Lonely at Shimshal
14 January 2015
We had barely finished breakfast at Azizullah's house when Khushal Khan arrived to lead us home to another breakfast, after which he presented us with a huge loaf of dildungi -- the oven baked leavened bread, for our journey to Passu. Then with the two of them at the head of a procession comprising the entire male population of Shimshal village (except the headman) we were lead out beyond the corn fields. A round of frenzied hand shakes and bear hugs and we were alone in the dusty landscape.
Dawar clomped sullenly along and I drowsily followed, trying not to think of the heat that was pouring out of the clear sky. Suddenly I stopped in my tracks, wide awake. There in the dust before us were the tracks of a bicycle! It was imbecility to bring this machine into Shimshal for it could not be ridden more than ten metres without the rider having to dismount to carry it over a ditch or a stone wall. But it was there. This was perhaps another sign of the times; a sign of the decay of Pakistani society, where acquisitions were made without any consideration whatsoever of functionability. This bicycle was as grand a status symbol in Shimshal as the fancy Japanese four wheel drive vehicles were in the bigger cities of the country -- and with as much use.
We reached the homestead at Rezgin Ben -- Salt Slope, where I suggested asking for some water simply to get out of the sun. The lanky youth who appeared at our call, led us into the house where a man was building a new door jamb from a birch trunk. He stood up to greet us and I almost stepped back in awe. The man was a giant, over two metres tall with high cheek bones and a pugilist's nose that made him a Jack Palance look alike. It was his brother's house who was away portering for an expedition. The woman who made tea on the central hearth and the five children, including the lad who had brought us in, all "belonged" to his brother.
The woman's left shoulder was bare and a withered breast hung limply out of her garment. This she continually stuck into the mouth of the baby in her lap who seemed not at all interested in being fed. Every time the baby turned its face it was jerked right back by the mother and the tit stuffed in until the boy gave up and kept it covered with a limp mouth. A platter of apricots was brought in and more milk and water added to the pot of tea. When, an hour later, we finally sought our leave there were insistences to stay for a meal. We declined and were given a bag full of apricots.
Between Rezgin Ben and Mulungutti Glacier it was a lunar landscape -- desiccated and dusty. We struggled for an hour on the slippery, gravel covered undulations of the glacier with a cold wind scudding along the icy surface. At the crumpled head of the glacier rose the magnificent ridge of Dasteghil Sar draped with gigantic hummocks of ice glinting in the brilliant sunshine. Dasteghil means Sheep pen on the Hill in Wakhi. I thought of Azizullah who would surely have known the story of the shepherd who first built it. But from Dawar, as communicative as a Trappist monk, nothing was forthcoming.
We ate a quiet lunch by a clear brook and as he stuffed himself with Khushal's bread and cheese Dawar said that he still had constipation. After eighteen days I should have imagined a bloated stomach but the man was as narrow waisted as ever. I could not help wondering where he was keeping it all. Azizullah certainly would have had something enlightening to say to that.
Late in the afternoon we reached the rest house of Ziarat overlooking a spreading patch of willows. It was crowded with porters returning to Passu after having brought in some tourists. Beyond the rest house stretched the most notorious scree slope in all Shimshal. Struggling across it were two men, while against a rock lay a green rucksack and from the top came an intermittent bombardment of stones of various sizes. One of the men at the rest house was a Shimshali with a badly skinned thigh. He was returning home with forty kilograms of wheat flour and in trying to avoid being hit he had lost his footing on the slope and slid down the scree but had fortunately stopped at the boulder where his rucksack now lay.
He had been helped across by his mates and now the two men were attempting to retrieve his rucksack. However, after fifteen minutes of dodging the bombardment while we watched with bated breath, they gave up, deciding to collect the rucksack in the still of early morning before the demons started to play their little games.
