Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Between Two Burrs on the Map - Travels in Northern Pakistan

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Salim Mushtaq, working for a tour operator in Islamabad, had a load of what he called "soft tourists" from Germany to drop off at the check post and his sobriquet for them was as apposite as any. The girls all had manicured and freshly polished nails and prim hairdos, while the men were all meticulously shaven. Their neatly pressed clothes advertised the best fashion designers of Europe and the interior of the coach reeked with a profusion of Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci and Cartier. I, with my shorn head, frayed collar and discoloured patch covering the tear on the seat of my only pair of trousers, certainly did not belong with this lot.

They stared dumbly out of the windows, occasionally ordering the coach to be stopped in order to scramble outside to show off their expensive still and video cameras. The lot went absolutely bananas as we came abreast with the white tongue of the Passu Glacier, ending about five hundred metres short of the road. The coach was stopped and the cameras clicked and whirred long and hard amid a babble of excitement. Seated once more they were as grim faced as before and I could not help thinking that they probably felt as wretched as I did on the scree slopes of Shimshal.

Only the exceedingly good looking and voluptuous blonde remained in her seat with the German speaking understudy tour guide learning the intricacies of the trade from Mushtaq. The man was doing rather well for he had a good thing going with the busty German, and while the others crowed over the first glacier they had ever seen in their lives this pair clung to each other, whispering sweet nothings. That the girl's parents did not approve of this flirtation soon became evident and I felt that the sullenness in the coach perhaps resulted from what must have gone on earlier between the parents and the girl.

I could see the whole scenario: spoiled young girl, jilted by her lover, brought to this mountain wilderness to help her get over the affair. But the lovelorn maiden falls headlong into another romance, this time with a Pakistani, much to the chagrin of her parents. If this flirtation were to get any more serious I knew it was very likely to end up in another "business marriage" where the young Pakistani male seeking to attain the greener pastures across the western borders of Asia dupes a gullible western girl into marriage.

The couple live in bliss for a short while and then with the birth of the first girl child, the father, a good and true Muslim, suddenly realises how iniquitous western society is. By then he has status that allows him employment in the host country so he ditches the European wife, sues for possession of the child, who must now be brought up in the fashion of a good Muslim and hurries home to marry a decent girl from his family. In this way the daughter also gets looked after. By the time the child is old enough to think for herself the father normally has enough money to tear her from the society where she belongs and returns home to wed her off to someone who can then abuse the wife's nationality to go abroad.

And the game begins anew. If however, the man fathers only male children he has no compunction about living in the moral cesspit that is the West.

".....God forsaken wilderness, with a tin shed and a flag pole lost in it..." wrote Joseph Conrad of another place on another continent. He could just as well have been writing about Sost, the border check post on the Karakorum Highway before it enters China. Bordering the road, on one side were a couple of drab government buildings crawling with uniformed customs men. On the other side was a row of low roofed hovels that was the main bazaar where one could buy anything Chinese. We arrived around mid morning with a gusting wind tearing down the valley, herding scraps of old newspapers and discarded plastic bags like some unseen shepherd.

Mushtaq hustled his tourists into the customs shed where they energetically dived into arguments with contumacious officials in a language that lost track of itself somewhere between German and English: "Vee haff nussing to declare." and "I can zis koffer not open." (because the poor fellow had lost the key). All the while the besotted couple perpetrated an act that was unheard of in the repressive society of modern Pakistan: they clung to each other with misty eyes, in full view of the milling hordes of Chinese Hajjis returning from Mecca and semi literate Punjabi merchants returning from China. But no one seemed to notice this blatant display of debauchery, for the beleagured Hajjis, disadvantaged by their illiteracy in anything but Persian or Turki, neither of which was known to the officials, looked harried enough not to be bothered with another minor punctilio. The traders, on the other hand, were too busy grovelling at the feet of the almighty customs men; trying as they were, to get away with their loads of plastic crockery and bolts of silk.

