Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

To the Navel of the Earth

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River terraces sliced as if by the surgeon’s knife was a description first given by Eric Shipton during his 1937 Shaksgam Expedition. It is still true. Because of negligible precipitation, there is little erosion and the verges of the Shaksgam Gorge keep their shape

Francis Younghusband’s account elides rather hurriedly over the journey from where he left the Yarkand River valley in the Raskam neighbourhood, to traverse the length of the Surukwat, over the Aghil and into the Shaksgam valley. Strangely, he assigns no name to the pass; his description is exact nevertheless:
The height was beginning to tell, and the pass seemed to recede the nearer I approached it. One rise after another I surmounted, thinking it would prove the summit, but there was always another beyond. The valley was wide and open, and the going perfectly easy, leading sometimes over rounded boulders, but more often loose soil.
With Wahab and Seet slowly bringing up the camels, I hurried on across the stony ground of Chonkor Utik to the chevron of converging ridges just below the great slanting wall of snow to the left. The pass itself was three false crests and two and a quarter hours from our camp. The Surukwat, never a mighty river in its short life to its junction with the Yarkand near Ilica, was but a piddling spill here. It got ever sparser as I neared the pass.

Since Raskam, there had been no verdure to speak of. Nary a tree, only Salix bushes had we seen on the way. Seeing the large herds of sheep maintained by the families beginning the backward transhumance from Yalang Jilgha, I had wondered what the animals fed on. Here in the extreme upper reach of the Surukwat, the bare rocks looked ever the starker and I found myself drawing comparisons between this arid place with our Skinmang camp on the Chiring Glacier, both corresponding in height. That place was a meadow with flowers in bloom and birdsong; here all was bare rock with some tufts of grass now beginning to brown on either side of the trail. Everything else was vertical bare rock, sometimes with a mantle of snow, mostly bare and jagged.

Our camp at Kirchin Bulak – Salix Spring. Though we did have some Salix bushes on our side, the actual grove and the spring, Wahab said, were located on the far bank. In the evening we had a pied wagtail trespassing into our kitchen tent, presumably to get in out of the cold, gusting wind. Here too did we hear the repeated hoot of an owl

At length I spotted the pale green blotch of the lake, that marks the crest of Aghil Pass, a couple of hundred metres to the west of the trail. About a hundred metres long and half as wide, it is fed by one miserable little piddle of a spring. Surely, there would be others on the far side and perhaps a submerged source as well, besides melt water from the craggy snow-draped ridge above it to the west. The placid surface of the lake was broken by a number of widening wakes made by a bunch of ducks. In early September with the frost having set in at this height of 4780 metres, these were stragglers from the flocks that fly south across the Karakoram-Himalayan system to the warm lakes of the subcontinent.

I paused at the top of the pass to add my stone to the cairn by the side of the trail. Before 1963, Nasser Khan and our team could have crossed the West Muztagh Pass without fear of lurking Chinese soldiers, descended the Sarpo Laggo Glacier into the Shaksgam River, and reached the Aghil Pass from the south side. At that time the Pakistani border with China, as inherited at the partition of India, went over the Aghil and, had we come, we could have chatted with Kirghiz shepherds on the Xinjiang side. Then the upper reach of the Shaksgam River was in Pakistan, so was the full length of Sarpo Laggo Glacier, the entire north face of Chhogho Ri as well as all of the wastelands of Ak Sai Chin and Lingzithang.

In 1962, India fought her war with China over counter-claims for Ak Sai Chin. China beat back the Indians. Pakistan seeing its foe discomfited, hurried to offer China part of her territory in order for them to secure Ak Sai Chin and the road from Karghalik to Tibet that passed through the wasteland. The Sino-Pakistan Frontier Agreement of 1963 ceded to China a swathe of land beginning at the Killik Pass (N 37°-04’, E 74°-40’) north of Hunza and running all the way to the Karakoram Pass (N 35°-28’, E 77°-48’). In its length of some four hundred kilometres, this belt of land is sometimes as wide as seventy kilometres. India strongly resents this act to this day. For Indian rancour, Pakistan purchased Chinese friendship, a friendship that has proved very reliable in the past fifty years. But I wonder how the Chinese would react were Pakistan to one day demand for the border to be returned to the pre-1963 accord.

