Thalassaemia Society of Pakistan

 

Walk for a Cause

To The Base Camp of Masherbrum

My heart was beating fast, and I was so hot, I felt like breaking out into a sweat but the humidity was restricting me to the beads stinging my eyes.  I glanced sideways at three other people with me, and waited for Hussain to scream, "race," before

sprinted off down the track at Lawrence Gardens.  The euphoria of exercise wore down as I walked back, and I started to question the tedious boredom of all the training.

  Yasmin Raashid, the head of the Thalassaemia Society of Pakistan, was an old friend of my mother's and had been the one to propose that I join their group trekking to the base camp of Masherbrum, Pakistan's tenth-highest peak.  I decided to tag along for one reason only - I desperately wanted to experience something different and rekindle the sense of adventure I had enjoyed as a child in Murree.

 

We started out on the night of the 26th of July, setting off from Lahore in a cramped coaster loaded to the brim with luggage and medicines.  We made good time on GT road, but were stopped by the police for having our curtains drawn and  being overloaded; after a while, though, the policeman sympathized with our cause and let us pass.  The plan was to attempt a try to reach Skardu by plane from Islamabad, which proved fruitless as we had to wait for two hours at the airport.  Only later would I realize what a blessing this was, because we then had to spend two days sifting through the dazzling Karakorum Highway.
  We stopped overnight at a PTDC motel at Besham, right on the Indus river, where I managed to skip a rock four times!  I would always wonder how the disputed "eighth wonder of the world" had been built - I was told it had taken twenty years to build, and one person had died for every 10 km.  It was on it that I witnessed the most beautiful scene I'd ever seen - it literally took my breath away; as we rounded a curve I saw a small village tucked in between two mountains, with a fast stream running through it down to the Indus, where it's crystal white water actually looked blue when it joined with the dirty brown Indus. As the two buses we were in flirted with death as they raced through the single-lane roads, I felt like a crusader on horseback invading the promised lands. 
The all-day drives weren't all that tiresome, and I spent my time munching on biscuits, trying to snap photos (my camera broke down after a day!), or sleeping against something soft.  The coaster's couldn't handle the AC so I kept the window open, and once when I had my head out sniffing the air I felt rain droplets slapping my face, until I looked ahead and realized someone was vomiting out the window!  Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest peak in the world (and reportedly an active volcano too), was visible from some points.  I got out at a landslide area where a Caterpillar was clearing away the stones, after which I had to run back when an army officer started shouting, "Rocks are coming!"
We finally reached Skardu at night after crossing over a suspension bridge where I almost had my camera taken away from me for taking a picture of a sign that said exactly not to tempt that.  Our motel was spacious with huge British-era ceilings, and whenever PAF jets would fly overhead I couldn't help but get the feeling that I was in a warzone.  The showers were so cold, they hurt.  During the three days we were there we went for walks up the hills to acclimatize ourselves to the lack of oxygen.  The Sadpara lake was so clear, I could see down almost five feet, but unfortunately a dam was being constructed there, and we even heard blasting going on.  Right next to a turbine generator I went climbing up a mountain, which was quite exhilarating. I also managed to find a pair of used waterproof mountaineering boots in the market.   
It was so interesting to see such a different culture in the same country - their native language was Balti, people were very friendly, although most kids, with flush red cheeks, just stared or said "hello" as they've learned from foreign tourists.  It was an exotic place, with 5-digit phone numbers, where it takes a minute to light a cigarette which lasts a half hour, and  where deaths on the slopes seems to commonplace. 
  The sun was so direct that even I had to wear sunblock and a cap to prevent my skin from peeling off.  The Shangrila hotel we visited was remniscent of what the garden of Eden must have looked like, reinforced by the ubiquitous signs warning us not to pick the fruit.  One huge stone even had stick figures dating back to 2,000 BCE!  Besides eight thalassemic children and their fathers, we were joined by around 50 porters and a camera crew.  Even though the people in the villages were very poor, none of them begged but rather asked for a job.  Each one had to carry a  staggering 25 kg, and I know one who sprained his ankle had to walk for hours on it.  The camera crew had been to Afghanistan during the American bombing, and had been the  only crew not to have stones thrown at them - their philosophy was to become a part of the people they were studying, so they spent a week talking to the adults and playing with the children, while the foreign networks just came in and turned on their cameras.
The trek started from Hushe, a day's drive from Skardu, and on the entire hike we averaged about 5 hours every day.  While in Hushe I woke up at 3 AM thanks to a call to prayer so ghastly I thought the molvi was about to drop dead, and when I tried to find the mosque the next morning I got lost in a maze of gulleys and ended up helping a group start their jeep.
We paired up in two-man tents and used torches and kerosene lamps at night.  The first night in a sleeping bag was so claustrophobic I couldn't sleep much, and the second night I spent an hour deciding whether to brave the cold outside to get water or just try and sleep; eventually my throat became so dry I made a dash for it.  The entire trip whenever we asked the porters how much was left, they'd say something along the lines of, "Half an hour for us, an hour for you," as if they had wings on them.  I decided to spare the porters and carry my own backpack with me, resulting in my t-shirt being soaked in sweat.   
 I tired not to, but I loved breaking away from the group and racing along with the porters.  Distances in the mountains were deceptive, because a mountain you'd think was close by would have to be reached through valleys and over never-ending hills.  The group had to ascend two steep mountains and cross a few glaciers, but was really unexpected were the hills of small marbles we had to cross. 
 

While camped out one afternoon I felt a slight earthquake, and got sick of reading and joined one of the groups playing cards.  We normally camped next to fresh water, but at Dumsum I had to go without showering for three days so I had to learn to let everything go and enjoy nature in its own element.  The treks were uphill and hard, but whenever we stopped for a rest I would look around at the stunning mountains, clouds so close, the wild goats, and the dazzling colors of the flowers growing between the rocks. Despite the doctors prescribing two panedols to everybody for everything, we still had  medicines left once we had returned from Masherbrum so we decided to set up two free medical camps in the villages of Hushe and Kande.  The doctors were completely swamped by ailments ranging from aches and worms to malnutrition and arthritis. 

We were invited by the Malka of Kanday to a scrumptious lunch (I guess anything would have been good after days of daal-chawal) and we got to see an improvised polo match and the old fort.  But what really stunned me was the rainbow that streaked across the sky, because after so many years I had almost forgot they even existed! I definitely want to return for another trek, and maybe some amateur mountain-climbing, because that's what I really love.  I didn't have any friends with me on the trek, but managed to make new ones.  More than anything else, it was an opportunity to just get away from everything and learn about a part of Pakistan I had never seen before.