Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

World's End

Bookmark and Share

Northeast of Skardu, on the right bank of a stream that flows with the colour of molten slate lies the small village of Askole. Here the seemingly interminable web of glaciers punctuated by a jumble of great, icy peaks takes over and spreads north and eastward as far away as the deserts of Tartary and the Tibetan plateau. Askole has been referred to as "World's End", for that is what it truly is -- the last village before an endless wilderness.

Entrance to Askole [Image from the Apricot Road to Yarkan]

Long before they built the jeep track through the Shigar Valley the shortest connection between Skardu and Askole was through the Skoro Lungma -- Valley of the Skoro River. This narrow and desolate gorge and the high pass at its head were usable only between the months of July and September and all early expeditions, whenever possible, passed through it. But now, as they speed through the Shigar Valley by jeep, the route lies abandoned and forgotten; crossed rarely even by local shepherds. Even fewer trekkers use it to satisfy their spirit of adventure. And this was the way I had planned for the Expedition to get to Askole.

The day before we were scheduled to leave Dawar came around with a young, good looking man who was from his village but worked at Skardu. The man kindly offered to lend us a jeep for the ride to Shigar were our trek began. I had hoped to be able to use the ancient, decaying ferry tied in the shallows below the motel to get across the Indus to the Shigar side (like the old expeditions did) but had been unable to trace the ferry man, and since the jeep ride cost about five hundred rupees I immediately accepted the offer made by Ghulam Saeed. The good man departed with the promise that the jeep would be with us at noon next day.

Exactly at noon he called around to say that the jeep was out of order and would not be ready until later in the day. Azizullah wryly observed that it was a kind way for the people of Passu to declare that they were backing out of a promise, but Dawar vociferously defended his friend.

Three hours later the jeep arrived. We put our gear in the back and the three men crammed themselves on top of it while I got in the front and we set off. Rather than heading east, the driver turned around and made his way back to the bazaar and drove us from one oil dump to another looking for paraffin to be taken to the office at Shigar. And so, after an hour of driving around every single back alley that Skardu could boast of, we finally headed out of town. But even then we did not get very far.

On the outskirts of Skardu a dark, pot bellied man leaped out of a flashy looking restaurant and screamed for our driver to stop. He slammed on the brakes, stopped in the middle of the road and got out to confer with Fatso. Five minutes later he returned with a wide grin pinned on his face and made the inauspicious announcement that traffic into Shigar was held up because of an accident right on the bridge across the Indus. Someone had died and the overturned jeep blocked the track, and unless the police arrived to complete their formalities neither the corpse nor the jeep could be removed.

Azizullah said something about the outcome of an expedition whose beginning was so unpropitious. I glared at him, and he declared that the enterprise seemed to be jinxed. Why, how were we expected to succeed when we set out by stepping over dead bodies. I could have strangled the man adding to the count of things we would be required to step over but, instead, retreated into the restaurant to try and drown my frustration in a cup of tea.

An hour before sunset, having drunk several cups of tea each, we set out again hoping that the road would have been cleared by the time we got there. But that was asking for far too much.

The sandy trail that veered first to the left and then to the right as it snaked and climbed on the other side of the bridge had defeated the antiquated and heavily overloaded jeep. Just as it almost crested the rise the vehicle had run out of steam and started to roll backwards; at the same time the brakes gave way. The driver, rather than stopping it against the boulders that lined the trail, attempted to steer it down the meandering path in reverse. He successfully negotiated the first curve but at the second the jeep, having picked up sufficient speed simply turned turtle.

One of the passengers, a woman, was caught beneath the superstructure and died instantaneously. Now her body lay enveloped in a green shroud by the side of the overturned jeep and a heaving cloud of flies jostled on a pool of congealed blood next to a dark, oily patch in the sand. In the shade of the bridge keepers' hut sat a collection of men: the dead woman's brother with his glassy eyes staring fixedly at the thatched roof and the stunned jeep driver who drew strange symbols on the sandy floor with a stalk of grass, besides a few hangers on from a nearby village. But there was no sign of the police despite the passage of more than five hours since the accident.

