Monday, October 5, 2009

Gaining God in Gorno-Badakhshan

After six hours of severe battering the much abused Russian Jeep finally spluttered and stuttered and after a series of hiccups and jolts came to a dead halt at a place amongst least known and explored by man. Though my driver cum guide looked severely worried; which was his usual expression even when surrounded by vodka and pretty girls, I heaved a sigh of utmost relief. As I fell out of the jeep onto the dry and parched ground amidst one of the finest and grandest landscapes imaginable I struggled hard to get my bruised and shaken body under some control.

If the jeep did not recuperate then we had serious problem; facing dehydration, hypothermia and death (due bandits). Agha and I were stuck right in the heart of the dreaded wastelands of western Turkistan at the Southern edge of the great Alay Mountain Range in Southern Kyrgyzstan. Our destination, the tiny settlement of Alteenmazar lay an hour further to the South. While Agha cursed and deliberated, I stared hypnotized at the mountains and the brown land around. At a time when the Central Asian Region along with Afghanistan were fraught with violence and anarchy and were just beginning to find its footing towards some semblance to sanity, I had absolutely no business to be where I was; what was worst was that no one knew I was there, since to the world at large at that very moment I was supposed to be climbing in the Tien Shan Range of mountains of Kyrgyzstan. This is the story of one of my splendid adventures when I traveled completely incognito. For reasons I cannot reveal the vintage of this story must remain confidential though my colleagues at work might be able to correlate. Here it is:

Just when the high mountain passes of Tien Shan, Pamir and the Alay Mountain Ranges had started to shed their snow and the roads were beginning to open up, I came up with another of my so called grand plans. An ascent of the highest peak in the Pamir, Peak Ismail Samani and a traverse of the world’s longest glacier outside polar regions, the ill-famous Fedchenko Glacier, both of which fell inside the borders of Tajikistan. I was at that time based out of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. I had two options; either fly from Bishkek to Osh and then take the road to Sary-Tash along the Chinese border onwards to Murghob and then via Alichur arriving at Khorugh, the regional capital of Gorno-Badakhshan. From Khorugh I could use multiple forms of transportation (camels, horses, land cruisers, walk) to reach the glaciers. This option was good with two distinct disadvantages. It was an extremely roundabout route and would take a long time to traverse and it would also take me into the fuzzy no-man’s land with borders of China and Afghanistan. Two places even I wished to avoid.

The second option offered a direct route along the highway connecting Osh with Dushanbe and Khorugh. Though this would save several days it would once again take me uncomfortably close to the war-ridden borders with Afghanistan. Even as I deliberated over the option less suicidal another fact came to rise that simply could not be circumvented; Tajikistan Embassy at Bishkek was simply refusing to issue any visas whatsoever for tourism, a minor hump to stand between a man and his mountains. When I discussed my predicament with my confidante and interpreter, he came up with a brilliant idea in fewer minutes than I had taken to relate the problem. I simply had to travel in a straight line heading south from Osh and avoid any contact with any border patrols either in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan. He affirmed that the borders were porous and smugglers and raiders regularly used such tracks across the lengths and breadths of Turkistan. His alcohol induced brain perhaps failed to gather that there was a miniscule difference after all between a smuggler and an Indian Naval Officer. He introduced me to Agha and when I saw the burly self assured fellow who made me poorer by few hundred US dollars in those days I had no more misgivings into plunging off into one of the most insane enterprises of my entire life.

From Osh, Agha procured the jeep and a sinister looking Kalashnikov with enough rounds of projectiles to fight the entire Chinese Army if necessary. He instructed me to put on some clothes around my face and head and to stay shut if someone approached us anywhere en route. I was supposed to be deaf and dumb anyway, he informed as a P.S.

