At the onset of every spring and winter, the shepherds of Hunza trek through rugged mountains to a higher altitude where they rear their sheep and goats for the remainder of the summer season — they return once the snow sets in.
Marifat, my guide, convinces me to try this route favoured by the locals. “The lower Hunza valley will shut down for the Ashura procession,” says my guide Marifat. “We should go to Sost and trek along the shepherds’ trail to the pastureland — Boybar.”
Marifat says there is “something different” at the end of the trek and I’m eager to see how.
We plan to depart at 7am the next morning but we’re reluctant to part with our cozy blankets. Instead we set off at 10am for Jamalabad, the starting point of our trek.
The trek to Boybar, at a height of 3,500m, takes three hours. Marifat feels we can make it in time. I hope he is correct — stormy clouds have appeared in the distance.
As we trek along the Shikarjerab River, we see the large boulders and rocks that had damaged the only road and bridges in a landslide and floods that occurred earlier in the summer.
Shepherding is an activity that has been carried on through generations with each shepherd picking up this knowledge from their parents and elders.
Knowledge of how to rear cattle, to use their feet and body to understand the terrain, to map and navigate the jagged, slippery edges and trails across the mighty mountains of the Karakorum Range is passed on from father to son.
This unusual trek in Hunza is a difficult one but is worth it
However, recently pastoral life has become more unpredictable for the shepherds and people living in Hunza. “Usually snow and rainfall has a somewhat fixed pattern but now because of climate change, the weather is difficult to predict.” says Marifat.
Earlier, sheperds were able to grow enough animal feed at home to last them the whole winter. However the longer winter season has meant they have to buy more expensive feed from the market.
After an hour, we stop to take a break and warm ourselves up with some chai. For the next four hours, we navigate a steep path over rocks, a makeshift bridge made of flat stones and bamboo shafts, and narrow ledges where there is always the risk of a mudslide.
About four hours into a difficult trek it begins to snow lightly. I ask Marifat how much more further we have to go, to which he replies: “It’s just up ahead”. I am later forced to question his sense of distance when our destination does not arrive for another 40 minutes.
Finally, after five hours of trekking, we reach a flat vale surrounded by a faded brown landscape dotted with bare trees.
Further up the mountains, heavy clouds hang over us — a ghastly reminder of the approaching cold night. The gush of the Shikerjerab lightly interjects with the frequent call of shepherds herding their animals at the end of the day. Breathless and exhausted, I sit on a stone and recount how we had to make uncertain choices to select the safest path. At every turn Marifat would check for loose rocks, safe bridges, steep and uneven muddy pathways that were still loose from the floods a few months earlier.
After setting up camp, we set about preparing dinner. By this time it has begun to snow heavily and the temperature has dipped. We eat boiled rice with vegetables and eggs followed by doodh pati. Outside we can hear the snow falling. As the temperatures dip further, we snuggle into our sleeping bags.
In the morning, the landscape has radically transformed: a blanket of snow engulfs us. Marifat says we may need to return — the weather will become colder and restrict our way back. We scrap our plans to stay for two more days.
The shepherds camping nearby invite us for chai. Marifat asks them if we should stay till it stops snowing. The shepherds suggest it’s better if we make our back as soon as possible.
After finishing tea, we quickly pack up and head back but the trek this time takes longer. One has to be careful with each and every step since the old layers of snow have begun to frost over. A wrong step and it’s a quick slide down the steep mountain and into the freezing, gushing river below us.
“How do you walk so confidently?” I ask Marifat after observing his deft movements. “We’re born on the roofs of the world, we understand them,” he answers back with a smile.
After three hours, we finally catch up with the shepherds who have stopped at the banks of the Shikerjerab River to cross over a makeshift bridge. They are guiding their flock over the passageway, each one keeping a track of their respective goat, ram or sheep.
Like the herd, we too shall soon be back where we started. Only this time, I am a changed person with a deeper appreciation of this symbiotic relationship between man and nature.
The writer is a freelance environmental journalist writing about indigenous narratives on land, water and urban spaces. He tweets *@_basilandrews***
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 29th , 2017