Everyone sat on the bridge and cursed the police for their inefficiency; as if it is only the police that is inefficient in the country. Below us the Indus sped through a rocky gorge as though in a hurry to spread itself across the sandy flood plain that lay ahead. For just under half of its entire length this great river bashes through mountainous country with innumerable towns and villages adorning its brown, rocky banks, but it is only when it has attained maturity and ripeness in the plains of Sindh, far away in the south, that it fathers a civilisation. There, benign and sedate, it nurtured the Indus Civilisation. And while that civilisation lived in well ordered cities controlled by a sound administrative system more than five thousand year ago, the young Indus even today watches an almost paleolithic society struggling to survive from one day to the next.

Nature, it seems, did not consider it appropriate for a young and upstart river to father a civilisation. For that it was ordained to first attain maturity.

At length the police arrived in a battered pick up with their clip boards and sheets of paper. While two of them argued over how the accident took place and made meaningless sketches, one set about the hapless driver, kicking and slapping him while the poor man cringed helplessly. Then he took down the statement of the glassy eyed brother, ordered the corpse to be removed and the jeep to be righted and allowed us to drive past. It had taken the police more than seven hours to arrive at the scene less than seven kilometres from their station. I could not help wondering how many months it normally took to remove a victim from somewhere as remote as, say, Askole.

The remaining few kilometres into Shigar were driven through a pitch dark night in utter silence. Each man, perhaps, wrestling with the implications of seeing the corpse at the very outset of the journey. We took over the school building, made ourselves as comfortable as possible on the veranda and foisted ourselves on the three operators (two Punjabis, one Pathan) in the tiny telephone exchange to partake of their dinner of potato curry and rice.

It was a late start. We woke well after sunrise and lingered over breakfast while a group of men watched us and suggested I take three men from the village to show us the way through the valley. Azizullah asked why it could not be done by one man. Why, one man was very likely to become confused in the unknown wilds, in any case three heads were decidedly better than one.

Fleetingly I saw a mental picture of three confused Baltis bickering it out amongst themselves as we impotently waited at the junction of two valleys on some dark and stormy evening. I said we would be much better off they way we were and set off with a jeering chorus behind us.

Beyond the cluster of flat roofed huts shaded by plane trees and poplars through which golden orioles streaked in illusive flashes of black and gold, the valley narrowed. The path, uncertain of where it wanted to be, switched from one side of the river to the other and back again. At every crossing I would take off my boots and socks, wade across and dry my feet before putting them on again. Dawar took the crossing without his shoes but with his socks on, shoving them dripping wet into his boots; while the two Shimshalis sloshed across wearing their plastic moccasins. The fancy trainers that Azizullah had purchased in Skardu were stashed safely away in the depths of his rucksack.

At one of these crossings around midday we met two butter carriers coming down from the higher pastures. The small men had Tibetan faces set on sinuous bodies atop spindly legs. On their backs they carried conical wicker baskets, the doko, stuffed to the brims with pale yellow butter. Azizullah asked for some and one of the carriers dug a filthy hand into the greasy mound to shovel out a large pat into a plastic bag. Then the man lustily licked his hand clean, smiled a toothy grin at us and soon the pair was bounding down the valley through the clumps of birch and poplar.

Azizullah sat happily eating the butter until Khushal Khan said something about how filthy the butter carriers' hands were at which point we all noticed that the butter was laced with an ample amount of hair and tiny twigs. As Azizullah worked his way through the little mound of fat Khushal diligently picked out assorted pieces of detritus from it, studying each extraction with the methodical application of a dentist and making careful remarks about it before tossing it away.

Suddenly, without any warning, Azizullah was violently sick. When he had finished emptying out he inspected the remainder of the butter and agreed that it indeed looked rather unwholesome. But instead of throwing it away he carefully wrapped it up and put it in an outside pocket of his rucksack. Sometime later when we stopped he dug into the butter again, ate a part of it while Khushal carried on in the same vein as before, contributed his quota of bile to the Skoro River and carefully replaced the butter in the rucksack.