I only carried my personal climbing gear, the very rudimentary rack and absolutely nothing expensive on my person. For food we picked up few large chunks of dried meat and dark Kyrgyz bread. It was still early summer and we would be constantly above 10,000 ft and the cold will keep the food well preserved. Out of Osh we followed the highway towards Dushanbe for an hour and then Agha turned due south towards the rising peaks of Alay Mountains. If there was a road or even an animal trail anywhere on the arid land, I did not see it, though the barren land showed earlier imprints of similar jeep wheels. My companion did not speak English as I knew it, or anyone else for that matter. Rehearsing my act I remained silent while Agha sang like a hyena and gurgled down his bottles like a roaring wave. From his gesticulations and lip movements I guessed that he was happy to be out and away from all the stupid world and that this land over which we journeyed would take us to eternity and back if I so wished, and of course he was my most humble servant. Thus roaring and singing and trembling like a mad bull we hurtled through high mountains and wild rivers throwing caution and dust to the winds.

As we rose in altitude the cold gripped my entrails. Agha was buried under heaps of fur and leather, while I wore my down jacket. Though not really high, Alay Range is magnificent in its symmetry and opulent in its splendor. Shades of brown and white played with my eyes and few peaks with great walls of ice and snow enticed me as well. Alay Mountains are not really a mountaineer’s playground and most of the peaks are unnamed and unclimbed. I marveled at Agha’s driving skills, as we maneuvered the narrow valleys, drops and twists and turns. He drove completely out of his memory, following the narrow gorge south of Fergana Valley. Sandwiched between two continuous ice covered mountain massifs we crossed the pebble strewn river regularly. It was a ploy to throw off any pursuers, since the wheel marks would disappear in the water. We halted briefly at a place called Kashkasu where there is a relic from Silk-route. The rough looking men lazing around the caravanserai broke into smile at the sight of my now-inebriated companion. Thankfully they stayed away from me. Soon after we crossed Korgon, the largest settlement in the area (giving it a wide berth as there would be soldiers and police) and turned further south. From here we followed a stream towards Altynmazar while keeping well clear of any settlements or road; we were nearing Tajikistan border.

Agha banged and kicked the jeep for all he was worth and even handled the Kalashnikov for a while. I quietly left the place and climbed a sand hillock and gazed lovingly at the panorama to my south. We were now within 20 km of one of the largest glacial conglomerations in the world. Measuring around nine thousand sq km it housed above 8000 glaciers and among them the Fedchenko Glacier. Spanning all of 77 km it is the longest glacier in the world outside the polar region and volumes to nearly 700 sq km of ice and rubbles. The centre of this complicated glacial system is the ‘Central Neve of Pamir’, or the birthplace of all the Pamir ice. Seventy km to my left (east) Pk Lenin pierced the sky while my objective towered barely 40 km to the south with its crown reaching out to the heavenly bodies in a magnificent sweep of ice and snow. Now it might normally seem to be a daunting enterprise to attempt a peak of 24,600 ft solo but high as it might be, Ismail Samani Peak is a relatively easy summit and its first ascent was also a solo by the Russian Abalakov in 1933. I had good Russian maps (1:15000) and as long as I took care of the deep snow, I would be safe. I had a week of steady weather with mild snow and wind. With my previous climb of a 22000 ft peak just a fortnight ago, I was already well acclimatized and fit. Though the conical summit that was now slowly sinking into an orange quagmire did not seem threatening to me at all, my present situation was beginning to worry.

I went down to Agha who by now was thoroughly dejected and was sprawled like a beached whale on the hard ground with his leather jacket under his head. Incredibly he seemed to be snoring. I poked his fat belly with the caution of handling a king cobra. He did not stir. There was not even the tiniest branch or piece of wood anywhere for us to build a fire. If not of cold we would surely perish out of hunger. The gurgling stream nearby though now mortifyingly cold would ensure that we did not die of thirst. Seeing no sign of animation from Agha I prepared myself for survival. I pulled out my tiny tent and the sleeping bag. I stared hungrily at my ready to eat food like chocolate, cheese and condensed milk but they were meant for the mountain and I could not eat any of them now. The meat chunks were solid mass of rock. Slowly the sun sank across the great Pamir Range and the moon rose sparkling into the crystal clear sky. We were at 12000 ft and the cold descends without warning at such altitudes. I pitched my tent and stared at Agha who was bound to freeze during the night if he stayed where he was. You may not believe this but finally I had to fire few rounds of the Kalashnikov close to his head to get him off from his back. He sprang up like a jack-in-the-box and dived under the jeep with alacrity far beyond his girth. It took several minutes for me to convince him that we were not under any attack and that he could crawl out from under the vehicle.

