I was ready to leave. My last three weeks in Pakistan, on the Karakorum highway, were filled with mixed feelings. Travelling here was not easy, and being a single female traveller was not the main issue at all. In fact, most of the local communities belong to the Ismaili sect of Islam, the most liberal and tolerant of them, where women have more rights and freedoms. However, the bureaucratic hell of Pakistan was steadily getting on my nerves. As I mentioned, I was ready to leave.
There is one more thing that a city girl from Europe really wanted to do before leaving. I wanted to milk a goat. I’d never milked a goat before in my life.
As I was navigating the lonely highway on my way to the guesthouse to pick up my earthly belongings and catch a ride with the Chinese road workers to the border town.
And then I met Zarina.
Zarina called me over, as if we were friends since high school and knew each other for ages. She was herding her two cows and three sheep along the highway.
‘Do you like Passu?’ she asked.
‘It is amazing,’ I said passionately. ‘I went to see the lake, and there is no one around, and no mobile reception, and the water is still like a mirror.’
‘Good, good,’ Zarina smiled. ‘Want to come stay in my house? I have four children, they will like you.’
I do not have a particular liking for little humans, but Zarina had something unique about her personality that got me curious. After all, I can leave tomorrow. Or after tomorrow.
That evening, after I went for a walk with the excited kids, we picked a bowl of cherries from the garden, and I moved all my stuff from the guesthouse to Zarina’s place. Zarina lived in the house alone with her four children: two older girls and two young boys. Her husband was working in the village 30 kilometers away and rarely came to visit. Zarina was free, independent, and did whatever she wanted in her free time. Everybody in the village knew her – and perhaps not just the 40 houses in the vicinity, but also people living in the other side of the highway. Zarina had the most contagious laughter.
‘I am going to the mountains tomorrow, with my cows, for several days. Do you want to come?’ Zarina asked me at dinner.
‘How far is it?’ I wondered.
‘Don’t know. Six hours, maybe eight hours,’ Zarina said, as I froze with a spoonful of rice at my mouth. ‘We need to cross the Batura glacier’.
At 57 kilometers in length, Batura is one of the biggest glaciers outside the polar circle. Crossing it meant walking there and back from one side to another at least a couple of times, on ice and frozen soil.
‘I am sooooo in!’ I exclaimed.
Zarina also told me that we had to wake up at 4am and leave at 5am, which slightly discouraged me at the beginning, but after all, if we were to walk for 8 straight hours it would be great to get to the final point before dark. Except we didn’t.
‘Pakistan used to be a great tourist destination before 9/11,’ Anwar was telling me. He had worked as a trekking guide before, and took many groups to K2 and other peaks in the area. Almost nobody comes to Passu these days, and between October and March the Karakorum highway is shut down for any kind of transport because of the snow. But in the summer like that, the shepherds would take their cattle to the mountain valleys along the glacier, where the grass is (quite literally) greener and the views are spectacular. Some of them stayed in the mountain huts for the entire summer, and others had to go back and forth and bring supplies from the village. The only thing that was always readily available in the huts was goat milk. But we will get to this.
One of the reasons why we were running late was a cow. The poor animal decided to sabotage our journey and simply refused to walk. Perhaps it had fallen into a trench and damaged a leg, but the owner was simply unable to make the animal climb up the steep mountain paths among the glacier rubble. We stopped for 30 minutes several times to let the cow rest, which in the end turned our 8-hour hike into a 15-hour adventure, last hour of which we spent in complete darkness. Zarina and Ibrar, who knew this road by heart, had to take me by both hands and lead the way. It was the first time in my life I felt like I had gone blind. In pitch-black darkness, we probably walked along the edge of a cliff, and then out of nowhere there was a door, and we opened it, and lit the fire. It was cold and I could hear the wind howl outside, echoing across the glacier. Under 3 blankets, I fell asleep within a minute.
And in the morning – you know, this is probably how traveling through a Stargate feels: you slip into the darkness, and then wake up to a completely new horizon in a different world.
There were about 30 huts, built of rocks and straw, each one of them equipped with a place to make fire and all basic kitchen utensils. I asked Zarina when was this settlement built, and she just shrugged. For her, this place has always been here, probably started by her ancestors generations ago, when they first began moving across the glacier in search of new grazing fields for their goats.
So yeah, the goats. There were hundreds of them, everywhere. After a few hours, I started giving names to the most remarkable ones. There was a big goat that yelled like an old grumpy man. There was a small wall-climbing goat that frolicked around like there was no gravity. There was a goat that stole Ibrar’s hat and wore it like a boss. There was a black goat that I caught for my first milking session. Catching a goat to milk it is half of the task. Then there is that part when you hold it steadily and shove a bucket under its belly, making sure that the goat does not start pissing in the bucket full of milk you are going to drink this evening.
This green valley, elevated above the ice and mountain rubble, felt like an oasis of life among the cold and endless gray miles of the glacier. Down below, a lake of icy water looks like liquid mirror, reflecting the snowcaps of the mountains and silhouettes of the goats.
There is only 5 of us, and Zarina calls me to sit down with the shepherds and listen to their songs.
‘Have you ever been outside of Passu?’ I ask them.
Ibrar has, he travelled to other mountain villages when he worked as a guide. Zarina shakes her head: she would really love to go, but cannot leave the children alone for so long, and money is not enough to take a bus down to Islamabad.
They sit down on the grass near the pile of wood and start singing songs in Wakhi, their native language. It is still a mystery to me how Zarina’s English was so good, but I wish my knowledge of Wakhi went beyond the words and phrases that she taught me. Wakhi is an Indo-Iranian language related to Farsi and Dari. It is mainly spoken by Wakhi minorities in the borderlands of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Xinjiang province of China. A Wakhi Cultural Association in Pakistan works on documenting the language and folklore of its people. And I – I just ended up recording it by accident, because I met Zarina.
To the drum beat of an empty water canister, and rhythmical clapping, Zarina’s sister started singing about the village and her native region.
Every now and then, day and night, I could hear large blocks of ice crumble and fall on the other side of the glacier. The sound of it echoed all across the valley, and the mighty mountains shivered in the cold, and sang along.