For the first time in our days in the mountains, the morning dawned clear and bright without a speck of cloud in the sky. However, shortly after sunrise, a blue skein was perceptible all around. There was no breeze but it was bitterly cold despite the fact that our height, since descending into the Shaksgam
, had remained uniform at about 3900 metres. Without the usual gusting wind, taking down and packing the tents was still an ordeal because their surfaces were crinkly with rime.
|Chhogho Ri, the Great Mountain of the Baltis and
the Chogor of the Uighur and Kirghiz people of Xinjiang. At a little before
eleven in the morning when I became the first Pakistani to see its north face,
the mountain was blue-clad. This image was only for the record|
Immediately after striking camp, we rode the camels thrice in quick succession to cross narrow channels each nearly a metre and a half deep. About us shingle slopes altered with river terraces their verges sliced as if by the surgeon’s knife or grey-brown slopes of stark rock. In front, Kindik Tash seemed to recede as we approached it. Telling us to keep to the rocky slope along the left bank, Seet now rode his lead camel and was continually crossing and re-crossing clear blue channels.
An hour and a half after leaving camp, we came lateral with the Navel of the Earth. The Baltis were not the only ones to come up with evocative place names; the Kirghiz did okay as well. The rock was like an outie with another little lump sticking out on top very like the remains of an umbilical cord made a mess of by the midwife. The stream that Seet called the Chogor Darya and which Shipton
knew as the Sarpo Laggo River flowed across a wide gravel bed in ten channels to wash three sides of Kindik Tash. The Shaksgam swept past the north flank of the rock.
I paused for a moment. Far away to the northwest, stretched the Shaksgam River by which the doughty Hunza robbers sometimes made their way to these parts. Their preferred route however lay over the Shimshal Pass
and down by the Skamri Glacier. Once here they lay concealed in the rocks to set upon any poor Balti travellers
that may chance by. Wahab and I were on ground that bore the footprints of Balti travellers
. To our left the hill rose through a stretch of sand covered with sere vegetation to a great rocky height. The numerous crannies in it would have made a favourite lair for the Hunza men
We know that the Baltis hid during the day and travelled only at night to avoid detection by Hunza men. They would have chosen either only the darkest of nights or those when the sickle moon could just afford about enough light by which to see the road but yet not enough for the travellers to be detected by the skulkers. As they dozed in the cold darkness, the Hunza robbers would have relied more on hearing than on sight to find their quarry. The Muztagh Pass route was far from a very busy one. I cannot imagine any more than a group or two of a few men each every other fortnight, perhaps even once a month. It must have taken great perseverance on the part of the Hunza men to endlessly lie about waiting for someone to pass.
The clink of a boot against loose pebbles, a whispered warning to watch the step, the rustle of clothing in the breeze, the clearing of a throat or a cough, the grunt of a yak, anything, just anything out of the usual would have alerted the brigands to the arrival of their prey. A quick volley from their ancient muzzle-loaders and they would set upon the travellers with sword and knife. Surely the Baltis would occasionally have travelled armed, especially when they came in larger caravans with pack animals. There must have been times when a firefight would have broken out and the robbers humbled and made to flee into the darker reaches of the mountain above. But mostly the Hunza men prevailed because, so all early explorers insist, the Baltis were in a thrall of terror of their tormentors.
A cold wind scudding down from the top of the valley to the south sent a shiver through me. I cast an uncertain look around. Below us Seet was crossing an emerald stream yet another time and in front young Wahab strode across the sandy patch. We lived in safer times, but the awesome emptiness, so utterly devoid of any other human presence, and just the idea of those mountaineer robbers of the past was enough to unsettle.
Wahab was about three hundred metres ahead of me keeping to the slope above the right bank of the Sarpo Laggo stream when he disappeared behind a low sandy eminence. I rounded the rise and found him waiting for me.
‘Your Chhogho Ri,’ he said with a dramatic sweep of his right arm. Unable to produce the sibilant chh, he had mispronounced the word. But that did not take away the magic from the moment.
In front of us was a cone of bare rock above which a snow peak towered into the sky, heavy with its diaphanous blue veil. To the left of these two masses of rock and ice rose the misshapen pyramid of Chhogho Ri
. It had a snow-covered hump on the left side. In the centre of the face in front of us, a great ridge ran up like a giant scar all the way up to the summit. Between this ridge and the hump on the left was a deep gully festooned with enormous hummocks of snow and ice just ripe for the avalanche. The face to the right of the ridge was crumpled and completely covered with snow. If the nearer peak had a blue veil, Chhogho Ri was partial to purple. It was in sharp contrast to the symmetrical, elegant lines of the south face as seen from Concordia at the top of the Baltoro Glacier, a contrast that yet did little to mar the majestic grandeur of the second highest peak on the planet.