From under his seat he produced an old military spirit burner and soon had a small fire going. He fetched water from the stream and placed it on the flame. As I watched him carefully, he literally tore out a piece of meat from the chunk and dipped it in the warm fluid. Soon he was chewing into the flesh of dead camel. I held out as long as I could and then followed suit. Agha eyed my tent and then pulled out a canvas from the jeep and throwing it unceremoniously on ground simply rolled into it like a cocoon. One bottle of alcohol later he was snoring away like before, while I still chewed the meat like a cow’s cud. The night passed in complete silence.

I woke up with a start. Agha was shaking me vigorously. It’s time to go, he mimicked. Like before Agha again had a simple and straightforward plan. Since the jeep was beyond redemption he would walk me to the border and get me across till the glacier snout. From there I would be on my own and he would pick me up at the mid-western edge of the glacier system near the settlement of Burushi. I had precisely 13 days to climb Ismail Samani, traverse Fedchenko Glacier and reach Burushi. Neither he nor I had any idea how I could reach Burushi from the glaciers. He just showed it to me on the map. Neither did we have any idea what would happen if I did not make it to Burushi on time. He agreed to wait for me for 48 hrs beyond the ETA and then head back home to Osh and he couldn’t care less if the animals or the locals ate me up. I did not hold it against him. He was a fugitive as much as I and we both ran the risk of discovery and execution the longer we remained where we were. He had his family and business to look after. Why should he bother or risk his life beyond necessary for an unknown Indian with crazy ideas!

On foot, we covered the distance to the border in less than three hours, going over and around mountain ridges, constantly zigzagging and keeping low. Though I could not see a soul, Agha cautioned that there could be other smugglers and looters around if not the law of the land. By now I could see the scattered snouts of several glaciers. Surprisingly only one of the snouts formed into a stream while the rest remained dry. We were in an extremely arid land with very low precipitation and all these glaciers were the relics of the last little ice age. Barely any fresh snow fell on these glaciers. We walked silently for another four hours covering a total of nearly 35 km and Agha stopped at a jagged rise of ice. He showed me the spot on the map. I was precisely 15.6 km away from the base of Ismail Samani. It was late in the day and I wondered how Agha would return to his jeep by himself in the darkness. He gave me a hug and promised to pick me up at Burushi exactly on the 13th day. If I hadn’t reached till then, then he would wait for two more days and then head back home. We both knew that it could well be our last embrace but we parted cheerfully and I knew that I won’t see another human being for the next 12 days at least yet I did not despair at the receding human form. My mountain was waiting for me.

I pitched the tent on ice and had a peaceful sleep now that I was with family. The next morning I headed directly towards the majestic summit. The glacier was quite even and radiating, gaining ground gently. Comfortably I maintained 500 m of altitude gain per hour. At the end of the day I had reached 20,000 ft and camped for the night at the exit ridge of the North West face. I chalked out my plan for the days ahead. I estimated that it would take me another three days to summit Ismail Samani and another two to exit at the other end on the Fedchenko Glacier. After walking and camping for two days on Fedchenko I would turn west and join up with Garmo Glacier. From the junction of Garmo Glacier Burushi was around 120 km, which I would have to complete in four days, a highly achievable and possible goal.

