Trek through the Himalaya, Karakorum and the Hindu Kush
04 February 2015
"Let's go, let's go. The donkey is here," said the foul smelling man impatiently as he burst into the room at precisely seven o'clock in the morning. Mohammed Rafi, the drover, spoke only his native Brushaski and owned a perky little animal that trotted along and within minutes we had left Darkot behind.
Two hours later as we passed the village of Umalsat I suggested we stop for tea. Rafi pointed into the distance where, he said, was the house of some uncle who was waiting for us with tea and something to eat. We carried on for another two hours in the course of which I repeated my suggestion at least twice to be met with the same response on both occasions. Finally I tried another angle.
"Where is your uncle's house?" I asked.
"In Darkot," came the bland reply.
"You fool, you mean there is no uncle up front?"
"Uncle. Yes." he said pointing into the distance.
"Screw your uncle. We're stopping right here to make some tea," I said.
Resignedly I followed Rafi and his donkey and before I could realise we were in the village of Barkulti which was as far as Rafi had contracted to bring me. There was no uncle in the village and presumably since the man was in a hurry to be relieved of me and return to Darkot he had played his little game. I was taken to the house of Sayurj Khan, the school master, who had at one time worked with Naib Khan at Darkot. Sayurj Khan was not particularly fond of the people of Darkot and Naib Khan was his pet hate. This was quite evident for all I had to say was how Naib Khan had disappeared after having promised to show me the site of Hayward's execution and the man began an energetic diatribe against his former headmaster.
There was a time when Darkot was a resort where people from Gilgit and Chitral came to holiday but the niggardly treatment meted out to travellers by the mean and stingy Darkotis brought down Allah's wrath on them. In 1977, Sayurj Khan said, a flood of rocks and mud all but obliterated the village and destroyed every inch of farmland. The people were reduced to poverty and had the government not stepped in, they would have been wiped out by the ensuing famine. He believed that the Darkotis had recidivated because of the savage and pointless murder of George Hayward.
"It seems as if Allah has not forgiven them for slaying Hayward. Why, even the markhor have fled the surrounding hills." This was straight out of Schomberg's Between the Oxus and the Indus which he had apparently read, for a little later he related another story from the book to illustrate Darkoti nature: In the early years of the twentieth century a visiting Political Officer was refused fodder for his horse by one man while his brother provided it and was given some money. For more than a year subsequently the two brothers fought over the paltry sum.
My host was up very early in the morning to see that the jeep waited for me and within an hour of leaving Barkulti I was dropped off in the main street at Yasin. At Skardu several weeks earlier I had met a son of the erstwhile Raja of Yasin who had said his father would be only too glad to put me up for a few days and regale me with tales from "real history" that have never found their way into the works of historians and travel writers. Ah, I had thought to myself, here is my chance to unravel the mystery of Hayward's murder. And so I sought the "palace".
Just off main street I was led around a high stone wall to a small door at the back where my knock was answered by a young girl who, from her looks, could have been none other than a sister of my acquaintance from Skardu. The house, a stone and wood structure, was planted squarely in the middle of rambling lawns and overladen apple and peach trees. The walkway was shaded by a pergola weighed down with creepers, while the flower beds were replete with roses and grapevines choked a corner of the verandah with great bunches of purple fruit. In the light that fell on the cracked and peeling paint the house had a certain air of mystery which could have been rendered consummate by the addition of a gate house and a cowled porter.
They did have a porter, although without his cowl. With partial deafness Pinnin Shah could only hear sounds above fifty decibels. Together with his speech impairment and his illiteracy in every language but Brushaski he was totally incomprehensible to me. But that was not to get in the way of cross cultural amity for the man was compensated with unremitting cheerfulness and a remarkable ability to make himself understood with the most expressive sign language. As he was leading me to the guest room past the rose beds he yelled and jumped away in mock fright. There, in the dappled sunlight, with a heavy iron chain restraining it to a peach tree was a brute of a crop eared dog glaring balefully at me through yellow eyes. Pinnin Shah brought his hands around my thigh like a pair of pincers and then proceeded to rip me to pieces all the while growling in a most unnerving manner. Then, trembling with what seemed to be genuine fear, he walked up to the beast while I thought he was now going to demonstrate how the proceeding went in reality. Instead, with a smile crinkling his face he jangled the chain to show that I was safe.
