Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society


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Abort! Sometime in the latter years of the 18th century the Old or East Muztagh Pass became difficult, ‘because of an excess of snow and ice’ – or so it was believed – and fell out of use. There seems to have been an almost desperate need to maintain the direct connection with Turkistan because when Raja Ahmed Shah ascended to the throne of Skardu in the year 1800, he forthwith ordered reconnaissance for an alternate route.

Heading out for the West Muztagh Pass. Hasan Jan (second right) carries the mountaineering gear in his backpack in the vain hope of taking us across the Great Asiatic Watershed

Armed with nothing more than a keen sense of topography and perhaps hand-drawn sketch maps, the work of hunters and shepherds who frequented the mountains, teams of explorers set out to find another route across the Great Asiatic Divide. Today there is no historical evidence of the existence of Balti maps, nor does folklore refer to them, but it is not hard to imagine that before setting out the explorers consulted with those who had gone before. The lay of the mountains would have been explained in great detail, the flow of the rivers for the particular season, camp sites with good fuel and water and those, like Shingchakpi, to be avoided and where game to sustain the survey team was to be found were all enumerated together with travel time from Askole.

All this was carefully written down, perhaps even sketches were drawn. The unlettered among the survey team would have simply committed these details to memory. I have travelled in remote parts of Balochistan and across the Deosai Plateau on rarely used trails and on these occasions my guides carried no notes or maps. But whenever we came abreast of some particular landmark, they would exactly know that in another so many hours of walking we would reach such and such a landmark. When asked how they knew when they had earlier said this was their first time ever on the route, the answer always was, ‘From the elders.’

Where maps do not exist and where the written word lies in the domain of a select few, knowledge is oral and so, way stations become related to landmarks committed to memory. A curiously shaped or coloured rock, a water hole or spring, a solitary tree or a clump of them, a bend in the river or where it widens to form a tarn, a towering crag of a peculiar shape or a rounded knoll, all these are meticulously observed and remembered to be passed on to those at home who may at some time in the future need to do this same journey.

And so Balti explorers, under the express bidding of Raja Ahmed Shah, set out of Skardu sometime in the early years of the 19th century. Their initial attempt may have taken them up the Baltoro to the vicinity of the Muztagh Glacier that had long been used for the crossing. Like Eric Shipton and his party on the 1937 Shaksgam Expedition, they may have taken the glacier that now goes by the name of Trango. And like Shipton may have stood at the head of the valley awed by the many prongs feeding the main ice stream. But unlike the British explorers, they did not try one after the other tributary. They may have considered the high icy ridge blocking the valley as a possible crossing of the watershed and known that it was only for the mountaineer to attempt and not for a trading caravan with or without pack animals.

They backtracked. Up the Panmah they went next. The going was good until the party reached the vicinity of Shingchakpi. The Panmah stretching on to the north would have tantalised the less experienced as a possible route, but those who knew better recognised that the Old Muztagh Pass lay to their southeast and that they had to search for a crossing not at the head of the Panmah but somewhere in the maze of peaks directly to the east. Perhaps some of this party went up to scout around the head of the Panmah and brought back word of the bears prowling about its junction with a smaller glacier running down from the east. They conferred upon it the title Drenmang Gyang – Glacier of Many Bears – as we know it today.

Over our high dung-littered moraine, which in their time would have been mostly snow and ice, our explorers reached Skinmang camp surprising a herd of ibex little used to human presence. Stocking up on meat for the next several days, they may have rested here a couple of days, giving the camp ground the name it still bears. In this time, so as to grasp the lay of the land on the right bank of the Chiring, a short outing to the region of our Falling Rock Camp would have been undertaken. Their mastery in the understanding of mountain topography would now have come into play. Here they would have known that the Sarpo Laggo Glacier lay to the east across the great wall of snow-draped rock surmounted by ice pinnacles. Now they needed to find a gap across this barrier.

This would have been a prolonged and difficult search. Up on the Chiring, a number of gaps open to the east, all choked with glaciers. One by one, the explorers examined all of them defied by an icefall here, a yawning bergschrund there and yet again by seracs towering above the approach to a possible crossing point. As they worked their way slowly along the barrier, they may have surmounted a gap or two only to find greater difficulties facing them on the far side. Then they would have spotted the snowy saddle at the very head of the glacier and immediately recognised it as the gap they sought. In those days of somewhat greater ice and snow, the New Muztagh Pass would have been no more than a gentle hump.

