Source: THE NEWS on Sunday November 2006
In Paya, the story goes that no solitary walker has returned alive from Makra; a myth put to test
By: Salman Rashid
"Never has a solo trekker returned alive from Makra!" Mohammed Arshad, who was pretending to be my guide, said ominously as we walked out from that rag-tag group of cheap eating places at Paya. We had taken a jeep out of Shogran (Kaghan Valley) for the fifty-minute ride out past Sari to Paya and all along young Arshad had been telling me how the fog rolls in to obscure everything. That is when people get lost on Makra, he said. And die, he added grimly.
The memory of the group of students from Pakistan Forest Institute, Peshawar who went up Makra in June 2004 and got lost on the way back was fresh in his mind. Indeed, in the mind of everyone else we met at Paya. Two of them never made it back and their bodies were discovered after several days of frantic searching. Both had expired from exposure. Listening to the story of their escapade, it was clear that none in that ill-starred group was a hill walker (though there was a Chitrali among them) and none understood mountain topography. Wet behind the ears, they had blundered some way up the mountain and, on the descent, lost their way in the fog.
At Paya, as he sat wolfing down his breakfast, Arshad gave me the first inkling that he did not really know the way up Makra. That, and the fact that a thick fog covered the hills around us, did not make the Makra proposition a very attractive one. A guide, said my guide, was necessary if we were to make a success of our little enterprise. How much, I asked. Oh, maybe a hundred and fifty rupees, the restaurant owner said. So let's get one, said I.
But no, said a youngster who had just then sauntered in. Guides did not come for less than seven hundred rupees. I lost my head. Why, a high-altitude mountain guide in whose hands you can happily place your very life on the most dangerous Karakorum glacier costs five hundred rupees per day. For the price these people were asking for a hill that was a mere 3885 metres (12,750 feet) high, I said, I expected to be rendered several other services as well - services that cannot be mentioned here for then this piece would fall in the realm of pornography. The talkative cook of the neighbouring eatery who was listening in guffawed wildly and the youngster went into shock. Arshad pretended not to have heard. He might also have wished that he didn't know me. For added effect, I told the young man what he could do with the so-called guide. That again was the most unprintable pornography.
Now, Paya from where one starts walking for Makra, is about 3100 metres and as hill walks go, this one to Makra is hardly a difficult undertaking. But I did agree with Arshad that fog could turn it into a nightmare so I told him that together we could blunder into the caper and make it work. When he was finished with his breakfast, we set out with everyone we came across attempting to strike the fear of the god of fog in our hearts. Nearing the last house of Paya, Arshad informed me that a certified guide lived there. And so I made the acquaintance of Imtiaz Ahmed who flaunted a badge that read, in Urdu, his name appended with 'Tourist Guide.'
He said I could pay him whatever I wished. But a bunch of fifteen idiots from Lahore the week before had paid him two thousand rupees. I said those people were mentally retarded and physically unfit from eating an excess of fatty siri-paye but that I was of sane mind and healthy body. Moreover, I told him of the sorry tale of the abject poverty I lived in at Lahore.
As we stood there yakking, the fog miraculously opened a small window. In front of us was a peak with a benchmark visible on the crest. Arshad said this was Makra. He had scarcely put a full stop to his sentence when the fog cleared some more and another higher hill appeared in the background.
"And that?" I asked, "what do you call that?"
"Well, actually, you see, that is the real Makra." Mohammed Arshad could tell no lie albeit with some hesitation.
It turned out that this lot of "tourist guides" routinely passed off the lower hill as Makra to unsuspecting tourists. Led them up it, relieved them of good money and showed them out of Paya with the illusion that they had climbed Makra.
Meanwhile, the window remained open long enough for me to mark the route up the hill. Then the fog rolled in again. I told Arshad he could relax with his guide friend and I would be back in about six hours.
"Never has a solo trekker returned alive from Makra!" Arshad tried again.
"You make it sound as if the slopes of Makra are littered with thousands of cadavers of lost hill walkers." I said. "And I know of only two unfortunate young men who were claimed by the hill last year."
"It's the fog. It's the fog!" said Arshad with an expansive sweep of his hands in the direction of the murk that concealed our hill once again.
There was no way I could convince the man that I had seen Makra long enough to mark my route and there was little chance of my getting lost now - fog or otherwise. But the man went hysterical: I was his boss' client and what would he tell him and indeed Shabnam, my wife, when I failed to turn up.
"Tell them the fairies took me." I called as I walked away.
Arshad was not relenting, however. He sent Imtiaz running after me. The man came up and offered to take pictures of me (with my camera, of course) on the summit. He said he could also do a neat bit of video filming if I so wanted and had a video camera. Evidently these nice simple folks were taking me to be just another Lahori tourist who couldn't tell an arete from a knoll. And whose only object in life was to get somewhere and have his clowning filmed and photographed. Only I was too old and thus clearly a hazard on the hill. The man even offered to take whatever I was happy to pay him.
I grabbed his shirt front and stuck my hand into his breast pocket. I told him I would charge five thousand rupees to permit him to come with me. The man looked at me as if I was crazy. Then I rifled through his other pocket. He had to pay in advance or he could get lost. He broke off and walked away saying the fog was heavy and I was not likely to ever return.
"You can come looking for my corpse after four in the afternoon." I called after him and that was that.