This dog I later learnt was to keep the wolves out, but in the three days that I spent in the house I never saw it being exercised or fed. Throughout that period it remained chained to the tree in front of the guest room staring, staring endlessly as though trying to burn holes in me with its malevolent yellow eyes. In all that time I never heard it growl or bark, never once did it stretch itself or yawn; it simply lay curled up, occasionally moving to get in or out of the sun. In the dark, as I would sit on the verandah, the animal would be reduced to a pair of yellow lights that went on and off as it blinked.
Raja Ghulam Dastgir arrived tall and slim with snow white whiskers and his sixty odd years etched neatly into his handsome face. He appeared to be a rather nervous sort for his hand continually jerked up to his trim, upturned moustache to stroke it hurriedly as one would attempt to smooth back an artificial stick on. Alternately he would jerk the hand to lick a finger as if to turn a page. His son had said that the raja was full of stories but all I managed to get out of him was an uninteresting history of the family and an account of the sacking of Yasin in 1863. This latter was brought to an abrupt end with the appearance of my tape recorder. "No, no! Please put that away!" the raja said frantically. Not meaning to upset the poor man I switched it off but he stared at it in tight lipped horror. I studied the raja's face, trying to assess the storm that was passing through his mind.
"Please put that machine away. We don't need it," he said again. Centuries of intrigue, perfidy and parricide, all to gain the throne, had cultivated a distrust that remained securely anchored in the psyche even after almost twenty years of the abolition of the State of Yasin and the raja feared that whatever he said, no matter how uncompromising, could somehow be used against him. Without the tape recorder he was quite willing to talk of the raid -- although he was wrong about the year it took place. Indeed no two people in Yasin agreed on the date despite it being the most well known episode of their history.
In or about the year 1842 an army of Maharaja Gulab Singh of Kashmir managed to secure Yasin as a loose dependency of that state. This, however, did not last more than ten years when, in 1852, Gohar Aman (also written Gaur Rehman), the chief of Yasin who had a reputation for being inordinately ruthless and blood thirsty decimated a Sikh army near Gilgit and took over the town. Subsequently, in 1860, with the death of Gohar Aman the Sikhs retook Gilgit and installed a puppet leader at Yasin. This arrangement, however, did not last long and soon the influence of the Maharaja of Kashmir was restricted to Gilgit while in Yasin Mulk Aman, the eldest son of Gohar Aman took the throne.
The states of Gilgit and Yasin settled into an uneasy peace until a merchant buying horses for the Maharaja of Kashmir was murdered at Yasin. The "stifled enmity" climaxed in another military expedition, and in the spring of 1863 Yasin saw the most sanguinary raid in its long and turbulent history. As the Maharaja's army approached the village the entire populace fled to the fort of Madoori, a day's march farther up the valley. Thence the Yasinis were pursued and defeated and their women and children ruthlessly hacked to pieces. The immense quantities of human bones that still littered the ruins of Madoori had deeply moved Hayward on his visit of 1869, prompting him to publish a letter in the press censuring the Maharaja's action and calling down the wrath of the Government of India on this feudatory.
More than anything else this letter raised the Maharaja's ire. Hayward was aware of this, as is apparent from his correspondence in the weeks preceding his death. Although there is every possibility of the Maharaja having played a part in Hayward's murder; it could be that Mir Wali of Yasin, having got wind of the Maharaja's ill will for the explorer, resolved on this adventure on his own. Secure in the knowledge that the rap would fall on the Maharaja, Mir Wali may have considered it an appropriate manner of getting even for the savagery perpetrated by the Maharaja's army in 1863. In any event the hapless Hayward was but a pawn in the whole sordid game.
That evening the Raja had dinner with me at the end of which he abruptly got up and left without a word. But not without earlier having introduced me to a nephew who promised to organise a porter for me. The remaining two days that I spent there neither the raja nor his nephew turned up, only Pinnin Shah faithfully brought me food at meal times and took me around to meet a religious leader. Through sign language, one morning, he told me that he knew were the raja was and led me through the village to a small store where the old man sat gossiping with his cronies. From his discomfiture it was clear that the man was, for some reason or the other, avoiding me. He feigned surprise that I still did not have a porter and promised to send someone around to the guest room as soon as I got back.
He did send two men who appeared to see money growing out of my ears for they demanded more than four times the going rate. They were expensive, they said, because I was taking them away from the collection of fodder for the winter. I knew then that nothing would come out of staying at Yasin and resolved to get away the following morning by jeep.
