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  • Writer's pictureRogue Chemist

Precious cargo

Along with the driver we hired, Hassan accompanied us on the ride back to Skardu from Hushe. Also in tow was a random teenager from the village who had slept in too late, missing his earlier bus to the city to write his exams that started the next day.

It was good fortune for him that our departure coincided with his slipup—I was happy to help the kid out (and maybe rack up some good karma points in the process).

We made a pit stop in a small village near Hushe so that Hassan could deliver his condolences to the family of a friend who had recently passed away. In the meantime, Mawish and I roamed around the vicinity of the car, her hanging out with a group of cute little kids and me in a daze.

Hassan heading off to deliver his condolences to a friend's family

I was sleepy and swaying with closed eyes in the back seat for most of the drive—even the glorious views couldn't force me to keep my eyes open (at least I had witnessed them on the way in). We pulled into the front of Baltistan Continental a few hours later, and the men helped us haul our gear out of the trunk.

Hassan and the driver lingered for chai and lunch with Ashraf, the hotel owner (whom Hassan was already acquainted with), while Mawish and I reestablished ourselves in our room (the same one we stayed in before leaving for Hushe). The rest of the day would be quiet. We would explore Skardu and the surrounding area the next day before subjecting ourselves to the grueling drive back to Lahore.

I had morphed into the definition of dirtbag in the mountains, too cold to care about changing into clean(er) clothes until I set foot back in Skardu (which was also cold, mind you). So, I was slightly annoyed to discover, once again, that there was no hot water.

But desperate to restore myself to a less-gross state, I decided to suffer for the sake of cleanliness and showered under the cold water. It's good for my immune system, I reasoned grudgingly.

Ashraf took me and Mawish on a drive around the city to take in the sights, and I was surprised to discover how large it actually is. Many shops, medical facilities, and the University of Baltistan—the only higher-education institution in the area—are located here. Naturally, it's also a hub for tourists and trekkers en route to the mountains.

Sculpture in memory of Hassan Sadpara, a mountaineer from Skardu and the first Pakistani to climb six eight-thousanders (five in Pakistan plus Everest)

While driving, we noticed a sign for an agricultural fair (effectively a farmer's market) that would be taking place the following day. Given my love of ogling (and devouring, of course) fresh produce, we decided to include it on the next day's agenda.

Apples, apricots, and pears, among other delicious fruit, thrive in Gilgit-Baltistan and I was keen to sample them while I had this perfect opportunity. I left the fair with a jar of cherry jam for Maida, a bag of dried apricots, a kilo of fresh apples, and some dried fruit candy to share with my co-workers once I returned to Germany.

Seriously, the most sumptuous, delicious apples I've ever eaten in my life

Back at the hotel, we picked up our driver (one of the hotel staff), changed vehicles, and set off for Deosai National Park, the second-highest plateau in the world (with an average altitude of 4,114 meters). The park is located only 30 kilometers from Skardu city, and the entrance fee for foreigners at the time of writing is 8 USD (or the equivalent in PKR).

Based on Mawish's starry-eyed account of camping in Deosai in the summer, this was not a place to miss. She was more than happy to return to the "Land of Giants" with me—this time dusted in a blanket of fresh snow instead of the green meadows of colorful wildflowers she encountered.

In the truck, I noticed that Ashraf and the driver each wore a big, brilliant gemstone ring, alluding to the wealth of minerals and (semi)precious stones (e.g., aquamarine, rubies, emeralds, topaz, etc.) mined in the Karakoram. High-altitude mining, as you can imagine, is a dangerous operation given the risks of handling explosives, landslides, heavy machinery, etc., but is a common livelihood for the men here in Skardu and the surrounding area.

A winding, rough road (which we were more than accustomed to by now) led us to the park entrance, where we paused to take in the immensity of the plains. As Mawish promised, it was indeed a sight to behold—brown, yellow, and grey rolling hills streaked with white emerged before us, disappearing into mountains in the distance.

A view near the entrance of Deosai National Park (at the end of October)

Despite the beautiful blue sky, Deosai was deceptively windy and cold.

As impressive as it was, I was content to do most of my sightseeing from the comfort of the car. Lame, I know, but combined with the wind chill, it was just too damn cold (which I've said a few times in the north so far, but the super strong wind really deterred me from unnecessary exposure).

And since the landscape appeared to be roughly the same in all directions (at least on the macro level), I didn't feel like I was missing out on too much action.

We drove as far as the campsite at Bara Pani, one of several rivers flowing through the park, where we could have theoretically sighted Himalayan Brown Bears (but the chances of this were pretty slim). The park was actually established with the aim to protect the local brown bear population, which, along with snow leopards and several other animal species dwelling within the park's range, are dwindling in numbers.

View of the plains at Bara Pani campsite

And so I ate my apples in solitary silence while the others braved the cold and walked across the plains in search of brown bears (to no avail).

The journey back to Lahore the next day got off to a rocky start (figuratively speaking). Ashraf delivered us to the bus station, but the bus we had booked in advance and was scheduled to depart in the late morning had just left without us (earlier than we were initially told).

After some verbal hassle by Ashraf, the bus driver was called. We jumped into Ashraf's truck and sped down the street to catch up with the bus. The driver had pulled over to the side of the road to wait for us.

