Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Last Leg

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Highway S-1, from Alam Bridge where it splits of off N-35, is still as it was the last time I travelled on it in 2010. I left Snowland Hotel at Skardu at 5:00 AM. Owned by Jafar who I know since 1990, this is a lovely property a little ways outside town as one approaches from the west. Though it has limited accommodation, its lovely garden and cherry trees make up for everything.

‘Here Continents Collided’
On my two days in Skardu I spent my free time walking about in the garden eating cherries straight off the trees. The hotel staff, kind as ever and surely following Jafar’s instructions, would see me and come up with a plateful of freshly picked and washed fruit. And this was no extra charge. That has been the way at Snowland for the past many years and that is the reason I prefer this branch of the hotel to the one in town just below the hill on which the PTDC motel sits. Done with the work in Chorbut, I left Skardu early. Early enough to get to Gilgit in good time before the Sindhu Gorge heated up to its temperature that can shame the fires of hell. It took me fully seven hours to cover the two hundred and thirty odd kilometres. By midmorning the gorge was already flaming. Only the passage through the wooded villages was nice and cool.

Nanga Parbat and the mighty Sindhu River. A sandstorm destroyed what could have been a priceless view
The Sindhu Gorge between Gilgit and Skardu was never a favoured travel route. The 17th century invasion of Baltistan by a Mughal army sent up by Shah Jehan came by way of Srinagar and over the Deosai Plateau to Skardu. In the 19th century, the Dogras used the same route for Baltistan. However, though they are known to have travelled the perilous way from Skardu to Gilgit along the Sindhu, the preferred way between Kashmir and Gilgit was through Astore and Bunji. The Sindhu Gorge was not just unfavourable for its terrible heat; the road too was hardly any good. Even before it could be improved to take wheeled traffic about sixty years ago, accidents were not uncommon as laden soldiers fell to their deaths from its treacherous parris and pathways.

Going back across Alam Bridge I hit N-35. And what a relief! The Chinese have done a most wonderful job: it is a first class surface and the forty-five kilometres to Gilgit were made in about thirty minutes. As at Naran, the PTDC motel seemed to have been taken over by screaming children and indulgent parents.

Drop dead handsome Balti looks
My friend Karim Mutrib came around to tell me where I would find the man who hand-crafts stringed musical instruments. The craft is dying and this man in Nasirabad, some kilometres short of Baltit (now for many years called Karimabad after His Highness), is the last surviving keeper of that ancient art. A day with Qudratullah Baig in his home was wonderful. He fed me cherries and apricots as he talked of his natural musical talent and his incredible ability to create his own instruments.

It was remarkable that as a pre-teenage child he created his first rubab because he could not afford the instrument. His years in the army seem to have been an era of musical famine. But when he retired early, he returned to playing, singing and creating his instruments. Though Qudratullah had purchased some sort of machinery to make his work easier, he was unable to use it because of non-existent power supply and all his creations were still hand-crafted. I could only send up a silent prayer for the managers of Pakistan who do not give us electric power that their negligence is keeping a valuable craft alive.

En route to Nasirabad, I passed two large and rather interesting signs. One screamed ‘Here Continents Collided’ and gave an interesting spiel on how fifty-five million years ago; the Indian plate drove into the Eurasian plate. And how the pressure of this collision caused the three greatest mountain ranges, namely, Himalayas, Karakoram and Hindu Kush, to buckle up to these immense heights. That was fascinating even if it did not say who or which organisation had planted this well-made sign.

The other one was sheer crap. It stood right across the point where the hillside across the river was scarred by the zigzag line of the old pony and later jeep track connecting Hunza with Gilgit. This sign with the name (if I remember correctly) of Serena Hotels at the bottom declared that disused path to be the ‘Silk Road’.

Some morons need to be educated but alas they never will be. People, there was no, absolutely NO, I repeat NO, branch of the fabled Silk Road passing through what is now Pakistan. When construction was started back in the 1960s this falsehood was not known and FWO very innocently and truthfully named the road Karakoram Highway. Throughout the 1970s and until the mid-1980s the term Silk Road was never used for KKH. And I challenge any detractor to show me the name ‘Silk Road’ in any newspaper predating 1985.