Sometime after midday we reached a fork in the valley with the Skoro turning sharply to the north while from the east a milky stream came bounding out of a glacier on the southern flanks of the conical Mungo Gusor. The valley to the north was claustrophobically narrow with the only horizontal space in it occupied by the grey stream. Azizullah and Khushal went ahead to see if it could be forded and returned to report to the contrary -- we had to wait until morning to cross to the other side where the meandering path climbed up the grey shingle slope.

In the tiny flat area between the two streams and the mountainside were two neat looking stone huts shaded by an enormous apricot tree festooned with the remnants of a good yield. Believing this was the last shepherds' hut before the Pass we decided to stay, hoping to be able to buy some milk when the shepherds returned in the evening. While Khushal Khan busied himself preparing the meal Azizullah dug into his butter, ending up being sick all over the place. When he had finished, he regarded the remaining portion suspiciously and observed that the butter was perhaps in some way responsible for his sickness. This time he tossed it into the stream.

Azizullah, who was exactly my age, had made his appearance with an air of haughty superiority but was turning out to be an altogether different man in reality. On the march he and Khushal Khan had kept up a melodious whistling and every time we stopped he would break into a tuneful song that would draw peals of laughter from the other two. Being in Wakhi, their mother tongue, it was totally unintelligible to me but I always smiled along at the fun. Slowly I began to understand that the song was about the madness of the "Tuz Clok" --Bald Pumpkin, a reference to my shorn head.

This song dwelt on my daftness for taking the abandoned route over Skoro La when we could happily have been speeding through the Shigar Valley. There were references to my dream of trekking across the glaciers to Shimshal and the observation that I was likely to call it quits when I hit the toe of the first glacier.

Being an Ismaili, a follower of the Aga Khan, Azizullah was a man of the world. He had travelled to Karachi where most of his co religionists live, had picked up a fair knowledge of English from the innumerable foreigners he had portered for and possessed a rather equivocal attitude towards religion: he would, at times, erupt into a stream of nonsense words that sounded uncannily like a recitation from the Quran, something that the average Muslim would have considered outrageously blasphemous.

Khushal Khan, barely into his twenties, had only two things on his mind: sex and food. Any woman that we passed was considered fair game regardless of age and beauty and was favoured with lusty stares and winks and occasionally with invitations "to do evil", as he liked to say. These verbal overtures, fortunately for all concerned, were made in Wakhi and were meaningless to the Baltis.

As we had picked our way through the village on the first morning Khushal had brashly marched up to a man standing in a doorway and after a round of pleasantries, he gleefully asked if he could borrow the man's wife for a brief while. The victim smiled benignly, appeared to be making a long winded inquiry and, in the end, wished us what seemed to be an ardent farewell. Azizullah guffawed heartily declaring that this was the most preposterously funny episode of recent years.

The young man's appetite was phenomenal. Fifteen minutes after a good meal he would begin complaining of hunger and would draw Azizullah into a discussion on food. This would carry on until the next meal at which point he would revert with great verve to his discourse on women.

Ghulam Dawar, at fifty seven, was the oldest in our group and being from Passu in the Hunza Valley was considered an outsider by the Shimshalis. He therefore stayed aloof of the buffoonery being perpetrated by the others. Unfortunately all his attributes were bovine: he was as musical as an ox, was equally strong and also had the same IQ. This, the shrewd Azizullah was quick to notice for Dawar was foisted with the heaviest load and whenever he was out of earshot was referred to as Dawar Janwar -- the Beast.

Whenever the Shimshal duo broke into song Dawar would join in with his own tuneless yodelling with absolutely no regard to words or melody. His day in the sun had been when he was a commando in the army serving in Bangladesh, when that country was still East Pakistan. He boasted of his prowess in unarmed combat and his ability as a frogman to stay underwater twice as long as anyone else on a standard cannister of oxygen because he "breathed so little". He also favoured me with the startling disclosure that during his sojourn in Bangladesh, because he sang so well, he was invited by Radio Chittagong for a daily one hour music broadcast.

