Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Just another journey

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As journeys go, this one was hardly a great one. Kamran Alavi (with his throat orchestra of which more later) and I reached Gilgit hoping to go walking up north of Misgar in the Gojal region in the extreme upper edge of Hunza. That would have been after I had done a short dash to the end of the Chapursan Valley to check out the tomb of Baba Ghundi.

Since I had been in Chapursan back in 1990 (when I had more hair and less fat), I had never returned and there were some people I sorely wanted to see again. One was Sarfraz Khan alias Chairman of the village of Zuda Khun who had a gold tooth and a rifle. All his life he had been a keen hunter and when he agreed to lead me across the 5200 metre-high Chillinji Pass, he brought his trusted old rifle along. With a wide grin he had said he would be coming back with an ibex or two. I asked how he could carry back two dead animals and he said that the pass being glaciated, he could always bury one in the deep freeze and return for it later.

But he was going to get them. Of that he was very confident. Not if I can help it, I the conservationist said to myself as we set out. Our team comprised of Havildar Niyat Khan, the inveterate dandy, Gulsher and Shamsher of the levis with Sarfraz Khan leading. It was a great dander up the ice slopes and on the glacier at a height of about 4900 metres we slept out in the open because my two-man tent could not take us all. It was late August and the night had been utterly, utterly cloudless with the stars shining down on us with a vengeance. I woke several times during the night, not from cold, but simply to watch the progress of Orion hunting across the velveteen, spangled blackness.

At the top of the pass, which was made in about two hours from our camp, an argument broke about Chillinji being a little to the south and that the one we were crossing was an unnamed pass. We therefore named it Panz Khalq Uwin – Wakhi for Pass of the Five Men. We built a small cairn, and having emptied a packet of biscuits, turned around its cardboard to write this name on its unpainted inside surface to be left inside. If I remember correctly, I had left my name and address and since no one ever wrote to tell me that they had crossed the same pass, I presume no one has.

On the far side, spilled a sheer talus slope for about 1200 metres and we went racing down to a large, birch-covered rocky shelf where we rested and had some tea. While the tea was being prepared, Sarfraz Khan scoured the hillsides with his binoculars. Then hissing for us to be silent, he crept behind a rock, propped the rifle on it and aimed. I could not see the animal, but I squinted at the sun, generated a sneeze and let it out mightily. On the slope where Sarfraz Khan had been aiming, we saw a small avalanche of rocks and I knew the ibex had fled.

Sarfraz spun around in a fury and I found myself staring into the cold black hole of the muzzle. I looked up from the muzzle into Sarfraz’s eyes and the coldness matched. Of a moment I thought I was in for it. Who would ever come looking for my corpse here in this remote corner of Ishkoman valley at the foot of the Chillinji? With a great show of bravado, my last great act, or so I thought, I shrugged my shoulders and said, ‘Couldn’t hold it.’ ‘You fool,’ said Sarfraz Khan from clenched teeth, ‘now we won’t have any meat tonight.’ ‘Never mind. We’ve got plenty of food and I’m vegetarian anyway,’ I said breezily. And that was the end of it.

Having delivered us at the first proper camp ground, Sarfraz and the two levis came back the same way while Niyat Khan and I went on to the bottom of the valley. In all these years, I never returned to Chapursan, but I never quite forgot anyone of that great lot. So this time around, I went asking for Sarfraz Khan to see how these past eighteen years had treated him. Someone had said he was there all right. But at Zuda Khun I learned that he wasn’t after all.

Sarfraz Khan, I discovered, had some years earlier joined some NGO and now worked in Afghanistan and Kashmir. He drew a hefty salary, so the old informant said – not without a hint of envy – and drove around in huge cars. Good for him, I said. Sarfraz Khan’s flamboyance, style and verve were too great to be squandered exterminating ibex.

Kamran and I returned to Raminj where we had stopped earlier in the morning to introduce ourselves. Young Rehana who I had met at the Punjab University a couple of months earlier had been surprised that not only did I know of Chapursan but also of her village. Her village is a national landmark for it is the home of Nazir Sabir, mountaineer par excellence who, being the only Pakistani to summit Everest, has made his place in the mountaineering pantheon.

Rehana had suggested that in Raminj, we should stay in her uncle’s home. And so we foisted ourselves upon the good Sher Baz Khan. I told him having done our work in Chapursan we were heading for Misgar to try reaching the crests of the passes Mintaka and Killik. In 1979, he traded across the Mintaka with villages in the Taghdumbash Pamir of China. This was a one-off thing for his usual beat was to the end of the Chapursan valley and then up the Irshad Uwin into Wakhan.

Sher Baz Khan said, they would take their merchandise consisting of cloth, salt, paraffin oil, sugar and grains, dump it at the lonely outpost of Baba Ghundi Ziarat, walk to the top of Irshad Pass to inform the Kirghiz of Wakhan how much of the various items of merchandise they had. Accordingly, the Kirghiz came down with corresponding value in yaks, ghee, butter and lambs.

That evening our driver had dark news to tell us: the brakes on the jeep had failed and he had nursed it to Raminj with only the hand brake. We resolved to first of all get the brakes fixed in Sost before going up to Misgar to begin our trek. But I had serious misgiving because if we needed replacements, we were bound not to find them in remote old Sost.

That is exactly what happened. The young smiling Hunza mechanic, was quick to find the fault but after an hour of diligent work, he said that he had improvised. I said to Kamran, I wouldn’t want to be driven around mountain roads on improvised brakes. And anyway, who knew what the road to Misgar and on to Qalandar Chi (incorrectly Kalam Darchi) was like.

