June is hot, as always, and remains hot unless it rains here in Punjab. The suffocation indoors, the constant buzzing of fans, the tiny sparrows searching for water in the scorching heat, the coo-coo of quails; all the sights and sounds sadden me, and when the heat here makes it difficult to breathe, I suddenly miss the cool shades of Ghizer’s meadows.
The human mind is like a photo album; once you’ve opened it, you can not help plunging deep into memories of the past.
Science has advanced so much, it can do miracles to provide comfort to the human body, but what about the soul which is invisible, and habitually restless? There are no gadgets to comfort the soul. The only way to achieve that is to travel, to see, to feel and admire the nature that has borne it in the first place.
Gilgit is like a square. From here, paths lead on to beautiful valleys, rivers, springs, waterfalls, plains and ancient settlements. Before Gilgit, a road turns to Skardu, and another to Naltar. The third one takes you to Hunza and all the way to Khunjerab Pass.
The fourth leads you to Ghizer. A wayfarer travelling along with the Ghizer River reaches the Shandur Pass, after which comes Chitral.
Ghizer is the land of colorful waters. Dotted with trees, this area is literally paradise on earth, and the Phunder valley (also spelled Phander), is the feather in its hat.
It is Muharram when I decide to visit Ghizer during my stay in Gilgit; an autumn sadness has enveloped the entire valley.
As I leave Gilgit and move forward, the Karakoram mountain range is left behind. The jeep is now throttling ahead to the Hindu Kush mountain range. As soon as I get on to Ghizer Road, the Ghizer River joins along to give me company. Its cold waters filled with trout fish. Across the river are small settlements housing the locals.
We move forward from Sher Qila and the towns of Gahkoch and Puniyal welcome all travellers on the main road. Gahkoch is the centre of this district. After Punial, there’s a small settlement on the right of the river, named Gich.
The entire village is covered with grapevines filtering sunlight and filling the air up with the fragrance of grapes; this village is said to produce the most grapes in this region. You can’t help but fall in love with the grape clusters hanging off vines that crawl all over the village.
I know Gich only for its grapes and soothing shades. I love walking in its streets, in the shadows of tree leaves. This village is completely isolated. Nobody leaves the main road to come here save the locals. That’s why the villagers are surprised to see a new face, children run away with shyness and elders do not stop staring. It is strange to describe but once here, there is a vibe urging you to leave it to its isolation.
Ghizer shares its borders with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. On one side are the high mountainous regions of Swat, while on the other side is Chitral.
This district is also connected to Tajikistan through Yasin valley and Karumber Pass. The population mostly comprises of Gujjars. The word Ghizer is derived from local language’s “Gharz”, which translates to “immigrant”.
The rulers of Chitral were known as Mehtar. The people they didn’t ‘approve of’ were exiled to Gupis in Ghizer. These people soon occupied most of the Gupis. When the royal system was abolished due to the political reforms of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Ghizer was granted the status of a district.
The district has remained under the influence of several Rajas. It has been ruled by the Katuray, Brushay, Khoshwatay families in the past, and was ultimately divided between Chitral’s Mehtar and Kashmir’s Maharaja. After 1895, Ghizer was merged with Gilgit agency, which was under the control of the British Raj.
Gahkoch’s crowded bazaar is now left behind, and my jeep moves forward through small settlements once again, until I reach Gupis. There’s the Khalti Lake near the road. This lake was formed when the river water stopped at a plain. The river keeps flowing by the lake. A few children are selling boiled potatoes at the road. Potatoes around here have their own unique taste.
I leave the road and head out to the lake. Peering in, I can see small fish swimming happily underneath the reflection of these massive mountains.
Soon after, clouds begin to cover up the sky. Strong winds ripple up the surface of the lake. At a little distance, I spot a couple of men fishing. The first raindrop falls and my heart flutters, wiggling faster than the tiny fish under these waters.
It is now raining. The day is soaked and so is the traveller by the lake. Rainwater starts flowing down the mountainsides; the valley is enveloped in an eerie silence.
Soon enough, the rain stops and the sun rays find their way from behind the clouds. I so want to see a rainbow and one is probably about to take form too, when nature takes one look at my entranced state and decides to fold up its colours for the day.
The already cool day has become even cooler. I leave the place, and my jeep starts moving forward on the wet road.
The Ghizer River is my companion in the journey once again, the second one is Abida Parveen’s voice. My other companions are the groups of children, shy smiles of little girls, the smiling elders and the surprised faces of women.
One after the other, places and settlements came and passed. Again, there is a downpour. Again, the sun wins its way back through the clouds. A farmer stops ploughing his fields to wave at me.
I am looking outside the jeep’s window. The sight is so breathtaking that I forget to blink. Now, my companions are the colours: The green of fields, the red, yellow, orange, and amber of autumn itself. The khaki of the few fields that had been harvested. The gray of wet electric wires. The stone and crimson of walls. The deep blue sky from behind the clouds.
I feel as if I am riding not a jeep but a boat in a sea of colours. Suddenly the sailor lowers the anchor, and the boat stops.
Right below the spot is a body of deep blue, still water, with autumn-hit poplar trees on its banks. This is Lake Phunder; I have arrived at Phunder Valley. I remember visiting this valley before. At that time, the sun was going down, and the shadows of the poplar trees were growing taller. Half of the valley was lit up, and half of it dark.
