The lurking Chinese!
20 January 2014
|Shingchakpi camp ground whose name signifies a
total absence of fuel wood. It has a number of bitter streams flowing down from
the south across the sand pan which is always damp and would make one lousy
camping place. Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen camped here in August 1861 and was
surprised by four Balti travellers returning home from Yarkand|
|Nasser, Hasan and Naeem dance to the accompaniment of Ghulam Hussain’s ‘drum’ and Balti singing|
The weeks of incarceration preceding execution must have been horribly trying for poor Schlagintweit. Owing to Wali Khan’s erratic behaviour, the German would have swung between despair and hope. Humans cling to the hope of eventual redemption and I am convinced that even in the darkest situation, one can never believe they would actually be killed. So too would have Schlagintweit until the touch of cold steel across the throat began his journey into the long night.
The seventh day of August 1861 had dawned grey and stormy with everything but the nearer knolls obscured by great besoms of dark clouds confining the party to their tents and preventing any survey work to be undertaken. His staff would have been preparing dinner when a somewhat bored Godwin-Austen was jolted by an event he may have hoped for but never quite expected would occur:
About 6 in the evening we were surprised by the sudden appearance of four men from Yarkund (sic), who turned out to be Baltis of Shigar and the Braldoh (sic), who had emigrated to Yarkund some years back, and had now come over to see their friends on this side. I soon got into conversation, and learned from them a good deal about the country they had come from. The poor fellows had suffered a good deal while traversing the mountain portion of their route, having to travel by night and hide away during the day, on account of the robber tribes. These men wore the sheep-skin cap and long-skirted coat of Yarkund, with voluminous sleeves padded with cotton; thick leggings, and stout leather boots or pubboos, completed their somewhat stout appearance.
Now, between Hunza in the west and the routes over the Muztagh and Karakoram passes in the east, there lies two hundred kilometres of some of the harshest terrain in the world. In this great jumble of valleys and glaciers there are peaks by the dozen of six and seven thousand metres crowned by that lovely jewel of Rakaposhi (7790 metres). The easiest route leading east from Hunza to the plundering grounds is through Shimshal, over the pass of the same name and across the Braldu River that drains the northern flanks of the Nobande Sobande Group in the Muztagh Karakoram and runs into the Shaksgam River east of Shimshal.
The highwaymen would have then followed the Shaksgam to its upper reach and there awaited the hapless Balti travellers on the Muztagh Pass route. They were not satisfied with only that, however. These remarkable mountaineers carried on to the headwaters of the Shaksgam, crossed the difficult 5465 metre-high Shaksgam Pass to take their depredations to the Karakoram Pass route as well. A reminder of the ruthless ravages of these hardy mountaineers are the place names ending in ‘Oldi’ – that being the Turki word for ‘died’ or ‘killed’ – a reference to some ill-starred victim.
The most remarkable aspect of this entirely black episode of Hunza history is these people’s amazing hardihood and mountaineering skills. The country east of the confluence of the Braldu and the Shaksgam rivers is one inhospitable tangle of utterly unpeopled high altitude, sometimes glaciated, wasteland. Food is impossible to come by, except if one is hunting as one goes; fuel is scanty and travelling entails the fording of deep and frigid torrents, many of which can be crossed only before dawn when melt water is at its lowest. To lurk in this forbidding desolation day after day, would have required remarkably resolute toughness.
The people of modern Hunza have come a long way from this sinister past. Mountain people from Chitral all the way to Baltistan are by nature very friendly; and they are decent and civil to boot. But the people of Hunza and Gojal to its north are surely some of the most sophisticated and urbane people in the whole country. Today their decorum and graciousness are a warm contrast to the general boorishness of the rest of us Pakistanis. Many of them are multi-lingual speaking besides their mother tongues at least three other languages and, save the oldest who missed the Aga Khan Foundation’s education programme, everyone else goes to school or college.
Grey clouds that had blocked our view northward since we entered the Panmah remained resolutely with us. As we came across the ice stream into a somewhat grim landscape of grey boulders spattered here and there with tufts of greenery, all we could see was the monochrome walls all around that seemed to hem us. This encircling wall rose to stark crags and only when the clouds parted long enough, could the higher snow peaks among them be seen. If we had imagined views of the Latok crags west of the Panmah or Baintha Brakk (The Ogre) further away, we saw nothing.
