Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

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Maheen Pracha

“With so much of the vast Himalaya still a blank on the map, our first privilege is to explore rather than to climb,” wrote Eric Shipton, the twentieth-century British explorer-climber. But as Salman Rashid wistfully notes in The Apricot Road to Yarkand, “In the world of the beginning of the 21st century, there were no blanks on the map to fill and be celebrated.” Yet this in no way diminishes the romance of retracing historical routes, and not solely for the sheer joy of adventure.

Rashid’s account of the mediaeval route from Baltistan to Yarkand (now in the Chinese province of Xinjiang) has its roots in Francoise Bernier’s Travels in the Mogul Empire. A wandering French doctor who found service at the court of Aurangzeb, Bernier explains why the older trading route between Kashmir and Tartary (as it was then known) by way of the un-glaciated Karakoram Pass was abandoned on the order of the ruler of Ladakh. A new route, reports Bernier, was established from Skardu to Kashgar and Yarkand by way of the Muztagh Pass. For Rashid, the idea that caravans were routinely crossing a heavily glaciated, high-altitude pass was the germ of an expedition.

This route was abandoned in the late eighteenth century once the glacier became impassable, but another route was reconnoitered by way of the Panmah and Chiring glaciers across what became known as the “new” or West Muztagh Pass. The difficulties of travel across such harsh terrain for several weeks at a time and the dire warnings of paths haunted by Hunzakut brigands did nothing to deter an entire school of Victorian explorers and cartographers — H. H. Godwin-Austen, Godfrey T. Vigne, and Francis Younghusband among them — from venturing into the Muztagh-Karakoram area. This was also, after all, the era of the Great Game, and Rashid draws knowledgably on a rich corpus of exploration literature.

Although he had picked out his two travel companions as early as 2001, it took him five years to organise the expedition. Corporations or governments are loath to finance journeys that appear to serve no visible purpose. Hawkish diplomats are wary of potential skullduggery; as he ruefully notes, Pakistanis have done little to endear themselves to their Chinese neighbors since a political-religious group’s crusade to “free” the largely Muslim Uighur population of Kashgar in 1988. Nonetheless, by 2005, he was able to secure the requisite funds from the Pakistan government. Resigned to the Chinese government’s refusal to allow them to cross over into Xinjiang from the Pakistani side, he decided to cross the Muztagh Pass on to the Sarpo Laggo Glacier and continue as far as possible. Then, armed with a Chinese visa, he would complete the traverse from the other side.

Rashid’s account of the expedition is peppered with sharp albeit good-humoured caricatures of his companions and the people they meet en route: the bored young army captain in Skardu, who is apt to think of Rashid and his party as “useless layabouts”; Ali the Hunter, who promises in vain to shoot (quite illegally) an ibex for supper; and Oblat, the rotund Uighur lieutenant who insists on offering his father’s hospitality even as he deftly ransacks Rashid’s belongings for “objectionable” material.

But Rashid’s journey spans more than just geography; it charts the movement of language, of names. Long before the highest peak in the region was named Godwin-Austen or even the unimaginably dull K-2, it was “Chhogho Ri” or “Great Mountain” to the Baltis. This became “Chogor” for the Tukistanis who were traveling the Muztagh route from Yarkand to Baltistan and encountered the north face of the mountain. The name then passed into the Chinese as “Chongoli”.

There are less forgivable instances of the corruption of language too. The pass Conway Saddle, named for the pioneering surveyor Martin W. Conway, becomes “Convoy Saddle”, snorts Rashid, for ill-read Pakistani army officers who vaguely assume that the saddle is so named for the convoy of mules used to transport supplies when the post was first established.

As Rashid notes, the Baltis are, on the whole, a genial people with a sharp sense of humour, and always willing to encourage straggling charges with the blithe untruth that the arduous climb expected ahead is nothing more than an easy “level plain”. It is thus surprising, as he says, that Balti guides and porters do not figure popularly in exploration literature (as opposed to the Nepali Sherpas), and are often ill-naturedly painted as cowardly and dour.

