name everyone in my tribe, because they were instrumental in making Markhor an important milestone in my life. I would thank Mehreen, Maryam, Ahmareen, Nighat, Ekram, Haneef, Salman, Waqas, Kamran, Arsalan and Uzair, for being the best tribe members I could ever ask for and I would thank Hamza for being a great shepherd, even if it meant he had to hike up and down the same track twice.

I went to Markhor a loner and a cynic, having lost a lot of my faith in humanity but I have come back a Markhor: Strong, resilient and resourceful and once again willing to work to the best of my abilities to make this world a better place. I am a Markhor. I will forever be one.