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Major in the Land of Giants
A Travelogue (of sorts)
written by: Asad Mian
My trip to the high and mighty mountains of Pakistan, the second one in three years, was going to be monumental. As happened the first time around, the potential success of the trip was palpable, in the air around me and all the way to my bones.
But then, regardless of my unimpeachable intent to overcome (or transcend?) the fabulously mountainous north of Pakistan once again, history was going to repeat itself.
“Deosai - ‘land of giants’ - at an elevation of approximately 14,000 feet (4300 meters) above sea level is the second highest plateau in the world – after China’s Chang Tang plateau in Tibet. It is particularly well known for being the last remaining habitat of the Himalayan brown bear in Pakistan. Although it touts amazing biodiversity, the Deosai is an ecologically sensitive zone, with great human threats to its future sustainability”.
The above was an excerpt in a beautiful photographic coffee table book at the Shigar Fort where I was staying for my five day trip to the extreme north of Pakistan.
Coming across that book was my hook to Deosai; it convinced me that I was all set to conquer her - not as a human threat, but as a nature lover.
Among all my travel companions, I was likely the most excited about the ‘exclusive’ overnight camping trip to the Deosai. It was going to be exclusive because the overnight camping was a bonus or supplement bestowed upon us by the travel company through which this trip was materialized. It wasn’t meant to be part of our initial itinerary. I won’t get into details of what happened at the beginning of our trip that warranted the special treatment in the latter part of the journey; suffice it to say we were made to feel like royalty for the remainder of that trip.
The word Deosai rather than generating images of ‘deos’ (devils/monsters/giants) was associated in my head with images of endless lush green plateaus overrun by flowers being visited by scores of butterflies. In my excitement, I failed to factor in the time of the year we were going to be there - early fall - when the colors were unlikely to be as intense or diverse as I may have imagined. But I was already sold on the plateau and my fellow travelers could not shake my resolve.
“I don’t know how I shall manage without a bathroom?” asked travel companion A.
“Yaar, it will be quite cold” was travel companion B’s addition to the conversation.
“Stress not!” I chimed in. “I’ve been on an overnight camping trip to Gilgit-Baltistan a few years back. Sab theek ho ga (everything will be fine)”, were my reassuring words to them. I was referring to the previous trek that I had made to the Rakaposhi Mountain’s base camp. Little did my fellow travelers know that my words would be quite off the mark.
By the time we got to the Deosai campsite, it was almost evening. We were met at the entrance by the camp’s leader, a tall man who piqued my interest as soon as I laid my eyes on him.
“Welcome to the Deosai campsite! I’m Major”.
Looking quite regal in his long boots, rustic fur hat and thick overcoat internally lined with brown fur, Major oozed immense czar-like charm that fit well in the rugged backdrop of that harsh, cold terrain.
When he spoke he elicited silence; that I attributed to the respect that both his demeanor and a guttural voice demanded. Given the above, I just felt that Major was quite an appropriate pseudonym.
“I don’t know when the name Major stuck, but anyone crossing the Deosai, either from the armed forces or civilians, would gravitate towards me as if I were their guide.” Said Major. “It happened so frequently, that I just naturally accepted the role of campsite caretaker and plateau tour guide”.
The camping ground was teeming with activity. Several tents were already pitched. The people there, mostly visitors, were transients like us – campers, I thought. A few apparently were permanently housed there – responsible for the place and ensuring the campers were well taken care of.
“At nighttime, a few of my men who stay here double down as security guards, ensuring the campers are protected from the deos like the scavenging brown bears of the Himalayas...” Major explained. But it was what he said next that intrigued me more.
“…Or from the real deos, Indian soldiers, in case there is infiltration along the India-Pakistan border”.
Although I wasn’t entirely sure of the likelihood of that, the Deosai historically has been of interest to various stakeholders, other than Pakistanis; such as, Americans, Indians, and Chinese.
Major regaled us with more stories of the Deosai. What was particularly interesting to me about his account was how the itinerants of the plateau had changed over the past several decades.
“There would be a constant influx of foreigners during the 70s and 80s; they were the only ones interested in traveling to these parts”. Said Major. “During the 90s and 2000s, I started seeing more local travelers. Seeing our own nationals visit these parts was delightful, but the garbage they left behind indicated their disrespect for the once pristine environment”. Major appeared agitated, and rightly so.
After offering us special tea brewed from herbs growing right there in the Deosai, Major took off to take care of the other campers.
It was going to get dark and cold soon, so the three of us decided to go for a short walk and photograph for as long as the light would allow.
