Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Beware! Jehangira hunts here

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‘Red sun night, shepherds’ delight; Red sun morning, shepherds’ warning’. So they say in Scotland, and as our jeep made its way up the ridge to Kund Rest House I was in high spirits – it seemed we were in for a spell of bright weather. The sun, levitating above the purple ridge of the Kala Dhaka in the west, was a huge red orb. Below, in the Pakhli Plain, the paddy fields glistened like sheets of silver, the pine forest around us smelled like only a pine forest can and a torrent of bird song cascaded out of it.


I had met my old friend Bashir, the mountain guide, at Shinkiari (north of Mansehra) and had rented the jeep to drive us to Kund where we were to begin our walk. We had hoped to begin by climbing the whale back mountain Musa ka Musalla (about 4100 metres), descend into and then go east of the main Kaghan valley. Here, in the tributary valleys, we had hoped to trek for about a month.

We reached the rest house shortly before sunset and as we ate dinner the starry sky started to cloud up. Soon the landscape around us was wreathed in a dense grey fog. I had hoped to be able to photograph the rising of a full moon and griped about the clouds, wondering how our trek would go in case of horrid weather. ‘No problem. Tomorrow will be nice and sunny.’ Bashir tried to placate my agitation.

But he was wrong. We set out from Kund Rest House under ashen skies that dribbled a bit every now and then. Ahead of us went a noisy horde of about fifty men and young boys with digging implements. Hired by the Forest Department they were on their way to reforest parts of the slopes ahead and carried several hundred coniferous saplings in black perforated bags. Soon the saplings would be planted and the pristine slopes strewn with discarded plastic bags. Then goats from neighbouring settlements will arrive to mow the new plantation, and the only sign of the futile efforts of the Forest Department will be the ugly, black bags lying about forever and a day.

We were on the ridge that forms the watershed between Kaghan valley in the east and Siran in the west; but there was no view. Musa ka Musalla was hidden by great banks of dark clouds and from the Siran valley rose a swirling mist and soon we were walking through dense fog with visibility down to ten metres. Since it looked like a plenty of rain we decided against camping out on the ridge and headed down for the rest house of Shaheed Pani.

In the outback of Kaghan, I had discovered, death comes easily to solitary far ranging shepherds in the form of visitation by outlaws from neighbouring Kohistan and Chilas. These rabidly militant Sunni brigands believe that God himself has entrusted upon them the duty of protecting Islam from one and all who differ from their brand of the religion. And for them life has little meaning, especially if the termination of that life can bring some money or a herd of goats; or if it is that of someone who differs ideologically. The latter they will dispatch without any qualms and the former on the slightest demonstration of resistance. Any old corpse, therefore, becomes a shaheed. Even when it was deprived of life by a an animal or by a fall, I was convinced.

The last resting place of our shaheed, after whom the rest house is named, was marked by a stone wall enclosing a thickly overgrown rectangle in the rest house lawns with a couple of flags fluttering cheerlessly in the damp wind. The pani was a stream in a chasm below the rest house. As Bashir and I discussed how this shaheed could possibly have met his end Ismail, the retired keeper, joined us.

Warming to our discussion he decided to add some spark to it and embarked on a graphic description of the time that Jehangira, a notorious desperado who hides away in the Kala Dhaka mountains, kidnapped his son and daughter-in-law for ransom. For three nights he marched them westward to his lair hiding away by day for fear of discovery. There he kept them for two harrowing weeks until Ismail was able to arrange the ransom of ninety thousand rupees. Even Jehangira, who from all accounts is an inveterate liar and thief, had more honour than most of our politicians for he did not allow the woman to be molested. He also permitted the couple freedom upon receiving the ransom.

Ismail’s story ended on the note that although Jehangira was now dead his sons were carrying on the family tradition, frequently foraying into Kaghan for their depredations. That night every time I woke I half expected to hear the staccato clatter of an automatic weapon or someone gruffly commanding us to get out of the tent. But the only sound was the dull thud of metal on wood – the death-knell of trees being felled illegally.

It was another dismal morning and the only views were limited to the stretch of hillside immediately in front. With increasing despondency we discussed the chances of climbing our mountain in zero visibility. Of course there were none, and so it was decided that we head east into the main Kaghan valley and leave the Musalla for a later time. As we reached Shuddle Gali, the pass that connects the valleys of Kaghan and Siran, the clouds lifted and the sun shone brilliantly. On the saddle an old Gujjar and a group of children tended half a dozen buffaloes and three women balancing aluminium water pots on their heads emerged from the trees. There was a primal warmth in the whole scene: the playful laughter of the children, the water-carrying women, the smelly old man, the lowing cattle and the fleeting sunshine rich with bird-song. Suddenly we were both discussing taking on the Musalla after all.

But while we were having tea the clouds closed in again and it started to drizzle. We packed the tea things and made our way down the spur that leads into Kaghan valley. Soon an opaque mist was swirling around us cutting visibility down to ten metres. Around midday we reached the lodge of Nadi Bangla where the keeper was kind enough to allow us the use of the derelict servants’ quarters. That is when the heavens opened. We sat morosely in the out-house verandah watching the first drops come down. An hour later were still there watching it bucketing down until Bashir dug out the bottle of vodka I had brought from Lahore. We had enjoyed only a drink each out of it at Shaheed Pani, hoping to make it last. Now with the rain drumming hard on the roof we proceeded to drink ourselves silly.

For the first time Bashir told me that such weather in the beginning of July generally meant the whole month would be wretched. It had been seen before several times. This promised to be no different either, he assured me. Before we both finally passed out, we resolved to see how things stood once we had reached the main Kaghan valley before deciding what we were to do. We would head east of the valley if it cleared up. If not, the expedition would be called off.

Through the evening and the night it poured; reducing itself to a steady drizzle in the morning for us to depart in. With our ponchos draped over our rucksacks Bashir and I looked like a pair of grotesquely hunchbacked men tramping through the mists. No one greeted us, no one offered us tea and when we got to the tea shop at the hamlet of Danna Gali it was closed. A forlorn old man sat there, his foot swathed in a heavy turmeric coloured bandage. Three days earlier he had managed to whack it nicely with an axe and had since consigned it to Kaghan folk medicine. Now he was hobbling back home after a visit to a doctor somewhere.

Bashir instructed him to look well after his damaged foot. ‘Two feet are better than one when you’re making off after a theft.’ said Bashir and the old man smiled benignly. ‘They are all thieves here.’ my friend assured me and I felt gratified that we weren’t staying. Below us far away Balakot was still wreathed in heavy clouds. Our trip looked definitely off.

I griped about how a red sunset did not necessarily foretell fine weather – or if it did, that was only for Scotland, and how the trek had been a waste of time. But Bashir, ever the optimist, said this was all for the better for it afforded us a chance to walk together again in Kaghan. This was another perspective, and not a bad one. Perhaps Bashir was right after all.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

3 Comments:

At June 21, 2013 at 10:11 AM, Anonymous Rao said...

You are discovery every bit. Anyone can see your passion in your writing. You don't write anymore in Express Tribune?

 
At June 21, 2013 at 12:31 PM, Anonymous Aaima Ashraf said...

Very well-writ... I love to be there. Kaghan is one of the places I wish to visit.

 
At June 21, 2013 at 2:25 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you Rao sahib. Glad that you enjoy my work. ET dumped me. Their wish not mine.
Aaima, Kaghan is safe. Jahangira is dead. Long live Jahangira!

 

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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