Being the kind of folks we Pakistanis are, the ceding of this land is not commonly known in the country. Intrigued by maps showing the old border while researching at the Royal Geographical Society in 1991, I, then ignorant of this border adjustment, delved deeper to learn of this little bit of history that had been kept under wraps at home. Upon returning, I wrote a newspaper piece about the affair. Shortly after that another on the same subject appeared in a different paper. It roundly denied such an adjustment had ever taken place. This piece was written by a man called Agha Shahi. As a veteran Foreign Service officer, Shahi was on active service in 1963, and he had something to do with the formulation of the agreement signed for Pakistan by the then foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The denial flew in the face of the dozens of old maps, but then bureaucrats the world over, ours the more so, have never covered themselves with glory for truthfulness. This fatuous disavowal of truth continues to this day.*

Wahab came up and we stood together in silence regarding the great serrated line of snow peaks stretching across the southern horizon. The Karakoram Range that I had so many times seen from the south now held my gaze from the north. Wahab pointed out a white tooth sticking just above the general line of peaks and said that was one of the Gasherbrum peaks. The leader of a French mountaineering team had told him so, he said. Despite the gusting wind, I took out my map in the lee of the cairn and with Wahab helping hold it down, did a rough sighting with the GPS compass. He may well have been right.

Together we walked over the wide shoulder of the watershed to a small pool spilling down to the south. Nothing dramatic here; no great lake, no bursting spring.

In mid-winter back in 1839, a British naval officer and cartographer, Lieutenant John Wood, made an epic journey up the Sindhu River from Karachi. Leaving the Sindhu at Attock, Wood fetched up in Afghanistan and eventually made his way through Badakhshan into the Wakhan Pamir. There, on a bleak and lofty plateau hemmed in by sombre ice-draped peaks rising a thousand metres above his 4300 metre-high station, with fresh snow whipped into his face by a cutting wind, Wood oversaw the bubbling birth of the Waksh Ab – Hellenised two thousand years before him as the Oxus. It burst forth from a frozen lake, the Sir e Kol.

Wood’s description of that epoch-making event is amongst the most goose bump-raising pieces of prose I have read in exploration literature. For years after becoming acquainted with it, I had wanted to be on that same spot on the same date – 19 February. But the West-sponsored jihad against Soviet Russia was in full swing and there was no chance of it. When the Pakistan-backed Taliban took over, I made a couple of attempts but was dissuaded for fear of unmarked mines in Wakhan left behind by the Soviets. I was denied my chance of standing in Wood’s footsteps by that most foolish of all human endeavours: war.

Here on the crest of the Aghil Pass, nothing even remotely thrilling took place. The paltry stream piddling down the south side did not mark the nascent Shaksgam, but an insignificant tributary of that magnificent river. The wind whipped not snow into our eyes, but grit. The nearest snow was a thousand metres above us, not at our feet. Wood was the third European in that region, preceded only by Marco Polo in the last quarter of the 13th century and the Portuguese Jesuit priest Bento de Goes in 1603. That having been said, it must be conceded that the two before Wood may not have passed exactly by the birthplace of the Oxus. While Wood had come for the express purpose of exploring the source of the Oxus, the earlier travellers were passing through on their way to other destinations and the source of the river lying well off the beaten path through Wakhan, they very likely bypassed it.

Like Wood at the source of the Oxus and Younghusband, the first ever European to cross the Aghil Pass, I was their Pakistani counterpart. Recalling Yunus’ observation about me as the only Pakistani ever to have been in that area, Wahab asked why more of my compatriots did not undertake trips to his part of the world. All the trekkers I know in Pakistan are middle-class working people and always strapped for cash. Many of them make short forays into the mountains, but any longer expedition with its larger outlay is generally out of the reach of most.

