Lawrence John Lumley Dundas Zetland.

An Eastern miscellany online

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had been in no way inconvenienced by their
somewhat unceremonious entry, assuring me at
the same time that they were perfectly quiet
and gentlemanly behaved creatures. The descrip-
tion struck me as being just a little tame,
especially when a short time afterwards I ob-
served the rabid and unfeeling way in which
they tore up and devoured certain portions of
raw meat which constituted their daily feed, and
wondered if the day might not chance to come
when they might so far forget themselves as to
tear up in like manner things other than they
were meant to. Truly solitude induces one to
make strange companions, but I felt that I would
put up with a long spell of solitude before I
took to wolves as household pets. Dogs are ex-
cellent company ; cats, and even bears, one might
become much attached to, but , wolves ! Well,
there is no accounting for tastes.

The 16th showed an improvement, and in the
morning the headman of the district, who had
been warned of my probable arrival from Boonji,
came round and informed me that he had collected
coolies who would accompany me as far as Goorais,
the next village of any appreciable size, and as-


sured me that he had picked his men and chosen
as strong and hardy a lot as was available. This
I had made a great point of, as carrying loads
over snow, especially at great altitudes, is very
far from child's play ; and though life in this
part of the world may be cheap (as one might
be led to suppose from the tale of the old
woman's fond relations, who after due delibera-
tion approached the unfortunate sportsman who
had killed her and gravely informed him that
they were decided that her value was four annas !
— so at least runs the story), yet I had no wish
to have any one's death on my hands, if by any
reasonable precaution I could possibly avoid it.

When I had seen the men and started them
loading up, I dismissed the coolies from Boonji
— Baltis for the most part from the borders of
Baltistan — and prepared to start on the next
march. I left the matter of pay to be decided
by the tesildah of Astor, who proposed to the
men before they started that they should receive
six annas — equivalent to sixpence — per man for
the first march, which was by way of being an
easy one, and double that sum for the succeeding
marches, an arrangement which they willingly
agreed to. The ordinary pay for an average day's
march in most parts of the Himalayas is four
annas (fourpence) per coolie ; but in the Gilgit
agency, which is barren and destitute to a degree,


food is a serious consideration, and six annas
a- day is. the recognised tariii', two annas of which
is deducted if the hirer supplies his men with
food. This he is practically bound to do, as when
away from his home in these barren districts there
is no place where the native can obtain it for
himself, and an order has to be procured from
the political agent at Gilgit for permission to
buy flour from the various Government store-
houses which are kept at intervals along the
road through the agency, and which are supplied
by a continual transport service through the short
summer when the passes are open, from the
abundant crops of the Kashmir valley. The
necessity of preventing the stores from being
depleted is obvious, and is one of the chief
reasons why the country is closed to travellers
and sportsmen, who are bound to have with
them a considerable following of servants and
coolies, all of whom require to be fed.

At the end of the day's march we halted at
a hut known as Godhai, about sixteen miles
distant, and here spent the night. The height
of Astor, which I had left in the morning, is
about 7800 feet, or a rise of, roughly speaking,
4000 feet from the Indus, where I had left it,
and in front loomed the dreaded Burzil Pass,
with an ascent of close on another 6000 feet.
From autumn well on into June this pass is


closed by snow, and the storms that sweep down
on it during the winter carry all before them
with an overwhelming fury.

The next morning, as no snow was actually
falling, we continued our march ; but the moun-
tains all round were lost in mist, and the ap-
pearance of the sky was far from promising. As
we went on along a gradual ascent the snow
underfoot became deeper, till by the time we
reached Chillum Chauki, a hut near the foot of
the Burzil Pass, and our shelter for the night,
it lay with an average depth of several feet.
The distance of the march was supposed to be
about sixteen miles, and I reached the hut at
three o'clock ; but hour after hour went by with
no sign of any coolies with the baggage. At
7.30 Ram Pershad turned up, saying that the
coolies made very slow progress through the snow,
and were still a long way off, which was any-
thing but comforting, as it was intensely cold
and we had no food. About 10.30 a coolie, who
had come on ahead of the rest, arrived with a
portion of a sheep and some eggs, and Earn Per-
shad having managed, as only a child of the
desert knows how, to cook them without ap-
paratus of any kind, I dined ! Soon after one
or two more coolies struo^orled in, and at 11.15
a man with my bedding. I was not very long
in getting into it, and immediately fell asleep.