I stood in open-mouthed awe for a good few minutes before starting to walk.
‘Aren’t you taking a picture?’ Wahab wanted to know.
‘Look at the blue haze. This is hardly going to be a picture. We should have been here shortly after sunup.’ I was averse to just an ordinary snapshot of such a powerful spectacle and had not even reached for my camera.
‘You must take a photo. You said it is certain you will never return. One day you’ll need this photo to remind you what the mountain actually looks like from our side.’ Wahab said solicitously. Then with a moment’s thought he added, ‘It will remind you also of the time you became the first Pakistani to see the north face of Chhogho Ri.’
The man was so right. Within days after leaving this region, my mental image would start becoming distorted. Over time I would imagine the mountain any which way my fancy took. The mussed up coarseness of this side as against the smooth handcrafted loveliness of the south face might become magnified; the avalanche-ready stacks of snow and ice greater and its blue veneer less seemly. And so, shortly before eleven in the morning, with everything covered in a blue skein, I took my snapshot of Chhogho Ri. Within ten minutes of walking after the picture, the mountain was hidden behind the nearer hills.
Ever since my reading of Blank on the Map, the name Sughet Jungle had rung of high adventure. Sughet being the Turkic word for willow, I imagined a very forest of tall willows, clear streams rolling down from every high ground, birdsong, hares scurrying amid the bushes and raptors hanging motionless against the sky on fluttering wings. From Shipton I knew there would be onagers (skyang in Balti) as well. In the shimmering glare of mid-afternoon, he had seen one at a distance and imagined it to be one of his mates. But then it got nearer:
I realised that it was a wild ass. It came up to within fifteen yards of me and stood switching its tail about and staring at me. When I turned around to go on it followed me, stopping when I stopped and walking when I walked, rather like an obedient dog. However, it lagged behind as I approached the camp and kept a respectful distance away.
Wahab had been telling me that Sughet Jungle was virtually crawling with onagers and I, never having seen one before, was suitably agog. By his account, they no longer followed people around like dogs and never came anywhere as near as fifteen yards. Now they kept a more respectful distance and even as they grazed, kept glancing around to check nearby human presence. If one approached the animal, it cautiously drew away to maintain the distance.
The alluvial fan we were walking on was cut across every now and again by a narrow gully coming down from the slopes on our left. As we descended into another one of these dried ravines, we surprised a solitary ass browsing among the vegetation just about twenty metres from us. It snapped up its magnificent head to look at us before retreating a few steps. We stood there regarding each other as the camels came into view. The beast snorted, wheeled around, and shot off at amazing speed with a great clattering of hooves over the stones. It did not stop until it had put a hundred metres between itself and us. But what a handsome beast it was: almost as large as a pony, with a proud head and a short, bristly mane. It was of an orange-brown colour, paler legs and under-belly, and a dark tail.
More than I had wanted to photograph Chhogho Ri, I had wanted one of these beasts. I quickly changed lenses and with Wahab encouraging me to stalk the ass for it, he said, would permit me within twenty metres of itself, I walked off in the direction the animal had taken. I must have followed it about for a good thirty minutes before giving up: it never let me any nearer than a hundred metres or so and that was way too far for my 200 mm lens.
We entered a wide, stony saddle stretching all the way from the rocky ridge on our left to the river flowing off to our right. Far away in the south, the valley was closed by a set of snow peaks, one of them a perfect pyramid. From my Leomann map (Sheet 3) I later learned that this was one of the three Chongtar peaks, all of them seven thousanders, which crowd the right bank of the Sarpo Laggo Glacier in its lower reach. Wahab did not know if any of these peaks had been attempted.
With nary a soul to disturb the natural peace of the valleys leading up to them, there must be a great abundance of wildlife around them. Snow leopards, blue sheep, Himalayan ibex, bear and wolf may roam around the Chongtars in good numbers. Of the few unspoilt bits left on the planet, the base of these three peaks was one.
Over the saddle, I got my first glimpse of Sughet Jungle: a large, irregular blotch of green going on brown spread between the Sarpo Laggo stream on the right and the barren, snow-topped ridge on the left. Without a point of reference to give an idea of size and distance and seeing no tall trees I thought we were still a few hours away. But an hour’s stroll brought us into the midst of the Salix bushes. If this was a ‘forest’ it contained rather puny trees or, to be exact, only bushes. In area, it spread over an irregular oblong of about six square kilometres.
