Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Great Asiatic Watershed

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We did not notice the two yak caravan until it had sloshed into the frigid Braldu. Soon they were in mid stream, struggling to keep their footing against the strong current and then they hauled themselves out, their shaggy coats dripping in a thousand little streamlets. Azizullah, freshly shaven and dressed in a natty pink sweat suit rode the one in front while the dark Tibetan faced Zaman Khan brought up the rear. It was eight forty five in the morning; Azizullah was fifteen minutes ahead of schedule -- without doubt one of the few times in Pakistan that an appointment had been kept with punctuality in mind.

Dawar and I clambered atop the equipment after it had been properly secured while Azizullah and Zaman clung to the animals on the lee side. The river that had, from the banks, seemed languid and shallow was very fast and almost a metre and a half deep. The yaks grunted ominously as they strained against the current, with them Azizullah and his mate exerted equally, not only to maintain their hold against the pressure of the flow but also to guide them in the shortest line to the other side, for the ungainly beasts tended to head into the current.

As we dismounted on the Chikar side Azizullah very ceremoniously shook my hand and said that this ford was henceforth to be called Rashid Turt -- Rashid's Ford. "You have just accomplished something that we always thought was the rightful work and duty of the white man. Since no Pakistani has ever entered Shimshal from this direction I name this ford after you." I glanced around to see where they had set up the television cameras.

Several times he had mentioned how Shipton and Schomberg were still remembered in Shimshal. From now on, he said, the people of Shimshal will recall my name too when they talk of those great explorers. I felt a trifle embarrassed wondering if there were also going to be pejorative recollections of my shameful collapse on Lukpe La and how I funked on the scree slopes of the Braldu Glacier. "The song I've made about you will pass into Shimshali folklore, and they'll still be singing it fifty years from now." Azizullah was behaving almost like a proud parent.

Shipton, who arrived here on the afternoon of September 2, 1937, found Chikar "a lovely oasis of willow thickets and meadows". Now, in the last decade of the century, the willows were all but gone, but the "luxurious beds of deep grass" were still there. Presently Shipton and his party were joined by a group of Shimshalis who had been collecting salt to be paid as tribute to the king of Hunza. These men sat and watched the Shaksgam Expedition eating its dinner of Pemmican and rice to which they were not invited for there was not enough food. Furthermore since Shipton believed that they had been taken for Chinese he felt they could afford this lack of decorum. Later, after the Shimshalis had borrowed a cooking pot and some curry powder and retired to their own hut Shipton and his party followed to watch: "On the floor we saw one cold round of leathery bread, leaning unappetizingly against our smoke-blackened cooking pot, in which they had heated a little water and coloured it with curry powder. Someone suggested hopefully that this might only be the hors d' oeuvres, but we soon discovered that it was their complete menu, and that they had eaten nothing since the previous night." In keeping with the "hospitable traditions of the British Empire" Shipton supplied them with some flour.

The Shimshalis have come a long way since then. They are no longer in the bondage of the king of Hunza nor do they eat stale bread with hot water and curry powder. Of all the northern people in Pakistan they boast of the most education, thanks to the Aga Khan Foundation. This, in turn, has brought jobs and affluence and nearly every family has a member or two working in Karachi. Men like Khushal and Azizullah spend their summers tending their wheat and barley fields and their winters in Karachi visiting relatives. They certainly have gone up in the world.

After the bleak and sterile glaciers Chikar seemed to me a delightful place. It was an oasis of a few handsome willows, bushes of wild rose and plenty of grass watered by a fine spring of clear water. Some of the huts were stuffed with bales of grass and the sheep pens were littered with dung. A few bharal skulls told the fate of those hapless beasts that had strayed across the gun sights of some trigger happy Shimshali. Overhead, yellow billed choughs wheeled and scolded and tiny brown birds fussed in the thickets. While Azizullah cooked breakfast I walked around the huts wondering where Shipton would have dined that September evening many years ago or if indeed that particular hut had withstood the ravages of time.

Chikar is neither a permanent settlement nor a summer pasture, but with its good grazing, ample wood fuel and altitude of just over 3500 metres it is a refuge for the winters. Every autumn a part of the herds, instead of returning to Shimshal, is brought here according to a pre determined roster so that it is not the same animals and herders that are repeatedly exiled to the isolation of Chikar when the storms of winter block the Shimshal Pass for eight months.

