“Who goes up north in the winter?” my friends remarked, looking at me as if I had gone completely mad.
Yes, no one goes to the Northern areas in the winter, but when ace mountaineer and brother of the first Pakistani woman to climb Everest, Samina Baig Mirza, Ali Baig invites you to his village in Shimshal for a few days and throws in the words ‘ice-skating’ and ‘skiing’, there was no way I could have refused.
Perhaps I was a little mad. It was -7°C in Hunza. Back home in Karachi, where I was 24 hours earlier, it was 23°C.
My hands wouldn’t stop shaking from the cold, I wore everything I had brought with me, basked in a spot of sunlight like a cat, had a gas heater placed next to my couch and still felt cold. Had I made a mistake?
Hunza is a strange place in the winter — it’s off-season, and so everything was closed. It was like going to the fair after everyone had left.
A few locals I met on the streets were surprised to see a tourist and asked if I was there for a wedding.
No, I responded, receiving confused faces in return.
I was looking forward to the infamous Café de Hunza’s famous walnut cake and some ‘real’ coffee, but that too was closed.
The Hilltop Hotel where I was staying is perhaps the oldest establishment of its kind. The owner, Javed, lives around the corner, sports an American accent that caught me off guard every time and really goes out of his way to make sure that his guests are all warm and toasty and catered to at his establishment — even if it means opening it up for just one lone guest during the season.
Heated blankets are a godsend. I discovered them only as I was climbing into bed and they gave me hope that perhaps a Karachiite can survive in the north in winter.
I pulled the blanket over the laptop and myself and created a small fort so that all of me was warm, and not just the parts that were covered.
“We’re going to go to Shimshal and will spend a night there so that you can acclimatise to the altitude,” said Mirza when I met him the next morning. I wasn’t the only friend going at this time — Henriette from Norway, was on her way from Gilgit, along with Mirza’s older brother Gul.
While we waited, my preparedness for this trip was inspected: my sneakers were rejected for being unsuitable for hiking, and my Karachi winter clothes (turns out they were made of cotton and not wool) were rejected as being anything but ‘wintery’.
With each rejection, it was becoming clear: I was going to die of hypothermia.
Sensing my panic, Mirza reassured me that I wasn’t, in fact, going to die and that there were lots of warm clothes back in Shimshal for me to wear. We then set off to find trekking shoes.
There are a few mountaineering stores in Karimabad, Hunza, that sell pretty much everything one could possibly need — it all just needs a fix here and there and a proper wash. The shoes I liked were quite snug, had to be sent to the cobbler’s to get a tiny hole stitched up and hurt my toe a bit on the short walk down to the hotel. Apparently, it’s good if you wear shoes that are a bit loose.
Javed came to the rescue. He had these really nice trekking shoes stowed away at the guesthouse, which he had bought from a visiting mountaineer. They were in mint condition and fit perfectly. Henriette had arrived and we were good to go.
The Northern areas have an almost otherworldly beauty in the winter. Most of the boats from Attabad Lake were gone owing to the recent opening of the Pak-China ‘friendship’ tunnel.
The cobalt blue waters of the lake were frozen in some parts and thawing in others. When we passed Gulmit and approached Passu, the Passu Glacier on our right appeared even more majestic as it towered over the Karakoram Highway; it’s icy white offset by the orange-yellow of the Passu cones that stand tall and proud on the opposite side.
The road to Shimshal is behind these cones It took about a good 18 years to build and was finally ‘completed’ in 2003, and yet, it’s nothing more than space enough for one jeep to pass at a time, carved and cleared around the mountain.
There is no asphalt, so a regular car cannot survive the drive. There are 12 hanging wooden and steel bridges that are not secured at the bottom so it moves between the two ends when a jeep gets on it. Landslides are common and clearing those off the roads is a cumbersome task conducted by the authorities.
The drive is heart-stopping and precarious but it took us to a winter wonderland, almost magical in its beauty.
Imagine driving in a crevice between two rocky mountains with a clear half-frozen river running below, giant rocks the kind you see in any Tolkien film and on them, frozen waterfalls.
The farther you move and the higher you climb, the colder it gets. The river is a good 300m below.
Once out of there, we drove over rocks and the frozen river to get to the village. We arrived at night, so we couldn’t see our surroundings properly. Shimshal is situated at an altitude of 3,100m.
People in Shimshal live off the grid with solar-powered lights, which is a fairly recent phenomenon. Development here is slow because of its remoteness. There is no mobile coverage and no Internet.
We were told that it’s so cold that the water in the bathrooms had frozen up completely — our only option was to walk to an outdoor toilet with our baby wipes and paper. It’s an open-air, three-walled enclosure where everyone does their business on the ground.
Privacy isn’t always guaranteed, although it is not humans that invade it: the next morning I discovered I was sharing my space with a very curious goat that walked up to me and stared at me the entire time I was there.
Mirza’s home is built in a very traditional manner. It has a common area designed to accommodate up to 60-70 people seated on the ground in a circle.
The roof is made of beautifully-carved wood in several intersecting square layers, with the top covered with glass and open to sunlight. It is somewhat reminiscent of a yurt — except that it is made with more permanent materials.
In the middle of the room is a bukhari — a coal and wood heater that doubles as a stove — often found in homes in Central Asia. There is a kettle of water on top of it at all times.
One wall was decorated with shields of climbing achievements by Samina and Mirza, and a photo of Samina at the Everest. The latest addition to this being a cup won by their eight-year-old nephew, Gul and Maha’s son, Zarrar for winning the under-10 skiing competition held recently in the area.
The competition was named after Rajab Shah, the first Pakistani (from Shimshal), to summit all five 8,000m peaks in Pakistan. He was also a recipient of the President’s Pride of Performance award. This was also the room where our beds were later laid out and where we were to sleep — under three layers of blankets.
Dinner consisted of yak meat in gravy, rice, French fries and green tea — all prepared by Mirza’s sister-in-law Yasmin (who didn’t feel comfortable making an appearance), and lovingly served by his other sister-in-law Maha, who proceeded to spoil us rotten by making sure we were well-fed and warm. Yak, I discovered, is like a saltier version of beef and absolutely delicious.
Each household in Shimshal has a cattle of yak that they drive to the pamirs (pasturelands) near the Pak-China border. Every year, 10 men are selected to go there and spend six months in the cold and snow and take care of everyone’s cattle — which can add up to roughly about 1,000 animals.
During that time, volunteers do the three-day trek between the village and pasturelands deliver food and supplies to the men stationed there.
Every single able-bodied man in the village is required to go, when it is his turn.
“It’s as important as being asked to serve in the military,” said one of Mirza’s old uncles who joined us for a while. “You can’t say no. You have to go.”
Our destination where we were to trek the next day is a place called Zartghurben (‘below brown rock’ in Wakhi) and it falls right in the middle of the route to the Shimshali’s pasturelands.
It was only when I woke up the next morning and stepped outside that I saw what an astounding place Shimshal is. Surrounded by snow-covered peaks and inhabited by frozen earth, people, a cat or two and lots of mountain goats with a lot of character.
I learned the temperature in Zartghurben was -23°C! I was given warm clothes to wear on top of my regular clothes — fleece pants and jackets and another down jacket that made me look like a bright blue penguin, but in this case, fashion had to take a backseat to survival.
We had a six-hour hike ahead of us, and before we left, two of Mirza’s cousins along with his eight-year-old nephew Zarrar headed off to Zartghurben with two goats — the latter had no idea they were supposed to be our dinner at camp that night.
Prepping for the ‘hike’, I had no idea what I was in store for.