Walking history's highway
The long-cherished quest to trek the Mintaka Pass between Pakistan and China border finally comes true -- but at the cost of blisters the size of five rupee coins on both feet
By Salman Rashid
I hobbled across the floor of large shattered rocks, the remnants of a glacier past, and painfully hauled myself over the low saddle behind which my two companions had disappeared only shortly before. Then I saw it, the object of a long-held desire: the concrete pillar that marks the Mintaka Pass between China and Pakistan.
But I could not believe I was actually there. For one, as we came up to the last bit of glacial remains, my guide Irfanullah had said that the boundary pillar lay about an hour away. Secondly, I had imagined the pillar to be much taller. Why, it marked the boundary between two countries and ought to be of monumental proportions, yet as it was, the column was just about the height of a man, a metre and seventy centimetres. Having caught its sight, it was not without a good deal of gratitude that I trudged the last painful steps to the crest of the pass.
My quest for Mintaka began nearly thirty years ago when I first read Peter Fleming's News for Tartary. Having set out from Peking (as we then knew it) in February 1935, Fleming and the redoubtable Ella (Kini) Maillart from Switzerland made an epic traverse of 5500 kilometres across the heart of Asia to end up in Srinagar. Their journey took seven months and so uncertain was that age that many times in the course of the narrative it seems the travellers would be turned back to Peking. But what a great journey theirs was and what a tale Fleming wrote.
For me, the most exciting part was Fleming's coming up to the Mintaka Pass from the northern side. As much as I wanted to do it that way, I knew it would always remain difficult, if not impossible, to trek up from Tashkurghan (Xinjiang). But I could always go up from our side of the border and see what Fleming and Maillart had seen back then. That then had been the dream for many years; a dream that periodically ebbed into the dark recesses of my mind to again flood right back to become the vision of, as T. E. Lawrence wrote, 'open eyes.'
Now, Mintaka (Wakhi for 'Thousand Ibex') sits at North 37º-00' and East 74º-51' smack on the Great Asiatic Watershed between Pakistan and China: the streams draining its northern flanks empty into the vast wasteland of Takla Makan while those on our side feed into the Maha Sapta Sindhu and having slaked the parched lands of Pakistan give off precious little into the Indian Ocean. The only other geographical entity that sits any farther north is the Killik Pass that lies, reckoning as the majestic lammergeyer would soar, less than 15 kilometres northwest of Mintaka.
For as long as men have lived in these mountain valleys, both these passes, Mintaka more than its partner, formed the shortest connection between Turkistan and Hunza, Gilgit and the Punjab plains via the Babusar Pass. When the Scythian hordes poured into the subcontinent in the 2nd century BCE, one branch under their able king Maues came this way to gain the submission of Gopadasa, the king of Chilas. Thence Maues led his flock down to establish himself at Taxila and become one of the great kings of that age.
In the winter of 1891, British Indian forces invaded Hunza. The king, Mir Safdar Ali, having earlier made light of British intentions was sorely discomfited when his soldiery, despite having put up a spirited defence, was eventually routed. As British forces made their way up the valley and into the fairy tale Baltit Fort, the Mir quietly sneaked out of a back door of his castle with this several wives, children and retinue and rode hell for leather on the road north. The invading force was unable to catch up with him as he made his way over the Mintaka Pass into Chinese Turkistan.
This is what is recorded about the Mintaka. But surely, through the long and creative passage of time, there must have been an untold number of events that the pass saw, events that told on the shaping of the history of our part of the world. Other than that, we know that with the establishment in the late 19th century of the British legate in Kashgar, there was an expedient need for mail running between that city and Srinagar. Before the ousting of the hostile Mir Safdar Ali, the authorities were constrained to use the longer route over the Karakoram Pass far away in the east. But with a friendly king in place, a proper mail service was established and with it, the village of Misgar at the foot of the Killik and Mintaka passes in Gojal became home to the first post office in the entire Gilgit-Baltistan region. Opened in the first decade of the 20th century, the post office continues to operate to this day.
Though mail running ceased with the end of the Raj in India, the road remained in use for travel between Gilgit-Hunza and Kashgar. When the Karakoram Highway was opened, a great untruth was invented by a bureaucrat by naming it the Silk Road. The lie caught on and today no one knows that silk from the marts of China never ever came down this way to India. The silk that did arrive, came either by the Karakoram Pass or from Hunan province through Burma. Consequently, it is erroneously believed that the road north from Misgar over the Mintaka was the old Silk Road.