The man in charge had stipulated a mandatory offering of two thousand rupees to be made by all Pakistanis returning from China, regardless of whether they carried merchandise or not. Since this amount was the minimum payable, the rate of duty on imported items was calculated over and above it, which itself was totally arbitrary and levied in a most offhand manner. The man had this licence, I felt, from his removal from central authority and the knowledge that any complaint made at Islamabad would succumb to bureaucratic rigmarole long before it could hamstring him. To preclude any notions of seeking redress, the fussier of his victims were regaled with a detail of the apportioning of these illegal proceeds. The largest share, according to the man, going of course to the Collector of Customs at Islamabad.

I got bored with waiting for the climax of the farewell that promised to be the event of the century at Sost and wandered off across the road to see, once again, if I could hire a horse. Sure enough the horses were still in the summer pastures where they were to remain until such time that I got there, at which point they were all to have been miraculously packed off to the valleys. I made a mental note of positively never again asking for a pack animal. Not only that; there were also no porters in Sost -- every working man either ran a little store where he sold Chinese goods or managed a grubby hovel that he called a hotel. The few that remained spent their days dozing in the post office feigning to look after its affairs.

In the well stocked bazaar I found some bars of a chocolate petrified from age -- but this was the only chocolate obtainable north of Gilgit. I ate one, then another, and another, and another. When I was finished and the wrappers counted I had killed thirteen bars! There were only three left in stock. I bought them just in case I had another fit of choco-mania.

In 1944, long before I was born, another man was "captivated by the personality of Eric Shipton" after reading Upon that Mountain. This, however, was no insignificant man. Wilfred Thesiger was well known for his explorations in Rub'al Khali -- the Empty Quarter, of the Arabian Peninsula recounted in his enthralling book Arabian Sands. For initiation to the mountains he had come to upper Hunza on Shipton's suggestion and travelled through Chapursan Valley to cross the 5190 metre high Chillinji Pass in order to reach Ishkoman on the other side. But it was not Thesiger I was following into lonely Chapursan; it was William Tilman.

The only way I could get to Chapursan was to ride the once-a-day jeep that was due to leave sometime in the afternoon. It was still mid morning so I commandeered a charpoi, the autochthonous cot, and lay in the sun to read Dostoyevsky. I was joined by a well dressed man who addressed me as Major and said we had met at Skardu -- something that I could not recollect at all. Aha! So I was heading for the Chillinji. Did I know that the valley was closed to outsiders? I said I did and had secured permission from the army at Gilgit. In which case, said the man, it would serve me well to make my acquaintance with the army post commander from the valley who fortunately happened to be at Sost.

He ambled off and returned shortly, accompanied by a tall and very good looking man. Niyat Khan headed the small detachment of troops at the remote outpost of Baba Ghundi Ziarat -- Shrine of the Old Man from Ghund. He had not received any news from headquarters about my arrival and since the valley was closed he was not allowing me in. "I am a major," I lied shamelessly abusing the title bestowed upon me at Skardu.

"In that case, Sir, you can come as far as my post." Niyat Khan said, adding very emphatically, "And definitely no farther until I hear from headquarters." I told him of my interview with the General at Gilgit and his enthusiasm for my expedition adding, untruthfully again, that he had wanted me to travel with all speed and inform him directly upon finishing.

"All that is very fine, Sir. But between the passes of Chillinji and Irshad is but one little peak and should you go wrong, either intentionally or by mistake, you will be in Russia before the day is out."
Shades of the Great Game!

Niyat Khan had no doubt what the army expected of him and he was doing it with admirable aplomb. In a country where NCOs tend to be rather spineless and easily cowed by anyone wielding a title of seniority he was a remarkable man. I warmed to him. Sensing that I was struggling with how to contact Gilgit he said that I was welcome to stay with him at Ziarat from where he would send a man to a post in a neighbouring valley that was in radio contact with Gilgit. Since this was to take a minimum of three days, possibly longer, I made a final attempt to somehow shake off this very assertive sort of man by saying that I was a voracious eater and was quite likely to seriously deplete his store of rations. "Don't worry about that, Sir. We do not let our guests die of starvation," he said with a smile. I knew it would be impossible to get past Niyat Khan.