The disused road that is now billed as remnants of the Silk Road was the connection between Gilgit and Hunza. Historically speaking, we find absolutely no evidence of any long-distance travel or trade – least of all of silk – along this road either in the Middle Ages, or earlier or later when the first Victorian travellers and explorers came to this region. Because the kings of Hunza maintained relations with Kashgar, the road northward over the Mintaka Pass (and not Khunjerab) was their connection with Turkestan. That was all.

However, when the road was opened for ordinary travellers which was, if I remember correctly, in 1984, smart aleck tour operators began calling it the Silk Road to enhance glamour and attract tourists. Moronic babus of the Ministry of Tourism were not far behind in propagating this blatant lie. While it is very difficult to get people to accept a truth, any kind of truth, it is a universal fact that stupidity is post-haste gobbled up as gospel. And so an entire nation that did not know any better began to believe that the road between Gilgit and Hunza or the border at Khunjerab was the old Silk Road.

This is nothing but tripe. But when you tell an untruth a few hundred times, it becomes holy writ. And so it is that ignorant people believe a stupidity.

By the way, my friend Akhtar Mammunka, a super-smart bloke and a very successful tour operator who sold the lie of the Silk Road to hundreds of Western tourists, takes exception to my assertion to the contrary. Why do I have to be a stickler for the truth, he says, when it hurts other folks’ business? I say why build business on a lie when he and others like him could as easily have based the glamour and glory of KKH on the valour of the men, Chinese and Pakistani, who toiled those long years and to those heroes who gave up their lives in the struggle to make this truly wonderful highway a reality.
But no. Falsehood and stupidity must triumph over truth and good sense.

Back in the motel in Gilgit on my last night in the mountains, I was reading in my room when I got a call from Jawad Sherazi. A chopper pilot and second-in-command of 2 Aviation Squadron in Lahore, I have known him since 2010. I was trekking up to Shuwert, the summer pasture of Shimshal, when he and three others were coming down, having trekked the Biafo-Sim Gang-Braldu glacier traverse. We have been friends since.

One thing is to be said about Shuwert. Shuwert and Chikar (the latter sitting at the foot of the Braldu Glacier), are the only two habitations, albeit seasonal, that are part of Pakistan yet sit outside the geographical limits of the Indian subcontinent. Here all the waters washing down the surrounding snowy peaks do not enter the Sindhu River system to fetch up in the Indian Ocean. Instead, these waters drain into the Shaksgam River complex to eventually be lost in the deserts of Chinese Turkestan. Lying north of the Great Asiatic Watershed means, this region of Pakistan is geographically a part of Central Asia. And this little chunk of remote Shimshal is the only part of the country together with Braldu Glacier that lies north of the Watershed.

Now, as I lounged in my hotel room, Jawad wanted to know when I would be returning home. I told him I’d depart Gilgit early on the morrow in order to make Abbottabad by evening. He guffawed loudly.
‘Abbottabad! You’ve got to be kidding. It will be a wonder if you make Naran. But, all right, I’ll give you Balakot. You’ll make Balakot and no farther. For crying out loud, you’re not young anymore, you old fart!’

He said he would bet his last rupee on Balakot. I remained non committal saying I’d see how it went in the morning. Secretly I resolved right there to show him what could be done and to make straight for Rawalpindi. Secretly within my head I said to him, ‘Chum, you have roused the sleeping swine inside me.’ (Say that in Punjabi and you’ll know how juicy it sounds!)

At 4:30 AM, having served sehri to the fasting guests of the motel, the staff had gone missing. Save the chowkidar there was no one around. He made one half-hearted attempt to raise the cook to make me breakfast but came back and lied he could find no one either dead or alive. Having already had my cup of tea and then one of coffee brewed with my own equipment, I got away at ten minutes to five o’clock. I knew I would be able to have breakfast at PTDC Naran.

Folks call it an unearthly hour. Indeed, Gilgit was as quiet as death. Even the NATCO bus depot was deserted. There was no lugubrious Turkestan driver like the kind who drove me to Kashgar back in August 2006 and arrived there eighteen hours behind schedule. That was just like Pakistan Railway! Even N-35 was entirely without traffic.

