Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Wilderness of the Giant

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I had met Captain Mukhtar at Mount Balore Hotel where he had been waiting for someone and had got to talking with me. He had said the Deosai was still under snow, but he nevertheless offered to help: he would see what he could do to organise porters in case a horse was available neither at Astore nor at Chillam Chauki, the last habitation before the great wilderness of the plateau. Moreover, he offered accommodation both at Astore and at Chillam Chauki.

Jaglot was in the grip of a minor sandstorm when I arrived. It seemed to belong to some desert, but having incongruously been placed in that nameless land between the Himalaya and Karakorum Mountains, was living an uncertain life clenched within those brown and grey walls. The town itself was hidden away in a grove of trees but the army billets were arrogantly spread out on the sandy shelf bordering the Indus. I was warmly received, fed a lunch of stewed vegetables and put on a truck for Astore. We crossed the Indus on a skimpy looking suspension bridge and were soon in Shaitan Nala -- the Devil's Gorge. Neither the driver nor any of the soldiers could tell me if it got this appellation for its unbearable summer heat or the many rock slides that rake its dusty slopes.

The heat and the dust had become almost unbearable when a slight bend in the trail brought a tree covered slope into view, and then we were in the village of Astore. It is built on the fan of an ancient glacier in a T-shaped valley and even before I could begin to worry that there was no inn in the village I was taken up to the Officers' Mess on a hill where a group of young captains took me in as though I were an old friend they had not seen in a long while.

Again, there were no horses to be had at Astore, but of course, up in the summer pastures..... I simply gave up, resolving not to speak about a horse again until I saw one. And again there was news that the plateau was still snow bound and uncrossable. Baquir Shah, the man deputed by Captain Mukhtar to help me, was a little surprised when I said regardless of the conditions I was resolved to go ahead and that he should see if he could organise two porters.

The first evening he returned making discouraging sounds and ridiculously suggested that I go back to Gilgit, do another part of my journey and return to Astore later in the summer for the crossing of the Deosai. My stubborn insistence to do it the way I had planned, made no sense at all to Baquir Shah.
"What difference does it make in your book if you cross the Deosai before or after?" he asked.

I vainly tried to explain.
"The white man does not mind such minor adjustments, even if he is writing books. I fail to see why you are so particular."

I realised then that he thought I was writing a trekking guide so I let it remain at that. The following evening, however, he returned to report that there were two men waiting at Chillam Chauki to porter for me.

I was put on a pick up truck with the young and vivacious Captain Amjad Cheema. He was a remarkable man for the society he lived in where few men have ideals and goals in life. He fretted about why we, as a people, had only one aim in life, after the attainment of which we simply sat back and watched the world go by. Why, he wondered, was it not possible to set newer and higher goals as we went along.

We had not driven for more than two hours when the truck stopped with a loud clanging noise. Some shaft or the other had given way. The driver tried to put this together with a piece of telephone wire but failed and announced that was the end of the day's journey so far as he and his truck were concerned. We strolled into the village of Gudai, a few hundred metres up the road, where Captain Cheema used the antiquated telephone exchange to call Astore.

Another officer who was due to leave the following morning was despatched straightaway and sometime late in the afternoon the fair haired, blue eyed and soft spoken Major Farrukh arrived. Like a magician he stuffed our stranded party into his jeep, defying all concepts of physical quantities. I could only marvel at how we orientals can get up to twenty people in a vehicle meant for no more than four.

This time our ride came to an end after about an hour, on the edge of the village of Khirrim where a wide stream that came thundering out of the hills in the east had washed away the trail. The river bed was now a jumble of boulders and the only sound to be heard above the roar of the water was the gnashing of the rocks as they rolled along with the current. The trail, one of the villagers said, was "repaired" every morning just after day break and remained negotiable only until midday when the increased meltwater washed it away, cutting off traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian.

So far as I was concerned this was the end of the day's journey, but Major Farrukh was set upon precluding any notions I had about foisting myself on the kind hospitality of the people of Khirrim. While he was taking off his boots and hitching up his trousers I lied how I had seen a man's leg snapped into two by the sheer force of the boulders being shunted down a similar stream somewhere in Chitral. He smiled benignly, took my camera bag, ordered another man to take my duffel bag and leaving me to heft the rucksack, stepped into the stream. Captain Cheema and the others followed suit and I miserably brought up the rear while the entire male population of the village sat around to watch the spectacle and jeer whenever one of us slipped.

