Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Stranger in Alai

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‘You want to walk through Alai to Kaghan?’ The young man asked incredulously. I nodded. ‘But it’s hard and you’re too old!

Grey hair (even if it is a week old stubble returning after a head shave) certainly does not inspire confidence. The crowd gathered to ogle me at the only hotel in the village of Rashung in Alai Valley snickered and nodded knowingly. No, I could not do it, they all agreed. I was too old for this sort of thing. One said that since there was every danger of my guide-cum-porter having to carry me over the intervening passes, they would charge a preposterous five hundred rupees per day to go with me.

Having driven all the way from Battagram through Thakot in the Sindhu Gorge to this remote little village in the heart of Alai, it seemed it would after all be impossible to trek across to Kaghan. In my mind, I was already beginning to formulate alternate plans when Maqbool, the Forest Department ranger in whose charge I had been placed at Battagram, intervened. I had done a good deal of mountain walking in my life, he told our audience. For instance, said he, I had climbed K-2.

Never in my life had I been nearer than twenty-five kilometres from this great mountain and never had I climbed higher than 5700 metres (18,700 ft) – a full 3000 metres less than K-2. I hurried to correct him, but he nudged me to shut up. I shut up and if Maqbool had hoped to impress this lot, he failed badly. They made some rude remarks about how I must have reached the summit of K-2, laughed and ordered the next round of tea. Meanwhile, a wild sort of red-beard joined the party. Taj Mohammed, a native of the village of Gungwal further up the valley, said he was interested in portering for me. But on the condition that we pause to shoot all the ibex and musk deer that we meet on the way.

I stood for the conservation of wild species not for senseless extermination, I said. He'd give me more meat to eat than I could imagine, returned Taj Mohammed. I told him I was a vegetarian and the good man looked at me as if I suffered from AIDS, cancer and all other incurable afflictions. Meanwhile, the bucketing rain that had forced us into the inn in the first place let up and Maqbool said we ought to head for Gungwal where we were to spend the night in the Forest Department rest house. There, he said, the deal could be finalised with Taj Mohammed.

The walk was easy in the course of which Maqbool laid on his oratorical finesse to impress upon Taj Mohammed the need to escort me across to Kaghan. At the rest house, however, the man left us without any commitment and Maqbool sauntered off after him into the village to ‘look for another porter.’ He returned after dark to say that tomorrow, God willing, there would be someone to porter for me. In plain speak this meant that not having been able to muster anyone, he didn’t know what to do next. And so I went to bed in a state of uncertainty.

On the morrow, well before sunrise, Taj Mohammed arrived with his red beard, an aged shotgun across his shoulder and a cartridge belt around his waist. For him this was to be no tame trek, but a hunting expedition. With his wide grin he animatedly told me of all the kill (ibex) and raunce (musk deer) that roam the high hills east of Alai. For the shikari that Taj Mohammed was, there would be more than sufficient meat that we could share and perhaps a pod or two of musk that would be his. There would be nothing of the sort if I can help it, I thought to myself as we bid farewell to Maqbool and set out on the trail leading out of the village.

Immediately east of the last houses of Gungwal, the forest encroached upon the maize fields. We were 1900 metres above the sea and it was largely coniferous with a few broad-leaf varieties. In the several valleys of Kaghan and Siran and in the surroundings of Abbottabad and Mansehra the only species of pine tree is what I call Toilet Brush Pine (Pinus toilet brushicus). This is the tall pine tree with its branches lopped off and burnt by the rapidly multiplying humanity that lives around it and has no other fuel. The little tuft of green left at the top to give it a semblance of tree, is also the little tuft that makes it look exactly like a toilet brush. Hence, Pinus toilet brushicus.

There are few sights more offensive than such a shorn and forlorn tree. But there is no way to prevent this crude topiary – except of course a very special breed of infallible forest rangers. Since we do not have those, this great crime against the beauty of nature shall continue. Here in Alai, however, it was very gratifying to note that the pine trees were what pine trees should be: neat tapering cones of well-proportioned branches covered with healthy vegetation. There were, of course, some signs of felling, but the forest was, by and large, healthy and regenerating. Being in these hardwoods was like being caught in an ambuscade of birdsong: it shot out at us from all directions. It was after a very long time indeed that I was walking through what could be called, with a little overstatement, a ‘primary’ forest.

