Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

To World’s End

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On the ninth day of August 2006, the three of us met in Islamabad. Nasser leading the team, Naeem Awan, the man I had once taken for Japanese, was the doctor of the expedition and I, pretending to be the writer had upon us ‘the exploring spirit’. A century and a quarter before us the explorer Francis Younghusband wrote these words and ended up going mystic – although, it must be conceded, he did accomplish a few good things before descending into the search for the higher meaning of life and assorted silliness. We hoped to do somewhat better. At fifty-four years of age this was perhaps my last chance for such a caper. Nasser, some six years behind me, still had more seasons to look forward to while Naeem was in full form at thirty-two.

Downtown Skardu. Barely thirty years ago this spot, lying about a kilometre east of the 1947 memorial, was about the end of  town. Seen from the air, Skardu town of today sprawls in a hugely haphazard line between the Sindhu River flowing to its north and the mountains to the south

Our expedition was being handled by Blue Sky Treks and Tours run by Ghulam Mohammed (GM). A native of Khaplu, the man, in his late thirties, had started out as a porter when still in his teens. He had worked hard, walked more times to Concordia at the foot of K-2 than he cared to remember and a few times up and down the Biafo, knew virtually every rock in the eskers and moraines of the Baltoro and also some on the Biafo Glacier and was much smarter than he appeared at first sight. He spoke with a nasal twang – but Balti being a highly resonant language, most other Baltis did too – and went about his business of tour operator with what I perceived as feigned gravity.

Ever since Nasser Khan had walked with him some years earlier, he had come to like and respect GM for his seriousness. Someone with very basic education who had the smarts to rise from being just an ordinary porter to become a successful tour operator, Nasser felt, was possessed of gumption enough and was to be respected. I had been introduced to GM a couple of months earlier in Islamabad where I had handed over the requisite funds to him and was now in the backseat with him and Nasser taking care of everything. Our air tickets were in order for the following day. A mini van was standing by for us to immediately depart by road in case the plane did not fly.

And planes often don’t fly out to Skardu. Coming in to land, the jet plane has to follow the trough of the Sindhu River from the west and the landing being visual, it is imperative that the corridor be clear of clouds. Consequently, even before the plane takes off from Islamabad, Skardu radios an all-clear to them. More times than the tarmac personnel at Islamabad airport can remember, passengers seated and belted up have been off-loaded because of ‘bad weather.’ And sometimes they do take off. But that is still no guarantee that there will be a landing at Skardu as well for there have been times when the gorge of the Sindhu clouded up in the interim forty minutes or so before the plane could arrive.

The word for ‘ball’ in Balti is ‘polo’ which gives rise to the belief that the game originated in Baltistan. The truth is that Baltistan is one of the several homes of this game which was being played by Turkish tribes as early as the middle of the 11th century. Nonetheless, polo is the national game of Baltistan where boys long before they can mount a horse play a foot version of the game with their own little polo sticks. The skyline above the Skardu polo ground is dominated by the 16th century edifice of Kharfocho Fort. Lest the name of the fort be forgotten, the army after taking it over ordered the large lettering on the wall

Profits are made by hauling passengers and I have always felt there is some devious trickery in all this to inflict, one, as much financial drain upon the national airline as possible and secondly to inconvenience the travelling public to the maximum. Even a person with limited power of observation will, after a couple of visits to Skardu, notice that the nights are generally clear – especially in high summer. Of course, there are stormy interludes when this rule may not apply, but a clear night usually means a cloudless dawn and blue skies until midmorning. Shortly after that the clouds begin to roll in. But for some arcane reason known perhaps to no one in the unattractive and dull corridors of PIA headquarters at Karachi, the plane to Skardu must always, always take off from Islamabad right in time for it to run into the cloud banks of the Sindhu gorge and the flight to be aborted just twenty kilometres from Skardu. Why, I ask, can the Skardu flight not depart from Islamabad at, say, six in the morning?

