Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

An expedition that refused to die

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The Rawalpindi-bound bus pulled up outside Satpara Inn in Skardu and honked for me. It had been arranged that the driver would pick me up at the hotel and he was only ten minutes behind his promised time. For me this had been a bit of a flop of an outing. Up on Deosai Plateau, south of Skardu, I had only one good day. It was all right to expect a couple of bad days in the last week of July, but a full week of rain and then finally about three centimetres of snow was a bit too much. With no chance of the weather clearing, I had bolted. The two days in Skardu struggling to get on the plane out to Islamabad also did not work out and it was not with any enthusiasm that I looked forward to this overland journey.


I was packed and ready and as I lugged my rucksack to the vehicle, I noticed the good-looking face in the window: square with high cheek bones, rugged hollow cheeks and an indifferent moustache. He regarded me with just a shadow of a smile; I nodded and he nodded back. From his complexion and the auburn highlights in his hair I guessed he was a Spaniard. Probably a mountaineer who, like me, had either failed to get on the flight out of Skardu to Islamabad at short notice or whose flight had been cancelled because of the several days of horrid weather. As I brushed past him inside the bus I noted his somewhat large build and congratulated myself for my judgement being spot on from just a face in the window.

With my rucksack secured on the roof, the conductor screamed for the driver to go and we went bowling out of Skardu into the gorge of the Sindhu River and I settled down for the long, bone-jarring, back-breaking, endlessly boring ride to Rawalpindi. From my seat in the back of the bus I noticed the Spaniard sharing a cigarette and talking with a slightly-built bespectacled Japanese man. So they are members of a multi-national climbing team, I said to myself. The two foreigners were also accompanied by three Pakistani men one of whom looked like a soldier and who in my presumption was their liaison officer. The remaining two were perhaps from the tour company that was handling the climbing expedition.

Some hours out of Skardu we halted at the beat-up little place by the roaring torrent of Stagh Nala for tea. The Spaniard and his team took up a table on the terrace while I went to sit by the rushing water. A few minutes later I saw the Japanese mountaineer walking towards me and almost winced for I was in no mood to struggle with the man’s lack of literacy in any language other than Japanese.

‘Salman Rashid?’ he asked and stuck his hand out for me.

After a few years of being on national television with a travel and history documentary show, I had just about got used to being recognised. To be known among my compatriots was one thing, but I was surprised and certainly much gratified to discover this hitherto unknown popularity of my show out there in far off Japan. Even if they could not understand one word of my Urdu, they seemed to be sufficiently taken by my antics to recognise me here in the boondocks of Baltistan – or at least one man did. After a long life of outright anonymity, I was suddenly an internationally recognised face.

‘Yes, that’s right,’ I said pleased with my new found fame.

‘Nice to meet you. I’m Dr Naeem Awan and I know you from your television programme,’ he said giving my hand a vigorous shake.

But I did not even get the time to be deflated for not being known in Japan as the doctor quickly went on to tell me that the Spaniard was in fact Professor Nasser Ali Khan who headed the Department of Economics at the University of Peshawar. Nasser was an avid trekker of long standing, said the doctor, who every year brought out a bunch of his students and went walkabout in high places. This year they were returning from an aborted attempt to cross the Hispar Pass that lies at the head of the Biafo Glacier in Baltistan connecting it with the Hispar ice stream in Hunza territory. The foul weather that had sprinkled a few centimetres of snow on me on Deosai Plateau, had turned into a virtual blizzard up there on the pass just as they approached it to go over. After waiting at about 4500 metres for a couple of days for it to ease off, and with food running low, they aborted.

Naeem invited me to meet his friends and we walked up to the terrace. Nasser spoke earnestly and laughed loud. He talked of the dander up the Biafo Glacier and the coming of the storm. All that was good fun until the pause for the storm to die down dragged on and the worry about rations set in. He decided to abort in the face of the drudgery of returning the same way they had gone up. He was very pleased that what he called his madness was successfully passing on to a whole generation of students. The army officer and the two tour operators (students actually) turned out to be not-so-new entrants to Nasser’s club. As for Naeem, being a medical man he was not a student of Nasser’s. They had met a few years earlier while trekking independently up in the Karomber River valley between Ishkoman (Gilgit district) and Yarkhun in Upper Chitral. Sharing the same campsite, they had become friends and had since together gone walkabout a few times.

The journey from Skardu to Rawalpindi takes, in the best of times, twenty-six hours. And although this meeting took place in the summer of 2001, I have no recollection of the duration or other details of the journey. All I remember is that Nasser and I sat together and talked. By the time he was ready to get off at Abbottabad, I had warmed to him for two things: he had the right temperament for a mountain walker and he also had the right attitude.

