Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Into the Mountains

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Leaving Karghalik after four in the afternoon we entered a boring landscape shrouded in a pall of dust that settled thick on one’s person. So pervasive it was that its heaviness choked the nose. An hour out, we passed Kokyar – Blue Earth. But for the two remarkable circular sand dunes that looked like huge mounds of grey pudding sitting to the east side of the road, it was scarcely a noteworthy village. Nothing was even vaguely blue about Kokyar, not even the sky.

The jalebi bends in the Kuday Dawan. This area is utterly desiccated because of little rain

One hundred and fourteen kilometres from Karghalik we were in the heart of a pass that Wahab said was the Kuday Dawan after a village of the same name on its south side.* In the failing light, we saw below us a series of hairpin bends that may have looked pretty were they not muffled by the thick haze of dust. But here in the dusty landscape utterly without tree cover, they could best be described as bleak. They reminded me of pictures I had seen of the Jalebi Bends of Zanskar in Indian Kashmir – only; the latter place was somewhat the greener.

The map accompanying Francis Younghusband’s The Heart of a Continent, calls this pass the Tupa (Hill) Dawan, 10,400 feet high. My GPS gave a reading of 3200 metres which corresponded exactly. Neither Wahab nor Firdaus, our jovial and garrulous driver who once drove lorries to Tibet this way, had ever heard the old name. We were following Younghusband and the distance from Karghalik as well as the height of the pass showed that we were indeed negotiating Tupa Dawan. The name Kuday is not recent however. Henry Raverty, the 19th century British soldier intellectual and translator of medieval Turkish and Persian histories into the English, also mentions a Kudu Dawan on this route.

Descending into the gorge of the Surukwat River. At a similar height in the Karakoram Mountains, we would have seen some few willows and birches, particularly by the water. Here, because of scant precipitation, it was so barren that it hurt the eyes

Over the top, we were in the Kun Lun Mountains and on the southern side of the pass we had a flat. Without a comma to his endless yarns of ferrying freight to Almaty in Kazakhstan and all the women he slept with en route and in that town, Firdaus changed the tyre and off we went again. It was dark when we stopped at the military check post of Kuday. The single guard in the kiosk was studying something intently under his counter and it took a couple of ahems and a little tap on the window to make him look up. He being a soldier I imagined he had a girlie magazine, but I could be wrong because both his hands were on the counter. Unsmilingly he flicked through my passport and the other papers that Wahab had said I should also present to him. He looked up, I smiled but his mug remained impassive. Satisfied, he waved me through and returned to whatever he was contemplating doing under the counter. The guards at Pir Ali and this man, every single one of them, had been dour.

Done with that, we stopped for shish kebab at a roadside restaurant that Firdaus and Wahab patronised whenever passing through. The kitchen with its steaming samovar and a glowing spit overlooked the road and behind it was seating arrangement under a wattle and plank roofing with plastic sheets for walls. Detached from this part of the eatery was a room where beer-drinkers hidden from view by a curtained door quaffed their brews between mouthfuls of naan and kebabs. I looked in merely out of curiosity and a diner grinning sheepishly held up his bottle in invitation; the others pretended either I or they did not exist. This air of the clandestine that accompanies drinking in most Muslim countries was apparently an affliction of rural Xinjiang because I had not seen it in any of the three cities I had been to.

Teetotallers sat outside by the kitchen where the restaurateur refused to serve beer. Famished because none of us had eaten since breakfast, I joined the meat-eaters and guzzled the steaming kebabs as they came off the skewers rolled in naan warmed over the embers. There was an accompanying soup with gristles of meat and gobs of fat which the duo greatly favoured. I found it too smelly for my liking.

Duly fortified, we drove to the puncture repair shop. Lit by a feeble light bulb, the dusty shop was open all right but deserted. Firdaus honked the horn and we waited. Then he honked again and we waited some more. Then we all got out of the car and Firdaus and Wahab shouted. Nothing. Eventually, one of them knocked on the door adjacent to the repair shop. A slim, youngish woman opened up and was surprised that the technician, her son, so I understood, was not minding the store. She spoke with the pair for a couple of minutes and it appeared that the boy might have taken off for a snack.