After many kilometres of a superior surface, the road gave way to what it has always been in my memory: potholed and uneven. The stiff wind that had been blowing for the past nearly an hour now turned into a sandstorm howling along the gorge at upward of fifty knots. It kicked a thin dusty skein into the air and if I had hoped to get some fabulous views of Nanga Parbat early in the morning, that was put paid to.

The roughly hundred and twenty kilometres to Chilas were done in about four hours by which time the gorge had begun to radiate heat. Past the check post, the climb to Babusar Pass began and that, I thought, was just in good time. It felt great to be getting away from the infernal heat.

Near the top, along last winter’s snow on the north side, the men had already begun loading their pick-up trucks to take the snow to Gilgit and Chilas. They waved and shouted as I rode past. On the way out I had not paused at the top. Now I did. As I photographed the new plaque, a policeman came around for a chat. I asked him about the cairn that has been demolished. He had seen it in the old days, but he had no idea who had ordered its dismantling. What a shame that a historical monument was laid low utterly mindlessly.

At ten I was in the dining room of PTDC Naran eating my fried eggs and paratha. At 10:30 I was once again rolling. Between Mahandri and Jared I kept my eyes peeled for the girl who had tacitly offered to elope with me on the way in. I think someone beat me to it for there was no sign of her.

The colonel and I
At 12:40 I paused at PTDC Balakot for a much needed couple of cups of tea. By one in the afternoon I was again on the road. With twenty-two kilometres still to go to Mansehra I was hit by a heavy fall of rain and had to take shelter in a roadside store. It took up fully forty minutes to pass. Past Mansehra, the road to Abbottabad was choked with traffic. But that was no surprise.

Some years ago while working for an NGO I was housed at Abbottabad and had to work outside Mansehra. While the way out being early morning was always easy, the way home was a nightmare. If anything had changed, it had only for the worse: the road was now just one endless snarl of smoke-belching monsters. But thank goodness for motorcycles! Keeping to the extreme left, I weaved my way past stranded motorists and got clear ahead of a few hundred of them in about half an hour.

 Hussain and I
Abbottabad town was clear, but only just. On the other side, there was more traffic congestion. If you ask me, this stretch between Mansehra and Havelian, all forty odd kilometres of it, is a motorist’s nightmare in the evening. I don’t think I ever want to be caught on it again.

About four in the afternoon, I paused in a secluded spot for a drink. By now, my behind was screaming. The skin on the back of my thighs that chafes against the seat was sore as if with rash. But now past Abbottabad and even Haripur where I knew an indifferent sort of hotel where I could have overnighted, I could only keep riding on. There was no stopping before Rawalpindi.

It was ten minutes before seven in the evening when I pulled up in the Engineers Mess in Rawalpindi Cantonment. If you ask me, frankly, I was busted! I had been in the seat for fourteen hours and had covered five hundred and fourteen kilometres. My friend Hussain Qazi, Major (Retired), had booked a room for me. He photographed me in my busted condition. Then he invited a passing officer to introduce us. The youngish looking colonel heard of my marathon ride and wanted to be photographed with me. I was a star!

I phone Jawad Sherazi in Lahore and asked where he thought I would be. He ventured Abbottabad. Since he knew Hussain Qazi who serves as Public Relations Officer of Frontier Works Organisation, I handed over the phone to Hussain. Jawad could not believe I had made Rawalpindi.

The point of staying at the mess was that army messes enforce the fast. Sehri was at 2:30 AM and an ‘in your face’ kind of affair. You could take it or leave it. I took it.

Balti child
Upon waking I became aware of this steady hum outside. Looking out of the window I saw a very storm of wind and rain. The idea of eating breakfast at this ungodly hour and getting away by 4:00 AM was put paid to. I dawdled over breakfast and then lay in bed listening to the sound of the rain outside. At 3:15 I began my ablutions and was just finished when Hussain, a good practicing Muslim, having said his prayers came calling. We chatted a bit and eventually I was able to get away at 4:15 when the rain died down.