Before heading east to explore the Braldu valley at its junction with the Shaksgam Shipton rested at Chikar for a day when he was surprised by a "small army" coming down the dusty hill on the west. It was the headman of Shimshal and it transpired that he had been led to believe that some Chinese had clandestinely arrived at the head of the valley. He had therefore arrived with his party to suitably extirpate the ungodly but had been greatly relieved to find that the "invaders" were English. Platitudes and presents were exchanged and the headman gave Shipton's party a pair of ponies and attendants for the journey down the valley. Then, satisfied with the proceeding, he departed with as much pomp as he had arrived.

Riding a yak as it labours up a steep slope producing those awesome grunts is unpleasant business. First, as it toiled up I slid backwards until I found myself almost sitting on its tail hanging on to a rope for dear life. Beyond the crest it threw its head down and swayed on disjointedly at a pace that was outrageous for an animal of its appearance, with me trying to keep my balance perched on its neck. As we came up the dusty slope I looked back at the Braldu for the last time. Its grey snout appeared like tiny heaps of sand beyond which those treacherous ice pinnacles rose like the white caps of a stormy sea frozen in some forgotten moment of time. Rising above them and still farther away was a chain of snowy peaks none of which I could identify.

Beyond the ridge we climbed steadily through gullied hills until quite suddenly the panorama widened. We were in the plain of Zhit Badav -- White Sand. This was a misnomer if I have ever heard one for it was neither white nor sandy: it was a grey and brown rock strewn gravel plain. Immediately in front were two grey pimples of rock behind which reared an imposing ridge with a crown of snow. Between these two formations, Azizullah said, lay the summer habitat of Shuwert.

It was a wide T shaped valley with about fifty stone huts scattered in the centre by the side of the gravel bed of a dry stream. In the north the Shuwert-i-Yaz Glacier stuck its tongue out at the village and on the south frowned a reddish brown hill. The gentle slopes of the surrounding hills were covered with thick tufts of grass and dotted with the white and black spots that were the animals. The sheep baaed and the herders called out to Azizullah to which he gave verbose replies with references to the "Punjabi".

As we entered the village the sight that struck me was the laundry drying in the sun; row upon row of colourful clothing basking in the golden light of afternoon. And by the stream that tumbled through the village were hordes of women madly scrubbing away at huge pots and sundry other items of household use. For the first time since setting out of Naran had I seen anyone washing anything, indeed it was the first time I had seen a hill people washing at all. Normally they would wear a set of clothing and not take it off until it disintegrated on their bodies while their pots and pans carried the soot and grime of decades. I was indeed surprised that Schomberg had found the Shimshalis despicably filthy.
The windswept summer pasture of Shuwert has the unique distinction of being the only habitation in Pakistan that is actually in Central Asia

The entire male population at Shuwert (which was not more than twenty) turned out to greet us. There was an orgy of hand shaking and congratulations for "the first Pakistani reaching Shimshal Valley from the back door". This was rather unusual when even educated folk in the country considered climbing or mountain walking the work of odd balls. That the Shimshalis appreciated the peculiarity of my traverse spoke much of their awareness of what the mountains meant to other people. Who, they were quick to add, were quite likely somewhat eccentric. This understanding I have sorely missed in most of my compatriots.

Our gear was dumped in a grassy spot and Azizullah led us into his home for lunch. It was a typical Wakhi house with a raised platform just ahead of the entrance that had a hearth in the centre. In the back was the storage space with sundry pots and pans stacked against the wall and on either side was the sleeping area with the goats hair rugs and clean quilts. A pot bubbled on the hearth and the room was filled with the heady aroma of tea mixed with smoke from the wood fire. Azizullah's wife was a good looking woman who spoke no Urdu and with her darkish complexion could have easily passed off for a Punjabi had she not worn her traditional pill box hat. She sat by the fire fussing over a large platter with a stack of chapaties -- the thin, unleavened bread -- liberally smeared with butter and cheese.
"We had promised you `chalpindok' -- all that you could eat." said Azizullah. "Now you can eat to your heart's content."

