En route to Gilgit, after crossing Chilas and few miles beyond the Raikot Bridge, take a right turn, cross Indus, enter a narrow gorge, pass the remnant of old Ramghat suspension bridge and reach Astore — an important trading post in Maharaja’s times between Srinagar and Gilgit. Here, after crossing the dreaded Burzil pass, trade caravans and officers going on duty would always take a day off to rest.

From Astore it takes another 15 minutes to reach the enchanting Rama Valley. Here the lodging and boarding options are varied: a visitor can stay at the PTDC motel or take refuge in a camp or settle in the Building Department resthouse from where the views stretch across the lush green meadow, the polo ground, the alpine forest, the muddy glacier and finally the snowy mountains. A two-hour easy trek to glaciated Rama Lake can be a delight. On a clear day, while sitting under the shade of a tree in front of the resthouse, one can catch a glimpse of Nanga Parbat, Chungra peak and Tarshing, all beyond 22,000 ft.

Last month, I stayed at the Building Department resthouse with my family. During our stay we met Anwer Ali, an unforgettable character who could regale one with his anecdotes. He is a man with extraordinary talent: he takes care of the resthouse, is a professional guide, an excellent cook, a skier, a herbal specialist and above all, he is the only person I have ever met who keeps wolves as pets.

While chit chatting with me, his thought drifted to the pre-1947 times when local Hindus visited the lake as a sacred pilgrimage. “The representative of the Kashmir Maharaja would arrive at Astore each summer to extract taxes from the poor people. The lumberdars would provide men to carry him and his family in ‘doolies’ to be lodged in a palatial resthouse at Rama. Each lumberdar was duty bound to provide the hated tax collectors with milk and food on rotation for two months. In October 1947, as soon as the news arrived in Astore of Major Brown’s rebellion in Gilgit, the people rejoiced and set the wooden resthouse on fire,” Anwer Ali said.

Later, I visited this site with him but could not find any trace of what would have being a worthy architectural heritage.

Over tea, Anwer related more tales from the past. He had hosted innumerable angrez (foreigners) but was deceived by them only twice, once by deceit and second time by clever maneuvering. A dishonest couple broke his binoculars and returned it to him in a packed case. The other incident was sidesplitting.

“Sahib, some years ago I climbed that mountain (pointing to my right) with an angrez who was carrying a heavy backpack. It took us more than two hours to reach the top. On the way back, he challenged me. He said, ‘let’s run down. The winner will get Rs500 from the loser’.”

Anwer accepted the challenge and was all set to run down at full speed. But before starting the race down, to Anwer’s utter shock, the man opened his backpack, dug out “his wings, put them on and flew down”.

Poor Anwer was robbed of Rs500 by a professional paraglider.

Daniyal and I were lured by Anwer to trek up to Rama Lake and get a good catch of trout. Next day, at dawn, we walked along the trail, passed the glacier Moraine from where muddy water gushes out to pollute the crystal clear stream that sprouts from the lake. Throughout our trek, he kept us busy with his tricks. First with a free lecture on jungle survivor course in which he introduced us to all sorts of herbs, both ‘deadly and friendly’: ‘Shaupur’ would heal septic wounds and ‘Tumoorou’ is used as local brew instead of tea. He peeled the green stem of ‘Haluskur’ plant and made us eat it. It tasted bland. He called it “a poor man’s sugarcane and boasted that during the Kargil conflict when ration supplies were disrupted many soldiers ate and survived on it”.

Next was a tutorial on the existing wildlife and his poaching expeditions. In 2007, he hunted his last markhor and tracked pugmarks in fresh snow down to the wolves den. After shooting down a she-wolf, he stole the cubs and raised them as pets. Two years later he was forced to present the wolves to a pot bellied police officer from Gilgit.

We found Rama Lake scenically swallowed on three sides with white mountains and sloping glaciers, the reflection of which in blue water presents a double panorama. Unlike Lake Saif-ul-Malook, which has been converted into garbage dump by unprincipled travellers, this place had retains its natural beauty due to its relative remoteness. At the other end of the lake was a small hamlet, from where the base camp of Nanga Parbat lies at a day’s walk. As we sat on a rock, chilling wind picked up piercing our bones.

Daniyal’s cue that folk tales are always glued to such enchanting places was enough for Anwer Ali to restart his narratives. “It all happened in that hamlet a few years ago. At dusk, a four year old girl went out of the cottage with her grandmother to milk cows. The girl disappeared in the growing mist. Her grandmother, unable to trace her in faded light, raised an alarm. The villagers failed to locate the young girl and presumed that she had slipped in the lake and had drowned. However, the girl’s father was not satisfied and he reached the Building Department’s resthouse at 10pm and sought Anwer’s help. He took him to a sage, an expert in ‘faal dalna’ (fortune telling). After going through a mystical process, the sage informed them that the girl had been taken away towards Nanga Parbat by a fairy. To break the magical spell of the fairy, he gave them two tawiz (amulet); one to be buried between two stones and the other to be burned at the spot where the girl was last seen in the mist. The rituals were performed later at night. Next morning a posse searching near the base camp of Nanga Parbat found the lost girl roaming on a glacier. On inquiry, she said a lady dressed in white took her and fed her well but disappeared mysteriously in the mist as the dawn was breaking. In the fresh morning snow, they found the footprint of a woman moving towards the mountains.”

On the way back, Anwer gave us lessons in skiing and skating along the sloping glaciers, trying to avoid Daniyal’s queries as to why no effort was made to catch the fairy or was it a work of a wandering yeti!

Astore and the scenic Rama’s geographical location, placing it off the beaten track of local tourists, had helped preserve the natural splendour. A glance through the visitor’s book at the resthouse is enough to reveal the horde of luminaries who had the honour of staying here. One name that stands out is of Imran Khan, the cricketing legend turned politician. He had stayed at the Rama resthouse a number of times before the tsunami got better of him.

The writer is a conservationist and an animal right activist. dr.raheal@gmail.com



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