The Major made off like a mail runner but Cheema, who I knew could have kept up with him, stayed back with me. Soon the men ahead were swallowed by the dusk. An hour later we came to a solitary light in the black void and knocked at the door to ask how much further we had to go. We were invited in. It was a large oblong room with a stove burning in the middle expelling the shadows into the corners; one of which was occupied by three shawl wrapped men reclined on a pile of bedding. The blackboard on one wall and the stack of school books in another corner gave it away; we were in the school room of Das Bala that doubled as the teachers' quarters at night and our hosts were the school masters.

A kettle was immediately put on the boil and we were invited to stop for the night. I did not need much inducement but Cheema demurred: he and the Major were due to leave Chillam Chauki very early in the morning. The tea came with some left over chapaties, which were very welcome as we had not eaten since breakfast. An hour later, when we were ready to leave, we had been "turbo charged" as the Captain said.

Had it not been for the army, Chillam Chauki would not have been on the map. It has very little other than the aging three room stone building that is very pompously called the Officers' Mess, a smaller stone hovel, a huge dump of jerry cans and another one of some mysterious tarpaulin covered crates. Of course there is what they call their bazaar and about a dozen houses up on the hill. But I liked it immensely because here, for the first time since the journey began, I got what I had been promised: the two men were indeed waiting for me.

Ali Akbar said he and Sahib Khan were "brothers" and took it upon himself not to allow Sahib Khan to have a say in any matter whatever; a fate to which the taciturn and retiring man had quietly resigned himself. He said they were happy to be coming with me, but because the plateau was still thoroughly snow bound I should be prepared to spend a little more than the two days it normally takes in the crossing. The wages were sorted out and they each took a small advance to send off to their families. Then they left to make a few purchases for the journey.

Within fifteen minutes Ali Akbar was back in a state of alarm. In the bazaar he had run into two Balti shepherds who had arrived, the night before, from Parkuta, where we were heading, and had told him that the Deosai Plateau was under "ten metres of snow" making the crossing extremely difficult, if not altogether impossible. The Chachor Pass (4270 metres) that would lead us into the plateau and the Katicho (4590 metres) leading out of it were absolutely impracticable. It seemed that "ten metres" was some sort of a magic figure: either there was that much snow or none at all. But if they could make the crossing, so could we.

We went over to the tea shop where they had just finished breakfast. They were both sinuous little men, neither of them more than a metre and half tall and carried nothing but the clothing on their backs and their heavy home spun shawls.
"No! You can't do it." said the man decisively.
"You say you made the crossing only yesterday." I argued, "And if you can, why can't we."
"Because you are a Punjabi!" he declared disdainfully. This certainly left no room for further argument.

Then for good measure he threw in the following story: two years ago, at the end of the summer, three white men arrived here to cross the plateau to Skardu. The outward journey with two hired horsemen was uneventful, but when the horsemen were about to return from Skardu the weather suddenly broke. The sensible option now was to take the longer route through the Indus Gorge and Shaitan Nala. Disregarding the warnings of the people these men started off on the return journey over the plateau. But they were foolish men indeed for they threw all caution to the winds and forfeited their lives to the autumn blizzards of Deosai, the mere knowledge of which is enough to make the stoutest heart quiver. Sure enough, they never reached Chillam Chauki.

Last summer two trekkers, again Westerners, crossing the plateau came upon the perfectly preserved corpses of the two horsemen, faces contorted by the agony of their final moments. Even in death one of them was mounted, while the other stood besides his steed, his hands frozen on the reins. The trekkers reported their discovery to the police at Skardu but despite three search parties being sent out, the dead men were not found. This last bit, I felt, was added to emphasise the intractable immensity of the Deosai Plateau. In this could have been a degree of truth because some days earlier I had been told by an army aviator that flights over the plateau between October and June were expressly forbidden in view of the near impossibility of tracking down a stricken craft and its crew on that great snowy wilderness.

