It is a one-hour flight from Islamabad to either the northern side of the Karakoram mountain range of the Himalayas and the green Hunza Valley, or to the eastern side of the range and the stark gray beauty of the Skardu and Shigar Valleys, and the raging Indus River. Booking a flight in either direction is easy. Getting on the flight, or getting on a flight back, is the challenge. The planes fly into and out of these valleys by visual means only and, in these high mountains, visibility changes from one hour to the next. I’ve had many colleagues who were stuck on one side or the other for several days, unable to return until the weather cleared. I was never that fortunate.
Both of these areas draw mountain climbers from all over the world, although the security situation in Pakistan has hurt the sport tremendously since 2001. These are not classic tourist areas. There are comfortable—though basic—places to lodge, the air is crystal clear and the food is hearty, although it would not be termed cuisine. Hikers can safely backpack to remote locations and camp and, while very little English is spoken, local people are adept at understanding what a visitor needs and are always willing to assist.
It was on a visit to the eastern side and Shigar Valley that my friend Debbie and I came upon a little school building with a yard full of happy, giggling girls. This tiny village doesn’t see many visitors and the girls were extremely excited by our presence. The head teacher welcomed us to the school and offered a tour. So, in and out of the neat little classrooms we went, looking at artwork and taking note of writing exercises on the blackboards and completed math pages. One young girl offered to read to me from her English book, so we sat on the steps as she expertly read a story. I noticed a photo on the desk of a Western-looking family who, the teacher explained, was the school’s benefactor. It was only later that I understood the significance of that photo.
If you have not read the book, Three Cups of Tea, please do. It is the story of Greg Mortenson, an American RN and former mountain climber who saw a need in the mountains of Pakistan and made it his life’s work to educate the illiterate children, especially girls, of the northern regions. It was one of Mortenson’s schools that my friend and I visited that day, and it is one of the most meaningful memories of my time in Pakistan.
Mortenson’s foundation, Central Asia Institute, strives to promote peace through education and by improving the place of girls in society. In November 2009, Mortenson was awarded the Archon Award by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International at its 40th Biennial Convention. I have read that he has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor he surely deserves, as he has more than answered the age-old question, “What can one person do?” As one person, Greg Mortenson has created miracles and changed lives, and is an American hero in Pakistan.
Convention highlights—Monday, 2 November. (2009). Reflections on Nursing Leadership, 35(4). Retrieved 15 March 2009 from http://www.reflectionsonnursingleadership.org/Pages/Vol35_4_FTS_Convention_day3.aspx
Mattson, J.E. (2009). Through his mother’s eyes: Jerene Mortenson talks about the work of Greg Mortenson. Reflections on Nursing Leadership, 35(4). Retrieved 15 March 2009 from http://www.reflectionsonnursingleadership.org/Pages/Vol35_4_Mattson_JMortenson.aspx
Mattson, J.E. (2009). Wrong turn at the Braldu. Reflections on Nursing Leadership, 35(3). Retrieved 15 March 2009 from http://www.reflectionsonnursingleadership.org/Pages/Vol35_3_Mattson_Mortenson.aspx
For Reflections on Nursing Leadership, published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.