I had arrived in Alai three days after the worst storm in living memory had savaged the valley. Though it had not caused any loss of life but the gale that had swept through at an estimated hundred and fifty kilometres per hour had snapped scores of hefty pine trees in halves or simply yanked them right out of the earth., roots and all. The dead trees littered the forest and lay next to our path or sometimes even across it.

Though this was what they call a ‘guzara’ forest, that is, owned privately where local populations can utilise forest wealth for their own use, they cannot harvest it commercially. Consequently, even to get this storm-harvested timber to the market was illegal so far as the Forest Department was concerned. The procedure, Maqbool had earlier told me, would be a long drawn-out hassle of reporting the number of damaged trees to ask for a survey to be carried out before the timber could actually be removed to the market. But surely this is the only way to prevent greed from taking over and beginning a wild scramble to take down even healthy trees under cover of storm damage.

Climbing up the high ridge that separates Alai from the Chor Valley that lies on the route to Kaghan, Taj Mohammed pointed out the foot-bridges destroyed by the recent storm, five in all. Three hours of an easy walk brought us to Jabr where they have a couple of houses and the last watering hole before Ajri Kandao (Pass). Such an establishment in the Alps would have served up some fine German Weizen Bier, but here in the Western Himalayas we had to fortify ourselves with cups of very sweet tea. The innkeeper, a smiling , friendly Alaiwal (as they call themselves) insisted that we spend the night in his care. But we had places to go and having tarried long enough took our leave.

A hard climb of two and a half hours brought us to the top of the pass at 3050 metres above the sea. On the other side an hour’s descent betook us into the plain of Chor. The first houses that we saw in the valley below were the settlement of Larray Kus (the name means Stream by the Wayside), the summer home of the nomadic Gujjars who come up to this fertile grassland from Alai. All along the descent Taj Mohammed had been carrying on about the wild and lawless Kohistanis who come up the valley from Palas to rob and vex – and sometimes, even kill. They were evil people who knew no law, said he. He even had a story to tell of the Kohistanis who had kidnapped a girl from Alai, yet they persecuted any Alaiwal that came within range. He sounded as if the Kohistanis were mad at the Alaiwals for making available a kidnap-able girl! The story made no sense at all, but Taj Mohammed insisted upon its veracity.

It needs be clarified here that the Kohistanis of Palas, though they (like other Kohistanis) have assimilated the worst elements of Pukhtun culture, are ethnically distinct from the Pukhtuns. While their kinsmen, the Kohistanis of the right bank of the Sindhu speak Kohistani, these of Palas and other left bank communities speak Shina, which is also spoken in Astore, Gilgit and parts of Baltistan to the east. Linguists and anthropologists place both Kohistani and Shina in the Indo-Dardic group having a strong affinity with the classical Prakrits of northern India. Pukhtu, on the other hand, derives from archaic Persian.

Interestingly, the Alaiwals all claim to be Yusufzais who migrated to Alai, according to one rather weak tradition, under pressure of the Karlughs (Turks). Now these Turkish incursions that began with the advent of the 11th century CE and petered out after the death of Taimur the Lame, were all mounted in the glorious name of Islam. Yet, in reality, they were no more than plundering campaigns by bloodthirsty and impoverished savages. The histories of Mahmud of Ghazni and Taimur the Lame shamelessly gloat over the vast riches and number of slaves that the land of the Sindhu River yielded giving the lie to the purported religious purpose of these raids. Wearying from this periodic killing, plundering and enslaving one branch of the Yusufzais of the rich agricultural country of Mardan, goes the tradition, sought the new and relatively safer refuge of Alai.

My friend, Adam Nayyar, the renowned anthropologist, takes erudite and earnest exception to this argument however. The Alaiwals, says he, are not Pukhtuns but the original inhabitants of Swat who were pushed out by the expansion of the Yusufzais. Among other elements, they borrowed the language from their Pukhtun adversaries.

Since all sub continental Muslims have either come from Arabia or Central Asia (‘original Muslims’, as they like to call themselves, and not converts), I am surprised no end that pseudo-intellectuals from Alai have not yet invented their connection with Central Asia which will make them better than the Yusufzais in their own eyes: there is in Kyrgyzstan a mountain range and a peak called Alai. And sooner rather than later some half-baked historian should assign to the Alaiwals a Kyrgyz origin.