Several times Azizullah had related the story of the colonisation of the valley and always I had asked him what madman would have ever wanted to live in a place like Shimshal. It was Mamu Singh, he related, who had come to Shimshal with his wife from the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan and it was from him that the entire population of Shimshal claimed descent. What he did not tell me and what I gleaned from Schomberg's work was that Mamu Singh's wife most heartily despised her husband for making her leave the comfort of her home and bringing her to the wretched isolation of Shimshal. Schomberg, however, believed that the couple came from Chaprot, south of Hunza and that the wife, in resentment at being dragged into this god forsaken valley, called the husband Shum -- dog in Shina, their language. And so it was that the valley came to be known as Shumshal or Shimshal.
Whoever it was that first settled the valley, must have been a man of remarkable hardihood and singularity of purpose to have forced his way through the dark and arid gorges leading to Shimshal -- particularly with a retinue of family and livestock. However, it seems quite likely that the earliest arrivals in the valley were nomadic Wakhi herdsmen from the northwest who found it a suitable place to winter. After a few generations of periodically returning here they eventually settled down and later, either invented Mamu Singh, or merely preserved the name of the chief at that time.
On a flat faced boulder outside the rest house was the name of a man who had come to Shimshal two summers ago and had apparently fallen in love with the valley, for he returned here repeatedly, bringing with him bigger and bigger groups each time. The boulder listed their names and the dates of their successive incursions to Shimshal, and each legend was headed by the name of David Butz. For him and his parties it seemed to be the ultimate adventure, but to me it had become an endless tedium. My thoughts turned to the time that the king of Hunza used Shimshal as a penal colony where criminals and usurpers, supposed and real, were exiled to do penance; and now people were using it as a diversion from humdrum existences. Therefore, in keeping with my state of mind and the fact that I was "escaping" from a penal station, a small postscript was added to the inscriptions. It read (and I hope it still does): "David Butz must be Nuts!"
We left Ziarat just after five in the morning with young Mohammed Safa carrying part of our load. The wind had not yet started to blow through the valley and the scree slope was peaceful without the telltale wisps of dust that mark the progress of the shingle coming down the mountainside. Beyond lay a bleak and rocky canyon, with the path strung high up on its wall, leading to the junction of the Shimshal River with the stream rising in the Ghutulji Glacier and racing down a dark and forbidding crack in the mountains. This was Dut -- the Bridge, the last source of potable water for the next several hours.
After a quick lunch we crossed the rickety bridge over the thundering torrent to toil up the bleak Shu Gardan Pass -- Black Neck Pass. As we started the descent on the other side we ran into a party of three Europeans struggling up the slope. They were perspiring profusely, their faces streaked with rivulets of salt and their lips cracked and parched. I was certain they felt worse than they looked.
"When you die...." I started to say to the man in the lead.
"Good day?" he cut me short inquiringly.
"Do you speak English?" I asked.
"A leetul," said the man with an uncertain wobbling of his hand.
This of course was patent rubbish for whenever a Frenchman says he speaks a "leetul" English he means he has not the faintest idea of the language.
"Forget it then." I said rudely and brushed past him.
What I had wanted to tell the man was that when he died he would go to heaven for he was on his way to hell right then, but I feared a lack of communication might cause him and his companions to misunderstand that I was warning them to be wary of their porters. This, I thought, could result in the Frenchies taking turns at night to guard against the supposed perfidy of their men in case they were cut up and dumped into the roiling Shimshal.
Around mid afternoon we came to a torrent that thundered down a rock face to our right and bounded through a tight little chasm headlong into the Shimshal, barely three metres on our left. It seemed to be deep and forbiddingly fast and apparently impossible to cross at that time of maximum melt water feeding it. We stood speechlessly watching it while I wondered how far back we would have to go to reach a suitable camping spot.
Wordlessly Dawar roped up and giving us the other end stepped into the stream. It was only knee deep and he easily got across, and then he perpetrated the greatest miracle of modern times: he used his head! Since we were on the higher side, he said, we could sling the gear through the rope, one piece at a time, and work it across to him. The arrangement worked perfectly and soon we were happily tramping along to Jhurjhur-i-Boi -- Cave of the Waterfall, where we hoped to spend the night.
