Hisper: fortress of ice and snow
26 June 2015
The Biafo-Hisper glacial system, extending ninety-eight kilometres in a gleaming white line of ice clenched within the jaws of the most dramatic granite spires, is among the longest ice stream outside of the polar regions. Its southeast end rests a few kilometres from the Balti village of Askole while in the northwest the houses of Nagar feel the icy blasts of wind scudding down its surface.
Right in the middle, equidistant from both ends of the glacier, there sits the gentle saddle of the pass that the people of Nagar know as Hisper. For the people of Baltistan, this is R’Dzong La (Pass), however. Now, R’Dzong in Balti signifies a small defensive turret. The question is: why should anyone need a fortification 5230 metres above the sea on a glacier?
Pilgrimage to Ilam
24 June 2015
My friend Feica, the cartoonist, climbed it in 1987 and had since recounted his experience many times; with each narration adding vigour to my own formless dream of climbing it one day. Hiuen Tsiang, the celebrated Chinese Buddhist pilgrim also visited it – but that was in AD 630, and he came here because Mount Ilam was sacred to Buddhism. My own dream to see sacred Ilam was born several years ago when I read the Chinese pilgrim’s Records of the Western Regions, a book not only intriguing for its exactness of information but also delightful for the charming and naive piety of the writer and the sense of wonder with which he meets the world as it comes to him. My visit, therefore, had spiritual connotations: it was a pilgrimage of sorts.
Hiuen Tsiang wrote: ‘To the south of the town of Mungali 400 li or so we come to Mount Hilo. The water flowing through the valley here turns to west, and then flowing again eastward remounts (to the source). Various fruits and flowers skirt the banks of the stream and face the sides of the mountains. There are high crags and deeps caverns, and placid steams winding through the valleys: sometimes we heard the sounds of people’s voices, and sometimes the reverberations of musical notes. There are, moreover, square stones here like long narrow bedsteads, perfected as if by the hand of men; they stretch in continuous lines from the mountain side down the valley.’ Ever since my first reading of the of the book in the early 80s my imagination had been caught by the stone bedsteads. The stream flowing upward to its source, I knew, was wild fancy.
Pakistan International Mountain Film Festival
22 June 2015
Hassan Karrar, is thin as a rail, stands six and a half feet tall and teaches history at LUMS. He walks with a long step and is known in Baltistan as ‘lumbi tango walla’ – long-legged man. At Pakistan International Mountain Film Festival he and I talked of the philosophy of mountaineering and the question of ‘conquering’ peaks.
First things first. No one conquers peaks. We conquer enemies; not peaks. The only thing anyone has ever conquered attempting a summit is their own fears. That’s all.Read more »
The dying Delta
18 June 2015
Ali Mohammad Shah sells candy, cigarettes and some dry fruit out of a tiny wooden shack a short way from the houses that go by the name of Goth Ali Mohammad Shah after him. The village is part of the precinct of Deh Bumbto of Thatta district and sits in the delta of the Sindhu River. In the hour or so we spend together Shah attracts no more than a couple of customers for this is a very poor country.
‘Why did I have to be so unfortunate that Nature deprived me of the sweet water that was my wealth and my life and blighted my land with bitter water instead?’ he says with genuine anguish when I press him to tell me of the days gone by.Read more »
The Silk Road
13 June 2015
Notwithstanding the lies we believe in about the Silk Road passing through Hunza and Gilgit, there was one ancient road that also brought silk to India. Having left Karghalik (south of Yarkand), it came due south by way of Sanju, crossed the pass of the same name to the high altitude camp ground of Shahidula. At Sanju, incidentally, the road was joined by another coming in from Khotan in the east. Of Khotan we know that it sat on the southernmost branch of the three-branch Silk Road.
From Shahidula, the road made the Karakoram Pass, 5,200 metres high. Then down it was into the valley of the Shyok River to Leh, the capital of Ladakh. Thence onward, it was nice and easy to the caravanserais of Srinagar.
Crocodile the Demigod
11 June 2015
Third time around, and I finally got to see the crocodiles being fed.
In February 1987, my friend Maqbool Abbas and I trekked up the Hub River from the seaboard to its source. En route, we had an overnight at Ari Pir, north of Dureji in Lasbela district of Balochistan. It was then not known who this saint was except that he lived in a time ‘long before the grandfathers’. The burial was an unpretentious whitewashed sepulchre with a swaddling of greens sheets forming a sort of turban for the headstone. There was no dome above.
|View of the general area of the shrine (far background) and pilgrims’ rest house (foreground)|
Here the Saruna River coming down from the northwest meets the bigger Hub. As it breaks out of its tight rocky gorge, the Saruna broadens out to form a lovely emerald tarn which, so I was told, was more than twenty metres deep and alive with crocodiles. On that long ago February afternoon, after we had watched the reptiles sunning themselves on a sandbank, Ahmed the inn keeper told us the story: those accused of thievery were pitched into the lake. And such was the divinity of the crocs that only the thief was attacked and devoured by the crocs. The innocent could thrash around all they wanted and yet remain unmolested by the brutes. This beastly prescience was attributed to the power of Ari Pir.Read more »
A kind of Life
10 June 2015
People get the impression I am rich. I am not.
I was commissioned in the army (Air Defence, then called Anti Aircraft Artillery) in April 1972. I wasn’t the classic heroic soldier. Being the first ever in the entire family to have joined the profession of arms, I had no idea how it worked. But that’s not the point.
The point is that I have been broke all my life. When someone – I don’t now recall where it was, but it must have been in the last week in the military academy – advised us cadets on how much Defence Services Officers Provident (DSOP) fund it would be useful to have deducted every month from our salaries, I was quite averse to the idea. Why save, I argued, when by the time you were ready to use it, it was devalued way below what you were so diligently putting away. Consequently, I opted for the minimum deduction of Rs 25 per month. This too I made because by army rules I simply had to contribute a DSOP.Read more »
Remembers that flood of 2010?
06 June 2015
Sindh Agriculture and Forestry Workers Coordinating Organization. The story of this NGO (established late 1980s) is remarkable. Starting in a small room of the family home of Suleman Abro with a staff of three, it now employs several hundred workers. Its work is spread across Sindh and, being friends with Suleman, I have had the good fortune of studying their work and writing about it.
Most of the writing was for their official use. But many times I used stories that were published in Herald or The News on Sunday [read one of them here]. The work of the NGO is humanitarian and the stories are terribly moving.Read more »
Upper Swat Canal, Defying Mountains
02 June 2015
The Yusufzai Plain stretches from the Mahaban Mountains in the north to the line of the Grand Trunk Road, passing through Nowshera and from the Indus in the east just west of Mardan. Of all the districts of the North West Frontier, now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, this is agriculturally the richest and most prosperous.
01 June 2015
When they first saw this beautiful land they called it Shubhavastu — the Good (or Fertile) Land. Stand atop the hill of Brikot just after you have descended into the Swat Valley from Malakand Pass and gaze northward. There, spreading below you is a broad flood plain with the Swat River braided across it in two or three streams with islands between them and on either bank neatly parcelled squares of cultivation, and you know that the Sanskrit speakers were on the ball. Fertilised by the perennial river, this is the Good Land.
In the vernacular, Shubhavastu became Suvastu with the initial ‘su’ meaning ‘good’. When Alexander and his legions came hither in the latter part of the 4th century BCE, they altered the name according to their own usage. The Shubhavastu of the learned man and the Suvastu of the farmer who worked its fertile breast became Soastos on Western tongues. Thence it was a short journey for the valley and its river to be called Swat.Read more »