Our short rest at Shingchakpi was curtailed when the drizzle became thicker. Barely had we crossed the edge of the sandy basin when the cry went up ‘Skeen, skeen!’ Ibex! There, all of three or four hundred metres ahead, on the slope to our right were five or six Himalayan Ibex clearly outlined against the grey sky. They were casually heading up in a single file but our clamour, much of it for Ali the Hunter to go into action, speeded them up and before I could even soak up the scene, they disappeared over the crest of the ridge. Nasser later reported seeing two young males jousting as they went. Over the next hour or so, all anyone could talk about was the possibility of Ali bagging a couple of animals. Nasser was simply beside himself with anticipation.
For the first time we entered a white glacier in the wide three-sided basin where the Chiring, running down from the south, joined the Panmah. Crystal rills flowed across the icy surface in blue-green channels and huge rocks balanced on thick ice pillars as if placed there by playful giants. Here and there, the glacier surface was riven by huge maws filled with muddy water. Other than these, there were no crevasses to impede progress. The going was easy, the scenery, even with the snow peaks veiled by grey clouds, grand and Nasser, Naeem, Ghulam Hussain, Ali the cook and I loitered. Presently we lost sight of the main body of porters which, led by the hunter, had been about a kilometre ahead of us.
Having been to the Skinmang camp ground once before, Ali was entrusted to lead us in the right direction. But in four years, the glacier had changed dramatically pushing up a towering wall of moraine debris where Ali had seen none before. Instead of bearing left (north) along the white glacier, he led us south to the left bank of the Panmah. For the next two hours the five of us stumbled about in this great muddle of rock and ice until Ghulam Hussain climbed up a pile of moraine and pointed us in the right direction. Back on the white glacier, we found Hasan Jan with Mohammad Ali and Mohammad Ali preparing tea for us. Having missed us, these good people guessed we were lost and would need a bracer when we made it back.
Three quarters of an hour on white ice brought us again to a moraine at the foot of a high esker rising three hundred metres straight above us. Covered richly with grass and flowers, it contrasted sharply with the white ice and the naked moraine. The slope was amply strewn with bear and ibex dung, but since the day before wolf scats had been scarce. Evidently ibex prefer rock overhangs for resting because all such spots showed signs of recent occupation: the grass was ruffled and there was a liberal leaving of not very old droppings. Perhaps even as we were slowly coming across the white glacier only hours earlier, these animals were browsing in this greenery. If names are anything to go by, Skinmang, signifying Many Ibex, was no misnomer. With so few mountaineers and trekkers headed this way, Skinmang may happily remain an undisturbed haven for wildlife for a few more years.
For the first time I also spotted a large raptor flying against the dull sky. Unable to identify or photograph it in the faulty light, I contented myself watching it quarter Skinmang. Its circling flight on out-stretched wings and splayed primaries bore slowly to the southwest. By and by it was lost from view over the ridge where the ibex had disappeared earlier on. Though the bird appeared all black in the poor light, from its size and the shape of its wings, I suspect it was a golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). Snow cocks and marmots, known to be frequent in this area, form the staple for this raptor. We had not heard snow cocks calling, however. Even marmots that announce their presence with their shrill whistle had not been as plentiful as I would have thought. Nevertheless, the solitary hunter on the wing was sign enough that the glacier was yet alive – if sign be needed besides the ibex and bear spoor.
As for the bear, this is the brown species (Ursus arctos isabellinus) whose population is scattered around Baltistan in a number of small pockets. Of these, the group in Deosai Plateau was on the verge of extinction with only about half a dozen individuals remaining in the late 1980s. An Islamabad-based NGO with no background in wildlife conservation stepped in and after a truly heroic effort brought the bears of Deosai back from the brink. At thirty-five individuals in 2006, Deosai may well have the largest bear population in Baltistan. Yet another group is known to inhabit the upper reach of the Biafo Glacier, their favourite haunt being the campgrounds around the base of Baintha Brakk.
No census has ever been done in the Biafo, but I suspect there would still be, despite all the disturbance of trekkers and mountaineers, a fair-sized population. Back in the early years of the 20th century the Americans Fanny and her husband Henry Workman reported waking up one morning to see ‘yeti’ footprints on the sodden ground of their camp on the west bank of the glacier almost diagonally opposite Baintha. Similarly, having split from Eric Shipton and Michael Spender at the end of the 1937 Shaksgam Expedition, William Tilman was making his way across the Sim Gang Glacier (Conway’s Snow Lake) when he too saw some strange bi-pedal footprints going over a kilometre across the soft snow. Again, on the 1951 Everest Expedition, Shipton photographed a misshapen footprint in the snow. However, as no one has yet come up with a living yeti or with yeti scats or corpses, I suspect these footprints were left by bears.
