Hill walker's requiem
Continuing the walk to Mintaka Pass at 50 plus was an uphill task, and how
By Salman Rashid
If nightfall is the hour of the ebbing of the spirit, dawn rejuvenates. At shortly after four, I peeked out of my tent to see a glorious star-studded sky with a hint of a pastel dawn in the east. The agonising chafing of my blisters with every single step yesterday was forgotten and I was ready to press on in my quest of Mintaka Pass. The Killik was no longer within my reach, that much I knew with certainty.
An hour later I roused my young companions. Irfan and Amanullah had slept in the shepherd's hut of Murkushi and word was that it was infested with cockroaches. As they cooked dinner, they had seen the creatures crawling about the walls and into the many holes between the stones. One of the trio from Misgar that had joined us in the evening had baked a loaf of bread and left it in the pot uncovered. In the morning it was found crawling with virtually hundreds of those horrid insects.
The winter of 2008-09 had dumped record snows after 18 years. So hard was the winter that Murkushi had remained frozen under a blanket of snow two metres deep for over six months, yet this hardy vermin had survived. Its reputation for being the toughest of nature's banes is not without foundation.
The duo lingered over breakfast telling me to carry on and that they will load the donkey and catch up with me. At the north end of triangular Murkushi a footbridge led me over the Killik Jilgha that flows almost black to meet the blue-grey Mintaka stream just below the bridge. In Misgar Ataullah had mentioned the prospecting for antimony in the upper reach of the Killik. Going by the colour of the river, whoever wants to quarry that lode, had better hurry before the lot is washed away into the Indian Ocean.
The trail snaking up the slope, clearly visible from our overnight camp, disappeared at closer quarters. Also looking out for the Kirghiz graveyard that was supposed to sit here at the junction of the Killik and Mintaka routes, I may not have paid much attention to the path that was now all but lost in a mess of debris from the scree slopes above. I missed the path and ended up having to make an excruciating climb an hour later when the duo called me from high above. As for the graveyard, on the return journey I was shown two of the 200 odd burials. Both had collapsed revealing ancient skeletons. The rest of the graves, I was told, were up on a higher knoll that I was loath to climb with my searing blisters.
The long grind, from the 3,630 metres of Murkushi to nearly 3,900, was a slow and agonising hobble for me while the duo and the donkey danced on ahead. Over the last bit of the incline I found the two resting in the shade of a rose bush. All my hill walking years, I never sat down at rest stops during the march. I remained standing. Now, just getting my weight off my feet was bliss and when they suggested we get going, it was with much reluctance that I got up.
Meanwhile, the donkey with our load had disappeared. Amanullah ran on ahead to Yaram (Lower) Goz (Meadow) while Irfan backtracked to see if the animal once again had it into its head to return home to Misgar. I hobbled on after Aman. The animal was discovered calmly grazing in a particularly thick grove of rose bushes not far from where we had rested. Recalling the travails of an Australian travel writer in Tibet whose donkey made off into the sunset with all her gear, for a short while, I had terrible images of a miserable night without my sleeping bag.
Since Arbab Bul and I had seen frequent wolf and fox scats by the side of the road and since Murkushi there had been at least two sets of bear scats as well. The mountain was alive. Now at Yaram Goz we came upon a dead, partially eaten goat. A man returning from a higher pasture on his way back to Misgar said he had only minutes before seen a snow leopard kill a cow. I thought it strange that someone should misrepresent so when there was little chance of us missing the wolf kill. And wolf kill it certainly was: the leopard goes for the jugular making neat work of its prey before carrying it off to relative privacy; the wolf simply grabs, messily tearing apart the victim. The poor bear is only an opportunistic hunter, subsisting largely on a vegetarian diet. Even its dung resembles that of a yak.
The chafing of the blisters against the boot prevented me from walking with the heel-ball of the foot-toe rolling motion. Instead, I tottered along on flat feet. It brought to mind the elderly Chinese woman shambling about sweeping the threshold of her store in Kashgar. Then I notice her feet: they were tiny. She had been a victim of that cruel custom of binding girls' feet in infancy. The pain was now awful and I felt an affinity with that poor Chinese woman who could only have been in agony to have walked like me.