If it was still early morning and the snow crusty hard, the Baltis may not even have roped up. They would have shod themselves with their s’trung, the tennis racquet-shaped snowshoes and taken out their koko, the walking stick with a metal cross at the bottom, to prod the snow for crevasses. For safety the thaqpa, yak hair rope looped at each end, was always handy and the horsehair mats, salom, to protect their eyes from snow-blindness. Some few may have used a mat of finely woven muslin fitted in an osier frame, for by the 18th century, this material had replaced the earlier horsehair snow goggles. Goat’s hair and straw stuffed in their goatskin boots, the fusho, kept the feet from frostbite and with their belongings stuffed in the churoug, backpack, they would have crossed the divide.

The scene on the other side was what they were acquainted with: the familiar downward sweep of the Sarpo Laggo Glacier to their left, the cone of Muztagh Tower to the east and even farther away, rearing above a sea of snow and ice, purple in the mid-morning sun with a plume of spindrift flying from its magnificent head like the loose end of the turban of a Rajput warrior in full-blooded gallop to the fray, was the all too well-known pyramid of Chhogho Ri – Great Mountain. British surveyors were to one day demystify its Balti name into unromantic, uninspiring K-2. With one flourish of a surveyor’s pen, the majestic Chhogho Ri became known by that utterly unbecoming combination of a single letter of the alphabet and a number. It was ever more chastening that mapmakers of the Raj degraded the Great Mountain to a station lower than a much inferior peak.

But the Balti surveyors were not to reflect on it, for the renaming still lay half a century in the future. They committed to their memories the number of glaciers that joined the Chiring, particularly from the east all of them ending in dangerous icefalls; they made careful note of the landmarks on the west bank of the glacier. They would certainly have prepared some sort of a sketch of the snowy knobs surrounding the New Muztagh gap. Then they turned homeward in triumph. Back in Skardu, this great feat would surely have been celebrated and recorded in the court diaries to keep for the future.

However, in 1839 the Dogras of Kashmir overran Baltistan and displaced Raja Ahmed Shah. In the arson that followed the annexation, the royal library of Skardu is known to have been burnt to the ground and if the Raja had preserved a record of the exploration of the New Muztagh, it was lost in smoke. Had that event not occurred, we would have learned of the difficulties the explorers faced up in the ice world as well as of the number of tributary glaciers they attempted before they finally fetched up at the right gap.

The question that rankles is: why did the people of Skardu and Shigar need this rather difficult and lonely route when the longer but far easier road over the Karakoram Pass was in use? I suspect it was first used as an escape route. That does not imply that one day a bunch of Baltis under duress upped and trekked over the watershed discovering the way as they went. Perhaps even as early as the beginning of the Common Era the route was already known to some hardy individuals. Then, with the glaciers living and growing, travel over them and across the high passes would have been considerably easier. But the traffic back and forth would have remained thin because, in any case, glacial travel does present greater difficulties than an ordinary mountain path.

Three events that occurred in the history of Baltistan could have necessitated escape that way. The first was the Tibetan invasion of this country in the early years of the 8th century CE. That was when this land was peopled by Indo-Aryan Shins. When the Tibetans came, some may have fled, probably down the Sindhu River, while others stayed either to fight or submit. And submit they certainly did because in their nearly fifty years in Baltistan, the Tibetans completely swamped the original culture. It was from that time that Shina, the old Indo-Aryan language, was relegated to a few small pockets in Baltistan and replaced by the Tibetan that makes up modern Balti. Intermarriages between the conquerors and the vanquished took place freely to give us the wonderful mix of Tibetan and Aryan blood we see in Baltistan today.

Some of those who stayed to fight may have, in the face of defeat, contrived to escape up the Shigar valley and over the watershed to Yarkand. These fugitives would have known that both Kashgar and Yarkand that had briefly been held by the Tibetans had only shortly before been taken by the resurgent Chinese and would therefore be safe for the refugees. But if a large number of Shin people from Skardu or Shigar did indeed flee to Yarkand, fourteen hundred years would be way too long for them to maintain their separate identity; they would integrate and become one with their Turkic neighbours.

The second event was the arrival of Islam in Baltistan in the year 1380. Happily, in this case the new religion broke its earlier pattern and did not come in a wave of upheaval and bloodshed. It was brought, without violence, so it is believed, by the Persian Sufi Ali Hamadani who is credited with first having converted many in Kashmir where Muslims revere him to this day as a patron saint. In any case, even if someone wished to escape conversion, the fact that Turkistan was already largely Muslim would have dissuaded them from making it their home.

