Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Map to mountains

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My first high adventure travel book Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan was inspired by the geographical exploratory work of Victorian and early 20th century explorers. It all began in 1983 quite by a fluke of luck when I chanced upon a copy of Eric Shipton's masterpiece of exploration in the Karakoram and, just north of them, the Aghil Mountains. It is arguably the most readable and exciting account of three months of surveying work in the world's remotest region without any outside help or replenishment carried out in the summer of 1937. In this account (as indeed in all his other five mountain travel books) Shipton comes across as a most likeable travel companion. He along with his climbing partner and lifelong friend, William Tilman, became my hero. I just wanted to be where these two great men had been.

The Aghil Mountains, in 1937 were part of India and were inherited by Pakistan until they were gifted to China by our government in 1963. They went out of my reach, but I resolved to see some of the regions where Shipton and Tilman had been. And so the notion of Burrs was born. The journey was undertaken in the summer of 1990 and it took three months to complete.

At that time (1990) I had been making small dashes into the mountains and deserts, never anything longer than a couple of weeks. I had only seen a glacier from afar; never having been on one, I had no clue about glacier walking. When I was on the Biafo Glacier I was totally ignorant of the dangers of a glacier and was captivated by the various features that form on these ice rivers. The Sim Gang (commonly Snow Lake) was a dreadful place of deep crevasses that terrified the wits out of me and Braldu Glacier was a nightmare of huge ice cornices and pillars rising more than ten metres high.

At the end of my three months, I was physically and spiritually fatigued. The tiredness actually seeped deep into my soul and it took me a few days to begin to appreciate the journey. It is now cherished memory.

As for the journey (The Apricot Road to Yarkand) undertaken to discover the travels of the Balti people who discovered the Muztagh Pass in 2006, I suppose I was a blasé traveler by this time. The inspiration came in the reading room of the Royal Geographical Society, London, in July 1991 when my research brought on the understanding that long before the first Europeans ventured into these high mountains, the 'natives' - to use a European phrase - were already travelling all over them. This time, the inspiration was to follow the Balti adventurers and see what they had seen for the first time perhaps 1500 years before our time.

By the time I undertook the journey, I had read and re-read the account of Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen a dozen times and when I was on the Panmah Glacier, it was almost like déjà vu - even though it was my first time there. On the Chinese side, in the valley of the Shaksgam River, it was like following Shipton in reverse. I identified for myself the peak he and Tilman climbed in order to connect their survey of the Shaksgam with that of the Surukhwat River to the north. Throughout the journey, I recalled Shipton and his party again and again in my mind. Of course, my awe and respect for the Baltis only magnified. That they were able to traverse this harsh and difficult country without the aid of previous maps, GPS, aerial surveys, only brought on a admiration that will never leave me. And they did travel because every little rock, every stream, glacier and peak carries a Balti name until you enter the Shaksgam Valley. The Baltis could not have left behind all these names had they never been in those places.

I would say that both expeditions were equally enjoyable. If the first one of 1990 lasting three months drained me, the second in 2006 lasted only three weeks and was thus less demanding. In both cases, my edification was way beyond what I could ever have learned in a twenty years of geography lessons in class. Both are highly cherished prizes of my life.

As far as the journeys being tough is concerned, all I can say is that I was only 38 in 1990. I was as fit a I would ever be. In 2006, at 54, I was still doing all right. So, if someone asks me why I undertook these 'tough' journeys, I say they were not hard and anyone in good physical form can do such and even harder travels. And certainly better than me.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 18 May 2016 at 23:12, Blogger Siddharth Agarwal (Asid) said...

Such a pleasure to read your travels accounts and experiences. Inspiring as always! :)

Any collections of images of these features that you saw on the glaciers? Would be amazing to see!

At 19 May 2016 at 14:35, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Some of these images are part of my book The Apricot Road to Yarkand.
And thank you for the appreciation.


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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