At 11 p.m., fourteen hours after we set out from Shigar, we arrived at the PTDC motel in Rama. It was very prettily designed and laid out in the form of two-room cottages with a connecting porch, and the rooms were large and clean. However, the lighting was poor, so that even in the daytime it was rather gloomy. Coupled with the cold, this was a bit depressing.
Each room had 2 beds made up with sheets and blankets, with one extra blanket per bed in the cupboard. Zoe elected to sleep on the floor so a mattress was brought in, and since they omitted to provide a blanket, took one of the extras. Now these blankets were the artificial sort called, I believe, ‘Plush Mink’. The girls loved them, stroking them and exclaiming, “So soft!” I have always found them rather sleazy, and if a real mink ever had a coat like that, it would perish in the snow. This fact was brought home to me in the middle of the night when I woke up shivering and looked for the remaining extra blanket, but like Mother Hubbard, I found the cupboard bare. Then I looked over at the girls. Carol had it! For a moment I was tempted to assert my age and status of teacherhood by whipping it off her, but thought better of it, and passed the rest of the night scrunched into a foetal position. In the morning I discovered that the little beast had actually slept between the two blankets – she didn’t take off the one originally on the bed – so that she was snug above and below while I added 5 years to my arthritic bones.
Rama was beautiful in the morning light. It was also the first time on our trip that we saw pine trees (I wonder why they don’t grow elsewhere in these mountains) in fact, we felt as if we had been transported to Nathiagali. After an excellent breakfast of parathas, omelettes and tea, Zoe set off with the boys for Rama Lake. The site is only accessible on foot, so I bowed out, and Carol stayed behind to do some editing. As soon as they were gone, I got right back into bed with 2 blankets and George R.R. Martin.
In the evening, Carol and I packed up, and went with Gulzar to meet the others at Rama Base Camp. Thank goodness I wasn’t able to watch the filming up at the Lake, because from their accounts, it was really dangerous, with gaping holes in the glacier through which they might have fallen while sliding around on its slippery surface. We set off for Gilgit at 8.30 pm and reached our destination after midnight, so I didn’t see much on the way, but it became progressively hotter until we had to switch on the car AC. The ride was also very bumpy but Zoe, who has travelled in this area before, told me we were in for a treat on the Karakoram Highway. We came to a cross-roads, and she began a countdown: 3…..2…..1…..yesss! And we hit the famous highway, which did not disappoint. It was wide and smooth as glass. Too smooth, perhaps, because at one point Gulzar stopped the vehicle and got out. When asked, he said that he was falling asleep!
I spent a lazy day at the Gilgit Serena while the others worked on the edit. Some excitement was provided by Zoe’s Facebook travelogue update. She had posted a short video of their trek to Rama Lake. What she did not realize was that the mare they had used to carry their equipment was in an interesting condition, and was pursued most faithfully by a love-struck donkey, whose interest was quite apparent. This, of course, was something completely natural, but the drama was provided by the comments following this post, which ranged from:
The crude: “Donkey has fifth leg.”
Through the politely distressed: “Zoe, please delete this post.”
To the high-minded: “Donkey has no ethics.”
We left Gilgit on the 28th at noon, arriving at Hunza 2 hours later. What I loved most about the Serena here was the ambience created by having all the rooms opening upon a common verandah, overlooking the valley. It was most conducive to socializing, and I felt no hesitation in approaching and striking up a conversation with 2 elderly ladies a few doors down. It turned out that Hunza was on their bucket list. They were a little disappointed with the place at first, but cheered up once they got out and saw some interesting sights.
I had my final bathroom adventure here. Firstly, the shower rose was either partially blocked or not twisted to the right setting, because the water came out in scattered jets. I had to work out a sort of Bollywood dance routine in order to catch the water on all parts of my body. Just as I had got into the rhythm, the shower curtain, no doubt enchanted with my performance, blew inwards and stuck lovingly to my bare wet skin. So between chasing the spurts of water and peeling the curtain off, I had a proper work-out. It was some comfort to know that the others had had a similar experience, and somebody gave me a very scientific explanation for the behavior of the curtain, involving air pressure and vacuums.
I was able to meet my B.Ed student Shoukat, who was most helpful and hospitable, bringing us delicious traditional food cooked by his mother. Unfortunately I could not visit his family as the approach to their house was too steep for me. In fact Hunza was turning out to be a sort of social hub, because I also met my colleague Ahmed Karim, and the lady from Deosai, Noreen Haider, who had been in search of bears. A journalist and seasoned traveller, she was most interesting and knowledgeable about the places she had been to, and I learned that she was here to do research for a book she is collaborating on. It is to be on the 3 rivers, the Indus, Brahmaputra and Ganges, which all rise from the same lake in Tibet. She will be writing the chapters on the Indus.