About seven kilometres north of Skinmang camp ground, a glacier, another of the several Panmah tributaries, falls into it from the east. This one goes by the name of Drenmang. Now, dren is bear in Balti and so the name points to another population, perhaps a large one, around the Panmah basin. Several years ago, the NGO working in Deosai planned to carry out a bear census in Panmah and Biafo, but by then having realised they had bitten off more than they could chew in Deosai, ennui set in and the plan never materialised. However, from the activity around Skinmang we could guess that the bear and ibex populations were in good health in these parts.
Closely related to the polar, the Siberian and the dreaded North American grizzly bear, the Tibetan brown bear is a relatively less dangerous beast. The animal has a very keen sense of smell but rather weak eyesight and can easily be surprised if approached from a downwind direction. Experts say that caught unawares and finding an unsuspecting human too close for comfort, it will attempt feints but will rarely attack if one stays perfectly still and mute. Waving one’s arms or screaming to frighten the animal or even turning tail was asking for it, they say. Each time I was told this by the experts up on Deosai, I hoped I would never run into a bear for who knows whether or not it also had heard the same theories from the experts. Of course, a mother with cubs is mean business altogether and to be avoided in all cases.
Over eons of evolution in the harsh setting of upland Baltistan, the brown bear has diverged from its other cousins in dietary habits. While the other three are largely carnivorous, our bear has gone vegetarian and is only an opportunistic carnivore. No surprise then that its dung resembles that of bovines. Unlike its cousins, this sub-species is not known to stalk human prey. Indeed, from Deosai we know that if it smells humans from the distance, the bear will turn tail and flee up a hill.
On the upward grind Nasser and I paused to catch our breath and the meaning of the camp ground’s name came up. Nasser said he was very excited since he saw the two jousting males back at Shingchakpi and that as soon as we were settled down he was sending Ali the Hunter to get a nice young animal. There followed a graphic description of the preparation of sweetbread and haunches that would be eaten with a pilau of ribs. Then he showed me how he was gong to eat the heart raw. How the blood would run from his hands to his elbows and how he will not swallow the meat but savour its fresh warmth on his palate.
‘I am going to put that in my book.’ I threatened.
‘Not if I can have my way.’ said Nasser. ‘I am seriously considering pinching your notebook. With you writing away everything we say or do, this is becoming a matter of grave concern for the rest of us.’
The two of us were the last ones in camp. The tents were up and the stove was hissing away with Ali, the new cook fussing over it. For some curious reason Ali and his father, who had swapped places earlier that day, had the same name. But that was where the likeness ended. The father, dark, lean and gregarious was a stark opposite to the fair, round-faced and quieter son. I suppose one was Mohammad Ali and the other Ali Mohammad. Back in 1937 Eric Shipton listed down half a dozen names that, he wrote, were shared by the entire male population of Baltistan. This was by and large still true. We had a crowd of Alis and Mohammads. The rest were mostly Mehdis, Hasans or Hussains – good Shia names for a largely Shia population.
As we flopped down on the camp stools, Naeem came up to ask Nasser how he felt.
‘Just like Salman’s pants.’
When, shortly before leaving for Skardu, I picked up the two brand-new pairs from a pushcart in Lahore’s Anarkali bazaar I thought I had a steal. Who would have believed baggy cotton trousers could still be had for a hundred and fifty rupees a pair. And who would have known that they were discards because their cutting was all skewed and they could be worn only if one meant to walk with tiny steps and, like catwalk models, with thighs rubbing against each other. On the first day out of Askole as the grind up the Panmah began, the stitching of the crotch came apart. Beginning slowly with a small hole, by the time we reached our first camp at Qurban Shishpi Khombu, there was one large obscene opening. I stitched it as best as I could, but it was ripped again the following day. The second pair went the same way and over the days, I simply gave up attempting to stitch the damage, letting anyone who cared see something they did not want to see.
The Skinmang camp sat in a narrow ablation valley on the right bank of the Chiring Glacier at a height of 4450 metres. It was just as well that we had planned a day of rest here because this was as good as it could get at this altitude. The rich loam was covered with grass and shrubs and a little stream tinkled past our tents. Wagtails, Rufous-tailed Flycatchers and couple of Yarkand Short-toed Larks flitted from rock to rock or browsed by the stream and in mid-August Epilobium latifolium and Rhodiola were still in blossom. Curiously enough the stream died during the night and refused to flow the two days we were there or on our return. That shot my chances of a bath and the laundry I had hoped to do.
