The flight from Islamabad to Skardu – aboard a battered old PIA jet– was painfully beautiful. Reputed to be the most dangerous commercial flight in the world, it must also be one of the most stunning.

Taking in the western end of the Himalayas, anchored by Nanga Parbat – the Naked Mountain – mountain range after mountain range rippled out to the horizon in an endless sea. Entire faces of granite slabs capped in snow fell away in vast scree slopes to scoured glaciated valleys. Further down the valleys lay broad flood plains, lush and green and dotted with villages. The cultivation and the villages continued up the mountainsides in places, a sharp green demarcation indicating the upper limit of where the irrigation canals could channel water from the tumbling streams that hurtled down in narrow torrents from snowbanks thousands of metres further up the mountain.

I sat transfixed trying to absorb every detail: the tree studded slopes; the ravines through which the streams fell from the mountains; the braids of the river; the verdant plateaus high up near the peaks; the trails which disected scree slopes, meandering along, diverging here and converging there. Far below the airplane the Indus river wove its way out of the mountains. In the opposite direction the road fought its way in. Alexander the Great had travelled the Indus with his army, and so would have we had the flight been cancelled (as weather often dictated). By jeep the journey from Islamabad to Skardu would take 35 hours or more but flying reduced this to an hour.

Like all good things in life the flight would end before I was ready and I found myself wishing for a longer journey. I feasted my eyes, telling I would remember every detail but I knew it was a lie. That the memories would fade only heightened the poignancy of the moment and my throat tightened.

A boy, 18, joined me looking out the window. His name was Mohammed Ali and he was returning to Skardu from Islamabad where he was studying engineering. He was fasting but laughed at me when I said I was embarrassed to drink on the plane when the stewardess offered me a drink.

“You don’t have to fast,” he said in cultivated English, “it is only necessary for Muslims.”

“I think you are a mountaineer, perhaps you will climb K2,” he said but I had to admit to my more modest aspirations.

Below he pointed out the Shangri-La resort. Of all the Shangri-Las on hearth, this one must look like the closest to heaven I thought. A small lake sat like a piece of tourquiose on green velvet, nestled in the valley and surrounded by a fortress of mountains.

He took out a camera and took a photo out the window.

“Taking pictures is my hobby,” he said, “I like how it captures a moment which you can look back on later and remember.”

I admired the sentiment but couldn’t help but feel that a photograph could never do justice to the panorama spread below us and didn’t take a photo myself.

Plane on the runway at Skardu

Plane on the runway at Skardu


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