I have become a travel freak lately. In a country like Pakistan where people don’t travel and explore much, it is quite understandable that my humble travels have made me notorious. I’ve been getting a lot of knowing looks and smiles from my relatives and friends, in addition to the casual remark “ye ghar mein nahi tik’ta” (He’s never home). Also, I frequently find myself in the position of a travel advisor, which is something I gladly do. When I ask myself, what is it that makes me hit the road whenever I can and yearn for faraway destinations? I can only blame my blood and my childhood. Thanks to my late father’s endless enthusiasm for travelling, I had seen Pakistan from Nanga Parbat to Arabian Sea before I was ten years old. I had seen the length and breadth of this beautiful country even before I could fully understand the meaning of travelling and exploring. Great mountains, roaring rivers, serene lakes, sunset in the mountains, train stopping at a quiet station in the middle of the night, these are all my childhood fascinations and they make me what I am.

Down memory lane, I recall that our earliest long trip was back in June 1997 to Skardu and Hunza. There was one strict rule at our house on which there was absolutely no compromise. We always started the day’s journey with sunrise. Even if we children stayed awake all night long, we had to be in the car before daylight. There was a private joke with our cousins that when we reach Rawalpindi, the locals are barely done with their breakfast. There is an interesting story behind my father’s obsession with early travelling. In 1980, he was travelling between Campbellpur (now Attock) and Lahore. Sun had come down by the time they crossed Tarkaii Hills in the Pothohar Range. Imagine Grand Trunk Road 36 years ago with hardly any habitation on the road between the big towns. Near Gujranwala, the car’s headlights fell over a huge truck standing horizontally in the middle of the highway. The car was in high acceleration. He tried to stop the car with such effort that its steering wheel was bent on one side. The collision happened and they suffered serious wounds. People from a nearby village gathered when they heard the collision. The car was badly damaged. They took care of the injured family and arranged their conveyance to Lahore. After such a nightmare, father never ever travelled at night. Three days after the accident, they were resting at home under influence of drugs when the bell rang. A couple was standing at the gate. They were village numberdar and his wife who had come all the way to return possessions which were found in the car. The family was so befuddled and confused after the accident that they completely forgot to fetch their luggage from the car which included jewelry and other valuables. The numberdar and his wife didn’t even stay for a cup of tea saying that it would ruin their good deed.

Author's father is seen in the car's side mirror taking this picture. On Karakorum Highway along River Indus

Back to our story, on that day June 20th 1997 (curse of a sharp memory) we left Lahore and made our first stop with our cousins at Rawalpindi. Since then it has become an annual ritual. It used to be the best time of the year. Playing till our mothers would literally drag us to bed and later, throughout our teenage and up till now, doing a ratjagaa (waking up all night long). Early next morning, we set out on the real journey. We were accompanied by another family, a friend of our father’s. We must’ve taken Abbotabad - Mansehra Road from where we had taken the great Karakorum Highway. We drove for nearly ten hours along the river Indus before making a stop at Barseen, a beautiful little place on the highway where we were booked for the night at PTDC rest house. There were five identical maroon wall clocks on the wall behind reception showing different times of the day in New York, Tokyo, London, Sydney and Islamabad. I remember the Islamabad clock was showing 3 pm. Beautiful gardens of the rest house went down to the road in terraces and they were full of beautiful roses. A gentle humming sound of the river flow was a part of Barseen’s ambiance. We stayed there for the night.                  

The next day, for the entire day we drove on the Karakorum highway and Skardu road along the river Indus. Nineteen years ago, Karakorum highway wasn’t as comfortable as it is today. Skardu road hasn’t changed much. The road was narrow. Protective hedges were out of question and depth of the valley was scary. I remember father’s hands would get all sweaty on the steering wheel and mother would hand him a little towel to wipe it off. It was a long and difficult journey under a scorching sun. When we reached Skardu, it was nearing sunset. I vividly remember a beautiful scene. After taking a turn on the road we came across a panoramic view of the river. Its waters were calm and reflection of setting sun had made it a river of gold. We made a quick visit to Shangrila resort and checked into a hotel in Skardu. I still remember the delicious Chinese dinner we had that night.

Author as a child somewhere in Skardu

Next morning, we hired jeeps and went to see Deosai, world’s second highest plateau also known as the roof of the world. It was a dangerous jeep trek through rocky brown mountains. At some point in our journey we spotted a huge brown bear very far in the mountains. The jeep drivers assured us that Deosai is brown bear’s natural habitat and we are at a safe distance. Also, father’s friend boasted a loaded revolver so we continued with the trek and finally reached Deosai. It was a huge wilderness, a vast plane surrounded by snow capped peaks which weren’t looking more than distant mounds at this height. Deosai had a fragrance of its own. Its surface was carpeted with grass, little flowers and herbs. Streams were flowing through the plain. A jeep driver told us that before Partition, hermits and ascetics used to come to Deosai from far flung areas of Subcontinent to find rare herbs. We spent that day mesmerized by Deosai’s exquisite beauty. I remember I caught a cold on our way back and my legs were frozen. My mother wrapped me in jeep driver’s warm cloak and took me in her arms. By the time we reached Sadpara Lake on our way back to Skardu, there was little daylight left and I was warm enough to move again. It is yet another beautiful dusk from my treasured memories. We took a boat ride in the lake. It felt like the lake’s dark waters held secrets of the universe and the surrounding mountains were holding heavens over their peaks. With a child’s imagination, it just felt like being in a fairytale.

Panoramic landscape of Skardu

Author and his father in Deosai

I have so many beautiful sunsets in my memory from our travelling in the north, usually because we used to reach a destination at dusk after driving all day long. One such evening was when we reached Hunza. Our companion family went up to Chinese frontier but we chose to stay in Aliabad. There was a small hotel by the road. It had a spectacular view of the mother of mist, the majestic Rakaposhi. Its gardens were full of big white and orange roses. I haven’t seen such big roses all my life. Or perhaps they weren’t that enormous, only I was little. I remember the semi dark chilly room and that we learnt playing pebbles sitting on its carpeted floor the evening we arrived in Hunza. I also remember playing in apricot orchards somewhere in Hunza. We asked the kind lady of the orchard if we could pluck some fruit from her trees which she allowed. A few minutes later, her husband arrived at the scene and ordered us to run away.   

Nineteen years later, I went back to Skardu and Hunza. It was a beautiful nostalgic journey back in time. I had no memory of the names of hotels we had stayed in but Rakaposhi and Sadpara were the same. Their beauty is eternal. Only their spectators have varied from cavemen to technology users over thousands of years.