If you think backpacking across Europe after graduating college was #goals, think again.
Europe is easily accessible (even from Pakistan) — it's a convenient flight away with plenty of hotels and Airbnb options that make accommodation easy, trains that connect cities and countries with each other in just a few hours, is extremely tourist friendly and, contrary to popular belief, the visa is easy to get if you fulfill some pretty basic conditions. It’s perfect for the faint-hearted too — the ones who are happy with a no-pain picture in front of the Eiffel Tower or the Swiss Alps.
What takes real courage is going up north and exploring Pakistan knowing the flights can get delayed often, the road is long and uncomfortable, accommodation options are few and the good ones are just as expensive as anywhere else in the world.
But perhaps what takes the most courage is leaving the comfortable life in the city to go up north and make a home in the valleys to make these places accessible for others.
Very few people have this courage. Ahmed and Baneen are two of them.
A baithak for the khanabadosh
The brainchild of Ahmed and Baneen, Khanabadosh Baithak is a tent and breakfast that started off in Shigar Valley two years ago and moved to Ghulkin, Hunza just recently for the next three years. It plans to go to Sindh for the winter and for summer — time will tell.
The couple describes Baithak as one strand of a bigger vision of the Khanabadosh Collective. “It’s a manifestation in-process of a shared dream. A bunch of friends would often get together over tea for conversations, confessions, pronouncing our aspirations, burdens. In one such sitting, the word ‘Khanabadosh’ was coined as a lighthouse for all of us divergent wanderers, doers, thinkers. It’s a slowly expanding community of engineers, theatre artists, designers, writers, musicians and so on,” they tell Images.
The two add that Baithak emerged from a need to live a life away from the traffic, noise and excesses of city life. “We wanted to move away from society’s notions of success and consumerist stresses and hoped for a simple life filled with cultural richness, creativity, meaningful encounters and healthier perspectives,” Ahmed adds.
If that’s not daring, I'm not sure what is. But what’s even more inspirational is that Ahmed and Baneen moved away to make travelling and similar experiences more accessible for everyone else too.
Thanks to their tent and breakfast, people from all over Pakistan can come and camp at Khanabadosh Baithak. Not only is it an affordable accommodation space, it also gives an entirely different experience compared to other local offerings.
Baneen describes the couple as ‘experience curators’. “Maybe we are a culture startup, if that’s even a thing. Travel is just one of our mediums,” she points out.
Ahmed elaborates that their concerns are not commercial and they are not competing in the tourism space. “We are actually wary of such an expansion in the absence of policies about construction, traffic, vehicular (in)access, waste, respect for local culture. This growth is a bad idea,” he added.
The two firmly believe that before Pakistan’s travel industry thinks of expanding, environmental needs ought to be considered first.
Breaking the chains of consumerism
Bringing such an idea to life can be challenging and scary. For Ahmed and Baneen, the two quintessentially khanabadosh at heart, this has been a blessing.
They point out that a contemporary urban lifestyle and capitalism have been the biggest challenge, not just for them but to culture and the environment in general.
The ethos behind Khanabadosh Baithak is that it is not for tourists. It is more than an accommodation option for travellers who want to, for a short while, belong somewhere and see how life is lived there.
The pair explains that their tent and breakfast setup is meant to offer the experience of slowing down and enjoying the luxury of time. “The idea is to walk more, to eat fresh and local as much as possible. It’s not for tourists but for travellers who want to explore cultures, communities and lifestyles — with a side of entirely delectable edibles, because, well, food!”
“There is space available for campers to spend the night under a bejewelled sky, the perfect setting for a communion with nature and bonding with fellow travellers over campfire stories.”
Chai and chit chat at the baithak
Since a baithak is incomplete without chai and food, Khanabadosh Baithak has a small kitchen that is also its food lab.
Interestingly, the only things on the regular menu are chai, coffee and some basic snacks, but that shouldn’t disappoint you. There is a lot on offer besides the basics, but the options keep changing as they depend on supplies available that day. One day, you may get crepes for breakfast, but on another, you may not have the choice and will get to enjoy a shakshuka.
