Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Story of the Muztagh Pass Expedition

Bookmark and Share

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

I was fortunate to get the plane from Kashgar to Islamabad and thus escape the bone-jarring 16 hour bus ride from the former to Gilgit where I would have laid up for the night and then faced another similar journey of equal duration to Rawalpindi. And then another few hours by train or coach to Lahore. But from the beginning.

Title image The Apricot Road to Yarkand 
We were equally lucky going out for we got the plane to Skardu on 10 August where we found everything in order waiting for us. Ghulam Mohammed, who was handling this trip, is a very good operator. On the following morning we were on the jeeps to Askole - World's End. I bore with me a framed photograph of Haji Mehdi who ran that store in Askole back in 1990 where we purchased, among other things a bag of potato mix which was mistaken for powder milk up on Lukpe La and we had potato tea - a novelty, but who had since died. His sons now run a little inn in the village. So now I have a photograph of one of his sons holding up a picture of their father. The walk began the next morning and we went up the Panmah Glacier. On the fourth day out we reached Shingchakpi Camp Ground where Godwin-Austen had met with the four Baltis coming out of the swirling storm clouds. Weather remained persistently bad with clouds obscuring the higher peaks and daily evening showers of rain.

We did not camp at Shingchakpi but carried on to the next camp ground about four hours farther. This was Skinmung which lies in a fertile ablation valley on the right bank of the Chring Glacier. After a day of rest the main camp was left here and we three expeditioners (Nasser Khan, Naeem Awan and I) together with out two high altitude guides moved to a yet higher camp towards the Muztagh Pass. Nasser called it Falling Rock Camp because all day and night long rocks came tumbling down the slope behind our camp. The two high altitude guides made a reconnaissance to the base of Muztagh Pass and reported that there was a largish ice cap at its foot where, they said, 'a plane can land' while the pass itself was a 200 metre rock face. We knew then that the Muztagh was no trekker's pass, but a mountaineer's.

Nevertheless, the next morning we all went out together - the five of us - with the mountaineering gear. For the first time we were on a white glacier in a dramatic landscape. At about a kilometre from the pass we halted. Below us, about a 100 metres lower, was the basin of Chiring Glacier with a few crevasses clearly visible and beyond the rock face did indeed rise a full 200 metres. To me it did not seem insurmountable. In fact, it looked rather easy. Above it was the large ice cornice that was perhaps 50 metres high with its hood facing our direction. This was the real menace and could not have been passed without seriously endangering ourselves.

salman rashid

And this was the north side of the pass where ice conditions should logically have been better. We did not know what lay on the south side in the basin of the Sarpo Laggo Glacier. The other worry was that in our queries before leaving both Nasser and I had heard that the Chinese maintained a military presence on the Sarpo Laggo. And the Chinese being who they are, we were afraid we would all be run in and no one would know of us until several months later. We knew then that we had reached the end of our trek on this side. We returned to Skardu the way we had come.

Nasser and Naeem being government employees left me and I made my way from Skardu to Gilgit and from there to Kashgar. There I learned that my trekking permit which had been applied for two weeks earlier had not yet come through. And so I was laid up in Kashgar for three days. But since I wanted to look for Balti people in Yarkand, I went off with my guide (who spoke some English). In Yarkand we did meet up with a wonderful Balti man who spoke Urdu for he had been travelling in Pakistani. Neither he nor he said anyone else remembered why their ancestors came to Yarkand. Nor too did he know which route had been taken. He said his great-grandfather was the one to have settled here. This would mean the Baltis were travelling as late as after Younghusband's journeys in 1887 and two years later.

After I had nearly despaired of my permit coming through, it eventually did. I suspect the Chinese were doubtful of my credentials. We must not forget how the bearded brigade of Pakistan started sectarian trouble in Kashgar back in the days of the S**** Zia (1986). Moreover, I was being told by my tour operator and others that no Pakistani had ever come walking in Xinjiang. The only Pakis they knew there were the uneducated small time traders. So if the Chinese were suspicious, I couldn't really blame them.

