26 January 2015
The jeep ride from Imit to Chatorkhand took two hours, where the last jeep for Ishkoman had left "five minutes ago". I found the fly blown tea shop and drank my tea with about two dozen men staring at me while they diligently scratched their crotches and between squirts of spit told each other that I was an Angrez. Then one of them ventured a tentative query (in English) to which I replied in Punjabi, which of course was not understood by anyone but which told them that I was not what they had imagined.
The Quran states that Mecca is the centre of the Universe while to the average American it is the town or village, no matter how insignificant, that he or she lives in and to this school master from Chatorkhand it was the great and glorious city of Gilgit.
What? You mean you are alone?
An exchange of glances was followed by a long lecture on the perils of the road which I, being a city boy, did not fully comprehend. I said I had been a traveller for more than twenty years and never had I met with any malice from fellow humans and that I had great faith in the inherent goodness of the human race.
I told them I had a pack of cards and when I got bored I played solitaire. There was another exchange of glances: surely they imagined I was some lunatic let loose from the famous mental asylum of Lahore.
A diversion in the shape of a doddering old man wearing mucky bottle bottoms, rather an implement to obstruct his eye sight than help it, was guided into the office. My introduction to the Raja of Birgal, a neighbouring village, was made as though he were the most important man after the last military dictator. The engineers withdrew and the ex raja launched his own quest for all the information about me. What was my line of work? How much did I earn? Was I married? How many children? How many brothers? Where did my brother live? How much did he earn? Where did I live?
In answer to this last query I named the part of Lahore I lived in and he asked where exactly in Lahore it was situated. I naturally took this as an indication of his being acquainted with the city. But he was not. He had no idea whatsoever about Lahore and was insisting on being told how to get to my home.
He said he was seventy five years old but seemed grossly worn out for his years and had an appalling memory. In the course of the interview he had repeated each question at least twice, had asked my name several times and had managed to forget that of his grandson when he had embarked on a narrative of the boy's visit to Lahore some years ago. Disregarding his amnesia I very foolishly asked him if he remembered the passage of Thesiger through Chatrokhand.
I told him it was in 1953. The man's eyebrows shot up, he looked at me severely and launched himself on a bit of strenuous thinking accompanied by much head scratching and heavy breathing. At length he looked up and almost helplessly said that he could not remember as far back as that.
I must have been a welcome digression from the drudgery of their graph sheets and electronic calculators for the two engineers simply refused to let me go, saying that their superior, who was due any moment would gladly give me a lift to Ishkoman. And they were not wrong. When Mohammed Bashir (who liked to call himself Bashir Engineer) arrived he carried out a short interview and at once livened up when he heard I was a travel writer.
The jeep had barely cleared the tangle of houses when he began, "Have you read Dervla Murphy's Where the Indus is Young?"
I said I vaguely remembered that she had met with someone when she was held up by bad weather at a rest house near Skardu, but that I did not remember any expression of disappointment on her part at this man's lack of virility.
It transpired that neither had anyone else in the organisation read the book but everyone was indignant at the disrepute this colleague had brought to the good name of priapic orientals. It is well known in the country that all unaccompanied western women are nothing but nymphomaniacs on the prowl for a good oriental fuck because, it is believed, darker races do it better. A month later I ran through the book to learn that Murphy had found "Mr Aman, Officer Incharge for road-building in Ronda District" as a "singularly uninspiring" human being whose persistent and silent stare exasperated her. She found it remarkable that this man was "capable of doing nothing for an indefinite period", and that in all the time he spent with them did not read anything. In the end I never wrote back to Bashir, thinking he would probably take Murphy's gripe as some sort of Irish obliquity similar to the old Punjabi habit of referring to an erection as "digestion".
It was almost midday when I got off Bashir's jeep and went looking for the house of the headman at Ishkoman. Mirza Ahmed was not home and the women of his household peered at me from the roof, only to hide themselves the minute I looked up. After repeatedly calling his name, which I thought would prompt the women to send one of the younger children to inform him of my arrival, I helped myself to the overladen peach tree and must have successfully attended to over two kilograms of fruit when a little girl fetched the man. I was immediately ushered into the guest room and tea was ordered. Five minutes after him Vizier Shah Fakir arrived.
