Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Between Two Burrs on the Map

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Long before the first European ventured into the heart of the Karakorums these barren gorges and the high, wind swept passes connecting them were being traversed by the Indians and Chinese. Most of them were merchants plying their caravans of trade, some were Buddhist pilgrims from China seeking Nirvana by doing obeisance at the many sites in India connected with the great Buddha. And there were roving bands of brigands and freebooters from the states of Hunza and Nagar lying to the north west of Askole and separated from it by a system of glaciers.

These marauders and their ruthless depredatory raids kept the people of Askole in constant dread. In the middle ages when summer ice conditions permitted travel over the Hispar-Biafo glacial system connecting Askole with Nagar, these raids were very frequent with the looters periodically swarming out of the gorge of the Biafo to drive away cattle and slaves over the glaciers to their country.

The last of these raids took place about the year 1840, as reported to Godwin-Austen by the people of Askole. About eight hundred Nagaris, he was informed, had descended on the village and carried off more than one hundred men and women together with all the cattle they could collect. When Martin Conway following up on Godwin-Austen's work arrived in Askole in 1892 an aged man related how his father had witnessed a raid many years ago. The leader of the raiders was Vizier Hollo who came late in the year to plunder foodstuff because Nagar had suffered a bad harvest. As they were returning loaded down with ibex skins and wheat flour they ran into a blizzard and all but the hardy vizier perished in the snow.

Conway believed that there was "perhaps a fragment or two of truth in this story". And he was not wrong for the annals of Nagar record the name of Hollo as a minister to the Raja in the 1830's.

Then the raiding ceased and at length it was learned that the passes leading to Askole from across the glaciers were blocked by an excess of snow. But late in September 1887, almost thirty years after anyone had reached Askole from the east or the north, a party of ragged men surprised the village by coming down the gorge of the Braldu River. To the utter surprise and disbelief of the village headman one of these men, as slovenly as his fellows, claimed to be an Englishman. Memory of the relative affluence of men like Dr Falconer and Godwin-Austen was still fresh in the minds of the people of Askole and this motley collection of Balti, Tibetan, Chinese and one supposed sahib could just as well have been thieves. Worst of all, this group had been led across the snowy waste by a man called Wali, one of their own who had immigrated to Yarkand many years ago.

But this little unshaven man with tattered clothes and disintegrating boots who claimed to be an Englishman was none other than Francis Younghusband, soldier and explorer extraordinary. The man had left Beijing almost seven months earlier to accomplish an epic journey across the heart of Asia and his welcome to the first village in India was rather unbefitting. This hostility, Younghusband discovered, was for fear that common knowledge of the usability of this route would result in a resumption of raids on the village. Younghusband, who had already been noticed for his diplomatic facility, at length transformed this hostility to acceptance.

Haji Mehdi's younger son [Image from
The Apricot Road to Yarkand]
I had in my pocket a letter from Ayaz Afridi to the famous Hajji Mehdi who has something to do with every expedition that passes through Askole. He was an almost regal looking man with pale brown eyes, a straight nose, well formed lips and a greying beard. To match this appearance was a composed and quiet demeanour and an unhurried carriage. He led us into his guest room, read the letter and said if I was Afridi's friend I was an honoured guest in his house.

After a lavish tea I asked if it was possible to procure powdered milk in Askole and he led us into an adjoining room whose walls were adorned with expedition posters and a few pictures of the good Hajji himself. Along the periphery on the floor were large wooden boxes whose lids Hajji Mehdi flipped open as he walked past each to reveal stuff that I could have purchased only in the super markets of Europe: there was English Christmas pudding, Edam cheese from Holland, salami from Germany and even a loaf of French bread which was so hard that Azizullah suggested we carry it along to be used as a weapon.

Besides various packets of fancy foodstuff that were fairly reasonably priced, we also purchased a preposterously expensive cockerel to be killed for the evening meal. It was only then I realised what had been implied at Skardu when I was told that the good Hajji profited in some way from every expedition that passed through the village. I had also been mystified by the large stocks of imported food and discovered that since the Hajji organised porters for the expeditions they, on returning from the mountains, in order to show their appreciation, dumped all their left over stuff with him rather than carry it home. One thing was clear: whatever was said about the Hajji at Skardu was triggered by feelings of jealousy for the man's success.