The sky clears up once again, with only a piece of a cloud lingering on. I keep looking at it to see if it has moved an inch or two perhaps, but it never does. The poplar leaves keep breaking off their branches and blowing in the wind. Suddenly, I hear the flapping of wings. I look around, but there’s no bird. I look at the cloud again, which is still there.
Again, there is a flapping of wings. This time, I see a bird fly past and perch itself on a tree branch in front of me. This is the Bird of Paradise. It has blue wings and a foot long tail. This bird lives in Pakistan’s northern areas, but its sightings are rare. As it flies away, I start looking at the cloud again.
The valley starts lighting up; the cars on the road turn on their lights. The cloud patch is turning redder and ultimately turns black. Sitting on a hill and watching the valley being enveloped in darkness is an out of this world experience!
When, with every second, the shadows grow longer, an eternal sadness takes over within — night is falling in the Phunder valley of Gupis. The lanterns light up, and chimneys start giving off smoke. The cloud patch is now nothing but a silhouette, still lingering at the same spot.
In the morning, things get livelier. Men and women work in the fields, the older children help them out in the fields, while the younger ones play. A man hunts a big bird near the lake. He doesn’t know the name of the bird yet, but does know that its meat is delicious and its feathers are used as adornment in traditional Chitrali caps.
Half of my day has been overcast, but by the evening, the sky is fully clear. Located right above the Phunder Lake, the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) Motel is crowded today.
Roaming outside after lunch, I see a French man with a think beard and long white hair. At first, I wonder if he is a dervish or a hippie. He addresses me in broken English and I walk up to him. He sits puffing a cigar, looking at the lake below.
He tells me that his son was a big admirer of Pakistan’s northern areas, and eventually died here. His son was inspired by Reinhold Messner (renowned mountaineer) and was an experienced mountaineer himself. His dead body couldn’t be brought down from the K2, and when finally it could be, his mother buried him in Austria, where she herself hails from.
Now, the father comes to Pakistan every once in a while, and since he himself is unable go to the K2 after crossing the Baltoro Glacier, he spends some time here in the northern areas before returning.
He tells me that on his first visit to Pakistan, he was full of hate. He hated Pakistan and mountains but then he gradually fell in love with the very valleys which had taken his son’s life. As his story ends, I say a few words of comfort and take leave. I don’t want to come in between the memories of his son, his cigar, and his view of the lake.
I sit on a chair, at a helipad behind the PWD Rest House, and look out at the valley. The very thought of death in the northern areas of Pakistan is very romantic notion for me. Especially when the sunlight slides down the mountains and the sky changes colours, at that moment I can’t help thinking, ‘I have to die one day, why not in a place as beautiful as this?’
The night gets darker and I feel the chill settling inside my bones. I head indoors. Thus ends a day at Phunder.
After Phunder, my next stop is Teru. It is a small village with numerous small islands in River Ghizer. There is green velvety grass on these islands and some trees, everything always shining under the moonlight and starlight.
I feel cold walking by the River Ghizer. It is a night of deep silence, I can’t hear anything save for the roaring of the river. In the dim moonlight, the once visible islands are now just silhouettes. It is indeed a joy to place my hands inside my jacket and walk alone in the valley, looking out for shooting stars.
Teru is a magical land, and magical is the night here. As I write this article on a hot night of June, I raise my head occasionally and sense my wall turning into a screen, with apparitions of the beautiful scenes from that night forming up one after the other.
Ibn-e-Insha’s Chand Nagar is half-open on my bed. He has extensively used the metaphor of the moon in his poetry. I wonder what inspired Insha Ji to do so, for in the light-polluted metropolises, stars are seldom visible. I enjoy watching the north star in the night; it looks at me and I look at him.
The north star is always found at the same place. It doesn’t change its position, though I do, and have, over time, been looking at it from different locations. The north star may be shining over Gilgit Baltistan and at the same time, its reflection would be shimmering in the Sheosar Lake, and on the sleepy homes of Hunza Nagar. It might be visible in the lakes of Ghizer, or from the high valley Naltar, on the settlements of Ghanche, and on the fields of Rama village.
There is a similar star in the south, but too dim to be seen easily. That star might be shining over the city of Jhang, for which someone had left the throne of Hazara. These two stars are the metaphors of love, and are always found in the same place. The Moon is the metaphor of wilderness, and remains in journey throughout the night.
Gilgit Baltistan had ended. After this, it was Shindoor, from where Khyber Pakhtunkhwa starts. That is the land of Chitral, and home to the Kalash people.
I cannot see Insha Ji’s moon today, but I recall a couplet from his book Chand Nagar:
اب کوئی آئے تو کہنا کہ مسافر تو گیا
یہ بھی کہنا کہ بھلا اب بھی نہ جاتا لوگو
Ab koi aaye to kehna ke musaafir toh gaya,
Ye bhi kehna, ke bhala ab bhi na jaata logo?
If someone comes now, tell him the traveller is gone And also ask him, did he not wait for too long?
Syed Mehdi Bukhari is a Network Engineer by profession, and a traveler, poet, photographer and writer by passion.
He can be reached on Facebook.
Translated by Bilal Karim Mughal from the original in Urdu here.