We packed into the van at 2am and found our “beds” for the 8-hour drive to Shogran from Islamabad. Because there were only five of us, I figured this would be a pretty cushy ride and I might actually get some sleep. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was bad enough that one of the two seats I had to sprawl out on wouldn’t actually tilt up, which didn’t allow for a sturdy base to sleep against, but the roads were so bumpy that actually staying on the “bed” was difficult. At some point in the night, I pushed the 16 one-liter bottles of water against my seat row and put my pillow on that to give myself at least a bit of extra room; then I put my foot against the engine hump in front of me to keep myself from falling off the seats as we bounced around.
Quickly though, the night sky lifted and the sun was coming up and I realized there was no slumber for me. Two hours of sleep on my second night in Pakistan was about all I was going to get to enjoy. I sat up and watched out the window as the sun rose and turned everything pink for a while. I felt like I was finally getting to see some of what Pakistan was really like.
We arrived weary and red-eyed in Shogran and convinced ourselves to roll out of the van to get some breakfast to wake up. Omelette, greasy paratha, and chai were all I could think about as I slowly started to feel human again and took in the scenery around me.
I couldn’t believe I was in Pakistan. The hotel restaurant where we stopped for breakfast had a gated entry, and once inside, the sidewalk was lined with marigolds of various colors along each side. The sidewalk opened up to a massive grassy area hedged with flowers and plants. In the center there was a path that lead to a curved wooden bridge, which took you over a sea of flowers and further into the garden. The mountains rose in the background creating a bit of a shadowy area in the garden, where the dew was still hanging to the grass.
After eating breakfast, I wandered around the garden a bit snapping photos and taking in the cool mountain air. I found a chair in the sun and stretched out allowing the warmth to lull me to a little nap. There were birds in the trees creating beautiful sounds, while some creatures a bit closer were making humorous noises, and I didn’t want to leave that garden.
But then, it was time for our first big adventure: a jeep ride to the top of a mountain for some gorgeous views.
We got off to a bit of a rocky start because the police who were there spotted my pasty ankles and decided that they should accompany the foreigner on the trip. Thankfully, we convinced them there just wasn’t enough room, and unless they wanted to hire their own jeep to follow us, it wasn’t going to work. When that was all resolved, we piled into the jeep and were on our way.
The initial stretch was fine–just a steep ascent, with quite a few bumps. But the higher we got, the scarier it was and I was white knuckling it, holding on to the “oh shit” bar in front of me, terrified to look around. We were bouncing all over inside the jeep and there was immense laughter from my friends behind me watching me as I sat in fear. “Look around!” they said. “I’ll throw up,” I responded. I’ve gotten better with heights over the years, but the drop-off on the side of the track, down a steep mountainside littered with trees, was enough to make my stomach jump to my throat. It took me back to the first time I encountered cliffs like that in Montenegro; and then to Iceland, Italy, and Morocco where I experienced more. I certainly don’t take it easy on myself when it comes to tempting fate with my anxiety.
It got worse whenever there was an on-coming jeep or when there was too much tree coverage and the ground was still wet and muddy–our wheels spinning and the driver gunning the gas, swerving us from side to side, my eyes clenched tightly shut so I didn’t see my impending death if our jeep rolled over and down the mountain.
But we made it. And when the jeep stopped at Payee Lake, I urged my wobbly legs out of the jeep and onto steady ground to take in the view. The small, shallow lake is set in a valley between hills with mountain views behind it. You can walk down to it, but I think the real beauty is in the view from above it, surrounded by trees and lush green grass. We took a break here for a few minutes to relax, take in the view, and snap a few photos before heading on to Siri.
More bumpy track and being jostled around in the jeep, and finally we made it. The sun was shining brightly with just a few clouds in the sky when we arrived, and shortly thereafter, the clouds dropped and the sky turned darker. It reminded me of the Scottish Highlands–a chill in the air, the weather teasing you: will it rain?
The biggest draw to this area is the hiking and the beauty. We followed the paths, first dirt and easy, then over rocks and boulders, then back to dirt. All along the way, I stopped to take in the beauty and catch my breath, as the altitude was starting to bother me. We found a resting spot that looked out over expansive mountain views. While sitting in relative silence, I could hear a crowd of people cheering off in the distance and began to envision what they were doing–a makeshift football or cricket match? Then horses and donkeys were led by with tourists on their backs, headed down the steep hills to take in more of the scenery. A little boy with a horse stopped just behind me to let his tourist off to walk around for a bit. The boy couldn’t have been older than 10 and his horse was beautifully decorated with bright colored balls and a patterned blanket. I turned to smile at him often–our only way of communicating.
We headed back to the base because we were sure rain was on its way and we still had a long drive down in the jeep and another few hours of driving to our next stop. When we got to the base, we saw our driver jumping around in some makeshift carnival bouncy contraption and decided to let him have a few minutes of fun while we ordered some chai. We took shelter under a tent and watched as the clouds came all the way down around us and enveloped the whole landscape in fog. The chai wala carried a tray of tea from a small, unassuming hut to the table under our tent, where we enjoyed the bit of warmth it filled us with as the air grew colder outside. I sat quietly listening to my friends chat in Urdu and they drowned out a bit as I watched a man with his horse on the hillside, in this surreal, dreamlike setting.
I brought myself back to reality and we, once again, piled into the jeep for the bumpy ride back to Shogran.