At an average height of 4300 metres the Deosai Plateau is an open grassland high above the tree line wedged between the Western Himalaya and the Karakorum Mountains and separated from the two by the Indus Gorge. Technically speaking it is not a part of either mountain range -- a sort of geographical no man's land. Its altitude and hostile climate make it unsuitable for human habitation except during its short summer between the end of June and mid September when Gujjar nomads invade it with their herds. With October the seemingly interminable blizzards begin to sweep across its great expanse to dump a phenomenal amount of snow and make it inviolable for the next nine months. This year, however, because of tension on the Line of Control even the Gujjars were not coming.

The shepherd's narration did not quite warm my heart but I had by now learned how disparagingly these hardy mountaineers considered a lowly plainsman and how they invented stories in puerile attempts to perpetuate the awe that we held their mountains in. Now I was not going to be dissuaded by one of them. Ali Akbar wasn't very happy when I asked him to carry right on with his preparations for our departure and that he should purchase enough provisions for eight days, in case we were to be held up, or worse, lose our way on the plateau. The Expedition was going on.

We left just before midday and climbed the ridge to the east of Chillam Chauki, past the straggle of houses that comprise the village, onto a high meadow resplendent with buttercups and forget-me-nots. At the village of Sher Kulai Ali Akbar parked us by the trail and walked off to see if he could borrow a couple of blankets for himself and his colleague. Horrified, I discovered that these two men had left home to cross the Deosai Plateau in the third week of June with nothing but the light clothing they wore. I fretted about the waste of time should we have to return to their village near Khirrim in case Ali Akbar could not get the blankets and for the first time Sahib Khan, who I had by now started to believe was dumb, said, "They have to lend us the blankets or they will never again receive any hospitality from us when they pass through Khirrim." I fervently hoped the people of Sher Kulai thought that way too. Thankfully they did.

Beyond the village we met an old man tending a herd of sheep and the Khirrim duo stopped to inquire about conditions on the plateau. His report, too, was similar to the one we had received from the pair of Baltis who had apparently told him of their heroic effort in making the crossing so early in the year: the passes were choked with snow and the plateau itself was a nightmare of great snow drifts and impassable bogs; we would be well advised to turn back.

By mid afternoon we reached the foot of Chachor Pass and camped next to a small stream in a grassy meadow that was a blaze of mauve and yellow flowers. Tomorrow, if all went well, proclaimed the reticent Sahib Khan, we would enter Buro Bertsah -- Wilderness of the Giant. Many years ago a Deo or giant arrived in this great desolation and finding it suitably spacious for his use prepared some ground to sow paddy. But all his efforts were wasted because of the petrifying cold. Not to be discouraged the giant persisted until a fox happened by and laughed at the unproductive labours of the foolish giant.
"While you toil to cultivate this desolate country, the mulberries and apricots in the valley of Skardu are ready to be taken."

And so it was that the giant left this wasteland to stake out a claim for himself in the valley of Skardu. The Shins, that live around the western, northern and eastern extremities of the plateau call it Buro Bertsah but the Gujjars call it Deosai -- Land settled by the Giant. It appears that the Gujjar legend was the foundation for the Shins to build upon, but since they were confined to their tract of mountains while the Gujjars' perambulations took them back and forth between the plateau and the lowlands of India, it was the latter's title for the place that became prevalent in the country.

It rained intermittently throughout the night and was still pattering at dawn. The men from Khirrim had no rain gear so we remained in bed until it stopped, then we ate breakfast hurriedly and set out for Chachor Pass. About a hundred metres below the crest of the pass we stopped to rest for a while. The sky was beginning to clear when Akbar exclaimed, "Look!"

Far away in the west under the mottled welkin it towered defiantly above its attendant satellites, a disembodied cone floating above an opaque mist, resplendent in the early morning light. Then, as we watched, the mist slowly cleared and the awesome flanks of Nanga Parbat hove into view, brilliant white all over except on those sharp scarps where no snow or ice could find a hold. The distance lent it a deceptive benignity, but this was the killer mountain on whose avalanche raked slopes lay the bodies of almost fifty brave men who had given up their lives in their attempts to crown this king of the mountains.