The right temperament was something to be admired in people for that made for tactful handling of tricky situations. Nasser Khan seemed the right kind, someone who could keep his wits about. As for attitude, I have never had any. My problem is people who do and I know some mountain walkers from my native Lahore who thought a few strolls up this hill or down that river valley would make them famous. Already with a chip or two on their shoulders, these men look for that one hill walk that would be their path to country-wide prominence. They were doing it for entirely the wrong reason: not because they enjoyed being in high places but because they thought a walk up or down some valley would earn them celebrity.

H. William Tilman (L) Eric Shiptom (R)
Many of them may never have heard of Eric Shipton or Bill Tilman, but in their naiveté our heroic hill walkers wanted to be just as famous and these two of the greatest mountaineer-explorers of the 20th century. To help their illusions, adventure travel writing does not exist in Urdu. What does pass off in the name of this genre is an utterly disgraceful sham that tells the reader nothing other than portraying the writer as a hero endangering his life on remote glaciers or unknown river valleys even when he describes something as tame as a walk from Naran to Lake Saif ul Muluk in Kaghan. Since most of the fame-craving heroes I know cannot read English and are thus unacquainted with the work of genuine travel writers and explorers, they do not understand that the great names of mountaineering and exploration became what they were not by design. They achieved renown because they did something that interested them, and they pursued it with single-minded purpose. They had not craved fame by their work; it just came to them in consequence of it.

But that was in the past. That was another world, a world whose maps were noticeable for great swathes marked with that word utterly tantalising for a person possessed of curiosity and the spirit of exploration: ‘Unsurveyed.’ That was the magic word that drew those heroes to their line of work. In order to construct the first maps of, say, our own Northern Areas, they walked, walked, walked thousands of collective miles. In various disguises with their surveying equipment camouflaged as items of worship, these men endangered their lives among hostile tribes. They became famous for breaking new ground; for providing maps where none existed before. Some enjoyed the glory to the end of ripe old age. Others died, mostly violently, to be reborn instantly as heroes whose names shine in the annals of the geographical unravelling of this region.

In the world of the beginning of the 21st century, there were no blanks on the map to fill and be celebrated. Every inch of the globe was surveyed and mapped. To gain fame now one would need to accomplish something truly extraordinary; something remarkably insane. And some people did just that. They man-hauled sleds packed with two months’ supplies across the Antarctica, or they trekked with a team of camels across the greatest width of the Takla Makan Desert or went looking for an entity known as the Hidden Mountain (Arka Tagh) in China, or they climbed all the eight-thousanders in the world or all the highest peaks on every continent. And that is just to name a few mad capers.

Here was Nasser Khan who went walkabout because he enjoyed it for its own sake. He seemed the right person to lead the Muztagh Pass Expedition. So even before he left the rest of us at Abbottabad, about twenty-three hours after we had first nodded to each other, I had briefly described the expedition and asked him if he would be willing to lead it. I also told him that between his yes and the expedition actually getting underway there was that very difficult phase of procuring funding and that there was every likelihood of the money never being available and the expedition never happening. He agreed, and that was that.

As for the Muztagh Pass, that is a bit of a lesson in history and geography. For a very, very long time the people of India and Chinese Turkistan, or Tartary, as it was known in the West and Xinjiang as we today call it, have travelled across the Great Asiatic Watershed by way of the Karakoram Pass (5655 metres). Travellers coming up from the Indian lowlands through Kashmir, passed by Kargil to Leh, the capital of Ladakh. Northeast of Leh, a hard day’s march away, was the Digar Pass (5465 metres) that descended into the Shyok River which, in turn, meandered down from the Karakoram Pass. An alternate route up from Leh was by the equally high Khardung Pass to the junction of the rivers Shyok and Nubra. From here one went up the Nubra to cross the Saser Pass, again as high as the other two passes mentioned above, to drop down into the Shyok valley for the final pull up to the Karakoram.

At the camp ground of Ak Tash (White Rock) on the far side of the pass, the route bifurcated. One carried on northward across a high altitude sandy waste, over the Sughet and Sanju passes to meet the Khotan-Karghalik-Yarkand road about two hundred kilometres southeast of Karghalik, which was, and still is, an important staging post on this route. The other, known as the Kokyar route, veered off westward and then north to make the town of Kokyar, eighty kilometres south of Karghalik. Thence the road made its weary way through sparsely populated country, more sand desert than anything else, to eventually fetch up at Yarkand.

Now the Shyok is a tributary of the Sindhu River which it meets, as the lammergeyer flies, some thirty-five kilometres southeast of Skardu. Consequently, travellers heading from Baltistan to Tartary went up the Shyok, bypassed Leh and used either the somewhat shorter but more difficult Nubra route or the circuitous one by the Shyok.