Despite the untruth, for me this was the great highroad of history with a high pass at its head. I had to walk that same path that greater women and men had traversed before me. And for the drama, I carried a photocopy of pages 360-61 of News from Tartary to read aloud by the border pillar the description of Fleming's approach to the Mintaka.
The plan was to walk up north from Misgar to Murkushi, the junction of the Mintaka River and the Killik Jilgha (Turkish for 'stream' and so named on the U-502 map). Making this summer pasture our base camp, I hoped to make a long dash out to Mintaka and back. After a day's rest, a similar dash was to be made out to Killik and back again. In Misgar I was advised that Murkushi was a good ways short of both passes and it would be unadvisable to camp just there for the final assault, especially since a stiff climb entailed between Murkushi and both passes. Knowing my own capacity, I quickly agreed.
Excited by my passion, three friends had wanted to come on this adventure. But each in turn dropped out for one reason or the other and so there I was in Gilgit all by myself. Word was that the region north and west of Misgar was closed not just to foreigners, but Pakistani trekkers as well. It was said that some irresponsible persons from the low country had gone up and strayed across the border into China. Some days after this violation, patrolling Chinese border guards finding the spoor of the trespassers, their government applied to Pakistani authorities to close off the area to outsiders. That happened in 2007. Until then Misgar, the gateway to the two passes Mintaka and Killik, was a busy thoroughfare for trekkers heading out and returning.
I had an introduction to Major General Muzammil Hussain who commands the army in the Northern Areas. I maintain that in our nation of 175 million people only 1750 -- that's 001 percent people -- read English. There in Gilgit I discovered this paltry figure had suffered a hefty increase by one: the general reads. Besides his then current reading (Arundhati Roy's latest book), he reads my columns and has read at least two of my books. (Now, that's frightfully well read!)
What floored me was that when we met, the general had no affectations, no superior airs. There was only plain, untainted warmth. I have met people who know of my work, but such a spontaneous show of affection and fellow feeling, though not missing, has always been rare. What's more, he must be the only Pakistani general with musical talent: his fingers are capable of some pretty nifty work on the keyboard. Of this I do not speak from hearsay.
Armed with the general's blessing I headed out to Misgar where the lumbardar was putting me up and organising a guide. When I walked into the garden of Ataullah Khan's home, I did not even have to introduce myself. Within no time young Irfanullah came around and agreed to take me up to Mintaka. Amanullah, Ataullah's son and cousin to Irfan, said he was also coming along because he had nothing better to do.
The donkey that I had asked for to carry the gear was unfortunately not to be had because all animals, it was reported, were up in the summer pastures. Next morning when Irfan came around he was leading a pair of donkeys, however. It turned out that these animals habitually traipse back and forth between Misgar and the summer pastures entirely of their own volition and this pair belonging to Irfan had wandered in sometime during the night. In the event, this was just as well.
We loaded up and with Ataullah Khan wishing us Godspeed were on the trail to Qalandar Chi. The U-502 maps of the US army as well as all subsequent Survey of Pakistan maps list the place as Kalam Darchi, and because it has a small fortress built in the early 1930s, the army (that holds the fort) with its propensity for abbreviations has appropriately condensed the name to KD Fort. But the night before Ataullah had told me that the actual name was Qalandar Chund -- the Naked or Bald Qalandar (Mystic). He could only say that the word came from the Wakhi language and that if there was a story behind the name, it had been forgotten. I found it difficult to transform chund to chi and did not give much weight to the derivation. But surely behind that name lurks a fanciful tale that would have been right up the street for my late and much lamented friend Adam Nayyer.
Qalandar Chi or KD Fort was made in an hour. Amanullah and I went up to register with the man in charge. Naib Subedar Iftikhar Ali from Multan seemed frightfully young to be holding the responsibility of preventing terrorists from escaping into Xinjiang across Mintaka or Killik. As he took down my particulars, the man said he had received a rather terse message to 'take care' of me. While that could mean either to subject me to third degree or to pamper me, he was a bit uncertain and had to use his satellite phone to clarify. It was only on my return that he divulged the other truth: the night before he had also received unsubstantiated information from a local mole that a lone terrorist was headed for the region north of Qalandar Chi!
