Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Epilogue - The Apricot Road to Yarkand

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Back in Pakistan, I went to see Lieutenant General Zarrar Azim, who I had first met when he was the Lahore Corps Commander. An armoured corps officer with mischief in his eyes who still kept the verve of boyishness; he was the kind of person who would appreciate my endeavour. Since he knew and appreciated my work and was close to the president, he would gladly speak with the man, I thought. Having retired since our meeting in Lahore, he now headed Army Welfare Trust, an army-run commercial-industrial complex headquartered in Rawalpindi.

The Panmah Glacier in its middle reach. In 1861 Godwin-Austen had reported an ice stream here; we found a roiling grey river. The scouring mark left by glacial ice on the rock wall along the left bank is a hundred metres deep. This was the depth at which the glacier once flowed here. If global warming is not halted now, another journeyer following in the footsteps of bygone travellers will probably find seasonal rivers where we had trodden on several hundred metre-deep ice

In his top floor office overlooking the Saddar Bazaar of Rawalpindi cantonment, I had his ear. But I did not even get a chance to ask the general for the helicopter. Having briefly told him of the journey I had barely finished my sentence about the missing thirty kilometres of the trek when he held up a hand.

‘If you were to be air-lifted to the glacier, how long would it take you to get to the other end?’ he asked.

I could scarcely believe my ears! It turned out that the Trust did not only run all sorts of industries where retired soldiers worked, it also had an aviation wing with choppers and fixed wing aircraft. Unable to say to the general that I no longer had funds enough to pay for the sorties, I was fidgeting in my seat when the good man himself broached the issue. The Trust, he said, would sponsor the airlift. Emboldened by this unbelievable generosity, I quickly made a mental calculation of the outlay for porters’ wages.

‘Would the Trust also pay the porters’ wages?’

‘How much does that run to?’ asked the general.

I named the ridiculously low sum and the general laughed aloud. Why, compared to the cost of flying us in and out this was nothing. General Azim got on the phone and told someone to expect me shortly. Then he wrote out an address and said I should go see the men who minded the aviation wing of the Army Welfare Trust.

Ilyas Mirza and Makhdoom Shah Roghani, both retired lieutenant colonels from Army Aviation, turned out to be my course-mates from the military academy. No hassle, they said. They could have me dumped on any glacier anywhere in Pakistan. Even in mid-winter, if the day is clear, said Roghani with a grin. However, there was a little stir when I showed them on the map where exactly I needed to be dropped.

‘That’s a bit too close to China, isn't it?’ Mirza observed.

‘It is. And the pick up is inside China,’ I said.

The two of them shook their heads. The drop was okay, but there was no way their choppers were straying into Chinese airspace. Except with prior permission from the Chinese government – and that could be one hell of a long drawn-out bureaucratic rigmarole. Roghani suggested that in order to be picked up, I would have to return to the drop off point after completing the traverse. The other glitch was that the choppers Askari Aviation flew could only ferry three or four men depending on the weight of the accompanying gear and I was asking for an additional four persons. That meant two sorties going in and two to get us out.

The general had been very generous, but this, I felt, might stretch his kindness a bit too far. Moreover, shamelessly as I may have asked for porters’ wages, I knew there was no way I could now get myself to request him for two sorties. Mirza suggested I fly out with the two high altitude porters while the rest of the team walked in to join us. After the successful traverse, we could be picked up at the drop off point while the four porters walked back.

I made a quick call to Ghulam Mohammad, who had organised our trek on the Pakistan side, to ask how much the new expedition would cost. Now that we were going across the Great Asiatic Divide, the number of stages made this expedition nearly as expensive as it had cost for Nasser, Naeem and me to reach the upper Chiring Glacier. Were I to return to the general with a request for additional funds, I knew I would feel quite like the Arab’s camel that began by asking if it could stick its head in the Arab’s tent to get it out of the cold. In the end, the Arab was shoved out and the camel was in. I had started by asking for the airlift, wheedled the outlay for the porters, and would now be making this preposterous request.

As much as I knew General Zarrar Azim, I was certain he would sanction the full expense for the new expedition, but there was a limit even to my own brazenness. Then again, I felt it would be a mite too unfair to have the four porters walk in and out all the way, while Hasan Jan, Ghulam Hussain, and I flew in like sahibs to meet them on the Chiring Glacier. The going in might be easier, but I knew for sure that abandoning the porters on the way out was likely to leave a bad taste in the mouth. Such things were done only when one was hurt or dying.

I returned to the general’s office only to tell him it could not be done. The choppers were too small to carry the whole team, I said. Cleverly avoiding any mention of the cost, I manoeuvred away from the subject. On his part, the good general did not press. He offered me tea, instead. We chatted of other things and that was that.


Nera Peak
It was a grandiose plan, the whole of it. It was an even grander expedition that I had thoroughly enjoyed. I had found what I had set out to learn and come away with great admiration for medieval Balti travellers. There was a sense of accomplishment and I no longer felt I had missed anything out. Why, in a journey of about four hundred kilometres from Skardu to Yarkand, I had forgone only thirty odd kilometres. Even this missing bit I knew so well from the descriptions of Eric Shipton and Francis Younghusband that I might as well have been there myself.

There was another thought, too: one day there will be people better than us, living in a world less riven with international distrust and rivalries; a world where perhaps no borders will exist. Some of those people may well set out either from Yarkand or from Skardu to undertake the full journey as the Baltis did for so many hundreds of years. Like the Baltis of old, the adventurers of tomorrow will run the full course of the Apricot Road unimpeded – even without fear of the bandits.