To undertake a journey as expensive as mine was out of the question. Most of the rich, young enough to be out adventuring, are overly exhibitionist more concerned with spinning their tyres on the streets of Lahore, than being in some remote river valley with their noses running from the cold and their lungs burning with the effort to fill them with the thin air. That having been said, of recent years the efforts of the Alpine Club and Adventure Foundation of Pakistan in promoting the principle of Outward Bound are paying and there are now more people wandering about the high places of the country than there were twenty-five years earlier.

A very squall blowing up from the Shaksgam gorge hit us as we hurried down to a jumble of large rocks where Wahab said we ought to stop for lunch. As we ate our boiled eggs and watermelons we were joined by a group of four Americans, three men and a woman, returning from Sughet Jungle. The youngest was in his thirties, one in his sixties and the husband and wife, seventy-eight and seventy-five respectively. I can never stop marvelling at such remarkable people for in Pakistan it will be a rare septuagenarian capable of walking a couple of kilometres. Such an arduous trek will forever remain beyond the domain of Pakistani oldies.

The passion to see the north face of Chhogho Ri had brought them out to this remote corner of the world. None of them were mountaineers, just ordinary mountain walkers. But all had read a good deal of mountaineering and exploration literature. The passion stemmed from this reading. In Pakistan, it is a rare person that reads and so as a nation, we will never experience that urge to discover for ourselves what others before us have seen.

With the couple smiling indulgently at us, the two younger men and I talked Shipton and Tilman. Agreeing that the snowy peak (6180 metres by the Leomann map) to the east of the pass was the one the duo had climbed to look down into the Surukwat valley, we said our farewells.

I watched the couple resume their slow, very slow, slog to the top of the Aghil. Only when they were about three hundred metres away I realised I should have asked if any of them had already seen the other side of the mountain that had brought them here. But it was too late. The wind scudding down from the pass would have carried my call away from them.

The valley quickly narrowed until we were traversing a tight little gorge amply strewn with boulders. The stream whose humble birth we had overseen on the south side of the Aghil crest was now a bounding torrent winding through the maze of shattered rock. Up ahead to the south I could glimpse a wedge of the grey bed of the Shaksgam River running below the brown and sienna wall of its left bank.

Making the river terrace, Wahab veered off to the east. I had expected to keep with the stream we had followed thus far, but he said there was no way of descending into the valley because the stream cascaded over a sharp rocky verge fifty or sixty metres high. We walked about three kilometres until we made a jagged, rocky and bone dry chasm coming down the stark slopes on our left and cutting across the terrace to descend into the Shaksgam. Then we back-tracked and walked downstream. The detour was necessitated because of the sharp verges of the river terraces which, according to Wahab, afforded no place to climb down.

In Blank on the Map, Shipton wrote that the terraces were flat on top but cut ‘vertically at their outer edges as if by a sharp knife.’ By Shipton’s account, the verges at times only ‘twenty feet high’ could rise to as much as fifty times higher at other spots. Though I did not spot a single three hundred metre-high verge, but seven decades of erosion by wind and some scant melt water had made little difference to the sharp edges.

In 1887 Younghusband had descended from the terrace to the river by a ‘shoot’ in the cliff. It was ‘very steep and rocky’ and his team had to unload the ponies to get them through. Even so, one man led the pony while another held on to the tail. The utility of this last manoeuvre totally evades me because in the event of the man in front or the pony itself losing its feet, the man behind was very likely to suffer an almighty kick to the chin. Worse, the flying hoof could have caught the unwary, and unintended, victim where it hurts a man the most. But when the sahib said hang on to the tail, the natives did just that even if it was the stupidest thing to do.

I suspected there would be any number of such chutes dropping down from the top of the terrace to the valley floor. Wahab denied that vehemently. As we trudged westward along the river I kept up my whining about the unnecessary extra walk and at the hottest time of day too. Presently we came lateral with just the kind of chute I expected. It was at a spot where the verge was about fifteen metres high. It was not rocky like Younghusband’s, ‘shoot’ but with a sand and talus floor.

