Featured Image: Indus Valley from Alai Road Looking Towards Besham
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 July 2021
This is the third article on our trip up and down the KKH. The others are 1 The Karakorum Highway (KKH), 2 The Lower Karakorum Highway, 4 Extreme Polo in Gilgit, 5 The Hunza Valley, 6 Rain Danger, Sust. 7 Passu Paradise. The Kashgar Sunday Market article is also relevant.
Besham to Gilgit, the Terrain on the Karakorum Highway: Our Trip 2
The first article The Karakorum Highway gives an overview of the terrain for the whole journey. The most difficult section to construct was in Indus Kohistan, which includes part of the area described in the second article The Lower Karakorum Highway: Our Trip 1.
We drove from Besham to Gilgit in a long day on 18 May 1995. Being stuck in a wagon all day, I did not get the opportunity to take photographs and need to fudge by showing other photographs from around Gilgit and Hunza to give you some idea.
The Gorge Country
The gorge country begins below Besham and continues after Besham for some time. One can see from the featured image a view of the Indus Valley from the Alai road, the beginning of the difficult terrain in Indus Kohistan. One can imagine I think from that photograph that this is only the beginning of the mountains and that things are going to get worse rather quickly.
In the two articles, I said in the Karakorum Highway:
From Abbotabad on, the KKH winds mostly through narrow gorges on the Hunza, Gilgit and Indus rivers, which flow into one another down from the Khunjerab Pass. There are many bridge crossings across seemingly endless tributaries. The deepest and narrowest gorges are on the road from Abbottabad to Gilgit. The gorges open out somewhat above Gilgit. The climate at the bottom of the gorges is unbelievably hot and oppressive in summer.
‘It is like an oven’ said the gloomy bank manager from Dasu who travelled with us on a ‘Wagon’. The heat radiates from the cliffs thousands of feet above and is reflected down into the bottom of the valley. Although heat rises, it does not rise quickly enough. We met some walkers who had walked down from Fairy Meadow near Nanga Parbat base camp to the Raikot Bridge. The soles of their boots had melted on the black rocks. They regretted not paying for the jeep.
And in the Lower Karakorum Highway:
The canyon walls were high and slide prone for the first part of the trip. We were mostly in dry country at the bottom of chasms, but we saw all that there was to see of the river fans of the tributaries we passed over and small plateaus of cultivation above and near the edge of the river. We passed Chilas, the Raikot Bridge, the turn off to the Astore Valley and Bunji, but were not versed enough in history to pay much attention. We did however, stop at Talechi and viewed the largest number of snowy peaks viewable from the KKH, including Nanga Parbat (8126 m) behind us and Rakaposhi (7790 m) ahead of us for the first time.
I also mentioned in in the first article about falling rocks. How these are the major cause of death for locals on the Pakistan side of the Karakorum Highway. And how rocks rained down on our wagon not long out of Besham.
Whilst down the bottom of gorges or near the river on the Karakorum Highway you have little idea of what is above you. A vivid example was on our return from China on the road below Gulmit on our way to Karimabad (see map); we had to wend our way through a snow avalanche that had only just been cleared. It was a bright sunny day there was a warm cliff face above us of a few thousand feet. Not a mountain in sight. The snow looked as if some God had scooped it up with an ice cream scoop and flung it down on the road.
On the map the deep gorge country extends from before Besham to about Chilas, when the country opened out and the hills except for the drop into the river were not quite as close or severe.
Colonel Algernon Durand in the late 1880s did not see this gorge country as he walked and rode from Srinagar in Kashmir over two sets of passes down to Astore (marked but not named on the map) on the right hand side of Nanga Parbat. What Durand would have seen in the high country he traversed between passes were beautiful pine forests as shown in the photograph taken near Chalt below.
This was a long trek from Kashmir for Durand, but through some delightful country. However, the worst part of every trip to Gilgit was to come. This was the slog down from Astore to the Indus River, the perilous crossing of the Indus at Bunji, and the tedious and difficult walk beside the river to Gilgit.