Thirdly, in the autumn of the year 1532 Sultan Saeed Khan, the ruler of Kashgar, came down on Baltistan. The Tarikh e Rashidi of Mirza Haider Dughlat, who was part of this expedition, tells us that Bahram Chu, ‘one of the head men of Balti submitted and waited on the Khan.’ But other chiefs were obviously not such opportunist wimps and they ‘began to practice sedition and revolt.’ If there were ever a self-righteous people, it certainly was the Mongols. Dughlat and his master being no different, the writer goes on to proclaim that this rebelliousness, the ‘natural outcome of infidelity,’ was the Khan’s justification to bring down retribution:
In the first place, under the guidance of Bahram Chu, the Khan took the fort of Shigar (which is the capital of all Balti) at the first assault. All the men of the place were mown down by the blood-stained swords of the assailants, while the women and children, together with much property, fell a prey to the victorious army. Furthermore, wherever in that hill-country a hand was stretched out, it never missed its object; and even the strongly fortified ravines and castles were trampled under foot by the horses of the Khan’s army.
It is clear that the village of Shigar alone was not plundered, but with the help of the opportunist Bahram, who treacherously sided with the invaders against his own brothers, the army ‘stretched out’ its arms even wider. The sack and taking of slaves would have been signal for people farther up the valley to flee across the watershed. The anomaly here is that the Baltis would have known that Yarkand was in the possession of Saeed Khan.

I believe, therefore, that the Old Muztagh Pass first became a mass transit route, to use a modern term, when the Shins of Skardu and Shigar fled north to escape the advancing Tibetans. Not daring to return home in the half century that Tibet held Baltistan, these early immigrants integrated with their host community and by and by lost their identity and language. Their compatriots at home forgot them. Only the memory of their departure and the way they went remained preserved in folklore.

The Baltis whose presence Victorians writers noted in Yarkand were speakers of the Tibetan-based Balti language that arose after the Tibetan invasion. This implies that a second wave of migration took place in a period when Balti had completely replaced the Shina language.

Maulvi Hashmatullah Khan sheds some interesting light on the nature of this communication. A native of Lucknow, this man joined the British Indian Foreign Service in 1894. The outcome of his two decade-long service in Baltistan, Ladakh, and Kashmir was his Tarikh e Jummu, a history of this region. In the absence of written record, this work is based on very painstaking and meticulous inquiry into the oral traditions of the region and may thus not be wholly authentic as history. But because we have no other historical compilation, it is our best source yet.

Khan writes that in the year 1535, just three years after the Mongol incursion and withdrawal, Haider Khan, the ruler of Baltistan, invited nomads from Yarkand to settle in the Braldu Valley. It was at this time, so Khan’s Tarikh tells us, that the villages Askole on the right bank and Teste across on the other side were established. Through these settlers, Haider Khan established diplomatic relations with Yarkand and at the same time also delineated the border of the two countries. Yarkand established an ambassador in Shigar together with a garrison of a hundred soldiers and Shigar reciprocated with its own embassy in the Turkistani town. ‘Thereafter Yarkandi merchants began regular trading calls to Baltistan.’

Though the Yarkand Baltis of the 8th century no longer maintained their identity, but the stories around the hearths in remote villages of Baltistan may have recounted that long ago exodus. It is likely that Haider Khan’s eagerness to establish ties with Yarkand emanated from the vague memory of the earlier Balti presence in Yarkand. As well as that, an imperialistic fantasy may well have been the chief’s motive: since those all but forgotten ancestors had once made Yarkand their home, it was now within his province to lay claim to that distant land anew. Following the establishment of the Balti embassy in Yarkand, there seems to have been an outward flux from Shigar.

Hashmatullah Khan further gives out that all sorts of fruit trees were now imported from Yarkand for transplantation in Shigar. These included plum, apricot, apple, peach, and walnut. Interestingly, the Tarikh records that the soil of Shigar particularly suited the Yarkand apricot because it did far better here than in its native place. Indeed, today the luscious Yerkenpa apricot grown all across Shigar is highly favoured both fresh and dried*.