We rode down the narrow valley past villages with names that would have set the adrenalin running freely in men like Hayward: Dumandeh, Atkash, Gindai, Domalgon. Over the bridge that spanned the blue water of the Ghizer River at precisely the site where the troops of General Kao-Hsien-chih had destroyed the rope bridge in the month of August of the year 747, we entered the straggling village of Gupis.
It had not been wrongly suggested at Yasin that I should seek the help of Abdul Qamar, the Assistant Commissioner at Gupis. "Oh, you're the major we've heard about," said the man when I introduced myself. In this country it was well nigh impossible to get across so fast by telephone but the grapevine worked in ways that were yet to be discovered by modern science. The next fifteen minutes I spent explaining my itinerary to Qamar and his two assistants.
"How much is the government paying you for this?" asked one of the assistants for whom it was still the age of government spies being sent into the country.
"I am travelling on my own and have nothing to do with the government," I explained.
"You mean you are not getting any money from the government for doing this work?"
"Of course not. Why should they pay me to travel," I said.
Qamar's assistants were totally flummoxed by the idea of someone travelling through such difficult country for the simple reason of seeing some nameless villages where certain inconsequential (for them) events had occurred sometime in the remote past. They had a vague idea about the murder of Hayward but failed to comprehend why I should want to see the site where the incident took place. That it was my interest in history that had brought me to this remote country led us back to the same question of how much I hoped to make, in the end, from all this running around. While this inquisition went on, Qamar, who had apparently seen some eccentrics in his life, watched with detached amusement.
With some effort I broke away from the questioning and asked Qamar if he could help organise either a porter or a donkey to take me as far as Shandur Pass leading into Chitral. The three men conferred briefly in Shina and said they had just the man for me.
Fifteen minutes later the door was thrown open and the Chairman breezed in.
"Major sahib!" he pumped my hand enthusiastically and with the same motion pulled me out of my chair to embrace me. So far as he was concerned we were not only comrades in arms but also spoke the same language -- Punjabi, because he could intersperse his Urdu with a few words of Punjabi picked up in his two years with the army in the Punjab. It was entirely his pleasure to be able to porter for me, but he was sorry that I wished to travel only as far as Shandur. He would be pleased no end to take me as far as Chitral and should I so desire he would be willing to come all the way to Lahore. After all, he was a soldier and so was I. Without any argument he agreed to the amount I offered and took off on a tangent in bad Punjabi about his career in the army, which seemed to have been quite like my own. After holding forth for a few minutes he suddenly changed tack and instructed Qamar not to put me up in the government rest house because he wanted me to spend the night at his house. Furthermore both Qamar and I were to have dinner with him.
By evening his enthusiasm about being a porter had somewhat waned and he complained that the rucksack was too heavy. Nevertheless, he asserted, he would get me to Shandur; it was not, however, Lahore or even Chitral anymore. Judging from his house the Chairman was rather well off. It was a low, flat roofed stone building with a rambling garden enclosed by a well kept hedge. The stacks of harvested barley outside the house were from his fields and the fruit trees in the garden were nicely laden. Under a mulberry tree where the air was thick with the fragrance of late summer he waited for us with a large tray of home grown fruit.
I was suddenly aware that the Chairman (whose name I had not learned till then) was not the man I should have picked to be my porter. He certainly did not need the piddling sum I was paying him to carry my rucksack over the next couple of days.
"Look, Chairman sahib, you do not have to porter for me. I can find another man," I said feeling quite embarrassed. This was a patently foolish thing to say because the man looked hurt.
"You mean, you've found someone else?" he asked dejectedly. I tried to explain that I did not think it was proper for a man of his social standing to be carrying for someone else.
"Nonsense!" he said emphatically, "I am not doing it for the money; it is one soldier doing something for another."
We picked on the fruit and the conversation drifted from my travels to politics to religion and back again. Suddenly and without preamble Qamar said, "Have you ever drunk this thing...." he choked on the grapes and thumped himself on the chest.
"You were saying?" I knew where the conversation was heading, but I was not letting on.
"This thing, er, the juice of these, er, grapes," he tried.
"Oh yes. Several times. I like it very much," I said casually.
"Where do you get it from?" Qamar sat bolt upright.
"You can buy it anywhere in Lahore. It comes in tins."