Rising nearly six thousand metres above the sea, the Karakoram Pass is entirely glacier-free. But in the Karakoram and Himalayan mountain system a pass of this height, and indeed even a thousand metres lower, should not just be glaciated, even its approaches should be along ice streams. When winter blizzards rage across these high mountains dumping vast quantities of snow, the Karakoram Pass, lying in an arid shadow of the main range, may get just a dusting of snow. In summers when other similarly high passes continue to remain ice-bound, the Karakoram has only some little white stuff in the corries and shadows. Owing to these conditions this pass was open for men and laden animals the whole year round, save about two months in mid-winter, and trade between Kashmir and India on one side and Tartary on the other regularly passed back and forth by this route.

We do not know when the pass would have first been crossed, but it was certainly in use for a very long time. Perhaps the earliest evidence of travel across the Karakoram Pass is recorded by the historian Frances Wood in her book The Silk Road. Wood writes of the presence of a Kashmiri Buddhist monk in Chang’an (modern Xian), one of the great centres of Buddhist learning on the Silk Road. There this unnamed Kashmiri assisted a local master in translating Buddhist texts from Indian into Central Asian languages. The year of this event was 284. The implication, then, is that this route, well known in the early years of the Common Era, would have been in use for a good few centuries prior.

In the 17th century, the Karakoram Pass was abandoned under interesting circumstances, if one is to believe Françoise Bernier. A doctor by training, the man left his native France and ended up in India driven by his ‘desire of seeing the world’. Here he eventually found service under the murderous Aurangzeb, the last real Mughal king. In the time he spent with the court, Bernier travelled widely across the kingdom and when he returned home several years later, he wrote a rather interesting account of his Indian adventures.

Bernier’s Travels in the Mogul Empire tells us that during the reign of Aurangzeb’s father Shah Jehan, an imperial army attacked Skardu and, having taken it – not without the Baltis giving them a fair run for their money – caused a major stir as far east as Ladakh. But the fright was undue. The ill-planned expedition took place late in the season and, despite the initial success, the leader fearing that the passes back into Kashmir would soon be blocked by snow cutting him off from base, panicked and withdrew without consolidating his hold. In retaliation to the short-lived taking of Skardu, the ‘king’ of Ladakh, so Bernier tells us, forbade the passage of caravans from or to Kashmir through his country. The annals of Shah Jehan do indeed confirm this rather half-hearted and foolish Baltistan adventure of 1637. But they say nothing of the closure of the route to Tartary and it almost seems as if the silence results from embarrassment. But we do know from the king’s official history that over the next several years Shah Jehan ordered two more expeditions into Baltistan.

Bernier writes that owing to the blockade, caravans were obligated to take the route through Baltistan. One went from Skardu north to Shigar and then in fifteen days reached a ‘large forest’ on the confines of Baltistan before arriving in the cities of Tartary. The good doctor goes on to confess that his information was ‘confused and scanty’ because of the ignorance of the informers and the ineptitude of his interpreters. The account certainly was faulty for Bernier says that Kashgar is reached in fifteen days from the large forest while Yarkand lies ten days farther northward. But we cannot fault Bernier, because until his time few Europeans – not geographers at that but Christian missionaries – had ventured into Tartary and in the absence of maps, he could not have been aware of the geographical relationship between Yarkand in the south and Kashgar farther to the northwest.

The road, he reported, was very poor and ‘among other difficult paths, there is the place where, in every season, you must go a quarter of a league over ice.’ Now, as a measure of linear distance the league was variable in Europe, but it was generally equal to three English miles or about five kilometres. A quarter of a league would therefore mean just over a kilometre. One can imagine Bernier taking time off from tending the medical problems of the Shadow of God Aurangzeb Alamgir in Srinagar and going off with his interpreter to pester travellers in some smoky caravanserai. Weary after their slog down the mountains and with still a long way to go to the marts of the Indian plains, the travellers would have responded to his translated queries with disinterest and certainly with a good deal of suspicion.

Suspicion was the first emotion Asiatic people felt (and still do!) upon meeting an outsider. Every stranger was a spy to be distrusted and, if possible, misguided. Some of Bernier’s informants would therefore have wilfully misreported. But if someone did indeed describe the awful trek over seemingly interminable ice streams where one skirted yawning crevasses draped with ten metre-long fang-like icicles or gingerly tested the snow bridges before stepping across concealed ice chasms, the interpreter, himself probably never having seen a glacier in his life, might have dismissed the account for exaggeration. He would have dutifully abridged the difficulties as well as the length of the glacier to what he deemed more acceptable proportions before translating the narration for Bernier.

