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
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
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. email@example.com