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In the Foothills of the Karakorum Himalaya

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  • Publication Year: 1961

In the Foothills of the Karakoram Himalaya

Dave Bohn

This is a story about a small village, 10,000 feet high in the mountains of Baltistan, West Pakistan. It is a very short story, but then, I lived there for only seventeen days. Yet, in that time I came to know something of the rhythm of life in this community of three hundred; you see, I listened to Askole get up in the morning and I listened to Askole go to bed at night. Then pretty soon I began to watch Askole, though not as carefully as Askole was watching me, and finally I was ready to make an attempt to photograph Askole. And now I guess it is time to write of Askole, but it will be short as I have already warned, for seventeen days is not a long time. Still, I wonder. In many ways those days were for me a lifetime.

* * *

It was July 23, and with my climbing companion, Lynn Pease, I left Base Camp on the Godwin-Austen glacier, headed for Askole—the first village to order porters to carry the 1960 Karakoram Himalaya Expedition out from K2. We had with us food for six days and were carrying 55-pound packs. It took us eight days to reach our destination, arriving as we did in the late afternoon of July 30 with one sprained and bandaged ankle, three infected toes between us, wearing assorted boots and sneakers, trousers ripped from the rope bridge, and clinging tenaciously to one small bag of salt and one-half of one small bag of macaroni, the last of the food.

There was, of course, great excitement in Askole that first evening. Two Sahibs had come out of the mountains—two curiosities most recently returned from K2, but much more important, two rich Westerners from the strange world beyond concept. The gallery formed and grew and diminished, and formed and grew again, and then came eight eggs—omelette style two boiled chickens and fourteen chapattis, the staple wheat pancake. The gallery stayed on, for Sahibs are strange creatures indeed; even when eating, or perhaps especially when eating, they are a source of muchamusement. And so, our first real meal in eight days was finished by the light of a candle in Askole, Baltistan, just 12,000 miles from home among people whose language we could not speak, nor they ours. We slept that night secure in the knowledge that on the morrow and thereafter for some days we would not have to get up at five o’clock and put on those insufferable, appalling packs.

Now mornings in Askole started for us with whumps. A whump is not an insect, nor does it crawl or bark or watch the Sahibs. A whump is the sound made in those very early morning hours by the dumping of dried manure from the cow (yak) sheds on the manure piles. The men do the shoveling, which is easy, and the women carry the manure in baskets on their backs, which is hard work. The women dump over their heads and I know perfectly well what all this sounds like because I lay in my sleeping bag every morning in the otherwise stillness and listened. At first I could see nothing because we were quartered in an enclosure surrounded by a low stone wall. But as the piles grew higher, they rose above the level of the wall and I could both listen and see, without getting out of the sleeping bag. And if I was really very still and pretended to be asleep I could peek at the women peeking at me, but just for a moment or two before they hustled off.

By this hour some of the men were headed for the fields to see about the waterworks, perhaps to repair a canal or possibly to make sure their own individual acreage was receiving the proper amount of the precious wet stuff, to see that the intricate irrigation system continued to keep alive the atta—wheat—that makes the chapattis that keep alive Askole. But of course, a short pause to peek over the wall at the Sahibs—to be assured we were still there, to know whether we were lying on our stomachs or our backs, but mainly just to look at these strange men from the world outside.

I had no watch in Askole, but I know precisely what time breakfast arrived each day; breakfast arrived exactly as the sun was not quite over the ridge to the east, and certainly this was the proper time for breakfast because … well, just because it was the right time as anyone would surely know. Husayn and Haji Mehdi—eldest and next eldest of the four sons of Hassan, Askole’s head man or Nambardar—usually brought the day’s first meal, Husayn carrying the pot of salt tea and two cups, and Haji carrying the tin plate with the inevitable eight-egg omelette. The cups and plate had been gathered in various ways from the Italian K2 expedition of 1954, but we ate with our fingers, a much more sensible and direct method than with a fork, and there were no forks in Askole anyway. Thus, with the sun not quite over the ridge, we had breakfast as the two brothers sat on their haunches and watched us.

And then with the sun came the flies—thousands of them or maybe even hundreds of thousands—and they were with us until sundown, making life generally somewhat miserable. But I guess one gets used to being half covered with these useless things, and I suppose I did.

Here and there as I ventured out on the streets of Askole each morning, one or two women would still be trudging bent to the manure piles, but most of them were by now in the fields, gathering newly ripe turnips or heading out for an immense load of sage-like fuel to be piled on roof tops for future use. Those remaining in the village were usually making thread or working on the looms or hiding from my eyes. I pretended complete indifference, and little by little I think I began to be accepted with less trepidation, for the women no longer fled at my appearance and a few of them would continue to sit where they were if I came up to see what they were doing. But if I had so much as touched the camera at my side, they would have been off immediately. This never happened; I was a guest in Askole and had no intention of forcing the photographic issue. However, I did photograph the men and boys on my early morning walks, and this I attempted about every other day, preferring not to unnecessarily intrude with the camera on these friendly hosts.