That was precisely what I did; and much, much more. I gorged myself on the rich, whole wheat bread and washed it down with cup after cup of yak's milk tea until the kettle was drained. When we were finished Azizullah led us to another household where a similar feast awaited us. Khushal and Dawar who had also eaten with me at Azizullah's tucked in with undiminished vigour while I picked at the food so as not to seem rude to the old man who gushed all over us. After ten days of eating sparingly my stomach was not up to taking all this rich food and as soon as we were finished I had to run off into the wilderness.

Azizullah had made known my predilection for yogurt and when I returned a row of little boys, each with an enamel mug brimming with that heavenly food, stood patiently by my tent. I helped myself to more than three kilograms of it before dashing off into the wilderness again. When I returned there was more yogurt awaiting me; it seemed almost like devotees making their offerings at a shrine. The Shimshalis were not ones to leave anything wanting so far as hospitality was concerned.

The only point where I found myself disagreeing with Shipton was his philosophy about washing and the use of soap on an expedition: soap was unnecessary extra weight that could easily be dispensed with and washing one of those irritants that could be ignored when one was concerned with the more momentous task of survey and map making. As for myself I had fantasised about the luxurious bath I was going to have at Shuwert and so I was led outside the village to a rill cutting through a meadow. There, in full view of the herders on the surrounding hills and lashed by a cold wind I stripped and washed my clothing, laid it out to dry and then luxuriously soaped and washed myself in the frigid stream.

The only disappointment was that we were not invited to sleep in Azizullah's house as a result of which I had to share the tent with old Dawar and put up with his nattering about potatoes throughout the night. Some days later I learned that he was a potato farmer and it was perhaps the proximity to home and farm that had brought on concern for the crop.

We had agreed upon a rest day at Shuwert so I lounged in the sun reading Dostoyevsky and accepting the offerings of yogurt when Azizullah came around, sat down beside me and fumbled with the grass. I knew there was something on his mind.
"Can I help you in any way?" I asked.
"Well, yes." he said, still playing with the grass, "I have come to discuss the stages from here to Shimshal."

We had already discussed this and agreed upon four stages which, given the distance of thirty eight kilometres, were a day too many. It transpired that Azizullah had now decided it was six stages to Shimshal.
"Be reasonable, man. Even the frailest child can march more than six kilometres a day." I tried to reason, and Azizullah countered that, for one, it was not on plain ground and that it was "fifty miles" to Shimshal. I brought out my maps and Azizullah's arguments slowly ground to a halt.
Sometime later Azizullah returned to fumble with the grass again.
"What is it this time?" I asked.
"Do you know Dad Ali Shah who runs the store in Gilgit?" he asked.
"I do." I admitted.
"You know, he has stoves to sell." Azizullah said, avoiding eye contact. Aha!

At Rashid Camp the petrol stove that I had used for three years had eventually expired and Azizullah had offered to sell me, for one hundred rupees, the brand new stove that he had acquired from some French expedition the year before. Now he had suddenly realised the mistake he had made by asking for such a paltry price.
"How much does he sell them for?" I asked.
"Three hundred each." said the man. "Won't you buy from him?"
I held my palm in his face, fingers spread out in the sub continental sign of abuse.
"Azizullah, if you're man enough you would not go back on your word," I said viciously and he bit his hand in shame. At least he felt he had made a faux pas. But I suspected that upon reaching Shimshal the stove would have mysteriously vanished from his house. In the event, however, I did get the stove.

Still later he returned with the shocking news that the journey from Shuwert to Shimshal was to be ten stages.
"You must be out of your silly head," I said unbelievingly. "Do you expect us to march only about two kilometres per day?"
"You see, you've got the distances all wrong. It is fifty five miles from Kuz to Shimshal," he said.

According to my map Kuz was five miles to the east of Chikar which, in turn, was twenty nine miles from Shimshal. This worked out to about fifty five kilometres.
"Your maps must be incorrect because some men from the Survey of Pakistan told me that the distance was fifty five miles."
"They must have said fifty five kilometres instead of miles," I said.
"No, no. This was many years ago; long before they had invented kilometres," countered Azizullah.

This was too much. I gave up, agreeing that it must indeed be fifty five miles, but that whatever the case, I was paying for no more than four stages from Shuwert to Shimshal. Seeking refuge in my book I wondered what sinister adviser was priming him with these foolish notions while Azizullah returned to fidgeting with the grass. After some time he tried again.
"We are out of flour; we need some for the walk to Shimshal."