Shortly after arrival, Haji Ali accompanied by Hasan Jan, under Nasser’s express bidding, set out across the Chiring into the mountains to our south. Ali had his rusty Lee-Enfield and Hasan was to assist him in skinning the animal and dressing the meat. Nasser instructed them to take particular care of the skull, trotters, and gizzard, but it seemed we were to be deprived of Haggis a la Skinmang: these items, not in the Baltis’ A-list of meat cuts, were to be discarded in situ. Nasser was horrified. Why, the choicest items, the brain that he had dreamed of eating straight out of the cooked skull will fatten some ravens and the trotters for the soup would be gnawed on by some mangy bear! And the gizzard, oh, the gizzard. Just the boast of having eaten ibex gizzard up in the wilds of the Chiring Glacier would make his Pukhtun meat-eating friends envious.
What a waste of great food, Nasser lamented. Long after the hunting party had disappeared behind the moraine, the good professor continued to grieve. Shortly before it got completely dark, the duo returned soaked to the skin by the drizzle that had set up just after they left camp. Haji Ali was sullenly silent and Hasan only tersely said that they had not seen a single animal.
‘Ha! The gods of conservation are more powerful than the gods of the hunt.’ I jeered.
‘Never you worry,’ Nasser returned. ‘Tomorrow is another day and this good man will be sent out once again. He is a great hunter, I can see it in his eyes, and he will return with an animal.’
I got one of my rare chances with Nasser alone. Over the past few days, Naeem had come across as being childishly possessive of the professor: every time we started a conversation the doctor would interrupt in Pashto in order to exclude me. Although I can save my life in that language, I cannot have a half-decent conversation in it. Pukhtuns do not count folks from Hazara among themselves while the latter try every which way to show they are more Pukhtun than anyone else. This attempt to alter their ethnicity is scorned by the Pukhtuns, but that does not deter the Hazarawals. As a native of Mansehra (part of Hazara), Naeem’s mother tongue was the Hindko dialect of Punjabi but Pashto being the second language in Hazara, he had picked it up as well and he used it with a vengeance to prove an ethnicity that wasn’t his – much to my disadvantage. And so for the course of the three weeks we were together, I was the odd man out while the real and the fake Pukhtun conversed – sometimes with their heads together. At night in his sleep, Naeem continued to deliver his harangues to poor Irfan and others in either Hindko or Urdu with a smattering now and then of English.
Nasser said people like us were crazy. If this was madness, with the popularity of trekking and the number of people young and old tramping around the world’s wildernesses, the roster of loonies seemed pretty extensive. But with septuagenarians and physically disadvantaged people climbing the Everest and others pulling off equally crazy capers to vie against, we were hardly doing anything spectacular. Even before I could reply, he said we had to be driven to be out trying to ascertain how those who went before us had done it. This may be true for me because as a reader of history I have followed Alexander of Macedon, Xuanzang, the 7th century Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, and some Great Game explorers across various parts of Pakistan. But Nasser and Naeem and many others I know are exceptional because they simply indulge their hankering for adventure. If we were driven, different notions drove us.
Having always been a mediocre student I nicely blossomed into a complete disaster in the math class in high school. My father forced me to study maths in college because he wanted me to be an engineer like him and I never got very far with my education. With my father breathing hard down my neck, I joined the army to escape the rocket equation, theory of numbers and logic. Having made it through the selection board for the commission, young and callow as I was, I felt proud of myself. But years later, I began to seriously doubt the efficacy of the selection system.
We, the candidates, were divided into groups of eight and numbers in each group were rotated so that everybody got to play leader to muddle through tasks that supposedly revealed our acumen and leadership qualities – lack thereof, actually. I grandly failed to lead my group through the problem that entailed getting from one point to another with the help of a couple of empty drums and some planks without anyone touching the ground. The grandness of the fiasco lay in the fact that the two points were only ten or so metres apart. Yet I was selected. It is singularly intriguing that I was taken when there was one Group Task Officer, a major whose career was going nowhere, and a psychologist overseeing my blunders. The latter wore civvies with dark glasses concealing his eyes, perhaps so that we did not know which of us he was homing in on. Either that or he was blind. Both spectacularly failed in their duty to eliminate un-military types, but it is the man with shades I suspect of being an enemy agent because even a blind psychologist could have seen I was no soldier material. If we were a better country, this man would have been hauled in, tried for high treason and put away for life.
The military academy would have weeded me out if our course had remained a regular two-year session. But the 1971 war with India rolled around and we were hurried through to graduate as second lieutenants in six months, too short a time for them to discover me. In this abridged course we were taught military subjects and my record of failures remained unbroken until I was called in for a Company Commander’s Warning (CCW for short). That did not help at all and I got a second warning together with the ominous note that if I ‘did not pull up [my] socks’ I would be withdrawn from the academy. It was dread of integral calculus that forced me to heed the suggestion about the socks.
