Though only 600 kilometers on the Karakorum Highway, the bus trip from Rawalpindi to Gilgit, is an arduous 18-hour ascent, sometimes longer when there is flooding and/or rock slides. No surprise, then, that seats on Pakistan International Airlinesâ€™ two daily Islamabadâ€“Gilgit flights are in high demand; by plane, the trip takes an hour or so, but unpredictable Himalayan storms cause many flights to have to abort landing, returning their load of frustrated passengers to Islamabad. This, in turn, results in mayhem at the Rawalpindi PIA ticket office where, each day following a cancelled flight, hordes of men cling to an iron fence with one hand and wave their tickets at the four brave clerks behind it with the other, hoping, sweating, sometimes screaming for a spot on the following dayâ€™s flights.
This morning, I was one of those men. As pre-monsoon winds and rain begin to creep into the summer heat, the passenger backup grows. Three days in a row, Iâ€™d been in that office, and what was utter chaos to me on the first day, now made a certain sense; plus, Iâ€™d developed a joking friendship with the balding Mr. Quddus Butt, in his white PIA shirt with black-and-yellow shoulder epaulets. This, I believe, due to my status as curious foreigner, gave me an advantage over the bearded, skull-capped masses pressing against me.
In between bouts of hanging on the bars, there were waiting periods, seated under the fans. During one of these, I was breezing through my guidebook, browsing Gilgit and Karimibad hotels, salivating over glossy photos of the Hindukush Range, when the man next to me pointed to a shot captioned, â€œBaltit Fort, Hunza.â€
â€œMy father was born in that fort,â€ he said. â€œI am from the Royal Family of Hunza.â€
He was dressed in casual Western garb â€” a pink collared shirt, khaki pants and worn, soft leather shoes, and he had a bushy, cookie-sweeper mustache that hid his mouth. His face was serious but calm, and he had a long, low-sloping, rounded nose that I noticed was shared by other people in the room; other Hunzas, I suspected.
He was not boasting, just stating a fact. His family had, indeed, ruled Hunza for 1100 years, up until 1974, when the independent mountain state was placed under Pakistani administration. Major Yousaf Khan, he told me his name when I asked, was returning to Gulmit for his cousinâ€™s sonâ€™s wedding and to visit his parents. He was on leave from an army base near Peshawar where he was an officer in the Tank Corps.
I had noticed him earlier, pacing by himself behind the throng of men at the fence, hands behind his back, a man in control. â€œThe boss,â€ he explained to me later, â€œthe balding man, he is Hunza.â€ That made two of us receiving special treatment.
I told him that it was a dream of mine to see these mountains where he was so rooted and he nodded in approval. â€œYou must go to Shimshal Valley,â€ he said. â€œAnd you must stay in Gulmit. There are glaciers very close, and Borit Lake.â€
I told him of my and my wifeâ€™s plans to go trekking, and as he threw out more recommendations, we found and read the listings in my Lonely Planet book; he continued to nod at the authorsâ€™ glowing descriptions. Major Khanâ€™s father, Shah Khan, had started the Pakistan Air Force winter survival training camp, mentioned in the Naltar Valley section. These days, Shah Khan runs a hotel in Gulmit, the Silk Route Lodge. â€œYou go there, tell him you met his son.â€ Major Khan smiled for the first time when I read the listing for his fatherâ€™s hotel; it was a very positive write-up and relief washed over me that the place hadnâ€™t been panned. The Majorâ€™s brother, Assef Khan, is one of Pakistanâ€™s four most famous mountaineers, he said, listing some of the 8,000-plus meter peaks heâ€™s climbed; Assef runs an expedition outfit in Gilgit called Himalaya Nature Tours.
The crowd was again rushing to the fence, and the Major translated the Urdu announcement for me â€” that dayâ€™s flight had successfully landed in Gilgit, so seats on tomorrowâ€™s flight would now be given out. We didnâ€™t have long to wait, he said.
I decided then to tell him about my own connection to the Hunza Royal Family, an unlikely personal link to the current would-be Mir of Hunza. Surprised, but still calm and poker-faced, he confirmed my information regarding the Mir (another relative of his), which Tay and I had received at dinner the night before; he said we should indeed visit the Mir in his palace in Karimabad.
Despite the warm room, I felt goosebumps rise on my neck. The adventure was coming together, leading us to places, giving purpose to our movements.
The Majorâ€™s name was suddenly called by Mr. Butt, and then mine, our tickets handed to us over the heads of the crowd and we gave each other a congratulatory hand shake before walking back out into the heat of the day.
What, you ask, is my link to the Mir of Hunza? It sounds doubtful, I know, but I beg your patience. It is part of a much bigger story â€“ the story of why Tay and I came to Pakistan in the first place.
And for that, youâ€™ll have to wait; because first, weather permitting, we have a plane to catch. A plane to the north; a plane to the past.