by Salman Rashid
As journeys go, this one was hardly a great one. Kamran Alavi (with his throat orchestra of which more later) and I reached Gilgit hoping to go walking up north of Misgar in the Gojal region in the extreme upper edge of Hunza. That would have been after I had done a short dash to the end of the Chapursan Valley to check out the tomb of Baba Ghundi.
Since I had been in Chapursan back in 1990 (when I had more hair and less fat), I had never returned and there were some people I sorely wanted to see again. One was Sarfraz Khan alias Chairman of the village of Zuda Khun who had a gold tooth and a rifle. All his life he had been a keen hunter and when he agreed to lead me across the 5200 metre-high Chillinji Pass, he brought his trusted old rifle along. With a wide grin he had said he would be coming back with an ibex or two. I asked how he could carry back two dead animals and he said that the pass being glaciated, he could always bury one in the deep freeze and return for it later.
But he was going to get them. Of that he was very confident. Not if I can help it, I the conservationist said to myself as we set out. Our team comprised of Havildar Niyat Khan, the inveterate dandy, Gulsher and Shamsher of the levies with Sarfraz Khan leading. It was a great dander up the ice slopes and on the glacier at a height of about 4900 metres we slept out in the open because my two-man tent could not take us all. It was late August and the night had been utterly, utterly cloudless with the stars shining down on us with a vengeance. I woke several times during the night, not from cold, but simply to watch the progress of Orion hunting across the velveteen, spangled blackness.
At the top of the pass, which was made in about two hours from our camp, an argument broke about Chillinji being a little to the south and that the one we were crossing was an unnamed pass. We therefore named it Panz Khalq Uwin — Wakhi for Pass of the Five Men. We built a small cairn, and having emptied a packet of biscuits, turned around its cardboard to write this name on its unpainted inside surface to be left inside. If I remember correctly, I had left my name and address and since no one ever wrote to tell me that they had crossed the same pass, I presume no one has.
On the far side, spilled a sheer talus slope for about 1200 metres and we went racing down to a large, birch-covered rocky shelf where we rested and had some tea. While the tea was being prepared, Sarfraz Khan scoured the hillsides with his binoculars. Then hissing for us to be silent, he crept behind a rock, propped the rifle on it and aimed. I could not see the animal, but I squinted at the sun, generated a sneeze and let it out mightily. On the slope where Sarfraz Khan had been aiming, we saw a small avalanche of rocks and I knew the ibex had fled.
Sarfraz spun around in a fury and I found myself staring into the cold black hole of the muzzle. I looked up from the muzzle into Sarfraz’s eyes and the coldness matched. Of a moment I thought I was in for it. Who would ever come looking for my corpse here in this remote corner of Ishkoman valley at the foot of the Chillinji? With a great show of bravado, my last great act, or so I thought, I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Couldn’t hold it.”
“You fool,” said Sarfraz Khan from clenched teeth, “now we won’t have any meat tonight.”
“Never mind. We’ve got plenty of food and I’m a vegetarian anyway,” I said breezily. And that was the end of it.
Having delivered us at the first proper camp ground, Sarfraz and the two levies came back the same way while Niyat Khan and I went on to the bottom of the valley. In all these years, I never returned to Chapursan, but I never quite forgot anyone of that great lot. So this time around, I went asking for Sarfraz Khan to see how these past eighteen years had treated him. Someone had said he was there all right. But at Zuda Khun I learned that he wasn’t after all.
Sarfraz Khan, I discovered, had some years earlier joined some NGO and now worked in Afghanistan and Kashmir. He drew a hefty salary, so the old informant said — not without a hint of envy — and drove around in huge cars. Good for him, I said. Sarfraz Khan’s flamboyance, style and verve were too great to be squandered exterminating ibex.
Kamran and I returned to Raminj where we had stopped earlier in the morning to introduce ourselves. Young Rehana who I had met at the Punjab University a couple of months earlier had been surprised that not only did I know of Chapursan but also of her village. Her village is a national landmark for it is the home of Nazir Sabir, mountaineer par excellence who, being the only Pakistani to summit Everest, has made his place in the mountaineering pantheon.
Rehana had suggested that in Raminj, we should stay in her uncle’s home. And so we foisted ourselves upon the good Sher Baz Khan. I told him having done our work in Chapursan we were heading for Misgar to try reaching the crests of the passes Mintaka and Killik. In 1979, he traded across the Mintaka with villages in the Taghdumbash Pamir of China. This was a one-off thing for his usual beat was to the end of the Chapursan valley and then up the Irshad Uwin into Wakhan.
Sher Baz Khan said, they would take their merchandise consisting of cloth, salt, paraffin oil, sugar and grains, dump it at the lonely outpost of Baba Ghundi Ziarat, walk to the top of Irshad Pass to inform the Kirghiz of Wakhan how much of the various items of merchandise they had. Accordingly, the Kirghiz came down with corresponding value in yaks, ghee, butter and lambs.
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