My own search, which had been for beers, was rewarded. The Chinese wheat beer I had heard about was no longer available thanks to official sanctions, but Yassir found locally made beer in coke bottles. It was really good – made from barley, thick and black, very similar to Guinness. Unfortunately it was not only very expensive, but not reliably bottled, so after finding one or two that were flat and sour, I gave it up. There was ‘Hunza Water’ too, made from mulberries and distilled to a transparent potency, but it was a bit too strong.
Yes, we did get out and do more than drink and socialize, beginning with the Altit Fort. Like the Shigar fort and Khaplu Palace, it has not been left merely as a museum-piece for sight-seers, but is in use. People actually live inside the fort, and the whole place hums with activity. There were children playing, going to and from school, people going about their business and beautiful old wrinkled faces placidly watching everything. Most striking was watching the women carpenters at work, expertly putting together a wooden cabin that would be part of the ever-growing complex of rooms and offices in the fort. The café, too, was run by women and so was a little eating place in the bazaar that we visited later. The literacy rate here is above 90%, with female education being given equal importance, and you can see it in the demeanour of the women. They carry themselves with confidence.
The Altit Fort gardens are like a forest glade. Lush green grass, spreading trees, many of them with slanted or curved trunks, probably sculpted by the winds, and softly undulating slopes and banks. One expects to see Robin Hood or one of his Merrie Men appear at any minute. Zoe leaped and cavorted to Kamal’s directions, and both boys leaped after her with their camera, looking very much like characters out of As You Like It. While Zoe sang “Ho Jao Azaad!” to the camera, I took her advice, kicked off my shoes, and sank my toes into the delicious cool softness of the grass. The effect was amazing. I felt rejuvenated, and rambled about blissfully. I have since looked this up and found that it is a known phenomenon called ‘grounding’.
After lunch, we headed for Attabad Lake, where we boarded 2 boats: one for the team and cameras, and one for Zoe, who would be filmed sailing on the Lake. First came the drone shot. For this, Zoe’s boat had to be so far away from ours as to be out of shouting distance, so that all instructions to her from the director, Kamal, were done via hand and arm signals and waving of colourful life jackets. Then Yassir released the drone. It was like watching a suspense thriller. Would the drone make it there, take a successful shot, and come back again without running out of battery and plunging into the water? It did, and we all breathed again, but Yassir wasn’t satisfied with the shot. However, he was persuaded not to try again. Thank goodness. My nerves couldn’t have taken it. Next, Zoe transferred to our boat and sat at the wheel with the crew, who now became actors in the drama because they had to laugh on cue. They threw themselves into the part with gusto. I lost count of how many times I heard “one, two, three – HAHAHAHA”, but I think nobody had to actually force themselves to laugh, including the people behind the cameras! Our voyage ended on a solemn note as the captain told us of the circumstances leading to the formation of the lake. In January 2010, a massive landslide blocked the Hunza river, flooding 5 villages and completely submerging one. Sobering to think of the tragedy behind this innocent blue loveliness.
Leaving the lake, we drove on to Gulmit where we had Iftar with Kamal’s uncle’s family, who have a gorgeous house there with a view of the famous Passu Snow Cones: very slim, pointed snow-covered peaks, all clustered together. As soon as we got to the house and spotted the 5 cherry trees in the garden, laden with fruit, Carol and I went wild, plucking and eating cherries by the handful. This did not deter us from tucking in to the spread on the table, especially the yummy local ‘Phitti” bread, which is a sort of heavy, chewy, yeast bread made with whole-wheat flour spread thickly with home-made butter.
Over the next 2 days we visited the Passu glacier, Borith lake and village, Eagle’s Nest (a hotel at the highest point in Hunza, from where you can view the whole valley) and the bazaar. At 7.30 pm on the 1st of July we left Hunza and went back to Gilgit, from where we would catch our flight to Islamabad the next morning. Nobody wanted to leave. We actually hoped for bad weather so that the flight would be cancelled, but alas. On the 2nd morning we sat in the waiting lounge at Gilgit airport, which looks out onto a neat, flower-bordered garden. What looked like a largish taxi-cab pulled up at the garden gate, and lo! It was our aircraft! We walked down the garden path and up a flight of tiny steps like a ladder, and we were in the plane. We arrived at Islamabad at noon, checked into the Serena from where it had all started, and celebrated the end of a most memorable trip with a rowdy party in the boys’ room (we didn’t want to mess ours up) in the evening. The holiday that grew wasn’t long enough in the end!