I dreaded the nearly thirty hours of bone-crunching van ride up the Sindhu gorge, the debilitating humid heat, the horrid, utterly unpalatable food en route and the inevitable land slides blocking the highway for hours on end. Most of all, I did not look forward to taking more than a day reaching Skardu and then having to rest up at there before getting on. And even as we sat buckled up in the jet plane, I grimly reminded Nasser and Naeem that we may yet be riding up the Sindhu River and that I would whinge and carry on all the way. With my kind of luck, I assured them, the flight simply will not be. Miraculously the aircraft took off and the even greater wonder was that we landed in Skardu in fifty minutes flat.

We were met at the airport by a nephew of GM’s. For some strange reason Sher Ali spelled his name Shair, at once turning himself from a lion into a poet. His non-explanation for the unusual spelling was that he liked it this way. Shair checked us into the hotel, one room for the three of us, and took Nasser and Naeem shopping. That night I discovered something about Naeem that Nasser had known all along and had saved as a surprise for me: the sleeping Naeem is an incessant, unstoppable talker. Through the night he either harangued someone called Irfan about medical procedures going wrong and on the management of chest infections, tonsillitis and broken bones or engaged in lengthy and very earnest conversations as if with an older relative. Somewhat short of sleep the following morning, I nevertheless knew everything Naeem had been doing over the past few weeks in his hospital at Mansehra and also some of his domestic affairs. Most of all, I was convinced that if I was ever caught in Mansehra in need of medical attention, I was to see I did not fall into the incompetent hands of a doctor who went by the name of Irfan.

Only a fool would have blundered into this caper without first preparing the trail with the addition of a few boulders on the downward side. A fool our driver proved himself to be

Skardu owes its importance to the mountaineers of the world. About the middle of the 19th century it consisted of ‘a scattered collection of houses and hamlets’ and was notable for sitting on a road from nowhere to nowhere. Unlike Yarkand far away in the north, or even Leh in the east that were thriving staging posts for caravans passing along busy roads, Skardu lay on a byway. There was very little traffic between Ladakh and Tibet in the east and Gilgit to the west nor could any traffic coming from up from Kashmir expect to get anywhere by way of Skardu which practically lies on the edge of a great tangle of glaciers and high peaks.

As for external trade, that was negligible. The only notable import being of pashm wool from Ladakh. Frederic Drew writes that a colony of Kashmiri settlers was buyers of this wool for the production of the famous Kashmiri Pashmina shawl. It is known that this trade and the production of the shawl in Baltistan continued until partition in 1947 when Baltistan and Ladakh were cut off from each other.

Baltistan did have one major export: apricots. Owing to its cultural affinity with Tibet, Baltistan had long been known as Little Tibet and in allusion to the great variety of that fruit produced here, it has been called Tibet of the Apricots. Skardu was thus the market for a sizeable export of dried apricots, kernels and apricot kernel oil.

**

Departure was 6.30 AM. I was heading north of Skardu after a break of sixteen years and was surprised to see how much had changed. To begin with, a tarmac road now stretched between Skardu and the village of Shigar which also gives its name to the valley stretching northward all the way to the junction of the Shigar River, which rises in the Baltoro Glacier, and the Basha rising in the great complex of glaciers dominated by the Chhogholungma Glacier. This was, incidentally, the first glacier ever seen outside the Alps or the Polar Regions and written about by a European.

The somewhat mysterious Godfrey Thomas Vigne travelled in Baltistan and went home to write his Travels in Kashmir. But as Marco Polo was ridiculed for telling of paper money and rocks that burnt (fossil coal) in China, so too was Vigne for what his readers thought were tall tales because in his native Britain they could not believe glaciers had any business existing in latitudes as low as these.* It took a few more years for serious explorers to discover that Karakoram glaciers did not only exist, but were the longest anywhere in the world outside the poles.

