Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Red Pass

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When I met Bashir two years ago I had liked him instantly. A native of Naran in the Kaghan Valley he is a rather unusual man for his background. He has ready wit and a delightful sense of humour. Best of all he is genuinely interested in his work as a mountain guide and does not treat his wards as useless pieces of baggage to be escorted from one point to the other and got over with as fast as possible. His most endearing feature, however, is the warmth in his boyish face and brown eyes.

By the time our trek finished we were friends and we parted with promises to walk together again. And so it was that the two of us set off into the gorge leading to Rutti Gali – the Red Pass, east of Battakundi in upper Kaghan. This is an uninhabited valley that comes alive every summer when the nomadic Gujjars and Afghans invade it with their herds of sheep and goats, and recedes into an icy somnolence when the storms of winter dump metres of snow in it.

Although we were properly equipped with a tent and sufficient food Bashir had planned to stick to his tried and tested method of ‘living off the land.’ This involved asking any shepherd that we might chance upon the name of the headman at the settlement we were due to reach late in the afternoon. Once there Bashir would, rather theatrically, regale the headman with all the good things that the world has to say about him as far away as Mansehra and Abbottabad. Invariably this ended with us being invited to stay for the night. And invariably we ended up accepting.

At Jor where three valleys meet to form a wide open junction we saw a tall man coming from the east. This was Kuchkol, the Afghan, whose tent was at the foot of Rutti Gali and who was on his way to Naran. His wives and other relatives were still up in the gorge tending their flocks and we could put up our tent near his encampment where we would be looked after. Armed with this information we made our way thence, happy in the knowledge that dinner was taken care of.

We arrived to the sound of wailing and I said to Bashir that it was an inopportune moment we had picked for the women appeared to be lamenting a death. It turned out, however, that two betrothals had taken place the day before and it was no lament but songs of joy that welcomed us.

There was no man in camp and the women were rather stand-offish to begin with but all it took was saying that Kuchkol had expressly desired that we be looked after properly and we had three chattering women on our hands with a hundred questions that needed answering: where did we come from? What did we have in our packs? Why were we trying to kill ourselves running around with such heavy loads? Ad infinitum. Then they brought out the two pairs of children, infants really, who had been engaged to each other and demanded that I photograph them.

Presently Kuchkol’s son arrived with a cousin and a friend and the women disappeared into the tent. Torgul, the son, was as loud and jarringly strident as the father and when he went away to get the tea the cousin set about expressing his unhappiness over his uncle’s three marriages. The eldest wife, he said, looked old enough to be Kuchkol’s mother so he had dumped her at Mansehra and got another wife several years ago. Now that this woman too was rather spent and had been unceremoniously jettisoned at Naran, Kuchkol had recently acquired his youngest wife, a ravishing sapling of a girl that he very jealously kept hidden from the iniquitous eyes of the world. Kuchkol was evidently working his way up the Kunhar valley with rejected wives.

‘Do you think he will dump this one after she is deflated either up in Gittidas or on the Babusar Pass?’ I asked. He ignored my attempt at humour.

Why, even as we talked she was in the tent barley fifty metres from us. The man was not trying very hard to conceal either his desire for a gander at his newest aunt or his envy for the uncle’s good fortune. And all because he felt cheated since uncle had the money to buy the youngest and the most beautiful girls in the clan. He only shut up when Torgul returned with the tea. In the course of the conversation it turned out that young Torgul, already married and with children, was eagerly looking forward to emulating his illustrious father.

On the morrow as we were about to leave Torgul brought us breakfast: an unappetizing basin of slivers of meat peeled from a sheep’s head like tiny islands in a congealing sea of fat. I politely declined but Bashir ate for good form, and not long after leaving Kuchkol’s camp became violently sick. Thence onward our progress up the Red Pass was marked with droppings of bile.

We walked along the edge of the small glacier to the crest of Rutti Gali that gets its name from the two rust-coloured hills on either flank. The view from the top was breathtaking: below us lay the valley of Doarian in Azad Kashmir, resplendent in its veneer of deep, dazzling green contrasting with great patches of snow and ice. Cutting across it were two rills turned into molten silver in the early morning light; and tucked away in concavities at the foot of the farthest hills were two lovely tarns – emerald where the ice had not yet encroached upon the water. Above them the hills rose in majestic grandeur.

Across the pass we ran into a sad-faced Gujjar who had recently been deprived of a goat by a group of thieving Chilasis. Of all the people enjoying ill repute those of Chilas in the Indus Gorge south of Gilgit are top of the list. They acknowledge no law and even today live by brigandage which, rabidly motivated as they are in their own blighted version of Islam; they believe to be a religious duty. Every summer they make regular forays into these valleys depriving the Gujjars of their herds and in winters they take to holding up travellers in the Indus Gorge. Depriving another human being of something as trifling as his or her life is as inconsequential for them as shooting balloons at a fair. Our Gujjar, therefore, was fortunate that he had been deprived of but one goat.

As we descended the ridge Bashir said I had five minutes to convince myself that I was a Major Sahib or else we would be deprived of our rucksacks at best and at worst of something considerably more. Below us, at the bottom of the valley, was a group of men cutting up the recently robbed goat. Then he scooted on ahead and I casually sauntered along trying to look as official as possible. What with the ice sheet between us and the Chilasis and my propensity to slip it would have been a trifle difficult to convince the robbers that the man flat on his butt was truly an almighty Major Sahib. Fortunately I went across without losing face.

‘Now then, what’s happening here?’ I boomed as pompously as my trembling voice (not to mention the legs) permitted me. To my utter surprise the men who were virtually peripatetic arsenals with their handguns, three Kalashnikovs and two shotguns, abandoned the slaughtered goat and came up to salaam me in the most obsequious manner. Bashir had apparently done his work well. This gave additional flourish to my pomposity and I thundered again if our building a new road this side of the watershed would make them happy. They were servitude and good grace personified. Such then is the manner of all bullies.

As we were leaving one of them asked if we would like some meat. Bashir said we would, I nudged him to get going before they discovered the trembling legs or the quaver in my voice. Immediately one of the Chilasis cut off a quarter and brought it over. Bashir tucked it into his rucksack and with the brigands praying for Allah to oversee our journey through the mountains we started up the ridge.

On the top we rolled with laughter. Never ever in the history of mankind had unarmed men taken anything from the thieving, ruthless Chilasis. We had just got away with the impossible; the unheard of, and we looked forward to enjoying a hearty meal at the dera of Chaudry Abdullah, the Gujjar.

But that is another story.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 23 November 2015 at 09:35, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Superb . Dil Khush Kr dia Salman Rashid Sb. Be Blessed./Ahmed Bajwa

At 23 November 2015 at 10:05, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...


At 24 November 2015 at 14:29, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Nicely worded story


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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

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days