But the roads were a nightmare. The glare of lights on wet tarmac reduced visibility perilously. I kept thinking, ‘This is Pakistan and who knows where some moron might have dug a trench across the road for no reason at all. Or some other kind of nut might have left a large boulder lying in the slow lane because no one ever uses it.’

I puttered along fearfully at thirty kilometres an hour for a full hour. Then it was light enough to go at speed. Jhelum was made in ninety minutes and at 8:30 I was passing through Gujranwala. The only thought in my mind was to get home, get off the motorcycle and never look at another for ten years. My butt ached, my thighs were sore. But worse still, my knees were stiff from being in that ninety degree position for so many days and for so many hours every day.

Like all good things even some bad things (and being on this dinky little bike for so long was a bad thing) never last forever. I was home after nine days and 2228 kilometres. The time was a little after 10:00 in the morning. The best thing was that in all these kilometres I had not found a single nail on the road!

Hairpin bends leading down from the Babusar Pass northward to Chilas
Postscript. What is wrong with the people of Hazara? Are they stupid or simply uncaring? Every single road sign, every single one of them, is plastered over with election posters. You cannot know what town you are entering, you never know how far some place is and you never know what hazard lies ahead on the road. What kind of idiot people are these? Do they not realise that road users, especially outsiders, have difficulties without the information that these fools wilfully and maliciously conceal?

I know this sickness is to be found in other parts of this lawless country where it is sporadic. In Hazara it is rampant. Could it be because of the unbridled inbreeding that the Hazarawals have lost their intelligence and humanity? I can think of no other reason.

Babusar Top
What we need is a law disqualifying a candidate whose election posters disfigure road furniture. A disqualification for, say, ten years and a hefty fine would set these clowns right.

PPS. Upward of Balakot, one passes bee farms strung out along the road. There must virtually be a hundred or so all the way to Gittidas. As I rode past I noticed at several of these farms the keepers preparing sugar syrup in plastic drums. It turned out that rather than let their bees collect pollen from the myriad wild flowers of the valley, these fraudsters let them gorge themselves on this syrup. Honey processed from flower pollen has flavour and fragrance but takes longer to prepare because the bees have to work harder, but the one from sugar syrup is readily produced. The downside is that while this too is honey, it has no flavour or aroma. The bee-keepers however insist they produce real honey. The few I caught preparing the sugar syrup insisted that it was not for their bees but for some other purpose. It was another thing that they could not tell me what the ‘other purpose’ the syrup could possibly serve. Why is it so difficult for us to do anything right?

Part 1 and Part 2 of three parts Motorcycle Diaries - July 2015

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

6 Comments:

At July 27, 2015 at 10:30 AM, Blogger Memoona Saqlain Rizvi said...

You are INCREDIBLE!!!

 
At July 27, 2015 at 11:58 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Haahaa! Thank you, Memoona.

 
At July 28, 2015 at 11:51 AM, Blogger Yaqoob Tahir said...

Bohat Aala Sir, been a silent follower of yours since my younger days, the ancient times of PTV. To me this piece stand out of all i have read of you. Stay healthy, happy and blessed.

 
At July 28, 2015 at 1:42 PM, Blogger Minhaaj Rehman said...

Great. I came back from roughly same area a week ago. On a side-note i have read most of your works and i truly believe even without innuendos and justified outbursts over idiots, you'll make great writing pieces. I actually wonder if that is a common trait to be found among the modern day nomads to come out as rebellious romantic waywards. Mustansar Hussain tarrar leans on the same banter side. Or maybe its just to spice up the barren and desolate landscapes with out of the world humor?

Anyways, being a fellow traveller i greatly admire your works. Combined with Michael Beek and Leomann maps your work has helped me a lot. Hope to see you someday, i suppose?

 
At July 29, 2015 at 9:34 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you Yaqoob Tahir. I am very glad you enjoyed this piece.

 
At July 29, 2015 at 9:38 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Minhaaj Rehman, I do not take kindly to the inclusion of Tarar's name on my blog! The man is no travel writer. You are free to call me (my number is on the "Home" or "About" page and we can always meet.

 

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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