I handed him twenty rupees to buy five kilograms.
"It costs more than twelve rupees a kilogram here."

This was a blatant lie but unwilling to be drawn into another meaningless debate, I gave him another thirty rupees saying that was all I could afford and that it would serve him and Khushal well to eat a little less for a change. He left with the money and returned some time later with three kilograms of flour, announcing that while we were bickering the price had risen to fifteen rupees per kilogram!
Later in the afternoon he paid me another visit.
"We must buy a lamb for the journey to Shimshal," he said, "It will cost four hundred rupees."
"Very good," I replied, "Everybody contributes equally to this."
"No they don't. You're running this expedition, you pay for it."

I reminded him of the offer he had made on the Braldu about sharing the cost of the lamb but he pretended not to be able to recall. I persisted, saying that I knew he was lying about having forgotten and that anyway I ate less than half the amount they ate.

He tried another angle. "We are poor people so you should pay half the price while the three of us can share the rest."

I remained implacable and he carried on wheedling, dropping my share to one hundred and fifty rupees. After more than an hour of fruitless impetration while I pretended to be engrossed in my book he asked for my hundred rupees. I refused, saying he was first to show me the butchered lamb before I was showing him the money. When he took me home for dinner that evening the lamb was on a spit above the hearth.

"The object of the Shingshalis was quite simple. They hoped to bleed us as much as they could and then manoeuver us out of the valley" Schomberg wrote of his 1934 visit. Even Shipton, a man of far greater magnanimity, was irked by Shimshali avarice, which he down played with typical light heartedness. His party were required to pay for the presents they had received (which had already been recompensed with gifts from their side) and for the various unnecessary jobs that had been done unasked. The Shaksgam Expedition was even made to defray the cost of the feast held in their honour. Talk about the difficulty of dropping a vile habit.

Despite his acquisitiveness Azizullah was a man of largesse when it came to hospitality, as indeed was Khushal Khan and everyone else. They led me from house to house and virtually force fed me with a generosity that I had not expected from them. Since Azizullah had made my liking for yogurt common knowledge there was always one youngster or the other at my side with a mugful of that delicious, creamy food. And never once did anyone demand compensation for that munificence; indeed when I did try to give some money to a boy who had brought me some yogurt it was angrily turned down.

The day of rest did not seem to have done Azizullah and me any the better. Both of us complained of weak legs and a feeling of general lethargy as we prepared to leave Shuwert. Khushal Khan thought my lassitude inexplicable but that of Azizullah's quite understandable.
"He kept his poor wife awake all night," he reported gleefully, "So how do you expect him to walk?"

As we set out a party of about a dozen children followed us up the gentle slope of the Shimshal Pass. 

This gradually petered out and by the time we reached the crest there were only two young boys who sat down on some rocks and continued to shout farewells after us as long as we were in view. The top of the pass was a wide, grassy saddle with two lovely blue tarns in the middle. On either side were shingly slopes rising to mantles of snow and far away, in front, was a massive ridge of ice with a superb pyramid rising in the centre. Once again we were crossing the Asiatic Watershed, this time to return to the sub continental side of the divide. I tarried a while and attempted to educate Azizullah about the momentousness of the occasion. He listened disinterestedly and then shut me up with, "Come, Arbab Poorian is a long way off". To him, blase from the several crossings every year, this was of no greater import than milking a yak. Which, I guess, if you're a yak is the highlight of your day.

For centuries the men of Hunza (known as the Kanjuties) had engaged in the merry pastime of raiding caravans on the ancient Leh-Yarkand trade route connecting India and China; an activity that rankled the authorities in both countries but which they were unable to put an end to. These intrepid mountaineers sallied forth from their Hunza strongholds to hide away in the gorges of the Shaksgam Valley more than one hundred and twenty kilometres away where they waited to fall upon, not only trading caravans, but groups of travellers as well. It was dread for these brigands that forced travellers on the Asiatic divide between Yarkand and Baltistan "to travel by night, and hide away during the day".

It was the most febrile point in the playing of the Great Game when most of the passes on the continental divide east of Shimshal had been discovered to be heavily glaciated. But if the brigands could make it back and forth between Hunza and the distant travel routes with such facility there had to be an easier crossing. This the British were quick to realise, and with this realisation came the dread of the Cossacks riding down some lonely, wind swept gorge to stake out a claim on Indian soil. This was one pass that had to be discovered before the Russians got to it.