We set up camp east of the village in a lovely tree shaded spot. In front were verdant fields of peas and corn which suddenly disappeared into the gorge of the Braldu, beyond which was the oasis of Teste. This, in turn, gave way to a khaki mountain side split in two by the yawning chasm of some nameless stream that came bounding down, eager to pay tribute to the Braldu. To the east the walls of the canyon rose in sombre grey colour to more than 2000 metres above the valley floor concealing the great peaks of the Upper Baltoro Glacier. The only giant that we could identify in the panorama was the spiky Paiju Peak -- Salt Peak in Balti.

While Khushal was wrestling with the leathery rooster Azizullah and I sat on a stone wall watching two young Balti girls strolling through the fields. Suddenly Azizullah stood up, held his hands to the side of his face and hollered something in Balti. The girls froze. They stared at us for a few moments, about faced and scampered off jabbering excitedly. What I thought was another invitation "to do evil" which was likely to bring down the wrath of Askole on us turned out to be Azizullah's only Balti phrase: an innocuous inquiry about the girls' names. The Shimshalis rolled with laughter but old Dawar remained as melancholy as ever, gloomily smoking his cheap cigarettes.

I had asked for a porter to carry my load part of the way up the Biafo Glacier, but with every able bodied man employed by climbing expeditions I had to make do with Hajji Mehdi's elder brother, Hajji Ali. The entire male population of Baltistan, it appears, shares just three names amongst itself: Mehdi, Hussain and Ali and if one were to stand in the centre of any village and shout these names the village would turn itself inside out. The odd man absent in the case would very likely be Mohammed. This, I had always felt, was of great facility for foreign expeditions who did not have to wrestle with a vast variety of unfamiliar and unpronounceable (for them) names.

Hajji Ali had sad eyes and a face that spoke of almost sixty years of a hard life. It took a lengthy palaver between him and Hajji Mehdi before he eventually agreed to carry for me. It transpired that his son, who had gone up the Biafo with an American expedition was expected to return and the Hajji hoped to run into him on the first day out. There he planned to transfer his load and return home with a bit of extra money.

When we set off he walked a few paces ahead of us and never spoke except to tell me the names of the mountains as they came into view. Skirting a detached hill that stood on the right bank of the Braldu we turned north into the Biafo Glacier and climbed up the dusty wall of the gorge picking our way through a maze of shattered rock. The sun beat mercilessly out of a clear blue sky and the temperature rose; by ten in the morning the landscape seemed to be shimmering surrealistically through the heat.

Below us to the right was a great jumble of rocks through which a tiny stream meandered -- this was the terminal moraine of the Biafo Glacier. It was more than a kilometre from the Braldu River, but in 1861 Godwin-Austen found the glacier forming a bridge over the river. He also learned that about two hundred years before his time the Biafo had completely dammed up the Braldu forming a vast lake right up to the snout of the Baltoro Glacier where the Braldu rises. At length this dam broke with devastating effect. It is indeed remarkable how such a detail was passed down through the generations, perhaps, of grizzly patriarchs recounting it to wide eyed younger men around the endless fires of bleak Balti winters. But when I was there, one hundred and twenty nine years after Godwin-Austen, the event had been forgotten.

We stopped for lunch on a small clearing in the forest of shattered rock and soon had company. It was Hajji Ali's son and a few more men on their way back. After lunch the Hajji aired the proposal that had brought him this far. His son took immediate and vehement exception to it. A long and heated argument ensued which we had no difficulty in comprehending despite our illiteracy in Balti. Eventually the father gave up and sat looking gravely into his mug of tea while the son, still swearing under his breath, hefted his pack and started down the trail. Azizullah was outraged. Never could such a thing be dreamt of in Shimshal. Why, he would have nothing to do with his own son if he behaved so despicably.

We left the side of the valley and picked our way through a tangle of shattered ice covered with a layer of scree to the camping ground of Namla, four hours away. This was a small grassy plot with a few primulas waving uncertainly in the cold wind. The scenery, except for the great snowy peaks that remained persistently distant, was a drab blotch of grey and brown under the blue sky.

I complained about the hard going and the wretchedness of the entire prospect and Azizullah assured me that in two days I would begin to fall in love with this ice world. I did not see how that could be so, and found myself wondering how those days would seem in retrospect. It would have been a great consolation had I known how other men had felt.

