Wonders of the Karakorum
by Pervez A. Khan
Ferozsons, Rawalpindi, 1996
160 pages, 87 colour plates, 2 maps
While climbing in the Siachen Glacier, in the eastern Karakoram, I have looked at the panorama to the west and always wondered how the area would appear from the ground. These are the Northern Areas of Pakistan. Due to the troubled nature of the Indo-Pakistan relationship, as an Indian, I cannot visit them. The Indian passport specifically states “not valid” for the Northern Areas of Pakistan.
There are several books, expedition accounts and articles available that give you a taste of what it is like in the Western Karakoram. But then that is not like being there. As one goes through Pervez Khan´s book with images and information on the peaks, people, sports, eating habits, wildlife and natural habitats, one aspect is clear. Political boundaries may separate the Eastern and Western Karakoram, but the mountains and people on both sides are essentially similar. Only the army divisions that stand in between separates them.
This book covers the part of the Northern Areas of Pakistan known as the Western Karakoram (though the author prefers to call them ´Karakorum´). The range is divided into two districts, Gil git and Baltistan. The introductory chapter briefly covers various aspects of the range, as one would expect from a coffee-table book. Geology, climate, wildlife and exploration history are covered. The listing of the world´s 8000m peaks looks out of place and the table of peaks in the Karakoram is incomplete. There are better pictures in the earlier book on the same subject, The Karakoram by Shiro Shirahata, but this one has certain specialties.
Firstly, it is written by a Pakistani, and no one can know a mountain area better than a native. Mr Khan´s insights are valuable because he understands the language, region and religion, which is what sets this book apart from the glossy publications brought out on the Karakoram, mostly by Western explorers and climbers. The author lets us in on little-known details of the life and landscape in Gilgit and Hunza, recounting, for example, the legend of Siri Badat (the last Buddhist king of Gilgit, who was slain by his son-in-law, the first Muslim king of the region), or explaining that the famous peak Bojohagur Dunashirs means “where only the horse of the demon can go”.
In the margins, many well-known Pakistani and Asian explorers, climbers and surveyors are introduced. Among them is Khan Sahib Afraz Gul Khan, who surveyed the major parts of the Karakoram. He was a Pathan with a reputation for absolute fearlessness, and a supernatural sense of topography. In the realm of plane-table survey of high mountains, he had no peer. Prince Sultan Feroze Sufi, from the ruling family in Nagar, was a man of letters and poet laureate of the Northern Areas. This aristocrat, clad in a corduroy jacket, a necktie or a cravat always in place, and his plumed felt hat, will no longer be seen pruning his terraced chaman (garden), nor found ambling along the lanes of Gilgit. Neither will he be there at polo matches to throw in the ball, for he passed away in August 1994, already well into his eighties.
The author introduces many Pakistani mountaineers with affection: Nazir Sabir of Hunza, a man of immense physical endurance and will-power who climbed K2 in 1981; or Raja Muhammed Bashir of Charehan, Muree Hills, who, after bracing a bitter cold night in the open at 24,700 feet, along with his Japanese climbing partners stepped upon the unclimbed 25,400 feet summit of Saltoro Kangri.
We are introduced to Nazir Abbas Mirza, who initiated organised expeditions and trekking in Pakistan. Several ace Pakistani climbers trained under him, including Nazir Sabir, Ashruf Aman and Rajan Shah. Mahdi, of Hunza, was part of the Ardito Desio expedition of 1954 which made the first ascent of K2. In his book Ascent of K2 Desio writes: “Mahdi was very strong physically and had a vast experience of mountains.. .and as single-minded in his desire to reach the summit as the Italians.”
Pervez Ahmad Khan, the author, too, is a man of two worlds. He was bom in Shimla and graduated from Lucknow. He also had his schooling in Rawalpindi and now lives in Muree, the Pakistani hill station similar to the one where he was born, several hundred kilometres to the southeast. Mr Khan has undertaken several expeditions in the Karakoram, including some sponsored by the National Geographic Society.
The latter half of the book is about the area of Baltistan, although incompletely covered. Several high mountains are discussed with a brief history and explanations of their names. Chogholisa (the great hunting ground), K2 or Chogori (the big mountain), Masherbrum, (the doomsday mountain), and Gasherbrum (the splendid mountain) and many others are mentioned. All these peaks are in the valleys of the Indus (the lion river) and the Shyok.
As we approach the eastern part of the great range, alas, the author has to stop: the valley where the Shyok originates is controlled by India. Just as I, as an Indian, cannot enter the Northern Areas, Pervez Ahmed Khan cannot come over to India. The Karakoram Pass, which gives the entire range its name, is situated on the divide which many consider to be the dividing point between the Subcontinent and Central Asia. (Kara means ´black´ and koram means ´gravel´.)
The Subcontinental division high on the Karakoram is reflected in the lives of those that climb it. Nazir Sabir, who has been mentioned earlier, is the Honorary Local Secretary of the Himalayan Club, which has its headquarters in Bombay. As editor of the Himalayan Journal published by the Club, I correspond regularly with Nazir, who also happens to be the provincial Minister of Education for the Northern Areas, to obtain results of various climbing expeditions in the Pakistani side of the Karakoram. The only time a policeman visited the Himalayan Club´s office was to inquire why a Pakistani writes to me regularly from Hunza. When 1 recounted this to Nazir, he confirmed that he has faced similar difficulties. Suspicions were aroused regarding his regular correspondence with someone in Bombay about the sensitive areas of the Karakoram!
We communicate even today. And as this book so ably illustrates, the mountains, culture and environment of the Karakoram constitute a heritage which stands above the artificial barriers erected by South Asian man. These barriers can never dissolve the love of mountaineers for the Karakoram.