Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Over the Babusar Pass

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At 2:30 AM the moronic waiter of the Abbottabad guest house came banging at my door. In direct contravention to what he and many others believe to be divine injunction, he was forcing upon me sehri, the predawn meal to begin a fast that I should not be observing for being a traveller. But phooey to divine order as long as some idiots more concerned with my hereafter than their own can impose their will upon me.

The road near Jalkhad: 10 years ago, no one could have imagined such a road through Kaghan!
I left Abbottabad about six. The road to Mansehra was almost empty and I made the twenty-four kilometres in about thirty minutes. Back in the military academy days in late 1971, we used to do exercises along this road, then almost deserted. All that went past was a car every hour or so and the beat-up smoke-emitting buses of the then famous and now defunct Pindi-Hazara Transport Coy.

Yes, the legend on the side of those vehicles did not say Co or Company. It used the military abbreviation of the word. That was time when most bus drivers, particularly in northern Punjab, were ex-servicemen. The trend continued well into the 1980s when it just petered out and the word Coy disappeared from the buses. The favoured word now is Coh, apparently an abbreviation of Coach.

What I find to be singularly peculiar is that while the class of professional drivers is strictly averse to plain surfaces on their vehicles and crowd as many words and patterns on every available inch, for some curious reason they abbreviate Coach to Coh. Strange that leaving out space for two letters does not hurt them in this case!

Bashir and I. PTDC Motel, Naran
Mansehra was still asleep as I puttered through town and on to highway N-15 leading up to Kaghan. A little after nine, I fetched up in Jared. Here I was to look for a man who was the last maker of the famous shawl locally known as shari (the r is palatal).

On the phone, the shari maker said it would take him an hour to get to this roadside workshop so I decided to drive up to Mahandri to check out the hotels for a possible overnight. As I was going past the last houses of Jared, I spotted this girl, in her twenties, sitting by the side of the road. She waved me to stop and then with her hand signalled she wanted to go south, the way I had come.

This was the second time in my life anyone had offered to elope with me. And clearly she was not all there. The first time a girl proposed something similar was back in 1977. Strangely enough, she too was non compos mentis! However, by the time I was done in Jared, and on my way up the valley again, the girl was gone taking with her my chance of an exciting, if dangerous, interlude.

Back in the 1990s when I was a frequent trekker in Kaghan Valley, N-15 was a shambles. In those days a journey by local transport from, say, Naran to Abbottabad could take the better part of the day. Now, I was surprised by the brevity of it all for within an hour I was at the PTDC motel in Naran.

Lulusar Lake, formed when an ancient glacier advanced to block the path of the Kunhar River
I phoned my friend Bashir, the well-known mountain guide of Naran, and he came around to say hello. We talked of times gone by when we used to walk the side valleys of Kaghan. Bashir said that while foreign trekkers had completely disappeared, tourists and hard core trekkers – all local – were visiting in large numbers and business was pretty good. We have come a long way from the time a Pakistani trekker was taken for a spy to now when they are a norm. And this is just as well for what would these wonderful hill folks have done without the tourist trade which is their economic mainstay.

Bashir also told me something that was quite unsettling. He said the four police check posts en route to Babusar Pass would not let travellers through. He suggested I leave in predawn darkness when the policemen would have had their first meal of the fast and would be sleeping. That meant leaving at about 4:00 AM! The other way to get through was to cajole, threaten and finally give in writing that one was going entirely upon one’s own responsibility.

I asked the man in the motel dining room if I could be served breakfast at the unearthly hour of 4:00 AM. Rather curtly I was informed that I could either have sehri at 2:15 AM or wait for breakfast at 7:00. It seemed I was destined to be stopped and turned back by the police.

As I sat outside reading my book, I heard someone come up behind me saying, ‘So, you’re escaping the heat of Lahore to observe the fast here?’

It was Dr Naeem Awan who was with me on the Muztagh Pass Expedition (described in The Apricot Road to Yarkand). Though I had written rather unflatteringly of him – and he said he had read the book, he was still friendly. I told him of my worry about being turned back en route Babusar Pass. It turned out that he knew the assistant commissioner at Balakot and he called him to clarify.