Several months later I read the transcript of a speech made by Sir Francis Younghusband to the Royal Geographical Society in 1926. He wrote, "The impression that has remained still and which has sunk deeper and deeper with the years is the impression of the sublimity and grandeur of the region. ...And then when one gets higher in among the glaciers under the great peaks to a region where even rock is little seen -- where nearly all is snow and ice, sparkling in the radiant sunshine, one has the sense of having reached a higher and purer world raised far above the murky earth below. And this feeling of exultation is the supreme impression left upon me by this region -- the main impression which has remained with me for a lifetime and which, as experience has proved, has completely obliterated all those minor impressions so marked for the moment but of such little consequence."

Beyond Namla the Biafo was like a tarmac highway -- as straight and even and as grey, with occasional transverse crevasses slashing across the surface. On both sides were towering pyramids of grey rock crowned by their mantles of ice and as we walked past Hajji Ali called out their names, not addressing them to anyone of us but reverently, in a manner of one doing obeisance to the gods that dwelt on their summits: Bullah, Mango Brakk, Dongbar, Sokha Lumba and far away, with only its three pointed summit peeking shyly above the lesser ridges was Baintha Brakk -- the Ogre.

In 1892 Martin Conway came down from Nagar in the northwest on the same route that the raiders had used years before him, and this squat, ugly giant whose triple headed crest tore at the sky must have seemed an ungainly ogre to him. Very pompously and without regard for the local appellation he gave it that name.

Until 1977 this 7290 metre high giant was unclimbed. Then six men calling themselves the British Ogre Himalayan Expedition 1977 walked up the Biafo with dreams of becoming the first men since creation to stand on its virgin summit. Two of them eventually did: Chris Bonington and Doug Scott. But the Ogre, like every other virgin peak, exacted a toll for this affront perpetrated by lowly man. Fortunately it exhibited far more clemency than other mountains and its toll was in terms of pain and injury rather than in terms of life.

Late in the afternoon on July 13th Scott had struggled up the treacherous ice below the summit, and just as the sun was going down he was joined by Bonington. With the battle over and without any bivouac equipment both men started hurrying down to the ice cave where they had spent the previous night. On the abseil, in an attempt to retrieve some abandoned equipment, Scott planted his feet on a granite slope. What he had failed to see in the gathering darkness was the thin coating of water ice; he slipped and took off in a pendulum swing.

The swing ended with him slamming into the rock face and smashing his ankles. At the end of the abseil when Scott tried to put his weight on his feet he collapsed and from then on, for the next seven days, he crawled on all fours. That, however, was not the limit of their troubles. A storm moved in confining them (Bonington and Scott had then been joined by Clive Roland and Mo Anthoine) to their snow holes for three days. In the meantime Bonington had contrived to abseil off his rope and break two ribs; to make matters even more complicated he showed signs of the onset of pneumonia.

Doggedly they fought the odds and made it to Base Camp where, after a wait of four days, Scott was put on a makeshift stretcher and carried down the Biafo to Askole. Two days later the helicopter arrived to fly him out, and just as it was landing at Skardu its engine died and it shot down the last twenty feet.

"Men coming down the glacier." Azizullah's pronouncement brought me back to the present. From the distance, in the clear mountain air, they appeared like a line of rocks and despite his assertion that they were men I continued to believe that it was only glacial debris. It turned out to be a team of porters and the Liaison Officer for the American expedition at Baintha camp ground on their way back to Askole. They stopped for an exchange of news and I asked the LO if he could tell Afridi in Skardu that I had paid no heed to his advice and was on my way to Shimshal via the Braldu Glacier. I knew it was going to be a minimum of five days before Afridi would hear of it by which time we would be beyond obstruction, but in case something went wrong he would at least know where to look.

The crevasses captivated me. I lingered over them trying to look into those black depths from which the strangest of sounds emanated: there were creaks, groans, thuds and the faint drip-drip of water. But the moulins were the most intriguing of all. These were clean, round shafts, some the size of a regular manhole, some smaller, that reached into the primordial depths of the glacier and into which immense quantities of water from surface streams disappeared with a din like a subterranean factory working full tilt. These absolutely mesmerised me and as I watched them swallowing up the rills I could not help wondering how a man would go down and where he would end up. Several weeks later speaking about this fascination to friends at a party in Lahore I was confronted by a man who handed me his business card and suggested I see him at my earliest. He was a psychiatrist!

