Following George Hayward to Oxus… Yasin Valley

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The year was 1870 and the venue was Durkut in Yasin valley. George Hayward, a geologist from Royal Geological Society of London kept sitting in his tent the whole night with a pistol in his hand and a rifle lying across the table suspecting some mischief on the part of Mir of Yasin valley and was apprehensive of Mir’s men. It was only in the wee hours of the morning when Hayward finally nodded that the watchful men of the Mir attacked and murdered George Hayward of Royal Geological Society of London. George Hayward, the geologist was apparently exploring the origins of Oxus River in the Pamirs. He started from Calcutta to Srinagar and trekked into Gilgit valley via Burzil pass in Astore. He was carrying loads of gifts with him for the local chieftains and perhaps this may be one reason for his murder. Hayward was traveling without the support of the British Government and Royal Geological Society. The reason was that he wrote an article in Calcutta Journal about the gory details of the human slaughter by Dogra forces of Kashmir in Yasin valley the previous season and because of this free journalism, Hayward had invited wrath of both the British Government and its obedient ally the Maharaja of Kashmir. The less said about the illustrious past of Colonial Britain is perhaps better.

So one story goes like that the Maharaja of Kashmir actually got Hayward killed through the incumbent Mir of Yasin valley as Maharaja was very furious over the writings of Hayward against the atrocities of his forces. Another story goes like that the Wali of Chitral was also interested in receiving the valuable gifts from George Hayward and prevailed upon the Mir of Yasin valley that Hayward may go to hell or another place of his liking but only after meeting His Majesty, the Wali of Chitral. So Hayward probably wanted to go strictly north and the local politics wanted him to go somewhat west towards Chitral. The argument cost Hayward his life. It is interesting to note that Hayward first met the Mir of Yasin valley in Yasin village and gave him the gifts and only then proceeded to Durkut in the northern most part of Yasin valley to get murdered at the hands of his supposedly host.

Yasin valley lies north of Gupis on the road from Gilgit to Shandoor. In the north the valley is bounded by Durkut Pass leading into Yarkhun in Chitral and onwards into Wakhan and Pamirs. The valley is bounded in the east by Ishkoman valley and in the west by Mastuj valley. It takes around three hours to reach the main Yasin village in Yasin valley from Gilgit.

The valley has an interesting history and remained under the control of China, Arabs, Central Asians and at times remained an independent state. The valley had a very strategic location in the lap of Pamirs separating the two greatest powers of the time i.e. Great Britain and Russia. History tells us about Russian agents standing at the top of Durkut Pass and Pamirs overlooking into the valley in 1890s however they later retreated never to be seen again. Similarly any conspiracy theory may make George Hayward actually a British intelligence officer rather than a geologist especially if one notes the time frame i.e. 1870, perhaps the great game between the two empires was in full swing.

So when one descends into the valley today on comfortable four wheelers, this historical baggage keeps one overawed with the significance this tiny state yielded in those days. In 1895, the Pamir Boundary Commission started its work with hundreds of officers and around 400 ponies to settle the boundaries of the two empires in this lawless frontier and the recommendations of the commission ended the dispute of frontiers. However with this agreement, Yasin valley lost its strategic significance and became just another small state of Colonial India.

The landscape is a typical mountain valley developed over centuries around a central small Yasin river, a tributary of Gilgit river. The water is turbid due to the sediments carried by it in sharp contrast to the turquoise green waters of Gilgit river. The road is paved and reasonable well maintained up till the shrine of Havaldar Lalik Jan Shaheed of Kargil War fame. Just after the Yasin bazaar and opposite to the NAPWD rest house is a dirt road that goes into a village along a ridge. Take this road and after some 500 meters, another small passage branches of at right angle to the dirt road. One may or perhaps may not see a huge boulder that has been blasted by some unscrupulous contractor to make way for some road. This boulder used to carry the name of George Hayward and an arrow showing the direction in which Hayward proceeded. The carving was done by Hayward as a signal for some British search parties who may come looking for him later on and this also shows that he had a good idea of the brewing conspiracies against him.

Yasin village has a good NAPWD rest house and a few small roadside hotels. However if you go to Yasin valley, the two must see places are the shrine of Havaldar Lalik Jan and the northern village of Durkut.

The shrine of Havaldar Lalik Jan is around one hour drive from the Yasin Bazaar. The Shahdat of this gallant soldier has brought a lot of development for the people of his village in the shape of paved road, schools and dispensaries. The shrine is aesthetically constructed and surrounded by well maintained lawns. The house of Lalik Jan is just besides the shrine however the widow of Lalik Jan now lives in Gilgit along with her children.

The scenic village of Durkut is about one and a half hour drive on a strictly jeepable track from the shrine. On the way, one crosses the northern area scouts check post set up to check the movement of any un-authorized foreigners especially from across the border from Afghanistan or Tajikistan. It may be a bit sensational to say that these un-authorized foreigners may one day include some gentlemen with millions of dollars as their head money. The road to Durkut is actually a passage in the wilderness with the jeep crossing formidable streams and negotiating some sharp turns and one wonders as to why people live in such inaccessible areas. On the way, one can see some small man-made water channels flowing against the natural gradient of slope backed by pressure of water, something difficult to accept for a logical mind unless of course one sees it for himself. This particular method of irrigation is common in many areas of the north.

And then one crosses a small wooden bridge to enter the village of Durkut. The Policeman at the local check post dutifully stops the tourists and enter the necessary details in his register. However due to the general prevailing situation, the good officer does not have to do much work these days. A glimpse at the valley at this point is rewarding with huge glaciers over looking the vast lush green meadows of the valley. The jeep track takes one further down into the village and onward into the valley and the scene becomes more eye-catching as one moves further although the road also becomes a bit more tricky. The best way to explore the village and valley is by doing a one or two nights camping in the vast meadows.

The valley leads further to Durkut Pass and thence into Yarkhun area of Chitral which borders Wakhan and Pamirs. Back to our dear George Hayward, it was here in this valley that he was killed. Another day and Hayward may have crossed the Durkut pass away from the sharp swords of the Mir’s men, in search of his ‘Origins of Oxus’. But this was not to happen and he was killed, taken back to Gilgit and buried their in Chinar Bagh on the banks of Gilgit river. The locals point to a couple of locations as a probable camping site of George Hayward but not with certainty. A bit of dedicated research may shed some light on the exact location of the camping site and any revelation in this regard would be a boon for the tourist potential of the valley.

It was heartening to note that the local administration is fully aware of its responsibilities and is working hard to develop the area. The administration is already trying to restore the Hayward rock near Yasin bazaar and is trying to point the camping site of George Hayward with the help of locals. A couple of small monuments elaborating the history of Yasin valley and the voyage of George Hayward in places like Yasin bazaar and Durkut valley would definitely boost the influx of both foreigner and local tourists. A small motel by Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation in the scenic valley of Durkut would be welcomed by both the arm chair luxury tourists as well as hard bodied trekkers wishing to explore Wakhan and Pamirs.

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