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A gem mine above the clouds


I was struggling up a mountain pass of the Chumar Bakur range in Gilgit-Baltistan, about 4,200 metres above sea level, trying to find my footing through a metre of fresh snow on icy ground and causing mini-avalanches with every move. The plan was to cross the Sumayar pass and get to Hoper, and that wasn’t working out as well as I had hoped.

A little while later I found myself holding a plate of steaming daal and sitting in one of the stone huts where the workers of the Chumar Bakur gem mine spend their evenings; I had been lucky enough to find this resting spot and the miners were hospitable enough to invite me to share a meal and some warmth.

Seven miners live in each of the 52 huts from June to September. Each hut is about 12 square metres, a space that also contains a kitchen consisting of two gas cookers and a few pots.

Food supplies hang from the ceiling in order to protect them from mice. Of course, the few square metres serve as a prayer room as well.

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Only Shias live here on the south bank of Hunza River, the Nagar bank, and they strictly observe the daily prayers. The first thing the miners, too, asked me was which religion I upheld.

For a better understanding, I tried to explain that I was something like a Shia Christian and that the Protestants – like the Shias – disputed the orthodox interpretation of the holy writings whereas the Catholics – like the Sunnis – favoured a more traditional interpretation.

It may not be the most accurate analogy, but it was the best I could do.

The Spartan accommodations of the miners are in stark contrast to the way their lifestyles are perceived in Hunza. Here, I must add that, according to the people of Hunza, every miner owns at least three big houses in Islamabad.

One of the workers, whom I would estimate to be 40 years old from the look of his face but who is actually only 27, hotly replies: “Ah! people over there just drink too much Hunza water (a home-made fruit brandy),” which makes the whole hut break out in laughter.

After everyone has calmed down again, the man continues in broken English:

“We need machines, explosives, tools, fuel, gas and food supplies. All this has to be brought up here from Sumayar (which is about 2,200 metres high). Each group works on its own and is responsible for its own profitability.

A miners’ encampment.—Photo by author
A miners’ encampment.—Photo by author

“About three out of 10 groups make a loss, three break even and the rest make a small profit,” says one of the miners. “But even if we have found gems we still have to find a buyer. There are many mines around here and much competition in our main market, which is China. Of course, there are accidents in the mines, too. Luckily the last grave one, with five people dead, was years back. I don’t see my future here. I’ll return to Karachi in a few days and take up my studies again,” he concludes.

Later on, we sit in front of the hut in the bright sunlight, drinking the usual tea. Northwards, the direction is steeply downhill; further down Hunza and two of its 7,000-metre peaks are seen. Towards the south-east towers the steep snow-free northern wall of Mount Diran. Only walls remind of most of the surrounding huts.

We are the last ones left, as most of the other miners have already left for Sumayar with their few pieces of furniture and plastic sheet roofs as night temperatures already fall down to 15 degrees below zero at this seemingly idyllic working-place.

Two hours later and 900 metres lower, I am surprised by the view of two elderly men in front of a stone hut, both in thick worn-out jackets and something like winter-Shalwar Kameez. They’re chopping up branches for the cooking fire and immediately invite me to stay in their hut with them overnight.

Shortly afterwards, we’re in an animated conversation.

The younger of the two, in his late 40s and with less angular features than his colleague, speaks very good English as he had worked for a state-owned bank until 2004, when it was being privatised by the then head of state, General Musharraf. The now unemployed ex-banker then came back to Sumayar and joined a group of miners in Chumar Bakur, but made only losses during the following five years.

Now he’s trying to tap a new mine and has settled down here for this purpose with a relative of his. They want to conduct test drillings in the vicinity during the next days.

Seven miners live in each of the 52 huts from June to September. Each hut is about 12 square metres, a space that also contains a kitchen consisting of two gas cookers and a few pots.

Having taken shelter from the cold and sitting inside the hut while the daal is cooking, we come to discuss the differences between Hunza and Nagar. The ex-banker says that Nagar was far behind Hunza, especially when education was concerned and that one could learn a lot from the people of Hunza in other concerns as well.

The next morning I get on my way again after some tea and chapatti to fill my belly and a warm farewell to fill my soul.

Not long after this, I’m down in Sumayar. Passing a school, I come upon a group of children. Nine or ten years ago when I was in Nagar for the first time, the children normally kept a distance from me. I tried some encouraging words in Urdu, but their looks remained serious. When I had turned my back on them at last, I sometimes heard calls from behind like ‘Give me a pen’. Otherwise, all I got were well-directed stones narrowly flying past me.

But now a little girl immediately comes my way, encouragingly pushed forward by her friends, all of them giggling behind their hands. When standing in front of me, she asks right away: ‘What is your name’ and without waiting for the answer, apparently full of self-confidence now: ‘What is your father’s name?’

Then finally, the boys in their school uniforms also gather the courage to come near. I don’t know why in most novels, the hero is a man, as it is well-known by now that the girls are more courageous by nature. The boys, one by one, ask the two questions and get their two answers. As I say goodbye to the children, they come running after me for a little way calling ‘thank you, sir!’

I’m still quite baffled as I reach the town’s small bazaar. The half dozen old men sitting in front of the only open shop greet me back grinning and with their hands raised. As I turn into a lane, two young women coming my way answer my ‘Salaam’ with a giggle; and as I reach the small pond at the end of the place someone calls and invites me to tea from the mosque opposite.

Crossing a little wooden bridge some 20 minutes later I look back to Sumayar, now 150 metres above me. I’m touched but also impressed by the immense progress people there seem to have made in such a short time. In a euphoric mood, I imagine the people of both river banks building up a peaceful and progressive society together, that could inspire people all over the country. But thinking of one of my next destinations brings me down to earth again.

In Gilgit, capital of Gilgit-Baltistan, rival sects are being played off against each other for many years. It doesn’t even help that the majority of the two denominations respect each other and wish to live in peace, as time and again, and seemingly out of the blue, a Shia or Sunni is assassinated. The conciliators on both sides are weary as they know that these things don’t just happen by chance.

“But still I hope, like most people here, that the vision of a Gilgit Baltistan that is an Oasis of peace will come true.”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 1st, 2015

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