Now, four decades from the time I mistook myself for a hero, I know better: it was not so much my suitability for the profession of arms that earned me a place in the military academy, rather the army’s desperation for gun fodder. Luckily the December 1971 war with India lasted just a fortnight while we were safely ensconced in the academy digging air-raid shelters, miles from the nearest flying lead. The drumming out I feared in the military academy would surely have overtaken me in the unit for cowardice in the face of the enemy.
Six months in the military academy is way too short a time for a person as intrinsically ‘unofficer-like’ as me to grasp the essentials of officer-ship. It was perhaps my fourth month in the unit that my new status dawned on me. Though the war, which I missed being in the academy, was over, we were still in the field living under canvas. One evening as we sat outside the mess tent, the field telephone rang and my battery commander told me to go get it. I did not introduce myself as a lieutenant so the caller said I should get an officer for him to speak with. He was livid when I came back to tell my battery commander that the caller wished to speak with an officer.
‘You bloody fool, you too are an officer now!’ he bawled.
Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Bashir Ahmed was a good man and in the next few months he worked very hard to turn me into officer stuff. For once I succeeded because he failed. Earlier my platoon commander in the military academy Major (later Brigadier) Riaz Chaudri had reposed similarly misplaced faith in me by not shunting me back to the frightful world of differential and integral calculus. But the real culprit culpable of high treason was the sinister one in shades: he had done his job well to ensure that these worthy gentlemen faced ignominious failure.
The rest of my six years in the army were equally picturesque even if in a pathetic sort of way. When I resigned, I used to say that the army had just pulled its foot back to kick me in the butt when I smartly jumped out of the way. With no skill and no education I ended up with a multi-national company as what they called an administrative officer – a sort of handyman’s job for which ex-servicemen of a below average military career were erroneously considered suitable. Administration hardly being my forte, I was the proverbial round peg in a square hole. Working for this firm was like being in an orphanage, however: once you got in, nobody tried to get rid of you because they felt sorry for you. The Pakistani and German management comprised of good and decent gentlemen who, I suppose, feared divine retribution should they deprive someone of their daily bread – even if, as in my case, one hardly did anything to earn it.
My boss hated me with a vengeance because he feared I had been hired to eventually replace him. I hated him right back; not for standing in my way to higher office but for living under such foolish delusions concerning my ambition. Our six years together were a constant tussle of doing, undoing and redoing: whatever I did, he had to undo even if it cost the company good money to redo differently. In fact, the more it cost, the better it was to show the management what a useless oaf they had hired to replace him. My only grief in this time was that while he always undid whatever little I accomplished, I never got a chance to nullify his handiwork. If it had not been for Talat Rahim who then worked for Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation and who I met purely by chance, I might never have known I could write. When she first suggested I should, I laughed. She persisted and got me going with the Corporation’s quarterly travel magazine. That was in 1983 and I have not stopped since.
Three years later, I was ready to resign from the job to be a full-time writer: much as I had escaped from graduate level math to the army, I fled into a writer’s life from minding shop for the company. Mohammad Azhar, my general manager, was aghast. In his mid-fifties he was a virtual dynamo who had given nearly thirty years of his life to the firm and was still as hyperactive as a twenty year-old. With genuine concern he demanded to know what I planned to do with myself; how I intended to feed my recently wedded wife. A bit uncertain myself, I nevertheless mumbled something about being a writer.
‘That’s all very fine. But where will the money come from?’ I had not wrongly likened the company to an orphanage.
When I started out with the company, we had a rather avuncular sort of managing director who, standing nearly two metres tall, always carried himself with a slight hunch. With ice blue bug eyes, gentle countenance, a ‘von’ to his name and thickly accented English he was a kindly soul who spoke softly and earnestly. Two years after my joining, he was succeeded by a younger man whose wife completely overshadowed him and with whom I got along famously. I regularly used to take the couple around showing them sites outside Karachi that were not part of any tourism promotion brochure. My third MD was aloof. I never saw him but knew that he did not drink coffee like the others. Instead, the pantry shuttled cartons of milk into his room at regular intervals.
That was when I quit. Shortly after, I heard of the arrival of a man who had Nazi blood in him. In this day and age, this is a statement as politically incorrect as it can get – particularly about a German – but it needs be made because this man turned the company around: in one fell swoop from orphanage to executioner’s block. Wholesale lay-offs followed, among them my general manager who had been so concerned about my writer’s income. The new man’s modus operandi was drastic: one evening you went home after a full day’s work and the next morning the watchman met you in front of the lift in the ground floor foyer to hand you an envelope and tell you never to enter the building again. The envelope contained the cheque for your month’s salary, gratuities and whatever other funds the company owed you. There was no discussion, no appeal.