We had barely finished tea when we were joined by a young, good looking man who had left Shimshal at dawn and hoped to be in the main valley sometime after nightfall. Having taken our tea, Khaliq persuaded us to walk with him. "Better to walk in the cool of the evening than in the heat of the day," he reasoned.
Two hours after sunset we left the narrow and claustrophobic gorge of the Shimshal River and entered Hunza Valley. Crossing the steel structure of Passu Bridge we settled down for the night in the derelict building of the police check post by the side of the Karakorum Highway. But before that came the task of paying Dawar for the walk out of Shimshal.
At Shuwert he had suggested that it was five stages from Shimshal village to the bridge but after a protracted discussion over my map, which said it was only twenty eight kilometres, had agreed to three. Accordingly I handed him the money. He counted it.
"I want to be paid for five days." he said sullenly.
I said I was paying him what had been agreed upon but the man was not having any of that and started a droning drivel. I paid no heed but regardless he carried on until I tired of it and went across the road to sit on a rock. He kept up his monologue with the others but when they did not join him in his little battle against me he came up and handed me some money. "My business runs in hundreds of thousands of rupees, and I don't need your money." he said, presumably referring to the store he and his brother ran in Gilgit and the potato crop that was soon going to be ready. "Either you pay me for five days or I just keep a token and return your money."
I threw the money in his face and told him to get lost, and he threw it right back saying I needed it more than him, which, in fact, was quite true. Thus the money went back and forth amid angry bickering until I knew there was going to be no end to the madness. I put it in a pocket of my journal and told him that was where it was going to be when he would come begging for it.
The bus from the Chinese frontier was right on time and we rode the few kilometres down the valley to Gulmit where I had wanted to spend a few days before heading west. When Dawar got off at his village there was no farewell, no handshake. He did not even look at me; but I knew I was not seeing the last of him.
Immediately on arrival I ran into Habibur Rahman Sulemani, the nineteen year old eccentric of Gulmit. Good looking, clean cut, well dressed and almost bald, he had looked through the hotel register and having learned that I was a writer had come around to talk. Himself an accomplished artist and a writer with several published articles on Wakhi culture and language he was an incessant talker; the words virtually spilling out of him.
He dreamed of global disarmament and peace but wanted to join the army because that was the only "respectable career" he could pursue since he was not cut out to be an engineer, doctor or computer programmer. And since writers were neither respected nor lived very far above the poverty line in Pakistan, he believed the mere consideration of that career was stretching idealism too far. Man's savage need for glorification through war and bloodshed he found despicable and this he attributed to the inherent primitiveness of the human mind. He loathed Punjabi tourists who came with notions of grand cities amid high mountains with bustling super markets and neon lights and soon after arrival, became disillusioned with what they saw.
Young Habib sat in my room and talked while I shaved and showered. He talked as I worked my way through six fried eggs, yogurt and a loaf of dildungi bread; and he talked as he led me through the village to the top of the ridge on the north to see the ruined fort of Andre. He took me to meet his father who asked me, when Habib went to fetch tea, to put some sense into his son's head but despaired when he learned that I too was a writer. And he talked as he walked me through the village to see his aged grandfather who remembered the injustices of the reign of the king of Hunza.
The old man was listlessly struggling, sickle in hand, in a field of barley and unhappily followed us home where Habib asked him to relate the incident of the king's men coming to lay claim to his mother's land when her father died. The old man listened with his head cocked to one side and his bushy eyebrows knitted in a frown of concentration. But then he gruffly said something that visibly embarrassed Habib. He sheepishly apologised that his grandfather was too tired and did not wish to talk.
In the four days that I spent in Gulmit young Habib was constantly by my side plying me tirelessly with tit bits from Wakhi culture and history. There was of course the irritant of Dawar's arrival one morning to ask for the money that I owed him. I gave him the amount that he had refused at Passu Bridge, but the man wanted something more. Seeing that he was not one to give up I swiped the money out of his hand and threw five hundred rupees at him saying something that I could never have said to anyone else: "Take your bone, dog, and be gone." Dawar took the money, turned about and forever walked out of my life.
