Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Across the Shimshal Pass

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First things first. I wrote my requiem last year in August when I wept on the Mintaka Pass in Gojal. I had walked up unfit after a full year of living without a jot of exercise. To add to that, I had developed, right on the first day of the trek, the most horridly lurid blisters on both feet. I wept when I read on the crest of the pass how fit Peter Fleming had felt coming up from the Tashkurghan side. Sono (Rahman) Aunty called to say I had brought tears to her eyes and that I couldn't give up so quickly. So, even without trying, I did not give up.


This year I returned to Shimshal after twenty years to walk to the summer pasture of Shuwert doing some work for an oil company. I was not prospecting for oil, though. Back in July 1990, with much less flab on the body and much more hair on the pate, I had done a traverse from Askole to Shimshal by the Biafo-Sim Gang-Braldu glacier system. Having crossed the 5700 metre-high Lukpe La, I became the first Pakistani to have done this traverse.

For years after I kept this honour for myself. Some friends attempted, but bad weather prevented them from crossing the high pass that has singularly bizarre ice formations around its crest. I, for example, encountered a huge cornice just below the crest on the north side. It was like the hood of a titanic cobra rising some sixty metres above a jagged icefall. We (my Shimshal guide and porter and I) were lucky the cornice did not snap sending us crashing to a horrid end in the icefall.

A friend in Shimshal reported that at some point, (he could not remember the year) a young woman from Lahore successfully completed the traverse from the Shimshal side. My friend could not say what her name was. Whoever she was, bully for her.

The twenty years since I was last in the gorge of the Shimshal River had not dulled the image of its treacherous and terrifying scree slopes. I say there is nothing gentle about Shimshal, except the disposition of its wonderful, beautiful people. It is all straight up or straight down and it tests your physical fitness to the utmost – especially when you are fifty-eight!

Two weeks earlier in Baltistan, I had heard that a general of the Pakistan army was attempting my traverse of 1990. Consequently, when I reached Shimshal, I asked if the general and his team had arrived. But they had not. Two weeks after leaving Askole this implied that Lukpe La had defied them with bad weather or worse.

On our first day out, as Yahya Beg, my guide, and I neared the encampment of Pust Furzen (Lower Birches), we saw a laden porter coming up the shingle slope.
"That's one of the general's men," said Yahya.

We stopped to chat and the man said he had been sent on ahead to hold a jeep for the exit from Shimshal while the general was following about an hour behind. We climbed down to Pust Furzen and lingered over an elaborate tea, hoping to entertain the general and his friends when they hauled themselves in. Since I knew only of General Farooq Ahmed Khan who did all sorts of unusual things, including, I presumed, walking in the mountains, I was keen to meet him. But no one turned up.

Up again on the high crest between Pust and Uch (Higher) Furzen, we saw them come around the bend. Three of them stepping out in style, not slouching like tired old yours truly. I readied my camera and as they drew nearer called out, "Hail, hail!" The man in front broke into a grin and raised his walking stick in greeting. We drew up and shook hands. They were, in walking order, Major Jawad Shirazi, Lieutenant Colonel Ahsan Kayani and their civilian friend Sheikh Zeeshan.

I asked about the general, but they had no idea about him. He could have gone up the Baltoro Glacier, the colonel ventured. I then realised that the porters in Baltistan could not differentiate between military ranks and any officer was a general so far as they were concerned. These good men had not read my book that detailed my traverse of 1990, but they had heard of it. The big surprise for me was that the soldiers were both fliers from the Corps of Aviation. Why, all the army flyboys I knew were bloody pansies, save Kaukab Bhatti, Raashid and Tanveerullah. I told them so and drew loud guffaws from the three of them. And here were two who along with their friend were doing what I would rate one of the two toughest treks in Pakistan.

It turned out that Jawad was no ordinary hill walker, too. He had authored a book in Urdu about his travels in Kashmir. I have placed this work on my 'must read' list and it shall soon be taken care of. We chatted and my television documentaries came up for discussion. Jawad asked if it was true that Alexander the Macedonian was killed by a Multani arrow. Multanis are laid back, I said, and their arrows must have the same trait. Alexander did take a shot in the right side of his chest when he scaled the wall of Multan fort. But though his lung was punctured, he recovered and led his army successfully through Sindh and the Makran desert, across Persia to Babylon. If it was the arrow in Multan then it worked like a typically Multani taking four years to do what could have been accomplished instantly.

It was weird standing on a desiccated hillside above a sheer slope falling to a thundering river eight hundred metres below us in distant Shimshal and talking Alexander's taking of the fort of Multan. But then odder things are known to have occurred in the high places of the world. One thing was settled, however: despite whatever sham Multani historians may say, it was not an arrow from one of their bows that killed Alexander.

When I started to say parting words, Jawad, the most talkative of the trio, said since none of them had anything to give me to remember them by and because this was such a fortuitous encounter, I should go back to Pust Furzen and have lunch with them.

"And then climb up all the way here?" I asked incredulously.

Thankfully, Yahya and I were spared the ordeal. We parted with felicitation for these young people upon having completed an exclusive traverse. Exclusive it certainly is because for many years to come, it will remain in the realm of the least accomplished treks in Pakistan.

Postscript: A day after returning home, I received a call from Major Jawad Shirazi to ask how far I had gone up the valley. I told him all the way to the summer settlement of Shuwert across the Shimshal Pass. He was surprised.

"We figured you would not last any farther than Arbab Purrian," he said. "What with the tiresome ups and downs of the upper Shimshal gorge and your age, we could not imagine you going much farther."

Jawad had not read my requiem from last August. I did not therefore tell him that I was trying to expunge that damnation not from the pages of this newspaper, but from my own soul. I did not say it was necessary for me to go all the way to be resurrected. If not, the requiem had every capacity of becoming my epitaph.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 9:43 AM,

4 Comments:

At June 17, 2013 at 8:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read "Shamshaal Bemisaal" but that is a different story altogether. Where is that "Shandar suraj talu ho raha hey," Shandar suraj aahista aahista ubhar raha hey?"

 
At June 20, 2013 at 3:21 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Travel writing in Urdu does not exist. These spurious works that you mention are nothing but words, words, words. They tell you nothing, they mean even less.

 
At April 14, 2014 at 5:18 AM, Blogger Amardeep Singh said...

Where there is Will, the way emerges!!!

 
At September 29, 2015 at 10:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

but sir shamshal emisaal is written by mustansar husain tarar..what do you think about him

 

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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days