While we were away Major’s team had started preparing early supper. By the time we were back from our walk, it was twilight and the barbeque pit was a good potential source of heat. And much needed, I felt, because within the short span of two hours that we had been in the Deosai the temperature had dropped to almost zero degrees. I quickly made a dash for my tent to put on an extra layer of underclothes. I had brought my long johns and a full sleeve T-shirt specifically for that reason, all the way from Karachi, where such clothes had no purposeful existence. On top of that, I had brought a woolen cap, muffler, and gloves.
Although my companions had considered my packing overkill for just that single night in the Deosai, I wasn’t going to take any chances. The overnight sub-zero temperatures at the Rakaposhi Mountain’s base camp from my trip not too long ago had been a potent reminder to over-pack.
By 7:30 PM it was pitch dark and those gathered around the bonfire-cum-barbeque pit, particularly me, were really hoping to thaw down a bit. Major’s portable speaker had been put to good use by then: a combination of English and Urdu songs (latter of Coke studio fame) were creating a nice ambiance for most, but I was miserable, thinking ahead of how much colder it was going to get. I knew I shouldn’t have agonized about something that was simply not in my control, but I couldn’t help it.
By then Major was back amidst us discussing past and present halaat (conditions) of Pakistan. As expected in such bonfire circles, people were passionately speculating about the future of Pakistan.
Other than me, everyone had an opinion about Pakistan’s predicament, either current or future. I wasn’t really focusing on what was being said because of my wretched weather-related thoughts, but Major’s next comment directed at me brought me out of my reverie.
“Dr. Sahab yeh try karain…special hai; garmi paida karay gi (try this special thing; it will create warmth)”.
The specialty in consideration looked like an e-cigarette that he had been passing around to anyone who would care to puff.
Not paying much heed to the small voice within telling me to be careful (of vaping-related illness, per se), I dumped caution by the wayside and puffed deeply several times. Anything to warm myself up, I rationalized.
I don’t have a clear memory of exactly what happened next, but apparently, the following chain of events was reported to me by my fellow campers.
After a lapse of a few minutes in which I remained silent, I made sounds that could best be described as snorts, followed by snickers, giggles and then full blown guffaws.
As rapidly as the laughing had come on, it stopped. I appeared really serious as I first looked at the star studded sky and then right behind me at the pitch darkness.
“Yaar taray neechay hain or bhaloo upar (friends, stars are below and bears above)” and then I started laughing hysterically again.
Somehow warmth had also been generated apparently because I started peeling off the extra layers.
Major intervened at that time and helped me to my tent, where I dozed off till close to midnight. My misadventures didn’t stop, then; I woke up nauseous and sweaty, shivering all over. My stomach was
As I quickly made my way to the toilet, I wondered why it was happening to me again. Was it altitude sickness, cigarette content-related problem, food poisoning, or plain rotten luck? In tandem, I was also imagining all sorts of deos in the garbs of Indian soldiers and Himalayan brown bears lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce on me. Paranoia was rearing her head, perhaps.
Lost in thought, I didn’t realize that Major was standing at the door to the toilet with a flashlight to help me get to the right place.
“Doctor Sahab shit happens. It’s what you do with it that defines you. You will be laughing about all this in the morning!”
“Shit happens. Well said. Pun intended, or otherwise.” I thought but didn’t say it out loud. Under different circumstances, I wouldn’t have waited till morning to have a good laugh, nor to admire the philosophical nuance of his comment. But my predicament forbade me to mitigate the toiletry gravity of my situation. Major’s torchlight helped me navigate the hole in the ground that was the ‘eastern toilet’. The diarrhea from hell that came next was indeed history repeating itself.
In my enfeebled state, I don’t remember much else. I likely passed out again, because the next thing I remember was an intense bout of nausea waking me up. I was in a car, being driven back to the hotel where we had maintained our rooms as a backup in case we were unable to manage the overnight camping trip. Enroute I had to get the driver to stop the car a few times. Once so I could puke outside, and another time, in a delirious state, I had insisted that the car be stopped promptly so I could step outside to pee by the roadside. Luckily the driver did not comply at that time because instead of stepping onto solid ground, I would’ve stepped on thin air and plunged straight into the treacherous ravine past which we were driving then. It would’ve been a farcical, albeit cartoon-centric, abrupt end to my story.
In spite of the long drive on the way back, I am happy to report that I did get to the hotel in one piece.
It’s been several weeks now since that eventful trek to the Deosai. My quasi-overnight camping trip there has become quite a (s)hit story of the season - irrespective of the fact that it was really a comedy of errors.
I haven’t been in touch with Major since then, although he had a major (no pun intended) role to play in my story. More so than that, his prediction that I would laugh in the morning - the one right after the trek, as well as scores of subsequent ones - while reminiscing about the events of the Deosai, has indeed come true.
Shit happens but it’s what you do with it that defines you. A life lesson indeed.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
The author deeply acknowledges his 2 fellow travelers without whom this story wouldn't have been quite as interesting!