Sitting at the confluence of the Skamri and Sarpo Laggo glaciers, this was the ‘large forest’ that Frenchman Françoise Bernier wrote of as lying fifteen days’ journey north of Shigar. Even then, in the middle years of the 17th century, he was told that it lay on ‘the confines of Baltistan.’ Pakistan and its mendacious diplomats were a long way off in the future to deny that the Aghil Pass ever lay within the country’s territories. Going by the names in this area, it seems that the toe of the Sarpo Laggo Glacier was a linguistic barrier. North of it beginning with Sughet Jungle, place names, save a few in the upper reach of the Shaksgam River, were in the Turkic.
It was still early afternoon when we were done establishing camp. The sun was shining brightly and though a keen wind was scudding down from the Sarpo Laggo, I resolved to go bathing. Since setting out of Raskam, I had been unable to wash because either we made camp too late in the afternoon or, if we were early enough, it was cloudy and freezing. And so I had my wash and shampoo in the Sarpo Laggo stream in China. When I returned to the kitchen tent looking clean having washed off the muck gathered on the long drive from Karghalik to Raskam through the dust haze, Wahab darkly announced that on the morrow I was going to be very ill.
In 1937 during the course of the Shaksgam Expedition, Shipton and his team made Sughet Jungle their headquarters for six weeks. Here they climbed, surveyed, plane-tabled, and virtually inch by inch rubbed off the word ‘Unsurveyed’ from the map sheets of that time. From this base camp Shipton and his men spread out upstream along the river to connect the geography of the Karakoram Mountains with that of the basins of the Shaksgam and Surukwat rivers. Those four months of field surveys by Shipton’s team gave us the first detailed charts of this region. For over four decades these were the only maps, until satellite photography improved them.
The pre-1963 Sino-Pakistan Frontier Agreement border that passed over the Aghil Pass was first clearly defined in the maps that ensued from the Shaksgam Expedition. Atlases predating the Agreement show the old frontier. As well as that, the U-502 series maps of the US Army, Corps of Engineers show the same borders with the words ‘Sinkiang Province China’ and ‘Jammu and Kashmir
’ on either side of the line.
Breakfast was at six in the morning so that Wahab and I could climb the ridge to view K-2. I shocked the good man by saying that I only wanted to walk up to the snout of the Sarpo Laggo Glacier. It was with a good deal of disinterest that Wahab followed me south across the wide stony scallop of the terrace. In two hours we reached a spur about a couple of hundred metres above the bed of the Sarpo Laggo Stream. As we came up, we startled about a dozen hares browsing in the sparse brown grass. They scampered for cover at top speed.
In front lay the toe of the glacier, all crumpled, cut up, and contorted like the decaying cadaver of a gigantic animal. Its dirty grey surface extended back to a dark tor sticking out of the flank of a huge dollop of vanilla ice cream. Above it, stretching clear across the top of the valley was the trio of Chongtor peaks in their mantles of pristine white. This was the stretch of the Sarpo Laggo denied us by fear of lurking Chinese soldiers. To the westward was the equally decayed foot of the Skamri Glacier that would lead to Shimshal, were we to follow it. Above it on either bank reared snow-clad peaks. The one on the left bank I suspected was Crown Peak (7265 metes) and that on the right Skamri (6175 metres). Behind us, to the north, Sughet Jungle was hidden from view. The Sarpo Laggo stream stuck out its tongue of a floodplain at the dark grey ridge that marked the right bank of the Shaksgam.
The Skamri Glacier was the Hunza raiders’ favoured access to the Shaksgam Valley. Leaving their homes, they came through Shimshal village along a grim and bleak gorge to the summer pasture of Shuwert. There they descended a steep ridge to the winter encampment of Chikar in order to cross the rapid flowing Braldu River to enter Wesm e Dur, a valley connecting with the basin of the Skamri Glacier. At the head of the valley, over the pass of the same name, they entered the Skamri and followed it down to Sughet Jungle. The journey was so fraught with danger that I wonder if it ever occurred to the king of Hunza, who forced his subjects into this picaresque life, that there could be an easier way of amassing wealth. Perhaps his subjects were merely expendables for the king and it never occurred to him to make them work equally hard in their orchards and cornfields.