Bernier himself may also have found the account of a journey of several days over a glacier hard to believe, however. Glaciers, as everyone knew in his time, existed only in the Alps. Here he was talking of a journey about the 36th parallel of latitude and this was clearly a gross exaggeration. Therefore even if his interpreter had not edited the account, Bernier might have ‘appropriately’ adjusted the length of the glacier to a cannier figure.

Godwin-Austen
Although he does not assign a name to the ice-covered trail, Bernier is obviously telling us of what we now know as the Muztagh Pass route. This then is the earliest, and most lucid, European note on trade and travel by the Muztagh Pass. (Fifty years before Bernier, William Finch, an English merchant in India, also wrote of the road from Lahore to Yarkand. But he was clearly speaking of the Karakoram Pass route.) I learned of this route back in 1991 from the essay of the explorer Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen published in 1864 by the Royal Geographical Society in their Journal. Only shortly before that I had done a traverse from Baltistan to Shimshal by the Biafo-Sim Gang-Braldu glaciers and well knew the difficulties of glacial travel. The idea that travellers were once routinely passing back and forth over a heavily glaciated pass, possibly with women and children and laden animals, was fascinating. Sitting there at the more than a century-old desk that was probably used by the likes of Godwin-Austen and others who did pioneering survey and exploration work in this region, I told myself I had to one day go poking about the Muztagh Pass.

Francis Younghusband
Godwin-Austen’s work and modern maps showed me two things. One, that the route did not lie over just a quarter of a league of ice and snow. Leaving Askole, the last village in Baltistan before the great web of glaciers and high peaks begins, one followed up into the thirty kilometre-long valley of the Panmah Glacier. Near its head, the Panmah is met by a number of minor tributary glaciers. One among them, coming in from the east and shaped almost like a horseshoe, is the Chiring. A few kilometres above the junction, the Chiring curves to the south straight up to its origin at the great wall of 6000 metre-high peaks. Among these crags, in a region geographically classified by British map-makers as the Muztagh-Karakoram, lies the saddle of the West Muztagh Pass, glaciated and all of 5370 metres above the sea. Secondly, that there was an abandoned pass known to Victorian explorers as the East or Old Muztagh, besides the one Godwin-Austen was exploring.

Over the top, the route descends into the Sarpo Laggo Glacier, of equal length to the Panmah, which in turn falls to the Shaksgam River valley. Thence one went upstream along the young Shaksgam to the gateway of the Aghil Pass, over it and into the headwaters of the Surukwat River. This stream leads to Raskam, the first settlement, or last depending on one’s perspective, in Turkistan. This did not spell the end of difficulties, however: Karghalik, on the highroad to Yarkand, still lay several days’ journey north beyond two high and desiccated passes.

Twenty-six years after Godwin-Austen completed his pioneering work, another English explorer passed through this region. Born in the northern Punjab hill station of Murree a year before Godwin-Austen went exploring the West Muztagh, Francis Younghusband had travelled in Manchuria and across the great expanse of China to arrive in Tartary late in the summer of 1887. He planned to reach Srinagar by way of the Karakoram Pass – the usual way at that time. While resting up in Yarkand he received orders from his superiors in India to abandon his original plan, however. He was, instead, to explore the East or Old Muztagh Pass that had been abandoned over half a century earlier.
 
Godfrey Thomas Vigne
Younghusband, then a lieutenant in the army and just twenty-three years old, having no previous mountaineering experience tried to take horses up the Sarpo Laggo Glacier to the pass. Realising the folly only after the repeated slipping had badly cut up the horses’ hocks; he sent the animals and a few handlers around by the Karakoram Pass while he pressed on with his guide and a few other men to eventually fetch up at Askole. He went on to write a book (The Heart of a Continent) that gives an account of his three years of travelling in high Asia and anyone acquainted with glacier walking cannot but get the impression that old Younghusband pulled a pretty foolhardy caper because not only had he never seen a glacier before, but also because none of his team were experienced high altitude guides. Indeed, Wali, the Balti Younghusband conscripted in Yarkand to be his guide, said that he had travelled the Muztagh route once and that too some thirty years earlier.