If he could shunt out men who had served the company, good or bad, for three decades like that after, so it was claimed, ‘collecting evidence against them,’ my sacking would have been a doddle for the MD. Just as I beat the army to it, I cheated this man out of the satisfaction of booting out deadwood like me. Some little good might have come from my time in the army, but I accrued one great benefit from the company. My job entailed a good deal of time outside the office which I did not spend in the service of the company. Cell phones had not yet been invented and once I was away nobody could call to pester me concerning my whereabouts. Instead of using this time to make good my daily wage, I spent hours every day in the central library of the Department of Archaeology reading like a man possessed.
Upon returning to the office about closing time if my boss ever asked whether or not the job I had been out for was accomplished, I had a patent excuse. Karachi in those days was in the throes of a very efficient magistracy that time and again checked car registration documents for authenticity. Everyone knew of it and many had, at some time or the other, been held up by these snap checks. For three or four years, I must have held the record for being caught in these traps the most times. That was my excuse for not having accomplished any official work after a day away in the library. Despite his visceral loathing for me, my boss was sufficiently civil to never insinuate there was something peculiar about the frequency of my misfortune on the streets.
My weekends in Karachi were spent discovering a Sindh province I had never known existed. I traipsed around the province and abused company time to read up on what I saw. For the first time in my life I felt I was doing something worthwhile, despite the guilt of professional negligence. There followed some little bit of appreciation, the first ever in my life, as the only travel writer in the country. This approval turned me into an obsessive traveller and observer: I had never amounted to anything in life, now I had found something that I could do without receiving censure. From then on that was what drove me.
But in Pakistan, people do not read for pleasure or for knowledge because the educational system is geared only to securing good grades in exams and subsequently well-paying jobs. The system does not train young minds for the quest of knowledge. Time was when train stations, airports, trains and coaches were not equipped with TVs and I used to watch samples of the human race vacuously stare into empty space. Others would read with rapt attention their boarding passes, all twenty odd words on them, for up to fifteen minutes at a time. They perused the blank reverse even longer. But to them it never occurred that they could gainfully employ this time with a book. Then in the 1980s the accursed TV was introduced on trains, coaches and every public place where you were obliged to wait. With this demon belting out tripe 24/7, the non-reading public can now stupidly stare at the flickering screen.
Folks commonly whine about the high price of books but will sooner spend much more money on a lousy meal than on a good book. No surprise then that while my newspaper columns do get read by a few, no one has ever heard of my books. And so as a travel writer, and one writing in English, I am condemned to a life of poverty. But this being the only line of work I know, I continue in it happily heading for dotage in penury.
Our day of rest dawned as dreary as it possibly could get. Low clouds obscured the scenery and a cold wind scuttled down our narrow valley, but there was no rain. No sooner had he stuck his head out of his tent, Nasser yelled for Haji Ali to get going. This time his abettor was Mohammad Ali, the assistant cook. They went the same way as yesterday. Nasser called after them to ensure that the skull was not discarded. He had reconciled to the loss of the trotters and the gizzard, but this was too good a delicacy to be forgone. Once again, he struck up the old ditty after Pathanay Khan about the ibex making his lunches and dinners for the next couple of days. Two hours after the hunters left, we heard a distant shot.
‘Aha! He got it!’ Nasser Khan said jubilantly.
‘No. He missed.’ I said hoping fervently I was right. Then we heard the second shot.
‘The first shot had wounded the animal and as it was limping away, Ali downed it with the second.’ That was the scenario Nasser painted.
‘No,’ said I, ‘he missed the first time and as the animals fled, he tried a second shot. But when you can’t hit a grazing animal that is practically motionless, you sure as hell cannot get one that is galloping away for all it is worth.’
Nasser even imagined old Ali had bagged not just one but two animals. Joyously, with a wide grin across his craggy face, he broke into his song again.
An hour went by and then we spotted Haji Ali and Ali coming down the ridge where only yesterday we had seen the ibex disappear. But for the rifle, they were empty-handed. If I had ever seen a gloomy Nasser Khan, it was now. Haji Ali the Hunter who had boasted only three days earlier at Dong Lungma that never in his life had he missed an animal that once crossed his gun sights, walked into camp visibly crest-fallen and made straight for the porters’ billet to gather his gear for the return trek. With him gone Ali who had followed him into camp with a naughty smile playing on his lips told us the full story of the failed hunt.
They made the crest of the ridge following a trail of fresh droppings and peered over to find a bunch of ibex grazing about a hundred or so metres away. The sight so overcame the hunter that he, so said Ali, went sort of gaga with his hands trembling as he tried to draw back the bolt on his rifle. The first three shots misfired; the thin click of the hammer on the pin only just alerting the animals and they looked about. Luckily our hunters were downwind of the ibex and the animals resumed browsing. The fourth shot, the first to actually fire, missed the animals ‘by a mile.’ As they bounded across the slope for cover, Ali the Hunter tried his last and desperately wild shot. He might as well have saved it for some other time.