The Sarpo Laggo Glacier was so badly mussed up that there was no way anyone could take animals laden or otherwise up it. Younghusband tried in 1887, was defeated, and forced to send his horses back. While he made his way to Askole by the Old Muztagh, the animals were led by the long route through Shahidullah and over the Karakoram Pass to Leh to be eventually reunited with Younghusband in Srinagar.
Fifty years after Younghusband, Shipton and his party entered the Sarpo Laggo Glacier from the Baltoro not by the Old Muztagh Pass, but by a new one Shipton named the Sarpo Laggo Pass. Just over the top, they made the junction of Changtok Glacier, named after the peak of the same name, with the Sarpo Laggo. Here the team found traces of earlier occupation. Some, Shipton thought, belonged to the expedition of the Italian, Professor Desio; others of Younghusband’s party. He also found remnants of an even earlier period and concluded that ‘Changtok was an important halting-place on that remarkable ancient route which connected Baltistan and Yarkand.’ Shipton could not tell, however, whether ‘the stone circles and the remains of stone buildings marked the site of a permanent caravanserai, or a grazing ground, or whether it had only been used by occasional parties of local adventurers.’
There, on the grassy slopes of the moraine, the team found the bleached bones of some large animals. In Shipton’s estimation these were the remains of onagers. But I suspect they were reminders of a time when the Baltis travelled this way with horses and yaks. After all, there was a time when the glaciers were healthy and growing; their surfaces relatively smooth even in midsummer and going over them easy. Moreover, the Baltis did preserve a tradition, now all but lost, of journeys between Shigar and Yarkand with laden animals.
Shipton had also heard of Moni Braungsa, the camp ground named after a Balti traveller of old. If he was told who Moni was, Shipton does not divulge and I have always imagined this man may well have been a pioneer of the Muztagh route to Yarkand. About one-third the way down the Sarpo Laggo, Shipton’s party reached Moni Braungsa with some difficulty because of a large tributary glacier blocking the way. It was a dismal little hole between high rock walls with nary a view. Our plan, had we come over the Muztagh Pass, was to camp at the same spot. Dread of the Chinese kept us on the home side of the pass, however.
Two weeks before I had set out on my journey up the Panmah, Michael Beek, a seasoned German trekker, had done a spectacular traverse from Shimshal to Askole. He came over the Wesm Pass into the Skamri, skirted Sughet Jungle, and ascended the Sarpo Laggo. His account posted on the net is otherwise quite readable, but Beek fell to the old impulse of sensationalising an adventure that needed no additional drama. Near Sughet Jungle Beek wrote of seeing ‘a Chinese watching post in the distance.’*
Had there been a post, Beek would at best have been rotting in a Chinese jail and at worst not lived to tell his tale. I fail to see how a seasoned trekker could have mistaken a mountaineers’ camp, if there was one at Sughet Jungle at that time, for a military post. But since no treks come to Sughet Jungle between June and late August, Beek had seen nothing. If there was ever a blatant lie, it was this. This was not the first time a writer had given to the urge of undue embellishment, especially when there was little chance of verification by others. We had come all the way to know that Ilica ruled over by Lieutenant Oblat was the last Chinese military presence. Beyond that there were no Chinese outposts whether blind or capable of watching.
Wahab and I remained on the sandy knoll for nearly an hour. The good man had realised that this occasion was something of a highpoint of the pilgrimage for me. While I sat on a high, flat-topped knob of rock looking up into the Sarpo Laggo Glacier, Wahab stood a little way off to permit me to be by myself.
The journey between Baltistan and Yarkand, if it was anything, was not easy. Even the more frequented route over the Karakoram Pass had its perils, not just of Hunza raiders, falling rocks or raging torrents. There was the very real possibility of straying off the path and getting lost. On his mapping expedition of 1926, the British surveyor Kenneth Mason came upon a corpse, five marches eastward of the Karakoram route. The huddled up man had six tins of aniline dyes, unopened and bearing the device of a lion and shield. He also had a string of turquoise beads as well as two rupees in his pocket. From the situation of the corpse and what was found on it, Mason concluded that the poor man was a Balti who, having strayed off the route, died alone from starvation. The death, he believed, had taken place in 1924.
That was on a road involving no glacier travel and where one passed other travellers. In contrast, the route of the Muztagh Pass
was as forlorn as it could ever get. Even when they went in parties, the travellers would have sometimes faced calamity. I can imagine any number of ill-fated Baltis lying in a deep freeze under glacial ice; the bones of others still who had been done in by the raiders of this lonely road are very likely scattered here and there to be discovered by the same chance that led Mason to his Balti. There would be others who succumbed to illness or injury and were interred by their fellow travellers.