So it was that Francis Younghusband, already famous for his epic journey across the heart of Asia two years previously, was despatched to explore this illusive crossing. But as he crested the Shimshal Pass on October 15, 1889, he was a trifle disappointed: "There was no snow at all on the pass, which was a most unexpectedly easy one. We had been anticipating struggles with glaciers and climbs up rocky precipices, but here was a pass which we could have ridden ponies over if we had wanted to do so." One thing however was clear: even the Shimshal Pass was so remote as to be impracticable for full fledged armies.

A tiny blue rill took off from the lake on the west and tumbled over some rocks to settle into the valley floor. We followed along its left bank for about an hour and watched the stream grow as if by magic and turn the colour of molten graphite. This was the beginning of the Shimshal River.

Shuijerab, a wretched assemblage of stone huts at the bottom of a narrow and wind swept gorge, was made in two hours. This was just as well for I had begun to fear the demise of the Shimshalis from sheer starvation. About half an hour after departing Shuwert, Khushal had started to complain of being famished and had drawn Azizullah into a discourse on food. This time the object of their adorations was the roast lamb that stuck a tantalising leg out of Khushal's rucksack. Immediately on arrival the leg was apportioned, along with a large loaf of leavened bread, and demolished with astonishing speed. This was remarkable in view of the very heavy breakfast that Azizullah's wife had served barely three hours ago.

"Full of Vitamin C." Dawar held up a slice of meat and waffled through a stuffed mouth. It transpired that some doctor he knew in Bangladesh had told him of meat being the best source of the vitamin and since that day he had gone around spreading the light of knowledge.

Beyond Shuijerab we came in for an astounding display of colours. The hill sides were resplendent with pastel browns, brilliant reds, fiery russets and deep, dull greys. Nature seemed to have been seized in a paroxysm of artistic creativity when it made this valley. I told Azizullah it could rightly be called the Painted Valley and he beamed with pride, for after all was it not his very own valley.

Around five we started the descent into the gorge at Arbab Poorian -- Arbab's Staircase. Many years ago an Arbab, or headman, had built a staircase to get into and out of this narrow canyon and it had since carried his name. As we were going down Azizullah spotted two men on the opposite slope. They turned out to be the van of a yak caravan taking supplies to Shuwert. There were about two dozen laden animals with as many men and boys ranging in age from ten to fifty. I was delightfully surprised to see that they had known of our impending arrival and had looked forward to meeting us on the way.

Once again there was an orgy of hand shaking, bear hugs and felicitation on having successfully accomplished a "difficult and dangerous traverse". All this was because Azizullah, on setting out to meet me at Skardu, had announced in the village to expect us in the first week of August, a time table that we had strictly kept. I could not help wondering if a Westerner arriving from across the glaciers would be greeted in a similar manner. Perhaps not, for it is well known that this is the work of hopeless lunatics and the white man, demented as he decidedly is, is cut out for it. The caravaners stayed for tea and then pushed on hoping to reach Shuijerab by ten in the evening.

As we turned in that night Azizullah said that from now on we could either take the difficult ascent over the Shachmirk (Dead Dog) Pass to the village of Shimshal or cross the river to the left side and take the shorter, but far more dangerous path. The ascent to the crest of the pass, he said, took more than eight hours, whereas the other route was generally plain and level and that we could use ropes over the dangerous parts. It was left entirely to me to decide how we were to go. The shrewd man had well and truly understood my aversion to steep ascents and even before I could say anything he knew I was taking the route along the left bank of the Shimshal River.

We climbed out of the grim canyon to Poorian Sar -- Peak of the Staircase, which was a bleak, wind swept plateau rather than a peak. On a shelf just below to the left were two deserted houses and in front, right in the middle of a great nowhere, was a doorway -- two lengths of stone wall running from either side into a wooden jamb without a door. I stopped dead in my tracks: both Shipton and Schomberg had mentioned this doorway and I was surprised that it still existed. The former thought it was an artistic expression on the part of the path builders while the latter believed it was built by some long gone Shimshali in the memory of his grandfather. According to Azizullah this doorway had been built to give some order of precedence to the jostling, disorderly herds of goats coming up from Arbab Poorian before they started the steep and narrow descent on the other side. Each transhumance, before the doorway was built, took the lives of several animals as they jostled each other over the precipice to their deaths. The reason for the doorway had eluded even a man of Shipton's perspicacity merely because of its simplicity.

