Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Travelling through Kaghan

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If I thought I had perfected the art of travelling like a tramp, my friend Bashir from Naran has given it finesse. Trekking in the outback whenever we came across a shepherd he would quiz the man in great detail about the nearest Gujjar camp and the leader, or Chaudhri, there. Then as we would go our way he would chuckle, ‘Should misfortune befall us now and we have no food or shelter I will tell the Chaudhri all the good things that people say about him as far away as Abbottabad.’

Bashir maintained that it was every human being’s egotistical desire to hear complimentary things and this was exactly what he gave them. Having not only survived an encounter with Chilasi brigands in the Rutti Gali connecting Kaghan Valley with Azad Kashmir, but through subterfuge having deprived them of a quarter of good lamb was elated. As we crested the broad saddle of Jalkhad Gali back into Kaghan we ran into Yusuf, the strapping Gujjar youth from the encampment at the foot of the pass.

As we came up to him, we threw down our loads and with an exaggerated show of fatigue sat down and the inquisition began. Soon we knew that Yusuf’s uncle, Chaudhri Abdullah, was the headman of the encampment at the foot of the pass, and that the bulk of the herds together with the womenfolk and children were already on the way down for winter. We also learned that Abdullah was a deeply religious man and, quite surprisingly, had but one wife. Besides, we knew nearly all the insignificant details about the headman’s life that would help to get the conversation started.

And so it was on a glorious afternoon, the last before the rains brought down unprecedented floods, that we walked down the western slope of Jalkhad Gali happy in the knowledge that our quarter of meat would soon be on the hearth of Abdullah’s encampment. Around us the slopes were resplendent with forget-me-nots, primulas and buttercups and in the blue sky shredded by tumescent cumulus raptors rode the updrafts in their search for prey. We made it to camp just as the glow of a mountain sunset descended from the peaks, changing into a steely grey as it came. The cold, windy slopes suddenly became alive with hundreds of bleating sheep and goats and the valley resounded with the call of the shepherds and the barking of the nasty looking dogs that every self-respecting Gujjar owns. Then they were all in the pens and quiet descended on the valley.

In that hush the only sound that rose above the sigh of the wind was the azan. It was Chaudhri Abdullah, standing tall in the mehrab of the open air mosque, an imposing figure in his white turban, henna-red beard and grey shalwar-kameez – the archetypal patriarch leading his clan in supplication to their Lord. To my senses deadened by the stridency of the call for prayer on public address systems, this was the most beautiful sound. It possessed the pristine quality of God’s religion; it was like a balm that soothed, not the jarring noise that shattered the nerves in the cities. This, I knew, was the sound that drove men to religion, not from it.

Finished with his duty to his Lord, Chaudhri Abdullah turned his attention to us and Bashir told him how word of his generosity and goodness in Naran had brought us to his camp. All that he possessed, the good man returned, was ours to avail of for as long as we desired. Honourable guests, said he, were godsend in his humble camp. In which case, said Bashir producing our quarter of lamb, could this please be prepared. And could we please have some milk for our tea and some yogurt after the meal. As we ate Abdullah sat watching us somewhat bemused. It turned out that he was flummoxed by Bashir’s story about us wandering in the wilds looking for his camp simply because we had heard good things being said about him in Naran. It did not take long to put him at ease (mostly with hyperbole) and soon the man had smothered us with insistences to sleep in his hut. In the end, after considerable diplomacy so as not to break the man’s heart about the fleas that infest these huts, we got to sleep in our tent.

In the morning as we walked away having breakfasted on a generous supply of milk and bread Bashir was jubilant about the way his machinations had afforded us hospitality. I disagreed. This was the philosophy that made life livable in the outback: be good to travellers for feeding them takes naught from your larder but adds God’s largesse to it. Be good to them and when you travel someone will, in turn, be good to you. This was the philosophy that was handed down to men like Abdullah through the generations.

By midday we were on the Kunhar River at the contraption they call the ‘garari’ which is a wooden box with wires attached to its corners and slung over a steel wire rope that is stretched across the river. You get in the box and are hauled across with the help of a rope. Bashir decided to recruit the help of a young man from a nearby dwelling, but the man refused point blank. He said he had no wish to be held responsible for one or both of us falling off the box and meeting our watery ends in the Kunhar.

This, then, was the dehumanising effect of civilisation. Abdullah, the nomad, who spent part of his life in the wilds of Kaghan and the other in the wilds of northern Punjab, would have gladly pitched in to help. But this man who had a few years of education, perhaps regularly travelled to the cities and considered himself urbane would have nothing to do with us.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 4 November 2015 at 11:36, Blogger abbas said...

alas our polluted (minds and souls) in the cities. 5 stars for arising the craving for the wild. But can caged animals survive back in the wild .. Humph!!!?

At 5 November 2015 at 16:43, Blogger Syed Hammad said...

i wish i could travel with you sir

At 6 November 2015 at 09:35, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

You're welcome to join me whenever you wish, Hammad.


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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

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