I had no idea how the farewell that had earlier promised to be a very dramatic interlude in the drudgery of life at Sost would have proceeded, but around midday another very exciting thing happened. A dilapidated pick up truck arrived overloaded with dozens of runny nosed sheep and a few skinny goats. The driver stopped in the middle of the road and let out a blast on the horn. As if by magic the sleepy little village erupted with dozens of young men and a mad scrabble took place around the truck. The shouting and arguing mingled with the pitiable bleating and within minutes more than fifty reluctant animals were gleefully being dragged off to sure and immediate ends. The remainder were slaughtered right there in the middle of the road, while the driver of the pick up contentedly counted the proceeds over a cup of tea. Then, once again, Sost receded into somnolence. This turned out to be a weekly affair -- ardently looked forward to by the people of the village. It was their only supply of meat in summers when livestock was away in the mountains.

We left in the afternoon with Niyat Khan wearing a natty black hat that made him look like Indiana Jones. I explained the character and told Niyat Khan how he reminded me of him. He laughed heartily, apparently pleased by the compliment. The jeep was crammed with several passengers atop the sacks of flour and onions and tins of vegetable oil and we went tearing past the customs check post, crossed the bridge and entered the valley of Chapursan.

At Spinje we stopped briefly to ask if Musa Beg, who was supposed to know the route across the Chillinji, could porter for me. He hummed and hawed a great deal before finally agreeing to meet me at Ziarat in three days. We rode on in the failing light of late afternoon and near Reshit Niyat Khan pointed out the grey cones of gravel and large rocks littering the valley floor. It seemed to be the remnant of a glacier that vanished sometime earlier in the current millennium.

"These are the remains of the flood of stones that Baba Ghundi brought down on the people of Chapursan," he said. Earlier he had been telling me of the malevolence of this supposed saint: In the old days Chapursan was a rich and fertile valley, supporting a happy population whose only bane was the man eating dragon that dwelt in a lake and took a daily human offering. It came to pass that one day the victim, a young girl, sat by the lake tearfully waiting to be taken by the monster when Baba Ghundi came upon her and asked the reason for her sorrow. Telling her to return home and inform her people that henceforth they were absolved of the human offering the old man remained in her place and when the dragon emerged from the water he hacked it to pieces.

Subsequently he appeared in the village and told the people that they were to invoke his name in the event of any calamity and he would appear to help them. Years passed by without the people of Chapursan ever needing his assistance, but one day, merely to check the veracity of his promise, they called out to the saint who duly appeared. He rebuked them for their frivolity and disappeared again. But thrice they called him, each time becoming more and more obnoxious until finally they pelted him with stones and dung. As he was thus being harassed an old woman sheltered him in her house and fed him on goat's milk. Telling her not to leave her house for he was bringing down a flood of rocks to destroy Chapursan the man vanished. And sure enough a cataclysmic flood swept down the valley destroying everything but Kampire Dior -- the House of the Old Woman. Today it is simply a large, straight sided boulder.

Night fell but we drove along to the end of the jeep road. Then, with the jeep gone we were in pitch darkness with two pin pricks of light shining in the void. Niyat Khan said we had arrived at Baba Ghundi Ziarat but without a point of reference it was impossible to tell how far the lights were. He went on ahead with my rucksack and I stumbled along behind. Across the plank bridge over the narrow chasm with the stream thundering in the unseen depth, we entered a grassy meadow and then we were clomping up the stone steps of the Officers' Mess.

The three young lieutenants who were just sitting down to supper warmly greeted me and immediately another set of plates materialised. In all my years of travelling, army officers have never failed to impress me with their generous and spontaneous hospitality and I have, on several occasions, taken the liberty of equating myself with Joseph Wolff, an eccentric traveller and an outspoken Christian of the nineteenth century. While Wolff gyrated to his colonels and majors either ailing, ship wrecked or after having been robbed, I found my lieutenants and captains in well being and happiness.

The brilliantly white washed stone building of the shrine with its dozens of colourful flags seemed incongruous amidst the bleak mountains. Schomberg, who visited the shrine in the 1930s, was told by the attendant that the building housed an empty cenotaph for the saint was interned in Arabia. Now it is commonly believed that he is indeed buried here after his corpse had defied an attempt to be stolen by some men from his hometown. It is said that as the Wakhis tried to carry off the corpse they were struck by blindness but their sight was miraculously restored only after they vowed to let the saint remain in the shrine.