I could not resist this little gem and noted that this music perhaps was the reason that hapless country sought secession from Pakistan. The uproarious laughter that greeted this observation left Dawar just a trifle nonplussed but it certainly did not keep him from making other equally improbable disclosures about himself in the fortnight that we were together.

No shepherds turned up for the night and we left without the much awaited milk and yogurt. The gorge immediately turned very narrow with the path switching sides with the same frequency that our politicians switch loyalties. At one of the crossings as I sat down to remove my boots Azizullah walked up to me and irately ordered me to get on his back for I was wasting too much time. Feeling this was an affront to my leadership and manliness I refused. But Azizullah would have nothing of that; he hoisted me onto his back, piggy back style, and stepped into the knee deep stream.

Mid stream he decided to hitch up his trouser and bent over with me on the verge of making a somersault into the water. Not realising what he was doing and thinking that I weighed too much for him, I tried to get off but he wouldn't let go. In the struggle that ensued he lost his footing and started to sway from side to side and forward and backward at the same time screaming at me at the top of his voice. I shouted back, Khushal Khan who was right behind us joined in, simply unable to stay out of this event of national importance, while the roar of the torrent added to the general pandemonium. Dawar, already on the other side, was the only composed person as he dolefully regarded the proceedings. However, merely by chance and not by design we managed to avoid a dunking.
"You idiot," I turned on Azizullah as soon as we got on the other side,
"what, for God's sake, do you think you were trying to do?"
"I was simply attempting to get you across but you're such a shameless coward that you were terrified in three feet of water," He said coldly. "Never again am I going to carry you across a stream."

"Never again am I going to allow you to drag me into such a thing." I returned equally coldly. But fortunately the path, having crossed to the right bank of the stream stuck to it until we got to the Pass.

Since morning a thin drizzle had been descending from a heavily overcast sky and as we went higher into the gorge it turned to sleet. The earthy aroma of yak dung and mud mingled with that of the many wild roses and hung heavily in the still air as we plodded through the narrow chasm. Soon it was a light snowfall coming down and with absolutely no shelter it was impossible to stop for lunch. Azizullah and Khushal bitterly complained of hunger and taught me the names of the various kinds of breads made in Shimshal, leavened and unleavened, and the hard cheese and mounds of butter that went with them. All these goodies I was solemnly promised -- but only if we would not starve to death on this snowy day.

Survive we did and in the afternoon arrived at the shepherds' hut below the Pass. It was stuck amid a clump of boulders and I did not see it until we were about two hundred metres away. A young fellow came out and in a gesture of welcome took Khushal's rucksack to carry it the last few metres to the hut.

It was a rectangular room with walls formed by piling up dressed rocks, at the top of which immense rafters, whole tree trunks really, went across to hold up the roof of twigs reinforced with earth and shards of rock. From years of being lived in the entire ceiling was covered with a thick layer of nodous black soot. A few vertical tree trunks were interspersed through the room to serve as pillars. To the right side of the door were two immense churns and several large tins brimming with delicious looking yogurt lying beside a two hundred litre drum. This latter was used for converting milk into yogurt. On a fire, to one side of the room, a blackened brass pot bubbled exuding a strange aroma.

Besides the youngster there were three other men: two in their late twenties, one of whom was thickly wrapped in blankets and propped up against a pillar, and a very stern faced fifty year old man. They all spoke bits of Urdu, so between them they had enough to communicate with us. After the preliminary pleasantries I asked if we could stay in their hut since the earth was too soggy for us to put up our tent. Simultaneously the four of them went into a long winded bilingual (Urdu and Balti) declamation concerning their abject poverty, lack of space in the hut and the filth. And just when my spirits had touched rock bottom at the prospect of having to sleep outside on the cold, wet ground they said, that despite all that, we were welcome to stay.

From the moment we had stepped into the hut the man wrapped up in the blankets had been softly moaning as though in great pain. In order to repay their kindness I asked what was wrong with him. With great alacrity, as though waiting for this very moment, the man turned around and bared a pair of pale buttocks, explaining that they ached. I was speechless.
"There you are. This is what you get for asking to stay with Baltis. And he certainly isn't wasting any time." chortled Azizullah.
"In case you're not interested don't forget I am next in line." added Khushal Khan.