Long before the jeep road was pushed up the Shigar valley, expeditions crossed the Sindhu River by the goat or cow-hide raft – the zakht. This flimsy craft that towards the end of its life graduated from inflated buffalo hides to inflated lorry wheel inner tubes may well have been in use in Baltistan for a millennium or even longer was eventually phased out after the bridge went over back in the 1950s. On my earlier trips I had walked across the Sindhu by the plank-and-wire rope suspension bridge, this time round we had a new-fangled concrete bridge and a black-top road: in the space of a mere fifty years we had moved from prehistoric to modern means of transportation.

At Dassu the army still maintains that clearly redundant check post where everyone entering the world of glaciers and high peaks must record their names in a dog-eared register. Balti people are free to come and go without signing up, but not the three of us. As I waited my turn, I noticed the slovenly, long-haired young man sitting limply on an army tube-framed cot in the veranda of the check post building eating a greasy paratha. His movements were so languid, so utterly lacking energy, that he seemed ill. I jokingly asked one of the soldiers who packed a Heckler & Koch G-3 rifle if the man was a prisoner, perhaps from India, caught snooping around the ‘sensitive’ mountain area.

He was a captain of the Pakistan army retuning after a stint of duty up at Conway Saddle, a 5974 metre-high snow-bound gap between the Gasherbrum Group on the north and the Sia Group to the south. With Pakistan and India locked in a childish armed struggle over the Siachen Glacier to the southeast of this feature, Pakistan had some listening posts in the region to prevent Indian forces from sneaking into our side. Conway Saddle was part of this scheme of things. The captain had hated being out there living in a bunker off ‘extra rations’ and with precious little to do. Because he did not read, he had not taken a single book with him and because it was not his choice to be on a saddle that commemorated one of the great explorers of the last years of the 19th century, he had not attempted to climb even one of the lower and easily climbable peaks under which his bunker nestled.

The only reading he did in the six months on the glacier was the occasional Urdu newspaper brought out by visiting helicopter crews – and that at best several days old. He had been all but bored to death and had spent his time sleeping when he was not listening to his radio. Now he could hardly wait to be picked up for the drive back to Skardu and eventually the bazaars of whichever Punjabi town he came from. I did not ask him, but I suspected he would have looked upon the three of us as useless layabouts with nothing useful to make of our lives other than aimlessly bumbling about this wild place aping crazy white people.

The captain referred to the feature he had defended these past six months as ‘Convoy Saddle’ and did not know anything about Martin Conway and his map-making work of the 1890s. Convoy is, incidentally, the name all army officers and men use for this gap that looks into the Kondus Glacier. Some years ago I had asked another captain in Skardu who had also spent some time in the same region why it was called Convoy Saddle. He informed me that shortly after the Pakistan army established the post, a convoy of mules brought up the necessary supplies. Hence the name. The convoy was fine, but what of the saddle, I had asked. The captain was not certain but he felt it might be that one of the saddles (panniers, perhaps) had been lost in that region.

There are many more like this good man going around spreading the darkness of ignorance. There will by and by come a time when this or a similar story, having been told and retold so many times to so many different soldiers from where it will percolate to many more, will become accepted truth. And as things go in our superstitious society some sort of miracle will very likely be attributed to the saddle. Martin Conway and his pioneering surveying work will then be consigned to oblivion known only to the rare Pakistani who reads.

I asked the young soldier taking down our particulars in the register if he checked all returning travellers as well and filled in the columns again.

‘If I didn’t, why should we have this check post?’ he countered with his own question.

‘But some trekkers end up in Nagar by the Biafo-Hispar system and others in Hushe by the increasingly popular Gondogero Pass,’ I pointed out.

It turned out that one had to declare one’s intentions on the way out and those returning this same way were to report their safe passage back into civilisation by reporting at the check post again. Failing that, a search operation would be launched for which, the soldier pointed out, the ‘lost’ individuals would have to pay the cost, that is, if they were discovered alive having existed weeks on moss and lichens on some hitherto undiscovered glacier. Just over a fortnight later, as we were trundling past the check post well after dark on our return journey, Nasser suggested we stop to register with them. It was late; a section of the road being out we had had a tough day reaching the pick up point and Skardu was still some hours away. Not up to spending a half hour needlessly filling out a detail no one could possibly be bothered with, and also because there was no one about and the barrier was up, I said we forget it and pay up when they send the helicopters out to retrieve our frozen corpses.

