For a lot of things I have, I give the credit to traveling. Having said this I want the readers to understand that traveling isn’t solely the act of going on an expensive vacation. Though there is no denying that travelling has an entertainment value, traveling is a way of living for many and not restricted to annual trips only. I learn a lot from my habit of exploration and self-awareness.
We all are changing at every passing moment and mostly we realize it when the change has happened; except for rare times when you are witnessing yourself changing, evolving and becoming a more aware person. This trip to Balochistan is one of those rare times in my life.
I’ve been to Balochistan before. Yet I hadn’t experienced Balochistan until I went trekking to Takht-e-Suleman in the north of Balochistan.
I’ve mostly gone trekking to the north of Pakistan and when I first came across the pictures of the trek to Takht-e-Suleman in October 2019, I was quite literally under the spell. I was also surprised at my ignorance of the rich and beautiful landscape that’s been there all this time – so close to the home. I just wanted to go and explore this place – the beautifully layered rocks, thousands of pinecones just lying around and a promise of unknown. I started gathering information about the place. I asked my friend on whose Instagram I saw these pictures about the details, and I decided to make it there as soon as I get a chance. But after getting more details about the area, the snakes that come out at night and how it’s not like your average trek to some place up North where porters and guides are waiting in line, I realized it’s not going to happen at least this year. Not until Aziz Jamali Sahab who had previously done this trek in one day in 2017 and had been very patiently answering my questions share about his plan to do the trek again in November 2019. And so I ended up going to Takht in the first week of November and I couldn’t be more happier about how everything unfolded.
I’ve been living in Pakistan for years and although I had been wanting to go to Balochistan since 2016, I was quite ignorant about the place, the people and the politics and popular news which I’m sure didn’t only had me fooled about this diverse and beautiful region of Pakistan. This is the first time I was getting introduced to Balochistan: its people, its problems and its beauty.
I’ve been traveling for quite a while now. I’ve been on solo trips too. I’ve done several treks and camped quite many nights in deserts, on beach and in mountains. I’ve travelled with strangers and stayed with locals in foreign lands. I’ve hitchhiked and slept under stars.
And it sorts of dawned on me during this trip across Balochistan why everyone should travel. To travel is to live sounds very cliché but the truth to cliché is that traveling opens your eyes and mind like nothing else and this opening up and to become aware is the sole purpose of living. Travelling brings culture and eventually human beings that are otherwise divided and categorized in the name of borders.
On 2nd Nov 2019, three of us girls from Karachi joined three Balochistani trekkers and went up to Takht-e-Suleman, a place known for various myths. The trek starts after a few kms of drive from Sharan Abdul Sattar, the last of villages in northern Balochistan. Us girls had taken a flight to Quetta due to time limitations and joined the rest of the team there around 9 am. Our destination that day was in Sherani district which is 70 Kms drive from Zhob, the last big town on the highway which takes you to Dera Ismail Khan and Islamabad if you keep going.
Few minutes into the road trip, we were outside Quetta and we witnessed beautiful colors of yellow, red and green on both sides of the road with the background of mountains. Autumn was in full swing. We continued our journey by road towards Zhob after a lavish music and lunch session at Khanozai. I particularly remember the apple orchards and the pleasant walk I sneaked out for to have some quite time there before joining back the group and continuing our journey. It was raining lightly and I got to witness the most beautiful rainbow of my life. We got out to enjoy this scene for a while and later a small tea break. We reached Sherani late at night where though our host was not present but his extended family made sure we are treated well. We started our trek the next morning.
A quite interesting experience here was to meet the ladies of the house, our hosts behind the curtain. They expressed their wish to meet us and so we went – to the part of home where ladies were. I generally loved their curiosity about us. Their openness while asking questions like why we are here because it was quite fascinating for them to see women coming all the way from Karachi to go up the mountain. We further talked about things like marriage, kids and clothes. Of all the woman present which were around six, only one knew Urdu and had of course taken the role of translator. I’d say this was quite a cultural exchange.
Koh-e-Suleman is a mountain range which surrounds Balochistan to the north and east. Takht-e-Suleman is second highest peak of the range at 11000 feet above sea level (highest is Qaisa Ghar). Our team had to traverse 36 km round trip (18 km one way) in two days with a night stay at base camp (10,000 feet asl). The trek comprises few flat areas, ascents and descents and a couple of steep rocky parts where you’re literally climbing than trekking (most thrilling part of the trek for me).
Trek started early morning next day. We waited for the donkey whose name was Bashai (king). It’s not easy to arrange for a donkey here. Reminded me of the ease with which everyone is ready to give up their donkeys up north. Commercialism reigns supreme anywhere around the world…
At this point let me introduce you all to everyone in the team.
Aziz Jamali, our very generous host, an explorer from Balochistan. Sara – the girl with some super crazy travel stories you will only get to know if you meet her. Super polite Aroosa, the K2 girl who is a cyclist and doctor. Doda Baloch, the MIT graduate and vegetarian guy who talks philosophy. And Bismillah Afghan, the savior, who for me was the most interesting character from this trip.
We walked through fields of gold, pine forests, wild bushes, heaps of cones discarded after being harvested for chilgozas, meet the camel and his master taking the last consignment down the hill, and around 3 pm (???) took a tea break. I was quite convinced this was the destination for today but we had to go on for next couple of hours to make it to the base camp.