It could not be negotiated, said Wahab confidently. Some French mountaineer with whom he had come as a guide had told him so. To me this did not sound right. Though the scree-filled chute was too narrow to take even an unladen camel through, it seemed perfectly good for people. I tried the chute on the return journey, but not without a shade of trepidation brought on by Wahab’s insistence that the French mountaineer could not have been wrong. It proved a cinch. As against the hour the long detour took, I was on the terrace in a quick one-two. Wahab followed suit and as we built a small cairn to mark the route I ragged him about the sissy mountaineers he had been guiding.

I wonder however, if Wahab has since used the chute again or, a slave of habit, leads his wards on the needless detour.

Wahab’s major asset was his literacy in English. In a largely English-illiterate China, he was rightly proud of it too. But for some strange reason while knives were knive-ez and wives wive-ez for him, teaches and peaches were teachs and peachs, two words not to be pronounced in the company of toddlers for fear of them taking it a cue for a piddle. I started a feeble attempt to correct him, but his speaking look shut me up. In consequence, tinned peachs continued to make our dessert every evening until we ran out of them at Sughet Jungle. An ample supply of nood-lez and other stuff staved off starvation as the main course, however.

It was because of his English that Wahab worked summers as a licensed mountain guide making reasonable money while working his way through a degree at the University of Urumchi. From his own account he was about the top of his class for which, he admitted, he worked very, very hard. But being the sneak that he was, he said with his eyes crinkling up, he did not tell his mates of his secret hiding place in a little used corner of the campus library. There behind the racks, he discreetly crammed his lessons. When they asked him where he had been, he always had a story about visiting relatives in town. His good grades surprised his peers who never caught him studying.

A steadfast teetotaller and eater only of halal food, he kept away from bars and Chinese restaurants. He was clearly not overly fond of the Chinese either. In Karghalik he had suggested I invite the attractive Chinese masseuse to my room because for ‘a few dollars’ she would gladly bed with me. In his view, the women slouching by their massage parlour doors along the road just outside our hotel were also good hunting – all of them also being Chinese. I asked about Uighur or Kirghiz women in the business and he turned up his nose to inform me that Muslim women did not indulge in that demeaning work.

As a star soccer player, he was himself a bit of a ladies’ man and his weekends were a blur of discos across Urumchi. But he stopped himself short of giving me a fuller account of his love life. It was clear however that he wooed more than one young lady, successfully keeping each one of them out of the others’ – and harm’s – way. Disaster had been averted so far, crinkling eyes again, by never courting girls from his own department at the university and always meeting them off campus. Wahab was no show-off, however. He did not gloat over his success with women; his was a mere matter of fact account.

The gorge of the Shaksgam was here about eight hundred metres wide and now in mid-September, with glacial melt considerably reduced, the river flowed in a single channel, only rarely expanding into two or three narrow ones. In high summer beginning early June, the entire valley floor was taken up by the rushing torrent. Then, said Wahab, it was impossible to ford the river. Expeditions heading out to climb Chhogho Ri had to be on the far side before the floods and could not return until early September. There were no trekking expeditions between June and late August.

Keyoum’s company had instances where, despite all attempts to dissuade them, Western trekkers insisted on doing the traverse to Chhogho Ri in high summer. Since they were paying good money they were brought out to this side of the Aghil Pass. Here they waited, once Wahab with them, for a couple of weeks, aborting only when rations had run too low to permit onward journey. As policy, the company not only did not undertake mid-summer treks into the Shaksgam region, they now actually discouraged them.

As for avoiding the flood by walking on the terraces, that was simply out of the question. Though they were mostly level on top, they had the nasty habit of regularly disappearing into immense talus slopes that may be fun for scree-runners, but could be killers for laden camels. At other times, the terraces ended in sheer granite slopes that, in turn, fell right down to the water.

Basing on information from Kenneth Mason, who surveyed the Shaksgam basin eleven years before him, Shipton noted in 1937 that the last date to ford the Shaksgam was about the tenth of July. But that would have been a pre-global warming timetable. By Wahab’s reckoning the cut off was now early June.

