Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Between Two Burrs on the Map

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Between two burrs on the map
Was a hollow-headed snake
The burrs were hills, the snake was a stream
And the hollow was a lake

The first line of this poem by Robert Frost became the title of a book of mine published in 1995. This was the story of a journey I undertook in the summer of 1990 in the footsteps of some of the great explorers who had opened up what is now Gilgit-Baltistan to the reading public of the world. Having read the works of men like Robert Shaw (Visits to High Tartary, Yarkand and Kashgar), his nephew Francis Younghusband (The Heart of a Continent) and Eric Shipton (Blank on the Map), I was inspired to see what these remarkable men had seen decades before I was even born. Though the list of men who aroused an interest in seeing my world is long, these three names suffice.

These men (and many others I have not mentioned for the list would be interminable) had explored the Himalayas, Karakorams and the Hindu Kush. Of these three ranges, I had access to the western edge of the first, the Karakorams in full and much of the Hindu Kush because they lie within the geographical bounds of Pakistan. And so, in 1990, I devised what a rather fancifully called The Western Himalaya Karakoram Hindu Kush Expedition that would take me some 1100 kilometres across the mountains of which 800 would be on foot. At that time such a one-man expedition cost about Rs 80,000.

But having lost all my meagre wealth in a foolish investment only a couple of years earlier, I did not have the means to do what I ached to do. My childhood friend Parvaiz Saleh who was then in politics single-handedly raised the money and sent me off in May 1990.

I had hoped to join the nomadic Gujjars in Muzaffarabad to trek with them up the Neelam Valley to Deosai Plateau. But in Muzaffarabad, I was warned that the Neelam route was closed because of cross-LOC firing between Pakistan and India. I gave off the Neelam idea and came to Naran hoping to find the Gujjars also taking this route. But Naran was deserted.

With Bashir as guide (who is still a friend) and another man I walked up the Kaghan Valley, over the Babusar Pass to Chilas. From here I planned to go via Astore over the Deosai to Skardu. But in Jaglot, I was told by an army officer that it being the first week of June, Deosai was still deeply snow-bound and inaccessible. And that it would remain so for at least two more weeks.

I went off to Gilgit to spend stay with my friend Fakhar Abbas who then worked for Radio Gilgit. That was just as well. The GOC in Gilgit was Major General Irshadullah Tarar who had been our Weapon Training Officer at PMA. He was very pleased to see that a former student of his was still up to no good and told his intelligence staff to give me a letter in case I found myself at the wrong end of the I-wallahs. But he too confirmed that I could not cross Deosai for another couple of weeks.

With reports of deep snow on the plateau, I eventually left Gilgit because the local police chief about whom I had written some nasty things only a year earlier wanted to see me. Hiring two men as porters in the village of Das Khirrim, I trekked over the Chhachor Pass into the plateau only to realise that all those reports of deep snow were rubbish. It was not snow, but melt water that had swelled up the river making them unfordable forcing us to trek to the headwaters of each in order to cross them. If memory serves, we were five days on the plateau with not a soul around – not even migratory birds. I did not take the usual route to Sadpara and Skardu. Instead, we trekked east over Katicho Pass to Dhappa.

When I arrived in Skardu in the third week of June, it was peak climbing season. PTDC’s K-2 Motel was choc-a-bloc with famous mountaineers. I had to wait from my wife to get there with some of my high altitude gear and food and I employed my time making friends with the famous of the world. But the problem was hiring porters and a guide for the traverse of the Biafo-Sim Gang-Braldu glacial system. For one, all men were keen to be taken by proper expeditions that paid better than me. Secondly, there wasn’t a Balti porter/guide who knew the route of the Braldu Glacier.

After ten very desperate days, I eventually met a Hussaini (Gojal) man who offered to get his ‘brother’ for me. And so with Azizullah Baig and Khushal Khan of Shimshal and Dawar the Hussaini man, I set out over the Skora Pass to Askole. I am not certain, but in 1990, no Pakistani trekker had ever attempted this 5080 metre-high pass. And what a hard grind it was!