But there had been a couple of classic goof-ups as well which dampened my enthusiasm for this much looked forward to trek. Back in 1990 when I trekked up Chillinji, the army was everywhere. The Afghan war was just petering out and the army was keeping an eye on the passes into Wakhan and the Taghdumbash. I had presumed the army would still be there and thought we would get an introduction from army friends to stay at army or militia posts en route to the passes. And so I had not brought my tent. Secondly, I had forgotten to pack my stove.

This was hardly the way to go mountain walking, but friends at the military headquarter in Gilgit had kindly lent us a two-man tent and their ‘smallest’ stove. The tent weighed about ten kilograms and the stove was large enough to not fit in our backpacks. Even a much younger trekker would have balked at the tent, I was absolutely horrified. What with our meagre food supply, the tent and stove would have us carrying nearly twenty kilos each. And then there was the storm that came roiling out of the west to pour rain on us while we waited for the brakes to be repaired. That was excuse enough to abort.

Kamran made some noises about giving it a try, but I said I was terrified of mountain roads and would never risk it with dicey brakes. All along my friend had kept his nose and throat extremely busy with assorted and endless grunts, snorts, sniffles and ahems which he said was because of some allergy. Now he let go with a flurry of sneezes. But unlike my thunderous sneeze that had eighteen years earlier sent the ibex scuttling for cover, Kamran’s were restricted to a sharp intake of breath and a tiny ‘Pip!’ Alternatively, he would go ‘Achha!’ But ever so softly as if in polite conversation.

Back in Gilgit, Rehana invited us over to tea and we got to meet her father Mohammad Ayub Khan. A right delightful gentleman who was upset that we had not stayed in Gilgit at his home. But he was doubly upset when he heard we had aborted our Mintaka Pass trek. He instructed us to turn around right then and head back for Misgar immediately. Why, his wife’s brother was the numbardar at Misgar and there would be no problem organising porters or pack animals. We could also, he said, stay with the family.

This was too good to be true and I told him we would be back next year in mid-May to go up with the herdsmen on their way to the summer pastures. That then was resolved and we tucked into the roast chicken and other goodies laid out with the tea. As we bade him farewell, he said for us to keep the May rendezvous in mind. To forget would be the limit of thanklessness.

Postscript: Twenty years ago I wrote that Hunza must be the only place in the world where if you seek permission to sample the fruit from someone’s tree, you are not only permitted, you are led to their best tree. As we drove back just south of Karimabad and were passing an apricot orchard, I requested the driver to stop. Getting off, I asked the two young men sitting by the roadside if I could sample some fruit. One of them made an expansive sweep of his arms to invite me in. Then as I was picking some fruit, he called out to say which tree was the best. In twenty years, the goodness of heart and the largesse of the spirit of the good people of Hunza have not faded. If there is heaven, it is here, it is here, it is here.

In all my previous visits, I had never thought Hunza women particularly good looking and I am in no particular hurry to change my view. My previous dander through Chapursan must have been in a daze because I do not remember seeing any women. But this time the beauties of Chapursan dazzled me. The women there are incredibly beautiful. Rosy complexions and fair hair are one thing, but beauty has a lot to do with sharpness of features. And that is what Chapursan women have: well-defined, clean-cut features.

It is only in Gojal and Hunza that one will chance upon a solitary young woman, shovel on her shoulder merrily marching along on her way to water a potato or wheat field. That she can go off into the wilderness unaccompanied has a lot to say of a society that does not threaten its womenfolk, a society at peace with itself.

This comes from education and not from sham belief in religion: remote Chapursan has one hundred percent literacy. Little children that we accosted on the way spoke perfect English and Urdu and possessed impeccable manners. Most of the rest of us could take a leaf from this book. And this has all come to be because of the good work of the Aga Khan Foundation. I say, exterminate these politicians and let the Aga Khan be King of Pakistan. He will turn us, including the Mehsuds and sundry other creatures inhabiting that region, human.



posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 4 June 2014 at 09:12, Anonymous muhammad athar said...

Sir thanks for refreshing my memories of way back 1981 once i served in this area. I am witness to the beauty and the hospitality of the peoples residing arround

At 4 June 2014 at 10:38, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Indeed, Athar. They are the finest people to be encountered anywhere.

At 4 June 2014 at 10:39, Anonymous Kamran Awan said...

Aah, I remember u took this snap going towards Baba Ghundi in Upper Chipursan.

Salman Rashid Sir, we need to be there when Kyrgyz nomads land on their loaded Yaks for barter trade with the ppl from this side.... at least for once.

At 4 June 2014 at 11:09, Blogger Lahoremassagist said...

What a great journey sir.

At 4 June 2014 at 11:09, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Maybe, we might return one day. But we must know the exact timetable of the Kyrgyz traders.

At 4 June 2014 at 11:47, Anonymous Amardeep Singh said...

No immigration, No customs, No barriers....this is the cross roads at Mintaka, Wakhan and Pamirs. Enjoyed reading this.

At 4 June 2014 at 17:26, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thanks, Amardeep.

At 4 June 2014 at 17:27, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

This was a fun journey, Nayyar. The great journey was going up to MIntaka on badly blistered feet!

At 9 June 2014 at 15:34, Blogger Ammar Akhtar said...

this year i am headed that way, chaupursan and chilinji and then onwards to Karombar i think before that we should meet :)

At 9 June 2014 at 18:43, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Definitely, Ammar. Please call me and we'll set up a meet.

At 10 June 2014 at 14:32, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A s someone from across the border, I can only imagine to be there.....thanks so much for your vivid tales.......Meher

At 11 June 2014 at 09:34, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Cheers, Meher! Maybe one day when the borders are easier, you might visit. I'll be a doddering old geezer then. But I'll gladly play guide to you.


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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

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