The pursuit of Mountains – a quest for finding myself.

Exploring Gilgit Baltistan on my own .

Usman Zubair

“As I wanted to explore the biggest fear known to humanity, I made sure to camp right in the middle of the desert where there was solitude accompanying me, along with the fear of the unknown. I decided to travel alone.
Humans are known to rely on each other, but my quest was to explore my limits to this reliance. I developed a practice of surviving in my own company and to enjoy it to core I turned my phone off as well.
To create a meaning of life, we must seek comfort within ourselves, and often people act as an obstacle in accomplishing it.
If I travel in the company of people, with the aim of self-discovery the lesson I shall learn will not be solely belonging to me. When I am unaccompanied, I feel a purpose to life, a meaning and my happiness is independent of people, it sources from within.

My sister, while I was on my journey, asked me if there is anyone with me and I said yes, Allah is with me, something I wasn’t very blunt to utter otherwise.”

A quest for finding myself.

I initiated my journey from Multan, traveling on a train with my bike. Upon waking up the next morning, the train was passing through Fateh Jung, a small town in district Attock; the new sky greeted me with mesmerizing hues, a glorious and blissful sight. Upon reaching Rawalpindi, I used my bike as a commute and bought the necessary supplies for the upcoming journey.

Mesmerizing sunrise passing through Fateh jung.
Sunset hues over Nanga Parbat on the way to Chilas

It took me a length of 2 days to reach Skardu, the mesmerizing land of snow clad mountains and sand. Being the first landscape that saluted me, I instantly fell in love with it. The mighty Indus River was flowing fiercely between the vast dunes. For quite some time I sat there, on a big rock to let this memory etch itself into my mind, the songs of sand and water.

Indus delta, Skardu

The plan was not to have a plan because to travel without a plan is an adventure on its own. I decided I’ll follow whatever road I find and go wherever it takes me, to go all the way to the end, to travel without any plan and schedule and constant thoughts about returning home raced through my brain, and it was a liberating experience. One goes where the heart takes them, and stop where one wishes to stay, getting out of your comfort zone isn’t easy in the beginning, but once accomplished there is no going back.

Entering Skardu city

I took the Sadpara-Deosai road on the first day and went as far as my bike possibly could then heavy snow welcomed me. I went on foot towards Deosai top to see how far I could reach but the heavy snow made further progress impossible and I decided to head back.
The policeman at check post said it would take at least one more month for Deosai to open. I enquired if I can camp here and he explained it would be cold outside and offered to stay as a guest as he had an extra bed in his room, so I decided to accept the offer.

Sadpara Lake
Near Deosai top
Cooking stove which can be refilled at any location from the gasoline.
Golden hour at Sadpara Lake on the way to Deosai top, Skardu.

I returned from Deosai top the next morning, and after breakfast started my journey on the Skardu-Shigar road, after crossing the Shigar Bridge, I came across a straight highway with desert on both sides and mighty mountains laying above. Words are unable to do justice to the beauty of that moment, on this patch, I drove back and forth several times to experience this exhilarating beauty over and over.

The road to Shigar valley with desert on both sides.

While I was visiting Shigar Fort the guide, pointing towards his left told me that K2 is behind these mountains. To have a glimpse of K2 is every mountain lover’s dream. After visiting Shigar Fort, I kept on driving on the road to see where it ended. I met a local on the way and asked him where the road led, and he explained that it led to Askole, and surprisingly I was on the right path, maybe K2 is calling me. We instantly made friends when he came to know that I had no friend in the area. I inquired if it was worth going up to Askole and he said yes, it’s the gateway to Central Karakoram National Park which encompasses some of the world’s highest peaks and most massive glaciers. It has four peaks over 8,000m; He also told me that with the help of high altitude porters I could go up to Concordia – the throne room of mountains God, it is full of risk and adventure. The conditions will prove harsh due to snow, but it is possible, so without any further delay, I started driving towards Askole hoping to catch a glimpse of K2.

Beautiful cherry blossom trees on the way to Shigar.