Dawar sorrowfully and wordlessly looked on. It turned out that the man had a low back ache. I gave him some aspirin tablets, explaining as explicitly as possible how he was to spread them over the next four days. The following morning I found the empty foil packing lying in a heap of rubbish and the man galloping around camp milking the yaks.
"So how is your back today?" I asked.
"Never felt better. By Allah, this medicine is magic!"

At 4000 metres this was one of the many summer pastures used by the people of Shigar and the herds of yaks and goats were not the property -- at least not in entirety -- of our hosts. These four men tended the flocks of friends and neighbours while they, in the lower valley, harvested their wheat for them. It was a convenient reciprocal arrangement.

The weather remained persistently wet and we stayed for another day for around the Pass roiled thick, grey clouds making a crossing difficult if not impossible. I could sense that we had outlived our welcome and this was mainly because of my persistent requests for yogurt, despite having seen the nauseatingly filthy arrangements for its production, and the endless joshing our hosts received from Azizullah and Khushal. Both these men held the Baltis in utter contempt. Why, what self respecting man would be sitting in some wretched wilderness like this tending cattle and churning milk. This was women's work and the Baltis should have sense enough to leave it to them.

Very early on our first morning with the shepherds, I had been roused by the sound of prayer. But ablution is a pre-requisite for the Muslim prayer, and not having seen anyone leave the hut for the purpose, I was at a loss to know who our pious shepherd was. I spoke about it to Azizullah. Yes, he had heard it too. So, could it be the old man or the one who had pretended to have a bad back.
"These men? Why, they are so filthy God wouldn't piss on them, let alone accept their prayers!" 

Azizullah said vehemently. Then, after a moment of thought added, "It was more likely a djinn."

The sheet of grey above was just beginning to shatter when we set out of the shepherds' hut with Mehdi, the Balti lad, carrying my pack to the top of the Pass. The grassy slopes rose almost straight up to the crest, while a little to our right a narrow couloir shot upward in a jagged path. Flecked here and there with scraps of gritty ice, it looked like a giant scar on the mountainside with great patches of pus showing where the wound had not healed properly.

Although Vigne was the first European to have travelled through Baltistan, it was Dr Falconer who, failing in his attempt to reach Muztagh Pass, returned to Shigar via Skoro La in 1838. The two men appear to have met at Skardu where the doctor gave an account of his journey to Vigne. Then it was Adolphe Schlangintweit, one of the three explorer brothers from Germany, who crossed this pass to Askole in 1856 on a mission of exploration for the East India Company.

Five years later, in 1861, this man was in Yarkand where Dilla Khan, the local chief, was making an uncertain stand against imperial Chinese forces. With pressure building up the Khan fled to Kashgar taking the German with him, considering him, no doubt, a very useful hostage. There, still uncertain of Schlangintweit's loyalty, despite his offer to conduct operations against the Chinese, Dilla Khan had him executed. In September the same year an English civil servant travelling through Leh chanced upon a journal written in German. This diary that ended abruptly on August 11th was Schlangintweit's account of those uncertain times and was in the possession of a seller of snuff to be used as wrapping paper. It was duly rescued from the brink of oblivion and with it a tiny episode of the history of the Great Game.

Schlangintweit was perhaps still uncertain of the savage and abrupt end that awaited him when Godwin-Austen crossed Skoro La to Askole in July 1861 on his way to becoming the first man to explore the approaches to K-2 via the Baltoro Glacier. Following him came a flurry of explorers and adventurers on this route to and from Askole. And now in the last decade of the twentieth century the route that had led many a man, and at least one woman, to fame and glory stood abandoned -- a victim of the inexorable march of technology into one of the last great frontiers on the planet.

Young Khushal, followed by Dawar and the Balti, charged up the slope spangled with the colours of innumerable wild flowers. Azizullah meanwhile stayed behind to egg me on because I was now beginning to feel the effects of altitude. I stopped every few minutes for a rest, but not wishing to be taken as a weakling smelled and inspected the flowers with exaggerated interest.

