Nanga Parbat, the Killer Mountain, didn’t strike this time — men did. On June 23, members of a terrorist group murdered 10 foreign tourists and their Pakistani cook. Local news reports said it happened at Fairy Meadows and they flashed images of it, saying that it was the base camp of Nanga Parbat. International news agencies claimed that it happened “at a hotel in Northern Pakistan”. What they both have in common is factual error.
As an adventure seeker and travel photographer, I have devoted my life to exploring the farthest corners of Pakistan. And my next stop, as planned for June 28, was a trek to the base camp of Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world.
Just four days before my trip I received a series of text messages from family and friends informing me about the massacre and inquiring if I was safe. I turned to the television to learn more about the incident. The news tickers were confirming my worst fears but their inconsistencies were quite blatant.
Images of Fairy Meadows, the lush green plateau located at the western edge of the Himalayas, offering the best north-side view of the mountain, kept flashing before my eyes. It was presumably the location for the attack. But that soon changed. Subsequent reports stated that the murders took place at the base camp of Nanga Parbat, which is not Fairy Meadows. Others reported that the incident had taken place in a hotel in Chilas, a completely separate location.
It was misreported that the foreigners were murdered at Fairy Meadows. They were actually killed more than 70km away from Fairy Meadows at the Diamer base camp, which offers a view of the west face of Nanga Parbat. To reach this camp you need to take a completely different route from Chilas. It is much more remote than Fairy Meadows with fewer tourists venturing out there. It also has a rotten reputation.
(The Express Tribune reported later that even tour operators have challenged a Gilgit-Baltistan police officer’s statement that the tourists were killed inside a hotel. The operators say there were no hotels on the Diamer face area and they have suggested the tourists were staying in camps.)
As expected, the mention of Fairy Meadows in the news spread panic. I learnt about this firsthand from Qari Rehmat Ullah, a native of Chilas who runs a small cottage and the camping site at Fairy Meadows (pictured below). I had the good fortune of meeting him as he was on my bus down the Karakoram Highway.
“I was in Islamabad the day it happened,” he told me. “As I turned on [the] television, the news of [the] massacre showed images of Fairy Meadows cottage from my website.” His immediate reaction was to call up his brother at the campsite but he was completely unaware of the happenings. “Everything with him was safe.” But Rehmat Ullah received countless calls that day.
After the sectarian killings of 2012 when 18 people, mostly Shia pilgrims, were killed, buses are no longer allowed to travel alone on the main Karakoram Highway. Therefore, we had to travel in a convoy led by paramilitary forces, which extended the 12-hour journey by four hours.
Source: Deutsche Himalaya Expedition Map of Nanga Parbat, Pakistan Trekking Guide by Isobel Shaw and Ben Shaw. ILLUSTRATION: JAMAL KHURSHID
The journey to the north side of the Nanga Parbat base camp goes from Islamabad to Chilas (370 km) and further north to Raikot Bridge (49 km) which is a jumping-off point for Fairy Meadows. A 1.5 hour jeep ride takes you to Tato village and then a further three- to four-hour hike to Fairy Meadows. To the base camp of the north side of Nanga Parbat, it is another five- to six-hour one-way hike, crossing through lush green alpine forest and Beyal camp and Raikot glacier.
Once we reached our campsite at Fairy Meadows, it was past midnight. The next day I woke up early and unzipped my tent to gaze upon the giant mountain before me. It stood tall behind a composition of alpine trees with its peak hidden behind passing clouds from time to time. Meanwhile in the lush green pastures of Fairy Meadows horses grazed quietly and a stream of cold water meandered through the fields. As I looked behind me, I could see Rehmat Ullah’s wooden cottage.
He showed me around and told me about how the news had impacted his business. A group of over 150 people had cancelled their trip. Almost every member of the household in the nearby village depends on tourism and there are close to 300 houses here. Starting from Raikot Bridge with jeep owners and porters in Tato village who carry your luggage to Fairy Meadows, everyone makes a living by catering to tourists. Once you set camp there you’ll find people offering horse rides and selling eggs and vegetables. Also, there are more than five camping sites at Fairy Meadows, all owned by locals.
I spent three nights at Fairy Meadows and devoted one day to trekking to the base camp on the north side of Nanga Parbat. During my stay there, I was joined by a group of at least 70 people, 25 of whom were from Karachi. The group also included a 55-year-old woman; this was a heartening sign that not all tourists had been deterred by the news.
As I said goodbye to Rehmat Ullah, he expressed how desperate he was for the local media to correct themselves since summer is the peak season for tourism in Fairy Meadows. This is my attempt to set the record straight for him.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 28th, 2013.