In village Teste on the other side, Azizullah forced me to pretend to be a surveying colonel of the army. With great finesse, this good man told the simple people of that poor village that we were surveying sites for the school and hospital for the village. In the end when we asked to purchase twenty kilogram of wheat flour, we got a heavy rebate! I don’t know how long the poor Teste community waited in vain for their hospital and school.

We crossed the Braldu stream by the frightening garari – the little box with a pulley slung over a steel wire and hauled across the river. Despite the warning of the Teste numberdar concerning the frequency of accidents delivering human cargo into a river that never gave up the dead, none of the four of us ended up in the river. I think the numberdar had by then savvied our trickery and was just getting his own back.

From Askole into the Biafo Glacier we went. Global warming had still not taken its toll and the glacier was like a highway: we strolled up with our hands in the pockets with the the two Shimshalis whistling tunefully. But Sim Gang, improperly always referred to as Snow Lake, because Martin Conway termed it thus back in 1892, was a bit of a horror. The crevasses, huge yawning maws were terrifying; their icicles thick as Bareilly bamboos and twenty metres long, descended into dark depths from which rose strange sounds of a torture chamber.

The crossing of this, Pakistan’s greatest ice pan, was a task and a half. After mid-morning, with the sun having softened the snow, we sank up to our hips in the soft mush. Some twelve kilometres of going took us nearly as many hours and as we slogged up the snowy slope to the 5700 metre-high crest of the Lukpe Pass, I collapsed. We were roped up, I being at the end, and had it not been for that, the others could have carried on without knowing they had lost me. They were yanked to a halt as I sat there on my haunches not even bothering to look up, my nose running and my eyes watering in the frigid wind.

The three of them stood around waiting for me to gather myself together so that we could carry on to camp on the far side of the pass. But fifteen minutes later when I still sat motionless, Azizullah told me to up and get going. I refused. He pleaded. I remained implacable saying I could not go and we would have to make camp right there. We were only a few metres from the crest, a storm was brewing and if I had any sense at all, I would have known the imbecility of camping at that height.

Yet I refused and then Azizullah said, angrily, in Urdu the equivalent of, ‘If you didn’t have the balls for it, why did you get into this business?’ But we camped there that night, on the pass.

The following morning, a rather complicated trek ensued in order to avoid a massive icefall and a peculiar cornice (huge: at least 60 metres high) that lay on our line of advance. We had hoped to reach a camp grand that had been name Aziz Camp by two British women who were following Shipton’s 1937 survey in this area. Pleased with Azizullah’s work, they had named a camp ground after him. But now Aziz Camp was under an icefall and so we camped on another bit of moraine that Azizullah very graciously named Rashid Camp. There, amid the rocks, I left a message in a tiny bottle. But glaciers move and it is not unsurprising that I never received a letter telling me someone had found my message.

Two days later, we were on terra firma again. Azizullah and Khushal left in pre-dawn darkness to reach their summer camp of Shuwert from where they were to bring back a yak. I had been carrying on about early travellers who travelled with yaks on glaciers and across rivers and the good Azizullah Baig wanted me to get a feel of those bygone times. As we waited by the sheep pens of Madelga one morning, Dawar pointed out to the two yaks on the far side. Sure enough, it was the Shimshali duo with the animals.

I rode the yak guided by Azizullah and after a pause for tea in the lovely rose-scented pasture of Chikar; we climbed up the ridge to reach Shuwert. We spent a rest day there in which I lay in the sun conjuring up images of Shipton and his party in that very same place. Three days later, we were in Shimshal village. As I paid off Azizullah and Khushal, they both hugged me and congratulated me on becoming the first Pakistani trekker who had done the Lukpe Pass traverse.

