The Journey to Heaven
Written and photographed by Talha A. Khawaja
Last year, in September specifically, my family and I decided to travel to one of the most beautiful places in Pakistan and, arguably, the world. We were heading to Kashmir, an area known, unfortunately, more for the age old argument of whether the land belongs to India or Pakistan than for the sights it had to offer. Thus, up to that point, anything and everything that I had heard about Kashmir revolved around the India-Pakistan politics surrounding it. That all changed as soon as we stepped in to Kashmiri territory. The places we visited held breathtaking sights and a history accompanying them that was hundreds of years old. The entire trip was a blast, save for one hurdle in the road, Urang Kel; a mountain where I went through one of the most profound experiences of my life.
My family and I visited Kel on the third day of our trip. Kel was a town at a short distance from the bottom of the Urang Kel Mountain. It was chilly out that day and the skies were cloudy which should’ve been a sign to not embark on an hour long hike. Unfortunately, my over-adventurous family had never been one to pay attention to such warnings. The plan they told us seemed simple enough. We would take a cable car across Kel to the bottom of the mountain from where a tour guide would receive us. The guide would then give us the appropriate gear to make the rest of the journey to the mountain’s base, a place described by locals as “Heaven on Earth”. Everything was going as planned at first. Sure, the cable car made all sorts of whirring noises and constantly seemed like it was going to snap right off of the cable, squashing us like pancakes but that was part of the deal. We knew we were in for an adventure.
What we were not prepared for was how steep the hike was. There was no walking path and no marked out trails that we could follow. The guide did his best to take us up as quickly as possible but even he found the hike difficult to negotiate at times. My family, though, managed to adjust to the terrain eventually. I did not. The fact that I was not the fittest in the family didn’t help either.
I was constantly struggling to land one foot after the other while trying to retain my balance. The path was especially treacherous as it got steeper and my feet started throbbing from the effort of the climb. I had agreed to the hike because I thought it wouldn’t be too difficult but somewhere along the lines of seeing my family race ahead of me, and noticing that there were barely any rest points, I realized that I didn’t have it in me to make the climb. Then things got worse. It started raining. Heavily.
We were forced to stop at a resting point to wait out the rain. I was standing on a ledge, overlooking the mountain at the time. We were already half way up by then. There was no going back and because of the rain, no going forward. I remember some part of me feeling like this was the end. The ground below me was wet and the hiking stick I had with me was starting to slip in the mud. The odds of the rain stopping or us going anywhere were starting to diminish in my mind but the thing I thought of the most was my family. My parents were there. My older brother and younger siblings were with us as well. The tour guide tried to lift our moods by getting a conversation going but the only thing I could think of was whether something would happen to us. I tried to push those thoughts out of my head but looking at my family in danger put the fear of God in me.
Fortunately, before my imagination could get any worse, the rain had started clearing up a little and the guide took that as a sign to take us the rest of the way up. As we continued the journey, there were numerous occasions where I nearly lost my balance, landed my foot the wrong way or almost lost the resolve to keep moving forward. Eventually, the tour guide, taking note of my difficulty, paired up with me. He had me put my shoulder around his neck and transfer a lot of my weight on to him, almost carrying me the rest of the way up. I was so embarrassed and frustrated at the time. I felt completely powerless, so unable to help myself or my loved ones. On top of that, the guide having to carry me meant that I was putting his life in danger as well. He may have had experience with the land but even he was prone to error. It was all my fault, I thought. I agreed to a hike I wasn’t physically fit enough or prepared for. By agreeing to go on it anyway, I had let my family and myself down. I had failed everyone. However, almost immediately after I had these thoughts, they melted away from my mind. We had finally reached our destination. Urang Kel was absolutely stunning. It had a sort of magical aura around it. I had never seen anything quite like it before. The place was almost dream like. It seemed too good to be true, too beautiful to exist. And yet, there it was. Flanked by mountains on all sides, carrying tall pine trees, surrounded by flowers of a multitude of colors, and covered with grass of a variety of green shades, I understood what the locals saw in Urang Kel. The best that nature had to offer was staring at me in the face.
The journey to Heaven was grueling. It not only required physical strength but also needed me to be mentally strong. While I thought I had failed to show these qualities, I had actually done things that I did not know I was capable of. Despite having a flurry of fearful thoughts, I ultimately managed to overcome my fears long enough to finish the hike. I also managed to accomplish one of the most demanding tasks that I’ve ever had to do, and with a body that was so unfit it had started aching ten minutes in to the journey. In doing so, I, along with my family, overcame obstacles of every kind.
The most important aspect of the experience, though, was not what I had done but what I have learned upon reflection. The Urang Kel hike had its ups and downs. There were instances where the journey got tough. There were times when I was truly fearful for my safety and that of everyone around me. Someone was always there to help me out of those times and to support me for which I am eternally grateful. The experience showed me how similar the hike and life were. The journey was almost like a dry run for life itself. Life would have its ups and downs; good times interspersed with bad ones. Urang Kel gave me a taste of how to handle those times and respond to situations where things don’t always go my way. It taught me that help in the face of difficulty should not be considered as a sign of weakness but one of strength because accepting that you are fallible and will need to rely on those close to you from time to time requires more courage than trying to face your hurdles alone. Most importantly, it also taught me to not constantly blame myself for the hardships of life; that such negative thoughts could only ever do harm, not good. All of these lessons were ones that I had heard growing up but had never experienced firsthand, that is, until Urang Kel. The hike has shown me how to live. It has taught me that if you work hard enough, have the right mix of people around you, and push yourself through even the toughest of times, the reward is there for the taking and it’s as beautiful as you imagined it was going to be.
This story was first published in Issue 6: Style.