Between Bernier and the latter British explorers there was Godfrey Thomas Vigne, as remarkable and mysterious as any character of the Great Game could be, who took a circuitous route through India and up into Baltistan late in the summer of 1835. In his Travels in Kashmir he tells of a rather amazing cause of the closure of the Muztagh Pass.
The path down the Muztak (sic) is one of the best ways to Yarkund (sic), and was formerly much used by saudagars, or merchants, in their journeys to and from Kashmir. There were several stories afloat of the reason why it is never, I believe, used by merchants at present. One of the most current is that they were plundered by the [Baltis] in times past; and another says, that they took flight in consequence of a Yarkundi merchant finding, upon his arrival in that city, that the gold in his box must have been taken out and replaced by silver during his stay at Shighur (sic).
The story simply points to the oriental taste for a devious twist to a perfectly natural cause. The glacier had simply become impassable, but Vigne’s informant had to add this peculiar quirk as a more credible cause of abandoning of the route. However, even if Vigne was not an explorer in the real sense of the word and entrusted with the task of map-making, for some curious reason which he never divulges, he was obsessed with the crossing of the Muztagh Pass – an undertaking that Raja Ahmed Shah of Skardu, whose guest he was, dissuaded him from. The Raja said not only was the journey impossible, alluding perhaps to the difficulties of the glacier, but also because the people of Hunza could just be trusted to bring such an expedition to grief.

Although the routes over the passes Muztagh and Karakoram and down into Yarkand are separated from Hunza by a high watershed and sparsely populated and bleak river valleys, these long and lonely trails were the favourite hunting grounds of the hardy Hunza mountaineers. Here they would lie in wait to fall upon travellers to loot, enslave and sometimes even kill. This was no ordinary brigandage, however: it was sanctioned by the king himself. For generation after generation of Hunza rulers, this activity was their greatest revenue earner. Upon returning home, these expeditions faithfully laid out the booty at their king’s feet to receive a token portion from the loot. This would be their bonus because surely they would have already secretly extracted what they thought was the rightful ‘salary’ for their toils. The rest went into the king’s coffers.

In their time, the authorities of the Raj were at a loss to understand how the Hunza men travelled from their mountain fastness to their hunting grounds. There lay between Hunza and these lonely trails a great knot of high mountains and desolate river valleys broken through by high, storm-scoured passes. Yet the caravan routes were seldom safe from their forays. Younghusband was entrusted with discovering the way they went, a task that he accomplished in 1889.

As for Vigne, he could simply not get the Muztagh Pass out of his system and returned to the subject again. Robbers, he learned, were not the only peril of this lonely road. He was told of the group of Baltis returning from Yarkand one year at the end of the travelling season. Hoping to cross the Muztagh before new snow fell; they foolishly brought just enough provisions to get them over. But the snow came early that year and poor visibility held them up for a few days just below the crest. Seeing no hope of getting across and reaching habitation, they back-tracked but, according to Vigne, all of them perished one by one, the weakest among them going first. Only one lived to tell the tale.

He notes that although the travelling season over the Muztagh was just about four months every year, it was preferred over the Karakoram Pass in the east because the Muztagh journey was no less than ‘ten days shorter than the other.’ It was precisely for this advantage that once the Muztagh Pass became impassable some time about 1780, Raja Ahmed Shah ordered a new route to be reconnoitred. In consequence the New or West Muztagh, at the head of the Panmah-Chiring complex was opened. From the early years of the 19th century when the survey was done, travellers no longer went up the Baltoro Glacier to cross over into the Sarpo Laggo Glacier from the Old Muztagh. They now attained it by way of the Panmah and Chiring ice streams. As for the difficulties on the old route, the common Balti perception attributed them to greater snow and ice. Only in the early years of the 20th century, with this area virtually crawling with geographers and surveyors, did it become known that a growing, healthy glacier with its smoother surface and fewer crevasses made for easy travelling. A glacier decaying and breaking up was problematic.

The work of Godwin-Austen and Younghusband also tells us of these two passes called Muztagh. And that one of them, the East Muztagh, had been out of use for more than half a century at Younghusband’s time. By crossing it, this captain of the Dragoon Guards became the first European to do so for which the Royal Geographical Society (of which he was a Fellow) celebrates him to this day. If I wanted to be famous, win medals and be celebrated, I had to cross the other Muztagh which no one had traversed. No one other than the Baltis and, at some remote time in the past, perhaps some Kirghiz and Uighur travellers from Xinjiang. No Westerner, neither Godwin-Austen nor anyone after him to this day had crossed the West Muztagh Pass.

Between Godwin-Austen and Younghusband there was Frederic Drew who went ‘some distance up the [Panmah] glacier, but not as far as the summit of the [Muztagh] Pass.’ A geologist by training, Drew came out from Britain to serve the Maharaja of Kashmir in the 1860s. The nearly ten years of his service took him travelling extensively across Kashmir, Ladakh and Gilgit-Baltistan and the fruit of his labours was an excellent record titled The Jumoo and Kashmir Territories. The year of his Baltistan adventure was 1863, that is, two years after Godwin-Austen’s survey, and Drew also confirms that until that time no European had reached the pass.

