Balti travellers — II

The shepherds and hunters were the explorers of an era when exploration and map making had not yet come of age.

Salman Rashid October 14, 2011

Long before the first Balti travellers took it into their heads to cross the glaciated Muztagh Pass, the area was well known to local shepherds and hunters. Indeed, it was these two groups of adventurers who were the explorers of an era when exploration and map making had not yet come of age, at least in this part of the world.

The shepherd with his herds forever seeking newer pastures and the hunter chasing the hard-to-get Himalayan ibex or blue sheep forged ever farther into the icy vice of the Karakoram glacial system. Perhaps it was one particularly doughty hunter, eyes and mind tied to the fleeing ibex as if with an invisible thread, who crested the saddle that was eventually to be called Muztagh Pass.

On the other side, across a large ice pan, he saw the gentle slope of a glacier winding downward through a chasm of black and brown rock topped by snowy peaks. It was not on the first sighting of this glacier that the hunter went on. But later, back by the warmth of a hearth that had first been kindled centuries earlier, he would have told the tale of the journey and the abundant bag of ibex or blue sheep.

The next summer, a large group would have retraced the pioneer’s steps over the Muztagh Pass. Down the glacier they went to a large forested area of willow. Here, on the surrounding slopes they found not only ibex and blue sheep aplenty, but in the gullies around the forest there was the handsome Tibetan wild ass, almost as large as a pony. To the north, the hunters could discern a wide valley of burnished, arid slopes. It would have taken years for the Balti hunters to venture there. This was the Shaksgam River.

In high summer, when the first Balti hunters came upon the southern shore of the Shaksgam, the river would have raged across its eight hundred metre-wide bed. With its verges as if cut by the knife of a surgeon, it left no room to travel up or down along its course. Turning back for home with their haul of fresh meat, the Balti hunters resolved to explore this valley in another summer.

Even today attempts to reach the base camp on the northern flank of K-2 must be made before the end of May. Then one can only make the return journey after the end of August when the river once again recedes. In the months between, the Shaksgam is lord of the valley leaving no room for puny man.

One spring, having said an emotional farewell to loved ones, a group of hunters would have returned again over the Muztagh and the glacier leading down to the Shaksgam. Camping in the willow forest they would have scouted ahead to check out the conditions in the Shaksgam Valley. The stream fed by the glacier they had descended was joined by another washing the northern flanks of the mountain they called Chhogho Ri — Great Mountain, sadly reduced to an uninspiring K-2. In spring, the Shaksgam flowed in languid braids across the wide, pebbly floodplain.

The river, they would have known, would not rise until the summer solstice. With orders to regroup at the same place around solstice time when the bright red light of Arcturus was clearing the eastern crags in the late evening sky, they divided into two groups. One went upstream to discover the great portal of the Aghil Pass — a true doorway into Central Asia guarded by towering rocky bastions. The team that went downstream met only with a desolation the kind of which no man knew in Baltistan. They were in a high altitude desert region with only the river and dry, bare crags on either side.

The team upstream, having crossed the 4780 metre-high Aghil into the valley of the Surkhwat River, may have ventured as far north as Raskam village. Or they might have kept this adventure for another year and turned homeward from the crest of the Aghil. Back in their villages in the upper Shigar Valley, their tales of the country north of the Great Asiatic Divide would have won them applause and admiration. They would have been lauded as heroes for venturing so far north across the great glaciers.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 15th, 2011.


Bilal | 10 years ago | Reply

Sir, still following your articles religiously :)

Cynical | 10 years ago | Reply

Salman Saab, thank you for taking me to places I will probably never set my feet on.

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