The rest of the coolies arrived about midnight.
The cold during the night was severe, and all
the more felt owing to its being very damp and
raw, the thermometer registering 26° of frost in
an atmosphere that was heavy with cloud and fog.

At seven o'clock on the morning of the 18 th
I saw my coolies off, after dividing up the
baggage so as to give every man a very
light load, and then set ojff myself. As the sun
rose in the heavens the clouds and fog dispersed,
and before long we found ourselves tramping
along over a huge stretch of dazzling whiteness,
with lofty snow-bound peaks on either side of
us, under an absolutely cloudless sky. By ten
o'clock we reached the post-runner's hut of Sirdar
Khoti, at the foot of the pass, and rested a few
minutes before starting on the final ascent. As
we left this small sign of human habitation
behind us, and became lost in the vast wastes
of the wildest desolation, the dead silence, broken
only by the laboured breathing of myself and
my followers as we slowly forced our way through
the deep dry snow, combined with the utter
absence of life, filled one with a feeling akin to
awe, and forced upon one the smallness and
impotence of man amid the stupendous monu-
ments of nature.

In spite of the sun the cold was intense, and
every short halt proved how necessary were all


the precautions we had taken against frost-bite.
Between one and two o'clock we reached the
summit of the pass, and were all glad enough
for a short rest in the uninhabited hut which
stands upon the top. We could not afford to
waste much time, however, for five miles still
lay between us and the nearest post-runner's hut,
and after a short breathing-space we began the
descent, another two and a half hours' scramb-
ling, falling, and sliding bringing us to the post-
runner's hut, Burzil Chauki.

The relief on getting into the shade of a room
after the fierce glare of the sun on the snow all
day was immense ; but the cold was very trying,
and in spite of a huge wood-fire my thermometer
rapidly sank to 8° Fahr. on the window-sill, the
temperature in the room itself being only a few
degrees higher. As the sun sank behind the
mountains, and the stars began to twinkle and
shine with extraordinary brilliance, the scene was
one which could not fail to impress the most
prosaic of mortals. In the dry rarefied air every-
thing stood out with wonderful sharpness of out-
line, and as the great orb of the full moon rose
clear and chill-looking, she seemed to look down
in approval upon the cold frost-bound earth be-
neath her. The thermometer dropped rapidly
to zero, but never registered more than 32°
during the night, though the cold was probably


much greater beyond the radius of the huge
fire which I kept up, and in the morning, when
I started again at nine o'clock, it was still
freezing 28°. I experienced many trivial annoy-
ances, both on this and other occasions during
the march, owing to the low temperature in the
interior of the huts ; for everything capable of
freezing did so, and obstinately refused to be
thawed. For several days I was unable to write
in anything but pencil, for my ink, though the
bottle was quite full, was reduced to a state
of solidity, in which state it remained till I
reached a warmer clime. It was also annoying
to find, on taking up the milk-jug at breakfast,
that it was covered with ice, which had to be
melted whenever one wished to pour out some milk,
for it had only to stand on the table for a few
seconds to be reduced to the state of a solid again.
We were blessed with another fine day, and the
march of fourteen miles to the next hut passed off
uneventfully except for a fright we got shortly be-
fore the end of the day's march. We were walk-
ing across a steep snow-slide, cutting steps as we
went, when there was a sudden sharp sound, re-
sembling the noise made by ice cracking, only
very much louder, and my Kashmiris with one
accord took to their legs and fled. It was
nothing much after all, but served to show how
easily an avalanche may be started. For some


reason or other the top layer of snow on the
steep snow-slide in front of us had given way,
and a few cartloads had crashed down, leaving
a ploughed -up patch in the otherwise unbroken
surface. All the coolies got in in good time,
and I began to congratulate myself on the suc-
cessful way in which I was getting over my
arduous journey ; but the smooth course of
events was destined to come to an abrupt ter-
mination, and before many hours were over the
difficulties and hardships of the undertaking were
brought home to me in a very realistic manner.