Even more incongruous were the several pilgrims who visited the shrine in the three days that I remained there. They were mostly young childless women swaddled in their voluminous chaddars come to seek the saint's benediction for fertility or they came with new born babies who presumably were the fruit of supplication at the shrine. Sometimes it was some far ranging shepherd from the lower villages. They ardently believed in the story of the saint and his bout with the man eating dragon and to prove the veracity of their belief referred to the lumps of calciferous limestone exhibited in the museum at Gulmit under the label: "Bones of Dragon slain by Baba Ghundi".

Occasionally there were well dressed and veilless girls working for the Aga Khan Foundation at Gilgit taking time off from this or that field trip. These girls Lieutenant Janjua simply failed to comprehend. Though he called them "ladies" he asserted that they were all reprobates. Why, only a few days ago another lieutenant got into a conversation with them at the shrine and immediately was invited to visit them at Gulmit. Without doubt "those ladies were whores".
"Did the lieutenant go over to Gulmit for a night of revelry?" I asked guilelessly.
"Of course not!" he replied indignantly, "It is likely they all suffer from VD -- you know siflisgnoria."

He came from the class that kept their females sequestered and considered all working women debauched creatures out to seduce god fearing men of the world. His world view, along with that of his colleagues, Khattak and Chaudri, was amazingly simplistic. They were products of years of sacrilegious misuse of Islam by the last military dictator for his own perpetuation. They, like most other "good Muslims", were convinced that very soon the entire world would convert to Islam for it had been so decreed by Allah fourteen centuries ago. In any case, Islam was a religion of science and discovery and in order to learn the secrets of the Universe scientists in the West were already turning to the Quran. Why, everything that science is learning now was passed down for the service of mankind centuries ago by Allah.
"I agree, but I am quite ignorant about religion and science, could you please elucidate with an example," I could not resist getting into this one.
"Take, for instance, the case of the prophet's journey to Paradise." Chaudri began, "When he returned the chain on his door was swinging and his bed was still warm. And this is precisely what the Theory of Relativity says."
"Precisely the opposite," I corrected him. "If you travel at relativistic speed for only a few minutes you'll return home after a passage of considerably greater time -- perhaps centuries depending on your speed."

Muslims all over the world are attempting increasingly, and with a vehemence that borders on desperation, to prove that modern science is complimentary to Islam. Prompting them on are intellectuals, either self seeking or government sponsored, churning out books that misconstrue the word of the Quran and twist even the most straightforward statements from the holy book into "corroborations for scientific discoveries". These young men were a product of the times. Sadly, like the rest of their fraternity, they knew neither their religion nor their science.

On the third afternoon, true to his word, Musa Beg arrived with his ski pole and rucksack. However, in the intervening period, he had decided that the wages we had agreed upon were too little so he had arbitrarily increased the rate by about two hundred percent. Brigandage was still very much alive and kicking despite the passage of over one hundred years since the departure of Safder Ali. Since Niyat Khan had given me the impression that I would not be allowed across without a levy to keep an eye on me and that he might also come along for some fun, I knew I had license to dispense with the services of Musa Beg, which I did. But if I had expected the man to succumb to my tactics, I had been totally wrong. He turned about and marched right back the way he had come and as I watched him go I felt a twinge of remorse.

Later in the day I was informed by Niyat Khan that he had received authorisation to allow me to pass and that he and his team were ready to escort me across. His team consisted of the levies Shamsher and Gulsher and good looking, gold toothed Sarfraz Khan, popularly known as the Chairman, for he had headed the village council until the last elections. Niyat Khan completely took over the expedition, giving the levies a list of the food and equipment we were to take and ordering me to turn in early so that we could depart at first light. The trek across the Chillinji promised to be a very proper army exercise and I could almost see Niyat Khan yelling "Left, right, left....." as we slogged up the snow fields to the pass.

Despite his best efforts Niyat Khan failed to instill any martial spirit in the expedition and as he stepped out in front, the four of us formed a slouching straggle behind him. An hour later we reached the wretched looking settlement of Yarz Yarz where a woman hailed the Chairman. "She is asking if we would care for some tea," he turned to me. "Its entirely up to you," I hedged, hoping he would wish to stop too.