Perhaps the only detailed reference to the kind of traffic that went back and forth by the Muztagh route between Baltistan and Yarkand comes from Drew:
In crossing, men are tied together, yak-calves are carried; ponies of Yarkand – a useful breed – also used to be ventured, they were sometimes led over the crevasses with ropes, held by eight men in front and eight behind. Even when safe over the Pass (on the hitherward journey) the horses and cattle could not at once be brought down to the inhabited parts; they had to be kept in one of the intermediate pastures until, as winter neared, the streams got low and the passage along the valley became practicable for the four-footed ones.
Yaks, so it appears, have a special knack for negotiating glaciers which the Baltis, as indeed all other upland people, would have known and exploited to their advantage. Glaciated routes such as the Muztagh were thus made practical for trading caravans with yaks being the pack animals instead of camels as on the Karakoram Pass. On the authority of a civil servant, Henry Bellew, a member of the Douglas Forsyth embassy to Kashgar in 1873-74, reveals a remarkable yak trait. He writes:
These … sagacious animals, when urged up the side of the glacier crowd together for a consultation on its edge, and after a good deal of grunting one of them takes the lead, the others following in single file. The leader with his nose down on the snow sniffs and grunts his way cautiously, and when tired falls back for the next in the line to take up the lead, and so on, till land is reached on the other side.
Up in a village at the foot of the Baltoro Glacier, Drew also met with one of the few men to have escaped an attack by Hunza raiders only a couple of weeks earlier. On their way home from Yarkand, this person’s party was attacked on the Muztagh route and all save a few were taken to be sold as slaves. Of the goods, horses and cattle that they had, nothing was ever recovered. When Drew returned to this area seven years later in 1870, he was told that in the intervening years there had been no communication between Baltistan and Yarkand. He believed this was largely due to the difficulties of the road and the threat of Hunza robbers.
There is yet another reference to the Muztagh Pass, albeit a rather vague one. This comes from Mirza Haider Dughlat, a cousin of Babur’s, the founder of the Mughal Empire of India, and author of the Tarikh e Rashidi. Dughlat served under Sultan Saeed Khan, the Mongol ruler of Kashgar in the early years of the 16th century, and his Tarikh, a wide-ranging source of those uncertain times, is named after the Khan’s son Sultan Rashid. We are told of Saeed Khan’s invasion of Tibet in the autumn of 1532 in which Dughlat led one part of the five thousand-strong army. Though the author is at great pains to show this invasion was entirely for the greater glory of Islam; in reality it was no more than a plundering raid.

Be that as it may, while the Sultan followed another route from Khotan (southeast of Yarkand) directly into Tibet and eventually Baltistan, Haider Dughlat led his three thousand-strong contingent into the Nubra Valley by way of the Karakoram Pass. Among all the other peculiar details, the writer, in describing the geography of this region uses a rather curious expression: ‘The pass ascending from Yarkand is the pass of Sanju, and the pass descending on the side of Kashmir is the pass of Skardu.’ He also tells us that the journey between these two passes lasts twenty days.

Curious this expression certainly is because Dughlat used the Karakoram Pass, without actually naming it, to enter Nubra. The mention of a ‘pass of Skardu’ thus implies his knowledge of the existence of yet another route, one that, he wrote, gave direct access from Turkistan to Skardu. This could be none other than the Muztagh route. From the Karakoram-Sanju road, that Dughlat knew, the route to the Muztagh leads across difficult high-altitude mountain breaches to the upper Shaksgam River and on to the foot of the Sarpo Laggo Glacier. The Muztagh Pass sits at the top of this glacier. That Dughlat does not name the pass he traversed to enter Nubra and refers to the range as the ‘mountain of Balti’ implies that until then the title of Karakoram was not applied to these mountains or the pass.

That then was what I gleaned from the work of early adventurers and explorers. Beginning with Dr Falconer as early as the 1830s who could not reach the West Muztagh Pass because of the difficulties of the route, and down to the 1950s, everyone seemed to have missed the crest of the West Muztagh Pass for one or the other reason. But before I could get all carried away with the notion that I would make history were I to traverse the Muztagh, I learnt that in the 1990s, a British mountaineer had not just crossed both the Muztaghs, but had also done it in mid-winter on skis.

But not all the glory had been stolen from a re-exploration of the Muztagh Pass route between Baltistan and Yarkand. From Skardu over either of the Muztaghs and down the other side to Yarkand, this route had not been traversed in its entirety since it was abandoned a hundred and some years earlier. If Nasser Khan and I were to complete this traverse, we would be the first people to do so in a century. That was what I call the stuff of dreams.