The chap, someone called Shahid, was obviously an idiot who should have his nose rubbed in his tehsildar’s crud in order for him to learn his job. Moron Shahid masquerading as a district management officer said no traffic was permitted on the road north of Naran because there was a ‘clear security threat’.

I was appalled. This meant I would have to backtrack and go up the Karakoram Highway. Unlike N-15 through cool and forested Kaghan Valley, that road is caught in the vice of bare rock denuded of its once rich holly oak when army engineers were building it back in the 1970s. It is unbearably hot and inhospitable: not a good route to be motorcycling on.

Shortly after this news completely rattled me, the manager of the motel came around to chat with Naeem. I asked him what to make of the assistant commissioner’s alarm. There was nothing wrong, said the man. Why, traffic between Chilas, north of Babusar and Kaghan on this side, plied regularly during daylight hours. Only Chilasis being Chilasis, said the manager, travel during hours of darkness was not permitted.

I left Naran at 7:00 AM the next morning, duly fortified with breakfast and my own coffee. The first check post was deserted and so was the second. At the third, the policeman sat on a rock sunning himself. I slowed down expecting him to flag me. He only stared at me benignly, his head swivelling as I rode past. Ditto at the forth one. Assistant Commissioner Balakot Shahid’s nose does actually belong in his tehsildar’s crud!

Near Burawai, as I threaded past an under construction bridge, I was hailed by the Pakhtun lorry driver coming down the other way. ‘Uncle ji! Where are you headed?’ He was grinning from ear to ear as he leaned out of his cabin to high-five me in passing. I was surprised how he could make out I was an ‘uncle’ even from behind my full face helmet.

At a little after eight in the morning, there were tourists photographing themselves amid the snow at Babusar Top (4529 m, 14855 ft). In early July, there was still enough of it to excite lowland tourists. The jovial guard asked where I was headed and when he heard Skardu he wanted to know why I was travelling solo. Other than that, there was nothing. No indication of any ‘security threat’!

On the north side, men were hacking away at last year’s snow and piling blocks of it in their pick-up trucks. I paused to chat and was told they would haul it to be sold in Chilas or Gilgit. It was good business, added the man.

Lowland tourists know these snow drifts as ‘glaciers’. And local tourist guides make it a point to keep them misinformed. As one nears Naran one can see them frolicking around these drifts. Folks who have never seen a real glacier and who have no hope of ever getting near one (except perhaps Passu Glacier that abuts Karakoram Highway north of Hunza) come away convinced they have been on a glacier.

The road through Kaghan, save a few unpaved kilometres just below Babusar on the Kaghan side, is now a first-class blacktop surface. (I did the Naran-Babusar sixty-eight kilometres in just over an hour.) Besides the road, much else has also changed at the Top. For one, the tall, ancient cairn to which travellers added their own stone is gone. Instead there is now a marble plaque giving distances to various points in the country and beyond. I can simply not understand why they should have demolished that cairn which may well have stood there for several centuries. There was no need. But then the military mind of Frontier Works Organisation works in strange ways. My grief was that it was a monument I had added to in 1990 and again in October 2005, two days before the killer earthquake.

On the far side, the road is again good quality until it runs into Karakoram Highway forty-three kilometres on. And for this we need to thank FWO. But it now follows another alignment. The ancient foot and pony track later improved to take jeeps dropped down from Babusar to Karakoram Highway west of Chilas. This new road joins KKH some five kilometres east of town.

As I drove past one village on the way to KKH, one of the several boys loitering beside the road picked up a rock and threw it at me. It missed me by a mile, but it showed me that Chilas hasn’t changed in all the years since I’ve gone through it. Like Dir in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, this is another town with a vile, unsavoury feel to it. You do not want to be in these two places; you simply want to hurry through them. My friend Najeeb Khan of Bunji has long taken exception to my classification of Chilas, but the fact is that Chilas is nasty.

At the highway another bunch of jolly policemen asked me all sorts of questions on the perils of motorcycling solo. Then having taken down my particulars in a register, waved me on. Working at dizzying speed, the Chinese road builders have not yet reached the KKH near Chilas and I had to travel a wretched surface for many kilometres. A few more on an excellent surface and I was at Alam Bridge leading into the Sindhu Gorge to Skardu.