‘Your gods are listening; mine aren’t.’ Nasser Khan conceded as I sat there smiling smugly to myself.
West Muztagh Pass being 5370 metres and snow-bound, Ghulam Hussain and Hasan Jan believed we ought to learn the use of basic mountaineering equipment. The others took some interest, but I was convinced I could not learn the use of figures of eight or jumars in a single one-hour session. I knew, too, that in a situation on a tricky ice slope I was more than likely to forget how to tie the very knot that could save my life. Moreover, back in 1990 I had crossed the Lukpe La on a traverse from Baltistan to Shimshal by the Biafo-Sim Gang-Braldu glacial system. That pass, 5700 metres high, was glaciated but my porters and I simply strolled across. Although sixteen years was worth many more billions of tons of filth in the atmosphere and more badly decayed glaciers, I somehow believed we would get across the Muztagh without any trouble.
The plan was to cross the West Muztagh into the Sarpo Laggo Glacier, dump most of the mountaineering gear immediately below the pass and with three days’ provisions try to reach Moni Braungsa. Named after a Balti traveller of old, this campground lies half way down the glacier and was used as a dump by Shipton’s Shaksgam Expedition in 1937. If there was a Chinese military presence on the other side of the watershed, in my estimation, it would be some ways below Moni. I hoped our team would spot their billets with the naked eye before a Chinese soldier with a pair of binoculars could home in on us. I planned to back-track after we came within sight of the Chinese facility. That was the plan, my plan at least, as I had explained to the others. But unbeknownst to me, Nasser and Naeem had other ideas that they were keeping to themselves until the very last.
Despite his grief, Nasser had stories to tell and there was the one on the genesis of the Taliban’s rabid misogyny. His grandmother in the village near Swabi, a right redoubtable old matron who could strike the fear of God into the stoutest heart with a mere glance was the person on whose shoulders rested the responsibility of the madness. She had very clear ideas about social divisions and until her dying day she, a good practicing Muslim, classified mullahs among the village menial workers, as they had always been, and never had the time of day for them. A kindly soul otherwise and knowing fully well that the students at the village seminary all came from very poor families who could not even afford to feed and clothe their children, she daily provided food for some of those souls. Clothes were given twice every year on Eid festivals*.
The talib whose turn it was to fetch the day’s rations got the long end of the stick from her. She treated him like dirt, criticising his attire and personal cleanliness, cuffing his ears, calling him names and making him do demeaning chores about her home before letting him decamp with the food. I can imagine students at the seminary trying every which way to dodge this unpleasant chore, but there was little room between the head mullah’s stick and that of Grandma’s. Nasser suspects some of those who had been at the receiving end somehow fetched up at the higher end of the Taliban hierarchy in Afghanistan and since, as human history amply shows, it is easier to disseminate evil than good, woman-hating became the Taliban staple.
After an early lunch Ghulam Hussain, Hasan Jan and two other porters went up the Chiring Glacier to select a campsite and create a dump within easy reach of the pass. The day was still overcast and miserably cold and being averse to spending it in my sleeping bag, I opted to go with them. We climbed over the steep esker and descended on the other side onto a white glacier that unfolded in front in a succession of undulations. Here the crevasses were either mere chinks or they were like huge circular pits some fifteen to twenty metres deep and about as wide. Nearly all such pits had one gaping moulin at the bottom into which a whole stream crashing down the icy verge of the crevasse disappeared with one mighty roar.
These moulins, manholes of the glaciers, are curious features and I have always wondered how they form. The Chiring seemed to be a nursery for them because here they were in all sizes from the smallest of several centimetres across to some that could have easily swallowed up a grown man. A tiny stream winding along finds a hole in the glacial surface and sinks into it. Over the summer increasing melt water wears the opening larger and larger until it becomes a regular manhole. I stopped by several of the larger ones wondering how long it would take a person to die in such an infernally cold abyss with tons of frigid water pouring over. The cold would, I suppose, immediately send the body into shock and if one did not die shortly after from drowning, hypothermia would do it within a matter of minutes.