On the road is where one learns that people are living outside our tiny world, that our problems are nothing in front of a broader perspective. It humbles us. Traveling means seeing the rawness and reality of the world. The good and the bad. Learning from the low points and challenging stories, remembering the beautiful, heartwarming moments and never giving up on your everlasting desire to explore. Your heart becomes an explosion of colors – a kaleidoscope.

Taking a break from riding and enjoying Chai on rode side.

After reaching Dasu, a small town before Askole, the guys at check post explained that the road to Askole was closed due to landslide and they told me to go back to Shigar.
But I insisted that I would like to see for myself where the road was closed and to decide if I want to go back or stay here, so I continued my journey.

The road towards Askole

After a bumpy crazy ride of 2 hours, I reached a point where the road was closed, and locals were working on opening it, I talked to the guys and found out it would take 30 minutes top for the road to open and then I can go up to Apoligon, a small village before Askole.
The road ahead of Apolicon was also in bad shape, and the landslide had damaged it from place to place and it was impossible to make it to Askole on the bike.

Locals are working with a tractor to clear the road.

After the road opened I reached apoligon; there was an army bunker there, they called me in and asked me what am I doing here all alone.
I said I came to visit, but the road to Askole is closed so I’ll be spending the night here and going back tomorrow, they welcomed me to stay with them cause they are tired from these mountains aka nalaay, so it’s nice to have a guest aka graien in here.
They asked me what I do and how long I am traveling, I told them all about my adventures, we had dinner, and afterward, we played ludo and went to sleep.
Next morning they made me breakfast, and I started my journey back to Skardu.

A mountain man is carrying a pile of bushes to use for fire.

On the Journey back from Apolicon, I was passing from Sarfranga desert I failed to resist the cold desert and went straight in. There I decided to waste the whole day in the desert doing off-roading on my bike.

Chilling in the middle of Sarfranga desert

While I was setting up my camp a man came with a herd of sheep looking for water, he asked me what I was doing there all alone,
I explained the impact of its beauty and that I wished to spend the night there looking at shooting stars.
I asked if it’s okay to take his photo and he accepted and posed perfectly as I took his picture, he said you guys take pictures but never give them back, why can’t you take the photo out as those Americans do.
I laughed and said I don’t have such a camera, but I promise if I visited here again I’ll give you your photo, he gave me his address and name and left.

A local Shepherd posing for the photo in Sarfranga cold Desert

The Sarfranga cold Desert situated at the elevation of approx 8500 ft is the world’s highest cold desert and wonder of the world. Witnessing the beauty of this desert is an otherworldly experience.

Setting sun in Sarfarnga desert
Setting sun in Sarfarnga desert
Dancing around on the freezing sand on the beat of music only I could hear.

When the night fell, and it was pitch dark, I took out my sleeping bag.
Watching the stars laying there I realized in the motion of stars, how our home, the little blue dot is rotating and we are just floating in the vast space consisting of billion stars, galaxies, nebula, and gas clouds. It’s a beautiful feeling realizing how little we are in this big beautiful universe.

Star Gazing in the Sarfanga Desert
Star Gazing in the Sarfanga Desert
Moments before Sunrise

And with first rays of light, I packed my stuff and left with nothing but memories and footprints.

On the way to Khaplu

The following day I took the Skardu-Khaplu road. It’s a beautiful road which took me from dunes on the bank of Indus River to straight roads with the unusual formation of trees. The symmetry and straight lines of trees give a fantastic view on the way to Khaplu. On the way, there is a turn and a bridge and check post on the road which takes you to Khaplu, and the straight path goes to Kharmang valley and Manthokha waterfall, I took the turn and continued towards the check post and crossed the bridge.
The main tourist attraction in Khaplu is Khaplu Palace and to visit that you have to slide onto the road towards the Khaplu which is ascending towards the palace, there is a road sign which I followed towards the Khaplu palace.