Although Khan does not divulge any details of the trade route used at this time, it is clear that this was the Muztagh Pass route, that being the shortest connection between Shigar and Yarkand. And so, if this road is to be known by any title, this is the Apricot Road to Yarkand. This little known road may not possess the same glamour as the Silk Road and may not have seen as much history unfold as its counterpart, but for a small portion of the Baltistan population it was nevertheless an important conduit – even if it took a good deal of pluck and hardihood to travel by it. The Apricot Road was forever the road of high adventure.

One aspect of the question of when it was first traversed is hidden in a name on this route, however: Sarpo Laggo, the glacier that lies below the north flank of the Muztagh Pass. The first part of the name, corrupted in its anglicised form is actually sarfa or ‘new’ in Balti while laggo signifies ‘crest of a ridge.’ That is to say, this was the New Pass. This was new in relation to an older established route, none other than the one over the Karakoram Pass that we know was being used as early as the 3rd century CE, possibly even earlier.

Concerning the boundary demarcation, Khan tells us that the Karakoram Mountains formed the frontier. However, because until as recently as the 19th century, the Kun Lun Mountains north of the Shaksgam Valley were considered part of the Karakoram Range, this statement does not give us a clear indication of the medieval border between Baltistan and Yarkand. If anything, the river formed a sort of a linguistic boundary: south of it all place names, save two are from the Balti language; on the north, they are mostly Turkic with a few Balti exceptions.

Hidden in these names is the historical fact that while the Turkic shepherds and travellers kept to their side of the Shaksgam River, Balti people were the first to venture into the great web of Karakoram glaciers sprinkling their songs across that great wilderness and giving names to the passes, peaks, rivers, and valleys. By the time the Turkic traders came around in the 16th century, the names were all taken. They contented themselves with what they had already named north of the Shaksgam. One secret that we may never learn is how they stole the titles of Karakoram and Muztagh, the only two Turkic names, snug in the flank of Baltistan.


The grim news brought back by Hasan Jan and Ghulam Hussain about the six hundred metres of rock face to be negotiated to the top of the Muztagh Pass was unnerving. The only cheerful aspect was the now absolutely clear sky and golden light of late afternoon in which Nasser, Naeem and I basked. I pointed out to the others that the upper Chiring resembled Concordia on a smaller scale. If Concordia had its Chhogho Ri, the Chiring had the graceful Karpogang that almost masquerades the Everest complete with a simile of the Western Cwm. Running along the west bank is the awesome line of granite spires crowned by the pyramid of Nera. Like Concordia, its smaller counterpart had a whole troop of glaciers feeding the main ice stream.

‘The difference is that Concordia with all its great peaks is as crowded as Hira Mundi. This is a place of solitude. This is where only the very fortunate few will ever end up. This is one place where you can get away from it all’**.  Naeem could actually be profound when he wanted.

That night we hit the sack to the boisterous thundering of rocks crashing down the flanks of Karpogang. That was the music, if music it may be called, to which we fell asleep and slept fitfully through. Twice or thrice, I was shaken out of slumber by some dreadfully menacing sounds, as if the boulders were almost upon our camp. The low ridge of glacial debris sitting between our camp and the couloir through which the boulders raced down saved the night, however.

The new day dawned with a sky as if made of blue glass: there was not a shred of white or grey to blemish its great expanse. Far away in the west, framed by the V formed by the mountains around the Choktoi and Panmah junction, the Latok peaks were lined up as though for morning inspection. Their jagged line ran northward to meet the snowy crown of Baintha Brakk which looked benign from this distance. As we sat down to breakfast, Nasser suggested a new and more appropriate name for our camp: Falling Rock. The suggestion met with all-round approval.

We set out shortly after eight. The plan still was that if we thought we were up to the struggle on the rock face, Hasan and Hussain would return to fetch the high altitude gear and a few days’ rations. But deep inside, I was reconciled to the loss of this last part of the journey. I knew Nasser and Naeem had no desire to go over the Divide. In a way, I found this inexplicable: if high peaks were the goal of mountaineers, geographical entities like continental divides should be the aspiration for trekkers. But my companions were not at all drawn to crossing this great landmark, something that you can achieve in Pakistan only here or by a traverse of the Lukpe La between Sim Gang Glacier in Baltistan and the Braldu*** on the eastern flank of Shimshal. Neither did they seem to rue that fear of the Chinese army on the other side was denying us this prize.