We ran into some snow at the crest of the Pass but instead of sinking up to our middles, as I had feared, it disappointingly came up only to our ankles. Beyond the snow lay the oval emerald of Sheosar Lake without a trace of ice on its placid blue surface.
"Nice place to spend a night," I observed.
"No! Never has it been done here," Akbar said.
"Is it because it is too cold?"
"No, because of the man eating sea horse that emerges from the lake at night. The elders warned us against it."

Since no one had ever spent a night on Sheosar, the supposed sea horse, I said, was either totally famished, in which case it would not wait for nightfall to grab us, giving us ample time to make a getaway, or it was dead -- more likely the second possibility. We could therefore sit by the lake and at least brew some tea. Sahib Khan remained non committal but Akbar would have none of it.

Beyond the lake and a slight descent lay the Deosai Plateau, not yet properly describable as a grassland for it was still mostly barren in various shades of brown and grey with scraps of snow draped over the slopes. Only the purple and yellow flowers, ubiquitously present since Chachor Pass, could be seen in small clumps scattered over it. It was a wide expanse, partly flooded, with rounded hills bordering its farthest extent and a silver stream snaking across the middle ground. In all that vastness there was no sign of human habitation or anything remotely like a tree.

"Had it not been cursed," Sahib Khan said dreamily, "it could have fed the whole of Pakistan." For a man who lived in a narrow gorge and whose life depended on how much vertical land he could transform into horizontal terraces by sheer manual labour, this was an understandable reaction to such a vast and level stretch of land lying untended and infecund.
"Why would someone want to curse such a beautiful place?" I asked.
"I don't know. But cursed it surely was; perhaps by some pious man of God. For what other reason could it be so barren and desolate?"

We descended into the plateau and walked along a wide track that connects Skardu, in the north, with Astore. But the bridges on the five major streams cutting across it, dismantled every autumn, had not yet been re-established and you could still not cross it by jeep. By early afternoon we reached the ford on Kala Pani -- Black Stream, that rushed past, frigid and over a metre deep. Finished with setting up camp next to a ruined building, hoping to be able to ford the stream early the following morning, the duo took me fishing.

Among their belongings I had seen a spare shalwar -- the baggy trousers worn in Pakistan; now I discovered its utility: they tied up the cuffs and with each man holding one side of its wide belt waded in a shallow side stream while I threw stones to herd the fish into it. The river was teeming and the labour of about fifteen minutes yielded more than five kilograms of a fish that was rather bland in taste. But cooked with an overdose of spices it was not to be sniffed at.

However, Kala Pani could not be forded early in the morning either, so we walked up to its headwaters where a gentle saddle between two ridges could have afforded us access to the source of the next river, Bara Pani -- Great Stream. But Sahib Khan and Akbar scoffed at my maps as useless scraps of paper for this was the ridge of Shamoskith which, the elders had told them, stretched unbroken all the way to Chitral three hundred kilometres in the west. They insisted on following the river downstream on the other bank to eventually cross a ridge and reach an unfordable spot on Bara Pani. When we did get to its headwaters under the towering escarpment of Barwai I pointed to the saddle that we could have crossed two hours earlier. This of course was duly ridiculed for the maps were drawn by men "who had never come to these regions".

Vague reports of the existence of this plateau seem to have filtered back to India over the centuries, for early in the 19th century it was commonly believed that the snowy mountains of Kashmir terminated at the foot of a high plateau somewhere north of the valley. This plateau, it was thought, stretched all the way, flat and unbroken, to the deserts of Tartary. Glaciers, of course, had no business to exist at a latitude lower than that of the Alps and, with the height of the Everest yet not computed, the peaks north of Kashmir were grossly underestimated. Then one man changed all that.

Godfrey Thomas Vigne, adventurer, artist and raconteur, arrived in India in 1834 and after some months of travelling around the country on a seemingly purposeless jaunt made his way to the mountains. He passed through Chillam Chauki to Gudai and entered the Deosai via Alampi La. On modern Pakistani maps, after due Islamisation, it is called Alam Pir La, or the Pass of Alam the Saint. He found the scenery on the "Deotsuh" to be "strikingly savage" and thought the name signified "Lake of the Spirit".