"What about wine? Have you ever had grape wine?" Qamar decided it was time to get it over with.
"Yes, I like a drop or two occasionally." For the next fifteen minutes he talked of wine brewing and drinking.
Someone brought a half full bottle of a mild and pleasant smelling mulberry spirit, that was by far the best I had tasted in the mountains. Schomberg must have had a poor palate for moonshine for he was revolted by this "malodorous spirit" that he found being widely consumed in the country. Perhaps he was not served in a situation half as agreeable as ours: a pleasant evening, a lovely garden, fleecy cumulus clouds scudding above the rocky pinnacles and the silver brilliance of a full moon diminishing the starry splendour and turning the brown hills into icy slopes. Soon it was appropriate to ask why our host was called the Chairman.
"I am contesting for the chairmanship of the town council in the elections due in ten weeks," he said.
"If you win it will be your second term?" I assumed he got the title by virtue of already holding the office.
"Of course not. This will be the first time I'll be playing politics," he said.
"So why do they call you the Chairman?" I asked naively, much to the amusement of Qamar and the others.
"Well, if I win I'll be the chairman. Won't I?"
My favourite politician, I knew then, was going to be Jawahir Khan, former soldier, presently grower of quality grapes, apples and peaches and future chairman of the town council of Gupis. His prowess as a porter, however, was becoming more and more suspect: he suggested getting to the village of Baruk (where his in-laws lived), four marches away and on the other side of the Shandur, at "top speed" and then resting three days before attacking the Phargam Pass where "snow leopards and wolves stalk travellers". The observation that a three day rest was rather long was quickly swept aside for I had no idea of the difficult Phargam.
However, when we did leave the following morning we had not been underway for more than an hour when the gallant Jawahir Khan said that we "go slow and easy with plenty of breaks in between when the body heats up". I could not have agreed more, for the crack I had received on my knee coming down the Chillinji was acting up since I had run out of pain killers. As it turned out it was because of my pronounced limp that Jawahir Khan had suggested the easy pace. Four hours later when we reached the inn where the Bathrez stream joined the Ghizer River Jawahir Khan threw down the load and said that was as far as we were going that day. The inn was no more than a shelf above the road with a collection of tins, pots and pans, together with the owner and his assistant. Near the river was the stone hut with a tin roof that had been built a couple of years ago as a government rest house. But no officials ever visited and it had been turned into a store for building material.
Near the swinging suspension bridge was a pile of galvanised iron pipes. This was half of a jeep load abandoned here the day before for the fully laden vehicle would have been too heavy for the frail looking bridge. The jeep had gone across with half the load and was due to return sometime in the evening for the rest. Jawahir Khan brightened up.
"This means we won't have to walk," he said cheerfully. I dampened his spirits by telling him I had very little money and would probably not be able to pay for the jeep.
"They know that I am going to be the chairman and if they don't take us free I'll see to it that this jeep never crosses Gupis again," he said after contemplating a while. But one thing was clear: we were not going one step with the Chairman sahib carrying the load.
The jeep did not arrive that evening, but just before noon the following day. And even before Jawahir Khan could threaten the driver and his helper of dire consequences they cheerily asked if we needed a lift.
The pipes, a tonne and a half, were loaded onto the Toyota designed to carry a quarter tonne and we set out. Half an hour later the shoddy contraption that was holding them above the tailgate worked itself loose and with a sickening crunch the pipes collapsed, mangling the rear end of the vehicle. For almost an hour the four of us struggled to secure them properly and when barely a semblance of properness had been achieved we set out again. Half an hour later the front end came loose and the pipes crashed onto the bonnet. The driver cursed, got out to study the damage and cursed some more.
The next hour or so was again employed in attempting to secure the load before we finally set off. An hour after that, just beyond the village of Pingal, as the jeep was struggling up a slight incline a loud grating noise erupted from below the vehicle and it started to roll backwards. We pushed it the couple of hundred metres into the village and sat by it dejectedly while a crowd gathered around us. We had barely travelled ten kilometres. Had I not listened to the Chairman and waited for the jeep we would have been several kilometres farther up the valley.
The usual round of questions began in the course of which, irascible as the events of the day had made me, I snapped at my inquisitor. Barely an hour later when the bitter, gusting wind had us all shivering this same man, Inayatullah, invited Jawahir Khan and me to spend the night in his guest room. It was this "inherent goodness of the human race" that I had always believed in and I was becoming painfully aware that I could not boast of it myself as much as I wanted to see it in others. Such is human nature.