Indeed, when I met Azizullah again in 1997, he confirmed that even in seven years my achievement had not been duplicated. In 2010, I returned to Shimshal and met him again when he told me that Karrar Hussain (professor) and a girl from Lahore had done the traverse a couple of years earlier. That year, 2010, as I made my way to Shuwert, I ran into a party of trekkers coming down from the other side. Jawad Sherazi and Ahsan Kyani were army aviators in the company of veterinarian Ahsan Akhter and Zeeshan Shaikh. This team knew of Karrar’s traverse, but were unaware of mine twenty years earlier. They also did not know of Shipton’s epic exploration and map-making work of 1937.

Out of Shimshal, I headed north to Chapursan to cross Chillinji Pass into Ishkoman Valley. I had opted for this route because my other greatly admired heroes, William Tilman and Wilfred Thesiger had both in their own times gone this way. The letter given me by my old teacher General Tarar came in very handy when I was stopped at Baba Ghundi Ziarat. Havaldar Niyat Khan, tall and good looking Yasin man, having ascertained my bona fides eventually organised everything and accompanied me himself over the pass.

In 2010, I went searching for Niyat Khan in Yasin where I met three men of that name. None of them was the real Niyat Khan, though. I now plan to return to Yasin perhaps next summer with a photograph of the good man in order to track him down. It will be good to catch up with him a quarter century after our great adventure together.

In Ishkoman, I went to the house of Wazir Shah Fakir. And what a magnificent creature he was. Tall, broad-shouldered and heavily-boned, with a thick beard and shoulder length hair, he could easily have played the part of a Viking with a fine sense of humour. He took me in and introduced me to his pir visiting from Kashgar. Then he organised a porter and a donkey for me to go over Ishkoman Pass to Yasin.

As we came down the pass, I recalled the murder of George Hayward that took place outside the village of Darkot. My donkey man, being from Ishkoman on the other side of the mountain, did not know of this foul deed of the year 1870. But the numberdar for whom Shah Fakir had given me a letter said he knew the exact place and would take me there. However, even though he kept me in his guest room, he disappeared and his sons began to behave strangely towards me.

I hired another donkey and made my way to Yasin where I stayed with the raja. I now realised that 1990, with the Afghan war still on, was a bad time to be travelling in this region where the Great Game was in full flow for most people. After a very warm welcome, raja sahib pulled an act similar to that of the numberdar in Darkot. He became evasive and eventually disappeared. I gave up and rode a jeep to Gupis.

I do not recall how I knew I should seek Jawahir Khan, popularly known as Chairman. But I ended up in his home. A large rambling estate enclosed by a high stone wall with fruit trees and vines all around, it was obviously a rich man’s place. But the good man offered to be my porter to Harchin in Chitral, because he said we were both ex-servicemen and therefore brothers. In the years with the army, JK had picked up a good deal of Punjabi which he showed off with great pleasure. He said he was called chairman because he hoped to contest the next union council elections and become a real chairman. (It is another thing that he did not win the elections!)

JK was a fun chap, very kind and a generous host. But he, being a rich man, was not cut out to be a porter. We went a day and when we reached his sister’s village, we borrowed a donkey from her to take us over Shandur Pass to Harchin. From Harchin a short walk to village Phargam put me in the company of a bunch of brothers who referred to each other by their university degrees. One was MA, some others BA and the youngest FA.

They put me in touch with Mustajab Khan alias Thoon Khan and said Thoon in Khowar (the language of Chitral) meant ‘terrible’. So, I was sentenced to do the final leg of my trek to Chitral in the company of Terrible Khan even as images of a Mongol chieftain came to my mind. But Thoon Khan turned out to be utterly mild-mannered. He hardly ever spoke and led me up the moraine of an ancient glacier to the crest of the Phargam Pass and down into the breathtaking beauty of Golain Valley. At the end of the next day we were both in Chitral town.

When I returned home on 13 September 1990, I had been away for three months and nineteen days. I had lost fourteen kilograms, was terribly fit but rather exhausted not just in body but in soul as well. Now, twenty-three years after my odyssey of discovery, I know that the soul was wearied because of the pressure of not failing.