Another painful hour and we came abreast of the shepherds' huts of Yutum (Upper) Goz on the far side of the river. But we pushed on to Gurgun Pert whose name again recalls Turkic influence: pert being the Wakhi word for meadow. This was to be our base camp for the final run up to the Mintaka, and here too the hut was vermin-infested.
On the morrow, we set out for Mintaka Pass. And what an un-heroic setting out it was! I astride the little donkey that had carried our gear. The night before I confessed my inability to walk up to the pass and asked my partners if it was possible to arrange a donkey. And so there I was astride the animal, legs dangling limply on the sides while I held on to the steel loop at the top of the surcingle for all I was worth. I had to keep my eyes on the donkey's ears because if I so much as looked into the distance, I lost my balance and made ready to keel over to one side or the other. I could not recall an occasion when I had felt more helpless and miserable.
I had wished to experience the glory of Peter Fleming coming up to the crest of the Mintaka Pass in the final stages of his epic journey from Peking. At the end of his long journey he was as hard as nails and rode a horse he called Cloud. I was unfit after a full year of no exercise with bloodied feet astride a little donkey whose name I asked but never recorded and now forget. Only Fleming was in his 30s, I in my late 50s. There was just no similarity.
Nature unfolded one parallel, however. "Snow began to fall as we attacked the pass." Fleming wrote. Right as we set out of Gurgun Pert, tiny flakes came swirling out of the mottled sky to spangle our clothing and land coldly on our faces.
About 40 minutes out of camp we came up to Matumdar, the ridge of debris left behind by an ancient glacier. Spilling out of the slope on the left, it sat athwart of the valley leaving only a gap of about 20 metres for the river to hurtle through. The rocks were shingly and loose and I had to give up my mount. Once again, while the others raced on ahead, I limped along slowly, painfully. On the other side of the 80 metre-high ridge there spread below us a wide pan of sand with the river twined across it in a dozen shallow channels.
In the early morning light, it glistened silver-like, almost surreal. Fleming likened it to the "nether regions as visualised by those of our ancestors who believed that hell was a cold place." On the far side, stood the pure white ice-pinnacles of the Gul Khoja Glacier.
A short donkey ride besides the sand pan brought us to the deserted huts of Gul Khoja. Misgar shepherds use this camp for a short while in late June through July. But the blasts of icy wind scudding off the glacier chase them away with the onset of August. Having come over the Mintaka, Fleming, Ella Maillart, and their party were benighted here. We did not even pause but pushed on to some high ground between the glacier and the huts where we were to leave the donkey for the final drag up to the pass. The languid curve of the glacier, partly scree-covered, partly pure white, lay on our right. It reached up to two snow peaks towering to nearly 6400 metres.
On our right the rocky barrier was riven through by a number of saddles. The one almost lateral with us was Gul Khoja Uwin (Pass) that once again recalls Wakhi influence. By my partners' account, it is not really a pass but the entrance to a closed valley where shepherds sometimes grazed their herds. Just ahead and about 200 metres higher than us was a wide trough-like saddle that led up to Mintaka. Once again I thought I was in no condition to tackle the climb.
It was the unseen topography ahead that lured me: I imagined that this trough lay on the crest of the Great Asiatic Watershed and if that was true, the Mintaka would geographically not be in the subcontinent but in Central Asia. This then would be the only pass in Pakistan that lay wholly on the far side of the divide. My map, a coloured photocopy of the U-502 sheet, was truncated just below the pass, adding greatly to the allure.
There are a number of passes in Baltistan and Shimshal that straddle the watershed. The 5780 metre-high Lukpe La between Baltistan and Shimshal and the thousand metre lower Shimshal Pass lie wholly within Pakistan, that is, the region north of Lukpe and east of Shimshal is the only part of Pakistan that lies in Central Asia. Since having crossed both of these back in 1990, I had believed them to be the only ones holding this distinction. If Mintaka indeed sat north of the divide, it would be the one and only pass within our borders that lay entirely in Central Asia.