With a suddenness characteristic of the ele-
ments in these parts, the whole aspect of the
heavens changed in an incredibly short time ;
and during the night the wind, which for the
last two days had been conspicuous by its
absence, blew a perfect hurricane. With the
advent of dawn it died away, but had done its
work ; for, in place of the clear blue sky, dense
masses of ugly cloud rolled ominously over all
the surrounding scene, and by the time we
started at 9 a.m. snow was falling steadily, and
so thickly that it was impossible to see more
than a few yards in any direction. Under the
circumstances, I strongly urged the advisability
of staying where we were ; but my guide main-
tained that we could reach the next hut, a
distance of twelve miles, and concluding that he


must know best, I gave way. Accompanied by
him and another Kashmiri, I led the way, fol-
lowed by the coolies with the baggage. The
snow, which was every minute becoming deeper,
was dry and powdery, and the going consequently
most arduous. It is no doubt a very sound
rule never to part from one's baggage, and before
very long I had reason and leisure to ponder on
the excellence of such a practice ; but the coolies
made wretchedly slow progress, and in a rash
moment, and under pressure of the strong temp-
tation to reach shelter and get out of the swirl-
ing, blinding snow as soon as possible, I left
them with an escort of a couple of local men to
bring them along, and pressed on with the two

On we went, silent and labouring, all our
energy concentrated in getting one foot in front
of the other, while the snow fell softly and
caressingly to earth, shrouding everything in a
thick white pall, till, for all I knew, we might have
been going forwards, or backwards, or even round
in a circle. For four long hours we forced our
way onward without a halt, except for an occa-
sional stop to get our breath, till at last I
insisted on a short rest to refresh ourselves with
the cold food wq had with us. Half an hour
I allowed for this, and then on again. Slowly
we forced our way through the deep treacherous


snow, coming every now and then across aval-
anches newly fallen, which caused us to redouble
our vigilance on dangerous places.

At last, just as dark was falling, we staggered
into the bare hut that was to afford us shelter
for the night. Luckily we found a supply of
firewood, and after some trouble, owing to the
dampness of the wood and the want of draught
up the chimney, I induced a fire to burn. This,
however, proved to be a new source of discomfort,
as the chimney absolutely refused to admit of
any smoke going up it, and in a very short time
the room was filled with the choking pungent
smoke peculiar to damp wood-fires. After this
the only conditions on which I was able to have
a fire were the window and door wide open,
and even then it was hardly bearable. Outside
a gale had sprung up, and with the snow, which
never ceased falling, created a veritable blizzard.
About two feet of fresh snow had fallen since
the morning, and the night promised to double it.

Having ransacked the hut, I found the furniture
to consist of a couple of wooden chairs, a wooden
table, and an old kerosene - oil tin. I luckily
had some tea in my pocket, which I speedily
turned to account by boiling it in the oil-tin (!),
after having first reduced some snow to water,
and, in spite of the flavour of smoke and oil,
found it most comforting.


Night settled down with a darkness that could
almost be felt, and as the hours passed by, and
none of the coolies or servants turned up, a
terrible and sickening fear laid hold of me and
refused to be shaken off; for well I knew the
danger of the silent merciless avalanche. Only
a few days before a European telegraph-signaller,
accompanied by a party of seven or eight natives,
who had been up to repair the telegraph line,
which was sufferino; from one of the chronic
winter interruptions to which it is liable, had
been swept away without a warning, on a portion
of the very ground which I had so lately tra-
versed. An exclamation, a sudden cry, a blind-
ing flash of dazzling whiteness, as the mountain-
side gave way, sweeping down upon its victims,
swift, silent, inexorable, and all was over. A
single individual a little apart from the rest, after
being buried to the head on the extreme edge
of the avalanche, was spared to tell the harrow-
ing tale. The fear of death is born in us, and
he who can honestly say that he fears not death
is more than human ; yet to look death in the
face, when circumstances force it before our
vision, is to be moved by something besides our
natural feelings of terror. In the realisation of
the nearness of the angel of death, the distorted
picture of life we are so accustomed to see by
the light of our daily lives is suddenly straight-