I knew such a project would make a full-fledged expedition, one that would cost a good deal of money. Of this essential commodity, as a travel writer in Pakistan and one writing in English to boot, I did not make very much. And then there was the fact that I simply cannot handle an expedition of anymore than one person and would very likely make a mess of trying to lead a large team. For years therefore the Muztagh Pass Expedition languished in the dark recesses of my mind. Then I met Nasser Ali Khan.

One aspect was now taken care of, but there remained the difficulty of organising necessary funds. A year after our meeting on the bus, having wrapped up all other pending business so as to be free the next summer (2003) I began working on fund-raising. Masood Hasan, the well-known advertising ace and newspaper columnist, undertook to get the money in. But a mountain-walking expedition up in the desolate reaches of the Karakoram and Kun Lun Mountains is lonely business. There are no spotlights, no media coverage, no spectators, nothing. The undertaking is simply not exhibitionist enough to suit the corporations that throw in oodles of moolah into other equally meaningless but more visible enterprises.

Despite all Masood’s enthusiasm and hard work the fund-raising campaign came to nothing: nobody was willing to squander upward of half a million rupees on what they considered a totally foolhardy undertaking that would serve no visible (in every sense of the word) purpose. Pakistan being a country where a paltry number of people read anything at all, Masood was also asked what I had heard so many times in the past: when there are already so many books on such subjects, why should I want to write another one? Clearly, those who have the money, don’t read and those who read are generally hard put even to purchase new books leave alone fund a major mountain-walking expedition.

In despair Masood wrote his Sunday piece in February 2003 about the Muztagh Pass Expedition and how such an expedition would have rolled in money sooner than they could say ‘Muztagh’ anywhere else in the world but Pakistan. It was the day of Basant, the Punjabi spring festival, when late in the afternoon I got an excited call from him. Dr Nasim Ashraf, the top man at National Commission for Human Development, having read his column had called to say that he was sanctioning the requisite funds for the expedition. I called Nasser in Peshawar to pass on the good news. The Muztagh Pass Expedition was going to happen after all.

Now, the route of our expedition crossed the Sino-Pakistani frontier up in the snowy wilderness of the Sarpo Laggo Glacier where there is no regular crossing. Sorting that out was the next phase. Confident that our expedition would be permitted to pass unimpeded in view of the ‘brotherly ties’ flaunted by the two countries, I wrote to the Foreign Minister in Islamabad requesting if his office could please put in a good word with the Chinese embassy. The response from our Foreign Office was very complimentary and encouraging and I could just see ourselves slogging up the snow slopes to the crest of the Muztagh Pass where the Chinese had even organised television crews and skimpily clad girls to welcome us.

Not long thereafter I was notified by the Foreign Office that the Chinese ambassador would see Nasser and me in his office. His Excellency, who spoke better Urdu than the two of us and who was reputed to be able to recite from memory the divan of the great poet Ghalib from cover to cover, began in Urdu. With him sat a young man with a thick mop of jet-black, unnaturally bristly hair and a grim set to his jaw; somewhat ill at ease in his business suit: Chinese secret agencies wanted to know what a Pukhtun professor of economics and a Punjabi writer were up to in Xinjiang, the sensitive underbelly of their country.

I had barely begun my spiel with the bit about Pakistan’s national airline being the first from anywhere outside the Socialist bloc to land in Communist China back in the 1960s and how we would only now be making a great second, when the ambassador interrupted me in English. The spook who apparently did not speak any Urdu had to be in on this one. The ambassador was intrigued how the two of us knew each other well enough to get into this business together. We both took turns struggling to explain the chance meeting in Skardu and the journey down the Sindhu Gorge. He nodded, said something to the agent in Chinese and both laughed out loud. They had penetrated our façade! They knew we were lying through our teeth. They knew we were rabble-rousers on our way to Xinjiang to stir up the Muslims. But unruffled I carried on to the end of my prepared script and soon began to feel we had broken the ice.

‘Yours is a brave enterprise and I support it to the end. You will presently be hearing from us,’ said the ambassador bringing our meeting to an end.

Diplomats the world over are inscrutable; Chinese diplomats the most inscrutable of them all. Within days I had a letter from the equivalent of our Home Department in Beijing informing me that the border crossing of the Muztagh Pass being irregular, we were not permitted to enter China that way. We could enter the country by any recognised port and were then free to go walkabout wherever we wished, but what we suggested was no-go. The euphoria Nasser and I had felt leaving the Chinese embassy only days earlier and which I had lived with since, evaporated of a moment. The monies had been pledged, we were all set to go, how could the Chinese do this to us at this stage? In desperation I reverted to the Foreign Office with the suggestion that we make it an international expedition with the Chinese army joining us at the top of the Muztagh. I have never been able to figure out why the clean-cut, well-dressed young Deputy Secretary at the Foreign Office was so patient and sympathetic with me, but I suspect it had something to do with my very evident and frantic passion. Though the Foreign Office worked on this angle as well, nothing came of it. The Chinese had had the last word on the Muztagh Pass Expedition.