Sometime during the night I was roused by a frantic, "Jeep coming outside, Sir!" I turned up the lantern and found Jawahir Khan sitting bolt upright in bed.
"Stop being foolish and go back to sleep. It is two in the morning and no one drives on these roads at this hour." I said. But he did not listen. He dashed out of the room and I heard him throwing open the garden gate and running down the path. Soon he returned breathing heavily.
"Son of a bitch! Just wouldn't stop," he said getting back into bed. All this while, despite listening hard, all I had heard was the sigh of the wind.
We left Pingal after a sumptuous breakfast served by the good Inayatullah with Jawahir Khan waxing eloquent on the various methods he had at his disposal to borrow a donkey from his sister's family at Shamran. He said he would lie that the trip was only as far as Barset and that the animal would be returned the following day. This plan was rejected after being mulled over for a few minutes. Instead, he would be frank with his sister and say that she should just forget about her doting brother if she could not even lend him something as insignificant as her donkey. Why, every harvest he sends her family a hundred kilograms of wheat and barley and if she was going to be stingy about her donkey she would not get the grain. Even better, he eventually decided, was to offer his brother-in-law some grain for allowing us the use of the donkey. In this vein he carried on evaluating each plan and rejecting it, before returning to it again until we reached Shamran.
I was parked under a verandah while Jawahir Khan went off only to return with a dejected look on his face.
"No donkey, eh?" I asked with a laugh.
"Why not. They've given us their best jenny. And my nephew is coming with it."
It turned out that Jawahir Khan had told his brother-in-law that we were going only as far as the village of Barset but on the side had conspired with young Mukam, his nephew, to leave him at Barset where he could avail of the sulphur springs while we, the heroes, as he liked to say, attempted to take the jenny over the Phargam and into Chitral town.
By midday we passed the rest house of Phandur where the hill suddenly fell away and in front of us lay a wide valley with its patchwork of fields bisected by an emerald river meandering languidly away to the east. On its banks grew tall and slender poplars and willows. Below the road, shaded by still more poplars and willows were a couple of houses by which, amid huge haystacks, several people were threshing barley. In the patchwork fields cattle grazed and somewhere a pair of unseen roosters strained to outdo each other; overhead red billed choughs circled and screamed.
The sun was still above the hills in the west when we walked into the house of Jawahir Khan's uncle in the village of Hunderab. We were greeted with much shouting and laughing for Jawahir Khan, a welcome guest, had arrived unannounced. To show how much this visit was appreciated we were given a good quantity of dried apricots when we left the following morning.
At midday we reached the village of Barset and Jawahir Khan suggested to Mukam that bathing in the hot springs was not such a good idea after all and that he should carry on with us. Obediently the lad acquiesced. As we were passing the last houses of the village Jawahir Khan said he would see if he could organise some food, and walked off leaving us by the road. For some minutes we saw him talking animatedly with a scruffy looking man and when he returned he launched on a series of the most vehement deprecations. For several minutes he held forth on the details of the relationship he would dearly have liked to initiate with the women of that man's family. This was coupled with some startling disclosures about the man's ancestry. All this smelled of two years of association with the Punjabis.
"Son of a bitch! Tells me to get lost and ask the police at the bridge for tea," he said angrily.
Receiving hospitality for him was a right, for he himself offered it to all comers, spontaneously and without prejudice or any thought whatsoever of ever being repaid; his indignation was understandable. As for me, it was the first time in twenty years of travelling that I had been turned away in Pakistan. It was all the more surprising for three years earlier while trekking through Chitral not once had I been allowed either to put up my tent or to cook anything from my supplies. "Save it, for you do not know of tomorrow" they had always said and when, at the end of the trek, I had tried to give the food to my host I had had a very angry man on my hands.
Beyond the bridge (where the good looking policeman gave us tea and biscuits) the valley was broad and well watered with herds of unattended yaks browsing in the grass browned by the frost of early September. Two hours later the path turned westward to begin the long and gentle climb to Shandur. Over the crest I was on a wide plateau fringed by cones of barren rock with a rill cutting across and a collection of drab looking stone hovels nestling under the hills to the west. This was Langar where Jawahir Khan had suggested spending the night. When they caught up with me Jawahir Khan threw himself on the soft grass and said, "I think I am going to die. I have a great fever and my body aches."
