Pakistan Revisited – Part 2. Lulusar Lake
Lulusar Lake to Gilgit, 1973
Soon after leaving George Schaller’s camp the road disappeared in the snow with animal tracks forking in several directions. I headed north toward the 13,700-foot Babusar Pass, following a herders’ trail around the southeast facing slope of Lulusar Lake.
I crossed an ice bridge over a stream pouring out of a melting glacier and came to the base of a cliff pitched with loose rock scree. After a quarter mile of scrambling, I came to a sunny south-facing ledge covered in flowers – a wild mountain garden of yellow cinquefoils, purple asters, orange poppies and blue forget-me-nots. A rivulet cut the trail then cascaded down the cliff. Next to the trail I spotted two caves, mouths walled with rock that formed narrow entryways. The larger cave had a spring flowing from a fissure in the back wall – the source of the little waterfall that crossed the trail. From the spring, large flat rocks paved over the channel, creating a dry even floor that extended beyond the entryway to the edge of the trail.
In the rear of the larger cave, near the cooking area, I found a small square of foil from a cigarette pack. Inside it was a delicate piece of paper, almost transparent, folded into a long narrow strip then woven into a square. On the paper, written with pen and ink, was a diagram:
I refolded the paper, wrapped it back in the foil and put it in a little leather pouch. I rolled out my sleeping bag in the small cave, then went next door to the larger kitchen cave and had a meal of nan, dried goat and fresh spring water. A little Naran hash mixed with black Pakistani tobacco, and I was soon asleep.
The sky cleared the next morning. Kashmir had lifted her veil. I wrapped a scarf around my face and head, leaving a narrow slit to see through to avoid being snowblinded. Pushing to the 13,700-foot Babusar Pass in my gym shoes, through patches of thigh-high wet snow, I was euphoric, racing the last mile to the top into light clouds. Then the sky opened to the east and I saw 26,600-foot Nanga Parbat.
Spaced, hallucinating, soaked to the thighs and chilled to the bone, I was afraid to smoke the hash joint I’d saved for this occasion. Dead quiet. Then a bird sang, a fly buzzed, a blast of cold wind, then dead still again. Far below on the steep slope, I could see the road emerging from the expanse of white leading to green pastures and brown nomad camps. Staggering and stumbling, glissading on my walking stick when I could. I soon left the snow behind and saw low stone village houses with flat mud roofs, corrals and fences of stacked rock forming patterns in the earth.
I walked down the dirt road, surrounded by pine forest, and white mountains. Crossing snow melt streams and irrigation watercourses, I passed orchards, fields and hamlets. Tribes of nomads came up the road, driving their herds to the mountain for summer grazing. Cattle bells, hoofs and shouts, the crack of switches on animals, unveiled women in red and gold threaded dresses and heavy jewelry, babies bundles at their breasts and backs. Horses, cows, goats, sheep, big buffalo and bulls – all heavily burdened with the goods of the tribe moving slowly up the road. I could smell spring in pine woods, scented with open fires and high thin air.
Like their herder sisters in Kagan, these Chilasi nomad women were unveiled, and some stunningly beautiful. I couldn’t help but stare. It had been so long since I’d seen women unveiled, instead of walking sacks in purdah. They seemed amused.
I stopped at a roadside chai house. A slow, sleepy village. Men squatted and milled around. Some boys looked over my shoulder as I wrote. A man asked about my earring and if I want to smoke some hash. I was trying to learn some Urdu, keeping a phrase book and adding vocabulary every day. Some of the kids spoke a few words of English. The man with the hash decided to take everything out of my shaving kit and inspect it – a small price to pay for a few tokes on his hookah.
A herd of goats passed, kicking up a thin film of dust that settled everywhere. Now and then I'd see a herd of cows, an occasional jeep or truck, horns blasting at the people and livestock in their way. I walked to the stream to wash off the dust, surrounded by staring children.