Owing to my new found interest in glaciology I walked into the tiny oasis of Baintha camp ground far behind my companions and was greeted by the sound of a woman with a thick north European accent holding forth. It was Gabriella, and she was Dutch. The night before she had been alone on an inner glacier in camp while her two friends were up on a minor peak. Around ten at night she heard someone in the mess tent and was horrified to find a family of bears -- two grown ups and a pair of cubs -- working their way through the provisions. Frozen with terror and not knowing what to do she watched them calmly ripping open tins and smashing glass jars to get at the contents. Six hours later, just as the batteries in her torch ran out, the bears decided they were satiated. They stretched themselves, gave her a casual glance and ambled off into the pink dawn.

Gaby left a note for her friends and immediately departed for the safety of the American camp. But almost twelve hours after her ordeal she was still visibly shaken and would mechanically return to expound, at great length, upon the bears' impromptu picnic.

In Skardu Afridi had warned me of the bears of Baintha. These beasts, he had said, have never been known to attack man but are very adept at ripping tents to get at the food. It would, therefore, be advisable to leave some food outside so as to have my tent spared. The two Americans who were present in camp showed me their mess tents which had been shredded by the bears some nights earlier and their arrangement of hanging the food cannisters on ropes fixed on a small rock face.

We were faced with a new and entirely unexpected prospect: either it was the food or the tent that was doomed to be lost to the bears and the idea of blundering into the Braldu without either was very upsetting, to say the least. Steve Wood and Mark Bebie sensed my worry and suggested that we leave all our food outside in order to save the tent. In case the food was taken they would give us enough to last us the six days to civilisation on the other side of the Braldu.
"But you must have devised a standing operating procedure in the event of a bear attack," I asked.
"Yes, we have." Mark said, "When you hear them you stick your head out of the tent, grab whatever is handy and throw it at them. At the same time you scream at the top of your lungs to let the rest of us know that the bears are here and we all get out to create a shindig and throw things at them." "That's quite sensible." I said, "Does it help?" "Not one bit, it doesn't." said Steve. "But we do it all the same just so as not to be standing around looking like idiots while the bears do their thing."

Some porters from Baintha were returning to Askole so Hajji Ali decided to leave with them. I paid him off and it would not have been true Balti form had he accepted the payment without an altercation about being given less than had been agreed upon earlier. Just before leaving he came up to me and asked if I was still bent upon trying to get to Shimshal via the Braldu. I said I was. "How many days will it be before you get to the first village?" he asked.

I said we hoped to reach Shuwert in seven days. "For seven days no one will know whether you live or you die." he said ominously. Then, without a word of farewell, he marched off after his companions already disappearing into the gloaming.

I stared dumbly after him: was it merely the venom he had for me for not paying him what he considered were the right wages or a prophecy of some greater significance? I could not decide and felt a twinge of vague fear.

The Shimshalis went into a huddle and for the first time since we set out they had old Dawar with them. When they were finished they came up to me and with Azizullah playing the spokesman demanded a written declaration to the effect that at the end I was going to pay them the agreed amount. After what had transpired they felt they could not rely on my rectitude. I was furious but keeping myself under control for fear of the trio striking work, very flatly refused to give anything in writing. My spoken word, I told them, was as good as my signed statement.

A long discussion followed with Azizullah telling me that he had never been in favour of working for Pakistanis because of our universal lack of integrity. I returned that it was entirely his bad luck that he automatically gyrated into the presence of cheats and liars and that he should have sense enough to know when he was dealing with a good man. At length it was Dawar who said he had heard something being said by Hajji Mehdi about three days' wages. But he could not be certain, he added doubtfully. Azizullah turned on him and berated him for not having said so in the beginning and through puffs on his cigarette Dawar mumbled on about not having been sure.

I withdrew to the American mess tent where all eleven of them had returned for the night. After dinner with an endless supply of tea talk revolved around Salman Rushdie and the trouble this similarity in names had caused me, religion, wife beating in Pakistan and finally the bears of Baintha in comparison to grizzlies and polar bears.

When I came back to our tent tension had eased considerably but it was certain that it would take some little while for things to become completely normal again. That night I could not fall asleep, for every time the tent flapped in the wind I thought the bears were upon us. Also there was one thing that kept ringing in my ears: "... no one will know whether you live or you die!"