Tea took almost an hour in coming and when two hours later we passed by the solitary stone hovel of Zhoe Wurt and were hailed by the women we enacted a similar revue. This time we got a large basin of yogurt along with the tea. At Biatter (Buatter on most maps) we did it yet again much to Niyat Khan's vexation for he seemed intent on getting the expedition to Ishkoman before the day was out. Biatter consisted of one hut and a sheep pen pervaded by the smell of dung. On the south a hill rose straight up, fiery red in colour with streaks of dark pitch running down to its base while on the other side, across the river, a red shingly slope rose up to transform into twin sepia peaks. The beauty of Chapursan lay in the striking colours that shaded her rocks.

In the afternoon we halted beside the remains of a camp at the foot of an ancient glacial moraine.
"Schomberg's camp is up on the hill. This one was made by two other Angrez who came after him," Sarfraz Khan said.

The two famous Angrez after Schomberg were Tilman in 1948 and Thesiger in 1953, the former had spent a night at Biatter while the latter does not mention the location of his camp between Ziarat and the pass.

While Shamsher prepared tea Gulsher offered to show me Schomberg's camp on the ridge. We climbed up the stony hill and reached a flat shelf. Gulsher cast about a bit and then said it was some little distance "back there". We walked for about fifteen minutes before I realised that the man thought the camp lay considerably nearer Baba Ghundi Ziarat than Chillinji. I stopped him.
"Do you know the location of the camp?" I asked.
"Yes, I can see it. Its just under that conical hill," Gulsher pointed out. Fortunately for me I had asked when I did, for the conical hill was almost two kilometers away!

At six in the afternoon we were on a rocky lateral moraine with a wide glacier choking the bottom of the gorge. With my ice axe and their hands the four set about scrabbling among the rocks and soon we had a shelf large enough to accommodate two tents. But it turned out that there was just one tent and since it could sleep only four, a lot was to be drawn to decide which of the two levies could sleep inside. It seemed unreasonable to condemn one man to the misery of a night in the open at over 5000 metres so I interceded and got the others to agree that we should all sleep outside.

Dinner was a hasty affair and as the gloom of dusk crept down the white ice fields turning them a steely grey we crawled into our sleeping bags. Overhead the sky changed from brilliant blue to a "nameless colour" and, finally, to a bejewelled blackness. Nearly everyone snored and mumbled through the freezing cold of night -- a sure sign of fitful sleep and I woke several times to watch the progress of the celestial birds Cygnus and Aquila across the great starry expanse.

"Major!" I was rudely wrenched out of sleep. I looked at my watch, it was five minutes after three in the morning. Oh Lord, this man must be daft.
"Its still too early. Go back to sleep," I tried sleepily.
"We have to get going before the snow softens." Niyat Khan was persistently trying to handle it like an army outfit.
"All right. You start breakfast and I'll join you," I said looking for some pretext to stay a little longer in the warmth of my sleeping bag.
"Shamsher! Gulsher!" Niyat Khan thundered, "Up, you idlers! You have slept long enough!" He did not relent until the levies gave up and soon the hiss of the stove rolled back the silence of the glacier.

After breakfast I crouched behind a rock on the ice field when suddenly the silence was shattered by a cracking boom. It swept down the glacier and up the mountainsides and its echo rolled back and forth through the length of the valley. I stood bolt upright with my trousers around my ankles. Then I gathered them up and sprinted for all I was worth. The foursome on the moraine saw it and rolled with laughter at the major's fright. The major very certainly was terrified for he had heard tales of a group of German trekkers lost on the Batura Glacier when it suddenly cracked open during the night and swallowed their camp. When the last echoes of our laughter died the silence rolled down from the peaks, as tangible as before, and smothered the glacier. The icy surface seemed undisturbed and if anything had happened it must have been somewhere deep inside its frozen innards.

We roped ourselves and started up the icy slope and two hours later reached a point where the glacier split into two with a small peak in the middle.
"If we take the glacier on the left we go over the Chillinji," said the Chairman. "But if we take the one on the right we'll reach another pass which, they say, no one has crossed. At any rate, it has no name."