"Ah, Major sahib," he chirped as he embraced me, "I have been told all about you by your soldier." The good Niyat Khan had wasted no time in spreading news of my arrival. Shah Fakir, tall and broad boned with a whiskered face and shoulder length hair was a very handsome man. He was the last vizier of the last raja of Ishkoman but had been a farmer since the abolishing of the State almost twenty years ago. He was gifted with a wonderful sense of humour and a disarming charm which must have served him well in executing his ministerial duties.
He was sorry, however, that he could not entertain me, for their religious mentor Pir Syed Abdul Hasan Khan, better known as Syed Lala Jan, was visiting from Kashgar and they were all heading for a neighbouring village. If, on the other hand, I wished to join the holy entourage I was quite welcome. Since the procession was heading into Bara Gah Valley that lead to Ishkoman Pass, it was on my way and I did not have to be asked twice.
Syed Lala Jan was a delicate red faced man whose pale brown, almost yellow eyes, handsome hawk nose and neatly trimmed salt and pepper beard, that could not hide the beauty of his well formed lips, made him good looking in an Arabesque sort of way. As he spoke only Persian I was introduced to him through Shah Fakir. Pir sahib said polite nothings to me and I said polite nothings right back to him. He thanked me and I thanked him right back until the good vizier, wearying of the proceedings, suggested that we get along and exchange further platitudes at the next stop. The holy man was delighted to learn that I was travelling with him and affectionately holding me by the hand, guided me into the cabin of the jeep that he was riding.
We were led to a guest house in a procession of wailing women and children (they were, in fact, singing) and fed a sumptuous lunch after which Pir sahib adjourned to the bedroom for a siesta and Shah Fakir turned his attention to me. In 1880 Ali Mardan Khan, the ruler of Wakhan in Afghanistan was ousted from his kingdom when he refused to give his daughter to the king of Afghanistan. Ali Mardan fled to Ishkoman with his retinue; this included a minister by the name of Shifat Khan who was Shah Fakir's great grandfather. The chieftainship was passed on to the ruling family of neighbouring Yasin as Ali Mardan had no male child but the ministry was retained by the ancestors of Shah Fakir. It was this chief that George Cockerill met in October 1893 when he was exploring the passes leading to Wakhan and the Pamirs. He found Ali Mardan to have a reputation "for inveterate scheming and intrigue" while Schomberg, who met him in the 1920s, found him "a genial, easy-going man, with gentle, courteous manners and delicate hands". He was, according to Schomberg, a poor, henpecked husband never allowed any money by his domineering wife. This, no doubt, was to defeat the royal sport of maintaining a stupor instilled by a steady supply of opium, an amusement that the better off still indulge in.
In 1972, inspired by the leadership of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's first democratically elected prime minister, Shah Fakir struggled for the abolition of the State of Ishkoman and the setting up of a democratic system. But his efforts came to nothing. This area, to the north and west of the Line of Control that divides Kashmir between Pakistan and India, classified as the Northern Areas by the government of Pakistan is still without representation in parliament.
Even today the bodies of his ancestors were rotting on the snow clogged passes of Kashmir where they had fallen in the operation of 1948 and those that survived were going hoarse crying Viva Pakistan, but all they got for their devotion to the country was scorn.
He was as proud of me as the Shimshalis had been and set about organising porters without being asked. All it took was the word "donkey" to escape my lips when Shah Fakir sent the prospective porters packing and called for someone with a donkey. Soon we had Bahadur Khan with his sad smile and even sadder looking jenny. In a manner cultivated in seven years of ministerial work, Shah Fakir arranged the man's wages and having brushed aside all protests ordered him to make himself and the animal scarce until six the next morning.