In my journal I wax lyrical:
The trip and the scenery, however, were a visual assault on the senses. The backdrop was brown, as opposed to the green of the past few days.
The Indus was a grey-brown, full spate with glacier water and fine powdered rock flour. At Besham the river is 15 feet deep at its lowest, currently it is 25 feet deep and is 65 feet deep in July to August. I’d like to see that! I was a slalom kayakist in my youth and am enthusiastic about rivers and rapids. The rivers of the past ten days have been raging mountain torrents with some good navigable parts (grades 4 to 6). The Indus looks different. It is a wonderful river but huge and wild. There are less difficult rocky passages but one wonders how you’d cope with such powerful currents and pressure waves. Parts of the river seen from the KKH are just awesome.
Although this is the Hunza River at Karimabad, the Indus is no different, except much bigger and greyer.
There is a tribe of nomads who have been panning gold from tributaries of the Indus, such as, the Gilgit and Hunza rivers and others for centuries. We saw them and their tents on the outskirts of Chalt on our way back from China.
Sand was a backdrop or a theme of travel too. The sand currently laid along the inner banks and shoals and that laid down on mountain sides 10,000 and maybe 100,000 years ago, I don’t know. One memorable sight (a view in the eye of the mind) was a craggy hill of brown rock festooned with sand all the way to the summit, between Chatial and Chilas. The colour was of brown biscuit rock and sand in the long slanting afternoon light.
The photo taken in the Pamir Mountains between Tashkurgan and Kashgar gives some idea of what I mean.
On the Sides of the River
In my journal I said:
Other elements of the picture included blue-green streams and dark green plumes of water as they entered the Indus. Waterfalls fell down bare rock faces. Dustings of snow coated knife-edge ridges; and snow-capped giants wrapped in cloud were small sightings of the highest mountains in the world.
Near Gilgit was the feathery and apparently fragile greenery of trees on what had been dust plateaus, with incursions into new areas and enough untouched terrain in between to remind you of what had been there before. These were areas that remained unplanted because they were too dangerous or unstable. Rising above these plateaus were bare sheets of rock. Slumbering monsters, from which giant marbles of rock had rolled crushing fields, as if from an unfinished game by small boys.
An awesome landscape, the backbone of the Earth with the bones exposed. Areas where one could imagine dinosaurs at play today. Visions from a Stanley Kubrick movie. Would that we could have played opera all day rather than listen to Pakistani pop on distorted tapes.
The landscape is so huge that it beggars the imagination. It is a visual shock that one recoils from and is stimulated to distraction by, very like the intense visual experience of a visit to a really good gallery of recent contemporary art.
The photographs show the dry nature of the terrain. The only greenery is dependent on irrigation channels brought down from the mountains. Pumps had not yet intruded into the landscape and all water flow for irrigation in the Northern Areas was provided by gravity.
From Besham to Pattan one begins the canyon country, sheer slopes with crumbling walls. At Jijal one passes from the Indian to the Asian tectonic plate. From Pattan to Komila and Dasu the valley walls close in and the so called rope suspension bridges (steel cable) begin to provide access to cross river valleys. North of Dasu is the huge stretch where the road clings as a notch in the sheer granite face. Around here are the entrances to the valleys of Darel and Tangir across the river, where the guide says don’t go, unless you have very good reason and local protection.
Between Shatial and Chilas one comes gradually out of the gorge into an even more amazing landscape, ‘a barren cheerless country’ that is both fascinating and frightening. Near Chilas one gets views of snowy giants and at Talechi both Rakaposhi and Nanga Parbat are visible at one of ‘the best views of the largest number of snowy peaks anywhere on the KKH.’
As we drove towards Gilgit the dry awesome landscape continued. It looked like rain, and fierce winds and dust assailed the car. Near Jaglot we passed by an area of trees and branches across the road that had just been broken by the storm. An example, of how fragile human plantings of greenery and trees are in this landscape. Gilgit was both a relief and an anticlimax.
Durand’s View in the 1880s to 1890s
I said in my journal:
Colonel Algernon Durand, the second Political Agent at Gilgit in 1889 (following Biddulph’s short tenure from 1877), wrote a book called The Making of a Frontier. It is quite modern in its sense of fairness, humour and covert cynicism. Durand would have been an intelligent but perhaps not a steadfast companion in adversity (if one agrees with John Keay’s interpretation). Passages from his book are quoted… but the original is worth reading. One is loath to delve into dry, dated books, but Durand’s is a gem.
Durand describes the terrain which he walked through to Gilgit towards the end of the 19th century. The access is much easier now, but nothing else has changed.
As a rule your road runs in a valley as near the bottom as possible, for days at a time… Mile after mile of arid sand and rock is passed unrelieved by a single tree, except where a stream has cut its way from the higher hills and piled up an alluvial fan at right angles to the main valley. Then you find a lovely little oasis of green terraced fields running hundreds of feet up a hillside, a village embowered in fruit-trees and vines, and you sit down and thank God for the shade.
He comments that the last three marches into Gilgit were:
…not a drop of water, except when the road dipped right down to the bank of the Gilgit river, and that was running thick and slab like gritty cocoa.
His arrival at Gilgit was anything but anti-climactic. It was a relief after such unpleasant days on the road down from the Astore Valley.
The Gilgit oasis bursts into view… 5-6 miles long by a mile wide at the widest.
High above the the arid river banks, a few hours or a day’s walk are beautiful pine forests at the foot of mountains. We experienced this at Fairy Meadow near the old Nanga Parbat base camp, between Besham and Gilgit, but the photograph shows the same type of thing above Chalt.
I’ve been through similar country in Nepal but it is not quite as spectacular. The gorges are not as deep and the mountains above them not as close. There is nothing quite like the Karakorum Highway terrain elsewhere on Earth.
Key Words: Indus Kohistan, Karakorum Highway, Besham, Gilgit, Chilas, Chalt, Karimabad, Hunza, Algernon Durand, Indus River, Gilgit River, Hunza River, Bagrot Valley, Astore, Nanga Parbat, Pamir Mountains
Algernon Durand The Making of a Frontier: Five Years’ Experiences and adventures in Gilgit, Hunza, Nagar, Chitral and the eastern Hindu-Kush, 1899
I reread Durand and some other books while writing these article. Durand’s book is a terrific description of the time and the country. He also details well the difficulty of upgrading the Kashmiri military, when he was agent at Gilgit and the important conflicts that arose at the time.
For a good copy of Algernon Durand The Making of a Frontier 1899 go to the Books category on Mumtaz Hussain’s wonderful site Mahraka on the Cultural, History and Languages of Chitral and the local region based in Chitral. The books and articles are a wonderful selection of historical 19th C British Colonial history and other wonderful things!
John Keay is a British historian who wrote popular histories of India, the Far East and China with particular reference to Colonisation. The two books related to Gilgit and the Karakorum are When Men and Mountains Meet: The Explorers of the Western Himalayas, 1820–75 1977 and The Gilgit Game: The Explorers of the Western Himalayas, 1865–95 1979.
I’ve made a couple of comments directly and indirectly on John Keay’s negative comments on Durand and other 19th C British Officers in and around Gilgit at the time of Durand’s encumbancy from 1889. These are most probably justified in a modern context. But at the time, these men were young trying to make a name for themselves and to further their careers, on a frontier where they were trying to maintain peace with the tribes and trying to prevent incursions by Russia.
They key players whose personalities and faults I’ll cover were Algernon Durand himself, George Robinson the Surgeon-Major, Francis Younghusband and Charles Townshend (well-connected but unknown then, who became infamous in WW I after the siege of Kut). It is perhaps pivotal that at this time Townshend didn’t quite fit in.
The comments by Keay introduced are a teaser to a historical article in this series covering events in and around Gilgit, Chitral and Hunza from 1889 and the early 1890s.
Karakoram Gold Nomads
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