If it was an untried pass its existence would not be known, therefore logically it must have been used at some point in the past. Nevertheless, it was just the stuff that had made my dreams for the past so many years and I found myself slogging up the glaciated slope with unparalleled enthusiasm and anticipation. Within an hour we were on the razor edge crest of the unnamed pass. Behind us lay the glacier, to the south the view was blocked by a series of snowy ridges, and to the north was a great tangle of rocky spires that extended into the misty distance. That was where the Karakorum Mountains ran into the Pamirs, and the farthest peaks that we could descry belonged to the latter range. Smack in front was a scree slope that spilled down at so sharp an angle that it was free of a glacier despite being on the western slope that received considerably less sunshine than the glaciated side. Beyond this slope rose another jumble of high peaks. These were the Hindu Kush Mountains and our descent on the western side of Chillinji was to lead us into that range.

To leave the pass nameless would have been rather inappropriate, and as the name I suggested met with approval from all concerned, it was christened Panz Khalq Uwin -- Pass of the Five Men, for we were five in the group. Two cairns were built where messages were left, both in English and in Urdu, recording the epoch making event.

We raced down the scree slope and came to the rocky terminal moraine of what must have once been a hanging glacier. Immediately the Chairman glued his eyes to his binoculars and scoured the mountainside as he had been doing every time we stopped since leaving Biatter. Hissing for us to shut up he passed the glasses around and loaded his rifle, softly muttering things about taking at least two animals. Then, cocking the weapon, he crept to one side. Search the hillside as I may I could not see anything but I was certain some hapless animal was drawing nearer to its end with each step the Chairman took. The conservationist in me felt it had to do something.

Just as the Chairman knelt down behind a rock I squinted at the sun and generating a sneeze let go with as thunderous a blast as I could muster. This seemed to trigger a small avalanche of rocks from the slope that the Chairman was pointing his rifle at. The man spun around and glared at me and I found myself looking into a cold blackness surrounded by steel. Suddenly the levies guffawed and Niyat Khan said, "Well, so much for tonight's fresh meat."

Below the terminal moraine we passed a ruined shelter and then we were in a lovely grove of dwarf juniper, birch and willow. The ruins were evidence that this route had once been in use, also the descriptions of Tilman and Thesiger are strikingly similar to our own experience. One mentioned racing down "6000 feet of scree slopes" while the other was intimidated by the "very steep slope" before he could camp in a grove of willows. But Sarfraz Khan was adamant that we had come down the unnamed pass and that the Chillinji was several hundred metres to its south.

As soon as we came in view of the Karumber River and the three wood huts on the opposite bank Sarfraz Khan took up his glasses again. Diligently he studied the misshapen woman that bustled around, declaring at length that she was Kirghiz. We walked up to the river and although the woman never once appeared to have looked in our direction, she disappeared into the hut, leaving an ugly, crop eared dog barking menacingly at us. We shouted for her to tell us if there was a bridge to be crossed, but she wouldn't come out. Only her dog barked more and more threateningly. Then Niyat Khan took out his whistle and let out several long blasts. I next expected him to holler "Fall in!" and the woman scurry out poste haste for inspection. But neither of these things happened; only the dog went totally berserk.

We carried on downstream and were soon confronted by a noisy torrent that seemed to burst out of a grey wall of rock fifty metres to our left and dumped itself into the Karumber. The wall was, in fact, the gritty snout of the Chillinji Glacier and the stream was numbingly cold. Niyat Khan, boldly impetuous as he was, stomped across it, almost getting swept away in the process; but the rest of us opted to do the crossing with the help of a rope.

The valley now opened up slightly and an easy walk through clumps of willow and tamarisk brought us to the homestead at Warghut. Its population of five humans and about a hundred goats was headed by soft spoken Habibullah, the Kirghiz. He welcomed us with warm hugs and handshakes and immediately shouted for some tea. It was almost autumn and soon the river would fall. Then he would head down the valley to sell part of his herd at Gilgit which, by foot, was nine days away.
"Its a hard life you lead, Habibullah," I said. He nodded sadly and drew strange symbols in the dust.
"So why do you live here? You don't have to," I said. "Where do you come from?" He was suddenly animated.

I told him I was from Lahore. "My great grandfather came to this valley from across the Pamirs. All my life I have lived here," he said, erasing and re drawing the symbols.
"You do not love your country as much as I do mine." That this was no untruth was clear from the feeling in his voice. What Habibullah said made a lot of sense. It was surely men like him who gave meaning to life in this harsh, unforgiving land.