We toddled along, no one came running out of the shack to hail us, and were out of Skardu two days later. Over the next couple of weeks, if anyone of us had lived with the fear of being tracked down to cough up vast sums of money to pay for the choppers that spent hundreds of flying hours to locate our dead bodies, we had fretted without reason. This check post is just another one of the government’s many employment schemes where for a small salary men with nothing better to do fritter away their lives uselessly filling in a ledger no one ever reviews.

On my way up in 1986, when the post was manned either by the police or some local militia and when travellers had to fill in the columns themselves, I discovered that even Mickey Mouse had taken the trip up into the Baltoro region. The man did not permit me to scour the ledger to see if Mr Mouse had safely made it back or if Disney Inc were fooling the children of the world with an impostor.

A slight hold up at the village of Biano gave occasion to marvel, once again, on how as soon as they wrap their fingers about the steering wheel, men in Pakistan turn into complete morons. A minor stream bounding down the slope on the right side of the road had pushed a large boulder into the way and also eaten away part of the track on the downstream side. It was clear there was no way the antiquated Toyota jeep could negotiate the narrow space without some rocks being first dumped on the eroded portion. Yet the driver nosed his vehicle into the gap and after a brief grinding and gnashing we jolted to a halt as some large boulders went tumbling down with the cascade on our left. Our jeep could now go neither forwards nor backwards and was listing scarily over to the left.

Not wishing to be caught in what I perceived would soon be a tangled mass of iron pipes and steel sheeting, I jumped out and scampered clear of the jeep. Nasser, sandwiched between me and the driver, was evidently a much braver man for he remained in his seat until I suggested in no uncertain terms that it would be more conducive to his health to be outside than in the jeep. With the left front wheel firmly fixed in the gap left by the dislodged stones and the jeep listing rather precariously, I thought we were stuck for the next few hours, but the convoy of several jeeps carrying half the population of some Spanish town that we had passed earlier was soon upon us. Their overactive Balti guide jumped out of the lead vehicle, organised a road-building team and in a quick one-two had dumped enough boulders in the eroded section for the road to be negotiable again. Very smartly he signalled our driver to roll through.

Not many kilometres farther on we came to the next road block near the village of Kela. A large bank of scree having slid down the dusty hill was now sitting square across a couple of hundred metres of road. They had tried to clear it with the only tractor fitted with a dozer blade available in the area, but the scree kept coming down, so they gave up until after it would stop raining. (It was only dark skies, no rain). Since our full complement of porters had ridden with us from Skardu, we disembarked, the porters loaded up and soon our team formed a long zigzagging straggle shuffling up the ridge and down the other side. As the powdery dust rose in choking clouds I wondered what fall of rain had brought down the talus when the mountainside was as desiccated as the Takla Makan Desert after a ten-year drought.

On the far side of the block with Askole, our overnight stop, still several kilometres away, there was a jeep. The driver, dark and fat with a huge paunch, who looked more Punjabi than the Balti he insisted he was, was making hay while his sun was not shining. A week earlier on his way back from Askole where he had dropped off a team of mountaineers, he was horrified to see the talus slope heaving down to cover up the road. He had another team waiting in Skardu to be ferried to Askole and now he was trapped here and losing money.

He must not have lost much sleep over the setback for within no time there arrived another bunch eager to be carted to Askole. Fatso named a preposterous price for each trip: the same as the fare of a jeep from Skardu all the way to Askole. It was take it or leave it and people in a hurry to reach the high mountains and not willing to waste any time walking to Askole took it. For the past week he would bring his jeep to the road block about midmorning, await the likes of us, relieve them of good money and dump them at Thungal, about twenty kilometres away and still five short of Askole, where another landslip blocked further progress. Then he hurried back to repeat the procedure.