The permit finally came through and we found ourselves in Raskam village where we had three camels awaiting us. So Wahab, my guide, Seet, the camel handler and I set out along the Surukhwat River for Aghil Pass (Shipton crossed it in 1937 to climb a nearby peak and look into the headwaters of the Surukhwat). Three days later we were in the very dramatic valley of the Shaksgam River. Broad and pebbly, the valley was bordered by scree and conglomerate slopes wind-eroded into crazy ravines. In September the river itself was braided across the flood plain in several streams. Wahab said the valley was completely swamped from June to August.

Where the river coming down from K-2 North Glacier runs into the Shaksgam, there is a rock in the middle of the flood plain. About a hundred metres high it is called Kindik Tash - Navel Rock. Twelve years ago in Lahore Mike and Rhona had a book titled To the Navel of the Earth. I don't know why I never borrowed to read it, but now when I heard this name, I knew the author would have been here. We turned south into the valley of K-2 North and for the first time I saw the famous Tibetan Wild Ass. A pair of them was startled as they grazed in a side ravine when we suddenly clattered down the slope. They made off in a hurry. Handsome animals they were too, not the drab grey of our asses, but a golden brown, taller and more powerfully built. They stopped at about 200 metres from us and looked us over carefully. But they were gone before I could change lenses to photograph them.

Beyond lay Suget (Willow) Jungle. Shipton, Tilman, Spender and Auden had camped here in 1937 while they mapped the Shaksgam. I have to re-read Blank on the Map to see if there were any trees in Shipton's time, because now there were only Salix bushes. My guide wanted me to climb a ridge and look at the north face of K-2 and for the first time I told him that was not my aim. Until then, for fear of being stopped from going any further, I had lied about wishing to see only K-2. So I took him with me to the toe of the Sarpo Laggo Glacier and told him how the Baltis would have come. From that point, according to the GPS, it was only 28.5 km to the foot of the Muztagh Pass where we had turned back. And the big disappointment was that the nearest Chinese presence was at Raskam, five days' march away! We could have come down all the way without fear of persecution. Had we known that, we would have actually attempted to cross the Muztagh.

But I am not disappointed. I have seen the way the Baltis travelled to Yarkand long before the first European explorers ventured in these places. The big find is that the Chinese and Uighur names for K-2 are derivatives of the Balti. From Chogo Ri (Great Mountain), the Uighur and Kirghiz called it Chogor and the Chinese Chongoli. The Chinese even stress the last syllable like the Baltis.

So that is in brief the story of the Muztagh Pass expedition. By the way, in Skardu I discovered that Yerkinpa was not a mulberry but an apricot. It being the end of the season, I was not able to take a sapling to Yarkand because, they said, it would just not go, it would die because it was so late in the season.

Read  'rich excerpts' from The Apricot Road to Yarkand Online

The Apricot Road to Yarkand (TRAVELOGUE), Sang-e-Meel Publications (042-3722-0100), Lahore ISBN 969-35-2371-7 203 pp. Rs. 2,200

Labels: , ,

posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 3 March 2014 at 21:53, Blogger Lahoremassagist said...

What a journey

At 6 March 2014 at 14:18, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Nayyar, this really was the journey of my life. I don't think any other can now surpass it.

At 15 June 2014 at 11:27, Anonymous muhammad athar said...

A journey looks to be a great venture

At 2 October 2014 at 10:16, Blogger Faisal said...

1. As a traveler/ writer Salman Rashid has distinguished himself in ranging far and wide almost all over Pakistan. He has rediscovered and given some hitherto little known places a nice touch of somewhat tarnished history and geography in his narratives. But somehow a deeply ingrained contempt for natives mars his otherwise rich accounts. One wonders if he really likes what he is doing or these are just some whining grouchy descriptions of observing the negative side of people and places he comes across. He looks to be more of a western traveler than a native writer. His abhorrence for indigenous cultures and people mirrors the accounts of some western travelers, who wrote with the jaundiced ink and eye from the detached lofty perch of assumed superiority. Salman Rashid pounds along the native paths with much misery and dark wit, more like a forced march to fame, which he did complete at last. Through his Western monnocular he fails to see the soul of land and its peoples in their true native colors, thus really failing in the end.

2. I believe a native traveler/ writer is bound by loyalty to choose brighter paints to represent his countrymen than the somber and dismal colors for his country canvas. Or perhaps Salman Rashid also fell prey to the Sirens of the West, like so many others of our kind. The vain glory of setting sun has often robbed the sight of eastern eyes.