These villages were much like the hamlets of the Afghan mountain people, but made with more timber and less mud: one dirt street, a few tea houses and small shops, a school, and a mosque surrounded by small farms and houses built into the surrounding hills on slopes too steep to farm. Marijuana, poppies and flowers grew everywhere.
I walked into Babusar village, still snow damp but warmed in the late spring sun. Some elders sat in the sun in front of a shop. I took out my little leather pouch, unwrapping the paper I found in the cave and showed it to them. The old men became excited and took me to their mullah who lived next to the mosque. The mullah declared it was a tavis, Islamic magic, and seemed quite displeased.
I continued down to Singal, leaving the old men and the mullah to discuss my tavis. The road was good, and the apricot trees budding. I came upon a man with three donkeys, each laden with a large white sack on either side of their pack frames. Written on each sack in bold black letters I read, “Furnished by the People of the USA. Not to be sold or exchanged. Net weight 100 lbs.” The man told me it was very good wheat and he was taking it to the bazaar to sell at a very good price.
I joined a pack train down to the Indus River and Chilas town where it was brutally hot. Walking down the Karakoram Highway, I caught a ride in the back of a Bedford jingle truck.
“Gilgit?” I asked.
“Gilgit, acha.” the driver answered. His co-pilot smiled and nodded.
They didn’t say another word. I hid in the shade of the empty cargo compartment as we drove to the Gilgit bazaar. The driver bought me lunch and then stopped in front of a big green double gate in a high adobe wall.
Lulusar Lake, 2023
As we trekked around Lulusar Lake, in search of a way across the inflowing stream, we came upon Gulab Gul’s camp. His name means “Rosewater Flower. A Pashtun Afghan refugee, now a sheep and goat herder in Pakistan, Gulab was from the notorious Gul tribe known for its strongmen and warlords. A conservative Muslim, Gulab closed the flaps of his tent as we approached to hide his women, and then walked out to meet us.
After introductions Gulab invited us to tea. He served green tea, very sweet, showing us respect by pouring more sugar into our glasses than the tea could dissolve. Then came bowls of new potatoes cooked in the tallow of one of his fat-tailed sheep, with plenty of nan to scoop the potatoes and soak up the gravy. The finest meal I had in Pakistan.
When we met on the trail in front of his camp, then through lunch and for most of our portrait session, Gulab presented himself as a humorless tough guy. But I took too long photographing him, and eventually Gulab couldn’t control himself any longer, cracking up with smiles and laughter.
I spotted the glacial bridge from Gulab Gul’s camp. It was only a few hundred feet above where I remembered it to be. Gulab warned us not to cross: too dangerous. “Go back the way you came.” Not because the bridge was unsafe, but because Kohistani people lived on the other side of the stream. Mountain people (hillbillies), a violent, dangerous, thieving tribe. My Pakistani friends agreed. Forcaan was from Hunza and Sheryar from Nagar – both far northern people from villages close to the border with Singkiang, but they didn’t like the idea of trekking through Kohistani territory either and told me the same tale of the tribe’s reputation.
I’ve heard that all my life.” I replied.
“‘We’re good people but the people across the river/border/street and especially on the other side of town are dangerous violent thieves.’ If I’d ever paid attention to that kind of advice I’d still be sucking on my dead mother’s tit.”
They laughed and we started out for Kohistani territory.
There were no footprints in the bridge’s slushy ice. The camp was quiet. No one greeted us as we approached, though we could see shadows moving in the tents. Perhaps the men were gone. We saw a brother and sister herding donkeys. They were wary at first but eventually warmed up and came to us.
The cave was much as I remember it, with pure spring water and deep recesses protecting from the elements. The fire pit and stone kitchen counter were still there, but the hand-stacked stones that walled in the cave seemed lower than I remembered. Perhaps they were used to rebuild the trail below after a landslide.
In the picture above, the sleeping quarters are behind us, the kitchen in front, and the spring is deep in the recess to the right hidden by the wet stone slabs where we drank and filled our water bottles with cold, fresh water.