Wahab and Firdaus took turns ambling off in the direction of the kebab shop to locate the truant. Each in his turn returned without him. Firdaus was worried because Kuday had the last puncture repair shop until Mazar where we hoped to overnight. But we would not make Mazar until about midnight when the shop would be shut for the night. To reach Raskam on the morrow in good time in order for Wahab and me to kick off that same day, we would be leaving before dawn when the shop would not yet have opened. This repairman was thus the only hope for Firdaus. He knocked the door again.

The woman, rather long-winded for her spare frame, returned to deliver another sermon. Firdaus shrugged, turned around and returned to the two of us sitting in the jeep. He and Wahab conferred as the woman watched, framed in the pale light from the room behind her. At length Firdaus stuck his head out and said he could not wait any longer and turned the ignition.

‘Wait, wait!’ the woman shouted. ‘I’ll get him.’

In two minutes flat the grubby, smiling teenager and his mate were with us. It was an hour since we had first knocked the door. I was intrigued by this little charade which seemed to be routine for Wahab and Firdaus. I pestered them to ask the youngster what it was all about, but could not get to the bottom of it.

If the wait was long, the business of repair ever more so. The boy and his mate, as giggly as a pair of skittish little girls, just could not get into the work: they simply could not stop talking about the cause of their mirth and repeatedly breaking into uncontrollable fits of laughter. Wahab and Firdaus who obviously understood what was going on seemed not to find it funny at all.

First the boys took a quarter of an hour getting the wheel off its rack on the tail gate. Then the two of them struggled, giggling endlessly, with the antiquated and rickety machine to remove the tyre from the rim. It took them another quarter of an hour to inflate the inner tube and locate the puncture. And when it came time to vulcanise, the electric heating iron would just not get hot enough because of the very low voltage. And we thought we had power woes in Pakistan!

I told Wahab that in Lahore (or anywhere else in Pakistan) boys half our men’s age could fix a flat in less than ten minutes and that he should shame the two of them. But he would not. He did not even pass on the comparison to the repair boy. We waited for what seemed to be an eternity before the iron was sufficiently hot. Even then Firdaus worried that the patch may not be fast. It was sometime after nine in the evening that we hit the road again.

Through the moonless night and a dark landscape we went ever southward. Firdaus’ endless banter about his sex life on his travels as a lorry driver continued unabated. Besides these exploits on Asiatic highways, the good man also maintained two wives – wive-ez, as young Wahab pronounced the word. The first wife was quartered with Firdaus and the rest of his extended family in Kashgar while the second was sequestered away in Yarkand where he had spent a night on the way out to meet us at Karghalik. If his yarns were to be trusted, Firdaus had to be the randiest man alive.

I was also told of his father, a Soviet Russian-educated Uighur nationalist writer and poet who was arrested by Chinese authorities on charges of fomenting sedition. He received a lengthy jail sentence but some years into his incarceration, his body was returned to the family. He had died, so they were told, of natural causes. That happened some twenty years ago, when Firdaus was only about ten.

As Firdaus spoke and Wahab translated I recorded the story – with due permission, of course. Back in Kashgar, on my last night, Wahab was my dinner host, standing in for Keyoum who was away on business in Urumchi. When he arrived to take me out, the young man appeared terribly flustered: someone from the intelligence organ had called him to say they wanted to see him in their office in the morning. He was worried that word had somehow leaked that I had not gone into the mountains like everyone else to ogle Chhogho Ri from the north but that I had some ulterior design. Since the translation of Firdaus’ story on my recording machine was in Wahab’s voice which could incriminate him, or so he thought, he wanted me to erase everything. He feared if that ‘evidence’ of anti-state sentiment was discovered, the two of them could disappear like Firdaus’ father. Wahab even made me score out the father’s name from my notebook.