ened ; the greater issues at stake assume their
true proportion, and the trivialities to which we
are wont to attach so much importance as too
often to fill up the whole of the picture, for
once fall back into proper focus, and we see
things as they are. I well remember, and hope
I shall never forget, the feelings with which I
was filled as I stood on the ploughed-up mass
of snow from which had but lately been dug the
bodies of the victims of the avalanche, and in
that moment knew that it was in greater hands
than man's that the threads of our lives were
held, and that, were our fate to be the same
which had so lately overtaken others on this
very spot, or were we to be guided safely to
the end of our journey, an omniscient Providence
ordereth all things for the best.

Yet as darkness, which seemed tangible, came
down upon the earth and cut me ofi* from my men
still battling with the elements, and still, for
aught I knew, far from shelter, fear for them,
far greater than any I had ever felt for myself,
took hold of me, and, fight against it as I
would, overwhelmed me with an anxiety that
made the night the most terrible I have ever
spent. By 10 p.m. I gave up all hope of seeing
them, at any rate before morning, and took
counsel with myself as to the best way of whil-
ing away the weary hours till daylight. There


was little enouofh choice when I came to consider
it. Here I was in a cheerless hut, with no food
or blankets, damp steamy clothes, and in dark-
ness except for the fitful flame of the smoky fire.
I lay down on the hard wooden floor in front
of the fire, and, in spite of physical discomfort
and anxiety, worn out as I was by the toil of
the day, dropped off every now and then into
a troubled sleep.

Slowly the long winter night wore on, and
when daylight at length began to make the
darkness visible, it was only to show that snow
was falling with the same persistent monotony.
I was stiff and cramped after the long night in
wet clothes on the hard wooden floor, my eyes
aching and bloodshot, and my voice hoarse from
the stifling pungent smoke ; and with a hungry
wolfish look, if my expression in any way corre-
sponded to my feelings. I told one of the
Kashmiris he must get to a village a short
distance off and procure food at all costs, and
also try and collect men to form a search-
party, though I doubted his being able to do
this while the storm raged. He went off, and
I did not see him again for many hours ; but
imagine my joy when, a couple of hours later,
I made out a small black speck on the general
monochrome of white, which slowly, very slowly,
got nearer and more distinct, resolving itself


finally into a straggling line of woe - begone
battered - looking men — a portion of my coolies.
When they reached me, and I had had some
food, which I was much in need of, I heard
their tale. They had struggled on well into the
night, when, utterly exhausted and worn out,
they had reached a small village, where they had
got shelter. Three of them had been caught
by a small avalanche, but had mercifully been
extricated by the rest before it was too late.
Six of them were still out, and these latter did
not turn up for four days.

A little farther back on the track over which
we had just come — though this I did not learn
till later, when the terrors of the mountains were
behind me — a post-runner met his fate, lost in
the heart of the great lonely mountains, a single
unit in the great sea of humanity, who would,
when the mail did not turn up, form the subject
of an oflScial document, in which he would be
described as " Missing."

For three more days and nights the storm
raged with unabated violence, while I was a
prisoner in the wretched cheerless hut, unable
to have even a fire, except for a few minutes
at a time, when my feet and hands became so
numb with cold as to be unbearable.

