Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Between Two Burrs on the Map

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I lay dozing on a commandeered charpai in the mellow early September sun of Sost, Pakistan's border post with China on the Karakoram Highway, when I was roused by a crisp 'Major Rashid'? The year was 1990, I was two-thirds through my long trek across the Western Himalayas, Karakoram and Hindu Kush.

Poised at the mouth of Chapursan to walk over the 5,200 metre-high Chillinji Pass into Ishkoman Valley, I had been told to inform before hand the commander at the remote military outpost of Baba Ghundi Ziarat. As I made inquiries about the man and if it was possible to get transport to the outpost, I was told that he, Niyat Khan, had only shortly before been spotted in Sost.

Now, in 1990 Sost was a mere shadow of the thriving smuggled goods bazaar and over-abundance of filthy eateries. Word was quickly spread and I had Niyat Khan jolting me out of my half-sleep. Since the West-sponsored jihad in Afghanistan had only just ended, the Chillinji was restricted and I had had to get permission for my Chillinji crossing from army headquarters in Gilgit. Major General Irshadullah Tarar commanding the region had been the Weapon Training Officer at the military academy when yours truly was bumbling around as a Gentleman Cadet and so permission was a cinch.

With this connection with the general, I was promoted from plain civilian to major -- a rank I had never attained in the army. Though I myself never used the title, by some very abstruse mechanism it travelled ahead of me through Deosai, the glaciers of Baltistan and across Shimshal for Niyat Khan to thus address me.

Opening my eyes, I saw a handsome man peering down at me. He wore the uniform of a havaldar (sergeant) and his shoulder insignia said NLI -- Northern Light Infantry. If I was the major intending to cross the Chillinji, he said, I had better look smart because the last jeep into Chapursan was ready to leave.

We reached Baba Ghundi Ziarat in the dark and I was put up in one of the two rooms of the officers' mess. It took Niyat Khan three days to confirm with headquarters in Gilgit that I was indeed the person and it was 'ok' to let me proceed. Tall (about a metre and 83 centimetres, that is 6ft), very good-looking with fair hair and brown eyes, Niyat Khan had an athlete's body with broad shoulders, wide chest and a washboard for a stomach. With this, he matched a spirited nature. He wore a natty black hat that made him look like Indiana Jones, a comparison that pleased him greatly.

He organised the necessary porter and guide and when it came time for me to leave, announced that he was coming with me to see me safely into Ishkoman. It was a great trip with four wonderfully fun-loving men. Besides Niyat Khan we had his friend Sarfraz Khan and the levies Shamsher and Gulsher.

In these past 19 years, I had often thought of Niyat Khan and looked forward to running into him again. Though I did not remember correctly if he was from the 5th or the 7th battalion, every time I was in Gilgit I made inquiries. But he was always elsewhere and our paths never crossed. Two years ago, I learned that he had retired from the service and returned to his native Yasin. I also discovered that Niyat Khan was a common name in Yasin.

Last time round in Gilgit, I was determined to track him down. It was very fortunate that Wazir, the driver ferrying me to Misgar, was a native of Yasin and so I quizzed him about Niyat Khan. Yes, the man had indeed retired, said he and was now home selling battery chickens. To be certain I had the right one, I described my man: tall, handsome, athletic and dashing -- truly a heroic figure. Yes, said Wazir, that was the one. A couple of times I repeated my description of the man, and always I was told they had my old friend.

Done with my misadventure on Mintaka Pass and back in Gilgit again, I got hold of Wazir and off we went to rendezvous with Niyat Khan in Yasin. En route, I again emphasised the man's verve and good looks and again the driver assured me that he had the right person in his sights. Nearing Yasin, he even made a phone call to ask if our man was in the village. Everything seemed go on this one.

Presently we were parked under the poplars by the stone wall of Niyat Khan's home. A youngster came around to tell us his father had gone off somewhere. I asked him to get a picture of his father's for me to be sure that if we were to wait we were waiting for the right person. But before the photo could be found, the shout went up that Niyat Khan was there.

I waited expectantly and presently a man in a drab grey shalwar-kameez came shuffling out of the home. He was about my height, had rounded shoulders and a paunch. If de Mille were alive to make another epic with five thousand extras and only one more needed and if this Niyat Khan and I were to audition for that last position, I may have won by a nose. Moreover, this man was a gunner not an infantryman.

As the story unfolds, we shall henceforth know all false Niyat Khans as NK.

Despite my remonstration, we were forced into his sitting room for apricots and tea. But of course, there was the other NK who lived behind the rest house, said NK as he poured us the tea. This man Wazir had known of but had never met him. Again, I repeated my description. Oh, yes, very handsome and athletic. Yes, that was my man. No doubt about that, said NK.

We drove back to the rest house with me roundly upbraiding Wazir for not knowing what good looks were. I kept at it for the fifteen minutes it took us to reach the door of NK's home. The specimen that emerged had a face thinner than mine and three lines for every year of his life running down from his eyes to the chin. He too was about my size, if not smaller, and de Mille would not even have considered him for a moment. Only, this NK had served in NLI. He did not know of the one I sought, however.

We escaped the penalty of tea and food only because of my rudeness. But as we were leaving, NK said there was another one living only a few hundred metres farther up the trail. He got in the car with us and off we went again. Our shouts outside his door brought the man out of an adjacent cornfield. Another retired NLI soldier, this one was darker than a collier on his fourth consecutive shift and for ugliness would have tied with the cursed incubus of the eleven years of our dark night.

I let loose: why, you morons, don't you know a good-looking man when you see one? Can't you tell an athlete from one with round shoulders and a paunch? Poor Wazir shifted uneasily in his seat but said nothing. The two NKs looked on in bewilderment.

I realised I should have taken a photo of Niyat Khan. Not having done that was my stupid fault. Meanwhile, having gathered his wits despite my incessant bombardment, or perhaps to offset me, Wazir said there was yet another man of that name. But without waiting for my response, added that this man was believed to be now living in Karachi.

And so my quest for Havildar Niyat Khan of 5 or 7 NLI, the heroic figure who led me over the Chillinji Pass in 1990, since retired and now untraceable was a total fiasco.

Previous: Between Two Burrs on the MapEpilogueHorse TradingWilderness of the GiantLittle Tibet, World's End, Between Two Burrs on the Map, Celebration at Lukpe La, The Great Asiatic Watershed, Lonely at Shimshal, Between Two Burrs on the Map - Travels in Northern Pakistan, Ishkoman Valley, Trek through the Himalaya, Karakorum and the Hindu Kush

Another Adventure: The Apricot Road to Yarkand

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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