En route from Sughet Jungle to Aghil Pass in mid-June, Shipton very nearly had an accident when the Sherpa together with whom he was crossing the river slipped and was only just saved from being swept away. ‘After this we humbly followed the lead of the Baltis, who knew far more about this hazardous business than any of us, and faced the torrents with surprising nonchalance.’ Shipton wrote. That was in mid-June when glacial melt was quite nearly at its maximum.

The Baltis he was travelling with were the sons of those who had for hundreds of years walked this route between their native Baltistan and Yarkand. They had turned unassisted river crossing into a very art. The four Balti men that Godwin-Austen had encountered at Shingchakpi camp ground on the Panmah Glacier would have forded this river in mid-August. Then it would have been in several channels, some of them deep and swift that could only be forded in the chill of pre-dawn darkness when melt water runs at its lowest. By Shipton’s time the route had been abandoned for three decades and his Balti porters may not have seen the Shaksgam before, but those earlier experiences passed down through the generations were part of their expertise.

They would have known too that in view of their schedule, Shipton and his team would miss the narrow window of travel in the Shaksgam Valley. That may well have been the cause of their alarm when, after leaving Askole, they were still south of the Great Asiatic Divide taking up too much time surveying even as the period of flooding approached fast. Shipton roundly disparaged their consternation.

Our stop for the night was Kirchin Bulaq – Salix Spring. Wahab pointed out a large blotch of deep green on the far side of the river and said a clear fresh water spring flowed among those Salix bushes. I balked at the idea of a river crossing in the afternoon when the flow was at its maximum. But it turned out that even though we did not have a spring, the camp ground was on our side. There were also plenty of Salix bushes for the camels to feed on.

Having set up camp, we returned to the subject of the way from the terrace at the foot of the Aghil Pass into the Shaksgam flood plain. Seet, who had brought his camels on this trek more times than Wahab had come as a guide, now said that it was impossible to follow the stream down from the top of the pass into the Shaksgam valley. By his account, the conglomerate terrace had been eaten away by centuries of flowing water exposing the hard granite beneath and the stream dashed over some very slippery rocks from a height of nearly fifty metres. Neither man nor beast could go that way, he said as he casually rolled a cigarette of coarse tobacco in old newsprint.

Seet’s description brought back to mind the difficulties Shipton and his team faced in their attempt to ascend to the foot of the Aghil through this chasm. Having reached the top of the terrace by a narrow cleft, further progress was halted by the sheer verges ahead. They blundered deeper into the rocky chasm where the stream tumbled down from above and Shipton, who seldom mentioned hardship in the field, on this rare occasion, wrote of the ‘horrible difficulties’ in attaining the top. This way was thus out of the running for the route up or down. Meanwhile, I had already earmarked my chute and resolved to try it on the way out.

Soon after the sun dipped behind the western hills, a murderously cold, grit-laden wind whipped along the corridor of the Shaksgam from the west. I fled into the kitchen tent with Wahab and Seet. We were soon joined by a solitary pied wagtail. Completely unafraid, it skittered around among the gear and between our legs picking up bits of food. It fled every time Seet rose to go outside, but apparently averse to the frigid blast outside, always returned right away.

As we ate our dinner, an owl set up a series of hoots somewhere on the ridge just above our camp. It was a single, deeply sonorous ‘whoo’ that kept up about four or five times a minute for a couple of minutes. Although Wahab did not find either the wagtail or the owl particularly exciting, he said my endless griping about the absence of birds in Xinjiang could now be put to rest.

As we turned in, a steady drizzle began and kept up most of the night. It was still pattering down at dawn and when shortly afterwards I heard Wahab in the kitchen I called out to ask what we were to do in case it continued. The order was to breakfast as usual and wait for it to clear. Nature was concurrent with the operating procedure for no sooner had we finished eating, the clouds gave way to a crystal blue sky. Taking down the tents, beaded as they were with raindrops and now chilled by the breeze, was murder. For half an hour after, I nursed painful fingers.