With great ceremony Shah Fakir announced my impending departure to the Pir sahib and I was summoned to breakfast with the holy man. There was another orgy of platitudes in the course of which I was invited to Kashgar in order to be acquainted with the "only true form of Islam in the light of the Quran and Sunnah". I, force fed on several only true forms of the one and only true religion, saw the prospective journey as particularly enlightening: what better way of seeing the Chinese province of Xinjiang but as a guest of the great Syed Lala Jan, religious mentor of the Ismailis; in between feigning a comparative study of Sunni and Ismaili theology. I was also given a note instructing a retired schoolmaster at Darkot to look after me, a dear friend of the Pir sahib. Then I was seen off in a barrage of more platitudes and warm hugs.
As side valleys in the Hindu Kush go the Bara Gah Valley was fairly wide where the river was no more fast and grey but languid and blue, for it was the end of summer and most of the melt water had already slaked the thirsty farmlands of the low country. Peaks higher than 4000 metres were once again frosted with fresh snow and a few apricot trees were already furiously blushing at the prospect of being undressed. Where the corn and barley had once stood were great patches of dun and gold offsetting the dull greys and browns of the scree slopes on the hill sides. We passed several caravans returning from the summer pastures, bringing with them firewood and fodder for the winter.
Beyond the rock strewn area of Chhao Dhadhar -- Shadow Rocks, that, Bahadur Khan said, was from their being in the shadow throughout the long winter, we stopped at a homestead for tea and were fed fried eggs and thick crusty bread. Years ago I had discovered the Chitralis to be the most spontaneously generous hosts in the mountains of northern Pakistan and although we were still some way from Chitral I could see the cultural spillover.
Late in the afternoon we passed through a beautiful tract of birch, willow and juniper where the sun dappled the ground with a cool light turning the rill into liquid crystal with red backed shrikes and yellow wagtails making the scene replete. Then we were amid the barking dogs, noisy children and smell of animal urine and dung in the summer village of Babusar. We were led to what the men called their "sea", but which was really a large pond.
The man turned around and translated for the benefit of our following and the entourage, all two dozen of them, sat down with a look of expectancy on their faces. I waited a while, and seeing that they were not leaving, washed my shirt with my audience watching the spectacle in silent, open mouthed wonder.
In 1874 a British player of the Great Game rather hastily bribed the chief of Wakhan for the information that there was an easy route from the Pamirs to Gilgit over the Ishkoman Pass. From all descriptions this appeared to be just the pass over which, one day soon, the Russians would come galloping into India; and if anything it needed to be "bagged" immediately. When it was explored two years later it was found, however, to be quite difficult, if not altogether impossible, for military use. In autumn its approaches were clogged with snow. But now things were altogether different; I was heading for it with a donkey carrying my kit.
As we prepared to set out we were joined by two men from the camp who were on their way to bathe in the hot spring at Darkot on the other side of the pass. If he regularly washed in that sulphurous water for three consecutive summers, explained Sally Shah, he would be cured of the back ache that had plagued him for years. Why, already after just one season he was feeling much better. Since the opening of the pass in mid June he and the other man had been making the once a week jaunt to Darkot and back as had been the wont of other sick men before him.
The path climbed steadily up beyond the tree line to the gravel plain of Holojut and into the pass. Beyond the shingly crest the path disappeared into an ice field that spilled out of the peaks on the left. The laden jenny gingerly picked its way down, slithering as it went.
Through the corridor of barren mountains we descended to a triangular valley with Darkot scattered in the middle with a glacier curving out of the folds of rock in the southwest. A silver stream glistened metallically under the glacier and the harvested fields were neatly spread out in squares of gold. We made our way to the house of Naib Khan, to whom the letter from Pir sahib was addressed. The man's son showed us into the guest room.
If the bad news was passed on to him Naib Khan certainly was very good at hiding his feelings for he arrived gushing ebulliently. It was so nice to receive such honourable guests as ourselves and what greater pleasure than playing host to a friend of the great Pir sahib. Indeed this humble guest room had been built for just such worthy "officers" as myself. I asked him if he knew anything about the execution of George Hayward.
