On The Ground in Pakistan
My journey began in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Islamabad, meaning Abode of Islam, is Pakistan’s government and financial center. It’s an affluent city built 40 years ago at the base of the Margalla Hills. Pakistan’s capital looks more like a wealthy American suburb than the government center of a developing nation – immaculately kept tree-lined sidewalks, large forested parks, three story homes with multiple Mercedes parked out front.
Upon arrival, I was greeted by Mirza Ali and Samina Baig, the directors of the Pakistan Youth Outreach. Before catching the bus north along the Karakorum Highway we had two important meetings. First, Mirza and Samina introduced me to the wonderful folks at the Alpine Club of Pakistan who have been supportive of the Pakistan Youth Outreach’s goal to bring women into mountaineering. Then we delivered the donated women’s climbing gaer to Mirza’s Pakistan Youth Outreach office.
That evening Mirza and I took the 26 hour bus ride north along the Karakorum Highway to the town of Karimabad. This
tiered village built in the side of the valley cliffs was our mid-point destination in our two day journey to Mirza’s PYO base camp. From Karimabad, we traveled to Mirza’s hometown of Shimshal, which serves as his base of operations for PYO’s 3-day women’s mountaineering courses. Shimshal, a mountain village of 250 people, is located deep in the heart of central Asia, a mere 6 day walk from the Chinese border. The town is in a region of Pakistan called Hunza. Until 2003, the road only extended as far as Passu, from there villagers or trekkers proceeded on foot four long days to reach the Shimshal Valley and the town bearing its name. Today, the journey, at two days in length, seems almost easy compared to 2003.
The Shimshal villagers were warm and inviting – welcoming me to their town with smiles and handshakes that melted away any uncertainties I possessed. They are curious about foreigners, but also not naive about the outside world. “I sleep at day time. I’m up all night listening to the news from your capital [Washington, DC] in Urdu,” Mirza’s middle uncle proudly told me.
As our jeep pulled up to the front of Mirza’s home, his family came running out to greet us, bring our bits of luggage inside and each one wanting to shake my hand a few times. During my stay in Shimshal, I had the pleasure of staying with Mirza’s family in their modest home. Life is the same here as it was a hundred of years ago. The Ali home was constructed from mud, like most homes in the region, with yak wool blankets strewn across the dirt floor. The building is comprised of one large communal room that serves all purposes – eating, sleeping, socializing. Mirza’s parents are herders, like all families in the village. Nearly all locals work year round as herders. The daily route revolves around the cycles of mother nature and the needs of the animals. Life is simple. It takes all morning to fetch and heat enough water for a bucket shower, so you forgo anything more than a basic face washing with cold water. All the good parts of the day happen around the hearth in the middle of the house – meals, seeing family and friends, sharing the day’s gossip, laughter and warmth during the long, cold nights. Meals are designed to sustain not to be particularly creative. Mostly they eat fried bread, rice, and potato as a treat.
The land around Shimshal is harsh and dry; rocky and desolate mountains and valleys comprise these southern
mountains of the Karakoram range. Even the rivers don’t seem to provide much nourishment or moisture to the cracked and arid earth. The Shimshal village, at 10,500 feet, is the highest settlement in the Hunza region. Pastures situated high above the villages, are the main source of food for the herd animals. The locals graze live stock up to these 15,000 foot high fields during the spring, summer and early fall months. As the snows fall, they bring the goats, sheep and yak down to the towns. This return of the towns-folk is celebrated by the Kutch Festival. A multi-day joyous celebration where families are reunited, the livestock (hopefully with a few more babies in tow) are returned to their pens, and the larder is restocked with supplies of yak-hair yarn, yak cream, goat cheese and yak butter. Family members update each other on births, deaths and the latest news that they each missed.
I spent a few days in this earthy and simple town meeting with the members of Mirza’s climbing staff and many of the women who participated in past climbing schools. Shimshal is not just an advantageous base camp because Mirza knows the region so well, it is also a logical place to start women mountaineering because it would be more accepted than in other parts of Pakistan. With a heavy emphasis on the importance of school for both boys and girls, it was not a hard leap to get the parents to value a mountaineering school and to send their daughters.
Even with the Shimshali people’s focus on the cycles of snow and summer, heavy emphasis is still placed on education. Families save all the money they can for their children to attend college in a major city such as Islamabad, Karachi or Lahore.
Then came the rounds to visit the relatives. All of Mirza’s kin wanted to meet me, days consisted of tea and stories at each of their homes. The eldest uncle, Hav Yousef, shared his war stories with me over a cup for strong black tea. In 1989, while attempting the first Pakistani ascent of Sia Kangri, on the Pakistan-India border, Hav and his Pakistani army team of climbers twice took heavy shelling from the Indian army. One of those boats of bombing was during the summit push. The mountain is 24,370 ft tall and located in the Baltoro Muztagh in the Karakoram Mountain Range. Hav and his team successfully summitted Sia Kangri becoming the first Pakistani team to reach the top.
My last stop in Shimshal involved meeting the Pakistan Youth Outreach’s ground support team and a number of the young women who participated the previous year in their climbing school. The staff are the backbone of Mirza’s organization, helping coordinate logistics and staffing the climbing courses. Mirza runs the mountaineering school on the Balto Glacier, a 2 day hike from Shimshal.
Having seen how the Pakistan Youth Outreach is impacting women’s lives just a stones throw away from China, it was time for the 3 day journey back to Islamabad. I was sad to say goodbye to my new friends and this wonderful community at the base of the impressive Karakorum Range. Pakistani hospitality lives up to it’s legendary status.
In Pakistan, when you are a م مان, (meh-maan) or guest, it does not matter what country you are from. It does not matter if the Pakistani government has good relations with your country of origin. You are a guest and are treated with the utmost respect. You are welcomed, placed at the position of honor during meals, and everyone in the town MUST welcome you (a desire not a requirement). So be prepared to eat many meals, visit many homes and drink cup of tea after cup of tea. It is custom. In Shimshal, they do it with a big smile and a warm handshake. A far cry from the media induced fear that surrounds the word “Pakistan.”
The highlight of my trip to this “axis of evil country” was meeting the women who participated in Mirza’s climbing programs. This project focused on impacting a few women who will pay it forward to women next year. The climbing gear I brought to the Pakistan Youth Outreach will help Mirza continue his important work of empowering women in Pakistan and changing Pakistani’s perception of women. More women in Pakistan will be learning independence and confidence in themselves thanks to Mirza’s programs.[divider] [/divider]