I paused to chat with the man. Gilgit was just forty-five kilometres away to the north by a first-class road. Skardu a hundred and eight kilometres east by a wretched one. Because of the terrible heat of the Sindhu Gorge now at midday, I was totally knackered and knew there was no way I could last until Skardu. I toyed with the idea of going up to Gilgit to finish my work in Hunza first. But then it was the what-the-hell kind of madness that made me go east on highway S-1. I had been on the road for six hours.

In Naran I had been told there was now a PTDC motel at Astak. Back in 1989, an earthquake had caused road blocks along S-1 and the bus east from Gilgit dropped me a few kilometres from Astak. As I walked around a bend the bounding Astak stream and the large splash of green marking the hotel seemed very refreshing. It was late afternoon and the hotelier said I would be insane to walk in the heat.

I hired a charpai, ate the stewed vegetables on offer and spent a refreshing night by the roar of the stream. On the morrow, I walked nearly forty kilometres to Dumbodas. There, a day later I was picked up by a jeep come from Skardu.

The large blotch of green was still there; the stream as boisterous as ever. But now there was, on the right side of the road a brand new motel. I drove in. I who never drinks colas asked for one to ease the caffeine craving. Then for a second, then I downed half a bottle of mineral water and asked for a large pot of brewed tea. Slaked, I went to my room and just lay listlessly in bed. I had taken two hours from Alam Bridge to Astak and Skardu was still ninety kilometres and two hours away.

Though I was no stranger to it but having experienced afresh the heat of the Sindhu Gorge even at midmorning, I resolved to get away from Astak at 5:00 AM. It was so cool at that hour that I found it hard to imagine it would soon become a very furnace. Indeed, as I rode through well-wooded villages, I positively shivered with cold.

I remembered Triko from my forced walk of 1989: tree-shaded smattering of houses up the slope on the right bank of the Sindhu, and fields on the shelf above the river. A water mill rumbled deeply and the heady fragrance of freshly ground barley flour struck me as I walked in. A charpai lay invitingly empty in the open plot by the mill and I quickly commandeered it. As I lay there in the cool shade taking in the aroma of barley, my attention was riveted on the several golden orioles singing in the trees and streaking through the foliage like flashes of gold and black. I was completely mesmerised.

As I now rode through Triko, I again heard the mellifluous whistles of the orioles. Other than that all had changed. The water mill was no longer there and the houses were now three or four times as many. On the river side of the road, there was a row of shops and all the beauty of Triko, save the orioles, was gone. But now I was not stopping.

Dumbodas, yet another lovely place in my memory from 1989, was no more. The solitary eatery where a very handsome Balti had served several days-old lentils that had clearly gone off, was not to be seen. In its stead, there was a largish single storey building housing a restaurant and some stores. A quarter century is a great scene changer and had there been no sign indicating I was in Dumbodas, I would never have known.

Skardu was made in three hours. Friend Nisar Abbas had kindly made inquiries to put me in touch with Ghulam Haider, the last maker of soapstone crockery. Early next morning I set out on a rented jeep, courtesy my dear chum Afzal Jan of Deosai Travels. And this was just as well for as it turned out, I would have killed myself attempting this part on my motorcycle.

 The ice collectors of Babusar Pass
A few kilometres short of Khaplu, the Ghwari stream bounding down the slope on our right was a regular spate. Luckily an excavator was at hand to let traffic pass by continually clearing the large boulders the stream was shunting down the slope. In July and August as the snow melts on the peaks this stream becomes a menace, but it was still surprising to see it like that at nine in the morning when melt water is near its lowest.

We drove through (my motorcycle would surely have stalled) and past Khaplu set out on the road to Chorbut. A short ways out of town, we hit a Military Police check post. The civilian policeman and the friendly Piffer had almost waved me through when a dark mousy MP man stuck his head out of his hovel and said I should report to him. Inside, having scrutinised my national ID card, this piece of work called Lance Naik Bari said that in order to proceed I needed a permit from the Khaplu police station.

