I am sitting in my favorite room, surrounded by books and the wonderful aroma of printed paper and tobacco smoke. The window of my study overlooks a pine covered valley with a fair sized village nestling in its lap. It is almost sundown and lazy columns of smoke are already rising in the still air from wood fires, as women folk in the houses below, begin preparing the evening meal. Soon, the menfolk of this idyllic setting will be returning home – some from their terraced fields and others driving herds of cattle and goats before them. The dark windows of the homes will be lit as families settle down to dinner and thereafter an early bed.

The scene takes me back in time to a place deep in the hills near Thandiani. I am a young man, superbly fit and eager to take on any challenge confronting me. I am also footloose and happy in the knowledge that I have chosen a career that offers me countless opportunities to walk my way over untrodden paths and across pristine mountain streams. My present quest is to trek from Abbottabad across the mountain range to the north and then swing westwards to reach Mansehra. The urge to undertake the adventure is fired by a story that somewhere along this route some distance from a place called ‘Piran Di Bandi’ there is a hidden piece of paradise, unspoiled by human presence and better than any alpine view ever seen.

I have however been warned that the weather here is temperamental, turning from a bright sunlit day to a roiling sea of thunderclouds and sleet without warning. It is said that age makes one reckless and in retrospect, I am no exception - equipped with a rucksack, a light woolen hunting jacket, a water bottle, a first aid kit, a compass, a couple of sandwiches and no intentions of an overnight stay anywhere on the way. I set off under a beautiful blue sky and a bright sun. Preoccupied with the beauty around me that I commit the cardinal mistake of not keeping an eye on the weather. When realization dawns I find that the light around me has dimmed and ominously dark clouds are rolling across the landscape. As the wind begins to rise, the light becomes murky and within minutes I am engulfed in triple nightmare of hail, stinging rain and explosive lightening. Aware that I am somewhere close to ‘Piran Di Bandi’ and that I must find cover and find it quick, I stumble on, peering into the darkening mist. A dog barks somewhere up ahead and I yell out in delight as I almost ram into the stone wall of a hut.

I am soon sitting in front of a blazing fire trying to dry out my clothes and looking balefully at the soggy remains of my single remaining sandwich. I hear female whisperings in the second room interspersed with childish giggles, as the master of the house returns bearing a stainless steel plate with some potato curry and a single giant sized chapatti made up of a mixture of wheat and maize flour. I pounce upon the meal with unashamed fervor as my host returns once more with a mug of sweetened tea made with goat’s milk. This was one meal, which in spite of its odd combination, was unforgettably the most delicious that I have ever eaten.

As we sat on crudely made chairs, I was bombarded with questions about who I was. What did I do for a living? Why was I walking across the mountains to Mansehra, when I could have taken a bus or a wagon from Abbottabad? Where was my family? How many children did I have and much more. Having satisfied with my credentials, I was told that I could sleep in a small wood store at the rear of the house. I spent the night sitting hunched up as unseen creatures scurried to and fro, while a similar number of ‘things’ played hide and seek on top of the tin roof. At the first light of dawn I was awakened by my host, who informed me that it was okay for me to leave. I thanked him, picked up my rucksack and walked away towards the trail.

I reached Mansehra, but my satisfaction was marred by the fact that I found my state of the art first aid box missing from my back pack along with my favorite compass. In the absence of any proof I must attribute the loss to my own carelessness, but in case this is not the case then there is a juvenile somewhere in the mountains with enough emergency medical supplies to last three days and a compass that he may still be trying to figure out.

 

The writer is a historian.