The idea is to use a bare minimum of processed foods and make the best of ingredients available locally. “We have some family favourite recipes, some collected over the years from our travels and then of course, things we like to eat ourselves. In our food lab, every day is a surprise for us just as much as the guests,” add Ahmed and Baneen.
What really makes the food special is how it's served: all meals are communal. All guests gather around the same table and end up having interesting encounters and conversations. Eating together is a beautiful and transformative experience that not only makes the food taste even better but also memorable.
At the same time, Baneen and Ahmed encourage guests to go out and explore cafes or eating options run by locals. The locals are best at regional delicacies and enjoying them is a great way to explore the area.
Curating different experiences
While the baithak has been home to many, it’s also been a source of varying experiences.
Last year, ace architect, designer and educator Zain Mustafa hosted an educational tour at Khanabadosh Baithak in Shigar, where participants spent a long weekend looking at local khanqahs.
They learned about their history and what they can teach us about our contemporary selves, and learned to sketch their structures.
This year, the Khanabadosh Collective conducted a theatre workshop for the children of Ghulkin, which culminated in a lineup of performances.
Earlier this summer, Natasha Japanwala, a writer from Karachi, hosted a writing residency in collaboration with Khanabadosh Baithak. While Natasha took care of the programme’s planning, Baneen was in charge of logistical arrangements.
Only recently, Baithak celebrated the Shah Jo Raag Mela for the second year in a row with the Faqirs of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, who was invited all the way from Sindh to come and spread the kalaam and raag in the mountains.
“It was a humble attempt to spread the message of Shah Latif and enjoy listening to the Faqirs in a truly surreal setting,” added Ahmed.
Baneen and Ahmed shared that they have also planned Bulleh Shah Se Bhit Shah Tak — a two-week long road trip starting from Kasur, Punjab to Bhit Shah in Sindh.
“The journey was a deliberate wandering to make travel more meaningful by bringing home all that is inspiring, enriching yet unfamiliar in the lands native to our mystics. To know gurus, faqirs, artisans, local history, literature, culture and rituals; in shrines, in temples, on the streets, in fields and deserts, at baithaks and kachehris.”
These are just some of the experiences that Khanabadosh Baithak has curated for its guests. There is much more to come in the future.
What do visitors say?
When you put your heart and soul into a project, it’s inevitable that people will like it. And so it's only natural that guests who leave Khanabadosh Baithak crave to return.
Addan Nasir, a nomad at heart, told Images that he met the Baithak founders by chance.
“I met Baneen Api and Ahmed Bhai at a local cafe here in Islamabad through a mutual friend and in just a few minutes, I was convinced that I had to visit their campsite. I planned a trip and my experience was out of this world. I stayed with them for over a week and loved the ambiance so much that I barely even left the campsite to explore the surrounding areas. It was experiencing nature in its most purest form, away from man made worries of the city, reminding you of the things that really matter,” he said.
Addan recalls having to stay three extra days due to flight delays because of bad weather and Baithak did not charge him a single rupee for that. Where else can you find such hospitality?
Natasha, who hosted the writing residency earlier this summer, is all praise as well. “As artists themselves, Baneen and Ahmed have created a space that attracts other artists. Khanabadosh Baithak really struck me as a place where dreamers collide,” she commented.
A parting message
For all their efforts, if there’s one thing Ahmed and Baneen want to emphasise, it is to value your own country.
“It's worth your money just as much as those luxury tours to Dubai, Thailand or Switzerland. Read up about location destinations, check maps and keep an open mind. Don’t wait for a blogger/vlogger from another country to tell you your worth,” said Baneen.
At the same time, Ahmed encourages everyone to explore the lesser known.
“Be it deep into Balochistan or Thar, or high up in some valley in Hunza or Baltistan, explore, but also be respectful of the people and their cultures. For the north in particular, understand what it means to be driving along some of the world’s biggest non-polar glaciers. Be aware of the sensitivity of this terrain,” he added.