At last, on the 24th, the mist rolled up like
a curtain, revealing once more the surrounding



objects ; the storm-clouds parted and the sun
peeped through, cheering us once more with
the warmth of his rays. I took the precaution
of remaining where I was for the day, as my
guide warned me that the first day of bright
sun after a storm was the most dangerous, as
then the newly fallen snow came down in great
avalanches from the precipitous cliffs, and woe
betide the man who is caught by one of

On the 25th I started before daylight, in the
hope of getting to the end of the day's march
early, in case the sun should come out hot
during the day, and cause the snow to come
down the precipitous sides of the valley through
which my route lay. The going was fearful,
for we sank deep at every step, and as the
day dawned, the sky, which had been clear,
became overcast, and at midday snow began to
fall. After going about ten miles, our way led
us uphill again, towards the foot of the pass
known as the E-aj Diangan, and I have seldom
experienced more unpleasant ground to get over
than I did for the next few miles. It seemed
we were walking over a water -channel filled
with great boulders, though, owing to the depth
of the snow, we appeared to be walking on
level ground, till, with a sudden shock, one
found oneself in a hole between the rocks, con-


cealed by the treacherous snow. This continued
for several miles, and by the time I reached
the hut Gurai, a distance of fifteen miles in
all, which had taken us from before daylight
to late in the afternoon, I was absolutely ex-
hausted. A few days before, during the recent
storm, an avalanche had come dowli close to
the hut, burying a small stream, the water-
supply of the place, and I found a well many
feet deep in the snow just completed by the

As darkness came down with no diminution
of the snowstorm, and no coolies turned up, I
looked forward to another night such as I had
spent on the 20th, and had settled down on
the floor and was half asleep, when I was roused
by shouts outside, and in a few minutes a coolie
burst into the hut. He told me that the rest
had been unable to reach me, but were safe
in a small village a couple of miles off. He
himself and one other had struggled on with
food and blankets, but his companion had given
up, and he had lost him in the dark. This
news was so far satisfactory in that I knew
that the coolies, all excepting one, were safe ;
and, fortified with the cold food and blankets
which the man had brought, I managed to
pass a better night than might have been ex-


With day snow ceased falling, and as I was
gazing anxiously over the huge undulating snow-
fields, a sorry spectacle met my eye. Slowly
and with halting step a gaunt figure, with a
pinched and starved appearance, approached us.
On his reaching us I noticed something which
made me put out my hand and feel him. His
clothes were hard and stiff as boards. The men
stood staring and uttering exclamations in an
idiotic imbecile sort of way, till I made them
understand that the man was at once to be
thawed, when they set to work with a will,
pommelling and rubbing him till the wretched
individual cried out in pain. It was the coolie
who had started with the man who had
brought me food and bedding the night before.
How he had lived through the night I cannot
imagine, for sure enough he had spent it in
the snow, and his escape to tell the tale
seemed almost a miracle.

Shortly afterwards the remainder of the coolies
arrived, and after a few minutes for them to
rest, we started on the ascent of the Raj Dian-
gan. I took the precaution, after recent ex-
periences, of bringing a couple of strong men
along with me, carrying food and blankets ; for
I feared that the coolies, who seemed exhausted,
might not reach the hut at Tragbal by night.
The day was fine, and, in spite of the severe


labour of scaling the pass through the deep
snow, the spirits of all were higher than they
had been for many days, for we were within
view of the end of our hardships, and the
danger to which we had been daily exposed,
of being swept away silently and without warn-
ing by the deadly avalanche, would be over
on our arrival at the summit of the pass. Hour
after hour I forced myself to go on, till I felt
as if I must sink down and rest in the soft
enticing snow ; but the danger was too great,
and I at length reached the log-hut over the
summit of the pass just as night was falling.
Most of the coolies got in at different hours
of the night ; but a few remained in a post-
runner's shanty a few miles back till the next

As I left Tragbal on the 27th, and saw the
huge expanse of the Vale of Kashmir spread
out like a map beneath me, and knew that I
had at length reached the edge of the great
mountain-chain across which I had been march-
ing, I was filled with a feeling of profound relief
and thankfulness.

A few miles straight down the mountain-side,
through deep snow and over slippery patches of
ice, and I found myself on the banks of the
Woolar Lake, where a Kashmiri boat, known as
a dunga, was awaiting me ; and a few hours


later, my servants and baggage having been got
on board, we started for Srinagar. Two and a
half days' paddling through the Woolar Lake
and up the river Jhelum brought us to the

Online LibraryLawrence John Lumley Dundas ZetlandAn Eastern miscellany → online text (page 4 of 24)