With Wahab terrified out of his wits, dinner was a grim affair that night. As much as I tried to distract him, Wahab kept returning to the subject of the intelligence agencies and the many ways they made people disappear. In fact, with my flight to Islamabad not leaving until late the following evening, even I became worried: what if they wanted to talk to me as well? Would I also be put away for illegal activity? After all, I had not told Keyoum the truth about my reason for the trip to Sughet Jungle and Wahab, who now knew, was sure to fold under pressure. Surely a Pakistani having returned from casing the little known crossing point of the Muztagh Pass could only be a religious fanatic making way for the floodgates of terrorism to be opened into Xinjiang by a route they were not monitoring.**

In researching Who killed Daniel Pearl, Bernard-Henri Lévi, the French journalist, saw in everyone he met in Pakistan an Islamic terrorist who had only just shaved off his beard especially for that one meeting with Lévi. So too my face with a two-week stubble will be proof for the Chinese that, having accomplished my undercover mission, I could hardly wait for my beard to grow back again.

It was uneasy sleep for me that night and I was up before 4.00 AM. Wahab was to present himself to the spooks at nine in the morning and shortly after that I got a call from a very chirpy him. It was all right, he said cheerily. They had only wanted to check the validity of his mountain guide’s license. Strange country, I thought. We in Pakistan are used to the undue paranoia of the several intelligence apparatuses and their meddling in everything, but this was a little too much. Why, at home licenses of this kind are simply not the business of the intelligence agencies but of the Ministry of Tourism.

In the event, the call from the spooks had nicely dampened the mood for dinner the night before. As well as that, I lost everything I had recorded in Wahab’s voice. This included the short history of the musician Aman Nisa Khan as he translated it from the narration of Tokhti Mohammad Arsh in Yarkand.

We began the long grind up the Ak Sai – White Desert – Dawan. As the golden eagle flies, Ak Sai Chin – White Desert of China – a vast saltpetre waste that gives its name to this pass is nearly four hundred kilometres to the southeast. That is a full three weeks away by horse or camel, yet by some abstruse mechanism this pass takes the name of that distant salt waste. By and by we were out of the claustrophobic turns and on a high, cold saddle where the nearby hills glistened in silver moonlight. Looking about I saw no moon and realised that it was not moonlight but snow on the peaks. Indeed, scraps of it also lay in the corries by the road. The height by my GPS was 4900 metres or 16,072 feet. This was the height of the pass that Younghusband records on his map as the Chiraghsaldi. Once again this name too was forgotten.

We dropped down to a more reasonable height and made Mazar at 1.00 AM. Firdaus said the hotels were all on the Tibet road and so we drove through the few houses comprising the village and took the left fork to an open lot with a couple of dozen neatly parked lorries. All I could make out in the darkness was a number of shacks on either side of the road. Firdaus stopped in front of a chunky clapboard box with a door and windows and blasted away on his horn with complete disregard for the tired long-distance drivers sleeping in neighbouring shacks. No one opened up for us so we alighted and set to banging on the timber and glass door.

A light came on inside, the door flew open and a bright smiling face appeared, the last thing one would expect at that unearthly hour. But then the Chinese are strange folks and the toothy grin was just another one of their quirks, that as well as being fully dressed at that hour. A quick exchange in Chinese and we were ushered in. The whole thing was actually made of waste timber and cardboard sheets with a trabeated roof that could hardly be expected to survive winter snowfalls, scant as they might be in this arid high-altitude desert. I wanted Wahab to ask the owner if he dismantled the ‘building’ in winter. But nobody was interested in my silly queries; they simply wanted to doss down. And so I let it pass.

The front door opened into a room with chairs and a table on which the remains of someone’s dinner sat congealed in the plate. To the left was the grotty kitchen and straight ahead the proprietor’s room. Sleeping accommodation for guests was to the right. Each of the two rooms had two sleeping platforms, each for three persons, divided by an aisle in between. Thankfully we were the only guests in this motel – which, I suppose, explained the owner’s bright grin. But Wahab and Firdaus did not only abstain from eating with the Chinese because their food was not halal; neither wanted to sleep in a Chinese establishment.