The Shaksgam hugged the cliffs along the left bank and we marched in its bed keeping to the right. The far bank was mostly granite or talus slopes dropping right down to the water, but our side was perpendicular verges riven with narrow cracks. In several spots the verges were carved by wind and water to resemble squads of misshapen giants frowning down upon us intruders.

Two hours after setting off from camp, we mounted the camels for the first time to make a short crossing of two channels each about a metre deep. Seet held the nose rope low to make the camel lower its neck, stepping on which we jumped on top of the load, one man to each camel. The camels took this indignity with great equanimity. At home I have travelled with single-humped dromedaries in the mountains of Balochistan and Sindh and have come away hating those baleful creatures.

The camels never couch without creating one almighty fuss of bellows and grunts, the most haunting item of their repertoire being a long-drawn, chill-inducing moan straight from the award-winning sound track of a horror film. They raise hell every time a new item of gear is loaded on and roar mightily as the cameleer urges them up. I never saw Pakistani camel drivers use the lowered neck to mount the beast.

On the march, dromedaries snap at the animal in front in their attempts to nip the rider. From time to time the male hangs out its distended soft palate amid sprays of foam. Black and pink, streaked with blue and red veins, the palate is blotched purple and wins for being amongst the most revolting sights in the world. Dromedaries are believed to be the meanest creatures ever that can remember a face for decades and if one has been manhandled the wrong-doer is punished the first chance the animal gets. Word has it that the camel will grab a man in its mouth, smash him to the ground and squat to crush him with the hard knob of cartilage and skin between its forelegs.

In comparison these double-humped Bactrian camels were the gentlest of creatures. In the fortnight I spent with them, I never heard a sound from them; never saw one snapping at the others or at Seet. Even their faces were prettier than those of the treacherous dromedaries. The eyes of both species share the same limpid gentleness. But that is as far as the similarity goes. During the crossing the animals, forever silent, were sure-footed, but they let the current bear them downstream.

Years ago I had crossed the Braldu River in Shimshal on a yak. As soon as we hit the water, the yak began to grunt and growl, but it kept its head down and ploughed into the flow at an angle of ninety degrees. So powerful is that beast and so suited for river crossing that if we were carried downstream in that width of some sixty metres, it could not have been any more than a few metres at most.

At noon we paused for lunch. Far away in the distance where the mountains on either bank of the Shaksgam converged in the bed of the river, Wahab pointed out Kindik Tash. Kindik was ‘navel’ in Uighur and Kirghiz, said Wahab. This, then, was Navel Rock. But compared to Kindik Tash, with both k sounds being the guttural qahf of Persian and Turkish, which had a nice ring to it, Navel Rock sounded very poor. Accordingly, I christened it the Punjabi equivalent: Dhunni Vatta. That rang even better than the original Turkic.

We crossed the river three more times on camelback before altogether giving up the right bank along which we had marched thus far. The river terraces now dwindled, replaced by fan-shaped scree slopes with rocky crags towering above. Though we were at a height of four thousand metres and the nearer peaks rose about fifteen hundred metres higher, none of them kept any winter snow. This was a sharp contrast with similar heights in the Karakoram, Hindu Kush, or the Himalayas. There such heights would be glaciated because of the greater precipitation. But in this arid region, winter snowfall is so scant that little lasts through midsummer – except at heights above six thousand metres above the sea.

Three hours after Wahab had first pointed it out, we made camp for the night amid a clump of Salix bushes at a spot Wahab called the Kindik Tash camp ground, our first on the left bank of the Shaksgam. The rock that gave it its name was yet a couple of hours away, however. As for the title, Dhunni Vatta is as apt as it can get. But the earth does not have a neat little innie; it is a rather ugly protruding navel. If I had imagined there was a tradition among the Kirghiz about this spot being the exact centre of the known world, I was wrong. Nor too was it known by this name because the circular rock did indeed look like an outie. Seet said it was Kindik Tash because the rock stood in the crotch where two rivers joined: the Shaksgam coming from the east and Chogor Darya washing the north flanks of their Chogor.

