On 23 May, we checked out from the Shigar Fort Residence with beautiful memories of the place and the people, and headed to the Khaplu town, the administrative headquarters of Ghanche district. Bounded on the north by the two prefectures– Kashghar and Hotan—of the Xinjiang Uyghur region in China, and on the north-east by the Indian-controlled Ladhak, the easternmost part of the district is the famous Siachen Glacier, known as the highest militarized zone in the world. The Glacier is under the occupation of the Indian troops, while the Pakistan Army controls the western region of the Soltoro ridge located in the west of the Siachen Glacier. A convoy of the army truck taking food and other supplies to the soldiers passed us by.
As the third wave of Covid-19 started to recede and domestic tourism opened up north, we flew out of Karachi—the hot spot of the pandemic’s onslaught with a positivity rate of 26 per cent—on 18 May 2021. Looking forward to wandering into high altitude valleys of Baltistan bordering with Kashgar and Ladhak at the edge of the country, we landed in the Skardu’s spacious airfield surrounded by the fascinating Karakoram, Hindukush and Himalayan mountain ranges. Soon we got out of the simple single-storey airport, which has been promised to be turned into all-weather international airport in the new 5-year Gilgit-Baltistan development package announced by the federal government in April 2021.
After four nights of stay in upper Hunza, we came down to a resort in central Hunza. Central Hunza, the administrative region of the valley with capital Karimabad, is famous for Baltit and Altit Forts and ancient settlement Ganish. Starting from Murtaza Abad, central Hunza region ends at the edge of Attabad Lake. Central Hunza is most populous sub-region of the valley Center where the majority of people speak Burushaski. Central Hunza, I came to know, is impacted by climate change. It is facing drinking water shortage as most settlements depend on two glacial melt streams (at Hassan Abad and Ultar) as their primary source of water. The recent glacial lake outburst floods from both glaciers have reduced water supply.
The pandemic, the anxiety and fear of the unknown, economic downturn—national and global, lockdowns–total, partial and smart—and social distancing had worn us out by the end of September. What did provide some relief to me and my daughter, the city-dwellers, was a little refuge in nature, a reclaiming of the bond with the sky, the plants (potted) of many hues and smells, and the little flora and fauna left in Karachi. The refuge was the terrace, that many Karachiites took to frequenting during the lockdown. We too spent time in our small roof-top garden, watching the floating ribbons of migrating birds in March, April and May, the ever present crows, eagles, pigeons, mynahs, koels and sparrows the months after–and the delightful species—wild parakeets, wood peckers, thrushes and wagtails—who staged a comeback after many decades.
By Septembers things had eased: family visits, celebrations and funerals in small groups were taking place and inland traveling was slowly resuming. People we know were taking to the road–to the mountains, the lakes and the springs. We decided to take our longed-for and missed summer vacation in early autumn, October 2020 and headed towards Hunza. I had visited the valley long ago. In the summer of 1984 when I was young, we–two sisters and three brothers—had taken a road trip from Karachi to Khunjerab Pass. It was a time to revisit!
As our train proceeded from Fez to Marrakech, the pink city, I wondered what Jama al-Fina, the square in Marrakech’s old medina, would be like. Just before our journey, I had discovered a novel by a Moroccan writer Youssef Fadel, A beautiful white cat walks with me — a compelling, eerie and grim story of Sanawat-ar-Rusas (the years of lead), the reign of King Hasan II (1960s to 1980s) marked by political repression and violence. A masterpiece, this novel is a story of those years told by a father-and-son duo. A king’s private jester at the royal court, the father had begun his career as a story-teller at Jama al-Fina.
After a six-hour journey from Shahfshawan, we got down at the bus station in Fez, the highlight of our journey, wherein lies the oldest Islamic metropolis, that has retained its character and structure through the centuries.
The next day we decided to visit the nearby city Tétouan. I was keen to visit Tétouan as I was told by several shop keepers in Shafshawan that Tétouan is known as a city of artisans and artists and many art galleries and craft shops in Shafshawan are owned by Tétouanis. Also, the city has the only fine arts university in Morocco, the National Institute of Fine Arts Tétouan. Unfortunately, it was closed the day we visited. We took pictures of students’ art projects placed in the verandah and the garden.
As our bus moved away from Rabat, traversing the plains and the slopes, and then wound its way up the Rif mountains, I looked at the view: scenic, yes, but those who have seen the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges and its many valleys, the Rif mountainous region has nothing to write home about. But when the contours of the ‘Blue Pearl’ of Morocco started to emerge, I couldn’t take my eyes off the window of the moving bus. Nestled up on the mountain terrace, the city looked enticing in its many shades of blues and neat structures. Spelt Chefchauoen, a word I had wondered about and was not able to pronounce properly, turned out to be شفشاون on a signboard in Arabic — simple and melodious.
In June, we decided to explore Morocco’s enchanting cities and took a labyrinthine route into the country. From Casablanca, located at the central-western part, we traversed the northwestern cities of Rabat, Shafshawan and Tétouan. Finally, my daughter and I then came down to Fez in the central-north, proceeding to the southwestern city Marrakech, the last city on our two-week itinerary, before catching the return flight from Casablanca.
As we got down from the train at the new Rabat-Agdal Railway Station, we marvelled at its state-of-the-art structure, facilities and ambiance. Opened in November 2018, along with the launch of the bullet train Al-Boraq, the station symbolises the transformation of the city into a dynamic modern metropolis, yet retaining some of its historic identity.
“Why are you going to Morocco? What is there to see?’ asked the officer who stamped our passports at the Jinnah International Airport, Karachi. He was not the only one to wonder: a few friends and relatives had also looked at us quizzically. Morocco I associated, first and foremost, with Fatima Mernissi, the sociologist, writer, Islamic scholar and feminist whose work I came across and read with fascination in the 1980s. Then two decades later, it was Tahar Ben Jalloun’s Leaving Tangier and A Palace in the Old Village, Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits and Youssef Fadel’s A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me –sad and gripping stories of migration, home-coming, clash of tradition with modernity, constitutional monarchy and its pomp and power, conflict with the Saharawi desert people – revealing the dark, seamy side of Morocco and the frailties and foibles of humanity residing in an ancient land nine miles away from Spain if you cross via the Strait of Gibraltar, from where Tariq bin Ziyad led the Muslim conquest of Spain in 711 AD.