The next few hours he spent merrily ferrying our party from the Kela road block to the Thungal road block. If there was one man on the east side of the road block absolutely pleased with the state of affairs it was Fatso. I teased him about how he would be praying hard for the mountain never to run out of gravel until the mountaineering season was over and he grinned the widest grin I had seen for some time. By a conservative estimate, and Nasser as the economist gave us his word on it, he would have made a couple of hundred thousand rupees during this time.

The walk to Askole from Thungal was easy. It was beginning to get dark and a thin drizzle had set up as we walked into the only inn of the village. Back in the summer of 1990 when I had reached Askole over the Skoro La from Shigar, I had already known of Haji Mehdi and his store where one could buy anything that mountaineers or walkers could ever need. Like most other Balti men, the Haji too had started out as a porter and mountain guide. Over time he realised that the tinned food and other equipment that expeditions simply threw away at the end of their outing could be re-cycled for good money.

He began to hoard up on whatever he got from the expeditions he worked with; even buying off stuff the other porters received and were willing to sell. As a man of good sense he had worked out his retirement plan long before he was ready to give up being a porter and was gradually setting up his store. In 1990 Haji Mehdi would have been in his late forties, in perfect health and had not been a porter for nearly ten years. Within his lifetime, he had moved from transhumant pastoralism to portering to small entrepreneurship – from mere subsistence to financial security.

He looked very dignified sitting in a chair in the shade of a mulberry tree as we came up to him. When he spoke, his speech was measured; and as he escorted our team to his store his gait was sedate. There was something almost regal about the man. His shop was actually a room in his home where the walls were festooned with ice axes, crampons and other climbing implements. On the floor, along the walls, were timber and steel trunks and the Haji walked around throwing open their lids to reveal more gear and packaged food of all manner.

Haji Mehdi was friends with, he said, famous people like the British mountaineers Chris Bonington and Doug Scott and had heard from his elders tales of the passage through Askole of Godwin-Austen and Francis Younghusband. What I had found surprising then was that Conway, even though he passed through Askole in 1892 – thirty-one years after Godwin-Austen and five after Younghusband – was completely forgotten. Haji Mehdi said he was at hand to receive Scott in the summer of 1977 when, having smashed his ankles on the descent from Baintha Brakk (The Ogre), he was carried down the Biafo Glacier on a makeshift stretcher. He said he had supervised Scott’s embarkation on the helicopter to be flown to Skardu. These details were too accurate to be second-hand, but the stories concerning 19th century explorers were somewhat muddled. He had heard of a woman who trekked the Biafo Glacier and believed she was the wife of Younghusband.

The American Fanny Bullock Workman was no relation of Younghusband’s, a very proper sahib of the Raj. This evidently overbearing sort of woman was the wife of a doctor. She and her man Henry were rich and with little to do with their lives loved to play at being explorers. In the two decades spanning the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, they travelled extensively in Baltistan and although they added precious little to the geographical knowledge of the time, they left behind a truly memorable collection of photographs. Long out of print, this compilation is now a much sought after collectors’ item that sells for huge sums of money in the antiquarian bookstores of Britain (and surely elsewhere as well). Memory of Fanny Workman was somehow preserved and by a quirk, time had connected her with Younghusband. But Haji Mehdi and some few others of his generation were about the last keepers of the lore of those heroic days of mountain exploration. With these people gone, the names of those early Western explorers have faded from memory.

Back in 1990, I had photographed Haji Mehdi and had felt the image did him full justice. There he was in his grey waistcoat over the grey shirt with a matching woollen ski cap covering his silver hair, his beard neatly trimmed and his face, with the heavy-lidded hazel eyes, a fine mixture of Tibetan and Aryan blood looking serene. Now I had an enlargement of that picture in a frame to be presented to Haji Mehdi. But in Skardu I had been told that the Haji had passed away some years earlier and that his sons had turned his store into an inn. And so having taken over the hotel room, I asked to see the son.