"Ah! So you've come to Darkot to visit the site of his execution? I know the exact spot and I will take you there," he promised. The place, he said, was on the banks of Farang Bur -- White Man's Stream, and tomorrow at eight in the morning, about the time that cold steel swept across Hayward's throat, we would visit it. According to Keay this "all but inevitable" murder is one of the most abiding mysteries of the Great Game. In vain had I sought Hayward's tomb at Gilgit only to learn that it had long since fallen victim to our insensibility towards history; now I could at least see the site where he fell.
It was in July 1870 that Hayward reached Darkot hoping to cross the pass at the head of the valley in order to enter the Pamirs over the "true road from India to Yarkand" that in his opinion was "from Peshawur via the Chitral Valley, or from Kashmir via the Yassin and Gilgit valleys, and not over the Karakorum range." Already he had been thwarted once in his attempt to reach the Pamir region and as he now worked his way up from Gilgit he was flushed with thoughts of the glory that awaited him were he to succeed in his endeavours. He believed Mir Wali, the chief of Yasin, to be favourably inclined but was convinced of the perfidy of the Maharaja of Kashmir. There was no doubt in his mind that the Maharaja's men would "secretly strive" to bring his enterprise to grief. And the Maharaja had good reason to be offensive to Hayward. Only some weeks earlier a letter had been published in the leading English language paper in India enumerating the gory details of a raid conducted in 1863 by the Maharaja's army on the people of Yasin.
The letter had been written by George W. Hayward.
It is not known exactly what transpired in the last few days before his execution but Hayward appears to have been warmly received by Mir Wali at Yasin. Subsequently, the discussions regarding the route Hayward was to take to the Pamirs gave rise to a heated altercation in the course of which the explorer called his host by a "hard name". This was the end of Mir Wali's professed friendship. Another equally unsubstantiated story has it that the man was overcome with avarice when he saw the gifts that the explorer was bearing for other chiefs on the route. Thus possessed by greed he resolved to kill the explorer and help himself to the booty.
It will never be known whether the Maharaja of Kashmir had bribed Mir Wali into this treachery or if the latter was goaded on by his own animal desires, but we do know that on the evening of July 17, 1870 Hayward had an inkling of the storm that was brewing. That night he forewent dinner and plying himself with endless cups of tea sat at his desk writing by candle light. In his left hand he held a loaded revolver and across the table lay his rifle. In the darkness outside Mir Wali's men waited for the moment when Hayward would be overcome by sleep. And overcome he was -- at dawn. The Yasinis leapt into Hayward's camp and a brief struggle later the explorer and his servants were overpowered. Tradition has it that Hayward tried to buy his way out, offering not only the contents of his bags but also a substantial ransom. That the bags were theirs was a foregone conclusion and about the ransom Mir Wali's men did not care. They were very clear in their minds about what was expected of them.
Hayward was led to a small hill and just as the sun was beginning to light up the valley a blade flashed giving birth to a hero. Then the servants were dispatched and the camp ransacked. Several months later Hayward's body was recovered on the efforts of a British geologist working for the Maharaja of Kashmir and was given a proper burial at Gilgit. Shortly after the murder Mir Wali was ousted from his domain and eventually tracked down and killed by one of his several enemies. This killing, incidentally, was not to avenge the futile death of Hayward; it was rather a struggle for the possession of Yasin. With it a veil of mystery descended on the events concerning the last days of Hayward.
After many a good man had given up his life in an attempt to unravel the secrets of this great tangle of mountains it was learnt that in the course of the 19th century Great Game no military expedition could ever successfully be brought across the passes of the Hindu Kush. But more than a millennium earlier the Darkot Pass and beyond it, the Broghil, both of which Hayward would have crossed on his way to the Pamirs, had already seen a military adventure.