I felt his forehead. He was perfectly normal; only he appeared to have exhausted himself. He lay there moaning and groaning like a man truly afflicted by some dreaded disease and young Mukam watched him grinning from ear to ear. He seemed to know his uncle well. Having long since run out of my supply of medicines I only had a few effervescent vitamin C tablets which I dissolved in some water and gave to the dying man telling him that it would help him get as far as the houses of Langar. He drank it slowly and just when Mukam and I thought he was going to die on us he announced that he did not wish to spend the night with the filthy shepherds of Langar but would try to get as far as Shukargah. Two hours later our hero was introducing me to the men of Chitral Scouts at the post of Shukargah as "the major sahib carrying out a survey for the proposed realignment of the ancient Gilgit-Chitral road". I could not help wondering how he had devised this one and fervently hoped that none of the men would ask for identification or papers of any sort.
They did not. Within a few minutes I learned that the quartermaster at headquarters was an old acquaintance of mine and in deference to this relationship these men of the Chitral Scouts installed me in the VIP Guest Room.
At 3800 metres the men at Shukargah were preparing for winter. Already they had started to receive supplies of fuel, dry rations and meat on the hoof to last them the next eight months. When the snow would smother the already browned grass the animals would be slaughtered, salted and hung in one of the rooms where the arctic winter would preserve them until spring. For all this time these men would remain confined to their little island of habitation in a snowy wilderness. Like the Deosai no one dares to cross the Shandur in winter.
But less than a century ago there were men who did it.
Aman-ul-Mulk, the aging Mehtar (chief) of Chitral died in August 1892. In all probability this was a natural death but in keeping with the "royal traditions" of the orient it was believed by some that he had been poisoned. In any event, the great struggle for power between his seventeen sons was staved off by son number two, Afzal-ul-Mulk, who happened to be close at hand whereas Nizam-ul-Mulk, the eldest, was away governing Yasin. The latter, fearing for his life, fled to Gilgit to lick his wounds in the presence of Mortimer Durand, the Political Agent. Meanwhile, the former barricaded himself in the fort of Chitral for it was rumoured that Sher Afzal was returning from Afghanistan where he had spent the last three decades in exile. Sher Afzal was a half brother of the deceased Aman-ul-Mulk, and the only male relative to have escaped the executioner's blade at the time of Aman's ascension to the throne, and he now considered himself the rightful heir to the throne of Chitral.
Afzal-ul-Mulk was dispatched and Sher Afzal assumed the mehtarhsip. Now, the former had been acceptable to the British and with him they had hoped to formulate a working relationship -- which was why Durand had not responded to the lamentations of Nizam -- but Sher Afzal was surely none other than an Afghan agent. This was an appropriate time to launch Nizam. So he crossed the Shandur, primed with two hundred and fifty rifles and two artillery guns to oust his uncle and become the fourth Mehtar of Chitral within four short months. Confident that the maudlin Nizam-ul-Mulk would serve the purpose of the British empire well and faithfully Durand sent a mission headed by Dr George Robertson and including a Lieutenant Gordon and the now famous Francis Younghusband along with an escort of fifty Sikhs to bolster the new Mehtar. This party crossed the Shandur, frozen under several metres of snow in early January 1893 with only "one or two frost bites" as Younghusband tells us.
Nizam settled down to rule the country and it seemed that peace had at last returned to Chitral for Afzal-ul-Mulk in his short reign had eliminated any possible claimants to the throne save the demented Amir-ul-Mulk and the child Shuja-ul-Mulk. But the mission had barely turned its back on its protege when on the first day of 1895 Nizam and the half wit went hawking and the latter, apparently not as mentally deficient as he appeared to be, shot and killed the Mehtar. If he had thought this performance would impress the British, he had been singularly mistaken for they still remained unsure of the man's mental attributes and refused to acknowledge him as the Mehtar, forcing him to turn to Umra Khan, an Afghan chieftain, for help. The game of musical chairs played to the sound of gunfire had begun all over again.
Robertson, with five other officers and five hundred troops immediately set out from Gilgit, ostensibly to rescue another British officer held in Chitral, in reality to bring the mad Amir to terms for he had since made some agreeable sounds. This was doubtlessly because he realised that the arrival of the Afghans would mean his own end and that of Chitral's independence, whereas he stood some chance of recognition if he sided with the British. In intense cold Robertson and his men crossed the Shandur exactly two years after the earlier crossing while in the south Umra Khan and his forces were swarming over the slightly lower Lowari Pass into Chitral to pre-empt British action.