On the way to Khaplu

Khaplu Palace, locally known YabgoKhar (The fort on the roof)
The palace was constructed with the help of Kashmiri and Balti artisans. Being on the border of multiple regions, the structure of the castle has Tibetan, Kashmiri, Ladakhi, Balti, and Central Asian influences. [Source: Wikipedia]
When I reached the Palace, there was some tourist from Japan also visiting the palace, and I joined their guided tour which continued for about an hour, I took photos of the Palace and listened to our guide.

Royal balcony (Chogojarokh)

This is the Royal balcony (Chogojarokh). The guide told us that there are different scripts carved on the roof of the Royal balcony, scripts they are still trying to understand.

A view of cherry blossom trees from one of the windows of Khaplu palace.

When I was leaving Khaplu palace, a local asked me if I have visited the Chqchan mosque, and I said no, He said keep going forward on this road, and you will reach the mosque, it’s ancient mosque and you should visit it.
I went straight on the Khaplu Palace road, and it took me to Masjid Chqchan which means the miraculous mosque. It is one of the earliest mosques in the region.
The mosque was empty, and the moment I entered the main mosque area, I was in awe after seeing the wooden carving on the roof and colors of the mosque.
I explored the mosque, took photos and then prayed there.

Prayer area of Chqchan mosque

After visiting Chqchan Mosque, I descended to main Khaplu road and continued my journey. 5 miles later I came across a bridge which led to Saling, on the farthest side of Saling is the Hushe valley and the Mashabrum and its sister peaks. If one visit K2 Basecamp, Concordia and cross the Gondogoro Pass then on the return journey you will reach Hushe Valley

The road to Saling.

When I was taking this photo a guy in shalwar kameez approached me and asked me where am I from and what am I doing here.
I answered him, I am a tourist, and I came from Multan, and I am exploring this place, he then said he belonged to ISI and asked for my identity card, after showing him identity card he asked me to show him the photos and videos I tookof that area.
I showed him the pictures and videos, and he asked me to delete the video cause it was showing some restricted area which wasn’t supposed to be filmed, I removed the clip, and he left saying don’t take photos of that area.

The road to Saling.

After he left I went towards the far end of this straight road and asked people how far is Hushe valley; they answered It would take me approx. 2 hours to reach there, as it was already 1 pm and I have to visit Manthokha waterfall too I decided to go back to Khaplu and visit Manthokha waterfall.

On returning from Saling, I took the Karigal – Skardu road and visited Manthokha Waterfall, located in Kharmang valley, Skardu, Baltistan. This waterfall is approx. 180 feet high from the ground and located 40 km away from main Skardu town,
After visiting the waterfall, I came back to Skardu and spent the night in the hotel.

Manthokha Waterfall, Kharmang valley

On my fifth day, I visited Kharphocho fort. From the top of Kharphocho fort, I could see the entire of Skardu Valley, Shigar desert and the Indus River passing through it. It was a surreal sight.
When I reached the top of the fort, this one army guy came to me and said.
“We got information from our down post that some guy with a helmet is coming to the top.”
So he asked me why I was wearing this helmet here and I explained I was making a video of all the places I have been visiting with my helmet on. He asked me if I came on my bike all the way from Multan and I said yes, they offered me tea and afterward I came down.

Kharphocho fort
A view of Skardu city from Kharphocho fort

I went to Shangrila lake after visiting the Kharphocho fort, One has to pay 300rs to enter the premises of the lake, and for foreigners, its three times, this guy from Sweden who I met on the road told me this is not fair to us.
People in Pakistan think we are from abroad, so it automatically makes us rich but it’s not true, it’s costly to pay three times the price for us, so we photographed it from the road above.

Perfect reflection on Lower Kachura Lake aka Shangrila Lake.

A 15-minute drive from lower kachura lake take one to upper kachura lake, not a single soul was present there but me.
It was drizzling when I reached the lake, I was alone with the beauty of the lake and the sound of the rain.

Perfect reflection on Lower Kachura Lake aka Shangrila Lake.

This was the last place I visited before saying goodbye to Skardu and moving to Hunza valley. It took me approx. 10 hours to reach Karimabad from there, I went straight to Duikar, away from all the crowd and spent the night in camp and enjoyed my peaceful night.
Next morning the beautiful weather welcomed me in Hunza, a chilly wind accompanied light rain. Sitting on the Duikar top, I prepared tea and enjoyed the serene sunrise as I sipped away.