The undulating Chiring presently gave way to a gradually climbing ice field. We passed a dead green pigeon on the ice and our duo said that they had not seen it the day before when they came out to reconnoitre. As we stood their wondering what business the poor bird had in these parts and what was its undoing, a solitary raven, cawing desolately, came flapping in from the northwest. When we returned two hours later, the pigeon was reduced to mere skeleton and some feathers. Somewhere in the crags around us, a sated raven was even then preening itself.

Two hours of walking brought us to the spot where our duo of mountaineers had aborted yesterday. Below us lay an undulating lake of ice. On its far side, was a hummock of snow which I suspected would be soft into which we would sink deep this late in the morning. Beyond it, entailing a climb of no more than a hundred metres, was a mass of rock draped with ice that, according to Hasan and Hussain, would require some technical work. This was the condition of the northwest face of the pass that got minimum sun. It was clear that the other side had some more badly decaying snowfields to negotiate. And these would be mush in the glare of the sun.

If someone asked me, I would have thought we could saunter up the rocky part with our hands in our pockets, but Ghulam Hussain and Hasan Jan declared unequivocally that this was a mountaineer’s pass. The pass was not for the ordinary trekker to tackle. It seemed to have already been decided for Nasser and Naeem, we nevertheless went through the motion of declaring that we were not going across. What with the great struggle on the ice and rock and then having to scuttle back with the Chinese shooting at us, we were better off aborting.

At North 35°-53.207’, East 76°-07.043’ at an elevation of 5243 metres, we were about a couple of kilometres short of what had been my objective for so long and just a hundred and twenty-five metres below its crest. Nasser was convinced that Chinese soldiers were waiting on the other side of the pass for errant trekkers just like us. Six decades of tough regimes had sufficiently dehumanised them to be uninterested in seeking explanations, he thought. They would shoot first. Even if they did not start shooting would it be possible for us at 5300 metres to run for our lives? The Chinese would be well within their rights if they took pot shots for us, because the border lay over the East Muztagh Pass, giving the full length of the Sarpo Laggo to China. We were, it was decided, not going any farther. This was as near as I was ever getting to the West Muztagh.

We remained in this world of pristine ice and snow for nearly an hour before returning the way we had come. Lunch was eaten in golden sunshine with freely flowing aimless banter. The good thing coming out of it was assigning a name to a glacier that carried none on the U-502 and the Karakoram Sheet 3 of Leomann Maps. Spilling down the northeast flanks of Nera (6340 metres) it was one huge bulge of crumpled ice shunting itself into the Chiring ice mass. In view of the good service given us by Ali, our cook who left us at Shingchakpi, he was to be commemorated. But there being a glut of Alis in our camp, we had taken to calling him Anchaa with a nasal ending – his pronunciation of the Urdu word achha (okay or good). We did not build a cairn to commemorate this christening and I am sure Nasser and Naeem no longer remember they have left behind a name on remote Chiring.

Back through Skinmang and Shingchakpi we went. On the white glacier below Shingchakpi, I came upon Nasser grimacing and rubbing his left elbow. He said he had taken a spill. The following day his arm was immobile; Naeem looked at it and advised a makeshift sling. Back in Skardu an x-ray showed Nasser had cracked a bone in his elbow and the arm had to be put in a cast. In the five days between the accident and reaching Skardu, Nasser Khan showed remarkable disregard for pain, never once complaining of discomfort.

At Panmah Camp Ground, Nasser got his much yearned for sheep. The animal brought down from one of the summer pastures by another one of the Mohammad Alis, looked pitifully forlorn. That did not help it very much however and it was soon in the pot. As Nasser was gnawing away on a length of spine, I said some deserving fox will pick the bone clean during the night.

‘Only if I leave anything on it,’ said Nasser. Sure enough, when he was done the bone was no different from any found in the Thar Desert of Sindh during the drought of the 1990s.

Two days later, we parted in Skardu. Strange parting it was for we were like strangers at the end of our fortnight together. Save my exchange with Naeem when he instructed the porters when to retrieve us from Camp Falling Rock, there hadn’t been a single instance of unpleasantness between us, but despite having undertaken this grand journey together, we had simply not bonded. I knew neither of them was ever going to make an effort to get in touch again. And I was not wrong.

Nasser and Naeem headed for home; I stayed on to see if I could get a sapling of Yerkenpa apricot to take with me to plant in Yarkand. The government nursery did have some saplings, but the man said there was no way it would survive in Yarkand, or indeed anywhere else, so late in the year. He advised I reschedule my trip for the planting season in April. That was impossible, but If I could not complete the circle by returning a tree, the next best thing was to go to Yarkand with Yarkandi apricots grown in Baltistan and present them to the Baltis I was hoping to meet there.