Robertson took over the fort of Chitral and entered into parleys with the mad Amir-ul-Mulk, while in the south Afghan ranks swelled with the reappearance of the stubborn Sher Afzal and his followers. In desperation Robertson recognised Amir only to remove him three days later to install the boyish Shuja-ul-Mulk. As he was doing this the Afghans were preparing for a long siege outside the walls of the fort.
The man nearest to the besieged fortress was Colonel James Kelly, almost sixty years old and on the verge of retirement, at the garrison of Bunji south of Gilgit. On March 21st he was ordered to the relief of Chitral and he set out with a handful of officers, four hundred regulars, a hundred levies and two guns to reach the foot of the Shandur Pass on the first day of April. For five days Kelly and his Punjabi and Kashmiri troops struggled through deep snow, manhandling their guns and sleeping in the open under leaden skies that poured forth more snow and a sharp, cutting wind. On April 19th, a day's march north of the fort of Chitral, as an unkind anti climax to his heroic effort, Kelly received a letter from Robertson saying that the Afghans and Sher Afzal had fled. The siege had been lifted after a harrowing forty six days.
The only other time this feat was to be duplicated was in April 1948 when Shah Khan, the swashbuckler of Gulmit, led his troops across the frozen desolation of the great Deosai Plateau. But whereas Kelly was successful and won laurels, Shah Khan's bid to unite Kashmir failed, not because he and his men were wanting in courage and the will to succeed, but because the politicians of nascent Pakistan so wished it. Almost a hundred years down the line Colonel Kelly is still remembered but Shah Khan is a forgotten hotelier in the backwaters of the country.
Beyond Shukargah, past the lovely blue lake was what gives Shandur the title of Pass: a winding descent to the village of Sor Laspur. This we negotiated behind a duo with a young brown bull that decided every ten minutes or so that it had no desire to go where it was being led.
Abruptly and without warning it would turn to escape either into the stream below or the mountainside above. The drover would hang on to the rope while he and the bull did a couple of quick circles around each other with the other man laying about the animal with a hefty willow strand. Then, as suddenly as it started the commotion would die down and men and beast would carry on amiably down the slope.
We were just in time for an early lunch at the household of Nadir Khan, an uncle of Jawahir Khan's wife, at the village of Baruk. Having duly stuffed himself the gallant Jawahir Khan asked to be excused and went to sleep under a thick blanket in the brilliant sunshine. Evidently this was the last time he would play porter to anyone, major or civilian. Young Mukam took me to the neighbouring village of Harchin to the house of Yaft Ali whose address I had carried all the way from Gilgit.
He was not there but had a seemingly endless line of brothers, most of whom were either working their way through degrees at the University of Peshawar or were already finished. Sardar Khan, who fed me a second lunch, was proud no end of the education in the family for he introduced himself as "Sardar Khan, BA" and remembered his brothers not by their names but by their educational qualification. He apparently considered it blasphemous not to append the names with the appropriate degrees. The brothers, therefore, were Suharwardy (MA History), Zafar (MA Journalism), Wali (BA second year) and the few younger ones who were still in school and for whom the degrees they were to earn had already been decided. I asked the distance to the village of Phargam and got three different replies from the three brothers:
It is five kilometres. Suharwardy (MA History).
No, no. It cannot be more than three furlongs. Wali (BA second year). Of course not, it is three kilometres. Sardar (BA).
In reality it was just over a kilometre.
Nevertheless they were helpful men and soon I was packed off to the village of Phargam where Zafar (MA Journalism) was to put me up for the night and organise a porter for the crossing of Phargam Pass. My lot fell with Thun Khan who was beautifully devoid of the rapaciousness of the Baltis and Wakhis. He spoke ten words of Urdu and ten of Pushto besides his native Khowar, while I had a smattering of Pushto with about five words of Khowar; this was a sure sign of a successful relationship. The man's real name was Mustajab Khan but he had been called Thun -- the Terrible -- for his reported quick temper.
Besides organising Thun Khan Zafar (MA Journalism) informed me that Chitral was over two hundred kilometres away by the Phargam. This put paid to any confidence whatever that I may have had in the alma mater at Peshawar.