Precisely on the fourth day since Agha had left me, I smiled like a crazy monkey atop the snow covered summit dome of Ismail Samani. It was ten in the morning and I couldn’t have asked for better weather. The entire Turkistan and Gorno-Badakhshan plains melted away endlessly in all directions. The ice and snow world beneath my feet spooled out white carpets across the brown. The deep blue sky glowed above. Rows after rows of unclimbed and unnamed summits jostled to cover every inch of the horizon. The climb had been intense and serious but not dangerous at any point. I lost 5000 ft the same day and camped on Fedchenko to the south. I walked aimlessly along the length of the narrow glacier singing soulful songs to my friends around. Be it in the high Himalaya or in the Andes or Arctic or here in the Pamir, mountains were all the same and to me they all spoke in identical tongue. They were as happy to be with me as I was with them. Two nights later I turned around and cut short across a steep ridge descending directly into the shadows of Mount Garmo. And finally my luck with weather changed.

With four days remaining in hand and 120 km to safety when I emerged out of my tent on the eighth day I found myself completely enveloped inside a thick impenetrable cloud. I was at 14000 ft and I had to cover at least 30 km every day. The dark cloud blocked my entire vision like a solid curtain of black. I could not see beyond few meters at the most. In a completely alien mountain range it is imperative to see the landscape and the high peaks to read the map. I had just lost all points of reference, though the compass would give me the general direction as to the lay of the glacier but I would have no means of knowing where exactly I was. With the errors of a magnetic compass, in all probability, I would meander into one of the tributary systems and would be lost forever. I remained inside my tent praying the mountains to clear the way. Even after four hours when nothing changed I had to take the risk and get moving. I had already lost precious hours and now I would have to average nearly 38 km each day. For that I needed perfect weather and no less. I had absolutely no means of communicating with the outside world and no one knew where I was. There won’t be any rescues, there won’t be anyone looking for me and it was totally up to me to get myself out of the situation.

I shouldered my back pack and started walking in the general direction to west. The bone-chilling cold added to the misery. No matter how much I wished I could barely walk at a pace half of the intended speed. Swirling cloud gripped my eyes and I had to be careful not to fall into the crevasses lurking around. As the day waned so did my hope; I was barely covering any ground and I had lost all sense of direction. I stopped at a boulder and just looked around into the murk trying to make out something… anything at all. I had all but lost the day and perhaps my trail too and there was no way I would make it alive out of here. With despair either one can lose hope or strengthen one’s resolve. With me it’s always the latter. As the reality of the situation became evident my mind refused to give up, yet there was no way I was going to reach anywhere. After another hour of crawling I finally sank down onto the hard ice; now resigned to my destined death but not without hope.

I am not sure how long had I stayed on ground when suddenly I felt a presence near me. I had my head buried within the crook of my arms and I felt a tingling sensation on the bristle of my neck. A mild shiver ran through my body. I raised my head and looked around into the thick swirling cloud. Not a sound came from anywhere yet I knew that there was another being near me, watching me. I stared deep and long into the gloom yet failed to see anything. Though I dream a lot with my eyes open I don’t have an excitable mind. It was an eerie feeling… I felt the presence through my mind or sixth sense if I had any but my normal sensory organs failed to register anyone around. I stood up and hollered; no reply came. I felt stupid even to think that there could be anyone here at this moment. For all I knew I could be the first human being ever to have stepped on to this glacier. Few more minutes later I was thoroughly convinced that my mind had been playing tricks with me. With no other option left, I simply decided to continue walking as long and as far as my body could and would go and then collapse wherever it fell. It was far better to die while doing something rather than sit and wait for death. I picked up my sack and aligning myself to west started walking as before. Less than ten minutes later my heart almost stopped out of fright.