The elderly man selling dried fruit and herbs in Purana Bazaar knew the reason of the name Yerkenpa. When I told him my purpose, I was surprised by the look of affection that lit up his eyes. Taking the cue, I told him of the first intention to take a sapling back to Yarkand, but being dissuaded because of the lateness of the season.

‘This is so strange,’ he said grasping my hand warmly. ‘No one in Baltistan ever thought of such a thing and you from far away Lahore have come here to do what should be a matter of the heart for a Balti.’

The good man refused payment for the one kilogram bag I obtained. With the apricots in my backpack I got to Gilgit en route to Kashgar to explore the Chinese side of the Apricot Road. The Northern Areas Transport Company (NATCO) and its counterpart from Kashgar rotate the daily bus connection between themselves. I was advised to avoid the Chinese day at all costs, but with my kind of luck it had to be that the day I bought my ticket it would be a Chinese bus. Both were terminus-to-terminus services, that is, no passengers were picked en route and the journey lasted some sixteen hours. For the going price this was pretty good.

Departure was scheduled for 5.00 AM and passengers were advised to be there half an hour before. When I arrived the bus depot seemed to be still closed for the night. Presently a taxi deposited a young Punjabi mullah and his friend. Over the next thirty minutes the full complement of passengers was there: all five of us. Some more time went by and a flabby, somnolent sort of Turkic man with bags below his eyes came around to fuss in slow motion over the bus. Soon he was joined by a lean, energetic sort and together they became terribly busy aimlessly opening and closing the various luggage hatches on the vehicle. The grand finale was the lean one climbing up to the roof of the bus and the two engaging in a spirited argument that lasted about ten minutes.

We left sometime about seven. The lean one drove, the fat man immediately hit the bunk for the spare driver and was soon snoring away. Fifteen minutes later we picked up a man standing by the road. Thirty minutes after that we stopped for breakfast which lasted three quarters of an hour. When we were ready to go we found the mullah and his mate had disappeared. They came strolling from behind a hovel, the mullah with his hands in the stand-at-ease position walked with his spine arched backwards just as his seniors with their huge paunches do; his sidekick obsequiously alongside. That set the pattern for the journey: we picked up everyone that signalled and we stopped every hour to eat, drink, or use the loo and on all occasions the mullah and his partner made us wait. The man was obviously training to be a heavyweight political mullah.

We should have been at the border check post of Sost at midday; we didn’t get there until two in the afternoon. One on our pasenger manifest was a lean, young Yusufzai from Mardan who had been cradling a computer monitor all along. When I said that China being the manufacturer of all sorts of computer ware, this was like taking bamboos to Bareilly,* the man told me he wanted his piece copied by the Chinese and mass-produced for the Pakistani market. I kept myself from pointing out that it was already a Chinese product if the man cared to check out the label on the back.

At Sost, the men of the Anti Narcotics Force homed in on Monitor Man. The overweight Punjabi narcs took turns weighing the monitor with their hands and telling each other that it seemed heavier than it ought to be. At length, one of them was sent away to locate a similar model in town. That being found, the whole team, after a good deal of confabulation and each man repeatedly hefting the monitor before passing it to the next, went off to compare the two. They returned within minutes. Our man’s monitor was dismantled to reveal a metallic orb the size of a baseball sitting snugly below the CRT amidst the wires and printed circuits.

The narcs’ eyes shone with triumph. Soon Monitor Man was sandwiched between two heavies in the back seat of dinky little Suzuki while their third partner rode in front with the driver and off they went. But not before they had made known that their man confessed the ball contained heroin. I was uncertain if I could also believe the other bit of information one of the narcs divulged unsolicited: a Pakistani duo who had, only a fortnight earlier, succeeded in taking across two kilograms of the contraband, were caught on the Chinese side and, death being the penalty for drug trafficking, executed in Urumchi.

At six in the evening on the last day of August 2006, we were at Tashkurgan check post on the Chinese side. They gave us the works: passport check, physical check of luggage, body search, passport check again, the luggage through the scanners and finally another and more detailed physical search of the luggage. By the end, they were clearly only going through the motions. The GPS I carried and which I believed was not permitted in China, had surreptitiously been moved to a pocket of my jacket when the bags went through the scanners. During the frisk, I held up my jacket by the pocket and the mean-looking soldier missed it. Now, once again, the instrument had been sneaked back to a secret pocket of the rucksack. But for all my artful designs, the Chinese could well have been aware of the GPS all along and, there being no objection to its use in their country, ignored it.