There is no drug store in Askole, but there is definitely a “corner,” and here each mid-morning some of the men gathered, sitting on the ground spinning their thread from the coarse goats’ wool. They were gossiping, about what I know not, but since Askole has no games of skill, no dancing or singing or drinking, and no art work to speak of, gossip becomes the great recreation. As I passed this important corner, I would receive the customary “Salaam, Sahib,” return the greeting and hurry on before any of them could ask me for a cigarette. Occasionally, though, I would stop and sit with them, and a certain amount of communication took place by gesture or one or two key words I had gained from my very small Balti-Urdu-English dictionary. The water pipe was usually being passed, in the proper order, but I always graciously (I hope) declined because all those who did smoke it were overcome with paroxysms of cough, which coughing did not apparently detract from the pleasure of the thing.

Since my companion and I averaged four small chickens and sixteen eggs a day there came a time, after about a week, when the Nambardar’s supply was exhausted. So with Haji we meandered two miles to the village of Thongal and there observed an immense round of bargaining, though at first no eggs or chickens came, for the water pipe had to be lighted and passed among Thongal’s hierarchy and Haji. The presence of the two Sahibs lent a festive air to the occasion, I think, and we were minutely observed by the entire male population. Eventually three eggs did appear and a space for the produce was cleared in the center of the gathered humanity. When there were nine dozen eggs and something like fifteen chickens, Haji decided we had enough. But before we left I was rather shyly petitioned by Hasan, Thongal’s stern head man, for a picture of him beside his house. In preparation, he dusted off his coat and smoothed his hair, and I smiled inwardly—but was just as stern as he when I maneuvered him into position.

With much handshaking we finally detached ourselves, Haji carrying the chickens on his back and I toting the eggs, at least part of the way— and I must say I never expected to be carrying nine dozen eggs in a basket across a rocky hillside toward Askole, high in the mountains of Baltistan.

When we returned to Askole that day there was new excitement, for word had filtered through from the peaks beyond that our expedition liaison officer, Captain Sharif Ghafur, was arriving from Base Camp. Arrive he did that afternoon, and with a huge crowd looking on, the three of us drank our afternoon salt tea—now with a twelve-egg omelette—and reminisced of the mountain K2. Sharif, as a native of Pakistan, spoke Urdu, enabling him to communicate directly with some of the more sophisticated Askolians who would then translate into Balti for the rest. Sharif also spoke flawless English, which meant my American companion and I could now enter a bit more into life in Askole. But unfortunately, a day or two later Lynn Pease’s available time was up, and with one porter he disappeared over the Skoro La, 16,600-foot pass opposite Askole, headed out for Skardu, Karachi, and America.

There was no small amount of interest, on the part of the young boys and the men, about America, and just exactly “where” it was. I put where in quotes because in Askole the concept of the world is extremely hazy at best. Only one man, Haji Mehdi, has ever been out of West Pakistan, and probably no more than five of the men have ever been beyond Skardu, sixty miles distant. The women travel not at all. Thus one night the subject of Sahib Pease came up. Was he in America yet? I pointed out, through Sharif, that he would be there tomorrow when the sun in America was half way between up and the horizon, but that when there was sun in America there was no sun in Askole. The statement caused much consternation for our less-than-worldly-wise audience quite naturally assumed that when they got up in the morning to work in the fields all other sensible peoples were doing the same. Forthwith we had an astronomy lesson as we sat eating in Hassan’s house with his sons and the chickens. Using a ball of Askole thread for the earth the lecture progressed, and as Haji translated Sharif’s Urdu into. Balti for his aged mother, there were grunts of rather amazed understanding (I think) from the dark corner where she sat. Hassan’s only daughter was there too, but perhaps afraid to ask her brother questions while we were in attendance, for she ate her chapattis in silence.

Intellectually speaking, the most curious of the Askole men was Fazil. He would come and sit on the ground beside me as I read—or tried to read—and point to my shirt, asking the English equivalent, and would reciprocate by giving me the native word. Nor was Fazil backward about asking for things, and since the shirt I had was a red one he was very anxious to have it. On several occasions, then, I was invited by Fazil to visit his house where he proudly fed me fruce, or goat’s cheese, while we discussed the desired article of clothing. Such negotiations take time and were complicated by the fact that Fazil’s uncle actually owned the blanket I wanted. But eventually we reached an agreement; my shirt and a pair of socks plus some rupees (cash) in trade for the blanket.