Deosai was the scene of an encounter between a group of soldiers led by Ahmed Shah, the Raja of Skardu, and a band of robbers to which Vigne was an impassive spectator. He gives a coolly detached account of a Balti soldier giving the coup de grace with a matchlock to a wounded brigand while his colleagues danced wildly around other captives, occasionally stepping forward to snick them with their swords. Amid all this hullabaloo he was informed of the approach of the "Gylfo" who salaamed him by bowing low while Vigne "advanced quickly, took his hand, and shook it a l'Anglais". The Raja, it transpired, was beside himself with pleasure on the auspicious occasion, for not only had he successfully dispatched a host of brigands but was also granted the good fortune of setting eyes on his first white man. And so it was that Vigne spent his first night on the Deosai Plateau, camped a little distance from the Raja's tent with the smell of wild leeks heavy in the frosty air of September.

Over the next three days on the plateau Vigne discovered that the Raja considered him an agent of the East India Company and showed his greatest interest in allying Baltistan with the Company to ensure protection against the increasing power of the Dogras of Kashmir. What the Raja found inexplicable was that someone would wish to travel through such a wild and difficult land merely for pleasure; a line of thought that still persists in the Oriental mind.

Crossing the Burji La into the valley of Skardu, the capital of Baltistan or Little Tibet, as it was also known, Vigne became the first European to have seen either the Deosai Plateau or Baltistan. But this intrepid traveller did not stop there. He headed north through the Shigar Valley to the snout of the Chogolungma Glacier where he contemplated the trek over to Hunza "with two or three days' scrambling, and being fastened together with ropes" in order to cross the Karakorum into the Pamirs. The Raja successfully dissuaded him for he could not rely on the friendship of the people of Hunza.

The plateau that had long been thought to stretch into Turkestan was just not there. Vigne too was fooled by the heights of the mountains -- he thought Nanga Parbat was merely "18,000 or 19,000 feet above the level of the sea" -- he came back with a vivid description of the Karakorum north of the Indus. He surmised that there was perhaps another mountain range beyond the jagged Karakorum; a surmise that was quite remarkable for a time when very little was known of the nature of this greatest knot of mountains in the world.

In Gilgit they had warned me of the hordes of bears that would just be coming out of hibernation on Deosai and would very likely consider our team a well earned meal. All we saw of these fabled bears was a severed head that could have lain for any number of years in the cold, dry air of Deosai and a set of footprints not far from our camp. The only life, besides us, were the innumerable skylarks that sang their lovely song with gay abandon and the discordantly screaming marmots. In this remarkably beautiful land of rolling mounds framed by distant peaks I felt unhurried and found myself wishing to somehow prolong the trek, but with Eid-ul-Azha -- the Feast of the Sacrifice, one of the two major Muslim festivals, coming up my porters wanted to get on. The two days on the plateau began with lazy starts with leisurely breaks at midday to fish and cook, and camp late in the afternoon.

My porters had never been on the plateau but had received very thorough briefing from the elders and knew every little detail about where to cross which river, or how many hours it would take from one ridge to the other after the crossing of this river or that. They also knew that the hills around Katicho Pass would be red in colour.

We broke camp early on the third morning and passing a clump of derelict stone hovels started to climb up a gentle slope and were soon surrounded by hills that glowed a dull red as though from latent heat. Shards of red rock were scattered all around and even the snow was tinged a reddish brown. The elders were not always wrong.

The Katicho, like the Chachor, was also free of snow and the plateau itself was almost entering summer. The Balti shepherds we had met at Chillam Chauki had shamelessly lied like the uncle at Battakundi. Almost sadly Ali Akbar said, "We had brought two horses to Chillam which we sent back on the word of the Baltis. I wish we had not listened to them." I assured him that had he told me of the horses at Chillam they would not have been sent back.

We descended into a narrow saddle where a herd of yaks announced our proximity to human habitation and climbed the final ascent to the top of the pass. Behind us lay the Deosai Plateau covered with a thin veneer of green and far away, almost dissolving into the distant mist, was the cone of Nanga Parbat that we had seen three days ago. In front was the wide path snaking down a brown mountain side and on the horizon shone the eternal snows of the Masherbrum Mountains.