The Shaksgam gorge is one wild and desolate place of stark beauty that looks like no place I have seen in Pakistan. The towering turrets of rock, the wide scallops of fine scree like flowing skirts hiding the granite’s nakedness, the sharp-edged terraces and clamped between this vice, the river that flows in half a dozen channels, leaden and silty here, clear and emerald again. And above, a sky remarkable for never being made any the prettier by a bird lazily circling about its blue expanse. Wahab, who once saw the Shaksgam in late June some years before, painted a picture of a foaming grey torrent that swept past with a constant roar.

With its abundance of snow peaks, especially nearer its basin, I would have imagined the Shaksgam gorge crowded with mountaineering teams. But save the Americans we met on Aghil and a bunch of Belgian tourists coming in as we made our way back, we saw no one. Seet said it was far too distant and too arid for Raskam shepherds to ever venture here. Indeed, they never cross the Aghil Pass to the south. Of the few places on earth where one can be overcome with a sense of isolation, the Navel of the Earth is one. The odd fear that I have nurtured every time I have been in a remote place for some years past returned to haunt me yet again: what if I were to suffer a ruptured appendix?

This was a mean little dread compared to what Balti travellers lived with on the Apricot Road. They never knew when the crags above them concealed Hunza robbers. It was for fear of those skulkers that the Baltis travelled only at night, hiding away by day. The luxury of fire they could not afford for fear of giving away their position and had to do with pre-cooked rations of the traditional nut-and-dried-fruit breads. Without their favourite tsampa, it must have been a poor life for them. Tents were not used because the Hunza man, creeping up silently during the night, had the habit of swiftly cutting the ropes to let the canvas fall on the inmates and then proceeding to make short work of the hapless quarry.

Yet those doughty Baltis travelled back and forth, back and forth between their two homes in Yarkand and Shigar. Their purpose of undertaking this rather harrowing journey appears primarily to meet family back home, but surely the travellers would have carried merchandise in order to make their trip pay for itself. However, despite Hashmatullah Khan’s assertion regarding ‘Yarkandi merchants [making] regular trading calls to Baltistan,’ we know next to nothing of the trade done by the Apricot Road. Gold may have been one commodity for Vigne records, from hearsay, the curious event of a trader’s gold surreptitiously exchanged for silver during his sojourn in Shigar. Khan tells us, rather laconically, that after the exchange of embassies between Yarkand and Shigar in 1535, the latter underwent a good deal of development in terms of cultural and social refinement. How that came about is not disclosed, but there is in this report the hint that not only traders but also men of learning and sophistication were travelling from Yarkand by this difficult road.

We know that Turkistan was, and still is, well-known for the manufacture of felts and leathers. Besides the gold from Northern Asiatic mines that was meant mainly for the larger Indian market, tannery products would be much favoured in Baltistan and Kashmir. In exchange, the butter and ghee produced from yak’s milk in Baltistan’s high altitude pastures would have had a ready market in Yarkand. Baltistan may also have exported some of its several varieties of apricot that won it acclaim as Tibet of the Apricots.

One thing is certain, though: silk did not come this way, as indeed none came through Hunza and Gilgit. But when the Karakoram Highway passing through these towns was completed in the 1980s, mendacious but ignorant government functionaries called it the Silk Road. The idea was to attach supposititious glamour to it in order to attract tourists. Instead of all this deception, they could simply have played on the heroism and the sacrifice of human lives that went into its making as well as the landscape it traverses to sell the highway as a tourist product. However, accustomed since independence to the manufacture of false histories, the machinery of the state succumbed yet again, and needlessly, to devious fabrication. The result is there are people who know no better and believe the Karakoram Highway to be the Silk Road.

