Dust rose up into the blue sky, civilisation slipping away, as I left the Karakoram Highway and headed deeper into the mountains and away from the small police checkpoint of Raikot Bridge.
It had been a long journey to get here, I had sat upon a crowded public bus, stiflingly hot, then cold as day turned to night, and endured endless police checkpoints. I had, in total, made over a dozen copies of my passport and visa for the journey and was tired of showing the same documents to a string of interchangeable police officers.
I was, in short, in a bit of a shitty mood by the time I arrived at Raikot Bridge, the gateway to one of Pakistan’s most treasured sites of natural beauty.
At first, I had not been sure that the local police were going to let me head into the mountains but, after much smiling, polite nodding, cups of chai and a lengthy book-signing process, I was granted permission to head off in search of the legendary Fairy Meadows of Pakistan on the condition that I accepted a police escort.
Beside me, a wizened police officer with two teeth and a huge jacket smiled at me shyly from behind his silvery beard, a well polished Kalashnikov resting on his lap. The jeep groaned as we smashed a path over large stones and bulldozed our way towards the huge white mountains upon the horizon.
The road snaked it’s way up the valley, a sheer drop on one side, a blue ribbon of water below. I fumbled with my camera, much to my new bodyguard’s delight, and took a few snaps of the mighty mountains marching alongside us. Up ahead, in the distance, one defiant peak reigned supreme above all others.
“Nanga Parbat” my new friend offered up.
The ninth highest mountain in the world, it seemed to scrape the furthest grasps of the skies themselves, an impenetrable bastion of snow and ice and rock, a fortress fit for a god.
Behind us, another jeep of local Pakistani tourists, day-trippers, chugged its way along the bronze coloured trail, a mad-man clinging to the front like a crouching gymnast.
It seemed that I was not the only person looking to spend a night in the fairy meadows, one of Pakistan’s best known adventure destinations. I dismounted and followed the police into the forests. I still had no idea what to expect.
I struggled onwards, the weight of my pack (why the hell had I bought my damn laptop!) weighing me down as I struggled through waist-deep snow, February is NOT the best time of year to visit the fairy meadows.
My stomach rumbled unhappily, I was, of course, aware of Delhi-Belly having been to India many times but it seemed that Islamabad-Belly was a thing as well. I moped along unhappily, unable to fully appreciate the stunning presence of the mountains, the cool crispness of the air, the startling radiance of the snow.
Ahead of me, my police escort waited patiently on a rock, a cigarette dangling from his lips, his AK cradled in his lap like a much loved pet.
In India and Pakistan, an older gentleman is often referred to as Baba, unsure how to ask my AK-wielding friend his name, I settled on this.
“Baba, Taliban here?” I asked, more curious than concerned.
“No Taliban” grinned my guardian angel, raising his rifle to his shoulder and miming shooting into the distance.
Baba, seeing that I was tired and a little unwell, passed me some sickly sweets and then kindly took my second backpack off me. This was a first for me.
I am very protective of my gear and take it as a slight upon my honour if anyone dares offer me help but, on this occasion, with the snow soaking through my shoes and socks and another round of explosive diarrhea ready to go, I relented.
Together, we moved further into the valley, climbing over fallen logs and wading through half frozen streams until, finally, after a steep climb and much swearing, I reached my destination.
Ahead of me, stretching away in the distance, clean white carpets of untouched snow. Mighty peaks of blue and grey and silver and purple flinging themselves into the sky, blocking out the last of the sun and promising a radiant evening filled with stars.
Baba led me forwards to a small wooden hut, inside I was greeted by the owner of the hut who, having heard that a foreigner was coming, had opened up despite the season not starting for another six weeks.
I was instantly passed a cheeky smoke and a mug of hot chai and, collapsing into a heap on the floor, I finally got some rest.
I awoke the next day, the sun sliding in via the windows, under the door, through the cracks in the wood. Baba, wordlessly stoking the fire, looked at me with a smile and handed me a fresh paratha, still warm and a glass of chai.
I pulled out my phone, determined to make a proper effort to engage and flipped to uTalk Go, the language app I use to learn phrases and chat to local people whilst travelling. Luckily for me, uTalk Go is one of the few free language apps that works in pretty much every single country and is loaded with hundreds of languages.
“Baba, Aap ka naam kia Hai?” – Baba, what is your name.
He leapt into the air as if he had been electrocuted, shocked to find that I could suddenly speak Urdu, for that is how it must have appeared.
“Very good! Very good! My name Baba!” he replied, it seemed he knew a little English of his own.
I asked him again and received the same answer, it seemed he was happy with being called Baba after all.
With the help of my phone, I began to quiz Baba on his age, his family, his favourite food, how long he had been in the police.
We laughed, sharing a smoke as Mohammed joined us and poured me another glass of chai.
“Aap ka Shukria Bhai!” – Thank you very much, brother.
I quickly learnt that even if Baba and Mohammed could not understand my imperfect Urdu accent, they definitely understood the concept of fun. Baba, in particular, seemed to be especially fond of jokes.
Baba quickly assigned himself to be not just my protector but also my guide and, over the next three days, lead me deep into the surrounding mountains. We trekked through insane snow-banks, attempting to make it to Nanga Parbat basecamp despite the terrible conditions and only turning back when the snow reached our armpits.
Baba taught me a few phrases in Urdu and I found that, to my delight, uTalk worked both ways in that I could use it to teach Baba a few phrases of English whilst also working on my own Urdu skills.
In the afternoon, we attempted to dry our shoes on a small fire which was fine until we ran out of wood.
To my surprise, Baba leapt up and, grabbing an axe, took to the trees, climbing like a monkey, using the axe as an aid, pulling himself up ten meters above the ground and then, to my delight and horror, began hacking away at the very branches he was standing on.
Over the course of an hour, he harvested enough wood to fuel a hundred fires, all without actually cutting the tree down; I was impressed, I would hesitate to call this a sustainable practice as I am not an expert but it looked pretty nature-friendly to me!
Eventually, it was time to leave the fairy meadows and head back to the Karakoram Highway, next up, I planned to explore the mountains around Hunza – one could easily spend a lifetime trekking and adventuring here.
I parted ways with Baba, shaking his hand and promising to return in August when I hope to see a different, greener, side of The Fairy Meadows.
He grinned at me wordlessly, point blank refusing to take the 500 rupees I pushed into his hand and making sure I got on the right bus as I made my way towards Gilgit. The Pakistani people; they are always looking out for you.
Trekking around the fairy meadows, and spending time with Baba, was a truly magical experience.
The Fairy Meadows is one of the most stunning places I have ever been and when you go to Pakistan be sure to visit.
If you are lucky enough to be assigned Baba as your escort, be sure to tell him I say a hearty Salaam Alaikum!
A huge thank you to uTalk Go for sponsoring my adventures. I am proud to partner with such an ethically sound company and I am excited to have the opportunity to chat to locals all over the world. If you are hitting the road and you want to break down barriers, learn the local lingo and make new friends, check out the free app today. It’s a hell of a lot better than a phrase book…
For more info on Pakistan, be sure to check out my Backpacking Pakistan travel guide…
Still not convinced? Read up on ten reasons you should travel to Pakistan!
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