It’s not easy to miss Mustagh Ata. This majestic mountain towers over Karakul Lake, a guardian of its peace. Surprisingly, for one of the tallest mountains in the world, Mustagh Ata looks pretty small. Both Jorg and I wonder why. We are already at an altitude of 3500m – is it because of that Mustagh Ata looks eminently climbable? It most definitely is not a walk in the park – although it is considered one of the easier 7000+m peaks to ascend, considering its closeness to the drier weather of the Taklamakan desert.
Today, Jorg is a little weak still, but we have asked Mahmet to take us to the Mustagh Ata base camp – walking there would take around 8 hours, and we just didn’t have the time for that. Bikes are arranged – I sit behind Mahmet, Jorg behind Mahmet’s uncle and poor Birdy lands up with the craziest driver of them all – a 18-year old kid who is a fan of Shahrukh Khan and surely must have been a fan of Schumacher as well. It’s around 10AM when we set off – the Karakoram highway stretches into the distance, the cold is nipping despite the thermals, yet I have never seen bluer skies. The sheer panorama of the landscape is awe-inspiring. A little later we turn onto a dirt road that leads to Subash, the town where the base camp lies. And immediately I am in another world.
Mustagh Ata is always in view, but the landscape around me is devoid of green or white. I could close my eyes and imagine I am in India’s techie paradise of Leh. Sweeping vistas. Drooping mountains. A narrow dirt road and we are careering down it. “Man man yidianr,” or “slow, slow” I shout to Mahmet, as vast abysses rush past me and the bike skids dangerously close. Mahmet laughs, but I don’t. I cling to him, trusting his skill with the bike, yet not trusting my own ability to stay on the bike. The air is crisp, fresh, and I stop taking photos after a while. There is no camera in the world that can do justice to it – when you are in the midst of heaven, you cannot use Earth’s devices to capture it.
A short while later, we pass by a few yurts, and Mahmet tells us that they will wait there for 2 hours.
We start walking in a vague direction towards the base camp. Shepherds are out with their yaks, or rather the yaks seem to be out sunning themselves. A little brook accompanies us. It’s spring and the valley is green, little flowers dancing around. I look back as I climb, and I gasp at the scene. The air is slowly getting thinner though, and we are already out of breath. After around 2 hours, we are nowhere close to the base camp. It’s funny how the peak looks so close – from where I stand, I think I can just reach in maybe 10 minutes, kiss the snow and come back. Or at least that was my aim. Jorg though is not able to continue, and Birdy too decides to give up. But I persist. It seems too close. I walk on. I take small baby steps, trying not to exert myself. Despite that, I feel a light headache coming on. Slowly slowly slowly. As I climb higher, it looks like landslides occur here frequently – I clamber over precariously placed rocks. After a while, the yaks disappear from view – the lone shepherd I meet who was resting on a rock is also no longer visible. It’s one of the most solitary moments of my life – and one of the most beautiful.
I felt safe there – surrounded by these majestic peaks, struggling to breathe, yet there is peace. That elusive 9th element we hunt for in our lives – peace. And I wanted to reach the base camp because today was the 11th, and do it for a person I once loved.
It’s almost 2 hours since I left Birdy and Jorg, and I still don’t see any end. It’s closer than before – but then as I reach a certain level ground, I find that I cannot possibly go any further. There are gigantic rocks protecting Mustagh Ata, and am not sure if that is the Base Camp. It surely must be because beyond that seems to be just the famous gentle slopes of Mustagh Ata.
I stand there for a while – take photos, shoot a video and I turn back. The descent is a bit painful as I try to avoid slipping down the same rocks that had helped in my ascent. In around 40 minutes though, I spot two figures standing. There they are – Birdy and Jorg- furious. They have been worried out of their minds – thinking that I must have slipped, fallen down. My phone was not reachable, of course. And as we stand there, it starts to snow. It’s unreal. Little flakes that melt away in the afternoon sun. I try to appease them, and we walk back. Now though there are four of us – the fourth being the memories we carry of a landscape I can never ever forget.