I knew what Azizullah would have said in the situation: "With twenty days of shit inside you would behave equally abominably." The incident left the sensitive Habib profusely apologising on behalf of the entire Wakhi population.
The sub continental Muslim's obsession to link his genealogy either to some Arab, or to Alexander of Macedon, or even to some lesser Greek, prompted Nazim Khan, the king of Hunza in the 1930s to invent a genealogy that showed his direct and unpolluted link with one of five soldiers from Greek legions. These imaginary adventurers went by the most startlingly non Greek names: Khwaja Arab, Shen, Titam, Ghaghu and Khuro and were supposed to have lagged behind because of illness when Greek armies made their "way back". It was by a great and remarkable stretch of the imagination that Nazim Khan was able to draw Alexander as far north as this country -- or even farther -- for the soldiers to have remained behind on their "way back".
Of the five Greeks it was Khwaja Arab who is supposed to have founded Gulmit. Unhappily, however, for the late lamented Nazim Khan and his brilliant historiography this part of the Hunza River valley was not inhabited until the later years of the 12th century. And then too, not by Greek deserters, but by Brushaski speaking people expelled from the country around Gilgit by the arrival of a race called the Shins.
Having discovered the Shimshal Pass and surprised the king by turning down his invitation to visit Hunza, Francis Younghusband had returned the way he had come. A month later he surprised the king again by entering the country from the north. When news of this representative of the Empress of India reached him, Safder Ali, the king, rode out from his stronghold of Baltit to greet his visitor at Gulmit. As Younghusband's party neared the village a deputation was sent out to inform him that he was not to take the salutary firing of guns as an offence.
Barely had the thundering of the thirteen gun salute subsided when a frenzied drumming was set up as Younghusband rode through the fields to the tent of the king: "Hundreds of people were collected on the hillside, and in front of the tent were ranged two long rows of these wild-looking Kanjuties, armed with matchlocks and swords. There was no fierce look about these men, but they had a hardy appearance which was very striking." It was a state reception and the king had turned out in "a magnificent brocade robe and a handsome turban". If the idea was to intimidate Younghusband, the king was not doing so badly.
The flamboyant captain from the 1st King's Dragoon Guards was quick to notice that in the course of the reception it was expected of him to kneel like the rest of the subjects in the presence of their king, for there was but one chair in the tent. Having foreseen just such an eventuality Younghusband had shrewdly brought his own chair to the meeting and between the exchange of meaningless platitudes whispered to his orderly to lay it out next to the royal throne.
The reason for Younghusband's visit to the king of Hunza was to investigate the raids on the caravans plying the lonely trail in the mountains between Leh and Yarkand and to request the king to restrain his subjects from the business. Safder Ali was indignant. Why, he was perfectly justified in ordering these raids for it was from their proceeds that he received his most substantial revenue. And if the Empress of India had any desire to see these raids stopped she should make up the discrepancy in revenues by a generous subsidy. Younghusband was having none of that; he dared the king to try another raid telling him that he had left armed soldiers on the trade route to deal with the brigands. The discussion became heated but evidently Younghusband was not worried about pushing Safder Ali into the Russians' embrace. He seemed too cocksure of the ability of the Government of India to replace this man with someone rather more favourably inclined. In any case, the garrison at the Political Agency of Gilgit was nearer to Hunza than the nearest Russian camp in the Pamirs. But the raiding, it was emphasised, had to cease so that India's trade with Xinjiang could be boosted to counter Russian influence.
To Younghusband's great surprise Safder Ali "was entirely ignorant of his real position in the universe", and that he equated himself with the sovereigns of Russia, India and China, who to him were of no greater capacity than being "chiefs of neighbouring tribes". The king was also exceedingly proud of the fact that he had never visited India for it was below the dignity of mighty kings like him and Alexander the Great to leave their own domains.