Notwithstanding the enormous contribution of European explorers, Rashid argues that is the Baltis who remain the original route-makers of the Karakoram. Long before the first European explorers penetrated the region, the Baltis had already named every key geographical feature in their native language, giving credence to the theory that the Baltis had encountered almost every possible route in the area and assigned to it a sort of narrative map to be passed on from traveler to traveler. After all, these were people for whom mountain travel was a long-established way of life; whether they were hunters, shepherds, or traders, exploration was the means to survival. The difference, however, is that the Baltis are not known to have left any records of their expeditions, centering as they do on an oral rather than written tradition. There, thus, remains an important “missing link” in the chain of exploration.

Related: Excerpt from The Apricot Road to Yarkand

The Apricot Road to Yarkand (TRAVELOGUE) By Salman Rashid Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore ISBN 969-35-2371-7 203 pp. Rs. 2,200

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 16:20,


At 24 April 2013 at 17:56, Anonymous Madeleine M said...

I just love the book. Makes me want to go to Pakistan and take the route through the mountains that reminded me of my own land. Doesn't seem possible though.

At 18 May 2013 at 18:21, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Hi Madeleine, sorry for the delayed response. But this part of Pakistan, Gilgit-Baltistan, is perfectly safe. Keep clear of places like Waziristan (ha ha), head for the North and your good.

At 5 August 2013 at 09:51, Blogger A Rana said...

Gotta read your book. I went to Yarkand a few years ago and it seemed really remote. Sounds interesting.

At 7 August 2013 at 12:04, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Anas Rana, good to reconnect.

At 13 December 2013 at 14:51, Blogger crystalclear said...

Salman Sb, this review makes me want to buy this book! Where could I get a copy in Lahore? Also, your writing reminds me of Tim Mackintosh Smilth's books re-tracing Ibn-e-Battutas travels!

At 13 December 2013 at 14:52, Anonymous Umar Ashfaq said...

Salman Sb, this review makes me want to buy this book! Where could I get a copy in Lahore? Also, your writing reminds me of Tim Mackintosh Smilth's books re-tracing Ibn-e-Battutas travels!

At 13 December 2013 at 23:03, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Umar, you can get this book from Sang e Meel, Lower Mall. Call 042-3722-0100 to ask for directions. Macintosh-Smith is a great writer. Lucid and captivating.

At 13 January 2015 at 17:20, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sir, u may be well read but certainly lack the experience of mountains army officers have.Just spend one night at 20000 ft and you will know what mountains mean to humans.

At 17 March 2015 at 11:11, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

After going through the review i bought the book and going through the same now a days. It is interesting and full of knowledge.

At 17 March 2015 at 14:56, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Athar. I am very happy that you are enjoying the book.

At 26 August 2016 at 23:38, Anonymous Catherine Moorehead said...

If it's of any interest, my biography of HH Godwin-Austen, 'The K2 Man', describes in some detail G-A's near-approach to the Mustagh Pass in 1861, shortly before he went on to explore the Baltoro Glacier and fix the position and height of K2. The book has one of G-A's own watercolours of the junction of the Punmah and Choktoi Glaciers, en route to the Pass.

At 29 August 2016 at 10:32, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Catherne Moorehead, I am very grateful for your comment. I did not know of this book. Am ordering it right now.By the way, any relation to Alan Moorehead?

At 4 April 2017 at 13:42, Blogger SPECKLED_BAND said...

Dear Mr Rashid,

As a keen Central Asia enthusiast I read your articles with great interest. In 2015 I travelled in Xinjiang, covering all the well-known towns (including Yarkand of course). I own a fairly extensive library of Central Asian travel literature. If you could tell me how to obtain a copy of your book (Apricot Road...)I'd be very grateful. I'll gladly pay of course!

Later this year (September) my friend and I plan to travel in the Pamirs.

Warm regards,

K V K Murthy

PS: On Google (FB etc) I have taken the name James Joyce.


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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