Haji Mehdi's younger son****
Hussain, perhaps about twenty-five, arrived in the gloaming with a grim set to his mouth and dark glasses hiding his eyes to make him look almost sinister. I introduced myself and told him of my meeting with his father sixteen years earlier. That seemed not to excite him one bit. As I pulled it out of my backpack, I explained I had hoped to present it to his father, but since the Haji was no longer there, he should be the recipient of the photograph. Hussain regarded the picture from behind his dark glasses as I watched his face for a reaction. There was none; the mug remained as forbidding as it had been from the beginning. Then, turning it away from himself, he held out the photo and panned it around for the three or four other men in the room to see. The others did better: they murmured admiringly.

Still his expression did not change and there wasn’t a word of thanks out of him. It was as if it did not matter to Hussain that I, a native of distant Lahore, having met his father over a decade and a half ago, had remembered him and to acknowledge this memory had brought out his photograph. It was almost as if he did not wish to admit he was his father’s son. Since there was only one paraffin lamp in the room and not enough light I suggested he take off his shades to get a better look. Gloomily the man told me he had accidentally been blinded in one eye while working on the construction of his home some years ago. A wood splinter coming off the power saw lanced his eye. By the time he got to Skardu the next day, the damage was permanent.

Little seems to have changed in Askole since Francis Younghusband passed through in 1887. In the intervening sixteen years between my first visit in 1990 and this one, the village seemed not even to have grown in size

Nevertheless, saying that the frame will be suitably exhibited for everyone too see, he had it placed on the highest shelf in the room. I wanted to photograph him with the picture, but it being dark I asked if he could possibly come back early in the morning for the photo session, adding that since we were to leave early, could he please make it at six. He agreed and that was that. In the morning, as we sat down to breakfast, I noticed the picture was missing and tried to console myself believing Hussain had taken it home for the rest of the family to see. I waited fifteen minutes over the appointed hour for the man to show up for the photo session, but he didn’t and so I left without my picture. On the return journey, however, I managed to meet up with his younger brother – a wholly more pleasant personality – who happily posed for the camera.

Baltis may be accused of many things, but dourness will be the last. They are a most jovial lot, ever smiling and joking even in difficult conditions. Their sense of humour easily translated into the lingua franca of Urdu is pretty sharp. I have walked with a few Baltis in my time and have found them to be tireless and willing workers always ready with a cheery word of encouragement to a lowlander like me. My favourite has long been the term they used when you balked at the beginning of a long uphill drag. This phrase, frequently heard in the 1990s seems to have gone out of fashion for I have not heard it recently, can not be translated accurately enough into English. It would roughly mean that there is no climb ahead but a plain as large and wide as the whole world and even as you pant and wheeze up this ‘level plain’ the Balti will merrily coax you on with similar untruths. For me the unsmiling, dour Hussain was an anomaly.

Askole sits on a shelf on the right bank of the Braldu River about two hundred metres above its roiling, frothing torrent. Rising in the Baltoro Glacier that spills down from the amphitheatre of the Gasherbrum-K-2 complex and fed on the way by several smaller tributaries, this river flows west past the village of Dassu where it makes a southward sweep. From then on it is known as the Shigar as it waters the valley of the same name all the way to its junction with the Sindhu sixty kilometres downstream**.

At 3050 metres above the sea Askole is a place of bleak, snowy winters and short summers where the farmers barely get one crop a year. With the people of Pakistan multiplying faster than rabbits, most places that I revisited after long gaps, had grown crazily and had ended up looking ugly because of unplanned expansion. Even once pretty villages had become hideous blots on the landscape.