As we climbed aboard and made our way to the two empty seats towards the back, I didn't detect any death glares or side eye from the (exclusively male) crowd, but I'm sure they were at least a tiny bit annoyed by the slight extension of the long drive ahead. This bus was cramped, a bit foul (but luckily carried no crying/dying pigeons), and had more passengers than the NATCO minibus we had rode in on.

I was already mentally resigned to the unpleasantness, but Mawish insisted that something be done to enhance our comfort level given the 30-plus hours ahead, and I didn't protest.

It was at this point that Mawish whipped out what we came to call the "woman card."

I watched in utter awe as she stood up, positioned herself at the head of the bus, and launched into an impromptu speech in Urdu to the men seated before her. There was nothing meek about her demeanor: she was all fierce eyes, confident posture, and loud, clear voice. After all, as the only women (and me as the lone foreigner) on board, we were precious cargo—cargo that required front seats.

At first, the men occupying the front seats were reluctant to make the trade, but she went on, twisting their arms just a little further. She finally dropped something to the effect of, "The men in my home province of Punjab would give up their seats immediately." Bam. Guilt and shame was all it took for two of the front-seat holders to give in.

I was silent, slightly amused, and thoroughly impressed during the entire display. I knew Mawish was a strong, persuasive woman, but this is when I realized, Mawish is the boss.

I was feeling a bit entitled/spoiled because I don't like to inconvenience anyone unless it's really necessary (whether that's a positive or negative trait, it's hard to say), but Mawish insisted we were totally justified in making the request.

A second turn of events unfolded as we encountered a construction holdup upon exiting the city. As before (en route to Skardu), everyone piled out of the bus to mingle and wait it out. This was a disappointing surprise because we had been informed that road construction didn't take place on Fridays, the day we had specifically chosen to leave Skardu for this very reason.

Weighing the options, we wondered if we could spontaneously book a carpool ride in place of the bus, which Ashraf had suggested beforehand. It would be more expensive, yes, but more comfortable and would get us back more quickly (after the roadblock cleared, of course). We were both exhausted and eager to crash in our own beds (or in my case, Maida's guest bed).

Mawish was determined to make all of this work in our favor, so she sprung into action, getting on the phone and swiftly arranging a shared car to Islamabad with Ashraf's help. I didn't have to lift a finger or utter a word, only observe. I was useless (but precious) cargo.

But the boss was on a roll. She was also determined to get our money back for the bus ride. The irony of demanding front seats and then ditching the bus altogether wasn't lost on me.

And so we walked over to the bus driver, who was sitting on the side of the road with a few other passengers. I'm sure he was dreading our approach.

Again, Mawish delivered another convincing speech (I have no idea how she still had energy for all this hustling), announcing our plans to abandon the bus and arguing with him to fully reimburse the cost of our tickets.

This debate attracted a small audience, inciting one man to offer to pay the remaining 800 Rs (400 each) that the driver refused to credit us on account of the time we had already spent on the bus (of course, we did not accept this man's kindness). To me, this was totally fair reasoning, and we forfeited the remaining rupees.

Our backpacks were hauled off the bus roof, and we sat on them in a grassy patch on the side of the road like bums, eating the last of my apples until our driver pulled up just as the roadblock was clearing. The hustling and waiting time amounted to around two hours.

We greeted the three men in the car, climbed into the two empty back seats, and made our way along the same long, harrowing road we rode in on.

At some point in the evening, Mawish asked the guy sitting in the front passenger seat to trade spots with her, and her wish was granted (of course). My legs were getting quite cramped in the back and the two men beside me had fallen asleep, their bodies weighing heavily against mine each time the car shifted left.

I was relieved to stretch my legs in Kohistan (a district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) for a late-night chai break at a roadside restaurant. After walking back outside to the car, we were approached by a police vehicle.

The officer questioned Mawish as to why a foreigner was out here in the middle of the night and basically recommended that we leave ASAP. I'm not sure quite what the fuss was about, but according to Mawish, the area is on the sketchy side, and he was probably just looking out for us (remember: women + foreigner = precious cargo).

The sun started to rise as we drove through KPK. I hadn't gotten any sleep, as expected (moving vehicles are never conducive to sleep for me, ever), and was feeling pretty weary at this point.

And as the sun grew stronger and heat level rose, I could feel the skin of my face starting to burn through the car window. Thankfully, Mawish's sunscreen was on hand and I slathered it on, not caring that my hands were probably pretty gross.

Eventually, we stopped for breakfast and then drove directly on to Islamabad, our drop-off point. There was some confusion about where we would be deposited, since the bus station wasn't anywhere near where they wanted to go, so we ended up getting out on the side of the highway. At least we were in the city.

Mawish then called a friend of hers based in Islamabad to meet us at a restaurant for lunch (I inhaled my giant plate of fish biryani) before cabbing it to the Daewoo Express bus terminal in Rawalpindi, where we waited to board for Lahore—our final leg of the journey. Just a few more hours to go.

Finally, Mawish arranged an Uber to get us both home from the bus station. We hugged each other at the gate of Maida's house, vowing to meet at least once more during the upcoming week.

Mawish really, truly was the best travel companion I've ever had. She was a friend, guide, and badass boss chick rolled into one.

Hot shower time? Hell yes.


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