It won’t be doing justice to this travelogue of mine if I don’t mention my experience of getting lost because there is not a single trek to follow here and if half of your team members are in some unexplained hurry and rest are generally slow it’s almost inevitable to get lost. I went in wrong direction for an hour or so in hopes I’m eventually going to meet rest of the team but seeing the sun is about to set and no team yet, my mind reminded me of snakes and I ran all the way back to a somewhat familiar point and cried for help which came out as a very loud hello. Fear is quite a motivator. Bismillah, as I’ve already briefly mentioned as the savior, came to the rescue.
By the time I joined the fast and furious members of the team at base camp, the bonfire was ready and the sky had the most beautiful colors it can have before the sun sets. Getting your feet out of boots after a long day and placing them close to the fire at a distance where they are warm but not burning and then just look at the flames is something that’s relaxing only after you’ve trekked for 7-9 hours.
We decided to not set the camps but take the refuge inside the stone shelters here. Our food ration consisted of tea, apples and tin food (courtesy Sara). We ate, we talked and enjoyed the warmth of fire. How little do we actually need to live happily I wonder and yet back in the city the rat race doesn’t spare you. I particularly remember talking about emotions. Our team member Doda quite enlightened us all. The night was cold, and my sleeping bag wasn’t warm enough, so I hardly slept that night.
Next morning, we started at 6 am to make it to Takht and then all the way down, back to Sherani. This part of the trek started off like a nice walk in the pine forest and gradually getting steep. There were patches of snow on the way. And then came the most fun part of the trek – a steep portion with hardly any space to put a foot. This part was more like a rock-climbing experience and I only could do it thanks to Bismillah. After two hours, we reached atop Takht which happens to be a sort of seat stitched on one side on the cliff. And one actually has to climb down to reach this citadle. We took a tea break before performing this feat and I decided to capture the scene in my little travel journal. Later each of us except Doda went down to the Takht and stayed till the photo and video was captured.
It was a bright sunny day. And we had a long journey ahead. Though we all assumed it will take us no more than 6-7 hours to go down, no one could imagine three of us will actually make it in 12 hours.
The fast and furious members of our team including Aziz, Sara and Doda, as usual, were ahead. Aroosa and Bismillah were in the end and I was in the most unfortunate place – in the middle. Middle child crisis is quite real and it’s funny because I’m a middle child. I hoped to join the 3 ahead and was able to catch them from atop a hill of which I couldn’t figure out the way down but only way back. So, I had to wait for the other two to ultimately move forward without getting lost like day before. Meanwhile, I decided to finish the digital drawing I started earlier. Aroosa and Bismillah got where I was, and I started hurrying again once I was told which way to go. And as usual I reached a point where I couldn’t figure out the way down and the setting sun made the matters worse. Worse enough to make me put an end to my impatience. This trek was quite a learning experience. It was almost dark when we three were together again and now I decided to be the one in the last. We were now walking in torchlight relying on Bismillah’s navigational skills. As we went down, birds sleeping soundly were startled by the noise of intruders. But we were too much into self-preservation at this particular moment. Aroosa felt bad for birds but what could we do?
Not to mention that the three other members must have reached back by now and we had no way to let them know about our situation. There were no signals on cellphones. But we continued despite all and didn’t panic until we were so close to our destination. We could remember the place we came from, the layered mountains and the water streams but for some reason we were lost. Bismillah told us girls to stop and wait for him while he figures out the way. The moon was bright and certain huge stones were quite tricky and almost an illusion.
A quite interesting thing I had personally experienced earlier was how people in distress are prone to judging and blaming others that any wise person should not take it serious during these situations. Aroosa had been quite in pain because of her tendonitis and she couldn’t walk without Bismillah’s help. And Bismillah had been quite a gentleman the whole time, helping her take steps with the patience of a mother helping her kid walk. I would honestly never have the patience he had that day. And yet I could see how Aroosa was annoyed about something Bismillah said and Bismillah trying to tell her to walk faster. Human beings are quite interesting. On the way back I got to talk a bit more with Bismillah and it was so nice to know about this young man who works in Quetta and gets out every week to explore his area.
Anyway, at this point, we were cold and lost. After losing, finding and then just going on whichever way we found, we could eventually see the mud road other end. This was telling us we are close. And then we saw lights – coming from a distant car which came quite far in search of us because it was quite a situation of concern. Three of us were just gone and there is no way to reach us or be sure even if we’re safe. One wheel of the receiving vehicle was now suspended in the air as the road was way too thin for it. Two guys were waiting for us with torches, drinks and snacks. One guy was quite generous to offer me his shawl. We sat for a while, rested a bit and moved on towards the other vehicle awaiting us at a distance. And that’s how around 10 pm we finally made it home. It was quite a long day and I could finish my drawing. Had food after we were warm and safe. I slept quite soundly that night obviously.
Early next morning, we girls went to say goodbye to the women and were presented some shawls. After the farewell tea we started our journey back to Quetta. We made several stops on the way back at places like food/tea stops and defunct railway stations of the British era.
I particularly hate this part of any trip – going back. We reached Quetta around 8 pm, briefly visited the market to buy some dry fruits and headed back to the city of light and noise around 10 pm. I was home the following morning and this trip across Baluchistan was already a memory – almost like I’ve woken up from a dream.
The people I met, the landscape I have seen, the things I’ve experienced and the awareness I now have about Balochistan – this trip was amazing. Three months before the venture, I didn’t even know about Takht-e-Suleman and then I had come back spending a night up there already. I was hoping some of friends will go along with me to this beautiful place but as expected, none of my friends went along and I’m glad it happened this way.
The writer is an author, artist, and trekker
Disclaimer: Views expressed in this article are those of the author and Balochistan Voices not necessarily agrees with them.
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