We crossed a log bridge over the stream that we had followed down from Ajri Pass and were in what some trekkers have wrongly termed the Chor Plain. Chor is, in fact, the upper reach of the Palas Valley of Kohistan that stretches some seventy-five kilometres in a southeasterly direction from Pattan in the Sindhu Gorge. From its height of 3000 metres in its watershed, it eases down to 800 metres at its confluence with the Sindhu near Pattan. Since this descent of 2200 metres progresses through seventy-five kilometres, a very gradual drop indeed, the valley gives the illusion of being a wide, elongated plain. That it surely is not.

Another thing that Chor certainly is not is a part of Alai as claimed by the Khan of Alai. And I say this on geographical basis. Chor, as has been said above, is actually Upper Palas Valley of Kohistan. The river that flows north through it waters Palas before emptying itself into the Sindhu, while the 3000-metre high Ajri Pass forms the watershed between Chor and Alai. This topography separates the two valleys by a boundary as physically stark as stark can be. But being so distant, and with plenty of far more fertile side valleys nearer at hand in middle Palas, the Kohistanis never saw the need to travel the long distance to Chor in order to pasture their herds in summer.

Meanwhile, the Khan of Alai, who also was the Khan of the several Gujjar families that wintered in his valley, was receiving the annual tribute of ghee and goats from his herdsman subjects who availed of the bounty of Chor. Consequently he laid claim to this fertile grassland. This was easy enough, for it takes but half a day to cross the Ajri Pass from Alai into Chor, while the Palas Kohistanis had to travel at least three days to get to it. The Kohistanis, moreover, were not watching when the Khan of Alai annexed Chor. This, if you please, is then an older and miniature version of the Siachen conflict between Pakistan and India.

The volatile Kohistanis of Palas, finding the upper reaches of their valley attached by the Khan, took violent exception. The feud began in which the Alaiwals were largely discomfited. Among other losses, the great-grandfather of the present Khan of Alai was killed in one of the skirmishes. John Biddulph writing just over a hundred years ago was not wrong when he noted (Tribes of the Hindoo Koosh): ‘One branch of the Alai Valley stretches up towards the head of the Palus (sic) Valley, from which it is separated by a low pass.’ He went on to say that the men of Alai casting ‘longing eyes on the Palus land’ had given rise to disputes. So these quarrels continue down to our times and with a few lives lost on either side show no signs of early settlement.

The one help the government provided in this squabbling was the hare-brained idea of a hydel project on the Chor stream at Larray Kus. In a nutshell, it was to dam the waters and transfer them by tunnel into Alai. It was monumental imbecility to expect the Kohistanis to put up with it. They came down in force and kidnapped thirty-five staff members of the Karachi-based engineering firm working on the project. The government had to backtrack before the anarchy-loving Kohistanis of Palas released these people.

Adam Nayyar adds a hilarious footnote to this grand fiasco: in order to appease the Palasis, a brochure was prepared clarifying the matter. Unfortunately the visual was a photo taken against the sun with a polygonal flare showing up on the mountainside. This, the Palasis were convinced, was the ‘hole’ meant to convey the water from Chor to Alai. Nayyar, who had a part to play in all this, had a hard time convincing them that their fears were in vain.

Taj Mohammed, however, was unaware of the mass kidnapping of engineers. He told me of the helicopter nipping down just in time to pluck the ‘three Germans’ as the Palasi force was coming down. This of course was fable, for there were no foreigners on this project.

We made it to the mosque of Larray Kus well before sunset and settled down for the night. The end of our first day out of Gungwal was both dull and eventful in equal measure.

Taj Mohammed had exhibited, quite explicitly, that he was in nervous thrall of the Kohistanis. Going by his description, these people were the meanest pieces of work ever devised by God or the Devil. Killing and plundering was to them as breathing was to the rest of humanity. And having come over Ajri Pass and descended into Chor we were right in their territory.

While I was putting up my tent on the roof of the mosque there appeared, as if on cue, a young, lanky man with a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. He quizzed Taj Mohammed and I heard the good man tell him that I was a colonel surveying for the proposed road from Alai to Kaghan. How he had contrived this one, I shall never discover, but thereafter as long as we remained within range of the purportedly evil Kohistanis, that was the story Taj Mohammed told everyone.

Having told Taj that I ought to sleep in the mosque like the rest of them, the Kohistani came over and asked why we were travelling through Chor. Emboldened by the endowment of the title of colonel, and wishing to play the part well, I brusquely asked the man if there was anything the matter with his ears. A little confounded the man said no, there was nothing wrong with them.