Just two months before Younghusband's arrival Algernon Durand, the Political Agent at Gilgit, had visited Safder Ali and the king had managed to wrangle a subsidy of twenty five thousand rupees per annum as allowance for cessation of the brigandage. This subsidy, the king had been told, would be paid to him after Younghusband had safely passed through the country. The explorer was allowed to pass unimpeded and the brigandage was stopped -- but not for long. Within the year Safder Ali had decided that the subsidy was not sufficiently large to afford him his royal ways; it needed to be boosted by the added revenue from the plunder of trading caravans.
Furthermore, it was known that Captain Gromchevsky of the Imperial Russian army, Younghusband's chief rival in the Pamir theater of the Great Game, had also visited Safder Ali in 1889. He was believed to have been cordially received and offered the establishment of a Russian garrison in the valley in exchange for the training of Hunza troops. The time to cut, rather than untie, the Gordian knot had come and so in November 1891 Colonel Durand marched up the Hunza valley at the head of a two thousand strong patchily equipped band of army and irregulars. The Kanjuties fought back with a vengeance from their strongholds and breastworks but the British doggedly worked their way up the valley until the castle of Baltit capitulated just in time for a Christmas gala.
Durand was deprived of the pleasure of disarming Safder Ali, for the great king who claimed descent from Alexander of Macedon had fled across the northern passes to Kashgar. And if the British had hoped to help themselves to the "treasures of many a pillaged caravan and the result of many a raid" stashed away in the secret vaults of the fairy tale castle they were underestimating Safder Ali. All they could find was a cache of gunpowder and garnet bullets and some books from the library of the illiterate monarch. Even in the hustle of the final moment the king had the expediency of mind to pack his treasures and his several wives to ensure a comfortable life in exile. There he seems to have carried on with his royal extravaganzas, but, deprived of the loot from the raids, his assets did not last very long. He died destitute in Yarkand in 1930.
If I had run into Habibur Rahman Sulemani by accident, there was one man I had looked forward to meeting. I walked past the polo ground which was probably the site of Younghusband's famous audience with Safder Ali to the ancestral house that Shah Khan had turned into a hotel.
"So you've arrived!" he thundered when I introduced myself, "We've been waiting for you." But before I could be carried away with any delusion of my fame he called for some unseen servant to quickly fetch the police, for "Rushdie had come to my door".
Then, his face crinkled into a smile and he said something in Brushaski to the unseen servant who immediately swept in with tea. Shah Khan, retired brigadier, air commodore, mountaineer and hunter now turned hotelier was another eloquent man. He talked of the failed operation mounted after the partition of India to bring the valley of Kashmir into the fold of Pakistan and of his crossing of the Deosai Plateau as part of the operation in April 1948. He talked of being swept off Rakaposhi by an avalanche and surviving for he was "armed with an ice axe and determination to live", and he talked of his innumerable hunting expeditions, offering to show me his trophies. He was a swashbuckler, not the eccentric I had been led to believe. After a couple of hours he hustled me out of the house saying he had business to attend to and that I should return in the evening.
As soon as I walked into his sitting room that evening I was handed a glass of cloudy red wine. It smelled good but had a slightly sour, doughy taste. I started to sip it slowly but sensing that Shah Khan was somewhat uneasy, quickly finished it. He immediately replenished it from another bottle, fortifying it with a dose of local moonshine. This was to be another night of "serious drinking". When I was finished he hurried me with usual brusqueness into the adjacent house where a relative was entertaining two friends who had come up from Gilgit.
"This stuff reduces the five senses to half."
"You mean you only have two and a half right now?"
"Something like that. You know, Plato said wine deadened the mind and raised the emotions."
"Aha! So the Greeks took their drinking as seriously as us."
"Much more seriously, my friend, much more seriously."
Something was said about food and the conversation naturally turned to hunting. A detailed roster of all slaughtered animals and birds was drawn up with nauseating detail. This was only brought to an end by the announcement that dinner was ready. Then there were only half intelligible mumblings through mouthfuls of chicken curry, mutton vegetables and rice. As we parted under the starlit sky I was invited to come back for some more the following day. But I had places to go and promises to keep and Salim Mushtaq of Rawalpindi had kindly offered to give me a lift to Sost in the north.
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Another Adventure: The Apricot Road to Yarkand
posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,
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