That then was what led me shambling up the two hundred metre high drag to the top. But I was disappointed: there rose in front another low ridge. Across the rock-strewn saddle I hauled myself after the dancing duo. When I was all but done in, Irfan said the pass was yet an hour away. I thought of now finally giving up. But something kept me going. As I surmounted the next ridge, I saw on the skyline a short stub. It had only been a few minutes since the distance of an hour had been announced and I could not believe we had made it.
But there it was, all of a metre and three quarters tall, of dark cement with the words Pakistan in Urdu and English with the year 1964 inscribed on the side facing south. The other side bore a Chinese character and the same year. That was the year after the signing of the Sino-Pakistan Border Agreement by which we ceded a large swathe of land to China. At times as wide as 70 kilometres from the north of Shimshal to the Karakoram Pass, this was the price Pakistan paid for Chinese friendship which has proven to be more reliable than that of any other foreign power. In that border adjustment Killik and Mintaka passes were not affected, however.
So, here we were 4,684 metres above the sea on the crest of the Mintaka astride the Great Asiatic Watershed, the very pass that had seen the unfolding of history since the 2nd century BCE when Maues, the Scythian king, led his hordes from the bleak Steppes into the fertile lands of the Sindhu River. We were 1600 metres higher and some 45 kilometres from Misgar where we had started. This had been the most excruciating walk of my life. I gave up every evening, but something got me going again the following morning. Now the prize was ours.
I sat on the plinth of border pillar, brought out the photocopy of Fleming's description of making the pass and began to read. "Snow began to fall as we attacked the pass. The tired ponies came up very slowly, the Turkis stabbing them in the nose and changing the loads repeatedly. I left the sorry hugger-mugger of the caravan and walked on ahead, leading Cloud; the altitude affected me very little and I enjoyed the climb."
Then my voice cracked. I tried to control my emotion, but failed. I wept, the warm tears misting up my eyeglasses in the chill wind. Gently Amanullah slipped the paper from my hands and continued to read right down to the end of the second page that ends with Maillart quipping, "So far I like India."
There was yet another ritual to attend to. Before leaving Islamabad my friend Kashif Noon, who had in the beginning wanted to come, had given me a hip flask with a golden libation. I was to toast the memory of Fleming, Kashif's good health and that of his manservant Fayyaz. I now apportioned out the spirit of life -- a mere sip for myself (for, as it was, I could not trust my legs) and two larger draughts for the youngsters and our happy chorus of good cheer cracked the thin, cold mountain air. We had missed the anniversary of Fleming's crossing by a mere five days. He and his party made it across on August 22; we were there on the 17th, a full seventy-four years after them.
I asked my companions if they had seen other trekkers weeping on this or any other pass. Amanullah said first, upon arrival, they shook hands. Then they hugged each other and finally broke into tears. That was Standard Operating Procedure for all walkers.
"But we are not white people and we don't cry." Aman said with laughter in his voice. 'We dance!' Arm in arm the two did a merry little jig waltzing on both sides of the unseen line of the border.
As I reclined against the pillar, I realised that my thighs were trembling. Six months shy of my fifty-eighth birthday and after one full lethargic year of no exercise, I knew my muscles had atrophied. I was in no form to come hill-walking and yet trusting I still possessed what I did even three years ago, I had blundered into this adventure. It was folly compounded by boots that had not been worn for a year and a half. If I had wondered over the past year when the end of my adventuring days would come, I now had the answer.
My hill-waking days, I knew, are finally and irrevocably over. From the comfort of my study with my much loved maps spread out in front, I could plan another walking trip. And from that same comfort I could even see myself heroically slogging up cold, rocky hillsides, but another trip up into the mountains may now take more than I am left with. I am done. With this realisation, sadness, a deep sense of loss came over me.
The behaviour of friends who began to behave strangely when their retirement from work approached had always been difficult for me to comprehend. Some became terribly grouchy, others fell into psychosomatic illnesses. Now, when it was my turn, I descended into a dark depression. I was behaving no differently. I know that with time this will go and I will reconcile with the loss of youthful vigour. But there is little chance I will ever go hill-walking again.
So this my Requiem do I write.