Some two hundred metres below the crest we ran into a light sprinkling of snow. Mehdi, not watching where he was going, stepped on a loose snow covered rock and took a fall. He landed sideways on a ledge about a couple of metres below and started to roll down the narrow scar like couloir. But before he could go far he managed to grab a rock and hung on for dear life, looking speechlessly at us through terror stricken eyes. Below him the shiny, ice polished slope ended more than five hundred metres away in a mass of shattered rock. When we had hauled him up with the help of a rope he threw down the load and said he was returning to his hut. It took a few minutes of not very friendly vociferation to help him change his mind.

Around noon we stood on the crest of the 5075 metre high Skoro La and the Shimshal duo who had long been discussing the disadvantages of an empty stomach set upon our supply of tinned fish. I stood to one side looking northward where tier after tier of great pinnacles of ice and rock stretched away into the distance. A cold wind whipped up from the glacier immediately below us and moaned through the strange rock formations that mark the Pass. Whenever this sound died momentarily and if at that moment my companions had mouths too full to speak we would be swamped by an eerie, almost palpable silence.

The year before I had seen a young French climber succumb to cerebral oedema because he had gone too high too fast, and since the outset had worried about my own acclimatisation. I had panted up like an old steam locomotive with leaky cylinders but here I was looking into the heart of the great Karakorum Range from the crest of Skoro La and feeling fine -- although a little breathless. Suddenly I was overcome with relief. The tears came despite my effort to check them and so as not to be discovered I turned my face. Behind me the threesome continued to make short work of the tinned fish.

Two hours of plodding through the glacier brought us to a grassy meadow and a tiny rill. Azizullah declared that since there were some significant additions to be made to his song a halt for tea and biscuits would be very much in order. While we were having tea Azizullah, who had been discussing the evening meal with Khushal, suddenly turned on me.

"You wept on the Pass," he said accusingly. Unprepared for this assault I almost choked on my tea.
"So I did." I said with a careless shrug, feeling my defense mechanism going into high gear for the scorn that was coming my way.

"You don't have to be ashamed of it. Everyone does it. I've seen the Germans, Japanese, British and the French howling when they get to the top. You were so quiet we hardly noticed."

Azizullah's personality had more facets than I could possibly discover in a fortnight.

Among the host of explorers who gave us our knowledge of the Karakorums are the names of an American couple: Dr William Hunter Workman and his haughty, overbearing wife Fanny Bullock Workman. With perhaps no other motive for being in these mountains but to share the limelight with other great explorers they travelled through the Karakorums about a dozen times in the two decades spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although they did not add very much to existing knowledge, because they travelled on well trodden ground, albeit without acknowledging their predecessors, they nonetheless left an excellent photographic record.

In 1899 they crossed the Skoro La to Askole and made camp not very far from the spot where we were having tea. After nightfall the couple felt their beds moving as though from an earth tremor. Later, when the poor henpecked doctor was asleep Fanny Workman became conscious of the sound of approaching footsteps. Quick and regular, they sounded like booted feet on a polished surface.
She wrote: "It seemed to approach steadily, growing louder as it neared the tent, then ceased and began to promenade again. No goat skin shod coolie, nor Alpine booted European could walk over moraine and ice with such regularity at the dead of night. Only an ice-spirit could put on patent leather boots, and turn the irregularities of such a surface into a hard wooden floor to tantalise uninvited visitors."

A narration of this episode to my companions was met with varying reactions. While Dawar looked even more sorrowful, Azizullah was downright scornful and Khushal seemed a trifle uncertain of the veracity of my tale. But there was unanimous and vehement opposition to my suggestion of making camp there in order to verify the ghost story for ourselves. In the end we spent the night two hours' march further down the valley.