Since they fretted about the bedding being filthy, I suggested they use their own sleeping bags but Wahab insisted they were going to be fine in the jeep. He remained adamant even when I reminded him of how cold a night at 3200 metres could be and of the long day ahead. As for me, I was not dossing down under covers used by millions of Chinese and Uighur lorry drivers and I asked for my sleeping bag. My duffel bag being at the very bottom of the neatly stacked gear in the back of the jeep, Firdaus was not very pleased by the demand. But he kindly obliged.

I lay awake in bed until sometime after 2.00 AM. When Wahab shouted for me, it was just before four. I had at least been horizontal and slept soundly for a couple of hours; Wahab and Firdaus had had a ghastly time in their seats. They had barely dozed off when cold roused them. For a while they rubbed themselves for warmth but then started the engine and turned on the heater. For the next two hours they kept it running.

A quick wash and a cup of tea with the horrid donut-shaped white bread from the tea shop across the road and we were ready to roll. The motel owner appeared with his grin, fully dressed once again, to collect his twenty yuan and we were off.

This is an ancient land and ever since I first read of it, I wanted to travel in this country as the ancients did: by foot. But that was not to be, at least not this time. There was no time to explore why Mazar – Funerary Monument in Persian – had that name and, if there was indeed a mausoleum, who was buried therein. For years I had likewise been intrigued by the name of Ak Masjid – White Mosque, another station on this route. In my mind’s eye I saw a whitewashed mosque set to gleaming advantage by the drabness of an empty surrounding desert. Just outside Kokyar, I had asked Wahab to indicate when we passed through Ak Masjid. But with Firdaus in full oratorical form, we missed the place.

Whoever said the charm of a journey was inversely proportional to its speed had spoken words of great wisdom. I wonder when, or if, I will ever be able to return to Xinjiang to explore at will and learn the meaning of all those intriguing place names.

Outside Mazar we climbed into Mazar Darra – the Dawan of Turkic languages was here taken over by Darra of Persian. On the south side we dropped into a stony, treeless plain with a sparse stream braided across it and the whole caught between drab mountains seemingly devoid of so much as a blade of grass. Wahab said this was known as ‘thirty-five kilometres.’ Presently we drove past a sign by the roadside that said the same. But Wahab could not say from what point we were thirty-five kilometres distant.

Along the shallow silty stream in its pebbly bed we drove for some time before climbing a short way up to fetch up at Ilica, the military check post that Wahab said was the last. Though I suspected there was yet another that he was not telling me of. At just before seven in the morning the soldiers were still asleep – save the one manning the barrier. He was kept company by a dog that looked like a German shepherd, only it was somewhat reduced in size. The poor beast was shivering uncontrollably from the cold.

The guard who had a ready and rather sheepish smile said we would have to wait for the officers to be roused but made no move to do the needful. After about fifteen minutes of waiting, Wahab asked him again and he said since he was alone, he could not leave his post to go to the billets and call the officers. After a lengthy back and forth the soldier agreed to go get his officer if we promised not to run away.

Presently a rather stout Uighur man came ambling out of the barracks. He wore a mussed up uniform and vigorously scratched his tousled hair as he shuffled along. In Pakistan it would not be the head his counterpart would be scratching, but his groin for that, and neither cricket nor hockey, is our national pastime. He shook hands with Wahab whom he seemed to know. When he shook mine, he said something that sounded like ‘Splat!’ I said sorry and looked quizzically at him and this time he said something like ‘Abdullat.’ I thought he said Abdul Haq, which, I presumed, would be his name. But it turned out that the name was Oblat and he, a lieutenant in the People’s Army, held charge at this outpost.