There remains one niggling thought, however. What will those latter day journeyers see where we saw glaciers, snow peaks and ice pans?

The prognosis on the health of the planet is not cheerful. Unmindful of the now well-known effects of greenhouse gases, the human race continues to pump poison into the atmosphere with suicidal sangfroid. Even as we contaminate the air we breathe, world leaders dither on the ratification of protocols calling to halt or even restrict this practice worldwide. Powerful oil cartels block the development of alternate sources of energy so that their petro-dollars do not dry up, while their partners, consumptive societies like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait with little real education and no industrial or commercial base other than oil production, abet shamelessly. Coastal cities that sink and global weather systems that go haywire in consequence of this collective greed be damned.

Pakistan, under-developed as it is, has a small carbon footprint. Footprint it is, nevertheless. However, run by semi-educated politicians and a largely corrupt bureaucracy, the country has no strategy to play its part in halting global warming. There is no dearth of environment protection laws enacted in copycat impulses because other countries have such laws. But they languish on the statute books because there is not a single institution of the State of Pakistan that makes even a half-hearted attempt to enforce these laws. Moreover, politicians’ ignorance and the toadyism of self-serving bureaucrats is a double whammy to the environment. Ever eager to gratify the whims of their political masters, general duty bureaucrats placed in specialist slots have destroyed the ecology of urban centres like Lahore and Islamabad, to name just two.

What would have been one of the greatest criminal acts against the environment in the history of Pakistan came terrifyingly close to perpetration in the early 1990s. In the grip of a drought several years in the running, the rivers were flowing low and that particular summer there was little hope of the major reservoirs on the Jhelum and Sindhu rivers filling up to the normal summertime level. The federal secretary for environment suggested seeding the glaciers with coal dust in order to darken their surfaces and hasten melting. That way, it was suggested, the reservoirs would fill up fast. Spawned by a devious bureaucrat, the foolish notion was fast lapped up by largely uneducated politicians who clamoured for the plan to be executed. Being from feudal backgrounds, the only concern of these legislators was water for their farmlands. What happened after was no concern of theirs. It was not official good sense that pre-empted this imbecility but the noise made by some non-governmental environmental watchdogs.

More likely than not, one day the unholy cabal of politician and bureaucrat will prevail and we will lose a major part of our glaciers to their criminal activity. If by some fluke of chance they fail, there are of course worldwide forces that will succeed. One day, perhaps as little as half a century from now, the glaciers will be gone. Another traveller hoping to re-enact the heroic journeys of those ancient Balti travellers or Shipton’s 1937 crossing of the Sarpo Laggo Pass in 2037 and Younghusband’s epic journey two hundred years on in 2087, will at best face hard struggles on decayed glaciers. At worst, there simply will be no glaciers at all.

This is no doomsday scenario of an alarmist. The hundred metre-deep scar that runs on the rock wall along the left bank of the Panmah in the region of 35° north latitude is a reminder of the glacier’s earlier level and is evidence enough that it has receded. From Godwin-Austen we know that in the 1800s the Biafo Glacier periodically advanced to block the outflow of the Baltoro. Today the snout of the Biafo is about four kilometres from the Baltoro and that of the Panmah even farther away. It is proof, too that the Panmah is decaying when we can no longer take laden yaks and horses up as the Baltis did until as little as a hundred and fifty years ago.

If we do not forthwith stop our mad careen down the environmental black hole, the high Karakorams will be a bleak world of bare crags and seasonal river valleys turning Punjab and Sindh into desert. Gone will be the snow leopard of the liquid movement as mercury gliding across impossible icy crags in pursuit of ibex; gone the elegance of the slow glide of the golden eagle and the nattering of snow partridges as they cower in the rocks below. Gone, too, will be the majesty of the soaring lammergeyer and the shadowy slink of the fox or the mystery of the stoat forever seen from the corner of the eye as it disappears into the jumble of rocks it makes its home. The roster of destruction of life forms across the globe will be endless – life forms that man is so far incapable of recreating. In the end, man himself will be unable to escape. And the human race will have only itself to blame.

Book is available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

Nature will bite back for what we are doing to her. Even if rich nations can save, say, New York or Amsterdam with dykes, cities like New Orleans will continue to be buffeted by ever more Hurricanes Katrina that will only increase in ferocity. The disaster of 2005 will appear tame by comparison. In that silent world where fewer wild species survive, the worst sufferers will of course be cash-strapped Third World nations. And we are one among the latter.

Books reviews by Maheen Pracha and S A J Shirazi

Stay tuned. More is coming on The Apricot Road to Yarkand here

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 23 December 2013 at 11:28, Anonymous Nelly Ahmad said...

Is it some kinda signature? Like... Salman Rashid from Lahore was here? Never mind the guide, the cook, the camels ... Wo tau aate jaate rehte hein

Hey you still didn´t tell me why you made that pile? Is it coz on your way back you would recognise the spot? why, yallahhhhhh why? I make such marks in the forest but it works in the forest....

I have always wondered who sits and stacks up these pebbles into a "mountain"? Seen it in pictures like this. What does it signify? did you make your own "K2", standing beside, you sure look grand. It can´t be your camel, or your guide, you just buried, no. What the hell is it, then? And how long did it stay stacked?

And about the message in this post, nobody and nothing can save us now. Sea level will rise and we will all drown. The unfair thing is that your part of the world gonna go under SUCKS

At 27 December 2013 at 15:31, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

This pile marks the crest of the Aghil Pass - and I did not make it. Travellers raise cairns to mark the route. Ttravellers generally add something to existing cairns.


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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