‘So, didn’t you hear what my man said to you? Why do you want to hear the same thing twice?’ I asked, pleased with my role of the colonel. The man withdrew. Later he told Taj Mohammed to get me to sleep in the mosque because other Kohistanis, not being as God-fearing as him, were likely to come down in the night and finding me alone in my tent, rob me. There was also the added excitement of a knife being run across my throat. Years ago I had learned that one thing the Kohistanis feared more than the God they daily worship five times, was an officer wearing the uniform of the Pakistan Army. I was therefore not being overly gutsy by remaining in my tent.

Early the next morning this man saw us off, and this thankfully was the last we saw of him. In an hour we were passing the houses of Marria where we stopped by the mosque. Kala Khan Gujjar, the head of this group, offered tea and we accepted. As we waited, Taj Mohammed delivered his little spiel about the ‘surva’ we were carrying out to push the road through to Kaghan. For good measure he added that this road was to go on to Chilas and eventually connect with Siachen Glacier. It was just as well that none of these simple folks were proficient in Himalayan and Karakorum geography or they would have drummed us out of their valley in return for this not very bright bit of fibbing.

Not only did we get away with it, but the information also delighted Kala Khan. Why, this was the best thing to happen to this area, and after the road was through, he could even take his herd to sell in Kaghan. We were both good men, he declared, to have taken upon ourselves this arduous task and would we like to stay until lunch? We said tea was just fine and, having done with that, we were soon by ourselves again.

Three hours later we passed another mosque (roofless this time) and a couple of houses. Taj Mohammed suggested we should wait in the mosque and ask the householders to send us some food. He repeatedly hailed the house, but no one turned up. A couple of young women peered shyly from behind the walls and a bunch of children arrived to sit on top of the mosque wall and gape at us. Taj tried his Pukhtu and then his Urdu with them. They giggled back at us. I tried Punjabi. They giggled some more and whispered to each other in Gujri. Presently, a young bearded man arrived. He was the mullah who serviced the religious needs of the widely spread out households of this area called Sur Kus – Stream at the Head of the Valley.

It was apparent that he wielded considerable influence for shortly after his shout two girls came out to ask what we would like to have. And so fortified with tea, chapattis and a large bowl of yoghurt we thanked the mullah and set out again. Having told me for the hundredth time that he had once killed a musk deer in the hill on our left, Taj Mohammed now had to say that a friend of his had been even luckier. In a single outing this man and his two partners had slaughtered a total of nine of those animals! He assured me for the hundredth time that we were sure to bag at least one musk deer or ibex. Then he proceeded to shoot my plan to bits.

I had hoped to trek over a low pass (about 3300 metres) and reach the rest house of Sharan in a minor side glen of the main Kaghan Valley. Since I had booked this rest house in Abbottabad, I was looking forward to a bath and a day of relaxation, reading and bird watching. But Taj Mohammed thought otherwise. As we passed by the mouth of the gorge that would have led us to Sharan, he said we had the choice of leaving Chor by Chumber Pass a little farther up the valley. Once over that pass, it would take us an hour to reach Kaghan town, he assured me.

I wasn't exactly looking forward to the walk from Sharan into the main valley, and this proposition sounded pretty good to me. I asked Taj Mohammed again and again if he was certain about the route and the travelling time. Of course he was, said he. He had done it only the previous winter. Further up the valley Taj Mohammed paused to ask another Gujjar if Chumber Pass was open – and I foolishly continued to believe that he knew the route. The man said it being past midday, we would not be able to make it across if we went the regular way. In any case, a bunch of dangerous people was camped right under the pass and was likely to attack us in the night.

‘Is it Jehangira from Kala Dhaka?’ a visibly alarmed Taj Mohammed asked. ‘Yes,’ said the man. ‘It is indeed Jehangira Dakoo.’ For the past seven years I have heard of Jehangira every time I have gone walking in or around Kaghan. If one were to rely on the current stories, there must be at least a dozen clones of this most dangerous man running wild simultaneously in Kala Dhaka west of the Sindhu River and Kaghan in the east. ‘But Jehangira is dead.’ I said trying to put Taj Mohammed at ease. ‘I heard that in Kaghan six years ago.’

‘No, he cannot be dead. Evil such as Jehangira lives on forever.’ Taj was past comforting.