Enjoying tea at Duikar top

Sitting there at the first light of day I could feel and hear different sounds in my surroundings, the sound of cattle grazing in the fields, the sound of different vehicles, woman working in fields, kids going to school and at that moment I couldn’t help but wonder, who set us all in motion? Why are we doing what we are doing?
We wake up every morning, and with the sun coming up on the horizon we follow a sort of pattern, on our will, but what if we are all programmed to do so.
Then the series Westworld came to my mind, what if we think we have free will, but we don’t have any? What if most of us are following commands, like robots, chained to the expectations of the society? Is it possible to break free of this chain?

A wild yak on the way to Khunjrab pass.

To drive the bike on Karakoram highway is a dream come true. It’s an out of the world experience driving between mountains on this paved road, crossing lakes, tunnels, bridges, and waterfalls. I left Duikar and continued my journey on KKH to visit Khunjrab pass, the highest paved mountain pass in the world. I saw wildlife on my way to the pass, being on a bike gives me the freedom to notice my surroundings. I saw markhor, yaks, eagles, chukar and golden marmots.

Golden marmots are sitting on the top of rocks.
Highest paved International border Khunjrab pass

After visiting Khunjrab pass, I went to Chipursan Valley which is 2 to 3-hour drive from KKH just ahead of Sost – the last town of Pakistan.
As one start their journey on Chipursan road the landscape changes. The mountains here belong to the Pamiri region, which is also called the roof of the world.
It’s a remote valley with its endpoint linking to Wakhan Corridor. People here speak Wakhi and Burushaski. The valley has eight small villages from Yarzerech to Zoodkhoon and beyond that is glacier area called Yashkuk, after crossing Yashkuk there is a mystical and holy Baba Ghundi Ziarat, and a polo ground near the shrine of Baba Ghundi.

Yaskuk glacier and Yashkuk peak on the way to Baba Ghundi Shrine.

When I visited the place, an inauguration ceremony of water channel near Baba gundi shrine was being conducted. Nayaz was also arranged. I visited the shrine of Baba Ghundi and while the nayaz was being prepared the locals gathered around in a circle and danced on the Wakhi and Tajik music.

Baba Ghundi Ziarat

It was fascinating to see them dancing especially older adults who moved with such grace and perfection, while we were enjoying the feast the local told me that they have a Baba Ghundi festival held here every year in fall and people from Afghanistan and Tajikistan visit here on Yaks to trade goods and for a polo match.

Local celebrating on the inauguration of the water channel
Portrait of a local man near Baba Ghundi shrine

The people of Chipursan valley are very generous and hospitable. After the feast I said my goodbye to the locals and hit the road for the journey back home with a heart filled with joy and beautiful memories of all the previous journey, this was the last place I visited, and I intend to return there on the Baba Ghundi festival.

The soft light of the sun had turned Pasu cones into a magical place.

Here, the story of my solo journey comes to an end, going on this solo journey I discovered myself in the process and learned a lot about the geography and cultures of these places and myself.
That how far I can push myself and how to survive in situations when I had no one to depend on, I had never experienced traveling like that before, and I’ll prefer to travel alone now.
There is something so addicting about going alone that I’ll do anything to travel alone, it’s not that I don’t like the company of people, it’s about being comfortable with yourself and explore the places on your own.
Interacting with people and knowing about their culture and lifestyle, also traveling alone gives me ultimate freedom, and as a traveler who has to document his travels, I have to make a lot of stops on the way taking photos and talking to people.
I will say that everyone should at least travel alone in their life and experience the beauty of it which they are missing out on.

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Comments (7)

  1. Massive respect for you Usman!
    What a wonderful jouney. I wish a jouney like that.
    While reading I was feeling the scenes.
    Wish you best of luck for future.

    Thans for introducing Chqchan Mosque. Its a master piece. I will visit in coiming season. IA

    P.S: I will admire ISI agent who was there in such remote area. they’re number one for a reason.

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