I told him I was ex-army and if he could let me speak with his officer commanding, I could explain that time was of essence for me. But the mean bastard would not do that. In disgust I told my driver Sajjad to take me back to Skardu. The way things are with Pakistani police, even the most trivial matter can take up the better part of a day. It was already 10:30 and if we were to wait until afternoon, I’d never be able to meet my man in village Thoqmus and photograph him.

On a second thought, as we were driving through Khaplu, I said to Sajjad we could possibly try the SP’s office. As we were making for that establishment, Sajjad spotted a friend of his who works for the Deputy Commissioner’s office in town. A short conversation and we had this good man in our jeep. We first went to the police station where the in-charge was sitting under an apricot tree chatting with his colleagues. But he was not up to it and pointed us in the direction of the SP’s office next door.

That was just as well for it took us less than twenty minutes to get the necessary permit. Miracles, even in Pakistan, will never cease!

Thoqmus Grocery Store where they keep the meat fresh in glacial melt water
Back at the MP check post mousy Bari was another person addressing me as ‘Sir’. My military antecedents made no difference to him, but this piece of paper signed by the Khaplu Deputy Superintendent of Police did it.

Through Chorbut to Thoqmus we went seeking out Ghulam Haider. He sat on a pallet outside his home working on the lid of a soapstone pot. It was as if he was waiting for us. We talked, I photographed him and we talked some more. He held his left side which he said ached from all this work in an uncomfortable posture. I found myself wondering why we do not work standing at a work table.

We were, so it was said, ‘only a few kilometres from India’. My map did tell me that we were right under the partially militarised Bilafond Glacier. We also learned that the permit (instituted only a fortnight before my visit) mousy Bari had so insisted on was for a valid reason. About three weeks earlier a Pakhtun trader with his load of merchandise almost ended up across the Line of Control.

Anyone who has travelled in this country will know that sellers of kitchenware, home accessories, cloth, shoes and what have you are always Pakhtuns. They are Pakhtuns be it the sandy wastes of Tharparker or Turbat, the wind-whipped valleys of Chitral or the outback of the Thal Desert in Punjab. And so, this man, rescued virtually from jaws of certain captivity, was the cause of the permit to enter Chorbut.

The Sindhu Gorge somewhere between Dambodas and Skardu
Retracing our tire tread marks, we made Skardu a little after nightfall. But my journey was not over yet. I still had miles to go before I could sleep – to borrow a dramatic phrase. And that story is still to be told.

PS. As we drove through Khaplu after getting my permit, we passed a bunch of lovely damsels sitting by the roadside under a spreading mulberry tree. I remarked that I had seen them sitting here every time I come to Khaplu. I also remembered that on two or three past trips, I had found them smiling amiably at me. Once I even paused to chat and was delightfully surprised to find a covey of lovely, chatty girls.

Sajjad said they were sitting under the tree because with the water channel flowing nearby, it was an ‘air conditioned’ spot. Just the right place to while away the fast!

Part One. Read part three [last] of motorcycle diaries [July 2015] next week.

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At 22 July 2015 at 17:21, Blogger Unknown said...

Wow sir...very inspiring. Why didn't you take Astore_ Chillam_Skardu?

At 23 July 2015 at 14:40, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Memoona, at this time of year, the Kala Pani stream which is without a bridge would have been too much for my motorcycle. Also a little longer.Though Highway S-1 is rather indifferent, it was still better.

At 24 July 2015 at 11:51, Blogger Unknown said...

Ok. What about our Corolla? Would she be able to negotiate Kala Pani around mid August?

At 25 July 2015 at 10:15, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Try the Corolla. But I fear you might have to leave it in the Kala Pani torrent.

At 25 July 2015 at 12:26, Blogger Unknown said...

Good one:)

At 23 April 2017 at 15:34, Blogger Dr. Omar Khan said...

Loved reading. I never knew you liked 2 wheels, which bike did you take?

At 24 April 2017 at 12:33, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you very much, Dr Omar Khan. This was done on a dinky little Suzuki 150 CC. I would prefer a Yamaha SR 400, but cannot do it right now.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

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Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

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