Having discovered the Shimshal Pass, Younghusband came this far and left a cairn to mark the spot. Safder Ali, the king of Hunza, having yielded to the diplomacy of Algernon Durand, the Political Agent at Gilgit, had agreed to put an end to the brigandage in return for a subsidy to maintain him in his princely ways and was looking forward to receiving the Englishman. But Younghusband was not obliging, not yet at least. Writing to tell the king that he first wished to explore the Pamirs he abruptly turned about and returned the way he had come. But Younghusband has long been forgotten, for Azizullah had neither heard the name nor knew anything of the famous cairn.

We went through another doorway and descended an almost vertical talus slope at a mad pace to enter a narrow, claustrophobic gorge that led us to Nazir Sabir bridge, named after the famous Pakistani mountaineer, spanning the roiling grey waters of the Shimshal River. Then we scrabbled up another vertical talus slope until the Shimshal was a thin grey ribbon several hundred metres below.
"Hell's Road begins!" said Azizullah, as if the pronouncement was at all required.

A wide scree slope stretched in front of us and fell almost straight down to the river whose roar had been swallowed up by the distance. As Azizullah led us across it, the whole slope appeared to begin sliding downward. The idea was to scurry across as quickly as possible before the slope could begin heaving toward the river. This was quite impossible for me and once again I was reduced to a terrified driveller, crawling along on all fours, casting fearful glances at the river far below. Whoever said they felt wonderful in the mountains were blatant liars: mountains, like all other great wildernesses, were the most sobering place on earth.

Beyond the scree slope "Hell's Road" was a mere ibex trail scratched faintly across the brown rock wall -- that even ibex used it rarely was evident from the few droppings we passed. Sometimes the path petered out and while my companions jumped across the rocks I found myself rubbing my nose on the wall as I inched along the non existent path. So it was for the whole of that morning: fearful scree slopes or non existent paths suspended in space high above the slaty river rendered immobile by the distance.

One of the rites during the Hajj pilgrimage requires every good Muslim to cast seven stones at stubby obelisks representing the Devil and his accomplices. This the believers do with all solemnity and belief. But on the scree slopes of Shimshal the demons get their own back. As we gingerly negotiated these horrors there would be but a mere clink-bonk above and a load of variously sized boulders would come straight for us. I could imagine the most hideous demons crouching behind the rocks, gleefully sending down the miniature avalanches on all who went by, Muslims and Christians alike; retribution for the punishment their brethren received on the plain of Mina thousands of miles away.

Around midday my legs, which had felt weak since the day before, were like rubber. My skin turned clammy, my mouth felt like sand paper and my ears became stuffy. It took me some time to realise that I was dehydrating and when I called out to Azizullah it was not my own voice I heard.

Azizullah was aghast. He felt my forehead, pronouncing that I was in bad shape and immediately needed plenty of water. But we were on a desiccated mountainside with the turgid river far, far below. Shimshal was still more than five hours away and quite out of my reach; we had to get to water before it was too late.

"The spring of T'Shanj, which is the nearest water, is an hour's walk from here. We'll get you there, don't you worry," Azizullah said cheerfully and instructed the others to hurry along, set up camp and get some soup ready.

The endless offerings of yogurt at Shuwert had brought on very frequent urination, draining me of essential salts which had not been replaced by the diet of wheat bread and yogurt or cheese. This deficiency had brought on the general lethargy and jelly legs and now coupled with a lack of body fluids had aggravated the situation.

T'Shanj was a khaki concavity with an overhanging rock on one side and the spring marked by a tiny splash of green that dribbled part of the way down the dusty slope. I ran the last few steps, threw myself on the meagre pool and drank deeply. Then I washed down several sachets of rehydrating salts and lay listlessly under the overhang. Within thirty minutes I felt fine so I climbed a little mound, looked up at the mountains and the sky blotched with grey and let forth a stream of the vilest Punjabi invectives that I could muster.

So I held forth for a few minutes, angrily shaking my fists at the unmoving, unhearing mountains while my companions regarded me in horror. Now I had truly taken leave of my senses. Surely they must have considered restraining me and hurrying me off to the nearest mental asylum before I turned violent or hurled myself to my death in the river far below.