Leaving early Thun Khan and I climbed the ridge to the west of the village and entered a comparatively flat valley with the far end blocked by another ridge. Beyond it was another valley littered with moraine material and sometime after midday we were in the large sandy bowl dotted with great tussocks of yellowing grass at the foot of Phargam Pass. We set up camp near the many channelled stream so as to be able to cross it first thing in the morning. Across the stream was the stony slope leading up to the pass and disappearing behind a huge knob of bleached rock.
Early in the morning as we started up the slope Thun Khan declared that the descent into Golain Valley began on the crest of the ridge that we saw. This did not seem right for we were at a height of 4600 metres while the crest of the Phargam was 5065 metres. Indeed it was a false crest opening on a great field of shattered white rocks with edges so sharp that they appeared to have sheared off from the parent mountain barely a few minutes earlier. The good man pointed to the next ridge and said it was the pass, but a grind of two hours took us over it and within sight of another crest with a saddle between two stark and cracked pillars of reddish brown rock.
"Is that the pass?" I asked.
"Yes it is," said Mustajab the Terrible.
"Is there another ascent beyond it?" I asked in an attempt to double check.
"Yes, there is another ascent," said the man.
"But you just said this is the crest of the pass."
"This is the crest," he said irately.
"And you also say there is another climb?"
"Yes, there is another climb."
Thus we went back and forth for about five minutes until I lost my cool and said a few rude things in Punjabi, secure in the knowledge that they would not be understood. But I was not the only one flying off the handle. Mustajab Khan struggled through something unintelligible in a mixture of Pushto and Urdu and then broke into rapid Khowar. This sounded uncannily like, "You bloody idiot, can't you understand a simple enough statement!"
Finally we were on the top. I let out a whoop and danced a little jig; this was the last pass, tomorrow we would be in Chitral -- my journey's end. I could have walked north from Harchin to Mastuj and got a jeep to Chitral but my aversion to modern means of transportation had brought me over the Phargam Pass -- a route that, like the Skoro La, has long been abandoned except by the occasional trekker. When the Mehtar Nasir-ul-Mulk had it built in the 1930s as a shorter connection between Chitral town and Mastuj he was trying to accomplish the impossible in these brittle, unstable mountains. Despite persistent efforts to keep the route usable it was soon abandoned because of its difficulty for animals.
Looking back I could see Harchin, a splash of green at the foot of a grey cliff above which the cumulus were stacked hugely into the sky. Hidden by them were mountains that stretched peak after peak, gorge after gorge into the distance. Once they were a dream; now reality. Until I had set out from Lahore three and a half months ago they were simply romantic names that raised goose bumps on me, now they were places -- all part of a dream that had come true. I thought of the men who had come before me, for whom the stakes were much higher than they had ever been for me and who either lived and made history or died in their attempt to do so. I thought of even those men like Georg Kronberger whose commemorative plaque said that he came from Vienna and went away quietly on this forgotten pass in July 1975, barely seven weeks shy of his twentieth birthday. To all of them I felt a deep sense of gratitude. I thought, too, of the time when I almost succumbed to the immense peer pressure and gave up my quest to live the kind of life I wanted and "take up a decent job and live like everyone else". That I survived the pressure was only made possible by the unremitting support of my wife, Shabnam.
Having breakfasted on yogurt that smelled as though it had been stirred at least once using every goat in camp as a ladle we set out along the milky stream overseen by the most brilliantly painted hills. Beyond Darkhatan that comprised of just one house the scenery was lovely: wide green meadows, beautiful stands of birch, willow and juniper, singing rills and a vitreous sky against which several pairs of raptors hung on fluttering wings. Twice I saw dark wedges driving relentlessly southward against the blue sky: ducks from the cold lakes of Siberia on their way to the wetlands of southern Punjab and Sindh.
I knew it was time to go home.
Previous: Between Two Burrs on the Map, Epilogue, Horse Trading, Wilderness of the Giant, Little Tibet, World's End, Between Two Burrs on the Map, Celebration at Lukpe La, The Great Asiatic Watershed, Lonely at Shimshal, Between Two Burrs on the Map - Travels in Northern Pakistan, Ishkoman Valley
Another Adventure: The Apricot Road to Yarkand
posted by Salman Rashid @ 8:00 AM,
- At February 4, 2015 at 2:55 PM, said...
A great article which has reminded me good old days
- At February 4, 2015 at 4:30 PM, said...
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