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Travel: Swimming in paradise

BY GILBERT KOLONKO

The 6,000-metre high Passu Cathedral reflects on the mirror surface of Borith Lake. Almost 60 tourists have a merry chat and a laugh with each other on the terrace of the nearby hotel while a few guests sit apart and admire the white walls of the 7,000-metre high mountains on the opposite side. Amidst all this is the 68-year-old hotel owner Mr Khan dancing to Wakhi tunes in his own distinct style. He and the other hotel owner in Gojal have every reason to be delighted because, after years of waiting, the tourists are back! But these tourists are not from America, Australia or Europe like the travellers of yesteryear; they are Pakistanis discovering their own country. Every year the Pakistani authorities promise to make it easier for foreign guests to get a visa, so they can visit the 130 of the 7,000-metre peaks, uncountable glaciers and mountain lakes, and be astounded. But every year, it becomes even more difficult for a foreigner to visit Pakistan. The fear of terrorism is more of an excuse than an argument in places like Gojal where the new generation has a 100 per cent literacy rate and where there is zero crime.

At Borith Lake the jolly banter continues till 2.30 in the morning and a mere two hours later the owner and his sons are up again, because the first domestic tourists are going today to the northernmost point in the country — the 4,700-metre high Khunjerab Pass.

 

Mr Khan’s son having his morning swim, before serving breakfast to touristsMr Khan’s son having his morning swim, before serving breakfast to tourists

Suddenly there is a loud clutter in the kitchen, and shortly afterwards one of the sons is carrying Mr Khan out on the terrace. The other son quickly comes to assist and lays the good soul of Borith Lake in a car. In the 8-km away Gulmit Hospital no doctor is available, so Mr Khan is put into a boat that sails for half an hour over the Attabad Lake. A telephone call to find a doctor in Karimabad also goes in vain. So he is taken a further 105km to the army hospital in Gilgit. It later emerges that he has suffered a stroke.


A swimming competition brings together rivals in Pakistan’s picturesque Northern Areas


The next day at Borith Lake appears a Pakistani intelligence worker; for two weeks there have been strange buoys on the lake, and every day youngsters and men from the surrounding villages take part in a so-called qualification swimming, while a suspicious foreigner and an equally odd Pakistani sit on one side of the lake with stopwatches. One could easily look at the placard on the terrace that says “Borith Lake Tashi Cup —The First Gojal Swimming Championship” and figure out what’s happening, but the sleuth is unconvinced.

The name Borith is not as much of a nuisance to the agency workers as it is to the influential people from the neighbouring villages of Ghulkin and Hussaini. They and the Mir of Hunza have for decades demanded that the lake be named theirs. That the citizens of the picturesque villages of Ghulkin and Hussaini have been unable till today to open a hotel, and apart from this, also have the 4,000-metre high Patundas meadows and the famous 200-metre long Hussaini suspension bridge to their name, is something long forgotten by the said influential people.

A Hussaini woman poses with a tourist from KarachiA Hussaini woman poses with a tourist from Karachi

Normally they would know how problems are solved in Gojal: during the qualification swimming, some youngsters from a nearby village go out of control and cause a major disturbance. It seems that they believe that even a sports event would be a tool for political propaganda. The organisers approach not the police but the elders of the village that these youngsters belong to. And so after this, these youngsters behave like “little angels”. The suspicion of the Pakistani agency workers regarding the event as usual falls to the somehow blatantly obvious foreign conspiracy. Gojal is a part of Gilgit-Baltistan and consequently a part of the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan. In contrast to India-occupied Kashmir, the only gunfire in Gojal comes from illegal ibex hunters. The citizens of Gojal feel themselves to be Pakistanis, and hence want to be treated as such. They want to have a say in who runs the country, and to have their problems voiced at a higher platform. They want doctors and not secret agents; they want to be informed of what lies in the contracts of the Pak-China economic corridor.

One week later, the supposedly suspicious foreigner and the Pakistani are rowing around in the lake in a rubber raft. The start / finish line that consists of two car tires, a few empty canisters and a banner has come apart. Agency workers stand apart, while a crowd of around 400 people cheer and applaud from the steps of the hotel; the first semi-finals of the swimming competition are done. An elderly Gojali with a smiling weather-beaten face and a flat Hunza hat on his head says to his neighbour: “This is crazy; I’ve never seen anything like this”. The next swimmers are already prepared, the swimming cap on one of their heads crafted out of a football bladder and all the swimming shorts are … let’s just say … original.

Mostly locals cross the Hussaini bridgeMostly locals cross the Hussaini bridge

Two hours later, Mr Ali Rehman holds high above his head the Tashi Cup, the trophy for the highest swimming competition in Pakistan, and perhaps the highest one in all of Asia.

Mr Khan can be seen as well, still a little weak in the legs but already with a smile on his face again. The year before, he had fallen three metres from the roof onto the hard ground due to a broken rung on a ladder, but a mere shrug was enough to forget this. For his stroke the week before, he would need a few more shrugs to put it behind him. Down at the lake, a respected person from Hussaini gives an impressive speech: he has fully comprehended the purpose of this swimming competition. He proposes that all the different villages of Gojal work together. He is of the notion that people should appreciate the sport for what it is and promises that they, the Gojalis, would organise the second swimming championship at Borith Lake themselves next year — and one day the best swimmers of the world will join hands. As high as Borith lake is, the Gojalis aim higher.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 25th, 2015

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