Surely some rare individual among those travelling Baltis would have maintained a journal. If such a document did ever exist, it very likely remained in the possession of that person’s family at most for a generation or two. Then, being a people more of the oral than the written tradition, the document may have ended up with a local storekeeper for its pages to be used to wrap snuff or condiments. That would have been the end it. If a person of some importance, a government functionary or a member of the royal family of Shigar or Skardu, ever ventured on the Apricot Road and wrote of his or her journey, there is every possibility of that journal ending up in the royal library of Skardu. Sadly, this was the very one that the rampaging Dogra soldiery reduced to ashes when Baltistan was annexed by the Kashmiri ruler. If ever a record of journeys on this little known highroad existed, it is forever lost.
From my GPS I learned that in a straight line I was only twenty-eight kilometres from where we had aborted on the Chiring Glacier. In this long journey to discover how those Balti travellers of yore went, I had missed only this little bit of the Sarpo Laggo and only because of an unwarranted fear of Chinese presence on this side of the Muztagh Pass. Whatever I knew of the missed part was from the work of Younghusband and Shipton.
And then a thought entered my head: what if I petitioned the president of Pakistan to be air-lifted to our Falling Rock camp and picked up at Sughet Jungle? If I together with Hasan Jan and Ghulam Hussain and three or four other porters with all necessary equipment and ten days supplies could be put down somewhere on the Chiring Glacier, we could complete the journey. From the map, I estimated we would need five days for the travel from Falling Rock down to Sughet Jungle. With two days to acclimatise on the Chiring, all we needed was seven days.
Sitting there on my knob of rock overlooking both the Sarpo Laggo and the Skamri glaciers, I was suddenly awash with incredible elation. The journey will yet be completed, I exulted to myself, and I will become the first person in over a hundred years to have done so. I even composed a little tribute to those unknown Balti adventurers who first discovered this difficult route hundreds of years ago. This, I resolved, would be engraved on a metal plaque to be installed at the foot of the Sarpo Laggo Glacier upon a prominent rock so that few would miss it. The citation was to read:
Oh, fellow human, grudge us not this monument for we, the people of Baltistan, are the pioneers of the Apricot Road between Shigar and Yarkand. We discovered it centuries before the first Europeans ventured into this wild country to make their maps.
The only glitch in this grandiose scheme of things was my aversion to be anywhere near the military dictator. Having started out with great promise, the man had fast lost the goodwill because of his mendacious and spineless nature. But I told myself I would happily adjust my stance if I could get the man interested.
As Wahab and I walked back to camp, I was almost skipping with delight. I told Wahab of my plan. He thought getting a Pakistani chopper into Chinese air space to pluck us out could possibly spell trouble. But who, I asked, would know such a thing had ever happened?
And so, I took the drudgery of the backward journey buoyed up with elation.
* See http://www.k2climb.net/news.php?id=15815
Book is available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore
Previous: Into the Mountains
Labels: Books, China, Muztagh Pass Expedition, The Apricot Road to Yarkand
posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,
At August 10, 2014 at 3:50 PM,
Beautiful end of a long journey. Love your rich blog.
At August 10, 2014 at 6:05 PM,
Salman Rashid said...
Thank you. You are very kind!
At August 26, 2014 at 11:49 AM,
Taimoor Ahmad Javaid said...
Sir i first read you in The News. Since then I've been admiring your work. Are all of your books available at Sang-e-meel?
At August 29, 2014 at 11:13 AM,
Salman Rashid said...
Thank you, Taimoor. My books are indeed available at Sang e Meel. Visit their website or call 042-3722-0100.
At September 9, 2014 at 9:21 AM,
Love your writing Sir.....and what an adventure. !!!
At September 9, 2014 at 10:34 PM,
Salman Rashid said...
Thank you, Meher.
At March 31, 2015 at 10:26 AM,
A great journey expressed in equally good words. I enjoyed reading
At October 27, 2015 at 9:26 AM,
Excellent travelogue of a dreamland ..... great work indeed sir .
At October 27, 2015 at 10:11 AM,
Salman Rashid said...
Thank you, EYEJAY.
At February 2, 2016 at 10:02 AM,
AHMED BAJWA said...
The craftsmanship of your travelogue is parallel to none. Be Blessed
At February 2, 2016 at 12:40 PM,
Salman Rashid said...
Thank you, Ahmed.
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