Wahab handed him the sheaf of papers we had been carrying from Karghalik. He looked through and upon discovering I was a Pakistani, his eyes lit up and he set up a conversation via Wahab. Had I ever been to his native Turfan? Since I had not, he wrote down his father’s name and telephone number in my notebook for me to contact when I got there. But I learned that old Abdul Latif (written Litip in Xinjiang) in Turfan spoke neither English nor Urdu. Since my Uighur vocabulary was restricted to the names of some colours and the words for ‘sand’, ‘stone’, ‘mountain’ and ‘river’, I said we were certain to have a roaring great conversation over the phone. Oblat smiled, thought for a moment and then waved the problem away. He said I should not phone his father, instead just get to the address and leave everything to him. He said I could even stay in the family’s home for as long as I wished.

This was just like Pakistan where ordinary people invited complete strangers into their lives. After years of availing of the generosity and kindness of folks from Broghal in northern Chitral to the sands of Tharkparker in southeast Sindh and from the farthest corner of Balochistan to remote places in rural Punjab, I had always wondered what it was that made these people so hospitable. The answer came from a young man in a remote village in Ishkoman Valley, west of Gilgit. When I thanked the man for putting me up for the night he said, ‘You don’t have to thank me. Who knows when you might have to host me.’ I never saw him again, but this was the spirit that had for centuries helped countless caravans across these bleak and forbidding lands.

The fellow-feeling did not exempt me from a baggage check, however. Oblat ordered the tail gate of the jeep opened and looked in, absently poking the drums and cartons with a stick. Then he spied my duffel bag at the bottom of the heap. Smartly tapping it, he asked for it to be brought out. I had hidden my GPS, the only thing on me that I was worried would be illegal in China, in my sleeping bag and for the first time since the border checking at Tashkurgan, I got the jitters again. But even before he could reach the bottom of the rucksack, something else caught his attention: my copy of Hashmatullah Khan’s Tarikh e Jammu.

Since we share the same Persian-Arabic alphabet for Urdu and Uighur, Oblat could read the title of the book and the author’s name. Over the next fifteen minutes or so, he flipped through the book, laboriously reading bits from pages at random and asking me to translate through Wahab. Satisfied the book contained nothing to challenge the integrity of the People’s Republic of China, he turned his attention to Martin Conway’s Climbing and Exploration in the Karakoram Himalayas.

‘Inglis?’ he said looking at me askance and slowly nodding his head as one would upon sensing chicanery.

Unavailable in Pakistan, I had obtained this copy with much difficulty from India and did not want to lose it. Nervously I watched Oblat flip back and forth wondering if my maps, when he discovered them, would cause additional stir. The black and white drawings in the book caught his attention. Pausing on the scene of a glacier camp, he asked where it was. Good for me the sketch was from the Biafo Glacier and that Conway had never gone poking north of the Great Asiatic Watershed or my expedition may well have come to an unceremonious end at the military post of Ilica.

While Oblat was doing his research, we had three different officers come ambling out of the billets one at a time, all Han Chinese, to look at the sheaf Keyoum had entrusted upon us. The badges these three wore on their shoulders being similar to Oblat’s they were all lieutenants. Each man took upward of fifteen minutes to scrutinise the paperwork. None of the three was satisfied reading just one copy of the set of five: they had to meticulously wade through the entire sheaf accompanied by much head scratching. The last one pored over them for an inordinately long time. ‘To check for forgery,’ Wahab pointed out when I said something about the copies being identical. That did not convince me and I came away believing Ilica was where the People’s Army sent its dyslexic lieutenants.

From time to time the checking man looked up to see me watching. Each time I grinned, but evidently only Oblat and the guard at the barrier were equipped with smile muscles. Meanwhile, the pictures in Conway’s book did the trick; Oblat never reached the bottom level of the rucksack that held the maps and the GPS and the day was saved. The only map he saw was of the Baltoro-Panmah region and when he heard it was in Pakistan, he lost interest. The whole drama had lasted nearly two hours.

Sitting on the left bank of the Surukwat about three kilometres below (north) of its junction with the Zug (False) Shaksgam River, Ilica is not a village, merely a military camp. On his way from Yarkand to explore the Old Muztagh Pass in September 1887, Francis Younghusband did not even remark on it. I suspect this was then no more than a temporary camp for shepherds from nearby villages.

