The start of the story
Three quick consecutive honks and our driver nearly slung us all over the cliff before dashing passed the car in front. In Pakistan, traffic resembles that of a Nascar race and this does not change when in the eerie mountains. High up, the three of us drove parallel to the Old Silk road and a tumble off the edge would surely end our story. Despite the immediate danger, our insane transporter had many times, in effort of darting ahead of cars, shown us the depth of the valley by flying along the edge. Seated in the passenger-seat, it gave me some dragging seconds to gaze down into the abyss. It oft followed by being blinded by the bright lights of an oncoming truck or speedy bus. A deafening honk resonated from the nearing death-machine. As the sound culminated, our chauffeur bolted through the two vehicles and with it avoided an imminent crash. I was baffled by this man’s driving. The sheer balls he had to speed through traffic at an altitude so high and on such a terrifying and peril road mere moments upon showing us what could happen.
As if it were yesterday, I remember the pieces of glass scattered on rocks meters down. “You see that?”, he mumbled as he pointed down. After an unwanted descend, a school bus had left shattered glass pieces on its way down, after which it plunged at high velocity into the water. Upon impact, all but one had lost their life. Clear that no man or woman would ever wish to plummet down this deadly, yet breathtaking gorge, one would assume the rocky road was respected and tread at a careful manner. Yet, here we were, spurting through these Pakistani mountains. With lack of rest, he fuelled himself through Chai tea and remained a functional racer to up to 12-13 hours a day. Would be more, if the men in camouflage-clothing had allowed the foreign man to enter the North under circumstances fraught with danger.
Instead, these men felt obliged to protect the guests of these stunning peaks and this resulted in a dozen checkpoints. It had become a routine that varied to the slightest per stop. Occasionally I was waved out for a short questioning and to have my picture taking. Other times, a poor quality picture whilst still seated in the car did the trick and once in a while a flashlight shun into my face sufficed. No matter what, a copy of the passport was required. Packing a handful of laminated copies, we had come prepared. However, unforeseen was the budgeting they had undergone and the required, armed soldier between main checkpoints had been shared with a second group. Our guard, soldier, guide or escort, whatever you wanna call it, had been placed in a tourist bus. Thus, at times, we had been waiting for the van full of Thai tourists to come with our collective guard. With these pauses and the fact that even up here traffic jams occur, the sun had fallen down and darkness crept up. With an increased risk in accidents, we, as tourists, were not allowed to further head North and instead had to seek our first night’s sleep. All understandable, as these mountains take many lives on the annual, especially of those of daredevil nature. Thus after a near 13-hour sprint, we took our unplanned rest.
Come morning, my companion and I had a long discussions on whether a freezing shower would be delightful on a morning already cold to the core. Ahmed, our driver, had before we parted into the night, complained to have lack of blankets or women for warmth. The heating had failed us and left us shivering the night away. With the dawning of winter, the travellers and tourists came in scarcely as they had vacated the North of Pakistan. Most hostels and hotels were shut and those opened, apart from few, offered freezing showers or non-functioning ones. His family had proclaimed us mad and most advised against heading North upon these cold days. It was not as beautiful, I was told many times. Though I get that gorges with ranges of green are far more alluring, I thought the grim, gloomy fields had its style. Seemingly dead, these grey plains lay under the daunting, unsightly mountains bearing rocks hard-featured and bare with a snowy peak on top. Beaks and rivers had stopped their stream at parts where the water froze. Trees had given up and its branches hung sullen. Completely plucked, they had bared themselves from any leaves of colour and now stood there bearing naught. The houses seemed to have been made to fit the occasion. Built from wood, stone and mud, and with a sprinkle of snow covering the roofs, white and grey was all you would see.
Thus, it was sad mountains that painted the clouds and icy wind going through the gloomy towns. Everywhere was “deserted” apart from locals and a set of roads and hikes had been shutdown due to snow. Everything about it screamed misery, however, similar to portraits made by artists in attempt of describing melancholy, it kept its appeal. The uninviting beasts of the North, including Himalayas, Karakoram and Hindu Kush all stand tall and merit the respect of the admirer whether it be winter or summer. In both seasons, many lives have been taken here. Especially from K2, the killer mountain. Having the honour to face a peak tall and mighty I cared little about the season I was in. Nonetheless, it did not remove the gratitude I had for having a friend that knows few boundaries and overcame the back-holding advisory words to join this venture. Waqas even insisted we push on and it would leave us with many memories, both tremendous and ghastly. So, without bickering, we had departed the room to continue the drive.