Straight ahead from me, around 30 ft away a human figure stood on the ice. I was so shocked that the odd attire of the person struck me only few minutes later. And as I took in the person, now watching me with mirthful eyes, noticing each part of the man I went through another heart-stopping moment. This was not a man. Staring straight at me stood Lord Shiva. I gulped and blinked and cleared my eyes several times, even pinched my arm hard and Lord Shiva did not go away. Being the residing deity in the Himalaya, Lord Shiva is my God and I don’t believe in anyone else. Though logic says that there is nothing and no one like Lord Shiva, it is my belief and faith that he is there and therefore he is. In the mountains I always carry his small statuette in my breast pocket. On every peak that I climb I worship him from the deepest belief in my heart. In the mountains I have absolutely no doubts that he exists and that he is looking after me. Yet to actually see Lord Shiva in three dimensions right in front of my eyes was something beyond my belief. As I stared with my mouth agape, he waved his hand and beckoned me to follow. Even if it was an apparition and an extension of my demented and frozen brain, it was still something and it was asking me to act, hence without any further delay I followed Lord Shiva. Amazingly while the cloud was as thick as before all around, it had cleared up like a tunnel right in front of me and I could see well into the distance. I walked briskly following the form ahead. I lost all sense of time. I have no idea how long I had walked when suddenly the cloud cover lifted and I spilled out under the silvery moon.

I looked around but saw no signs of my guide under the bright light. When I looked at my watch I realized that I had been walking all through the night without rest or food, yet I felt no fatigue or dehydration or hunger. The dawn would break in an hour. I pitched my tent and got the burner going. As soon as it was light enough I took bearings and discovered that I had covered 42 km from my previous camp and I was well on my way towards the exit point. What really puzzles me to this day is the fact that how I could have covered 42 km in five hours. The story is now almost over.

Eventually I did reach Burushi on the appointed day and what a merry reunion it was for Agha and I. He had accomplished few good deals and was happy as a hippo. He showed me around several other settlements and also divulged several secrets of his illicit trade. It took us two more days of driving through the nights to cross over into Kyrgyzstan and then we wound our way to Osh. While parting outside Takht-i-Suleyman at Osh Agha hugged me really hard and would not let me go, he kept on patting heavily on my lean back while maintaining a torrent of gibberish in his native tongue. It seemed like a voodoo ritual of Central Asia. When I later described the ceremonial farewell to my interpreter in Bishkek, he affirmed that Agha was simply trying to exhume all the dead spirits of his ancestors ordaining them to safeguard my back. The Uygur people did this only for their dearest and nearest friends whom they think are in great danger. Rarely did they do this for anyone outside their own clan. It is of the greatest honor in the Uygur belief to be bestowed with this ritual.

As I journeyed through life and had many more life-and-death moments I could never forget this one in Gorno-Badakhshan when God Himself came to my rescue. Did it really happen? Did I really see Lord Shiva? As much as my reasoning tells me that it couldn’t have been, my heart refuses to agree. I know for sure that there was someone there who had guided me out of certain death that night. The few people I ever related this incident did not believe it either. Hallucinations are common in high altitudes and supernatural sightings too are not an uncommon phenomenon among mountaineers. Yet, I simply can’t refuse what my eyes saw, my mind felt and my heart believed. I guess like many of my dreams this incident too would have remained in the realms of my fantasy if I hadn’t seen Lord Shiva again many years later in the Zanskar region of Indian Himalaya, under almost identical situation. This time around I realized (as it must have happened then as well) that unbeknownst to me I had started chanting ‘Om Namo Shivaye’ (Praise Lord Shiva) just before He made appearance.

There’s a fine line indeed between our reality and imagination and while knowledge gets us the former the latter can lead us to belief and faith, both of which are of essence when everything else has failed.


  1. I am out of words. May LORD SHIVA be always there for you, Satya. What happened in Zanskar?

  2. Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly? Or am I a butterfly dreaming I am a man dreaming I am a butterfly? Does it even matter? It is fine, it is pure and it is joyous. Bas. :)

  3. Just gives me the shivers to read about this.
    Please do write about the Zanskar event.

  4. Lord Shiva's always with u S, even when you are not in your mountains. Its this totally unshaken belief you have for him, for life and for humanity that makes you what you are today and keeps you safe.
    I don't think you hallucinated, god always comes when no one else does. Love you.