A few kilometres west of Ilica lies the ancient village of Raskam. Younghusband noted that the name was a corruption of Rast Kan – the Good Mine. Scattered about this area he, as well as some other Victorian explorers, had found extensive remains of smelting furnaces. It was therefore believed that in former times this country availed of a considerable copper industry. Wahab was of no help in this regard, however. Alternatively, myself never having seen a ruined smelting oven, I may not have been able to explain what I was looking for.

Here Younghusband had again come up with news of Hunza robbers. Once again I could not but marvel at the uncanny hardihood of those Hunza men who negotiated several high passes and traversed uninhabited river valleys where attempting the fords was, to put it mildly, suicidal in order to make their way from their native land to this remote country. Their predatory forays, Younghusband noted, were the cause of the country lying desolate and hoped that after the raiding was brought to an end by British authorities, things would once again look up for Raskam. But old Younghusband had been quite off the mark because a hundred and thirty years hence nothing seemed to have changed for this bleak and arid high-altitude desert village.

By Younghusband’s description, there was a locality very near Ilica that went by the name of Khoja Mohammad. The incident connected with this man intrigues me for it highlights the immense range of the Hunza raiders. Wahab had heard the name, but he was not sure which exact spot it was nor too who it was named after. Younghusband tells the story, not in his book but in the 1892 Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society:
The Kanjutis [Hunza men] lay hid on the cliffs overhanging the river, and as a man called Khoja Mohammad was passing through with his family and a large party, the Kanjutis fired down on them, and afterwards attacked them with swords, killing all the men and taking the women and children captive. Since that time the gorge has always been known by the name of Khoja Mohammad.
Raskam was the last village where one could hire camels for the trek into the mountains and Keyoum maintained business relations here. As we were leaving Karghalik the day before, he had offered to call ahead for his man to have the camels ready and waiting for us at Ilica. As it is, Raskam is as remote as any place in Xinjiang, yet it being on the telephone grid with the rest of China came as a surprise for me: it was like Concordia at the foot of Chhogho Ri in Baltistan being on line. And that might still be some years in the future.

But there were no camels at Ilica and so we drove on to Raskam. At a height of 3500 metres, sitting on the left bank of the Yarkand River, Raskam comprised of perhaps twenty mud-plastered houses. The trabeated roofs indicated there was negligible, if any, snowfall. Save a couple of tiny vegetable patches around the houses, there was no other cultivation and, so Wahab said, all the cereal had to be sent in from outside. As herders, the people of Raskam were self-sufficient in meat and diary products which formed their staple. Because no fruit grew in Raskam, on Keyoum’s instructions, Wahab had brought a large sack of melons of two different kinds as a gift for their contact in the village. The elderly man to who took charge of it did so without any show of appreciation or a word of thanks.

Thirty-one year-old Seet was our camel driver. He had red cheeks and hazel eyes in a face already on its way to becoming very weather-beaten. Like everyone else in the village, he too was Kirghiz. The phone call had been received and he was waiting with his three camels. These he had only a couple of hours before retrieved from the nearby hills where they had been sent to graze when we did not turn up two days earlier as scheduled. This was very surprising because in all my years of travelling in Pakistan, whenever I have arrived anywhere hoping to hire an animal, all were away grazing in the hills. Always someone had to go out a day to bring them in involving an unnecessary waste of time.

We were parked in one of the houses where they quickly laid out tea while Seet ran off to gather his animals and saddlery. Yunus, our host, was in his seventies but his elders had not passed on anything about Balti people passing through this area. This was because as one traversed the north-south road between Yarkand and Baltistan that here followed the Surukwat River, Raskam, lying some kilometres off to the west of the route, was skirted. Indeed, on his 1887 push into the Muztagh Pass, Younghusband by-passed Raskam, not visiting it until two years later.