In the beginning of the eighth century, having earlier vanquished the Northern and Western Turks, the Chinese had consolidated their hold on the regions immediately to the north of the Pamirs. This was the time when their expansionist campaigns were seriously being threatened by the rising power of the Arabs in the west, emboldened by which the Tibetans had already captured Baltistan and were reaching into the country west of Gilgit. In or just after the year AD 741 the Tibetans had a permanent garrison of ten thousand troops in the Oxus Valley. And so it was that in the spring of the year 747 a Chinese army, ten thousand strong and mounted to a man, set out of their garrison in the Tarim Basin under a Korean general, Kao-Hsien-chih. In less than four months the Oxus was made and the Tibetans routed ignominiously and pursued down past Darkot. According to the T'ang Annals that record the exploits of this great general, Chinese troops balked at the sight of the sheer descent down the southern slopes of the Darkot Pass and refused to go on.
Kao-Hsien-chih had foreseen just such an eventuality -- presumably having based it on the reports of captured Tibetans -- and knowing the gullibility of his troops had surmised that "If the barbarians of A-nu-yueh were to come to meet us promptly, this would be the proof of their being well-disposed". He had therefore secretly sent a body of horsemen to the other side with the express orders of meeting him on the crest of the Darkot to offer allegiance in the guise of the people of A-nu-yueh. The Chinese exulted at this turn of events and happily followed their general down the treacherous ice face to be rewarded three days later by the actual submission of the "barbarians".
As for the town of A-nu-yueh, Aurel Stein, the Hungarian born British archeologist, finds in it the ring of Arniya, the ancient name for the village of Yasin that lies three marches from the crest of Darkot Pass. This name, Stein found, was still in vogue in Gilgit in the early years of the twentieth century. After the capitulation of A-nu-yueh the Chinese followed the valley down to its junction with the main valley in order to destroy the bridge over the So-yi (present day Ghizer) River to preclude further Tibetan adventurism.
In the annals of military achievement this little known event can easily be ranked above Hannibal's crossing of the alps. But even more remarkable, according to Stein, was the fact that the Tibetans had earlier, not only crossed these passes to the north, but had for at least six years maintained a garrison of ten thousand in the bleak and inhospitable tundra of the Pamirs. That they could maintain the staggering logistics of merely keeping the army alive in those far off times is truly mind boggling. The only other time a military expedition had made the crest of the Darkot was in 1891 when a detachment of thirty Cossacks headed by Colonel Ianov came from the north and looked down the valley from the top. Six years earlier in August, the same month as the Chinese had made their crossing, a similar British expedition had been defeated after being benighted and severely frost bitten on the pass.
Naib Khan did not turn up at eight in the morning but his son brought me breakfast and asked when I was due to leave. I told him that since I liked their village so much I had decided to stay for at least a month. Immediately the boy bolted. Late in the afternoon a breathless Naib Khan appeared to order me to get my gear ready for a jeep was picking me up in ten minutes.
Half an hour after he had left me another one of Naib Khan's sons burst into the room.
The boy followed me into the guest room and sat leafing through an old magazine and making disagreeable noises until I handed him the tin jug and asked him to get me some water.
Later, as he was leaving, he gruffly told me to be ready at seven in the morning for he was bringing a donkey to take me to Yasin.
posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,
- At January 26, 2015 at 10:05 AM, said...
Great hospitality of hardy people. Nice article
- At January 26, 2015 at 9:28 PM, said...
This calms me and opens my mind. Thanks Mr. Salman.
- At January 27, 2015 at 12:28 PM, said...
Love your humour Sir...... some thing akin to "A short walk in the Hindukush"......does Ishkoman actually mean anything???
- At January 28, 2015 at 9:06 AM, Salman Rashid said...
Thank you, Meher. I greatly admire Eric Newby's wry wit and could be that I am influenced by him. But I suppose we all have our own wit and humour. Strangely, I never thought of the meaning of Ishkoman until you bring this up. If all goes according to plan and I get to Ishkoman next summer, I'll make inquiries and you'll get to read my findings here on my blog.
Links to this post: