Bearer of the Balti footprint

By Salman Rashid

Even today Raskam is just a collection of stone and mud huts, about 20 in all, sitting a couple of hundred metres above the rocky bed of a young Yarkand River. In those early days when the first Balti hunters approached it, Raskam would only have been a few felt yurts where the Kirghiz shepherds sheltered from the dry, freezing cold.

 The name, we are told, is a corruption of Rast Kan — the Good Mine. Early Victorian explorers wrote of good copper to be mined in the region. There were, they recorded, dozens of smelting furnaces around Raskam. The copper would have been exported to Yarkand, the nearest trading centre. Surely the Baltis would have asked about reaching this unknown place that sounded almost like an El Dorado.

The road was difficult, they were told. Three days of hard travelling would bring them to a high, desiccated pass beyond which there was yet another, only slightly lower one, to cross before they could enter the plains of the Yarkand Valley at Karghalik. Thence onward it was a short easy journey to the city of Yarkand. We do not know when the first Baltis actually arrived lock, stock and barrel with wives and children, over the Great Asiatic Divide, to take up life in Yarkand. But they did. This immigration took place after the Tibetan invasion of the 8th century had left its mark on Baltistan in the form of language and mixed ethnicity. I say this because the first Victorian travellers who met the Baltis in Yarkand found them speaking the same language as their brothers in Baltistan.

It was a most remarkable journey for a people who, in modern terms, were primitive. That they could travel across a heavily glaciated watershed, cross a river as treacherous as the Shaksgam and traverse the arid and frightfully desolate void of the region between Raskam and the first oasis of Kokyar south of Karghalik, speaks of a people possessed of remarkable hardihood and an uncanny sense of topography.

Interestingly, western explorers of this region who hired Balti guides and porters made light of the locals’ mountaineering ability. They were terrified of the high places, we are told. Yet, long before the white man came, the glaciers, natural features, high peaks and river all had Balti names. It must be acknowledged that the greatest explorers and mountaineers of the great north were the Baltis. A close second were Hunza mountaineers. But that is another tale.

The Baltis took the name Chhogho Ri beyond the Shaksgam gorge into what is now Xinjiang. The Kirghiz of Raskam know Chhogho Ri (K-2) as Chogor; the Chinese as Chongo Li. Clearly, both names derive from the original Balti meaning Great Mountain. This means that the Raskam shepherds never ventured far into the Shaksgam Valley to have been able to see their Chogor. The Baltis told them of the mountain and gave them a name for it. Ditto for the Chinese who would have come only in modern times. Both corrupted it according to their usage.

The Shaksgam, whose name comes from a Turkic root, was a sort of a linguistic barrier. South of it there are only Balti/Tibetan names — save two. The exceptions being the passes Karakoram (Black Gravel) and Muztagh (Snow Mountain). The Karakoram Pass has been traversed for more than 2,000 years and its name can be attributed to an unknown early Turkestan traveller. But Muztagh stands out like a sore thumb.

Caught as it is in the midst of a great jumble of icy peaks and glaciers, all of which go by Balti/Tibetan names, this is an anomaly. I have no explanation for how the name came here and stuck. But there is a fiction I like to believe. One of the early Balti émigrés to Yarkand took a fancy to a Turkestan belle and wedded her. One summer he brought her across the watershed to show her off to relatives back home.

As they came up the Sarpo Laggo Glacier to the top of the pass, a majestic pyramid caught her eye. With a sharp intake of breath she called it Muz Tagh. The name caught. For ever more, the peak, the pass and the glacier below came to be known as Muztagh.

Originally posted at: Odysseyus Lahori

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