It was also Fazil who had a pain in his wrist. We had only a few minor medications with us and would have been deluged with requests had we dispensed without caution, but Fazil was not to be put off. We finally gave him some sunburn cream which he carefully rubbed on the sore joint, and the next day he reported definite improvement. Two days later Fazil presented us with six hard-boiled eggs as baksheesh for having cured him.

In these high, arid mountain villages, stealing water is a fairly serious crime, and during one of our daily morning chats Fazil told us they had “caught” someone the night before. Actually the culprit was not apprehended in person, but they knew who had so turned a rock that water might drain into the wrong canal, wrong at least for that particular time of the night. But Fazil indicated the thief would come to no harm on his return to the village because tempers had cooled, though our informant admitted there would have been a scuffle had they caught the man red-handed. Nevertheless, stealing of any kind is not common in Askole, and relations seemed to be remarkably peaceful. There was a slight feud with Karfow, across the river, over which village was responsible for fixing the swaying rope bridge (it has been said they are never fixed until broken) we had crossed on the march out from Base Camp, and I was told that women from Shigar, forty-five miles away, do not make good wives because they will not work hard enough in the fields, but by and large the communities get along well with each other.

The nearest school is in Shigar, but in Askole they are skeptical about education for, as Fazil said, who will work the fields if the children are sent to school just as they reach an economically productive age? And besides, a man is liable to get a little education and then consider himself a bit too good to get his hands dirty. Thus, said Fazil, he was content where he was and why not his children? When I tell this little story over here, the smug Westerner almost inevitably says “I should think they would want to lead a better life.” Ah yes, but “better” for what, and who will qualify to answer that?

Now sometimes as I sat reading in the afternoon, covered with flies, I would have a timid visitor, age about 10. This was Reni, and he would quietly present me with a bouquet of purple flowers which I would carefully put in the fold of my Gilgiti cap, for this is customary in Baltistan (and elsewhere in the East); the men are fond of flowers, and even wear them on their ears in many cases. Occasionally some of the other boys would bring a handful of peas-in-the-pod, hoping for an exchange gift, but I think Reni just wanted to be friendly. When he became a little less shy I photographed him, for he was one of the few truly photogenic (by our standards) children of the village. I had the feeling, too, that Reni wanted very much to hear of the world, but the language barrier and his reticence presented obstacles too large to be overcome in seventeen days.

Another faithful afternoon visitor was Hassan, the Nambardar. He always dropped over to see how we were doing and Sharif would talk with him endlessly. Such visits were considered a proper courtesy, and as the sun began to lower in the west each day I usually sallied forth to return Has- san’s earlier call. For me, this was at the same time the best and the strangest part of the day. From Hassan’s rooftop I could survey Askole in the late light, and watch the smoke from the cooking fires—while Hassan singsonged the Koran, sitting cross-legged and rocking back and forth. And then, when the sun was down, Hassan climbed to the top of his “penthouse” and called to prayer. Later, I would descend the ladder into the square roof-hole and wait for dinner with Sharif and the men of Hassan’s family. The women do all the cooking and the men eat first and separately. By candlelight, Haji and Husayn and Sharif and I would eat our chicken and chapattis, taking care to chase off the live chickens when they became too insistent. A cup of buttermilk, brought down in goatskins from the high summer pastures, came last—and while Sharif talked with the brothers, I too sat cross-legged, but silent, reflecting on the strangeness of the dimly- lighted scene.

Abruptly one afternoon the rest of the expedition came out of the high hills, and it was time to leave. As suddenly as we had descended on Askole, we were gone. Hassan’s family—that is, the males—gathered on their rooftop and watched us file away toward the river and the rope bridge to Karfow for the trip over the Skoro La. Haji came with Sharif and me for a short distance—then the goodbyes and a last wave of the hand.

When I left Askole behind that hot August day, it seemed to me we had created there genuine bonds of affection, for I think they were truly sorry to see their two guests leave. Naturally, for both sides there had been moments of annoyance and misunderstanding, and for me the inability to communicate properly had imposed great strain. Further, as a cellophane- packaged Westerner, I was of course fairly constantly afflicted with the troubles stemming from conditions less sanitary than those we know here. But in spite of the obstacles, in spite of the conceptual chasms separating an American from these people—chasms so much greater for them than for me—the gap was at least partially bridged. I adjusted and lived on their terms, and they adjusted to me as a curiosity in their midst.

Half a world away the rhythm of life moves on in Askole. And though the never-to-be-forgotten early morning whumps are stilled at least until next summer, the sound of Hassan’s call to prayer each sundown will even now be drifting across the foothills of the Karakoram Himalaya.

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