Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

West Muztagh: bearer of the Balti footprint

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In the heart of the glacial web of the central Karakoram Mountains where the snow leopard stalks Himalayan ibex and the golden eagle quarters the skies for snow partridges, the terrain seems all but impassable for humans. Even in that ice-bound fastness of towering peaks, there lies a breach that for long served as a connection between the Baltistan capital of Skardu and Yarkand in Turkistan.


Accessible from the village of Askole by way of the Panmah Glacier, this is the New or the West Muztagh Pass, 5300 metres high and glaciated the year round. West Muztagh plays a junior role to its sister pass, however. Long before this pass was discovered, the people of Baltistan were travelling by one they simply called the Muztagh Pass. About the year 1790, snow and ice conditions made travel over that pass difficult and the route fell into disuse. On the orders of the Raja of Skardu, reconnaissance was carried out and the West Muztagh route was opened around 1800.

As mountain pathways go, the one over the Muztagh is not just difficult; with its crevassed glaciers it is dangerous to boot. It is intriguing therefore why such a way should ever have been pressed into use. History does not have a definite answer to this question, but it does preserve a tantalising item that may well be a clue.

The beginning of the 8th century CE was a time of great political flux in Turkistan with the Chinese and Tibetans vying for its control. Having been shortly before ousted from Yarkand, the Tibetans marched westward along the Indus River to take over Baltistan and Gilgit. Now, at that time Baltistan was peopled by Shin tribes that were overwhelmed by the superior arms and numbers of the Tibetans.

Though we have no historical record, it seems likely that some of the original Shin inhabitants of Skardu valley escaped up into the hills and over the Muztagh Pass to Yarkand. It was not that the fugitives simply upped and found their way as they went. Contrary to that, the route was already well-known from the accounts of local hunters who prowled the high valleys for ibex in the months between the end of summer and the onset of winter snows.

By 750 CE, the Chinese prevailed; forcing the Tibetans back into their mountainous country and Baltistan was free. Thereafter some back and forth traffic may have continued. However, recorded history begins in the 1530s and we know that in 1535 Yarkand and Skardu established diplomatic ties and exchanged embassies. Subsequently, regular two way traffic between the two cities began. The travellers’ route was by the Muztagh Pass.

Human intervention had not yet caused global warming and the resultant worldwide shrinking of the glaciers. With plenty of snow and ice covering the high passes, their dangerous crevasses were covered and travel over the ice streams was relatively safer. Historical records show that the travellers on the Muztagh went with pack horses and yaks.

The last recorded crossing of the West Muztagh took place in August 1861. Waiting out bad weather at the foot of the pass, explorer Godwin-Austen was surprised by for men emerging from the swirling storm clouds. It was late afternoon and the travellers were men of Baltistan, then living in Yarkand, and returning home to see friends and relatives. It appears that at some time thereafter the West Muztagh Pass also fell out of use.


All this may sound like fiction were it not for Balti Mohalla in Yarkand. There, no fewer than seven or eight hundred Balti families continue to live as citizens of the People’s Republic of China. Over the years, they have lost the Balti language and speak only Uighur, yet they maintain their separate ethnic identity. What they have also forgotten is the great heroism of their earliest ancestors who pushed the route through the impregnable barrier of the Karakoram Mountains.

How to get there: The Muztagh Pass, a journey for the experienced mountain walker, begins in Skardu which is connected with Islamabad by air and road. A mountain guide and porters are needed and can be hired locally or through any reputable travel agent represented in all provincial capitals. The jeep road terminates at Askole, 120 km northeast of Skardu and the rest is on foot. The trek from Askole to the West Muztagh and back takes up to seven days each way, more in case of foul weather.

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1. Skardu to Askole by Jeep. 8 hours.
Day 2. Askole to Soq Camp Ground, Panmah Glacier. 4 hours of easy going.
Day 3. Dong Lungma Camp Ground. 8 hours, moderately strenuous.
Day 4. Ghwang Lungma Camp Ground. 4 hours of easy walking.
Day 5. Skinmang Camp Ground. 9 hours. Strenuous.
Day 6. Falling Rock Camp Ground. 4 hours of easy going.
Day 7. West Muztagh Pass and back to Falling Rock Camp. 9 hours, moderately strenuous.

Note: The international border with China runs along the Muztagh Pass, crossing over therefore is not permitted.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

2 Comments:

At May 29, 2015 at 1:09 PM, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Must be like a heaven there. Though hard to reach.

 
At May 29, 2015 at 6:34 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

It's hard to compare these places with heaven because I've never been there! But this is a wonderland. And the hardship of reaching it redoubles the effect.

 

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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