We reached the settlement of Zakh Band as the formless grey of dusk began to settle in the valley. There was just one household run by fair haired Yusuf and his mother and we were instructed that as guests we were not to prepare our own food, but were to eat with them. The meal took some little while in coming and when it did we discovered that a goat had been killed in our honour.

As we turned in Sarfraz Khan complained of feverishness and a painful throat. It was a bad case of tonsillitis. I gave him some antibiotic and explained how the tonsils acted as sponges, mopping up infection as it tried to enter the body. He listened intently and said, "Hmm. I must have slept with my mouth open on the glacier."

I smiled, turned over and soon was fast sleep. That night I dreamed of armies of the most dreadful looking bacteria streaming in and out of my nose with the breathing.

For centuries the Karumber valley was a minor trade route for Kirghiz businessmen who descended from the Pamirs via the Khora Bhort Pass bringing cattle, leather goods and butter to trade for food grain in the marts of Imit and Ishkoman. But during the madness of the Great Game when neighbouring valleys saw a flurry of exploration and espionage, Karumber remained consigned to neglect. The hitch in this case lay not in the pass at its head but in the valley itself. In summer the valley floor is occupied by the raging river, forcing travellers to scale sheer escarpments. In winter the northern passes become impassable leaving only the few months of spring and autumn when this valley affords a safe route. The traders came every September and retreated before the storms of November swept across the lonely passes -- a schedule that an invading force would have found difficult to follow.

Sarfraz Khan and the levies returned the way we had come and I hobbled along down the valley after Niyat Khan. While racing down the scree slope on the descent from Chillinji I had neatly cracked my left knee against a rock, now it was quite stiff and painful. But Niyat Khan was in a hurry to reach Imit and get the first jeep to Gilgit in order to be at his post before the following day was out and I was slowing him down.

After a short halt for lunch at the village of Mahtram Dan we resumed again. Imit was still fifteen kilometres away and the difficult Karumber Glacier lay in front but Niyat Khan asserted that we would yet reach that village before nightfall so that he could be away first thing in the morning. This plan was put paid to when, just before sunset, we were accosted by young Niyat Beg on leave from Niyat Khan's battalion. The man insisted on taking us home to Bhurt which we had passed about an hour earlier and could not see the imbecility in his proposition. After considerable bickering he relented and led us to the house of Shahbaz Khan, another soldier friend.

We had barely settled down when the startled squawk of a chicken announced the evening's fare. As we made short work of the excellent curry I thanked our host for his kindness. "You do not have to thank me, for I, too, am a traveller and only a traveller knows the hardships of an itinerant life and only he can best play host to others of his kind," said Shahbaz Khan. "Who knows, one day you might have to feed me and put me up in your home." That then was the philosophy that had helped many a caravan across these bleak and sterile mountains for almost two millenniums.

Imit, scattered amid poplars and plane trees, was made around midday. It is situated on the south eastern side of a spacious triangular valley where the Karumber and Bara Gah meet to form the Ishkoman River. Across the wide expanse of silty water lay the neighbouring village of Ishkoman, barely a thousand metres away yet a journey of more than thirty kilometres, for there is no bridge on the river. That was where, they said, I would find Vizier Shah Fakir.

Previous: Between Two Burrs on the MapEpilogueHorse TradingWilderness of the GiantLittle Tibet, World's End, Between Two Burrs on the Map, Celebration at Lukpe La, The Great Asiatic Watershed, Lonely at Shimshal,   Continues...

Another Adventure: The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Odysseus Lahori two years ago: Ravi: From River to Sewer

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 22 January 2015 at 06:43, Anonymous Anonymous said...

brilliant writing Sir.
I have a question about kassars , a tribe in potohar mostly that are considered to be a mughal tribe. Do you know about them? Can you talk about their mughal lineage?
also what other groups, tribes,families are there that you consider to be of mughal background? what about lohar mughals?

At 22 January 2015 at 09:24, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

I've never heard of Kassars. As for Lohar Mughals, why not? When the Moghuls came to India didn't they have their own metal-workers? Someone must have made their armament/armour etc.Time passed, they stuck to their profession and got the name.

At 26 January 2015 at 05:43, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh allright. Thanks a lot for the response.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

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