The catharsis done with and the incubuses of my fears exorcised I suddenly felt ashamed of myself. I remembered what Munro had always said in Lahore: "It is not what you do, but how you do it." Whatever I was doing, I certainly was not doing it well -- a paltry comparison to the men I had set out to emulate. I felt thankful that none of my friends who had reposed so much faith in me could see me so reduced to a raving madman. Sheepishly I looked at the astonished faces of my companions and attempted a smile. The Shimshalis exploded with laughter and Dawar sorrowfully shook his head.
Azizullah came bounding towards me. "This is a world record, Rashid sahib," he said heartily pumping my hand. "Never has such language been spoken at this altitude. And in Punjabi, too."

"You know, I had lied to you when I said this trail was commonly used by our people," Azizullah said as we ate. "Only I and three other men have used it in the last twenty years." "Now you're telling me. I would happily have gone over Shachmirk Pass had you been rather more explicit about this route."

"I did it on purpose. I wanted to see a Punjabi weep; I wanted to see you on your knees begging to be taken back. But you disappointed me."

Simple man, I thought to myself, where was "back" that I could have asked to be taken to: the scree slopes of the Braldu and the green and blue tinged fangs of the crevasses on Sim Gang? There was just one way to go and that was forward. At length Azizullah said, "This was the same way I took the two British women."

He certainly was not ready to let me get away with the compliment of courage.

There are some men who are destined to become legends. Eric Shipton was one. Although he passed through Shimshal but once and that fifty three years before my time, he was remembered fondly and spoken of with great respect. Beg Daulat, the obsequious sort of headman at Shimshal, remembered the passage of that great explorer and said he had seen the rope that Ghulam Nasir, the then headman, had received as a gift from Shipton. Among the presents exchanged at Chikar, Shipton had mentioned a length of climbing rope being given to the headman.

This was a relic that was worth seeing so Azizullah and I hurried off to the house of the long departed Nasir. His son told us that the rope which his father had never used and valued almost as a sacred trophy had simply rotted away some years ago. However, he owned an apricot tree the fruit of which had been so appreciated by Shipton that he asked it to be named after him. And so they called it Lewan Chuan -- Lewan's Apricot, for that was the name, he said, Shipton went by amongst his friends!

It was remarkable that Shipton was still so distinctly remembered. This is attributable to his down to earth nature and ability to interact easily with the "natives". The Shimshalis, I realised, were not half as excited about my glacial traverse as they were about the fact that it had been done in the memory of Eric Shipton. They almost seemed proud to claim him as one of their own.

Schomberg (locally pronounced Shimbug), on the other hand, had visited Shimshal thrice -- the last time being in 1945 and at least three of his porters from that expedition were still alive. One of them, Qurban Khan, was in the village. What sort of a man was Schomberg? Well, he was a fine sahib, but being rather old he tired very easily and did not travel far every day. Aha! So that is how the Shimshalis got their foolish notions about distances and stages. No, in those days a stage was wherever the sahib wished to halt. Nevertheless, Shimbug was a kind hearted sahib, always concerned about the well being of his followers. In the very next breath Qurban Khan said how the coolies had to march barefoot over glaciers and scree because they had no foot gear!

That evening, as a full moon poured its silver brilliance over the valley, we sat in the verandah of Azizullah's house and I paid them off. The trio carefully counted out the money; Khushal and Azizullah had a little discussion and then the two of them hugged me.
"Thank you very much. You are a good man," Azizullah said.
"I thank you for bearing with me all these days." I replied.

We had agreed to the number of stages at Shuwert and now, without any final bargaining and requests not to be charged as much as a Westerner, I had paid them the correct amounts. This was not in keeping with proper oriental traditions and they had not expected this behaviour. Their show of joy and gratitude therefore was as profuse as it was genuine. Dawar, however, sat in his corner dourly counting the notes again and again. I could not help wondering what little drama was to be enacted when I would pay him for the final three stages at Passu.

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, Continues...

Another Adventure: The Apricot Road to Yarkand

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 7 January 2015 at 10:49, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

It in an informative and great review regarding the life of peoples living at such a tough place

At 8 January 2015 at 23:56, Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you:)


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days