Twenty years ago I shaved off my facial hair grown in rebellion in the last days of my military service, have lost all on my pate and what little remains is grey. I have a little paunch, I feel my years and am no longer the man I used to be. In short, much has changed about me. But this one thing about me being a terrorist or an enemy agent has stuck fast. Like a curse it refuses to leave me. But the ether had sung with word from headquarters and if they wanted the terrorist to proceed who was he, Iftikhar Ali, to obstruct the way in my deadly mission?
At Qalandar Chi the Dillesung River bounds down from the west to meet the united Mintaka and Killik streams. Were we to follow the former, in three days, having crossed a high pass, we could reach the head of the Chapursan Valley to the south. But we headed north into the grim, treeless conglomerate gorge with its enormous scallop-shaped scree slopes. Passing the oasis of Khanwali, we paused for tea at the spring of Arbab Bul. Shaded by lovely willow and birch trees, the place was alive with birds, and among the rocks I espied a vole-like rodent hurrying to make itself scarce.
The word bul is Wakhi for spring and appears to stem from the Turkish word bulaq. In Misgar my host Ataullah Khan had narrated how Turkic speaking Kirghiz or Wakhi peoples originally inhabited this valley. But then, at an indeterminate time, the Mir of Hunza took it in his mind to annex this valley lying north of his kingdom with direct access to the various Central Asiatic kingdoms, Kashgar being the nearest of them.
A strong force was sent out from Hunza and a sanguinary battle ensued. The Kirghiz were expelled with great loss of life and Misgar and its subsidiary upland valleys became part of the Mir's domain. The battle, I was told, took place at the fertile meadow of Murkushi where over a 150 Kirghiz graves mark that historic event. Before we set out of Misgar, Ataullah Khan advised me to be sure to check out those burials.
North of Arbab Bul the valley widens somewhat and, being so well watered, is a series of grassy meadows. Runhil, Lup Jungle, Potehil, and eventually Murkushi, all wide green meadows strung out along the right bank of the river and shaded by magnificent willow and silver birch trees. We meandered across the grasslands and paused at Lup Jungle where Amanullah and Irfan went fishing with a net. The fish, a kind of trout, fried with just a sprinkling of salt was delicious.
At Lup Jungle, I took off my boots to check the blisters that had made themselves felt just after Qalandar Chi. A little above the heel, by the side of the Achilles' tendon on the inside, the blisters on both feet measured about three centimetres across. The central parts on both sides promised to soon be raw wounds were the size of a five-rupee coin. When the boys saw them, they were aghast. But because they did not ask if I was up to walking, I did not mention the pain I was in.
Since Ataullah had instructed my young companions to show me everything of historical importance, Aman said we must pause at Potehil for tea. The place was known for the grave of Sangi Khan, the Wakhi, he added. I naturally assumed this man was the great general who made the heroic stand against the Mir's army and as we approached Potehil, I looked forward to the story of his heroic passing away. Girt by a low wall, the grave is hardly noticeable, but that, I suppose, is only fitting: Sangi Khan did not go down sword in hand fighting to the last breath. He sadly died of constipation!
I almost asked Aman what was noteworthy about that inglorious death, but even before I could say it, I saw the historicity of the event. The poor Wakhi must have had one monumental bout of constipation to have actually succumbed to it and may be the only person ever in the annals of humankind to have passed away from this life in so bizarre and awkward a manner. That too is history.
Since Arbab Bul we had followed the old mail runner's highroad clearly marked out across the grassy plains. Nearly three metres wide, it was set with upright stones along the borders. And though it had not been maintained since 1947 when the mail business ceased, was still largely discernible. As we approached Murkushi, two cairns by either side of the road formed a sort of a gateway.
Beyond, spread the birch-shaded meadow of Murkushi. At the head of the valley rose a bulky many-crested crag skirted by scallops of scree. To the right lay the way up to Mintaka and to the left, in the shadow of the westering sun, that of Killik.
I was glad to reach the end of the day's march and took off my boots with great relief. The blisters had been chafed into raw wounds and this was the first time in my life I was travelling without any medical kit. Amanullah whistled, Irfan looked on with a grimace. But neither said anything about me willing or otherwise to continue. As I crept into my sleeping bag after dinner, I resolved that come tomorrow I was not going any further. The pass that had so long been a dream for me receded behind my cloud of pain. I knew if I turned back, I would never return to Misgar to realise that cherished dream. But the weeping wounds sticking to the fleece of my sleeping bag, told me this was how this one was meant to end.
To be continued