My travel companion somehow seemed aware that this particular clone of Jehangira would have no qualms in running the knife across the throat of a road surveying (counterfeit) colonel and his orderly.
‘So what are we to do?’ I threw the question without aiming it either at the Gujjar or Taj. The Gujjar pointed out the ridge in front of us and the path zigzagging up it. If we took the path, he said, in two hours we would be at the top and over on the other side, cunningly having skirted the camp of Jehangira and his not-so-merry band.

The ridge stood straight up. I balked at the idea for at my age I have nothing to prove, no heroics to perform, no records to set and want to be in camp well before sunset with the pot bubbling on the stove. Moreover, I had planned an easy walk to Sharan and an easy, relaxing day there, not some struggles up rock faces. Briefly the thought of backtracking to the original plan passed across my mind. But then, foolishly, I again considered the wall that stood athwart of our line. I estimated it was at least six hundred metres high. That would make it about 3500 metres above the sea, and even though I was not acclimatised (it was my second day in the hills), I told myself we would be over it in less than two hours.

And so we went zigzagging up the sharply rising path. In an hour and a half we reached an elongated grassy shelf that was about five hundred metres wide. Beyond it there was no path and the slope seemed to rise at a gradient of sixty degrees or so. We literally had to heave ourselves up the contours as a spanking great storm came billowing out of the north. Soon we were engulfed in the wet mist with great flashes of sheet lightning tearing up the clouds above.

I told Taj Mohammed his stupid shotgun sticking above his head was a veritable lightning conductor and he ought to turn it around or cover it up or, better still, dump it. He dismissed my warning with a casual remark about God being his preserver. With every flash of lightening I repeated myself and so did Taj Mohammed. I fell back a little so as to be out of range of the lightning strike and thought how I would best dispose of his charred body and whether the police would come looking for me when he failed to return home.

It was just as well that the rain came teeming down before the lightening strike and we sought shelter under a rock overhang. An hour later with the storm having passed we were again hauling ourselves up the hill with me noisily reviling Taj Mohammed for having got me into this situation. By five in the afternoon, almost five hours after we had left the valley floor, we were in the glaciated pass at an altitude of 4050 metres. We had climbed not 600 metres, as I had estimated, but a full 1100 metres. So much for my estimation of heights!

Across the decaying, cracking glacier we stepped gingerly not knowing how deep it could be. The fear of it breaking to engulf one of us was intensified because we had no rope, so essential in such a situation. We crossed over without mishap, however. The descent was over a vast jumble of moraine material, great chunks of shattered rock, the harvest of the glacier that would have once choked this valley as little as two or three hundred years ago.

By nightfall we had reached a grassy meadow at 3450 metres to quickly fix dinner and turn in before the inky darkness of the moonless night swallowed us up. The next morning found us walking a full five hours to reach Kaghan against the one hour that Taj Mohammed had promised from the crest of the pass.

Yet he insisted that he knew the route well!

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 30 May 2013 at 15:19, Anonymous Gail Pallotta said...

Hi Salman Rashid,

You have such a rich heritage for writing about Pakistan, and your love of that country comes through. What a pretty picture of Another Pakistan.

Congratulations on your books.

At 30 May 2013 at 15:30, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Hello Gail, I am truly gratified. This is the Pakistan that I knew as a child and a young man. It will take time, but it will revert to its original one day. Thank you very much.

At 3 December 2013 at 08:10, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Salman Rashid sab,

I would like to add some historical facts. that Alai was ruled and inhibated by a ancient Tajik clan Gabari. their Khan of Alai was living in Nogaram. they got internel feude and fight within family thus lost their royality.Today's khan of Alai was their servent whose forefathers plotted the royal family of Nowagaram and thus succeed to capture the khangi of ancestor was the son of Alai back in 6 - 7 generations and migrated to koli and then to Juglot Gilgit.
zahidullah Gabari Juglot.Gilgit.


At 25 February 2018 at 19:46, Blogger Shahid Qureshi said...

A very nice written article. It reminded me of my tour of chor in 2010. We also took the same route gangwal, lary kas, upto satol. From satol we back tracked a bit and crossed a mountain into jabr, shinkiari valley.
Next time i would like to follow the same route but one that end in kaghan valley. Can you kindly specify the easiest route into kaghan valley from chor

At 26 February 2018 at 07:37, Anonymous Qazi Wajahat Mahmud said...

I have also tracked this route from gangwal to lary kas then Sur Kas and moved towards mundi in Siran Valley

At 26 February 2018 at 12:59, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

Shahid, all the routes are easy enough. If still not satisfied, try going by helicopter.


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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