Past the houses of Paya the trail entered a lovely copse where the wind was rich with the aroma of pine resin and bird song. Through a small clump of Gujar houses I was soon in the midst of the encampment of Pashtun herders. Years ago Bashir, my mountain guide friend from Naran, had told me to always introduce myself as a colonel because most criminally inclined people were terrified of nothing but the army. And so I lied to the two men who came out to greet me. In the event, this turned out to be just as well.
Beyond the Pashtun encampment, the trail climbed up the knoll growing on the side of the Makra massif once again visible in the clearing fog. Having zigzagged up about an hour or so, I reached a ridge that seemed to lead straight up to the crest. The earth and the shards of rock littering it were a deep red colour. The summit, or what seemed to be it, was visible against a dull grey sky. Behind me, I saw that I was level with the benchmark on false Makra.
As I made the summit, two hours and forty minutes out of Paya, the fog rolled in again. This time it reduced visibility to less than twenty metres. In that roiling pea soup, I sat on a boulder on what I imagined was Makra top and had a drink of water. Again the fog lifted a little and I saw the tall cairn that marked the actual summit. I strolled up to it hoping to glimpse those fabulous views into Kashmir and Muzaffarabad. But thirty minutes of waiting only thickened the fog. No views and no chance of me gadding about on the skyline for Arshad and Imtiaz to spot me. So I laid the customary stone on top of the cairn and photographed myself with it before starting back again.
On the descent there was a bit of a worry because of the dense fog. The benchmark and the Pashtun encampment at its foot were not visible. As I came down the red slope, the window opened again and I knew I was on the right track. Halfway down the slope I ran into a young Pashtun herder and his flock of sheep. We exchanged greetings and then he asked me if I had a camera. Upon being told that I did, he asked for it. I said he couldn't have it and started to walk away.
The boy followed me about fifty metres behind repeating like an automaton to be given the camera. Then the twit became abusive and said his brother was waiting at the bottom of the hill to relieve me of my camera and money. Something snapped. I turned around, stuck my groin out at him and told him to come get the camera. The boy froze. Then I used the old fib on him about being a colonel in the army and that I was going to have his dear mother invited to the local police station to present her with the camera. That did the trick. Thereafter there wasn't a squeak out of the upcoming robber.
At the encampment I asked for the two men I had met earlier on the way out and told them what had transpired. The men hedged. They said they didn't know who I was taking about. I told them that the police could be there pronto to make them see the light. Nothing works like bluster and everything changed in a jiffy. I was colonel sahib, the mai-baap. Fortunately a youngster made his appearance just then and they asked me if he was my man. He wasn't, but when they quizzed him, he seemed to know who I was talking about for the name Khushal was bandied about.
It turned out that the upcoming robber's father had begged and borrowed some money and had only a few days earlier left for Islamabad to make arrangements for his forthcoming pilgrimage to Mecca. And here was his young son training to be what his ancestors were famous for as Ibn Batuta tells us from as far back as the 14th century. To pacify me, the elders laid out the tea and assured me that the youngster would be appropriately belaboured when he returned to camp that evening.
Less than three hours from Paya to Makra top was not bad going for an out-of-form hill walker. And about an hour and a few minutes (not counting the forty-minute break at the Pashtun camp) back was equally good. Arshad couldn't believe his eyes when he saw me. I failed to make it, I said in mock dejection.
"From your face I know you reached the top," Said he. Then I showed him and Imtiaz the photos of the cairn with and without me - digital cameras be blessed.
"You made it to the real Makra top!" Said Arshad excitedly. "And returned alive. You're the first man to have done it!"
"Yes. The cadavers on the slope were a bit of problem, though." I said pretending to be smug. "The stench was terrible and it was hard work stepping around them."
As we walked back to the jeep pick up point, Arshad couldn't stop talking about my "great feat." His drift was that I was the first Punjabi to have gone up solo and returned. Why, sometimes even local people got lost, he added for emphasis. It turned out that Kaghan wallahs did not think much of us heroic Punjabis -- even less of Lahoris who could only talk with any facility of rich, greasy, unhealthy, heart attack-inducing food. Lahoris who despite their apparent physical shape could not walk two steps without pausing to catch their breath and who took nearly six hours to false Makra and back. And these were all young men in their twenties. Neither Arshad nor his friend Imtiaz, the guide, had known of a bald, middle-aged man doing such a thing by himself. Arshad assured me that this was the making of a legend of sorts. Not a very flattering view that most people hold of us gallant Punjabis, then.
Postscript: It is interesting that the names of Sari and Paya, the two summer grazing grounds that lie between Shogran and Makra, have taken on a gastronomic connotation on the tongues of Punjabi traders and semi-literate young people. They are now called Siri-Paye -- trotters and skulls, that Lahori palates so relish.
Sar means "lake" in Hindko, the language of Kaghan, as well as in Seraiki and Punjabi, and Sari would be a pond or a small lake. Sure enough, to make this an appropriate handle, there is a little tarn at Sari. Similarly Paya in Hindko is a high grazing ground. At over 3000 metres above the sea, that is what Paya actually is.
What surprises me is that all these so-called travel writers filling up page after page in Urdu have never got this simple thing right. Even a famous photographer whose breathtaking pictures of Sari and Paya had graced a calendar some years ago had the names wrong in the captions. The kind of tourists I saw at Paya will never read anything in English - actually they'll never read anything other than the Urdu rag in their lives. And so, Sari with its pond and Paya the grazing ground will forever remain siri-paye on the tongues of ill-informed tourists and those who hear their tales.