We had crossed the Western Himalaya and were about to enter the great Karakorum Range whose name is believed to be a compound of two Turki words "Kara" meaning black and "Korum" for rock. To many generations of Central Asian traders who came over the Karakorum Pass in the east, or over those leading from the Pamirs into the valley of Hunza in the west, this must have been an appropriate enough name for the dark and sterile gorges they crossed to reach the markets of Kashmir. When Vigne related this to a Ladakhi the man indignantly shot back, "Who did the Turkis think they were to be giving names to the mountains of Little Tibet?" Why, every Balti knew that Karakorum was nothing but the name of a sweetmeat and that these savage and inhospitable mountains were so called merely in antithetic frivolity. Almost a century later it was suggested that Mongol deserters of Ghengiz Khan's army returning home from Lahore remained in these mountains and longingly named them after Karakorum, their divorced capital in Mongolia. This was the same city visited by Marco Polo in 1276 who noted that it was more than three miles in circuit and was "the first place in which the Tartars established their residence in remote times".

The small trickle emanating from some snow draped rocks grew as it tumbled downward and led us into the broadening valley. We ran into a very handsome, raw boned youth and a boy of not more than twelve, the first people we had seen since the village of Sher Kulai on the other side of Chachor Pass. They were on their way to Chillam Chauki to purchase yaks and inquired about the state of the streams on the plateau and whether the Gujjars had arrived or not. All they carried were light shawls in which they had wrapped about six chapaties each, along with some tea leaves and sugar. They hoped to do the crossing in one marathon trek of twenty four hours, stopping only briefly in the early hours of the morning to doze beside a paltry fire and be in Astore before the day was out. I observed that with the rations they were carrying their only chance of survival was to actually get across the plateau within a day, which, to me at least, seemed an impossibility in view of the state of the rivers. The man smiled and said he had done it before and, God willing, was going to do it this time too. I could only marvel at his unshakable faith in God.

The rocky road followed the stream to the village of Dhappa tacked onto a treeless slope and surrounded by the rank and file of terraced wheat fields, green and young in late June. We descended into the village and were accosted by half a dozen men who very literally smothered us with questions. In all that flurry of talking I managed to put in something about the possibility of acquiring a horse. Instantly everyone shut up.
"A horse?" came the collectively startled response. Then they all broke into an excited chatter in Balti; doubtlessly discussing my horse.
"But you can get a jeep," someone suggested.
"That's very nice, but I prefer going by horse," I said.
"But a horse will take three days to get you to Skardu, whereas you get on a jeep tomorrow morning and be in Skardu in three hours," said the man who had been playing spokesman.

I had spotted a smartly dressed young man in the crowd who from his appearance seemed a man of the world.
"You seem to be educated. Perhaps you can help me." I said turning to him.
"Yes, I am like you." This was totally unexpected, for I did not know what to make of it. It could have either meant that he considered me to be educated too, or he, like us, was a stranger.
"Great! What do you do for a living?" I tried in an attempt to learn more.
"I work."
"So do I. What sort of work do you do?"
"I work in Kobet."
"What's that?" I asked with the names of the various multi nationals in the country racing through my mind.
"Kobet! You don't know Kobet?" he asked incredulously.
"I am afraid not." I replied, feeling ashamed of my ignorance.
"And I thought you were educated," he said so condescendingly that it hurt.
"I am terribly sorry but I am not really as educated as you think I am. Could you please spell Kobet for me."
"Yes, of course." He simply was on top of the world. "K-u-w-a-i-t," he announced triumphantly.

Then he asked where I came from. I said we had come across the Deosai and immediately felt very foolish, for his question had meant to ask about my place of residence, not about my itinerary. Here was a man who claimed to be educated yet knew nothing about Kobet and could not answer one straight question. I felt he was beginning to treat me like he would the village idiot.
"Why have you come here?" This shocker came laced with a trace of hostility which was really too much.
"Look, all I wanted to know was if I could either buy or hire a horse in this village."
"You can ride a jeep; it is much faster." he returned.
"I've already heard that. In any case, if I wanted to ride a jeep I wouldn't be standing here wasting my time."
"There are no horses in Dhappa," he finally said. "But where did you say you wanted to go with the horse?"
"Does it matter? When does the next jeep leave?"
"You cannot get a jeep in Dhappa. For that you have to walk to Tolti Brok farther down this valley."

