Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Been Gah: the 20,000 Foot Mountain

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The mullah who ran the mosque school in the village of Patra looked me over, head cocked to one side, eyes loaded with scepticism and an almost waggish, incredulous half-smile on his lips. ‘This man cannot get up the mountain,’ he said with finality. ‘He is too old.’

Fully aware of my bald pate and silver temples, I never try to defend such pejorative proclamations regarding my abilities, but this time, like a fool, I took offence. ‘I’ve been on mountains higher than your piddling little hill,’ I said fighting hard the urge to end my challenge with an appropriately vicious ‘You stupid, ignorant and uncivil fool.’
Khurram Khosa, my friend and companion on this outing, sensing my umbrage advised me to hold it for the mullah was to be our host. Offending him could jeopardise our chances of a meal and overnight facility on returning. I shut up, but the man was relentless.

‘Have you ever climbed a hill before?’ the mullah wanted to know.

A few.’ I said.

‘How high have you been?’

‘Nineteen thousand feet.’ I replied smugly.

‘Been Gah is a full thousand feet higher than that!’ he retorted. For good measure he added, ‘And you’re too old.’

Twenty thousand feet! That shut me up. That and an empty stomach.

We had driven out of Dera Ghazi Khan on the road to Loralai. A dozen kilometres short of the village of Rakni we left the tarmac and took the north-bound dirt road. Four hours out of Dera we stopped at the village of Burg for lunch which in true Baloch fashion was a vegetarian’s nightmare. The meal being a drawn-out affair, we ended up staying for the night. In pre-dawn darkness the next morning we drove out to Patra for my little tryst with the mullah.

Khurram had organised a horse for himself and a camel to carry the gear up to the summit of Been Gah for we planned to spend the night on the top. But the animals and their handlers were nowhere to be seen. Shumbay Khan, a man from the village, said the mullah, had gone out hours ago to collect the animals and should be returning any minute now. Having heard this refrain one time too many, I knew we were in for a long wait.

Presently Shumbay Khan arrived and our party of four adults and a young camel handler set out. The tiny settlement of Zurgut clinging to the hillside was made in an hour. We paused to collect a couple of items of crockery from one of Shambay’s relatives before attacking the slope ahead. It was a pleasant dander in the shade of the western contours and in another hour we had crossed a saddle, the last bit of which was so steep Khurram had to relinquish his horse. This last drag brought us onto the contours of the main massif with the peak lying just ahead. We ran into a Baloch shepherd and within no time there was a mob of no less than twenty of various sizes shouting and laughing with our party. My dream of being on a quiet hillside was rather shot to pieces.

Normally Been Gah would have been under a thin veneer of snow in December, but the drought had completely altered that. Moreover, it was a rather mild winter and so the shepherds had remained around the top allowing their sheep to use up the last blades of grass. They said they would descend only if the next few weeks would bring some snow and kill the grasses. I knew there would be no peace and privacy that I had so looked forward to and secretly resolved to return to Patra after a couple of hours on the top.

We stopped for tea before clambering up the last few metres to the flat top of Been Gah. And what a vantage point it was. At 2138 metres (7013 feet) above the sea, it wasn’t yet the highest Punjabi peak, that being another two hundred metres higher, lies twenty kilometres to the southwest. The views all round were as fantastic as the name promised. Saura Pass that we had crossed on a journey back in March was visible in the east. To the north stood the bare, brown peak of Behu that we had almost climbed during that last trip, and in the west ridge after folded ridge stretched far into Balochistan: we were treading the border between that province and Punjab.

With no comment concerning the name from any quarter, Been Gah in my mind came from the Persian – from which Balochi derives. From here, I could imagine some early Baloch patriarch surveying the surrounding country and satisfied with the extent of the outlook, naming the hill Been Gah – Prospect Point.

The imagination of ancient Baloch peoples in naming the hill was not to be faulted. Disappointingly, however, there were no legends of dragons and treasures or of angrez officials or stories of djinns connected with Been Gah. Intellectually, it was singularly barren. This was odd. Being an up-thrust in an elongated ridge, the upward movement of the rocky outcrop has riven the peak of Been Gah with deep chasms particularly around the periphery. In our superstitious society mysterious caves and chasms are always the spawning ground of supernatural stories. But surprisingly not here. The mechanism that gave the hill its evocative name had strangely failed to create fantastic stories to go with it.

But of course there was the Cave of the Bear just below the crest: a dank cleft in the shale measuring about five metres wide and about twice as long. It wasn’t completely dark and perhaps that was the reason there were no stories of the supernatural connected with it. There were signs of the cave having been used by the shepherds, but there were no bears anywhere near it. And given the veritable bazaar of shepherd habitations near the top, that was quite understandable.

The shepherd elders approached Khurram with a request for us to stay overnight. I bluntly said there was too much shouting and I would hate to be in the middle of all this carrying on. The elders commuted the request to tarry just long enough for a meal. But that meant roast lamb and Khurram knew I was vegetarian, so he wheedled and submitted rather lame excuses until our sentence was fully remitted and we were granted leave to begin our return journey.

By six thirty in the evening we were back in Patra where the mullah was awaiting us with a pot of vegetable stew: after we decided to return, Khurram had sent the young camel handler ahead with a special request for a vegetarian dinner. Directly upon seeing him, I pulled a long face and told the mullah how he had been right about the height of the hill and how I had foundered only a couple of hours out of the village. He launched himself on a gloating I-told-you-so routine. I rubbed it in, telling him that he had, in fact, made a mistake about Been Gah being only 20,000 feet. It was, in reality, a full 70,000 feet high!

Even for a retarded mullah this was too much. He looked at me askance.

‘No!’ he said suspiciously. ‘It cannot be as high as that.’

‘Sorry, my mistake. It’s 70,000 feet from the sea. From your village it is only 20,000.’ I corrected myself secure in the knowledge that religious studies in the Muslim world have never yet made a geographer, or, if truth be told, anything but a mullah of anyone.

Yes, said the mullah with visible satisfaction, yes indeed. From Patra the summit of Been Gah was certainly no less than 20,000 feet high. It was the highest mountain in the world, he gloated. Meanwhile, the others arrived and deflated the man by telling him that I had made it to the top swimmingly. Not the one to be discomfited he looked me over a second time and said I seemed too old for my age, I must have been a sickly child to have lost my hair and gone grey so early on in life. Since I wasn’t even a Baloch and had made it to the top of Been Gah and back in the course of a single day, I could not be any older than twenty-two, he concluded.

I let that pass for I took cruel pleasure in the picture of the mullah being embarrassed boasting about his hill being the highest in the world to someone who knew his geography. Moreover, the mullah’s household had served up a great little pot of stewed vegetable marrow. If for nothing else, the man could be forgiven for the hospitality.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 1 October 2013 at 16:49, Blogger srikanth major said...

hahaha. nice and a surprise to know that u are a vegetarian.

At 1 October 2013 at 22:56, Blogger Memoona Saqlain Rizvi said...

Very pleasant...I simply marvel at such characters... sadly...they're many.
We have chosen quantity over Pakistan even the remotest nooks r inhabited.

At 2 October 2013 at 11:27, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LOL. You should have invited Mullah to hike with you.

At 4 October 2013 at 20:42, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Sir ji, the mullah certainly did not appreciate a vegetarian


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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

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