I met Zarina on what was supposed to be my last day in Pakistan. The Karakoram highway by then had brought me lots of challenges, heaps of laughter and quite a few interesting acquaintances. "Where are you from?" - was her first question, of course. I still was surprised that a woman talked to me - in this country where they are usually quite shy - and stood on the road looking confused. The backpack was waiting for me at the guesthouse and my feet and shoulders were itching to get on the road and cross the border into China the next day. Zarina was insisting that I would stay in her house and play with her children. I didn't mind. In fact, this invitation changed my entire week and impression of the Northern Provinces.
Zarina is a unique example of a Pakistani woman. Well, she's actually from Passu-Gojal area, and Wakhi, the language she speaks, is related to Tajik. Still, she's an exceptional woman. At her age, and she is in her early thirties, she has more than an average Pakistani female: 2 cows, 2 sheep, a goat, a dozen of cherry trees, a piece of land to grow potatoes, a house, a husband, a boyfriend and 4 children. And a pretty damn contagious laughter.
That very evening her girls took me to the mountain lake, and we rolled in the sand and took silly pictures. We climbed trees to pick up cherries and hugged the sheep in the shed.
After dinner Zarina announced happily that she would take me up the Batura Glacier - a damn huge piece of ice stretching for 35 miles from the snowy mountain tops of Passu peak to the village.
- Sure, that's fantabulous! When do we start?
- 3 am wake up, 4 am we go.
The owl within me shivered.
Zarina goes up to the valleys beyond the glacier every year. In July and August, she collects tons of mountain tea - ooo that drink of gods was such a relief after weeks of drinking milk crap with sugar and salt. But even this time of the year, in June, Zarina was not going alone. She was taking her cows.
That morning I almost easily woke up at 3:30am. We packed our supplies and went to get the cows. In the dim light of morning rising sun we were walking along the KKH before we reached the slopes of the first hill leading to the glacier. I was excited. The shepherds took me for a 6-to-8-hour hike. Along with the cows. 'If the cows can make it, I can too!' - I decided to myself.
But there was some sort of conspiracy. Zarina's cows cheerfully jumped from rock to rock all along the way. Another dude's calf was sick. Or lazy. Or stoned. Or on a strike. It kept falling down and tripping on things, and finally ended up collapsing right in the middle of a steep ascend, as if saying: 'So what? What you're gonna do now, two-legged losers?'
I'll tell you what we did.
We started pushing the cow up the mountain. Well, one person was in the front, pulling it by the horns and ears. The other three were at the back, pushing the 200 kilos of beef and pulling up the tail. To be honest, this action so far was the most retarded thing I've ever did, and I did enough of retarded things in my travel life.
A 6-to-8-hour hike turned into 17 hours of pulling, pushing and waiting. Anwar - the dude who owned the cow - gave up only then. He decided to return back to Passu instead of enduring our torture. We left him and reached the mountain pasture only by 8pm, when it was already dark. And you know, hiking at pitch-black night and stumbling on rocks is fun stuff to do. Under the rain. It was one of those moments of travelling when you think two different things simultaneously: "Hoooly sheep, I so want to curse out loud right now!" and "My gawd, this will be such a fantastic story to tell. If I survive."
The night was freezing cold and around 5am Zarina woke me up with the most fantastic wake-up words: 'Let's go milk the goats!' I covered myself with the sleeping bag and hoped that it was a hallucination.
However, the humid morning breeze woke me up an hour later and I first saw the green valley around me, and a handful of stone shepherd huts scattered all around, and the sandy mountain slopes with twisted shapes of trees, and a full-size open shed, crawling with sheep and goats - they were skipping around and over the fence, climbing the roofs, sliding down the wooden fences and trying to avoid to be milked. Honestly, like in 'Shaun the Sheep' cartoon. Zarina's sister was catching the sneaky woolen bastards and delivering them to Zarina's bucket. I gave it a try. Both the catching and the milking process. To be honest, doing it with goats turned out to be easier than with cows (4 years ago, in Ireland).
The shepherds come to this remote corner of the world every summer and stay for a few weeks or even months - newcomers bring food and other supplies every now and then, but otherwise it is a perfect place to be isolated from humanity for as long as your heart wishes: no phones, no electricity, no bathrooms, no hot water, no heating. Morning milking, evening milking, afternoon shepherding, 15 cups of milk tea daily, smell of freshly made bread and rice, but most important - especially if you have an artsy string - the scenery that every day doesn't look like yesterday. One morning you wake up to a pissing rain and think fog covering the grey glacier rocks, but in the evening you still will contemplate the sunset above the mountain peaks and see birds flying up there. The next morning you can even go swimming in the icy glacier lake, but beware because it might hail in the afternoon and rain again in the evening.
Pakistan has become a very unpopular travel destination in the last decade - thanks to the media, but mountaineers and people-who-know-places keep coming here for… what do you think? (certainly not the opportunity to push a cow in the ass up the glacier)