Yunus said that in 1986 a team of Chinese soldiers and officers arrived in Raskam asking for camels and guides. Yunus was one of those who went up with them and at some spot under the northern flanks of Chogor (Chhogho Ri), the army planted a Chinese flag. Four years later, in 1990, the first Western tourists came this way. And they have not stopped since.

The man regarded me for a long time before turning to Wahab. They spoke and the word ‘Pakistani’ was traded. Yunus looked at me strangely and then shook his head. He had, it turned out, not once in the sixteen years since the first trekkers and mountaineers had trickled through his village, seen a Pakistani. I almost said he ought to open a store to sell cheap trinkets and frilly children’s dresses and his village would be flooded with my compatriots.

It took two hours to load the camels and we set out with the sun vertical and only a few cups of tea and some lousy white bread filling us up. We made for the huge cleft in the wall of rock running on our right, the break where the Zug Shaksgam coming from the southeast and the Surukwat from the southwest unite. Seet said the Zug Shaksgam was simply ‘darya’ – river – for the Kirghiz. Back in 1926, the surveyor Major Kenneth Mason mistook it for the real Shaksgam. However, later having identified the actual river, he called this the Zug or False Shaksgam. This name now features on all European maps. Four kilometres downstream of their junction, the united streams pay tribute to the Yarkand River near Ilica.

Now at the hottest time of day, the wind scudding off the bare rocks was burning and all across the shimmering landscape heat rose in quivering waves. I estimated the temperature in the sun was around 45° Celsius. There was nary a tree to break the monotony and provide shade from the merciless sun. In the dusty sky above, fleecy cumulus sailed lazily to the northeast.

The Surukwat and Zug Shaksgam met out of our sight way below some high ground to our left and continued northward. Our route to the Muztagh Pass lay along the Surukwat which from our vantage was seen as a thin ribbon braided across a gravelly floodplain stretching away to the southwest. We climbed down from our high terrace into its bed by a rock-strewn gully and turned upstream.

Five hours after we departed Raskam, we reached a spot where the Surukwat made a sharp turn to the south with a smaller stream joining it from the west. This was, said Wahab, Su Kosh Losh – Meeting of the Waters, not a regular camp ground, but ours for the night because of the late start.

For the first time since Yarkand, the evening sky was a clear blue without the dull skein of dust obscuring the hills. The dinner of vegetable stew that Wahab concocted was a treat after the day of near starvation: we had started from Mazar with just a cup of tea and eaten only a few morsels of the horrid white bread in Raskam. After the uncertainty and frustration of the days of waiting for my trekking permit, this was the first relaxed evening. If we were to go by it, the journey to Sughet Jungle and back promised to be a great outing.

I crawled out of my tent at five in the morning into a glorious dawn of vitreous blue, cumulus-mottled skies and the snow on the peaks to the north glowing orange-yellow in the early light. In view of the two days of famine behind us, we breakfasted heartily on fried eggs, four apiece, and thick slabs of rye bread with Wahab promising a ‘very dangerous’ bridge to cross over the Surukwat. I quailed at the idea of something like the awful willow twig and rope bridges of Baltistan. Those nightmare crossings, now very rare, sag in the middle with their own weight and have hand rails too thick to grip in case of slipping. I have never figured out how anyone can cross them at all without falling off from sheer fright.

Thirty minutes after camp we came to the bridge. It was nearly a metre wide, its thick spars sat squarely in piles of large rocks on either bank, and the planking underfoot was solid. Wahab had no idea about the nightmare crossings of the Karakoram valleys and I thought Wahab’s dangerous bridge lay farther on. The valley narrowed to a width of about fifty metres and continued that way for a couple of kilometres before widening out again. Somewhere here Younghusband’s party spent a night in September 1887. As they feared Hunza raiders, they were not using tents for it was known that the bandits came up in the dark, cut the tent ropes to trap inmates under the collapsed canvas before either shooting or cutting them up with swords. In order to fool any Hunza men that may be spying on them from some unseen vantage, the party laid out their sleeping bags in the afternoon. The positions were shifted just before turning in at night.