Tashkurgan town was made in the dark where our driver pulled into a hotel. The bi-lingual sign (Chinese and English) said this was New Traffic Hotel but spelled hotel HDTEI. The billboard writer, obviously illiterate in English, could not differentiate between o and d or l and i. I thought we were having early dinner before resuming the journey to Kashgar, but the two drivers who spoke not a word of any language but their native Uighur had other ideas: we were staying overnight. This was not part of the deal, but in the absence of any communication, I quietly resigned to the situation. That and also because both drivers did a speedy disappearing act as soon as they parked the bus.

The rooms, with six beds each and filthy covers were a horror. The common toilet had overflowing loos and muck-covered floors. For fifteen yuans (seventy rupees) per person this, I suppose, was all one could expect. I asked the receptionist to be given a room to myself for the full price. She acquiesced but balked when I wanted clean sheets as well. She called her manager, a young man smartly turned-out in a dark suit and tie who came armed with his ‘bugger-off’ attitude. The only Pakistanis he had ever known were the ones we disparagingly call khepia at home. Small time traders, they routinely travel up to Kashgar to bulk purchase cheap toys, clothing, shoes, and all sorts of shoddy junk for which no one but the ever-hungry Pakistani market has any use. The khepias do not care how and where they doss down. And because they speak no language other than their mother tongues, they put up with everything.

My petition for fresh sheets was repeated to the manager and in very clear terms he told me to bugger off: for fifteen yuans he was doing me a favour putting me in the stable. After a bit of shouting back and forth between us, the man suddenly quieted down and looked at me hard for a few moments. I could hear him thinking when he had last seen a Pakistani who was not prepared to take any lip and who wanted a room to himself.

‘We have private rooms for a hundred and fifty yuans per night,’ he said.

‘I’ll have to take a look before I give you that kind of money,’ I tried to get back at the rude little monkey.

The room smelled of lavender, had crisp, spotless white sheets, a clean bathroom, and a carpet that had actually been vacuumed. When I said okay, the manager told me to pay in advance. My fellow Pakistanis have done precious little for their reputation abroad.

We left the hotel at about seven in the morning. But the fat man at the wheel stopped at every street corner while the wiry one leaned outside the door shouting for fare to Kashgar. Presently the bus was stuffed with humanity. We followed the pattern of the day before stopping for everyone that flagged us, even if only to tell them there was no room for them; and food every hour during which the mullah never failed to disappear with his friend.

Kashgar was finally made at four in the afternoon, eighteen hours behind schedule.

Postscript: The Khunjerab Pass, never favoured as a crossing place through the long history of human habitation in this area and which became famous only after the Karakoram Highway was built, forms a two-fold watershed. One, it is a geographical watershed between the subcontinent and Central Asia. But the aspect that is so much the more remarkable is the abrupt and drastic difference in the landscape on either side of the divide. On our side the whole aspect is jagged with a tight little gorge having vertical rock walls rising high above the floor along which a foaming torrent bounds.

On the Chinese side, the vista abruptly opens up, the taller crags withdraw into the distance and the river flows amid rolling grassy hummocks with chunky little houses and ash-white yurts interspersed with fens. Sheep dot the green slopes and the occasional double-humped camel strolls languidly from bush to bush. As against our side of the border where one sees sombre rock walls or the mottled sky above, here the eye can rove across great distances.

* Yerken is the colloquial pronunciation of Yarkand in that town as well as in Baltistan. The Balti suffix pa signifies ‘of’ corresponding to walla of Urdu.

** Hira Mundi, the red-light district of Lahore.

*** Debouching from its parent glacier, this Braldu River flows north for some 15 kms. It then swings east to run into the Shaksgam 20 kms away. These waters eventually slake the sands of Xinjiang.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 27 January 2014 at 09:45, Anonymous Kamran Awan said...

Sir, how about retracing John Wood's footsteps this season to the source of Oxus?

At 2 February 2014 at 12:37, Blogger Darjat said...

interesting very

At 2 February 2014 at 12:39, Blogger Darjat said...

interesting very

At 7 February 2014 at 23:13, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Kamran, I don't think I want to risk Wakhan with some mad mullah running loose there.


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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