There had always been the niggling fear something like this was likely, because when funds were made available I had insisted on having them transferred to an expedition account only after we received Chinese permission. Had I taken the funds and used up some to purchase equipment and other necessities for the expedition, I would now have looked very like a petty swindler. That I came out clean was the only good thing that happened that year. Nasser and I quietly resigned ourselves to the situation, convinced that this expedition could not be done, at least not in our lifetimes. And we both felt the Chinese could not entirely be blamed for not letting us go snooping in what they thought of as a sensitive and trouble-prone outlying region.

Back in 1988 a Pakistani political-religious party, emboldened by the recent events in Afghanistan and the success of the USA-backed Islamists in that country, set off to duplicate the same mischief in Xinjiang. An army of hoodlums, driven by the illusion that they were doing holy duty and the hope that huge transfusions of US funds would soon enrich them, instigated a minor uprising amongst the indigenous Uighur population in Kashgar and other cities. By the time the dust settled, the Chinese army had exterminated a fair number of holy warriors and put away many more disaffected Uighur men. That was one thing.

Long before I had even dreamed up my insane adventure, my compatriots had done everything within their province to put the spanner in our expedition still a good way off in the future. Since the opening of the border only a couple of years before the Islamic insurgency, in 1986, lax visa conditions had permitted thousands of Pakistanis into China as tourists where they were welcomed by locals as Muslim brethren. But the brethren were mainly semi-literate young men seeking escape from the stifling Pakistani milieu of an outwardly Islamic dictatorship into the perceived freedom of Xinjiang. The only purpose of their travels was alcohol and sex. China being liberal, the alcohol was easy to come by, but free sex was somewhat tricky. The average Pakistani mind is fertile with visions of every woman outside the country’s borders being no less than a sex maniac just aching for a nice tumble in the hay with the first Pakistani she sets her eyes on. Our so-called tourists behaved abominably in Xinjiang and individuals who had earlier hailed them as brothers-in-faith and welcomed them into their homes, turned away from Pakistanis for their bibulous, sex-crazed waywardness. Visa restrictions followed shortly thereafter.

In view of the atrocious Pakistani behaviour abroad and our political mullahs’ botched attempt to ‘liberate and Islamise’ Xinjiang in 1988, Nasser and I could hardly fault the Chinese for not letting us go poking about the glaciated watershed between our two countries. Surely the Chinese did not want us to discover the ‘other way’ we could send our terrorist armies into their troubled province without them being aware of the infiltrators until they hit their sensitive navel. We just gave up and returned to our ordinary lives, he teaching economics to young Pukhtuns and I writing for my newspaper in Lahore.

Time moved on, but the dream refused to die. Every so often I would be drawn back into it. I would spend hours on the map wondering what the pass really was like and how it would be to trek on the north side of the watershed. I re-read everything I had about this region and consoled myself that one day people better than us in a world less crazed by hatred and distrust would do this traverse to re-live history. Only we would not be there to either be envious of their success or genuinely happy over it.

Early in the year 2005 it one day entered my head that there was another way, somewhat less dramatic but an alternate nevertheless of completing this traverse: to do the Pakistani side, go across the Muztagh Pass and hightail it back when we are within sight of a Chinese military camp. Then we could enter China legally and complete the traverse from their side. The only caveat was not to blunder into a Chinese military detachment and be arrested. Nasser said yes to the idea and once again the fund-raising exercise became foremost in my life.

It was not until September when Javed Akhtar, an old friend and then a very senior bureaucrat with the Information Department, called to say why I had never asked his help to do anything I wanted to do. Upon his suggestion, I wrote out the Muztagh Pass proposal and sent it off to the Federal Secretary Culture and Youth Affairs – even though the last part of the portfolio clearly disqualified me (being well into middle age) to apply. The next day I received a fax hand-written and signed by Syed Jalil Abbas, none other than the Secretary himself. He was, he wrote, well-acquainted with my work and had sanctioned the funds for the expedition. Shortly thereafter the monies were transferred to an expedition account and I called Nasser to tell him there was no going back now.

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

Related: Epilogue - The Apricot Road to Yarkand, Book Review

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

3 Comments:

At December 30, 2013 at 11:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Salman, your name too will go down the history like those early travelers. I can see that.

 
At December 31, 2013 at 12:00 AM, Anonymous Liaqat Khan said...

Are there any changes in the area since you traveled; roads, tele-coverage, other infrastructure?

 
At December 31, 2013 at 11:07 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you very much, Anonymous. It is nice to know that you enjoyed this chapter.

 

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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