At the far end of the valley, there stood thwart of our line of march a snow-capped rock wall. At its very base, the Surukwat swung to the southeast with a smaller stream joining it from the west. According to Wahab this latter was Yalang Jilgha – Naked Gorge or Stream. I imagined it was so named because of its barrenness, but Wahab said the Kirghiz whose summer camp we could see on the shelf above the left bank of the Surukwat grazed their herds some way up this valley.

Over lunch at the junction of the two streams, Seet said that the river was the Siriq (Yellow) Gong (Narrow). It turned out that the Kirghiz knew it as the Surukwat only after it was joined by the Zug Shaksgam. Here in its upper reach it was the Narrow Yellow River. I ragged him about the almost green colour of the water and he said the elders who named the river could not have been wrong. On the ninth day of September, with melt water at its autumnal low, the river was green all right. In high summer it may well by yellow with silt.

As we turned left with the Surukwat, we began to climb for the first time since Raskam. A long, steady grind in a narrow gorge brought us to a sloping valley with five or six stone huts and a couple of sheep pens. A young shepherd with a few sheep came around to talk. This had been the summer camp for his family who were now in Yalang Jilgha on the first leg of the journey back to Raskam. Having rounded up the animals from the hills, he was on is way to rejoin them at Yalang Jilgha. In another two days, said the youngster, the Surukwat valley would be deserted with everyone safely home.

Wahab called this place Chonkor Utik– Deep Boot. He insisted it looked like an ankle boot and I had to conclude that Uighur or Kirghiz boots were something very different from what I had mistakenly known as boots all my life.

At 4280 metres, we were about six hundred metres and some four kilometres below the Aghil Pass that now lay between us and the Shaksgam River valley. Thus far the Balti travellers of the past coming up from Yarkand on their way home would not have come into any difficulties, save the threat of Hunza robbers. If the shepherds of Raskam came up the Surukwat valley in those uncertain times, the Baltis could have purchased food from them, making their going a tad easier.

After dinner as I was making for my tent, Wahab said I ought to keep an ear open for the wolves that are known to prowl about Chonkor Utik. The procedure to adopt was to light my torch and scream at the top of my lungs so that Wahab and Seet could set up their own shinding.

‘Does it work?’ I asked.

‘Sometimes it does, sometimes not.’ Wahab said with a shrug. In the event, the night fortunately passed without incident.

The Shaksgam River of which I first became aware from Blank on the Map, Shipton’s classic of exploration and mountaineering, had long haunted my imagination. It was now within reach on the far side of the Aghil Pass. Excitement over what was for me an epic crossing kept me awake long after I hit the sack.

* ‘Dawan’ is Uighur for ‘Pass’.
** The more accessible Mintaka and Killik passes in Gojal, north of Hunza, long used as the shortest connection between Gilgit, Hunza and Tashkurghan, have been secured by the Chinese with barbed wire fencing and armed soldiers on their side.

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

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

7 Comments:

At February 10, 2014 at 7:45 AM, Anonymous Arvind said...

Hi Salman
Is this an account of where you are just now or an narration of some earlier trip?

 
At February 10, 2014 at 9:52 AM, Blogger TARIQ said...

very interesting travelogue

 
At February 10, 2014 at 7:36 PM, Blogger Jalal Hameed said...

The Jalebi Bend is an interesting name -never heard of the place before: Interesting

 
At February 11, 2014 at 1:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I had time to read, I didn´t have money to buy books. Now I have money but don´t have time to read-ye tau BC hadd he ho gaee-hein? Life bloody SUCKS!
Abb iss post ko parhne ka time kidher sey nikaloon? I scanned it-its such a lovely read :)

 
At February 11, 2014 at 11:33 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

The real Jalebi Bends are in Zanskar, India.

 
At March 21, 2014 at 4:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a read....loved every word of it Sir.......rgds, Meher ( india).....I myself would like to get a hold of tareekh e jammu!!

 
At March 22, 2014 at 2:43 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thanks, Meher. the Tareekh is available here in Pakistan. So must surely be in India too.

 

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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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