by Omer Mukhtar
SITTING in the spacious terrace of the PTDC motel at the customs station of Sost, the well-behaved waiter of the motel was narrating the story of how in 1892 Mir Safdar Ali Khan, the Mir of Hunza escaped through Misghar Valley, to Xingiang in China after the defeat of Hunza Royal Forces by the British and Kashmiri forces led by Colonel Durand (of the Durand Line fame). The British forces followed the Mir up, till the Misghar Valley, but finding the pursuit too dangerous, retreated back to Hunza.
Finding the view of the freight trucks, undergoing custom clearance, not a very enchanting view to gaze at, we decided to explore the yet unknown valley of Misghar.
In the morning at 7am, a typical northern area jeep was waiting for us outside the motel to take us to the mysterious valley. The friendly driver Imdad acted as a nonstop free information service. The valley of Misghar was populated some three hundred years back by the Mir of Hunza, to control the menace of raiding Kyrgyz forces that used to loot the locals.
Soon the jeep left the metal road on Karakoram Highway and took the jeep track on the left with a sharp ascent. After a few moments we entered the daunting gorge of Misghar River. It is a common experience while driving in the main gorge of River Indus on KKH that one comes across many small nullahs and rivers flowing through their gorges and falling into the river.
Many times one can find jeep or foot tracks along these gorges that would surely take you into beautiful and unexplored valleys. The most wonderful aspect about these side-valleys is the contrast these valleys offer. That is while upper KKH is surrounded by barren rocky mountains, just an hour’s drive or trek into these gorges would take you to lush green villages with terrace farming and thick woods. Gushing fresh water streams are always an added delight to one’s eyes.
After driving for about half an hour into the deep, and a bit frightening gorge, the way widens into a spacious green valley, the valley of Misghar. The scenery is unexplainable and sometimes one is short of superlatives to describe something. But seeing is always believing.
The people here follow the Ismaili sect and are devout followers of Prince Karim Aga Khan. They speak Brushuski as they came from Lower Hunza and not Wakhi, the dominant language of the Upper Hunza. As elsewhere, the Ismaili people are enlightened and very friendly. They would always greet you and invite you for a cup of tea. It was pleasing to see young girls and boys in school uniforms and women socializing freely in the village.
Apart from its scenic beauty, the valley has a very significant historical and strategic worth. The 1918 building of village post office is testimony to the significance, the British gave to this area. In the days of great game ie., 1865-1895, the British always had nightmares of Russians entering into these areas or the neighbouring Chuperson valley. It is interesting to note that after the formation of Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan, to separate the Russian and British empires from direct confrontation, this area of Misghar and neighbouring Chuperson valley along with Pamirs, was the only wedge between the Afghan and Chinese borders where the two great empires of Russia and Britain could come face to face. The era of the great game was a typical scene from a James Bond movie with Russian and British agents spying in the Chitral, Hunza, Wakhan and Pamirs in disguise of travellers and surveyors.
One of the surveyors, Lord Curzon crossed Misghar valley into Pamirs Kilik pass in last decade of nineteenth century (1894). Lord Curzon explored and identified the source of Oxus River during this venture. To date his study holds the ground. The same officer was later appointed as Viceroy of British India.
However, the real significance of The Great Game is apparent from the following lines picked from the classic The Gilgit Game by John Keay. The book reads, “When the Kilik, Mintaka, Shimshal and all other passes, that led down to Hunza had been mapped and assessed, the officer in charge of the survey reported that ‘we have no reason to fear a Russian advance through the passes’. This was borne out by the officers of Pamir Boundary Commission in 1893. An invasion force of half the size of that feared by Algernon Durand could never have reached Hunza, let alone Kashmir.” This statement by John Keay must be a real disappointment for the most intelligent officers of the Russian and British empires.
A further twenty-minutes drive, from Misghar Village, takes you to the historical British fort of Kalamdarchi. Built in 1933 the fort at a height of 11500 feet was the northern most British outpost. The historic fort is at a natural fork. While the gorge on the left side continues into Wakhan and Tajikistan through Pamirs, the gorge on the right continues into China through Kilik and Mintaka pass. For the sake of interest these mountain passes into China forms the original silk route, instead of present day Khunjerab pass. One of the reasons Karakorum Highway was not built through Mintaka pass was its close proximity to Afghan and Russian borders. However, even today, every summer Kyrgyz gypsies cross the dangerous mountain passes and come to Misghar valley for barter trade. The usual items sold by these gypsies are live stock and dry fruit while they take back with them wheat flour. Life is really tough in these areas.
The valley of Misghar is scenic and has profound historical worth. The people are friendly and the place has a full potential to be converted into a tourist resort. Treks to Kilik and Mintaka pass or to Tajikistan are tough and are recommended only with trained local guides. The other option is a jeep ride to Misghar valley up till Kalamdarchi fort and back to Sost in around three to four hours.
SOURCE: DAWN 2003 Magazine