As for the passage of silk from China into the subcontinent, there were other routes, the major one leading down from the Chinese province of Yunnan through Myanmar. In our region, silk reached India by way of the Karakoram Pass of which we find proof in a collection of delightfully quaint and generally erudite letters written by an enigmatic bunch. The Himalayan letters of Gypsy Davy and Lady Ba (written in 1923-24, published 1926) tells us of ‘several lakhs’ worth of silks, namdas [felts] and charas [hashish] from Chinese Turkistan, waiting for transport.’ This was in a village at the northern foot of the Khardung Pass on the main route from Leh to Yarkand by the Karakoram Pass. There is no tradition of silk transiting through Shigar, however.

Surely, the Hunza troublemakers were not known in the early years of this journeying almost a millenium and a half ago. It is possible that the mischief began in the 16th century or later when there was considerably more traffic. At some point in that period, a particularly rapacious Hunza overlord, forever on the lookout for easy money, would have forced brigandage upon his subjects. Once begun, it turned to a habit difficult to shake off.

The single most remarkable aspect in this sordid game is the unbelievable hardihood of the Hunza robbers. It is something that evokes feelings of awe, rarely of revulsion. Setting out from their homes, they passed eastward through Shimshal. Over the 4600 metre-high pass of the same name. This was the very one that Younghusband knew had to exist to permit these mountaineers access to the Shaksgam basin, and the one he explored in 1889. Over the 4600 metre-high Shimshal Pass, they entered the gorge of the Braldu River and followed it eastward to its junction with the Shaksgam. There they spread out up river and down.

The Shaksgam in this region is one mighty torrent the colour of molten lead, now spread wide between stark ridges, now in the tight vice of a narrow chasm. Through this forbidding setting utterly devoid of human habitation these intrepid mountaineers made either to the south side of the Aghil and onward over the Shaksgam Pass to the lonely road coming down the Karakoram Pass. Or, by going downstream and joining the Raskam River, reached Raskam village and the Surukwat Valley. The Hunza men thus had within their reach both the Shigar-Yarkand road and that of the Karakoram Pass farther eastward. Yet another way of attaining the Apricot Road in the region of Sughet Jungle was by the Wesm Pass, east of Shimshal and thence to the Skamri Glacier.

For some peculiar reason, Victorian authors did not ask a question that should have come naturally to any investigator: the Hunza men’s mode of travel. This may be because the lay of the middle reach of the Shaksgam between Kindik Tash and its junction with the Braldu further west was then unknown. Be that as it may, I suspect the robbers used yaks, the only beast that can unerringly and safely bear its burden not just over difficult mountain paths but also across the fastest stream. Moreover, the animals would be handy to haul the plundered goods home and nothing would have to be left behind.

Oh, to have had a man, just one Hunza individual among that host of daredevils given to writing diaries and for Nature to have somehow preserved those pages. We would today have known such wonderful, sometimes gory, tales of that picaresque age. The pages of Hunza history would have been altogether more colourful.

‘Tomorrow you will see K-2, the object you have desired so long,’ said Wahab as I rose to go to my tent.

‘You forget,’ I corrected him. ‘I did not come here to ogle Chhogho Ri. I came to see the north end of the Sarpo Laggo Glacier, the way Balti travellers came down into the Shaksgam Valley. The whole journey was my celebration of their great and heroic endeavour. Tomorrow, my friend, we will see the snout of the Sarpo Laggo.’ 

* Preserved in the journal Pakistan Defence, the text of the agreement can be viewed at

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 18 February 2014 at 20:42, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who will go to Wakhan when you left it out? Will that remain unexplored for ever? But thanks for writing this account and putting the 'sold out' bit of Pakistan to limelight.

At 19 February 2014 at 06:51, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Anonymous, Wakhan was way out of this trip. One day, one day, perhaps if peace returns.

At 19 October 2014 at 23:24, Blogger Nikhil said...

Sir as an Indian this piece of gift is very offensive [to put it mildly].... obviously the entire power structure is deeply, obsessively anti that hate all sense of dignity, fair play....everything is sacrificed!! Just sad

At 24 October 2014 at 12:16, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

I'm a a complete loss to understand what you mean, Nikhil.

At 17 February 2015 at 18:11, Anonymous shah zaland said...

Sir, when ever u make a plan for wakhan strip, do let me know, i will accompany you.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

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Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

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