3. Having traveled to almost all of these places and people I found them to be humane, caring and hospitable, evenly matched to any group of people anywhere in the world. In fact the more you are off the beaten track the more you come across the pure heart of East….untarnished by the materialistic touch of West. My memories of them are not painted in gray color but are lovely pictures I shall cherish the rest of my life.

At 4 October 2014 at 12:55, Blogger Rehan Afzal said...

Faisal I totally get you; you are probably a descendant of that vilified moron Naseem Hijaazi who bent over backwards to glorify the brigands and plunderers of this land, only because they professed to be Muslims. So just because people (like you), brought up in the misery of inferiority complexes, like to believe that they descended from the Gods, i.e., Alexander and the Arabs, doesn't mean he's pouring his condescension over them. He's merely calling a spade a spade.

Many a time, I have seen people complaining about him for hitting them below the belt, when he tells them that Jhelum was not named after Alexander's horse, which was called Bucephalus by the way or how their clan was not a direct descendant of the Prophet.

So while you can play hunky dory with the morons, Salman Rashid and people like me, spit in the face of idiots who think Khwarizm Shah was a Saint or some hocus pocus of the sort.

P.S. Get your head out of your Butt

At 15 October 2014 at 11:07, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rehna Afzal Sahib,
You spit on the faces of those who think differently. There are others who kill and behead for the same reason. All this for what - HATE?

Please respect the difference of opinion.


At 15 October 2014 at 11:50, Blogger Unknown said...

Interesting post and enjoyed reading and glad that I was familiar of some places mentioned here.

At 16 January 2015 at 12:31, Blogger Hiba Moeen said...

Interesting travelogue I must say! You just sparked in interest of travelling in me just by your writing. Such beautiful places in our country should definitely be visited before going anywhere outside Pakistan. Unfortunately there seems to be limited awareness.
Are your books available in Karachi?

At 17 January 2015 at 08:49, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Hiba, it's very nice to know the travel bug bit you because of my work. Do go. But an expedition such as the one described above needs a bit of training which can easily be had. My books are available in Karachi all right, but you'll be better off calling Sang e Meel at 042-3722-0100.

At 19 January 2015 at 10:19, Blogger Hiba Moeen said...

Thanks Salman sb. I'll get in touch with this publisher. Which book would you suggest to be read first?

At 19 January 2015 at 12:10, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Hiba, I have no idea what your choice is. So cannot recommend.

At 21 February 2015 at 11:18, Anonymous Gul Baig said...

The words Chogori and chongole for K2 is interesting and learing for me,As I belong to Gojal ,Hunza I had heard this word Kafchongole a name for a summit in Shimshal.As Shimshal is connected with Shigar valley district Skardu,thus I infere
that the name of Chongole in wakhi might be for Chogori or the modern name K2.

At 22 February 2015 at 17:20, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Gul Baig, it may not be as simple as that. We need to examine the word Chafchingol more closely. But then again, it could be. If you ever visit Lahore, we could discuss this very interesting idea.

At 25 March 2015 at 18:28, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Salman, Nice posts. I have always fascinated by the Silk Road and had grew up on stories of "Journey to the West". Nice to read your travel of the area. I am surprised that you were afraid of Chinese military. Is it because you travel in back countries? I had a Pakistani friend told me some 27 years ago, he and friends took a jeep, and went to Chinese border, no problem.

At 3 December 2015 at 09:33, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice travelogue giving stunning views of the unseen world. Thank You Salman Rashid Sb.

At 6 December 2015 at 09:38, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Anonymous.

At 26 August 2016 at 10:57, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sufficient effort to explore, me too curious to do this hop fully next year and must be share tale with you. another have you seen blue sheep in all this journey?

At 29 August 2016 at 10:39, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

No blue sheep on this trek. Only Himalayan Ibex. I saw a large herd of blue sheep on the Braldu Glacier north of Lukpe La back in 1990.

At 13 December 2016 at 12:25, Blogger Unknown said...

Love to read his travel experiences with vivid imagery. Always find these motivating to explore the whole Pakistan.

At 23 May 2017 at 22:07, Blogger Bilal Qureshi said...

Breathtaking ! Such a great use of words. It really excited my instinct to start travelling


Post a Comment

<< Home

My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days