Click to read PART – I
The third leg started with an entry into areas where the Army was deployed, but since the authorities had been informed earlier, getting past the quizzical eyes of the sentries at various check points was never a problem. A cool rainy morning and a much lighter bike load helped negotiate the steep slopes with considerably less effort. The terraced emerald-green fields steadily crept upwards as we climbed, and the fruit orchards started to give way to the more hardy turnips and potatoes. Traffic had thinned out and only military vehicles, or those of civilian contractors provisioning the Army garrisons could be seen on the road. Just when six hours of rigorous cycling had started to take its toll, an MP post came into reassuring view and the sentries smartly paid their compliments. A few kilometres further, we caught sight of the Dumsum garrison buildings. As we approached the entry gate, a flurry of whistles and rifle slamming salutes welcomed us; even more surprising was the reception by the Officer Commanding of the deployed Unit who, along with all his officers, had lined up to receive us. Thereafter started an unending round of Army hospitality of which a hot bath, hot tea, and a multi-course dinner are still etched in memory.
While we had planned to pedal up to Goma garrison the next morning, the Army authorities offered us a ride on their daily mail run vehicle all the way to the Siachen base camp at Gayari. Since this could not have been done on bikes, given the very steep gradient as well as the high altitude, the offer was gladly accepted. After an hour-long drive, we had a short stopover at Goma where the smart Brigade Major was there to receive us. After a change of vehicle, we were on course to Gayari, a further eight kilometres away. The place made morbid headlines on 7 April 2012, when an avalanche buried 140 personnel of 6 NLI Battalion, perhaps one of the biggest disasters of its kind, anywhere.
Mention must be made of Captain Sherazi of the Army Engineers, who had been part of a recovery team looking for the dead bodies for more than one year. Various foreign rescue and recovery teams had suggested giving up the dead, due to the extremely harsh conditions and near impossibility of bringing in heavy machinery to such a remote location. Undeterred, the Army decided to take on the challenge, and under the passionate zeal of Sherazi and his team, 132 bodies had been recovered by the time we visited. (It was later learnt that the remaining eight bodies had also been recovered in the meantime.) A closure ceremony, including the unveiling of a memorial monument, had been planned a few days later as a final tribute to the ‘shaheeds’. The trip to Gayari ended with a gracious send-off by the Deputy Brigade Commander and one of the local Battalion Commanders.
fter relaxing for the rest of the day at Dumsum, we took leave from our hosts the following morning and set course for the return leg to Khaplu. The downhill bike ride was great fun and we even notched gale speeds of 55-kph. It was decided that we needed a break from the unceasingly tough regimen, and some sightseeing in Khaplu would be therapeutic. A visit to the Khaplu Fort Residency – also run by SerenaHotels – was an education in heritage conservation; its renovation by Aga Khan Trust was quite similar to the one at Shigar. We had lunch and some delicious Lavazza coffee, before setting off to see the old Chaqchan Mosque not too far from the Residency. The wooden mosque is said to have been commissioned by Mir Syed Ali Hamdani in 1381 AD (783 AH according to the plaque), making it one of the oldest in the country. The structure is rather decrepit and needs renovation on the lines of Khaplu Residency; however, being an in-use mosque of the dominant Nur Bakhshi Shia sect, the Ismailis’ Aga Khan Trust would hardly be welcome to undertake the project.
Next day, the ride from Khaplu to Keris was a familiar and unremarkable one, and we decided to camp in a secluded spot at the edge of Keris to keep away from the prying eyes of locals. Somehow, a dozen youngsters still managed to spy us; perhaps it was the aroma of the noodles being cooked on the stove that attracted them, or maybe they had caught a flash of the colourful tents from afar. After shooing them off, we retired early to be up at dawn for another day’s slog.
The tenth day of the expedition turned out to be the toughest, if for no other reason than the sun being absolutely merciless. On the way we stopped by a huge tree and were pleasantly surprised to see its boughs laden with ripe, dark red mulberries. Much like overgrown schoolchildren, we had a hearty fill devouring every mulberry within arm’s reach. Still some distance from Skardu, we were surprised to hear the noise of fighters which had deployed for an exercise. The nostalgia was boundless when we spotted a pair of the old faithful Mirages piercing the azure skies.
It was to be another hour before we actually got to Skardu, choking on diesel fumes that have heavily polluted the city’s pristine air. Vehicles have been converted to the high-torque diesel engines with non-existent emission standards, and nobody seems to care as long as they can easily spin up a mountain. A consumption-oriented society is on the rise, as was amply evident from the array of consumer goods in the smallest of stores. We were, however, quite pleased to note that sectarianism, as it exists in other parts of the country as well as nearby Gilgit and Chilas areas, is non-existent in all of Baltistan. The people are friendly and peaceful, and seemingly the only curiosity about them is linguistic, for the Balti language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family, unlike the rest of the country where languages belonging to the Indo-European family are spoken (the other exception being Brauhi of the Dravidian family). Baltistan surely has a place on the ethnographic map of Pakistan.
While we waited for our return flight to Islamabad, we had a couple of days to saunter around so a tough bike ride to SatparaLake and a jeep ride to Deosai Plains was also undertaken. All in all, the Baltistan expedition was a total success and the wonder was that at our age, we could manage it on muscle power. Let’s see if we can pull off another one next year to celebrate our official entry into the Seniors’ Club!
The contributor is a retired Pakistan Air Force officer. He can be reached at email@example.com