I gave up and followed Akbar and Sahib Khan who had already started to walk away. The group, which had by then swelled to more than twenty, followed us for a short while before eventually losing interest and abandoning us. When we were well away from the crowd and had just one young man following us, I swiftly turned on him and almost threateningly said, "Now, you're alone. Let's sort this out with you."

The youngster's face lost colour and for a moment I thought he was going to turn tail and run. But he stood his ground, albeit rather nervously. Yes there was a horse said Mohammed Ibrahim, and it could be hired, too. Happily we followed him to a house where a hugely padlocked door stared at us. The owner of the house -- and of the reported horse, it transpired, had gone off to the Deosai! Later, when we had set up camp in the school house a man with missing front teeth and hideously long incisors came around to offer his horse for two hundred rupees a day. Finalising the matter he went away saying that he had to discuss the affair with his family. That, of course, was the last we saw of him.

The headmaster, who in the first instance had objected to our using his grounds for a camp, had threatened to throw us out if we were not away by the time school started, so for once we made an early start without breakfast. We stopped at the tea shop of Tolti Brok which was nothing but a dumpy hovel with a raised platform on one side draped with some grubby covers, a small paraffin stove and a flyblown glass showcase containing some flyblown packets of biscuits. Its rafters, still the colour of wood showed that it had not been in business for long and all we could get was tea and some biscuits.

Huge reddish brown boulders lay in the milky stream and littered the fields immediately below the wall of the gorge lending a sense of impermanence to the topography. It seemed as though the cliffs had very recently trimmed some of their out croppings. Black redstarts flitted about the rocks in the stream and sang from the leafy willows and poplars. After three treeless days on the plateau this was indeed a pleasant change.

Parkuta, renamed Mehdiabad in another artless attempt to Islamise the land, was deserted when we arrived early in the afternoon. The dusty main street was flanked by shops behind a pillared verandah that were all padlocked. There was not a sound to be heard except the caterwauling of a maulvi from some distant mosque and the only other sign of life was a man nodding on the steps of the government building in comapny with a goat that had a runny nose. Ali Akbar asked him something about the tea shop and he tilted his head sideways and smiled at us in a lascivious manner: we were in the presence of the village idiot. But someone must have spotted us coming into town for presently we were being stared at by a gaggle of young children with dirt smeared cheeks. They led us to the tea shop where we were told that the last jeep for Skardu had left barely five minutes before we arrived. This was something that never failed to happen: the last jeep invariably left just before I arrived and always it went empty.

The quiet Sahib Khan was now in his element. The first thing I had noticed about these two was the patronising manner in which the "well travelled, all knowing" Akbar treated his colleague. If the poor man said something that Akbar did not agree with he laughed to his face, while at other times he was endlessly nagging him like some overbearing wife. Now Sahib Khan could get his own back. He had once travelled through the Indus Gorge and knew all about the bridges and the trails and this knowledge he showed off with great relish addressing it all directly to Ali Akbar who heard him out with deference, interrupting the discourse with polite questions. Very clearly Sahib Khan was having one hell of a good time. The following day when I saw them off at Skardu the roles had again reverted for Akbar was also acquainted with that town.

By the time the next jeep arrived I was almost totally stoned from the smoke of the two hashish smokers in the room. They carried on with a shade of braggadocio as though proud to show off their capacity for the drug. Then doped to their eyeballs they mounted the tractor parked outside and roared off in a cloud of dust. I half expected to hear the sickening clatter of metal on rock followed by a splash; but I was disappointed.

Previous: Between Two Burrs on the MapEpilogue, Horse Trading 

Another Adventure: The Apricot Road to Yarkand

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 3 December 2014 at 11:41, Blogger Muhammad Imran Saeed said...

Dear Sir, having been through some of your writings I find a determination (to an extent of obstinacy, and I beg your pardon for having used the term, but couldn't find something more appropriate) defying the odds and defying the local warnings about these odds. To me it's the true taste of adventure making it even more rewarding. This piece was in a way nostalgic as in 2001, I had stayed at Astore and briefly at Chillam Chouki, not to trek up to Deosai but to cross Burzil for my journey up ahead to Shaqma.
There are Giants who reportedly trade the comfort of valleys over the hazards of wilderness and there are humble humans who engage in the trade of the reverse kind. Salman Rashid outdid the giant of Deosai.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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