Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Mintaka: ancient byway into the subcontinent

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Sitting at the head of Misgar Valley (Gojal, north of Hunza), the 4760 metre-high Mintaka Pass has one of the most evocative and tantalising names: in the Wakhi language, it is the Pass of a Thousand Ibex. Sometime in the latter Middle Ages, the Wakhi people who speak an archaic form of Persian came down this way from Tajikistan and Wakhan to make the valleys of Gojal their home. Their hunters’ instinct would have been greatly titillated by the sight of herds of Himalayan ibex browsing on the slopes around them and they gave the high, wind-swept saddle a name that stuck.

The Wakhi tribes were not the first comers on Mintaka, however. Nearly a millennium and a half before them, in the latter half of the 2nd century BCE, a great horde of horse-riding northern peoples followed their leader down this pass on their way to become masters of much of modern-day Pakistan. The chief was called Maues and his people were the Scythians. Driven out of their home by drought and the pressure of a more powerful tribe, they sought the fertile plains of the Indus Valley whose fame by this time had spread far.

We find no archaeological record of the Scythians’ passage this way. But there is more than ample proof of their presence in the region around Gilgit in the 2nd century BCE. Now, since the Mintaka is the easiest access between Central Asia and Gilgit, it can be surmised that the Scythians did troop over it on their way to colonise what is today Pakistan. Simultaneously, anthropologists also believe that the people of Hunza and Gojal are a Central Asiatic race that settled in this area more than a millennium ago. That is, the Mintaka Pass has long been a busy thoroughfare.

It was not only warring tribes that came this way, however. Petroglyphs near Hunza and Chilas show that even before the beginning of the Common Era, a regular traffic of Buddhist pilgrims and teachers was travelling this way between the Buddhist centres of the subcontinent and Central Asia.

Since the early 15th century, Hunza maintained a loose diplomatic relationship with Kashgar in the north. This connection was found to be still intact by the first European explorers in the 19th century. In December 1891, expansionist British Raj attacked Hunza. Several pitched battles were fought on the road north from Gilgit. When Mir Safdar Ali, the king of Hunza, sensed that his cause was as good as lost, he fled with his harem and treasure. The route he took to Kashgar was by way of the Mintaka Pass; there to live out the rest of his days in impoverished exile.

Now, we know that modern roads nearly always follow the alignments of ancient pathways. But when it came time to build the Karakoram Highway (KKH) connecting Islamabad with Kashgar, the Mintaka route lost out to another. Survey showed that the some parts of the valley leading up to the pass were not sufficiently stable to prove suitable for a major roadway.

And so it was that Mintaka, the Pass of a Thousand Ibex, that had known the tramp of feet for well over two thousand years, ceded the star position to an unknown upstart: the Karakoram Pass.

How to get there: Gilgit, the start point, is connected with Islamabad by road and air. The formation of the landslide lake of Atabad now entails a two to three hour boat ride in order to reach Misgar (west of Sost), the start point for the Mintaka trek. A guide and a pack animal can easily be hired in Misgar for the three day trek to Mintaka Pass. Educated and urbane, the people of Misgar, as indeed those of the entire Hunza-Gojal region, are a delight to be with. The region being restricted zone, prior permission from the FCNA Headquarter in Gilgit Cantonment is required.

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1. Gilgit to Misgar via Hunza, Atabad Lake and Sost by car/boat. About 12 hours.

Day 2. Misgar to Murkushi via the fort of Qalandar Chi (incorrectly, Kalam Darchi). 6 hours of a delightful stroll through the lovely meadow of Ronhil.

Day 3. Murkushi to the shepherds’ hut at Gurgun Pert. 6 hours easy going.

Day 4. Gurgun Pert to Mintaka Pass via the shepherd’s huts of Gul Khoja and back to Gurgun Pert. 9-10 hours of easy walking.

Day 5. Gurgun Pert to Qalandar Chi. 7 easy hours. Here Jeeps are sometimes available for the 8 km ride back to Misgar.

Note: Mintaka is right on the international border with China and closely watched by the Chinese military. No attempt to descend on the north side should be made.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 01:00,


At 26 April 2013 at 11:45, Blogger Qasim said...

Wow! Another mesmerizing and wonderful post by Rashid sahab.

I for one, would be interested in your take on *how* you travel. Like, what's the best way to get acquainted with a place. For many people, they travel and then stay in some hotel and end up basically spending much of their time doing the same things they would be doing at home.

I read in a previous post of yours that you often travel by bike. There's this wonderful book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance. The author talked about how, when travelling in a car, you're sitting on a sofa in a small room and experiencing the world out there through a window. And how, when you're on a bike, you have ground under your feet and the wind on your back, and essentially experience the environment in a much more intimate way. According to that author, the motorbike was the modern equivilant of a horse, whereas a car/vehicle was more like a horse-carriage.

Would be great to get your insight and experience on this!

At 27 April 2013 at 21:10, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reading about places like Mitaka is so easy. I enjoy reading such stuff. But I can imagine that going must be very tough out there. I know that you have walked many mountains. Tell me how did the earlier people (with no technology and modern day gadgets or even maps) pass through such routes? That baffles me. Your fan and reader - Saim

At 29 April 2013 at 08:36, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...


Here is an answer to your question:

At 4 May 2013 at 13:02, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Hello Saim, Earlier people travelled very tentatively. They explored virtually mile by mile. If you read my book The Apricot Road to Yarkand, you will see how the Balti people discovered a glaciated route between Shigar and Yarkand as early as the 5th or 6th century CE. They made their maps as they went. That was truly courageous.

At 20 March 2016 at 18:24, Anonymous asif saeed said...

salman sb i have a question.... i have heard that ab security concerns ke waja say mintika and kilik passes tak nai janay ke permission nai hai.. is it true?

Asif Saeed

At 21 March 2016 at 11:28, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Asif, I have no idea of the present situation. But the way it is now security concerns obstruct free travel anywhere across Pakistan. Tourism, even the domestic variety, is a sad joke.


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