Hasan Jan and Ghulam Hussain selected a stony area right under the impressive cone of Karpogang (7090 metres) on the right bank of the Chiring which, for want of a better name, we called High Camp. A hanging glacier draped the slope facing us and was separated from the campsite by a wall of moraine material about ten metres high. Unseen boulders were clattering down the slope above us only to stop short somewhere in the maze of debris on the far side of this wall. Across, on the left bank I saw the snowy flanks of Nera (6340 metres) only once and that for a brief moment. Thereafter, this peak remained veiled behind the clouds. To the north a nameless glacier formed a gentle arc to meet the Chiring; its head marked by the nipple-like spike of Midego (5882 metres). To the south a great wall of pure white ice marked the West Muztagh. It was just as well that I had opted to come out because this was the only time an all-round view could be had. Subsequently clouds obscured everything save the peaks around the pass.
Shortly after three in the afternoon we were back at Skinmang. Nasser seemed to have got over the grief of a meatless life and was cooking a pot of lentils. We went to bed under leaden skies with rain tapping feebly on our tents. Sometime during the night the rain and the wind died down and when I stuck my head out just before sunup, a crystal sky stretched in every direction. There was not shred of cloud to be seen.
We left Skinmang camp about nine in the morning with three men other than Hasan Jan and Ghulam Hussain. About two hours out, having lagged behind to photograph, I caught up with the others resting and overheard Naeem tell Hasan Jan to instruct the porters to be in High Camp to retrieve us and the gear. This was to happen in two days’ time. In our time together Naeem had shown a lack of understanding of topography and map-literacy, therefore I thought he did not realise the distance to Moni Braungsa, which was as far over the pass as we had hoped to go, to give out such instructions. I casually remarked that we would have to be supermen to make it across the Muztagh to Moni Braungsa with just one night en route.
Then it hit me: Nasser and Naeem had no plans of crossing the pass. All along Nasser had spoken as if he was convinced of Chinese military presence just across the Muztagh. He also frequently mentioned the terrible things Chinese did to trespassers and would tremble in mock terror. Nasser was of the view that if we were taken by the Chinese, no one would ever hear of us. His brother, a member of the Pakistani corps of diplomats, seemed to have warned him against going over the top. All that I had never taken seriously believing Nasser would be as interested as me in crossing the Great Asiatic Divide to see what Sarpo Laggo had to show. Given their friendship Naeem, I presumed, would tag along.
The first and only unpleasant exchange took place when I wagged my finger at Naeem and said he should not try to sabotage the expedition which is not even his to begin with. It was half an exchange because Naeem did not respond but it prompted serious misgivings in my mind: now I knew what the two were always talking about. For them this was not a journey of exploration, discovery and learning. It was just any old trek in the glaciers like so many others they had already done; another feather in the cap for having trekked in a less frequented area. They were not interested in reliving history and the experiences of early Balti travellers. That meant nothing to them. I really was the odd man out.
After helping set up camp, Hasan and Hussain set out in the direction of the pass to reconnoitre. They returned four hours later to tell us that they walked two hours over an undulating surface to the lip of an extensive ice pan. En route, they skirted several large exposed crevasses similar to the ones we had already seen. There were no hidden dangers and the glacier was perfectly safe. The ice pan, according to Hasan, was ‘large enough for an F-16 to land in.’ There was just one low saddle in the rocky rim on the far side which the duo believed was the Muztagh Pass. In their estimation, the rock face that we would have to scale was some six hundred metres high. Worse, it was technical all the way.
That was odd. High Camp was 5050 metres, the pass, according to Karakoram Sheet 3 of Leomann Maps, was 5370 metres. There was no way a six hundred-metre high wall could obstruct the head of the valley. I quizzed them and they said it was six hundred metres, no less, and crossing the rock face would be a feat of mountaineering. For our sake, Hasan and Hussain were ready to do it, and they would even haul us across. But, Hussain asked, were we prepared?
Nasser and Naeem were not. For a moment I played with the idea of leaving both of them in camp and going over with our duo of mountaineers. There would be less gear to carry and we could make it to Moni and back with speed. The meeting broke on the note that we would decide what we wished to do and inform Hasan and Hussain before bedtime.
‘How good are you at climbing?’ Nasser asked when the others were gone.
‘I’m terrible.’ I replied before quickly correcting myself. ‘I am worse than terrible. I am simply no climber at all.’
‘I am no climber either.’ Nasser conceded. ‘And then there are the Chinese.’ Mock fright shook him again.
It was resolved that the three of us would leave early in the morning with the mountaineer duo. At the ice pan, if madness overcame us, as Nasser put it, the duo would be sent back to collect the necessary gear and food. We would camp there overnight and cross the pass on the day after.
Previous: Over the Edge
posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,
- At January 20, 2014 at 5:35 PM, said...
Came from Twitter. I find you so different here; very serious adventurers and excellent writer. Where was I when this blog was being written?
- At February 8, 2014 at 3:53 PM, Salman Rashid said...
Twitter is for being frivolous. This is serious business.
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