I was doing the expedition on endowment and failure would mean that I was not up to anything at all. Throughout those months, in the sleeping bag at night, only one thought rode my mind: so far so good; don’t fail tomorrow. In the Braldu Valley, as we climbed a slope, I was hauling myself up by hanging on to a rock when it came loose in my hand. I very nearly plummeted to my death in the roiling river about five hundred metres below but was saved by Dawar’s presence of mind who grabbed my hand in a flash. In that one fleeting instance, I thought, ‘Shit! This is where it ends.’ The next thought was that my financiers would take me for the ultimate loser.

Three months of forever being fearful of failure had drained my spirit. It was just about dawn when the night train from Peshawar (did they call it Chiltan?) deposited me in Lahore. If I had thought I would have a sense of jubilation, of accomplishment upon return home, I was wrong. It took about two weeks for the spirit to be rejuvenated and for that sense of achievement to be felt.

With this came the joy that names that had been mere words until I set out in the last week of May were now actual places. They were places not just on the map, but in physical terms whose landscape was etched on my mind. They were places inhabited by real people, people whose kindness, generosity, humour and humanity had helped me along my hard, long journey. At the same time, this had also been an inward journey. Until then, I had looked upon myself as a hero in the manner of Indiana Jones. Now I was an ordinary man who had been where I had always wanted to go, but this, unlike the journeys of the men I admired, was not one that broke new ground. I did not go where no man had been before. I simply followed others far better than me to see what they had seen.

This was the journey that took the swagger out of me. The high places of the great north had brought me down to the earth where I belong.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 2 December 2013 at 14:13, Anonymous Masood Aslam said...

Interested to also read Alfred Durand's 'Extending the Boundaries of the Empire' in which he describes his travels with only one Brit Doc started from Srinagar traversing over Deosai from Chilum to Skardu in Dec 1892 and again from Skardu to Astore in Mar. But Salman Rashid's write up is really enchanting. His efforts are worth aprc.

At 2 December 2013 at 14:14, Anonymous Sarah B. Haider said...

Just curious. Do you have security with you while you travel?

At 2 December 2013 at 16:18, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Sarah, I have never travelled with security. Except the last time in early October when I was in Makran doing an assignment for FWO. I have also never ever felt threatened. Now things are changing, however. The state has abdicated its writ and even very commonplace travel is not without its perils.

At 4 December 2013 at 17:33, Blogger Unknown said...


At 4 December 2013 at 17:49, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Very grateful, Memoona. Thank you.

At 21 March 2014 at 16:53, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sir, once again I do not have words to express the emotions that your writings have brought out in me.....truly classical and it does touch the heart unlike the writings of today.....I dream of meeting you sometime!!
Warm rgds, Meher, ( India)

At 22 March 2014 at 14:38, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

thank you very much, Meher. It will be my greatest pleasure to meet you. You can find my email address if you click 'About' above. Do drop me a mail.

At 22 March 2014 at 14:39, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

thank you very much, Meher. It will be my greatest pleasure to meet you. You can find my email address if you click 'About' above. Do drop me a mail.

At 21 July 2014 at 16:12, Blogger DIT said...

Salman Sb, this book is out of print, how can I get it ? Not available on Sang-e-Meel, nor Vanguard. There is one copy available on Amazon for $65, but they don't ship to Pakistan...What to do ? :(

At 24 July 2014 at 12:04, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

DIT, please contact me. I think I have one last copy, besides my own, which you can have.

At 24 July 2014 at 12:10, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Meher, you are very kind. Let us see when we can make the meeting possible. Thank you very much for the appreciation.

At 30 September 2014 at 13:05, Blogger Unknown said...

Sir, has DIT taken the extra copy available with you or do you still have it?

At 4 November 2015 at 12:56, Blogger Rehan Afzal said...

This book should be in the syllabus - All Heart !


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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