An almost vertical slope brought us down to the village of Teste, shaded by tall poplars and spreading apricot trees and hemmed in by golden fields of ripe wheat. As we approached the village Azizullah said that although he respected my abhorrence for the title of major, he would introduce me as one and that I should not object like I usually did, but play along with his game. Then, instructing me to follow about ten minutes behind, the trio marched off towards the village.

I sauntered in ten minutes later with my hands in my pockets and ran smack into a welcoming committee consisting of every single male the village could boast of. In the background a bevy of lovely looking women giggled and jostled to get a view of the proceedings. Azizullah, it transpired, had informed the village headman that a major sahib was carrying out a survey to see where the government could build schools, hospitals and roads and that if the headman was kind to this team the village just might be favoured with one of these amenities.

Tea was laid out with bread and apricots and the headman insisted on taking down a chicken for lunch which I precluded much to the chagrin of my companions. As he watched us wolfing down the bread the headman said it would be useful to have the school in the fields near the river. That way, he pointed out, it would be almost midway between Teste and Askole. Very solemnly Azizullah observed that the latter being the larger of the two villages, it would be advisable to have the school there. However, as compensation for not getting the school Teste would receive the hospital.

The site of the new suspension bridge was discussed and it was clear that the Shimshalis were having one hell of a good time duping the simple folk of Teste. This was atrocious; and unable to play my part well, I felt very uncomfortable. But we had taken this little charade too far for me to extricate myself without creating extreme ill will. The effect of this villainy was that when I asked if we could purchase ten kilograms of wheat flour the eager to please headman produced fifteen. It was with great relief that I left the village, but even that was not the end of the game. The kind headman walked us to the river's edge, on the way pointing out the spot for the hospital that will never be built in Teste for another one hundred years.

The Braldu River spouts from the Baltoro Glacier that rises at the foot of K-2 and we could cross it to Askole either by the bridge or by what they called the garari. Since I had read about the bridges I decided to take the garari. It was a small wooden crate tied to a pulley by means of four wires. The pulley was slung over a steel wire rope that stretched across the river and was anchored on either bank on very precarious looking wooden superstructures fixed on buttresses of dressed stone. I balked at the sight. I had visions of the contraption somehow getting stuck in the middle of the river and managing to overturn itself, sending me crashing into the silty water on the first leg of my journey to the Indian Ocean. I asked if we could see the bridge and we were led downstream to what I could only term a nightmare.

Huein Tsang, the Chinese, who travelled through the Karakorums in about AD 635 on his way to a pilgrimage of Buddhist sites in India had called these things "flying bridges" and had not been very pleased with them. Even those doughty explorers of the nineteenth century had taken this bridge in particular with a certain degree of trepidation. I was absolutely horrified.

The bridge, comprising of three ropes made of twisted willow twigs, stretched across the river in an arc. Two of these ropes served as hand rails while the third was for the feet. In order to prevent the lower rope from sagging any further under the weight of the user there was an arrangement of twigs connecting it to the hand rails. At least twice in the length of the bridge the hand rails too were connected together by ropes which could only be negotiated by turning sideways to swing the legs over. More than two dozen of the connecting ropes had rotted and hung limply, profoundly accentuating the frailty of the bridge.
"Do you still use this bridge?" I asked trying to suppress the agitation that I was certain could be sensed in my voice.
"Yes, we do," said the headman, "And be assured that there has not been a casualty for several years."
"But there might be one today," Khushal Khan chimed in.

I said that since I had heard so much about these ingeniously designed bridges I had come this far merely to look at one and had no desire to use it lest I break a clean record of several years. I pretended to take a couple of pictures and then led my little procession back to the garari while Dawar told us of the time he and two others were crossing the Hunza River and the box overturned. His co-travellers were delivered into the river and never found again while Dawar luckily caught hold of the wire and hung on for more than fifteen minutes before he could be rescued.

Our crossing was uneventful. Across a dreich, rock strewn landscape lay the orchards of Askole. We had reached World's End.

Previous: Between Two Burrs on the MapEpilogueHorse Trading, Wilderness of the Giant, Little Tibet 

Another Adventure: The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Deosai Podcast on BBC, And no bird sing... 

Labels: , , , ,

posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< 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