Not so Askole. It seemed to have scarcely expanded since 1990, only there were more trees than before – for which the people of Askole could only be thanked. Coming down the Old or East Muztagh Pass in 1887, Francis Younghusband had found Askole a very dirty little village and the inhabitants equally so. Of the inhabitants none looked any dirtier than folks anywhere else in the country, but I was surprised to find one little boy sitting beside the drain by the side of a street and washing his hands from another drain trickling out of a house. The houses, many of them with gaily painted exteriors, did not seem ‘repulsively dirty’ as reported by Younghusband. If anything, Askole streets were tidy enough to present a rather picturesque view.

Younghusband wrote that the ‘men of Askoli (sic) were in dread of the mountains’. Similar views were aired by nearly every other explorer. It seems that mountain people, the Sherpas of Nepal excepted, from one end of the Himalayan chain through the Karakoram mountains and into the Hindu Kush were all craven cowards, shivering in their shoes with terror, whenever they were faced with the prospect of going into the mountains. Men like Younghusband and Reginald Schomberg, another explorer who travelled these regions in the first half of the 20th century, were the snooty kind and one could expect from them such dismissal of people they hired as ‘servants.’ But even the far more realistic and charitable Eric Shipton who passed through Askole first in 1937 and again two years later held a similarly dismal view of Balti mountaineers.

The first European explorers arrived in the Karakoram Mountains back in the 1830s. Their local guides told them the names of the peaks and glaciers most of which were visible from safe vantage points. But even when men like Godwin-Austen and later Younghusband or Conway penetrated deep into regions of eternal snow and ice, they heard from their local guides and porters names of the various features where apparently no one had been before them. Speaking strictly within the geographical boundaries of Baltistan, all these names, save two, are from the Balti language. There are of course some names that also derive from Burushaski, the language of Hunza and Nagar across the glaciers to the northwest of Baltistan. Such names point to an interesting, sometimes violent, exchange between the two countries. Muztagh and Karakoram, the two exceptions to the Balti, both come from the Turkic. The former means Snow (Muz) Mountain (Tagh) and the latter Black (Kara) Gravel (Koram).

There is a very interesting little tale concerning the name Karakoram hidden away in the pages of Vigne’s Travels. He writes that having mentioned the meaning of the word to a Ladakhi, who would have spoken a language based on archaic Tibetan very like Balti, he had a very indignant man on his hands. Who, the bristling Ladakhi demanded to be told, did the Turks think they were to be coming around to name the mountains of Baltistan in their own language. Why, Karakoram signifies, so reports Vigne, ‘sweetmeat’ or ‘sugar plum’ in Balti and that the title of these savage and bleak mountains was a frivolous antithesis of reality. It is another thing, however, that none of my Balti friends flaunt a confectionary going by this name.

Be that as it may, the other names are all from the Balti language. The camp grounds, major and smaller glaciers, peaks and passes; every feature has a Balti name. K-2 is visible from, say, the crest of the 5080 metre-high Skoro La between Shigar and Askole, for an early Balti traveller to spot and name it Chhogho Ri – Great Mountain. But what of Chhogho Lingtsa that European explorers mispronounced so long and so many times that it became Chogolisa for one and all?

This mountain could only be seen after trekking a goodly way up the Baltoro Glacier or after climbing a six thousand-metre peak lower down the glacier. The Baltis were not mountaineers in the modern sense of the word; they ventured out only in search of game for their fleshpots or pasture for their herds. Was it then a hunter armed with primitive bow and arrows who left his mates behind in a summer pasture somewhere in the lower reach of the Baltoro Glacier, braved the hazards of the icefalls and crevasses and went all the way to a great confluence of glaciers overseen by majestic peaks of virgin ice and snow? He would not have known it, but this place was to be called Concordia some hundred years later. At the base of an exquisitely beautiful peak with towering walls of ice cascading down its flanks, he found herds of ibex in a particularly warm summer. For this Balti pioneer, this was Chhogho Lingtsa – Great Hunting Ground.