Luckily for us the bears did not turn up that night. They were probably busy mopping up the Dutch camp. And this time around they would have been spared the embarrassment of having a terrified woman staring at them while they dined.

We set out under a blue dome shredded on the southern horizon by wisps of cirrus clouds. The going over an almost level stretch of ice punctuated at intervals with crevasses was easy and the scenery here in the upper reaches of the Biafo was devastating. On the east were great snow draped ridges with few traces of rock showing through, and on the west, where the sun lingered for a greater part of the day, were immense grey and brown peaks. Azizullah had said it would take me two days to fall in love with this ice world; and he had not been wrong.

Around mid afternoon we walked onto a great snowy plateau: we were on the lip of what Martin Conway had called Snow Lake. It was a vast oval snowfield surrounded by an amphitheater of the finest snow peaks I was ever to behold. The northern border was a great wall of glistening white peaks that concealed Lukpe Lawo or Snow Lake. Behind us, rising out of an immense litter of glacial debris, was a series of jagged crags; some draped in snow, others bare and grey, rising into the sky. Among these was the squat, ice clad Ogre. To the east the sterile snows of Sim Gang Glacier stretched all the way to a grey and white wall that was the great Asiatic Divide.

The Biafo spilled out of the snowy ridge of the Hispar Pass "like clotted cream pouring over the lip of a cream jug". To the Baltis it had always been R'dzong La -- Fortress Pass, an allusion perhaps to some distant time when they had, in vain, tried to maintain a military outpost here in order to guard against raiders from Nagar. It was from this pass in July 1892 that Martin Conway came down to explore the Biafo glacier and what he beheld from the crest of the pass was not very different from our own view: "This lake (of snow) was bounded to the north and east by white ridges, and to the south by the splendid row of needle peaks, the highest of which, the Ogre, had looked at us over the pass two days before. From the midst of the snowy lake rose a series of mountain islands white like the snow that buried their bases, and there were endless bays and straits as of white water nestling amongst them."

Along the west bank of the Biafo was a series of sheer granite spires slashed by several passes among which we could see Sokha La. In 1903 the Workmans had crossed this into what they called Cornice Glacier and which they declared was geographically a new and remarkable entity: a glacier without an outlet. Very steadfastly they stuck to their ridiculous hypothesis pouring scorn on Conway for the objections he raised against this outlandish assertion.

In 1937, at the end of the Shaksgam Expedition, William Tilman, with two trusted Sherpas, parted from his colleagues north of the watershed. Crossing Lukpe La into Sim Gang he made his way to Sokha or the Workmans' Cornice Glacier. This seems to have been almost with a vengeance to prove, once and for all, that the Americans' "zeal for exploration never developed into a sense of topography". This was not a difficult task, for all it took was a trek down to the junction of this curving glacier with that of the Solu ice stream. The Sokha was not the sealed glacier that the Workmans had imagined it to be.

The Sim Gang Glacier, which together with Lukpe Lawo or Snow Lake, feeds the Biafo and was at one time erroneously believed to be the source of the Khurdopin and Virjerab glaciers to the north, is almost at the centre of a great maze of ice rivers. These are acclaimed as the largest outside the polar regions compared to which Himalayan glaciers are a piddling affair. Towering above this collection of ice rivers is K-2, the second highest peak in the world, surrounded by its complement of satellites, of which three are more than 8000 metres and fifteen more than 7500 metres high.

Despite the outstanding pioneering work of men like Godwin-Austen and Conway the meaning of the vastness of this area was incomprehensible to many. Writing of the 1902 K-2 expedition of which he was a part, Aliester Crowley disparagingly noted that at Askole the Austrians Pfannl and Wessley thought they could set out with three days' provisions, climb K-2 and be back for dinner on the third day! It was to be some while before the extent of this ice world was to be fully understood.

For the first time we set up camp on snow and ate a quick dinner as we watched the peaks and ridges to the east become resplendent with late afternoon light. Then, as the sun dipped behind the western hills and the temperature plunged, we turned in. Tomorrow, if all went well, we would cross the Asiatic Watershed -- this was the dream I had dreamt for so many years. This was the dream that had driven me this far.

Previous: Between Two Burrs on the MapEpilogueHorse TradingWilderness of the GiantLittle Tibet, World's End

Another Adventure: The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Thandiani to Nathiagali

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 25 December 2014 at 17:24, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Great adventure.


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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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