Phantastiche (Fantastic), an awe-struck German travelling in the PIA Fokker blurts out as he eyes several snow- covered peaks, merely 2,000 feet below the plane, and at least two even higher than the maximum cruising altitude of the aircraft. He leaves the cockpit and Captain Asif Khan invites me to move into the narrow space inside.
"That is Nanga Parbat, on your right," he enthuses, as I trade my camera at the spectacular peak - one of the highest in the world. Shining in the early morning sun, it rivals another sight on which I feasted my eyes several years ago in a wintry morning mist - the Taj Mahal.
Earlier, when we took off from Islamabad, the pilot had pointed out the Tarbela Dam, so the flight has been quite an experience in itself. I wonder why PIA has stopped its air safari.
The route from the airport to the town of Gilgit is nothing much to write home about but the view of the mountains from my hotel room is spellbinding. I am told that the mountain in the background is Rakaposhi, yet another very tall peak. It is visible not just in Gilgit but also from different points on the way to Karimabad in Hunza, where I am scheduled to go after lunch.
I learn that the shops in one of the local markets stock Chinese goods that come from Khunjerab but by the time I go there the outlets' shutters are down. It's time for Friday prayers. "You won't miss much, because with the closing of the border due to Sars scare the shops are no more well stocked," says Shaukat Ali, the hotel GM who has kindly offered to be my guide for the noon. He is from the upper Hunza region, where they speak Wakhi, a language different from Brushuski of central Hunza and Sheenakh of Gilgit. Not too far in Skardu, they speak Balti. It's amazing that within such a small area there are four distinct languages. That's because until they built the KKH (Karakoram Highway) communication was very limited. Skardu is not on the Highway, it's on a different and difficult route.
The hotel, where I stay in Gilgit, was built in 1974 by PIA but 14 years later the airline sold it to an international chain. At lunch, I am served trout, which was caught in the Gilgit River. It's delicious but the piece-de-resistance are the cherries that grow in the Hunza Valley. They are simply succulent. The strawberries on the buffet table are quite large and juicy. They grow in the hotel garden and are refreshingly different from the ones that are sold on push-carts in Karachi. Recently introduced in Gilgit, strawberries have found the Gilgit soil to their liking.
The Sunnis and Shias, who form the two major communities in Gilgit are now living in harmony. The clash of 1988 is a thing of the past. But the morning that I am in the town, there have been attempts of blocking the traffic on the KKH by some students of a community, who insist on a separate Islamiat curriculum in schools.
Later when we leave for Hunza, our driver has to navigate his way through the large stones that litter a small section of the road. On our way back, five hours later, much my surprise, I find that the authorities have got rid of the stones. That must have been much less difficult than clearing the debris of landslides, which plague the KKH when it rains. At one point on the KKH the truck drivers have to do tight-rope walking, the distance between a boulder lying on the road and the edge of the precipice is just enough for an expert driver to cross those few feet. Half a foot on one side would have meant the truck brushing with the boulder and six inches on the other side would have resulted in the truck falling into the Hunza river several hundred feet below. The KKH on this sector gives company to the river all through the way, but most of the time it is on a much greater height.
Before we reach Karimabad in central Hunza, we pass through Aliabad, where there is a very well equipped health centre run by the locals. There is a small but modern operation theatre and the doctors and surgeons are all from Hunza. There are also several schools here. The literacy rate in Hunza is among the highest in the country. These services are looked after by the Aga Khan setup. One is struck by the number of girls studying in these schools. In the neighbouring region of Nagar, where non-Ismailis live, the people have begun to realize the importance of female education.
Karimabad is breathtakingly beautiful. Lounging on the verandah of an inn, which was previously owned by the national airline, I find the sight riveting. On one side is the inescapable Rakaposhi, and on the other, towering above the Baltit Fort, is the Ultar Peak. Lady Finger, yet another snow-capped peak peers through the cloud. So does the Balimo peak. The recently restored Baltit Fort, is 800 years old. It was until 1945 the palace of the Mir of Hunza, who later shifted to a newly built palace. The Fort merits a separate and well illustrated article.
Staying in the inn are two couples, one from somewhere in Australia and the other from San Francisco. "Yours is a beautiful city," I compliment the American lady. "Yes, it is but there is no place like this anywhere in the world," she says, without taking her eyes off the mountains.
"Look at the yaks, the inn keeper tells me," as he offers me a pair of binoculars. They are grazing on the grass revived after the rains. I can spot them with some difficulty. "Their meat is delicious, but you can't handle them. They can be too dangerous," he adds.
Since 9/11 the number of foreign tourists has gone down dramatically, even the Japanese who used to come to watch cherry blossom in Hunza and see the Buddhist rock carvings, seem to have lost their way. But the people in the hospitality industry hope that like last year, during summer vacations, local tourists will fill up the rooms in hotels and inns - both in Gilgit and Hunza. "You don't need to get a visa to come here," someone quips. Unlike Murree and other hill stations, Gilgit and Hunza are unspoilt. And at both these places you can get comfortable hotel accommodation at affordable prices. The culinary experience is deliciously different too.
Soon after sunset we start our return journey. The valley and the highway are dark, but the snow capped peaks are still bathing in sunshine. When it gets pitch dark, we park the van on the side of the road and enjoy the starlit sky. The outlines of the mountains appear well defined. Only once had I seen such a star-studded sky; that was in Mithi in Tharparkar. For city-dwellers it's a sight to behold.
"In moonlit nights the snow capped mountains look all the more splendid," says my guide as he helps me bargain with the man selling cherries at the Gilgit airport the following morning. "Next time I'll be here when the moon is full," I assure him as I say Khuda Hafiz. Thanks to Captain Mannan, on my return journey, the mountains stage a repeat performance. And what a memorable performance it is!