The Baltis, as indeed all other mountain people as well, were great travellers. They went everywhere. Unlike what Schomberg and Younghusband believed, these men were not held in thrall by the glaciers and snowy peaks. They went long before the first European explorers and they went equipped with the most primitive of gear. They shod their feet with felt pabbus or with goatskin boots called fusho. For warmth they had their woollen shawls, short woollen tunics and pants and hand-knitted gloves and socks. The thulu (cured sheepskin with the hair on) was their coverlet for sleeping in. On soft snow, they used their s’trang, the tennis racquet-shaped snowshoes woven with strips of goatskin.

Their food on journeys consisted of tsampa a concoction of barley meal cooked with some water, yak’s butter, and salt***. Sometimes this brew was laced with tea. There was also whatever game the travellers could bag on the way. To augment this sparse diet, richer travellers would have packed prapo – a savoury bread of barley meal mixed with walnuts and dried apricots and spiced with green peppers. To protect their eyes from ultra-violet burns from sunlight flaring off glacial ice, they wore salom, horse hair mats of a fine mesh. The mats preserved them from snow blindness all right, but the weave was so fine that the wearers could only just see where they were going – that is practically like venturing blindfolded onto a glacier. Yet they walked in these wild places telling their stories, singing their songs and giving names to the rocks, the peaks, glaciers, river valleys, camp grounds and passes.

To every single feature they passed, no matter how insignificant, they assigned an identity. Back in the safety of their villages, they warmed the hearts of others around the hearth by telling of those remote places so that the next traveller would know where to halt for the night and where to find water nearby or ibex that were easy to kill and firewood to cook the game. These Baltis were the first great, and unacknowledged, explorers of this knot of mountains. Everyone else followed and went on to tell us that these sons of the original explorers were held in a thrall of terror of high places.

The notion that the natives were terrified of their mountains was born in the 19th century. There were some pucca sahibs who came properly dosed with disdain for the native subjects of the Raj and, beginning with Younghusband, may have been guilty of initiating these ideas. Others like Schomberg espoused the notion and unthinkingly propagated it. If truth be told, this man was rather a racist who held a very derisive view of his porters, guides and even of those persons whose hospitality he availed of. But far more charitable men like Shipton and Tilman too were not above ridiculing native porters and guides – Sherpas being the only group to have won all round admiration from the start.

Entrance to Askole
The irony that everyone missed is that place names were first preserved in writing by the Europeans and then came the charge of native fear of the high places without anyone realising that there would be no Balti names if these people had not gone walkabout. This I find singularly odd, especially when experts (the British missionary A.C.F Read, the Italian Professor Tucci and the German Wilhelm Kick, to name a few) have delved into the intricacies of Balti language and place names.

**

In a manner of speaking Askole sits at the edge of the habitable world. Beyond it, to the north and east, lies a vast tangle of icy peaks and glaciers. It was for good reason then that one early British explorer called it World’s End. As we left Askole in the drizzle that morning we were jumping off the edge of this part of the world as known to Victorian explorers.

* While Vigne had travelled in Baltistan, it is now moot whether Marco Polo did actually visit China or based his tales on hearsay.

**Another river of the same name rises from a glacier also known as the Braldu, from the northern flanks of the Nobande Sobande Group north of the head of the Panmah Glacier. The northern Braldu is the only major glacier that sits north of the Great Asiatic Watershed and whose entire length lies within the geographical bounds of Pakistan. It flows north to give way to its own Braldu River in the region of 36°-10’ of latitude. The river then swings eastward to eventually join the Shaksgam-Yarkand river complex that loses itself in the vast sandy wastes of Takla Makan Desert. This only Pakistani river not flowing into the Indian Ocean.

*** Taken as a bracing hot source of instant energy, it could sometimes be varied with wheat or rice flour.

**** Haji Mehdi’s younger son poses with the portrait of his father that I had taken back in the summer of 1990. If I had expected gushing ebullience upon my presentation of the photo, I had been so wrong. The older brother was downright dour when given the frame and failed to turn up for the photo session. This one posed without a smile.


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

Related: An expedition that refused to die

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Kafeel Bahi

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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

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